H2 View understands Heliogen has created the world’s first technology that can commercially replace fossil fuels with carbon-free ultra-high temperature heat from the sun, taking a major step towards solving climate change. I’ve heard your technology be described as “one enormous, very accurate magnifying glass”. How does your technology work?
Steve Schell (SS): At Heliogen, we are creating an innovative, next-generation form of concentrated solar thermal (CST) technology in the category of ‘central receiver systems’. In a central receiver CST system, sunlight is collected and concentrated by a large array of ‘heliostats’, or mirrors mounted on two-axis tracking systems allowing them to reflect sunlight to a desired location as the sun moves across the sky. These heliostats will produce highly concentrated sunlight by collectively aiming their reflected beams to a common location at the top of a tower. A device called a ‘solar receiver’ is mounted atop that tower, where the concentrated sunlight is absorbed and will produce high temperatures in a heat transfer medium. That heat can then be used directly, or to produce power, or to drive other thermal processes like production of green hydrogen or synthetic fuels.
Heliogen has innovated in several of these areas. Our AI-enabled heliostat tracking system has the potential to achieve higher accuracy using smaller, lower-cost heliostats, faster construction timelines, and continuous monitoring and feedback on the health and performance of the field. In addition, our solar receivers are designed to operate at higher temperatures than traditional CST, which we expect to result in higher efficiencies and more cost-effective thermal energy storage.
We also understand that Heliogen’s technology can not only replace fossil fuels but also transform sunlight into fuels, such as green hydrogen. Tell us more about your plans for green hydrogen production?
SS: Hydrogen use is forecast to grow from 115 million metric tonnes currently to 500-800 million metric tonnes a year by 2050, accounting for 15-20% of total global energy demand. Hydrogen projects already announced represent over $300bn in spending across the value chain, and McKinsey & Company analysts expect at least $150bn of that spend to be related to hydrogen production.
We held successful trials with Bloom Energy for demonstration scale production of green hydrogen at our Lancaster test facility. These trials combined Heliogen’s proprietary solar thermal technology with Bloom Energy’s proprietary solid oxide, high-temperature electrolyser to produce green hydrogen. By combining these two technologies we aim to solve the cost problem that the hydrogen economy is struggling with so much today.
Heliogen and Bloom demonstrated in a trial that together, we can produce hydrogen significantly more efficiently than traditional low-temperature PEM and alkaline electrolysers. Substituting Heliogen’s solar heat for some of the electricity used during the hydrogen production process significantly reduces production cost since our heat is a much more efficient source of energy than electricity. When combined with our thermal storage and renewable energy solution, we expect to be able to further improve the capital efficiency of the electrolyser by powering it nearly 24/7 – and it is truly green hydrogen since it’s made using sunlight.
In February, we announced an award of an exclusive lease agreement with the US Bureau of Land Management for the Brenda Solar Energy Zone in Arizona, where we plan to develop a site that could be sold to a prospective customer, for the production of up to 20,000 metric tonnes of green hydrogen per year. This site is an ideal location for commercial-scale green hydrogen production due to its ample local water supply and close proximity to key distribution channels.
Why is this technology so important? And what makes it unique?
SS: To decarbonise heavy industry, Heliogen has innovated a new generation of concentrated solar thermal energy production that is modular, AI-powered, and scalable. This way, it can be installed ‘behind-the-meter’ on our customers’ premises to directly avoid their purchase of fossil fuels and enable them to take control of their own energy generation on-site.
Our heliostats can be manufactured efficiently in a factory, at scale, enabling mass production, providing potential for reduced cost to our customers, as well as supporting much more flexibility in the siting of these projects.
In addition, our technology’s modular design allows us to standardise the components to reduce overall costs while also eliminating single points of failure. This modularity allows Heliogen to target the huge industrial market – we are not limited to just the utility-scale market.
Another huge advantage that Heliogen’s technology will provide is low-cost energy storage that is dramatically less expensive than batteries. Because Heliogen can achieve higher temperatures, Heliogen can shrink the footprint and the cost to store thermal energy in solid media, such as rocks, ceramic, or sand, enabling near 24/7 operation, and solving one of the key problems with most renewable energy – intermittency. While most renewables provide power between about 20% and 40% of the time, called the capacity-factor, Heliogen plans to build systems for its customers that provide a capacity factor up to 85% depending on customer preferences. Industrial facilities typically continue running after the sun goes down, and Heliogen’s technology will be able to uniquely support those needs.
Ultimately, Heliogen’s technology will provide meaningful flexibility in scale, in application, and in time of use. For industrial customers, those are the core components of an ideal source of energy.
What industries can use your technology?
SS: Right now, our technology is already recognised as a potential game-changer by many of the world’s largest heavy industrial operators, ranging from energy to mining to steel. We have commercial relationships in various stages with several of these companies including Woodside Energy, Rio Tinto and ArcelorMittal.
The universe of prospective customers includes cement companies, mining companies, steel companies, oil & gas companies, and hundreds of other huge industrial customers who are looking to reduce their carbon emissions and eliminate fossil fuel cost volatility from their planning processes.
Heliogen’s technology is currently being tested in Lancaster, California. Why this location?
SS: There are several reasons why Lancaster was selected as the location for our test facility beyond proximity to our company headquarters in Pasadena. The Antelope Valley has some of the best solar resource available anywhere in the world, so we’re able to test our system with more sunny days, and in a hot desert climate typical of our expected project locations. Importantly, the leadership of the City of Lancaster has been very supportive of renewable energy and cleantech in general and Heliogen in particular.
We understand your test facility comprise 400 heliostats but that a proper Sunlight RefineryTM will be 40,000 heliostats. How will this be scaled up?
SS: In order to scale manufacturing of heliostats, we are setting up our first full-scale manufacturing facility. This state-of-the-art facility will include assembly lines, an expansive test facility, and rapid development centre for the production of heliostats and other components. Located in Long Beach, California, the plant is expected to become operational in the third quarter of 2022.
For the heliostats themselves, it’s a matter of replication of a qualified design. We put prototypes and pilot production heliostats through extensive performance and reliability tests, from freeze/thaw cycling to wind tunnel testing to firing hail balls at the mirrors. This test campaign gives us confidence the heliostat has the potential to continue operating well over its life in the field.
We ensure our control system is capable of controlling a larger field by having it control a field of 40,000 “virtual heliostats” – essentially having one server emulate a large field of heliostats, while another server controls it. In this way, we can confirm that our software is running fast enough to keep up with the control needs for a large field.
We understand that Heliogen’s vision was to make it like farming. Can you tell us more about this?
SS: In order for solar to grow to large enough scale at a cost that’s competitive with fossil fuels, heliostats need to deployed in a highly automated way, similar to how modern farms plant and harvest crops with machinery instead of people. Our technological breakthrough is a platform that is modular, AI-powered and scalable, leveraging inexpensive, readily available materials that can be deployed in the field to generate concentrated solar energy more efficiently, with lower construction and maintenance costs than previous technology. This will enable mass production and rapid learning-curve cost reduction that has not previously been applied to concentrated solar.
What happens if Heliogen’s technology is adopted at scale? What does that global roll-out look like?
SS: The market in renewable energy and more broadly across the energy transition space remains incredibly strong, and our technology is already recognised as a potential game-changer by many of the world’s largest heavy industrial operators.
To reach adoption at scale, we expect our initial projects to be based on building complete ‘turnkey projects’ where we deploy Heliogen technology and equipment ourselves. The project agreement that we just signed in March with Woodside Energy, the largest oil & gas company in Australia, is a good example of that model. As more industrial operators make initial purchases of our technology, we expect demand to grow as a result of the demonstrated benefits. Our goal is for that to lead to replacing more and more of our customers’ existing energy supply with Heliogen’s heat, power and hydrogen products.
In the medium term, once we have engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) partners with an established track record of helping us deploy our technology, we expect to transition towards acting as a supplier of Heliogen’s technology and equipment rather than being responsible for the installation. In the long term, we also expect to use more of a licensing type model, in which we license our patent-protected technology to owner-operators and EPC companies.
This evolution from turnkey projects to equipment sales to licensing is what may enable Heliogen to scale our technology in a very large way and make a big impact on the global energy landscape.
A two-part question to end with. Firstly, we understand that geopolitics was founder Bill Gross’ inspiration for Heliogen. Can you tell us the story behind this inspiration?
SS: Bill was first inspired to transform the energy industry during the oil crisis of the 1970s. As a child, it was surprising to him that turmoil in one part of the world could affect the energy supply for nations thousands of miles away, and that we would go to war to prevent that.
After researching alternative forms of energy, he realised that sunlight is the most evenly distributed natural resource on earth. It made him wonder: what if communities could produce their own energy, renewably, without damaging their environment and without reliance on other countries? Wouldn’t that be one of most impactful transformations in history, simultaneously preventing wars, providing energy to diverse populations, and preventing climate change?
And secondly, with the geopolitics we are seeing today related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and countries highlighting that green hydrogen can displace Russian gas dependency and replace fossil fuels. What role can Heliogen’s technology have here?
SS: Global demand for carbon-free energy is skyrocketing in light of fossil fuel price increases and the volatility of those prices, as well as the growing commitments by companies and countries around the world to reduce their carbon emissions. Our company addresses these critical needs. As fossil fuel prices increase, our offering becomes even more attractive as a way for customers to take control of their own energy generation on-site. We expect to help companies save money by reducing their fuel costs and their reliance on fossil fuels that are notoriously subject to major supply shocks, such as we are witnessing right now.
This article was published in the April issue of H2 View magazine.