Picasolar CEO Doug Hutchings Keeps Solar Manufacturing Current

Picasolar CEO Doug Hutchings Keeps Solar Manufacturing Current
Douglas Hutchings, CEO of Picasolar Inc. and Delta SunEnergy of Fayetteville (Beth Hall)
Doug Hutchings is a serial entrepreneur who secured seed funding for his first company just nine days before defending his PhD. Best known for his work in solar, he is involved in cutting-edge R&D with Picasolar and WattGlass while supporting projects with Delta SunEnergy and Clear Energy. He is an advocate for STEM education and works with Innovate Arkansas and the Arkansas Research Alliance.

Hutchings earned a math and physics degree at Hendrix College in Conway before achieving  a master’s and PhD in microelectronics-photonics at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He also holds a graduate certificate of entrepreneurship.

Hutchings was born in Dover, England, but grew up in Mena, where he worked in chicken houses, learning the importance of hands-on work.

What’s the current cutting edge in solar engineering?

Solar largely comes down to a cost-per-watt calculation. You either increase the conversion efficiency (percentage of sunlight converted to electricity) or decrease costs. Engineers tackle this in some very inventive ways: Modules that can collect light from both sides, bifacial modules, are being adopted, with some projects in Arkansas planned for 2020. Manufacturers are evaluating new anti-reflective coatings (like locally developed WattGlass) to allow more light to reach the solar cells, and I anticipate near-term improvements in the metalization to help convert more light to usable electricity. Longer term, we will see improvements in building “multi-junction” devices while still using silicon as the platform.

Where is Picasolar headed, and how do you envision the energy distribution system in five or ten years?

Picasolar continues to work to bring solar manufacturing to Arkansas. We suffered some setbacks on this goal in 2019 and are exploring licensing opportunities for the underlying technology. Energy distribution is a key area. Traditionally, utilities were responsible for both generation and distribution, but increasingly, end-users have options for on-site generation and storage. The pricing models we have spent decades developing have fairly quickly become suboptimal. Some areas will continue to apply Band-Aids while others will seize an opportunity to implement new models. You have a two-sided market (energy generators and energy consumers), and some interesting hardware-as-a-service business models might get adapted.

What’s the landscape for solar panel manufacturing in the U.S., and what is the tariff effect?

Regional manufacturing will be increasingly important as the market grows and shipping and logistics limit further cost reductions. We have seen several large U.S.-based manufacturing announcements in recent years and more are near.

Tariffs have a large impact. Spot pricing for modules shows pricing as much as 37% lower in overseas markets. It is not all due to tariffs, but if you think the market is exciting currently, just wait until high-efficiency module prices are at 25 cents per watt!

Northwest Arkansas is an advanced engineering hub. Why is that?

Arkansas has really smart folks who want to stay in-state and are willing to work ridiculously hard to do so. I am passionate about this, and we need to be doing more to expand opportunities. We have world-class research happening in very diverse disciplines, and we need to dedicate resources to shortening the time to evaluate and execute on opportunities. The University of Arkansas plays a critical role and is taking a thoughtful approach.

What would most surprise readers about solar panels?

They don’t have to be on (or even near) your home or business. You might own a house or business in Little Rock with no open land and think that solar isn’t an option, when in reality you could build an array 100 miles away and use net metering and meter aggregation to offset your electric usage. We have seen folks with 20%-plus annual return on investment using this model.