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Solar tech company helps catch a brighter ray

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CEO Robert Hockaday, president of eQsolaris, gets a grubstake

By Roger Snodgrass

 

At a Senate budget committee hearing earlier this year, senators wanted to hear what Energy Secretary Steven Chu thought about their own states’ strong points as a basis for solving the energy problem.

What about carbon capture, a strategy for getting energy from coal with less carbon going into the atmosphere, Chu was asked.

A “reasonable chance of success,” he answered.

On nuclear power, Chu said, “The price is still very high,” but he added that it was “a technology certainly worth testing.”

Later, he told the committee, in a sentence that the American Institute of Physics recently found one of the most memorable of the year.

“Ultimately, solar will be the answer,” Chu said.

The meaning of that statement is not lost on Bob Hockaday, a Los Alamos entrepreneur who has been working on harvesting the sun’s free and ample energy for a long time. He also knows what the limitations are.

“The sun radiates more energy to the Earth in one hour than is consumed by all human activity in a year,” he said. “Unfortunately solar energy produced by the best of current technology is approximately four times the cost of conventional electrical power.”

Hockaday’s solar tech company has taken on the challenge, component by component, of reducing the price of solar energy production.

At the end of the 2009, Hockaday pulled in a $600,000 investment from his family, a big step on a long trek he has been making. He still has a long way to go, but that investment will underwrite another step toward the proof he needs that he can make a photovoltaic system more efficient.

Starting with Energy

Related Devices (ERD) a research and development company with technology transferred out of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Hockaday later teamed up with a Japanese company, Kyosemi Corporation to combine their complementary technological strengths in order to develop micro concentrator arrays.

In May 2008, Hockaday was one of the entrepreneurs selected to present his business plan for eQsolaris, Inc. at the New Mexico Equity Symposium sponsored by Technical Ventures Corporations in Albuquerque.

He talked recently about what keeps him going.

The short answer is persistence. The longer answer is about a lifetime of commitment.

 “As a kid I knew I could do something that would change the world,” he said. But first he had to overcome some disabilities. “I willed myself to become smarter, to develop intuitive solutions for problems. I grew up knowing that we can fix things.”

Extensive travel around the world at a young age taught him that many global problems have fairly simple solutions. Diarrhea, for example, boils down to a problem of clean water and clean water is most often a problem of energy.

“If you have energy you can do anything.” Hockaday said, noting that 25 percent of Los Alamos County’s electricity goes into pumping water.

“Integration is now the next step,” Hockaday said, going down a list of the comparative costs of solar components that he has been squeezing one by one to get down to the $500/kilowatt-hour level, the target cost for becoming competitive with fossil fuel. A kilowatt-hour is 1000 watts per hour.

Hockaday thinks eqsolaris can come in at $280 a kilowatt.

The company’s first product will be a photovoltaic skylight, something that will fit existing skylights and be of interest to many consumers. Eventually the idea is to build a 14 megawatt pilot production assembly plant in New Mexico.

Starting with a consumer item like a skylight is a business strategy to position the company with a revenue stream, while growing into large volume power markets.

“If we deliver what we say, the market is gigantic,” Hockaday said. According to the company’s market studies, the U.S. skylight market alone is $500 million a year.

Like other entrepreneurs during these dismal economic conditions, Hockaday is buoyed by the challenge of making a worthwhile contribution during a time of change.

“Only in a crisis can you pop up new products,” he said, thinking about major shifts in national priorities on the order of World War II.

The immediate project is to use newly purchased rollers to produce full scale rolled glass lens arrays, which are the single largest components of the company’s micro concentrator solar arrays. That work will be done at the East Gate Industrial Park.

Editor's note: This version changes kilowatt-hour to kilowatt in seventh paragraph from the end