SolarReserve pulls in cash for solar thermal

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The $140 million round will support the development of large-scale power plants using molten salt storage

Santa Monica, Calif.-based SolarReserve is moving forward with its plans for utility-scale solar thermal, announcing today that it raised $140 million in financing.

The company said the new funding will go toward the development of more than 5,000 megawatts of power plants using molten salt storage technology in the U.S. and internationally. Each plant is expected to range in size from 50 MW to 300 MW.

This second round of financing was led by Citi Alternative Investments’ Sustainable Development Investments group and Good Energies, with founding investor US Renewables Group, PCG Clean Energy & Technology Fund, Nimes Capital, and Credit Suisse also participating.

SolarReserve was formed at the beginning of this year by the US Renewables Group to commercialize a concentrated solar thermal system using molten salt for energy storage, which could provide round the clock power availability (see Concentrated solar gets salty).

“It gives the plants using this technology much greater availability in terms of storing the heat and keeping the plant running when the sun isn’t available anymore,” said Michael Ware, managing director at Good Energies.

“It gives the potentional buyer, or the buyer of the power that the plant produces, greater flexibility.”

This is the first solar thermal investment from Good Energies, which has a growing cleantech porfolio including solar photovoltaic, wind, green construction, energy efficiency and battery technology.

Ware said, “We have been evaluating various solar thermal technologies for over two years now.”

Good Energies will take a seat on the board at SolarReserve as part of the investment, with Ware serving as a director.

The SolarReserve technology has a impressive pedigree, developed by the Rocketdyne division of Windsor Locks, Conn.-based Hamilton Sundstrand, which is itself a subsidiary of Hartford, Conn’s United Technologies (NYSE: UTX).

SolarReserve holds the exclusive worldwide license to the molten salt power tower technology and plans to operate the utility-scale projects using equipment manufactured by Rocketdyne.

With a power tower system, a large number of motor-controlled mirrors track the sun and reflect the solar energy onto a central tower receiver, which heats a liquid that can be used to make steam. A steam turbine can then produce electricity.

SolarReserve uses molten salt as the liquid, which gets heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. By using molten salt, a mixture of sodium and potassium nitrate, instead of water or oil, the company said the heat can be stored for use on cloudy days or at night.

The storage technology has already been proven in the U.S. Department of Energy’s now-decommissioned Solar Two project in Barstow, Calif. Covering about 1,200 acres, the project started in the early 1980s as Solar One using water in a direct to steam system. In 1995, the system was expanded and converted to use molten salt, producing 10 MW of power.

SolarReserve hasn’t revealed where it plans to put up its new plants, but said the southwestern U.S. has some of the best high sunlight incidence regions for a project.

“The compay has a very extensive development effort underway,” said Ware. “They have potential prospects in both the U.S. and the EU.”

Project financing isn’t likely to be an issue for the solar startup, although today’s financing announcement comes a day after the global credit crunch took down its latest victims on Wall Street, with the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America.

Ware said his group, which has significant investments in wind power developers, hasn’t experienced any hurdles in its work in the U.S. and in Europe.

“We haven’t seen, up to this point, a large scale development of banks abandoning this market,” he said. “The need for reliable clean energy in this country is not going to go away. We have a constant need for new energy.”

“The lenders are going to understand that.”

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