Can Solar Be Sexy?
The Aesthetics of Cleantech
By: Nathan Frey (Penn Ph.D.)
In 2011, Dow Chemical Company debuted the Powerhouse Solar System 2.0. Powerhouse was a line of “solar shingles” that converted a roof into a power generating solar cell. If that comes off as strikingly similar to a solar panel, it may be unsurprising to learn that Dow’s Powerhouse program shut down in 2016. In the end, Dow failed to convince consumers that having many small, shingle-sized solar devices was better than the large panels that adorn more and more homes each year.
2016 also saw the unveiling of Tesla’s Solar Roof. Unlike Dow’s engineers who failed to make small modular solar cells that could compete with panels for energy production, Tesla’s Solar Roof team decided that wasn’t even the right fight. While the Dow team struggled to come up with a reason why anyone should buy the Powerhouse System over traditional solar panels, Tesla was busy crafting slogans like “power from above, beauty from the street.”
“The key is that [the solar roof] needs to be beautiful, affordable, and seamlessly integrated. If all those things are true, why would you go any other direction?” — Elon Musk
Maybe most homeowners are less worried about efficiencies, and more worried about taking their largest single investment, which is carefully constructed and decorated, and slapping a big sheet of expensive blue-black silicon on top of it. Over and over again, Tesla’s marketing asserts that its solar panel shingles are not visible to the eye. Furthermore, these cells integrate directly into four distinct roof tile designs, which are promised to be more durable and longer-lasting than both solar panels and traditional roofing materials.
Rapid innovation has already brought the cost of clean energy on par with fossil fuel sources. The next battleground, one that scientists and engineers are much less comfortable with, is in convincing consumers and investors to come on board with cleantech. Tesla showed that design and presentation matter, maybe even more than tech advantage.
Many cleantech companies rose and fell during the early 2000s. It was, and still is, common for scientists and engineers to bank on goodwill support for their cleantech ventures, rather than solid product design and actually producing value. Especially when the technology is providing clean energy and fighting climate change, it seems like it should sell itself, but often that isn’t the case. In fact, cleantech failed to such a degree that a few well known investors (like Marc Andreessen), have entirely expelled green technologies from their investment portfolios.
At the same time, new venture capitalists and founders who weren’t burned by the early 2000s are showing up and changing the game. This is where student founders can make a huge difference. One of the Innovation Fund’s current portfolio companies, Bright Idea, is capitalizing on both attractive design and lean startup methodology. Founder Christopher Hariz is selling and installing LED light bulbs in large businesses and taking a small cut of the future savings. By targeting a traditionally “unsexy” market (interior illumination), keeping overhead costs extremely low, selling LEDs that most people prefer to harsh fluorescent lights, and nearly eliminating the pain of regularly replacing burnt out light bulbs, Bright Idea is dominating its niche after only six months in operation.
It’s obvious to student founders that most apps live and die based on user experience and user interface; why shouldn’t these lessons apply equally well to cleantech? And certainly cleantech companies need to be lean and aggressively pursue funding — surviving off of government funds is a surefire way to fail as soon as the grant money runs dry. Whereas teams of engineers in the early 2000s were happy to ride on public goodwill and research grants (and not so happy when their cleantech ventures crashed), student founders are some of the first to have become aware of the fact that green technology isn’t going to overtake the energy market with the power of good feelings.
As illustrated by innovative outfits like Bright Idea, great product design and nimble business strategies taken from IT startups are going to be powerful forces in the rising wave of cleantech innovation. So now that solar power is possible, can it be sexy?
P.S. Feel free to reach out if you want more info on cleantech startups, or if you’d like to intern at Bright Idea this summer!
Nathan is an Innovation Fund Project Manager. He’s a graduate student studying Materials Science and Engineering, and has a master’s degree in physics from Boston University, where he helped develop self-assembling organic building-blocks for next generation solar cells.
Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund is dedicated to funding, promoting, cultivating, and supporting student entrepreneurship in the UPenn community. Working on a startup and want to apply? Fill out our application here. Interested in partnering? Want to get involved? Drop us a line at apply.innovationfund at gmail.com.