Analysis
AI
Solar

What’s going on with Heliogen?

The company is hoping artificial intelligence can redeem solar thermal in U.S. markets.

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January 4, 2024
An orange-tinted view of a CSP facility

Photo credit: John Moore / Getty Images

For concentrated solar power company Heliogen, 2023 concluded on a strange note.

In September, the company carried out a reverse stock split in response to its stock falling well below $1. By November, Heliogen was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, and promptly listed on the over-the-counter marketplace.

Now, the company is in the midst of an artificial intelligence-backed rebrand as a software licensing and development company.

  • The nuts and bolts: Heliogen uses a tower-based system in which small heliostats focus sunlight on a mounted solar receiver, generating temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius. The company’s differentiator is the addition of a software layer that leverages AI, machine learning, and robotics. It’s designed to operate in a closed-loop system between heliostats and tower, detecting inefficiencies or inaccuracies in tracking and autonomously correcting the alignment of mirrors to maximize concentrated sunlight. 
  • What’s new?: Tower-based CSP has faced broad skepticism for decades due to its high price point and vast space requirements. Heliogen says its software — which was recently tested on third-party heliostats — will address both of those issues. The company eventually plans to license it to other developers.

Despite a very rocky 2023, Heliogen is now in commercialization mode, CEO Christie Obiaya told Latitude Media. In the immediate term, that means deploying both hardware and its AI software layer via a handful of different business models.

The new Heliogen model is primarily commodities-as-a-service: providing steam, power, or green hydrogen to municipalities and heavy industry, and charging based on output. (Steam-as-a-service is the business model chosen by once-failed CSP company Glasspoint, which uses a parabolic trough system and is also angling for a comeback, focused on the mining sector.) 

Another potential model, Obiaya said, would be based on contracts to build AI-powered CSP facilities. 

But in the longer term, commercialization will be less hands-on with projects, and more focused on AI. The company said the tool stands to increase CSP’s efficiency and lower both operational and maintenance costs.

Heliogen’s recent testing at Sandia National Laboratories — during which it deployed its software on third party heliostats for the first time — was funded by a 2020 grant from the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. And that project could pave the path to commercialization and relationships with other CSP project operators, Heliogen said.

“Five years from now, we’d love to be in a licensing-type model, where we really focus on licensing and delivering the software, the integrated systems modeling, the heliostats,” Obiaya said. “In the meantime we’re wearing a lot of hats.”

Financing CSP software 

Heliogen went public via SPAC in 2021 and is still leveraging the capital that the move brought onto the balance sheet, Obiaya said, to the tune of $162 million. And with the help of a few runway-extending cost reductions, the company remains “well capitalized” to meet its near-term goals 

That store of cash is key, Obiaya added, given where the U.S. market is today: technologies that aren’t “throwing off a lot of cash” just aren’t attracting as much interest.

However, that’s less true elsewhere. Despite the recent NYSE delisting, Heliogen “absolutely has access to capital,” Obiaya said, just not so much from U.S. sources.

Obiaya said that the CSP boom-then-bust — and resulting skepticism (bordering on disinterest) — has been primarily constrained to the U.S. A decade ago, most power users weren’t prioritizing storage, which put CSP at a disadvantage, Obiaya said, because one of the technology’s major appeals is its ability to pair with thermal energy storage.

“We entered a quiet period in the U.S., but around the world CSP is getting built,” Obiaya said, pointing to regions including the Middle East, North Africa, Chile, and China. “It’s out of sight, out of mind at the moment.”

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