The Interview: Roger Little, The Ironman of Solar

For some corporate CEOs, playing a round of golf and lingering over the 19th hole is their idea of fun. Roger G. Little finds fun testing the limits of his endurance as a world-ranked traithlete who competes in Ironman events that combine distance swimming, cycling and running.

Little says the competition helps keep him in good shape and keep him from falling asleep during meetings, two seemingly understated benefits of his decades-long hobby. “I have two switches, on and off,” Little says. “When I go to bed I’m a dead man.”

As CEO of Spire Solar, a solar equipment manufacturing company that, at 30 years old is among the oldest such companies on the planet, Little realizes that similar qualities of endurance and an ability to focus on the finish help his business survive in what is still a fledgling industry.

In triathlons as in business it’s important to have skill, focus and an end goal in mind, Little says. “We’re always looking for a finish line in solar.”

Whether or not Little, his company or the larger solar power industry will ever see a finish line in the business sense of the word remains to be seen. But Spire Solar, which is based near Boston, maintains a strong pace as a developer, manufacturer and marketer of equipment and full turnkey lines for cell and module production and testing. The company has equipment deployed in 50 countries and counts among its customers some of the world’s leading solar module manufacturers including First Solar, Canadian Solar, Trina Solar Energy, Evergreen and Solaria Energia. Spire is active in R&D with over $100 million invested and 35 patents to its credit.

It’s currently working on a potentially game-changing technology project for solar cell efficiency. One of its business units has an 18-month, $3.7 million contract with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop technology that will cost effectively manufacture 42 percent efficient solar cells for systems that concentrate the sun’s intensity by a factor of 500 times. During an initial project phase, the company recorded PV cell performances greater than 39 percent efficiency, a one percentage point improvement over current industry standards.

That may not seem like much, but achieving 42 percent efficiency would be huge since solar cell costs are “driven like crazy” by efficiency, Little says. The cost reduction possible? Little says as much as 50 percent. The cells that are the focus of the efficiency push are triple junction gallium arsenide concentrator solar sells. Little says the trick in hitting the efficiency goal is to get electric current flowing equally through all three layers.

Achieving 42 percent efficiency would expand demand for solar cells and Spire has already applied for federal tax credits to build equipment capable of manufacturing 50 MW a year under concentration.

If the past is any predictor of the future, the company may have a good chance of achieving its goal. In 1985 the company set a record 25 percent efficiency at one sun for gallium arsenide cells made for spacecraft.

Building energy systems for use in space is where Little and Spire Solar trace their roots. After graduating from MIT having studied radiation physics and materials science, Little spent a couple of years working for others before launching Spire to develop solar cells for the military. When the 1973 oil embargo hit, Little saw an opportunity to sell to a terrestrial, consumer-focused market worried about oil’s future.

With financial backing from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, Spire adapted its solar cells for earth use and set efficiency records in the process. A 1982 Inc Magazine article called Spire Solar the “McDonald’s of PV.” “We wanted to get everyone involved in solar,” Little says. Efforts by Spire and others to do just that proved so successful that some of the energy industry’s biggest players–among them multinational oil giants–moved into the industry.

“We didn’t have the resources to compete with them so we decided to offer manufacturing equipment,” Little says. Spire shifted its focus from module manufacturing to a turnkey manufacturing-line supplier where it remains today.

Spire’s primary customers include new entrants to the solar PV markets, largely local manufacturers encouraged to build PV modules by government incentive programs. The company’s technology helps customers enter the market quickly or expand their existing capacity, typically within a year of their initial investment decision. Spire also sells equipment to existing silicon module manufactuers and module equipment to thin film manufacturers, specifically lamination and testing equipment.

In 2008, Spire Solar revenues were nearly $68.7 million, up from $37.1 million the year before. The company’s U.S. sales grew from just under $20 million in 2007 to more than $30 million in 2008. Sales in Asia grew faster still, from $7.6 million in 2007 to almost $23 million in 2008. Revenues from Asian sales made up one third of the company’s total during 2008, up from one-fifth the year before. The U.S. portion of corporate sales slipped from 53 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2008.

“It’s a struggle to compete internationally” especially in countries such as Japan and Germany that already have installed manufacturing infrastructures, Little says. And he believes the U.S. market for solar PV will be the fastest-growing globally through 2010 and beyond. One promising domestic market is the federal government, which is under a mandate to install 1 GW of solar PV modules on its buildings over the next two to three years. Office buildings, Veterans Hospitals and military facilities all are included under the mandate.

In late 2008 the company won a $54 million contract from Federal Prison Industries (also known as UNICOR) to supply solar cells produced at a factory inside a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y. The Spire-supplied module manufacturing line at FCI Otisville is operated by inmates who will be trained to find jobs in the solar manufacturing industry once they are released from prison. FCI Otisville-manufactured modules are being sold for use in government installations.

The prison system program is a good business venture, Little says, because the federal government pays Spire to be involved. What’s more, the federal prison is a good place to train people to join a rapidly growing workforce. Inmates in the FCI Otisville program are not “hard-core” criminals and many will find jobs with solar cell module manufacturers, he says.

“It’s a super program,” Little says. “All of us solar guys are a bit altruistic.”

That altruism has helped Little, who has built his career on the solar power industry. “I’ve been a strong believer in solar since Day 1,” he says. “I remember making statements 20 years ago that it’s coming on like a freight train.” Falling costs and growing demand suggest that solar’s day in the sun may not be far off.

“Granted, the market still needs support with feed-in tariffs and subsidies,” Little says. But in three to five years solar could compete with other forms of electric power generation. “There’s no stopping it; the industry continues to grow,” he says.

The same could be said for the 69-year-old world-ranked triathlete. Little began competing in triathlons 30 years ago. To date he has completed 13 Ironman competitions, which consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a full Marathon (26.2 miles). Last October in Perth, Australia, Little finished 2nd and won the silver metal representing the U.S. at the World’s Long Distance Triathlon Championships.

One triathlon that Little considers especially fun starts with a plunge into San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island for a 1.5-mile swim to shore, followed by an 18-mile bike race and an eight-mile run past the Golden Gate Bridge to a Pacific Ocean beach.

“It gives me an opportunity to travel and do business,” Little says of his sport. Later this year he plans to attend an industry conference in Valencia, Spain. After all, the world championships at the Olympic triathlon distance are being held in Budapest, Hungary just a week later.

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