Entrepreneurs Gary D. Conley and Steve Horne formed solar energy startup SolFocus, Inc., with the goal of making solar energy a reality. Realizing that solar electricity would only be widely adopted if it were cost-competitive with fossil fuel-derived electricity, they had selected concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) as the most appropriate and promising technology approach. CPV systems use optics to concentrate sunlight from a relatively large collection area onto a much smaller area of photovoltaic material, so they can cost-effectively utilize expensive, high-efficiency cells to capture and convert more sunlight into electricity. With early contributions from university and other researchers, SolFocus had already developed a first-generation design that used relatively compact optics and multi-junction solar cells, when it became engaged with PARC. A key element of the development was implementing high-throughput manufacturing practices borrowed from the automotive and semiconductor industries.
"With the support of PARC, in just 18 months SolFocus has launched its first product, is developing the next-generation technology, has installed multiple test sites, and is setting the standard in CPV technology."
-- Gary D. Conley, CEO SolFocus
When PARC scientists first learned about SolFocus’s first-generation CPV design and longer-term plans for a monolithic tile concept, the scientists believed they could help SolFocus develop an approach that would be flatter, more reliable, and simpler to manufacture – essential features for lowering system cost and enhancing appeal to target markets. PARC proposed collaborating on SolFocus’s innovative “next generation” concentrator design that integrated the optical, thermal, and electrical aspects of high-efficiency CPV into a single, flat, molded piece of glass.
Within days of proposing this breakthrough CPV design, PARC scientists modeled the viability of the system optics, using ray tracing techniques and other methods. SolFocus decided to rely upon this design as the basis for second-generation products and subsequently “set up shop” in PARC’s facility, where it had access to extensive operational resources and could draw on PARC scientists’ competencies in optical system design, optoelectronics, advanced materials for electronic packaging, and semiconductor manufacturing process expertise.
The PARC-SolFocus design uses a smaller and more highly integrated solar panel to convert significantly more sunlight into electricity. The panel is durable, safe to operate, and potentially could be more cost-effective to manufacture in high volumes. The bottom line will be solar power generation that is more affordable and scalable than competing approaches. With a next-generation design already in the pipeline, SolFocus received $32M in Series-A financing to grow its team, accelerate reliability tests, and pilot production.
PARC continued to sustain and accelerate SolFocus technology development. Within 16-18 months, the new venture:
- Expanded from 2 to 50 employees before moving to new headquarters
- Locked in its solar-cell supply
- Acquired a Spanish tracker company that would enable it to bring down total CPV system costs
- Opened its own Glass Works operations in Mesa, Arizona, to address the highest cost element
- Formed a European counterpart with further funding and additional partners
- Closed its second-round funding in the US and first-rounding funding in Europe with an additional $63.6M capital
- Started first commercial deployment – a 500kW CPV system in a 3MW pilot-plant project in Spain.
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