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Archive for the ‘Stirling Energy Systems’ Category

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photo: Ausra

When Green Wombat sat down for a chat with Ausra founder David Mills back in September 2007, he allowed that it was not unreasonable to expect the Silicon Valley solar startup to soon be building several massive megawatt solar power plants a year. The optimism was not unwarranted. After all, in the space of 12 months Ausra had relocated from Sydney to Palo Alto, raised $40 million from A-list venture capitalists and was about to ink a deal with utility PG&E for a 177-megawatt  solar power project.

That was then. This month Ausra laid off 10% of its 108 employees amid a move to stop building Big Solar projects – for now – to focus on providing its solar thermal technology to other power plant developers and to industries that use steam. (Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector technology deploys flat mirrors that sit low to the ground and concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors. The superheated water creates steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

“I think our competitors will figure this out sooner or later but nobody’s going from a five-megawatt project to a 500-megawatt project. No one’s going to finance that,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat. “If you look at the amount of money it takes to be involved in the project development business, that’s not something a startup can do.”

At least any time soon. Ausra last year opened a robotic factory in Las Vegas to make mirror arrays and other components for the many power plant projects it had on the drawing boards. Just three months ago the company flipped the switch on its five-megawatt Kimberlina demonstration power plant outside Bakersfield. But as the credit crunch hit, financing for billion-dollar solar power projects evaporated. Then in October, Congress passed legislation allowing utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects. As the only well-capitalized institutions left standing in the energy game, utilities are stepping forward as investors.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee says he’s prepared to make direct investments in solar power plants – projects the utility needs to comply with a California mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. Under pressure to meet those targets, California utilities have signed more than four gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements with solar power plant startups like BrightSource Energy, Solel, Stirling Energy Systems and eSolar. Utilities also have begun signing deals for electricity produced by smaller scale photovoltaic power plants built by companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA).

Fishman said Ausra will complete the 177-megawatt Carrizo Energy Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast to supply electricity to PG&E. “If Peter Darbee wants to own Carrizo rather than buy the electricity, we’re willing to do it. It makes sense,” he says.

Ausra will also will complete a second big solar power plant planned for Arizona. But the company has quietly let drop a Florida project for utility FPL (FPL) and is negotiating to offload lease claims it filed on federal land in Arizona and Nevada for solar power plants during the solar land rush.

“Other projects in the pipeline we’ll be selling to utilities or developers for a modest amount of cash with a commitment that those developers must use our technology,” says Fishman.

Fishman notes that the cost of licensing a solar power plant can be $5 million to $10 million a year – and in California it’s a multi-year process – so Ausra will realize some immediate savings by morphing into a technology provider.

Customers for Ausra’s technology include oil companies that could inject solar-generated steam in oil wells to enhance recovery of thick petroleum as well as food processing plants and other heavy users of steam. Fishman just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he says he held talks in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai about using Ausra’s technology for oil recovery and desalinization.

Going forward, he says Ausra’s focus will be on medium-sized power plants. “Maybe next year we’ll do four projects of 50 megawatts a year. It’s a walk before you run situation,” says Fishman. “The financial customers and financial community are going to insist we do medium scale before we do large scale. We’ll still want to do very large projects but given the project finance market, it’ll be a few years from now.”

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With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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The risky nature of Big Solar projects has been driven home with California regulators’ move to kill a controversial $1.3 billion transmission line that would have connected massive solar power stations in the desert to coastal cities.

“These projects are unlikely to proceed,” wrote Jean Vieth, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission, in a ruling rejecting San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink transmission line.

Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems in 2005 scored a contract to provide SDG&E (SRE) with up to 900 megawatts of electricity to be generated by as many as 36,000 solar dishes. A few months later, the utility filed an application to build the Sunrise Powerlink, a new transmission line to connect the Stirling power plants and other renewable energy projects to the coast.

But the utility’s proposal to build 150-foot-high transmission towers right through wilderness areas of Anza-Borrego State Park, home to a host of protected species, triggered a long-running fight with green groups that generated an 11,000-page environmental impact report. On Halloween, Vieth issued a ruling that found that despite state mandates to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact of the transmission project was frightening.

“The potentially high economic costs to ratepayers and the potential implications for our [greenhouse gas] policy objectives do not justify the severe environmental damage that any of the transmission proposals would cause,” concluded Vieth in a 265-page decision.

The battle isn’t over — the public utilities commission will vote in December whether to accept the judge’s ruling. They will also consider an alternative decision issued by a commissioner assigned to review the case. That decision would let SDG&E build a transmission line along a different route under certain conditions.

But the case highlights the conflicting environmental values that will dog solar power projects. In other words, just what trade-offs are we willing to make to secure a planet-friendly source of energy? In this case, the judge ruled that to avoid the environmental damage of a massive new transmission line, the preferred alternative is to build more fossil-fuel plants close to San Diego along with a smaller-scale solar power station and a huge increase in rooftop solar arrays. The judge acknowledged that such an alternative “would cause substantially more GHG emissions than the proposed project and other transmission proposals.”

The judge’s second preferred alternative was to build only renewable-energy projects near San Diego that would not require big new transmission lines. Some Sunrise Powerlink opponents argue that San Diego has enough roof space to generative massive amounts of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels. (The cost of such an undertaking was left unsaid.)

Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich’s alternative decision would allow San Diego Gas & Electric to build Sunrise Powerlink along a more environmentally-benign route if the utility could prove that most of the transmission line would carry renewable energy so as to offset the 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases emitted during its construction. “Reliance on a single 900-megawatt contract (the Stirling Energy Systems contract) is too risky,” she wrote.

So where does this leave Stirling? COO Bruce Osborn didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But earlier this year, he told Green Wombat that even if Sunrise Powerlink was killed, there’s enough existing transmission capacity to carry electricity from the power plant’s first 300-megawatt phase. Stirling also has a 20-year contract to supply up to 850 megawatts of electricity to utility Southern California Edison (EIX), a deal not contingent on Sunrise Powerlink.

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photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat’s story in the new issue of Fortune magazine on the solar power plant-fueled boom in demand for wildlife biologists is now online here. The photo above of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard was taken at a state reserve in San Luis Obispo County.

Or you can read the story below.

The hottest tech job in America

Giant solar plants are being built where dozens of protected species live. That’s good news for wildlife biologists.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — It looks like a scene from an old episode of The X-Files: As a red-tailed hawk circles overhead and a wild pronghorn sheep grazes in the distance, a dozen people in dark sunglasses move methodically through a vast field of golden barley, eyes fixed to the ground, GPS devices in hand. They’re searching for bodies.

In this case, however, the bodies belong to the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the crew moving through the knee-high grain are wildlife biologists hired by Ausra, a Silicon Valley startup that’s building a solar power plant for utility PG&E on this square mile of central California ranchland.

With scores of solar power stations planned for sites in the Southwest, demand for wildlife biologists is hot. They’re needed to look for lizards and other threatened fauna and flora, to draw up habitat-protection plans, and to comply with endangered-species laws to ensure that a desert tortoise or a kit fox won’t be inadvertently squashed by a solar array.

That has engineering giants like URS (URS, Fortune 500) in San Francisco and CH2MHill of Englewood, Colo., scrambling to hire biologists to serve their burgeoning roster of solar clients. “It’s a good time to be a biologist – it’s never been busier in my 15 years in the business,” says Angela Leiba, a senior project manager for URS, which is staffing the $550 million Ausra project. URS has brought onboard 40 biologists since 2007 to keep up with the solar boom. Salaries in the industry, which typically start around $30,000 and run up to about $120,000, have spiked 15% to 20% over the past year.

The work is labor-intensive. “It can take a 30- to 50-person team several weeks to complete just one wildlife survey,” says CH2MHill VP David Stein.

The economics of Big Solar ensure that wildlife biology will be a growth field for years to come. For one thing, there’s the mind-boggling scale of solar power plants. Adjacent to the Ausra project in San Luis Obispo County, for instance, OptiSolar of Hayward, Calif., is building a solar farm for PG&E that will cover 9 1/2 square miles with solar panels. Nearby, SunPower of San Jose will do the same on 3.4 square miles. Every acre must be scoured for signs of “species of special concern” during each phase of each project.

That adds up to a lot of bodies on the ground. URS, for instance, has dispatched 75 biologists to Southern California where Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix is planting 12,000 solar dishes in the desert. “The biologists are critical to move these projects forward,” notes Stirling COO Bruce Osborn. For one project Stirling had to pay for two years’ worth of wildlife surveys before satisfying regulators.

Just about every solar site is classified as potential habitat for a host of protected species whose homes could be destroyed by a gargantuan power station. (Developers of California solar power plants, for example, have been ordered to capture and move desert tortoises out of harm’s way.) The only way to determine if a site is crawling with critters is to conduct surveys.

While that means a lot of jobs for wildlife biologists, it’s not all red-tailed hawks and pronghorn sheep for these nature boys and girls. The work can get a bit Groundhog Dayish, say, after spending 1,400 hours plodding through the same barley field in 90-degree heat in search of the same blunt-nosed leopard lizard. No wonder then when URS crew boss Theresa Miller asks for volunteers to reconnoiter a decrepit farmhouse for some protected bats on the Ausra site, hands shoot up like schoolchildren offered the chance to take the attendance to the principal’s office.

PG&E (PCG, Fortune 500) renewable-energy executive Hal La Flash worries that universities aren’t cranking out enough workers of all stripes for the green economy. “It could really slow down some of these big solar projects,” he says. Osborn can vouch for that: Biological work on the Stirling project has ground to a halt at times while the company waits for its consultants to finish up surveys on competitors’ sites.

For the young graduate, veteran biologist Thomas Egan wants to say just three words to you: Mohave ground squirrel. The rare desert dweller is so elusive that the only way to detect it on a solar site is to set traps and bag it. “There’s a limited number of people authorized to do trapping for Mohave ground squirrels,” says Egan, a senior ecologist with AMEC Earth & Environmental. “If you can work with the Mohave ground squirrel, demand is intense.”

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Nearly three years ago, two Southern California utilities caused a stir when they announced deals to buy up to 1.75 gigawatts of electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix. The company had developed a Stirling solar dish – a 38-foot-high, 40-foot-wide mirrored structure that looks like a big shiny satellite receiver. The dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity.

Plans called for as many as 70,000 solar dishes to carpet the desert. For Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – both facing a state mandate to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 – it was a big gamble. As the years ticked by and Stirling tinkered with its technology, competitors like Ausra, BrightSource Energy and Solel came out of stealth mode and stole the limelight, signing deals with PG&E (PCG) and filing applications with California regulators to build solar power plants. By the time I visited Stirling’s test site in New Mexico in March 2007 for a Business 2.0 feature story, industry insiders were telling me – privately, of course – that Stirling would never make it; Stirling dishes were just too complex and too expensive to compete against more traditional solar technologies.

That may or may not end up being true, but Stirling has moved to silence the naysayers by filing a license application with the California Energy Commission for its first solar power plant – the world’s largest – a 30,000-dish, 750-megawatt project to be built 100 miles east of San Diego on 6,100 acres of federal land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. (A energy commission licence application – an extremely detailed and expensive document; Stirling’s runs 2,600 pages – is considered a sign that a project has the wherewithal to move forward.)

The first phase of the SES Solar Two project will consist of 12,000 SunCatcher dishes generating 300 megawatts for San Diego Gas & Electric. While the Stirling solar dish is more complex and contains more moving parts than other solar thermal technologies – which use mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam to drive a standard electricity-generating turbine – or photovoltaic panels like those found on rooftops, it also offers some distinct advantages. For one thing, it’s the most efficient solar thermal technology, converting sunlight into electricity at a 31.25% rate.  Each 25-kilowatt dish is in fact a self-contained mini-power plant that can start generating electricity – and cash – as soon as it is installed. Stirling will build 1.5-megawatt clusters of 60 dishes that will begin paying for themselves as each pod goes online. A conventional solar thermal power plant, of course, must be completely built out – which can take a year or two depending on size – before generating electricity.

The 750-megawatt Stirling project will also use relatively little water – no small matter in the desert – compared to other solar thermal plants. According to Stirling, SES Solar Two will consume 33 acre-feet of water – to wash the dishs’ mirrors – which is equivalent to the annual water use of 33 Southern California households. In contrast, a solar power plant to be built by BrightSource Energy that is nearly half the size is projected to use 100 acre-feet of water annually while a 177-megawatt Ausra plant would use 22 acre-feet, according to the companies’ license applications.

Still, there’s some big hurdles for Stirling to overcome. While it did score a whopping $100 million in funding in April from Irish renewable energy company NTR, the company will need billions in project financing to build Solar Two. And the project’s second 450-megawatt phase is dependent on the utility completing a controversial new transmission line through the desert called the Sunrise Powerlink. Depending on how fast the project is approved, construction is expected to begin in 2009 and last more than three years.

The other big unknown is what environmental opposition may develop. Within 10 miles of the SES Solar Two site are proposals to build solar power plants on an additional 51,457 acres of BLM land. Then there are the wildlife issues. Several California-listed “species of special concern” have been found on the Stirling site, including the burrowing owl, flat-tailed horned lizard and the California horned lark.

Regardless it’s a big step forward for Stirling. As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement, “This groundbreaking solar energy project is a perfect example of the clean renewable energy California can and will generate to meet our long-term energy and climate change goals.”

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eSolar, the solar energy startup founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, has signed a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison with 245 megawatts of green electricity.

The solar power plant will be built in 35-megawatt modules, with the first phase set to go online in 2011. As Green Wombat reported in April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

eSolar’s cost claims got Southern California Edison’s (EIX) attention. “It was a competitively priced proposal,” Stuart Hemphill, the utility’s VP for renewable and alternative power, told Fortune. “We found the eSolar team very competent, motivated and willing to do a deal.”

“When it comes down to different solar technologies, competitive pricing is going to be an important part of the equation,” he adds. “They do offer a unique solution.”

eSolar is keeping mum about the exact location of the power plant, only saying it will be in the Antelope Valley region of Southern California.

One potential hitch: Getting eSolar’s electricity to Southern California Edison will depend on the construction of a major new transmission line. That line, the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, has been partially approved to date.

With the eSolar deal, the utility is hedging its bets. Back in 2005, Southern California Edison signed a highly publicized deal with Phoenix’s Stirling Energy Systems to buy up to 850 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar power plants to be built in the Mojave Desert. (Around the same time, San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) signed a power purchase agreement with Stirling for up to 900 megawatts. ) Stirling is still perfecting its technology and has yet to file a license application for its first plant. But the company received a $100 million investment earlier this year and Hemphill says Stirling is moving forward.

“We expect that Stirling will meet its contractural obligations,” he says. “Solar thermal is definitely an emerging industry. It’s too early to tell which technologies will be the winners over the long run. It’s a time to be having a portfolio of different technologies so we can figure that out.”

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infinia-stirling-dish.jpgA passel of high-profile high-tech investors  — including Khosla Ventures, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and Bill Gross’ Idealab — are backing yet another new player in the increasingly hot market for large-scale solar power, pumping $50 million into Infinia, a Kennewick, Wash., company manufacturing a Stirling solar dish.

The Stirling dish has a storied — if unfulfilled – history in the annals of solar energy. It marries a Stirling heat engine, 17th-century invention, with a mirrored dish that looks like a super-sized version of a home satellite receiver. The solar dish focuses the sun’s rays on the Stirling engine, heating a gas inside that drives pistons to generate electricity. Stirling dishes are much more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than solar thermal technologies that use mirrors to heat liquid-filled tubes to create steam to drive electricity-generating turbines. But while solar thermal plants exist today, the Stirling solar dish has never been deployed on a large scale since work on the technology began in earnest following the oil shocks of the 1970s.

Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix in 2005 signed contracts with utilities Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to build up to build tens of thousands of Stirling dishes to produce up to 1.75 gigawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity. Though the company operates a six dishes in a prototype power plant at Sandia National Laboratories New Mexico, it is still working to get production costs down and rivals have questioned whether Stirling Energy Systems will be able to fulfill its deals. (See Green Wombat’s 2007 Business 2.0 magazine article on Stirling Energy Systems here. )

infinia-stirling-engine.jpgBut Infinia CEO J.D. Sitton tells Green Wombat that his company has perfected the Stirling dish to make it competitive with large-scale solar thermal as well as new photovoltaic technologies like thin-film solar. Infinia aims to deploy its Stirling dishes in smaller configurations so that solar power plants can be located near cities and at other sites that don’t require vast stretches of desert land where solar thermal plants are typically built. Each 21-foot-high, 15-foot-wide solar dish can generate 3-kilowatts (compared to 25 kilowatts for Stirling Energy Systems’ dish).

Infinia won’t itself become a solar developer but will provide its dishes to for power plants that range in size from 1 megawatt to 150 megawatts or more. In contrast, most solar thermal power plants now being planned are in the 400-500 megawatt range.

“We fly in the face of what has been the conventional wisdom in the solar thermal field that to be competitive you have to have a very large system,” says Sitton. “We can be deployed within city limits and be connected to existing transmission systems. No additional transmission capacity is required.”

“Our approach is that the winning solutions will be those that generate for most kilowatts for the least cost,” he adds. “This is a game about capital efficiency.”

That, of course, has been the mantra of leading green tech investor Vinod Khosla, who has disparaged photovolatic solar systems as too expensive to displace fossil-fuel generated power. Khosla also is backing Palo Alto solar thermal startup Ausra, which last year signed a deal to supply solar electricity to California’s largest utility, PG&E (PCG). Serial entrepreneur Bill Gross’ Idealab is funding solar thermal startup eSolar, which also is being backed by Google (GOOG).

Infinia contends the design of its Stirling dish system makes it competitive with solar thermal technologies. First, the Stirling engine uses helium rather than hydrogen, which typically must be periodically replenished. “We have no lubrication inside the machine and it needs no maintenance,” Sitton says. “We use helium in a hermetically sealed system.”

Second, he says the Infinia dish is made of six panels of glass rather than the 76 panels on the Stirling Energy Systems dish. “That gives us lower production costs and lower capital costs,” says Sitton. “We brought in large-scale manufacturer from the beginning. It’s not like we built a prototype and now have to reduce the cost to produce it.”

The first prototype went online last October and Sitton says Infinia is building a second at Sandia. Field tests will be conducted later this year in California and Nevada. He says Infinia is currently negotiating with solar developers and full-scale production is set to begin in November. Infinia has been in business since the 1980s, building Stirling engines for other applications. But the green tech boom and demands from utilities for renewable energy led the company to focus on solar.

Whether Infinia beats Stirling Energy Systems to market remains to be seen but look for the deals it signs with solar developers for a good indication of just how viable its technology is likely to be.

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