Raising hundreds of millions of dollars, engineering just the right design and brokering decade-long deals for cutting edge technology with cautious utilities, sound like pretty big hurdles to building massive solar power plants in the deserts. But it can actually be the boring stuff — permitting and siting of solar plants and transmission lines — that are causing significant roadblocks to getting these plants built. That’s why John Woolard, CEO of solar thermal startup BrightSource, called upon policy leaders at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Monday to roll-up-their-sleeves and help speed the administrative processing along.
The parts of the solar projects that took a lot of innovation and required a great deal of funds are actually going quite well for BrightSource. The company raised over $115 million ($160 million total) from a long list of investors including Google.org, BP Alternative Energy, StatoilHydro Venture, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Morgan Stanley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Chevron Technology Ventures. And the company has closed deals in the gigawatt range with two of California’s largest utilities: Southern California Edison and PG&E (s PCG)
But despite all BrightSource’s work, the company is now facing a holding pattern, waiting for the California Energy Commission and the Bureau of Land Management to move forward on permitting and siting of its solar projects. BrightSource’s solar farm in Southern California, near the Nevada border, to the west of Ivanpah Dry Lake, is one of the first in the queue that the CEC and BLM are currently reviewing. “We’re in year two of [what was anticipated would be] a one year project,” said Woolard.
Other solar firms like eSolar are building solar projects on private land, focusing on bypassing public lands that need permits from the CEC and BLM, and using the organizations’ slow-moving process as a competitive edge. Last week eSolar flipped the switch on a small solar project in Lancaster, Calif., that they were able to call “the first solar thermal power tower plant in the U.S.” BrightSource also uses a solar power tower design for its solar projects.
The BLM in particular is aware of the problem, and was so overwhelmed with the number of solar applications that it tried to put a freeze on accepting new applications for solar companies earlier this year, only to reverse the decision shortly after in the face of opposition. The BLM is now working on fast tracking permitting for certain land areas in western regions called the Solar Energy Study Areas, as well as working with states to fast track certain applications.
For solar companies that need to site and get permits for transmission lines, that can add more time, and more oversight from a variety of organizations, like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). It’s such a big problem that Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said at the Las Vegas conference that he wouldn’t support a climate bill (currently making its way through the Senate) that did not work out a better, more streamlined system for permitting transmission lines. BrightSource will already have access to transmission lines at its Ivanpah site, so at least it doesn’t have to wait for that.
BrightSource hopes that its project will be approved by early 2010. And the company is optimistic that after its project’s approval, the permitting process will likely speed up for other companies’ projects that are in line behind it. “It’s a learning curve for everyone,” said Keely Wachs, BrightSource’s spokesperson.
While everyone is learning, time is a crucial issue. Utilities need to meet state renewable energy portfolio standards by certain dates and the need to move quickly on fighting climate change is clear. Woolard told the audience and panel of policymakers at the Las Vegas event that what he and the solar industry really need right now is “roll-up-your-sleeves leadership” to help speed up these basic “boring” processes. Until that happens these types of solar projects are at risk of drowning in the boring and bureaucratic.