Industry Watch

Sunny forecast

Why tenKsolar thinks the sun’s the limit for its solar energy systems

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dallas Meyer has seen the light. As the founder, president, and CTO of tenKsolar, a Bloomington-based manufacturer of commercial rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, says, “Who wouldn’t want to use solar energy?”
 
Meyer, who has a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics and materials science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.S. in structural engineering from the University of Nebraska, previously managed an engineering team at Seagate Technology. But about seven years ago, he was looking for a change. Solar sparked his interest because of the “massive amount of volume opportunity,” he says. “Whereas there are 2 million hard drives made and sold per year, with solar energy, the demand could be close to infinite. That was the excitement for me: an industry where you can grow from scratch and go to an unlimited size.”
 
Meyer was on a mission to produce electricity more economically than by burning coal or natural gas. He founded tenKsolar in January 2008, bringing several colleagues from Seagate on board. In early 2009, Meyer met Joel Cannon, co-founder of Cannon Technologies, at a U of M workshop. Cannon soon came on as CEO, and Meyer considers him a founder.
 
Angel investors funded early research and development of the product. The main technological goal was to make the most kilowatt hours of electricity at the lowest cost. Over the past three years, the company has reduced that cost two to three times. “Part of it has been the industry, and part of it has been our design and our ability to drive out cost,” Meyer explains.
 
To make its products, tenKsolar uses a hybrid of Asian and U.S. manufacturing. Some pre-assembly takes place in a factory in Shanghai to ensure the company remains cost-competitive on the international level. The company also sources materials and has suppliers in Sioux Falls and Yankton, S.D., as well as Alexandria, Northfield, and St. Paul. The various pre-assemblies are then integrated into the full tenKsolar photovoltaic system in Minnesota. All told, 60 to 85 percent of tenKsolar’s products are U.S. content. 
 
“We provide a product that is competitive on the global market while also providing dozens of good-paying jobs, including manufacturing jobs, in Minnesota,” Meyer says.
 
Jon Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar, a Minneapolis-based installer of a variety of solar power systems, says Meyer’s company has “a game-changing model.”
 
What makes the tenKsolar model unique are three factors: efficiency, reliability, and safety. The first factor is reflected in the venture’s tagline: “simply more energy.” That tenKsolar systems produce more kilowatt hours of AC per kilowatt of DC (one of the measures of system productivity) is a major selling point. 
 
“There is no product that can come close to the tenK system on a flat, commercial rooftop, period,” Kramer says.
 
Reliability is another trait that makes tenKsolar stand out. As Meyer explains it, conventional solar panels are designed like Christmas tree lights: they rely on cells wired in a series. If one cell malfunctions, the entire system is affected. His company’s model incorporates a set of electronics in each module that optimizes output. This means that you could walk up to a tenKsolar panel, put your hand over the cells, and hardly see any change in output. If you were to do the same test with a conventional cell, there would be a more significant decrease in the output of the entire array. The company also uses interconnected inverters; if one inverter quits, the energy can still flow through all the other operating inverters. With conventional solar, a tech would have to come out to fix the defective inverter for the system to resume producing energy.
 
Finally, tenKsolar systems are considered safer because they have a maximum of 57 volts of DC. Conventional solar power systems can go as high as 1,000 volts, which could be dangerous to humans as well as pose a fire risk.
 
Regarding the pricing of the systems, Meyer says, “We’re very competitive. You don’t pay a premium for the advantages that we offer.”
A Made in Minnesota bonus available through Alliant Energy, Minnesota Power, Ottertail Power, and Xcel Energy helps customers defray the cost of a solar power system. Meters measure the energy that is consumed and produced by the solar array, and an annual reimbursement is paid to the owner of the system based on the system’s production. The bonus comes back to the system’s owner over a 10-year period.
 
With more than 200 employees between its facilities in Minnesota and China, and sales offices throughout the U.S., the company is continuously tinkering with its design. “We’ve evolved the product about five different times to continue to tailor it to the market needs and the industry pricing point,” Meyer says. 
 
To support that evolution, the company relies on strategic investors. Current investors include the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, which is interested in bringing solar power to rural electric cooperatives, and Irish Utility Brokers, which distributes electricity and gas in Ireland. “They invested in us because of the opportunity to sell our product in Europe,” Meyer says of the latter. 
 
A recent investment also came from GFI Energy Group, which is part of Oaktree Capital Management, one of the largest private equity companies in the U.S. “Their investment was tied to the fact that our kilowatt cost for AC is leading the industry,” Meyer says.
 
Meyer feels that the benefit of investors — working capital, industry contacts and relationships — have outweighed the drawback of having less control of the company’s direction.
 
The primary challenge that tenKsolar, and solar power in general, have faced is that the sun is an intermittent energy source. As battery storage has been integrated into photovoltaic arrays, however, tenKsolar systems can be built to produce electricity for 25 years for essentially the price of installation. Eventually, Meyer anticipates that solar power will be the standard source of energy for businesses everywhere.
 
“As solar becomes the cheapest form of electricity you can generate,” he says, “it will go worldwide.” 

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