Chevron’s Solar Announcement, More Than Hot Air?

By Briannacc
Monday, March 22, 2010

 


The oil giant Chevron has transformed an old refinery site in California into a test bed for seven advanced photovoltaic solar technologies, which the company is evaluating for use at its facilities worldwide.

On Monday, Chevron is unveiling 7,700 solar panels installed on 18 acres in Bakersfield, the capital of California’s oil patch. Called Project Brightfield, the plant will generate 740 kilowatts of electricity to power nearby oil operations.

Any excess electricity will be fed to the power grid.

“We were looking for the next-generation technology that we believe could well be the low-cost solution — not just in terms of panels but in total cost of ownership,” said Des King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, the company’s venture capital and technology development arm. “It’s one of most comprehensive side-by-side tests in shear numbers of panels.”

Mr. King said Chevron collected data on 180 solar companies, visited 38 of them and narrowed the list to 19 before choosing seven finalists.

Six of the companies make thin-film solar panels that deposit or print solar cells on glass or flexible metals. Though less efficient than traditional crystalline photovoltaic technology, thin-film solar panels typically do not use much expensive silicon and can be manufactured at a lower cost.

Chevron has installed panels from Abound Solar of Colorado; MiaSolé, a Silicon Valley start-up; Schüco, a German industrial company; Solar Frontier, a subsidiary of Japan’s Showa Shell Solar; Sharp; and Solibro, a division Q-Cells, a big German solar module maker.

Project Brightfield’s sole crystalline panel maker is Innovalight, a Silicon Valley start-up that has developed a “silicon ink” that it uses to make photovoltaic modules. “We hope this is a boost to new technology providers,” Mr. King said.

For MiaSolé, Brightfield is the start-up’s first commercial project and the company will supply solar panels that will generate about a third of the facility’s electricity.

Chevron will test the technologies for three years and decide which might merit use at the company’s facilities, or by Chevron Energy Solutions, which builds solar power plants and installs solar arrays for commercial customers.

Last month, Chevron announced that it planned to build a one-megawatt concentrating photovoltaic power plant at the tailings site of its molybdenum mine in Questa, N.M. Such photovoltaic panels use mirrors to concentrate the sun on high-efficiency solar cells but have yet to be widely deployed. Concentrix Solar, a German company, will supply the technology.

A Silicon Valley start-up, SolFocus, last week announced the construction of the nation’s first big concentrating photovoltaic power plant in Victorville, Calif.

Chevron has also invested in BrightSource Energy, a solar thermal power plant builder that has contracts to supply 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities. Mr. King said Chevron is not just evaluating the efficiency of the solar technologies but the total cost of their installation and operation.

“During the construction of the site, we timed how long it took to construct the panels and we’ll be looking at the cost of maintaining and operating them,” he said.


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