PV Talk: Morgan Solar on the place of CPV in a PV dominated market


Mike Andrade joins Morgan Solar with 30 years of experience in the technology industry, most recently as president of diversified markets at Celestica. Source: eng.uwo.ca

PV Tech: What are your priorities for the company moving forward in your new role as CEO?

Mike Andrade: I’ve only been here six weeks so I’m certainly making sure I understand what is working well here – and a lot is working well – before I say I’m going to change everything. I am being careful not to be too rash. I’ve had 30 years’ experience in the technology industry and I’ve been fortunate to see hundreds of the best companies in the world. And a lot of different industries too including solar, how they grew and how they introduced products.

What I am focusing on are the things that I have seen have led to success in the past, irrespective of solar etc. and generally that is down to focussing on – its trite – but focussing on what your customers want and making sure that you have the right proof points, capabilities and relationships to deliver on that. That is the basics of it. And that is how I’m starting off here as well.

The mission statement of the company is to make unsubsidised solar competitive with traditional sources of generation. But how are you dealing with making CPV competitive with conventional PV?

I’m glad you’ve brought up the mission statement because that is one of the things that really attracted me to come and work at Morgan Solar. I chose to come here because I think the mission is one that is worth doing. It is a very important time, frankly, for the world to figure out how to more effectively generate the energy that it needs without harming the environment. At the same time, the economy is not great and people do not want to overly subsidise solar in order to do that. I really feel that Morgan Solar is a way that really cracks the code of generating solar energy without a lot of subsidisation and at the same time creating jobs, which is a big factor for us. I really do believe in that and I’m glad that you brought that up; that’s why I’m here.

The first thing is, I love solar, but I’m not in love with our solar technology. What I believe very strongly in is that it starts off with the customer and what the customer needs. And frankly oftentimes solar companies, like many companies, when they have a technology, if all you have is a hammer right everything looks like a nail! You just keep trying to nail it and say, I’ve got my CPV technology and I’m going to solve every problem with CPV. I don’t think that’s how markets work or customers work. I think people have a need for solar, whether its low-cost utility-scale solar in a distributed power, it’s high efficiency on a rooftop or maybe it’s in a desert somewhere where there’s no grid but they need effective ability to generate solar to offset diesel…regardless of what the end market is, there is a need they have and then you have to figure out what that need is and whether your technology solves it. So I don’t really come from the place that it's CPV and we are competing against PV; we are competing against customers’ needs and their other alternatives to generate electricity; solar or otherwise.

That’s the first thing that I would say there. Then when you look at the alternatives to do that, of course standard PV is the dominant one and I think it works in a lot of different applications. But I think it's reaching limitations; the ability to generate electricity more efficiently with PV…the curve is flattening out and the ability to take cost out…the returns are diminishing also in traditional PV. People are wrestling with how [to] break the back of this high-efficiency at a reasonable cost and whether it be in more exotic silicon-based technologies or CPV, people are trying to figure it out. But frankly, most have not really worked because they don’t really work from a cost standpoint and they don’t really work from a ability to manufacture them at scale standpoint. That’s where I think historically CPV and other technologies have probably not succeeded. 

The additional optics for focussing sunlight drive up the cost for CPV compared to conventional PV – how can CPV overcome this?

I think that’s a great and perceptive way of looking at it, because as soon as you are slapping on something else besides the glass and whatever conversion medium you are using, you are adding something to a product that works pretty well and is proven all around the world. You have to have a very good reason to do that, so I think for us, it’s clear on the efficiency standpoint, that some sort of focusing or concentration will improve your ability to capture light.

The challenge then is can you efficiently convert that light in to electrical energy? And that’s where I think a lot of CPV systems are starting to struggle because you have to add heat-thinking and lenses and all manner of things that frankly, I think are good for collecting the light, but aren’t particularly good for converting the light to electricity and are also expensive. And even more so than expensive, are difficult to manufacture at scale.

Your point about the optics as being additional is true and historically if you take the traditional approach at optics, it has proven to be too expensive and or difficult to manufacture at scale, so that’s why I think the Morgan Solar, out of all the technologies that I saw in my past that tried to break this efficiency-cost conundrum that the industry is dealing with, I think has a pretty good chance. While it does add on optics, and it does have to deal with the efficiency of converting that high amount of light into electricity effectively, Morgan Solar is doing that in a way that still allows us to rely on relatively tried and true process technology that are well-established in the electronics in the solar world. And I think that is probably the difference; the additional cost that you might have from optics is minimised because of the industry-standard nature of the approach that Morgan Solar has because of its intellectual property. And combined with the cost of the optics, is not as significantly higher than traditional PV like it is on some CPV systems. 

Is Morgan Solar ‘s focus on CPV, regardless of cost, due to the belief that it is more efficient than standard PV?

I don’t really think of our product as CPV, but I guess it does concentrate light and it is photovoltaic so people can call it whatever they want.

It is substantially different than what people think of as CPV so I don’t think customers actually care about what the technology is – they are looking for attributes and that is usually some sort of cost per watt. So what I think Morgan Solar does is very high-output product, which does come from both the proprietary optics but also the proprietary circuits that are used I the panel. That’s the watt side. On the other side of the equation, I think the cost to do that is much lower than other traditional concentrating or more unique technologies, because you are using a traditional glass sandwich and plastic injection moulded optics. I think those are both the different things that allows us to work on the numerator and the denominator of a dollars per watt sort of equation. 

What developmental stage is the Sun Simba panel in? Is it available on the market?

Here’s where we are with this: I believe that we have to, as a company, make sure that we walk before we run. We have a relatively new technology for the marketplace and we have to demonstrate to people that this product can be built; it can be built with the right quality and reliability that people need to see. It needs to be something that actually works as we say it will, and we have to find people who are willing to buy it, so we can point to other people and say, this is a product that exists, and it works and other people have it.

So where we are focusing right now is that we are producing the product in relatively small volumes and largely using it with customers and in applications that can be third party verified; that this product exists, and works as promised and where it meets the business needs of certain customers.

We have it in places like NREL in the States that are able to validate that this is an extremely efficient conversion technology. We have it in situ in different environments in the world where we can look a reliability data that shows it works for long periods of time out the in the field.

And we are very proud of some of the partners we have; be it Iberdrola, Enbridge or the Kuwaiti Investment Authority, that in different portions of the world for different market applications we have customers who are excited about the product. Whether it be the proof points that this thing works, the capabilities to be able to manufacture it reliably, or establish good brand name relationships – that’s where we are right now. It’s in small quantities right now because by design we want to make sure that it really does what we say it’s going to do. 

Are there specific regions that you are targetting with your product?

The good news is, that with the partners I mentioned, we have some in Europe, some in the Middle East area and Asia as well. Every region in the world is covered with some significant partners. We think it is a global product – we do not really believe that it is a North American product. In fact, many of the attributes of the product work best in high insolation areas with high DNIs so obviously that is not as much all parts of North America. Geographically, I think it is a global product but not an everywhere product – we find people who are interested about its particular attributes.

Because of the design of the product – because it is high efficiency with a small footprint; and because of the fact that it is transparent – it’s an extremely unique product that is leading to opening up other markets for new applications of solar that traditional companies have not been able to pursue. It is something you can generate a fair bit of power from a small area and it also something that is attractive to look at so people might want to live with it. So I think we have found areas of solar that other people had not considered because they could not generate enough solar in an area, and/or it was too ugly, so this product helps with that as well. So I think more urban environments is another area that is opening up for us with this product.

Is the Savanna tracker in the same development stage as the panel?

I think it’s farther ahead. The Savanna tracker is solving problems for people in that it’s an extremely cost effective way to generate more electricity out of certain applications. With the cost point it has, it’s generally at or lower than cost points for other dual-axis trackers so what we are finding there is that that the product is already established. It’s got millions of hours of established reliability data and it’s out there in the field and we are finding that more customers are finding it and singing up, whether they are using our panel or not. It is a separate product but we are seeing that even though it was originally intended to be used in conjunction with our panel, on its own it’s attractive.

Have you found that there are some regions more interested than others in trackers?

I think somewhere where you are farther away from the equator is where you get more benefit out of dual-axis tracking. I think another area that people are finding attractive is small form factor and small footprint but high efficiency applications; like I mentioned the urban environments and/or remote areas where you need to generate a lot of power in an easily deployable form factor where there isn’t a grid.

I think an advantage of [our] tracker is that it is easy to install without a lot of civil work associated with it, so it lends itself well to remote applications. I’d say those are the two areas that we are seeing [it is attractive] – more utility-scale, away from the equator where tracking is a benefit; urban environments where you are trying to get power density, or in remote environments where ability to easily install it and ability to move it simply is a benefit. 

I am very excited about where we are. I think it’s very important that we get this right as a whole, this whole industry. I think Morgan Solar has a part to play. We do not believe that we are going to solve the world’s problems with solar, but we do think we have a particular niche where people need the highest efficiency solar and/or they need something that generates electricity that they want to live with. I think that is where our technologies can play a part to solve the problems that the world is facing. 

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