Home' Technology Review : March April 2010 Contents Q&A
Bill Gross was famous during the
Internet boom as the founder of
Idealab, an "incubator" that hatched
more than 75 companies. His best-
known investment was GoTo.com,
which created an online marketplace
where advertisers bid for primacy in the
results of Web searches---the innovation,
now called "keyword advertising," that
made Google wildly rich (with the
all-important tweak that sponsored and
algorithmically derived results should be
clearly separated). GoTo.com (which
became Overture Services) was sold to
Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.
Of course, Gross (and Idealab) never
really went away. Among Gross's recent
investments is eSolar, a TR50 startup
of which he is chairman. The company
hopes that with its technology,
solar thermal energy---heat and
electricity generated from sun-
light using mirrors---will cost no
more than coal-generated power.
Jason Pontin, Technology Review's
editor in chief, met with Gross
at the 2010 annual meeting of the World
Economic Forum in Davos, where eSolar
was honored as a Technology Pioneer.
TR: Why did eSolar choose solar thermal
power, which has been little implemented
beyond a handful of utility plants?
Gross: We want to compete with coal.
We looked at all of the renewable technol-
ogies that can be deployed at scale, and
they were all variations of solar thermal.
It has the capacity for scale because all
the materials are readily available: there's
enough steel and glass to power the
planet with solar thermal. Solar thermal's
potential has, so far, been theoretical, but
we're going to try to make it a reality.
Can a veteran dot-com investor make solar power as cheap as coal?
Photograph by DARRIN VANSELOW
But how are you different from estab-
lished solar thermal companies, some of
which are almost 20 years old?
Abengoa [Solar, a Spanish com-
pany founded in 1984] has made many
solar towers, and there have been oth-
ers deployed at scale. But there's been
no disruption [of fossil-fuel-generated
power]. The problem is, there's been too
much civil construction: if you want solar
thermal to disrupt the energy market, you
need its parts to be mass-produced like an
automobile. A 200-meter-tall solar tower
[upon which the mirrors are focused] is a
skyscraper, and it takes a year to build. So
we decided to go with small towers and
small mirrors, all of which can be prefab-
ricated in a factory. We have a two-piece
tower that gets erected in one day. All of
our mirrors, all of our frames, fit in a ship-
ping container, which means you
can make them in China and ship
them anywhere. When your stu
is smaller than a container, you
switch from a few big moving ele-
ments to hundreds of thousands
of small moving elements. That's the
disruptive switch we've made---and that
posed a new challenge.
You re referring, I think, to the software
eSolar developed that allows thousands
of mirrors to more precisely reflect
sunlight back to a tower.
The software is the di erentiation at
eSolar. It's challenging because all those
mirrors don't move the same way. Every
mirror is moving slightly di erently,
bisecting the angle between the tower and
the sun all day long. Other solar thermal
players have to survey everything very
accurately. They figure out where they
think the sun should be, where the tower
is, and try to bisect the angle of the mir-
rors mechanically. We are the only ones
who have ever actually tracked the exiting
beam [of sunlight] from the mirror. That's
hard to do with software, and we've pat-
ented it. But the reward is that when we
place the mirrors, they're not surveyed at
all: we open our shipping container, we
unfold our stu , and we place it in the
ground. The guys can be drunk when they
place the rows; it really doesn't matter.
Our tolerance is plus or minus a foot.
That s how you ll make your solar thermal
power cheaper than existing solar thermal?
Processing power is cheap, and in
energy, it's the only thing that's getting
cheaper. All other commodities, long
term, are going to go up in price. That's
how we're going to compete with fossil
fuels: just pour software at the problem.
What s wrong with photovoltaic power?
You'll never be able to beat coal with
photovoltaic technology. The PV cell is
not the only expensive part. First Solar,
a great PV manufacturer, is down to,
like, 90 cents a watt for the actual panel.
If they drive that down to zero, it still
doesn't matter, because the cost of skilled
labor to install the PV and its low capac-
ity factor will result in price minima
[the prices beneath which products or
services cannot fall, even as new e cien-
cies are brought to bear]. And they're not
going to get to zero, because there are
expensive materials in there. For us, we
will drive the price of power closer and
closer to the cost of the glass, but because
of our modular design, because we have
prefabrication, because we're running at
triple to quadruple the e ciency of PV,
they can never touch our price.
Idealab has mostly invested in Internet
ventures like GoTo.com. Why eSolar?
I think that maybe eSolar is as disrup-
tive an idea as GoTo. And I would like
to think that as GoTo was a $100 billion
opportunity for Google, this will turn
into a $100 billion opportunity, too.
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