Cogenra (formerly known as Skywatch Energy), a Khosla Ventures-funded solar startup, is slowly coming out of stealth, urged on by their recent win of a $1.5 million California Solar Initiative (CSI) RD&D grant.  (RD&D, oddly, stands for Research, Development, Deployment and Demonstration.) 

Here is some of the text of the Cogenra grant:

Cogenra Solar has developed, prototyped and validated the technical performance of an innovative concentrating photovoltaic/thermal co-generation technology and will conduct an 80-kW demonstration at the Sonoma Wine Company. For this project, the field performance of the system will be measured and used to refine economic and financing models and optimization over multiple tariff structures. This project will also look at modifying the co-generation system so that it can support tri-generation of electricity, heating and cooling, expanding the market to include commercial sites that require cooling and lower amounts of hot water. Additionally, Cogenra Solar will modify the system to provide energy storage for use during peak demand and coordination with Pacific Gas and Electric on grid integration.

The startup has received $10.5 million from Khosla Ventures.


About 190 gigawatts of solar water heating is installed globally, according to Gilad Almogy, the CEO of Cogenra.  Compare that to the 20 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics installed on the ground (about 10 gigawatts of which was installed this year).

But you tend to hear a lot more about photovoltaics (PV) in the press and, admittedly, in this publication.  PV is a bit sexier -- there's a semiconductor aspect and a magical conversion of sun to electricity.  Hot water is kind of dull. More importantly, as Michael Kanellos points out, tax credits for PV systems are more pervasive.  See Brett Prior's article for more details on solar thermal.

"But solar water heating is five times more efficient than PV," according to the CEO, and therefore has a much faster payback.  It's also an accepted way of doing things in China, the Mideast, Germany, and in Austria, of all places, according to Almogy, the CEO.  The math shows that solar heat is cheaper than solar electricity, so the much higher efficiency of solar water heating by itself translates to a only a minor commercial advantage over PV. Cogeneration, however, takes the best of both worlds by generating as much electricity as standard PV and adding four times as much heat -- the extra four units of solar heat is monetarily equivalent to the solar-produced electricity.   It essentially doubles the value of a PV system.

"Payback times for hybrid solutions are dramatically shorter than PV alone," according to the CEO."

In addition to having higher rates of return than other PV-only or heat-only solar solutions, Cogenra's system also delivers three times' more of a reduction in green-house gas emissions.  Scrubbing some heat away from the PV cells can also improve performance and lengthen the lifetime of the cells.

Cogenra is focused on medium sized applications -- not single-family homes, nor hundred-megawatt solar farms.  In Almogy's view, "PV has paved the way."  The same PPA-type financial tools and renewable energy incentives once used to get the photovoltaic market off the ground are now primed for hot water applications.  The CEO cited H & PPAs -- Heat and Power Purchase Agreements.  Metrus Energy and Skyline Innovations have begun to market solar thermal water heaters and other non-PV equipment as a service.

Applications for hot water are ubiquitous; some are obvious and others maybe not-so-obvious.  They include food processing, hotels, restaurants, schools, corporate offices, laundries, boiler pre-heat for power generation, and jails.

Almogy did not reveal the actual form factor or nuts and bolts of the system, but promised we'll see it in action before the end of the year.

Policy usually trumps technology, and in this case, policy seems to be on the side of solar hot water.  California Assembly Bill AB 1470 is The California Hot Water Heating and Efficiency Act authored by California Assemblyman Jared Huffman -- a $250 million incentive program for solar hot water heating.

Cogenra's board of directors includes Pierre Lamond and Dan Maydan, both Silicon Valley heavy-hitters. Maydan was a force at Applied Materials for years.  Almogy came from Applied and ran a couple of crucial divisions. The Cogenra CEO is also on the board of reverse-osmosis membrane firm NanoH2O, another Khosla portfolio company.

Other early-stage companies looking to generate more than just electricity from the sun include Absolicon, Chromasun, PVT Solar, Sundrum, Turkey's Solimpeks, Thrive Power, and Entech, which counts David Gelbaum as CEO.


Other CSI grant winners included:

Focus Area I: Improved PV production technologies

1. PV and Advanced Energy Storage for Demand Reduction by SunPower Corporation. The overall goal of this project is to demonstrate that the integration of PV and energy storage will be of higher value than either technology alone. The project will receive $1,875,000 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $937,000.

2. Improved Cost, Reliability, and Grid Integration of High Concentration Photovoltaic Systems by Amonix will monitor the performance of nine 53 kW High Concentration Photovoltaic (HCPV) units and associated circuits on the UC Irvine electric infrastructure to evaluate and compare grid interconnection and energy management strategies. The project will receive $2,139,384 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $3,157,000.

3. Proving Performance of the Lowest Cost PV System by the Solaria Corporation seeks to overcome the primary obstacle to wide-scale deployment of their PV technology in that the financial community will only invest in projects that use solar technology with a history of proven performance.  The project will receive $1,217,500 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $1,217,500.

Focus Area II: Innovative business models

4. Innovative Business Models, Rates and Incentives that Promote Integration of High Penetration PV with Real-Time Management of Customer Sited Distributed Energy Resources by Viridity Energy. This project builds upon high-penetration PV research funded from the first CSI RD&D solicitation and also leverages prior University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and San Diego Gas and Electric Company (SDG&E) related work. The Viridity team will identify business models for integration of up to 1,000 megawatts of high penetration PV with distributed energy resource (DER) management at UCSD.  The project will receive $1,660,000 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $840,000.

5. Low-Cost, Smart-Grid Ready Solar Re-Roof Product Enables Residential Solar Energy Efficiency Results by ConSol will demonstrate a low cost "plug and play" roof mounting PV system directed to the asphalt-shingle re-roofing market.  The project will receive $1,000,000 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $1,160,697.

Projects that address both Focus Area I and Focus Area II:

6. West Village Energy Initiative by Regents of the University of California will focus on both improving PV technology and demonstrating innovative business models in solar community settings. The University of California, Davis team will test and demonstrate existing and new energy storage technologies that are able to work with smaller scale systems in community wide installations.  The project will receive $2,500,000 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $1,245,000.

7. Advanced Grid-Interactive Distributed PV and Storage by Solar City. The goal of this project is to create a firm, dispatchable, grid-interactive product that combines PV and storage that can be installed in distributed, small increments in a utility-wide network. The product will combine Tesla Motors vehicle battery system with Solar City's SolarGuard dispatch and monitoring platform.  The project will receive $1,774,780 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $1,057,187.

8. Reducing California PV Balance of System Costs by Automating Array Design, Engineering and Component Delivery by SunLink. SunLink will build on past research to enable automation of structural and array electrical design as well as automated preparation of documentation of project approval and installation.   The project will receive $996,269 in CSI RD&D grant funding with a matching fund of $927,031.