Taking PV into the Mainstream: The Appliance Approach

RE Insider 6-2-03 – Photovoltaic (PV) sales have grown spectacularly over the last five years with annual growth rates exceeding 30 percent. The maintenance of these high growth rates over the next decade can only be achieved by PV truly entering the mainstream.

Photovoltaic (PV) sales have grown spectacularly over the last five years with annual growth rates exceeding 30 percent. The maintenance of these high growth rates over the next decade can only be achieved by PV truly entering the mainstream. This will happen when the PV industry takes an appliance approach to its products and markets them through appliance channels such as department stores and appliance shops. Two examples should serve to make this point. Back in the 1960s, if you wanted a good hi-fi stereo system, a university degree in electrical engineering was mighty useful. A knowledge of the difference between RMS and Music Power and between RCA and DIN connectors was essential. The various system components such as amplifier, tuner, turntable, magnetic cartridge and speakers were sourced from specialist dealers and integrated by the customer. Much of the same could be said of the personal computer industry in the 1980s. Today, hi-fi and computer systems are sold in department stores and the like and as a consequence, are found in almost all homes. They are truly mainstream, appliance products built around the concept of ‘plug and play.’ Grid-tied PV systems today are very much like those hi-fi and computer systems of yesteryear. To make the transition to the mainstream, grid-tied PV systems need to be: designed and sold as fully-integrated products; simple enough to be sold by appliance sales people; capable of rapid installation by readily available tradespeople; branded. Component integration is essential in the design of well engineered products. It results in lower overall costs and higher quality. This cannot be achieved by putting together ‘kit systems’ from ‘off-the-shelf’ components from manufacturers who have not addressed the interface issues. Fully integrated products enable sales through appliance channels with a simple, non-technical sales pitch to both attract the customer and most importantly, close the sale. The pitch must be capable of delivery by retail sales people with no more than two hours of product-specific training. Any regulatory approvals or buy down applications need to be completed at the sales stage in a “one-stop-shop” process. Ultimately most of these processes will not be needed as product prices fall to a level where subsidies are no longer required. Installation must be part of the offering and require only widely available skills. The product must suit virtually all rooftops and require no on-site fabrication or modification, just final assembly. If a hacksaw or crane is needed, the design has failed the appliance test. One of the key advantages of the appliance approach is that it reduces the costs of installation by engineering out on-site design and building in quality. Finally, the product must be branded to reduce sales costs and reinforce the appliance concept. This is best achieved on a user display in the living space of the home. It is no accident that virtually every appliance sold today prominently displays a brand. Today, the brand of PV companies is displayed on the back of the PV panels deployed on rooftops or on other elevated and inaccessible locations. This is clearly not the brand site of choice. The lessons learned in Australia will be adapted to the US market but the fundamental of being able to sell it as an appliance won’t change. I believe this is the approach needed if PV is to enter the mainstream and become as ubiquitous as home music systems and personal computers. About the Author: David Hogg is the founding Managing Director of Pacific Solar, a position he has held since 1995. After graduating from the University of New South Wales in 1983 with an Honors degree in engineering, Hogg gained a sound working knowledge of Australian and international intellectual property law working with Sydney patent attorney firm Shelston Waters. In 1985 he joined Unisearch Limited where he was responsible for the commercialisation of innovations developed at the University of New South Wales. While at Unisearch, he worked closely with Professor Green in the commercialisation of solar photovoltaic technology. That work culminated in the establishment of Pacific Solar. Hogg has built Pacific Solar from an R&D focussed company to a company focussed on commercial operations supported by a strong R&D commitment. His company is set to halve the cost of converting sunlight to electricity so that renewable energy will start to compete with non-renewable sources.
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