In the second half of this episode of CleanTech Talk, I speak with serial successful entrepreneur Bill Nussey. He recently published a book, Freeing Energy: How Innovators Are Using Local-Scale Solar and Batteries to Disrupt the Global Energy Industry from the Outside In. The focus of the book is local solar and storage behind the meter, and the book is Amazon’s #1 new release in three categories: Energy, Solar, and Energy Policy. He’s also CEO and founder of Solar Inventions, which has a key technology that makes solar panels more efficient. He has a podcast too, also called Freeing Energy, something I had the pleasure to be on recently.
After leaving IBM a few years ago, Nussey was worried that solar was going to stop getting cheaper. He wanted to understand the science side and asked around the US for a mentor. He found Dr. Ben Damiani out of Georgia Tech, who gave Nussey optimism that the price of solar going to continue to drop. Over dinner, Damiani started rattling off ideas about how to reduce the price, and one stood out to Nussey, the configurable current cell (C3). In the final process step in manufacturing, putting silver on top, the C3 process tweak mimics half-cells, a big trend in the industry. If you break a solar cell in half and wire it up again, it makes a bit more power, which is counter-intuitive, but with reduced current comes reduced losses due to resistance.
They formed a company, Solar Inventions, around the C3 process, which allows a cell to be split in 2, 4, or any number of cells virtually, and reduces the amount of silver to be used. Nussey and Damiani didn’t want to make solar cells, and are going to license it to manufacturers. It’s taken two years with the patent process and patent lawyers to convince them that they had a patentable idea, one which was granted in late 2021.
Nussey estimate that it would add about $500 million of value into the industry annually with reduced materials costs.
Their process will make a 300 watt panel into a 303 watt panel. It’s a small percentage, but it’s an incremental innovation in a mature industry, that is easy to implement. By comparison, shifting to physical half-cells requires massive factory capital investment for 5 watts, so achieving 60% of the value with reduced costs through a process tweak is very attractive.
Fundamental patents like Solar Invention’s and Agora Energy Technologies take a lot of time and money. Patents are a double-edged sword, abused by some in ways that undermine the industry. Nussey worries that small players and patent trolls don’t get in the way of innovation, and that the energy industry learns from the software industry.
When Nussey first started interviewing people for the book, many entrepreneurs were frustrated by death-by-pilot with the utilities. The utilities had the money, but they had to rate-base innovations. Opportunities were not constrained by monopoly laws. The choice of 20 companies to install solar and perhaps 100 companies that make panels. There was a competitive market, and that’s what the book is focused on.
The US is a patchwork of regulations, rates, and grid reliability levels, and entrepreneurs have to pay attention locally to find the right opportunity. Some businesses are dependent on the regulatory structure, but some are broader. Nussey points interested business people to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency® (DSIRE) database, which contains all the relevant regulations for their state and utility.
Utilities in Georgia and the south consider themselves very beneficent, supporting little league teams and the like. But they do it very much with themselves in control. The biggest problem in the south is the utilities’ ability to influence the regulators. Alabama regulators were convinced by the regulator to add punitive fees for every watt of solar put on a roof, which undermines the benefits of rooftop solar. It slows the rate of local energy, but overall Nussey sees the larger picture heading in the right direction. The biggest question in his mind is what will happen in California with net metering, being on the verge of taking 10 steps backward, and could become a major inhibiting example instead of the positive example that they’ve traditionally been.
As another example, Texas has had two major grid failures in 2021 alone, with people freezing and dying in the dark in February and electricity failures in the fall. People in Texas can’t depend on the gird as a reliable source of electricity. Some people have asked how the Tesla Gigafactory will survive power outages, but it will be fine, as it’s a microgrid with massive solar and battery storage — all Tesla products of course. It’s even become a utility. Nobody thinks of a microgrid at the scale of the Gigafactory — a massive manufacturing facility — but it’s within the frame of Nussey’s book.
There’s a lot of variation across the states, but nobody is holding Texas up as an exemplar of low regulation in the electricity industry any more. It doesn’t have a capacity factor market, which is a major failure. FERC 2222 and overlapping European changes are going to create a lot of lab experiments with bigger microgrids, and as a result, a lot of learning.
Hawaii is Nussey’s favorite exemplar state. It has terrible constraints and so is ridiculously innovative from a policy point of view. Half of the solar is on rooftops, and when constraints arose, they came up with policies to support local batteries as well. The state is showing us what is possible with a really dense local energy system.
The book includes roughly 50 big local energy opportunities (BLEOs), from the current, the obvious, the near term, and the wild ideas. The last two chapters of the book are all about the opportunities Nussey sees.
The craziest idea Nussey writes about are off-grid purists. They want to go completely off grid, and they are signing up for a lot of pain compared to being connected to the grid. Nussey sees that there is an opportunity for mobile batteries at home, with an off-grid home serviced by a big battery on wheels that rolls up when there isn’t enough sun for a lengthy period of time. This is aligned with vehicle-to-home capabilities of electric cars charged up at work.
A bigger one in the next 10 years is building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Instead of adding solar to an existing roof not built for solar, there’s a place in Padua, Italy, that makes building integrated solar roofs, many of them aesthetic panels, including terra cotta imitators. It’s cheaper to build a solar roof once, than building a roof and adding solar. This is the big idea behind Tesla solar tiles as well. Solar panels can last much longer than shingle roofs, so there are downstream savings as well.
There are many more in the last two chapters of the book, and people thinking about starting a business should get the book and read through the opportunities Nussey has assembled.
Nussey closes the discussion with his one thought for CleanTechnica’s audience:
“Local energy is an express lane for climate change. The world is obsessed with gigabets on offshore wind and nuclear and there’s a traffic jam of political systems. COP26 was a disappointment. People can pull into the express lane, contribute in a personal way, and get great business value as well.”
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