Friday, September 18, 2009

The niche for a polymer solar thermal collector

The International Energy Agency Task Force on solar thermal equipment (Task 37), has a subtask to investigate the use of polymers in solar thermal collectors. Ironically, while they were writing this our team in Detroit, Toronto and Ohio were putting to test what they were studying. The result is that Power Panel may be the first polymer panel to come to market. As the task force notes, "the full potential of polymeric materials can only be used when several product functions are integrated into a single component in a fundamentally new design." We agree. They came to the same conclusion as did our founders that the traditional design of collectors was not suitable. A new approach was required. Our panel forgoes the use of tubing or multiple layers of materials for collection, rather it uses a proprietary flow pattern and a single sheet of thin aluminum to collect thermal energy. The result is that we have a panel that is 1/4 of the weight and has very few parts. The panel comes out of a mold in one piece, an aluminum sheet is inserted, then glass, then connectors and voila, a solar thermal collector is made. Simplicity means that there are fewer pieces to fit and thus it can be made quickly and with little effort. It also means that there are fewer joints, welds and fasteners, dramatically improving the durability of the product. So this panel is lighter, more durable and is easier to manufacture. Though easier, in small volumes of production it is not less expensive than cheap panels from China, or those from large scale production facilities in Europe, though this panel is already price competitive (thus has great scope to further reduce costs with higher production volumes).

If the key to entering the market is to find a niche, than what is the niche for a lighter, simpler and more durable solar thermal collector?

The first niche may be the D-I-Y solar community. Not only are the panels lighter, but they use simple drain-back and unpressurized plumbing. Simple PVC plumbing can be used and thus even business geeks like me can install them and so solar fanatics can too. The polymer tanks that we offer only take 15 minutes to assemble, then simple fittings eliminate most real wiring jobs. These 35 lb panels can be hand lifted onto a roof. This is an interesting community to first market to, as they are the markets "Mavens" (to borrow the term from Malcolm Gladwell, or its Hebrew roots). If a company can earn their trust and support than these mavens will promote your product and their third party credibility can lend much to that company's brand.

Other niches may include where shipping costs are a factor, or where added durability is essential.

The issue with the durability marketing is that it is difficult for a small and new company to earn the trust of customers that we will be around long enough to honour a warranty. For us to do so requires us to borrow the clout from a stalwart in the market. If a partner with clout were to sell our panels and guarantee the warantee than we could enter the durability niche. (which is a very good competitive edge).

Shipping is another area. The obvious market in this niche is remote areas, such as rural Africa, Northern Canada, or mountainous areas in Asia. These panels are very well suited to be Base of the Pyramid solar thermal collectors if higher production volumes can lower their cost. Until then for the less price sensitive but shipping constrained niche is another ideal niche for this product.

In summary, the three niches for the Power Panel polymer solar thermal panel are:
1. DIY solar enthusiasts
2. Extreme climactic applications needing greater durability
3. Limited shipping locales

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