Grant Helps Solar Start-Up Double Down
on Efficiency


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A new solar power start-up is eyeing its competition and seeing green. It’s not because it envies other solar companies. Rather, Corvallis, OR-based Inspired Light is focused on competing with fossil-fueled power plants. At least that’s the way CEO Frank Cloutier sees it.

Cloutier says his novel rooftop solar system currently can deliver up to 30% efficiency, compared to the 15-18% typical of traditional PV panels. After his team has worked through a few engineering challenges, the goal is to go to market with a product that is twice as efficient per square foot. The potential for faster return on investment would place the technology on par with fossil power for large commercial buildings, utilities, and even residential customers, he predicts. As national big-box retail chains such as Walmart go public with aspirations to cut their carbon footprints, the future for such technologies could be bright.  

Cloutier is no starry-eyed solar power wonk. He’s is a battle-hardened veteran of the high-tech industry’s innovate-or-die heyday. He’s best remembered for his 32-year run at Hewlett Packard, especially his leadership of the company’s highly successful product lines in inkjet printers and notebook computers. When he says he has a market-disrupting idea, people tend to listen. A recent commercialization grant from Oregon BEST (Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center), a state-affiliated clean-technology economic development group, will help his start-up put that idea to the test.

The Company

Cloutier retired as CTO and vice president of HP’s imaging and printing operation in 2006. His entrepreneurial sights were already focused on the greener pastures of sustainable energy technology. He launched Inspired Light in close proximity to HP’s vast rural Oregon operation and two nearby state universities with world-class research expertise in engineering, materials science and sustainable energy. He assembled a core team of trusted colleagues from his industrial past and leveraged their connections with neighboring Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, just 40 minutes to the south.

Still months or more away from a commercial launch, Inspired Light currently has 12 employees, many of whom share Cloutier’s local HP roots.

The Technology

Inspired Light isn’t ready to publicize details of its technology but does acknowledge it’s based on three-junction concentrated solar photovoltaic (PV) cells. Compared to standard PV panels, which typically achieve 15%-18% efficiency, the start-up’s product is said to reach up to 30%, for now, using mostly low-cost, locally sourced materials. To further contain production costs, the company conducted a detailed analysis of each stage of the solar-power value chain, weighing price and performance factors ranging from system footprint to installation costs to tracking and manufacturing processes.

“Most solar energy research focuses on either low price or high efficiency, but I’ve learned that sometimes you discover breakthroughs when you tackle both of these simultaneously,” Cloutier says.

To optimize solar panel coatings, researchers study the
antireflection properties of the moth eye.

 

To reach the greater efficiency targets it needs, the company is working on some remaining engineering challenges, notably reducing the amount of sunlight lost to reflection off the solar cell surface. It is working with chemical engineers at Oregon State University to develop a highly efficient, inexpensive antireflective (AR) coating.

“There are a few engineering issues with this technology but they are definitely solvable,” says Chih-hung Chang, Ph.D., an Oregon State University professor and director of the Oregon Process Innovation Center for Solar Cell Manufacturing, a signature research facility of Oregon BEST. “This is a very exciting project.”

Inspired Light engineers are also tapping tools and collaborating with faculty researchers at the University of Oregon’s SuNRISE PV Lab, another signature facility of Oregon BEST.

The Kick Start

Adding to the excitement is a recent $150,000 development grant from the Oregon Built Environmental & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST), a green innovation nonprofit funded with state lottery revenues as a catalyst for cleantech start-ups like Inspired Light. That grant, along with a separate Oregon BEST grant in 2011 that helped Chang acquire a state-of-the-art high-speed quantum efficiency test instrument (Flash QE, Tau Science, Beaverton, OR), is helping Inspired Light reduce its eventual production costs while pushing the limits of solar’s energy efficiency.

In the technology transfer field, this period of a product’s development is often referred to as the “Valley of Death,” where once-promising start-up ideas often die for lack of external funding. Cloutier says even modest grants at the right time can help keep their critical proof-of-concept work moving forward before it’s ready for outside investors. State-allied business catalysts play a critical role in these new technology-driven ventures by connecting businesses with local research collaborators. “If not for these connections through Oregon BEST and its network of shared-user labs, we’d be working with private labs and tools located at a distance, so the process would be much slower and more costly,” he says. “It’s a relatively small amount of funding, but it comes at a time when it makes a big difference in the life of a start-up.”

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

It’s a relatively small amount of funding, but it comes at a time when it makes a big difference in the life of a start-up.

Frank Cloutier, Inspired Light

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March 2013

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org