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Solar dish maker Stirling files for bankruptcy

Stirling Energy Systems, which once had giant utility contracts, heads to bankruptcy amid a price war and technology shift away from solar thermal and toward photovoltaics.

Stirling Energy Systems made solar dishes which generate heat to drive an engine which produces electricity.
Stirling Energy Systems made solar dishes which generate heat to drive an engine which produces electricity.
Salt River Project

Solar company Stirling Energy Systems has filed for bankruptcy, another casualty of a brutal global price war that is favoring commodity photovoltaic panels.

The Scottsdale, Arizona-based company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy late last week. The utility-scale solar company's largest investor is renewable energy developer NTR of Dublin, Ireland.

Founded in 1996, Stirling Energy Systems makes a large, 38-foot-high reflective dish which concentrates sunlight onto a Stirling engine to generate electricity. The 25-kilowatt SunCatcher dishes are designed to be used as building blocks for utility-scale solar farms in desert areas with sufficient sunlight.

After decades of development including a partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, the solar dishes were put online in 2010 in an Arizona demonstration project with a capacity of 1.5 megawatts.

The solar thermal technology, in which heat drives a hydrogen-filled piston to generate electricity, has the advantage of a scalable design and of not using water. Two utilities contracted to use Stirling Energy Systems dishes for giant solar projects in the southwest U.S.

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But prices for solar power production have dropped precipitously over the past two years, which has contributed to an ongoing shakeout among solar producers, including bankruptcies at Evergreen Solar, Spectrawatt, and Solyndra. Demand for solar has also been soft or uncertain in some countries.

The price war, led by Chinese manufacturers, is leading to a shift toward solar photovoltaic technology over solar thermal. Silicon-based solar PV panels have rapidly become commodities and have already caused solar developers to abandon solar thermal products.

In August, the project developer for the giant Blythe Solar Power Project in California switched from reflective solar troughs to flat-plate solar panels.

Stirling Energy is just one victim of the technology shift toward PV for large projects. Tessera Solar, which is a unit of NTR, lost a contract to supply power for the utility-scale Calico Solar project, which is expected to use PV technology primarily, and another Imperial Valley project appears abandoned, according to Dow Jones.