I admit it – I distrust very large companies who make billions of dollars in after tax profits every quarter. That is especially true when their leaders are reaching for my wallet and asking me to support their investments with my tax dollars as well as my purchasing dollars. I cannot fully explain how I developed my cynical attitudes about the leaders at the top of those companies.
There is an article on Power-Gen Worldwide titled Solar Power Gaining Steam As Costs Get Competitive; BrightEnergy CEO aims for peak-power market where natural gas reigns that provides more fuel for my distrust. The words that are actually written seem perfectly innocent, but I see some words between the lines that make me reflexively reach to my left rear pocket in a protective measure to keep my wallet from being lifted.
The article describes solar thermal power plants being constructed by BrightSource Energy in the Mohave Desert. The plants will use computer steered mirrors to reflect solar rays to a tower where they will heat a fluid. That fluid will be pumped through heat exchangers that will probably look an awful lot like the steam generators in a typical pressurized water nuclear power plant or the heat recovery steam generators in a typical combined cycle natural gas plant. The steam will drive conventional Rankine cycle turbines to produce power.
According to BrightSource’s CEO, the plants are aimed at displacing natural gas in the peaking power market.
BrightSource is trying to displace the large natural gas plants that produce big volumes of power at very high costs for peak demand.
However, a careful read of the technology description includes the following statement:
Solar thermal is a lot more cost-effective and reliable. You are heating up a fluid that turns a steam turbine and generates power. And because the power is generated from a turbine, you have thermal inertia in the system.
You can continue to produce power when clouds pass overhead with a power backup that uses a very small amount of natural gas. You get incredibly reliable power that is carbon-free.
Put that description together with the fact that the list of venture funders for the company includes Morgan Stanley and BP AND the fact that Chevron has just joined the project as a large strategic partner. All three of those financial backers make enormous amounts of money by selling natural gas.
The thermal power plants that BrightSource is building in the desert will be quite close to large natural gas pipelines that move gas from the Rockies and Texas to California. The capital intensive steam plant equipment that they are installing would be idle much of the time if it operated on just solar energy.
Having had a fair amount of experience in operating steam plants, I know that they require a lengthy, careful warm-up evolution to ensure reliable operation. Steam plants are quite economical when operated continuously, but they can be maintenance nightmares if started and stopped repeatedly. If you already have natural gas heating equipment in place for periods of clouds passing overhead, why not just use that equipment at night to keep the plant operating, making money and warmed up for the next time that the sun provides some heat? I am sure that this notion has occurred to the very clever people involved in the project design and financing.
How will the customers know if they are getting energy produced by using the thermal energy of the sun or produced by burning natural gas that is sold to the project by the strategic partners? How much is a “very small amount” of natural gas? Why is the company CEO allowed to get away with calling his technology “carbon-free” and why is is eligible for a 1.37 billion dollar loan guarantee? With backers like Morgan Stanley, Google, BP and Chevron, why does it even need a loan guarantee?