For better or worse, the domestic automakers in the U.S. are in decline for the time being, as are their foreign competitors. Now the question arises of what to do with all of the production facilities that these companies and their suppliers are dumping off or repurposing. Among these facilities are engine factories. Engine-making is a complex process, and retooling these facilities for an entirely new task would be far more expensive than it is worth, in most cases.
That's where J.D. Sitton CEO of Infinia, a Stirling engine solar firm, comes in to play. After years of struggling to find a home, Mr. Sitton has helped his company enter a renaissance of funding and become a phoenix rising from the ashes of the recession-stricken auto industry.
Infinia has been around for a long time now. In 1985, the company was founded by six University of Washington professors who hoped to commercialize a Stirling engine-powered heart pump, which never needed a replacement battery. Unfortunately, the heat source -- a medically save tiny chunk of Plutonium-238 -- turned out to be the project's undoing, as the government feared terrorists kidnapping people to gain access the radioactive material.
Next the organization went through a string of other lackluster projects, including a contract to build the power source for the NASA deep-space exploration probe, a project which has never finished. Ultimately the company was struggling for lack of direction, despite having some dynamite technology.
That all changed in 2002 with the recruitment of CEO Sitton, who has righted the ship. In 2005, he demoed a solar dish/Stirling engine setup that converted 24 percent of the energy striking a solar dish to power, more than most commercially available solar cells. Thanks to that demo, the company secured over $70M USD in venture capital.
In order to make a production-quality version of its solar generators, it has contracted two top-tier Detroit automotive suppliers -- Autoliv and Cosma -- to make the dish and engine. These companies can now, with minimal retooling, keep their engine facilities thriving at a time when others are closing and face an indefinite future. In total the company is contracting 60 other domestic engineering companies to design and build the components it needs.
Gary Gereffi, a professor at Duke University and solar industry expert praised the Infinia's progress and growth. He states, "All this technology is made up of regular parts that manufacturing companies are making all the time. The difference between our economy and a green economy is not as substantial as people think."
Gregg Clevenger, Infinia's CFO believes that his company will soon produce solar power that's cost equivalent to coal without subsidies, in certain areas. He adds, "Companies that wouldn't take our calls a couple of years ago are now pursuing us aggressively. They want to focus on a growth industry rather than a shrinking industry. We can get to where we look attractive relative to the cost of coal plants. When that happens, there's no limit to the number of solar systems we can sell."
If his company can succeed at that, they might not just create a solar revolution, but they might save one of the vital manufacturing sectors of the United States -- the Detroit manufacturing industry.