Solaria Raises Mo Money, Still Needs to Prove Its Worth

Solaria, whose technology uses lenses to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells in order to boost electricity generation, said Wednesday it has raised an additional $20 million for its previously announced Series D round of financing.

The latest round reflects CEO Dan Shugar’s ability to convince investors to bet on Solaria’s low-concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) technology, which uses optics to boost the sunlight’s concentration two times and direct it onto monocrystalline silicon cells. Shugar was previously the president of PowerLight, a project developer that was bought by SunPower, where he then served as the president of its project development business before joining Solaria.

The money, from investors including Adams Street Partners, Cycad Group, and Western Technologies, is an addition to the $45 million that Solaria raised back in May and includes a $10 million loan. In Solaria’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company reported it had aimed to raise $73.39 million in equity but sold $45.1 million at the time. In another SEC filing, in December 2009, Solaria reported that it was hoping to raise about $12 million in debt and options and had taken in $7 million then. The company actually talked about raising the D round back in November 2008 and was then gunning for $100 million. At the time, the company had raised $77 million overall.

“In 2009, the company was focused predominantly on product development,” Shugar told me in May. “They need to ramp up the operations and sales, and that’s where I come in.” Shugar also is well connected politically – Solaria hosted Jerry Brown for the kickoff of his campaign for California governor in June.

Solaria is still in the early stages of proving it can compete in an increasingly crowded field. The company was founded in 1999 but started developing CPV technology in 2003. It’s rolling out its solar panels with a second generation technology, which uses only glass as the optics and the protective layer. An earlier technology put an acrylic layer below the glass protective layer for concentrating the sunlight.

Ditching the acrylic is a money saver – Solaria can achieve manufacturing costs that are 40 percent less than the costs for conventional, non-concentrating solar panels, Shugar said, who declined to disclose his company’s manufacturing costs. The company is selling 210- to 230-watt solar panels with can get 13.5-14 percent efficiency, he said.

Solaria has a factory at its headquarters that can produce 8 megawatts of solar panels per year, Rob Koch, managing director of NGEN Partners, another Solaria investor, told me in May. Solaria also has contracted with an undisclosed Asian manufacturer for 40 megawatts of annual capacity.

Back in April, Solaria said it had begun shipping product to undisclosed customers. In August, it announced a 5-year deal to sell its solar panels to enXco, which is owned by EDF Energies Nouvelles and invested in the D round as well. Solaria didn’t divulge details of the sales agreement except that it involves “a firm order and significant options.”

Solaria is one of a long list of low and high-concentrating photovoltaic technology startups that have collectively received hundreds of millions of venture capital to deliver low-cost solar panels or a system of solar panels and trackers, which tilt the panels to face and follow the sun throughout the day.

The idea of concentrating sunlight seemed particularly appealing when silicon, the main ingredient in the majority of solar panels sold on the market, fetched hundreds of dollars per kilogram several years ago. However, the price has fallen to less than $100 per kilogram this year while makers of the conventional solar panels have also cut costs by expanding their factories quickly, prompting skeptics to question whether CPV developers could compete.

CPV advocates say their technologies use much smaller pieces of silicon or semiconductors to generate the same amount of electricity, and trackers help to boost power production. But using trackers also adds costs. Many of them are still in the technology development phases, though some of them, such as Skyline Solar, SolFocus and Concentrix Solar have rolled out products and saw them installed in the field. Amonix, which like SolFocus and Concentrix is making giant solar panels that can concentrate sunlight hundreds of times, is set to supply the equipment for a 30-megawatt solar farm in Colorado.

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