Sun and creativity power Sopogy’s success
Pacific Business News (Honolulu) – by Nanea Kalani Pacific Business News
Darren Kimura considers himself a problem solver, always looking for solutions to the world’s troubles.
The Hawaii entrepreneur has built several successful technology companies around that trait, most of them focused on energy-efficient technologies.
“I do one thing — look for customer-based problems,” said Kimura, 33.
Combining this skill with an innovative mindset, Kimura started tinkering with ideas in 2002 to create an affordable technology that could ease electricity costs for businesses.
The tinkering led to building prototypes and eventually the launching last year of Sopogy Inc., PBN’s 2008 Innovative Company of the Year.
Sopogy’s name combines the words solar, power and technology. It was spun off from Energy Industries, which Kimura founded in 1994.
The company has invented a new kind of solar concentrator for generating electricity from the sun’s heat. The technology, resembling large silver troughs, uses mirrors and lenses to concentrate the sun’s rays on fluids, creating steam that turns turbines to generate electricity.
These collectors are very different from the more common photovoltaic panels, which are typically designed for roof-top systems and convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity.
Sopogy’s solar collectors are designed as ground units that can function as solar farms producing huge amounts of energy — up to 50 megawatts, or enough to power 15,000 homes. (The company does, however, also make a roof-top version.)
“At the core of the problem is the fact that as a society, we use more energy than we make,” Kimura said. “The only way to have a fast impact is to take big bites of the apple. You can’t do that with photovoltaics.”
Another distinct feature is the collectors’ capability to store solar energy that can be used after the sun goes down. They also are equipped with tracking systems, which Sopogy engineers created, to maximize productivity and efficiency.
“The software tied to our collectors account for factors such as cloudy skies, high wind speeds and rain,” said Kimura, who serves as president and CEO. “The programming allows the collector to be smart and encodes it with logic, so it can turn itself upside down if it’s cloudy. Although there’s layers and layers of complexity, of course, we’ve tried to make it simple for our customers.”
Kimura said Sopogy has a couple thousand of its collectors — called the SopoNova 4.0 — in use worldwide, including on the West Coast and in Asia, the Middle East and Spain.
“What’s exciting about solar technology is that it can be everywhere and anywhere,” he said. “The technology is made here in Hawaii, tested here, our company is based here, but we just export it out. I think innovation is about trying to create technologies that you can export around the world.”
Most of Sopogy’s 41 employees are based in Hawaii, while some are stationed at the company’s sales offices in San Jose, San Diego and Phoenix.
Kimura said Sopogy is on track to generate $10 million in revenue this year. The privately held company got its start using a combination of venture capital and personal investment from Kimura.
Locally, Sopogy’s technology is in use at the Big Island’s Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in Kona.
The company sells power from a 1-megawatt system to Hawaii Electric Light Co. The project was designed in phases so that Sopogy could expand the system to up to 10 megawatts.
Sopogy received approval for up to $10 million in state revenue bonds for the NELHA project. It also was approved for up to $35 million in bonds to build a solar farm on Oahu that could generate another 10 megawatts, or enough power for about 3,000 homes, for Hawaiian Electric Co.
Sopogy last year built a 16-collector, 50-kilowatt system in Spokane, Wash., which generates power for the local utility. Sopogy will add a dozen more collectors to the system by next summer.
Sopogy’s collector already has caught the attention of several national and international technology groups.
The National Society of Professional Engineers named it its 2008 new product award winner in the small company category. Meanwhile, the technology is one of four finalists for the Platts Global Energy Awards’ sustainable technology innovation of the year.
“In our world, these awards are like the Emmys or the Academy Awards; all the energy geeks want to win these,” Kimura said. “Out of the hundreds of tech companies in Silicon Valley that are well financed and have great technologies, we’re the one they picked. It’s really exciting.”
Sopogy wants to expand its solar plants around the world and Kimura ultimately wants to take the firm public.
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|Pacific Business News (Honolulu) – November 17, 2008