Follow the sun

The air-powered technology that is boosting the economics of solar energy

New technologies are transforming solar power into one of the cheapest forms of energy. We look at how innovators such as Sunfolding are helping change the solar energy landscape.

Installed solar power capacity is expected to double in the US over the next five years as technological innovation drives down the cost of production and coal power plants continue to be decommissioned.

The long-term construction and running costs of PV solar power coming online in 2022 will be cheaper than all other energy sources except geothermal and onshore wind, at $US46.50 per megawatt hour, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

These costs are set to fall further with new technologies, including one developed by San Francisco-based Sunfolding, Inc. that better utilizes land, speeds up plant construction and improves reliability.

The changing US energy landscape

The US energy landscape has changed significantly over the past decade.

Coal, long the staple source of power, has fallen from nearly half of all US electricity generation in 2008 to 30 per cent today and could represent only 14 per cent of total generation by 2050 on some EIA estimates.

Natural gas became the leading source of US electricity generation in 2016, accounting for around 32 per cent of power supplied, while renewables hold a 17 per cent market share with hydropower and wind the main contributors.

While solar power represents just 1.3 per cent of US energy generation, the quarterly US Solar Market Insight expects installed capacity – currently at 55 gigawatts, enough to power 10.7 million American homes – to more than double over the next five years.

An innovation within an innovation

Solar trackers, which point a plant’s solar panels towards the sun as it moves through the sky, have made solar plants more efficient but have added a layer of complexity to plant construction and operation.

“A solar power plant used to be remarkably simple,” Sunfolding’s Chief Technology Officer and Founder Leila Madrone explains.

“Trackers changed that. They increased plant efficiency and the return on investment but that came with higher construction costs, more maintenance, more moving parts that could malfunction and more expense.”

By rethinking the way a tracker functioned so that it was moved by air rather than motors, Sunfolding reduced the machine that moves the panels in a solar plant to just one component, the AirDrive. 

This increased a plant’s potential savings and yield and reduced the amount of labor needed in the construction and maintenance phases - one of the major factors in the overall cost of solar energy.  

“We have made constructing a solar plant two to three times faster, and the maintenance requirements are essentially now no more than periodically changing an air filter,” Madrone says.

“These innovative, less complex solar trackers will play an important role in changing the equation so that constructing and maintaining a solar plant in the US can be cheaper than almost any other energy source.”

Stephan Feilhauer, a Senior Vice President at Macquarie Capital, says this has the potential to change the financial dynamics of solar energy.

“The design features pioneered by Sunfolding will help lead us to the next generation of solar, one in which we realize its enormous potential.”

Sunfolding is a participating company of the Macquarie Capital Venture Studio with R/GA (“Studio”). Renewable energy and other key technologies are a focus of the Studio: a platform designed to promote innovations in InfraTech. The Studio collaborates with companies that have the potential to accelerate industries including utilities, transportation and environmental services. For more information or to apply, visit www.macquarie.com/mcvs.

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