Huge Solar Facility Planned For California Desert Utility company Southern California Edison and solar startup BrightSource Energy announced a deal to build a solar-thermal plant that would generate 1,300 megawatts of power, slightly more than a modern nuclear plant, in the Mojave Desert. BrightSource CEO John Woolard discusses the project.
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Huge Solar Facility Planned For California Desert

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Huge Solar Facility Planned For California Desert

Huge Solar Facility Planned For California Desert

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This is Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. If you drive east of Los Angeles toward Las Vegas, and then you turn off on Highway 395 towards the Sierras, before long, you'll pass a little crossroads on the high desert called Kramer Junction. There isn't much to see there: a few gas stations, a railroad crossing, an old drive-up burger shack. But just a few miles north of that tiny town, look to your left and you'll see thousands of gleaming, curved mirrors aimed at the sun. Together with several nearby fields of mirrors, it's the world's largest commercial solar-energy installation, and it was built in the 1980s.

For the last two decades, lots of alternative energy projects have been stuck in the mud, but solar appears to be on the rise again. This month, the folks at BrightSource Energy, including some engineers from that solar project in the 1980s, struck a deal with the utility company, Southern California Edison, to supply over a gigawatt - that's 1,000 megawatts, over 1,000 megawatts - of solar generating power in the Mojave Desert. That's a lot of power comparable to what you'd get from a nuclear reactor. But how can they build it so big? What's the technology? And really, what took them so long?

We'll start this hour by talking about the road ahead for solar in California, which is usually a trendsetter for the rest of the country. If you'd like to join us, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, or if you're on Twitter, you can tweet your questions to us by writing the @ sign followed by SciFri, and in Second Life, you can join us on Science Friday Island and get a free t-shirt and talk with the other avatars there. Let me introduce my guest. John Woolard is the CEO of BrightSource Energy based in Oakland. He joins us by phone. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. JOHN WOOLARD (Chief Executive Officer, BrightSource Energy, Inc.): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Can you explain how your technology works? Is it based on mirrors also?

Mr. WOOLARD: Our technology is based on mirrors, and as you mentioned, we have a lot of the engineers that worked on those older plants in California in the 1980s. And what we do is we just take lots of small, flat mirrors, we focus the sun's light up onto what we call a boiler, and the boiler is very similar to the boiler inside of a fossil-fuel power plant. That boiler generates super-heated steam that then turns the turbine, and that turbine produces electricity that goes to the grid.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And conveniently, I guess, necessarily - you can look on Google Earth and see the spot right there in the desert. It looks like there are power lines that run right through there.

Mr. WOOLARD: Yes, there are. So, when we look at any site for these power plants - we're building quite a few plants between Pacific Gas & Electric in Southern California Edison. We look for sites that are already disturbed, that are flat and boring, frankly. We look for flat, boring, disturbed, and also with, ideally, transmission lines already very close to the sites, so that we can deliver the power to the grid and, ultimately, to consumers.

FLATOW: And how soon will you start churning out electricity from this new venture?

Mr. WOOLARD: Well, we've been doing the engineering for many years, and we've taken - we've built a facility in Israel. Our engineering team's actually based overseas in Israel. That now delivers what we call - it's about six megawatts of power, of steam power. We will be building our California plant starting at the end of this year, and ultimately - it takes about two years to construct one of these large power plants - so, they'll start to deliver power to the grid by 2011, 2012.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, there was talk just a few months ago through the papers, through the financial sections of the Internet, that said that the alternative fuels, big projects like solar power or even wind power, were dead in the water due to the lack of capital now, due to the banks and the Wall Street situation. Has that all been turned around now with the stimulus package?

Mr. WOOLARD: Well, actually, the administration and Senate and Congress did one thing very, very well in the stimulus bill, which is they thought through how to bridge renewable-energy projects from a challenging financial market into a future where you can actually construct plants. And they did a good job through loan-guarantee programs, where the taxpayer isn't taking too much risk, but it's making sure that banks can come in and loan money into these projects, and also, solving another smaller challenge, which was called tax equity. Because as the Wall Street investors were losing their taxable income, they were losing their appetite to invest in some of these projects. So, I think the administration and Senate and Congress - Reid in particular - did a fantastic job of thinking through how to bridge from challenging financial markets and allow these renewable projects - wind, solar; all large renewables - to move forward.

FLATOW: And how will they compare with a gigawatt, let's say, of your solar with a gigawatt of natural gas or other energy, price wise?

Mr. WOOLARD: Price wise, we try to stay as competitive as possible with natural gas. So, if you look at the way natural gas is produced, natural gas has peaking plants that produced the power in the middle of the day, and those plants are generally higher cost and higher price than a plant that can operate 24 hours day. But peak power is what's really needed, and that's where solar fits in very nicely. Solar is produced - generally, your peak demand is when the sun is shining, air-conditioner loads are higher, people are still work. And so, these plants have a nice coincidence with peak and are very competitive with peak pricing.

FLATOW: There are some people who've wondered about whether you're going to be dampening the smaller solar efforts, being a big company who puts out so many gigawatts. What about the smaller, local solar producers and people putting solar power on their roofs, things like that? How do you answer that criticism?

Mr. WOOLARD: Oh, I think that the small solar power is absolutely critical to our future. So, we - you'll see a continued growth in photovoltaics for many years, and I think that's really important. So, I don't view this as an either/or. If you look at how much needs to - how much clean power needs to get delivered for the next 15 to 20 years, it's a huge amount. We did 400 megawatts of photovoltaics last year. We need to be doing gigawatts of solar power. So, I think you're going to need lot of distributed photovoltaics, and you're going to need to be able to produce lower-cost, central solar as well to bring this scale - to address the problem at scale.

FLATOW: How much of, theoretically, how much of the Mojave could you use to produce a larger amount of California's power?

Mr. WOOLARD: Oh, a very small amount. I think the numbers are somewhere around one or two percent of the Mojave would power all of California. So, it's a - and I think by tenth of a percent, less than the tenth of a percent, of the land in the U.S. could power the entire country. So, it's very efficient on its use of land, and we try to look at land that's always very flat and boring, as I mentioned earlier.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me see if I can get a phone call in here. Aaron in Detroit, hi, welcome to Science Friday.

AARON (Caller): Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for getting me on the air here. Longtime listener, love your show. I actually represent - well, I'm with one of the manufacturing companies that has been experiencing a downturn from the automotive, and we're trying to get more into the solar manufacturing and whatnot. But I guess I kind of have a big - a two-part question. One would be, with the systems that you're building, are there going to be a lot of opportunities for manufacturers to kind of jump into the supply chain and start producing? And the second would be, along the lines of storage with power instead of transmitting it, which used to be a large problem, where's the technology as far as batteries go to...

FLATOW: Storage.

AARON: Make this more available for everybody...

FLATOW: He's got a bad line there. I'm sorry we had to cut him off. But you've got the question?

Mr. WOOLARD: I did, I did, and let me address the manufacturing piece first and then storage second. If you listen - if you look at what it takes to keep - bring manufacturing online, we provide - we have quite a few components; we have mirrors and those can be sourced either domestically or internationally. We always preferred to do anything we can domestically. We have gears; we have steel fabrications; steel posts; boilers that sit on tops of these towers. So, there's quite a bit of - and then it's always easier to - anything you can do domestically, you don't have to ship, you don't have to transport. So, we're focused on doing everything we can on what I would say is domestic manufactured components. The other part of the question was around storage, and I believe that the caller was talking about electrical storage.


Mr. WOOLARD: But what's interesting about solar-thermal power is you can also store it thermally. So - and thermal storage is about a third of the cost of electrical storage. But they're not mutually exclusive, so you can store power at a thermal plant like this. You can then move some power to the shoulders of the day, but ultimately, as you - if we do move to a world with more things like plug-in hybrids or electric cars, those can take advantage of storing as well. And the more storage we have on the grid, the better off we all are, because it's a big - it provides some buffering and the ability for renewables and other resources to come online.

FLATOW: Do you have to pass any more regulatory hurdles or environmental-impact statements, things like that...

Mr. WOOLARD: We're in the process...

FLATOW: For construct - to start construction?

Mr. WOOLARD: Of going through a broad permitting process. So, we go through the National Environmental Policy Act's environmental review as well as the California Environmental Quality Act review, and we're - we've done a lot of thorough work on that. It should be through both of those processes by mid to late this year.

FLATOW: What other states might take up your lead here?

Mr. WOOLARD: Well, California has, so far, been leading from a procurement perspective, but we can put these sites in any areas that are sunny. We have sites in Nevada; we have sites in Arizona; we have some in New Mexico. And we also have interested utilities and off takers(ph) in those other states as well. But we're very focused on the sunniest areas in the Southwest.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But that would not eliminate some places back East or in the South, where there might be some...

Mr. WOOLARD: No. Generally what you will do is, any place where your need solar-thermal, you want to locate it in an area with direct sunlight. So, that's - the sweet spot is the Southwestern U.S. You can then transport your power to Washington State, Oregon, Midwest grid...

FLATOW: Do the lines exist for that, the grid work?

Mr. WOOLARD: The lines do exist, and it's a matter of getting transmission capacity, but there will be transmission challenges over time. So, if you want to bring large amounts of renewables on, we need to continue to upgrade the transmission infrastructure.

FLATOW: And is there money for that in the stimulus package, I imagine?

Mr. WOOLARD: There is some money for grid - in the stimulus package; there're some funds allocated. It's for increasing transmission, and I think you'll find that a very big focus of the energy bill that they're thinking through the summer is how to bring on more transmission to allow more renewables or nuclear or any de-carbonized power to come online.

FLATOW: John Woolard, thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Mr. WOOLARD: All right. Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.


FLATOW: John Woolard is the CEO of BrightSource Energy - that's based in Oakland - and they are installing over gigawatts of solar-thermal power. Got the contracts for - to do that in California. We're going to take a break and come back and change gears and talk about the international - well, this is the International Year of Science. And we're going to talk about astronomy and Hubble and all kinds of stuff. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

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