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Summary:

The Googlization of solar is here, and software, big data, wireless networks and IT will be a fundamental part of the future of modern energy infrastructure.

BrightSourceSEDC

Walking through BrightSource’s solar project in a desert in Israel, you can hear the persistent sound of tiny chirps emanating from the more than 1,600 mirrors sticking out of the ground. The chirps aren’t coming from critters that have moved into the solar farm, but the noises are emanating from the gearboxes on the bases of those hundreds of mirrors, which are re-shifting very slightly every few seconds. Using sophisticated software, BrightSource uses real-time data about the location of the sun, the wind speed, the dust levels, and other info to constantly tweak the mirrors to ensure the solar generation from the site is as efficient as possible.

BrightSource Senior Director of Corporate Communications Keely Wachs regaled the chirping story to me recently while I was on a tour of another BrightSource solar project in California. Call the trend the Googlization  of solar, or the way that software, big data, and wireless networks will help remake the modern energy infrastructure.

Evidence of BrightSource’s use of software and IT to design and build its flagship solar project, Ivanpah, in California, was very evident during my tour last month, too. Workers doing surveyor work on the Ivanpah site showed me how they use Trimble GPS navigation devices to collect data about soil, location and depth, and to make sure that important construction points — from transmission connections, to the bases of steel beams that will hold up 400-foot central boilers — are built in the necessary positions. When the three 400-foot tall central boilers are built at Ivanpah in the midst of the thousands of mirrors on the site, software will make sure the mirrors are positioned in such a way as to evenly spread the heat from the sun’s rays across the towers’ receivers.

BrightSource isn’t the only so-called solar thermal company — tech that uses the sun’s heat to generate electricity, instead of solar panels — to rely heavily on software. eSolar, a BrightSource competitor, designs its small mirrors and licenses software to manage those mirrors using its own brand of algorithms. eSolar’s engineers have put up videos on YouTube of some of the more novel things its software can get the mirrors to do, like spell out Happy Birthday for a company exec.

Clean power software

Bechtel exec Terry Copeland explains the layout of Ivanpah

Getting clean power from these types of massive utility-scale solar farms to the residences and businesses that will use them, will require another set of IT that makes the power grid a lot smarter. As David Crane, CEO and president of NRG Energy and Eric Dresselhuys, EVP and CMO of Silver Spring Networks, explained at our Green:Net 2011 event earlier this year, the future of the power grid will rely on using the digital intelligence of the smart grid to incorporate a growing amount of clean energy. Utilities will need smarter distribution and transmission systems to make sure their power grids can handle an influx of variable clean power (electricity that only flows when the sun shines).

It’s been fashionable lately for venture capitalists and young startups to focus more on solar software and services, rather than on starting new businesses in solar manufacturing. The bankruptcy of three solar manufacturing companies (Solyndra, SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar) in recent weeks points to the value in the software and services approach over manufacturing. The encroachment of huge conglomerates, combined with the rapid growth of the Chinese solar companies in recent years, has made solar a commodity and new solar manufacturing an unsustainable business.

Then there’s the ability of software and the web to create the ecosystem around the solar buyer and the installer. Clean Power Finance, a solar software and financing startup, recently raised $25 million from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufiled & Byers, Claremont Creek Ventures, Clean Pacific Ventures, Sand Hill Angels and angel investor and co-founder Gary Kremen. Clean Power Finance says its software was used by 40 percent of U.S. residential solar systems in 2010.

  1. A thousand tortoise deaths expected from Ivanpah and you’re still calling it “clean” tech?

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  2. @Chris Clarke, Please let us know where you are quoting that figure from, as it is wildly high compared to the data from BrightSource.

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    1. That would be the Ivanpah project’s revised Biological Assessment issued by the Bureau of Land Management in the April 2011.

      Sean at Mojave Desert Blog did you the favor of crunching the numbers in the Assessment, though of course you can check them for yourself. Quoting highlights from his article:

      Up to 700 non-adult tortoises during the 3 year construction phase are expected to die. Non-adult tortoises are difficult to spot and remove from burrows, resulting in an estimated 90% mortality rate due to construction.

      BLM estimates up to 9 adult tortoises (160mm or larger) will be killed during the 3 year construction phase.

      BLM anticipates harassing 1,025 adult tortoises, and 2,349 non-adult tortoises, bringing the total number to over 3,000.

      As many as 700 tortoises killed directly by construction, and then handling 3,300 more with a shockingly high mortality rate just from handling — for relocation, the data from the Fort Irwin relocation in 2008 indicate mortality can be about 50% of tortoises moved, and about as high a rate among tortoises in the “host” population to which Ivanpah’s torts are relocated, if you monitor the tortoises for more than three or four months. Mortality rates for mere handling can be 5-10%. If the overall mortality rate for all harassed tortoises and host tortoises at the relocation sites is just 9%, that’s a thousand dead tortoises.

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