Sopogy is Hawaii’s Innovation Company of the Year

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sun and creativity power Sopogy’s success Pacific Business News (Honolulu) – by Nanea Kalani Pacific Business News Christina Failma, PBN Darren Kimura, president and CEO of Sopogy Inc., with one of the company’s solar collectors, which generate more power faster than typical photovoltaic systems.

Darren Kimura considers himself a problem solver, always looking for solutions to the world’s troubles. The Hawaii entrepreneur has built several successful technology companies around that trait, most of them focused on energy-efficient technologies. “I do one thing — look for customer-based problems,” said Kimura, 33.

Combining this skill with an innovative mindset, Kimura started tinkering with ideas in 2002 to create an affordable technology that could ease electricity costs for businesses. The tinkering led to building prototypes and eventually the launching last year of Sopogy Inc., PBN’s 2008 Innovative Company of the Year.

Sopogy’s name combines the words solar, power and technology. It was spun off from Energy Industries, which Kimura founded in 1994. The company has invented a new kind of solar concentrator for generating electricity from the sun’s heat. The technology, resembling large silver troughs, uses mirrors and lenses to concentrate the sun’s rays on fluids, creating steam that turns turbines to generate electricity. These collectors are very different from the more common photovoltaic panels, which are typically designed for roof-top systems and convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity.

Sopogy’s solar collectors are designed as ground units that can function as solar farms producing huge amounts of energy — up to 50 megawatts, or enough to power 15,000 homes. (The company does, however, also make a roof-top version.) “At the core of the problem is the fact that as a society, we use more energy than we make,” Kimura said. “The only way to have a fast impact is to take big bites of the apple. You can’t do that with photovoltaics.” Another distinct feature is the collectors’ capability to store solar energy that can be used after the sun goes down. They also are equipped with tracking systems, which Sopogy engineers created, to maximize productivity and efficiency. “The software tied to our collectors account for factors such as cloudy skies, high wind speeds and rain,” said Kimura, who serves as president and CEO. “The programming allows the collector to be smart and encodes it with logic, so it can turn itself upside down if it’s cloudy. Although there’s layers and layers of complexity, of course, we’ve tried to make it simple for our customers.” Kimura said Sopogy has a couple thousand of its collectors — called the SopoNova 4.0 — in use worldwide, including on the West Coast and in Asia, the Middle East and Spain.

“What’s exciting about solar technology is that it can be everywhere and anywhere,” he said. “The technology is made here in Hawaii, tested here, our company is based here, but we just export it out. I think innovation is about trying to create technologies that you can export around the world.” Most of Sopogy’s 41 employees are based in Hawaii, while some are stationed at the company’s sales offices in San Jose, San Diego and Phoenix. Kimura said Sopogy is on track to generate $10 million in revenue this year. The privately held company got its start using a combination of venture capital and personal investment from Kimura.

Locally, Sopogy’s technology is in use at the Big Island’s Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in Kona. The company sells power from a 1-megawatt system to Hawaii Electric Light Co. The project was designed in phases so that Sopogy could expand the system to up to 10 megawatts. Sopogy received approval for up to $10 million in state revenue bonds for the NELHA project. It also was approved for up to $35 million in bonds to build a solar farm on Oahu that could generate another 10 megawatts, or enough power for about 3,000 homes, for Hawaiian Electric Co. Sopogy last year built a 16-collector, 50-kilowatt system in Spokane, Wash., which generates power for the local utility. Sopogy will add a dozen more collectors to the system by next summer. Sopogy’s collector already has caught the attention of several national and international technology groups. The National Society of Professional Engineers named it its 2008 new product award winner in the small company category. Meanwhile, the technology is one of four finalists for the Platts Global Energy Awards’ sustainable technology innovation of the year. “In our world, these awards are like the Emmys or the Academy Awards; all the energy geeks want to win these,” Kimura said. “Out of the hundreds of tech companies in Silicon Valley that are well financed and have great technologies, we’re the one they picked. It’s really exciting.” Sopogy wants to expand its solar plants around the world and Kimura ultimately wants to take the firm public.^1733700

West Hawaii Today – NELHA Renewable Energy

Sun power
Solar energy to play increased role on Big Island
By Daniel Brock
West Hawaii Today
Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:35 AM HST

Big Island homes will likely be receiving more solar-generated power starting next year.

Keahole Solar Power, a Hawaii-based company, is currently constructing a 500-kilowatt system at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, with plans to begin selling the energy to HELCO sometime in the first quarter of 2009.

The two companies have reached a power purchase agreement and are now awaiting final approval from the Public Utilities Commission.


While HELCO President Jay Ignacio declined to reveal specifics about the deal until it has been approved, he did say it would have a positive economic influence for consumers.

“It’s not linked to the price of oil, so it will have a stabilizing effect on price,” Ignacio said. “(It) is a small facility, so it’s not going to drive the customer’s total bill. But it is a step in the right direction.”

HELCO residential customers paid an average of 43 cents per kilowatt-hour in October. Many estimates have the cost of producing solar energy well below that figure.

“If developers used tax credits, we’ve heard numbers as low as eight cents (to produce a kwh of solar energy),” said NELHA CEO Ronald Baird. “Without that, we’ve been quoted 18, 20, 22 cents.”

Sopogy, a solar solutions partner company to Keahole Solar, is constructing the system, which uses MicroCSP technology to harness solar power in trough-like solar collector panels. The solar power enters the panels and is reflected from precise mirrors onto receivers in which a heat transfer fluid is circulated.

Click Photo to Enlarge

Ron Baird, CEO of NELHA, talks about the pumping station for the 55-inch pipeline at NELHA, which supplies most of NELHA’s tenants with deep water. – Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

The fluid then passes through a series of MicroCSP concentrators called an array. This process raises the fluid temperature and achieves a mass flow creating solar process heat, which in turn enables other technologies such as electrical turbines, absorption air conditioning and steam creation.

“Solar energy is clean, it doesn’t use fossil fuels in its production and it’s relatively inexpensive,” Baird said. “And those things are important when considering Hawaii’s future energy needs.”

According to Sopogy officials, the use of solar energy will also reap environmental dividends.

“This will have a real, sizable impact on our carbon footprint,” said Sopogy president and CEO Darren Kimura.

Keahole Solar has been a tenant at NELHA since 2002, and construction on the current unit got under way last year. Company officials were unavailable for comment.

For the Big Island, a place heavily dependent on foreign oil — yet rich in alternative energies — the emergence of a homegrown system comes as welcome news.

“This technology was born and tested right here on the Kona Coast,” Kimura said. “It’s great to see the fulfillment of that vision.”

More info

Solar energy at NELHA

Sopogy is one of two solar companies currently working out of NELHA:

SolFocus Inc.: The California-based energy provider is currently testing its concentrating photovoltaic array at NELHA.

In the Solfocus system, small bowls collect solar energy and shoot it back to a tiny mirror, concentrating the beam on triple junction cells, which then convert the light to electricity.

“It’s more efficient at changing light into energy,” said SolFocus adviser Roderick Hinman. “The whole goal is to reduce cost and use less solar cell material.”

The triple-junction cells are made up of layers of germanium, gallium arsenide and indium arsenide, which capture light along different areas of the spectrum.

Hinman said the best single silicone material captures about 20 percent of solar energy, while triple-junction cells ensnare almost 40 percent.

The company’s array is made more functional with a new tracking system that automatically adjusts its panels with the sun for increased efficiency of solar capture.

SolFocus is developing a 2.5 kilowatt-hour array that will be used to partially power NELHA’s Gateway Center, with plans to install three larger arrays next year.