BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar project is a quarter completed

Aerial view of Chevron, BrightSource solar oil plant

Aerial view of Chevron, BrightSource solar oil plant

BrightSource Energy, which builds solar power plants and plans to do an IPO, has completed about a quarter, or 25 percent, of its first project, Ivanpah, which is on schedule to come online next year, the company said in a government filing on Friday. BrightSource spokesperson Keely Wachs tells us that the Ivanpah project is still on schedule to be completed in 2013.

Completing Ivanpah is crucial for BrightSource’s survival because the company has yet to demonstrate that it’s able to develop and deliver a large-scale project — doing so will help it line up more money and more customers. The company has raised $2.2 billion in equity and debt to finance Ivanpah’s construction.

The 392MW project has generated a lot of controversy because of its impact on the desert tortoise. In fact, the discovery of a higher-than-expected number of tortoises on the project site (located in California’s Mojave Desert) prompted BrightSource to halt construction on parts of the project last year. Work resumed in June.

The company posted $159.1 million in revenue and $111 million in net losses for 2011 in its Friday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In contrast, BrightSource posted $71.6 million in net losses on $13.5 million in revenues for 2010.

The Oakland, Calif., company is one of a handful of developers building solar power plants in the U.S. using concentrating solar thermal technology, which uses mirrors to direct sunlight to heat water in a boiler and use the steam to run a turbine-generator to produce power. BrightSource’s power-plant designs place the boiler atop a tower.

The company started building Ivanpah in October 2010 and plans eventually to deliver 377MW from Ivanpah to Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. The two utilities are big customers for BrightSource, which has inked 13 power sales agreements, totaling 2.4 GW, with them.

BrightSource re-negotiated five contracts with Edison last year and submitted the modified contracts to the California Public Utilities Commission last November. The two companies changed the terms for three of the contracts, mainly to reflect the addition of energy storage, which BrightSource says will enable it to deliver the same amount of power with one less power plant.

Either BrightSource or Edison can cancel the contracts if the commission doesn’t approve them, BrightSource said in its filing. The company is now seeking regulatory approval for two other projects in California.

Because BrightSource’s technology can produce very hot steam, it can have other uses besides electricity generation; for example, the company completed a project for Chevron last year for oil recovery. Chevron sends the steam to loosen oil that is stuck in rock fissures, making it easier to siphon out. The project provided BrightSource with an opportunity to demonstrate its technology for industrial operations, but cost a lot more than the company initially expected.

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