Britain’s solar energy industry has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the last couple of years. On the one hand, the number of households sporting electricity generating panels has been steadily rising and according to Department of Energy data, the figure crept past the half million mark in January of this year. On the debit side, a 2012 cut in the feed in tariff – a subsidy for those adopting solar power – has reduced the incentive to ‘go green.’ The industry has soldiered on but there have been casualties among suppliers.
But the home and business power generation market is not the only game in town. David Mayer, founder of Advanced Solar Technologies sees his company’s future not in panels on residential and commercial rooftops,but in the supply of solar cells that power a wide range of consumer devices.
Based in Bridgend, Wales, the company manufactures ‘amorphous’ solar cells that don’t necessarily have to sit in direct sunlight to generate power. “A conventional cell requires infra-red radiation to produce electricity,” he says. “Amorphous cells require only UV light. They need daylight or artificial light but they don’t need sunshine.” And as Amorphous cells don’t have to be placed in a sunny spot to do their work, they are suitable for a much broader range of applications than their conventional cousins.
Out of the Ashes
Founded in December 2013, Advanced Solar Technologies was born out of the closure of Epod, a solar cell factory based in Bridgend. As an engineer, Mayer had been a user of Epod’s products and on hearing that the business had shut down he saw an opportunity. With help from the UK Government’s Work Programme (run by A4E) he raised investment, tracked down the owners of the machinery and bought the assets.
Eschewing the household power/feed-in-tariff market, Mayer has already secured his first order, supplying an Indian buyer that will use technology to power backlit advertising hoardings for Vodafone Vodafone and Coca Cola. “I see signage as potentially a very lucrative market,” he says. “Backlit signs can use a lot of power and solar provides a cheaper alternative to conventional sources.”
But Mayer also has his sights set on the household gadget market. “We are already working with Samsung to develop a solar cell to power a TV remote control,” he says.
Mayer acknowledges that solar power had been deployed before in gadgets such as calculators but he believes that advances in the technology make it a much more viable option in today’s consumer technology marketplace. And a greener option too. “Even in a low power device like a remote control, there comes a time when the batteries have to be replaced,” he says. “And that point, the chances are they’ll go into a landfill.”
In addition to Samsung, Advanced Solar Technologies is also working on projects with component supplier Future Electronics. Meanwhile, the company will continue to produce a well-established line of solar panels designed to charge the batteries used in mobile homes, caravans and boats.
So can a very young and small Welsh company deliver on its ambitions in a consumer goods market dominated by big brands and Asian-based suppliers? Arguably the biggest danger is that larger competitors will choose to address and ultimately dominate any nascent market in solar powered gadgets. And Mayer is not looking at a clear blue ocean. Solar powered gadgets have found their way into the market. For instance, we’ve seen cellphones, computer keyboards and e-readers from a range of companies.
But Mayer is confident that the market will grow and that his company’s products give it an edge. “We are the only company that can provide cells in any shape required and we can even drill holes in the cells. For instance, we could put a cell right at the centre of a clockface with a hole to allow the hands to turn.” Equally important, he sees very few competitors in amorphous cell production.
Advanced Solar Technologies will resume manufacturing at the old Epod factory in April with a 28 day turnaround on orders. So for a small Welsh company the return to production presents an opportunity to establish a leading position in a potentially lucrative market. Having rescued a factory from the ashes, Mayer is up for the challenge.