by Joseph McCabe, PE
Have you noticed the corporate pitches that compare their products to iPhones or iPads to try and force the feeling that they are “like Apple”? Bill Ford just pitched the Ford electric car in this manner. If Apple is the gold standard, the question becomes, what solar company is closest to being just like Apple? I think the answer is none, at least not yet.
The Apple Model
Apple has a design culture that attracts design professionals to their product. They also have a completely vertical integrated product where their case, graphical user interface (GUI), input devices, high resolution screen and system packaging is all designed around the Apple culture. They have their own proprietary operating system and a steady stream of income from content sales off iTunes.
An analogy to some of Apple’s business strategy might be solar industry business plans, however these are innovations which typically are not unique or proprietary. An example is when SunEdison (now owned by MEMC NYSE:WFR ) institutionalized third party financing. Lots of companies have followed suit.
Solar Companies Today
Grid tied photovoltaics (PV) aspires to be a “set-it-and-forget-it” kind of product, not needing the interaction of a GUI and operating system. Smart grid integration could enable PV to have more of an operating system value proposition, but that hasn’t happened yet.
As far as design, I don’t think there is a company that comes to the solar professionals mind when considering who is first-in-class with design. Sunpower (NASD: SPWRA) has the black background module to match their technological improvements in back contact grids along with the highest power module efficiency. Some thin film PVs are better than others at being monolithic black and not fading over time, but these aren’t great design features. Flexible thin film amorphous silicon like UniSolar (NASDAQ: ENER) can be seen as looking different from glass based PV modules with aluminum frames and structures, but possibly due to lower efficiencies have not created a robust market. Design features will someday separate specific companies within the solar industry, but that hasn’t happened yet.
First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) just announced the purchase of the tracking company RayTracker Inc., a company originating out of Energy Innovations (Founded in 2000 by Bill Gross) and IdeaLab. Trackers is where the most appealing designs have been proposed in the past. If you have the time and are interested, check out some of the historical patents on solar trackers. Some wild concepts came out of the funnest bunch of innovative thinkers in the 80’s and 90’s, mostly because at the time the thought was if you build the best sun tracker, the world will reward you. RayTracker Inc. has now been rewarded for the many years of incremental improvements in their technology and execution of their business plan.
There are a few companies that have tried to package up solar systems into compelling designs. Akeena Solar ( NASDAQ:WEST ) has complete systems solutions with some installation labor savings but no real unique design features. Other companies like Applied Solar (used to be Open Energy Corp) and Lumeta (owned by DRI ) have been integrating PV modules without metal structures directly into roofing for some years. Many solar electric carports are coming to the market with daily news announcements for larger and larger solar carports installations. Envision Solar ( OTC:EVSI ) had one of the first architect designed solar carports, but these companies have yet to capitalize on design in an Apple way.
Solar Companies Tomorrow: Purpose Solar
The future of solar has the potential for design and operating systems to be combined in an Apple way. I call it Purpose Solar, where the solar system provides a needed service like clean drinking water (direct current PV powered reverse osmosis), water pumping, air-conditioning / refrigeration, street lighting, ect. These have traditionally been called off grid applications, not in the limelight of our industries alternating current grid connected focus. But at a consistent $90 a barrel for oil, and lower cost of PV modules, off grid is the place where PV will be taking a larger and larger portion of the worlds energy pie. As the world realizes that an $80 barrel of oil is history, diesel generators currently used for off grid applications will be replaced by off grid PV system.
There are companies currently providing Purpose Solar systems like the PV power drinking water purification systems from World Water & Solar Technologies (privately held) and SwissINSO Holding Inc. (OTCBB.SWHN) who recently announced a healthy Malaysian sales contract and distribution agreement.
Purpose Solar will be valued by the gallons of drinking water produced, the air-conditioning comfort levels, pounds of ice, and the security from lighting, not kilowatts and kilowatt hours. Designs, operating systems and GUI’s can be combined, branded and marketed for solar driven, Purpose Solar, solutions. And it is where finally a solar company can be “like Apple”.
Joseph McCabe is a solar industry veteran with over 20 years in the business. He is an American Solar Energy Society Fellow, a Professional Engineer, and is internationally recognized as an expert in thin film PV, BIPV and Photovoltaic/Thermal solar industry activities. Joe can be reached at energy [no space] ideas at gmail dotcom.