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Solar Pioneer Borrows From Auto Industry

Trevor Curwin, |Special to CNBC.com
Wednesday, 4 Aug 2010 | 9:57 AM ET
Skyline solar array field.
Source: Skyline Solar
Skyline solar array field.

In its bid to generate the cheapest electricity, one solar technology firm is finding answers in the production methods of the auto industry.

Silicon Valley startup Skyline Solar says it can use the country's existing—and widely idle—metal fabrication infrastructure to wring more costs from its product, making solar energy more cost-competitive.

"We're at grid parity in a lot of markets at retail prices," says Tim Keating, Skyline's vice president of marketing and field operations, comparing the price of power from his firm's systems to the cost of buying power from a utility.

Skyline's "high-gain" solar technology uses reflective metal troughs, the kind of metal work cranked out in the auto industry, to focus the sun's energy onto a typical solar photovoltaic cell seen in rooftop solar panel installations today.

But because the reflectors concentrate the energy by up to ten times that typical rooftop solar panel's exposure, only about one-tenth of the solar photovoltaic cell materials—the expensive part of a solar panel installation—is needed.

The rest of the Skyline solar array is the metal troughing and the racking system to keep it off the ground, as well as a tracking mount to keep the array facing the sun.

All of these components can be built in any metal fabrication facility, says Keating, for easy shipping and assembly for the installation crew, avoiding the handling of delicate solar modules and the building customized racks at a construction site.

"A company like us, we're evolutionary, not revolutionary. That's what gets our investors excited."" -Skyline Solar, Tim Keating

"This is highly reliable prefabrication," adds Keating. "They're going to be there for 100 years."

"They're able to mass produce by retooling existing plants," says Doug Payne, executive director of solar industry group SolarTech, about Skyline's plans to make their solar energy systems from high quality, but lower cost, components.

He points out that while the solar power industry may be the "new new thing," firms in the sector should be looking to bring down solar energy's cost by leveraging available technology and expertise.

"We have to look at the automobile industry that has grown at massive scale," he adds. "They have squeezed out every penny" in their manufacturing processes.

Keating says these economies of scale brings the cost of Skyline-produced energy, with available subsidies applied, into the 10 cents a kilowatt/hour ballpark - well inside the 15 cents and above for retail electricity prices in California.

Even though the actual solar cells may be the priciest part of Skyline's array, competition among cell manufacturers is also working in the favor currently.

"We went from a supply constrained market [in 2008] to a demand-driven market [in 2009]," says Doug Cavanaugh, senior analyst with cleantech research firm Pike Research, about recent trends in solar cell manufacturing.

He adds that competition from Chinese solar cell makers has put pressure on US firms like FirstSolar and SunPower to keep prices down.

With solar cell costs moving in their favor and savings coming from mass production of the rest of their system, Cavanaugh says, "if they have the lowest-cost-of-energy they say they do, this [firm] should take off."

But he adds there have been a lot of startups making big claims that are now roadkill on the nation's energy freeway. "The concept is great," he says. "But show me the money."

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Keating says his firm is wasting no time on that front. They have installed an 82-kilowatt test system that provides almost all the electricity needs of Nipton, California, a town of less than 40 souls in the desert on the road to Las Vegas.

Keating says future multi-megawatt, utility-scale plants are in the works.

While Skyline's approach may seem both groundbreaking, solar concentration as a concept isn't new.

Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric subsidiary is installing a test plant built by Skyline rival, SolFocus.

But SolFocus' technology requires expensive glass optics to concentrate the sun's energy onto solar photovoltaic cells.

Other solar concentration concepts rely on unproven technologies, while Skyline's components are well-established and field-tested, says Keating.

"A company like us, we're evolutionary, not revolutionary," he says. "That's what gets our investors excited."

Another drawback of solar concentration is one of the ironies of solar energy itself - that brighter sun plus concentration technology equals more heat, and too much heat on a typical solar reduces its efficiency.

Some technologies use a circulating water system to keep things cool, but these have their own costs and permitting issues.

Skyline solves this uses a heat dissipation that looks similar to what you'd find a baseboard heater - another easily made component.

"Basically, I buy this [design]," says Pike's Cavanaugh. "I think the design concept is hardy."

Marrying mass production to improving technology could be the answer for the solar energy sector, says SolarTech's Payne, proving that it's not just the technology of rich environmentalists or off-the-grid hippies once and for all.

"You have to look at the 20-year history of the Internet and look where we are now with the iPad," says Payne, pointing out how early adopters drive the innovation, forcing price down for a mass audience. "The iPad today is where solar could be in 20 years."

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