Moore’s Law, Not More Steel

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Bill Gross likes to say that they use Moore’s law, not more steel at eSolar’s solar-thermal plants:

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

Gross made his fortune with a Google-esque search advertising firm called, which Yahoo bought for $1.6 billion in 2003, and he’s applying some things he learned there to solar power:

The biggest lesson that we brought was — I don’t know if it was a lesson, but it was a philosophy — which is Internet-enable everything and put monitoring into everything.

So we have a microprocessor in every mirror and we have statistics second-by-second on the status, position, reliability, pointing accuracy — everything — of every single mirror. We structured ourselves almost like an Internet company from the beginning to have logs of everything — every revolution of the turbine, every control from the control room, every Web cam image captured — so we could do data mining and data analysis on everything.

We want the ability to make software upgrades and impact every power plant around the world. That’s probably one of the biggest differences between our technology and all other solar technology. If you [have] a big field of [photovoltaic] panels, those PV panels are there for 25 years. They’ll have that same performance, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.

We can make a software upgrade and every power plant in the world can suddenly put out 3 percent more power potentially. And we found already a If we want to renewably power this planet, it’s going to take a lot of capital.” number of software improvements that we can make even over the past six months, which significantly boosts performance of an already-constructed power plant. There’s new improvements we can make to the actual hardware, too, but even without changing the hardware there are software changes that can make more power, so we’re really excited about that.

Renewable energy requires a lot of capital:

When you make a coal plant you still have to pay for the [capital expenditure] upfront, even though it’s going to make power for 20 years. But for a coal plant the [capital expenditure] is only about 20 percent of the lifetime cost of the plant because most of the cost of the plant — 80 percent — is the cost of coal over 20 years.

For renewable energy, about 80 percent, maybe 90 percent, of the cost is upfront and there’s no fuel costs and the only cost over the years is operation and maintenance, which is small. The biggest bottleneck is that these things cost big dollars, and you’re limited how fast you can grow by how much money you can raise to build plants.

This demonstration doesn’t speak to the economics of solar-thermal energy, but it’s certainly impressive nonetheless:

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

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