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Startup Skyline Solar Comes Out Shooting for Grid Parity — Can It Deliver?

skyline-solar-logoWith $24.6 million in venture capital and a technology that the Department of Energy found impressive enough to award a $3 million grant to help speed its deployment, 2-year-old Skyline Solar isn’t off to a bad start. According to co-founder and CEO Bob MacDonald, the startup has all the funding it needs to carry it through to commercialization of a concentrating solar photovoltaic system that combines the durability of silicon solar panels with the lower cost of thin-film solar. He thinks the Mountain View, Calif.-based company can bring solar to grid parity — competitive pricing with conventional energy sources — at California rates within about 18 months. While California electricity rates tend to be higher than those in other U.S. states, rolling out a relatively low-cost, easily scalable solar technology in this time frame would be, in a word, huge — if they can make it happen.
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What makes MacDonald, speaking now for the first time about Skyline’s technology, think the startup can not only survive the solar shakeout, but emerge as a dominant player when some other concentrating PV startups have been working at this for a decade or more?

An ability to adapt is at the heart of both Skyline’s planned manufacturing process (relying mostly on existing plants) and the technology itself, which can be upgraded without a total overhaul, says MacDonald. This could be one of the keys to the startup’s ability to deliver on the promise of grid parity fast enough to stand a chance against concentrating PV companies that have a head start — such as SolFocus, Green & Gold Energy, Amonix and Sol3g.

MacDonald and Tim Keating, Skyline’s vice president of marketing, talked us through their technology last week. It involves single-axis tracking and racks of metallic reflectors (the company is still shopping around for suppliers, and may use either aluminum or silver coatings) to concentrate light on silicon cells. This feature, combined with a passive heat sink — basically metal on the back of the panel that keeps the system from overheating — allows generation of what the company claims to be 10 times as much energy per gram of silicon compared with traditional flat solar panels now on the market. According to MacDonald, the heat sink is enough to keep the system “running at peak efficiency all the time.” MacDonald and Keating wouldn’t reveal much about who they’re working with or what the production schedule looks like, but did identify U.S. commercial, industrial and utility customers as their target market, at least to start.

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The idea is to have about 90 percent of this whole system, primarily the racks, made at an existing manufacturing facility, such as an auto parts plant or appliance factory, according to MacDonald. This could boost Skyline’s odds of snagging more funding from the DOE, which often gives preference to retooled plants. It also allows the company to ramp up production relatively quickly. The other 10 percent, in terms of both the value of the system as well as the amount of material needed, could be made at existing silicon cell and photovoltaic plants. The system has a modular design so that it can be easily upgraded as different components improve, or expanded as demand or budgets increase, says MacDonald.

Of course, none of this has been proven at utility scale. Skyline’s largest demonstration to date is a 24-30 KW pilot project installed at a Valley Transit Authority facility in San Jose, Calif., (pictured above) just last month after being delayed by rainstorms. The Skyline team says it is less concerned about potential technological, mechanical and financial hurdles than it is about policy. Keating said, “We worry most about the big bad coal lobby and inflation,” which can make the upfront cost of a large-scale solar installation more daunting.

Despite the gloomy economy, a long-anticipated solar glut, and layoffs blowing through the solar industry, Skyline has a bit of fortuitous timing on its side. The startup closed its first round of funding, $24.6 million led by New Enterprise Associates, last fall, early enough to avoid the slammed-shut credit markets that have stalled many worthy but capital-intensive energy projects. As MacDonald said, “It’s a good time to be a well-funded private company still in development mode.”

By the time solar’s boom and bust cycle eases into a period of long-term growth (in three to five years, MacDonald estimates), Skyline wants to be ready to step in and reap the rewards. “I think there will be a number of companies reaching this magical grid parity point,” MacDonald said. “At that point, it’s all about scaling.” Grid parity is a lot to take for granted, however, and Skyline has a ways to go.

Photo (top) and rendering (bottom) courtesy Skyline Solar

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