SDM Team Develops New Solar Power Solution

Alex PiñaSean Gilliland

Editor’s note: SDM students Alex Piña ’13 and Sean Gilliland ’13, cofounders of Avalanche Energy (AE), believe that solar energy should be accessible to everyone, everywhere. The company won first prize in the 2013 Boston Lean Startup Challenge, was a finalist at the New York Future Energy Pitch Competition, and was a semifinalist in both the MIT $100K Pitch and Accelerate contests. Visit AE’s website at

By Alex Piña ’13 and Sean Gilliland ’13
May 21, 2014

The challenge: A wave of interest in green energy has started to move across the nation as people seek to curb the greenhouse gas emissions generated in heating and providing electricity to homes. These greenhouse gases have become a focal point of concern as they have been increasing the rate of climate change, which has led to more severe storms and to other natural disasters. Still, today most people participating in the green revolution are wealthy enthusiasts; middle-class homeowners have been waiting on the sidelines, wary of “going solar” for several reasons, including:

  • significant upfront costs;
  • a long payback period for return on investment; and
  • the need for large arrays of solar panels, which can mar a home’s aesthetics.

These problems are particularly apparent in Southern California. Although the 7.7 million homes in this area experience some of the highest solar intensities in the nation, only around 100,000—less than 2 percent—are equipped with any kind of system for solar energy generation.

Figure 1. This map shows the intensity of solar radiation throughout the United States. Much of Southern California is in the red area of highest intensity.

The approach: Avalanche Energy asked the question: What prevents more homeowners from purchasing and installing solar energy systems—even in California where the state provides significant incentives to do so?

Conversations with potential purchasers of solar systems helped AE identify the three key factors outlined above. Of these, AE found that the primary factor is the roughly $20,000 price tag associated with installing a solar system that can generate and store enough energy for daily use. Recognizing that the acceptance of renewable energy cannot wait for existing products to drop in price, AE determined that a new approach is necessary.

The status quo for solar energy systems became a personal problem for Alex Piña and his family when they sought to supplement their natural gas hot water heating with solar power for their home in Colorado. After being unable to find a solar solution that met his family’s budget and space constraints, Piña realized that other people were likely facing the same problem. Visualizing this need, he decided to enroll in a program that would help him architect a solution while developing the management aspects of the project. At MIT, he gained a broader understanding of how to solve such a complex problem and was able to find a team as passionate about the subject as he was.

SDM provided Piña and his team with a multitude of perspectives and approaches to the challenges of system design and management as well as to product design and development. The team created a detailed profile of the target customers for solar power—their incentives, expectations, and frustrations with existing products. Based on this customer profile, the team sought to develop an all-in-one solution that would address each key point they had identified and enable middle-income homeowners to participate in the energy revolution.

The tools: SDM’s emphasis on systems thinking and systems engineering provided an excellent foundation for the creation of the final product, a patent-pending solar hot water collector. The team’s overall vision is based on real-world requirements analysis, and the group used problem decomposition to further refine their product and create a working prototype.

During the summer of 2013, the team enrolled in System Engineering and started analyzing their concept to ensure that it was sound technically. During the course, Piña, Gilliland, and their teammates (Scott Peterein and Pitiporn Thammongkol) performed a series of analyses that included design structure matrices, quality function deployment, and a problem-solving methodology called TRIZ. The result was a sound architectural framework.

Figure 2. This design structure matrix represents the general architecture AE used for its solar hot water and electricity generation system.

The team also utilized diagramming techniques from the object process methodology to determine the architecture of the system during their System Architecture class in fall 2013. The architecture AE developed was then used as the basis for an alpha prototype design.

Figure 3. This object process methodology diagram shows a residential solar thermal water heating system, demonstrating the function of each system component.

The results: AE team members used the information from their SDM coursework over six months to design a patent-pending double reflector solar thermal collector. This collector is roughly twice the size of a satellite dish and provides the equivalent of 8 kilowatt-hours of energy per day in the southwestern United States. The team’s design enables the system to more efficiently heat water while reducing the weight and size of the system through the use of two focused reflectors instead of the traditional single-reflector system. The water is then connected directly to a homeowner’s existing hot-water tank, providing high heat-transfer efficiency and substantially reducing system and installation costs.

The team has taken its vision for the solar future to the next step by manufacturing a full-scale working prototype. After performing functionality testing out of Piña’s Somerville, MA, apartment, the team tested the alpha prototype of their low-profile solar thermal collector at a home in San Jose, CA.

Figure 4. Alpha prototype of the patent-pending solar hot water collector that was tested in San Jose, CA. Photo courtesy of Avalanche Energy

During the test, the system was proved to have nearly 50 percent end-to-end energy transfer efficiency (i.e. amount of energy collected by the system that raised the water temperature divided by the theoretical maximum of energy available from the sun). The team was able to identify areas of improvement to help the system move closer to the theoretical maximum efficiency of 92 percent. (Current products for heating hot water using solar energy are about 60 percent efficient. Solar photovoltaics are only about 20 percent efficient.)

The AE team plans to offer a low-profile solar thermal collector that:

  • lowers the barriers for entry to solar power use;
  • immediately provides homeowners with savings on hot water heating bills;
  • provides a maximum energy benefit using a minimum of space; and
  • offers a platform that will be able to grow as the homeowner’s needs increase and change.

On top of all this, AE’s system, when installed in place of an electric water heater, will displace 3 tons of CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere over 10 years. Avalanche Energy believes that combining all these benefits into one product will change the landscape of sustainable energy for this generation and empower homeowners to achieve the solar future today.

Next steps: With the successful completion of alpha prototype testing in January, the team is now moving to refine its product based on performance data and customer feedback. Since the students are still at MIT, they are beginning by installing the upgraded system on five beta sites across Massachusetts during the summer of 2014 in an effort to validate performance, gain additional customer feedback, and identify key suppliers and manufacturers necessary for full-scale development of the product. The team is also refining its go-to-market strategy, business model, and long-term financial projections.

Following a successful beta period, the team plans to continue product development and move toward realizing their vision of a solar future—an end-to-end replacement of non-renewable home energy sources with solar alternatives. Divided into three phases, AE plans first to focus on supplementing and eventually replacing other sources for heating water using solar thermal energy. This system would then become the backbone of a modular whole-home energy system that generates electricity in Phase 2. In the final phase, solar energy would also provide all home heating and cooling.

Figure 5. This chart shows AE’s planned rollout of product offerings in three phases.

The team is starting to accept investments from family and friends to cover initial startup costs and finance the first five beta units. In addition, AE will be trying to raise $100,000 through a Kickstarter project begun in the summer of 2014 to start financing the production and validation of their product and finalize development of the user-facing website. The final step of the funding roadmap will be to obtain angel or venture capital investment that will allow Avalanche Energy to begin distributing the product to target customers in California.

For more information, visit AE’s website.

Alex Piña

Sean Gilliland