Podcast 042: Charlie Gay – How can the US re-establish leadership in solar manufacturing?

Charlie Gay of Violet Power from Freeing Energy podcast

“It was a long shot, but [I thought] maybe going into the field of solar energy might have a runway that could make a difference in the long haul.”

Dr. Charlie Gay, CEO of Violet Power

Once the leader in the technology and manufacturing of solar products, the US lost that lead to China. But, if one company’s vision is realized, the US can again lead in this critical industry. FEP catches up with Charlie Gay, solar industry legend and CEO of startup Violet Power.  With a game-changing approach that almost cuts the cost of generating solar energy in half, Violet Power is poised to re-establish world-class solar manufacturing leadership in the US where the technology was firstborn.

Charlie Gay: How Can the United States re-establish leadership in solar manufacturing?

Once the leader in the technology and manufacturing of solar products, the US lost that lead to China. But, if one company’s vision is realized, the US can again lead in this critical industry.

Listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on Spotify Listen on Google Podcasts

More about Violet Power

Here are some aerial photos of the already-built factory where Violet Power will be manufacturing their cutting edge cells and modules.

Check out some of the articles on Violet Power:

  • Violet Power Plans Only Vertically Integrated Crystalline Solar Factory in US (Greentech Media)
  • Game changer: Violet Power to offer 50-year solar panel warranty with US-made IBC technology (PV Tech)

More about Greenstar

As Charlie discussed in the podcast, he helped start a non-profit called Greenstar, which helps low income regions of the world use internet access to provide sustainable businesses by licensing their local art.

Here is a beautiful example of some of the art they have helped bring to a global audience:

Check out a few of the slides from their Greenstar overview:

Additional background

  • Information on Rado Kopecek, CTO and Co-Founder of ISC Konstanz

Transcript

Bill (host):
Well, hello folks in the Freeing Energy world. It has been a few months we’ve been busy working on the book and a bunch of research. I can not imagine a more exciting, interesting, and timely topic and person to kick off the fall series with. I am absolutely thrilled to have Charlie Gay, the CEO of Violet Power, and one of the most well-known and storied folks in the solar industry to talk to us today about, well, his career and this latest project that he is up to called Violet Power, which if you’re in the solar industry, you have certainly heard about it. And Charlie is going to tell us a lot more about what he is up to today and what we can expect coming in the future. So Charlie welcome to today’s podcast.

Charlie:
Thanks a lot, Bill. I really appreciate the opportunity to join you.

Bill (host):
I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who has a more distinguished career or frankly a larger lifetime impact in the field of solar energy. And I love to understand how you made your way into this industry, because you did it a bit sooner than a lot of folks. You saw it coming, and you have been in this, shaping this industry specifically in the United States, but across the world for a few decades now. So wind back to your earliest days in college and PhD, what made you want to get into science? And how did you use that early experience to transform into a business career?

Charlie:
I originally was interested in becoming a chemist when I was eight years old. I grew up on a farm in Southern California. My dad always pointed out that farmers have to work really hard, I should study in school, get a good education. I went to the University of California, Riverside, which wasn’t too far away from the farm, so I could continue to help my dad on occasions.

In my freshman year, there was a competition to become a lab tech in the chemistry department and I won that competition and it was my dream come true. I did my undergrad work there as well as my graduate work. I graduated with my PhD in the early seventies, shortly after the first or right at the time of the first oil embargo. And what I had been studying was thermodynamic properties of fluids, which would have made a great career of sorts, I guess, pumping steam or CO2 in the ground to get more oil out. That really wasn’t how I wanted to spend my years in industry and applied for a job at a company called Spectral Lab, which was making aerospace solar cells as a welder.

Bill (host):
You started as a welder?

Charlie:
Yes, chemists generally point to most anything that relates to materials. I recalibrated my resume to highlight what I knew about metallurgy and managed to get the job at Spectral Lab. Thinking that working in solar would be a good place to go as a result of seeing how the oil embargo had affected everyone. And it was a very long shot, but maybe going into the field of solar energy might have a runway that could make a difference in the long haul.

Bill (host):
Those may be the most quotable words from our interview today, Charlie, that in the seventies, during the oil embargo, that there might be a future for you in solar. I love it. And the fact that you started welding space-related solar, that’s just a great beginning story. And so, you did some welding from some solar panels and after a while you ended up at ARCO, which was, as I understand, a very early solar manufacturer, can you tell us about that?

Charlie:
Sure. At the time of the second oil embargo. So first oil embargo is 1973, second is around 1978. And with the second oil embargo coming a number of oil and gas operations looked for ways to diversify beyond fossil energy. ARCO was one of those companies headquartered in Los Angeles and the proximity of their headquarters. And there were a couple of spin-outs from Spectral lab, one called Solak and the other Solar Technology International. And I was heavily recruited by Bill Yerkes at Solar Technology International to come and help him. I think I was employee number six in ARCO Solar as a result of wanting to move from making aerospace solar cells to solar cells that could power rural villages here on earth.

Bill (host):
That’s a great transition. And off-grid solar is a very recurring topic here in the Freeing Energy Podcast. We’ve interviewed folks from India and Africa who have invested parts of their career really helping to change the lives of folks. Because, as everybody who listens knows that over a billion people today have access to no electricity at all. A lot of the research I’ve done for this book I’m writing called Free Energy involved spending days in rural villages in East Africa understanding the impact of lighting and television and communications can have on their lives. And, so one of the parts that was very inspiring about your career to me was the work that you’ve done with Greenstar. Can you tell us about what Greenstar is and what you guys are doing?

Charlie:
Sure. During the course of my time in solar I’ve worked in over 80 countries in rural areas where people lack access to electricity, generally access to any form of communications and oftentimes access to clean water is a problem as well. We formed Greenstar in 1997. At that time, the World Bank and a number of multilateral development banks had capitalized funds to help rural electrification, but those funds were not reaching the end village. Local banks were reluctant to lend to somebody who was living in poverty because they couldn’t show how they would repay any loan that came their way. So I formed Greenstar with the idea of creating a business model that could be replicated anywhere across the world and bring solar to a rural village, generally, a community center, and bring the internet by spread spectrum modems. And today, or we’re on the cusp of making it possible for anybody on the planet, with Space X and companies that are deploying lower earth orbit satellites to bring the internet wherever you are.

So I went to a number of villages where I knew the background to the village. Because when ARCO Solar was just getting started, we had to train people in what to do with a solar panel, how to start a small solar business. There were over 2000 people from around the world who came through our training program in the mid 1980s. So I stayed in touch with a lot of those folks and relied on them to help point me to places where communities really had a meaningful opportunity to develop some kind of business and become more self-reliant. And at Greenstar, we’d go to a rural village. We engage with the community and record music and art. I licensed the music and art here in the US to places like Disney that are looking for a source of world music or art. And with the license royalty funds go back to the village.

It helps preserve their culture, their tradition. And by being able to show that they could create a business around their cultural traditions, the local banks were willing to lend money. And that cash flow from the large high level multilateral development banks began to flow to those rural villages because they could show how they would repay the money. And we’ve replicated that model in a number of countries. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to learn from cultures I never ever would have had a chance to encounter before. I learned one of the best ways to engage in a rural village, a guy like me, a white guy from somewhere else showing up in a rural place, become just an object of observation. So what I would usually do in going to a village was I would go to the nearest university town and go to the theater arts department at that university and find a mime.

And then I would take the mime with me to the rural village. And we wouldn’t use any words to explain what we were doing. I had a laptop, a solar panel, and the satellite phone. We connect them together. The solar panel provides electricity to keep the phone and the laptop charged and explain by way of engaging the audience to which has to ask questions, to make the mime act out something. And usually the kids in the village are the first to jump on board with the process. The adults are standoffish, but the kids engaged.

They want to know what’s happening in a cricket match or a soccer game or a football game somewhere. People then can see what the internet looks like. They can see what you can learn by just going online. You can find out how valuable your crops are. You can find out what the market prices are at any given time. So, that model is something that I’m very pleased about. We call it digital culture. It’s a way that you don’t have to physically move a product made in a rural village through a supply chain to get to an urban market, it’s all done by email attachment.

Bill (host):
I am seriously inspired. Thank you for sharing that and to also particularly thank you for doing that. Hopefully the people listening to this will be equally inspired and find ways to join you and others that are trying to lift the lives of all those folks. That’s a great story. Thank you. The last question I have for your career, now you’ve had a long list of professional accolades and great experiences, most of which are in the commercial field. And then the last few years you did something pretty amazing, which is you jumped into the US government. As I understand it, you oversaw most of the solar, all the solar programs within the department of energy for a few years. What did you find most surprising and interesting about working in the government as compared to having been in the commercial and academic environments before that?

Charlie:
First, let me commend the people who would work day in and day out and the government. Not unlike how industry operates, the same spirit of enthusiasm for clean energy permeates the backbone of work that we were doing in the solar office at DOE as well as the same kind of enthusiasm and passion for commercializing technology. The DOE has 17 national labs and incredible history of creative inventions. And the labs have now opportunities to bring entrepreneurs closer together to the finance communities, as well as the manufacturing sector. While I was at DOE, one of the things that I’m very pleased about is having created the American-Made Solar Prize. The American-Made Challenges is a program that helps accelerate innovations of new technologies and commercialization using prizes as a instrument for rewarding creative inventions, which saves an enormous amount of time in the relationship between government and entrepreneurs.

Traditionally, the government has a annual cycle. Congress appropriates a budget for R&D, the Department of Energy, as well as other government agencies have contracting offices. If you want to be involved in receiving funds for doing work in the solar from the government, there’s typically almost an eight or nine month cycle between the time that the government issues a request for information and an awardee finally signs the contract of what deliverables will be provided. In the American-Made Challenges program that nine month timeline has been cut to 90 days. So innovations come faster. There isn’t a cycle of merit reviews, folks weighing in on making sure that we protect the taxpayer money, but the taxpayer confidence in something working can be seen as a product created by an entrepreneurial operation. And that’s how you get rewarded. If you’ve got a good idea and you’ve lined up by commercialization path.

Bill (host):
That’s a great story. And I think it’s a part of what the US government does that most people don’t really appreciate. And in fact, in the research for this book I’m writing, I was as surprised as many people I shared with just how larger role the US government in particular, the Department of Energy has had in all facets of energy in the United States. From nuclear to fracking, which is largely benefited if not created by incentive programs, as well as R&D. And then the solar program that you’ve discussed, I have to say that I’ve been a part of that solar prize with the company I’m involved with Solar Inventions, and it’s an amazing program.

When we were thinking about how to bring science to the market, we looked at the government programs and they are daunting. They take a tremendous amount of work. It’s usually, for entrepreneurs requires them to be associated with a large lab at a university or a large corporation. And then out of the blue as we’re looking at this, we hear about the Solar Prize, and that is so clearly designed for entrepreneurs. And as one who’s gone through it and really benefited from it, that program is a game changer and it’s very difficult to overstate what a difference it’s making in the state of solar in the United States in my personal opinion. Certainly Violet Power is a great example of that.

Bill (host):
So I’m really curious. So assume that folks know the difference between PV and CSP and things like that, but probably not about the deep photovoltaic chemistry and physics. But can you give us a high level view of some of the unique technologies? I Know you’re, I read that you’re using a new kind of cell, and you’re also using a new module manufacturing technology that came out of the solar price program if I understand it. Can you touch on both of those at a high level for the nerds like me and the audience here?

Charlie:
Sure. So the first thing that we’re doing on making the solar cell is to put all of the metal on the back of the solar cells. So all of the light striking the cell gets into the silicon and can be converted to electricity. So we have what’s called an interdigitated back contact. It just simply means there are fingers that are plus and fingers that are minus next to each other. And they’re grouped into a busbar that’s a plus and a minus to take the power out of the cell. To make the cells at a low cost has historically been the biggest challenge. About 20 years ago, I was visiting with Dick Swanson and Bill Mulligan at SunPower. Dick, and the team there had been working on a concentrator solar cell. The idea of being use less silicon and replace it with lenses or mirrors to concentrate light on that precious piece of silicon. That didn’t have a large market.

And we sat around the table one afternoon brainstorming what could be done. Out came the idea of using screen printing for helping form the patterns necessary for the plus and minus contacts. And one thing led to another, which ultimately was a funded business plan that enabled SunPower to scale. The timing was really ideal. The intimate collaboration with T.J. Rogers at Cypress Semiconductor made available Fab in Round Rock, Texas for testing out the idea. And then I spent time in the Philippines building SunPower’s first factory in the Laguna Technopark in the Philippines outside of Manila. And the learning from that experience helped calibrate me to what next kinds of priorities could be brought to bear. And while I was at DOE had an occasion of having Rado Kopecek from the ISC in Konstanz, the Institute for Solar Conversion in the city of Konstanz Germany, near Lake Konstanz. Rado showed a cell architecture where he had put boron into the silicon without damaging the electronic properties of silicon, which blew my mind.

So I got to talking with Rado over the past several years, he’s created a design called a zebra cell it’s, you can say it has stripes. Plus and minus next to each other, a white line and a black line you could think of as plus and minus. So the zebra cell is what we’re going to be manufacturing in our Moses Lake facility. And as you mentioned, the conversion of the solar cell into a module essentially, we’re making a package that isn’t a lot different than the rear window defroster in a car, when you think about it. In the case of a rear window defroster, there’s two pieces of glass, a piece of plastic in between that holds those two pieces together, and a copper wire that is fed by the car battery to heat the window when you throw the switch. In our case, we’re making a package sandwich by materials that are very similar to those used in the rear window defroster.

And when the sun throws the switch, the electricity comes out of the module instead of being sent into the module. The innovation that we’re bringing to building the circuit is almost identical to the transition in the integrated circuit business. When small transistors were built on wafers of silicon, they had to be cut from the silicon, they’re way too small to be able to attach wires to. So a printed circuit board was the first way of putting all of the patterns for that current flow on a device in one sheet, instead of attaching individual small wires. We’re doing the same thing here, instead of using wires to attach silicon wafers together, we’re starting with a sheet of aluminum and then bonding the solar cell directly on that sheet of aluminum, which has patterns cut in it to allow the plus and the minus leads to come out of the module.

And this technology approach has been through a couple of cycles of funding in the DOE Solar Office and led to a spin-out from Arizona State University called SunFlex Solar. The SunFlex Solar team participated in a competition that was to vie for a half million dollar prize among 10 different ideas. And just last month on August 28th, Daniel Simmons, who heads the energy efficiency, renewable energy group at DOE announced that SunFlex Solar was one of the half million dollar award winners. At Violet Power we have a roadmap to bring that technology into commercial production in our Moses Lake facility.

So the basic things that I had mentioned earlier were technology supported by the department of energy is brought into manufacturing here in the US. That’s our competitive edge. We can differentiate ourselves on building things to last and building them at a low cost. By being able to use the printed circuit board equivalent in a solar panel, we can save costs and happens that we can simultaneously reduce the operating temperature of a solar panel. Which is good for more power output, more energy over the life of the panel. So all of those converged together is a heart of our business Planet Violet Power.

Bill (host):
That’s a remarkable story. And somebody who was a, spends a lot of cycles in the solar technology, solar science world, it is a remarkably exciting because you’re bringing together a whole suite of cutting edge science, technology, chemistry, physics, worlds, and the promise of all that is to create panels that put out more power for less money. And in case anyone missed the importance of a 50 year guarantee, you are effectively cutting the cost of every kilowatt hour created by that panel in half. So today the cost of solar has been plummeting down to one, two, three cents, a kilowatt hour over the life of the array for a utility scale or large commercial scale. And by doubling the length of the panels lifetime effectively, you’d quite literally just cut that number in half. And so that’s just an incredible leap and I’m a huge fan of SunPower.

My son competes in the solar racing competitions at a college level. And, when you want to get the best cells, man, you go to SunPower because there is no silver, there are no contacts in the front of those things. And they have the most efficient cells you can get that are made out of silicon. And so SunPower’s really dominated that technique and so exciting to hear about another US company coming in and using a similar, hopefully even more cost-effective approach for the IBC cells. Really cool. So my last question about Violet is supply chain. So it takes a lot of things to make panels. And I’m just interested to understand, obviously you can’t do all of it I’d imagine from day one, but there’s a lot of parts from the actual silicon ingot that you slice up to make wafers to the glass that needs to be made inexpensively and to last 50 years. The plastics, which is one of the areas you’ve mentioned. So can you talk briefly about what you see the evolution of the American made supply chain looking like as Violet grows?

Charlie:
Well, one of our goals is to go all the way what’s called upstream in the supply chain to polysilicon. So solar cells, semiconductor integrated circuits and lithium-ion batteries with silicon anodes all need hyper pure silicon. The trade wars have harmed our ability in the US to make our own high-purity silicon. Hemlock semiconductor and Wacker Chemie and REC silicon are the three primary producers of hyper pure silicon. Hyper pure means that the silicon is 11, sometimes 12 nine’s pure, incredible purity. And we set up Violet Power across the street from REC silicon’s production facility for making hyper pure silicon. The type of silicon that could be produced in their facility is created by what’s called a fluidized bed process from a gas called silane. The nice thing about that process is the hyper pure Silicon comes out in the form of beebees just about the same size as we think of beebees maybe about a millimeter or half a millimeter in size.

That form factor makes it possible to continuously recharge crystal growers or any other technique for making sheets of silicon continuously. It’s easy to pour the beebees into a pot of molten silicon, and increase the productivity of that equipment. The key part of what we’re working to do here is to assure that we have a complete self-reliance here in America for making our own hyper pure silicon. The scaling that has taken place across the world, but particularly in China now has, I would say something in the ballpark of 300,000 tons of hyper pure silicon. This is a mind-boggling quantity of 11 nines purity material.

So the ability for us to reestablish a market for the producers of hyper pure silicon is part of what is important here for our economy, for having the ability to use what we make to make it better than anybody else can make it and have markets that are benefited by having the close proximity in the supply chain, to the raw materials necessary for building solar panels, for recapturing or microelectronics industry leadership capabilities and opening the door to one of the more efficient ways of making lithium-ion batteries. Being able to put more lithium atoms into that with the benefit of silicon.

Bill (host):
That’s a really interesting origin story and the unique value of hyper pure silicon. And I didn’t realize that it was also so valuable for batteries. It makes a lot of sense. Obviously the genesis of that was for semiconductors and circuits and all that years and years ago, and the market grew. And as I talk about another podcast, the fact that the semiconductor industry relied on that so early on gave silicon solar the kind that you’re making a decided advantage over thin film, which is still out there, but it’s really turned out to be a smaller portion of the solar market than people anticipated. And it leveraged off of that hyper pure availability silicon. So very interesting to build on that. And it’s another reason that the American supply chain will benefit from the work you guys are doing. So Charlie, I’ve got another 15 questions and we’re already over the time I promised today. So I’m going to just wrap up with a couple of our favorite lightning round questions. So the first one, what excites you most about being in the clean energy industry?

Charlie:
Being part of a movement, going back to a Gandhi like movement, becoming self-reliant and being capable of taking care of our own needs. Which we’ve seen full blown here with COVID-19 and needing to outsource where we get test kits, where we get in M95 masks. The vulnerability that we’ve had brought to light as a result of COVID-19 permeates almost everything that exists across our manufacturing space here in the US. And the movement to reshore technology, to scale manufacturing, making things that we use ourselves. It’s the farm boy in me that gets to exercise the passion for what we’re doing.

Bill (host):
That is a quote. My friend, the one thing that I love about clean energy is the fact that it creates self-reliance that people can generate and consume power in the same place. And all of that work and Freeing Energy is focused on what we call local energy, which is precisely what you’ve described. Second question, if you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed on the transition to clean renewable energy, what would it be?

Charlie:
The most leveraging thing is the acceleration of battery technology storage. So having storage not only opens up more opportunities for solar but for wind technologies and quite importantly, for transportation. So the consumption of energy in the US generally is thought of as falling into three broad categories, industrial consumption of energy. Let’s say making steel or cement, then transportation uses of fuels to get energy, and then directly generating our own energy as we do with solar. So solar is nibbling away at the market for generating in electricity and storage helps that market grow. And it helps our dependence on fossil energy be reduced because we can electrify transportation. We can do that more cleanly. We can do it in a way that manufacturing of vehicles actually costs less per car. It’s a, win-win all the way around. And now we’re working on two other, out of the three energy challenges here in the US by having storage.

Bill (host):
I like to tell folks, and I say, throughout this book I’m writing that the difference between a solar and most every other kind of energy is that it’s a technology and not a fuel. And that really resonates with people. And the fact that it’s technology means that it follows cost benefit curves, learning curves that are closer to what makes your iPhone and every iPhone upgrade so much better than anything you would see in say, oil, gas, or coal. And the only other technology that I’m aware of that’s moving at the same rate is batteries.

Charlie:
When you think about energy, solar and wind are things that we manufacture. We’re not burning something up in order to get energy, we can manufacture our source of energy. And the ability to combine the market for transportation and the market for the electric grid brings twice that pull on scaling of batteries than we had in scaling of solar. So the ability to even accelerate down that learning curve rights lock at work there bringing the cost down quickly and combining that with the integration of autonomous transportation in effect, we are also making it possible to have an autonomous grid. And that artificial intelligence connection to the grid makes it possible for us to make a cyber secure grid. A grid that is resistant to attacks, whether they’d be physical, electromagnetic pulse, geomagnetic pulse, we can improve on our resiliency. And we see it happen over and over and the impact of fires or the impact of floods on the grid being more brittle than it needs to be, because we can put a micro grid network together. A mesh network to keep those electrons flowing as much as is possible.

Bill (host):
Or as those of us that come from the software world, we’d like to call it the energy internet or the internet of energy. But boy, you are speaking my language. I love those thoughts, Charlie. So I think you may have answered the third question already, but what do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Charlie:
It’s going to be storage just hands down. And it won’t just be battery storage it will be pumped hydro. There are a lot of opportunities that are low hanging fruit and the diversity of ways of accomplishing the benefit of storing energy inexpensively.

Bill (host):
Final question. A lot of the folks who follow Freeing Energy, our writing and our podcasts are doing so because local energy allows people to get engaged at individual level, put solar rooftop on their home or their office. When people ask you, what can I do personally to make a change towards clean energy, what do you tell them?

Charlie:
Young people when I talk with them about the opportunities in clean energy, I point to what my experiences were. When I was eight years old, I thought that I would be a farmer because I was living on the farm that my great grandfather had settled. And their oldest son, my grandfather ran the farm, his oldest son, my father ran the farm. And when I left the farm, I thought, well, I’ll be a metallurgist. I’ll spend my time welding these solar cells, I’ll be resistant to attack by laser beams and space. And as time evolved, my passion is at it’s heart for solar and for clean energy.

Following my passion meant that I needed to do other things than well, solar cells. There was a need to look at how to get cost out. And there was a need to learn about manufacturing. There was a need to learn about running a business. There was a need to learn about the customers. All of those are new things. And as you pointed out early on, I’ve had a lot of different jobs. I’ve retired many times at this point in my life and each time starting a new job, I learn a lot. It’s exciting. It’s reenergizing, but I’ve learned things that I can use in my next job. And so I’ve actually benefited enormously by having far more than that one job as a farm boy I thought I would when I was young.

Bill (host):
That’s a great, great advice. Diversity of experiences and well said by someone who I might say has among the most diverse set of experiences is certainly in the world of clean energy but even across that, that I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Well, Charlie, this is been entertaining educational, and your stories are remarkable. Your perspectives that you bring to this, make me even more excited to go redouble my efforts to see what I can do and in my own small corner of the world to help us get to clean energy faster, to make a difference and to help build those resilient supply chains and resiliency for communities. That is, I think the hallmark of the next generation of energy that we’re all helping bring about more.

Charlie:
More power to you so to speak.

Bill (host):
I have nothing to add to that (chuckle). Again, thank you very much, Charlie. This has been wonderful.

Charlie:
My pleasure. Thank you, Bill.

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