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Does the solar industry need a Salesforce.com?

SunEdison's Jigar Shah talks about how simpler business models can make solar power cost-effective--even without technology breakthroughs.

To hear Jigar Shah, CEO of solar services company SunEdison, talk about the solar industry, one thing becomes clear: installing solar is complex.

Getting electricity from the sun has clear environmental benefits and can make sense economically. But to install solar panels, customers and installers face big up-front costs and a maze of government incentive programs.

Millions of dollars are being poured into making cells better at converting sunlight to electricity, but the industry's future isn't riding on some radical technical advance, Shah argues. Instead, what's needed is the right business model to make it work cost effectively and at scale.

Much like the way companies purchase software as a service from hosted application providers like Salesforce.com, SunEdison and other companies offer corporate customers the ability to buy electricity, rather than solar panels.

The panels sit on the roof of an office park building or retail outlet, but the panels belong to and are maintained by someone else.

Shah, who was on a solar power panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's