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Bright Idea: Norwich Company Focuses on Boosting Solar Power

  • Bill Bender, president of Solaflect Energy in Norwich, Vt., stands in front of a solar panel installed at a property in Norwich, Vt., earlier this year on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Bill Bender, president of Solaflect Energy in Norwich, Vt., stands in front of a solar panel installed at a property in Norwich, Vt., earlier this year on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • T.J. Micca, an engineering intern, performs a final test on a solar unit due to be installed within the week at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction,  Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    T.J. Micca, an engineering intern, performs a final test on a solar unit due to be installed within the week at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lauria Clarke, an electrical engineering intern, installs a computer in a solar unit at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Lauria Clarke, an electrical engineering intern, installs a computer in a solar unit at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Bender, president of Solaflect Energy in Norwich, Vt., stands in front of a solar panel installed at a property in Norwich, Vt., earlier this year on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • T.J. Micca, an engineering intern, performs a final test on a solar unit due to be installed within the week at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction,  Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Lauria Clarke, an electrical engineering intern, installs a computer in a solar unit at Solaflect Energy in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

White River Junction — In a windowless warehouse tucked behind aging industrial buildings off Harrison Avenue, a handful of people are trying to reduce the cost of solar energy.

It’s a functional space with the smell of grease and motor oil that gives it the air of a working garage. It’s not very tidy, cluttered with steel cables and tall solar support structures in various stages of development, mixed about with extension ladders, wrenches and laptop computers.

This is the research, development and production department of Solaflect Energy, a young Norwich-based company that is using lighter materials and sun-tracking robots to make residential and commercial solar power more efficient and affordable.

Until this year, the company and its eight employees have existed primarily on expectations of success and dreams of a better way — along with two federal grants. But revenue is beginning to come in now, and there are strong prospects for more, although the firm’s president, Bill Bender, is not saying much about future unsigned deals.

“We’re working on a number of things that look promising,” he said, including a proposal to provide solar power for Norwich’s town buildings.

The future of solar energy depends on making it cost-competitive with other forms of energy — which means bringing the cost down from around 15 cents a kilowatt-hour now to somewhere around the 6 cents that the U.S. Department of Energy wants to see. That’s not an impossible goal. The price of photovoltaic systems have been dropping significantly for years — more than 60 percent since the beginning of 2011, according to the Solar Industries Association, a national trade organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Most of the cost of solar is the materials — steel — that go into holding it up” said Bender, an Oxford, England-trained economist who started the company in 2007 after tinkering around for a couple of years with solar panels and mirrors in the backyard of his Norwich home.

“We’re replacing a lot of that steel with cables, and that’s lighter and a fraction of the cost. It’s similar to the technology used to hold up suspension bridges.”

Solaflect is working on two fronts: its Suspension PV Tracker, which produces photovoltaic power for both residential and commercial uses, and its Suspension Heliostat system, which focuses the heat of the sun with parabolic mirrors to create hot water or steam, a system best suited for such larger commercial applications as power plants or for industries that use a lot of hot water, such as a paper mill, dairy farm, brewery or distillery.

Both of the systems use 65 percent less steel than conventional units, and both use computer-driven tracking that follows the sun and produces 30-40 percent more electricity than stationary units, Bender said.

The relatively lightweight units also automatically flatten out in high winds and will move into a vertical position after blizzards to shed snow.

The Suspension Tracker systems are on the market and being sold to homes and businesses around the Upper Valley, but the company is still working to get final regulatory approval to qualify the units for state tax incentives. Six of the units are providing power to homes so far, and orders have been backing up waiting on the approval, said Nate Hine, the company’s director of engineering.

The installed and operating 4-kilowatt units will sell for $11,640, after the incentives, and can save about $1,300 in electricity costs a year, using a net-metering system, Hine said. Investing in the units provides an annual after-tax return of about 8 percent, or from 9-15 percent before tax, depending on tax brackets, Bender said.

On the other front, one of the Suspension Heliostat’s applications is to create hot water by focusing the sun’s heat on a specially designed water heater, Bender said. The system gained the attention of the Department of Energy, which awarded Solaflect two so-called “SunShot Incubator” grants of $1 million each.

The company is testing its units in Wyoming, to confirm they stand up to hurricane-force winds, and in the DOE’s Albuquerque, N.M., laboratory, where the mirrors focus the sun’s heat on a tower target, Bender said. The tower transfers the solar heat to molten salts that are heated from 800 to 1,500 degrees, a temperature that is hot enough to be stored until evening and then used to create steam to turn a conventional turbine and generate electricity.

The new technology is well-established, but the problem is getting the cost down. The DOE has set the cost goal of 6 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2020, to produce solar and is using a collaborative consortium of private companies and public research organizations to reach the target, according to the DOE website.

By reducing the costs, the DOE projects solar energy will grow from its present position of less than 1 percent of the national electricity supply to 14 percent in 2030 and 27 percent in 2050.

Bender said the Solaflect system is well on its way to reaching significant cost savings in the near future.

Solaflect and other solar companies are hitting the market at a boom period for solar energy, which not only has come down dramatically in cost but also has improved efficiency.

In the Northeast, where sunlight can be spotty, solar energy has become more feasible because of the high electricity costs compared with other parts of the country.

Vermont, where new regulations and incentives are spurring construction, is ranked 10th in the nation in per capita solar use. New Hampshire is lagging behind. The solar industry in the Granite State may be hindered by recently passed legislation that gives a leg up to other renewable energy sources to the detriment of solar, the International Renewable Energy Commission, a nonprofit industry watchdog group, said in a recent report.

By the end of the first quarter this year, the U.S. had 8,500 megawatts of cumulative installed solar capacity, or enough to power more than 1.3 million average homes. That’s a 33 percent increase over the first quarter of 2012, the Solar Industries Association said.

By the end of this year, the association predicts that installed solar power will increase in the U.S. by 50 percent, or enough to power 960,000 more homes.

“We’re pretty excited about being able to do this,” Bender said. “We’re a local company that’s providing local jobs and helping the local economy, and we’re doing it with world-class technology that we’re developing right here.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.