Deal Suggests Bright Solar Future In China

The Chinese government has pledged that 15 percent of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2020. To that end, China announced a contract with California's eSolar to build one of the biggest solar plants in history. Bill Gross, CEO of eSolar, discusses the project.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Im Ira Flatow.

The Chinese government has promised that by 2020, 15 percent of its energy will come from renewable sources. And to that end, China announced one of the biggest, if not the biggest, solar project in history last week. A solar thermal start up called eSolar from Pasadena landed a contract to build a 2000-megawatt solar thermal complex in China. China will spend five to $6 billion for the project. It sounds like a lot. But my next guest says its just a drop in the bucket of - on what China will spend or likely spend over the next few years on renewable energy.

My guest is Bill Gross. He's CEO of eSolar, Incorporated in Pasadena. Thanks for being with us today, Bill.

Mr. BILL GROSS (CEO, eSolar): Thank you very much for having me.

FLATOW: How did you land this deal?

Mr. GROSS: Well, we built a power plant here in Southern California, in Lancaster, California about a year ago. And China started looking aggressively around the world for technology they could bring to China that would be the most cost effective. And they looked at technology from the United States. I think they looked at technology from Israel, from Spain, from all over. They chose this technology because its very scalable. Its very cost effective, and it has the potential to compete with fossil fuels with no subsidies, eventually. And thats really the endgame, to try and make solar energy actually less expensive than traditional fossil-based energy.

FLATOW: And the plant will be built in China, with Chinese workers.

Mr. GROSS: Absolutely. Well, the great thing about solar projects is they create jobs wherever theyre built. So if you build plants in California, you make jobs here. You build plants in New Mexico, you make jobs there. Were working on some plants in New Mexico right now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GROSS: You build plants in China, you make local jobs. All the plants have to build with local labor.

FLATOW: But what I understand about this project is that the control of the solar panels will come from California.

Mr. GROSS: Yes. A unique part of eSolar's solution is that we use a software system to control all the many thousands of mirrors that are tracking the sun, that concentrate the sunlight, and we control that entirely remotely from our headquarters here in Pasadena. We put a lot of effort into making this software solution so we could control plants around the world remotely. And that way, well still be making jobs even here in California for plants all over the world.

FLATOW: Whats interesting about this idea is that the Chinese are going into this knowing that the solar panels, because they dont have enough sun all the time, will have to be augmented with something else. Right?

Mr. GROSS: Yes. Well, the main problem with all forms of renewable energy to date has been that you only get the energy when the wind blows or when the sun shines.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. GROSS: And that means you can make sun - you know, make electricity, say, 25 percent of the day, but what about nighttime? What about cloudy days? So far, our energy needs are so great that any contribution from solar is beneficial. But in China, theyre thinking ahead to trying to make dispatchable renewable power that can give round-the-clock energy. So this unique plant that were building is a combination of solar, hybrid, biomass plant. So when the sun is not shining, well be burning some, well, wood-husk or some other nonfood remnant biomass to produce the energy to turn the turbine that the sunlight will provide during the day. In that way, we can produce electricity round the clock from a renewable resource.

FLATOW: You know, there was a lot of excitement in California about building these same kind of solar plants in the Mojave Desert, and then these things sort of fell by the wayside because of environmental concerns.

Mr. GROSS: Definitely, if youre going to build plants where there's good sunshine, the Pristine Desert is a great location. The problem is you impact lots of natural habitat for many different animals. We have chosen different path. We have made our plants smaller, so we dont need tens of thousands or, you know, hundreds or square miles. We only need 200 acres. Weve made our plant small enough to be modular(ph) - 200-acre size. And we locate them right closer to population centers, on private land, already disturbed land, land that has already been farmed or used for something else, so there is no natural habitat to disturb.

And that is our technique and that is a way that I think we can actually build large-scale solar in California and still respect some of the pristine desert and natural habitat we have here in California.

FLATOW: Do you have enough land like that, to try to

Mr. GROSS: Oh, theres absolutely enough land like that. Just in the Lancaster, Antelope Valley, there are many, many square miles of private farmland that can be repurposed for this. We can actually power the entire State of California with a square only 23 miles by 23 miles. And it doesnt have to be all in one spot, so you can break that up and put it all over the Central Valley, or anywhere in California. So there's easily enough land to power not only all of California, but the whole United States, just from California.

FLATOW: But you - it seems like you can do that in China very quickly and it would take who-knows-what to do that in California.

Mr. GROSS: Yeah. Well, it is faster to get things done in China right now. And thats one thing that I think we should do in the United States, is maybe streamline some of the permitting for renewable energy plants. As one example, you have to go through the entire environmental impact report, study for emissions for a solar power plant, even though there are no emissions. And maybe we need to adjust the rules a little bit so that if there are no emissions, you dont have to do that stage. That would be an example of some aspect of bureaucracy that I hope we can approve. But I think thats going to happen. I think that as the price comes down - because I think people are more concerned about price than they are about that - I think we'll be able to speed up the deployment of solar throughout the United States.

FLATOW: And so you think there are enough areas outside of California and in other states where there

Mr. GROSS: Oh, easily. To power - again, just to give you an example

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. GROSS: to power the whole country, the entire United States, all of its electricity needs, 91 miles by 91 miles. So you could find patches of land in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. Basically, Im just using the South West states

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. GROSS: but you could go everywhere, easily power the whole country with sunshine, taking a negligible, negligible percentage of the total land.

FLATOW: But do we have a grid that could hook all this together?

Mr. GROSS: We would have to build a super grid if we want to power New Hampshire from Texas.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. GROSS: But to power the South West with the South West, very easy.

FLATOW: And you could find some place in New Hampshire for their own.

Mr. GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Or use the offshore area

Mr. GROSS: Exactly.

FLATOW: floating, or something like that.

Mr. GROSS: There definitely is renewable energy very widely distributed around the planet. Of all of the natural resources that are on the planet you think of, we have to go get copper from certain mines somewhere. We get diamonds from another place, they're all are very concentrated. Solar energy and wind energy, they're the most distributed national resource on the whole planet. Its everywhere. So maybe Antarctica, youre not going to build the solar plant. But other than that, you're going to build solar just about everywhere. So there really is a potential to build it close to the population centers, close to the people who want to use the energy.

FLATOW: But if you talk to people who believe in nuclear power, theyll say, well, you cant get - you know, you cant build enough of them - or quickly enough, that nuclear is the way to go.

Mr. GROSS: Well, I think nuclear should be part of the solution, but I do agree you cant build enough. Ill give you some specific example on that. If we want to make up the multi-terawatt gap that the planet is going to need over the next 30 years, you pretty much would need to build a one-gigawatt nuclear power plant every other day for the next 30 years. And it typically takes about seven years to permit a nuclear plant. So youre not going to build one every other day for the next 30 years. It doesnt mean you shouldn't build as many as you can, because it is completely emission-free if you can make it safe enough. Its absolutely a great way to contribute to the problem of needing enough energy to power the planet, but its not going to do it alone.

FLATOW: Could you build, lets say, solar plants in that time, seven years, how many - could you get everything up and running much shorter than that?

Mr. GROSS: I believe you could scale solar plants faster because the only materials needed are steel and glass and steam turbines. And you need steam turbines for any kind of plant you make, so those are already made on a large enough scale, GE, Siemens, Alstom, all the big companies who make turbines for existing power plants can also be run off of solar steam. Basically, the only difference is the fuel. Do you make the steam from the sun, or do you make the steam from coal? Thats the only change. So there are enough turbines. There is enough steel and glass to go around. You dont need to use any uranium. You dont need to have any of the safety issues around a nuclear power plant. So you can scale it faster.

FLATOW: Well, can you get any of the money that the government's trying to pump back into the - you know, the federal money thats out there?

Mr. GROSS: Oh, absolutely. There is a lot of incentive for all forms of renewables. There's a 30 percent investment tax credit now for solar plants and wind plants for the next seven years. There are other low-interest loan guarantees from the DOE.

FLATOW: What about what Im asking is about the stimulus money. We still have a lot of that in the bank, dont we?

Mr. GROSS: Yeah. Well, lot of that has not been given out yet.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. GROSS: And I would love to see that get deployed this year. I think the goal is to deploy that this year. I think that will create a lot of jobs and a lot of traction in the renewable space as that gets deployed.

FLATOW: And that's what Eisenhower, President Eisenhower did with the, you know, interstate highway system after World War II. Why can't we create an interstate solar system?

Mr.�GROSS: Absolutely. Well, I would love to see those funds help accelerate this, but my real dream for this is solar energy should compete on an absolutely level playing field with fossil fuels.

FLATOW: And you think it can?

Mr.�GROSS: I absolutely think it can. The sunshine is so strong, especially in California, that you can make solar electricity for as cheap as you can make natural-gas-fire electricity - in time, and thats the way it should be. People should not have to pay more for renewable energy. The only stimulus should be to get these projects started so that we can get to scale so we can actually compete on a level playing field.

FLATOW: And considering the state that California is in, you'd think that people would want these things.

Mr.�GROSS: Oh, I think people do. I think people do. I think the economy, the economic challenge right now just makes it harder to get the financing to build these things, but that's going to change, and these things are going to get built at very large scale.

FLATOW: And you think the same thing might be happening in the rest of the states.

Mr.�GROSS: Definitely, the rest of the states and the rest of the world. I actually think the rest of the world is moving very quickly on this. Hopefully as the various countries get together and set some targets, the whole world will move quickly. But even China is moving very, very fast. I mean, from this - you think of China as not necessarily at the forefront of renewable energy, and yet they are very aggressive on this, and then of course, in all of Europe, and especially in Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, there's great ambition to get completely on renewable energy.

FLATOW: Well, China's making all our light bulbs now. Are they going to be making all of our solar panels?

Mr.�GROSS: Well, I don't think they'll be making all our solar panels, but I do think they're going to help drive the industry along to help drive the price down for everybody.

FLATOW: And can we create our own industry here without having to go to China?

Mr.�GROSS: Absolutely. Well, we feel we're proving that. Here we are in California. We're using lots of engineering resources from Southern California, from the aerospace firms, from JPL, from Cal Tech. We put together a great team of people. There's a lot of ingenuity in California.

California is a great place for innovation. I don't think this new technology could've been maybe invented anywhere else except California, and I think we can be a great exporter of this to the whole rest of the planet.

FLATOW: And how soon will the system in China be finished?

Mr.�GROSS: Well, we finished our plant here in California last year. We're beginning construction on the first 92 megawatts in China later this year, and they'll be coming online in the ensuing years after that. Over 10 years, we'll be building out to full two gigawatts.

FLATOW: And are those two gigawatts going to be distributed in different places, not in one spot?

Mr.�GROSS: Yes, they'll be in different places.

FLATOW: That's why you don't need that giant piece of real estate.

Mr.�GROSS: Exactly. You want to build the power closer to where the consumers of the electricity will be so you have less transmission losses. You also have some benefits in security by having it distributed, by not having it all in one location.

FLATOW: Any fear that the Chinese may not, you know, cooperate with the software, that they might be trying to sneak into your software where you're controlling it, in California?

Mr.�GROSS: I don't believe that we'll have a problem with that. We have very good protection on that front. But also, it's not their expertise. I really feel their expertise is in the rollout construction, the labor force required to build the plants. We feel that our core expertise is the control of the power plant, the manipulation of the mirrors and the ongoing software improvements there.

FLATOW: All right, Bill, good luck to you.

Mr.�GROSS: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Mr.�GROSS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Bill Gross is the CEO of eSolar Incorporated in Pasadena, California. We're going to take a short break and switch gears and talk about race. Census is coming up this year. They're going to be asking you about race on there. Just what do we mean by race? Is it the wrong question? Is it useful? Is it useful in medicine? We'll talk about it, take your calls, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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