Cleantech Market Intelligence
BrightSource a Bright Spot for Cloudy Solar Power Industry
Earlier this year I wrote that the concentrated solar power (CSP) industry – which uses a solar thermal technology that has important advantages over solar photovoltaic panels, particularly for utility-scale projects – was reaching a “make or break point.” Judging from the recent news from CSP provider BrightSource Energy, the breaking point hasn’t been reached, and CSP just might make it big.
BrightSource, which uses a “solar tower” structure to heat water into steam, which is then used to produce electricity, announced it has received a new round of funding totaling $80 million. Headed by Alstom and VantagePoint Capital Partners, the investors include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Goldman Sachs, Chevron Technology Ventures, and BP Ventures.
As my colleague Peter Asmus has pointed out, BrightSource has a unique technology, an impressive lineup of investors (that also includes Google Ventures and industrial heavyweight Bechtel), and a healthy backlog of power purchase agreements (PPAs) with utility customers including Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. BrightSource’s Ivanpah project in the Mojave Desert will be the largest concentrated solar power installation in the world, totaling 392 megawatts at completion. As we explained in our 2011 report, Concentrated Solar Power, BrightSource has also added energy storage (in the form of molten salt) to its CSP technology. “Storage significantly improves the value” of solar- thermal systems, Michael Peevey, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said at meeting this week at which two new BrightSource PPAs with utilities were approved. “Ratepayers’ long-term interest will be best served in my view by beginning to invest now in advanced technologies,” Peevey added.
In April 2011, BrightSource received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Oakland, California company provides a stark contrast to solar providers A123 and Solyndra, both of which went bankrupt after receiving federal funding under the Obama Administration’s clean energy stimulus. So why isn’t Obama the candidate touting the success of BrightSource?
Part of the answer seems to be that the Obama campaign simply believes that clean energy, including advanced solar power, is too hot an issue (excuse the pun) to bring up between now and the election on Nov. 6. Bringing up one success story – and a provisional one, at that, since BrightSource’s future is by no means assured – will not do much to counter Republican charges that the U.S. government should not be in the position of subsidizing clean energy at all.
That’s too bad, because BrightSource and the CSP technology it’s helping pioneer could provide an important boost for the beleaguered solar power industry in the United States. As opposed to making and selling solar panels, a low-price, low-margin business, BrightSource’s big CSP installations are not easy for overseas rivals to duplicate. And the company’s business model, supplying competitive, renewable energy to large utilities that are under government mandates to obtain one-third of their power from renewable sources by the end of the decade, assures it of a large and stable customer base. BrightSource also has varied revenue streams: it built a 29 megawatt facility for Chevron in Coalinga, California to make steam for enhanced oil recovery.
According to documents filed with the SEC in preparation for a planned IPO earlier this year, BrightSource’s PPAs total more than $4 billion in long-term revenue. In April BrightSource, citing adverse market conditions, called off its public offering, in a move that was seen at the time as another blow to the struggling solar power industry, indeed to the U.S. cleantech industry as a whole. Given more recent developments, that now looks like a smart move.