Beyond Zero Emissions talks with Darren Kimura

Scott Bilby speak to Darren Kimura, President and CEO of “Sopogy”, a leader in Micro CSP Technologies in the United States, about Sopogy and the commercial availability and application of solar technologies.

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Scott Bilby: Welcome to Beyond Zero, a show covering issues relating to climate change, including the latest news, science and solutions. Beyond Zero Emissions is produced in the studios of 3CR Melbourne, broadcast Australia wide on the Community Radio Network and syndicated internationally. This show is produced by Beyond Zero Emissions, an Australian based climate change campaign centre. It’s our understanding that human caused global warming has already exceeded safe limits and that we must act immediately to reduce our levels of greenhouse gas emissions to zero and below.

My name is Scott Bilby, and with me in the studio is Matthew Wright. Hi Matt.

Matthew Wright: Hello Scott.

Scott Bilby: Today on Beyond Zero, we’re speaking with Darren Kimura, inventor, president and CEO of Sopogy, a leader in MicroCSP technologies that bring the economics of proven large scale concentrated solar power systems to the distributed generation markets. MicroCSP technologies are used to create heat – process heat I should say – solar air conditioning and electrical power. Welcome to the show Darren.

Darren Kimura: Hi guys, thanks for having me on today.

Scott Bilby: Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to speak with you. Now, can you tell us a little bit – just basically for the sake of the viewers – what Sopogy is doing.

Darren Kimura:
Sure. So we developed the concept of MicroCSP, which is effectively taking what’s historically been done in concentrating solar power and reducing it to a size that would be more acceptable for smaller projects, projects that, for example, could be in your backyard or a project that could be on your roof.

If you think back to the large concentrating solar technologies, these are historically very large mirrors – a number of metres wide and high. With our technology they’re maybe half, sometimes even a third of the conventional system. So as a result of them being smaller, they’re a lot cheaper to manufacture, they’re a lot easier to install. Also because we reduce the size, we reduce the temperatures and the pressures, so that allows regular contractors – local HVAC contractors or plumbers – to do the installation, and because we’re not dealing with those higher, more critical temperatures that you would deal with in conventional concentrating systems.

Scott Bilby: You have a range of products, and I was reading that you’ve got the SopoFlare, the SopoLite and the SopoNova. Can you just run us through basically the differences between those three things so that our listeners can understand precisely how they’re being used?

Darren Kimura: Yes. So Sopogy, first of all, stands for Solar Power Technology. So that’s how we came up with the name. And Sopo is solar power. And all our technologies are solar powered so we call everytghing ‘sopo’ something. And in our primary collectors we have – we focus on heat first of all, so we’re not doing conventional photovoltaics, we use thermal. And we look at the range of heat that’s basically starting in our world at above(?) a temperature that you would get from flat slate collectors(?) or evacuated tubes to heat your hot water for your home or your pool. So we’re looking at temperatures that are generally above 150 degrees Fahrenheit and go all the way up to well over two or three hundred degrees Celsius or about 700 degrees Fahrenheit. 

So those technologies are the products that you would use in that various ranges of temperature. So in the very small scale, we have what we call our SopoLite, which is actually a portable collector which you can move around, and the application we generally see that technology used for is for desalination of water. So this is a solar collector on a number of trailers hitched into the back of a truck, drive them all to the location you need them at and there’s a desalination device on the back end of it and the collector will operate, it’ll track the sun. The heat will go through the desalination device and created drinking portable(?) water from typically sea water.

You can use that for a variety of different applications. We’ve actually seen it used in Haiti in the recovery after the large earthquake there. As they had no water, we actually saw some of our customers using the technology there to bring water into the cities.

Another application would be – I’m sorry – the next technology would be SopoFlare, which is a smaller parabolic trough, it’s a shallower trough, so the parabola’s not as deep or as concave. We use the shallow part of it. We still focus it on a focal point and we create temperatures that are high enough for us to use an absorption chiller, a double effect(?) absorption chiller, to create cold air. So that kind of technology, SopoFlare, you would put on a rooftop and it would produce the heat to power the absorption chiller, or also for hot water or for steam.

And finally, SopoNova is our larger collector which we use for power generation. And that typically is installed in the ground.

Scott Bilby: And can you tell us a little bit about some of the projects you’ve got underway at the moment, because I was reading that you have some interesting things in the pipeline and also already on the ground.

Darren Kimura: We do. We have 11 sites around the world operating today. And these are – they run the gamut of power projects – large power projects to small(?), and to air conditioning systems, steam and even hot water. And it is a global technology. So we’re based in the United States(?), but we primarily sell our technologies, you know, in hot, sunny areas around the world. For us, we tend to look at really the technology as being somewhat of a solution to fit between large concentrating solar technologies and PV. And we find that our customers like it because it has the built-in storage in thermal energy that allows the technology to operate during cloudy periods, or sometimes even at night. So it’s a very robust application as well.

Matthew Wright: And you’re mentioning the storage. Have you actually got any active sites that are using storage? Is it – and your lower temperatures – so I assume you’d be using a phase change material or…. what’s the story there?

Darren Kimura:
Well no, and that’s interesting. So we have a number of different sites using the storage today. We do not use a phase change material. We actually typically use water, or it could be a liquid oil and rather than going from a solid to a liquid or, you know, vapour to a liquid, or whatever the case may be. We basically just keep it in its hot form, under pressure – so there’s a little bit of pressure in these tanks – but it’s very similar to a thermos that you would use to store hot coffee. So you would pour the coffee into the thermos, you’d cap it off and a couple of hours later you’d open the cap and that liquid is still very hot. So we use in our power generation application – we generally use a technology known as the organic ranking cycle engine(?), and that is a complicated way of saying basically geothermal electricity.

And that technology operates at a lower temperature, so it allows us to use the heat generated from our fields to store it in those containers at a lower temperature than you would need for steam(?) for example. But the benefit there is that everything in the entire system is very cheap because again we’re not dealing with high pressures or high temperatures or very thick pieces of metal. Everything we do, you could probably find in a plumber’s truck now. So that allows the technology to be, again, very affordable and as a result gives the customer a higher rate of return.

Scott Bilby: And can you tell us – I heard you had a project, a 50 megawatt project, where you want to build up to a 50 megawatt project(?) in Spain. Is that underway, and can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Darren Kimura: Yeah, absolutely. So the Spanish Government has what’s known as a feed-in tariff and of course that’s a prescribed rate of energy that’s very attractive. We know the economics of the system. We don’t have to negotiate on a one-off basis with the utility to achieve a power purchase agreement. So that project is, as you mention, a large project, it’s 50 megawatts and the plan is for it to be installed in a number of phases. So we’re going through the different steps of that process – land acquisition, you know, erection of sites and technology deployment. So it’s underway now, but we’re not near to completion out there at this time.

Matthew Wright: And did you get included in the first 2440 megawatts of projects approved for the feed-in tariff?

Darren Kimura: The techn… I’m sorry, the project has been, yes. So Sopogy, we’re a technology supplier, and we will basically sell our technologies to developers, and it’s the developer who would go out there and apply for – they would apply for different feed-in tariffs or whatever the scheme might be in whatever country it is.

So our model is very different than I think other concentrating technology companies, where many of them would go out and try to develop a project themselves. For us, we’re more like PV in the way we go to market where we just provide the collector, and from that point on the developer takes it forward(?).

Matthew Wright:
Sorry, just to confirm, the developer had actually already been approved for the feed-in tariff?

Darren Kimura: That’s right.

Matthew Wright: OK. That’s fantastic. So we’ll probably see in the next two or three years that project coming to fruition. Is that right?

Darren Kimura: We hope so [laughs]. Absolutely. Absolutely.

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Scott Bilby: Now, I also heard that in Hawaii there is the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority facility and you’ve got your own project running there in collaboration with another organisation. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what the aim is there?

Darren Kimura: Sure. So very similar to what I just described. You know, we are a technology supplier and we supply that typically to what’s called an EPC(?) in [indistinct 12:23]. It’s your contracting engineering company that will build the system and turnkey(?) it over to a developer. So in this case, that other company you mentioned is called Keahole Solar Power, or KSP for short – they’re our customers. So they develop the project in the Natural Energy Laboratory site that you mentioned. They procured all the equipment and built the site. And their company, they look to build other projects all throughout the state of Hawaii, a very sunny state which also has a very high energy cost because of its isolation. They will develop an EPC, they will build other projects very similar to the one in Kona. So that project in Kona for Sopogy is a nice one because we’ve demonstrated a two megawatt project using our solar collectors, our tractors, everything that we’ve invented, software and our storage technologies as well. Keahole Solar Power has the experience in designing, developing, installing and turnkeying(?) these systems. They’ve also procured the land and negotiated the power purchase agreement with the utilities.

So they now have the domestic skills to go out and basically the paste(?) the same type of project all throughout the state, possibly even beyond that. So, for us Sopogy is a demonstration project using our large scale(?) technologies. For Keahole Solar Power, it’s the first and the model project for many to come.

Scott Bilby: We’re speaking with Darren Kimura, he’s inventor, president and CEO of Sopogy, a leader in MicroCSP technologies. Now Darren, every year all around the world I guess it’s becoming more and more likely that regulations will be introduced for greater clean energy capacity in buildings and feed-in tariffs and stuff like that. I just want to concentrate on the buildings thing, given that you’re making some smaller, kind of, the MicroCSP projects. Have there been any regulations that have come in recently that have really made you prick up your ears and get really interested in, you know, a new country where a whole lot of projects could possibly roll out soon?

Darren Kimura: Yes. We’ve been watching any market that has feed-in tariffs. You know, and there’s a number of them now. Obviously Germany and Japan have had them for a number of years, Spain as well. You know, we’ve seen quite a bit of traction in other parts of Europe, including: Italy, France, Turkey. We’re watching parts of Asia – India, Thailand for example. We know that Japan is taking a look at bringing one back. Oh, you know we’re hopeful Australia – that will become a market that we can take a look at deploying(?) some technology. And of course, the US, the regulations there have been – here at least(?) – have become much, much better. Many states, for example, have begun to implement feed-in tariffs.

Globally we still are hopeful that a cap and trade – the US anyway would sign off for a cap and trade – and we could have also some form of a better Copenhagen [laughs] kind of climate policy established. But at least in the intermediate and near term we are looking favourably at these feed-in tariff markets.

Matthew Wright: And the US Fed seems to have been supporting a number of industries through the stimulus. Have any of those benefits flowed through to Sopogy direct commercialisation projects or projects for your project partners, or research and development projects?

Darren Kimura: Yes. Some of them have come through. In the US they have created the Recovery Act and some of the tax credits which [indistinct 16:03] projects have been converted to cash back grants. Those grants have been very helpful, and that [indistinct 16:10] has been pretty important to our customers. So in that regard, that’s been a very, very important piece of revised regulation. I think, as it pertains to technology development, no, not so much. And we do not necessarily participate in some of the, what we call the loan guarantees from the Department of Energy because we don’t – our model is not to own manufacturing in the United States. We actually look to partner with manufacturers around the world. So it’s more like an Apple(?) model where we have contract partners wherever the projects are rather than installing our own brick and mortar in the United States. And that allows us to be a lot more flexible with our technology development as well.

So, primarily more focus on commercialisation of the technology. Whereas a lot of companies are focused on lab activities, we’re focused on real life activities.

Scott Bilby: I was just going to ask too – I was reading that the British Government has recently introduced a feed-in tariff to encourage users and local communities to implement small scale facilities for clean energy production up to five megawatts. That would be exactly in your range, wouldn’t it with your MicroCSP technologies?

Darren Kimura: Yes. Sizewise, absolutely. It’s the megawatt class we like, so we’re focusing primarily on anything below 50 megawatts, up to about maybe about 2 megawatts. So 2 to 50 is our megawatt class that we like, and we seem to have a very strong competitive advantage(?). 

The challenge, at least in the UK though, is with concentrating technology you generally need direct solar radiation. You need to be able to see the sun, the outline(?) of the sun. And in the UK it’s a little cloudy, similar to Germany. So from our standpoint, the economics may not work out good with our technology as it may for others. But that being said, it’s still new and we are still exploring it, so that position could change as we get to become more familiar with that market.

Scott Bilby: Yes, sorry. I was getting a bit little too excited and pushing too far north of the Equator there [laughs].

Darren Kimura: [Laughs] I like the way you think.

Scott Bilby: [Laughs] I do recall that a lot of your products were flat packed and I recall that it made them less expensive and more efficient to transport around the world. So this range of products you’ve got now, are they still aligned with that sort of philosophy of flat packing – making them more efficient to get them around the world and….

Darren Kimura: Yes. Right. The model – our core manufacturing model is if we have projects in Australia, we would look to partner with a local Australian manufacturer. And that would apply to any country around the world we’ve got projects in. Now, the technology is designed to be manufactured in a piece fashion. Those pieces are flat packed from the factory, which is in Australia, put in a truck in a container and shipped from the factory directly to the project site. The packs are very efficient so we don’t have to have equipment. No cranes or forklifts, for example. It can be done completely manually. These containers can be put in an elevator, for example if need be. So absolutely [indistinct 19:30] model there, but again we want to be doing in country so we can create local jobs. You know, we can have the technology manufactured in its local currency and that gives us a lot more flexibility as well in the way we go to market.

Matthew Wright:
And, our car components manufacturing industry has been somewhat in decline, is that the kind of factory if it’s already tooled up for that use that could be converted over to this kind of manufacturing application?

Darren Kimura: Exactly right. So the automotive manufacturing pieces of equipment are the same pieces of equipment that you could use to make our parts, yes.

Scott Bilby: Yeah, I like that. Sounds great [laughs]. Now I did want to talk a little bit more about that project with a college. Can you tell us a little bit about what that project is, it’s in North America somewhere. I was reading about it the other day and I’ve just forgotten about it….

Matthew Wright: ….is this a HVAC one with air conditioning?

Darren Kimura:
Absolutely. I believe that project you’re talking about is at Eckerd College in St Petersburg Florida.

Scott Bilby: Yeah, that’s the one.

Darren Kimura: That project is quite interesting. First of all, the project was developed by a group of students that came out of MIT’s engineering department. These are extremely bright students, Fulbright scholars, and yes – while very intellectually advanced, they’re also very altruistic and they have an interest in bringing this type of technology. Really they have an interest in going into the Third World and helping the Third World adopt electrification. And they looked at what technology would be the best and easiest for these Third World countries to do that with. Which technology has the most robustness to it. And this is a study which they did independent, even prior to meeting us.

They picked concentrating solar power because you can use it for power generation, you can use it for heat. You can use it for any variety of different things, all of which you need in these developing locations. So they approached us many years ago and we started talking about the idea of collaborating. And really what they had invented, which was very special we thought, was a very cheap feed(?) engine which could be made from car parts. And what we liked of course, is we have, at Sopogy, we have an altruistic aspect as well – we like to give back to the community. So we collectively thought about a location to deploy the technology and Eckerd College was selected because it is a very sunny location in Florida in North America. But it’s also a location where you’ve got storms, because Florida has generally been a location where you get a lot of these hurricanes, high speed winds, rains, hail et cetera. And our technology really has an advantage in those kind of locations because of the design. We’ve designed it to be able to withstand against these high-speed winds and what not.

The intent there was to deploy the technology with the MIT engine(?) and produce electricity and hot water. So we would be demonstrating really the world’s first hybrid system. And really at its core that’s what we’re doing there. The intent is going forward we can take that design and deploy that for any college or any university, or even any health care facility around the world, bringing them power and hot water. These are two things that are absolutely important to those facilities, and of course, doing it from the sun.

Matthew Wright: And just to finish up, your heen(?) ventilation and air conditioning solutions, your absorption chilling, can you tell us about some successful implementations of those that you’ve got and what you think of the potential for growth in that market internationally will be?

Darren Kimura: We think that the HBAC(?) heating ventilation and air conditioning market is going to be the biggest market in solar. We think it’s going to eclipse power by a magnitude of two or three times. And if you think about it, it’s purely a lot more efficient to generate thermal energy which has been used to create the cold air through the absorption effect than it would be to generate electricity with a photovoltaic panel which already has relatively low efficiencies and connect that up to an electric chiller, which in itself has low efficiencies as well. You know, if you compare the efficiencies, you’re looking at about four times – the solar thermal absorption system – being four times more efficient than your PV and electric air conditioning system.

Now looked at in a different way, the solar technology with absorption units augments an existing air conditioning system that might be running off electricity. So if you’ve got an AC system that’s running – you know, let’s call it 24/7 – the solar air conditioning system would come in and operate probably about ten hours a day. And as a result, you’re going to be saving that ten hours of electricity consumption. So the payback there, the cost of energy saved against the capital cost to install the project – and it depends on the market – but it’s generally around four years – very attractive. Because these air conditioning systems are designed to last 25 plus years, as are the collectors.

So we’ve been able to deploy this in a number of different locations. Probably the one that comes to mind – and we’re the proudest of – is a facility in Southern California, and we like this because it’s a utility. It’s a utility called Sempra Energy, which is a very large Southern California utility. They’ve actually taken our collectors and installed it on their rooftop and it’s doing exactly that. It’s producing cold air using solar heat. And that air is being used to offset, or augment, the use of electricity to create that same cold air.

Matthew Wright: So in your retrofit application you’ve got existing buildings with an existing air conditioning system, and effectively you retrofit in the Sopogy system and you eliminate 50 or 80 per cent, or something, of that existing system’s cooling power?

Darren Kimura: You got it. Exactly. And then of course, the other aspect is if you put these collectors on the rooftop, you also create a shading effect. So the collectors sit on the roof, they block the roof from the sun, because of course the collectors absorb all that energy. So you, in addition to the energy or the cooling you generate, you also help to offset the building energy – capture of the energy load. So it’s even a little bit more effective than that.

Scott Bilby: Darren, thank you for speaking with us today about your MicroCSP technology.

Darren Kimura: It was my pleasure guys. Thanks so much.

Scott Bilby:
That was Darren Kimura, president and CEO of Sopogy, a firm that takes large scale solar thermal technology and uses it in a smaller scale called MicroCSP. Their systems can produce processed(?) heat, air conditioning or electrical power. If you want to know more about Sopogy, go to sopogy.com.

Matthew Wright: And if you want to find out more about Beyond Zero Emissions and the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan, the hundred per cent renewable energy for Australia, running solar thermal and wind power along with a modernisation of the grid – an electrical grid upgrade – and we’ll be doing a buildings plan soon, which of course will include thinks like distributed HVAC(?) and distributed photovoltaic and distributed heat generation. So check that out at the Beyond Zero Emissions website beyondzeroemissions.org.

Scott Bilby: Beyond Zero Emissions is produced in the studios of 3CR Melbourne, broadcast Australia wide on the Community Radio Network and syndicated internationally.