TR: You’re referring, I think, to the software eSolar developed that allows thousands of mirrors to more precisely reflect sunlight back to a tower.
BG: The software is the differentiation at eSolar. It’s challenging because all those mirrors don’t move the same way. Every mirror is moving slightly differently, bisecting the angle between the tower and the sun all day long. Other solar thermal players have to survey everything very accurately. They figure out where they think the sun should be, where the tower is, and try to bisect the angle of the mirrors mechanically. We are the only ones who have ever actually tracked the exiting beam [of sunlight] from the mirror. That’s hard to do with software, and we’ve patented it. But the reward is that when we place the mirrors, they’re not surveyed at all: we open our shipping container, we unfold our stuff, and we place it in the ground. The guys can be drunk when they place the rows; it really doesn’t matter. Our tolerance is plus or minus a foot.
TR: That’s how you’ll make your solar thermal power cheaper than existing solar thermal?
BG: Processing power is cheap, and in energy, it’s the only thing that’s getting cheaper. All other commodities, long term, are going to go up in price. That’s how we’re going to compete with fossil fuels: just pour software at the problem.
TR: What’s wrong with photovoltaic power?
BG: You’ll never be able to beat coal with photovoltaic technology. The PV cell is not the only expensive part. First Solar, a great PV manufacturer, is down to, like, 90 cents a watt for the actual panel. If they drive that down to zero, it still doesn’t matter, because the cost of skilled labor to install the PV and its low capacity factor will result in price minima [the prices beneath which products or services cannot fall, even as new efficiencies are brought to bear]. And they’re not going to get to zero, because there are expensive materials in there. For us, we will drive the price of power closer and closer to the cost of the glass, but because of our modular design, because we have prefabrication, because we’re running at triple to quadruple the efficiency of PV, they can never touch our price.
TR: Idealab has mostly invested in Internet ventures like GoTo.com. Why eSolar?
BG: I think that maybe eSolar is as disruptive an idea as GoTo. And I would like to think that as GoTo was a $100 billion opportunity for Google, this will turn into a $100 billion opportunity, too.