When selling to any small business, it is psychologically easier to sell a product that is already made than a project that first will need to be constructed on site. Solatom, a new solar thermal firm, has based their business model on this understanding for its customers who need steam or hot water to process their products.
The company’s founders focused on designing a plug & play solar module that could be shipped ready to go and be simply connected onsite as a turn-key design. Their modular Fresnel solar reflector systems are designed to generate steam or high pressure hot water for industrial processes.
How it works
Each module is a linear Fresnel solar collector with mirror reflector that rotates to follow the sun, concentrating sunlight onto a vacuum tube at the central focal point along its 20 ft length. Fluid circulating through the tube absorbs the concentrated solar energy and heats up to 300ºC to generate hot water or high pressure steam up to 20 bar. Each module has a thermal power of 15kW and weighs under 23 kg per square meter and is sized to fit precisely into a standard 20 ft or 40 ft shipping container – or on truck beds – for shipping to customers.
“For example, in the case of a project in the Canary Islands we shipped four modules in shipping containers. So we fit two modules in a 40 foot shipping container,” said solar engineer Miguel Frasquet, who is now the CEO of the startup.
“The shipping container was loaded on a truck and transported to the port and put into the boat and unloaded again.From the time that we unloaded them from the shipping containers, we took 48 hours to deploy the complete solar field. It is quite fast. It didn’t make like a lot of unseen work.”
The modules can be connected in series “like lego bricks” at whatever scale is needed by a particular customer, or even to grow as a company’s needs grow. The firms engage local plumbing contractors to connect the modular array to theirsteam network. The Spanish firms that the three year old startup have sold to use steam or hot water to process products as various as cork, chemicals, cleaning products, fertilizer and process meat
The hot water can be stored in highly insulated tanks in two sizes. For example, the cork factory required a 6,000L tank while the fertilizer firm needed one with 10,000L capacity. (Either tank size can be delivered on one truck). The tanks are highly insulated so heat loss is only around 3° even over a weekend when some of these smaller firms like the cork factory do not operate. But the solar system can keep running both days and top it back up by Monday morning when the heat is once more needed for its pre-sunrise factory startup.
Plug & play removes risk for customers
This modular turnkey product approach is different from that of other solar firms such Sopogy, a Hawaiian company that had a similar customer target; small to medium-sized wineries, food processors and chemical firms that need hot water or high pressure steam.
“The big difference is what we’re trying is to provide a completely preassembled product,” Frasquet explained “The traditional way of building this kind of projects is as infrastructure projects in which you’d have to transport all the materials, the equipment, the people. You transport everything and you build everything on site. But for us this is not economical. Instead we ship each module ready to go; you can transport it and plug it in. This way you don’t spend too much time in the field which is the most expensive and least controlled part of a project.”
The founders of the three-year-old start-up bring together solar thermal experience from Abengoa and mechanical engineering and financial experience from London Business School. The team initially tested a first pilot module at Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA) and subsequent ones were validated in early 2019. The combination of engineering and business experience informed the way they sought their ideal customers among the many industries that need heat to make hot water or steam for their business.
“We spent the first nine months of our company not building projects, but just developing an algorithm to look for and find these kinds of companies,” said Frasquet. “We are very good at finding which kind of company have an energyneed. For us the ideal is the fairly isolated smaller and medium companies away from the city, because they have no access to the natural gas grid, so they use diesel and fuel oil which are way more expensive.”
He described economic viability as a grey area from customers’ perspective – that for some making the switch to solar instead of continuing to buy diesel or fuel oil is viable – even without any renewable energy incentives.
“So far our commercial projects haven’t had any subsidy because there was none in place at that time. So economically it had to work without the subsidy,” he noted. “The main driver of most industries is payback time, and that can vary from one factory to another. For some firms, If the payback time is six years, that is OK. But maybe for another company, that is not fast enough; they need to have a payback time of two years. So the economics really vary for each company. It is a grey area.”