'Tis the Sun and Nothing More

'Tis the Sun and Nothing More

I have a day job these days. I joined a solar company called Sunpreme. I have a day job and a deadline for this column and I’m writing this during work hours. So, I say to myself, self why not kill two birds with one stone and write about my job.

This is the first time I’ve worked for a company that makes widgets since I can remember. Almost 25 years ago, I worked for a Harley Davidson distributor, which was…cool. Before that, I must have been a teenager. It is a strong reminder of how much of our economy (and employment) is constituted of services. Most of my career has been in the financial industry with some consulting and number crunching before that. This is my first time at a real Silicon Valley firm. The headquarters are in Sunnyvale. There are solar panels installed in the parking lot, one vertical panel on the roof. No one is wearing a suit. The office is usually quiet and people don’t make small talk. There are no Game of Thrones jokes. And when I really need to get some social in during the day, I go to our Chief Scientist for a lecture on valance bands and cell architecture.

So, partly because Beting wants me to turn in my column early, I’m going to do a plug for Sunpreme. Solar is a compelling solution for the Philippines…if they only stopped installing cheap Chinese panels that delaminate upon installation. Solar is a good solution for the Philippines because the sun delivers itself. You only install the power plant once and you never have to feed it with a piece of coal, a gas supply or some petroleum distillate. You can put the power plant on the top of a mountain and walk away. That’s the simple, obvious beauty of it.

The solar industry is considered a young industry, maybe 15 years old. Nevermind that it had some fits and starts in the 1970s with technologies that were too expensive to commercialize in volume. Remember the panels President Carter installed in the White House that President Reagan had taken down? Nevermind that Thomas Edison came across this technology and said, “I hope we commercialize it some day.”

Here we are. No amount of political positioning could stop the last 15 years. The technology is well past arrival. Underline this: entire systems, panels and land and steel and everything, are being installed in the US today at $1 per watt peak . That is, depending on location, 1.2-1.8 kWh a year can be generated indefinitely for an upfront cost of $1 (or less). To put that in perspective, my highest electric rate on my PG&E bill is $0.44 per kWh. At that rate, for the cost of 2.3 kWh of electricity from PG&E, I can get 1.2-1.8 kWh per year for as long as the system will last.

Obama’s green friendly administration might take the credit. But it is not necessarily so. This industry has borrowed 70 years of engineering from the semiconductor industry and applied it to making power out of materials that do not move (mostly crystalline silicon doped with boron or phosphorous with an aluminum backside, but that’s evolving). That’s Silicon Valley. That’s the human intellectual machine that can make artificial intelligence out of a pile of sand.

As I drive through the 101 traffic each day, I don’t get a chance to step back and think of band gaps and conduction electrons passing through a crystal lattice. I keep thinking, “surely that is something at my window lattice,” (Poe) but I don’t think anyone here would understand if I shared that.

But you can marvel, dear reader, as I negotiate the traffic to and from my solar company. You can wonder how an industry came from being an engineering toy 15 years ago to one of the cheapest forms of energy today. You can wonder what that means for this world and, more importantly, for the Philippines.

And, by the way, Supreme doesn't have an aluminum backside because Sunpreme generates electricity from both sides of the panel. “Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;” (Edgar Allan Poe)

It’s the sun and nothing more.

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