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Solar 'Heliotube' company partners with installers

Practical Instruments has built a light-concentrating solar panel it plans to sell through traditional panel installers.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read
Solar power start-up Practical Instruments has signed on three installers of its "Heliotube," a solar panel equipped with tubes that follow the sun's direction.

There are a number of companies using a concentrator design. By focusing sunlight with mirrors and lenses, panel makers can get more power from a solar cell or lower the overall cost by using less silicon, the most commonly used material for converting light to electricity.

Credit: Practical Instruments

The Heliotube uses a set of self-powered tubes that turn during the course of the day to maximize light input.

Practical Instruments' Heliotube also concentrates light, but its system is designed to be the same size as traditional flat panels. That makes it easier for solar installers to work with, according to CEO Brad Hines.

"The installer base out there has 25 years of experience and best practices. A lot of people are trying to bring down solar costs, but it's hard to be smarter than all those (installer) people," he said.

Hines said that while other solar concentrator companies are selling directly to end users, Practical Instruments' strategy is to sell to installers.

On Tuesday, it announced that three California solar installers--Energy Options, Permacity Corporation and Advanced Solar Electric--have signed on, and it intends to sign on more resellers.

Although there is great deal of technical development to make solar cells more efficient and powerful, experts note that installation can account for about half of the system cost. High up-front costs, even with government incentives, are a barrier to more widespread usage.

At this point, solar concentrators are geared for commercial customers. Hines said that Practical Instruments' first Heliotube product will be available later this year, and in 2008 it expects to try selling to the residential market.

"Our product includes the frame, just like a regular solar panel, so it can go where any panel can go now," he said.