Silverthorne solar garden to serve as testing grounds for tracking tech
Silverthorne celebrated the cultivation of a new garden of sorts, with several bright blue, silicon arrays rooted on beams of steel. “Planted” by local startup Sulas Industries, the solar garden is a demonstration of entrepreneur Fin Doyle’s newest invention: the HelioDrive.
The device uses sunlight to melt paraffin wax, which in combination with a piston, generates enough torque to rotate up to 1,200 solar panels enough to follow the movement of the sun. At night, the wax cools and contracts, “resetting” the device using its own weight.
While the idea of solar tracking is not new, Doyle’s technology is unique in that it requires no electronics. That means, no wires, no sensors and a cheaper cost than most existing systems.
“I’m a bit of an anti-computer guy,” he said. “I prefer mechanical, simple solutions.”
Compared with a static array, panels that track the sun can harness 20 to 25 percent more energy. In addition, they have the benefit of generating power during the morning and evening hours, which are peak periods for residential energy use.
Doyle came up with the idea from heliotropism, or the system plants use to follow the sun.
“I figured out how Mother Nature did it and mechanized it,” he said.
In his spare time, he developed a prototype to see if his theory worked. It did.
The idea struck Doyle just over three years ago, when he was working for local snowboard binding manufacturer Bomber Alpine Snowboard Outfitters. With a background in manufacturing, he started Bomber in 1993, after he developed a binding specifically for alpine snowboarding.
Like many locals, he had a longstanding interest in solar power. When he wondered why more companies weren’t tracking, he looked at the dollar signs.
He formed a private solar company, Sulas Industries, in 2012. Two years later, the patent for the HelioDrive was issued. Last year, Jeff Bloszies joined the company as CEO, after working with various solar companies over the past seven years.
“Fin is your garage inventor kind of guy,” Bloszies said, adding the key to innovation is “guys like this with a set of tools.”
In 2014, Doyle approached the town for a space to test the technology.
“I remember saying, ‘Give us a quarter of an acre and put us behind a building. We want to be out of the way,’” he recalled. “The town said the opposite.”
Silverthorne offered him a parcel near North Pond Park, nestled between the surrounding lakes and mountains and full view of Highway 9.
“Holy cow — look at this location. It’s as good as it gets,” he said at the celebration on Saturday. “If that’s not enough, we were awarded a grant to pay for all the panels. The town has been an amazing backer.”
In exchange for the lease and $10,000 ESTIP grant, Doyle’s demonstration garden will be used to power the facilities at North Pond Park, generating 15 kilowatts of power, more than enough.
“They’ve got a super technology that’s hard to follow,” Silverthorne Mayor Bruce Butler said. “The first time I saw it, we were crawling around on top of Fin’s building with Congressman Polis and others. … If we can give them the data they need to make this viable in the marketplace, I have no doubt they will get there.”
THE FUTURE OF SOLAR
While Sulas Industries is still a budding company, Doyle hopes to keep the business local as they expand.
“You only move when it hurts, when you are elbow-to-elbow in your current facility,” he said. “That’s the problem we want to have.”
In the short-term, their plan is to seek partnerships with racking companies, that construct the supports behind each solar panel. Sulas Industries already has the support of Schletter, Inc., a solar-mounting company based in Germany that donated the steel supports for the garden. New Energy Structures Company helped drive in the pillars for each array, and Renewable Energy Systems Americas assisted with the engineering.
“Very rapidly, the price of solar is getting closer to coal,” Bloszies said. “The goal of the industry is to be head-to-head competitive with things that pollute.”
He added the price of solar power is projected to be on par with coal by 2020. While the cost of rooftop installations has not decreased as dramatically, the cost of solar in the commercial and utility sectors continues to decrease every year. Thanks to the more recent community solar gardens, residents can still reap the benefits of solar without installing their own array.
At this point, the company is seeking testers, investors and ideas for additional uses of the HelioDrive.
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