Making It In Northern MI: Traverse Solar
Local startup Traverse Solar is out to capture energy from the sun. But instead of buying and selling solar panels, company owner Nathan Bildeaux and his two partners have designed, tested and are now marketing their own high-tech mounting system that automatically adjusts the angle of solar panels.
The goal of the technology is simple: solar panels that catch more of the sun’s rays produce more electricity, often at a rate 30 percent higher than fixed panels.
Bildeaux, who is a mechanical engineer by training, knows it’s not a new idea. Other systems are out there. But the team at Traverse Solar has introduced some high- and low-tech ideas they think will make them competitive against fixed-system competitors and even those firms already selling tracking equipment. He gave the TCBN a few reasons for that optimism.
Bildeaux said his sun-tracking equipment is guided by a small on-board computer with GPS.
“All of this, including the motor, is small and fits in pretty much anywhere,” he said. “We program in the precise time and location, then the panels move to maximize exposure to the sun.”
There are more refinements on the way, including WiFi capability that automatically moves panels to a vertical position in case of snow storms and other rough weather.
“In essence, that will make our equipment an ‘internet of things’ device that’s able to adapt to weather conditions without human input,” he said.
Traverse Solar’s equipment is based on a simple design, which according to Bildeaux fits with most manufacturers’ solar panels. Its design also allows most do-it-yourselfers to set the system up on their own. The equipment is available online through Menard’s or directly from Copemish-based company CBS Solar, which has entered into a dealership agreement with Traverse Solar.
With some solar arrays, setup costs can be high even for relatively modest projects. Traverse Solar has taken a different approach: The company’s device comes in either two or four solar panels.
“That can be enough for those interested in solar to test the waters before making a major investment,” Bildeaux said. “You can start small, buy it one piece at a time, then add as many panels as you want.”
Some customers go solar because they want to help the planet. Others want to save money or even get some income back by selling excess solar-generated electricity back to the grid. Regardless of their underlying motives, most buyers like to calculate the effect on their monthly electric bill and anticipate the breakeven point for their investment.
“From the start, our goal has been to keep our product competitively priced,” Bildeaux said. “And with a potential gain in power generation of 30 percent, we get you to that payback point pretty quickly.”
Right now, the company is looking to find additional investors and enter into more dealership agreements.
Despite a looming trade war with China over solar panels, Bildeaux said he remains upbeat about the future of the market here and abroad. For inspiration, he pointed to Germany, which as a one-day demonstration recently powered nearly 80 percent of its power needs from renewable sources. Polls there show 90 percent of citizens support the push for wind, geothermal and solar alternatives. The country’s goal is to have renewables account for 45 percent of the nation’s energy needs in the next few years.