Pasadena-based firm poised to harness the sun's power

LANCASTER, CALIFORNIA - With construction of a demonstration facility under way in the High Desert, a Pasadena-based firm is moving forward in its quest to harness the sun's power with a new generation of solar thermal power plants.

The facility being built by eSolar will test what company officials extol as game-changing technology that uses a modular design and mass-manufactured components that can be scaled to fit specific power needs.

"By using modular mass-manufacturable design, we are able to reach economies of scale that allow us to reduce the total cost of a power plant," said Robert Rogan, eSolar's vice president of sales and marketing. "Instead of a small number of big things, we build a big number of small things."

The technology relies on mirrors — each about 1 square meter — that track and reflect sunlight to a tower-mounted receiver. The solar heat is harnessed and used to boil water, creating steam that powers electricity-generating turbines.

ESolar started construction in June on a demonstration plant on Avenue G, between Sierra Highway and Division Street in Lancaster, and expects the 7.5-megawatt operation to be up and running at the end of this year.

And it plans to apply soon to the California Energy Commission for permits to build a full-size plant at an undisclosed location in the Antelope Valley.

ESolar already has signed a contract to supply Southern California Edison with 245 megawatts — enough to supply about 200,000 households — in what would be the nation's first commercial effort using power-tower solar thermal technology.

The alternative-energy startup, founded in 2007, raised $130 million in April from, Google's philanthropic arm, and other investors and venture-capital firms.

"ESolar is a relatively new firm. We found their technology to be innovative, and (the) price to be competitive," said Stuart Hemphill, Edison's vice president of renewable and alternative power.

Solar power in the state is experiencing a surge after being dormant for nearly 20 years. Nine plants that are still operating were built in San Bernardino County from 1984 to 1990.

Companies are rushing to lay claim to federal land in California's Mojave Desert for future plants. Since 2006, the federal Bureau of Land Management has received 79 solar-plant applications encompassing more than 679,000 acres.

The city of Palmdale is among public and private applicants that have asked the California Energy Commission for certification of six large projects, and four of these projects are already under review. Others have announced plans to apply for two more large plants.

Up north, Pacific Gas and Electric has signed contracts with Oakland-based Brightsource Energy for up to 900 megawatts of solar power, and Palo Alto-based Ausra has a deal to supply PG&E with 177 megawatts from a solar plant proposed in San Luis Obispo County.

Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm, expects $20 billion to be invested in solar power over the next five years and foresees the industry could potentially become a $45 billion market by 2020.

Alternative energy startups like eSolar are not the only ones getting in on the action. The city of Victorville is building a 563-megawatt hybrid plant - natural gas and solar power. And last month, Palmdale submitted its application to build a 570-megawatt hybrid plant.

The renewed interest in solar power is being driven by California's aggressive mandate that utilities produce 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010.

In 2007, nearly 12 percent of the state's electricity came from renewable energy.

Solar power also has become more competitive because of advances in solar technology and because natural gas prices have increased, said Ryan Wiser, renewable-energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

There's been a proliferation of different technologies — power towers, dish systems, linear reflectors — but it's not known whether any will be superior to the engineering of parabolic solar troughs that's been around for 20 years.

"To be brutally honest, no one knows which one will rise to the top or if we will have different technologies playing different roles," Wiser said.

The projects are encountering opposition from an unexpected quarter: environmentalists who say such plants will degrade pristine public desert lands, harm habitat for threatenened species like the desert tortoise, and use too much water.

"These big solar plants are extremely destructive," said Jim Harvey with the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy in Joshua Tree. "It's a big lie that these projects are environmentally friendly."

Harvey and others say meeting renewable-energy targets can be accomplished by installing rooftop and micro-wind systems on homes and businesses.

Rogan said eSolar in general tries to find land that has been previously farmed or "disturbed" in some way.

"As consumption of electricity goes up, something has to feed that. It's better to do that using solar or renewable forms rather than create more fossil fuel-burning plants that pollute the atmosphere," Rogan said.


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