Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Idealab and a solar power concentrator

Solar ovens show a possibility for solar power. Namely, by using mirrors you can concentrate light so that it creates enough heat to cook food. So why not use this technique to make solar electricity production more efficient?

The Dotcom King & the Rooftop Solar Revolution Idealab impresario Bill Gross couldn't wait for the dawn of the sun age. So he built a high-energy, low-cost solar concentrator that will fit on your roof. And overthrow the powers that be. (By Spencer Reiss, wired.com)

The story is of Bill Gross, serial entrepreneur made famous during the dot-com boom as the head honcho of IdeaLab. IdeaLab survived the fizzling of the dot-com era, and Bill has turned to a concept that's fantasized him since his high school years. Like me, he was in high school in the era between the two oil crises. Like me, he saw science as the solution to the problem facing the country at that time. Like me, that drew him to exploring solar energy. But he took it further than I ever thought of, specifically he developed some plans for solar cook ovens that he sold in through advertising in the back of science magazines.

IdeaLab is a startup incubator, meaning that it provides space and resources to help companies get off the ground. One of those companies is Energy innovations, and Bill Gross has stepped into this one to be the CEO.

The pitch is this:

For conspicuous consumers: "America's secret," he says, "is that each of us uses an average of 17 virtual horses' worth of electric power every day." He means that approvingly; no turn-the-lights-off Luddite, he.

For the no-blood-for-oil crowd: "The rest of the world needs cheap, reliable power too, if we're going to end the wars over energy and bring on a new age of global peace and toleration."

For investors: "Reinventing energy is a multitrillion-dollar opportunity. It's the next big disruption. It dwarfs any business opportunity in history."

Big dreams, eh? The reinvention of the whole energy industry.

They talk of the high cost of solar panels. The cost comes from the highly purified silicon, and the vast area of silicon wafers required in order to produce significant quantities of electricity. Bill Gross's idea was simple - if the silicon is the main price determiner, then use less of it.

The second strategic point around the cost is the choice of deployment location for the panels. If you approach the traditional power companies with solar panels, then for your price to be competitive it has to be less than the cost of a regular commercial power plant. But that's proving to be a very hard cost level to meet. However, solar panels offer an interesting flexibility. They can be installed on rooftops and be colocated with the user. This cuts out the middleman, and most importantly you are in price competition with retail power rates rather than wholesale power rates. It's a lot easier to get a competitive price at retail power rates.

Think about urban areas and their great expanses of building after building. Each one of those buildings has a rooftop which can become the home of solar panels. And it's not just the rooftops, as solar panels can be installed as shade to parking lots.

Using mirrors to increase solar power efficiency isn't new:

PG&E's 350-megawatt Solar Electric Generating Station, for instance, sits in the Mojave Desert a couple of hours' drive from Pasadena. Built in the 1980s, the installation uses parabolic dishes, mirrored troughs, and "power towers" surrounded by fields of reflectors, aided by complex mechanical gear that tracks the sun's path across the sky.

Such behemoths still can't generate electricity as cheaply as a coal or nuke plant, but the effort to bring down the cost has driven engineers to bring up the size. The latest solar megadish from Sandia National Laboratory and Stirling Energy Systems delivers impressive 30-percent efficiency, half again better than the best commercial PV. It's also four stories tall and weighs 8 tons. Forget about mounting it on anyone's roof.

But instead of huge solar collectors, Gross's team is looking at small scale systems that can fit on a rooftop.

They have a partner, http://www.sunpower.com/ - who is providing technology for the solar collector portion of the gizmo.


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