Skyline Solar's first commercial systems will roll out the factory of an auto body maker.

The concentrating photovoltaic company is contracting with Cosma International, a division of Canada-based Magna International, to build its system of reflectors, trackers and other components, said Skyline's CEO Bob MacDonald. Cosma is making the components for Skyline at its Michigan factory, starting with 20-30 megawatts worth of components per month.

Automotive parts manufactures, like contract manufactures of consumer electronics, are finding opportunities in solar while their home markets are faltering. Stirling Energy Systems, a solar thermal energy system developer, recently signed contracts with two car components producers to make and assemble its systems (see Stirling Energy Sets for 2010 Mass Production, $2.2B Solar Thermal Project).

Mountain View, Calif.-based Skyline has lined up customers, though MacDonald declined to disclose them. Skyline expects Cosma to start shipping components to customers before the end of the year. The first commercial installation could rise from the ground by January and comes with a generation capacity in the 100-kilowatt range, MacDonald said.

"It's not going to raise any eyebrow or set any new record for size, but we want to speak to what we are able to do," MacDonald said.

Installing that first commercial system would be a milestone for the company, which is hoping to carve out a market with a technology that exists somewhere between traditional solar panels and the so-called high concentrating solar energy systems.

Skyline's system consists of a series of lightly curved aluminum reflectors coated with silver and titanium dioxide, used to protect the equipment from the elements. The reflectors concentrate and direct the sunlight onto monocrystalline silicon cells for electricity generation. Trackers tilt the reflectors to face the sun's movement throughout the day to maximize power generation.

Each of Skyline's concentrators magnifies the sunlight 10 times, thereby reducing the need to use a lot of silicon. This approach must have sounded very attractive when silicon was ultra expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per kilogram a few years ago. Most of the solar panels on the market today use silicon, and some companies, such as SunPower, also mount them on trackers. Here is a video of one in action.

With silicon prices crashing over the past year, however, wholesale prices for many conventional solar panels have fallen about 40 percent, analysts say.

That raises questions about the appeal of offerings from Skyline and other concentrating solar companies (see CPV: Stuck in the Middle and Contract Silicon Price Falls 50%, Close to Spot Price). High concentrating solar companies such as SolFocus and Concentrix Solar use lenses to concentrate the sun hundreds of times and use cells made with expensive materials such as germanium and gallium-arsenide.

As with any other solar equipment suppliers, the trick to Skyline's longevity lies in its ability to figure out how to lower the costs of making and owning the equipment.

MacDonald believes his company's use of now-cheaper silicon and components that could be easily mass-produced by car parts manufacturers would help to set Skyline apart from an increasingly crowded market. He declined to reveal manufacturing costs for Skyline systems.

"The product is designed from early on to be fully compatible with the manufacturing process in the automotive assembly plant," MacDonald said. "It's capital efficient. There are a lot of manufacturing capacities in the auto industry today."

Founded in 2007, the company unveiled a pilot project located at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, Calif. in May this year (see Skyline Solar Plans Launch of First Product).

The transportation authority is providing the land to Skyline in exchange for getting the electricity from the 27-kilowatt system for free. The pilot project is planned for 18 months.

Skyline used the pilot project to test silicon cells from various suppliers and the optimal placement of trackers. MacDonald said his staff has since decided to place one tracker for every four sets of reflectors – each set is 20 feet long.

MacDonald said he is in the midst of raising a second-round funding, but declined to say how much. Back in May, he said the new round could be less than the $24.6 million he had raised in 2008 from investors including New Enterprise Associates. 


Photo: Skyline Solar