eSolar Scores 245MW Solar Deal in SoCal

eSolar, the solar startup backed by and Bill Gross’ Idealab, said today that it’s inked a deal to build a 245 MW solar thermal power plant in the Antelope Valley region of Southern California and sell that solar power to utility Southern California Edison. eSolar expects the plant to be fully operational by 2011. In April, eSolar said it would have a power plant up and running later this year in Southern California (if this is the same one, that’s fast construction!)

There are over a dozen companies building solar thermal plants in California’s deserts; these plants will use lenses and mirrors to concentrate the suns rays to heat liquid and power a steam turbine. But eSolar is trying to differentiate itself by building “modular,” smaller setups that the company says are cheaper and easier to deploy.

eSolar uses smaller heliostats — the mirrors that track the sun’s rays — and says it will use “computing and the technology of mass manufacturing” to make solar scale at a lower cost. eSolar explains that strategy as replacing “expensive steel, concrete and brute force with inexpensive computing power and elegant algorithms.”

Guess the pitch worked, because it convinced Southern California Edison. The utility was likely also reassured by eSolar’s announcement in April that it had raised a whopping $130 million from, Bill Gross’ Idealab, Oak Investment Partners and other investors. eSolar also says it has “secured land rights” in the southwestern U.S. to produce over 1 GW of power.

This is one of the first announcements we’ve heard in quite awhile from Southern California Edison involving solar thermal plants. The utility tells us that it has a solar thermal portfolio that goes back to the 80’s and more recently has a plant deal in the works with Stirling Energy Systems, which it decided on back in 2005. But Southern California Edison is also investing in one of the most ambitious solar rooftop projects to date, promising 250 megawatts of photovoltaic power covering more than two square miles (some 65 million square feet) of Southern California’s commercial building rooftops.

Northern California utility PG&E aso already has several deals in the works with solar thermal startups Solel, BrightSource Energy and Ausra. Heck, PG&E might even build and own its own solar thermal power plants.

Now the next step for the plant that eSolar will build and Southern California Edison will buy power from, is to get approval from the California Public Utilities Commission. Though this will likely happen, we’ve also seen cases where for whatever reason the CPUC doesn’t come through.