BrightSource Rival Powers Ahead On Molten Salt [INTERVIEW]

The U.S.-Israeli concentrating solar power (CSP) company BrightSource Energy last night announced it was pulling its public stock offering planned for today, saying “the continued market and economic volatility are not optimal conditions for an IPO” [PDF]. The turn of events was a blow to big solar, but BrightSource isn’t the only such developer in the field—and competitor SolarReserve, for one, believes its history and focus give it key advantages over its rival.

SolarReserve is a private CSP company, based in Santa Monica, Calif., and its technology was developed domestically. It is also the only U.S. solar company actually now building a project that uses heliostats—giant mirrors—to direct sunlight toward a tower filled with molten salt, rather than water. (Torresol Energy last year built and began operating a plant using the technology in Spain.)

molten salt solar, solarreserve,crescent dunes

image via SolarReserve

Molten salt is a solid at room temperature and becomes liquid at around 450 F. When it is not actively collecting heat from the sunlight, the molten salt can store energy for hours at a time. SolarReserve’s technology can store and slowly release solar power for 10 to 15 hours, or literally overnight, according to CEO Kevin Smith, who spoke with EarthTechling last week.

With nine private equity investors since 2008 and another joining last year, SolarReserve is at the cusp of becoming a household name. Backed by a $737 million federal loan guarantee, SolarReserve is building its first utility-scale development, the 110-megawatt (MW) Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant near Tonopah, Nev. In its middle already stands a 540-foot solar power tower, pictured above. When completed (Smith said the goal is 2013) it will the largest power plant of its kind in the world and the country’s first integrated energy storage solar facility.

“When SolarReserve was formed in early 2008, the basis of our technology was really energy storage, fully integrated storage,” Smith said. “We thought storage was the way to go. Most of our competitors at the time didn’t agree, including BrightSource.”

Last December, BrightSource announced it had found a taker for the molten-salt energy storage capability that it began promoting back in August 2010 for use in its solar thermal developments. The company said it was redoing power-purchase agreements with Southern California Edison to include its “SolarPlus” technology at three planned California plants.

Shifra Mincer is a freelance journalist and passionate tweeter (@Shiframincer) currently living in Israel. Before moving to Israel to apprentice with a homebirth midwife, Shifra worked as Associate Editor of AOL Energy, and was a member of the launch team that got the site up and running. Shifra has over a half a decade of experience in journalism and has written on women's health, green technology, politics and regulation of the energy industry, energy financial news, and local news. While studying for her B.A. at Harvard College, Shifra worked as a news editor for the Harvard Crimson. Shifra is also a yoga teacher and a birth doula and is hoping to create an active Jewish birth community through her web venture www.layda.org.