SHEC Energy started doing research in the production of hydrogen using solar technology in 1996. But with the hydrogen power market, um, still in development (i.e., non-existent), SHEC Energy’s focus is now on power generation.
SHEC has developed innovative solar concentration, receiver and thermal storage technology for the efficient collection of solar power. "What we do is concentrate at a very high level," according to Tom Beck, the CEO of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based firm. He claims a concentration level of 5,000 to 22,000 suns with a "new counterintuitive and elegant design that uses no exotic materials."
Beck claims that the firm has developed some of the world's most efficient solar thermal power technology with systems that operate at much higher temperatures (800 degrees C) compared to trough systems (400 degrees C), resulting in higher turbine efficiencies. Doubling the operating temperatures doubles turbine efficiencies, according to the company. The high temperature technology lends itself to systems employing thermal based stored energy.
SHEC's temperatures aren't as high as what Israel's HelioFocus has achieved: that company has hit 850 Celsius and says it will get to 1,000 Celsius. The Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi has a high temp prototype too. Still, the hotter the better and this puts SHEC toward the top of the class in the ever-evolving solar thermal world.
SHEC also claims a dramatic improvement in the power distribution curve. According to the firm, a competitive system with a power rating of 1 megawatt, for example, may only deliver 5 megawatt-hours of power per day, while SHEC's system, also rated at 1 megawatt, could deliver 10 megawatt-hours per day.
In order to make this happen, SHEC's optical receiver has been designed to withstand a lot of heat. And SHEC is ambitious -- not only are they developing high-temperature, high-efficiency receivers and proprietary high-temperature thermal storage media, but they have also developed a manufacturing process for the rapid forming of glass mirrors, claiming a manufacturing process that is 30 times faster than conventional glass forming technologies. It's a lot of technology development for a small company to take on.
The company believes that its technology can drop the levelized cost of solar thermal to down to that of fossil fuels.
The 15+ employee company envisions utility-scale deployment of its technology in an array of receivers, taking the collected heat to a steam boiler in a closed-loop binary system. When queried about go-to-market strategy, the CEO said, "Owner-operator and power producer is definitely our preferred business model. But we would be willing -- under special circumstances -- to consider other options."
SHEC Energy has performed field trials of its technology on a small-scale pilot plant at a test site in Arizona. The CEO claims that a CSP plant would be an excellent complement to an Integrated Combined Cycle plant.
The firm is funded by private placements, high net-worth individuals, government funds, and corporate investors, and is now looking for its first institutional round from VCs or strategic partners.
As with all solar thermal technologies, SHEC would have better economics in the sunbelt and in a region with generous feed-in tariffs.
We asked a prominent member of the CSP community who preferred to remain anonymous, to comment:
"The concept of a dish having a higher capacity factor than a tower which is higher than a trough, based on an analysis per meter squared of glass is accurate. The question is how much higher and what is the relative tradeoff of capacity factor vs the installed cost -- the graph is way out of any reasonable bounds.
Higher temp/pressure has always been the best way to go, and will be for all thermal cycles, but this sounds more academic and theoretical...Lots of companies are working on this, but it is highly unlikely that a 15 person company can cover the ground they are claiming to cover - everything from receiver design to mirror manufacturing processes?...its easy to make claims in CSP, its harder to get results."
Finally, all the technology in the world won't get CSP deployed if the funding is not there. Other CSP startups have great technology, but getting to market requires funding -- and lots of it. BrightSource Energy was anointed by the U.S. government with $1.37 billion in loan guarantees. eSolar was anointed by the Chinese government and Ausra had to let itself get caught by Areva in order to live another day. SHEC is going to have to prove it can develop funding as well as technology.