Google-Funded eSolar project shows signs of Lean Thinking


By Jason Turgeon:

Google made headlines last year when it announced it that it was going to devote a significant chunk of cash to developing renewable energy that was cheaper than coal (the RE eSolar, a small startup that appears to be applying Lean principles to the thorny problem of how to bring the high costs of solar electricity down.)

First, a solar primer. There are two ways to make electricity with solar power. The high-tech way is through solar photovoltaic panels (aka solar PV). These are the panels that Google installed on the roof of its Mountain View campus, and although they turn solar energy directly into electric energy, they're still ridiculously expensive to produce. There's also some concern that the technology used to produce this “clean” power isn't necessarily so clean.

The second method of converting solar power to electricity is to concentrate the rays of the sun using mirrors. These mirrors usually focus on a central tower, which collects the heat and uses it to boil water, which turns a steam turbine to produce electricity. That's pretty much the way a coal-fired power plant works, only without the coal. And although this is cheaper and easier than solar PV, it's still not cost-competitive with coal.

Enter eSolar. The steps they've taken sure sound a lot like Lean. From an excellent article on today, here are some key quotes:

“We can build these units smaller. This lets us build closer to cities. It lets us avoid some of the traditional roadblocks associated with large transmission projects,” Robert Rogan, exec. VP of corporate development at eSolar, told….”And we've got the ability to scale this very rapidly through
our existing manufacturing.”

Hear any Lean concepts in this approach? This also crosses over into Bright Green environmental concepts, because shorter supply lines mean less waste and less infrastructure.

Google has said it believes it needs to get in the range of 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour for solar or other renewables to be competitive with coal….Rogan said his company has been very cost conscious. The company said its heliostat mirrors, designed to track the sun, were made to fit into shipping containers to keep transportation costs low, and are pre-assembled at the factory to minimize on-site labor.

More signs of Lean, although I'd like to see something in this about respect for people.

“Minimizing the shipping costs on the hardware is just one example of that very tightly cost-based approach to designing,” said Rogan….”Our towers are very short. This, again, makes them very easy to assemble on site, faster to install, and ultimately much lower cost than building a 30-story skyscraper,” he said. The company has also cut the amount of steel and concrete used in its systems by keeping the heliostats small and low to the ground, reducing their wind profile.

Again, a nice intersection of Lean and Bright Green. Besides the inherent “greenness” of a solar project, they've figured out how to do more with less.

“Another nice benefit of this pre-fab, modular, scalable approach is that we can incorporate, in the future, all varieties of storage.” “Currently, we're not discussing our specific storage plans, except to say that we don't view it as being a barrier to entering the market,” he said.

This somewhat resembles the flexible workspace approach of Lean. You can read a bit more about the company's lean approach here.

All in all, it's great to see Lean and Green integrated in such a fashion. Hopefully there will be a lot more of this kind of thing coming soon. Happy Earth Day, everyone!

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  1. Happy Earth Day, I guess. I try to “level load” my reduction of waste throughout the year.

    I heard some environmentalist complain this morning that Earth Day was an artificial event and that lots of extra brochures and printed and trees killed to promote the earth. Ironic, huh?

    Anyway…. without going too overboard, I see how Lean fits in with intelligent, reasoned environmentalism. Reducing waste is good for business AND for the environment. Enough said.

    I like your posts, Jason, because you don’t get all preachy on us. Good addition to the blog.

  2. Thanks, Neutron!

    Earth Day definitely has the potential to be more about greenwashing than actual greening, but it does serve the important purpose of keeping the environment in focus for politicians. It also serves as an educational tool, and one thing I’m constantly amazed by is just how little even well-educated people know about our natural world and the health of the planet. The problem, as you pointed out, is that there is a lot of proselytizing and a lot of conflicting info.

    Anyway, I try not to preach, because no one likes to be nagged. Instead, I look for things that businesses and leaders can do that have a direct positive effect on both the planet and the bottom line.


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