BrightSource Energy was featured in the October 26th issue of Grist Magazine as an example of the success of government clean energy programs. If you remove the political posturing surrounding this issue it is pretty clear that alternative energy is gaining ground despite very little Federal support.
Between Southern California Edison and PG & E, BrightSource has 10 contracts for producing alternative energy. One of their projects Ivanpah, located in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California will be the largest concentrated solar power project in the world with a gross capacity of 392 megawatts of power when complete.
Concentrated solar is the use of mirrors that aim sunlight to solar towers. "It is technically three separate, contiguous power plants, built in phases, with a total of 170,000 heliostat mirrors, spread across 3,600 acres, aiming sunlight at three solar power towers. (Photo from Department of Energy)
The project has benefited from a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, and $80 million in new private equity financing bringing its total assets to $615 million. Additional investors include Chevron Technology Ventures and PB Ventures.
It is interesting that oil industry players divert a significant amount of their own resources lobbying Congress to protect the current dependence on fossil fuel, while also diversifying their own portfolio to include renewable and alternative energy.
Perhaps one of the most exciting solar projects is the Sonoran West project in Riverside County recently approved by California Edison. Exciting because the project will harvest solar energy, and store that energy for use when the sun does not shine.
The system "is expected to produce 733,000 MWh a year, will have a two-tank molten salt system. Super-heated salt is kept in one tank, cooler salt in the other. To store energy, steam generated in the solar power tower is used to heat salt, which is stored in the first tank. When power is needed (and the sun isn't shining), the hot salt passes through a heat exchanger to the second tank, leaving behind the steam to run a generator."
The ability to store solar power once captured on a large scale will allow power plants to shift to solar as a main source of power. Up to now solar has only been capable of supplementing other types of power because solar energy was only available during daylight.
What is holding things back?
Every other energy industry has received substantive government subsidies and tax breaks in order to nurture its development. Even though those industries are mature global players the subsidies and tax breaks are still in place for coal, oil, gas and nuclear. According to the Environmental Law Institute between 2002-2008 the fossil fuel industry received approximately $72 Billion in subsidies, "representing a direct cost to taxpayers." In the same time period renewable energy received $29 billion in subsidies. "The largest subsidies to fossil fuels were written into the U.S. Tax Code as permanent provisions. By comparison, many subsidies for renewables are time-limited initiatives implemented through energy bills, with expiration dates that limit their usefulness to the renewables industry."
Given how much Federal support there is for fossil fuel and how little for renewable energy it is remarkable that the "green" energy industry is growing at all. What would be possible if we shifted the scale of support for fossil fuel to renewable energy?