In 2020, the average American home experienced more than eight hours of power outage. Many families combat power outages with gasoline back-up generators, but in the long run, these can be hazardous, noisy, and expensive. Fortunately, many companies are addressing this by creating more sustainable alternatives.
YouSolar has designed a solar- and battery-powered system called PowerBloc that gives houses and businesses a reliable, intelligent, and off-grid electricity solution. YouSolar’s software uses forecasting to adapt the use of the battery and maximize the off-grid capacity when solar electricity production is limited, and it can be used as a primary power supply when the utility power system fails. We reached out to founder and CEO Arnold Leitner to learn more about his involvement with energy as a teenager and the company’s passion for environmentally friendly power.
Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
In your own words, how would you describe YouSolar?
At YouSolar, we don’t believe that playing by the old rules will get us anywhere fast enough. To change the world, we need to change the game. But the laws of physics and sound engineering are immutable. So, we approached the design of the PowerBloc both with irreverence for the status quo and a respect for what electrons can do. The vision is to build the ultimate solar and battery system. There are so many adjectives that describe the PowerBloc – such as modular, plugandplay, parallel, or multi-source (and many more) – that it appears as if we don’t know what is important and just rattle down the menu. But the PowerBloc is not a single-use product like a washing machine. It is a solution. And there is no simple solution to a complex problem such as powering the world with clean energy. To be a proper solution, everything needs to be right. At YouSolar, that is why we did not just throw technology together and try to make it work. Instead, we first asked what the solution needed to be and then built the technology. Everything at YouSolar is considered important, and everything is developed in the context of all other PowerBloc features, including price.
What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?
How about the assured devastation of all natural systems on Earth if we do not stop climate change occurring at hypervelocity? If we do not do something, the worst of climate change will happen with greater certainty than being hit by a train while hiking on railroad tracks. It is crucial to inspire and mobilize people, but I chose to develop the technology to solve the climate crisis. At age 19, I designed and convinced my parents to build one of Germany’s first ultra-low-energy homes. I went to Columbia business school and founded the solar technology company, SkyFuel, which won an R&D 100 award. With YouSolar, I want to give the world the ultimate clean power system that also holds the seed to transform the electrical system as a whole, as I will discuss below.
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
People often ask me, “How can I work in sustainability?” My answer is always the same. Just be a great engineer, great accountant, or great salesperson, and work for a company that delivers more sustainable goods or services. So, the team at YouSolar is made up of power electronics engineers, embedded controls programmers, mechanical engineers, and, yes, accountants. The team is still very heavy on engineering, but this will change soon. We were brought together by our desire to work on a solution to the climate crisis and to democratize power.
How is YouSolar transforming the energy industry?
We need to find a way to deliver reliable and carbon-free energy easily to everyone. We believe this requires breaking free of the constraints of grid-tied solar systems. With few exceptions, other solar-battery solutions in the market require utility approval because they are grid-tied. And these solutions also rely on the grid as the primary power source. For example, a typical solar-battery solution has five kilowatts (kW) of power but is installed in homes with a 50 kW utility connection. The battery has only a fraction of the power the home needs. Even with the battery, the house is still wholly reliant on the grid. This means, in turn, that we still need a massive utility infrastructure to deliver that power. At the same time, energy sales to pay for this infrastructure go down as people install solar systems (with or without batteries). The result is a “death spiral” for the electric infrastructure that puts solar incentives under siege, as here in California. Distributed solar was the first mile, energy storage the second mile, but the last mile is delivering high power from the solar-battery system. Only then can we realize the near-unlimited potential of distributed solar. This is why the PowerBloc, by default, is not grid-tied and is high power.
What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?
Many companies offer solar-battery solutions that can address some of their customers’ needs. These companies include Enphase, SolarEdge, Tesla, L.G. Energy, Generac, etc.
But the PowerBloc can do it all and do it better. Here is a list of some of the things PowerBloc can do while our competitors’ products can only do a few of these things or none of them:
- Parallel – All components operate in parallel and independently of each other, and new components can be added easily. For example, the solar array or battery can be expanded without rebuilding the system.
- Modular – The battery system breaks down into modules lightweight enough to allow one-person installation.
- Scalable – Using the same modules, or “blocs,” we can deliver a PowerBloc for a residential customer in California or a PowerBloc for a clinic in Florida.
- High-Power – The core of the residential PowerBloc is designed to deliver 50 kW of power to AC loads. Our commercial PowerBloc has even more power.
- Multi-Source – With easy integration of multiple power sources, the PowerBloc can integrate any generator and any type of utility service.
- Stackable – The patented stackable PowerBloc dramatically simplifies shipment and installation and allows the PowerBloc to become a mobile system for rapid deployment by disaster relief organizations or the military. And we do not just stack the battery. Everything is stackable, and even the order of blocs inside the PowerBloc does not matter.
- Future-Proof and Backward Compatible – The PowerBloc can use any future solar panel or battery technology, even in legacy systems.
- Multi-Power – The PowerBloc can deliver single-phase AC or three-phase AC power, or both simultaneously.
- Automatic – There is an intelligent controller for fully automatic operation of the system.
- Safe – Solar array and system’s 400 V DC core shuts down rapidly when the emergency stop is pushed.
How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?
We will use the funds from this crowdfunding campaign to build our manufacturing capabilities and begin selling systems on a large scale. We will also use the funds to get the stackable PowerBloc ready for market introduction. But we will need to raise much more money than the $5 million dollars of this campaign to sell the number of systems that can make any difference in combating climate change.
What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?
I know what I am doing, and my investors will always know what I am doing. By this, I mean, first, that I am an experienced entrepreneur and have a proven track record of developing technology. Second, transparency is important to me. I communicate with investors where we are at and what challenges lie ahead. But I also celebrate our successes with them. We are a “company” of people who want to design and sell the world’s best solar and battery system. I encourage everyone at YouSolar to look at ourselves and our investors this way. If you invest in YouSolar, you are part of our company.
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?
In five years, we want to sell thousands of PowerBloc systems per year and in 10 years, hundreds of thousands. YouSolar is only a success when it makes a difference in transitioning to a more sustainable world. That means we cannot be a “boutique” brand. Instead, PowerBlocs need to roll off the band like Model-Ts. The YouSolar business model involves the idea of working with highly capitalized regional partners which source PowerBlocs from approved contract manufacturers, hold inventory, sell, and distribute PowerBloc systems. At the same time, YouSolar continues innovation, controls branding, and manages all remote customer support. In this model, YouSolar may be purchased by one of its partners. On the other side, this model allows YouSolar to stay lean and focus on the high-value parts of the business, making it attractive enough to do an initial public offering. Beyond the next five to 10 years, we would want the YouSolar power architecture and controls to be a technology standard and third-party companies to provide modules, or “blocs,” compatible with the PowerBloc. Those approved third-party blocs would only work if they are recognized by our registry-based controller.
We look forward to seeing where Arnold and his team take the company. YouSolar is currently raising on StartEngine.