Why Steve Jobs would hate the solar market

The team behind the Department of Energy’s solar program SunShot internally calls one of its projects “the Steve Jobs solicitation.” That’s the one officially named “Plug and Play Photovoltaics,” which is using $21 million to support projects that try to turn the process of installing solar panels on rooftops into an easy, simple and ultimately one-step product — a far cry from the current lengthy and relatively complicated process it is today.

The goal is noble. The so-called soft costs of solar — everything that doesn’t include the hardware — make up over half of the total costs of solar panel systems. Making solar panels that can be bought off the shelf, installed by a handy person or even the buyer, and instantly connected to the power grid would not only reduce the cost of solar panels significantly, but could also expand the market considerably by making it more accessible.

solar panels on a roof, image courtesy of Elliot Brown, Flickr Creative Commons

Solar panels on a roof. Image courtesy of Elliot Brown, Flickr Creative Commons

Unfortunately, making solar panels plug-and-play will likely be complicated: Some company that is the Apple of solar won’t just be able to jump in and building new user-friendly products to disrupt the market. Startups have tried it on the hardware product side a variety of times, with little success to date, though there is still some interesting innovation happening around more niche DIY solar systems.

I don’t mean to downplay the innovations that have already made the process of buying home solar systems much more efficient. Companies like SolarCity and Sungevity have done a lot of heavy lifting in this area, creating new types of financing, marketing and ways to access installers, among other things.

The solar market is just so complicated compared to consumer electronics or even appliances, hampered with regulation and permits and filled with slow-moving utilities, that I think Steve Jobs would completely despise working in it, despite the fact that he was concerned with sustainability later in Apple’s life. I guess he had to face some of these issues when Apple launched into the phone industry.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

There are some obvious explanations for why purely plug-and-play solar panel systems will be difficult. Namely, solar panels aren’t iPhones. They are heavy, usually installed on rooftops (though they can also be set up on the ground), have to plug into home electrical systems, need permits in most locations and, for net metering programs, need to be approved by the local utility. Plug-and-play solar in reality would probably look more like buying a washing machine: a buyer could order it online or in a store, but an electrician might have to come and install it.

Solar entrepreneur Danny Kennedy, founder of solar incubator SfunCube, has been working in the solar market for years and thinks plug-and-play solar probably won’t be coming any time soon, and maybe not ever. “Technology diffusion of services requires the vendor to keep it simple, and most of the stuff I have seen so far is too DIY for normal people,” notes Kennedy. He adds, “We need to take this out of people’s hands, make it painless and seamless with other lifestyle technologies rather than make it something you have to plug in to the grid to play.”

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Alan Levine, Flickr Creative Commons.

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Alan Levine, Flickr Creative Commons

In that respect, making solar more plug-and-play will need a lot of little product innovations across all of these aspects of the solar process, instead of just one killer hardware product. Research firm the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is working on just such a multi-faceted project with backing from the SunShot program, to make solar able to be bought, installed and connected by homeowners without outside contractors or consultants, and within a day. It says it’s using a “multidisciplinary team” that includes “manufacturers, utilities, local governments and research institutions,” to figure out how this would work.

What does this need from their perspective? Fraunhofer says some of the keys to its project are:

  • lightweight solar modules
  • self-sealing roof mounts
  • distributed power conversion (for safe, simple wiring on the outside of the building)
  • self-testing system components
  • a communications protocol that allows the installed system to easily communicate with local utilities and obtain the necessary permissions to access the utility grid
  • tweaking of national codes and local building requirements and regulations

So, yeah, it’s a little complicated. Fraunhofer has a $11.7 million grant and five years to try to do this. Partners on the program include Lumeta Solar; Petra Solar; Schletter; the City of Boston; the Town of Rutland, Vermont; Vermont utility Green Mountain Power; the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing; Vermont Law School; Tufts University and Sandia National Laboratories. Phew. North Carolina State University’s FREEDM Systems Engineering Center is also working on a plug-and-play solar project supported by SunShot.

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Andreas Demmelbauer

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Andreas Demmelbauer, Flickr Creative Commons

One of the key aspects that could be truly disruptive to come out of this Fraunhofer project — and which Steve Jobs would probably approve of — are solar systems that can automatically check themselves for proper installation and instantly communicate with the local utility for permission to feed power into the smart meter. The utility could then remotely use software to grant the system permission or not, and the solar project could immediately start producing power.

In an era of the internet of things and always-on connectivity, it just makes sense to do this using computing and networks. It reminds me of setting up an Apple router.

There are also some big picture infrastructure decisions, as well as next-gen technology, that could help with making solar more plug-and-play. When SunShot first launched its plug-and-play solar solicitation in 2012, I attended a brainstorming session where interested participants gave these suggestions:

  • Have houses be solar-ready already: Develop a standard PV plug at the utility meter. Change the National Electrical Code. Have houses get smart solar-ready circuit breakers.
  • Use polymers and new materials that don’t need roof penetrations or specialized tools. Can a solar system fit over a roof like a bed sheet?
  • Panels that are very light can avoid some of these issues. Spray-on paint photovoltaics?
  • Add GPS to panels to help them self-locate for best sun generation placement.
A M-KOPA retailer hands out flyers about the solar product. Courtesy of M-KOPA, Georgina Goodwin.

An M-KOPA retailer hands out flyers about the solar product. Courtesy of M-KOPA, Georgina Goodwin.

The main target for this discussion has been the U.S. market and other developed markets that have regular access to the power grid. Ultimately, though, emerging off-grid rural markets could play an even bigger role with plug-and-play solar (though in the U.S., connecting to the power grid is half the battle). Companies are currently selling solar systems to rural villagers in Africa and India. Local entrepreneurs or home owners can install them, maintain and monitor them via cell phone networks.

Many of these systems aren’t powerful enough to serve the electricity needs of an American home, but perhaps these technologies and entrepreneurs could provide valuable lessons for programs like the one Fraunhofer is working on. While plug-and-play solar might be a far distant dream in the U.S., it’s already happening off of the power grid.