11 Solar Thermal Companies Powering Up

California’s Mojave desert sure is getting crowded as more and more companies are raising money in an effort to build large solar power plants to harness the sun’s heat. Yesterday, eSolar said it had raised a massive $130 million from the likes of Google and Idealab for its small-scale solar thermal designs, while Stirling also said it had raised $100M from Irish renewable energy developer NTR for its SunCatcher solar thermal dishes. And this morning Infinia, which makes Stirling engines for solar thermal, said it had raised $57 million in a second round of funding.

Is there really enough room for these three, plus five other startups and three large renewable energy players? There are 2.5GW of solar thermal projects with announced power purchase agreements in California and Arizona slated for construction in the next few years, according to Nat Bullard, an analyst at New Energy Finance. Here’s a rundown of the solar thermal players making land and sun grabs in the Southwest.

eSolar: With a fresh $130 million from Google, Idealab and Oak, eSolar says it has “secured land rights” in the southwestern United States to produce over 1 GW of power and will have a power plant up and running later this year in southern California. The company uses a central power tower surrounded by smaller-than-usual heliostats, allowing the company to build 25 MW clusters.

Ausra: Ausra has attracted a lot of media attention for both its rapid expansion from Australia to the States and its big name investors, Khosla and Kleiner, who’ve invested $70 million — and Ausra is already looking for $150 million in Series C. Ausra’s Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector technology uses cheap, flat mirrors to heat tubes of water. The startup has plans for a manufacturing facility near Las Vegas and has signed a power purchase agreement with PG&E for 177 MW from Ausra’s farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

Stirling Energy Systems: Stirling has two large pending projects. Solar One in the Mojave Desert will have 500 MW of capacity, with the option to expand to 850 MW while Solar Two, sited in the Imperial Valley near El Centro, Calif., will have 300 MW of capacity with the option to expand up to 900 MW. Each site is contracted for a 20-year power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, respectively. It also just raised a whopping $100 million from NTR plc.

Infinia: With 25 years of Stirling engine experience, Infinia has a gaggle of A-list backers including Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures, Bill Gross’ Idealab and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital; it’s raised $66.5 million to date. Infinia’s technology is similar to Stirling’s and uses mirrored concentrator dishes to track the sun and reflect its rays into a highly efficient Stirling heat engine.

SolarReserve: Spun out from aerospace giant Hamilton Sundstrand, itself a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., SolarReserve is one of the most recent entrants. Its technology, developed by rocket maker Rocketdyne, uses molten salt to store energy and produce power round the clock. SolarReserve plans to have its first solar plant online by the end of 2010. SolarReserve has not disclosed any outside investors or funding but is working with DOE money.

Solel: With a massive $105 million investment from Ecofin, Solel has recently announced a plans for a $140 million construction facility in Spain. The company has an agreement with PG&E for 553 MW from Solel’s Mojave Solar Park which uses parabolic trough technology and is scheduled for completion in 2011. Solel’s parabolic trough technology has been around for decades and has been used in test plants for 20 years.

BrightSource: Based in Oakland, Calif., BrightSource just signed a massive deal wit PG&E for 500 MW of solar thermal power with option for another 400 MW (totally 900 MW). BrightSource, with its Israeli subsidiary, has an impressive list of investors — VantagePoint Venture Partners, Morgan Stanley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, J.P. Morgan, and Chevron Technology Ventures — but has announced less than $50 million in funding. BrightSource’s technology uses a central power tower surrounded by heliostats in what it calls “solar power clusters,” each of which can produce 100 MW of energy.

SkyFuel: Using parabolic-trough technology, SkyFuel says its secret lies in its cheap “ReflecTech” mirrored lining, which it says is stronger and cheaper than glass and mirrors. We’re still waiting to hear about SkyFuel’s projects, but last we heard G.C. Andersen Partners was leading a second round of financing for the Albuquerque, N.M.-based startup.

Abengoa Solar: Part of Spanish renewable energy giant Abengoa, this solar subsidiary has signed on to provide 280 MW of solar thermal power to Arizona Public Service from a plant near Gila Bend, Ariz., scheduled for completion in 2011.

FPL Energy: FPL has just filed for a 250 MW plant in the Mojave with plans to scale it up to 850 MW by 2015. The plant, called the Beacon Solar Energy Project, will use parabolic-trough technology. FPL, along with Carlyle and Sunray, also have a 354 MW Solar Energy Generating Systems plant. FPL operates natural gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.

Acciona: Another Spanish renewable energy player, Acciona has a 64 MW plant called Nevada Solar One outside Las Vegas that was one of the first large-scale solar thermal plants in the United States.

Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

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