Out of bankruptcy, Glasspoint still sees a future for solar thermal

The once-failed company is betting there’s still a way forward for solar powered steam.

November 17, 2023
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Photo credit: Glasspoint

Photo credit: Glasspoint

GlassPoint thinks there’s still hope for concentrated solar power. 

The company was once worth $400 million, back when it was peddling solar steam for oil recovery, before going bankrupt in 2020. It was revived last year, though, armed with a new business model that attempts to carve out a new niche for CSP: mining for the energy transition.

The International Energy Agency estimates that industrial process heat consumes around 53% of the total energy used for heat, which itself represents around half of global energy consumption. 

It’s this heat that has been GlassPoint’s focus since 2009, CEO Rod MacGregor said. And, in his experience, it’s the very best use for CSP.

“If you’re making electricity, [photovoltaic] is much cheaper,” he added. “For industrial process heat, CSP is the clear winner, it’s not even close on economics.”

MacGregor said that without storage attached, GlassPoint’s system is about half the cost of a PV system with an electric boiler. But including storage in the system makes solar thermal’s value proposition even more obvious: a GlassPoint system using molten salt storage ends up being around 8% of the total cost of a PV-plus-battery system, MacGregor said. 

GlassPoint’s tanks of hot liquid salt offer up to 18 hours of storage, which means its systems can generate steam night and day, rain or shine. That’s a fairly recent addition to the company’s technology suite, MacGregor said, but one that has already dramatically driven down costs.

Pre-liquidation, Glasspoint’s business model involved selling solar steam equipment to oil and gas customers including Berry Petroleum and Petroleum Development Oman.

But in its reincarnation, GlassPoint is operating on a steam-as-a-service basis, meaning it builds and owns the solar thermal plants, and offers long-term contracts of up to 25 years. 

And armed with this new business model, the company is expanding its potential applications  beyond oil and gas, to the extraction of metals associated with clean energy, including copper, lithium, and aluminum. Those are incredibly energy intensive industries, MacGregor said. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of these high-use refineries in sunny locations around the world. 

A two-year process of engaging with the company’s new target customers in those sunny locales brought GlassPoint to its first partnership in the metals sector: Ma’aden Solar I, a solar heat plant that will produce 14,000 tons of steam per day and 1,500 megawatt thermal hours per year for the Saudi Arabian Mining Company.

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Financing a comeback

The implosion of the solar thermal industry was one that many in the clean energy sector saw coming. A stream of failed CSP companies littered headlines throughout the 2010s, as the cost of PV solar plummeted.

And GlassPoint wasn’t shielded from the industry bust. Planned projects fell through due to financing issues, and shareholders moved to liquidate the company in 2020. 

MacGregor — who was the founding CEO before stepping down in 2017 — then rebooted it, purchasing its name, assets, and patents. Today, he said he is confident that the company’s new positioning creates bankable projects that won’t have trouble attracting investment.

That’s in part because of work happening further upstream, in shoring up supply chains for solar steam production. In October GlassPoint announced a partnership with the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia, to build a solar manufacturing facility that will help supply technology to the forthcoming Ma’aden Solar I plant.

When it comes to proving the market once again, scale is key, MacGregor said. Ma’aden Solar I, when it eventually comes online in 2026, is set to be five times larger than existing solar thermal capacity globally.

“It’s essentially going mainstream,” MacGregor said. “It’s not a pilot, it’s not a little test. It’s a full scale production for a customer.”

GlassPoint’s new niche is not without challenges, though. 

Most significantly, financing is more expensive than it once was. Interest rates are higher now than in solar thermal’s heyday, and despite the scale of the Ma’aden project, solar steam for industry — and in particular for mining — is still a relatively small sector.

The Ma’aden project isn’t yet fully financed, but MacGregor said he’s confident about future investments. 

“We know where the money’s going to come from,” he said, “but we haven’t actually inked any deals yet.” Announcing the final investment decision is “some time out,” he added, but all funding will come from within Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the market for offtake agreements is a bright spot for GlassPoint. While solar thermal might be a small market, the maturity of the offtake agreement market means that GlassPoint is well positioned to get a good financing deal, MacGregor said: the company has a track record and already-installed systems, a construction partner with a fixed-price bid, and a credit worthy partner in the Saudi Arabian government. 

“It’s more expensive than it used to be, of course, but the funding is available,” he added. “There’s probably more green infrastructure dollars chasing projects right now than there are bankable projects that are ready to go.”

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