Blogs, Solar

Renewing a Call for Solar Standards

When I first started writing here almost six months ago one of my first, more controversial posts emphasized the need for open standards on solar installations.

The call resulted from my career covering the computer industry. There, open standards and open source have long created platforms for innovation that grew markets faster than proprietary innovation could.

  • In the 1980s the IBM PC out-sold the Apple Macintosh for years, without even a graphical interface, because it was an open standard.

  • In the 1990s the Internet created a massive economic boom based on an open, royalty-free standard.

  • In the 2000s open source let companies like Google and Facebook appear out of nowhere.

  • Right now, the Google Android is overtaking the Apple iPhone in market share. Not because it’s a better design, but because it’s based on standards and on open source.

The lesson is clear. Open beats closed, every time. The tortoise beats the hare because he’s got friends.

When I look at the solar PV and thin-film solar markets, I get a feeling of deja vu all over again. These companies are acting as failed PC companies did in the 1970s, as failed networking companies did in the 1980s, and as failed online services did in the 1990s. They’re rejecting open standards and open processes for proprietary advantage, and slowing the growth of their own market.

Why should I buy the hype over, say, a PowerMax solar module, if I know I might tear out the whole installation in five years when something new-and-better comes along? Same goes for Maxeon cell technology – better stuff is just around the corner. Why buy now?

If junction boxes, if grid connections, if panel sizes were standardized, I could future-proof my purchase. I would be more likely to buy now if I knew upgrading later was possible.

The industry doesn’t seem to care about this issue. We think of putting solar cells on our roof the way our parents and grandparents thought about buying a mini-computer for the basement in the 1970s – and yes I know of engineers who did just that then. These pioneers seemed silly, just as the hobbyists at the Homebrew Computer Club seemed pretty silly in 1975.

But by 1979 my nearest neighbor, a court reporter, had invested $20,000 into a home computer system, knowing that it was based on a standard called the S-100 bus. These terminals could be bought for just a few thousand dollars each, and she used them with people she hired to work in their homes. The revolution was underway.

We celebrate proprietary advantage, but computer competition and mass markets are all built on cooperation, on voluntary agreements to share design concepts or code and go to market as a united front, rather than an unruly mob.

When will the solar industry learn this valuable historical lesson and create standards that can make panels a true mass market?