Can Solar Follow the iPhone Curve? Not Anytime Soon


While iPhone users are generally more affluent and tend to adopt technology earlier than the rest of the population, the fastest-growing segment of iPhone consumers is actually in a lower-income demographic ($25,000 to $50,000 per year) — iPhones are going mainstream. With the announcement this morning that SunPower (s SPWRA), the solar panel manufacturer and solar system builder based in San Jose, Calif., has a new iPhone application out that can monitor a home solar system on an hourly, monthly and annual basis — and which SunPower is calling “the industry’s first monitoring application for the Apple iPhone” (s APPL) — it made me wonder if home solar systems will be able to follow that iPhone curve and accelerate into the mass market.


Well, what caused Apple’s iPhone to start such rapid growth in more mainstream markets? 1). Timing: The iPhone has been riding a wave of consumers who are finally starting to become more comfortable with smartphones in general. 2). Price: The latest generation of the iPhone is cheap enough that mainstream consumers can afford it. 3). Apple’s massive advertising campaign and media attention have delivered considerable interest in the device, and 4). the iPhone is designed well enough that consumers have responded to it.

Do home solar systems have any of these features? The only thing that solar has right now is No. 3: attention. SunPower’s iPhone app is just one example of the marketing efforts that companies are increasingly making. But, in a nutshell, solar systems have little else when it comes to the characteristics that have made the iPhone hit a tipping point.

When it comes to No. 2, price, home solar systems are still very expensive, and have a slow return on investment. And in this economy, they have been put off for more necessary purchases. The iPhone, on the other hand, has benefited from decades of innovation and Moore’s Law (which dictates that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 24 months) to deliver cheap gear, from the wireless networks that the iPhone uses to the compact computing system that runs the device. As many have pointed out, solar doesn’t abide by Moore’s Law.

Market timing is somewhat tied to price, but in general, home owners are not yet considering solar a necessity for their homes. It’s still a cool, very early adopter luxury item. The market is just too new, and the benefits of home solar systems haven’t been proven yet to the mainstream home owner. One could argue that the communication of the iPhone is more crucial to people’s lives than solar, but go back 5 to 10 years and the necessity of smartphones, and even cell phones, was not obvious.

When it comes to savvy solar designs, those are largely missing, too. But the good news is that a number of solar companies are hoping to deliver the iPhone of solar. Veranda Solar, an Oakland, Calif.-based startup, is developing a small, easy-to-install solar-power system and is looking to claim the Apple-of-solar title. But, again, the market is still new, and in this economy, it’ll be hard for a startup to develop large-scale manufacturing.

There is one thing that could cause solar systems to follow the track that the iPhone is on more quickly: policy. Because solar doesn’t follow Moore’s Law, it will only drop in price through policy and more mainstream adoption. Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter says there’s a sort of Moore’s Law that could apply to cleantech, with a national renewable portfolio standard and some serious tinkering in Washington. Progressive cities and states are already starting to take advantage of subsidies, particularly with the buzz of green jobs and stimulus funds, and companies like SolarCity are building businesses off of those funds.


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