Thursday, March 08, 2007

The SunCube - an Innovative Solar Power solution

Last month, an Indian company, Square Engineering, signed an agreement with Green and Gold Energy (GGE) "to build a 30-megawatt (MW) facility in India for the manufacture of 100,000 SunCubes per year".

Green and Gold Energy were working on the SunBall rooftop solar concentrator systems back in 2005. As solar concentrator systems went, it was a very simple and elegant solution and even worked well on sloping rooftops. Manufacturing issues however forced GGE to go back to the drawing board. So they came back with something better - the SunCube, which not only solved the manufacturing problems, but also enabled the company to cut costs. GGE now claims that their product can compete with traditional power without subsidies. Well, a commitment to annually manufacture 100,000 units in India should speak volumes for their confidence.

Solar concentrator systems have been a relatively less hi-tech but highly effective solution for a while now. The Sunflower is a similar system that has been making waves, but apparently will not reach the international market till some time in 2008. Compared to the Sunflower the SunCube is a significantly simple product, though it works on a similar process - solar concentrators focusing the sun's rays onto a small solar cell with a microchip-controlled motors that keep the concentrators pointing to the sun.

Lets check out the commercial prospects of the SunCube in India. The annual output for one SunCube is: 0.3 X 365 X 5 (this is the daily KWhs per sq m - I am taking this as 5, which is just above average for India). That gives us about 550 units of power per year, or about Rs 1100 per year. That is a conservative estimate of course - commercial establishments would save double of that at least.

Now what will the product cost? The company website claims a price of US$1025, or about INR 46,000, including tax in Australia. If manufactured in India, it should cost a little less than that. Plus the central govt gives a subsidy of up to 125,000 per KW. I dont know the KW rating of the SunCube, but working backwards from 500 units, and assuming 6 hours of sunlight per day, I can assume a KW rating of 0.25, which means a govt subsidy of about INR 31,000. This brings down the cost of the SunCube to just INR 15,000, which a home can recover in about 13 years, and a commercial establishment can recover in half that time. Importantly for the rest of the 25 year life of the product, the power will be free. But yes, it does look like it would need govt subsidies to compete in India; and feed-in tariffs. Since both factors see a happy confluence in India, we should see a bright prospect for the SunCube.

Now dont rule the Sunflower out, yet - when it comes out in 2008, it will cost only $450 and will be mass-produced in China. The SunCube does have a headstart though, and maybe manufacturing in India will help it bring down prices substantially. Whatever the result, the competition should be good for solar power as a whole.