San Francisco Chronicle - 29 Dec 09

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 5 Dec 09)

Bechtel to Build Solar Plants for BrightSource

By David R. Baker
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bechtel and BrightSource Energy plan solar plants like this in Southern California's Mojave Desert. - Photo: Eilon Paz Studio EPP /

Bechtel Corp., a San Francisco engineering company long associated with nuclear power and fossil fuels, will build big solar plants in the Mojave Desert for BrightSource Energy, one of the renewable-power industry's rising stars.

Bechtel also will invest some of its own money in the solar power plants, the two companies will announce today. The companies are keeping financial details of the deal confidential.

On the surface, Bechtel and BrightSource may seem an odd fit.

Bechtel, founded more than a century ago, has a long history of building power plants that run on coal, natural gas or nuclear energy - the kinds of energy sources that many renewable power advocates want to replace. BrightSource, based in Oakland and just 3 years old, designs power plants that use vast fields of mirrors to capture sunlight and generate electricity.

But Bechtel also worked on some of the world's first large-scale solar plants, including several in Southern California developed in the 1980s by one of BrightSource's founders. And Bechtel's reputation will help BrightSource lock up the financing needed to build its power plants.

"Our experience with Bechtel is that they have been a tremendous engineering company, with great engineers," said John Woolard, chief executive officer of BrightSource. "When Bechtel signs up for a project, they deliver."

At the same time, Bechtel will secure a piece of what could be a booming business - the construction of large renewable power facilities. California law requires that the state's utilities dramatically increase their use of renewable energy, and national requirements may soon follow.

"We've got a 25-plus year history in the renewable energy space," said Ian Copeland, president of Bechtel's Renewables and New Technology business unit, created last year to tap this growing market. He noted that many studies suggest that by 2030, the world will need roughly double the amount of energy it uses today, even as governments try to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning fossil fuels.

"That, we believe, will drive a significant increase in the amount of renewable power that comes online in the next 30 years," Copeland said.

Bechtel will manage the engineering and construction of three solar power plants that BrightSource plans to build in Southern California, at the Ivanpah dry lakebed in San Bernardino County. Together, the three plants will generate 440 megawatts of electricity when running at full capacity, with each megawatt capable of powering 750 homes at any one moment. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison have agreed to buy the electricity.

This model shows the Ivanpah solar complex that BrightSource and Bechtel will build in San Bernadino County. PG&E willl buy some of the plant's power. - Photo:

BrightSource's plants will use fields of mirrors to focus sunlight on towers filled with water. The intense light will boil the water, creating steam that will turn a turbine and generate electricity.

If the company secures the necessary government permits, construction should begin early next year, with the first plant starting operation in 2012.

The Bechtel-BrightSource deal has a certain irony to it. Bechtel has often come under fierce criticism from America's political left, the same people who are most adamant about weaning the country off of fossil fuels. For example, demonstrators descended on Bechtel's Beale Street headquarters several times after the company won government contracts to rebuild power and sewage plants in Iraq, following the 2003 American-led invasion.

Woolard said those political considerations didn't play into his company's choice of Bechtel to build power plants. And Copeland said his company didn't take the job in order to polish its image.

"We don't go out seeking projects that make us look good," Copeland said. "We seek out projects we can add value to."