10 Solar Startups to Watch at Solar Power International

The solar conference Solar Power International, which at 20,000 attendees is being touted as the largest solar gathering in U.S. history, kicks off tonight in San Diego, and we’re down here at the event enjoying the sunny weather. While the industry is starting to feel the effects of the financial turmoil — with home owners likely to tighten their spending and debt and later-stage funding appearing more difficult — the solar industry is also emboldened by the recent passage of the renewable energy tax credits.

Politics will certainly have a presence at the show — U.S. Army General Wesley Clark and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell are giving keynotes this week and the Cleantech for Obama Group is holding a fundraiser dinner for Obama-loving solar fans. But for Earth2Tech, the startups hold our first allegiance, and here are 10 solar startups that will be making a splash at the “history making” show this week:

1). Signet Solar: Menlo Park, Calif.-based thin-film solar maker Signet Solar says it has become the first licensee of Applied Material’s thin-film solar equipment to get a “Final Acceptance Test (FAT)” certification. That means Signet has gotten the go-ahead to start “high volume production” of its thin-film solar material at its manufacturing facility in Mochau, Germany. Manufacturers have turned to Applied’s SunFab thin-film machines to bring down the cost and time to production, and Signet says it took about 7 months to get its thin-film line up and running. Signet, founded in 2006, has 100 employees.

2). Solyndra: Yep, the totally tubular (sorry) photovoltaic solar company that has raised a massive $600 million will be showing off its solar system at the show. We’ll be sure to snap some pictures! Fremont, Calif.-based Solyndra was founded in 2005 and is backed by Redpoint Ventures, RockPort Capital, Argonaut, CMEA Ventures, U.S. Venture Partners, the Walton family fund, Madrone Capital, Abu Dubai’s MASDAR and Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund.

3). SolarCity: The solar installer startup backed by cleantech entrepreneur and investor Elon Musk has a few product announcements to make at the show. We’ll save the details of those ’til later this week, but SolarCity’s Lydon Rive is one of the only startup CEOs represented on a prominent solar CEO panel Wednesday morning. The company is based in Foster City, Calif., and has developed some innovative solar financing models, like a leasing plan with no up-front payment and a 15-year contract.

4). Konarka: Last week the thin-film solar startup opened its new manufacturing plant in New Bedford, Mass., which will have a production capacity of 1 gigawatt per year. The 250,000-square-foot plant was previously an advanced printing facility for Polaroid, so Konarka has retrofitted much of the old printing equipment for solar fabrication and hired the technology and process engineering teams from Polaroid. The company plans to hire more than 100 additional employees as production increases toward capacity over the next 2-3 years. Konarka is showing off its Power Plastic at booth #922.

5). OptiSolar: OptiSolar has been oh-so quiet about its thin-film solar photovoltaic technology, but started talking when it announced it is building the largest PV solar project in the world — a 550 MW farm dubbed “Topaz” in San Luis Obispo County. The company is still keeping a low profile, but we’ll go hang out at their booth (#451) and see if we can learn anything new. The Hayward, Calif.-based company has been raising loads of cash to try and implement its aggressive plans, raising $77.8 million and $132 million in recent months.

6). PVT Solar: This two-year-old Berkeley-based company backed by Vinod Khosla is reportedly working on turning the wasted heat of standard solar systems into valuable heat for inside the home or to heat hot water. Supposedly the company is testing an electronic system to move the heat around the home where it’s needed the most, and part of the system could use stones underneath the panels to absorb the heat. Details on the company are scarce, so we’ll see if we can scare something up by dropping in at booth #527.

7). Wattbot: While Wattbot doesn’t make any products in the solar space, its web site could help speed up the adoption of solar roofs in the U.S. Launching at the show, the site connects clean energy providers with interested consumers and makes things just that much easier for the solar supply chain.

8). Sungevity: Sungevity, an installer startup out of Berkeley, Calif., that uses the Internet and satellite imagery to bring down the installation cost, is frustrated with the paperwork that consumers need to fill out to get a solar rooftop. We’ll update this tonight with more on the startup’s plans.

9). MMA Renewables: MMA provides financing for solar projects, and the company has been sending out a heap of news over the past month. The latest is that MMA has created a JV with Chinese manufacturer Suntech called Gemini Solar that will focus on utility-scale solar projects. The group plans to develop and finance photovoltaic plants 10 megawatts and larger, and the companies will co-own and operate the projects with additional financing from unnamed third-party partners.

10). SkyFuel: Last but not least is SkyFuel, which officially launched its low-cost trough-shaped solar concentrator, dubbed SkyTrough, at an event in Colorado last week. Parabolic troughs are an older solar technology, and while most are made out of glass, SkyFuel’s are made from the company’s own ReflecTech film material — sort of like mylar but sturdier — which it says can deliver the “world’s highest performance, lowest cost utility-scale solar power system.” We’ll take a look-see at the show over at booth #739.