While solar-powered light poles may be a bit of a niche market, new advances in photovoltaic collectors and battery technology have smaller players looking to gain market share.
Needham, Mass.-based SolarOne is in the process of completing an acquisition of Boise-based Inovus, a process that company leaders say will lead to a sharing of technology and new solar-powered light fixtures.
“One would be hard-pressed to find two more complementary companies,” SolarOne CEO Moneer Azzam said in a press statement. “Melding of these two dedicated and talented teams is what I am most excited about,” said Azzam. “No other solar lighting company has this depth.”
SolarOne’s products fit the standard image of solar-powered light poles: flat photovoltaic panels jutting out of otherwise ordinary light poles, with bulky, lead-acid batteries mounted at the base. Inovus’ light poles use flexible solar collectors that wrap around the light pole and armature, with longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries hidden away inside the pole.
“SolarOne falls into the category of industrial lighting. We’re more architectural,” says David Gonzalez, Inovus CTO. “We’re also more in the domestic market, while SolarOne is focused on the Middle East. So, it was rare that we would have competed directly in the past.”
Each company has specialized in its own niche, but the acquisition could change that, Gonzalez says. “The lead-acid batteries SolarOne uses don’t have the life span of lithium-ion, but they could allow us to make some of ours at a lower price point,” notes Gonzalez. “We have expertise on lithium-ion batteries that we could put into SolarOne’s products, so they could sell them into the Middle East with a much longer life span.”
That struggle between product cost and life span is a persistent issue in so-called “avoided infrastructure,” says Gonzalez. “Wherever it’s difficult to lay wire—remote locations, hardscape that you can’t dig into—that’s where we see our value,” he says.
As the two companies blend their technological expertise for longer-lasting, more economical solar lights, Gonzales says they need to think beyond “off-the-grid” construction. “We participated in a few microgrids, and there are plenty of pilots around. But there is not really a specific value proposition yet for us to deliver custom products,” he says.
Instead, Gonzales says there is a more traditional area of infrastructure that they could set their sights on. “We do some roadway lighting, but there are different categories, with more light and power required for busier roadways. For us, busy roadways are the Holy Grail of outdoor solar lighting, and right now we’re marching there, heading in that direction.”
While the companies have not disclosed the value of the acquisition, Inovus’ Gonzales notes it greatly expands their market share. “Independently, we were each in the bottom quartile of the solar light manufacturers,” he says. “Now, together, we are in the top quartile.”