Home > Lawn & Garden, Technology, Uncategorized > Consumer Solar Needs a Steve Jobs to Make it Fly Off the Shelf.

Consumer Solar Needs a Steve Jobs to Make it Fly Off the Shelf.

I love solar energy. And it’s encouraging that tremendous advances in technology have driven panel costs down while delivering more energy from smaller packages.

Yet, despite major investement in solar, the past 4 years have been more difficult for the solar energy industry than I’d expect – high profile bankruptcies, accusation of product dumping by Chinese manufacturers, and a Republican lust to create a scandal from these failures. And, from what I can see, the consumer solar applications just aren’t moving like they should.

There is a tendency with emerging markets to suggest the problems are technological. But I disagree – at least in the standard way we think about technology. Right now, it looks like core technology advancement has outpaced solar demand – driven by innovations in savvy & low cost manufacture as well as increasing energy output. That suggests the problems are more subtle.

The Solar Contradiction. So it looks like, in the consumer market, we’ve arrived at the following situation:

1. There is tremendous potential demand. Consumers would LOVE inexpensive energy that lets them partially disconnect from the tyranny of monthly energy bills.

2. Supply far outpaces any actual market demand that this consumer interest generates. Solar company failures are generally blamed on lack of demand – there simply hasn’t been a big enough market for what can be produced. (This is indicated particularly by the accusations of dumping of Chinese product. With reasonable demand, dumping wouldn’t matter much.)

3. Net out: The tremendous broad interest doesn’t result in sufficient market demand.

Is Mass Market Communication the Problem? Faced with a situation like this, I usually start with a look at the communication with consumers – to see if there’s a critical communication missing. Quite often, subtle and savvy communication is needed for new markets to develop.

But in this case, I don’t think so. From what I can tell, consumers are reasonably well versed in the reality of their solar options and the options simply aren’t working for them.

20130114-191437.jpg

An early adopter might buy this but it’s a real turn off to the rest of us…

My Guess at the Missing Innovation: Packaging & Integration. Truth is that a great number of actions are required to end up with a robust solar market. But at core the innovation the solar industry is missing is packaging & systems integration.

If you will, the solar industry needs it’s version of Steve Jobs – someone focused on the consumer level value of the technology. Instead, the industry (falling back on a sadly common technological practice) seems to be waiting for a magical technical advance that makes marketing unnecessary – the “killer app” if you will.

But the key to Apple success is the most advanced integration – not the most advanced technology. For years we’ve heard technologists complain that Apple products aren’t the most “advanced”. And for years, Apple products have flown out the door at much higher velocity than ANY others because consumers find “they just work” in their lives. In part, this is because Apple makes far smarter technology compromise choices than anyone in the business.

What might Packaging Solutions look like? I don’t think this is an easy problem to solve. Let me suggest four truths as a starting point – but it’s really only a starting point.

…Solar is a highly visible purchase, but it’s a visually ugly technology. Today, it takes a highly motivated early adopter to want to cover the roof of their home with panels (especially since angles to the sun mean those panels are almost never aligned with the house). Solar desperately needs massive investment in productizing this technology.

…There are only two levels of solar solutions: Massive or Tiny. Tiny solar solutions power lights along the walkway. Nice, but not a very impactful use of solar. But our other option is to cover our roof with panels to try to grab whole home power. Shouldn’t there be something in between? With something as radical as solar, consumers want to take it on with smaller steps.

…Solar has been pitched to the market as a “convert to” technology. What development can shift this for consumers so that it becomes an “assist to reduce more costly energy use”? (In reality, this is how technology tends to become adopted – just look at Hybrid cars which are bringing full electric to the fore as a possibility.) For example, could a simple “power your shop” system be built which mixes solar with a generator to provide a clever alternative for shops that are separated from other power? It wouldn’t need to power HVAC, but the tools used in a shop.

…Applications, applications, applications. It’s all about use. Too much solar is pitched as a “green” option. Of course it is. But market experience teaches us “green” is a secondary motivator for consumers. Application is the primary motivator.

Solar’s Challenge is a Typical Problem in Technological Businesses. We see a similar challenge everywhere: a great many engineers fall in love with the sophistication of technology & seek the “ultimate” engineering. And in the process, they quite often ignore market realities that might show them that the market doesn’t care about ultimate – in fact what usually works in the market ISN’T the ultimate – but the practical. (Note that there are exceptional engineers out there who bridge the gap with brilliant ability to deliver technology in superb consumer form. For many reasons, these are the minority.)

In reality, this challenge is a classic “crossing the chasm” challenge (see the interesting book by Moore of this title). Solar’s being purchased by dedicated green consumers and by governments & businesses where economy of scale or government incentive make it worth the change. In other words, it’s being purchased only by the earliest of adopters.

But my hunch is that crossing this chasm isn’t an easy problem to solve. In fact, it could take hundreds of millions or billions more in investment to crack the code.

The Way Forward. Don’t get me wrong. There is clearly need for remaining fundamental technological breakthroughs for solar energy to play the role it could for society. It’s just that I don’t think waiting for those breakthroughs will change anything. Because the more fundamental issue is this desperate need in the solar business to discover the application magic that Steve Jobs brought to the digital business.

And that suggests it’s time to start shifting solar technology investment – balancing the search for primary breakthroughs with searching for innovation in packaging and integration. Only then can solar technology fly off the shelf at a high enough rate to justify the vast output of the panel making factories.

Copyright 2013 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

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  1. February 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I believe that the cost of solar in Australia is now below the retail cost of electricity, making it a good investment for households.

    • February 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Byron – Great to hear from you.

      I think the cost shifts you’re observing help considerably. And I’ve been around some of the consumer solar efforts – they’re still dicey. That’s what makes me look at whatever we want to call this vague area between technology and a product that thrives in the market (which I chose to label “packaging and systems integration”).

      Guess I’m waiting for my “campsite solar” that we can take into the outdoors so it charges all day and we have enough power at night – and no noisy generators.

      Or, my back patio solar which charges during the day & runs lights and the stereo as we go. The value of no wires, no noise, easy portable power…

      Not that these are all feasible, but let’s get moving on package innovation! 🙂

      Thanks for the thoughts… (BTW, I’m still wading through your recent spate of articles. Loved the one on new products.)

      …Doug

  2. February 10, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Doug–Good article! Another point to keep in mind about solar (which I think suports your observation about application) is that it has two significant limitations that are hidden additions to its cost:

    First, it is intermittent–a partly cloudly day can reek havoc with generation from small or large solar arrays, making it more difficult to keep the grid operataing. Utilities dislike solar for this reason–they have to buy load following reserves (usually peaking gas-fired plants) to follow variations in load caused by changes in solar generation. Distributed solar is even more problematic, because the edges of the grid are designed to deliver power, not to receive it. Backflow power from end use solar installations is an expensive pain in the ass for utilities

    Second, solar PV installations can’t generate electricity at night, which means the end user still has to be connected to the grid and still has to pay for its share of standby capacity (the generation that is needed to fill in the holes when the sun hides behind a cloud or it gets dark). One promising potential solution is energy storage–some companies (like Solar City) are now offering solar PV/battery installation packages that promise to take the end user off the grid entirely. The problem is that battery prices are still very high and at this point coming down more slowly than solar PV. This is likely to change, and a cost breakthrough in storage would be a game changer for solar.

    It will also be interesting to see whether superstorms and cyber threats will lead companies and wealthy folks to try to disconnect from the grid–if your company cannot afford a serious and prolonged interruption of power, a la the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) after Sandy, it may make sense to buy insurance in the form of a solar array plus energy storage.

    Having worked the legal side of this area for about 10 years now, I am amazed at the progress solar energy has made–in another 10 years, the world will have some very different generation options than it does today.

    Bill

    • February 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Thanks for your insight, Bill.

      I think both your comments and those of Byron Sharp point out the marketing shift that my hypothetical Steve Jobs would need to bring solar.

      For society, solar success is critical strategically – reducing dependence on fossil fuels and reducing some of the very harmful byproducts of fossil fuels.

      But shift to the consumer market and the reasons for solar adoption change dramatically. Byron notes its growing potential to reduce a homeowner utility costs (I would expect this particularly possible in his sun rich home world of Australia).

      And those applications I suggested offer advantages like convenience, portability, quiet, etc… All advantages which must survive the downtime problems you note in your comment.

      One last thought from the Steve Jobs example. It’s written about Jobs’ that a critical breakthrough in creating the Apple II was Job’s insistence on finding an innovative power supply that would eliminate the need for an internal fan. Important because Jobs realized that a desktop needs quiet – and not to feel industrial.

      So while Woz handled the underlying technological fundamentals, Jobs sought out those particular technologies that delivered maximum consumer value. It’s this insight and brilliance I’ll suggest is needed in the solar industry.

      This is critical in that my experience of green products is that the vast majority of consumers don’t buy products primarily because they’re green. Rather, they find the products that offer the advantages they want — and will choose among equals by picking the greenest. But an inferior green product simply won’t succeed merely because it’s green.

      Again, thanks for the thoughts.

      …Doug

  3. February 11, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Wanted to pass along this comment about the solar issue that Dan Bullard posted on the PDX Professionals LinkedIn board:

    “I did my part with my article on solar power for houseboats (The Joys of Free Power, Houseboat magazine March 2010). However I found that as nice as solar power is in the summertime the output trickles to near nothing in the wintertime, especially in the Northwest. My 500W solar array generates way too much power in the summertime and so little in the wintertime that I can’t even keep my batteries alive without a charger running full time. I would like to see more a more diverse array of products (solar siding) because the sun is not always directly overhead and on the water you get a free sun-doubling mirror (the water) when the sun angle is lower than 90 degrees.”

    Here’s a link to his article. http://www.houseboatmagazine.com/houseboat-news/display.cfm?ID=2129

  1. February 17, 2013 at 5:50 am

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