Ultra low cost solar panels and lithium ion batteries are remaking how homeowners, businesses and utilities use energy. But dramatically cheaper prices for these technologies in recent years also means that other early innovations once seen as the future are now far less competitive.
The result: A number of one-of-a-kind experimental energy projects that may be the first and last of their kinds. These lonely pioneers show just how rapidly clean energy technology has evolved to leave once promising ideas behind.
Such projects, which in theory can live on generating or storing energy for years, can act as both a cautionary tale, and an inspiration, for the entrepreneurs that seek to follow in their footsteps. They’re like the last living members of a short-lived species that ended up as an evolutionary dead end.
Solar thermal technology was one of the biggest and most highly touted industries to be bypassed partly by the cheaper alternative. On the largest of these plants, thousands of car-sized mirrors reflect sunlight onto skyscraper-sized towers that get so hot and shine so bright, it hurts your eyes to look directly at them.
At the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, companies built a handful of big solar thermal projects in the U.S. Southwest. The most well known of these is Ivanpah, a Hoover Dam-sized plant built outside of Las Vegas on five square miles of the Mojave Desert.
Ivanpah uses 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers to produce enough electricity for 140,000 average American homes. It took more than seven years of development, including over three years of construction, and a $1.6 billion U.S. government loan to get built.
I visited the farm several times during construction as well as on its official launch day in February 2014, when U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz cut a bright blue ribbon and the pop band The Fray hung out (they filmed a video at Ivanpah the year earlier).
But even at its flashy ceremony, the uncertain future of solar thermal technology in the U.S. was one of the big topics of the day. A year and a half later, and with even lower solar panel prices, it’s looking even less promising.
The Solar Energy Industry Association recently called the prospects for new U.S. solar thermal plants in 2016 “bleak” considering the higher costs, the long time lines and the impending reduction of an important federal tax credit. Three big solar thermal projects from major developers have been put on hold indefinitely.
Another type of solar tech that is meeting a similar fate, is called “solar concentrating photovoltaics.” It’s a hybrid technology that uses mirrors and lenses like the solar thermal industry combined with mini solar panels that are highly efficient.
In the Summer of 2012, I visited an experimental solar project in Fremont, Calif. based on this technology . The small farm, built by a startup called GreenVolts, used bright green metal posts to hold up honeycomb-looking square concentrators.
But GreenVolts ended up losing a crucial investor amid a drop in silicon solar panel prices in 2012. Later that year the company, which had raised over $100 million, shut down and sold its assets.
GreenVolts was just one of several companies focused on solar concentrating photovoltics that built a demonstration project or assembly line, and then shut down. Another company, Amonix, built a factory in North Las Vegas in 2011 and then closed it about a year later. The collapse came after Amonix took in $20 million in tax credits and grants, and over $100 million in venture capital funding.
No one can forget the infamous story of Solyndra, the solar panel maker that went bankrupt after getting a $535 million loan backed by the U.S. government. The disaster became a rallying point for Republicans against the Obama administration, and had a freezing effect on both the solar industry and political support of clean energy. But Solyndra was actually just one of these unfortunate companies that got caught up in the drop in silicon solar panel prices.
Solyndra made a solar panel technology using a material called CIGS (for copper indium gallium selenide), which it wrapped into tubes. It was just one of dozens of now defunct startups operating in this niche industry.
I checked out one of Solyndra’s rooftop systems — it probably sold several dozen worldwide mostly to businesses — at the home of one of the company’s Bay Area engineers in 2011. That was likely the first and last home rooftop with Solyndra panels.
Even projects that use traditional silicon solar panels will look quite different in a couple years than they do today. In recent months, a series of massive solar panel farms have started production in California. The biggest among them produce 550 megawatts and 579 megawatts, making them the world’s largest (a large natural gas, nuclear or coal plant can be about 1,000 megawatts).
But projects of that size — spurred by California utilities’ attempts to meet a state clean power mandate — will probably be more rare going forward. In the future, utilities will likely propose solar panel plants that produce closer to tens to a 100 megawatts, because they are far easier to get permitted and approved by regulators.
While energy storage for buildings and the power grid is still an emerging market, low cost lithium ion batteries have started to have a big impact on the clean energy industry. In the same way that cheap solar panels have displaced some of these early solar technologies, lithium ion batteries could push out the earlier forms of energy storage.
Batteries from Asian manufacturing giants like Panasonic, Sony and Samsung are now inexpensive enough and reliable enough to become dominant. For example, utility Duke Energy has been storing the energy from a wind farm in lead acid batteries (the kind used in gas-powered cars) at a site in West Texas. But on Tuesday Duke said it plans to replace those batteries with lithium ion batteries from Samsung.
Companies like Tesla, led by CEO Elon Musk,, along with a dozen startups, are betting big on the trend of low cost lithium ion batteries. Tesla not only uses those batteries in its cars, but the company also says down the road its lithium ion-based grid battery business could even become bigger than its electric car business.
There’s been many creative options for energy storage that never made it out of the demonstration stage. Last year I visited a “big ass battery” on an almond farm about a hundred miles east of San Francisco. The unusual project, which used some hefty state and federal subsidies, stores the energy from solar panels in large tanks filled with iron and salt water.
Energy Cache, another company with unconventional ideas for storing energy, at one time was pushing what it called “gravel on ski lifts.” The company built a tiny pilot project in Irwindale, Calif., which was a system of buckets on a line that picks up gravel at the bottom of a hill, and moves the gravel to the top of the hill. When the process is reversed the gravel is moved back down the hill to power an electrical generator.
It sounded cool and had a fun video. But the company never seemed to move beyond the demo stage, and its founder has now left the company. The startup had raised a bit of money from Bill Gates and internet investor Bill Gross.
All industries have these types of cycles during which technology matures, and winners and losers emerge. The early dot-com industry was littered with ideas that seemed good at the time, but utterly failed like Pets.com and Kozmo.com.
But what’s unusual about these orphaned energy projects is that once they’re built they can operate as advertised for years. It doesn’t matter that they’re too expensive too mass produce. The “big ass battery” on the almond farm, for example, could theoretically work just fine for a long while as the sole example of this technology. If they’re storing usable electrons there’s no reason to dismantle them.
Such lonely projects provide both inspiration and caution to the energy entrepreneurs and developers that come after them. They’re a flawed species that doesn’t survive the harsh realities of evolution. And there’s something that’s both beautiful — in the creativity and the willingness to take a risk — and also quite tragic in the shattered dreams and lost promises.
Oftentimes, for companies that build experimental clean energy plants, the question isn’t whether the tech works. The question is whether the company create the technology cheap enough to make these systems at a mass scale.
For silicon-based solar panels and lithium ion batteries it appears to be a resounding yes. But for many other new energy technologies, it’s unfortunately no.
Listing failed energy technologies of the past shouldn’t necessarily be depressing (unless you’re an investor in one of these firms). It should instead highlight that the people who Bill Gates once described as the crazy energy entrepreneurs are still working hard on breakthroughs in energy tech, or what he call “energy miracles.”