Science Talk

Nuts, Bolts, Photons and Electrons of Solar Energy

Jeff Wolfe, the CEO and co-founder of groSolar, talks about solar energy's present and future. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Jeff Wolfe, the CEO and co-founder of groSolar, talks about solar energy's present and future. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include  

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk the weekly Podcast of Scientific American posted on July 23rd, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week we'll talk about the nuts and bolts and photons and electrons of solar energy with Jeff Wolfe. He is the CEO and cofounder of groSolar, a leader in solar energy in the U.S. Back in June, Jeff was in New York City at a conference. We met over breakfast at the restaurant in his hotel in midtown Manhattan.

Steve: Tell me about your personal background and how you got involved in this whole field.

Wolfe: Back in 1973, I was 13 and the Arabs decided to embargo oil, and I actually built my first water solar collector in '73. It didn't work; but I guess may be the fact that didn't work propelled me for an engineering career, and [I] ended up getting [a] Mechanical Engineering degree and going out and doing about 15 years of large building, designing hospitals, laboratories, hotels; and eventually got very upset with the fact that the marble tile always stayed in the projects, [but] due to cost cutting, the energy efficiency would usually be cut out or often cut out. And so that propelled me towards a career trying to make buildings that make energy rather than make buildings that are just simply going to consume it.

Steve: And you were growing up where?

Wolfe: I grew up in north central Massachusetts.

Steve: Which does not get a lot of sun in the winter time.

Wolfe: It gets enough sun. In so many ways you know the leader in solar energy in the world right now is Germany.

Steve: Right, now which do you consider to be your new beachfront?

Wolfe: North of Sundale.

Steve: Sun-bathed area.

Wolfe: And Massachusetts and Vermont are places that actually get 30 percent more sun than Germany does. We are just skewed because we think of California, and California is one of the sunniest spots in the world, Southern California is. They get 30 percent more sun than the Northeast does. So that the miracle once again is the U.S. is unfairly endowed across the country with bountiful solar resources.

Steve: So I jumped [ahead] a little bit there, but so you got interested at an early age, and how did you actually then go off on your own and start this company?

Wolfe: So I was partner in an engineering firm, and I was working at that point in Chicago and I was, [naiveté was one of my] strong suits.

Steve: Because you did not know what you couldn't do?

Wolfe: Right, exactly, and so we were two young kids. I quit my job, and my wife and I moved back to Vermont and decided to start a company. I had [to figure out what] the company was going to do, and we knew it was something doable, and we started doing [it] and learning about business as we do. And my wife was far ahead of me because she has had one business course in college, and I had had none. And so we just jumped off the cliff edge and knew that if things didn't workout we would go back and get jobs.

Steve: And what year was this when you actually started the company?

Wolfe: 1998.

Steve: '98—so you're still a very young company.

Wolfe: Right, right.

Steve: And how are you doing right now? And what's the difference between now and when you started in terms of the climate—I don't mean the global climate, I mean the business climate—for this field?

Wolfe: It's a world of difference. In 1998 what we call net metering didn't exist in many, many states so we weren't allowed to interconnect easily to the utility. The technology [for] interconnecting to the utility did not exist broadly, and so our market was really in off-grid residential work; small homes in the woods [great] market, not going to change the world or kind of make an impact. Now we have technology where it's very simple to install, connects with the utility, the regulations are in place in about 40 states to make the interconnection very, very easy. The technology, the panels have become more efficient. The pricing has continued [its] annual decline and so now solar is, rather than being a pure lifestyle choice or available for those who are off grid, it's an affordable choice for many, many areas of the country there. So we now have a business; we did not have a business back in 1998.

Steve: So this industry now exists whereas 10 years ago it was more of a...

Wolfe: A mom and pop hobby shop.

Steve: Right.

Wolfe: Yeah, really.

Steve: Let me ask you about me, [personally], because I have toyed with the idea of installing solar because I get a fair amount of sun hitting my house; a flat roof, no blockage and there is no other tall building nearby that will block the sun from hitting the roof. But my own attitude has always been, sort of, like the trap you can get into [with] buying a computer. Let me wait another year because the technology will be better, the panels will be half the weight and they will cost half as much and will be twice as efficient. Am I right, or what's wrong with my thinking?

Wolfe: Well, there's a couple of things that are interesting. While solar is a technology that has a lot of similarities to the computer and computer chips, the difference is that a computer eventually becomes obsolete. Microsoft comes up with a new software that just does not work very well in the old one or something somewhat similar to that. A solar panel creates electrons and reuses electrons in our homes and in our businesses to run motors and lights [and everything else]. We'll be using the same electrons in 25 years.

Steve: Right.

Wolfe: So what the panel is producing, what it ultimately does, won't change and is very effective today. The efficiency of the power-to-conversion [clip] is already very high in the nineties, so it may be in 20 years you can get an extra 1 percent—not worth waiting 20 years for. And interesting enough, while the prices are declining, the government incentives are also declining, and so what you have is a race to when is the best time to buy solar; if we look back historically over the last four or five years, the best time to buy a solar has always been in the present day. Because as the prices in the equipment and installation decline the incentives tend to decline faster.

Steve: That's fascinating. That strikes me as being kind of backwards to the way our national thinking should be on this that this is a good thing to incentivize. So as soon it looks like it might be able to stand on its own two feet, we are removing the incentives.

Wolfe: I think it's not quite that extreme. Although we certainly don't get the support that other traditional fossil energies get, and now in some states, more and more states, it's actually cost effective versus the power companies to buy solar with existing incentives. So the incentive levels in many states are okay. We are always working to get them to be more fair, but the incentive levels are appropriate to allow—in New York State for your home, you do put in a system and compete very effectively as to your utility, make power at the same price or cheaper. And of course why are we comparing the present solar power versus utility power because if solar power is so much cleaner and friendlier and U.S. made and does not harm the planet and all those great things and you are comparing that versus what we call dinosaur power.

Steve: How long would it take—I realize it could vary depending on the state, but if you can give any kind of an answer—for my initial investment to pay for itself?

Wolfe: Anywhere from five to 15 years, but what's more important typically than how long it takes to pay back is, if you can get a loan and financing is available in more and more states; get a loan whereby your cost per month is instantly lower than it was. So if you are paying a utility bill over 100 dollars a month and we can replace a portion of that and save you money every month out of your pocket, the payback doesn't matter; what matters is next month you start saving money. So in some states it's now, the question is now, not: How much do I need to pay to get solar? It's how much can I save by getting solar? It's really turned [it on its head], so now it's one of the few consumer items where, not only can I get it because I want it, but I get it because I want it and I just saved money.

Steve: You just got back from Germany.

Wolfe: Correct.

Steve: You went to a solar show in Germany?

Wolfe: Intersolar, which is the largest solar expo in the world.

Steve: The situation in Germany compared to the United States, I mean, you said it was the largest...

Wolfe: ...right...

Steve: for solar, so what's the difference between there and here?

Wolfe: At the most fundamental level, culture and culture that extends all [the way to] the government. They recognize at a federal level, climate changes [is a] problem; they recognize that renewable energy to replace fossil fuel energy is critical; they also recognize it's very important for energy security. They get a lot of their energy from Russia, who they are trying to wean themselves off [of]. So for a whole lot of reasons that apply to [the] U.S. as well, they actually understand that renewables would have helped the overall economy. And [while some of their] big energy companies fight it, the big energy companies are also [figuring out now] how to make money out of this, and so they've transitioned the energy company culture as well. Not 100 percent by far, but the culture at a personal level, the corporate level and the government level all says, "Renewables are good, they're important, they're part of our solution", and so they incentivize them very highly. It's possible for a home owner, as a business owner or as a joint enterprise [to] make money out of it in a very, very simple incentive structure. They also have very uniform installation practices, and their regulations on their construction industry are easier, the permitting is easier. And most importantly they have a central bank that's actually lending money, which is kind of a novel idea today; and, of course, lending money is what we need to make commercial business work as well as residential. So I guess the answer is, they're doing a lot of things right; there is no one thing, they're doing a lot of things right and there's a lot of lessons we can learn from there. We'll do some things differently, which is all right; we're sort of a like a separate country.

Steve: Well, sort of right. Thirty years from now, is Exxon Mobil going to be in the solar energy business?

Wolfe: I think they'll either be in the solar energy business or they won't be in business. It won't be all of their business by far, we'll still be using oil, we'll still be using gas, we'll still be using coal; [but] we'll be using those at far diminished levels than [where] we are today and most of the energy companies are doing more and more work in renewables—solar, wind, tidal, biomass.

Steve: You do photovoltaic, you also do hot water heating. What do we get from hot water heating in addition to a hot shower that the sun paid for?

Wolfe: Well, isn't that a pretty good deal?

Steve: That's a good deal, true, but I mean, do we store that heat and then use it to heat homes, as well?

Wolfe: There's several [different] types of solar thermal; the easiest is just solar-domestic hot water, where it offsets partly domestic hot water heating and gives you that hot shower.

Steve: Right.

Wolfe: And that's the easiest and most widespread domestic heating. Actually [the] most widespread solar thermal of them all is solar pool heating; [it's] tremendously effective, very, very short payback periods, very simple to install; huge amount of it already installed; it's off-the-shelf technology for at least 20 years. In terms of heating homes, we can heat homes with solar hot water as well. It's a little harder to do, because we're working with [the] smallest [solar] resource in the wintertime in many areas to try and create the biggest loads. So, it's a little hard to do, but we do that and we can offset, and it's [all] about sharing part of the load off, by combining different researches and using some renewables to decrease your other uses.

Steve: I know you did a big project at Fenway Park. What exactly did you do at Fenway?

Wolfe: We put on a large solar hot water system that heats the water for their restaurants. There's quite a restaurant complex there that's open both during ballgames and other times as well. And you know just a couple of benefits from the solar hot water system, it provides about, I believe, it's [a] little less than half of the hot water for the restaurants; there [was] a game in August that was happening when their boilers malfunctioned and shut down and the solar hot water system actually made all the hot water that day for the restaurants and kept people very happy in the ballpark during the game. But I think, the biggest benefit is still for us, the day that we cut the ribbon on the system is the day that Jon Lester pitch[ed] a no hitter. So clearly, all the ballparks should be putting solar hot water on their stadium to get results like that.

Steve: Which for the nonbaseball fan out there, even Yankee fans were happy about that, [at least a little]; [for] one thing, [they weren't playing] the Yankees, and [for] another Lester had just recovered from cancer. So that was a nice thing. Also a good thing you have some power because you're not getting any out of [David Ortiz]. Now I wanted to get back to home installation. In Tom Friedman's book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, he talks about trying to install solar panels at his home—I think it's in Maryland—and just the unbelievable bureaucratic hoops he had to jump through. And it would seem like that this is a kind of thing that would be encouraged. I mean, you've touched on this somewhat with different regulations in different states and the incentives, but how much trouble would somebody likely run into? You know, [lets]—you pick a state.

Wolfe: It varies very widely from no trouble at all, very simple one-page permit, walk-in, get the permit and walk-out and do the job, to places where you actually can't install solar because their bureaucracy is too thick; it can take weeks, months or never happen. So, the construction industry is very much stuck in the, I'm not sure if it's the '50s or the early '60s, in terms of its regulations, its codes and its enforcement. And solar is a new thing and new things must be inherently dangerous and ugly according to our culture, and we hate change as a society. So people are very worried about, they've got this nice house and this house in development; they don't want to see solar panels, so [they] don't know what solar panels look like; and I've never figured out why people are so enamored with the look of asphalt shingles, but they don't want you to cover those up and put solar panels on them.

Steve: It's a very kind of schizoid culture, in that people can't wait to get the newest iPhone; why is there this reluctance on the part of the consumer for something that's, you know, theoretically going to power their home and save them money and power that iPhone and iPod that they love?

Wolfe: I think it's actually a very small percentage of people who disrupt the regulations. And in terms of building permit, any one of your neighbors and often anybody in the whole community can challenge your request for a permit. And [it] can also can help to create those regulations that become very restrictive as well. So if you had to ask your entire community, "Can I buy an iPhone?", there's probably somebody in your [community] that's going to say, "No, Steve, you can't buy an iPhone." Fortunately, we don't need to ask that; we can just go and buy almost anything we want. But [when] we affect the look [and the] aesthetic [of our] house, [they're] worried about their own resale value on their own house. So it hits them in, theoretically, in the pocket book, of course. But what we're finding is that houses with solar have a better resale value, which means the houses with solar are going to increase the resale value of the house that doesn't have solar next to it.

Steve: Your are not anti-regulations; you are anti the current regulations.

Wolfe: Absolutely, absolutely. We're in a governed society, which is where [I want to] everyone will live, and we need regulations, we just need regulations that appropriately address the needs of the many and appropriately address the climate crisis and let us proceed with good solutions quickly.

Steve: That recognize what the current state of technology is.

Wolfe: Absolutely. The current very, very safe state of technology, the extremely high quality of the solar products that are being installed today. We thank that they're all listed by large government national testing laboratories and such. This is very safe, very sound products built by multinational companies that you've heard of like, Sharp and GE.

Steve: What's on the horizon? I just saw just this morning, I happened to see a press release regarding flexible photovoltaics; and you know, my image in my head of a PV panel is still a rather big slab that maybe has motors that adjust its angle a little bit so that it can follow the sun and, you know, steal just a few more electrons, [a] few more photons that'll hit it and, you know, generate some more electrons because you're going to get the right angle on the incoming ray. And then these flexible photovoltaics would apparently you know, increase the surface that's getting the direct sun. So what about something like that? Or what other kinds of innovations are you seeing on the horizon?

Wolfe: The flexible photovoltaics, when they get installed, they still get installed flat typically. They can conform to maybe a little bit of a curved roof surface, but they're typically installed pretty flat; and by the time they're installed, they become unflexible once they're installed. Their flexibility is a feature of how they're constructed and how you can install them, but not how they're going to end up being.

Steve: Is the advantage there that you can more easily cover more surface area with them?

Wolfe: In some applications. We need to [remember]that there is typically no one solutions that fits all. No one size shoe fits all. So the flexible panels have a great application in flat roofs to direct the heat over rubber roofs, but the standard glass panels also can be applied on the same kind of roof using a different method. In terms of new technology, I call myself an evolutionary technologist or revolutionary businessman. I don't believe that there's going to be a silver bullet that comes out that changes our technology radically overnight. The products that are in our warehouse, the products that are [rolling off the manufacturing lines] today, do an awful lot and they're very, not flexible literally, but very flexible in application as to what they can do. So the products of today are great; they're being incrementally changed, and so they're getting better all the time. But as I said earlier, they're still producing the same old electrons and [they'll still] continue [to] produce similar electrons. So in 20 years, we'll see some different shapes and sizes and different efficiencies as such, but if you're to wait 20 years for solar on your roof, you would have missed the next 20 years of production.

Steve: And I'm not going to get a panel 20 years from now that churns out twice as many electrons as a panel with the same surface area today?

Wolfe: Probably not, and if you did, the panels you buy today would be all paid off and you could trade up, similar to a computer chip that you actually, when you trade up on the panel, you will probably get some of your money back on the 20-year-old panel, [whereas] your computer in 20 years is not going to get a lot of refund for it.

Steve: [You] talked about the fact that the banks in Germany are actually loaning money. If I wanted to do this project myself, you know, am I going get a home improvement loan to do this?

Wolfe: There's a couple of ways to finance it and there's more coming. Today you can get a home improvement loan to finance it and your home improvement loan, [the] monthly cost will probably be less than the utility bill you're offsetting. In two states, Massachusetts and California now, we can actually offer you a deal where it's a thousand dollars down and then your monthly payment is typically less than your utility bill, and that's [through a] leasing program; it's an 18-year leasing program and also the maintenance is taken care [of], all the worries [are]is taken care of and [if] the system doesn't work, you don't pay. So it's absolutely risk free. That kind of financing will be coming in more states soon. Then there's also...

Steve: How do you know that? You know that the political climate is loosening up so that that's going to happen?

Wolfe: That's not political[ly] driven. That's financial-market driven.

Steve: That's commercial.

Wolfe: Okay, it's a commercially [available] program we're working with a lender on. And I know they're working on the other states that we're working with them [on]. Then there's a program that Berkeley, California did called the Berkeley [First] Program [where you're actually get to finance solar electric system and home improvement on the tax bill and pay [it] off with [on] your tax [bill] for 20 years at a lower interest rate; and that type of financing is being spread throughout the country. Maryland just passed a law allowing that. Vermont just passed a law allowing that. So that'll be spreading like wildfire throughout the states and allow you yet another way to [own] solar very, very affordably. Solar is now affordable for Middle America.

Steve: So stuff is happening all over the place, but would it be better for you—and I really don't know the answer, this might sound like a na√Øve question—but would it be better for you if the president of the United States gets on TV and says, "This is what we're going to do, and we're going to make this a national standard where anybody can just do this at any time they want"? I mean, is that even possible to do?

Wolfe: It's possible to do it, and we're working on it. And this president actually knows how to spell "solar" and has been saying "solar" very frequently, very frequently. So he's been a great advocate for [it] to date. So we're working on some national standards, and we'll get some of those. It's a [big uphill climb]. And while he's president of the United States, he's not the president of every state, and much of our work is with the state regulation, not federal regulation.

Steve: I think, he's the president in every state, but not the president of every state.

Wolfe: That's correct, absolutely. He's the president of the United States, but not all the governors follow him, shall we say. So he's doing a great job, and there's a lot more that he will do. He just announced some more money for solar and incentives for research and development, and there is a lot of more in the works for solar from this president.

Steve: And the stimulus package that was finally passed?

Wolfe: We're beginning to see some of the stimulus money roll out; we have a big [bureaucracy for our] government, and it takes [them] a long time to give out money. If you and I [were] in our charge, we [could] give out money much faster, I think. But that money is finally being devolved into the states and there's many, many different programs. The one we're seeing the fastest is money rolling in the state energy programs, and many states are rolling that into solar energy programs to either refund the incentive pools that have dried up or to increase and expand their incentive programs. And that's immediately available to us and really helps to help us sell jobs, which puts people onto rooftops and into cars selling solar and really helps to drive the economy, so it's very fast the stimulus money.

Steve: When you see the delegates at a convention chanting "Drill, baby, drill", what was your reaction?

Wolfe: My reaction, was I created a bumper sticker which I handed out called "Sun, Baby, Sun". I think "Drill, Baby, Drill" is the most inane, idiotic expression of a national energy policy I've ever heard, and I was quite frankly ashamed to be associated with it.

Steve: As an American!

Wolfe: As an American, right, right! And so I thought "Sun, baby, sun" had a lot more [hope] for the future of America than "Drill, baby, drill" does. As Tom Friedman pointed out, the energy that comes from below seems to have a lot of the characteristics we associate with coming from below. Whereas the energy that comes from above seems to have more heavenly characteristics.

Steve: GroSolar's Web site is, you guessed it,

Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: The president of Turkmenistan opened a new cancer hospital in that country by becoming it's first patient for the removal of a melanoma.

Story number 2: Neil Armstrong probably really did say "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," which makes a lot more sense.

Story number 3: A new app turns a cell phone into a fluorescent microscope.

And story number 4: A runway at JFK airport in New York was closed recently for wildlife—not bird flocks that could damage engines—turtles all over the tarmac.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. At least 78 diamondback terrapins were scampering, well crawling, around the runway at JFK, that was in early July, having emerged from Jamaica Bay next to the airport. Airport workers gathered them up and took them back to the bay in time to make their connection.

Story number 2 is true. Armstrong always thought he said "One small step for a man," and computer analysis of the tapes indicates that a 35 millisecond waveform is probably the missing 'a', but in the noisy transmission it gets lost.

Story number 3 is true. It's a bit more complex than the usual downloaded app, but this particular app does make a cell phone a decent fluorescent microscope that can reveal the presence of malaria parasites, TB bacteria, and the sort. Lenses on a bracket fit onto the cell phone, according to the article in the journal Public Library of Science ONE,that describes the phone app. One impetus for the invention was that developing countries with poor healthcare facilities tend to have good mobile phone technology.

All of which means that story number 1, about the Turkmenistan president becoming the first patient at a new cancer hospital is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that the president opened the cancer hospital by performing the first surgery, [the] removal of a tumor from behind a patient's ear. The president is the country's former health minister and a dentist, and the ear is close to the mouth, so it's all okay.

Steve: Well, that's it for this episode of Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news and video of the lengthy solar eclipse that wowed Asia on the 22nd. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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