Speaking on a panel for “Solar Energy Opportunities in the U.S.”

This post is a bit late because the event has already happened (almost a month ago now), but it was my first time on a panel like this and I have been thinking through what happened quite a bit since then. For background, the event was hosted by the Clinton School of Public Service and the panel was moderated by the Arkansas Energy Office’s own J.D. Lowery. The official announcement was:

“Solar Energy Opportunities in the U.S. ” Panel
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. (Sturgis Hall)
-This is a panel discussion about the current economic implications and future of solar energy in the U.S. and the South featuring John Smirnow, Vice President of Trade and Competiveness for Solar Energy Industries Association; Joe Thomas, CEO and President of MAGE Solar USA; Douglas Hutching CEO of Silicon Solar Solutions based in Rogers, Ark.

The first thing that jumped out at me was that I would be sitting at the table with some very intelligent people who were doing great things. John Smirnow is the VP of Trade and Competitiveness for the 1,100 member SEIA and Joe Thomas is the CEO/President of MAGE Solar USA who has ~160 employees and does $360M in revenue (in 2010). I realized the fact that Silicon Solar Solutions was even let through the front door means that we must be doing something right!

I always enjoy observing people and being at the front of the room gives you a good view to see how people are reacting to what is being said. I was impressed by the number of people who showed up for the panel and equally impressed by how much attention they actually paid to what was being said (the questions were evidence of that). It is incredibly easy as scientists/researchers/engineers (which is my background) to keep your head down as you completely focus on overcoming that next technology related hurdle. As we talked through the eventual possibilities of solar manufacturing in Arkansas (and potentially using our TAIC technology), it was evident how many people would be in support of this vision. This is something completely invisible from the lab/office environment where we spend most of our time.

We met some great people through the event and if you happened to be one of the people in attendance, what did you think?


Douglas Hutchings was representing Silicon Solar Solutions on the panel "Solar Energy Opportunities in the US"

SSS Researchers Complete Oxide Removal with No Film Damage

The road to getting any technology to the point of being ready for market is filled with a lot of small victories. As you know (or maybe you do not), our technology can create a very high quality seed layer for growing other things on top. The most common application is using our large grain silicon for growing epitaxial silicon on top. One of the challenges of this approach is that our material must survive all the necessary cleaning/handling procedures that the future steps necessitate. In that line of thinking, I just wanted to share a video that demonstrates our film handling the cleaning process like a champ!



What is happening in this video is that our researchers (can you guess which one?) are taking a one of our samples that has grown a native oxide film that needs to be removed and applying some Buffered Oxide Etch (BOE) which just so happens to etch away oxide. You can see that initially the BOE “sticks” to the sample due to the presence of oxide on the surface. After a very short while, however, the oxide is etched away revealing the hydrophobic silicon underneath. This makes the BOE slide right off the surface, and additional water that is added also slides right off with zero damage to the film. Chalk another small victory up for the good guys!

Seth Shumate Senior Scientist at Silicon Solar Solutions in the Secret Sanctuary

Culture is important in any startup. Culture sets the tone for everyone involved and it helps to keep everyone moving together as a team. There are lots of famous examples which include Apple and Southwest Airlines. Each of these companies demonstrate that their specific company culture gives them an edge. How does this translate to a small startup? Steve Blank describes a starup as a temporary organization looking for a scalable business model. It is during this search that the culture must be realized and nurtured, otherwise it is too late as everyone scrambles to scale.

Silicon Solar Solutions has a great group of folks that I am delighted to work with on a daily basis (even including weekends!). Together we have formed our own culture which includes a great deal of coffee, naps on the floor at times, a lot of lunches together and regular walks around the “secret sanctuary” located behind the Arkansas Research and Technology Park. A lot happens on these walks. Some compelling insights into what we should be doing over the coming days/weeks/months occur, but it is mainly about growing together as a team. At the end of the day, the team is what will make or break a startup – so it better be strong. Mueller of the Austin Business Journal writes:

Over the years I have learned that good culture takes continued nurturing and full attention, and should begin at the company’s birth or soon after. Assess the look, feel and tone of all your physical and communication touch points. Do they reflect your values and brand? Do they cultivate the kind of workforce that will give you a competitive edge in your industry? Are your team members passionate about what they do and feel valued for their contributions?

Seth Shumate, our Senior Scientist, is the biggest proponent of these regular excursions into the wilderness (and I use the term wilderness loosely). In fact, I am pretty sure he named it the “secret sanctuary” just so this post would have the mother of all alliterations! The other day we happened across two geese enjoying life where we all stopped to unwind for a few moments and snapped this picture. A few minutes later I almost stepped on a water moccasin but that is another story entirely. What is the culture like in the place where you work?

Seth and his geese friends at the secret sanctuary behind the Arkansas Research and Technology Park

Defining Cleantech

This is the logo for Silicon Solar Solutions - Nice!

Today in business circles as well as in everyday conversation we are hearing the term “cleantech” used frequently. Considering the word “cleantech” is a relatively new term, having been coined within the last decade, it’s important to understand what the term actually means.

Cleantech or “clean technology” refers mainly to industries and businesses associated with alternative energy production, processes and services. These include solar power, wind generation, hydropower, geothermal, and biofuels among others. With widespread environmental pollution and growing evidence of global warming, the switch to renewable sources of energy is steadily increasing. Many startup companies are finding a share of the marketplace as the public becomes increasingly aware of environmental damage caused by the use of fossil fuels. What investors realize, are the increasing number of business opportunities and resulting financial benefits associated with a growing environmentally conscious public. Cleantech also has an appeal to visionaries who see a sustainable energy future without the harmful impact to the environment which carbon based fuels are known to have. However, there is still resistance among cautious venture capitalists, hesitant to invest in what they see as an uncertain future.

In North America, the pollution of air, soil and water caused by the excavation, transportation and burning of oil and coal is becoming a major concern in many communities. Although it receives little publicity, this is evident in parts of central Appalachia where increasing numbers of residents are opposed to mountaintop mining. As the name implies, mountaintop mining is the process of bulldozing or dynamiting the top layers off mountain tops in order to get to the exposed coal. Estimates say that nearly 500 mountain tops have been destroyed in this manner for the sole purpose of mining the top portion of them. Additionally, adjoining valleys are also being destroyed by filling them with rubble and debris from the excavating process. Unfortunately the beauty of these pristine areas is being compromised by an energy ravenous nation. Hopefully the people directly affected by these issues will have a voice with any administration elected to office.

It’s ironic that both the United States and Canada, which are mainly technology driven nations for the most part, have been slow to react to growing concerns of highly fluctuating costs of carbon based energy. In contrast, many areas of Europe have been investing heavily in environmental technology for years. The largest single factor motivating European countries to invest in clean technology has been the rising cost and decreasing availability of fuel (primarily gasoline). In North America, we have been complacent over the years, relying on abundant resources and relatively low cost of oil. However, it’s a different world now, as we have seen the cost of oil climb to record prices per barrel, and many developing nations showing an ever increasing demand for fossil fuels. In order for North America to have any hope of becoming energy independent, the initial investment must be made soon, because the consequences of waiting will be disastrous to both the environment and the economy.  Things are moving, but they are moving slowly.

For those genuinely concerned about the environment and future generations, it’s an easy decision to begin supporting alternative energy solutions both at home and in the community. With what appears to be an infinite sustainable energy market looming on the horizon, those wise speculators who act now by investing in cleantech will be the real winners. More importantly, with investment in cleantech and alternative energy sources, directly or indirectly, we will begin seeing immediate benefits, as well as for many years ahead.

Silicon Solar Solutions is working towards enabling solar panel manufacturing regardless of geographic location by reducing processing inefficiencies and minimizing the labor requirements. Could Arkansas leverage the existing logistics infrastructure to become a leader in domestic manufacturing of solar PV?  What do you think?

Author: Douglas Hutchings – E-mailLinkedin - Twitter