11 December 2008, 15:08
by Justin Moresco
Sopogy, the Honolulu company makes a “micro” version of concentrated solar power systems, which traditionally have been used on larger, utility-scale projects. Sopogy’s proprietary technology uses large metal troughs with mirrors that reflect sunlight onto a tube filled with fluid.
That solar energy is transferred to the fluid, an oil, and used to drive electrical turbines, adsorption air conditioning and steam creation. Sopogy’s software helps these troughs, or collectors, to rotate up to 270 degrees to follow the sun’s path.
The solar startup is trying to set itself apart from others by packaging this emerging solar technology in a smaller scale. The company sees a market niche for commercial and industrial customers, such as hospitals and hotels, that need between 1 and 20 megawatts of power and factories that need that power plus heat.
Initially focused on Hawaii and later California, Sopogy has turned its sights toward opportunities in Europe and Asia. The new financing, added to the $60 million in debt and equity already raised, will help the startup hire more staff and put more emphasis on those markets, where incentives like feed-in tariffs are especially attractive, Mr. Kimura said.
Hawaiian Electric, the island state’s largest utility, has ordered a 10 MW facility using Sopogy’s technology. Other projects, like one for the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, are in the 1 MW range.
Each Sopogy collector generates 500 watts and can be strung together for larger generation. Mr. Kimura said they have been designed to be installed by local contractors without specialty training and can be transported flat, which keeps costs lower.
But cost is still an issue. Mr. Kimura said his systems can produce electricity over their lifetime at about 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. While this is cheaper power than that from solar photovoltaic systems, which run higher than 25 cents/kwh, it’s still more expensive than conventional electricity generated from fossil fuel sources.
Still, companies have reason to look to clean energy systems. Their costs, free from fossil fuel volatility, are more predictable over the long run, and with the right government incentives are competitive with the electric grid.
The large scale concentrated solar power companies, such as Israel’s Solel and Palo Alto, Calif.-based Ausra, so far appear focused on massive projects. That’s good news for Sopogy. But Geortina Venezetti, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, said waste-to-energy technology is still the most popular renewable energy source for commercial and industrial markets, and its costs are coming down.
Agricultural outfits, breweries, and paper and pulp factories, for example, can use their own waste as feedstock to run co-generation systems that produce electricity and heat. And unlike solar power, these systems run around the clock and on cloudy days.