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It's been, wow, almost a year, since I last summarized solar concentrator companies for our mutual eco-edification. I started this post yesterday afternoon thinking I'd just have to check out ten or so news articles. Boy was I wrong. For every company I looked at then, there are two more on the radar screen now. Many are based in California, but also other states and across the globe.

You hear all the time that the cost of solar power is going to go down, and if you are like many people find yourself asking "yeah, right, when?" Well, don't let the slow progress fool you. There's a bulge in the garden hose and if you'll follow me past the bump, I hope to give us a better idea of how far we are from the nozzle.

Linky goodness, I promise.

I won't be doing the song and dance about what "concentrated solar PV" is and how it works this time around; see the older diary linked at the top if you are already lost. I'll just say that concentrating solar PV is one branch of the many solar technologies coming down the pipe, along with thin films and big solar thermal. While small solar thermal (hot water heaters) and other pure-heat systems are still the best return per-buck to date for the home owner, electricity will indeed be catching up.

The grid will also be seeing more solar power trickle in, and if you are the sort of person content with having your electricity supply in the hands of a corporation, you'll eventually see a benefit from this as well. In fact the majority of the companies listed here are only selling to utilities, and to businesses with big buildings, big power bills, and big credit lines. Those with ambitions for covering their roofs or lawns with panels, though, will also find some companies hoping to put a concentrator into your very own hands. Power to the people.


The big news this time around is that some of these companies have started to buy large quantities of solar cells. You don't buy solar cells unless you are about ready to start selling product. Many of the companies are producing "high concentration" systems that use cells from either Spectrolab or EMCORE. However, there are quite a few companies that will be using cells that would normally just be shipped in a panel, getting two, three, or more times as much power out of each cell.

While these systems may eventually make a normal solar panel obsolete, the people that make the solar cells will have plenty of places to sell their product, and the people that frame them into panels will likely find work doing similar assembly for many of these concentrator systems. Thin film companies will still be able to sell their panels in areas where there is a lot of cloud cover. Nobody is going to lose out in this market, but the surest winners are EMCORE, Spectrolab, and any other companies that step forward with a competitive cell. (Rumor has it IBM wants in on this action.) Let's look at the companies with big news to report:

Green And Gold Energy (Australia) started as a garage mom-and-pop operation and has slowly refined their design over time, settling on the high concentration triple junction cells. They are using the ones supplied by EMCORE. Recently they have agreed to buy a large quantity of cells. What's especially interesting about this deal is it tells us the price points that the new high-concentration cells are meeting -- under 25 cents per Wp (peak watt). It has long been a goal of the solar industry to push the price below $1/Wp. Now the first company who can put together a tight enough lens and tracker for less than 75 cents per watt peak will be able to do so.

On the low-concentration side, Solaria (CA) not to be confused with the Spanish company by the same name, recently entered into a stunning 3.46 billion dollar multi-year contract to buy cells from Q-cells. The product appears to be a flat optical film low-level concentrator, which will produce a product pretty much equivalent to a conventional solar panel. One wonders if these are Evergreen string ribbon cells, which would seem to match the profile of the device, or cells from one of Q-cells other fabrication processes.

Solfocus (CA, XEROX PARC) had already ordered a lot of cells the last time I diaried. They are working on a 500kW system for the ISFOC program in Spain, which explains where all those solar cells they ordered are going to, and in doing so decided to buy the company which was providing the solar tracker part of the project, Inspira, in the name of "aggressive vertical integration." There was never any doubt this company was a serious venture.

Greenvolts (CA) will be testing a 2.4kW array at the Avista testbed in Rathdrum, Idaho. They have a lot of money in hand, and have finally come out with a web site that lets you see the product, CarouSol. They have penciled a contract to sell 2MW of power to PG&E from a plant they intend to build in Tracy, California. From the looks of the product it appears they will be competing mainly in the utility sector customer base. This is a fast moving company, as it wasn't so long ago they were still just collecting venture capital at industry fares.

This next set of companies could snap into a more volume-ready posture anytime -- it is always hard to predict these things unless the company is issuing regular press releases.

Ammonix (CA) is an unusual company in that they are producing both a high-concentration solar cell, and the concentrator for it. At one point a few years ago they claimed to have nosed out the lead in commodity-level cell efficiency from EMCORE and Spectrolab for a short while. They appear to not have much of a PR department, or are keeping a low profile, as one can find online technical reports from utility companies piloting their systems (in the tens of kWp range) but these tests are not touted by the company. It is hard to determine how much product they have shipped, and where they are headed volume-wise, but this company seems to target the utility market.

Entech (TX) targets small commercial customers as well as working on NASA space applications. They are in the process of being bought by the renewable conglomerate WorldWater and Solar, which has started to engineer a production line for their concentrators.

Another low-concentration system is entering the market from SV-Solar (CA) They use monocrystalline silicon normally shipped directly in non-concentrating panels, bought from ErSol. They are in "early production stages" --it seems they already have the product to the point to be writing installer specifications for it, and pulling in test system orders followed by promises of a larger 10MW order from Conergy at about $3.50/Wp. Recently they merged with NuEdison. It's so nice to see these things happen amiably. These will be things you can actually buy for your house.

Concentrix Solar (Germany) is a new arrival that will be contributing 500kWp to the Castilla-La Mancha facility ongoing construction in Spain.

Next we have those who are not making scale-up noises quite yet, but who are still in a solid position to compete in the near future.

Soliant (CA, f.k.a. Practical Instruments) pulled down a $4m DOE grant in March, but has not announced any volume shipping.

Pacific SolarTech (CA) is likewise hard to find new news for.

Stellaris (MA) is apparently having website problems this weekend, bother.

Prism Solar (NY) have announced a new R&D center and earlier announced successful independent test of their prototype by an agency in Japan. They continue to raise money, but do not seem to be shipping product yet. This looks to be shooting for the residential market.

Some companies are aiming for niche markets:

JXcrystals (WA) is keeping its options open by pursuing both low-level concentrators and thermophotovoltaics for waste heat power recovery. They are leveraging some in-house cell processing capability in both endeavors, and as such are probably targetting customers that need custom attention in industrial projects too specialized to attract the attention of other firms.

Menova Energy (Canada) seems to be taking a unique tack towards the industrial sector. Their product is a hybrid solar PV and solar thermal system, using the waste heat from solar PV for other purposes like heating water, and they are partnering with a company that plans to do CO2 capture algae farming, using that heat to drive the process. They are moving away from residential systems.

Sunengy (Australia) is pursuing rather unusual niche -- concentrating solar arrays that float on bodies of water. They are only in a prototyping stage.

CoolEarth (CA) thinks they can develop a low cost inflatable model that is suspended on wires between polls. They hope to garner a niche market for sites where ground mounting presents too much of an environmental challenge.

Finally we have companies who are hoping to cannonball into the pool with next-generation technology once there are people to splash:

Maxxun (Netherlands) is pursuing a very interesting, and completely different, design for solar concentration. I saw the concept for a while back and just because it was neat I was hoping it would go somewhere. Glass sheets with one-color mirrors absorb sunlight, and are laced with fluorescent molecules. The light that gets passed the mirror is converted from white light to another more cell-friendly color. The new light is the same color that the mirror reflects, so it bounces around trapped inside the glass, and eventually all comes out along the edge of the glass. If they can get it to compete with what's already out there, kudos to them. Right now they are still in the lab.

A project working through the DARPA VHESC project has managed to both concentrate sunlight and separate it into different colors at the same time. This has allowed them to use optimized cells for each color, and claim an amazing 42.8% efficiency at a mere tens of suns worth of concentration. There are many players in this project. A patent holder seems to be Sol Solutions, and the technology is perhaps best understood by seeing the animation on their website. Dupont has its fingers in this as well. The work seems to be coming from the University of Delaware. These units promise to be light and thinner than many other concentrators, while being as efficient as the thicker ones using much higher concentrations.

And then there are those who are mysteriously still taking their time getting their trunks on in the changing stalls. This is not to say they won't get in the pool, just that we would have expected them to already be splashing around by now.

Pyron Solar does not seem to be generating much press. If they are still alive, they'll now have to contend with direct competition from Greenvolts in the exact same market.

Likewise, Energy Innovations will feel some pressure from Greenvolts as they both make low-profile systems. However, the Energy Innovations product is more specifically targetted towards commercial rooftops, e.g. on top of big box stores, so they may eek out a niche by having very well engineered wind loading. Yet again they have changed their design, however, ditching the mirrors for lenses and hopping on the triple-junction horse. While this shows flexibility and a willingness to put reality before ego, it also makes one wonder how many times they are going to design, test, and then not produce product. Better to get it right the first time, I guess, before firing up the factory.

We'll have to wait to see if Daystar Technologies (NY) intends to do anything with their flat film that concentrates via some advanced optical properties. Right now they are doing a website redesign "to reflect the Company's new commercialization plan." Concentrators are not their main business, only a side project to their work on CIGS thin-film solar "foil." Having a low level concentrator in their back pocket, though, is good insurance to help their cells compete with high efficiency Si concentrators.

Some of these companies are looked into a bit here:

Outside of the concentrated PV area, there are a couple other items worth paying attention to. First is the move to commercialize fourth generation cells in this case, dye sensitized cells. These will be aimed at first at indoor use to float charge your cells and pdas.

Another bit of promising news for flat-panels makers is the successful test of a nano-particle sheet on top of a normal solar cell to convert damaging UV radiation into light that the cell can harness, which both icreases the cell efficiency (though not by the amount the headlines scream) and makes them last longer.

Well, I know it's not exactly the most political of diaries, but hey I needed a break from all the bathroom sex jokes and the endless permutations of out-of-context Edwards quotes.

Originally posted to skids on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 01:18 PM PDT.


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