Renewable energy is not just an alternative fodder for the automobile industry. Many people believe that – in the face of Al Gore’s "inconvenient truth" of global warming, and with oil resources declining – renewable energy is essential to the planet’s survival. But it can also help humanity in smaller ways.
Zoltan Kiss, the irrepressible Princeton inventor who pioneered in photovoltaic research, has developed a novel consumer electronic product aimed at replacing the kerosene lamp in the developing world. The product is called Always Light, says Kiss, because it is continually lit without having to pay for fuel. Not only will it reduce consumption of fossil fuels, but it should improve the health of African women, who have a higher incidence of lung cancer from breathing kerosene fumes.
Kiss picked photovoltaics as the single most important technical problem to work on when he was at RCA (now Sarnoff), and that was nearly 40 years ago. "Once you start working on photovoltaics, it is very addictive," says the 74-year-old Kiss. Now he has 50 or 60 patents to his credit and has founded six companies – all within a 20-mile radius of Princeton.
Kiss was responsible for bringing about much of the development of amorphous silicon as a commercially practical source of solar
energy at a time when crystalline silicon was exorbitantly expensive. Currently he is involved with four firms, one of them (Solar Thin Films Inc.) in Hungary and three of them – Nanergy, the electronic products firm, plus Terra Solar, and Renewable Energy Sources Inc. (RESI) – on Ludlow Drive in
Ewing. He recently moved his
entourage from 4260 Route 1 North in Monmouth Junction because he needed more space and sufficient power.
Kiss, who decries the gadget frenzy in America today, believes that photovoltaic technology is "the high tech for the have-nots. In the United States, we already have too much, and people try to come up with widgets that are totally meaningless."
In contrast he grew up, an only child, in a peasant village in
Hungary, and had planned to be a priest. "I was always a bit of an idealist," he admits. Segue to his
current job, and he says, "The closest secular occupation to being a priest in the modern day and age
is – environmentalist."
Kiss (pronounced "Kish") was in his teens when Russian soldiers went through his village and Americans were bombing. Then came the Communists. "I left pretty quickly, the year they were taking over." How? "With great difficulty," is all he will say of the barbed wire and land mine barriers. He escaped to Austria, then made it to Switzerland and back to Austria, where he finished high school. Emigrating to Canada, he earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Toronto and went to Oxford for his postdoc. In 1956 his parents were freed from prison and followed him to Canada.
Through it all, he – and his father – remained optimists. "He endured," says Kiss. "He said, `be persistent and take life as it is.’"
This trait turned out to be essential for Kiss as an entrepreneur, who has been told he operates in the mode of, "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." On some occasions, he has realized, "optimism is not necessarily helpful."
"He is a bold entrepreneur, sometimes too bold," agrees a former colleague, Jonathan Allen, who has worked with Kiss over the years and is now a consultant. "Occasionally he glosses over some of the obstacles but that’s what inventors have to do. He is also an adventurer in the business sense, willing to try things that offer the possibility of doing some real good, even though there are substantial business risks involved."
Two of Kiss’s companies – the first two – did go bankrupt, both of them three years after he left. His first company, Optel, developed early versions of digital and LCD watches.
"Optel began in early 1970,
after a restless RCA employee named Zoltan Kiss had made his way through the company’s labs the previous year looking for
potential colleagues for his
own business," wrote Carlene Stephens and Maggie Dennis in Invention & Technology Magazine
"He didn’t even have a particular product in mind, but he recruited a staff and put almost everyone to work on his own research project. Only a couple of technicians worked on liquid crystals, but that effort flourished by drawing on fundamental research that had been done at RCA."
Optel came up with a liquid-crystal watch and accepted huge orders but could not meet its deadlines. "Within a few years nearly 50 other outfits flooded the market with digital watches. Quality suffered while prices plunged."
"As American manufacturers retrenched, Japanese firms stepped in. Their success was sealed in 1983 when Seiko introduced the world’s first LCD television wristwatch (with a receiver in the user’s pocket)," wrote Stephens and Dennis. "Its tiny screen was a giant
step toward David Sarnoff’s dream of a TV on the wall."
But by that time, in the late 1970s, the bold entrepreneur
had already chosen his second
venture in thin film technology – photovoltaics, a field which still engages him.
The second firm, Chronar, would also eventually fail. Some said it was simply ahead of its time, others pointed to quality control. And the national political situation did not help. In 1981 Ronald Regan stripped the Jimmy Carter White House roof of its solar panels.
"The solar energy industry was like a 12-year-old," says Allen. "When the subsidies stopped, it was like kicking a 12-year-old out of your home."
Chronar, nevertheless, endured for a good long while. In the early 1980s, Allen remembers, it had a half-dozen scientists and about 50 employees developing amorphous silicon modules in a modern building on Clarksville Road and manufacturing them in Trenton. Amorphous silicon technology was half as efficient as crystalline technology but much cheaper then, and it was particularly well suited for third-world countries.
The company built an empire, going into enterprise zones in New York, Alabama, and Trenton, and into joint ventures in Wales, France, Yugoslavia, China, and Taiwan. Allen was on the "away" team that helped build those factories. "At one time," says Allen, "the sun never set on Chronar."
Chronar took an investor, the Sheet Metal Workers Union, in return for becoming a union shop, and eventually that deal soured. The union brought in a turn-around CEO, and Kiss left. Several years later Chronar declared bankruptcy and was replaced by a private firm, wholly owned by the union, called Advanced Photovoltaic Systems (APS). The overseas joint ventures, nevertheless, survived while APS lasted less than two years.
Chronar, Kiss says, was just ahead of its time. "We were the ones to develop a new process in a market where people didn’t even know what photovoltaics were." An early product, a pathway light, sold 30,000 pieces in the first year. "The next year a dozen people knocked it off and sold millions."
Allen attributes the failure to politics. The only big solar companies that survived this period,
he says, "were the ones with sugar daddies – big oil companies
that wanted to greenwash themselves."
But at least one client, entrepreneur Win Straube, thinks that part of the problem was poor quality control. Straube bought Chronar’s parking lot lights in the first or second year they were produced and installed them at his office complex in Pennington. "The theory was beautiful," says Straube, "but right from the beginning we
had failures because the lights were not properly put together. Chronar’s support was zero. Eventually we threw them out."
Meanwhile by 1991 Kiss had started his third firm, and this morphed into what is now EPV (Energy Photovoltaics) on Bakers Basin Road. EPV absorbed some of the Chronar researchers and continued to work on thin film, also exploring other technologies such as copper indium diselenide and copper indium gallium diselenide.
Somewhere along the way Kiss opened and closed a Hungarian restaurant, Z, in Chambersburg, where Casa Bella now stands. "It’s one of the mistakes you have to make, to start a restaurant and lose your shirt," says Kiss, who is married and has two children by his first wife.
In 2001 Kiss was replaced at EPV by CEO James F. Groelinger, who had organized investors to chip in $14 million in return for
a controlling interest (see story
Kiss went off on his own again, gathering former RCA employees and others working on alternative energy. One of his current employees, Roger Amidon, had worked for Kiss in the Optel days.
Now Kiss has assembled a soup-to-nuts line-up for photovoltaic manufacturing:
Solar Thin Films Inc. (SLTF), the Hungary-based firm, makes vacuum systems and machinery for manufacturing photovoltaic modules. Kiss used to have control of the firm when it was called American United Global/Kraft. Earlier this summer it went public by reverse merger, and now it trades on the pink sheets as SLTF.
This encourages Kiss, because it means the industry has grown in the eyes of Wall Street; he compares alternative energy’s popularity to the dotcom boom. Ten or twenty years ago, "everybody thought you were a lunatic if you were trying to replace fossil fuels," says Kiss. "Now my predictions pale compare to everybody’s predictions. Only now could one take Kraft public."
Terra Solar uses the Hungarian-made equipment to manufacture amorphous-silicon photovoltaic modules, and it installs them on rooftops.
Because both Terra Solar and Energy Photovoltaics employ ex-Chronar employees, they both claim the same resume items on their website – the facilities that Chronar built. Terra Solar touts Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV), which is what can happen when installation gets integrated during construction, and the thin-film panels look like part of the architecture. Kiss’s son, a Brooklyn-based architect Gregory Kiss, designed the Chronar factories and does the BIPV installations.
Terra Solar also sells photovoltaic factories and installs lighting and water pump facilities in third world countries.
Now that Terra Solar has begun to manufacture products in the new Ludlow Drive facility, it has hired another eight people for a total of 24 and is about to hire another dozen. Terra Solar’s majority owner is China Solar, and its CEO is the Manhattan-based Yuan Lee.
Renewable Energy Source Inc., known as RESI, does the R&D for Terra Solar and for the fourth firm, Nanergy. With 14 employees, RESI is privately owned by Kiss.
RESI’s research interests are wide, but the most important, says Kiss, is hydrogen storage in nanomaterials. RESI has patented a process for storing hydrogen in nanomaterials and then taking it out with an electric field. "This has far-reaching implications for transportation," says Kiss.
The first step is to use photovoltaics to generate hydrogen by splitting water, the next is to store the hydrogen in nanomaterials with an electric field, and the last one is to take out the hydrogen and put it into an electric car or stationary storage medium. "It is the ultimate energy cycle," he says, adding that RESI should be announcing interesting results in this sphere in the next months.
RESI also develops beta voltaics, which convert beta rays to electricity, and works on combining fluorescence and photovoltaics: "The most fundamental limitation to the efficiency of photovoltaic modules," says Kiss, "is that when you convert light to electricity, most of it goes to heat, with only about 20 percent actually generating electricity." One way to improve the percentage is to use fluorescent materials.
"When it reaches the stage to be commercialized," says Kiss, "RESI will pass it on to a commercial company. If I am still alive, in a couple of years, beta voltaic and fluorescent voltaic technology will be commercialized."
RESI is collaborating with the University of Szeged in Hungary (and through those researchers with the University of California at Berkeley) and also with the University of St. Petersburg in Russia.
Nanergy, with seven employees on Ludlow Drive, commercializes nano-photovoltaic consumer products developed by RESI. "I am basically a research person; I have been working with a few basic patents for 10 years," says Kiss. "I am taking this research to Nanergy to have an immediate product to sell." Nanergy’s line of consumer products is appropriate for Home Depot, whereas most similar companies, he says, "are selling, primarily, hope."
The Always Light, which will combine a light-emitting diode and some kind of energy storage, like batteries or capacitors, will cost the same as a kerosene lamp, under $40. With a light-emitting diode (LED) light source, it is being designed for a very long life, perhaps 10 years. The LED scatters light in every direction, but it can also be rotated to serve as a directed reading light. Kiss has patented this use.
Nanergy has another heavy duty, rubberized lantern with an intense fluorescent light. It can be used in the developing world as a lantern, but also in developed countries as an emergency or outdoor light. It plugs into a 5 watt photovoltaic panel, has a minimum storage unit of two D batteries, and costs about $100.
Another product is the Solar Emergency Generator, a portable photovoltaic emergency power supply for power outages. Carried in a wagonlike apparatus that can be unfolded in 10 minutes, it generates energy, which it stores in a battery bank. A fourth product is a street number sign that glows.
Nanergy has been publicly traded, but it is in the process of being carved in two. Kiss attributes the split to a difference in corporate philosophies. "Nanergy as a high tech company felt it would be better off in its own culture."
Nanergy’s New York-based investors are moving their telecommunications technology to an Israeli company. Meanwhile the Kiss contingent retains its technology and is applying to the SEC to relist the firm under the original name.
Kiss remains an optimist. His industry has been growing at 30 percent a year, and he says that in 50 years it is likely to be the replacement for fossil fuel. "I thought it would reach that point 15 years ago. But it was so political."
Politics can’t continue to hamper photovoltaic technology, he insists, because the tipping point has been reached and "all the oil companies are jumping on board."
The tipping point, according to Kiss: Predictions made have come true. A Shell Oil scientist, M. King Hubbert, predicted in 1956 that oil production would peak in the United States in 1975 and that oil production in the world would peak in 2006. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, wrote about it in a book entitled "Hubbert’s Peak," and although the Energy Information Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey deny Hubbert’s numbers, Kiss claims Hubbert turned out to be right.
"Nobody believed him," says Kiss, "and he was correct within two weeks."
Kiss also attributes the success of photovoltaics to the trickle down effect from the semiconductor industry. One kind of photovoltaic technology, crystalline, can make modules using "seconds" that have been discarded by the chip manufacturers.
Photovoltaics stand supreme in Kiss’ eyes. He dismisses nuclear fusion as an empty hope and other renewables, like wind energy, as eventual victims of the "not in my back yard" syndrome. "We are running out of energy. We have to find something," says Kiss. "Photovoltaics is the ultimate solution to replace fossil fuels. In my industrial and entrepreneurial experience, nothing has been comparable to photovoltaics."
Says Kiss: "I hope, finally, that God is giving me an activity where I am doing the right thing at the right time. I think, finally, the timing is right for voltaics."
Terra Solar, 200 Ludlow Drive, Ewing 08638; 609-771-8600; fax, 609-771-8668. Zoltan Kiss, chairman. Home page: www.terrasolar.com
Renewable Energy Solutions Inc., 200 Ludlow Drive, Ewing 08638; 609-434-0600; fax, 609-434-0602. www.resi-usa.com
Nanergy Inc., 200 Ludlow Drive, Suite C, Ewing 08638; 609-434-0900; fax, 609-434-0602. nanenergyinc.com