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Topics / A Comeback For Infinia's Solar Power Heat Ray?

October 05, 2012

A few years ago, Infinia seemed to be one of many green-technology startups with great promise but weak business execution. Now the company is seeking to get back on track and commercialize a power generator with the potential to run either on the sun or biogas.
The Ogden, Utah-based company recently raised $15.5 million, the CFO tells me, and began installation in late August of a 1.5 megawatt solar farm using 430 of its mirrored dishes at the Tooele Army Depot in Utah. The funding came from some existing investors, including Atlas Global and Wexford Capital, along with new private equity investors, including Comstock, according to CFO Jeff Williams.

Key to getting this round of growth capital was landing the Tooele Army Depot as a customer and the months-long due diligence it entailed, he says. Now the company needs to make the difficult transition from pilot production to higher-volume manufacturing, a step where a number of green-tech upstarts have stumbled.

Solar technologies that convert the sun’s heat into electricity have not fared well over the past few years as the cost of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted. Because PV is easier to finance than concentrating solar thermal, a few utility-scale projects in the southwest U.S. have shifted over to PV.

Infinia’s technology is different from other concentrating solar power systems in that each solar dish generates electricity with a Stirling engine, a device named after its 19th century inventor Robert Stirling. Infinia’s 26-foot-tall dishes concentrate light onto a helium-filled piston. Incoming cooler ambient air from the other end of the piston causes the helium to contract and move the piston to generate AC power.

Like all concentrating solar technologies, Infinia’s system will only work in sun with high intensity, such as desert areas. But the heat-driven Stirling engine design opens up possibilities for alternative fuels. In an off-grid village in India, for example, biogas from an anaerobic digester could be burned to drive the Stirling engine to generate power. A hybrid system could use both a solar concentrator and run on other fuels, Williams said.

The upfront cost is higher than a (noisier) diesel generator, but he estimates the initial cost would be paid back in less than a year. Since it can burn any fuel, the generator could also be of interest to semi-permanent military bases, Williams says.

Infinia last year went through a restructuring that brought in a new management team and move from its home state of Washington. CEO Mike Ward, who formerly worked at auto parts manufacturer Autoliv, joined the company and led a revamp of the company’s operations. The company had been struggling despite support from Washington state and ample venture investment, including money from Khosla Ventures, Bill Gross’ Idealab, Foxconn Technology Group, and Paul Allen-led Vulcan Ventures.

“At the end of the day, they launched a product (but) they did not have control of the manufacturing process and therefore it did not perform at the specifications they expected, so it cost more than they expected,” Williams says.

To lower its production costs, it’s using lower-cost materials and off-the-shelf equipment as much as possible. “The company’s at the point where the technology is developed and now it’s going to the commercialization and manufacturing stage,” Williams says.

Competing in a market rapidly with falling solar PV prices is tough for anybody, never mind a small company with novel technology. In fact, a company that made larger solar dishes running Stirling engines went out of business last year. Williams says it can compete on price in areas with the right solar radiation and a sizeable military contract does help validate its technology. Now is just needs to do what many energy upstarts have struggled to do: use its first commercial foothold to scale up.

10/01/2012 Forbes

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MOEJ, Feasibility Study in 2012 - for Global Warming Mitigation Project

Our proposal was adopted by BOCM (Bilateral Offseting Credit Mechanisms) feasibility investigation by Ministry of the Environment Japan. The study was conducted small-scale power generation using biomass with stirling engine in Cambodia. See more details HERE

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