Solectria – Achieving Goals By Lowering Them

A few days ago some good news finally came to a guy who has been trying to save the world for a very long time.   James Worden is the founder of the Massachusetts company Solectria Renewables, and it just got  bought by  Yaskawa Industries of Kitakyushu, Japan.  SE makes a key component of solar cell arrays, a box called an inverter.   This converts the DC power from the solar panels to the AC power of the grid.  They’re being built here in Mass, and so are a good fit for Green Economy initiatives.   Here’s Worden standing next to Governor Deval Patrick in 2012 at the opening of a 240 kW array on top of the Cummings Center, an old shoe factory now converted to office space:

James Worden, CEO of SE, and Deval Patrick at ribbon cutting of a solar array

Worden is at the front left; Patrick has the green tie.   The inverter is that white box behind them on the right.  They’re tricky to build, since they have to be totally reliable, highly efficient (any power lost in the inverter can heat it up enough to set it on fire), and safe in case of accidents.   Current models have 600 volts DC going into them – enough to kill you instantly – and they’re scaling up to 1000V to save on copper.

Yaskawa also builds inverters, but they’re smaller ones for the residential Japanese market.    They’re almost a century old, and their main business is motors and robots.    The term Mechatronics – electronically controlled mechanical parts – was actually coined by one of their engineers in 1971.  They want to expand into North America, so this is a good fit for them.   Inverters are a busy area in general – Google recently announced a $1M prize for a design that can handle 2 kW in a box the size of a laptop.

Still, they’re not that sexy a product.  They don’t cover a landscape, like the panels themselves, or tower over the world like windmills, looking like Martian death-machines.   They’re mainly boxes that live in basements, although they do occasionally explode.

So Worden didn’t start out working on them.   He knew as far back as high school how he was going to save the world – by finally making electric cars a reality.    While studying mechanical engineering at MIT, he built the first ever solar-powered car at an American university. the Solectria 3, in 1986.  He  went on to build  a series of subsequent cars like the Solectria 4B:

Solectria 4B

and the Solectria 5, 5B and MIT 5X.   He took them to solar races all over the world.   Here he is getting pulled over by a state trooper for breaking the speed limit:

James Worden getting pulled over for speeding in his MIT electric car

When he graduated in 1989 he founded Solectria to make an actual commercial electric car.   He started out small, by converting an existing car to electric drive.  Unfortunately, he picked one of the most boring cars ever built, the Geo Metro.

Solectria Force owned by Will Beckett of Palo Alto

Solectria Force owned by Will Beckett of Palo Alto

He needed something small and something that had otherwise standard components.   The  lead-acid batteries of the time only gave one 40 miles of range.  The converted car sold for $29,000 in 1991, which would be about $50,000 today.  That’s a lot for a slow, dull car.   The company only sold 400 of them.

So by the mid-90s he came up with something much flashier, the Solectria Sunrise:

solectric_sunrise_staylor01It still wasn’t fast, but it could go 300 miles on a single charge, thanks to nickel metal-hydride batteries from Ovonics and a 1500 lb weight due to a composite monocoque body.  Solectria built it on a contract from Boston Edison.   It had the interior space of a Taurus, and was supposed to sell for $20,000 in mass production.   It looks a lot like GM’s EV-1, which came out around the same time, but the EV-1 wasn’t as aggressive a design.  The Sunrise story is described in Joe Sherman’s 1998 book “Charging Ahead”.

Solectria hoped to ride the California Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate of 1990, which was to require 2% of the cars sold in the state in 1998 to be either electric or hydrogen-powered.  The car companies sued to block the law, and managed to push it off and complicate it wildly.   There is still such a law on the books, and companies do have to build a few electric models a year (called compliance cars), but its delaying squelched EVs for a decade.  The EV-1s were seized by GM and sent to the compactors.   A few protos of the Sunrise were built and shopped around, but no one picked it up.

It looked grim for Solectria.  They survived on research contracts, but had no products.  By 2005 they threw in the towel.    They sold all the tech to an Alberta company, Azure Dynamics.   They tried to build electrified Ford vans with it, but in turn filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Still, Worden had learned something important in his long, painful quest for EVs – how to build reliable and efficient power electronics for inverters.  Cars have the same problem as solar arrays – they have to match a power source (a battery or a panel) to a load (a motor or the grid).  They have to be cheap, efficient, and reliable.   Cars have some extra requirements on them like weight and volume, and the need to support regenerative braking, but that just made the solar inverters look easier by comparison.   Worden started Solectria Renewables with his wife Anita in 2005, and has been going strong ever since.

Maybe it was always a fantasy to do big manufacturing like cars in a state like Massachusetts.    Cars were built in Mass up until 1989,  when the GM plant in Framingham closed, but first IT and then finance and pharma made it much too expensive for older industries.   Still, it’s surprising that Tesla is successful at building cars in California, and right next to Silicon Valley at that, across the Bay in Fremont.

I wonder what he thinks of the current success of EVs.   There are now three major ones: the Tesla Model S, the Nissan Leaf, and the BMW i3, and a number of plug-in hybrids.  It’s a lot easier to build them now with lithium-ion batteries than it was in Solectria’s heyday.   There’s also far more money available for development.  Is he glad that the dream is finally coming true, or irked that it’s not him?

So here’s hoping that he made some real money in the sale to Yaskawa.   And here’s hoping that he tries for something big again!





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