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14 July, 2006 - 13:43 By News Desk

Solar energy system in hot global demand

A Cambridge-based company is on the brink of clinching the funding it needs to launch a unique solar energy system devoid of the restrictive cost issues regularly associated with solar technology, making sunlight a viable energy source for the emerging economies of African countries.

HelioDynamics, which has already received £500,000 to safeguard the company’s IPR, is set to receive a further £2 million from investor Low Carbon Holdings, which is dependent on the firm hitting certain order targets for its Harmony™ system.

Company co-founder and chief executive, Graham Ford, is currently overseeing the installation of a Harmony unit in Tampa, Florida, and will fly to California to negotiate the terms of another deal next week. A further $1m order from a Caribbean firm is expected to be announced very soon and talks are ongoing with a brewer who is also interested in an installation.

Although HelioDynamics’ initial focus is on rolling out the technology to sunny climes with developed economies, Ford believes the company’s technology will eventually be able to solve an impending problem for developing countries.

"We have said the biggest application for the technology is in Africa. If its economy is set to develop along the South East Asia model, it needs to develop with scarce fossil fuel sources. However Africa at the moment is an ambition.

"We are not starting there because of significant challenges. Instead we are focusing on the USA, the Caribbean and Southern Europe."

HelioDynamics was incorporated in 2001, based on technology developed by Ford. Previously an engineer at PA Consulting, Ford had actually built his first solar panel at the age of 14. With a little more backing than he had as a teenager, he now plans to use part of the £2m to develop the next generation of Harmony technology. The other part of the funds will be used to expand the company.

HelioDynamics is targeting revenues of £10m within two years and £50m in five. Ford said: "The key will be to grow at around 50 to 60 per cent per annum to gain the market share we need to survive in the high growth rate solar industry." This growth includes staff expansion at its Cambridge base.

HelioDynamics currently has seven employees, but wants that to increase to 30 over time. Chief executive of US division HelioDynamics Inc, Dr Anders Jepsen, is confident the company will land the orders it needs for the £2m. California is an initial hit, but he says there is also interest from other US states such as New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

In Europe, Dr Jepsen believes Spain is a good hit, not only because of the amount of sun the country produces, but a government mandated energy buy back system, which is linked to solar heating.

"It has become clear that a low cost energy world no longer exists and there is a great concern for the need of renewables," said Dr Jepsen.

"The indications from unsolicited enquiries are that the challenge will be to manage growth."

Indeed, Dr Jepsen is looking at raising further money, not for the research and development, but to fund the marketing side, which he believes has great potential for success selling its own product, a success he says companies like Coca-Cola have exhibited.

He said: "I am going to Sacramento where I made a presentation to some venture capitalists recently. I am looking for between $500K and $1m to accelerate development of the marketing arm, purely for marketing."

Harmony’s appeal is its ability to produce greater amounts of energy at a lower cost than regular systems. It does this by intensifying the work rate of the photovoltaic cells, which convert the sunlight into electricity, and harnessing energy from the heat generated by the process, which normally goes to waste.

Essentially it is a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system and for each kilowatt of electricity generated, 10 kilowatts of heat are also delivered. This heat can be used to air-condition buildings with an absorption chiller or to provide the hot water vital to the food and drink industry.

Harmony uses a patented mirror system that constantly follows of the sun, rotating to optimise light capture. This light is reflected in a tightly focused beam onto the photovoltaic cells on the receiver, making the cells work at around seven times the intensity of regular solar panels.

Though initial costs are kept low because of the huge difference in price between mirrors and the semiconductors used for the photovoltaic cells, Harmony’s larger size means that it produces electricity at a similar cost to solar electric panel.

However, because it also provides cooling energy, heat and hot water, it provides significant cost savings by substituting the gas or electricity that would otherwise be used. It does this by circulating water through the receiver core and delivering the sun’s heat, which has been collected by the solar cells.

HelioDynamics estimates this makes the system three times as energy efficient as regular solar panel units.The size of the mirror groups also has its advantages as it always provides shade below, keeping a roof cool. On purpose-built constructions, soft glare-free daylight filters down to the interior spaces.

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