Taking a Tip from Floor Tiles: Solarmation Makes Concentrating Solar More Modular

solarmation-quasar-lgConcentrating photovoltaic technologies, which magnify sunlight and direct it onto solar cells, hold potential to increase the efficiency of a solar-power system. But several analysts — including Jenny Chase, head of solar research at New Energy Finance — say that CPV is likely to be more expensive than conventional solar-panel systems, which have been rapidly falling in price. And because CPV systems have a shorter track record and include moving parts to track the sun, some industry insiders are concerned about reliability. Spokane, Wash.-based startup Solarmation thinks it has come up with a technology that can help solve these issues.

The 2-year-old startup has taken processes from the light-emitting diode and automotive industries, including optical elements from LEDs and vehicle headlights, and applied them to CPV, Solarmation Chief Executive Ed Caferro told us. The result is what Solarmation calls Quasar modules — basically 1-square-foot building blocks (pictured above), which each include nine Fresnel lenses with lightweight reflective aluminum (from Alanod Solar) instead of glass. The Quasar modules concentrate sunlight 1,000 times and deliver the highest electrical efficiency per square foot in the industry, Solarmation claims. The technology could cut the total cost per kilowatt-hour of solar electricity in half, Caferro said.

While the technology comes from LEDs and vehicles, it is reminiscent of modular flooring tiles. In fact, Solarmation even says the modules are made up of “parquets” of lenses. Like floor tiles, the modules give developers more design flexibility because they can be put together to make up whatever size system is best suited to the tracker being used. Solarmation modules can accommodate different widths or heights and can be used with any two-axis tracker, Caferro said.

While putting together small panels often reduces system efficiencies, which is why several photovoltaic solar panel manufacturers are increasing panel sizes to reduce costs, Caferro said that the ability to maximize the use of the trackers more than makes up for the efficiency losses from the spaces between the parquets. Solarmation is targeting systems of around 5 MW.

The company is keeping quiet about the specifics of its technology until two of its patents are in place, but Caferro said that it is using both a different design and materials than other CPV players. It is also using well-established processes from other industries, which it expects will make its systems easier and cheaper to manufacture in high volumes than other CPV systems. “We’re not only reducing cost but scale; we’re not creating any processes,” he said. Solarmation plans to offer a 20-year warranty for its Quasar modules.

Founded in July of 2007, Solarmation has been self-funded so far, but plans to start raising its first round of funding in the beginning of next year. The company, which is in the beta testing process at this point, plans to begin production in the second quarter.

In a sign of confidence for the technology, Solarmation has already attracted at least one high-powered partner, Siemens (s SI). At Solar Power International in Anaheim, Calif., last week, Solarmation modules were displayed in a system with a new hydraulic tracker from Inspired Solar Technologies and Siemens technology to predict where the sun would be and to control the tracker accordingly. Solarmation’s web site also lists manufacturers Device Semiconductor (widely known as DSEM) and Pentamaster Corporation Berhad as partners.

But Solarmation still has plenty left to prove. Chase said that while CPV stands a better chance in the U.S. than in Europe long-term because Americans tend to be less risk-averse, she believes that “the vast majority of CPV companies will get precisely nowhere.” The difficulty is that CPV currently seems to be more expensive than crystalline silicon and definitely is pricier than thin-film solar per kilowatt-hour, she said. While the prices for CPV are falling, so are the prices for regular PV, she added, and developers will likely favor more established technologies.

Graphic courtesy of Solarmation