When looking at next-generation renewable technologies, you’ll hear a lot of claims about how cheaply they can create electricity. Usually the figures hover around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about low enough to compete with the mix of coal, oil and nuclear power most utilities use.
No such small ambitions, for a new startup called Sunrgi, which is unveiling its technology today at the annual National Energy Marketers Association convention. Sunrgi claims it can provide power for as little as half the above figure, at about 5-7 cents per kWh. That’s low enough to undercut damn near everything, with the possible exception of cheap, dirty coal — for which prices have been going up. Conventional solar cells cost upwards of 20 cents per kWh.
Sunrgi uses a concentrating solar power design, which generally means you start off with a tiny, highly efficient solar panel and focus in the sun’s rays on it with mirrors and lenses. A variety of companies already do this, including SolFocus, which has raised heaps of cash and even sparked a small bidding war toward commercializing the concept.
It’s debatable whether concentrated solar power can compete, long-term, with regular solar panels, but Sunrgi says it has two tricks to magnify CSP’s advantage. The first is a special, lens-only concentrating design with built-in solar trackers, which can focus over 1,500 “suns” on a single point (by comparison, one of the previous biggest claims for concentration levels was Greenvolts’ 625 suns). For an idea of how this might work, try to think of the most ingenious way possible to torch ants with magnifying glasses.
This scheme causes a problem, namely heating the solar cell that’s supposed to be generating electricity to over 1,600 degrees Celsius (or over 3,000 Fahrenheit). That’s where the second part of Sunrgi’s technology comes in, with a special cooling design, combining active and passive measures, that keeps the cell at around 30-40 degrees C (86-104 F).
Cooling is important above a certain level to avoid actually burning the solar cell, and below that point to reduce the failure rate. This ties in heavily to the cost equation, co-founder Dr. KRS Murthy told me in an interview — where other companies will have to pay heavy maintenance and replacement costs, Sunrgi’s well-chilled cells will last much longer, he said.
But beyond the details I’ve laid out, Sunrgi isn’t saying a great deal. The members of the management team who joined me on a call declined to give any further details of exactly how they cool the solar cells. While they did suggest a size for their utility-scale generation modules — 14 inches square, with a solar cell of less than a centimeter square in the center — they are still applying for patents, and so don’t want to describe the units further (although you can get an idea from the pictures at right and below).
What they did say is that they’re still conducting field testing on the units, continuing to optimize the basic design, and working on models for different markets (aside from utility generation, they’re looking at smaller commercial and industrial applications). That said, perhaps the second most surprising assertion Sunrgi has to make, after the price, is that they’ll be manufacturing within 12-15 months.
If Sunrgi can pull it off, that would be one of the faster production turnarounds a new energy generation technology has yet seen. On the other hand, if the price claims can be proven on a large scale, there will be plenty of investment dollars lining up to grease the industrial gears.
Speaking of funding, that’s the one missing part in the company’s claims. While the founders and executives have solid backgrounds, they haven’t yet announced where their backing is coming from. I’m told that several top VC firms are in talks with the company, though, as well as a “major strategic partner”, with announcements due in a week or two — so stay tuned for more.