Will Solar Ever Live Up to the Hype? Paul Allen, Vinod Khosla Bet On Infinia’s Sun Engines

8/31/09Follow @xconomy

The early afternoon sun was bearing down on us, and it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit the other day when J.D. Sitton walked behind his office, squinted, and pointed to the future of his company.

Sitton, the CEO of Kennewick, WA-based Infinia, showed me a device resembling a satellite dish that has attracted some deep-pocketed investors, including Paul Allen and Vinod Khosla. Their hope is that Infinia’s dishes will finally turn solar energy into a workhorse for meeting more of the world’s electricity demand. If Sitton and his backers are right, he’ll be running a multi-billion dollar company five years from now. If he’s wrong, Infinia will be written off as just another costly pipe dream.

“We didn’t want to just launch a company in a cute little industry,” Sitton says. “We want to launch a company that can build a major global industry.”

Solar power has been talked up since the 1970s as one of the main ways the U.S. can wean itself off foreign oil. The field has picked up renewed momentum lately as a way to meet growing demand for electricity while reducing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. But the current breed of photovoltaic systems, or solar cells, are notoriously heavy, expensive, and inefficient at converting the sun’s energy into electricity, so solar still amounts to a drop in the bucket, generating less than 1 percent of the world’s electricity, Sitton says. If Infinia can help spark a new market for converting solar heat (instead of light) into electricity, then it will have a chance to reach some of the projections of enthusiasts, like Greenpeace, who want to see 15 percent or more of the world’s electricity coming from solar, Sitton says.

Infinia says it already has $2 billion worth of orders for its solar power generation product in hand, which it expects to start rolling out commercially before the end of September 2010. So we shouldn’t have to wait 20 years to find out if this is for real.

“Solar has got to step up in a much bigger way,” Sitton says. “We have to prove it can be done.”

Here’s how this is supposed to work. That satellite dish I mentioned earlier? It has a little motor attached to it that keeps it in the right position to capture as many direct rays of sun as possible during daylight hours. Like any dish, it uses mirrors to reflect something, in this case, sunlight, back up to a focal point. That’s where Infinia has the business end of its device.infiniadish

It’s a Stirling engine, made to convert that concentrated heat from the sun into mechanical work. It’s like a steam engine, except it doesn’t need water—it powers its internal piston through the expansion and contraction of helium. The heat moves the piston, which generates electricity. These engines are thought to be attractive for this kind of work, partly because they are highly efficient at converting heat into electricity, and they don’t require water, or oil. They are supposed to be able to last 25 years with zero maintenance, Sitton says.

Infinia has been around as a company longer than that since the 1960s, mostly working on Stirling engines to make them reliable, long-lasting, and efficient, Sitton says. Before 2005, when it settled on its solar strategy, Infinia worked mostly on Stirling engines for a number of different applications, including artificial hearts and exploration vehicles for outer space.

The most important question any investor today asks is how much power gets generated by one of these Infinia units, and at what cost. The short answer is … Next Page »

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