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SkyFuel Heats Up Solar Thermal

skyfuellogo1.jpgSolar thermal power plants are a good candidate for everyone’s favorite clean technology of 2007. The technology to build massive solar installations in the desert that use sunlight to heat liquid that in turn power steam turbines has piqued the interest of such high profile investors as Nobel peace prize winner turned Kleiner VC Al Gore to Google, which plans to invest millions into solar thermal technology.

While you might have heard of some of the older and well-funded firms like BrightSource Energy (retooled Luz founded in 2004), Kleiner and Khosla-backed Ausra, or Spanish giants Abengoa and Iberdrola, we recently chatted with Albuquerque, N.M.-based SkyFuel, which incorporated earlier this year. The company has 20 employees and is in the midst of raising a Series B round, led by New York-based investors G.C. Andersen Partners.

Chris Huntington, vice president of business development for SkyFuel, told us that the company is very close to announcing projects to build major power plants for “well-known members of the power industry.” According to Emerging Energy Research, SkyFuel comes in second for the most solar power capacity coming online in the U.S., just slightly behind Stirling Energy Systems, and in front of Solel, Ausra, BrightSource and three others.

Of course SkyFuel says its technology will be the “highest performing” and “lowest cost” when it is available. The company’s initial product will use parabolic trough technology -– reflective troughs that concentrate sunlight onto the liquid-filled tube. Solel also uses this technology, and announced a deal with PG&E earlier this year.

Huntington said the company’s innovation on the decades-old trough technology is that it doesn’t use glass troughs, but a proprietary material it calls “ReflecTech,” which is cheaper, lighter, less expensive and more durable than glass. According to a report from Emerging Energy Research, parabolic trough technology is the most credible of the solar thermal technologies, but “the technology’s head start will soon begin to diminish as central receiver and other technologies are realized at a commercial scale.”

Beyond getting its first-gen technology out there soon, SkyFuel’s next-generation solar thermal technology is also promising. Recently the company announced that it will receive a $435,000 grant from the Department of Energy to develop its Linear Power Tower (LPT). Huntington says the LPT tech will be available in three to four years; it uses “linear Fresnel” technology, which uses nearly flat reflectors that
track the sun to focus the rays onto stationary collectors overhead. Ausra also uses linear fresnel technology, but Huntington said that unlike Ausra, SkyFuel’s LPT will use molten salt-filled tubes to power the turbines, not water.

With all the media attention focused on solar thermal right now, Huntington also said he hopes that the solar thermal industry won’t endanger itself by making undeliverable promises:

“When we hear talk of plants being built from scratch to deliver power for under 5 cents per kilowatt hour, in just a year from now, now that is unrealistic, though it makes for great headlines.”

Perhaps one day SkyFuel’s next-gen technology can get that much closer to those price points that Huntington says, for the time being, are out of reach. If it can come close, we know a search engine-turned power investor that might be interested.