by Ellen Scholl of the Atlantic Council
Solar power has been gaining ground in the global energy mix, and its importance will likely only continue to grow. However, the contribution that solar ultimately makes in the power sector, and whether it will make inroads in other energy-intensive sectors, will be shaped by a range of factors, including technology development and innovation and the enabling policy framework.
In a recent visit to their office in a Dallas, Texas technology park, the Global Energy Center’s Ellen Scholl discussed the future of solar with Arun Gupta, CEO, and founder of Skyven Technologies, a solar technology startup focused on using new technology to improve the efficiency of solar panels.
The following is an excerpt from their interview.
Q: What is Skyven and what issue does you technology address?
Gupta: We are Skyven Technologies, and we are pioneering a revolutionary technology that captures the heat of the sun and raises the temperature of that heat for use in industrial manufacturing operations. If you look around you, all the stuff that you use and consume on a daily basis is processed in a factory and all it requires a tremendous amount of heat. That heat is supplied by a boiler in a factory, and that boiler is burning the fuel—a lot of fuel—which can be natural gas, propane, diesel, coal, or even biomass, but something has to be burned. While people don’t think about it, this actually accounts for 20 to 30 percent of all fuel burned globally, almost as much as all the gasoline burned by all the cars in the world. Essentially, we are talking about something like a trillion dollars’ worth of fuel a year is spent in factories to power boilers.
Q: How does your technology work?
Gupta: It is a panel that takes the form of an array of mirrors embedded inside the panel, and the panel focuses sunlight to a separate unit called a receiver. That receiver further concentrates the light and shines it on to an absorber. The absorber is a pipe that is heated all of that light, which is concentrated by a factor of thirty. If you think the sun is hot, imagine how hot thirty suns would be. We then pump a heat transfer fluid (which could be as simple as water) through that pipe to transfer that heat into the facility, into the boiler.
Q: When did you found the company and what motivated you to do so?
Gupta: I founded the company in 2013. I think climate change is the biggest problem we have ever faced as a species and I fear it has the potential to cause massive destruction in the form of extreme weather, which can punish again and again and again. So, we need to do something about it. So if I can do something to help make a difference with that problem, I want to do it. The other impetus is technology. I am a technologist, a Ph.D. engineer, and I was working on this technology from Texas Instruments (TI), essentially a massive array of mirrors, and I realized we have all this heat, and yet we burn these fossilized dinosaurs even though it causes problems. The reason we still do that is because the technology isn’t yet there in the ways it needs to be when it comes to cost, reliability, and dependability. In that problem, I saw a fit where I could use my technology expertise to meet and solve a big energy problem. It is the combination of the social mission plus the technology fit that made me leave a well-paying job, take a leap, and start eating ramen noodles at a startup.
Q: As a technologist, how do you respond to the argument that is sometimes made that policy solutions are not necessary because technology will solve the problem?
Gupta: I would rather say that it is a bit of all of the above. I am not a policy person. As a technologist, I see a problem and I look to solve it. As a business guy, I see a financial opportunity and aim to capitalize on it. I am very much a triple bottom line type of guy and think that in order to create change, it needs to be financially sustainable. It needs to make money. Making money in our current social structure is the fastest way to drive change, and we need to choose the ways that derive environmental and social benefits. From a policy standpoint, policy can enable people like me, or stop us in our tracks. I would not be able to be here today or do what we are doing without policy help—I can say that with certainty. We have had help from the national government, from the National Science Foundation, and from state governments, like the state of New York, and that has been crucial for us to have impact.
Q: When it comes to climate change, debate or attention is often focused on the power sector and the transportation sector. Is industrial use missing from the conversation?
Gupta: It is missing from the conversation and it is a big hole. It is really unfortunate, as there has been amazing progress in cleaning up the transportation sector, there has been amazing progress in cleaning up the electrical generation sector, solar and wind are making great headway, and combined-cycle natural gas is much cleaner than coal. But then you have these industrial boilers and there is no renewable solution in existence today that meets these needs. We are changing that. We have this huge ball of fire in the sky and we all know the sun is hot, but it’s not hot enough on your skin to melt plastic or bake bread—to do industrial things—so we have developed a technology that raises the temperature of the sun’s heat by concentrating the sun’s energy.
Q: Why Dallas?
Gupta: The company is related to my previous work at Texas Instruments, which is why we started here, but Dallas has an amazing resource of talent and what I call convenience. By that I mean that we are able to put together a tremendous amount of resources—and you need a lot of resources for hard technology start-up like ours—and are able to put together those resources at a cost that is five times lower than we would be able to do in a hub like Boston or San Francisco. I know it is five times because I have looked and I have priced out what it would take for us to do this there versus here. Then there is the outlook issue. What we find is that people here do care about sustainability and the world, and people are excited about doing something new and revolutionary anywhere, that is not something that is owned by Boston and San Francisco. People are looking for opportunities to do something important. The only place where it is challenging is that our customer base is not here. Our customer focus is on areas where people and businesses and local governments are more deeply supporting sustainability, and as an early-stage startup, that is California, New York, and Massachusetts.
Q: When it comes to those customers, in addition to the opportunity to do something sustainable, what kind of economic rationale or benefit does your technology provide?
Gupta: For companies based in the United States and developed nations, for multinational companies, they are concerned about several things which this technology can help with. First, companies find, and we find, that consumer preferences are changing. Sustainability is becoming a big buying decision for millennial consumers, and millennials are becoming a big part of companies’ consumer base. For example, Unilever owns hundreds of brands, and they found that brands that are incorporating sustainability into their mission and purpose are growing thirty percent faster than the rest of the business. They did a big market study and found a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity for sustainable businesses and sustainable brands, so they see a huge business opportunity, and they are not alone. The world’s biggest companies from Apple to Starbucks to AB InBev, all are seeing this. But now they have to do something. Ultimately, these companies need to be able to stay relevant without raising the cost of doing business, so they are looking for opportunities for sustainability that are cost parity or even savings over what they are doing today. They also can’t handle operational risk, which means the risk of bringing down the factory—even an hour of downtime is millions of dollars in lost productions, even a quality issue is a nightmare—so they are looking at sustainability solutions that don’t risk that nightmare scenario. We are able to offer all three. We are able to reduce carbon emissions, provide clean energy for their boilers in a way that doesn’t increase their operating risk, and do it in a way that doesn’t increase the cost. In fact, it is going to result in savings.
Q: How do you interpret the political debates over climate change happening at the state, federal, and international level?
Gupta: Ultimately, progress is not really driven by the top level. Change is driven by consumers, by shifting preferences of the people who are feeling the impact of climate change, who see the effects of environmental degradation, who care about their health, who care about their water quality. These people are making decisions based on these considerations, and that trickles up.
Q: There is an ongoing debate, particularly when it comes to solar, about the need for and value of innovation versus deployment of existing technology. Where do you come out in that debate?
Gupta: It has to be both. Innovation without deployment is useless and pure deployment without innovation gets us stuck. And we can’t afford to be stuck, so you need both. In order to spur that deployment, you need innovation that spurs benefits and pushes people to use them. Arun Gupta is CEO and founder of Skyven Technologies. You can follow him on Twitter @ArunToTheSun and @SkyvenTech