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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