Cold Reality in the Solar Thermal World

Schott Solar’s announcement that it plans to halve its factory capacity for solar thermal equipment and will lay off 30 workers is a sobering reminder of some of the hurdles ahead for this emerging industry (or re-emerging, depending on your perspective).

SolFocus Founder Turns Up the Heat with New Solar Startup b2u Solar

Gary Conley, the entrepreneur who founded concentrating solar company SolFocus, is at it again. Last month he launched b2u Solar, a startup which uses the sun’s heat for industrial applications like drying, curing and commercial baking, and is one of a crop of startups working to take advantage of the higher efficiency potential of heat compared to electricity.
At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco last week, Conley claimed b2u’s technology can deliver the equivalent of 40 to 60 cents per watt – and 2.5 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour – by generating heat directly, instead of producing energy that is then used to make heat. That makes it potentially competitive with natural gas today, and the economics look even better if the heat is also used for air conditioning, as well as heating, Conley said. (It may sound counterintuitive, but heat can be paired with a chiller to generate cool air).
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Robo.to TV Turns Status Messages Into Art

You know the viral “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years“? Well, what if Noah took a 4-second video of himself instead? And what if everyone else did, too? That’s kind of the effect you get from the new Robo.to TV service, a derivation of a product from Particle, a San Francisco-based web product shop.

Robo.to’s main function is simple — a place to post clips that are sort of a webcam status message, with no sound and a time limit of 4 seconds. You can use the GIF-like autoplaying video Robo.to creates for you as a sort of avatar that displays your most recent mood or location — or that’s the idea anyway, as compared with Seesmic (which doesn’t really do video anymore) or 12seconds, which use video clips more conversationally.
The new Robo.to TV mode stitches updates together, either as a selection of members or sorted by metadata. (Check out the #everyone example video embedded above.) I’m not really sure if Robo.to TV is an art project or a product, and Particle co-founder and CTO Aubrey Anderson said that’s yet to be determined by seeing how people use it. So far, Robo.to itself is proving to be rather popular — in part because investor Justin Timberlake is already a built-in celebrity spokesman. Particle CEO Rey Flemings said Robo.to has had 20,000 active users, 100,000 videos, and 375,000 visitors in the last month, and it only launched in May.

Early-Stage Solar Startups Skyline & Abound Slog Forward

For the solar industry, these are not the sunniest of times. And startups in general are vulnerable to the ongoing financial storms that have tied up credit and made venture capitalists wary of long-term, high-risk investments like solar farms. But two young solar ventures — one having just emerged from stealth mode last week and the other having splashed into the spotlight with a fat funding round last year — are slogging ahead with plans for commercialization.

Today concentrating solar startup Skyline Solar is holding an event to show off a grid-connected pilot installation at a Vally Transit Authority facility in San Jose, Calif., (near Zanker Road and Route 237, where Tesla Motors once planned to build a factory for its Model S electric sedan). As we wrote last week, the project is 24-30 KW and represents the largest demonstration of Skyline’s technology to date. In other words, it’s far from taking California by storm with utility-scale solar energy at competitive rates with fossil fuels — the startup’s stated goal. But it is feeding energy into the power grid, and it has caught the attention of California Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron, who will attend the event this afternoon. Skyline says it has other partnerships in the works for larger installations that it aims to deploy later this year.

Thin-film solar panel maker Abound Solar (formerly AVA Solar) is further along than Skyline, having fired up its first full-scale factory in April after more than a decade of development at Colorado State University. But while Abound — which this week announced new long-term sales agreements with two German solar integrators — has long eyed a price war with giant First Solar (s FSLR), the startup remains a little fish in the big solar pond. Right now, with larger players under pressure as a result of oversupply and increasingly difficult margins, being small, nimble and well-funded may not be such a bad thing.