Department of Energy’s “Shadow Bank” Loans $1.45 Billion to Solana Project

The DOE’s loan programs office is like a “shadow bank,” its chief officer said recently, funding clean energy where private capital is squeamish. It recently finalized its biggest loan guarantee, at $1.45 billion, for a solar project.


The Department of Energy yesterday announced finalization of a $1.45 billion loan guarantee for a massive solar power project in Arizona. The “Solana” project, from the Spanish multinational corporation Abengoa, will be the first large-scale solar plant (250 megawatts) in the U.S. that can store the energy it produces.

This latest loan guarantee, the largest the DOE has committed to to date, is part of a rash of similar guarantees from the department designed to spur energy innovation. The DOE has issued guarantees or offered conditional commitments for such guarantees in support of 16 clean energy projects. The total amount the DOE would be on the hook for is $16.5 billion. (Of course, the hope is that the DOE won’t have to fork over any of that money, but rather that the projects will prove successful.) Among the supported projects are the world’s largest wind farm and a 2,200-megawatt nuclear plant.

Talking to VentureBeat last week, the DOE’s chief loan officer Jonathan Silver said the Department was like a “shadow bank,” willing to finance areas the private sector remains squeamish about. The idea is to “demonstrate to private capital markets that these projects are indeed viable,” and then bow out, letting that private capital take over, Silver said. Beyond solar, biofuels, energy storage, and carbon capture technologies are also on the loan programs office’s radar.

The Solana project, for its part, will produce enough energy to power 70,000 homes, and it should create some 1,600 construction jobs while the plant goes up. The project demands so many mirrors–over 900,000 of them–that they’re going to build a mirror factory outside Phoenix just for the project. U.S. manufacturers will be furnishing 70% of the necessary components (receiver tubes and heat transfer fluid, on top of mirrors), and the electricity will be sold via Arizona Public Service Company.

On top of the Arizona project, Abengoa has a similar plant in the works in California’s Mojave Desert. Reuters lays out how Solana’s “parabolic trough technology” works. It’s very Rube Goldberg: first, mirrors gather the sun’s energy; that energy then heats fluid; that fluid in turn powers steam generators; those steam generators produce electricity; that electricity is finally stored using a “molten-salt technology” before shooting along the grid to your home.

[Image: Flickr user theregeneration]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.