Thursday, April 19, 2012

SolFocus to Help Mexico Build 1st Big Solar Plant

With its relentless sunshine and open desert spaces, Mexico seems made for solar power.

But even as solar spreads across the world at breakneck speed, it has largely bypassed Mexico. San Diego, just across the border, generates more solar electricity than all the solar systems in Mexico combined.

Now a San Jose company - SolFocus Inc. - plans to help build a large-scale solar power plant near Tecate, along the California border. The project, scheduled to be announced today, will use reflectors to concentrate sunlight on solar cells, increasing the energy output. Its size will rival the massive solar power plants now under construction in California's Mojave Desert.

"The country wants to be sustainable," said Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing and business development for SolFocus. "They currently don't have the best environmental footprint with their energy. They use a lot of oil. But certainly, I think the desire is there."

The power plant will be built in phases, with each phase capable of generating 50 megawatts of electricity. Once complete, the entire plant will cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion and produce up to 450 megawatts.

28 megawatts in 2010

In contrast, all the solar systems installed across Mexico could generate just 28 megawatts of electricity in 2010, according to a global energy review issued last year by oil giant BP. A megawatt is a snapshot figure, roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 750 typical U.S. homes at any given moment.

Northern Mexico has the same intense sunshine as the Mojave, making the area a logical location for solar plants. It also has energy-hungry factories.

"It's ideal," said Daniel Kammen, a UC Berkeley professor who recently spent a year at the World Bank working on renewable energy projects and policy. "And there's a lot of open land. So you would think there would be more solar."

The Mexican government, Kammen said, has recently taken an interest in the technology, particularly after the 2010 international climate change conference in Cancun. But Mexico doesn't have the financial incentives and focused policies that have spurred solar development in the United States, particularly in California.

"Mexico's been relatively aggressive over the last little bit," Kammen said. "But these projects take a while to get going."

SolFocus will supply the plant's technology - panels that use small sets of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells - but won't build the plant.

Construction will be handled by Synergy Technologies, based in Georgia. Mexican real estate development company Grupo Musa will provide the land and will own and operate the plant through a joint venture with Synergy. Grupo Musa also will use most of the electricity generated by the plants' first phase, expected to begin construction later this year.

"There is no doubt that Baja California faces energy challenges, and we are excited that we are able to utilize two of our key resources - abundant land and solar fuel - to enhance the environmental and economic stability of Northern Mexico," said Marcos Sarabia Rodelo, Grupo Musa's director of special projects.

May sell to California

The power plant could eventually sell some of its power to California utilities, which under state law must get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. But that hasn't been decided, Hartsoch said.

"Certainly, that's something to be looked at," she said.

SolFocus also wants to create a factory near the project to supply much of the equipment. The company, which has raised about $200 million in venture funding, currently assembles its modules in China using mirrors and glass from Pennsylvania and solar cells made in Southern California. The company has not decided whether to locate the factory, which would be built and operated by a subcontractor, in the United States or Mexico, Hartsoch said.

Founded in 2005, SolFocus uses a type of solar technology different from the large solar plants that have been operating in Southern California for decades.

Those older plants use mirrors to focus sunlight on liquid-filled tubes. The heated liquid generates steam, which turns turbines to create electricity. Companies such as Oakland's BrightSource Energy have developed new, more refined versions of the same basic technology.

SolFocus modules, however, use a small concave mirror to gather sunlight and aim it at a smaller mirror, which then fires a concentrated beam of light at a solar cell. Packed with modules, a SolFocus panel can convert about 30 percent of the solar energy that falls on it into electricity, according to the company. Typical silicon solar cells convert about 15 to 20 percent of the energy.

Other companies are pursuing their own variations of "concentrating photovoltaic" technology.

Alameda County facility

Cool Earth Solar of Livermore is developing a 146-acre solar facility on the eastern edge of Alameda County, using solar collectors that look like reflective balloons. Last year, concentrating photovoltaic troughs made by Skyline Solar of Mountain View were chosen to power a small, 500-kilowatt plant in Durango, Mexico.

All must compete in a global solar industry in which standard, flat silicon panels have plunged in price, cutting the cost advantage that concentrating solar technologies once promised.

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