News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

CEO of CA-Based Solar Company Brightsource Steps Down

John Woolard, left, speaks at the 2009 National Clean Energy Summit | Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

BrightSource Energy's CEO John Woolard is leaving the company after several months of discussion, according to a report Thursday in the San Jose Mercury News. The Oakland-based concentrating solar firm is building the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station a few miles from the Mojave National Preserve, and hopes to have its Palen Solar project approved by the California Energy Commission sometime this year.

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Woolard has helmed BrightSource for the last seven years. Before that, he worked with the Silicon Valley greentech investment group VantagePoint Venture Partners, which owns a significant amount of BrightSource.

Woolard will stay on BrightSource's Board of Directors, he told Mercury News reporter Dana Hull. "Seven years is a fairly long time," Woolard told Hull. "I've thought a lot about this. To me, getting Ivanpah done and up and running, and building the whole company up and creating a platform to grow from was cycle one. When I looked at the next cycle, there's a big commitment and a lot to do, and I've got little kids."

The announcement comes -- and the search for a replacement begins -- after a year of retrenchment and altered goals for BrightSource. The firm, which started construction of its concentrating solar power tower plant in the Ivanpah Valley in 2011 amid much fanfare, canceled a much-hyped Initial Public Offering in April 2012, citing unfriendly market conditions. Those conditions were essentially that plummeting prices for photovoltaic made it hard for solar thermal companies to compete: several actually went under as a result.

In January, BrightSource stopped work on a proposed 500-megawatt project at Rio Mesa south of Blythe, and did the same with Rio Mesa's twin up in Inyo County at Hidden Hills in April. Each project was plagued with criticism. Rio Mesa's potential impact on a world-class fossil deposit and the other massive impacts the plant would have had on its desert surroundings came under fire.

It was at Hidden Hills that the most potentially devastating criticisms were aired, regarding the effect BrightSource's proprietary technology would have on birds.

As Hidden Hills folded its tent in early April, rumors started circulating of shakeups in BrightSource's Oakland office, including departures in both media relations and legal departments. Some observers note the difference between BrightSource's approach to Ivanpah, which it's building, and the proposed Palen project, which the company would build in cooperation with industry giant Abengoa. In effect, BrightSource will be licensing its technology rather than building the plant itself.

The company is also building a solar plant in Israel in a partnership with the French firm Alstom. That plant will be about a third the size of Ivanpah.

Whether this apparent lowering of corporate expectations is the result of deep thinking among BrightSource's executives or an attempt to make do with less capital isn't obvious. In a post on BrightSource's blog, Woolard and BrightSource's Executive Chairman David Ramm spun it happily:

As our technology is validated at increasingly greater scale, BrightSource is evolving from being a U.S. project developer to becoming a global technology provider that also offers development support as well as engineering and operational services. The strategic development partnerships we have formed with Alstom and Abengoa further underscore this transition as well as the accelerated adoption of our technology.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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