Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sun Salutations

Towards the end of the 3-hour mark of the Solar Industry 101 Tutorial at TiE Silicon Valley offices last night, the moderator Murali Rangarajan asked in a very innocent way to the six distinguished panelists:

"How many of you actually have a solar panel on your roof?"

Here they were up on the stage - all six of them - a very promising Solar Industry entrepreneur, two successful solar energy company executives, a VC and an angel investor who specialize in clean tech, and a prominent consultant and industry journalist. You'd expect almost all of them to raise their hand, right?

Only one hand went up out of the six, rest murmuring some embarrassment-laden excuses.

It's really not their fault. It just shows the state of the overall clean-tech or green-tech industry. A typical consumer in the US today does not have a lot of economic motivation to switch to Solar or any other clean energy source. The ones who do it, they are doing so more out of the goodness of their heart, or a feeling of social and moral responsibility to take care of their planet. And I salute their effort. But the rest of us, let's admit it -- this is one of those things we label as "a great noble idea, should do it when we can get around it", very much like the panelists in yesterday's seminar. Because there is not a compelling need to do so (our electricity and utilities seem to be working fine), there is no market force (it's not cheaper, and actually more expensive in the short term), and it sounds like a complex, time-consuming project (it's feels more like a full-fledged home improvement project as opposed to how we typically get electricity installed when we move into a new place, which is basically a phone call to the local utility company)

This is not to justify our current behavior of consuming unclean energy and further endangering the planet, but more an observation of the long, long way we still have to go in terms of making clean energy a viable alternative.

During yesterday's session, Eric Wesoff from GreenTech Media jokingly mentioned his sidegig as a Yoga instructor and that if the talk got boring, he offered to lead the audience through some sun salutation asanas. Not sure if the reference was intentional, but the pioneers and the entrepreneurs in the solar industry are definitely worth of our salutations.

I personally think that currently solar has a better market fit for developing nations, specially at the so-called bottom of the pyramid (BoP), where there is extreme energy poverty. These folks don't have energy resources like electricity and natural gas and coal-fired plants, etc. -- but the sun shines equally upon them as it does in any other nation, so solar to them is a very accessible resource. Can there be micro-sized solar installations for these BoP communities that will at least light a few light bulbs, help with basic cooking and food preservation, and water purification? For a solar solution combines all these, I'm sure the market there will raise their hands a lot faster than our panelists last night.

Now that would really be worth some heartfelt sun salutations.