For Success in Solar, Think Like a Leaf

John A. Anderson, CEO
01 Aug 2016

Let’s face it: solar energy has a bad rap. The list of shuttered solar operations continues to grow, with Sun Edison's recent Chapter 11 filing topping the list. The remaining contenders struggle with solvency, challenged as they are with complicated supply chains, evolving delivery models, and a modest adoption curve. Those that remain in business are often kept afloat by deep-pocketed investors willing to make patient investments in the renewable energy market.

Still in its “early childhood,” the solar industry is ripe with potential yet also riddled with complexity. But much of this complexity is of our own making. The fact is, many solar endeavors fall apart for one simple reason: they attempt to contain the uncontainable, to limit the sun’s power to the confines of a grid. But solar energy is not a fossil surrogate. It cannot be stockpiled; it can only be sipped. It is not meant for extraction, or storage, or processing, or profiteering, namely because it is fundamentally abundant, infinite, clean and free. Harnessing the power of the sun requires that we think outside of our own mental boxes.

To stretch our conception of sunlight, we need to think bigger. We need to leverage billions of years of evolution and look at how the sun’s power actually works. Here are three simple insights about the extraordinary phenomenon of photosynthesis. First, sunlight is harvested instantaneously. A leaf converts sunlight into sugars at roughly, well, the speed of light. This is because there is no intermediate step in processing -- no internal circuitry required to turn photons into fuel. Second, the net effect of photosynthesis is not carbon emission, but carbon absorption. Photosynthesis is not only clean burning, it is air-purifying. And third, the sun’s energy is decentralized, available to every blade of grass, every leaf, every speck of plankton or strand of algae. Photosynthesis operates on an abundance model and is inherently democratic.

Here’s a hard fact. We humans are the only species that has not evolved to harness energy in this way. Every other life form runs on real-time sunlight (or eats something that does.) This is a bottom-up, regenerative energy construct. Conversely, the grid system is a top-down, command-and-control construct. It presumes energy scarcity. It perpetuates inequity by piping power only to the “haves.” It can even border on the absurd: the concept of a “solar farm” that covers over a healthy, carbon-absorbing, photosynthetic grassland should do nothing if not summon our collective humility.

At SunStream, we have done our best to mimic nature’s intelligence, from how our products are engineered to our value proposition. Our handheld mobile solar panels contain a pure pass-through technology that bypasses the need for chipsets or circuitry boards. The vast majority of products on the market contain processing hardware that is inherently fragile and flimsy. By eliminating these components, we have inched closer to the intelligence – and reliability -- of a leaf. Our products are offered at an affordable, one-time retail cost that allows the user to take energy into their own hands, to cut the cord with the electrical grid. And with continued use, our panels offset the carbon that went into making them, as our users increasingly forego utility dependency in favor of free, streaming sunlight.

Like all disruptive, audacious endeavors, we have our work cut out for us. We have big goals, billions of people to reach, new products to develop and alliances to form. But our mission is clear: to bring mobile energy to everyone under the sun. Of course we have much to learn. But of one thing we are certain: we won’t envision our future by looking through an oil-blemished lens.

(image source: Wikimedia Commons)