An interview with Dr. David Mills, Chief Scientific Officer and Founder of Ausra:
Dr. David Mills has worked in the alternative energy field for over 30 years. He was born and raised in Canada and educated in Australia. In his University of Sydney lab he developed and licensed the evacuated-tube solar water heater technology, which consists of about 60 percent of the world’s solar collectors and created an advanced double cermet selective absorber coating, which is used in tube receivers by Chinas largest solar company. He also invented or co-invented the Prism solar concentrator (Sol X) and the S evacuated tube reflecting system (Solahart). He’s saved his best for last however, with his pioneering Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) technology, which is what is presently being manufactured for utility-scale thermal solar power.
Solar thermal uses fields of special mirrors to shine the sun’s energy on water-filled piping, which then boils and turns it into steam to run turbines that produce electricity. There is no pollution or use of photovoltaics (solar panels). This technology is literally changing the way our planet will supply its every increasing need for energy free of fossil fuels or dangerous by-products. It provides green jobs, helps stop global warming, is cost effective and can be on the ground running within the next few years. All of North America and Europe’s electrical power needs (day and night) can be generated with this system, by using a desert land area less than 92 by 92 square miles. The parts for solar thermal power plants will soon be available for the world’s leading polluters (China, India, Europe and the U.S.), as well as other continents.
post resumes below image
Ausra’s revolutionary solar field design consists of several mirrors sharing a receiver. This lowers the cost of the mirrors while greatly reducing overall plumbing required.
Dr. Mills and his company (Ausra) have already signed contracts with one of the largest power companies in North America (Pacific Gas & Electric) to deliver 177 megawatts; are building the first U.S. manufacturing plant for solar thermal power systems in Las Vegas, Nevada; and plan on having a pre-commercial demonstration project up and running by the end of this year. One of the other largest utility companies in The States (Florida Power & Light) and its parent (FPL Group), have also taken a close look at Dr. Mills solar thermal technology. Their chairman and CEO, Lewis Hay, states, “As the operator of the largest solar energy facility in the world, we view this breakthrough technology as a promising option.”
I recently interviewed Dr. Mills at Ausra’s headquarters in Northern California. He shared some of his thoughts and insights about the environment, our energy needs and the quickest way to transform our fossil fuel economy to a solar and all-electric society.
Gabriel Constans (GC): It appears that the technology you are using at your present and future power plants can literally change the world and the way it obtains its energy needs. Do you realize that you are someone who, in many respects, could be seen as one of the great scientists and innovators of the century?
Dr. David Mills (DM): This kind of technology will certainly change how we produce and generate energy. This technology can be the big gorilla of generating energy. Presuming the electrified auto sector, it will soon be electricity and oil, not the other way around. There are already 3 battery companies that have batteries which can recharge electric car batteries in minutes. If you put that together with generating technology which is readily available on the grid, you have the ingredients to say we don’t need oil anymore, we don’t have to import oil.
GC: Is there enough private, organizational and government interest to adopt this technology?
DM: These things are world changing in many ways. The common term would be disruptive technology. It isn’t necessarily that way, in a negative fashion, but it does change things. It is positive disruption, though there will be winners and losers. If you look at the rail traffic in the U.S., 80% of it involves carrying fuel. If you don’t need it to carry fuel anymore, than you’re going to have to re-evaluate that industry. On the other hand, if you look at glass (used for solar reflecting mirrors, parts and tubing), it will probably double or triple that industry. Steel will stay about the same, but turbine production will be bigger than ever. There will be a lot of impacts on the economy, but in the end, in terms of employment and energy efficiency, the economy will be a superior economy.
GC: At what point are you in the process? When will you figuratively turn on the switch?
DM: We have developed a proprietary system to store energy. We’ll be developing and demonstrating this storage unit at a pre-commercial test facility in California this year. We anticipate that we’ll have energy storage commercialized by 2010. Having a turbine built and delivered is presently between 2-3 years. It’s the turbines which may cause some delay, not the know-how or technology. Similar companies, (such as Sterling) are facing the same issue. What convinces people is a plant on the ground. One can wave their arms around a lot at conferences, but the real deal is to have it working, having it connected to utilities and having it operating reliably. At that point people will get it.
|Dr. David Mills|
GC: How is thermal solar technology being accepted in the rest of the world?
DM: The entire field is going to progress very quickly. The greatest development is taking place right now, especially in the U.S. In Europe that isn’t so much the case. They set up a system called “feed in law” which is giving a comfortable amount of income to companies. They could continue to take the old designs and run with it for security. Here (in the U.S.) the market is tougher and more competitive, which means costs are kept down, so were seeing real development going on here. In my opinon, they aren’t lowering the feed in laws fast enough in Europe. For it to work around the world, you have to set up parallel corporations that can be competing in markets using these technologies. There are already other companies in the U.S., as well as other countries and companies that are interested. This will happen, but to manage this great of growth is going to be a serious challenge. There are many places that need electricity for social betterment, but social betterment is not the same thing as environmental rescue. They both have to be done. It’s a matter of prioritization.
GC: How did this all come about?
DM: I came up with this design and system independently, but once I did research I discovered that at least 2 other groups had attempted to go down this path before. One in the 1960′s built a small unit, including an Italian that built one in Southern France and another in the U.S. that tried but didn’t get very far with funding. We basically resurrected the idea. Other companies that are doing similar projects descended from us in one way or another. They’re all people that were involved with us or came in contact with us.
GC: What will it take to get power from companies using solar thermal technology to the public?
DM: We don’t have to put in an entirely new infrastructure for this technology, in the short term. In about 10 years you’ll get to the point were you need new power lines and new cross-continental low-loss DC lines to get that power to heavy population centers, like in the North East. People are going to have to get used to the idea that just like we have a trans-continental highway system, we need a trans-continental transmission system. Similar discussions are going on in Europe, such as the transmission of power from North Africa into Europe. We can build these things very quickly. What is generally the limitation is the present infrastructure, which people tend to like to run until it dies. Most of the existing plants will be gone in 40 years. If we decide on a Marshall Plan for energy, it’s possible to have it completed in 25 years. It would have to be global and would be the biggest thing ever. It would be an infrastructure that benefits everyone all the time. No matter what happens, its going to be a profitable exercise for people.
GC: Aren’t people reluctant to trust large corporations and power companies? Isn’t that why there has been such a push over the last 20 years for people to be independent and to have individual sources of energy for their own home or business?
DM: People sometimes confuse their dream of autonomy and independence from utility payments with the desire to be free of entanglements. The fact is, our economy involves a lot of people, a lot of transport, there is a lot of industry and community activity that goes on. It isn’t just an individual home owner off by themselves. The home is not the major part of electricity consumption or source of pollution. We shouldn’t be afraid of a utility scenario. From a practical point of view, it’s easier to put in a number of large plants very quickly, compared to convincing everyone individually that this is a good idea. In the end, both kinds of societies are possible, but I think this one can go much more quickly. It’s not to say the small scale won’t work, it’s simply a matter of time. Right now, we can change the amount of green electrons flowing through everyone’s circuits instead of a few. The source will be different, though the electricity is the same and we don’t have to change a lot of infrastructure. People shouldn’t be afraid of the large utility companies just because they’re large.
It only takes about 92 miles by 92 miles of a solar thermal plant to fulfill the energy requirements for North America and Europe. That’s not big. That’s smaller than a mining footprint for coal. It’s a benign system. People living next to this type of technology don’t mind them. We’re finding its more acceptable than wind power. Thermal solar power already exists. We can also store the energy created, so it carries us throughout the year and in all kinds of weather. It’s possible here and now and throughout the world.