Bill Gross's ambition to transform solar power faces an obstacle so insurmountable that his team is all but resigned to working around it: the Earth's rotation. "Using solar energy would definitely be easy if the Earth weren't turning," Gross says. "The Earth's turning is the real problem."
The planet's spin is partly what makes solar-generated electricity as inefficient as it is expensive. Think of those unsightly, bulky panels that hippies, Hollywood stars and even the President have affixed to their dwellings. They can soak up peak light only at noon, when the sun is highest in the sky. Why not design a system that captures that much sunlight all day long?
Energy Innovations, launched in 2000, designed a generator that uses 25 mirrors to bounce light toward a silicon collector that is smaller than a square foot. A microchip continuously analyzes the light hitting the collector and repositions the mirrors to catch the most photons.
Gross's first customers, all businesses with idle roof space, will test the system next year. Gross can't compete economically with utilities burning coal or natural gas. But installing the Sunflower costs about half as much as conventional solar, or about $4.50 a watt, with a minimum order of 100 kilowatts. If that price drops to half that within five years and production scales up, Energy Innovations could be positioned to sling stones at King Coal.
Few people know the difference between a great idea and a great business model as intimately as Gross. As the founder of Idealab, the technology incubator, Gross has become a multimillionaire by funding such Internet start-ups as CitySearch, now owned by Ticketmaster, and Overture Services, the Web marketing firm that Yahoo! bought in 2003 for $1.6 billion. Idealab productions that, painfully, seemed great at the time--Petsmart.com and eToys.com- failed in two of the most dramatic flameouts in the dot-bomb collapse.
Yet everything in the solar market is poised to explode: capacity, sales and competition. Michael Rogol, a solar analyst with the brokerage CLSA, says solar sales will expand from about $12 billion this year to $40 billion in 2010. There are hundreds of start-ups that, like Energy Innovations, have yet to make a dime. "If they can get their costs down, they have a very promising commercial appeal. But that's a very big if," he says.
There's always Plan B, a daunting cosmic hurdle. Says Gross: "I don't know if we can get everyone to run in the direction of the Earth's spin to stop it from turning."