Google Gives Mojave Solar Project A Boost

Google has announced a $168 investment, its largest ever, to back Brightsource Energy's solar thermal project in California's Mojave desert. Alexis Madrigal, of The Atlantic, discusses the project's technology, the environmental battles it faced, and how to connect this remote field of mirrors to the grid.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next: alternative energy. Work has begun on the largest solar energy project in the world. And where is it? In California's Mojave Desert, right off the highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. And while the project has contracts with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric and has received loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, one of the big investors is Google. That's right, Google.

Google has poured $168 million into the project, Google's biggest investment yet. And this isn't just a deal on paper. The company building the plant, BrightSource Energy, has passed the environmental hurdles, and they're already smoothing out the desert dirt. They're getting ready to stick those field of mirrors into the ground. In fact, you can see a photo of the plant's construction on our website, at sciencefriday.com.

What kinds of engineering challenges do they face? How soon before they get this up and running? How are they going to hook this up to the grid, being out there in the middle of the Mojave?

Alexis Madrigal is the author of author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." He's also senior editor at The Atlantic in Washington.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ALEXIS MADRIGAL (Senior Editor, The Atlantic; Author): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: So this is a go?

Mr. MADRIGAL: It is a go. Well, with these big power projects, it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly when it's actually a go. Construction was actually halted just a couple of days ago in some pieces of the plant. But BrightSource says it shouldn't affect the 2013 completion date.

FLATOW: So this must be a tremendous engineering challenge. It is...

Mr. MADRIGAL: Well, if you think about it, you're taking thousands of mirrors that are about seven feet high and about 10-and-a-half-feet wide. And you're arraying them around what they call a power tower, which as a boiler filled with water sitting at the top. And you concentrate the rays of the sun via all that field of mirrors onto the boiler, which generates superheated steam, which gets run to a turbine, which generates electricity.

FLATOW: And this - yeah. And this is a lot of electricity, right?

Mr. MADRIGAL: Yeah. I mean, we're talking - it's going to be about 370 megawatts in total. That's been changing a little bit as they've been refining the site's design. But it's going to go in three phases: an initial 120-megawatt plant, and then 225-megawatt plants.

FLATOW: Talking about solar energy this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Alexis Madrigal.

And there'll be more plants of this kind being built.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Yeah. I mean, others have already been approved. If you're thinking about the Mojave Desert specifically, I think about seven have been approved now, taking up about 40 or 45 square miles of the desert. And there are different technologies and different companies.

In fact, BrightSource, who had - who's building the plant we've been talking about, is the only company that's actually put in really large-scale facilities in the Mojave, previously in a kind of earlier incarnation of a company called Luz.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And why is Google - you don't think of Google investing in these sorts of things.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Well, you know, there's two reasons, I think. Google has displayed an actual ideological interest in combating climate change. In fact, in Google.org, their sort of nonprofit arm, they have a program called RE

But this money is actually coming from Google, Inc. And I talked to an analyst who said, you know, Google is putting up project finance. They're just sort of saying, oh, you need money to build? We'll provide you the money to build, and are maybe expecting something like a six percent return on their investment.

FLATOW: Could they do this in other places outside of the Mojave?

Mr. MADRIGAL: Yeah, you could. I think the Mojave theme strikes many people as the best place to put solar farms, largely because you've got a big desert with great sun, and then you've got, you know, Southern California and Las Vegas right there. And so I think they are population centers that are not too far from where the sun is.

And it also happens to track - if you think - the most valuable thing for utilities is if the electricity produced matches when they have the highest load on their systems. And so what happens in Los Angeles when it gets hot, people turn their air conditioners. The load goes up. And at the same time, out in the desert, the sun is pouring down most strongly. And so, as a result, you have a pretty good match between when the BrightSource plan is going to be working best, and when people in Los Angeles need the power.

FLATOW: And how will they get all that power to the grid?

Mr. MADRIGAL: So there are transmission lines out there right now. They're not exactly up to snuff. So what they've actually, as part of this plan, they're going to upgrade the power lines nearby to improve the efficiency of the transfer. And they're actually thinking about putting in another substation.

But really, the interesting thing about this kind of power plant is it's a power plant, right? I mean, this is something that we know how to do. There's hundreds and hundreds of power plants that you could go to and say, hey, look, It's hooked up to the grid. And so it's actually a pretty similar process here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And who knows, with the price of oil going up and up and up, this seems to be more attractive.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Well, and I think it's also about natural gas, too.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MADRIGAL: I think people have been pretty excited about natural gas because of this shale gas that people are finding, where you essentially - you've got gas locked up in these rock formations, and then you put water under pressure down there. It cracks the rocks apart, and the gas can escape.

FLATOW: Fracking.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Fracking. Exactly. The problem is that it's unclear what the carbon footprint of that - or the greenhouse gas footprint, we should say, of that process is going to be, because methane escapes. And it might not turn out to be that much better than coal, in which case I think it means we need to redouble our efforts on other low-carbon energy sources.

FLATOW: And if you go to our website, you can actually see what - the beginnings of this project. It looks like a little - big crop circles there, the moment they dig out that space.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Yeah. It's big, too. I mean, I think, you know, when we talk about this kind of scale plant, you know, five-and-a-half square miles when this thing's all done, it really feels big. And I went out and I visited, actually, the earlier solar electric generating stations.

Mr. MADRIGAL: And actually, once you get out into the Mojave, it doesn't feel as big, at least to me. And I think part of it is, you know, the Mojave, as a whole, is 25,000 square miles.

FLATOW: All right. Alexis, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. MADRIGAL: Absolutely. Thank you.

FLATOW: Alexis Madrigal, author of "Powering the Dream."

We're going to take a break. We'll be right back and talk about Alzheimer's. So stay with us.

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