Ecosummit 2012: smart solutions for the renewable sector

As the FIT model for fostering PV growth begins to fade in more developed markets (such as Germany), and "grid parity" arrives at others (such as Australia), how important is the integration of "smart" technologies in the PV space?

Increasing the efficiency and decreasing the costs of PV systems are the two major trends of the solar industry. With grid parity a third trend, what becomes important is energy storage. It makes economic and ecological sense to consume the energy directly where it is produced. This is the simple and beautiful vision of the decentralized energy economy. To build integrated solar production and consumption systems you need to integrate a smart computer system that meters, controls and optimises the system performance. The good news is that the necessary hardware and software has become really cheap. As a result, PV companies have to be IT competent in order to be competitive in the upcoming Smart Solar Decade.

What are some of the outstanding examples of these kinds of solutions that you are aware of?

The focus of Ecosummit is smart green innovation developed by startups. Therefore, I am not knowledgable about how far Suntech, First Solar or Solarworld have already advanced on the smart solar learning curve. At Ecosummit Düsseldorf, the startup Sonnenbatterie will pitch its residential energy storage solution, which is a key component of the integrated system described above. Smartblue is another Geman startup that focuses on providing a smart PV control system. Rockethome provides an integrated smart energy platform that includes home management, combined heat and power units and even the residential charging station for your electric car.

What potential advantage can smart technologies deliver to cleantech consumers?

Smart green products and services are bought by smart green customers, be they consumers or corporations. In both cases, you can build the most efficient and effective systems if the producer, the product and the consumer are always online. This enables constant user behaviour analysis and brings the engineer and the customer together into a closed feedback cycle. Without the Internet, this kind of intelligent end-to-end solutions would not be possible. Now the consumer is able to teach the system implicitly and explicitly what it should do to save resources and increase customer satisfaction in realtime.

How much activity are you seeing in this space, sometimes referred to as Cleanweb?

The difference between Cleanweb and Cleantech is hardware, Cleanweb basically is a software-only Cleantech solution. But if you look at P2P car sharing – which some people consider to be Cleanweb, too – the new players like Carzapp in Germany have hardware solutions that they build into the cars to open them with the smartphone. In this case, the hardware-based solution is better than the software-only solution with manual key exchange between owner and renter. The reason why people like Cleanweb is that it enjoys the software business model dynamics without hardware complexity. I think Cleanweb is a trend but will not save the planet on its own. You cannot make, transmit and store energy without big hardware. And energy is at the core of Cleantech. Making Cleantech intelligent is the way forward.

Where do you see these smart solutions being fostered in the cleantech space, corporations, government or government funded bodies or by VC capital (in the startup sense)?

If you look at recent Cleantech VC deals in the US and Europe, you will recognise the pattern that many startups that raised money are smart and green. The government is not taking a leading role in fostering the merging of Internet and Cleantech in particular. In the US, ARPA-E is rather focused on funding cleantech research projects while they are still in the lab. ARPA-E publishes FOAs (Funding Opportunity Announcement) as specific RFTs (Request for Technology) describing a market-driven problem they would like to be solved. In order to achieve a quantum leap in energy storage, for example, new batteries should have a three-times higher energy density and enable a two-times cost reduction. Then scientists can apply with any technology they are cooking up in their labs of which they believe it solves the problem and reaches the target economics.

In one sense, the big electronic conglomerates – with strong consumer brands – seem well positioned to deliver some of integrated cleantech solutions (Sony, Mitsubishi, Bosch). However, some of these very players, most recently Siemens, are moving back from the Cleantech space, do you see innovation in this space continuing within such companies?

Siemens is moving away from PV because they also have a hard time to compete against China. At the same time, Cleantech is a very broad term that encompasses many industries. In fact, Siemens and ABB have a rather large Cleantech revenue share. The big corporates often end up buying successful startups to bring them to the global market. Selling Cleantech startups to corporates is the preferred exit channel of VCs these days, IPOs are the rare exception.

Geographically, how well positioned do you think Europe is to deliver solutions in the Cleanweb space?

Europe is well positioned to create successful smart green companies, especially Germany because it is relatively far along the road in becoming a Smart Green Economy.

What are you most excited about at the upcoming Ecosummit?

Ecosummit Düsseldorf is our 4th international smart green business conference. We will enjoy a very high startup density, over 25 startups pitch on stage and Ecosummit TV. Our list of participants also include a good number of leading Cleantech VCs and Corporates in Europe. And the location of the event, the Langen Foundation, is just magic! We are sure to have a productive and fun time together facilitating many new business partnerships.