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Ashland company re-imagines solar

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJeff Sharpe, founder and CEO of Stracker Solar, gives a tour of their manufacturing facility in Ashland on Wednesday.

Jeff Sharpe, the founder and CEO of Stracker Solar, opened his Ashland company’s workshop on Wednesday to the Southern Oregon chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. The group gathered in the drizzling rain on the gravel outside Oak Street Tank and Steel.

To start his new company, Sharpe had needed a workshop, so he approached Oak Street Tank and Steel, which has been manufacturing steel drums for fossil fuels for multiple generations. The youngest generation of the family company liked Sharpe’s idea and agreed to share its workshop.

Now, Sharpe’s solar panels are being constructed alongside fossil fuel drums.

Sharpe pointed with pride at his first prototype, towering over the Citizen's Climate Lobby from the center of the yard. Mounted on a steel pole 20 feet in the air sits a photo-voltiac array roughly the size of a Prius. Made up of 28 photovoltaic panels, 60 cells each, the S1A produces over 20,000 kilowatts of energy per year. An anemometer spins constantly at the top.

Sharpe has bright eyes and a joyful smile. He has the flattened fingertips and deeply creased palms of a man who has worked with his hands all his life. He described Stracker Solar as a “new season” for him.

He has been a structural engineer, raised a family on a farm in Montana, and spent time doing what he calls ski-bumming. For this latest season, Sharpe has high hopes.

“I’m hoping that we can change course as a civilization and make the switch from fossil fuel to wind and solar power, more bicycles, more electric cars; stop this wasteful lifestyle,” he said.

For Stracker Solar, he plans to start a nationwide distribution of his product and its accompanying ideas. He envisions his design installed on a global scale.

To do this the company is starting with cities in the United States that have made pledges to reduce fossil fuels and expand green energy.

Sharpe plans to work with chambers of commerce in these cities to find companies and manufacturers who would be willing and able to build, install and maintain these structures themselves. Sharpe thinks of these as satellite communities. It’s an idea in the vein of “teach a man to fish.”

He wants the satellite communities to build the Stracker solar panels in their own shops with businesses local to those communities to ensure that as they expand they will create jobs wherever they go.

For Sharpe, the founding of Stracker Solar is a return to his formative years. In 1976 his father retired after 30 years teaching high school and founded Sharpe Solar Systems.

“Dad taught foreign language, so I never took a foreign language,” Sharpe said. But with the company, Sharpe the younger worked with Sharpe senior. Every summer he came home from college and worked alongside his father, learning about solar energy.

The idea for Stracker Solar's unique design came from Sharpe’s previous work installing solar panels for schools. After one installation, Sharpe looked regretfully at the amount of land the school gave up for green energy.

The solar panels needed to be spread out to keep from shadowing each other. The fleet of panels had to be fenced to keep curious children out. He wondered about solar panels high in the air.

Sharpe looked for a company selling solar panels mounted high off the ground and found none. He realized he had an original idea.

Now, there’s no fencing required, “we just grease the poles,” he said.

Someone from the citizen's climate lobby asked what happens when the wind picks up. Sharpe said the units automatically move into their stow position whenever the wind goes over 30 mph. The anemometers mounted on top of the solar panels are ever watchful of the weather.

All units also have a button to move them into stow position. Sharpe pushed the button, and the solar panel rumbled softly, folding itself flat against its steel pole, like a bird laying its wing flat against its body.

A small woman in Ugg boats and a blue beret smiled and asked, “so it’s the same technology as Stonehenge?”

Sharpe laughed and said, “no, but it’s the same idea.”

Like a ship traveling over the flat expanse of the ocean, the units rely on latitude, longitude and a clock to travel with the sun.

When they “wake up” in the morning, the control system is GPS-validated, and checking its internal clock it uses a proprietary algorithm designed by Stracker Solar and the units orient themselves.

They face the sun as it comes up over the mountains. They follow it until it sets behind them, and after nightfall they automatically stow themselves.

To follow the sun as closely as possible, the panels use a dual axis tracking system. Solar systems were first stationary. Then the industry evolved to a single axis; units that move north and south to follow the sun.

Dual axis allows these units to maneuver more like a hummingbird than a hawk — they can move north, south, east and west, remaining always perpendicular to the light.

Stracker Solar’s unique design, patent pending, claims to produce 40%-50% more power than traditional solar panels with less land required. The units occupy one square foot.

In the most recent units, Bifacial PV modules — photovoltaic panels that are clear rather than opaque and thereby capture light on both sides — boost energy harvest by 10%-20%.

“What this project is really about,” said Brigitta Banki, Stracker Solar’s marketing director, “is generating the maximum amount of power on the smallest land possible.”

Banki explained that several of their customers have used Stracker Solar’s technology to achieve energy net zero — Banki explains this is different from carbon net zero as the amount of power produced by the system being equal to the owner’s energy needs.

Stracker Solar envisions its units going up on farms that would otherwise have to choose between grazing land or green energy, or in parking lots which would have previously sacrificed parking spaces. A further boon to parking lots, there is an optional add-on charging unit for electric cars.

For the average residential city dweller imagining a Stracker Solar unit installed in their backyard, Sharpe advises finding another homeowner to go in on the expense together. Each Stracker Solar unit costs $50,000.

Stracker Solar’s website says it has helped some of its customers establish Limited Liability Corporations to buy the units. Public companies like LLCs are subject to different tax laws, which allow them to take advantage of federal green energy incentive programs.

The state of Oregon offers rebates for solar electric systems, and the city of Ashland offers a cash incentive, both of which are available for residential installations.

Stracker Solar has recently entered Series A investment rounds — a stage in acquiring investors for companies that have established themselves and are ready to expand. With the money they have raised so far, Sharpe says, they will hire more employees, find a new office, build more inventory, source parts and start their first marketing campaign.

“There’s still some room,” he said, “if anyone else wants to come in.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.