Elon Musk is a very smart businessman and is now using that acumen to tap a new market. Recently it was announced that SolarCity Corp. (NASDAQ:SCTY), a solar energy firm based in San Mateo, CA, and chaired by Musk, would be targeting small and midsize businesses that can handle solar arrays of 500 kilowatts or less. SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, Musk’s cousin, was quoted by The Los Angeles Times, describing this market as underserved due to a lack of available products and high costs for solar energy. Part of the financing plan developed by SolarCity for this campaign relies upon Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs whereby state and local governments pay the up-front costs for solar array installation and charge the property owner over a period of years on his or her property tax bill.
There’s a narrative that has been written about Elon Musk in recent years. Last December, Musk, his “plan to save the world” through lithium-ion battery technologies and his Mars colonization plans were profiled in an ABC News segment by reporter Barbara Walters. As the CEO of Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA), SpaceX and chair of SolarCity, Musk has high-ranking positions in corporations positioned in alternative energy and space exploration industries, making him a media darling in these days of climate change fears. The man is so universally beloved that he’s been praised in the Internet pages of the Daily Kos as well as in the words of Rush Limbaugh. There might be no wider political spectrum than that.
We here at IPWatchdog see a bit of a different story. It’s particularly galling that Musk has publicly decried patents as having “repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor” and that earning a patent “really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit.” To many, Musk is a brilliant innovator but the story could be just as easily spun that Musk is a corporate tycoon who has built vast personal wealth thanks to government subsidies and has a slight penchant for nepotism, as is evidenced by his ability to build wealth in his cousin’s company.
Elon Musk also has a bizarro acquaintance with the truth, at least when it comes to patents. In his All Our Patent Are Belong To You [sic] blog post, which has served as the seminal moment for the current open-source trend in the auto industry, Musk stated that since his departure from Zip2, a previous business venture, in 1999, that he has “avoided [patents] whenever possible.” That anti-patent sentiment has raised Musk to rockstar status in the eyes of some, but even a cursory review of the facts suggests that Musk does not practice what he preaches. The fact that we can do a profile of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to SolarCity in this year alone proves that, at least where it comes to patents, Elon Musk’s message is at best a “do as I say not as I do” approach to business. At worst, Musk is not true to his word.
SolarCity’s Issued Patents: Flat Roof Panel Mounting and Home Solar Energy Audits
Many of the U.S. patents held in SolarCity’s patent portfolio protect technologies related to improved methods of systems for mounting photovoltaic cells. An improved mounting system that may cut costs by requiring a less time to install is featured within U.S. Patent No. 8991114, entitled Pivot-Fit Connection Apparatus, System, and Method for Photovoltaic Modules. The patent claims an array of photovoltaic modules interlocked together through the use of an interlock assembly comprised of a plate, an opening passing through the interlock plate and a rotatable coupling passing through the opening which contains a key portion that rotatably locks into a groove in a first photovoltaic module and a tongue portion that is slidably insertable into a groove in a second photovoltaic module. This technique is designed to improve upon conventional press-fit and hook-type connections which are time consuming to install and require a larger number of parts which are costly to manufacture. A mounting for solar panel assemblies which is more resistant to the elements is at the center of U.S. Patent No. 9062897, issued under the title Solar Panel Attachment System. The attachment system for solar equipment disclosed here includes a flashing plate with a raised portion, a support body and a fluid restrictor, through each of which passes an opening for a single central fastener aperture. This innovation improves the effectiveness of flashing devices meant to enable attachment of a solar panel to a roof or building surface while ensuring that the panel container is water-tight. A better mounting system for solar panels which are installed on buildings with flat roofs is discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8984819, entitled Ramp Mounting System for a Flat Roof Solar Array. The mounting system for a solar module claimed here includes a mounting beam with lowered opposite ends and a center portion supported at an angle to the ground, a fastener for attaching each of the beam’s ends to the roof of a building, a receptacle encircling the fastener and a portion of the mounting beam’s ends as well as a sealant disposed within the receptacle. This system is designed for the quick installation of solar panels on flat-roofed buildings without creating holes in the roof that water through which water might be able to seep. These three inventions became the property of SolarCity after the company purchased rival Zep Solar in October 2013 for $158 million.
Some of SolarCity’s portfolio focuses on materials which improve the effectiveness of its solar panel arrays while reducing the cost of components. U.S. Patent No. 9012766, titled Aluminum Grid as Backside Conductor on Epitaxial Silicon Thin Film Solar Cells, protects a solar cell with a metallurgical grade silicon (MG-Si) substrate, a lightly doped crystalline silicon (c-Si) epitaxial layer situated above the MG-Si substrate and acting as a base layer for the solar cell, two heavily doped c-Si epitaxial layers sandwiching the lightly doped c-Si layer and a backside electrode grid which is in direct contact with a backside of the MG-Si substrate. This innovation cuts down on the costs of fabricating a solar cell by reducing the amount of aluminum which is applied to the solar cell’s backside.
Getting solar energy to work in harmony with large electrical grids has proven challenging but SolarCity believes it has taken some steps forward thanks to the technology protected by U.S. Patent No. 8996191, entitled Techniques for Provisioning Energy Generation and Storage Systems. The patent claims computer-readable storage with program code which is executed to determine information pertaining to components of an energy storage system installed at a consumer site, receiving at a site gateway a component database for the energy storage system, retrieving information for one or more components and using that information to automatically program energy storage system components for operation. This automation technology obviates the need for a technician to manually provision components for an energy storage system using photovoltaic energy, cutting both costs and the risk of human error.
SolarCity has also developed a system for making homeowners aware of the impacts of solar energy use on their home electricity needs, reflected by U.S. Patent No. 9026405, titled Systems and Methods for Home Energy Auditing. The method claimed here involves receiving a plurality of user inputs comprising two-dimensional layouts related to an energy audit of a home, converting user inputs into data appropriate for consumption by an energy simulation engine, generating a three-dimensional model of a home and executing multiple energy simulations of the home including a base scenario and remediation scenarios intended to improve a specific area of home energy efficiency. This improved home energy audit technology is designed to encourage sales of solar panel arrays to homeowners by generating detailed and accurate energy simulations.
Patent Applications of Note: Spanish Tile Mounting Systems and Footholds for Worker Safety
There are 20 patent applications filed with the USPTO and published this year which are the property of SolarCity, according to patent portfolio analysis provided by Innography. If Elon Musk really is trying to avoid patents whenever possible, he’s doing a remarkably poor job of that.
Solar cell mounting and installation innovations are again a major focus of SolarCity’s IP holdings and dominate among the patent applications recently filed with the USPTO in SolarCity’s name. U.S. Patent Application No. 20150200618, which is titled Skirt and Other Devices for Photovoltaic Arrays, would protect an installed photovoltaic array which is comprised of a photovoltaic module, a skirt covering a portion of an opening beneath the photovoltaic module, a spring bracket connecting the skirt to the photovoltaic module and an arm extending from the base portion of the spring bracket that can receive an input force to lock a retaining portion of the arm to both the module and the skirt. This innovation is designed to improve upon conventional skirt options for installing solar cells and their shortcomings in structural support and blocking animals from vital components. The installation of solar panel arrays on homes with Spanish tile or S tiled roofs is the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150155823, which is titled Connecting Components for Photovoltaic Arrays. It claims a leveling foot for mounting a photovoltaic module on a structure which is composed of a base portion, a stud portion extending upward from the base and a spring coupling mounted to the stud and having a key portion with upper and lower jaws, a tongue portion and a grounding clip. The spring coupling of this invention provides improved structural support in response to external forces while enabling the installation of solar panels on uniquely constructed roofs. Solar panels for Spanish tile roofs are also discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150075100, titled Flashing System for Mounting Photovoltaic Arrays Onto Tile Roofs. The tile hook and flashing assembly that would be protected includes a lower flashing, an upper flashing and a tile hook extending through an aperture in both flashings. This installation assembly is designed for use with Spanish tiles in such a way that doesn’t enable water to leak through the roof. Another technology intended to reduce the amount of time necessary for solar panel installation is discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150180405, entitled Photovoltaic Array Mounting Apparatus, Systems, and Methods. The photovoltaic array that would be protected by this patent application includes supports laid out on a surface in rows and columns, photovoltaic modules positioned on top of the supports, lever clips connecting the modules to the supports in such a way that positions photovoltaic modules at a non-horizontal angle and wind deflectors attached to the supports. This invention is also expected to improve the structural stability of solar panels in response to external forces.
Worker safety during solar panel installation is another area where SolarCity has devoted some R&D dollars, as can be seen through the filing of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150041251, which is titled Foothold System on Sloped Roof. The foothold system claimed here includes two flashing blocks each comprising a hole and a moveable foothold with a hook portion removably inserted into the first flashing block and a lower portion extending down the roof and comprising a step portion. This assembly is designed to be able to support the weight of a human worker while installing solar panel arrays on roofs with a steep slope.
We should probably take a quick break from our survey of SolarCity’s patent applications to address an argument that could be made about these IP holdings. The patent application for the foothold system, along with a few other technologies mentioned here, were originally filed by Zep Solar; shortly we’ll feature another patent application originally filed by Silevo, another solar panel manufacturer purchased last year by SolarCity. However, at least in the case of the foothold system innovation, SolarCity has been pursuing the development of the IP it has acquired from those companies. SolarCity has filed several amendments to the ‘251 patent application over time, most recently this June in response to a non-final rejection issued in May. Now, if patents really are just a “lottery ticket to a lawsuit,” wouldn’t Musk make sure that any IP acquired from other companies simply withers and dies? That’s further proof of Musk’s hypocrisy on patents.
Returning to technologies, a system designed for better energy utility management is outlined within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150153394, which is titled Peak Shaving Using Energy Shortage. This patent application would protect a method for controlling an energy storage device to reduce peak power demand at a site by monitoring instantaneous power usage imported from or exported to an electrical grid at a site, calculating a historical power usage value with a target peak value and a buffer value and comparing those two values and adjusting the target peak value as necessary. This innovative system uses algorithms which are better capable of reducing peak power demand in a building.
Finally, further improvements in the amount of energy that can be generated by a solar cell panel is described within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150090314, filed under the title High Efficiency Solar Panel. The solar panel disclosed here contains a plurality of solar cells arranged into a plurality of subsets so that cells are electrically coupled in a series; the subsets of cells are electrically coupled in parallel and the number of cells in each subset is large enough so that the output voltage of this panel is substantially the same of the output of a conventional solar panel. This innovation enables superior performance in solar cell energy generation while having an output voltage which is compatible with conventional solar cells.