Think solar energy, and you probably visualize those huge shiny panels. A company in sunny Eastern Washington has come up with a new way to make energy from the sun.
The engineers’ device looks like a giant satellite dish, plastered with mirrors. Richland correspondent Anna King profiles Infinia Corporation. It’s just one of a number of Northwest companies trying to capitalize on the popularity of renewable energy.
Infinia Corporation’s office building looks pretty normal. There’s lavender planted out front, stucco and nice stone work. But go around the back.
|Visitors watch as Infinia Corporation’s solar concentrator moves into position to collect energy from the sun. The company is based in Kennewick, Wash.|
Anna King: "I kind of feel like we are in Dr. Evil’s secret lair or something."
Peter Brehm: "Well it’s funny."
That’s Peter Brehm with Infinia Corporation. He’s showing off two machines he calls solar concentrators. They look like large satellite dishes plastered with mirrors; but they’re pretty scary to some neighboring bank employees.
Peter Brehm: "And they actually called us one afternoon and said, “Why do you have your death ray pointed at us?”
Actually, it works like this. The dish follows the sun throughout the day like a sunflower. Its mirrors concentrate the sunlight. That beam of light heats helium contained in a small engine. And that drives a piston. Presto! Energy!
These are prototypes. But Brehm says Infinia’s dishes will be easier to make and more efficient than solar panels. And the invention has gotten the attention of venture capitalists.
$70 million in the last three years. He says higher gasoline prices, federal and state tax breaks and the Kyoto Protocol are all fueling the solar energy boom.
Peter Brehm: "Well this is a much cleaner industry; it’s politically much more popular. And it’s an opportunity to change the world in a positive way. Whereas in the oil and gas business you are doing more of the same. Polluting just like you have all those years."
|Peter Brehm with Infinia Corporation explains how one of his company’s engines works to Washington Senator Patty Murray.|
But there are some problems with the plan.
The federal tax breaks that have bolstered the solar and wind power industry for three years are about to run out.
And Congress has yet to renew the legislation.
Solar industry jobs are starting to disappear.
That worries Washington Sen. Patty Murray who was on a tour of the company the day I visited.
Patty Murray: "Either we develop it here or we watch Germany or China or Japan develop it and create the jobs there. So it’s very important that the federal government partner with companies like this to make sure we are on the cutting edge."
So far the only solar customers Infinia has are in Spain.
The company is preparing to build 10 solar farms there in the next year.