Stirling Energy Systems Inc., founded in 1996, succumbed last week to a variety of pressures mounting industry-wide, beginning with a price war led by low-cost Chinese solar photovoltaics and topping out with a list of factors that led to bankruptcy filings for the once thriving solar thermal innovator.
Of course it doesn’t help that Stirling’s largest investor, NTR PLC, is based in debt-strapped Ireland. Or that Stirling has been largely capsized – along with other companies smaller than this utility-scale developer of such groundbreaking concentrator dish systems as the 25 kW SunCatcher – by a massive shakeup in the North American solar market catalyzed by such high-profile, politically-charged failures as Solyndra LLC and Evergreen Solar Inc. (OTC.ESLRQ.PK).
Even the massive Blythe Solar Power Project in California switched from reflective solar troughs to flat-plate solar panels (August), with the developer jumping ship to a photovoltaic (PV) infrastructure, due to the economic benefits of solar PVs, which are now at commodity level availability/ubiquity.
NTR also reported loss of a major output sale contract through business unit Tessera Solar (Tessera Technologies Inc., NASDAQ.TSRA) back in December, with the Calico Solar project (663 MW) ultimately being sold to developer K Road Power, which ended up redesigning the project to utilize mainly solar panels, instead of the originally intended Stirling technology.
As a wave of ultra-cheap solar panels continues to stream out of Asian markets, much (at the time) ballyhooed projects like the Imperial Valley Solar project, which was sold by Tessera to AES Solar and intended to make wide use of Stirling technology, are being sidelined.
At that time, Interior Secretary Salazar said that the Imperial Valley project would “advance the president’s agenda for stimulating investment in cutting-edge technology,” while providing green jobs for Americans and helping the US to take a commanding lead in 21st century renewable – a hopeful remark currently resonating with systemic shockwaves running through the sector.
NTR wrote down some $201M in losses total between Stirling and Tessera; the California Energy Commission terminated licensing for construction on the Imperial Valley Solar project in August (shortly after San Diego Gas & Electric killed their power-purchase agreement); and the Stirling Energy Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection filing of Sept. 23 – after the company’s failure to find a purchaser – looks like a one-two-three punch to one of North America’s brightest solar thermal stars.
While the fundamental efficacy of thermal arrays based around Stirling engines is sound, and the technology advanced by Stirling Energy capitalizes readily on the extremely efficient design of the Stirling engine, where attenuated heat from the collector dishes drives a piston containing hydrogen, the storm of external forces proved to be too much for the company.
The $535 million federal loan given to now-defunct California solar panel outfit Solyndra (now under investigation) typifies an entire price-point phenomenology, as domestic solar PV manufacturers are crushed under a surfeit of cheap, foreign competing products while revolutionary technologies like Stirling-based arrays fall victim to an increasingly stringent economic environment. Neither of Stirling Energy’s project plants (both sited on public land and permit fast-tracked by Energy Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration) were able to obtain government loan guarantees.
Decades of work by Stirling Energy, including an advanced partnership with Sandia National Laboratories and the 1.5 MW Arizona demo project that went online back in 2010, are seemingly now just a memory to be logged in the history book.