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Posted: July 01, 2010

Tech startup: Suntrac Solar

Eric Peterson

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INITIAL LIGHT BULB: Bill Lowstuter conceived of SunTrac Solar's flagship product - sun-tracking solar collectors - as a high school student in 1978, but the plans quickly found a long-term home "literally" in his garage.
After a successful career as a supply-chain consultant entailing some 300 projects with nearly 100 companies, Lowstuter decided it was time to pull his concept out of the mothballs in 2006. "It'd been hibernating for 30 years," he says. After founding a solar installation company, Energistic Systems, Lowstuter set out to hone his original blueprint and develop the leanest manufacturing process possible. "The system was designed with that in mind. It's capital-efficient."
Four years later, Lowstuter is on the third generation of his resurrected invention. In April, clean-energy consultant Adam Rentschler took the reins as CEO of the company, which he says has "3 1/2" full-time employees.

IN A NUTSHELL: SunTrac Solar's system is based on concentrating solar power (CSP) technology, as opposed to photovoltaic (PV). Most extant CSP systems are large, centralized facilities that heat water to steam to turn turbines and generate electricity. SunTrac builds much different systems: small, decentralized, and used to heat water for use onsite rather than generate electricity.
The critical innovation: motor-driven parabolic mirrors that track the sun and focus its energy directly onto black pipes to heat the water. Rentschler says the moving parts have lasted the equivalent of more than 200 years on a test panel; installation and maintenance don't require specialized skills.
At about $1,800 a panel, the cost of one of SunTrac's tracking panels is on the high end of the market, but they are smaller - meaning they require far less roof space - and considerably more efficient than competing technologies. At temperatures more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, they operate at more than 30 percent efficiency, while standard flat-plate CSP systems don't function at all.
SunTrac's panels are also greener - typically requiring only six months before they're carbon-positive. Rentschler says the company also plans to give back to the community in the form of subsidized systems for shelters, soup kitchens and other nonprofits. "Solar shouldn't be just for rich white people," he says.
Rentschler is also bullish on SunTrac's manufacturing process, citing investment in the factory per watt as orders of magnitude less than the company's market peers. "It makes it super scalable," he says, commending Lowstuter's designs. "Bill is so clever with these systems and simple, elegant solutions."
In May, SunTrac closed on a deal to put in 16 panels at Aurora Dairy; Wheat Ridge-based SolarTEK Energy is partnering with SunTrac on the installation. "We're excited about them because they fill a special niche in solar thermal," SolarTEK President Sean Murphy says. "Any business that needs hot water can use this product. I think the future is very bright for them."

THE MARKET: Commercial buildings that have a need for hot water - the hotter, the better - especially rural facilities that currently use propane-fired boilers. "Dairies we love," says Rentschler, also citing breweries, hospitals and hotels as initial targets. "Any commercial business with a boiler is a potential customer." Based on solar potential, tax incentives and legacy fuel costs, SunTrac's top four target markets are Hawaii, Arizona, California and Oregon. Adds Rentschler: "We need stronger rebates in Colorado."

FINANCING: SunTrac has been bootstrapped since its founding. Rentschler says the company is currently in pursuit of $750,000 in the form of either venture capital or an angel investment.

where: golden | FOUNDED: 2006 | www.suntracsolar.com
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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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