Musings from a Living National Treasure

Japan would consider solar energy pioneer Bill Yerkes a living national treasure. Many in the photovoltaics field consider him the father of the industry. His career illustrates how one man with persistence and drive can help create an entire industry, and it gives us valuable insights in how to launch a new busines opportunity. Bill was also one of the first to live off the grid. (Google: “Sara Yerkes Solar Living”)

Does the Team Have Domain Knowledge?
Bill gained his initial knowledge of photovoltaics by working at Spectrolab, whose only customers were spacecraft manufacturers for the US space program. The first photovoltaic panels were designed to charge and power batteries. The high humidity of Cape Kennedy stress tested the equipment. Silicon solar cells were found to be the best at withstanding high humidity. These early solar cells were used and tested on the lunar orbiter missions, which mapped the moon for the Apollo missions.

Can the Company Leverage Existing Technology?
Bill was one of the first to envision commercial uses for photovoltaics. In 1975, he left Spectrolab to start one of the first commercial solar cell enterprises in a 6,000 square foot warehouse in Chatsworth, California. Like many frugal entrepreneurs, he used production equipment purchased from Texas Instruments and carted by rental truck to California. His company’s first panels were battery chargers. In December 1975, the first customer bought 100 solar panels for the Syrian military, which used the panels to charge batteries for communications equipment in remote foxholes.

Are There Enough Early Adopters in Need?
Bill focused on finding early adopter customers experiencing pain around power supply. The second customers were offshore oil platforms. The Coast Guard had recently banned the dumping of used lead acid batteries, which powered lights and foghorns. The replacement batteries were rechargeable and could be recharged using solar panels. The use of solar panels and rechargeable batteries also eliminated other power-related costs. The platform service companies had to use special boats fitted with cranes to hoist lead acid batteries aboard the platforms. The operation was treacherous, and the cranes and boats wore out under the difficult conditions.  The replacement batteries were smaller and lighter and could be deployed easily with the solar panels by helicopter, enabling rapid deployment to many platforms for much less cost. One of the next customers was the US Navy which purchased panels to power bombing targets.

Is the Team Versatile Enough to Fill Many Roles?
In the early days, like most entrepreneurs, Bill wore many hats and was also the sales department. His business took early investment from Bob Medearis, who later co-founded Silicon Valley Bank, Professor Jim Gibbons from Stanford and Al Smith of Smith Food King Store. He bought a diffusion furnace and hired a program manager to run operations.

Does the Company have the Creativity to Solve the Inevitable Problems?
Early on, Bill realized that the photovoltaic business suffered severe seasonality; no one in the Northern hemisphere was very interested in buying solar equipment in the winter. To eliminate the seasonality, Bill focused on sales to South America and Southern Africa. In Rhodesia, South African and Nambia, solar panels with rechargeable batteries replaced diesel powered point-to-point repeaters used in national telephone systems. The solar powered systems were reliable and maintenance free, and reduced costs by eliminating the need to have each station manned by a person, who often required housing. The early adopters in the US were marijuana growers from Northern California who paid cash and carted away panels on the back of pickup trucks. They used the panels to power remote houses off the grid.

Are There Potential Partners if the Technology is Ahead of its Time?
Like many new technologies, photovoltaics were ahead of their time in the late 1970’s; the economics of a viable, scalable business were not yet in place. Oil was cheap and the cost per kilowatt of solar power was too high for all but the most exotic locations. In 1978, Atlantic Ridgefield bought Bill’s company, which then became Arco Solar.

What is the Technology Lineage?
Many of the luminaries of today’s solar power industry worked with Bill at Arco Solar. Bill hired Charlie Gay, now with Applied Materials, to head R&D at Arco Solar. Peter Aschenbrenner, now VP of Sales and Marketing at SunPower, was the Arco Solar’s first European sales rep. This network has proved to be invaluable to Bill in subsequent incarnations at Teledesic, where he was the power systems manager, and Solaicx, where he is currently the Chief Technical Officer. “Never burn bridges; just go forward,” advises Bill.

Where is the Future?
I asked Bill where one should invest their money in clean technology. He laughed and said “Investment implies that there is a real business, real customers, where you can sell products for more than they cost to make. The future is right now. Renewable energy is not a bubble. We’re just beginning to get going. California will be a big market. If we play our cards right, California should be the design and engineering center.”

Bill noted that utility companies and governments have figured out that connecting photovoltaics to the grid is good business and helps eliminate brownouts during peak summer demand times. Utilities are using the permitting process to drive solar. Entire subdivisions now are solar powered. This has lead to pre-assembly of solar units and the development of standard items which reduces the installation cost.

Bill sees transportation, the home and batteries as among the next investment frontiers. Houses will have plug in neighborhood vehicles for local trips. Bill believes that the automobile form-factor has won and will not be replaced by mass transit solutions. We’ll find more efficient ways to move people while maintaining the current form and function of the car. Some new subdivisions in Southern California, for example, are providing electric cars, charged by solar panels, for local trips.

According to Bill, we will also begin to take a holistic approach to our homes with more insulation, daylighting and the use of low-energy fluorescent and LED lighting. Bill believes that advanced homes will also have smart appliances and cited Sharp’s integrated line of solar appliances.

Our lack of understanding of batteries creates opportunity. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries will likely be the way to go. They have a 99.5% in/out efficiency versus the 65% in/out efficiency of nickel hydride batteries. Nickel hydride batteries are even less efficient than lead acid batteries and each cell only charges to 1.1 volt per cell. To power a hybrid car with these batteries, you need 300 volts in a series of 300 cells. Measuring whether 300 cells are charged is difficult, so the only solution is to overcharge the cells. Lithium ion cells are 4 volts so one would needs only 85 cells to supply the same charge. Lithium ion batteries last forever. There would be no cell phone or laptop businesses without these batteries.

Bill believes that we need to apply this technology to transportation and his advice to Detroit is “Get battery knowledge!”