TechHui Featured Techie of the Month – Darren Kimura, CEO of Sopogy and Confirmed Energy Geek

Darren T. Kimura is an energy geek. While still in college he founded his first-energy related business, a consultancy focused on helping businesses conserve power and save money. He launched that business out of a the back of a beat-up Chevy Blazer. Today, Kimura is a top executive of two of Hawaii’s most prominent energy companies, Energy Industries and Sopogy. Energy Industries is a leading player in energy conservation planning, consulting and systems integration with offices on all major islands and on the West Coast. Kimura is the Chairman of the Board of Directors and founder. Sopogy, among Hawaii’s most prominent venture-backed companies, makes innovative compact solar energy systems that use smart design and cheap materials to capture the heat of the Sun and convert it to electricity, power air conditioning units, or provide hot water and process heat. Kimura is the CEO, CHB, President and also the founder of Sopogy.

Sopogy is on the cutting edge of the fast growing concentrated solar power segment, a group focused on converting thermal energy to power rather than photons directly into electrons. We decided to name Darren our Featured Techie for a number of reasons. Sopogy is about to light up the first large-scale installation of its technology on Dec. 10 at Keahole Point on the Big Island, a notable first for Hawaii and for the world. Sopogy is rolling out a number of nifty new products, as well. And the company is Hawaii’s best hope for a technology IPO in the near future.

The Keahole Point project is called Holaniku and it will produce 500 kilowatts of energy using 1,000 of Sopogy’s patented SopoNova solar collectors. The project will harvest roughly 2 megawatts of thermal energy and could be ramped up to 750 kilowatts of power generation fairly easily. Sopogy, in general, is emphasizing thermal capture because this can be useful for double and triple threat installations that not only deliver power but also solar air conditioning or process heat.

Even the 500 kilowatts coming online are enough to power roughly 100 homes in Hawaii. Holaniku will feed power directly into the HELCO grid and it will be the largest solar energy installation in the Hawaiian Islands to date. Set in the relatively empty lava fields of the Kona side, Holaniku could easily be expanded. “The vision is we could possibly build as much as 30 megawatts of power generation out there,” says Kimura. Why Hawaii to date has not had a major solar energy project is beyond me but kudos to Darren for making it happen. With a degree in electrical engineering, Kimura himself played a key role in the design of the SopoNOVA systems and he is named on the company’s various patent applications (pretty good geek cred, no?).

Holaniku is not just the first major solar installation in Hawaii. Holaniku is also the first installation in the world that uses small modular solar thermal power units — MicroCSP, as Sopogy calls them. For the most part, solar thermal energy plants have been designed as massive fields of mirrors all coordinated to concentrate beams of heat on central towers where water or other organic liquids are boiled to turn turbines. Sopogy’s SopoNOVA units are self-contained and do not require a large central tower or other centralized electrical generation facilities.

This configuration has a number of benefits. First, power generation can start within a matter of months and grow continually as more collectors are brought online during the course of a project. This is very different than most solar power projects which spend years in construction before producing any power. The ability to build staggered power production increments can be an enormous tax benefit and can also help secure project financing because time to cash flow for power generated is far shorter than with standard projects.

Second, MicrosCSP does not require the same economies of scale to make financial sense. Buying a massive Siemens turbine for a monolithic solar thermal power project is a huge gating factor for getting any project off the ground. Sopogy requires no such huge investments. Its technology is therefore far more friendly to industrial and commercial installations that generally run on a smaller scale. Not coincidentally, these smaller installations are much easier to get permitted due to their location on already disturbed property, the lack of requirement for a tall tower, and the proximity to existing transmission infrastructure. In fact, putting a large number of these installations in an area such as Kakaako or Mapunpuna on building and garage rooftops could contribute significant amounts of incremental power to to Oahu.

Third, MicroCSP does not require water to cool off the generation system. Sopogy uses organic liquids (one might be anti-freeze) in a closed-loop process that results in evaporation of the liquid followed by condensation. The huge large-scale solar thermal projects being slated for deserts in the West have massive water requirements that could become more contentions as water supplies grow tight. And in Hawaii, where water is also an increasingly precious natural resource, solar power that does not require water for cooling is a big plus.

SopoNova is only one of Sopogy’s products. Kimura and his team have also developed SopoFlare, the first roof-top thermal collection system designed for either residential or light commercial use. This is a huge untapped market both in Hawaii and on the Mainland. And last week Kimura rolled out SopoLite, a pint-sized solar thermal energy collection unit that weighs roughly 90 pounds and can provide 2 kilowatts of power or mobile water desalination capability. The unit can be trailer mounted and towed behind vehicles going into war or disaster zones. Naturally, the U.S. Department of Defense and FEMA are expected to be among the first customers.

To his credit, Kimura has steered Sopogy through A and B rounds of venture financing. He is halfway through raising a C round that will tally in the mid-eight figures, among the largest capital raises ever for a Hawaii technology company. His goal is an IPO. It would be the first since Hoku Scientific went public and one of a tiny number among Hawaii-launched companies should Kimura pull it off. Anyone who knows how hard Darren works wouldn’t bet against him. Keep your eyes open for Sopogy appearances at public events. I’ve heard the SopoSmores are quite tasty (solar collectors aren’t only for power, you know). You might just ask for a bite and end up with a rooftop unit.

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Sopogy introduces World’s first portable CSP unit called the “SopoLite™”

In late October we launched “SopoFlare™” a rooftop MicroCSP technology at Solar Power International in Anaheim.  We were humbled by the incredible response.  Just the web launch alone on had so much immediate volume that our site was overwhelmed and the servers crashed for 20 minutes!

SopoFlare™ is a unique product bringing concentrating solar power to the commercial and industrial rooftop, a market previously reserved for hot water or pv technologies.  In addition we designed an integrated roof rack mounting system which makes for easy and affordable rooftop installation by local contractors.  SopoFlare™ uses the proprietary features such as as our specialized tracker/controls, high speed manufacturing process and stow mode found in our award winning SopoNova™ 4.0 collector.   

With our staff still in recovery mode from the travel to Anaheim and busy with the follow up, we decided to go in a different direction with the launch of the World’s first portable MicroCSP system called the “SopoLite™”. 

Yesterday at the Maui Ocean Center, we launched “SopoLite™” a portable CSP system used for data gathering, portable renewable power or portable water desalination. 

SopoLite at Maui Ocean Center

Of the 56 VIPs invited, all but 2 made it. 1 from the local electric utility company and 1 was a legislator from the House of Representatives.  In addition we had a number of walk-ins creating a very diverse group of contractors, students, community leaders, business leaders and policy makers. 

SopoLite blessing

The program included a blessing of the SopoLite by Kahu Uncle Charlie who’s ancestors once lived in a Hawaiian village where the Maui Ocean Center stands today.  Sopogy’s Hawaii Manager Jon Ishikawa, a very, brief talk about Sopogy and our vision by me (didn’t want to keep the guests from our power house speakers), an excellent speech by Lori Mellenbruch the director of Sales & Marketing at the Maui Ocean Center, Deidre Tegarden representing the County of Maui and an inspired speech by Congressman Neil Abercrombie.    

Congressman Abercrombie at SopoLite Debut

The SopoLite was originally designed to help us create a global solar map, identifying locations where CSP technologies to be deployed.  The SopoLite gathers real-time data and sends information back to our corporate offices in Honolulu, Hawaii.  There our engineers are assembling a massive model of solar information which will make it easier and faster for our customers to achieve their solar goals.  In some ways, the SopoLite was similar to the Google Van which is helping create Google Earth.

Introducing SopoLite, the World's first portable MicroCSP system

In the 4 year development of the SopoLite however we discovered the technology was able to be used as a portable renewable energy device.  In this application the SopoLite can be deployed in a location such as a war zone or area devastated by natural disaster to provide power or even desalinate water. This brings a fast and renewable solution to our energy problems today.

Sopogy teaches the Youth Alliance how to use concentrating solar power to make SopoSmores

One of the highlights of the day was teaching the Youth Alliance how to create their own concentrating solar power systems to bake SopoSmores. 
Jon Youth Alliance 
Gloria-Energy Efficiency
The day wrapped up with Gloria from Energy Industries and Jon from Sopogy talking to the Youth Alliance about energy conservation and renewable energy.
Here are some additional pictures from the event:


Sopog Maui Ocean Center Speaker

Sopogy Maui Ocean Center Speakers

Shrinking CSP to scale new markets




2 November 2009

Shifting the focus from utility-scale CSP projects, CSP Today talks to Darren Kimura, CEO of Sopogy, about the advantages of micro CSP.

By Rikki Stancich

Micro CSP technologies are leveraging the economics of proven large scale CSP for application in the distributed generation markets. The market potential is vast.

CSP Today talks to Darren Kimura about why CSP technology has the technological and economic edge over its PV competitors in this space.

CSP Today: Sopogy has developed a ‘micro’ CSP system. What are the advantages of going small?

Darren Kimura: We’ve taken the large-scale parabolic trough technology and reduced its size – we’ve changed the position of the receiver and reduced the size of the reflector frame, which in itself reduces manufacturing costs.

So, there is a new frame, tracker, algorithms and a different temperature. And rather than running off a steam turbine, we use an organic ranking cycle, or ORC.

The ORC win is that it doesn’t use steam, it uses the temperature difference between fluids in a closed loop. In other words, we don’t have the high water requirement of the large-scale desert projects that run off steam engines.

And because the ORC can continue to operate at lower temperatures (unlike a steam turbine, which shuts off if the steam temperature drops) there are much lower operating costs and maintenance costs involved.

The ORC could be operating at 10 percent of its operating efficiency and the engine would still continue to operate. In other words, it can operate in cloudier places than the large-scale desert systems.

CSP Today:  A system with a lower insolation requirement must be adaptable to a wider market than large-scale CSP. Can you expand on which markets you are targeting? 

Darren Kimura: ORCs are smaller, so rather than competing with the likes of Solel or Solar Millennium, we focus on the distributor-generator market. The units can be situated nearer to city grids, on buildings. We are targeting the 2-5 MW market.

While the current competitors are the PV market, the ORC system is 10-15 percent cheaper and it produces more energy. It has a tracker and storage built-in to the system and can be used for steam production or water heating.

The market we are focusing on is the commercial and industrial sector – the big energy users. This market represents some US$750 billion, but the current market penetration is less than 1 percent.

On a global scale, we are looking at the US and international high energy cost markets – and of course, markets where there is sun.

CSP Today: What are the drawbacks of smaller-scale ORC systems compared to steam systems?

Darren Kimura: It is twice the cost of steam (if the steam systems have perfect direct normal irradiation, or DNI). But then again, these systems need to have perfect DNI to run efficiently and there are only a handful of places around the globe that can offer those conditions. The big guys are searching for perfect DNI because turbines only work on or off – if a cloud passes overhead, the system shuts down.

Most cities are not in high DNI environments, which is why large CSP doesn’t get there.

CSP Today: What are the cost benefits of using an ORC system?

Darren Kimura: With large utility-scale projects, the minimum size needed to recoup the project costs is around 100 MW. With the Micro system, the reduced size means there is a fewer number of welds and steel components.

Because the system can operate at lower temperatures, we don’t need to employ highly skilled steam contractors. Instead, we use standard plumbing contractors, which reduces the costs three-fold.

Finally, we combine the energy output from the system. In the desert you create power and heat. Normally the heat gets dumped. We capture the heat and use it for something else. In other words, we provide the client with an added form of energy saving.

So, the lowered cost of the collector; modular technology; and energy streams, combine to equal a competitive solution.