'I'll follow the sun': Sopogy's version of Google Maps to maximize sun's energy

When Sopogy CEO Darren Kimura told me about his new portable power unit called SopoLite, I was intrigued. This 90-pound invention is a pint-sized version of the parabolic trough reflectors that Sopogy uses to collect solar thermal energy. From what I can tell, this is among the first instances of concentrated solar thermal power used as a portable power solution. Kimura, a cleantech exec I've known for a while, also told me the product could be used to desalinate water in disaster zones.

But the unit's most interesting facet is its original purpose -- collecting data on the solar power potential of wherever its located. Kimura plans to park these puppies all over the country and build out a map of the potential availability of thermal solar energy, or the energy derived from the sun's heat. Such a map will make it much easier to determine the true thermal solar power potential of any given location without having to deploy sensors and testing gear.
This could prove to be a boon to the still nascent rooftop and commercial solar thermal power segment. Sopogy and another company, Chromasun, both have products in this area, which is expected to boom as more property owners and large chains roll out more comprehensive energy plans. Witness Chipotle Grill's big rooftop photovoltaic announcement.

Solar thermal power is particularly promising for several reasons (that I also blogged about here). First, it is more efficient in terms of energy conversion than most photovoltaic power systems. This is mostly physics. Converting photons into electrons via a photovoltaic system is less efficient than converting heat into steam, a transition that requires very little intermediation other than a mirror. This steam drives a turbine-powered generator. Steam turbines are a very well known and well-developed technology.

Second, solar thermal power can also be used to provide what is called process heat. This can be either heat for industrial processes or hot water for industries such as laundries, chemical plants or food production facilities -- all of which are huge consumers of energy.

Third, solar thermal can be used to power air conditioning units by making it easier for those units to condense liquids that evaporate as part of the cooling process. In the west, the fact that air conditioning kicks in on a mass scale in the afternoon is a prime contributor to brown-outs.

Figuring out how well solar thermal power works in any given location, however, is somewhat tricky. Micro-weather patterns are very important for solar thermal as clouds can really put a drag on thermal heat collection. Winds and thermal patterns can also reduce solar collection possibilities.

That's where Kimura hopes to insert SopoLite, and in the process turn the unit (which can be towed behind a trailer) into a data-collection initiative similar in nature to those funny Google cars you see driving around with spinning cameras mounted on their roofs.

Granted, SopoLite needs to be parked for a while to grab proper solar data, so Kimura will not get Google-like coverage. But over time, SopoLite units parked in enough locations could make a major contribution by really giving solar project developers a good idea of what the Sun's true thermal power is for a given area.

Kimura says the Department of Defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency are very interested in buying SopoLite units to use in disaster areas. SopoLite portable units can generate 2 kilowatts per hour of power. The military, in particular, is looking for ways to power up in remote locations without hauling in liquid fuels to run generators.

It's way too early to see whether this will take off, but it's a fascinating idea in a small package.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.
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