A New Kind of Solar Panel That’s Smart, Stores Energy, and Even Talks
A fog machine goes off, and an astronaut emerges from behind the assembled crowd, carrying the device that the room has been waiting to see up onto the stage.
The atmosphere could be mistaken for the unveiling of the latest virtual reality headset or a new Silicon Valley-backed fitness tracker.
But the four-year-old startup called SunCulture Solar, led by entrepreneur and inventor Christopher Estes, has developed something much more unusual and the company unveiled it for the first time on Wednesday night in the penthouse at The Battery club in downtown San Francisco.
Estes has redesigned the solar panel, integrating batteries into the panel itself, overlaying it with smart sensors and software and wirelessly linking it to a computing hub and cell phone app. The company’s panels, called SolPads, are supposed to be sold late next year in a system for a rooftop, or as a stand alone panel that can be propped up on a back deck or balcony.
Partly by integrating the batteries inside the panels, SunCulture Solar says it can sell a home rooftop solar system for half of the cost of currently available solar panel and battery system combos.
Estes, who created the company with his wife Amy Becker Estes, described his new solar panel in an interview with Fortune earlier this month as “the smartest on the planet.” He hopes that rethinking the panel “will do for the solar industry what smart phones did for the computer industry.”
It’s a tall order. Few solar panel makers are really thinking differently about the aesthetics of panels, or are integrating computing intelligence and user experience design into the panel itself (SolPads can respond to finger taps and can even talk). No solar companies are integrating batteries inside panels.
Instead most are thinking about cost. With the dramatic growth in sales of solar panels over the past few years, solar panels are now at their cheapest time in history. In some large solar farms, built to sell power to utilities, energy from solar panels can fetch prices as low as four cents per kilowatt hour; cheaper than natural gas and coal power.
But as low cost panels get cheaper and cheaper, and as the technology becomes more mainstream, a few companies are trying to differentiate solar panels by making them higher-end, more efficient, and more tied to batteries.
In particular billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, and his cousin Lyndon Rive, are now focused on launching new types of solar products at SolarCity SCTY 3.85% , as the company undergoes an acquisition by electric car maker Tesla TSLA 0.74% . During a recent SolarCity earnings call, Musk said that SolarCity wants his company’s solar panels to be “beautiful,” to eventually all be paired with batteries, and to be so visually compelling as to make homeowners excitedly show them off to their neighbors.
Like Musk, Estes isn’t the typical solar or energy executive. Before SunCulture Solar he developed technology that helps artists and producers make high-quality audio recordings (called Endless Analog) and he’s sold equipment to the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Beck. With his shaggy blonde hair, he looks more like one of his former musician customers than a buttoned up solar VP.