Sierra SunTower Online and On Track

eSolar found the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for. Or so company execs claimed at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Sierra SunTower. It is a solar thermal power plant that embodies low-cost, affordable, no-incentive, utility-scale solar power.

eSolar’s breakthrough concept is not much different from other concentrated solar power (CSP) designs. Thousands of mirrors concentrate solar heat to boil water, which creates steam to spin a turbine and generate electricity, but it’s not what eSolar is doing that could change solar power - it is how they are doing it.

The Sierra SunTower

The Sierra SunTower is relatively small, providing 5 MW of power near Lancaster, California, but it’s now an active example - and harbinger - of what eSolar is up to. Their “power tower” design tackles some major issues for large-scale solar thermal power.

  • For one, eSolar’s design uses a relatively small footprint of land by keeping thousands of relatively tiny mirrors on solar trackers to concentrate sunlight onto a receiving tower. The small footprint means that eSolar plants are close to existing transmission lines, thus saving the expenditure of new lines and leaving remote habitats untarnished.
  • eSolar plants are scalable but also modular, allowing much of the construction to be done in-house rather than the field. This enables super fast set-up time. In fact, the Sierra SunTower was up and online in less than one year, thanks to eSolar’s modular technology.
  • Plants are controlled by company-developed software that allows for a fascinating level of control over the mirrors. As an unusual example, in the time leading up to the official plant inauguration at Sierra SunTower, the mirrors were actually used to send messages, such as happy birthday to company CEO Bill Gross and during a Fourth of July celebration. That sort of control allows pinpoint accuracy in tracking the sun and maximum efficiency as a result.

All of these factors, says eSolar, contribute to the lowest-cost utility-scale solar power in existence. While the 5 MW Sierra SunTower is relatively small, the company has ambitious plans in motion, including deals with India-based ACME Group and New Jersey utility NRG Energy. eSolar has immediate plans for a 92-MW plant in New Mexico and only plans to grow from there.

Is it a breakthrough?

Sure eSolar has a lot of believers and prominent investors (including Google), as well as a speedy ground-breaking-to-ribbon-cutting process worked out. But is it really the breakthrough that solar power has been waiting for?

Sierra SunTower is the first solar thermal power tower to operate in the United States. That alone is arguably enough of a breakthrough to deserve plenty of hoopla. Furthermore, eSolar fit a 5-MW solar thermal plant on just 20 acres of land, another worthy breakthrough.

Many kudos to eSolar for developing and championing their product in such a timely fashion, but its touting as the ultimate solar breakthrough may be a bit naive. Other major issues, such as 24/7 solar power, have yet to be overcome. The photovoltaic side of solar also needs a technological breakthrough to propel it into incentive-free, self-supporting life.

Yet, within the context of utility-scale solar thermal power, eSolar’s compact, prefabricated design may at once solve many political and pricing problems for the industry. And that is one hell of a breakthrough.

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