Solar Power is Better for Heat than Electricity, says GlassPoint

Last Updated Feb 4, 2010 1:12 PM EST

Here's the thing about the sun: when you walk outside, you tend to feel warmth, not a shock of electricity. It just happens that the modern world runs on electricity, so the solar industry has long been focused on figuring out how to convert the sun's heat into electrical current.

But there's also a wide swathe of industry that needs heat in its raw, elemental form -- think of melting steel or making food in a factory. I recently talked to the CEO of a company, GlassPoint Solar, who thinks that he can make solar affordable by moving the sun's heat into industrial processes.

GlassPoint doesn't use solar panels; instead, it does what's called "solar thermal" power, in which mirrors reflect sunlight onto an enclosed liquid. Usually that liquid boils and shoots off to power a turbine, producing electricity. There are plenty of well-known names in the field: Abengoa Solar, BrightSource Energy, eSolar and Solel are just a few.

There are also hybrid models of solar thermal in which heat is produced alongside electricity. But GlassPoint CEO Rod MacGregor says that by just focusing on heat, he can keep the price of solar power down. "You'll find that most solar companies talk about process heat, but if you look at their real focus, it's all in electricity," he says."

The goal is to get solar power cheaper than natural gas, which is what companies burn for their "process heat" today. MacGregor claims to have undercut gas already -- in part because the price swings that the gas market experiences intermittently makes gas quite expensive. In general, businesses hate uncertainty, so MacGregor wants to offer a set price: install his solar plants, and the price is guaranteed for the two or three decades they last.

MacGregor started out intending to make eco-friendly drywall, something that companies like Serious Materials are finding quite lucrative. But he found that the clean power technology his company was developing held more promise than a drywall plant -- by selling power plants to the entire drywall industry, he could potentially make much more.

GlassPoint isn't restricted to drywall, either. The company is also looking to the oil industry to buy some of its plants. Modern oil recovery often involves "steaming" oil reservoirs to loosen the oil. And like other industries, the process heat the use comes from natural gas.

That's a problem, though, because when the price of natural gas spikes, oil fields that are being steamed start losing money. "And you can't stop steaming them," says MacGregor. "If you do, the ground cools and the oil gets trapped."

Chevron invested in solar thermal technology from BrightSource for the same purpose -- though MacGregor claims to have taken a look at their process and determined that it's far more expensive than GlassPoint.

One thing MacGregor claims does add up. The Chevron tech needs to be built on a huge scale to maximize the effectiveness of its mirrors, because mirrors are the expensive component in solar thermal power. MacGregor says his company's core technology is cheap mirrors -- something that Google has also said it's focusing on, in its own solar power endeavors. Another reason for confidence: GlassPoint recently snagged the co-founder of Ausra, another of the most prominent solar thermal companies.

But as always, there's no real way to determine whether a company can back up its claims (below is a company slide with some numbers) until it's in business. MacGregor says GlassPoint will be announcing its first deals with oil companies in the March to April timeframe.