13 solar startups to watch in 2013

gigaom-2013-v-3-copyWe knew 2012 would be a tough year for many solar companies when we posted the top 10 trends to watch over a year ago. In 2013 expect to see a slow recovery that will continue to weed out more players in a market that still has too many manufacturers, including startups.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots on the horizon, and major opportunities for certain kinds of solar startups in 2013. Here’s our list of 13 solar startups to watch in 2013 — some may be under the radar, but all have managed to do one of the following recently: raise money, build factories, launch innovative products and services or otherwise make progress despite the hard times (or because of it).

1). Solar Mosaic: The company brings solar power investments to the masses with its recently launched public online site. Residents of California and New York (as well as accredited investors) can invest in any of the projects for as little as $25 and get what should be a steady, long-term return (of 4.5 percent for the first projects). The company sold out three projects less than 24 hours after the launch this week.

Solar Mosaic

2). Alta Devices: Portable solar chargers could cut the number of batteries a soldier must carry onto the battle field and provide an alternative source of power for drones. Alta Devices is focusing on the military first with its highly efficient solar cells and hopes to use these contracts to scale up manufacturing, slash costs and eventually enter the more conventional solar market where much cheaper solar cells now dominate.

Alta Devices CEO Chris Norris shows a sample of solar cells.

3). Clean Power Finance: The company raises funds to offer power purchase agreements or leases for solar panel installers to market and sell them to homeowners. The company also launched an energy credit trading service and assembled a database of local permitting rules in 2012 so that retail service providers could spend less time and money for figuring out the paperwork they need to do.

U.S. Army solar

4). GlassPoint Solar: With its novel greenhouse design for its solar thermal energy equipment, GlassPoint Solar is targeting the oil industry with its solar steam production, which pries loose oil from wells for easier extraction. Oil companies are warming up to using solar energy to produce steam rather than natural gas, which remains expensive in regions such as the Middle East.

GlassPoint 2

5). QBotix: The company uses robots that move along a tracking system and tilt solar panels during the day to follow the sun. GPS and wireless technology are used to detect problems and monitor the systems.

QBotix test site in Menlo Park

6). Genability: How do you show customers the amount of energy savings they could achieve or money they could make by going solar? You need accurate data on utility rates, and that’s what Genability specializes in. The startup collects and crunches electric rates — which change often — from utilities across the country. SunPower (s SPWRA), SolarCity (s SCTY) and SunEdison are customers.


7). Semprius: The prices of silicon solar cells have tumbled in recent years thanks to mega factories by manufacturers mostly in China. To compete, solar cell manufacturing startups must develop something much more efficient that can find other uses as well. Semprius, like Alta Devices, is achieving this by using gallium-arsenide for its cells, but it also is making the solar panels for housing them. The company raised $7.5 million and opened a small factory in North Carolina last year and is targeting the military as well.


8). Stion: After Solyndra’s bankruptcy in 2011, few venture capitalists wanted to invest in using copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS) to make ultra-thin solar panels (that’s the same material Solyndra was working with). Many CIGS startups went out of business or got scooped up in firesales. Stion has survived so far after lining up investments in Taiwan and Korea, and it started shipments from its Mississippi factory last year.

Stion, which will start shipping its CIGS solar panels from a new factory in Mississippi this month, plays up its made-in-USA credential.

9). SoloPower: The company is another CIGS startup that has made progress toward commercializing its technology while its peers disappeared into oblivion. SoloPower turned on its 100MW factory in Oregon last year and secured a federal loan guarantee to help it expand if it meets milestones.

SoloPower plans to start shipping a much larger format of its CIGS panel this summer.

10). SCS Renewables: As interest in investing in solar power generation grows, investors will want to know where they can find quality projects. SCS Renewables runs a match-making service that also helps developers to massage their projects into presentable shapes in front of banks and other investors.

SCS Renewables

11). Silevo: With a new type of hybrid solar cell technology and its first factory in China instead of the U.S., where it’s headquartered, Silevo has mapped out a plan to scale up production and keep production costs low enough to attract customers with its efficient cells. 

Silevo cell structure

12). TenKsolar: Out there in Minneapolis, tenKsolar has designed a wave-like solar energy system that pair solar panels with separate panels that are lined with a reflective film to direct light to the solar cells. The unusual design caught the attention of Korean conglomerate Hanwha, which led a $15.5 million round in 2012.


13). OneRoof Energy: The startup teams up with roofers and electricians to sell rooftop solar systems and financing products such as leases as part of new roofing or re-roofing projects. OneRoof Energy is part of a group of solar installers, such as the now public SolarCity and high-profile startups Sungevity and SunRun.