A solar system win-win

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2010 - 9:38 PM

An energy installation on a Fridley warehouse complex marks two clean-tech firsts in state.

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Workers set up solar arrays by TenKsolar on a Murphy Warehouse roof. This is believed to be the first big local solar installation on a flat roof.

Photo: GREG HELGESON , Murphy Warehouse

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A $ 1 million array of solar electric panels now gracing the roof of a Twin Cities warehouse complex marks a couple of clean-tech milestones in these parts.

For Murphy Warehouse, which owns the building, the installation marks what is believed to be the first big installation atop a flat-roofed Twin Cities commercial building. And for a fledgling Bloomington-based solar company, the project marks its first major commercial project.

Murphy CEO Richard Murphy, an architect by training who has a green streak, said the installation on his Fridley warehouses complements numerous energy efficiency and storm water-management projects the logistics company has undertaken in recent years to cut its energy and waste bills and lower its environmental impact.

Murphy is buying the equipment from TenKsolar, a two-year old Minnesota company brandishing what its executives say is a breakthrough "cell-optimizing" system that generates more energy from available light.

"Two years ago, solar power was 45 cents per kilowatt hour, and we're delivering it for 20 cents. And in two years it will be 10 cents as industry sales ramp up and the technology continues to improve," said TenKsolar CEO Joel Cannon.

Xcel Energy residential customers in Minnesota pay about 10 cents per kilowatt hour on average. Minnesota is considered a low-cost electric state thanks to an economical mix of coal, nuclear power, natural gas, wind and hydro-generated electricity.

But Cannon, 45, said his company's system already is competitive with electricity prices in higher-cost states.

Minnesota's long, gray winters are unlikely to make the state a nation-leading solar generator anytime soon.

"We are very focused on being a national and international player," said Cannon. "We already have [sales agents] in 13 or 14 states and an international business development specialist. Sixty percent of the U.S. solar market is in California and 90 percent [of the global solar market] is outside of the United States."

'Game-changing' technology

The TenKsolar panels include what Cannon calls its game-changing "Redundant Array of Integrated Solar (RAIS)" wave technology that produces up to 50 percent more energy per square foot than a standard solar array. The panels use a 3M-produced reflective coating that reflects the usable solar energy and heightens system efficiency.

Cannon is a founder of Cannon Technologies, which pioneered several utility industry innovations, including electric-demand response systems and smart-thermostat and smart-metering solutions that help consumers automate temperature settings and help utilities manage peak demand.

Cannon Technologies, majority owned by private-equity fund GFI Energy Ventures, was sold to Texas-based Cooper Industries in 2006 for about $190 million in cash when it had sales of about $35 million and 120 employees.

In 2008 Cannon, an MBA out of the University of Minnesota, met Dallas Meyer, an engineer who had left Seagate after leading its enterprise disc-drive team several years ago to focus on solar energy.

Meyer, 48, who holds a doctorate in engineering mechanics and materials science from the University of Wisconsin, was doing promising research on how to avert problems that plagued conventional solar systems, such as shading or weak cells that reduce the output of an entire panel to the level of its weakest cell.

The two, who met at a University of Minnesota forum on alternative energy, organized and raised about $8 million on their own and from investors to capitalize TenKsolar.

"Our panel optimizes the power production of each individual cell instead of limiting power production to that of the weakest cell," said Meyer, the firm's chief technical officer. "We also use reflectors [to magnify light and efficiency]. Our secret sauce is the architecture inside the panel and the way the electronics are optimized."

Also this month, TenKsolar reached agreement with Sustainable Energy Technologies, a publicly held Canadian company that makes the power inverters that convert the direct-current power output of the solar system to usable alternating current and also makes the connection that allows excess power generated to be shipped to the electric grid.

Cannon said Monday that TenKsolar, which has about 40 employees, has more than 50 orders for commercial systems that will keep its Bloomington production facility busy through February. The company expects to expand manufacturing eventually through contract manufacturers.

Back at the warehouse, Murphy said he expects to repay the cost of his new system within several years thanks to subsidies and credits offered by Xcel Energy and state and federal governments. And he sees enormous potential for the warehouse industry nationwide.

"With more than 5 billion square feet of warehouse space in the U.S., just imagine what kind of impact it would have if all industrial warehouse sites supplied solar power and were run in an environmentally friendly way," Murphy said. "That's a 4-foot-wide walkway from here to the moon."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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