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Solar-to-salt energy start-up gets $140 million in financing

September 19, 2008 |  4:00 am

From Times staff writer Edward Silver:

Money may be evaporating on Wall Street, but $140 million is on its way into the accounts of a promising Santa Monica-based solar start-up.

SolarReserve, an offshoot of aerospace giant Rocketdyne, tackles the challenge of intermittency -- storing energy when the sun don’t shine.

At the core of the utility-scale solution is a simple substance: salt, specifically a combination of sodium and potassium nitrate. It’s the inventive way the salt is used that prodded venture investors to reach for their checkbooks this week to provide second-round financing for the firm.

Saltshaker_2 In SolarReserve’s blueprint, arrays of specialized mirrors, called heliostats, track the sun’s path and concentrate the heat on receiving towers that turn the salt molten. The salt holds its heat long enough to enable electric power companies to shift their output to peak times or nighttime. That power can fetch a premium price when demand is most intense and coal typically fills the bill.

Chief Executive Terry Murphy plugs the flexibility of the system, a traditional weak spot for renewables: "If you put energy into molten salt, you can store it in an insulated tank and use it on demand. We liken it to pumped solar," he said.

The technique proved itself in the Solar Two test project in the California desert, sponsored by the Department of Energy. Rocketdyne crafted some of the key technology for Solar Two and will equip SolarReserve’s expansive plants.

Rocketdyne, the Canoga Park unit of United Technologies Corp., has a storied history with the space shuttle and Apollo projects, flashing credibility in the minds of its offshoot’s financiers.

SolarReserve sees itself as the commercializer. The firm is studying sunny patches in the U.S. and Europe as potential generation sites. Though utilities just about everywhere are eager to bring more solar online, Murphy sees the Mediterranean region as more fertile ground than California. That’s partly because governments there cut better deals. In this country, the production tax credit is in limbo, and there’s no shortage of permitting hitches in California, he says.

The start-up has plenty of planning and building ahead of it. Murphy’s target for power to the grid is late 2012 or early 2013.

U.S. Renewables Group, SolarReserve’s founding investor, is near the firm on Olympic Boulevard. Other backers include Citi Alternative Investments, Sustainable Development Investments, Good Energies and Credit Suisse.

Photo: Pour it in, power up. Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

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