If it succeeds, Bloo Solar will transform the world from traditional energy sources to clean renewable energy, said Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board Larry Bawden, in an interview at the company in El Dorado Hills. “We’re on track,” he said.
Bloo Solar moved to the El Dorado Hills Business Park on Oct. 30, 2011, when the company was still refining the design of its three-dimensional trademarked Solar Brush technology.
Now, at the beginning of 2013, it is at the next stage, pre-production.
Design and testing stage — proof of concept
Bawden said the company is on track to bring the cost of solar energy down to the same level or below the cost per kilowatt hour (kwh) as coal, nuclear or natural gas. When the price of one form of energy is the same as others, it is called grid parity.
The solar industry has been around for 40 years, said Bawden. Recently, the industry has gone through a tremendous consolidation, as historically happens with new technologies. Five years ago there were 70 solar companies. Today there are around 20.
“They can’t all keep up,” said Bawden.
Bloo Solar is in the third generation of development in the solar industry.
“We’re the next wave,” he said. “It’s very novel, leading edge and impactful.”
Researchers at UC Davis invented the patented Solar Brush process that is the core of Bloo Solar’s technology. In 2005, four researchers formed Q1 NanoSystems in West Sacramento to develop the product. Q1 NanoSystems reached an exclusive licensing agreement with UC Davis to use the process. Bawden joined the company in 2007. He was named CEO in 2008 and changed the name to Bloo Solar.
When solar energy came on the market, it was expensive. In the last five years, $60 billion-$70 billion has been poured into reducing costs in modules and reducing costs of installation. Costs for solar energy were brought down from 30 cents a kwh to 16-17 cents. That market is $50 billion a year.
“Grid parity is 5 cents per kwh. That market is $3 trillion a year. That’s a huge economic impact for the county, for California and the United States. We think we can get there by September of this year,” said Bawden.
What Bloo Solar is doing is different, said Bawden. “We’re focusing on producing three times more power in a given period of time and holding that cost target. Three times power drops you instantly to 5 cents a kwh. We’ve already proven 9 cents. By the quarter after next, we’ll be at 7 cents. In September, we’ll hit our initial target of 5 cents with a path to 2 cents.”
Bloo Solar has not taken any government subsidies, nor has it used Silicon Valley venture capital. Investment capital to finance the startup phase comes from New York, said Bawden.
The company has received over $14 million in three rounds of funding for the initial stage.
Bawden said the company will need $40 million for pre-production, and $20 million is already subscribed.
Typical solar panels in use today are flat two-dimensional units. Bloo Solar uses the standard industry size 2-by-4 foot panels that go directly into the existing market. However, Bloo Solar’s advanced design is three-dimensional, using ultra-thin film for energy-conversion efficiency and “brush technology” to capture more of the sun’s electromagnetic photons over more hours in the day.
An extremely thin film is precisely put down across an eight-inch square. Small nickel rods — 1/1000 the diameter of a strand of hair, or the size of a red blood cell — are laid down in exact locations. One disc holds 500 million rods. One 2-by-4 panel holds 50 billion rods.
“What this does is help us track light up to 95 percent, and we are able to convert up to 80-90 percent of the light we trap. That’s how we get to three times more power,” said Bawden.
The two-dimensional, or planar, panels have peak efficiency when the sun is directly overhead at noon, when the photons reach the panels at a straight perpendicular angle, like at a cross-street.
Bloo Solar’s technology produces peak efficiency during a broader period of time, with dual peaks, one at 10 a.m. and one at 2 p.m. The rods are able to capture the sun’s electromagnetic photons at different angles. “That produces twice the power at the same efficiency,” said Bawden. It increases the energy density. You can put our solar panels on the north side of your house or the south side. You will get the exact same performances.”
Bloo Solar is in its fifth year of development. “Our technology has been measured, demonstrated and validated by other parties,” said Bawden. The next step is to develop the production model.
The right mix of scientists and engineers
Bawden said he moved Bloo Solar to El Dorado County because that is where he lives and where his children go to school. He has 12 employees. Several of them were commuting from the El Dorado Hills area to West Sacramento, and were delighted when the company relocated.
“We have a high horsepower team,” said Bawden.
John Fisher, vice president finance, has over 25 years of executive and operational experience in high-growth technology companies in the Silicon Valley. He is a co-inventor on three pending energy patents. Fisher is an expert in life-cycle engineering design in manufacturing, which includes minimizing environmental impacts, and will be a key player in ensuring that Bloo Solar’s products are certified.
John Bohland, vice president of module operations, has led technical manufacturing operations in the solar industry for over 25 years. He is a certified project management professional. Bohland is named in numerous patents relating to paper coating, glass coating and PV module recycling.
Bob Smith, vice president operations, is a widely published authority on thin-film deposition equipment and technology. He is named on numerous vacuum technology patents.
Smith had retired from Seagate Technology, the leading manufacturer of hard drives and storage solutions, where he had been in charge of 2,000 employees in plants in Ireland, Singapore and China. He said, “I loved engineering and I loved manufacturing, and I was interested in solar. I called my former boss at Seagate. He told me he had just been doing due diligence on solar companies and there was one he could recommend. And it was in my area. It was Bloo Solar.”
Gautam Ganguly, vice president device engineering, has a PhD in Physics with an emphasis in Optics. He has more than 25 years of technology development experience in the United States and Asia. He was a contributor on the U.S. Department of Energy National Thin Film PV Team and the Sunshine Project of the government of Japan.
At Bloo Solar, all employees are stock-holding, co-owners of the company. As such, they are responsible for contributing to the company’s growth and building value.
Ruxandra Vidu, Ph.D, a co-inventor of Bloo Solar’s core technologies, remains involved as a member of the company’s advisory team.
CEO Bawden, a Sacramento State University graduate in mechanical engineering, is known in the industry as a “go-to-market” man. Smith said that Bawden is careful to get to each step in the process as quickly as possible with funding that matches that step. Like a quarterback leading his team downfield and piling up touchdowns, every move is calculated to reach the final goal of first to market.
By meeting each target and demonstrating success, rather than over-financing and expanding too fast, Bawden is able to build confidence in outside investors and employees.
Bawden, too, is a veteran of the high technology industry, as a senior manager in energy and aerospace companies. NASA awarded him its Group Achievement Award. In 2006, he received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Emerging Markets-Northern California. He is co-inventor on five pending energy patents.
He was a founder of Jadoo Power, in Folsom, one of the leading portable fuel cell companies, before he switched to the solar field. He said that Bloo Solar is the third company he has grown in the area.
On Jan. 29, Bawden appeared before the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to present Bloo Solar’s current position at the Economic Development Advisory Committee’s quarterly Business Showcase. With active support from the El Dorado Hills Chamber of Commerce and expedited permit processing by the county, Bloo Solar had been able to move into the Business Park on schedule.
One of the goals of economic development in the county and the chambers is to help retain businesses that are expanding.
Bawden said that Bloo Solar’s technology is to the solar industry what the CD-ROM was to computers, a game changer. “The CD-ROM was an order of magnitude more than the IBM floppy disc.”
The company’s current building is barely big enough to get through the pre-production line. Bawden said their second large tool is being flown in from Germany. It weighs 12 tons and will barely fit through the doors. The air ticket was $30,000, he said.
Starting in January, the pre-production phase will take 2-1/2 years. The company will be hiring 40-50 people.
“After that, we’ll be looking at a 200,000- to 300,000-square-foot building for the actual small production facility,” he said.
Regarding a possible threat by hydroelectric power interests, Bawden said, “I’m not concerned about hydroelectric. They pour water over concrete.” He said he is more concerned about industrial companies from overseas. Bloo Solar has U.S. and international patents. “You only get so much protection on patents. The rest are trade secrets, and from there on, it’s a race to the finish,” said Bawden.
Bawden said utilities and industrial customers will absorb the initial production. Then the residential market will open. “The overseas market won’t be able to manufacture these for the first four or five years.”
The only holdback to being able to operate with solar energy continuously, for example, during long storms, is battery technology. That is coming up fast due to electric cars, said Bawden. “When the cost gets to baseload (continuous operation) at 6-7 cents a kwh, plus our 2 cents, it’s a 100-yard pass down the field. It’s a huge technology leap.”
The Department of Energy forecasts that solar energy will reach grid parity in 2026, said Bawden. “We think we’ll get there by third quarter 2013. Someone’s right on that. I think it’s going to be us. Thank you for your support.”
For more information, visit bloosolar.com.