Just as for any trade show, the recent Intersolar North America gathering in San Francisco displayed no shortage of high-impact marketing booths, pretty women dressed in matching corporate colors, and iPad giveaways for a smattering of lucky attendees.
But there were fewer companies exhibiting their wares than at last year’s show, and beneath the surface of the flash and polish lay the reality that a shakeout is underway in the solar industry. That’s no revelation of course, simply the natural evolution of any important new industry.
“You look at any emerging market [and] you’re going to have this initial couple of boom years, everybody’s trying to get into it, there’s a lot of money thrown at it; everyone’s excited and there’s a lot of hype,” Jurron Bradley, Director of BASF’s Clean Energy Focus Team, told me during an Interview at Intersolar. “But then reality’s going to hit sooner or later, so there’s going to be a shakeout where the people that have the right value proposition will survive and those that do not will fall by the wayside. And so that’s bad that it happens, it involves lives and jobs… but it’s kind of to be expected.”
Finding that “right value proposition” is a driving motivation for Brian Wildes, founder of Ecolibrium Solar – “Do one thing, do it well. that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Wildes.
Wildes and his team at Ecolibrium produce the Ecofoot and Ecofoot2 flat roof solar PV mounting system. The key to the Ecofoot design is simplicity, durability and low cost. An industrial designer and mechanical engineer, Wildes designed the modular PV solar mounting system specifically for ease of shipping, installation, and maintenance; a value proposition Wildes believes is essential in an industry shaken by the plummeting cost of solar panels.
“What has happened is the price of the active materials, the actual cell itself has fallen so much,” says BASF’s Bradley, ”so now the percentage of costs are due to ballasting systems and all this other stuff that’s around it, that’s a bigger piece of the pie, so where can we reduce those costs.”
In other words, it’s the nuts and bolts of PV solar systems that will push the march to grid parity for solar energy. Leading that march are inventor/entrepreneurs like Wildes who understand the market from both a business and engineering perspective.
“There’s a growing demand, and interest in, ballasted systems and cost reductions,” Wildes explains as he demonstrates the Ecofoot2 for me at his somewhat modest Intersolar booth. “The whole point of this is to look at it a little differently and try to bring down the total cost of the [solar] install. That’s not just the material cost but install speed too,” says Wildes.
To emphasize the point of simplicity, Wildes handed me a two-page pamphlet and said, “here, this is the installation guide, that’s all there is to it.” Indeed, I believe I’ve waded through pages of instructions for putting together a cheap plywood bookcase that seemed more complex than those for Ecofoot (disclaimer: professional PV system installation should be left to professionals, not for folks like me struggling with bookcase instructions!)
Ecofoot is made with corrosion-free, fully recycled polymer and requires no roof penetration or special customization. The universal and modular design is compatible with all common types of solar panels. Ecofoot2, which debuted at Intersolar and is available this fall, builds on the original design integrated grounding and wire management. Advanced ASA resins from BASF further enhancing durability.
“We’re able to have low cost because we’re low material usage … look across here,” says Wildes while motioning to a booth across the aisle displaying another, more material-intensive and complex roof mounting system), “I mean, you’ve got i-beams and craziness, right? …How much does that cost?
So we’re doing it through innovation, we’re trying to [use] the materials that make sense … Every component you choose wisely, you choose the material wisely, and so we’re taking the best of plastic because that’s what is touching the roof. It’s a roof-friendly material, it has all these features we can build into it for free.
We’re trying to do it through innovative design, trying to do it without sacrificing quality; for example the Ecofoot2 uses the highest priced resin we could find – it not a polypropylene, it’s not consumer, it’s ASA - what you’ll find outside all the time since the 1960′s; it’s BASF resin… we use a high-engineered resin, we make [Ecofoot] in Athens, Ohio.”
Entrepreneurs and the future of solar
“There are a lot of companies that have very exotic, exciting technology,” says Bradley, “but if it’s five dollars a watt, it’s just not going to work.”
Shows like Intersolar are a mix of gee-whiz ideas and gadgets with unproven (or unlikely) value propositions and products that integrate innovation with solid business fundamentals – the realm where inventor/entrepreneurs like Wildes stand the best chance of surviving, and thriving, through the solar industry shakeup.
Wildes summed up our conversation at Intersolar with a simple summation of his business philosophy:
“We’re trying to attack one market segment and be the leader in it.”
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