Zombie Solar

Jim Paull for Zondits

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was a decade ago. Solar, once a niche industry, was exploding across the world. Billions of dollars were flowing into hundreds of solar start-ups. Technology hype was at its zenith.

But resources were also being strained. The price of silicon, the core material of photovoltaic cells, reached spot prices of $400 per kilogram (almost twenty times what it is now).

The good idea was to use relatively inexpensive optics to concentrate light, thereby reducing the amount of silicon by a factor of 500 to 1,000. High-concentration (high-x) collectors could also allow the use of high efficiency but extremely expensive multi-junction (III – V) cells to make very high efficiency collectors. The high efficiency was thought to be more than sufficient to overcome  concentrator technology’s disadvantage: the total inability to harvest diffuse (scattered) light, which can make up a third of all sunlight, and challenging material requirements from high temperatures.

Dozens of concentrating solar companies were founded, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital.

The names of concentrating photovoltaic companies became legendary in measure to their hype: Amonix, SolFocus, Soitec, Energy Innovation, Megawatt Solar, Silicon Valley Solar, GreenVolts, Soliant, and Skyline Solar, to name a few.

All are gone now.

Any advantage of high-x concentrators vanished as silicon and photovoltaic module prices plummeted ten-fold in just a few years.

But wait! One might be emerging from the dead!

Morgan Solar, a Canadian concentrator company, just announced a new CEO and a large sale in partnership with Enbridge, the Canadian oil & gas distribution company and one of Morgan Solar’s early investors.

Morgan Solar’s concentrator resembles a Fresnel lens, but instead of focusing light to a distant point, it uses refraction and total internal reflection to direct it to a point within the lens structure itself. By eliminating the focal distance, the purported advantage is that optics can be placed closer together, allowing a more compact and somewhat less expensive installation.

Unfortunately, the fundamental economics of high-x concentrators remain unchanged. And as conventional photovoltaic prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how Morgan Solar can successfully rise from the dead. But while the body of Morgan Solar has been seemingly lifeless, there is a spark of life somewhere still hoping that a differentiated technology, combined with a healthy dose of self-promotion, can help realize the potential they once thought they had when they were alive.

Jim is a Senior Engineer at ERS and CEO of Stellaris Corporation, another zombie solar company.

Image credit: Morgan Solar