For Asif Ansari, the founder and former CEO of eSolar, the 2 and half years he spent running the solar thermal startup were an exciting time — the management team was world class, the investors were high profile and the company grew like gangbusters, he explained to me in an interview this week. But about a year ago the long-time entrepreneur did what so many other founders do, and left a good gig to pursue a project that he couldn’t get out of his head: how to bring solar thermal to the developing world.
Ansari’s answer to that cause is Suntrough Energy, a startup he left eSolar to create, and which sells prefab small-scale solar thermal gear and biomass boilers to independent power producers in India, Africa and the Middle East. Ansari tells me that later this month Suntrough’s first power producer customer in India will start building a 5.5 MW solar thermal plant combined with a 6 MW biomass boiler that will start producing solar and renewable power by the middle of next summer.
The idea behind Suntrough is to make solar thermal plants more distributed, smaller and far easier to build, enabling utilities and independent power producers in the developing world to build on plots of land close to villages and without transmission lines. Ansari says the plants can be built for $3 per watt right now, but that he thinks the price can come down more, and eventually the construction time of the plants should take about 4 months.
Suntrough supplements its solar thermal tech with biomass boilers to produce base load generation, basically power that can be used 24/7 (even when the sun isn’t shining). Ansari tells me that the villages near Suntrough’s first customer will be using common local vegetation to combust in the boilers. As a bonus, Suntrough can also bolt on a desalination device that runs off of waste heat from the solar thermal gear and can create fresh water to sell or give away.
Suntrough will be using solar thermal trough design for its sun light collectors — an older technology that is far more simple than eSolar’s “Power Tower” tech. Ansari says Suntrough’s plants can be shipped with much of the solar gear already prefabricated, eliminating a bunch of the construction costs. That was also one of the ideas behind eSolar (as Bill Gross explained in this video interview) but Ansari said the massive size of eSolar’s plants and the sophistication of the power tower tech meant that the developing world power producers were being left out of the eSolar equation.
Ansari, who built his first solar thermal-powered generator in college, thinks the breakthroughs in solar will have to do with executions on price and packaging, not technology. “There are no technology breakthroughs in solar coming anytime soon. It’s about economics,” he says. By cutting out a good deal of the construction costs and making the plant on a smaller scale, Ansari thinks the economics for solar thermal will soon make sense for the next billion.
India has thousands of villages that do not have adequate access to the power grid, and adding much needed fossil fuel-free power will be crucial for managing development, says Ansari. “If we make money doing this great, but it’s more about how many people can we effect.”
Of course Suntrough is a small company right now, just a year old, with 17 employees and 1 customer. Compare that to eSolar, which has a massive 2 GW deal in China, raised at least $160 million from Bill Gross’ Idealab, Google.org, Acme and other investors, and is being pegged as a potential IPO candidate one day.
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