Innovations and Niche Opportunities in Solar Power Sector

Owing to its inherent strengths, a large number of innovations are taking place in the domain of solar energy.

Readers could in fact come across supposedly “world changing” inventions and innovations every day. On further reading, the readers will find however that most of these are very early stage explorations.
When considering innovations and emerging ideas, businesses and entrepreneurs are interested not in technologies or concepts which might work in 2025, but in technologies and innovations that have a good likelihood of adding value to the market within the next 2-3 years.

This is the approach we at Solar Mango have taken while developing this section – we have collected and analysed innovative opportunities that are either already commercial or have the potential to go commercial very soon.

We hope this section makes a difference to those of you looking to invest in emerging ideas/products with attractive short-medium term potential.

1.Solar Powered Coach

Solar Panels can be used to power the lighting loads of railway coaches. The Integral Coach Factory of Indian Railways had announced a project in association with the Indian Institute of Technology Madras to design coaches that will draw power from the sun for interior lighting and cooling. As a pilot project, one non-air-conditioned coach of Rewari-Sitapur passenger train has been fitted with solar panels on the rooftop. The panels have been generating 17 kWh of electricity every day, which has been used for lighting load.

Given that the coach is powered from a diesel-based electric generator, the subsidy-free-payback can be as low as 4 to 5 years. A train using solar power can reduce diesel consumption by up to 90,000 litres per year and also bring down the carbon dioxide emission by over 200 tonnes.

The Indian Railways has now ramped up its testing on a few other routes to better understand the techno-economic viability of the concept, before it can be rolled out on a larger scale.

Fuel bills form the second largest expenditure for the Indian Railways, following the salaries of its employees. Indian Railways (IR) consumed over 17.5 billion kWh of electricity during 2013–14. This corresponds to about 4000 MW — which is almost 1.8% of India’s power generation capacity. In this regard Solar Powered Railway coaches are a great alternative to save electricity costs.

2.Coloured Solar Panels

Solar Panels were not easily accepted earlier for aesthetic reasons, but coloured solar glass is now a reality, and it can blend as per the customer’s aesthetics. Emirates Insolaire, a pioneer in the development of new solar technologies completed the installation of the world’s first KromatixTMcoloured solar PV modules on a building façade in Lausanne, Switzerland as well as other projects in Basel and Austria. This coloured solar glass is the first-of-its-kind in the world.

The company sees significant growth potential for the coloured solar panels, amidst 40% year-on-year growth in the photovoltaic market globally. Emirates Insolaire expects sales over 50,000 square metres for coloured solar panels in 2015 alone. Their breakthrough glass is optimized for both photovoltaic modules as well as solar thermal collectors. The efficiency of each coloured solar panel is above 15%.

For those who are interested in entering the field of BIPV and aesthetic panels, this is a good opportunity.

3.Solar Powered ATMs

Frequent power cuts prompted Chennai-based Vortex Engineering to develop a solar-powered ATM that could be deployed even in the most remote parts of the country. The unique patented technology used in Vortex ATMs has been developed to help banks reach out to rural areas. They developed the solar-powered Gramateller Duo with the help of IIT Madras.

The fact that it consumes little power also brings down the running cost. Additionally, it generates less heat so it doesn’t require an AC. On the cost side, the Gramateller Duo has lower initial costs (30-50% lesser) and lower running costs. Typical ATMs (power consumption – 300 to 600 W) plus their air conditioning would result in monthly electricity bills to the tune of Rs 7,000-10,000. Gramateller requires no air-conditioning and consumes very less power, thus can bring down monthly electricity bills to less than Rs 600.

After developing an ATM that could run on less power, they further explored the use of solar panels. They discovered that a solar panel of size less than 80 sq. ft. would suffice to run the ATM entirely on solar power. All these factors combined mean that these ATMs can operate at temperatures varying from 0°C to 50°C without a glitch. Thus, it makes them ideal to be deployed in the most rugged desert area or even in areas of high altitude.

Since there is a trend of adopting renewable in various public services, and considering the fact that the number of rural ATMs will increase, this concept presents a good opportunity for those entrepreneurs who are willing to specialise in this field.

4.Solar Powered Telecom Towers

Solar energy, in a limited way, has started powering telecom towers, bank branches, data centres and ATMs in power deficient rural India and areas faced with erratic supply of grid power. This trend is catching up with support from government as well as telecom companies and banks which are opting for clean and uninterrupted energy.

Telecom companies have adopted solar energy to power telecom towers. OmniGridMicropower Co. is one such company that has powered than 20 telecom towers, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. They have also been setting up solar power plants costing about Rs.75 Lakh in inaccessible areas targeting telecom towers as anchor customers.
They are providing surplus power to banks, schools, petrol pumps and even households in the locality to make their project viable. OmniGrid, which has solar plants in Uttar Pradesh, starting 2015 has been gearing up to enter Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, North East, Madhya Pradesh and J&K – states that face acute power shortage.

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) requirement for telecom companies to use renewable sources of energy for powering 50 per cent of their telecom towers in rural areas is helping the renewable use trend to catch on. This requirement makes this sector an attractive area for solar companies to focus on. Remoteness and use of diesel could be driving factors too.

5.Solar Grill/Cookers (based on thermal battery)

GoSun is a company that manufactures innovative solar grills. One of their products, the GoSun Grill can bake, boil and roast meals for eight people using a sunlight-powered thermal battery that will keep cooking no matter how gloomy it gets outside. It works even if it starts raining. The reflector-based system also doesn’t require the user to flip the food.

The GoSun Grill’s Thermal Battery is an innovation for both the consumer solar energy and the culinary industry. It’s a smart way to capture heat before rain, night, clouds or while you’re out and about. What started as a simple sand filled battery became the subject of a yearlong exploration to find a medium that could absorb large amounts of heat and emit that heat at an even temperature for optimal cooking.

The thermal battery works on the following principle: A cooking module is placed inside the GoSun Grill to preheat for a couple of hours before cooking. Using the latent-heat capacity of their PCM (Phase Change Material) encapsulated within an aluminium extrusion, the Thermal Battery is able to store much more energy than a material with only sensible heat. Through the process of melting the PCM at roughly 310°F or 155°C, the Sun’s energy is stored for use later in the day. It is capable of reaching temperatures over 400°F or 205°C, and this heat is fully insulated while left inside the evacuated tube chamber.

For a region like India, cheaper alternatives such as solar grills present a good market opportunity, as fossil fuel costs used for cooking are high.

6.Solar Powered Food Cart

Food carts, while being convenient for consumers and a good small business venture are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, as well as being potential public safety hazards from their on-board propane tanks. A pilot program has been started to introduce 500 Solar Powered food carts, on the streets of New York City, in a strategic partnership between the city and MOVE Systems, the maker of the MRV100 cart. The MRV100, which includes solar panels, rechargeable battery banks, is a federally certified heavy-duty fuel tank and low emission CNG fuel system, a hybrid generator system, and a mobile kitchen setup, could help to cut GHG emissions by 60% and to slash NOx pollution by 95%.

The fuel system is designed for heavy-duty vehicle standards and commercial use. They have adapted hybrid car technology to replace generators that are often as loud as chainsaws. The solar, natural gas, and battery powered electrical system, engineered specifically for mobile food vending, reduces generator noise by half and decreases climate change emissions by two-thirds. This hybrid system is not only cleaner and quieter; it is also more powerful and reliable.

A very attractive business opportunity, considering India has several mobile food vendors. While this might not be an opportunity for every small roadside vendor, those who are a bit more organized could use this as a differentiation to gain more visibility. However some investments into design could beneededfor a cost effective prototype that can be adopted in India.

7.Solar Powered Drones

Facebook has been testing large, solar-powered drones in the skies over the UK. The drones use lasers to beam internet access down to the ground, designed to provide connections to rural and internet-free zones. As a part of their effort to connect the world, they have designed unmanned aircraft that can beam internet access down to people from the sky.

Developed by Ascenta, a Somerset-based designer of solar-powered drones bought by Facebook in March 2014, the drones will be able to fly at altitudes of 60,000 feet for months at a time on solar power. They will have wingspans greater than 29m, or that of a Boeing 737, but weigh less than a car.Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world’s population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure.

Google is also planning to provide internet access to non-connected areas using both high altitude balloons and drones, buying American drone firm Titan Aerospace in the recent past. The two US technology firms are fighting it out to become the pipe and hub that serves both new users and an untapped resource for marketers.

In the Indian context, this sector requires significant amount of investment and technology transfer and is suggested only for select companies.

8.Advanced Solar Storage/Smart Battery

A German inventorhas developed a smart solar storage system. It is a metal box about the size of a small refrigerator. When it is hooked to solar panels on the roof, the user will get a power plant working 24 hours day, 365 days a year. He calls his system the Sonnenspeicher — meaning Sun Storage- and it is being built in a small factory in the town of Umkirch.

The Sonnenspeicher starts with a set of off-the-shelf Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries. What makes it different is a proprietary mix of electronics and software that maximize the batteries’ efficiency and lifespan, and micromanages the flow of electricity between the solar panels, the batteries and the grid so that as much of it as possible stays onsite, stored in the batteries and released only when needed. It is not an entirely new idea, a smart battery, but the innovations developed by the inventing team were significant enough to earn the Sonnenspeicher a German Renewables Award for Product of the Year in 2013.

There is significant emphasis on efficient solar energy storage, and several international companies are competing to build a smart battery that is also economical. This field is suggested for existing battery manufacturers, power electronics companies and researchers.

9.Swarm Solar

Swarm solar is a form of decentralized power distribution.
Caterva, a young company that Siemens helped to establish, is empowering energy consumers. Participants in a Caterva pilot project can use the lion’s share of the solar power they generate themselves with enough power to help stabilize the grid. The swarm principle is simple, and involves storing the electricity produced by photovoltaic modules in lithium-ion batteries. Each cabinet of batteries has a total output of 20 kilowatts and a capacity of 21 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Cabinets in buildings throughout a region are connected through the grid, creating a swarm or virtual storage system with an output of over one megawatt. The cabinets are controlled via mobile radio, and electronic systems in the cabinets allow a control centre to tap or recharge Caterva participants’ batteries. If there is demand for additional electricity in the grid, the control centre draws power from the swarm of batteries in order to offset fluctuations,

This innovation is possible only in an area which has several residents connected to the grid with solar and having good battery backup facilities. Such community based power sharing is not prevalent in India, but can be considered to be a medium term (3-5 year horizon) opportunity.

10.Mobile Solar Powered Homes

Solar power can be used to power mobile solar homes/ testing stations. US-based Ecosphere Technologies has developed the EcosPowerCube, which is designed to deliver solar power to off-grid areas, along with water purification facilities and Wi-Fi base stations — all in a single shipping container package.

The EcosPowerCube will be available in three sizes and is designed to fit into 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot shipping containers. The largest models can generate up to 15kW of power, though the implication is that the PowerCube will also use that energy for wireless communications or a mobile water treatment (an energy intensive task). The entire system is designed to be flexible; the PowerCube is listed as being capable of supporting multiple missions, from hospitals and sleeping quarters, to providing water treatment or internet.

For small scale installations that require both Wi-Fi and water reclamation, and can provide independent night-time power generation, the EcosPowerCube might be a great niche product. Several other companies have developed smaller prototypes.

In India, Chemin C&I has developed mobile solar rooms and laboratories. These mobile homes are useful for setting up base stations in remote locations and also play an important role in the case of natural disasters. Their scalability and demand are yet to be determined.

11. Solar Trees


A Solar Tree

A Solar Tree functions both as a clean energy device as well as an artistic sculptural expression. It describes a variety of structures incorporating solar energy technology on a single pillar (like a tree trunk), and has become a generic term describing this category of aesthetic solar systems, within the larger realm of solar artwork.

Possible applications include

  • Street Lightening Systems
  • Industrial Lighting
  • Shading and Parking features
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Water Cooling
  • Water trough for Pets
  • Free electricity and USB Charging for devices
  • Community monitoring and fostering interaction
  • Display information
  • Batteries that charge and provide power at night

The sculptures are designed to be placed anywhere worldwide, providing energy in even the harshest weather conditions, from 100-mph winds to several inches of snow.

Examples of commercially available Solar Trees include Sologic e-Tree (Israel), Smart Palm (Dubai), Envision Solar’s Solar Tree Array (San Diego), Spotlight Solar, Strawberry Energy’s Strawberry Tree, and Artemide’s Solar Tree.

Its advantages include its various applications, clean energy generation, and an appealing architecture at minimal land requirements. Its drawbacks however are the current high prices, hazards to birds and insects, and vision disturbance due to reflection from panels.

This is an attractive sector as it is quite feasible and can be innovated. Educational institutes such as IITK have already started implementing it with success. Solar Tree lights and other features have a huge market as well as several ideal locations for installation in India. Solar Trees have potential in educational institutions.

12.Solar Powered Rickshaw

India’s Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) had designed and marketed a prototype of a solar powered rickshaw. It was introduced to Delhi, Chandigarh and other Indian cities in November, 2012.

The Indian Postal Service is attempting to develop and deploy an electric solar-charged rickshaw. It has been suggested as a way to replace bicycles in India with vehicles that will enable carriers to travel farther and carry more at a lower cost. The “Soleckshaw” is specifically suitable as a light delivery vehicle, for delivery of post, parcels and other postal services both in urban and rural areas. The Electric rickshaw in India has also used solar energy to charge them.

Students of CECOS University in Peshawar’s (Pakistan) Hayatabad area have also built a working prototype of a solar-powered rickshaw (Green Rickshaw) that will not only save drivers the fuel costs, but will also be environment-friendly. They have found a solution to run commercial vehicles without the need of expensive petrol or CNG fuel.

Though the initial prototypes of Solar Rickshaws are expensive and have comparatively less speed, this is an interesting sector for those entrepreneurs who are willing to invest R&D into improving the performance to match fuel run automobiles.

13.Solar Powered Boats

Solar boats are electrical boats, with independent, quiet and clean engines, whose batteries store free energy from the sun. On the seas and inland waters as well as along their banks there are only a few connections to public electricity mains. People who live on inland waterway crafts, sailing boats, space stations and houseboats, are dependent on batteries, just as the owners of electrically propelled boats. Solar modules on a ship can charge the batteries on the spot. Photovoltaic modules are set in the roof of the ship.

History shows that e-boats are nothing new, but solar drive systems are an interesting development. Onboard solar generators allow independence from the plug socket. Emission-free drive systems not only of protect the environment, but they increase the quality of the boating experience – for example, in protected areas it is possible to approach water birds very closely.

Solar energy can be harnessed for the unrestricted travel of larger sail yachts if a vegetable oil generator is used. For port manoeuvres etc. the batteries, loaded by solar energy, are sufficient.

The world’s largest solar powered boat as of 2015 is the MS Turanor Planet Solar, which has an expandable deck covered by over 800 panels. Some iconic Solar Boats are Serpentine Solar Shuttle, Solar Shuttle Boats by Solar Lab, and The Loon by Solar Pontoon, Sunboat and Aquawatt.

This is an interesting niche opportunity in India, and some companies have already started developing Solar Powered Eco Tourist boats as well as fishing boats, e.g. Team Sustain and Navgathi respectively. These have proved to be efficient and economical and their markets are likely to expand.

14.Solar Powered Autonomous Cleaning Devices/Robots

Solar panels need regular cleaning to ensure they are working at their optimum efficiency, and spraying them with the hose from the ground or relying on a heavy downpour won’t necessarily get the job done. The dusty desert environments where many solar plants are located can make their photovoltaic arrays dirty and reduce their effectiveness. Cleaning the panels can be a time-consuming and expensive process. Solar Powered Robots and cleaning devices are being developed and are expected to be a huge business opportunity.

Scrobby, a solar-powered, autonomous robot prototype designed to keep domestic solar panels clean and clear. Designed to wash and scrub solar panels positioned at angles of up to 75 degrees, just one Scrobby is purported to be able to clean a solar array measuring up to 10 x 20 m (32.5 x 65 ft). Once installed, Scrobby requires neither external power nor water to run as it collects both from the environment. It has a solar panel to charge its batteries, but the clever part is that it has a collector on its docking station to catch rainwater, meaning that it can be a truly independent and autonomous device.

Raybot from EcovacRobotics (China), Solarbrush (London) And E4 robots from Eccopia (Israel) are some other solar panel cleaning robots available commercially. Other than robots, huge wiper blades with cleaning fibre are also being developed to clean the entire array in one swipe.

Several European and Middle Eastern companies have adopted this technology with effective results, however it is yet to enter the Indian Market. Economics (esp. cost of the robot) will be an important factor in the price sensitive Indian market.

15.Solar Food Dehydrator

A Solar Food Dehydrator is used to dry fruit, vegetables, and other goods using the Sun’s heat. Electric food dehydrators can be expensive and consume unnecessary energy. They work by moving warm air over thinly sliced food. The warmer the air, the more moisture it can remove from the food.

Simple food dehydrators can be made by using some recycled material like plywood and glass.

Four Iowa State University (ISU) students developed the KinoSol, a solar food dehydrator, with the intention of improve the lives of farmers in developing countries. While food dehydrators had been used in the past in developing countries, the group wanted to improve on the idea. The result was a mobile solar food dehydrator. The Kinosol is small-scale enough to be used by individual families. Fruits and vegetables placed in the machine can be dehydrated through the use of solar energy. – The mobility of the machine allows farmers to bring their produce to market or share nutritional foods with more farmers in the area.

Solar Food Dehydrators are quite suited to India and presents a good business opportunity as the country has several food and agricultural products processing factories. Companies such asRenXSol have developed solar dehydrators in India.

16.Solar Powered Bio Toilets

Solar- powered bio-toilets make use of a special strain of bacteria to decompose human waste. These toilets would recycle waste into clean, odourless water back for flushing. In Mumbai, the municipal corporation has announced plans for setting up such toilets for 4 slums. This solution will not only address the issue of non-availability of toilets for slum- dwellers but also simultaneously tackle waste generated from toilets in slums.

While electricity supply is often an issue in slums, the portable toilet is also solar-powered, to allow slum dwellers to get access to toilets at night without much trouble. Officials are in the process of choosing the slums for the project.

The pilot project will be launched in four slums initially. The solar-powered bio-toilet is made of M-30 concrete, which will provide durability for 40-50 years. No septic tank will be required and the toilet can be shifted from one location to another. Each toilet will cost Rs 60,000 and will include a 300-litre water tank.

The waste would be directed into a bio-tank where the bacteria will start processing it. After the process, a motor will be used to flush out remaining water back into the tank for re-use.

In space-crunched cities such as Mumbai, solar powered bio toilets will be of great use. In most slums, where there is no power supply, bio toilets offer an effective solution as they are solar powered. However this sector requires assistance from the government to develop.

17.Solar Sails

Solar Sails are a type of Solar Fabric.
Cambridge-based Solar Cloth Company makes lightweight, flexible solar panels which can be rolled and fitted onto curved and flexible structures such as domes or coverings for agricultural land, as well as on the roofs of buildings unable to sustain the weight of glass panels. The company uses thin film photovoltaics. The thin films are light enough to be placed on plastics and weighs substantially less than conventional glass panels. The company claims that these panels are about 20% the weight of standard panels.

There are drawbacks, however: the flexible solar panels produce 15% less power than the current generation of panels and they cost twice as much. But the company hopes to open up new markets by emphasising the weight difference and the flexibility of the plastic roll, which open up new possibilities for siting solar cells. For instance, the cells can be bonded onto structural fabrics of buildings.

An interesting niche, whose growth will depend on the ability of these materials to generate reasonable amounts of solar based electricity and their durability over long periods of time.

18. Solar Powered Algae Control

Blue-green algae forms unsightly and foul smelling scum on the surface of a lake. The unpleasant earthy and musty odour comes from the activities of blue-green algae. During the summer, when warm temperatures, stagnant conditions and high nutrient availability coincide, those cyanobacteria form dense mats — or blooms. Periods of excessive growth are collectively known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Making the problem even worse, many cyanobacteria produce very potent toxins.

Over the years, lake management experts have followed two strategies for dealing with HABs: Killing them with copper-based algaecides and starving them by restricting nitrogen and phosphorus availability via watershed management and/or nutrient removal or inactivation.

In the last few years, a third method has emerged and is considered by a growing number of lake managers to be a viable alternative. Solar-powered long distance circulation (LDC) can be effective, cost-efficient and an environmentally sound means for disturbing cyanobacteria’s preferred habitat and, in the process, providing the desired control. LDC has long been appreciated by those who believe habitat disturbance provides a major negative impact on cyanobacteria growth. However, it took the development and introduction of SolarBee solar-powered water circulation machines to make LDC a practical means for controlling HABs on water bodies of nearly any size.

SolarBee water circulators are floating up-flow pumps with a flexible intake hose that draws water up from any depth. Solar panels provide enough energy to run the sealed, magnetic motor and the digital control box virtually all day and night. The system’s efficient design enables one unit to treat up to 35 acres of lake surface area.
Since 2000, SolarBee units have been installed in more than 200 lakes and other bodies of water around the world. The systems have achieved a 95% success rate in providing LDC for HAB control. Over 80 municipal raw water storage reservoirs have installed the units. Taste and odour complaints have virtually disappeared, and the plants have saved money on chemicals which are no longer needed.

Algal blooms have not been considered that big a problem in India as these have been in countries such as the United States. However, as this is a niche sector solving a clear pain point, it could be useful for entrepreneurs in water body management and related areas to explore this further for their economic viability.

19.Solar Powered Internet of Things (IOT)

In a move that could help spread IoT (Internet of Things) devices, Fujitsu has developed a thin, flexible IoT beacon that can send out location and ID information to smart phones and other mobile devices. Measuring 2.5 millimeters thick and weighing 3 grams, the beacon is mounted on an elastic silicone substrate and can be rolled up and attached to curved surfaces as well as corners or even clothing. It uses a Bluetooth Low Energy module to send out pings at regular intervals.

Most IoT tags use coin-type batteries that have to be replaced every six months to a year, but the new device uses a small solar cell and doesn’t require such maintenance. While it needs a light source to work, the device could help put more IoT tags on everything from fluorescent light bulbs to critical equipment in hospitals to parts of subway stations to help commuters navigate.

Fujitsu’s tag can activate its beacon using stored power from the solar cell, eliminating the need for conventional power-management chips. The storage element is only one-ninth the size of similar components used in earlier tags. The power-control technology used here can manage the limited generated output from the solar cell and make devices and wireless communication modules work with lower energy consumption.

Fujitsu said it will continue tests of the beacon and plans to make it ready for commercialization by 2017.
This is an interesting opportunity which could be adopted by select premium sectors in India, sectors that wish to be trend setters by adopting a combination of renewable and advanced technology.

Related articles

1. Solar Business Opportunities – An Overview
2. List of High Potential Sectors and Opportunities in the Solar Sector
3. Business Opportunities in Solar Thermal – Heating Applications
4. Emerging Opportunities in Solar Thermal – Refrigeration & Air-Conditioning
5. Business Opportunities in Solar Thermal – Power Applications
6. Business Opportunities in Solar PV Components
7. Manufacturing Opportunities in Solar Energy Sector
8. Ways to Identify Other Potential and Attractive Off-grid Segments
9. Business Opportunities in Diverse Off-grid Applications
10. Attractive Segments and Innovations in Rooftop Solar Sector
11. Business Models for MW Scale Solar PV in India
12. Key Customer Segments for MW Scale Power Plants

India Renewable Energy Expert