Perhaps I’m being too cynical, though. Another way of looking at the Solar Sunflower is that it’s definitely a niche product—but in a market as large as the energy production and distribution market, which is worth trillions of pounds per year, the niches can be rather roomy. If Airlight and IBM can sell 100,000 Sunflowers per year, that would equate to around 1.2 gigawatts of peak electricity power output—a tiny fraction of the world’s energy production. If we assume a single Sunflower costs about £30,000, though, that would equate to £3 billion in total sales—which is definitely not a tiny amount of money.
Airlight Energy is planning to sell some Solar Sunflowers to early adopters in 2016, and then ramp up to full commercial manufacturing capacity in 2017. The Sunflower that we saw in Switzerland was a full-size, fully working prototype, but the final version will look a lot more polished and aesthetically pleasing.
High on a hill was a lonely sunflower. Not a normal sunflower, mind you; that would hardly be very notable. This sunflower is a solar sunflower that combines both photovoltaic solar power and concentrated solar thermal power in one neat, aesthetic package that has a massive total efficiency of around 80 percent.
The Solar Sunflower, a Swiss invention developed by Airlight Energy, Dsolar (a subsidiary of Airlight), and IBM Research in Zurich, uses something called HCPVT to generate electricity and hot water from solar power. HCPVT is a clumsy acronym that stands for “highly efficient concentrated photovoltaic/thermal.” In short, it has reflectors that concentrate the sun—”to about 5,000 suns,” Gianluca Ambrosetti, Airlight’s head of research told me—and then some highly efficient photovoltaic cells that are capable of converting that concentrated solar energy into electricity, without melting in the process. Airlight/Dsolar are behind the Sunflower’s reflectors and superstructure, and the photovoltaics are provided by IBM.