China to Build Solar Mirror Farm Using Oakland Company’s Technology

Fortune
By Katie Fehrenbacher
September 27, 2016

The tech has strug­gled in the U.S., but it is being deployed in China.

China is turn­ing to alter­na­tive solar tech­nolo­gies to fill its insa­tiable appetite for energy from the sun.

Solar com­pany Bright­Source Energy, based in Oak­land, Calif., said this week that it has signed a deal to sell its solar farm tech­nol­ogy to a Chi­nese project owned by a state-​​run energy company.

The tech­nol­ogy, the same used at a big solar farm out­side of Las Vegas, uses thou­sands of mir­rors to con­cen­trate sun­light on a boiler filled with water that is perched on top of a tower. The process heats the boiler’s water to high tem­per­a­tures to turn a steam tur­bine that then gen­er­ates electricity.

In com­par­i­son, more commonly-​​used solar pan­els that use semi­con­duc­tor mate­r­ial con­vert sun­light directly into electricity.

Typ­i­cally called solar ther­mal or solar con­cen­trat­ing farms, the mirror-​​based tech­nol­ogy was once seen as a major way that solar energy could com­pete with large coal plants. Solar ther­mal farms can be very large in size and pro­duce hun­dreds of megawatts of energy.

How­ever, as the price of solar pan­els and nat­ural gas has plum­meted, many util­i­ties in the U.S. and Europe have cho­sen to instead buy energy from large solar panel farms or nat­ural gas plants. In recent years plans for solar ther­mal farms have become much less common.

But in some regions, where land is abun­dant, and where large amounts of energy are needed, solar ther­mal farms are still being built. For exam­ple, a huge 580 megawatt solar ther­mal farm is under con­struc­tion in the Moroc­can desert that could power the equiv­a­lent of nearly 100,000 aver­age Amer­i­can homes.

Many solar ther­mal com­pa­nies, in a bid to be more com­pet­i­tive with solar pan­els and nat­ural gas, also started sell­ing energy stor­age tech­nol­ogy that enables power com­pany cus­tomers to store solar energy dur­ing the day so that it can be used later at night. Bright­Source Energy’s solar farms can use steam to heat up large tanks of molten salt, a par­tic­u­larly good medium for retain­ing heat.

China has decided to aggres­sively build solar ther­mal farms along with a mas­sive num­ber of solar panel farms. The coun­try plans to deploy 10 gigawatts of solar ther­mal farms by 2020. Another Amer­i­can com­pany called Solar­Reserve is also build­ing solar ther­mal plants in China.

Bright­Source Energy’s tech­nol­ogy will be used in a 135 megawatt pilot project in the Qing­hai province in north­west China that will be owned by a sub­sidiary of China’s State Power Invest­ment Cor­po­ra­tion. The farm, called the Huanghe Qing­hai Del­ingha Solar Ther­mal Power Gen­er­a­tion Project, is sup­posed to have mul­ti­ple tow­ers and stor­age. It will be built by a joint ven­ture between Bright­Source Energy and Chi­nese power com­pany Shang­hai Elec­tric Group.

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