Innovative Solar Power Outfit eSolar Signs First Deal for Utility-Scale Solar Plants

In the transition to a clean, green economy, one milestone promises to be the most symbolically powerful. It's the one adopted as an official target by Google: renewable energy cheaper than coal, or RE<C. When it announced its campaign, Google also announced the recipients of its initial investments.

One was eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company spun off from business incubator Idealab. "Our view of what it takes to make solar power viable and a widespread technology," says Robert Rogan, eSolar's executive VP of corporate development, "is to be able to compete with fossil fuel energy prices in an unsubsidized way." Cheaper than coal per-kwh, without subsidies, by 2012: that's the aspiration.

How will they do it? The company has designed a new kind of utility-scale solar power plant. Solar thermal plants are huge arrays of mirrors that harness the sun's heat to drive steam turbines and create electricity. New solar thermal companies are thick on the ground in the California desert, but eSolar claims some distinct advantages.

eSolar's plants are designed to overcome some of the primary hurdles facing the solar sector, namely price, speed, and scalability. The core strategy is, as the company puts it, to replace "expensive steel, concrete, and brute force with inexpensive computing power and elegant algorithms." Rather than large, complex heliostats that must be precision-engineered on site by specialized laborers and equipment, they designed heliostats made of small, simple, prefabricated parts that can be cheaply shipped and quickly assembled, with minimal skilled labor. (Think Ikea.)

Because the heliostats are low to the ground, using lots of small, flat mirrors rather than a few large parabolic mirrors, they require far less steel and concrete to anchor them. Solar thermal heliostats can be up to 100 square meters, but eSolar's "are closer to a square meter," Rogan says. "They're really human-sized."

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