Danny Kennedy has a dream to create the global capital of solar PV – not in manufacturing or installations as other aspire to do – but in ideas. Solar, he says, is one of the greatest economic opportunities ever seen in the world – but right now it is missing some the innovative ideas needed to glue the various bits together.
Kennedy, an Australian who co-founded US solar leasing firm Sungevity, and is a former campaigns manager for Greenpeace, says that the solar PV industry has to be more than just solar modules and installations. The next step will be to add storage and product mobility (read electric vehicles) to the offering.
“This will be a bundle of services. Rooftop solar is not just a single commodity or a piece of kit,” he says. So to address that issue, Kennedy has decided that an “epicenter for ideas” needs to be created. And he has just the place.
“Our thesis is that it is software and financial engineering that is the key now (for the industry’s development),” Kennedy tells RenewEconomy, during a visit to his headquarters in Oakland, California.
“Hardware is great and is being produced at scale, and it will improve through deployment. “It’s not an R&D problem any more. It is a scaling problem. And the scaling is done through better low-cost business models and financing.
Kennedy’s proposed location for this epicenter is the Jack London Square on the waterfront at the port of Oakland, on the other side of the bay from San Francisco. It already boasts the headquarters of Sungevity, and Kennedy has opened up new premises that include other companies that are forging innovative ideas to help the development of solar.
These include Mosaic Energy, which has hit the headlines on its solar crowd-funding events, and lesser known companies such as Power Hive, which is developing off-grid solar solutions in Africa to answer the demand for basic lighting and mobile phone charging.
Kennedy is now extending this “solar campus” idea by creating a new solar “incubator”, called SFunCube, which stands for Solar for Universal Needs.
The idea of this is to encourage start-ups by providing them a venue, contacts, and the environment to help them develop from early stage concept, through to proof content and revenue generation. The goal is to help these new companies find a niche, a home, and to stay in the square to help pollinate other ideas.
“There is not a physical epicenter for the solar industry,” Kennedy says. “The scale of need for filling out all the niches of the global economy that will be filled out by solar is not being tackled by enough entrepreneurs. I think that’s because there is not enough support for those entrepreneurs. So we are trying to create that fertile ground.
“And we think Oakland has a unique potential to be that place. It is the heart of biggest solar market in US. It is close to the money and financiers (across the bay) in San Francisco, and it’s close to Silicon Valley and all the software guys.
This mixture of software and financing is what is underpinning the success of Sungevity and other companies. Sungevity specialises in remote sales of rooftop solar systems and zero down payments. It’s a product of smart software (remote survey applications) and some smart finance.
“The rooftop revolution is happening. The hardware is improving and it is now cheaper than fossil fuels. The big finance players – Buffet, Blackstone, Google and the Saudis, are all lining up. But there is not enough businesses to make it happen in individual niches.
“Take car parks for instance. It is close to a billion dollar market, and a quarter of the land surface in some cities is car parks. Where are the companies specialising in solar solutions to those car parks? They are not supported.”
Kennedy says that rewiring the world’s electricity supply and providing electricity to the billion and more who don’t have it now is possibly the biggest economic opportunity ever presented, or at least in the top three.
“It commands the heights of the economy. Everything else is downstream – information networks, agricultural systems, manufacturing. And as electricity migrates to take over mobility (transport), it will become an enormous centre. Solar will be the catalyst for all this.”
To satisfy that trillion-dollar industry will require many billion dollar businesses. But to get 1,000 businesses of that size, about 10,000 will need to try. “We simply need more people to try to make this work,” Kennedy says.
SfunCube CEO Emily Kirsch says she is not aware of any similar opportunity for solar entrepreneurs. The Department of Energy’s Sunshot Program has granted funds, but not the shared experience that can go with a campus-style setting.
So far, she says, there are 10 companies on the campus with some 300 employees. She expects this to grow to around 1,000 within a few years. “There is a universal need for electricity, and a universal need for solar, and software and finance is where we see the greatest abundance of opportunity.”