Biggest CA utility contracts for world’s biggest solar power deal — 1300 MW solar thermal


Wind power has come of age (see here). Concentrated solar thermal power is next.

Southern California Edison has contracted with BrightSource Energy Inc. for seven projects totaling 1,300 megawatts of concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP). CSP is a core climate solution, probably the zero-carbon form of electricity with the most potential, since it can be easily integrated with thermal storage and provide power reliably throughout the day and evening.

The agreement, which now requires approval from the California Public Utilities Commission, calls for a series of totaling 1,300 megawatts. The first of these solar power plants, sized at 100 megawatts and located in Ivanpah, Calif., could be operating in early 2013 and is expected to produce 286,000 megawatt-hours of renewable electricity per year…. The full 1,300 megawatts of projects will produce 3.7 billion kilowatt-hours of clean energy and avoid more than two million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

These are air-cooled power plants, so they sacrifice some efficiency to dramatically reduce water consumption in the arid regions in which they operate.

For a discussion of current and projected near-term CSP deployment see “CSP update” and, more recently, “CSP outshines ‘clean coal’ — and it always will.” As of November, “some 60 plants are either under construction or under contract worldwide — with most in either Spain or the United States — for a total capacity just north of 5,700 megawatts.”

On the one hand, the global recession and credit crunch may slow that down, but on the other hand, compensating for that is state renewable electricity standards, Obama’s commitment to double renewable production by the end of his first term, and the European Union’s strong renewable energy targets.

For some of the history of CSP, see my April 2008 Salon piece, “The technology that will save humanity: The solar energy you haven’t heard of is the one best suited to generate clean electricity for generations to come.

OK, maybe “will” should be “may help,” and CP readers have been hearing about CSP for a while (see here).

It is the best source of clean energy to replace coal and sustain economic development. I bet that it will deliver more power every year this century than coal with carbon capture and storage — for much less money and with far less environmental damage.

How much less? Many industry experts told me CSP will likely deliver power for well under $.10 per kilowatt hour fully installed in the next decade.

What is its market potential? I think it could be more than two wedges, which is several thouand gigawatts:

It would be straightforward to build CSP systems at whatever rate industry and governments needed, ultimately 50 to 100 gigawatts a year growth or more.

Why is CSP so important?

Because it’s the only form of clean electricity that can meet all the demanding requirements of this century….

Solar baseload’s ultimate “trump card” is, of course, storage, as the Daily Climate explained well:

The ability to store power for later use is a holy grail of sorts for renewable energy developers. Wind and photovoltaic plants force utilities to use the power on the spot or dump the load. Various batteries and capacitors are in the works for those technologies, but none so far match the smooth efficiency or low cost of solar thermal’s ability to hoard sunlight.

A plant designed with storage can shunt the hot oil from the mirrors to a giant insulated heat sink — a vat of molten salt, say, or a chunk of concrete or pig iron. Then after the sun sets but while demand remains high, that heat can be tapped to generate steam.

Or if a cloud rolls over a plant’s mirrors, or an afternoon thunderstorm stalls overhead, hundreds of megawatts of juice won’t suddenly drop off the grid. Utility operators can simply tap the tank.

“We’ve sort of stumbled on this thing with storage,” said Tom R. Mancini, program manager for concentrated solar power technologies at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. “The round-trip efficiency is 90 percent…. Solar thermal is made for this.”

Arizona Public Service is building a plant that can keep the sun’s power for six hours past sunset, allowing managers to meet evening demand with midafternoon sun. A utility in Spain hopes to develop a plant that can keep heat for seven. Engineers figure 14 hours or more is feasible.

Wired has a good discussion of the new deal and of the history of BrightSource:

BrightSource is the reincarnation of Luz International, which built the only currently operating solar thermal facility during the 1980s in the Mojave Desert. After natural gas and energy prices plunged in 1985, that operation became unprofitable. The group’s engineers and founders moved the business to Israel, where they continued to work on their technology.

Why Luz failed is a sad but interesting story I will say for another post.

Kudos to SCE for pursuing and closing this deal even in the midst of the greatest recession and credit crunch since the great depression.

[Note: Going forward, I will try not to refer to a CSP plant as solar thermal baseload if it doesn’t have storage. The BrightSource plants will not have storage.]

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10 Responses to Biggest CA utility contracts for world’s biggest solar power deal — 1300 MW solar thermal

  1. Brewster says:

    Good to see it happen….

    But would thermal storage not work for Wind as well?

    I have seen some literature for very small scale installations claiming extremely high efficiency ratings, but even if it was somewhat less than 100% efficient, wasting a bit of power during periods of excess supply (especially power that was clean to start with) doesn’t seem to be a serious problem….

    Am I missing something?

  2. Joe Campbell says:

    Interesting venture — it’s great to see some of these things getting built, to ‘prove up’ the concept and provide some better economics on large-scale ventures.

    Based on the numbers you give, that’s delivered capacity of 32%. Quite high compared to other operating plants which are running on 15-20%. How are they increasing capacity?

  3. Rick C says:

    I say this all the time. The future is electric. It is CSP that will get us there.

  4. CSP, wind, geothermal can become the primary sources of electricity in this country. Natural gas and nuclear will supply peak hours and provide back-up. That is what energy (r)evolution looks like! And eventually we can cut natural gas and nuclear out of the equation.

  5. EricG says:

    I do love CSP, and this is great news. I agree with JoeC, the capacity seems high, especially given these are air cooled units. If we can hit these numbers, the news is even better.

    I do have a couple of concerns regarding CSP:

    – First, it’s very land intensive. The numbers I’ve seen indicate about 6 acres per MW. This has the potential to limit the amount of generation we can build.

    – Second, we hear a lot about intra-day and inter-day storage for load matching. I’ve never heard any discussion of inter-seasonal storage. December insolation in the desert southwest is about 50% of June. Obviously, December loads are much less than June loads, But 50%? I don’t know. If December aren’t 50% less than June, how do we cover the gap?

    Appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Andy says:

    There are hundreds of thousands of acres of abandoned farmlands in S. Califormia and Arizona and more that probably should be abandoned in light of the huge environmental costs of growing irrigated alfalfa and other plants in the desert. A tiny bit of these lands are being restored to native desert vegetation, but most are simply wastelands and could be targeted for conversion to energy production. A catch is that a lot of this land is privately owned or is owned by native American tribes.

    I’d hate to see native desert being used for energy production just because it’s convenient; i.e. publicly owned.

  7. Kojiro Vance says:

    After a bit of digging I found CA PUC’s market price referrent (MPR). Their last forecast in October showed the MPR price in 2013 at 12.5 cents/Kwh. That includes a 1.8 cent GHG adjustment. But futher digging shows that this price is based on a 2013 NYMEX Henry Hub gas price of $9.20. Today’s price for gas is $4.50, and $7.20 in 2013.

    Whatever the end price – it is very expensive. SoCalEd is committed to buying this power at the generator at a price that is HIGHER than the retail electric price in about 43 of the 50 states. And that is BEFORE you slap transmission, distribution, and profit on to that price.

  8. Bill Woods says:

    BrightSource is being coy about the cost of this project (“BrightSource Energy and SCE are not contractually permitted to discuss contract prices;” ), but they give a $3 billion figure for their 400 MW Ivanpah project. Multiply by three for the increased capacity. And to compare the cost per kW-h with that of a baseload plant, multiply by another three, given their claimed 32% capacity factor.

    As for seasonal variability of demand, winter evening demand is running about 30 GW — 10 GW above the baseload. On summer afternoons it can get up above 40 GW.

  9. Cyril R. says:

    I do have a couple of concerns regarding CSP:

    – First, it’s very land intensive. The numbers I’ve seen indicate about 6 acres per MW. This has the potential to limit the amount of generation we can build.

    No problem, we’re using way more land just to feed our sorry asses. Even our homes take up way more space than solar thermal electric plants would even if they’d have to supply the majority of our power.

    Studies indicate 16,000 EWh of electricity generation per year in the US using moderate land use restraints. That’s 4x today’s use in the US.

    The way to do these calculations is to look at the per person land uses. You’ll then be comforted by the small footprint of CSP.

    – Second, we hear a lot about intra-day and inter-day storage for load matching. I’ve never heard any discussion of inter-seasonal storage.

    No need, with diurnal storage you can provide over 90% of US electricity. Use existing hydro supplemented with bio-energy for longer backup.

    The nuclear advocates never talk about seasonal storage for their grand nuclear plans either; constant output nuclear powerplants is a problem for seasonal peaks in power demand. There are good reasons why France’s nuclear generation is levelling out at 80-90% range.

  10. Cyril R. says:

    And mind you, France has acces to rather large amounts of flexible hydro to supplement their inflexible nuclear plants, and exports large amounts of power as well. But still needs flexible convenient fossil fuels for that last bit.