The Googlization of solar

Walking through BrightSource’s solar project in a desert in Israel, you can hear the persistent sound of tiny chirps emanating from the more than 1,600 mirrors sticking out of the ground. The chirps aren’t coming from critters that have moved into the solar farm, but the noises are emanating from the gearboxes on the bases of those hundreds of mirrors, which are re-shifting very slightly every few seconds. Using sophisticated software, BrightSource uses real-time data about the location of the sun, the wind speed, the dust levels, and other info to constantly tweak the mirrors to ensure the solar generation from the site is as efficient as possible.

BrightSource Senior Director of Corporate Communications Keely Wachs regaled the chirping story to me recently while I was on a tour of another BrightSource solar project in California. Call the trend the Googlization (s goog) of solar, or the way that software, big data, and wireless networks will help remake the modern energy infrastructure.

Evidence of BrightSource’s use of software and IT to design and build its flagship solar project, Ivanpah, in California, was very evident during my tour last month, too. Workers doing surveyor work on the Ivanpah site showed me how they use Trimble GPS navigation devices to collect data about soil, location and depth, and to make sure that important construction points — from transmission connections, to the bases of steel beams that will hold up 400-foot central boilers — are built in the necessary positions. When the three 400-foot tall central boilers are built at Ivanpah in the midst of the thousands of mirrors on the site, software will make sure the mirrors are positioned in such a way as to evenly spread the heat from the sun’s rays across the towers’ receivers.

BrightSource isn’t the only so-called solar thermal company — tech that uses the sun’s heat to generate electricity, instead of solar panels — to rely heavily on software. eSolar, a BrightSource competitor, designs its small mirrors and licenses software to manage those mirrors using its own brand of algorithms. eSolar’s engineers have put up videos on YouTube of some of the more novel things its software can get the mirrors to do, like spell out Happy Birthday for a company exec.

Clean power software

Bechtel exec Terry Copeland explains the layout of Ivanpah

Getting clean power from these types of massive utility-scale solar farms to the residences and businesses that will use them, will require another set of IT that makes the power grid a lot smarter. As David Crane, CEO and president of NRG Energy (s nrg) and Eric Dresselhuys, EVP and CMO of Silver Spring Networks, explained at our Green:Net 2011 event earlier this year, the future of the power grid will rely on using the digital intelligence of the smart grid to incorporate a growing amount of clean energy. Utilities will need smarter distribution and transmission systems to make sure their power grids can handle an influx of variable clean power (electricity that only flows when the sun shines).

It’s been fashionable lately for venture capitalists and young startups to focus more on solar software and services, rather than on starting new businesses in solar manufacturing. The bankruptcy of three solar manufacturing companies (Solyndra, SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar) in recent weeks points to the value in the software and services approach over manufacturing. The encroachment of huge conglomerates, combined with the rapid growth of the Chinese solar companies in recent years, has made solar a commodity and new solar manufacturing an unsustainable business.

Then there’s the ability of software and the web to create the ecosystem around the solar buyer and the installer. Clean Power Finance, a solar software and financing startup, recently raised $25 million from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufiled & Byers, Claremont Creek Ventures, Clean Pacific Ventures, Sand Hill Angels and angel investor and co-founder Gary Kremen. Clean Power Finance says its software was used by 40 percent of U.S. residential solar systems in 2010.