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Solar & Alternative Energy

Concentrated Efforts

Constant learning, hard work, and collaboration combine to pursue a superior energy alternative. From SPIE Professional, October 2007.
24 October 2007, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.4200710.08

Ancora Imparo. These words, most famously attributed to Michelangelo, translate to "still I am learning." While growing up, I was always fascinated by learning about new things. I learned through a lot of reading and experimentation. I wanted to know how everything worked, so I often took them apart. Unfortunately, I wasn't always able to put them back together, as my mother would attest to regarding the carburetor on the family car.

Nonetheless, from the beginning of my Silicon Valley career starting in field service, to sales and marketing management, to corporate management and turnarounds, it is largely these words that have moved me forward. It is this desire for learning that guided me through my angel-investing era, and on to form H2Go in 2000 where I began to research and learn about renewable energy and hydrogen. This research and learning, combined with collaboration, led me to concentrated solar photovoltaics as a means of helping meet the growing demand for electricity. This, in turn, led to the creation of SolFocus Inc.

Just as a little background, SolFocus was founded in 2005 to commercialize the innovative concentrated solar technology that was developed as a research investigation at H2Go. The company has grown from two guys in a garage in November of 2005, to a company of over 80 employees, a global presence and operations both in the United States and Europe, and development activities in three product areas, all in less than two years.

Certainly it took a lot of hard work, but just as important it took a lot of passion, collaboration, industry leadership, open-minded business strategy?and continual learning. These are the key elements of business that will typify the future of SolFocus, as they have in the past. Moving at such a fast pace as SolFocus is, a learning culture is often hard to maintain. There are two concepts that are key in the SolFocus culture, which I will work hard to protect because I believe they are key to a successful organization.

First is a belief that, regardless of the need, there is always a solution somewhere. In a world so filled with ideas and technologies, the mentality of SolFocus is first to look outside to understand what exists, what has worked, what has failed, and what makes the best solution. There is ample technology to exploit without having to reinvent from scratch.

The second concept is that success requires constant learning. This means making sure the company does not become myopic in its approach to products, markets, etc., but that it continues to pursue a breadth of avenues to help solve the world's global energy crisis.

From Hydrogen to Solar Electricity

Having started into the renewables world focused on hydrogen, I am often asked about why I switched from hydrogen to solar. I started my renewable energy investigations with hydrogen because it was in vogue when I attended the first CleanTech forum in San Francisco as an angel investor. I attended several hydrogen fuel cell conferences and even drove the cars at the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Through this series of investigations, it quickly occurred to me that any form of hydrogen economy would require a different means to produce it, or essentially free electricity was required. Toward that end, I began researching the most promising areas for cheap electricity. Wind power was already dropping to roughly $1/W; however the problem with wind was two-fold: it could not provide enough power to meet demand and the wind tended to blow when energy demand was at its lowest, at night for example. What was needed was a source that was as economical as wind, but produced electricity at peak demand times.

Solar concentrator photovoltaics (or CPV) just happened to provide both the cost potential and time of day solution that was needed while eliminating the huge demand of precious water that steam-driven power plants require. From there I started researching CPV, added our co-founder Steve Horne, and pursued the investigation that led to the formation of SolFocus Inc.

Building in a New Industry

The biggest challenge at SolFocus from both the business and technology side is staying focused. We are truly threatened with being buried by opportunity. That first CleanTech forum reminded me exactly of what I saw when I arrived on the semiconductor scene in Silicon Valley back in 1983. Opportunities sprouted everywhere and far too few people or resources were on hand to capitalize upon them. This led to mediocre technologies taking the day and otherwise impossible business models winning out. In the end, there was considerable consolidation and most of the innovation has fled the semi industry.

At SolFocus we are committed to bringing the best technologies and solutions out of the lab and into the mainstream, offering the greatest possible customer value. The business challenges have been mostly a lack of existing infrastructure. This has forced SolFocus out of necessity to move vertically and into many more areas than we originally planned.

For example, we felt compelled to lead the creation of a CPV Consortium to help drive the development of the CPV industry and position its opportunity and needs separate from the traditional PV industry. While we enjoy excellent financial backing, it is still a formidable challenge to attack so many areas at once.

On the technical side, we are heavily leveraged in material science?coatings, semiconductor processes, and optical science are key enablers for us. We have an enviable Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) led by Nobel laureate Arno Penzias. SPIE luminary Roland Winston, an early member of our TAP, provides us a great advantage with regard to acceptance angle and overall performance through his invention of non-imaging optics. The co-inventor of multi-junction cells, Sarah Kurtz, has also recently joined our TAP as well.

The only area that really keeps me up at night is cell longevity under high concentration. While there are many parallels from III/V LEDs and extreme space applications, SolFocus has spent more resources testing these cells than anyone. It is an absolutely critical issue for the entire industry and offers both the most potential and the most risk in being able to capture the power of the sun for electricity generation. This would be an excellent place for the U.S. Department of Energy to provide assistance.

CPV Technology at SolFocus

One of the fascinating and challenging things about our CPV technology at SolFocus is that it embodies many different disciplines from science, engineering, and manufacturing. On the optics front, SolFocus has made considerable progress in taking theoretical non-imaging and other optical design limits to an economical manufacturable state. This has required a significant expenditure in the glass business that will pay dividends as we realize the tremendous cost-performance benefits from these approaches. Pressing glass to optical quality, but at extremely high volumes and lower cost than anything available from the lens industry, has been quite a challenge.

Material science for wide spectrum antireflective coatings and diffraction gratings are critical areas for SolFocus as well. The multi-junction cells exploit the entire solar spectrum but anti-reflective coatings for this range are just coming to fruition. Thermal management is another area we always drive to improve, and some rather creative approaches have been required. We also take advantage of state-of-the-art semiconductor fabrication processes to optimize cell performance and reliability, and to reach the lowest possible cost. We pull technical innovations from aerospace, automotive, electronics, and the semiconductor industries to create the best possible value proposition for our customers.

This year, 2007, has been targeted as our year of test. We have several installation sites working at this time. While they are generating electricity to the grid, the primary purpose of these sites is to provide performance and reliability test information. They also benefit us when determining how to drive costs out of the balance of systems items including installation, which represents a large share of a total solar power plant.

Our pilot line in Sunnyvale, CA, has helped us not only with initial production, but has also helped refine the assembly and test processes. We are now moving tooling to India for a production ramp there. We are installing 200kW in Puertollano, Spain, this fall for the country's Institute of Concentration Photovoltaic Systems program contract we won last year, with the remaining 300kW to be installed in early 2008. The recent acquisition of Spanish-based tracker company InSpira gives us an immediate capability in trackers. We have grown significantly in the past 18 months, and will continue to add significant numbers in both Spain and the United States while expanding our base into new territories over the next year.

Collaboration Key to Successful Entrepreneurship

As an entrepreneur, I learned early on that going it alone was not the key to success. One of our early partnerships was with Moser Baer from India. Moser Baer Photovoltaics (MBPV) is a unique partner in that they are an investor, a manufacturing partner, and exclusive distributor for the SAARC region (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation; this consists of eight countries in South Asia centered around India). MBPV was a unique fit for SolFocus as they shaved micro cents off the cost of making optical media, controlling the thickness of silver sputtered on discs to within a micron. We apply silver to glass so there was some connection there.

The CEO of MBPV, Ravi Khanna, was the president of Delphi in India so he has the supply chain and cost focus critical to the automotive industry, and just as importantly knows how to meet the demanding reliability and quality standards from the automotive sector.

SolFocus must deliver low cost and high reliability through quality in its CPV products. Partnering has been an important strategy from concept through manufacturing. We have collaborated with the University of California/Merced, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Palo Alto Research Center, United Technologies Research Center, Ben Gurion University, and Madrid Polytechnic University, and will enter into further agreements with numerous new international research partners as well as a number of large industrial and energy partners.

In concluding I would say that it always comes back to Ancora Imparo. We have accomplished much but we are still learning. We will continue to pursue our mission of delivering solar electricity at cost-parity or less than energy generated from fossil fuels. With the generation of electricity being the single largest contributor to carbon emissions, it is imperative that together as an industry we remove the roadblocks and achieve this mission.

Reoccurring Renaissance

The most abundant source for creating clean electricity is the sun. The challenge is how to do so in a cost-competitive way. One of the most promising answers is by concentrating the sun's light using less-expensive materials (i.e., glass and aluminum) onto smaller areas of the expensive solar cell material. By using concentration of light to reduce the amount of active solar cell material to 1/1000 of that required in conventional photovoltaic systems, the ability to produce low-cost solar electricity becomes a reality.

The concept of concentrated solar is not new. In 1974 the oil embargo and soaring oil prices heightened the interest in CPV. We refer to this as the 1st renaissance for CPV. There was a 2nd renaissance for CPV in the mid-1980s, again driven by rising oil prices. During both of these periods there were technologies developed and tested, but none provided a reliable, cost-effective solution.

Today we are in the midst of the 3rd renaissance of CPV; however, this time it's different. As before, we are faced with rising oil prices, but this time there is more. We are faced with global climate change and an environment in more trouble than originally recognized. Energy independence is becoming more critical around the globe, and significant investments are being made into the field. Technology, in particular the availability and performance of high-efficiency solar cells, has advanced.

In total this creates an environment that could make this 3rd renaissance the birth of the CPV industry and the proliferation of affordable solar energy.


SolFocus Inc.

SPIE Member Gary Conley co-founded SolFocus Inc. with Steve Horne -- now the company's CTO -- in November 2005. The two worked together at H2Go on hydrogen research, but ultimately, a more promising technology, concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) technologies, emerged. From this research, they created SolFocus in order to commercialize CPV technology.

Since then SolFocus successfully closed two series of funding and refined the technology as well. In 2006 the first full array was installed, and just this year the company moved into its commercialization phase. Key to the quick progress are the many collaborative agreements that have been arranged around the world.

You can visit Sol Focus online at www.solfocus.com