Heliogen goes SPAC to revive concentrated solar power

Will an infusion of cash help the California-based startup resuscitate this neglected technology?

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Heliogen is turning to public markets to finance its effort to revive a form of solar power that’s fallen by the wayside.

The startup, which unstealthed just two years ago after a successful proof of concept, announced Wednesday that it expects to be worth $2 billion upon merging with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) later this year. It could also net some $400 million in the process.

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That would be quite a boon for a company that is, in its own words, commencing the commercialization” of its product. The product is a combination of mirrors and machine vision, which Heliogen says concentrates sunlight so intensely it can reach 1,000 degrees Celsius. That’s hot enough to serve a range of industrial processes that otherwise would be very challenging to carry out without copious carbon emissions.

Carbon-free industrial heat would have a nice defensive moat because few other options are currently available. But Heliogen, which could not be reached for comment in time for publication, recently expanded its vision to compete for round-the-clock electric power generation.

That enlarges the possible revenue streams but also takes on the ambitious task of reinvigorating concentrated solar power, which has languished as mass-produced photovoltaic solar panels have taken off over the last decade.

CEO Bill Gross, who runs the Idealab startup incubator in Pasadena, Calif., insists that artificial-intelligence-informed machine vision will allow Heliogen to succeed where other projects have been unable to compete on cost against solar PV. The startup uses cameras to provide digital feedback to its array of mirrors — heliostats in industry parlance — which can adjust on dual-axis trackers to maximize the moment-to-moment intensity of reflected sunlight onto its central tower-based collector.

That won over the team at Athena Technology Acquisition Corp., which the announcement billed as one of the only entirely women-led SPACs.”

The company’s pioneering use of AI and its scalable approach to project development are exciting innovations, and we couldn’t be more proud to combine with Heliogen as a publicly traded company,” said Athena CEO Phyllis Newhouse.

Other investors will have to decide if they’re comfortable buying shares in anticipation of future power plant contracts. Utilities and independent power producers gravitate toward technologies with established track records of performance in the field. Heliogen’s approach is exceedingly new compared to conventional solar panels and lithium-ion batteries.

But solar and batteries aren’t serving 24/7 power, which Heliogen purports to do by combining its technology with thermal storage. The company raised $108 million over the last year based on that potential. Now it could raise hundreds of millions more.

Lead image courtesy of Heliogen.

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.