Has Westinghouse Learned from Tech History?

Westinghouse has claimed a patent on its latest solar panel mount. Patent number 7,832,157 for those scoring at home claims to be “optimized for fast and reliable installation,” allowing panels and modules to be mounted “closer together.”

(The Westinghouse logo was created by Paul Rand. He also created the logos of IBM and ABC. And Enron.)

Westinghouse Solar CEO Barry Cinammon says the company will work with “distribution and licensing partners” to profit from its invention, “integrating the racking, wiring and grounding into the frame of the solar panel itself.”

Fair enough. But let’s say I’m in the market for a solar installation today. Should I buy Westinghouse’s system?

Pradeep Chakraborty notes some of the advantages in the new design:

  • Side electrical connections that eliminate the need to wire solar panels manually.
  • A splice device that connects solar panels together in a secure and rigid fashion.
  • Grooves along the side of the solar panel to allow connection to rafters at any point along each solar panel.
  • A grounding path provided through the splice devices that eliminates the need to ground solar panels manually.

If I were going to install a set of panels to last 20 years, I would be sorely tempted.

But should we think of solar panels as 20 year gear? Personally I’m not interested in going back to my 1990 PC, with its 2,400 baud modem, 80 megabyte hard drive and TV screen. Are you?

Solar technology is changing rapidly. The gear you can buy today is better, and cheaper, than what you could buy a few years ago. And we can be certain, looking at what’s coming out of many labs, that tomorrow’s gear will be even better.

We are just at the start of a rapid evolution. And what we learned in the evolution of PCs is that standards matter more than patents. Each time IBM, which still controls the old mainframe market, tried to box-in PC designs, either through hardware or software, the market chose an open standard instead. And proprietary networks went nowhere in the market — it was the military-enforced TCP/IP standard that built the Internet.

Standards come about in different ways. MS-DOS was imposed, mainly by IBM. Internet standards were created by a group of companies working under government contract. Today’s WiFi standards were negotiated through the IEEE.

Standards give buyers assurance that they won’t lose their whole investment when they buy new gear today they know will be obsolete tomorrow. And I have no doubt that today’s solar panels will look pretty old in five years, let alone 10.

Besides, the format of the rigid solar panel is going to come under threat. Thin films are going to be offered for every south-facing wall. We’re going to see solar concentrators that look more like parabolic dishes than flat panels. Even solar paint.

Why should I buy anyone’s solar panel installation, let alone that of Westinghouse? So I can get the panels closer together?

If Westinghouse wants to build a large market today, it should offer its patent under Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions. At minimum. What the accelerating technology history of the last 10 years tells me is they might actually be better off creating an open source patent pool, like that of the Open Invention Network, so others could benefit from its innovations while it could benefit from others’ as well.

Has Westinghouse learned the lessons of technology history?

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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