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Skyline Solar plans to begin commercial production of — and officially start selling — its concentrating photovoltaic systems in the fourth quarter of this year, Tim Keating, vice president of marketing, tells us. It could be a risky time to enter the market, with analysts predicting […]

skylinesolarimage1Skyline Solar plans to begin commercial production of — and officially start selling — its concentrating photovoltaic systems in the fourth quarter of this year, Tim Keating, vice president of marketing, tells us. It could be a risky time to enter the market, with analysts predicting an oversupply of several gigawatts of solar products and capacity this year, but the company is betting that the market will start to improve by the time it’s fully ramped up.

Starting toward the end of this year, “multiple megawatts” of Skyline’s systems will be manufactured on automobile lines – or more specifically, on metal shops that make parts for the automobile industry, Keating said. The Mountain View, Calif.-based startup also has been working with project developers to plan commercial projects starting next year, he said. While Keating declined to disclose details, he said the first few orders are for 500-kW systems. One team is working on 15-50 MW projects in the Southwest, he added, although the first of those could take another year to complete.

Founded in 2007, Skyline came out of stealth mode in May, when it announced it had raised $24.6 million in its first round of venture funding, signed a $3 million developmental contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, started pilot manufacturing in the U.S. and Asia and completed a 27-kW demonstration plant in San Jose, Calif. So far, the demonstration project has been beating the company’s performance goals, Keating said.

Skyline also was reported to be looking to raise another round of funding this year – likely smaller than its first round – to take it to commercial production. Keating wouldn’t discuss the company’s financials at the Intersolar conference last week, except to say, regarding funding: “I think we’re OK for the moment.”

The startup is developing small, modular concentrating-solar systems that use conventional monocrystalline-silicon panels mounted on the edge of a W-shaped configuration called a reflective rack. The rack, made up of two troughs that counterbalance each other, captures sunlight and reflects it onto the panels, while also providing the structure for the system and buffering the panels from the wind. The panels are positioned so heat can escape easily, and the system is passively cooled by the air flowing through it. That leads to a higher conversion efficiency for the system, because when solar panels get too hot, their efficiencies drop.

The system is made of reflective aluminum, rather than steel and mirrors, making it lighter-weight so it can be mounted on a tracker, which follows the sun and exposes the panels to more sunlight throughout the day. Because the systems are small and modular, they can be combined to scale up to various-sized projects. The company’s demonstration project consists of 24 of the 18-by-6-foot systems, for example, and a 1-MW system would include 500 to 600 of them, Keating said.

The idea is that small- and medium-sized system integrators will be able to build power plants more quickly using Skyline’s pre-engineered systems because they won’t have to re-engineer systems individually at each site. At the demonstration plant, the panels went up in about 10 percent of the time compared to a conventional fixed-panel photovoltaic system, Keating said. The systems also use 10 percent of the silicon of a fixed-panel system, though that’s less of an advantage now than it was during the solar-silicon shortage in 2006 and 2007.

But Skyline faces some hurdles, as well. Liza Pogrebnyak, an analyst at Navigant Consulting, said one challenge facing concentrating PV technologies, such as Skyline’s, is that the conversion efficiencies are not much higher than those of regular crystalline-silicon PV systems, while the cost is not much lower. Meanwhile, the installations are larger and more noticeable than conventional PV, and require more maintenance because of the tracking, Pogrebnyak said.

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By Jennifer Kho

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