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Former NASA Chief Architect Brad Hines on Solar Power's Comeback

Former NASA Chief Architect Brad Hines on Solar Power's Comeback

If you install a solar energy system on your rooftop, you pay money today for the system and then you save money every month by having a smaller electric bill. Compared to residential customers, corporations and commercial customers are much more likely to look at things like payback and ROI.

By Jennifer LeClaire
11/24/06 4:00 AM PT

Once considered the dark horse in solar's current race to the rooftop, solar concentrators are making a major comeback.

Solar investment veterans RockPort Capital Partners and Nth Power recently led a US$8 million Series A round for Practical Instruments. The company plans to use the funds to launch a product that it hopes will give it the market lead over competitors Greenvolt and Solofocus. Investors believe the company has the technology and the leadership to make it happen.

After more than 14 years designing and implementing NASA-grade opto-mechanical systems, Practical Instruments CEO and CTO Brad Hines, along with an experienced team, decided to focus on a solar solution designed with the key market demands in mind.

Hines believes that the company's flagship product, Heliotube, will reduce installation and materials costs while supporting the corporate mantra: reduce the cost, not the power.

TechNewsWorld caught up with Hines to discuss how the company plans to use the funds, why solar concentrators are making a comeback, and what role solar power will play in the future.

TechNewsWorld: You recently raised $8 million in venture capital. What will you do with the money?

Brad Hines: Our recent Series A funding enables us to launch Heliotube, our low-cost concentrating solar panel, and grow our sales channels. Since we pursue a standards-based approach, our solar concentrator systems can sell through the large, established VAR channel of solar installers, integrators and project developers.

By giving the existing VAR channel a differentiated product, instead of trying to compete with them we think they will be excited to take Heliotube to market. Working with existing channels eliminates the need for us to spend a lot of money building our own direct sales and installation capabilities, so this investment will go a long way.

TNW: Why are solar concentrators making a comeback? What's driving the demand?

Hines: Solar concentrators are not a new idea. There are large concentrator arrays that have been deployed in the Arizona desert for years. What's new is the idea of bringing concentrator technologies -- and their industrial strength power output -- from the desert to the rooftop.

The biggest problems with solar power today are that it is too expensive and it doesn't generate enough power in a given amount of space. Leveraging recent dramatic advances in high-efficiency solar cell technology, today, concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) technology is solving both of those problems by reducing the amount of expensive PV material used, while dramatically increasing the power output from a given footprint.

TNW: Is solar energy more viable for corporations than residential customers?

Hines: If you install a solar energy system on your rooftop, you pay money today for the system and then you save money every month by having a smaller electric bill. Compared to residential customers, corporations and commercial customers are much more likely to look at things like payback and ROI.

Commercial users also benefit because commercial rooftops tend to be more uniform and provide a large area on which to install a system: larger solar energy systems benefit from economies of scale with regard to installation and the components used to tie panels together into a system.

TNW: How does all of this fit into the Green movement and LEED?

Hines: Solar energy is an integral part of things like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the Green movement in general. With solar, you don't put carbon in the atmosphere, it's renewable, and with technologies such as Heliotube, it's affordable, too, bringing LEED into reach of more building owners.

One of the most interesting features of Heliotube is that it generates peak power for more hours of the day than traditional solar panels. In particular, Heliotube continues to provide peak power well into the afternoon hours, making its power output an excellent match to the air conditioning load on hot summer days. Heliotube makes buildings self-sufficient, a key aspect of LEED design.

TNW: What's the difference or advantage of solar concentrators and other leading forms of solar energy producing technologies?

Hines: Solar concentrators use CPV technology. By using lenses and/or mirrors, you can focus more sunlight onto a smaller area and dramatically reduce the amount of photovoltaic (PV) material that you need. PV is the most costly part of a solar power system, so if you can cut that by 90 percent, as Heliotube does, it makes a big difference in price.

CPV also enables much higher efficiency -- when you're only using a small amount of PV material, you can afford the best -- which means you can get a lot more power from the same area of rooftop, or wherever you are installing your system. More power from a given installation means more savings on your electric bill. If you think like a customer in terms of payback and ROI, this is critically important.

There are a number of other exciting technologies coming to market, and some of these are also expected to be low cost, but unfortunately they don't address the problem of providing enough electricity to power modern homes and businesses. Driving for low cost is interesting, but driving for low cost and high power is a lot more interesting.

Two important measures of performance for a solar system are: (1) installed cost per watt of generating capacity; and (2) generating capacity per square foot. A number of emerging technologies hold promise for the former; we feel that our solution uniquely excels at the latter, as well.

Another problem is that many new technologies don't follow traditional form factors and industry installation practices, and therefore cost much more to install, maintain and upgrade. Only half the cost of any solar installation is the solar panels themselves. The other half, which is too often ignored, includes installation, auxiliary equipment and sales costs. Combining the efficiency advantage of CPV with a standards-based approach, our platform allows us to significantly reduce costs on both sides of the equation.

TNW: What have been the traditional challenges in the solar concentrator market?

Hines: Solar concentrators have traditionally been very large systems. You may have seen the pictures of the arrays of mirrors in the Arizona desert -- maybe a quarter-mile across. Until fairly recently, no one really thought about trying to come up with CPV technology that would fit on a rooftop. Earlier efforts at rooftop CPV have stumbled because of challenges that are unique to the rooftop: things like high wind profile, heavy components that lightweight roofs can't support, poor heat dissipation, and the need for a separate power source for tracking.

Practical Instruments has applied a systems level approach -- and employed a lot of very clever technology -- to integrate the benefits of a very large CPV system into a small package that effectively matches the form factor of a conventional solar panel. You finally have CPV that can be installed flat on a rooftop (or tilted, if you prefer), just like today's standard panels. This is a real breakthrough in the CPV space.

TNW: Tell me about this "pole free" plug and play movement. How is it addressing traditional challenges in this market?

Hines: Traditional designs for CPV systems use pole-mounted or central tower structures to move a big array over the course of the day. A good mental picture might be a billboard mounted on a big pole. This is fine for mounting on the ground, but presents a problem if you think about sticking a pole through your roof. With CPV, you need to track the sun in order to focus sunlight on a much smaller area, just like making a small spot with a magnifying glass.

Traditional CPV designs use a pole to move the whole billboard-like structure over the course of the day -- a lot like a satellite dish -- to keep the sunlight focused on that small spot where the expensive PV material sits. Wind loading, structural reinforcement, and large forces on the motors and bearings make for a very challenging and expensive system to try to install and maintain on a rooftop. Traditional pole-mounted or central tower designs also need an external power source to power those hefty tracking motors. This is a significant problem for a rooftop installation because it's another big, added cost.

Heliotube solves all of this. By lying completely flat on the roof, within the same package as older generation conventional solar panels, there is no wind loading, no structural reinforcement, and no big motors. It's self-powered using the sun, so there are no new system components to buy or additional expensive electrical work to do. And since it has the same standard package as conventional solar panels, there are no new or hidden costs for installation.

You have to look at overall installed cost because that is what the end customer has to live with in real-life. Using CPV means using less PV material. That may look cheaper, but traditional CPV designs like pole mounts actually increase other costs (installation, auxiliary equipment, etc.), and that ends up meaning higher costs for the end customer. The technology behind Heliotube dramatically reduces the costs of both solar panels and installation.

TNW: Practical Instruments has eight patents pending. If those patents are approved, how would that give you a competitive advantage?

Hines: Our technology really relates to the idea of having a solar concentrator that fits on a rooftop, lying flat, in the same way that a huge part of the market installs solar today. Our intellectual property and patents really relate to all of the breakthroughs needed to do this. Since we were the first to approach the problem this way and already developed a system that works, we feel we have a big head start in this rapidly emerging market.

TNW: Do you expect more companies to get involved in this solar power market? Is there room for more players?

Hines: The market for electrical power generation equipment is huge -- nearly $1 trillion. Solar is a tiny part of that market today but is expected to become a much bigger part. Despite the fact that it's a 30-year-old industry and solar was a $15 billion dollar market worldwide last year, it's still in its infancy. As the cost of solar comes down, there are going to be a lot of companies that are going to see a lot of growth.

TNW: What did you learn during your NASA days that is helping you with this company now?

Hines: At NASA, there is a relentless focus on reliability and tightly integrated systems. The reason is that when you send stuff out into space, there isn't much room in the launch vehicle -- it's got to be small and light -- and you don't really get the chance to go re-tighten the screws every Monday. We didn't come to solar thinking that was the only thing that mattered, but it's turned out to be a fairly different orientation from that of companies you see who don't think about things that way.

The team from Practical Instruments used to design interferometers, which are a highly complex kind of space telescope. A space telescope has optics, thermal management, tracking, and ultra high reliability. That pretty much is the design spec for the Heliotube, except that Heliotube is fundamentally a lot easier, which is why it took less than a year to get to a working prototype.

For example, we are accustomed to tracking systems that are accurate to better than one-ten-thousandth of a degree. CPV is over 10,000 times easier, with typical required tracking accuracies of a degree or two. To us, it's like shooting at a barn from three feet away.

If you look at some of the other concentrator designs, they start with a neat way to do optics. But then they have to go figure out how to deal with the tracking and auxiliary power sources. Then the heat management. Then the packaging. We started from a point of view that considered the entire system -- optics, tracking, heat management, everything -- integrated in a self-powered, standard package, and we wound up in a radically different place.

The result is a completely self-contained system in roughly the same size and shape as today's solar panels. [It] installs the same way contractors have been doing for decades, yet is less expensive and more powerful. When you buy Heliotube, you are buying a complete solar panel system, and there are no other hidden costs to worry about. That's why Heliotube is so much cheaper for the customer.

TNW: What role does solar energy play in meeting our power needs today? What role will it play in the future?

Hines: Today, a minuscule part of the world's electricity comes from solar. It's so small it's insignificant. There are a number of sources of renewable energy, but solar is the one with the broadest application and, by most expert accounts, the only source with the capacity to meet the world's needs.

You can put it almost anywhere, unlike geothermal, wind, ocean waves, and the like. Solar is the best hope for the future of our planet. That's why analyst reports say that the market for solar equipment, like Heliotube, is going to grow 30 percent to 50 percent a year for the foreseeable future, which is good news for all of us.


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