As with most electronics, solar panels lose efficiency when the temperature increases — and that’s particularly problematic considering the panels are usually installed where they can catch the most sun. SunModular, a young solar-component startup, hopes to help solve that problem with a technology that keeps traditional crystalline panels cool.
The company expects to close its first round of venture capital funding in the next four to six weeks, CEO Eugenia Corrales said Tuesday. Speaking after an SDForum panel in San Francisco on solar innovation, Corrales told us that SunModular has signed term sheets for $2.5 million of Series A funding.
While she didn’t name the startup’s potential backers, Puette Capital Management CEO Robert Puette is listed as a member of SunModular’s board of directors, along with SunModular co-founder Ana Corrales, a vice president of operations at Cisco Systems, and Eugenia Corrales, who also previously worked at Cisco Systems as a vice president of product operations, before serving as vice president of engineering at concentrating-photovoltaic company SolFocus.
Founded in 2007, SunModular is developing a passive-thermal technology that it claims can improve the efficiency of all silicon-based panels — and increase their reliability — by lowering their temperatures. The so-called balance of system — or non-panel — part of a solar-power system is an area ripe for innovation, as some 20 percent of the electricity produced by solar cells today is lost in the system. “And that’s on a good day; it can be significantly higher,” Eugenia Corrales said.
While she wouldn’t disclose more technical details, Corrales said SunModular’s technology can boost a system’s electricity output by 5 percent to 10 percent, at a cost of less than 1 percent of the total system cost. The company will likely initially target new systems when it launches its first product next year, although the technology could also be applied to existing systems at a higher cost (because the panels would have to be taken down and put back up again), she said. The company plans to make use of extra capacity at existing automotive-supply factories to keep its manufacturing expenses low, she added.
Still, SunModular’s technology will increase the upfront cost of new solar projects, which could spell a financing challenge for would-be customers in today’s tough economic times. Corrales said she is encouraged by a shift in industry focus from the “cost per watt,” a metric which only takes into account the peak capacity of a system, to the “levelized cost of electricity,” which spreads out all the costs over the total amount of electricity a system produces. Particularly in countries with feed-in tariffs that pay a lucrative price for the electricity produced, such as in Germany, systems that produce more electricity for a lower cost can pay off.
Overall, system efficiency is going to become increasingly important as industry margins shrink, Steve Horne, chief technical officer of SolFocus, said at the SDForum event. Already, an oversupply of panels has pushed solar prices down. As margins fall still lower and companies work to reduce costs per kilowatt-hour to stay competitive, system efficiencies — such as those that SunModular hopes to enhance — will likely play a larger role.