How Solar and Skyline Can Jump-Start Auto Factories

skyline-rack-welding Skyline Solar wouldn’t seem to have the best timing. The startup, which makes concentrating photovoltaic systems, launched out of stealth mode in the midst of a solar shakeout. But the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup is finding the silver lining of the economic downturn: reduced demand in the automotive industry, which has opened up manufacturing capacity at plants that require minimal retooling to produce Skyline’s systems.

This morning Skyline announced its first commercial manufacturing deal with auto supplier Cosma International (part of Magna International), which will make Skyline’s reflective racking and structural components at a factory in Michigan with machines used to stamp out auto frames, bodies and chassis. As the company told us last summer, it is looking to produce equipment for “multiple megawatts” on automobile lines.

This comes as just the latest example of a solar firm marching into the Big Three’s old turf. Xtreme Power, Clairvoyant Energy and Oerlikon Solar announced plans last month to convert an idle Ford plant in Wixom, Mich. into a renewable energy park, churning out energy storage and power management systems for large wind and solar projects, as well as equipment for thin-film solar. And in the last few weeks Arizona-based Stirling Energy Systems has signed up two auto part makers to supply components of its solar thermal power equipment.

Skyline is calling its agreement with Cosma “the first step in its effort to help retool American manufacturing,” and it plans to begin shipping its small, modular concentrating-solar systems by year’s end. The systems use conventional monocrystalline-silicon panels mounted on a reflective rack in the shape of a W. That rack captures sunlight and reflects it onto the panels, which are positioned so heat can escape easily. Air flowing through the system provides passive cooling, helping to boost its conversion efficiency because when solar panels get too hot, their efficiencies drop.

skyline-solar-demo

Skyline CEO Bob MacDonald has told us he has the ambitious goal of reaching grid parity — competitive pricing with conventional energy sources — at California electricity rates by the end of 2010. That won’t be easy for a 2-year-old startup, but the Skyline team, which has raised $24.6 million in venture capital and signed a $3 million development contract with the Department of Energy, says it is less concerned about potential technological, mechanical and financial hurdles than it is about policy. VP of Marketing Tim Keating told us earlier this year, “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.

At this point, Cosma has begun producing Skyline’s equipment at low volume at a facility in Troy, Mich. But Michigan — whose Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been fighting hard for greentech manufacturing jobs to help revive the state economy — does not have a lock on Skyline’s business long term. The company is still working with Cosma to narrow down the list of facilities for high volume production from Cosma’s plants in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Photos courtesy of Skyline Solar

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