(Through mid 2016)
Born the son of a Lutheran minister and raised in Minnesota, I at first felt my mission in life was to save souls. But that morphed into “saving the earth” while I was a college student at MIT during the 1960s. First it was because of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; then it was the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth; and then the first Earth Day on April 21, 1970. Two years later I chose “Sustainable Building Design” as the topic of my masters thesis in Architecture, and in 1973 I completed the manuscript.
By then I had narrowed its scope to a more manageable Solar Energy In Shelter Design. The first Oil Embargo that fall after graduation stimulated sales of 5000 copies – of a thesis! Two buddies and I re-worked and self-published it as The Solar Home Book in 1976. At 350,000 copies sold, it made the Washington Post bestseller list.
Meanwhile, a team of 25 young professionals at my architecture, research, and education firm T.E.A. (or Total Environmental Action) designed or consulted on hundreds of innovative building-related products and projects all over the world. And with the help of other colleagues, SolarVision Inc’s Solar Age magazine and Renewable Energy News newspaper became the seminal periodicals in the field.
In those days, it was obvious that solar was too expensive to make good economic sense. This certainly was true for building applications. But it was even truer for solar electricity. Photovoltaic cells were particularly expensive, 50 times more than they are today. “Windmills” were a few kilowatts in size, not megawatts, and devices for concentrating the sun’s rays to make high temperature steam to drive turbines (called Concentrated Solar Power or CSP) were being invented.
Federal solar taxes credits fueled the industry’s explosive growth, and I enthusiastically worked more than 80 hours a week “saving the world.” But the solar tax credits were terminated on December 31, 1985, all but killing the promise of a near term clean energy future.
The demise of that golden era of solar seemed to seriously injure my soul too. For years I could barely say the word “solar” without physically shutting down, and I vowed never again to spend my life on anything that required government support for its success. “What the government giveth, it can take away” became one of my core beliefs.
Finally Earth Day 1990 re-energized me. Earth Day wasn’t always every April 22. In fact, through 1990 it was observed only three times: when it was founded by US Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970; the second time on its 10th anniversary in 1980; and the third in 1990, Earth Day’s 20th anniversary.
So after leading the statewide Earth Day effort in New Hampshire in 1990, I got together with Sen Nelson to form Earth Day USA with a vision of making Earth Day an annual day, not just in the US but throughout the world. By 1995, five annual Earth Days later, it had indeed become an annual day in the US and was growing in importance throughout the world. And I was fully re-energized to make a difference in the world.
Almost 15 years later, in 2009, my company Wilson TurboPower, a spinoff of MIT, discovered that our “breakthrough efficiency” technologies, invented by mechanical engineering professor-emeritus David Gordon Wilson, MIGHT have a play in concentrated solar power (CSP). Fortunately my solar blues had mellowed. However I was NOT ready to develop technologies that required government subsidies to make them competitive. That hadn’t changed.
So as you can imagine, I was pretty cautious. I didn’t want a repeat of my first solar career. But as we looked at the opportunity, we had an ah-ah! or Eureka! moment. It turned out that by inserting one of our MIT technologies into the hardware configuration of a certain approach to CSP, that system’s performance and economic potential radically increased, at least on paper. We didn’t tell a soul, and to keep our secret we operated in stealth mode until we were sure enough to begin the patenting process. We carefully fleshed out our ideas and invented some seminal technology breakthroughs. Our preliminary financial analysis gave me great hope that we could some day be among the lowest cost ways to produce power.
Finally we showed the concept to a couple of “CSP elders” who were considered among the most respected in the field. They “poured holy water” on it and encouraged us to respond to an opportunity for funding at the Department of Energy. In a highly competitive process, we won $4 million to develop the technology. We changed our name to Wilson Solarpower and 11 months later completed Phase I, an Engineering and Cost Feasibility Study involving a global team of experts. The Final Report outlined a very plausible path by which our concept could indeed become among the world’s lowest cost ways to produce power. And in addition, it showed that this approach could also be the most reliable and flexible approach to power generation – it could actually make the grid more stable, rather than less, as most other approaches do, including PV, wind, traditional CSP, and conventional power generation.
DOE was so pleased with the results that they awarded us additional funding, and we began eagerly engineering the key breakthrough components. Everything was going in our favor until the more important of the components, what is called a “solar receiver,” was damaged during shipment to Sandia National Laboratories for testing. DOE had allocated its remaining budget elsewhere, and we ran out of money before we could repair and test it. So the technology has been on hold since then while we’ve been raising the funding we need to build the first pilot 247Solar Plant™ to demonstrate the technology. We call it the 247Solar Plant because unlike photovoltaics it operates 24/7, not just when the sun shines.
Venture capital was our obvious funding target. For all the talk about clean energy, most VCs know little about it. And typically what little they do know is that “solar” means photovoltaics (PV), which has been plummeting in price. And what little they know about CSP is that it is more expensive than PV. That CSP can operate both day and night, not just when the sun shines, seems not to matter. We struck out.
Finally, a friendly tech-savvy VC said, “Your technology obviously is going to work – it’s so simple and logical. Just make a special deal with your initial customer that will pay for your pilot plant.”
That was in 2014, and finally in April of 2016 (on Earth Day!) we signed a joint venture agreement (JV) with a Chinese company to do just that, pay for the entire cost of the pilot. We contribute our technology in the form of a license to the JV that assigns it the exclusive right to manufacture and sell 247Solar components in China. The Chinese company invests more than enough to pay for the pilot 247Solar Plant, including our engineering services.
The Chinese company partner aims to have the JV build 1000 megawatts requiring 2500 247Solar Plants by 2021. It is useful to note that China is increasing its power demand by about 1000 megawatts every three weeks, even while shuttering its dirty coal plants, so the market is huge! A plant of 1000 megawatts will cost $3-4 billion in China.
Meanwhile, we are likely to conclude agreements in India, South Africa, and/or the Middle East within a year to build more 247Solar Plants.
Wilson Solarpower is a technology development company. So it formed 247Solar Inc. to commercialize the 247Solar technology. We registered the new company in the British Virgin Islands. The principal reason is that most of our sales and profits will be offshore, i.e., not in the US. Why be taxed by the US when our business is not in the US? Besides, it’s easier to raise money and do business throughout the world as an offshore company. That’s just the way it is. We owe it to our owners to maximize the value of the company within the constraints of the law and civic responsibility.
I’m delighted that 247Solar Plants have the potential to revolutionize power generation. They have also helped restore my hope for better future.