Q/A with Philip Lawes, Founder and President of Insoltech Solar

Philip Lawes, founder and president of Laguna Beach, CA-based Insoltech Solar, has been in the solar power business for 34 years. He is a designer and consultant for renewable power systems such as solar photovoltaic systems. Although based in Southern California, Lawes has installed renewable energy systems in various parts of the world including the Caribbean, Mexico and the South Pacific, as well as in the California desert areas.

Smallcapworld: How did you get into the solar business way back in the 1970s and what was your first solar job?

Solar farm photo courtesy KCOY.comChannel 12

Lawes: It was a solar hot water system. That’s all there was back then in the late 1970s that was financially viable. Solar power has been around for a long time. The photovoltaic cell was developed by Bell Labs and the first applications were for space and to power communications satellites. But it really kicked off during the second energy crisis in 1978. Saudi Arabia basically cut off all our oil and gas prices skyrocketed. Remember the long lines and high gas prices? There was an “energy crisis” and everyone started looking for alternative energy sources. President Carter helped boost the solar business by creating large financial incentives through generous tax breaks.

Q: Which companies were making the solar panels back then?

A: A lot of companies got into it, but they were mostly small companies, many based in Europe, making solar thermal collectors. It was mostly about heating water to reduce natural gas bills and in some cases electric bills, if you had electric heating.

Q: When did you get into photovoltaics?

That would be in the 1980s. I did a lot of work in Baja California, in and around Cabo San Lucas. I worked for expats in the area, for their small palapas and for pumping water on their ranches, for their cattle or other needs. The idea was to generate electricity in remote areas where utility power was not available and the cost to run diesel-powered generators was prohibitive.

Q: Tell us about some of your other projects.

A: I built a solar electric system for a small resort called Papageno in Fiji. Just a few years ago I also designed and built a solar electric system for Johnny Depp for his private island in the Bahamas. I was also a subcontractor for a 1.3 million watt system for the Twenty-Nine Palms Marine Corps base in the California desert. And I built a small solar energy water pumping system for the Irvine Company here in Southern California to provide water for an endangered species. We are working on a custom home in Shady Canyon now, an exclusive area of the Irvine Ranch.

Q: There are many different types of solar arrays now available. Which are best for the average homeowner?

A: The typicial, flat-plate, mono- or poly-crystalline solar modules are still the workhorses of the industry. They are scalable, maintenance free and offer excellent warantees and still the best route for average homeowners. Thin film modules are not as efficient so they require more area. And companies are still having problems getting the manufacturing process down. People got into thin film because they thought they could manufacture them cheaply but that hasn’t really happened yet. And no one anticipated that the standard modules would come down in price so much.

Q: Are there American companies that are able to compete with the Chinese in the manufacture of solar modules?

A: Oh sure. FirstSolar is a thin film manufactuer, the only really successful thin film manufacturer. SunPower is an American company and has a very efficient module built with great technology but they manufacture offshore, primarily in the Phillipines. Helios is based in Wisconsin and has been successful making solar modules. But there has been, and will continue to be, lots of attrition. Some companies are even selling their modules at a loss.

Q: Why do some companies like Helios succeed, while others like Evergreen Solar and Solyndra fail?

A: Solyndra stepped out of the box and tried a very different approach and ultimately had too many problems. Their idea was to build little glass cylinders with thin film cells inside. They were light weight and didn’t require ballasting, but I believe they had a lot of breakage and lots of other problems in production. Ultimately, they didn’t anticipate the dramatic decrease in price of today’s standard workhorse mono- and poly-crystalline modules. Evergreen had a different approach, called ribbon technology. My take is that they couldn’t approve on the efficiency of the modules enough, couldn’t get enough volume going and couldn’t compete with the big guys from China and Germany. Helios is successful so far, but who knows, we could read tomorrow that they are in trouble. But they do provide the old standard modules people want and a lot of people just want to buy American only, which helps them. I think SunPower makes the highest efficiency module of all.

Q: You say you helped do an installation at a Marine base. Why is the military getting into solar?

A: There have been mandates from the Department of Defense, one of the largest if not the largest user of electricity in the country, and they are looking for ways to do things cheaper.  In many cases these military installations are out in the middle of nowhere and it’s a cheaper alternative than using diesel generators. They also want to be autonomous, and have security. That’s why they are also looking at biofuels. They want to use stuff we grow ourselves instead of relying on outside sources. 

Q: How is solar power progressing in other countries, like the emerging parts of the world?

A: The emerging nations are finally beginning to grasp the value of renewable energy. Cuba has lots of solar, so do the Virgin Islands, and Hawaii as well because they have to import their fuel. Many parts of the world don’t have coal, natural gas or hyro power. It’s all about diesel-fired generators. It’s all about what they call grid parity. That’s the holy grail. If you can product power at a lesser cost than what they charge. Grid parity is now in places like the Bahamas, but it all depends on the particular area.

Q: How long does it take the average residential installation to pay for itself in terms of decreased or eliminating energy bills?

That really depends on your location. There are so many variables like which utility is in the area and what the rates are and what rebate programs they offer. In Southern California, with large homes and large usage like the tier 4 and tier 5 users, it’s about 5-7 years. But in places like Hawaii that doesn’t have coal-powered plants or hydro and electricity is very expensive, but there’s plenty of sun, the payback can be quicker.

Q: What are the chief maintenance problems with a home system? Do you need to have special insurance to cover the installation on the roof?

My main expertise here is California, which doesn’t have extra insurance, in fact they make it mandatory to not charge extra insurance. But as California goes, so goes the rest of the country, typically. The chief maintenance problem is keeping the modules clean. Again, that depends on where you live. Actually, it’s easier on the East Coast where they get more rain. In California, where it can go months without rain, it can be difficult to keep them clean, particularly if you live near a construction area that is generating lots of dust. It’s good to wash them every few months. Have a window washer do it if you can.

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