TenKsolar, whose wave-like solar electric system design is a radical departure from one that uses conventional solar panels, is looking to close a round of funding in about two months, the startup’s founder and president, Dallas Meyer, told us.
The Minnesota company, founded in 2008, raised about $5.64 million a year ago and is looking to raise a Series B round to boost its sales and the production of its system, in which the solar panels incorporate power tracking-and-boosting features, said Meyer, who also is the company’s chief technology officer. Each system pairs a silicon panel with another panel lined with a reflective film from 3M to capture more light. The company also raised $1.5 million recently by selling convertible debt, reported the St. Paul Business Journal.
The startup is working closely with 3M, a Minnesota company with its own ambition to carve out a big share in the solar market. 3M upped its 2011 earnings forecast on Tuesday partly because it expects a stronger demand for its films for solar panels. The company, an expert manipulator of light, also has designed films to boost light concentration for solar thermal heat and power systems, as well as films for protecting solar cells from moisture.
“What’s intriguing about tenKsolar is the use of light optimization. If you look at the way the module industry has grown up, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in module design from the ground up,” said Dan Chen, business development manager at 3M’s renewable energy division.
Meyer, who was MiaSole’s vice president of engineering before starting tenKsolar, said the company set out to engineer cells that can overcome problems that others have sought to fix with power electronics attached to the back of a solar panel, such as microinverters made by Enphase Energy and power optimizers by Tigo Energy.
Both microinverters and power optimizers, which typically aren’t used in the same system, come with software that track and calculate the optimal power output of each solar panel and are able to adjust the power output of each panel to overcome what’s commonly called the “Christmas lights effect.” The effect refers to when solar panels are typically connected in series, a design that means the poorest performing panel drags down the power output of other solar panels.
Solar cells, too, are typically connected in series and suffer the same shortcoming, which could happen when the sunlight is blocked by a tree, cloud or building or there is dust on the panel. TenKsolar connects the cells differently and builds “more than 10” power optimizers into each panel to control different groups of cells, Meyer said. Now that the cells’ performance isn’t affected by the poorest performing ones among them, they can make use of both the direct light and the reflected light from the 3M film on an opposite-facing panel.
“By using reflective light, we can add a fraction of the cost of solar panel itself but have that much higher efficiency. That led us down the path on how to integrate the light,” Meyer said. The reflector also concentrates the light so that tenKsolar can use less silicon in each panel.
In an array of tenKsolar systems, the solar panels also are connected in parallel instead of series. The company is selling equipment for the entire array, including the railing for anchoring the solar and reflective panels and the inverter that is necessary to convert electricity from direct current to alternating current to be used on site or feed the grid. It’s going after the same flat, commercial rooftops that companies such as Solyndra are engineering their products for. Solyndra, too, has engineered a dramatically different system, which aims to make use of naturally reflected light from a rooftop that is painted white.
TenKsolar uses silicon solar cells, particularly the premium version that can yield a panel efficiency of 16-17 percent, Meyer said. With the reflector film, the panel efficiency could go up as much as 25 percent, Meyer said. By adding that reflector, tenKsolar uses fewer solar cells than conventional solar panels to cut cost, he added.
The company’s technology sounds great, but what does it cost to customers? Here is where Meyer, like so many other solar startup executives, is mum. He claims a tenKsolar array can compete with one using conventional silicon solar panels. It is more expensive than a ground-mounted array using solar thin film technologies, such as First Solar’s cadmium-telluride solar panels, because it doesn’t have enough production capacity to price its systems competitively yet, Meyer said.
The startup makes its own solar panels and integrates them into laminated sheets at a 20 MW factory in Shanghai. The half-finished panels then go to a 20 MW factory in Minnesota to undergo framing and other final assembly steps, Meyer said.
At 20 MW, the company’s manufacturing operation is small. It’s shipped “several megawatts” to customers primarily in Minnesota, Meyer said, so the company still has a lot of work to convince the market that its technology is good and it can boost production to meet demand.
Photo courtesy of tenKSolar