Solar thermal startup eSolar still out there and raising $30M

Last year was a pretty quiet year for solar thermal startup eSolar, which makes solar plant gear that converts the sun’s heat into electricity (unlike solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity). But perhaps the company is about to try to kick it up a notch. According to a filing, the company is raising a $30 million round, and has closed on close to $13 million of that round.

Founded in 2007 and incubated in Bill Gross’ Idealabs, eSolar has already raised a lot of money over its lifetime. It’s raised at least $170 million from a combination of Indian telecom and solar company ACME group, power company NRG Energy, Oak Investment Partners, Quercus Trust,, and GE.

To its credit, the company built one of the first solar thermal power plants in the U.S. in Lancaster, Calif. We covered the launch of the Sierra SunTower back in the summer of 2009. That project was small, at 5 MW, and a pilot, but is still in operation. However, commercial scale versions of these projects are on the hundreds of megawatts level like the one BrightSource is building near Las Vegas called Ivanpah.

esolarpiceSolar also told Greentech Media last summer that it has a live solar power tower project in Bikaner in India, which it said has been in operation since April 2011. I’m not sure the size of that project, but will update this when I hear more. ACME has an exclusive license to build power plants with eSolar’s technology in India.

After its Sierra SunTower was built, eSolar appears to have spent some time regrouping and focusing on using molten salt storage technology to make its gear more cost competitive with solar panels. The price of solar panels have plummeted over the past two years, making solar thermal less competitive. According to this article, eSolar has been hoping to deploy its first commercial solar power tower with molten salt storage in the 2014 and 2015 timeframe.

It’s hard to track if eSolar still has claim on some of the deals it announced over the years. The company announced a 245 MW project with Southern California Edison back in 2008, but I think that project was sold to NRG Energy in this deal in 2009. Back then, eSolar decided to become an equipment supplier and not a project developer, and now works with big companies to manage project development. It’s not clear, but NRG might have sold that one off or switched the technology it will use to solar panels. I’ll update this when I hear more.

eSolar also had announced a whopping deal with Chinese power equipment maker Penglai Electric to build 2 GW of solar thermal projects in China over the next decade. eSolar still lists Pengali Electric as a partner on its site, but also writes that the first solar plant out of that deal in China would be a 92 MW project that would break ground in 2010. I haven’t heard that that was under construction.

Over the past year, it’s been hard for solar thermal technology to compete with solar panels because solar panels have gotten so incredibly cheap. Solar thermal can be more cost competitive if it’s built on a massive scale like BrightSource’s Ivanpah, but many power developers are opting to use solar panels instead of solar thermal tech these days.