The company, long the subject of speculation about when it might go public, has been waiting for milestones such as breaking ground on its 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar plant in the California desert.
Starting out as Luz International, Ltd., reportedly the first company on the planet to build commercially viable solar thermal projects, that company’s team merged with a “world-class” finance and project development team to complete the array of skills needed to transform Luz into BrightSource.
The new company is backed by the likes of Google, Morgan Stanley and several oil companies, and in February was the recipient of a $1.4 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s certainly a good financial neighborhood from which to launch a public offering.
BrightSource’s proprietary LPT 550 system uses power tower and heliostat mirror technology to deliver megawatts of solar thermal energy to the grid – or will, as soon as the three units (I and II, 100 megawatts, or MW, each; III, 165 MW) of the Ivanpah Project are complete.
According to the California Energy Commission, the regulatory agency, the “three plants would be developed in concert,” sharing infrastructure like an administration/operations building, a maintenance building, and a substation – all on 5.3 square miles.
BrightSource had to compromise to get approval. This meant moving the project’s perimeter to avoid an area of rare plants, agreeing to cut Phase III by 23 percent, and reducinmg the number of Unit III towers from five to one to help protect the endangered desert tortoise, which will be relocated.
One large-scale solar thermal power plant in the Mojave Desert may be close to final approval. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station (ISEGS) is at least one step closer. A site committee from the California Energy Commission has endorsed the power plant, recommending its approval by the five-member CEC.
If completed today, Ivanpah would be the largest solar generating station in the world, producing nearly 400 megawatts of solar electricity. But it won’t be completed today. Its developer, Oakland’s Brightsource Energy, however, does hope to begin construction this fall, with completion slated for 2014.
The plant would be located about 4.5 miles from the town of Primm, Nevada in California’s Mojave Desert. It will be a “power tower” design, utilizing large flat mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a 459-foot tower, inside which a fluid would be boiled to create steam to drive a turbine, much like in a conventional power plant.
In fact, some natural gas will be used to quickly fire up the boilers in the morning and carry the plant through minor cloud spells. The gas would not keep the plant running through extended clouds or overnight.
Nearly 174,000 mirrors will concentrate solar energy onto three towers, the cumulative land footprint of the plant being 3,582 acres. Development and construction costs are estimated at $1.1 billion. The U.S. government has offered a loan guarantee of up to $1.37 billion to Brightsource Energy for the project.
The CEC site committee’s endorsement is newsworthy only because of all the controversy surrounding concentrating solar power (CSP) plants like Ivanpah. Environmental damage to landscape, animal habitat, desert tortoises and other wildlife, plant life and water supply have all contributed to long delays for CSP projects as environmental groups demand a more sensitive approach.
In response, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted environmental impact surveys (EIS) for projects in hopes of fast-tracking the permit process. Last November the BLM released its EIS for the Ivanpah project, giving the plant a positive environmental review — that is, the environmental damage caused by construction of the plant does not outweigh its environmental benefits upon completion. Nine months later, another permitting hurdle has been tackled.
But the process could be far from over. As mentioned, the CEC must take the committee’s advice by approving the project, then the BLM must still give final approval. Although, given the positive EIS and the Obama administration’s support for large-scale solar power in general, the Southwest could see the first of 126 pending solar thermal electric projects actually break ground.
There could still be some fight from environmental or labor groups, although Brightsource has made at least one significant environmental compromise: ISEGS will now be a “dry-cooled” power plant, drastically reducing annual water consumption.