PG&E to help develop solar power for Calif.

May 13, 2009 6:50:18 PM PDT
PG&E signed new agreements with an East Bay company to dramatically step up production of solar power in California.

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It sets the stage for a whole new type of solar power plant, and it's the first of its kind in the nation.

Harnessing the energy of the sun and turning it into power for your home is seen as one of the most environmentally sensitive ways to counter global warming.

One Bay Area company is hoping that hundreds of mirrors will turn the sun into power.

"It's a very low cost way to produce solar energy at a very large scale," said BrightSource CEO John Woolard.

Here's how it works: the sun hits giant mirrors, reflecting back on an enormous solar cell tower. That focused light then heats water, making steam that turns the turbines that produce power.

There are similar power tower plants in Spain. BrightSource will soon break ground the first such plant in the U.S. in California.

"Ours is at higher pressure and higher temperature, and higher pressure and higher temperature generally drive the efficiency up and the cost down," said Woolard.

That first power tower will be built in the Southern California desert community of Ivanpah. This one plant will produce 400 megawatts of power.

"Four-hundred megawatts is the same size as a coal or a natural gas plant," said Woolard.

That is enough power to keep the lights on at 300,000 homes.

BrightSource had previously signed the largest agreement for solar energy in the world with Southern California Edison. They have now sealed a deal with PG&E.

"They looked at the technology, they've seen it demonstrated, and they've become more and more confident in the fact that we would be able to deliver power between now and 2015 or 16," said Woolard.

Most of the funding and planning behind the U.S. project has been done in the Bay Area.

"We were willing to commit time, effort and considerable financial resources because we really believed in the future of this technology," said VantagePoint CEO Alan Salzman.

San Bruno-based VantagePoint Venture Partners has committed the capital to build the project.

Salzman says it's an investment not only in the environment, but what he sees as our energy future.

"We think that solar-thermal will produce upwards of 20 percent of all the electricity needed in the United States," said Salzman.

BrightSource hopes to break ground on the first phase of its first plant by the end of this year. It could be generating power as soon as 2011.

Related Links:

  • BrightSource Energy
  • VantagePoint Venture Partners

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    Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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