Before renewaBle energy and going green Became trendy, before anyone knew about clean coal or wind turbines, Bernie Sater was fast at work in a NASA laboratory using the sun for much more than tanning.
While it took the rest of the country more than 30 years to catch up, the Sater family is now on the verge of a breakthrough in solar energy technology — and Lorain County is poised to reap the rewards. Sater’s work has morphed into GreenField Solar, a new solar energy company that selected Oberlin for its development lab and headquarters last summer, while placing its system production facility in North Ridgeville. Sater serves as the company’s chief scientist.
GreenField Solar’s patented StarGen design provides businesses and communities a greener way to generate power. The StarGen is a solar energy system that resembles a cross between today’s satellite dish and yesterday’s television antenna. It’s 18 feet high and 13 feet wide. One unit can be assembled in a day by just a couple of workers. The StarGen sells for about $10,000 and is designed solely for commercial use, with the possibility of someday lowering costs and adapting to residential use.
It’s now possible that the StarGen design could produce enough solar energy to power a town like Oberlin. The StarGen concentrators track the sun from dawn until dusk, rotating throughout the day to capture the sunlight.
With a little help from existing power grids, “the [StarGen] systems can generate enough power and energy to power a community,” says Mico Perales, GreenField Solar’s director of business development. “It’s all dependent on the space available” for the massive generators.
Sater’s method of harnessing solar energy uses a series of chips implanted on the StarGen that are smaller than a penny. Each StarGen contains about 200 chips that create 1.5 kilowatts of power. This achieves about 20 percent ef?ciency at generating electricity, a marked improvement over the traditional flat solar panels that generate less than 15 percent.
The StarGen can concentrate sunlight nearly 1,000 times, squeezing the energy from a 10-foot mirror into a 1-inch space. It maximizes the use of common materials, such as aluminum, glass and mirrors, while limiting the cost of semi-conductor materials, which previously made solar energy too costly to become a reality.
“The concept is to concentrate light onto a much smaller area,” says Neil Sater, Bernie’s son and CEO of GreenField Solar. “If you can use a much smaller area, you take down the cost on a per-kilowatt-hour basis. That sounds great in principle, but conventional solar cells can’t concentrate light. They either don’t work or they burn up. My father came up with a totally different solar cell that not only works under concentrated light, but it works best under concentrated light.”
GreenField Solar’s concept is catching on across Ohio. Mentor has a cluster of 10 StarGens in an open field it uses to power a community center, while cities in southern Ohio are also experimenting with the concept in order to reduce the need for electricity. North Ridgeville has one StarGen in operation.
“You really cannot use solar independently,” Perales says. “Because of the intermittent nature of solar, you need a grid as a backup or grid storage. Our technology, in combination with a grid backup or storage, can definitely provide 100 percent of a community’s electricity needs.”
Company leaders are excited that the StarGen is composed of the mirrors, motors, aluminum and bearings manufactured primarily in Ohio. Because of that, executives are hopeful of boosting local workloads as the popularity of the StarGen increases.
“We utilize a lot of the components and materials that are core to the Ohio manufacturing base,” Perales says. “It’s easy for us to find suppliers and collaborators in Ohio. We’re finding it beneficial to be in Ohio, where we can quickly and easily talk to the right folks that have the expertise.”
Neil agrees. “The economic impact [of the StarGen] is much broader than building a single factory. We believe for every job we end up creating, there’s an addition of at least four direct jobs that are created by being our suppliers and providing the additional material and components.”
With the company now up and running, Bernie Sater has transitioned into a consulting role after dedicating his adult life to solar energy.
Bernie was working toward his master’s at Cleveland State while doing research and development on NASA’s international space station in the 1970s when he stumbled into photovoltaics, commonly known as “PVs” — arrays of cells containing a material that converts solar radiation into electricity. Sater’s goal was to build high-intensity PV concentrator systems like the StarGen, while significantly lowering the cost per watt over conventional methods.
He accomplished both by reducing the need for semiconductors and improving microchips’ efficiency.
Bernie spent about 20 years tinkering with the idea until he had enough of a concept that he retired from NASA to dedicate his work to solar energy. In 1994 Sater started his first company, PhotoVolt, when he invented a rugged silicon solar cell that was durable and easy to process. In 2007, Sater formed a new company, GreenField Steam & Electric Co., to commercialize PV systems utilizing PhotoVolt’s cell technology. The two companies merged to form GreenField Solar in 2008. Sater’s son, Neil, left his job with Intel in 2007 to work with his father and begin building a team.
“There are a lot of people in the scientific community that understand there is only so much fossil fuel out there,” so there is a need for renewable energy,” Neil says. “The world has slowly woken up to the fact we have to shift to alternate energy. [My dad] realized that a long time ago.”
The problem has been finding a cost-effective way to corral the power of the sun. The StarGen answers that need.