Updated with notes from the event:eSolar, a solar developer that uses modular designs, small mirrors and computing power to lower the cost of solar thermal technology, has turned on what it says is the first solar thermal power tower plant in the U.S: the 5 MW “Sierra SunTower,” which uses 24,000 mirrors, and is located in Lancaster, in Southern California. The solar thermal plant, which uses mirrors that track the sun’s rays in order to concentrate it onto two receivers that sit atop two 160 foot towers, will provide solar power to utility Southern California Edison (SCE), but the Sierra SunTower is independent of the deal announced last year with SCE for 245 MW also in the Antelope Valley region.
eSolar has been on a tear as of late, and with backing of over $130 million from Google.org, Bill Gross’ Idealab, Oak Investment Partners, Quercus Trust and New Jersey-based energy company NRG. eSolar has also announced deals with NRG and utility PG&E, and Gurgaon, India-based Acme Group.
For a live feed of the opening ceremony, watch this video, and keep coming back here to see our updates, screen grabs from the show and notes from speakers like Dan Reicher, the Director of Climate Change & Energy Initiatives for Google.org, Dan Kammen, from the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and the Mayor of Lancaster, R. Rex Parris.
Update with notes from the speakers:
Bill Gross, CEO of eSolar:
I’ve been waiting for this day for 35 years. We’re unveiling an economic miracle today. Solar has failed because of a math problem. This plant, we’re unveiling today, offers the lowest cost solar project in history. We do this because of more software algorithms and less steel. We also build it on private land so its quick to deploy and we use land efficiently. To power all of California it would take a solar project of 25 miles by 25 miles, and for all of the U.S. it would take 91 miles by 91 miles.
Lancaster Mayor, R. Rex Parris
It was just down the street that the race for space started 60 years ago. 14 months ago eSolar said they wanted to build a technological marvel — we had no permitting process or codes for it. It’s an enormous task — those things need to be cooled with water, we’re in the desert. We’re going to do it with reclaimed water, which will recharged the aquifier and we’ll have clean water. Today we start the race to save the planet and I think it’s appropriate that Bill Gross will start the race, because with him leading that race we will win.
David Crane, President, CEO of NRG
What strikes me is when you hear about California you hear about turmoil in Sacramento, but look across California you see a unified commitment to renewable energy. The rest of the country looks to California to lead on clean power. NRG is focused on redefining on how electricity is made. Our role with eSolar is to deploy it at scale, first in New Mexico and also in California. eSolar and NRG can not achieve the commercial deployment of this technology on our own — most notably we need to see more union with the public and private sector and the critical role of the federal government. It’s rare for me as a business man to be on site of a game changing moment.
Dan Reicher, the Director of Climate Change & Energy Initiatives for Google.org:
Google is proud to be an investor and pleased to be here on a historic day for eSolar and the solar industry. This is the first solar power tower in the U.S — what a cool name, it sounds like a rock band. Please understand the innovation of what you see before you today. eSolar has turned solar on its head: instead of deploying large and expensive mirrors, it uses small, cheap mirrors in mass quantities. Lots of mirrors need good software to track the sun, and we’re intrigued about how ET meets IT (energy tech meets information tech). With this software now written it can take advantage of economies of scale of millions of mirrors and the motors that move them. We think eSolar and Gross have taken a giant step to cracking the code of solar technology.
But the truth is that several other things have to happen before solar can proliferate:
- We must put a price on carbon emissions.
- We must ensure the availability of massive quantities to low cost capital. This will literally require trillions of dollars of investment for renewable energy projects and transmission lines.
- US investment in clean energy R&G is woefully inadequate. In contrast Japan and China are investing a lot more. Our failure to invest is glaring that in the top 5 wind makers, only 1 is American.
- We must ensure that the energy we generate is used efficiently. It makes no sense to waste these valuable green electrons in our homes and businesses.
Dan Kammen, from the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley
This is ground zero for the world of clean energy that we need to master and make profitable. Facilities like this are so vital because it harnesses innovative capacity. We lead in innovation, but not deployment in this area. We have innovated but not commercialized. eSolar is an example of bucking that deployment trend. Portugal invests more in energy than the U.S. Portugal peaks at over 40 percent of electricity from renewable energy. On the best possible day, the U.S. with the best wind and solar resources and innovation, we peak at a tiny bit over 2 percent of wind and solar combined. We are not taking advantage of this capacity.
eSolar highlights our ability to change that in a hurry. Four years ago, almost all analysts would point to Denmark with 20 percent wind and Germany. Well, in 2010, Texas will eclipse Germany as the global leader with wind. The capacity is here. Our ability to turn this around is unprecedented. California has one of the best greenhouse gas emissions reductions laws. To make those plans better than good power points, we have to see real projects happen. It’s the eSolars that will be critical to making that happen.
David Myers, Director of The Wildlands Conservancy
By siting eSolar’s projects on disturbed lands, it has saved our pristine desert nature lands. The entire environmental community is excited about a company that will use disturbed lands. This model can power every community in America without degrading our treasured public lands, and makes the destruction of public lands unjustified. The pristine desert should remain a place of great beauty, so we can’t say enough great things about eSolar.
Gross steps to the computer controller, and cranks up the system, so that all of the mirrors will start concentrating the sun’s rays on the towers. Gross says the system uses GPS positioning to code the precise placement of the sun and the mirrors anges, and that eSolar’s breakthrough is the software that quickly aligns the mirrors.
Gross checks in via walkie talkie and the system is at 500 degrees fahrenheit with 500 pounds of steam per square inch. When the system is at full power it will be at 800 degrees fahrenheit with 800 pounds of steam per square inch.