Cleantech: A bright opportunity

Date:   Monday , June 06, 2011

There in now a realization that the inverter topologies significantly impact the remaining BOS components like wires, disconnect switches and installation costs, prompted out of box thinking leading to micro-inverters and AC panels. Distributed converters comprising of micro-inverters and power optimizers are the hot new trend in Solar PV Electronics. Breaking away from the archaic topologies of centralized inverters which were designed for 80W era solar panels, distributed power converters and optimizers are significantly improving efficiency, lowering cost and packing more advanced features like monitoring and reporting. The renewed thrust on lowering cost of installed solar power systems, commonly measured in the cost per AC watt installed has brought the inverters and associated power electronics in to focus. Achieving higher efficiencies at lower cost while working to reduce the size of the inverters sounds very much like the systems challenge given to electrical engineers for over three decades but Solar PV also adds the curve ball of involving power devices which are difficult to scale down. Nevertheless, quite a few ambitious companies are working on micro-inverters to achieve some lofty goals to empower Solar PV installations world-wide and accelerate Solar PV's journey to grid parity.

The U.S. Department of Energy has announced bold new initiatives like the $1/watt (installed) cost target for PV solar systems which would put a unit of solar power at parity with other conventional power generation sources. This is analogous to achieving 100miles/gallon EPA fuel efficiency with automotives while the best cars today offer 40 miles/gallon. This can be achieved by market leaders who can vertically integrate and lower costs through substantial economies of scale. Quite naturally this would be a precursor to focused M&A activity with hot technology startups being sought by established market player. The cost targets however will have to be achieved through a holistic approach which focuses on every aspect of the Solar PV system from the panel to the switch and monitoring gear. Standardization of common elements like mounts, wiring and switch gear would commoditize some of the hardware leading to lower costs for residential systems. Substantial innovation in Smart Grid technologies, energy storage and large scale power systems would benefit commercial and utility-scale PV installations bringing down cost of the Solar panels which would benefit the whole industry. Significant improvement in the efficiency of the solar panels would still remain the holy grail of Solar PV for quite some years to come. While the overall industry is poised for robust growth it still remains highly dependent on policy initiatives of various developed and emerging nations.

Following the bubbles of the 90's and 00's, entrepreneurs in the Cleantech industry are competing with various social media ventures for VC dollars. Gigantic success of a few valley VC firms with the social media has many VCs looking for promising software and social media startups and shy away from brick and mortar product companies. This has given way to Angel investors filling in the void helping promising Cleantech startups. Cleantech entrepreneurs are now facing the challenge to accelerate their product development and get to revenue before receiving substantial funding. Entrepreneurs today also face the challenge of protecting their IP across geographical boundaries especially with manufacturing moving off shore. With patenting world-wide becoming the norm, costs of protecting IP have risen. For instance using WIPO to file for patents in multiple countries could cost at least $20,000 per patent and take up to 6-8 months. Enforcing IP rights still remains a thorny issue in many countries. Like-wise patents filed in emerging economies being recognized by developed economies also remains a challenge.

Born optimistic and willing to take on tough challenges, the tech entrepreneurs of the valley and elsewhere have delivered quite a lot than their counter parts in the financial and retail sectors around the world. Despite these achievements, the likes of Vikram Pandits of the world are most interesting for the main stream media than the Cleantech entrepreneurs who toil hard to innovate technologies with significant social impact.

Author is the Founder & CEO of mPowerSolar