Solar Thermal Startup SkyFuel Scores $17M

While solar thermal companies eSolar and Stirling both announced funding in the 9-digits last week, another startup using the sun’s heat to create energy disclosed a more modest round this week. SkyFuel, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based company that has created a cheap, light material called “ReflecTech” for its sunlight-catching troughs, has raised $17 million in a Series B round of funding from Leaf Clean Energy.

The release says that SkyFuel raised the round to get its SkyTrough (the sun-catchers made of ReflecTech) to market. The company has been quiet about which power companies it will be doing deals with for its solar power plants, but according to a report in late 2007 from 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.

It’s a major trend for companies to announce plans to build massive solar power plants in the Mojave, California and Arizona deserts. In fact there’s a planned 2.5GW of solar thermal projects with announced power purchase agreements in California and Arizona slated for construction in the next few years, according to Nat Bullard, an analyst at New Energy Finance. Not all of them will get built, but a lot of money will certainly be spent on the efforts.

Even utilities are considering becoming owners of the plants. Last week the CEO of California utility PG&E, Peter Darbee, said he’s had discussions about using PG&E’s deep pockets to buy their own solar thermal power plants. That would be a big deal because utilities don’t traditionally own solar power-generating systems, and PG&E’s $36 billion in assets could provide much-needed funding for solar startups to get these plants up and running.

We’re not sure if this latest announced round is the full extent of SkyFuel’s Series B round, as the company previously told us that it was in the midst of raising a Series B round, led by with participation by New York-based investors G.C. Andersen Partners. We’ve contacted the company and are waiting to hear back. (see comment below: GC Andersen Partners participated in the Series B round that closed last week, but Leaf Clean Energy led the round.)

The 20-person company is also working on a next-generation solar thermal technology it calls Linear Power Tower that will be available in three to four years. The company uses “linear Fresnel” technology for the towers, which use nearly flat reflectors that track the sun to focus the rays onto stationary collectors overhead. Ausra also uses a linear Fresnel set-up.