Amid last week's crowded halls at Intersolar in San Francisco, a handful of companies were noticeable by their absence.
A track devoted to concentrating solar technologies such as CPV and CSP featured Areva, which carved itself a niche in steam augmentation for existing fossil plants, but failed to attract BrightSource and SolarReserve.
Kevin Smith, SolarReserve's chief executive, gave me a simple explanation this week as to why the CSP company didn't set out its stall either in Intersolar's expo halls or on its conference panels.
"The PV side of the business is much bigger and there are a whole lot more players. On the CSP side there are probably only four or five significant players. We get dwarfed when you throw us in with the PV side of the business because there are so many suppliers, in fact too many PV suppliers.”
Last month's CSP conference at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas was well-attended, said Smith.
SolarReserve's flagship Crescent Dunes project was first to close on its Department of Energy loan after Solyndra collapsed last year. The 110MW project in Tonopah, Nevada, broke ground last autumn and should be producing up to 500,000MWh annually under a 25-year power purchase agreement with Nevada's largest electric power utility, NV Energy.
Unlike other CSP technologies, SolarReserve opted for molten salt with storage capacity rather than water to generate steam at a plant that would also require input from natural gas. Other companies have been left playing catch up, said Smith.
"BrightSource doesn't expect to have any projects under construction with storage for several years," he said. "They've got a ways to go before they develop their solutions because their initial strategy was not to include any storage."
From the outset, Smith said that as veterans of the conventional energy industry, SolarReserve's executives aimed at developing power stations that could compete with fossil fuel plants. SolarReserve's founding partner, the US Renewables Group private equity firm, was also keen to find storage solutions to solar's intermittency.
"The key for us was not can we compete with PV or wind? It's how we compete with conventional generation. How do we look like a coal or natural gas plant?
The only way you can do that with renewables is with storage."
But Smith admitted that they weren't yet at parity with conventional electricity generation of US$0.8 to US$0.10/kwh.
Despite the collapse of PV prices and low natural gas prices, SolarReserve's projects would be able to compete with conventional electricity, especially in the peak hours when energy demand for AC in sunbelt states like Nevada goes through the roof.
Other projects, such as Solar Millennium's Blythe project, [link] feted as the world's largest solar plant, hit the buffers despite attracting shovel-ready US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and California’s Governor Jerry Brown to its ground-breaking ceremony.
But its parabolic trough technology, although well proven, could not produce electricity at competitive rates, said Smith and the company controversially switched to PV.
Solar Trust of America held the development rights, but filed for bankruptcy after its German parent company, Solar Millennium ran into trouble.
Solar Millennium turned down a US$2.1bn loan guarantee last year and more. NextEra Energy bid US$50 million for the 1,000MW Blythe project and BrightSource offered US$10 million for a second Solar Trust project in the California desert, called Palen.
Smith said that the trough technology favoured by Solar Millennium would probably be ditched in favour of tower CSP technology. But that will take time to re-apply for permits from California Energy Commission; a process that normally takes around 18 months.
As with Ivanpah, Crescent Dunes would probably not have been built without the DoE's 1705 loans programme, which awarded it US$737m. SolarReserve, contractor ACF Cobra and Banco Santander chipped in an additional US$250m in equity.
But Smith is bullish on the success so far of 1705-funded projects and companies.
The hit rate on the DoE loans has been phenomenally good – around 98% plus. The only failures have been Solyndra, Abound and Beacon Power.
He said that when Congress approved the US$34.7bn loans programme, it factored in about US$3.5bn of failures.
"If your bank releases 1,000 mortgages, they're assuming that some of those mortgages aren't going to survive. So a bank would expect a certain failure rate on mortgages.
"It really bothers me when people say of the loans programme that they should let the PE guys pick winners and losers. PE hit rate is probably 20%-30%. You get your Googles and your Facebooks, but there's a thousand other failures."
But after a year that saw the conversion of half of the 3,000MW pipeline of CSP convert to PV, including 500MW of the Blythe project, the technology struggles against the low prices of PV in the US.
BrightSource and SolarReserve are expanding overseas to look for new opportunities as CSP in the US runs out of steam.
"The last 12 months has seen a slow down in US renewable energy policy. In the election period policy issues are frozen and expiring. We have a 150MW power contract with PG&E starting construction in mid 2013 and a number of other projects under development in the SW – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah. But in reality the US market is going to be fairly slow until we get past the elections and know what the future policy is going to be.
We've ramped up our activities several years ago in international markets – South Africa, the Middle East, China and Australia."
Meanwhile, Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing and business development, SolFocus, gave me a tour of the company's gleaming HCPV panels with Spectrolab's germanium cells.
But this is a technology destined for sunbelt territory only as it tolerates high temperatures as much as it's intolerant of clouds.
SolFocus has deployed more than 9MW on six continents in 13 countries and Hartsoch said that the company is on the verge of deciding where to locate its next production facility – the US or Mexico. It's a tough choice if Mexico also offers the company an easy market to deploy into. But Hartsoch insisted that if the US government helped create similar market opportunities, the location would be a no-brainer and points to greater efficiencies of 50% (see image 3) and cost reductions to US$1.20/w (see image 4) by 2020 as the keys to unlocking this particular niche within solar.
Global CPV sales are predicted to reach 1400MW in 2015 (see image 2) and Lux Research's report this January predicted HCPV would start making a bigger footprint in the solar industry, growing to 697MW in five years in a market worth US$1.6 billion.
SolFocus technology is cool. It's used in space, right? It concentrates sunlight 650 times onto its cells and has exactly the shiny gadget quality beloved by VCs at the peak of solar investment in 2008. SolFocus has received some US$200m of venture backing since it was founded in 2005.
However you slice the stats, it's going to be lean times ahead for any technology but polycrystalline silicon PV panels. Republicans complain that the DoE's loan programme should not be picking winners in technology, but letting the market decide. Well, the market has decided and the winners even in the US and European markets have been picked by the government… not in Washington but Beijing.