A concentrated hub

Innovative solar firms also have based themselves in the region, right across the supply chain. These include solar leasing firms, installers and manufacturers; pv magazine obtained an exclusive insight into the best and brightest. Part one of the series is based on CPV player GreenVolts.

GreenVolts HQ

It’s a small market, but there is hope for its steady growth. In fact Lux Research believes that concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technology will grow at around 31 percent per annum, reaching a market of US$1.6 billion in 2017. A number of Bay Area firms are jostling for a slice of that market, including GreenVolts and Solaria in Fremont; Solfocus, a little further south in San Jose; and SunPower, located in Richmond.

Each company is promoting different approaches to the technology and also how to grow its business. At the Intersolar North America tradeshow, GreenVolts revealed that its strategy lies in a partnership with global power and automation player ABB. GreenVolts had previously signed a deal worth $20 million with ABB and, at the show, ABB revealed that it will sell the GreenVolts CPV system under its own hefty brand name.

This, believes the GreenVolts team, will provide the bankability assurances that utility-scale photovoltaic power plant developers want. It also provides GreenVolts with a path to market, leveraging ABB’s worldwide sales and support teams. Another aspect to the GreenVolts strategy is an advanced monitoring system and software that it developed to allow plant owners to monitor their installation in real time. Sound high-tech? pv magazine went inside to find out more.

Inside CPV

A darkened room sits in the middle of the GreenVolts offices. Between the office section, the kitchen and research labs, it looks like the control center of a television station. Huge monitors cover two walls, which relay live information about GreenVolts’ installations, how they are tracking the sun, what their output is, and if there are any problems. The software the company has developed to carry out this role is called ISIS (Intelligent Solar Information System).

With ISIS and the integrated module, tracker, inverter and communications system that GreenVolts provides, the team at the Bay Area startup believes utility scale applications and commercial or municipal sites are all possible markets. "I think what is exciting about our system, is that our system architecture, taken together with our software architecture and the data architecture, allows us to have those kinds of conversations and provide that level of intelligent grid integration," explains President and CEO David Gudmundson.

We travel out to a GreenVolts test array, only a short drive from the company headquarters. Each array consists of large CPV modules mounted on impressive green trackers. Each array has a System Control Point (SCP), which feeds this information back to the control center. If there is any problem with shading, with tracking or with output from the array, that information is relayed back to the engineers stationed at the ISIS control room. The SCP itself is a big green box that holds the inverter, motion control systems, power electronics, Wi-Fi and GPS. "Basically all the brains of the system are in that box," says GreenVolts co-founder Eric Romo while taking shade under one of the spreading arrays.

Romo also points out how a large number of components of a GreenVolts array are delivered on site largely preassembled. This, he says, means that only the ground mounting solution and the spacing of the arrays needs to be specifically catered to the site. "All the complexity in the field is already taken care of," he explains. "All the wiring comes as a wire harness, so it’s all keyed and cabled, so all the installer has to do is roll it out, match and connect."

While having designed and engineered its integrated CPV solution – including the ISIS software, GreenVolts does not manufacture the system nor its components. It is a similar strategy as employed by Bay-Area-neighbor Solfocus. Both CPV players contract to third-party manufacturers to get the cells, concentrators – which together form the module – tracking equipment and electronics manufactured, generally in China.

By using third-party manufacturers, capital cost, in terms of ramping up production, are kept at a minimum. GreenVolts has attracted $125 million in investments since its inception, including the $20 million from ABB. And it’s this partnership that has both Eric Romo and CEO Gudmundson excited.

"We went from being a little northern-Californian company with sales reach into the Southwest U.S., to now literally I have enquiries in my inbox today from five different countries," says Romo. In the current volatile photovoltaic market, having a company of ABB’s size – in 2011 its global revenue was US$40 billion – backing any warranties is an obvious major plus. ABB also has established service teams around the world, in language and on location.

The current market conditions also mean that keeping costs low and being able to deliver a competitive solution is a top priority. Romo says, without mentioning specific LCOE figures quoted to customers, that the very fact GreenVolts has been selling projects means the company can deliver its solution cost competitively. At present, the company has delivered over a dozen installations throughout the Southwest U.S.

It is certainly true that the photovoltaic industry is moving away from historic markets like Germany and into hotter, sunnier regions, which suits what the GreenVolts system can provide. High efficiency, integrated solutions is also the market trend to watch, says Gudmundson. "There’s no question in the next 12 to 18 months folks are going to look for the higher efficiency, lower cost solution," he says, "but there’s absolutely a thirst for it in the market right now, for higher efficiency, higher production solutions."

And as the GreenVolts tracker clicks into action overhead, there’s little doubt that’s what this Bay Area CPV solution is bringing to market today.