Practical Instruments joins solar gold rush, raises $8M

UpdatedPractical Instruments has raised $8 million in a first round of funding to develop what it says is the most powerful solar “concentration” technology yet.

It uses solar panels that track the sun as it moves. The panels use mirrors to concentrate the sunlight for the photovoltaic process, thereby boosting performance.

It is the latest in a wave of entrants in the booming solar power industry, and will compete against a number of other “concentration” companies, including Energy Innovations, SolFocus and Solaria. It will be presenting its technology at the Solar Power 2006 expo in San Jose this week. (See summary of the solar wave in the Mercury News today.)

RockPort Capital Partners and Nth Power led the venture capital round. Trinity Ventures and Rincon Venture Partners also participated.

The wave of solar funding joins a wider boom in alternative energy investments: In just the last few days, we’ve seen solar monitoring start-up Fat Spaniel, power management company iWatt, biofuel start-up Primafuel (Long Beach, Calif.) and biofuel start-up Amyris all raise new financing.

Practical Instruments chief executive Brad Hines said he is taking a different tack than the other solar competitors. Two years ago, Hines left competitor Energy Innovations, which users a similar tracking technology. But that technology was early and the panels required “tower” and other support structures that created panels different to those the industry was familiar with, Hines said. As a result, the company struggled to create what is effectively its own distribution channel. While Energy Innovations boasted a good concentration technology, installers didn’t know what to do with it, he said. (We wrote about Energy Innovations here last year, when it raised venture capital. We contacted Energy Innovations President Andrew Beebe for a response to Hines’ critique; he declined comment).

practical instruments.bmpSo Hines, who was also a “chief architect” at NASA, founded Practical Instruments (see team in picture) with the goal of making panels that are the same shape as regular solar panels. He also pledges they will cost less and produce more power. The company’s panels can produce 30 percent more power for a given area than the current leaders, he says. However, the company hasn’t started delivering its product or set pricing yet, so we’ll see if he pulls this off.

The company’s technology resides on the rooftop, and so can be installed on more buildings than, say SolFocus, which requires a ground mounting and is more focused on serving utilities, he said.

Solaria, another company we’ve written about, has raised money for panels with concentration technology — but its technology does not use tracking, and so it’s limited to only two to three times the regular concentration of sunlight on the solar cells. Practical Instruments see concentration levels of about ten times regular concentration.

The investment will fund the production of Practical Instruments’ flagship product, Heliotube, the company said.