One of the biggest mistakes we make in looking at solar energy, and its possible improvement, is to focus only on panel prices and efficiency.
Breakthroughs in both those areas are constant but there are other dimensions to improvement, dimensions that can raise solar's share of the market both by increasing efficiency and reducing the size of that market.
That's what Transphorm, which emerged from stealth earlier this week, is all about. Their game is power conversion, the switch between AC and DC power. (When you reverse the process, going from DC to AC, that's done by an inverter.)
Converters and inverters use semiconductor oscillator circuits, which filter the current to the degree desired by the device they're connected with. These are currently silicon circuits.
Transphorm is offering systems based on Gallium Nitride (GaN), the same material used in LEDs, which it says can improve the efficiency of this process from the current 90% to up to 99%.
You can feel the waste yourself. Turn on your laptop, plugged into the wall, and work for a while. Now pick up the box that sits between the laptop and the wall. It's warm, isn't it? That's waste, electricity turned into heat for no good purpose.
Cut the waste across the system and you're saving terawatts, dramatically cutting the grid's requirements for power and, coincidentally, meaning renewables can make a difference more quickly. Giving solar and wind systems better conversion systems also increases how much effective power they're delivering to both the main grid and the household grid.
Google is one of the investors here, and Transphorm's first target market is server farms. Renewable power systems are another target market, as are electric cars. In time I'm sure they'll get to your laptop.
The solution is simple and elegant. Turning it into solutions is not so easy. Transphorm will make its own gallium nitride, as well as its own finished products. That's why $38 million in venture capital was needed to get out of stealth mode. But the market is big and getting bigger. IMS Research sees inverters as an $8.5 billion market in 2014.
What this will do for renewable energy is incalculable.
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