California Sunlight Finds a Niche

California Sunlight Finds a Niche

In the same year CleanStart was founded, Bing Gu founded his startup, California Sunlight.  Bing and his team were always coming up with solar-based products that others had overlooked and built a business around that.  The early years were lean, but now Bing has some very interesting products that are attracting attention and sales are growing.  His journey is one of persistence and struggle, but one which may now pay off.

Bing was born in China and received his Ph. D. in plasma physics there before relocating to Canada for a post-doc in 1999.  He moved to Sacramento in 2001 to advance his career. Bing partnered with a NGO to build
very simple solar products for use in underdeveloped countries. On that path he developed a number of solar ovens and cookers that were simple and cheap.  They were adaptable for campers, particularly backpackers seeking a way to cook food without a fire and without carrying containers of fuel.  He produced a very clever inflatable solar balloon that focused the sun’s energy with the help of reflective inner surface on the balloon, and focused by its parabolic surface.   Still the products did not catch on.

Rethinking the idea of making simple and inexpensive solar products, but this time focused on first world countries, Bing realized the range anxiety of owners of EVs and the desire for portable power when camping or recreating could be other good markets.  He and his collaborators came up with a new range of products using photovoltaic panels and lithium-ion batteries.  You can see them and read the details on his website (https://california-sunlight.com/).  Basically, he has a range of capacities of battery packs with convenient input (AC and DC) and output ports (12 VDC, 120 VAC, 3 watt USB), and a variety of portable, foldable solar panels to charge the batteries or to be used directly.  His most popular battery pack is the 2000 W/1800 Wh one for $1800, with an integrated handle and wheels so it can be rolled around like a piece of luggage.  His foldable 36 v PV panels come in sizes from 100 watts ($200) to 1000 watts ($2,000) that can be plugged together.  He says the 2000-watt storage unit can run an efficient refrigerator for 24 hours.  

He has gained a great deal of interest in his products both from the recent spate of power shutoffs and from a road trip he took up from San Diego showing off his product at various stopovers at EV events along the way.  

His notion of using the 2000-watt unit as a “peace of mind” reserve for an EV is to keep it in the trunk and then use the Level 1 charger most EV come with to plug into the AC outlet on the battery pack to provide an emergency 8-10 mile charge to limp home or to a charging station.  He wanted to avoid trying to do something more elegant that would require altering the wiring on the vehicle and potentially jeopardizing the vehicle warranty.  Keep it simple.  

Since the pivot to the PV products, sales have taken off for California Sunlight.  He is now selling hundreds of units per year with revenues in excess of $250,000 per year and growing, a level which he says is profitable.  He has outsourced the creation and management of his website, as well as fulfillment of online orders.  His units are manufactured in Shenzhen, China for now, but he wants to bring that activity home.

He has no illusions that his products could be duplicated, but believes the features he has included, the simplicity of use, his aggressive prices (including a 10% discount for anyone in the Sacramento region), and his focus on a relatively overlooked niche product can propel his sales growth.  We will be monitoring his progress.

Bing Gu

Bing with the 100-watt folding PV array

Bing with the 2000 W

Bing with the 2000 W unit (yellow) plugged into the 100-watt foldable PV array, and a 500 W unit (red)

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

Added Insights From 2022 Progress Report

Added Insights From 2022 Progress Report

In response to requests for more discussion on the results of our latest survey of the regional core clean tech cluster, we held a Zoom call on June 23.  Here are some of the points we covered:

  1. The increase in jobs and opportunities here is making the area much more for recruiting talent.  People see this as a good place to develop a career with good chances to move among growing companies. 
  2. We haven’t yet seen a big exit that creates multiple millionaires.  That will likely take more companies reaching the point where they go public to tap larger sources of capital. 
  3. We probably won’t see a doubling in jobs in the sector in the next two years like we just did.  Revenue however should grow more than 25% over this period.
  4. The biggest sources of growth were in mobility, conversion of wastes and biomass, and building efficiency.
  5. We have companies in the core cluster all along the “Maturity Chain”.  It is not dominated by early-stage companies struggling to get a foothold.  That’s a big step up.
  6. Other reports have indicated much higher numbers of jobs in the local “clean economy”–like 40,000+.  Why are our number so much smaller?  The major studies we have seen count government jobs in environmental agencies.  We look only at businesses, and of those, only businesses whose products have a significant IP component.   We don’t count businesses which are solely selling other people’s products like solar installers.  It is the IP-based companies which we see as “engines of growth” and pay close attention to them. 

We also gathered some important new information from those that were on the call:

  1. Infinium will also expand in West Sacramento by adding a technology R&D center, to improve its offerings continuously.  This will involve adding significant high-tech jobs and will likely bring some from overseas talent to the area.
  2. Judy Nottoli of CARB noted that there is an unprecendented amount of funding becoming available in the next year to support projects on Low Carbon Fuels, conversion of forestry wastes, and caron reduction.  She pointed to upcoming modifications to the LCFS rules next year and the availability of funding from the iBank’s Climate Catalyst Fund that people should have on their radar.

There was much more to the discussion and if you are interested you can watch the recording of the entire 36-minute session

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

New Frontiers in Load Flexibility and Load Management

New Frontiers in Load Flexibility and Load Management

On May 12 we returned to the hot topic of grid edge technologies to match supply and demand while avoiding as much new investment as possible.   These technologies involve a combination of hardware for sensing and control and sophisticated software that can use that control to manage to a better use of distribution grid assets. Some gems came out of the discussion we had not heard about before.

Denver Hinds, Manager of Smart Energy innovation at SMUD, talked about upcoming innovations in rate offerings that will enable the interactive management of load and supply.  This will be different than current rule-based systems which are simple, but crude—such as time of use rates that are always highest in a period like 4-9 pm, even though that may not be the actual problem interval depending on conditions at the time.  The ideal situation would be to have a real-time buy/sell market at the distribution level, with capacity, energy, and ancillary services involved.  That could possibly harvest more benefits for the grid.  However, that is complicated and probably not feasible any time soon.  Accordingly, the next step for SMUD will be to use “Critical Peak Pricing” which will boost prices by 50 cents per kWh only at times of critical stress.  It is hoped this will provide more incentive both for customers to allow the utility to shave demand on the grid and for customers with solar and storage assets to curtail their use in order to sell more power into the grid and get the 50-cent premium price.  That opens some new frontiers for innovators to provide customer-side technologies to make the best use of these upcoming incentives. Participation will be voluntary, with a 10% reduction in pricing in 2800 non-peak hours as a further incentive.  SMUD’s goal in taking small steps at a time is to find out if they can achieve dependable and repeatable load shifts with offers customers can understand.   

Scott Silvia, Regional Sales Manager for SPAN, talked about a very new approach for controlling home loads–replacing the entire breaker panel on the home with a new one which can control every circuit in the house, including a Level 2 charger and a home battery unit.  Adding the ability to manage every circuit in the home means that whatever power a homeowner may have during an outage can be stretched and put to the best use.  Rarely can a rooftop solar + storage installation carry the entire load of a house in case of grid failure.  The conventional approach has been to separate out some “critical circuits” and put them in a sub-panel that can be isolated from the main panel.  But if you have a critical need at the time of a particular outage that’s not on one of the circuits in the sub-panel, too bad. With the smart SPAN panel, you can reprioritize circuits with your smartphone and get power where you want it.  

But SPAN has an even cleverer pitch.  Adding a Level 2 EV charger to a home may by the usual utility rules require an upgrade to the typical 200-amp service to a home.  This is to cover the possibility that the charger running full-tilt coincidentally at a time when several other circuits in the home are maxxed out (think hair dryer plus stove plus AC plus pool pump plus clothes dryer) would add up to more than 200 amps.  While those times may be rare, conventional wisdom says upgrade the service at a cost of $2,000 to $20,000 to avoid the problem.  A SPAN Panel with a variable-output SPAN Charger in contrast would manage loads right at the home to keep the demand below 200-amps. 

Finally, Scott said a SPAN Panel would avoid the need to put controls on multiple individual appliances in the home to which a utility could send a signal to turn off in order to manage load.  Instead, the signal could go directly to the SPAN panel to cut load by a certain amount and the Panel could prioritize loads in a way consistent with a homeowner’s pre-set wishes to achieve the load reduction.  

The SPAN panel is not cheap at $3,500 but because it could avoid the need for a number of other investments to achieve load control, it could be the best option available. 

Ezra Beeman, Managing Director of Energeia, told us about his consulting work on a little-appreciated problem that is hobbling the ability of homeowners to get maximum benefits out of their rooftop solar panels.   He has found that the panels actually put power out through the inverter at voltages too high or too contaminated to be completely useful.  The result is that some of the electricity is needlessly wasted since it causes the inverters to shut off.  His solution would be to have a “smarter” inverter coupled to a “smart” water heater or its equivalent to avoid the overvoltage as much as possible and provide a way to put any excess to good use for a short period. 

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

An Insider’s View of Clean Energy and Climate Policy

An Insider’s View of Clean Energy and Climate Policy

Bob Weisenmiller has been on the inside of clean energy and climate policy in California since 1977, when he started as an advisor to CEC Commissioner Ronald Doctor, pretty much straight out of graduate school at UC Berkeley.  With 45 years of engagement, he has a good window on what is going on and what is coming that would affect opportunities for clean tech innovators.  Bob is unusual in having been appointed to the CEC by Gov. Schwarzenegger, appointed as Chairman and then reappointed by Gov. Brown, eventually serving 9 years on the CEC.  He is well-regarded as a nonpartisan leader always searching for the areas of practical agreement which allow progress on solving our climate change problems.  He shared a number of his views at our Perspectives podcast on May 17.

He talked about the politics and challenges of the 100% renewable power plan, of the slow progress on getting fossil fuels out of the transportation sector, and the tug-of-war with China over leadership in the production of technologies crucial to achieving longer-term climate goals.  

Bob first noted the increased sense of urgency to take action against climate change reflected in the latest IPCC report: “Climate Change is here now and humans are responsible.”  For California there is elevated concern because of the continuing drought and the huge increase in wildfires.

Bob noted the toughest nut to crack on reducing fossil fuel use, no surprise, is the transportation sector, which accounts for over 50% of the GHG emissions when including the refining, pipelining, and distribution of the product as well as vehicles themselves.  The reality is that we have still made only a small dent in the 28 million vehicles on the road in California that burn fossil fuels and in fact the amount of GHG from transportation has actually increased in the past few years.  He sees in the latest scoping report from CARB more emphasis on carbon capture and sequestration to meet carbon reduction goals, even though those technologies have not been deployed much to date and have been expensive.  (This change is viewed by some as a retreat.)  More creativity in cracking this nut is needed and it probably will involve both faster EV deployment and the production of low-carbon, renewable fuels to substitute for conventional gasoline and diesel.  

On the transition to 100% renewable power in the electricity sector, Bob noted the recent caution reflected in CARB’s latest Scoping Report and the Governor’s call for a $5 billion emergency reserve based on more reliance on existing gas-fired generators as indicative of the fear that having more blackouts this summer will lead to resistance to more reliance on renewables.   This is a tough balance to achieve.  Over 4600 MW of grid-connected storage projects are supposed to be on-line in June.  We will see how well they can deal with the possible shortages.  Others are trying to postpone the shutdown of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant as a backstop.  This will likely be a fierce debate for the next few years.

While Bob was CEC Chair, Governor Brown asked him to take point on getting more collaboration with China on clean energy and climate tech, including more investment in production in California.  Bob is still involved in that effort.  Geopolitics have gotten in the way of these discussions, but there may still be some promising developments.

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

Tesla Battery Day

Tesla Battery Day

There were many groans when Elon Musk did not come forward with a big blockbuster announcement like the 500 Wh/kg battery at under $100/kWh capacity.  But that reaction misses the point.  Tesla has made a number of substantial pivots in its battery design that are setting the stage to reach the blockbuster stage faster than most expect.

When Tesla announced its Nevada Gigafactory (>1 GWh in the capacity of the batteries produced per year), my immediate reaction was:  “Oh no, his factory will be obsolete the day it opens”.  That was because he chose a battery size, electrolyte type, and chemistry that were solidly conventional (with all its flaws) on the day the announcement was made but overlooked how fast battery technology was improving.  In the three years, it took to get the Gigafactory humming, much better batteries were becoming available.

Here was what I missed:  Tesla did not know much about building batteries.  They had to learn and took a low-risk approach by building a well-known battery with dozens of suppliers to support it.  In doing so, it could avoid making battery packs the limiting item in EV production.  Turns out that was brilliant.  And it allowed them to do some other stunts like the PowerWall. 

Now that Tesla has learned the battery-building process (in record time probably), it can step out and build the next generation of batteries and battery packs faster (and better) than anyone else.  Most people at Battery Day likely didn’t appreciate this advance.  The downside for Tesla is that they likely bought millions of dollars of equipment they now don’t need.

One example was the initial use of the spiral-wound, sort-of-AA size batteries.  Tesla was eloquent about how that was the right solution when anybody in battery R&D knew that was baloney.  The spiral-wound battery was a holdover from its use in zinc (acid) and nickel (alkaline) cathode batteries.  Li-ion batteries have much less conductive material and so have a lot of internal resistance, leading to heat build-up during charging.  The result is the slow charge and discharge rates of Li-ion batteries (such as 1/6th of the battery capacity per hour).  Other battery shapes mitigate this problem, but Tesla disregarded those.  

Musk announced they are now moving to a much larger cylindrical battery (the size of the old dry cells with screw posts on the top—am I the only one who remembers these?) without the single tabs.  Instead, Tesla has come up with windings that look like overlapping shingles and have multiple connection points.  They call them “tabless” cells.  These have significantly lower internal electrical resistance so that they generate much less heat leading to lower cooling requirement.  And they have higher power density and faster recharge rates.  Now Musk says that anyone that does not use this format will not be competitive in EVs.  So much for the little batteries being the ideal choice.  Head fake!

Among other changes were:  

  • Substituting dry powder electrolytes for the conventional wet paste, cutting manufacturing costs, and reducing processing steps substantially.
  • Eliminating processing of raw materials for the cathode
  • Using a nickel cathode for higher capacity
  • Redesigning the structure of the battery pack and the vehicle frame to reduce weight and complexity

The net result of all the changes is an expected 56% drop in cost/kWh in battery capacity and an increase in factory output to 1 TWh per year (making it a Terafactory rather than a Gigafactory).  They hope to reach 200 GWh per year by 2020.  Tesla’s target is to have a $25,000 EV with a good range in three years, leveraging all they are achieving.

If you want to learn more, here’s a good article and a short YouTube video.  And the whole presentation via YouTube is here.

We had blogged on even bigger advances Tesla has underway for its batteries, but for now still in the shadows.

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center


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