Thinking allowed The Social Stock Exchange In Conversation With Leen Zevenbergen, Solarus CEO

One of the newest members of the Social Stock Exchange is the Dutch-based company Solarus, a technology spin-off from the large Swedish energy company, Vattenfall. A finalist in the 2016 Accenture Innovation Awards, Solarus’ strapline is: ‘Sunpower for the People’.

But this is no mere solar-power clone. Solarus has developed an entirely novel technology, combining solar thermal with solar photovoltaic into a seven-foot long by three-foot box it calls the PowerCollector. This hybrid technology – known as Concentrated Photovoltaic Thermal (or C-PVT) – is an integrated solar heat and electricity generation system that delivers clean, low-cost energy for homes and industry, with a combined efficiency four times greater than conventional solar panels. This is a radical innovation; globally the heating and cooling market accounts for 50% of all energy use.

We took the chance to ask Leen Zevenbergen, CEO of Solarus, how the company has developed, what its ambitions are, and why it decided to join the Social Stock Exchange.

“We decided to join the Social Stock Exchange in the middle of 2015. It is a B Corp and so are we. I have had some bad experiences with stock exchanges, because many people who invest are short-term oriented and not sustainable, so the fact that this stock exchange is set up for impact capital was very attractive for us,” says Zevenbergen.

Solarus has a very clear dedication to making a beneficial social impact, aligning its own goals with the UN’s sustainable development goals. The company has integrated its social and environmental objectives into its business model and growth strategy, emphasising the creation of shared value for its customers, partners and stakeholders. One of its social missions is to use local workforces in developing countries, creating job opportunities where they currently don’t exist.

The company has been around for a decade but spent the years 2006 to late 2013 doing research and development, spending around €7 million on that, money which came from ‘angel’ investors and Swedish government agencies. The years 2014 to mid-2016 were used to mass-produce the developed and tested prototype of the PowerCollector, establishing 35 test installations (around 500 individual PowerCollectors) in more than 15 countries.

The success of those test sites led to sales of PowerCollectors starting in the second half of 2016; Solarus proved that the PowerCollector does what it claims – delivering 250 watts of electricity and 1,250 watts of thermal. Now the company expects to sell around 30,000 PowerCollectors in 2017.

So in severely practical terms, how much energy do you get for the cost? Zevenbergen explains: “When you install a system it’s important to know the cost per Watt installed. What you want to know is total cost of the total installation, not just the cost per PowerCollector. A Solarus PowerCollector delivers 1,500 Wp (Watt peak). Watt peak means the highest possible output – when it’s 25°C, when there are no clouds, and when the sun is at a 90° angle from the panel. Such a situation is rare, of course – over the course of a day or a year it’s normally less than ideal. But Watt peak is the standard term used in solar energy. To buy and install a single PowerCollector costs €1,000 on average; the calculation is thus €1,000 per 1,500 Wp, meaning around €0.66 per Wp installed. This works out very cheap, because currently a domestic photovoltaic installation costs around €2.68 per Wp installed.”

It’s clear that the years – and money – spent by Solarus on R&D weren’t wasted; Zevenbergen says the R&D “resulted in a strong portfolio of patents”. So it’s now a smoother, and probably faster, ride to the next stage: growth. Solarus is looking to raise around €11 million “to be able to both produce massively and also to sell worldwide” according to Zevenbergen. One of its many possible expansions could see three assembly factories (with a total value of €5.4 million invested) in job-hungry Namibia and South Africa.

The novelty of the technology will be a challenge, however. He uses Steve Jobs as an example: “if Steve Jobs had tried to raise money for his iPhone before it came out, he would not have succeeded. Nobody understood the need for another phone. When it appeared it was written-off as being too thick, too expensive, and anyway it didn’t have a keypad. Steve Balmer of Microsoft called it a joke. But very quickly the market decided this is what it needed. Solarus faces the same situation: there is no comparison yet for what we do. But we’re building the next generation of solar, the Tesla of solar.” The ultimate business aim, he says, is “to do an IPO at the SSX, because we want to make our shares liquid.”

Leen Zevenbergen is a busy man and he’s going to get busier. The business of creating cheap, clean energy is fast-moving and on a roll. I reckon he’s going to be stretched to find the time to finish the novel he’s been working on for the past decade – a magic realism book “about the ruin of a castle I once bought in France”, in the style of the famous Flemish writer Hubert Lampo. But the best can’t be hurried – as he’s shown at Solarus.

 

 

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