In hard times, a solar startup focuses on soldiers (and drones!)

Solar material startups are struggling like they’re selling pet food online in 2001. But could the military be an answer in these hard times? Venture capital-backed solar startup Alta Devices has decided to start selling its solar modules for applications for both soldiers and for drones that spy on and attack enemies.

Alta unveiled two designs on Friday that are charging mats of 10-watts and 20-watts, both of which are much smaller than other solar charging mats out there. Alta plans to make the cells at its existing, 2 MW production line and hire another manufacturer to put the cells into the mats.

The company’s CEO, Chris Norris, told us Alta also plans to announce a military contract within the month, and from there raise a new round of funding in 2013 to build a 40MW factory, which could end up being located in Asia. Alta Devices was founded in 2007 and has raised $120 million in venture capital from investors such as Kleiner Perkins and Dow Chemical.

Solar-powered soldiers

A soldier’s pack could weigh 100 pounds, and over a third of that are batteries to power various communications and safety devices. Alta claims its solar chargers could reduce that battery heft by 70 percent, or roughly 25 pounds.

The company says it can pack more charging power into a small footprint than other solar cell developers because it’s developed a process for harvesting more energy from a set of materials that already are inherently better at turning sunlight into electricity than the more common materials. Alta’s solar cells can convert a whopping 28.8 percent of the sunlight they take in into electricity, compared with the mid- to high-teens that most common solar cells on the market can achieve today.

Alta Devices military 3

Why isn’t Alta targeting rooftop solar panels yet? Currently Alta’s panels are more expensive than the less efficient but abundant solar cells that have been flooding the market in recent years. So Alta had to look elsewhere for its initial set of customers, and the military, unlike utilities, power plant builders, and home owners, are more willing to pay a premium for more power in a small space. Down the road when Alta decreases its manufacturing costs, it could go after rooftops.

Alta is hardly alone among the solar manufacturing startups that have been forced to pivot their business plans because the market for conventional solar panels has way too many suppliers. That imbalance of supply and demand has caused high-profile bankruptcies of startups who couldn’t reduce their production costs quick enough. Solyndra, Abound Solar, Global Solar Energy and Twin Creeks Technologies are among the startup casualties.

The challenges that Alta and other solar startups have faced also are plaguing companies working on batteries for electric cars. Electric car sales haven’t grown as quickly as expected by tech companies, and that has sent battery developers to look for alternative markets, such as consumer electronics. But even there, the startups face tough competition from battery giants that have ruled the world of computers, cell phone and other mobile devices for a long time.