Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Recycled Solar, and Big Guns for the Navy

By Andrew Webb
Of the Journal
    TECH BYTES: Albuquerque native Matt Channon aims to prove you can build an affordable home solar system, one recycled solar cell at a time.
    His Downtown Albuquerque solar panel and rack manufacturing firm, cSol, is expected to complete its first complete home solar power installation this month— a milestone Channon hopes opens the floodgates of orders.
    "Most of our marketing is word-of-mouth," he said.'
    Channon is a New Mexico Tech graduate who worked in Sandia National Laboratories' photovoltaic program after returning from Georgia in 2001 with a solar power-focused master's degree in electrical engineering. He says he founded cSol in 2003 after conceiving of a way to make solar panels cheaper than anyone else— using "seconds," or rejected solar cells sold at a discount by major manufacturers.
    The chips have defects such as cracks, or even large chips of missing material, making them less aesthetic.
    But they still work just fine, says Channon, whose six employees include both of his parents.
    He started by selling single panels, assembled with stainless steel backing bought as scrap from a California maker of kitchen back-splashes and designed to power small appliances and pumps, charge batteries and perform other low-power tasks.
    More recently, he says, federal and state tax incentives, as well as new policies at utility PNM that allow homeowners to feed electricity back into the grid and get paid for it, enabled cSol to move into full-size systems.
    "The economics are becoming more favorable," Channon says.
    The panels are sealed behind rugged tempered glass and slide together in angled rooftop racks, where they are connected with a simple, proprietary plug system.
    A typical home needs a solar system capable of 2,000 to 6,000 watts of power. Channon says it takes between 4 and 12 racks of cSol's cells to power a home.
    A power system for a typical family home with a monthly electric bill of $100 would cost about $35,000, he said. State and federal tax incentives can knock off about $11,000 of that, he says, and the savings will pay for the rest of the system in nine years, compared to 15 years for existing grid-tied home systems.
    "We think we're the lowest-cost in the U.S.," Channon said.
    In the meantime, Channon has a few more sun-powered inventions up his sleeve, including a portable air conditioner and heater unit and a veritable museum piece— a Ford Ranger EV, one of about 1,500 battery-powered electric trucks built by Ford between 1998 and 2002. Like many electric cars of that era, the systems proved problematic and expensive to manufacturers, who eventually recalled the leased vehicles and destroyed them, creating much controversy.
    Only a handful of electric Rangers remain.
    Channon, who has used his as a commuter vehicle, aims to eventually buy traditional Rangers, remove the engine and transmission, and build a solar charger that would give the trucks a 20-mile range.
    "That's one of our goals," he said. "After we sell the engines and transmissions, we'll have a low-cost platform we think we can deliver for about $27,000.
    Since its founding, cSol has bootstrapped itself on less than $250,000 in investment, much from "friends and family," Channon says. The company aims to seek a traditional venture capital or angel investment in the coming year to ramp up home power system production.
    TPL GETS NAVY RAIL GUN CONTRACT, EXPLORES FUNDING OPTIONS: Albuquerque-based TPL has signed a $2.2 million contract to fabricate prototype power sources for a new Navy weapon that uses massive electrical charges to launch projectiles.
    The funding comes from the Office of Naval Research and is part of plans to deploy so-called "rail guns" on a planned new destroyer ship, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class.
    Electromagnetic rail guns fire projectiles, missiles or even aircraft up to 20 times as far as conventional weapons, and eliminate the need for storing and moving dangerous chemicals and explosives. Successful tests have been completed, though the defense industry is still struggling to mitigate damage to the guns caused by each firing.
    TPL received $1.5 million in the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act to begin development of special capacitors that can store the massive amounts of energy needed for a rail gun in a small space. The new funding is aimed at further development and prototype delivery to the Navy.
    In other TPL news, the company is looking for funding for another project— micro-power supplies for wireless sensors and other devices.
    TPL president and CEO Hap Stoller says the company may seek traditional venture capital financing, a licensing agreement with another company, or possible sale of a division or the entire company to fund the project.'
    Stoller said there is considerable demand for such products.
    "We're looking to move fairly aggressively in the next 12 months into manufacturing, but we just don't have the internal resources to build a manufacturing facility," he said.
    The company has engaged the services of a McLean, Va., consulting firm to explore funding options.
    TPL employs about 75. Besides electrical storage research, it also has a weapons decommissioning business in Gallup.

Andrew Webb covers technology for the Journal. You can reach him at 823-3819 or awebb@abqjournal.com.