eSolar Sets Its Sights on Africa

esloar logoSolar thermal developer eSolar is continuing its rush of deal-making, saying today that it’s inked a partnership with a South African-based energy firm to expand sales operations across the sub-Saharan region of the continent. Under terms of the deal, Johannesburg-based Clean Energy Solutions will exclusively represent and distribute eSolar’s concentrating solar power technology across seven African countries, including the Republic of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Clean Energy Solutions will “work closely” with eSolar and operate eSolarSA, a separate entity responsible for project support and client service in southern Africa, according to a press release.

CEO Bill Gross said in a statement that eSolar is now ready to expand its global footprint and further its goal of making solar energy competitive with fossil fuels. Africa’s abundant sun means it’s well-positioned to embrace solar power. The South African government has set the goal of providing 10,000 GWh of electricity from renewable sources by 2013 (although that power could come from technologies other than solar, such as biomass).

Off-grid solar is seen as one of the continent’s strongest options because so much of rural Africa is not yet linked to electric power grids. eSolar’s technology is centralized and utility-scale -– project plans typically range from 46 MW to more than 500 MW per site -– and is therefore meant to be grid-connected.

But eSolar sees a “significant solar market opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa” for grid-connected projects, Paul LaFountaine, eSolar’s vice president for international market development, told us in an email, though he declined to say how large that opportunity might be in terms of installed capacity. He also said there could be off-grid opportunities “long term,” though he didn’t expand on how that would be feasible with multimegawatt installations.  

The idea of solar thermal in Africa got a big boost in July when 12 major corporations including Munich Re, Deutsche Bank (s DB) and Siemens (s SI) established the DESERTEC initiative. The initiative promotes a sweeping, 40-year, $560 billion plan to build solar thermal plants in Northern Africa that could provide around 15 percent of Europe’s electricity needs and a substantial portion of the power needs of producer countries.

Though some have called the plan a “fantasy,” eSolar’s new beachhead in Africa, albeit in the south and not the north of the continent, could help the company get a piece of that very large DESERTEC pie, if it ever materializes. LaFountaine told us that eSolar considers DESERTEC a “North Africa/Europe long-term opportunity” and that the company “remains interested in it if it develops as envisioned.”  

Friday’s announcement marks the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup’s latest effort to expand abroad. In March, India’s Acme Group made a $30 million equity investment in eSolar in return for exclusive development rights to build up to 1 GW of solar thermal power in India over the next 10 years. eSolar’s systems use sun-tracking heliostats to reflect solar heat to a thermal receiver mounted atop a central power tower, which converts the heat into power. The company says it combines low-impact, pre-fabricated design with computer software to provide low-cost solar electricity.

The startup, which has raised $130 million in venture capital from, Idealab and other investors, has also been cutting deals here in the U.S. In April, New Jersey-based energy firm NRG (s NRG) made a $10 million investment in eSolar in return for equity, development rights and a portfolio of power purchase agreements at three project sites in California and the Southwest. NRG plans to develop up to 500 MW of solar thermal plants using eSolar technology, with the first plant expected to be online by 2011.

But as promising as eSolar’s technology appears, the company is still short on projects that prove it can deliver. Its only facility is a 5 MW demonstration plant that went online earlier this year in Lancaster, Calif., that’s producing electricity for sale to the utility Southern California Edison.