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Summary:

Concentrating solar photovoltaics use optics to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells to boost energy production. While the tech is still in an early stage, some startups are looking to ramp up, like Fremont, Calif.-based Solaria, which has raised another $30 million.

Solaria panels on dual-axis trackers

Concentrating solar photovoltaics are a type of technology that uses optics to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells to boost energy production. While the tech is still in an early stage, some startups are looking to ramp up, and Fremont, Calif.-based Solaria just raised $30 million in equity in its march to win over converts for its own brand of concentrating photovoltaic technology.

The funding came more than a year after it raised about $65 million in a round, some of which went into setting up a new factory and headquarters in Fremont. Solaria develops solar panels that use lenses to concentrate the sunlight onto silicon solar cells, a process the company says  reduces the need of silicon cells by roughly half. The optics are made of a glass sheet, under which are solar cells that have gone through slicing and other steps to become strips.

Solaria has also designed trackers to go with its solar panels and is selling the equipment separately or as part of the package. Trackers tilt the solar panels to follow the sun’s movement throughout the day, and they are used in larger scale projects built for utilities or other businesses. Solaria has built various configurations with its products at its headquarters to show off different solar array designs (see our slide show).

Using trackers adds costs, but it also boosts power generation, a benefit that could be well worth the investment, particularly in markets with incentives based on power production. But Solaria is pushing its relatively new technology at a time when the global market is beset by a glut of solar panels. Prices for solar panels have fallen so quickly – by 30 to 40 percent – that many manufacturers have posted losses and expect tough times to continue in 2012. Solar panel makers are boosting their research and development work to create more efficient solar panels in order to set themselves apart and command higher prices for their products.

The company is among a breed of developers who sought to create alternatives to conventional silicon solar panels. The solar industry experienced a shortage of silicon around 2005 when it was growing and competing against the chip industry for the same raw material, which fetched hundreds of dollars per kilogram. Some companies turned to materials such as copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS). The price of silicon has plummeted in recent years to around $30 per kilogram now on the spot market.

Others began to experiment with materials such as germanium and gallium-arsenide, which are more expensive than silicon but can squeeze far more electricity from sunlight. To use these highly efficient materials, developers rely on mirrors and lenses to concentrate sunlight, so they can get the same amount of energy while using a smaller amount of materials. Solaria has opted to stick with the cheaper silicon but still adds the concentrating optics.

The company was founded in 1999, but didn’t start working on concentrating technology until much later. Its engineers first used acrylic for lenses and placed them under a protective glass layer in the panel. They then decided to ditch acrylic and use only glass for the optics and spent 2009 finalizing a commercial design. Dan Shugar, who was president of PowerLight and then head of SunPower’s project development business (SunPower bought PowerLight in 2006), came to Solaria as CEO in early 2010.

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