Obama's Stimulus Keeps the Solar Power Dream Alive for Start-ups

Solar energy company BrightSource Energy, is weathering the recession and hopes to come out on top.

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OAKLAND, CALIF.—When Jack Jenkins-Stark was offered the job of chief financial officer two years ago at BrightSource Energy, a newly formed solar power start-up based here, he hesitated. "I came at it with a very cynical view," says Jenkins-Stark, 58, who had spent more than 20 years at Pacific Gas & Electric, the northern California utility company, before settling into a comfortable job as CFO of Silicon Valley Bank.

There was no doubt, he thought, that BrightSource's technology was promising. Founded by the same technical team that built some of the earliest solar power facilities in the California desert in the 1980s, the company had plans to build a series of sprawling new solar power plants across Southern California. Instead of relying on photovoltaic panels to generate energy or using the sun's rays to heat oil-filled pipes, as the early solar power projects had done, BrightSource was testing a next-generation solar array with thousands of small mirrors installed in a circle around a central tower holding a water-filled boiler. The reflected sunlight heated the water into steam, which turned a turbine. Voilà, sun-powered, utility-scale electricity, all at a price, according to the company, comparable to burning fossil fuels.

It wasn't the technology that made Jenkins-Stark nervous. And it wasn't the looming recession, either, though the slowing economy and the disappearance of credit would soon put the nascent solar industry's very survival at risk. No, for Jenkins-Stark, the problem was political. "I'd seen this movie before," he says. "I've seen everybody up in arms about oil prices; I've seen everybody up in arms over security of supply." And he'd seen the early attempts at building solar power in the California desert falter when the crisis passed and renewables couldn't compete with the falling price of natural gas.

But something about BrightSource's idea and the promise of a head-to-head race with fossil fuels won him over. That and the fast-changing political climate, in which presidential candidates from both parties were publicly throwing their support behind renewable energy. "This time, I really believed it was different," says Jenkins-Stark. "I jumped in with both feet."

As recently as last summer, when solar and wind projects were being feted by policymakers and investors alike, there was no question he had made a good decision. Jenkins-Stark joined a company and an industry that appeared to be on the march. Nearly $5 billion in venture funds poured into clean tech in 2008. And BrightSource, in particular, after raising $160 million from investors ranging from Google to Chevron, seemed to be in all the right places at all the right times. The company found its first customer in PG&E, which, like all California utilities, is required by law to purchase at least 20 percent of its power from renewable-energy producers by next year. The utility agreed to buy 900 megawatts from BrightSource, about one fourth of its total renewable-energy portfolio. Some outsiders questioned the move, claiming solar technology couldn't produce hot-enough steam at a low-enough cost to compete with fossil fuels. But last summer, BrightSource opened a demonstration facility in Israel that showcased its technology. Verified by an independent engineer, it was proof positive utility-scale solar worked.

On the verge. BrightSource seemed to be poised to take the next step. It was only a year away from construction on its first 400-megawatt solar plant, called Ivanpah, near the Nevada border. The new facility would provide enough electricity to power 140,000 homes, nearly doubling the capacity of utility-scale solar power production in the United States.

Then, suddenly, the economy ground to a halt. Lehman Brothers went under, the gears of the financial system locked up, and for much of the solar industry the music stopped. For months, Jenkins-Stark watched investors veer away from his industry, leery of the hefty price tag on new power plants. After years of trying to convince skeptics that their technology was legitimate, start-ups like BrightSource discovered that finding funding now trumped all other concerns. "In September, I would have said it looked like a good tropical storm, where we could ride it out and be fine," says Jenkins-Stark. "Now, it looks like it was a hurricane followed by another hurricane."