Brightsource and the search for a reduced carbon powered world

By Eleanor

Supporting the development of the world community and subsequent growing energy needs, while at the same time attempting to minimize the impacts of global climate change caused by fossil fuel consumption is one of the most complex issues of the 21st century. How can emerging nations grow their economies while avoiding the legacy of pollution intensive technologies used by Western nations in their expansion? Our discussion on Brightsource, a unique concentrated solar power (CSP) technology, indicates a focus on low carbon intensive utility scale power is an area for sustainable global growth.

Over the last decade, world energy usage has grown at a rate never before seen in human history. Much of the recent increase has been driven by the industrialization and emergence of China, India and other developing countries onto the world stage as major producers and consumers of global resources. At the same time these overall energy demands are rising, indicators of global climate change suggest that the Earth’s capacity to absorb the greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by burning fossil fuels may soon reach a limit, resulting in catastrophic changes in weather patterns and sea level rise. While 20th century rhetoric around limiting third world growth to alternative and renewable energy sources alienated many developing nations, the rapid growth of emerging economies in the last decade requires a new discussion. If nations are willing to build all types of power to meet unmet demand, how can these opportunities be supplied with the cleanest available power. In other words, how can geothermal, water, wind and solar power be integrated with efficient natural gas plants as the least carbon intensive sources of power. It seems undeniable that intentional integration of high capital and low variable cost renewable power generation with reliable and low initial construct ion and high variable cost traditional power could provide arguably better service due to its complementary cost and power generation profiles.

Brightsource purports to solve two challenges associated with adoption of utility scale renewable power. The first is CSP’s ability to produce power at a megawatt and gigawatt level where economies of scale can be realized and the power can be generated at a price competitive with traditional power. This seems achievable if adopted at scale as the last decade has seen Chinese manufacturing of the more complex photovoltaic panels drive the cost of installed solar power down four fold, after a quarter century of price stagnation. The second problem is the renewable power’s challenges with intermittent generation, addressed by integrating a supporting natural gas generator at the CSP plant itself. Traditionally, renewable power adoption in Western countries has attempted to rely on large-scale power grid integration of myriad sources of traditional and alternative power to smooth power supply. Brightsource may have the ability to demonstrate that price competitive, utility scale renewable power can be a stable supply to power communities without causing disruptions of intermittent supply.

Given that the true magic of Brightsource has been to bring unique software and motor controls to adjust mirror concentration around a carefully delineated optimal boiler target range, it is yet to be seen if this particular technology will be the revolution needed in clean, utility scale power. However, as renewable and alternative power entities adopt best practices of traditional fossil fuel power producers for land acquisition, balance of system power generation, and component production at scale, the forty percent cost reduction sought by CSP producers may be possible. While the branding of Brightsource’s technology integrated with onsite natural gas as a renewable source of power generation is certainly controversial, it will be easy to measure the dramatic reduction in carbon content of the generated power. In the end, it is this carbon reduction in the global power supply that is needed, highlighting carbon intensity as the universal metric to incorporate in incentivizing and building power to supply the international communities driving Earth’s changing climate.

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

2 Responses to “Brightsource and the search for a reduced carbon powered world”

  1. I think that emerging economies can leap frog a lot of technologies (in telecom, Internet, some transportation, etc) that current developed economies had to go through. However, I have struggled to see how they (the emerging economies) can achieve this in the power sector. While, in theory, there are opportunities for countries to invest in more environmentally friendly technologies (solar, wind, etc) in a way that would be economically viable, my fear is that the more established forms of power generation will typically win out.

    Countries in Africa have an opportunity to invest in renewable sources of energy (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5884) but when push comes to shove, and countries are given the option to invest in dirty vs. clean, I think they will pick cheap (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-10/china-coal-energy-to-invest-2-8-billion-to-meet-power-demand.html). The article I reference is focused on China, but considering China’s developmental success, I think that other countries will follow suit given the opportunity.

    While companies like Brightsource can experiment in the US market, I think it would be difficult for them to become mainstream in emerging markets. When given the option, poorer countries will always go with the less expensive option.

  2. I agree that opportunities exist to leapfrog to the technology pathway that developed economies used (i.e. mobile phones vs. landline phone networks)(1). With most of the developing world underpowered and with the problem getting worse in some parts of the world (such as sub-Saharan Africa), I think there is a strong case for distributed generation (2). Using small microgrids, DG could over-come the necessity for large, central capital projects to build out generation, transmission, and distribution. Solar is well-suited for this opportunity

    Climatescope 2014 (an initiative developed by Bloomberg New Energy Finance) studied this issue and found that developing countries are the fastest growing markets for renewable energy, seeing a 143% increase in installed capacity between 2008 and 2013 (3). Even in countries with better grid infrastructure, renewables are increasingly cost competitive. In Jamaica, for example solar is about half as expensive as grid electricity; in Nicaragua wind energy is significantly cheaper than grid electricity (4).

    (1) http://sites.tufts.edu/jennyaker/files/2010/09/aker_mobileafrica.pdf
    (2) http://www.eu-africa-infrastructure-tf.net/attachments/library/aicd-background-paper-6-power-sect-summary-en.pdf
    (3) http://global-climatescope.org/en/
    (4) http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/11/04/3588512/bnef-renewables-developing-countries/

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