Blog Post

Why Steve Jobs would hate the solar market

The team behind the Department of Energy’s solar program SunShot internally calls one of its projects “the Steve Jobs solicitation.” That’s the one officially named “Plug and Play Photovoltaics,” which is using $21 million to support projects that try to turn the process of installing solar panels on rooftops into an easy, simple and ultimately one-step product — a far cry from the current lengthy and relatively complicated process it is today.

The goal is noble. The so-called soft costs of solar — everything that doesn’t include the hardware — make up over half of the total costs of solar panel systems. Making solar panels that can be bought off the shelf, installed by a handy person or even the buyer, and instantly connected to the power grid would not only reduce the cost of solar panels significantly, but could also expand the market considerably by making it more accessible.

solar panels on a roof, image courtesy of Elliot Brown, Flickr Creative Commons
Solar panels on a roof. Image courtesy of Elliot Brown, Flickr Creative Commons

Unfortunately, making solar panels plug-and-play will likely be complicated: Some company that is the Apple of solar won’t just be able to jump in and building new user-friendly products to disrupt the market. Startups have tried it on the hardware product side a variety of times, with little success to date, though there is still some interesting innovation happening around more niche DIY solar systems.

I don’t mean to downplay the innovations that have already made the process of buying home solar systems much more efficient. Companies like SolarCity and Sungevity have done a lot of heavy lifting in this area, creating new types of financing, marketing and ways to access installers, among other things.

The solar market is just so complicated compared to consumer electronics or even appliances, hampered with regulation and permits and filled with slow-moving utilities, that I think Steve Jobs would completely despise working in it, despite the fact that he was concerned with sustainability later in Apple’s life. I guess he had to face some of these issues when Apple launched into the phone industry.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.
Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

There are some obvious explanations for why purely plug-and-play solar panel systems will be difficult. Namely, solar panels aren’t iPhones. They are heavy, usually installed on rooftops (though they can also be set up on the ground), have to plug into home electrical systems, need permits in most locations and, for net metering programs, need to be approved by the local utility. Plug-and-play solar in reality would probably look more like buying a washing machine: a buyer could order it online or in a store, but an electrician might have to come and install it.

Solar entrepreneur Danny Kennedy, founder of solar incubator SfunCube, has been working in the solar market for years and thinks plug-and-play solar probably won’t be coming any time soon, and maybe not ever. “Technology diffusion of services requires the vendor to keep it simple, and most of the stuff I have seen so far is too DIY for normal people,” notes Kennedy. He adds, “We need to take this out of people’s hands, make it painless and seamless with other lifestyle technologies rather than make it something you have to plug in to the grid to play.”

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Alan Levine, Flickr Creative Commons.
Solar panel, Image courtesy of Alan Levine, Flickr Creative Commons

In that respect, making solar more plug-and-play will need a lot of little product innovations across all of these aspects of the solar process, instead of just one killer hardware product. Research firm the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is working on just such a multi-faceted project with backing from the SunShot program, to make solar able to be bought, installed and connected by homeowners without outside contractors or consultants, and within a day. It says it’s using a “multidisciplinary team” that includes “manufacturers, utilities, local governments and research institutions,” to figure out how this would work.

What does this need from their perspective? Fraunhofer says some of the keys to its project are:

  • lightweight solar modules
  • self-sealing roof mounts
  • distributed power conversion (for safe, simple wiring on the outside of the building)
  • self-testing system components
  • a communications protocol that allows the installed system to easily communicate with local utilities and obtain the necessary permissions to access the utility grid
  • tweaking of national codes and local building requirements and regulations

So, yeah, it’s a little complicated. Fraunhofer has a $11.7 million grant and five years to try to do this. Partners on the program include Lumeta Solar; Petra Solar; Schletter; the City of Boston; the Town of Rutland, Vermont; Vermont utility Green Mountain Power; the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing; Vermont Law School; Tufts University and Sandia National Laboratories. Phew. North Carolina State University’s FREEDM Systems Engineering Center is also working on a plug-and-play solar project supported by SunShot.

Solar panel, Image courtesy of Andreas Demmelbauer
Solar panel, Image courtesy of Andreas Demmelbauer, Flickr Creative Commons

One of the key aspects that could be truly disruptive to come out of this Fraunhofer project — and which Steve Jobs would probably approve of — are solar systems that can automatically check themselves for proper installation and instantly communicate with the local utility for permission to feed power into the smart meter. The utility could then remotely use software to grant the system permission or not, and the solar project could immediately start producing power.

In an era of the internet of things and always-on connectivity, it just makes sense to do this using computing and networks. It reminds me of setting up an Apple router.

There are also some big picture infrastructure decisions, as well as next-gen technology, that could help with making solar more plug-and-play. When SunShot first launched its plug-and-play solar solicitation in 2012, I attended a brainstorming session where interested participants gave these suggestions:

  • Have houses be solar-ready already: Develop a standard PV plug at the utility meter. Change the National Electrical Code. Have houses get smart solar-ready circuit breakers.
  • Use polymers and new materials that don’t need roof penetrations or specialized tools. Can a solar system fit over a roof like a bed sheet?
  • Panels that are very light can avoid some of these issues. Spray-on paint photovoltaics?
  • Add GPS to panels to help them self-locate for best sun generation placement.
A M-KOPA retailer hands out flyers about the solar product. Courtesy of M-KOPA, Georgina Goodwin.
An M-KOPA retailer hands out flyers about the solar product. Courtesy of M-KOPA, Georgina Goodwin.

The main target for this discussion has been the U.S. market and other developed markets that have regular access to the power grid. Ultimately, though, emerging off-grid rural markets could play an even bigger role with plug-and-play solar (though in the U.S., connecting to the power grid is half the battle). Companies are currently selling solar systems to rural villagers in Africa and India. Local entrepreneurs or home owners can install them, maintain and monitor them via cell phone networks.

Many of these systems aren’t powerful enough to serve the electricity needs of an American home, but perhaps these technologies and entrepreneurs could provide valuable lessons for programs like the one Fraunhofer is working on. While plug-and-play solar might be a far distant dream in the U.S., it’s already happening off of the power grid.

21 Responses to “Why Steve Jobs would hate the solar market”

  1. Barry Cinnamon

    Plug and Play solar panels are a great goal and I hope they become more popular. I’m more than a little familiar with the concept because our team at Akeena shipped the first UL listed plug and play AC solar modules in 2009 — and these were sold at Lowe’s and other outlets. They were “relatively” easy to install on the roof, wire together and remotely monitor. But they were expensive then, and faced policy obstacles that technology cannot easily overcome.

    SunShot is a terrific program, but with plug and play they are trying to solve a policy problem (permitting, interconnection and inspections) with technology. Very challenging. Much better is to eliminate the interconnection requirements of utilities for small systems, and require simple and standardized inspections with no permits required for standard systems. That’s what Germany does — and also Vermont. No technology needed with the right policies.

    Nevertheless, there are significant electrical issues within a house (properly sized circuits and safe wiring), as well as roofing issues (secure and waterproof installations). Roofs are the only place where solar will scale since most people don’t have an abundance of sunny ground space. Running an extension cord to a few panels is possible but could be unsafe (depending on electrical issues again), and a few panels won’t make a big dent in anyone’s electric bill (you need more like 20+ panels).

    But our experience at Akeena was that experienced DIY homeowners could indeed safely and securely install their own plug and play rooftop system, including getting these systems inspected by the local city. But what these homeowners COULD NOT DO was navigate the complicated permitting process, figure out how to get their utility to interconnect their system, and apply for local incentives. This permitting, interconnection and incentive paperwork problem made it simply too daunting for a plug and play business model to succeed.

    In any case, there will again be inexpensive plug and play solar panels. In locations like Vermont and certain other “enlightened” cities, DIY homeowners should indeed be able to install a system on their own. Hawaii would be a good start, as well as California — one does not even need incentives to make the economics pencil out. But in both states utilities make it practically impossible for DIY homeowners to install a one-off system.

  2. Nice article. Agreed about the limitations and challenges Solar power is facing.

    Just wanted to tell that there are plug and play solar home system are available but again those caters small power needs. But still plug and play exists. d.light has created such product named D20 and here you can read about it.

    Also, there are other portable solar powered lights are available. These types of lights are mentioned in the link I have shared.

    Best Regards,

    Abubaker Siddiq

  3. Wayne Shearer

    Actually, there has been some standardization for “Plug and Play” already. The almost universal adoption of the MC4 connector has eased the electrical connection of the panels themselves.

    As far as connecting to the power grid, maybe we could take some direction from the evolution of the telephone system. I’m old enough to remember when the phone came into your house on 2, 4, or 8 wires and there were no modular connections. Developing a common connection process into the power grid is one step towards a more-or-less plug and play system. Such a connector would have to be retrofitted to existing homes, just like modular plugs were added back in the 70’s.

    The second is the development of standards and pre-approved solar controllers that would plug into this standardized grid connector. By developing some industry-supported standards, the concept of plug and play solar is not that far off.

    Yes, just like some people can set up their own wireless network and add all sort of devices to it and other people need to get their neighbor to help them get their router started, you will have varying degrees of personal capabilities, but those who make the effort would be able to install their own solar systems and help their less technically savvy friends and neighbors….

  4. Roland

    Forget panels. We need solar shingles that are sturdy enough that you can occasionally walk on, like regular shingles. Most shingle roofs last 20 years then need replacement. Solar cells have a similar lifetime. Since you will need a new roof anyway, effective cost of installation approaches zero.

  5. Resourceguy

    Let’s leave Steve Jobs out of it for now. The panels are overpriced compared to utility-scale pricing. The install is vastly overpriced by limited competition in most states and regulatory roadblocks all along the way. Those who cite $16k costs as a deal after major price declines are just not being realistic or truthful about the factor costs. In most states it is still not practical from a permit standpoint, even if the DIY effort involved low priced panels on a backyard ground array with limited electrician help at the end of the project. Sorry but the truth hurts sometimes.

  6. Srihari Yamanoor

    Because they are not copying other people’s designs and painting them white fast enough? Or they are not killing of Chinese workers?

  7. ishekhar

    Thanks for this article.
    I really hope that more research and development is done in this area which drastically eliminates the soft cost associated with solar install.

    I am very handy myself and have dealt with this issue firsthand. The prices of panels is going down but the labor cost is going up owing to the huge demand. Net results, the total cost not dropping as fast.

    With soft cost out of pictures (or negligible), the end user will start seeing the benefits of solar.
    That was one of the main reason, i was supporting the recent ‘solar roadways’ proposal.

  8. richardkoo

    One big challenge is that houses do not have a standard way for another electricity generation scheme to be added. Older homes may even have deteriorated or hacked wiring. Every house is unique in a way (depending on the history of maintenance of the house). That is why an electrician is required for the hook up.

    • I have to call BS here. I’m not saying that an electrician might not be necessary for many installs but you are overstating the difficulty here. There is one cable that comes from the power company to your house. This gives two obvious plug and play connection spots in my view. The first and most obvious would be the smart meters the power companies just installed or are installing. The second would be the fuse box. (and I know that most people are not keen on replacing their own fuse box or even fuses).

      Prices would plummet if these connections were available.

  9. @Jason and @Curious have hit the nail on the head:

    * Houses need to be built with the expectation that solar will be added (or there needs to be a relatively easy retrofit that any electrician can make to install the connections)
    * Solar panels should be designed so they contribute aesthetically to the house, not just financially

    Obviously, those are both difficult. But especially point #2 should be worth some extra cost. People are willing to spend more for beautiful things (iPhone is example #1, BMWs are example #2, at least here in Silicon Valley). A PV company that said “Don’t worry, our panels are not going to make your roof ugly (but they do cost a little more),” is probably going to kill in the market.

    • Dorkus Maximus

      Your point about contributing aesthetically is spot on. That large rectangular shape of the solar panel is both inelegant in its appearance and inefficient in its size and shape. Look at how much space gets wasted on roofs trying to accommodate those big panels. All one needs to do is look at a roof with solar panels and imagine being 30 years in the future. Those big rectangular slabs are going to look as clunky and primitive as a gas meter does today, or utility wires hanging from poles. Solar panels also need dedicated wiring to tie into the house, and possibly space for a battery if the power is being retained by the homeowner.

      • No, you’re very clearly putting words in a dead man’s mouth. You’re claiming to know his mind, but you don’t have a clue what Steve Jobs would think about the “solar market”. You’ve just used the name of an extremely talented man in order to give your story some credibility, and he can’t contradict you because he is dead. Real classy.

        > “plug-and-play solar is more complicated than many think”

        How many think that? How many as a percentage of everyone who has thought about it?

        Do you think that all the solar companies and engineers around the planet have not thought “how do we make our product cheaper and easier to deploy?” Do you think they are not constantly working to improve their product?

        Basically, you’ve set up a strawman and used Steve Jobs’ name to give this non-story a click-bait boost.

  10. Jason Duffy

    Steve Jobs was a perfectionist. This trait made itself known most prominently through his obsession for visual appeal and meticulous attention to detail. Considering that 40% of our brain is geared towards visual stimuli, it is no wonder he was able to help Apple products go beyond normal electronics and become fashion accessories.

    A common concern people express when thinking about installing a solar system on their home is how the panels look. As such, it’s arguable that Steve Jobs may have been able to create a niche in the solar market by designing solar systems that add to the visual beauty of our homes. His creative artistic genius could have transformed solar systems from ugly modular power generating devices into modern, attractive, and trendy “jewelry for your home.”

    That said, do you see it plausible that Steve Jobs would love the solar market?

    • It’s possible Steve Jobs would love the solar market. But maybe not plausible. While the headline emphasizes Steve Jobs, I’m really just trying to explain why the market for solar makes plug-and-play difficult. Because Jobs was a pioneer of making devices ultra user friendly and simple to use it seemed like a good contrast to the complicated and not so user friendly solar market.

    • Dorkus Maximus

      Visual appeal is only part of the story, and not even the biggest part. The bigger part is functional purity, putting as little distance as possible between what a thing does and its physical manifestation. The beauty in something like an iPhone lies in its lack of extraneous detail. What it does is obvious from its construction and its construction springs solely from what it does. The odd thing about Jobs was that he also was a fan of simulated textures and virtual knobs that looked like physical knobs. Visual metaphor is helpful, but you don’t need fake shadow or simulated brushed metal to suggest that a virtual knob has the same function as the physical knob it replaces.

  11. Curious

    “Plug-and-play solar in reality would probably look more like buying a washing machine: a buyer could order it online or in a store, but an electrician might have to come and install it.”

    Very few washing machines require an electrician to install it. All of the ones that I have seen just require a plug in and connection to a water supply and drain. These are already installed for most houses. What is really need is to have new houses built with the idea that a future solar installation will be made. Of course some people will object because it will add a few hundred dollars to the construction cost.

    • Christo

      Your biggest problem is retrofitting. There are more houses built already than will be built in short or very short order to make any difference. Off grid Africa is maybe the biggest and fastest growing cellphone development in the word. Look closely and India and South America is not far off.

      Developments in these markets as regards banking apps and many others played significant roles in developments in metropolitan markets.

      With the right software, you could for instance plug your panel into a regular wall socket (Internet already comes on the grid). If you can think it, you can do it. The biggest problem there would be the breakdown of personal empires in utilities and other departments. But show them how they can benefit and it will be done in a flash!

  12. Mouli Vaidyanathan

    Key issues on Plug & Play Solar:
    1. Solar cannot be compared to cell phones. Making that comparison is like apples to meats. A better comparison will be buying a cupboard or a couch through a website and putting it together. This model is very successful all over the world.
    2. SunShot gave money based on business objectives not scientific objectives. The business objectives was to arrive at $1.5/W installed. Both organizations are not businesses hence have mostly hearsay understanding of costs, P&L, balance sheets and delivery.
    3. Making rural (remote or underdeveloped locations) and urban solar comparisons are ineffective for solar. They will be different. It is like comparing semitruck load delivery and moving people.
    4. The goals of Plug & Play solar are defined as:
    a. Simple installation or minimal effort. Less than 2 hrs.
    b. Modular construction. Each module can operate independently or jointly.
    c. Low cost per unit.
    d. Delivery mechanism should be simple.
    5. SolarPod is the first and only successfully mass market introduced Modular Plug & Play. Big box retailers currently carry Modular Plug & Play products.