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Solar Thermal Energy Generation Returns
Heliogen (NYSE:HLGN) is attempting to profit from an area of renewables that has had a few issues over the years: solar thermal. Essentially, mirrors direct light onto a central tower that is full of a high melting point substance, usually molten salt, which then drives steam electricity generation. Benefits over solar panels include the ability for the molten substance to be hot well past sunset to extend the available generation time frame. When combined with energy storage systems, the ability to run constantly is likely, and beneficial for users. This will be the main drawing point for Heliogen clients.
However, some issues regarding the generation capabilities of solar thermal plants have risen from NRG Energy (NRG) and Google’s (GOOG) Ivanpah site. According to MIT Tech Review, the main issue is cost and production inefficiency, which almost led to the location being decommissioned. Utilities PG&E (PCG) and SoCal Edison (EIX) were quite upset when the plant was not up to contracted energy levels by late 2015, a year after initial operation started:
One of the most ambitious solar energy projects on the planet is in trouble. The $2.2 billion Ivanpah concentrated solar power facility in California has fallen well short of its expected power output and now has a year to get itself back on track, or it risks being forced to shut down.
Built with great fanfare by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google, Ivanpah has been dogged by criticism from environmentalists since construction began. The plant uses thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy and heat water to produce steam and generate electricity. But since it came online in 2014, the power it produces has been much more expensive than electricity from solar plants that get their energy from photovoltaic cells, to say nothing of power from natural gas.
Since then, new solar thermal projects have been few and far between, especially due to falling prices of photovoltaics. While it is noble for Heliogen to step up to the plate and bat for this potentially useful application, especially in smaller-than-utility applications, I am unsure whether the financial outcome will be satisfactory. However, let’s take a look at the Heliogen platform so far.
Importantly, Heliogen is looking to reduce the cost of concentrated solar technology by using smaller, more efficient applications. In particular, the company looks to drive growth in three ways. First, by allowing modular deployment in various industrial regions, the company has the ability to transmit superheated liquid to neighboring industrial companies for their own usage. At the same time, Heliogen can produce their own electricity and supply it to the grid. Lastly, the company will attempt to leverage the growing hydrogen fuel push by using an electrolyzer to create green hydrogen. Then, the company can deliver renewable fuels around the world.
It is good that the company is trying to be nimble and not bogged down by heavy infrastructure developments. However, as the company is in an early stage the relative cost of Heliogen’s products is not available. Thankfully, development is moving along so far, and multiple contracts have initially been announced. I will …….