DOE Picks eSolar, Abengoa, Others for $62M in Solar Funds

Abengoa Solar, eSolar, Infinia and SkyFuel are among the companies selected to benefit from a new round of Department of Energy investments into concentrating solar power. The agency announced 13 projects Friday afternoon that it has selected for up to $62 million in funding to research, develop and demonstrate the technology over the next five years. The goal? Being able to tap the power of the sun 18 hours a day and kick the coal habit.

This type of solar tech works by concentrating the sun’s energy, capturing it as heat, and using that to drive an engine or turbine, which in turn produces electrical power. (Here’s 11 solar thermal companies we’ve been watching.)

If the projects selected for funding live up to their potential — improving component and system designs enough to enable concentrating solar plants to operate 18 hours a day on average — the DOE says that would “make it possible for these plants to displace traditional coal burning power plants.”

The largest award announced today, for up to $10.8 million, goes to Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar — a 3-year-old solar developer that uses modular designs, small mirrors and computing power to lower the cost of solar thermal technology. Backed by investors including and Bill Gross’ Idealab, eSolar has been going like gangbusters in recent months. (Check out this video interview with Gross at our Green:Net event last week talking about how low cost computing can cut solar prices, and how eSolar scored a major deal in China.)

For the project announced by the DOE today, eSolar will design, build, and test a plant with “multiple, modular towers,” which have a receiver on top where the mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays. That will heat a liquid salt contained in each receiver, which will then be carried (in a “specialized molten salt transport system”) to a molten salt steam generator.

The second-largest award — for up to $10.6 million — goes to Abengoa Solar, which is part of the Spanish renewable energy giant Abengoa and already has a working solar power tower. Under the DOE program Abengoa Solar will be developing a new power tower tech, capturing heat in a high-temperature receiver atop a single tower. Similar to eSolar’s system, Abengoa Solar’s design involves heating a salt fluid to make steam and drive a turbine. According to the DOE project summary, Abengoa Solar will incorporate thermal storage into its system, “to allow it to operate for a period when the sun isn’t shining.”

Meanwhile, SkyFuel, awarded up to $4.3 million in the DOE program, has been working to dramatically lower the cost of an established solar-thermal technology that’s been used for decades: trough-shaped solar concentrators. While most parabolic troughs are made out of glass, SkyFuel’s, called SkyTroughs, are made from a film material that the company calls ReflecTech — similar to mylar, but sturdier. SkyFuel developed the material while working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the company claims it can bring down the cost of a solar system by 25 percent.

Using the DOE funds announced today, SkyFuel will be working to “develop a low-cost CSP trough system with significantly larger dimensions than today’s troughs for use in baseload concentrating solar power generation.”

Another company, Infinia, has been awarded up to $3 million to develop a large-scale, “essentially maintenance-free” thermal energy storage solution designed for use with solar dishes. According to the DOE release, no storage system has been commercialized to date that is compatible with concentrating solar dishes. Infinia’s tech combines solar thermal with a stirling engine — a centuries-old technology that uses an external heat source, runs quietly and can be more efficient than an internal combustion engine. Infinia has raised $50 million in funding from a who’s who of entrepreneur investor firms including Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures, Bill Gross’ Idealab and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital.

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Image courtesy of eSolar and Abengoa Solar