September 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Hawaiian firm shrinks solar thermal power

Perhaps it's not surprising that balmy Hawaii is home to a company that's pushing the envelope of solar thermal technology.

Start-up Sopogy, based in Honolulu, has taken the basic design of large solar thermal power plants and shrunk it down so it can fit on a building's roof.

Demo models of its electricity-generating solar collectors--essentially metal half-pipes with a reflective coating--are now being tested with a Fortune 500 company and a few utility customers, according to company president and CEO Darren Kimura.

To expand, this fall the venture-funded company intends to raise an additional $9 million, which it hopes to secure by the end of the year, he said.

Concentrating solar power, or CSP, uses reflective troughs or dishes to concentrate sunlight to heat a liquid that flows through a pipe above the troughs. That heated liquid, which can be oil or water, is converted into steam to turn an electric turbine.

On Monday, start-up Ausra announced that it has received $40 million in venture funding to finance product development and construction of a large-scale 175-megawatt solar thermal power plant in California.

That's one of many projects, such as Nevada Solar One, now being pursued in desert areas around the world. The customers are utilities, which need to boost the amount of renewable energy they generate to meet government regulations.

But Sopogy's thinking small. Each individual collector produces 500 watts. That's roughly what a house consumes, but strung together in an array on the ground or on a roof, these panels could supply a chunk of a commercial building's needs, for example.

In a project in Hawaii, the company will be connecting several of its MicroCSP units together to generate one megawatt, according to Kimura. That plant, now in the permitting phase, is expected to go online in January of next year and be completed by late summer.

Photos: Concentrating on solar power in Hawaii

Last month Sopogy signed on Avista Utilities, based in Spokane, Wash., to test the system in northern Idaho scheduled to be operating by next summer.

Coal or natural gas-fired power plants can generate tens or hundreds of megawatts. But utilities are looking at different options for power generation during peak times, such as the middle of a hot day, when the demand--and price--of electricity is highest.

"On balance, CSP has a huge advantage in most cases over say, wind, because it produces power when people need it the most," said Alex Klein, an analyst at Emerging Energy Research. "CSP projects are effectively competitive at higher prices because they are generating electricity at peak times."

Solar systems--both thermal and photovoltaic--also have the advantage of being modular, so as they are scaled up, the price per kilowatt tends to go down, Klein added.

Corporations such as Wal-Mart, which is installing solar systems in Hawaii and California, invest in renewable energy to lock in to a fixed electricity rate over several years, while spiffing up their "green" credentials.

CONTINUED: Hawaii's 'harsh' environment…
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5 comments

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Why not Geo Thermal?
Hello! Hawaii? Volcanoes? Anyone?

You're sitting on a really hot geothermal site, so why not take advantage of it?
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
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Geothermal only possible on "Big Island"
The problem with trying to tap into geothermal power is that the only place where it works is on the island of Hawai'i, the "Big Island." That's not very practical when it comes to localing geothermal-powered generators on the "Big Island" and transmitting them all the way back to Maui and Oahu, where the power is needed the most.
Posted by SactoGuy018 (1360 comments )
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Thoughts on Geothermal vs. Solar Thermal
In addition to the previous comment about geothermal as it relates to Hawaii, another issue is that geothermal is baseload. In microgrids such as Hawaii, baseload is important for frequency and spinning reserve. Geothermal baseload could displace critical spinning reserve which preserve grid integrity at the most efficient parts of the generation curve making utility economics work.

On the other side of the coin, solar thermal matches peak load and addresses the most expensive kilowatt hour. This is probably one of the main reasons why this small solar thermal idea was born in Hawaii.
Posted by venturerock (2 comments )
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Its about time
Smaller scale Concentrated Solar Power makes a lot of sense. Examine history, CSP technologies have been in operation since the mid-80's exhibiting dispatchability, demand reduction and reliability. CSP also reduces utility issues with baseloading as it only operates during the day which directly addresses the demand curve. Storage can be added to overcomes the intermittancy challenge. It has left to be seen what kind of economies of scale this company will achieve in its ability to bring CSP to the home or smaller installations, but it is logical that CSP is economical for industrial and commercial uses today.
Posted by venturerock (2 comments )
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Whoops, they must be sniffing vulcano gas!
The website is a single page with a email address block on it. It doesn't work in FireFox 2.0 or IE7.

Also the info@ address doesn't work I found in their boilerplate Terms of Use and just bounces back. Maybe the dudes forgot to pay their web site bills? Maybe they weren't for real.

Using "nano-technology" to surface their reflectors? Give me a break!

Dilbert had a cartoon recently that utilized "nano-technology" to fight terrorism. It wasn't by accident that the pointy-haired boss was the one suggesting the technology and usage connection!
Posted by xwindowsjunkie (3 comments )
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