BrightSource Eyes More Power Towers With Cash Infusion

Siemens wants out of concentrating solar, seeing a shrinking market as governments pull back on incentives for the utility-scale developments, but BrightSource Energy appears to be muddling through.

The California company, which specializes in “power tower” solar thermal plants, said this week that it raised $80 million in equity financing, pushing its total to $615 million. It also received approval from the California Public Utilities Commission for power purchase agreements on two proposed tower projects, including one that will store heat in molten salts to extend energy production after sunset.

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The three-tower Ivanpah project, under construction (image via BrightSource Energy)

Now, make no mistake, BrightSource had by now hoped to have solved its financing challenges by going public. But in April it withdrew its initial public offering, saying “the continued market and economic volatility are not optimal conditions for an IPO.” Nonetheless, given the state of renewable energy investment markets, hauling in $80 million is significant, and the company said it is ready to put the money to use, in the U.S. and abroad.

BrightSource CEO John Woolard said in a statement that the new capital, led by energy giant Alstom and VantagePoint Capital Partners, “reflects the important role of our solar thermal power tower technology in meeting the world’s growing demand for cost-effective power that is not only clean, but reliable as well.” Woolard added that, “With these funds we will continue to build solar power plants for our U.S. customers, while significantly increasing our presence around the globe.”

BrightSource is at work right now on what will become the world’s largest solar thermal project, the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, just off Interstate 15 about 45 miles south of Las Vegas.

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image via BrightSource Energy

That project has not been without problems, particularly in dealing with the threatened desert tortoise that makes its home in the Mojave Desert area where the plant is going up. Nevertheless, with a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee supporting it, the three-tower project in August passed the halfway mark in construction, according to BrightSource.

As for plants on the drawing board, while BrightSource gained approval on two contracts to sell Southern California Edison power, regulators did not give the company everything it wanted. For instance: BrightSource is ultimately hoping to build three 250-MW towers at the Rio Mesa site in Riverside County, Calif., but the CPUC approved just one of two contracts before it. A commission draft resolution [PDF] had said the Rio Mesa projects “compare poorly on price and value relative to other solar thermal projects offered to SCE.”

Rio Mesa, which BrightSource aims to have online by October 2015, is quite a scheme; while the Ivanpah towers, at 459 feet, are nothing to sneeze at, the plan for Rio Mesa is for towers that soar 750 feet above the desert floor.

The other BrightSource-SCE contract that won approval was a 200-MW deal for power from the proposed Sonoran West site, also in Riverside County. That’s the project BrightSource is eyeing for its “SolarPlus” technology, which would store heat generating during the day in a big vat of molten salts, then use that heat to turn water into energy-generating steam after nightfall. Sonoran West has yet to enter the permitting process, and the target online date is way off in 2017.

In addition to rejecting approval of one of the Rio Mesa contracts, the CPUC also said no to two contracts between BrightSource and SCE from the proposed Siberia site in San Bernandino, another spot where BrightSource wants to use the energy-storage technology.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.