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Stirling Performance

by Richard T. Stuebi

Last week, I visited Southeastern Ohio at the request of the office of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to be part of a roundtable discussion on how to promote cleantech and green energy innovation in a rural coal-based area. At the roundtable, I was pleased and fortunate to have met Neill Lane, President and CEO of Sunpower.

No, not the Sunpower (NASDAQ: SPWR) you probably know: the $6 billion market-cap photovoltaics subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor (NYSE: CY) based in San Jose California.

Rather, I’m talking about Sunpower, the privately-held company based in Athens Ohio that specializes in Stirling engine technology. With much less fanfare than its same-named PV peer, Sunpower has gained a foothold in European residential micro-CHP (combined heat-and-power) markets, and is now working on modifying its technology for concentrated solar power (CSP) applications. Much of Sunpower’s technology development is done in partnership with NASA at its Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Sure, this Sunpower isn’t of the size and visibility of the other one. But, the company is no hype-based start-up or virtual wanna-be either, with over 60 employees (in a relatively remote college town of about 20,000 population) and a cash-flow positive position after having been in business for over 30 years. That’s a commercial success that I’d be very proud to have achieved.

Although green economy advocates mainly tout the mega-stars of the cleantech universe, they shouldn’t overlook the accomplishments of many smaller but no less innovative companies slaving away (and making money) underneath the radar screen. In rural America, there are probably many such enterprises playing important local roles in creating wealth and jobs, while addressing the global energy and environmental challenges we face. It would be nice if they could receive their due recognition too, and I dedicate this posting to these unknown soldiers.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.