Questions to John Paul Morgan, Founder and CTO, Morgan Solar Inc. and Nicolas Morgan, VP, Business Development, Morgan Solar Inc.
In 2005, after completing a Master’s in Applied Science, I spent a year volunteering for Doctors Without Borders in a small town called Shabunda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The house where I lived had solar panels mounted on its roof, but most houses in the village lacked electricity. I saw that this lack, more than just the shortage of medical technology or infrastructure, severely constrained people’s quality of life. Seeing that existing – even cutting-edge – solar technologies, such as the panels installed on our roof, could not help places like Shabunda – they were simply too expensive, I became convinced that only an easily deployable, commoditized, low cost – yet highly efficient – solar technology could.
Tell us about the technology.
The fundamental technology behind the Sun Simba is our patent-pending Light-guide Solar Optic (LSO). The LSO is an entirely new way to capture and concentrate sunlight; it is a non-imaging optic, which collects all direct incident sunlight, then bends and conducts that light to a very small, high-efficiency PV cell. The concentration factor achieved is about 1000 times the amount of sunlight that would normally strike a single area – that means more sunlight available to convert to electricity, using about 1/500 the PV material of a conventional Silicon panel.
What makes the Sun Simba different from other solar panels on the market?
The Sun Simba is in the broad sub-field of Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) solar panels, which means it directs a large amount of sunlight to a small area of PV cell. However, if you look up CPV on Wikipedia or just about anywhere else, the definition always starts with something like “a technology using lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight.” There have been many innovative ideas in CPV, but they seem to have been incremental and evolutionary, not fundamental shifts in design. In the 30 year history of concentrating optics, the Sun Simba is the first and only optic to use total internal reflection (TIR) to collect sunlight, and the result is the most compact, low cost, durable concentrating solar panel to date.
The market doesn’t differentiate one electron added to the grid from another, so if you’re not clearly winning on the cost of those electrons all the innovations in the world really don’t add up to much. We designed the Sun Simba to be built with fewer, simpler materials – acrylic, glass, aluminum, and a sliver of PV cell – and with very well-established manufacturing processes. The results is that a project deployed with Sun Simba panels will cost less to install than one built with Crystalline PV.
However, it’s important to understand that it’s not just about upfront costs, or dollars per watt. If my Megawatt array of solar panels produces 40 to 50% more power than yours, I’m going to earn more money than you over a year – over 25 years. The fact that I can also build my Megawatt for less upfront is what makes this a game changer, and it’s what has our investors excited.
Who will be the early adopters of Sun Simba panels? And, if any different, who will be Morgan Solar’s long-term customers?
Based on discussions to date, the early adopters with the greatest interest will be precisely those people who have the most to gain by being our long term customers. Iberdrola Renewables is a perfect example; as a strategic investor, they have an obvious interest in the potential of our technology, and we have begun to review opportunities to collaborate on an initial installation. They certainly wouldn’t have invested if they didn’t see the potential for extensive deployments; like any large developer, the prospect of significantly lower upfront costs and higher power yields is very attractive.
We see several potential markets and market segments where our system will be very competitive, including the distributed generation market in Ontario as well as in Africa and India; the utility scale market in the US South West, Southern Europe, MENA countries and South Asia. In each of these regions and market segments we’re speaking with one or more possible partners or customers. The only fundamental difference between our long term and initial customers will be the potential scale of projects. We’re still in the early stages of commercialization and production ramp up, so there are limits to what we can deploy in 2011.
From where you are now, there are a number of steps before you’ve reached full commercialization. What are the major hurdles to commercializing a new solar technology?
In a word, bankability.
Any new technology needs to demonstrate performance and reliability before widespread market adoption, and in the case of energy technologies where even small projects can cost a few million dollars you need to meet the requirements and expectations set out by the finance groups that make project development possible. In solar, these challenges are magnified. Project finance lenders have very little appetite for taking on what they see as technology risks, especially while recovering from a global financial crisis. So while demonstrating high performance and low costs, it’s just as important that we demonstrate the predictability and reliability of our technology.
That sounds like a high bar to reach, but we’re actually in a better position there than you’d think when talking about a “new technology”. For the optics themselves, all of the materials have been on the market for decades, and we’re using mature, well understood manufacturing processes. The other major component of our technology, the multi-junction PV cell, is equally well established with testing going back decades. Our technology is new in the same way that the latest and greatest smart phone is “new”. It is clearly better than what was available last year, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t build on a legacy of technical innovations that came before. With the iPhone, Apple didn’t invent the micro-processor or the touch screen, they invented a better embodiment of those technologies.
Where do you plan to manufacture the panels and why?
Our manufacturing strategy separates out component manufacturing and assembly. We’re going to be purchasing some components such as the multi-junction cells from third parties, and are talking to several potential suppliers for those. The rest of the components are going to be manufactured at a few centralized facilities. However, assembly of the individual components into panels is simple, and setting up assembly facilities is fairly quick and inexpensive. It will often make sense to finish the components into panels fairly close to where they will be installed.
This would mean that where we anticipate demand or have a high volume of orders in the pipeline, such as California, we will be setting up manufacturing facilities to actually build our panels. Our pilot assembly facility will remain in Ontario.
There are a few reasons why this fairly local model of production makes sense. First off, logistically, it is much simpler to ship relatively small components than it is to ship finished panels. Second, several markets are looking at local content requirements for renewable energy projects, especially where there are incentives being offered. Finally, large scale solar farm developments are not going to be distributed randomly all over the world, but will inevitably cluster around regions where electrical demand, solar resource, available land and other factors make them not just possible, but profitable. By actually investing in those places, by creating jobs and developing an actual presence in those regions, we will inevitably unlock more and better opportunities than we will by parachuting in sales teams representing massive overseas factories.
Once you have products ready to ship how do you intend to market and distribute them? Is yours an international market?
This product is absolutely intended for an international market. Right out of the gate, we’re developing initial market demonstration projects in Canada, the U.S., and Spain, and the demand and potential for the rest of the world is staggering.
That said, we’re still at the very first steps of that process. In early 2011, we’re deploying three demonstration scale solar farms: a 100 kW installation in Port Dover, Ontario; a 200 kW project Lancaster, California; and a 100 kW project with Iberdrola. We’ve developed several small test sites, some that we’re now in the process of expanding. With these and the demonstration systems, we’ll have better and better performance data.
Simultaneous with these demonstration systems, we will be certifying the panels – for CPV this unfortunately takes about 6 to 9 months. In late 2011 we hope to have certified panels, after which we will begin offering commercial Sun Simba systems. We are already working with a distributor in Ontario to meet the demand for 10 to 250 kW systems created by the feed-in tariff, which incentivizes smaller, consumer-owned installations. At the same time, we are in the process of planning at least one, but possibly several, Megawatt scale systems in California.
What can we expect to see in the next three years from Morgan Solar?
We will deploy several dozen Megawatts of Sun Simbas over the next three years, as we work towards reaching – speaking in the fairly long term – a Gigawatt of sales – a huge metric that fairly few solar companies have been able to hit. Just as important as the volume of sales is the price of energy that we can deliver – will it be cheaper than conventional fossil fuel-based electricity generation, and affordable in places like Africa? We have a mountain of work in front of us, but I think we also have the strongest team – of optical scientists, electrical engineers – we’ve now even put together an in-house software group – to execute on such an ambitious strategy. In the next three years, we hope that you’ll see Sun Simbas deployed at a scale that will contribute significantly to changing the way the world generates electricity.