A More Solar World

Chief legal advisor Renato Pontello stands beside solar panels manufactured by Solantro’s customers. The panels have been erected on Solantro’s roof and are being used by engineering teams to test the company's chip sets and reference designs.

How Solantro Semiconductor's Renato Pontello keeps the company as a leader in the field

Lawyers are costly, and Renato Pontello knows so firsthand, being one himself. “Most start-up companies do not hire in-house counsel in the early phases,” he says. His situation as chief legal advisor for Solantro Semiconductor Corp., though, is a little bit different. This is because the Ottawa-based company, founded in 2009, has pronounced potential to design integrated chips that could well become revolutionary and standard in the solar industry (and eventually for other renewables). “Having a legal beagle in place who can stay with the growth curve will help the company scale quickly when it undergoes explosive growth,” he says.

The Word on Green

Renato Pontello believes strongly in the future of renewable energy. Here are his thoughts on some important topics related to sustainability:

RENEWABLE ENERGY

“The first time I heard the following statistic, it staggered me: in 88 minutes, the earth captures 470 exajoules of solar energy—as much power as humans consume in a year.”

ACHIEVING EFFICIENCIES

“It is essential for solar and other renewable-energy systems to reduce the cost of energy on a per-watt basis. Already, solar power has reached parity with electricity in many markets.”

SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIOURS

“We are developing a new mind-set in our culture, a new relationship with energy. I recently saw the effects of global warming on Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s become too difficult for humanity to say, ‘We don’t care.’”

As Pontello explains it, the solar industry has by and large adapted “discretes”—integrated chips that work together with other components such as resistors and magnetics—but his client is the first company in the world to develop a family of integrated circuits and reference platforms from the ground up specifically for solar applications. In doing so, Solantro has “incorporated features and functionality which the other solutions lack,” Pontello says. “This dramatically reduces the component cost on its boards, increases energy harvesting and reliability, and avoids points of failure.” The combination is likely to have other companies salivating to get in on the action, so Pontello is there to protect Solantro’s offerings and ensure their regulatory compliance worldwide.

Pontello is as much a champion of renewable and efficient energy as he is of the law. He likens Solantro’s approach to that of Qualcomm, which seized the mobile phone market a few years back. The semiconductor firm is developing software that assists with the installation, verification, and monitoring of solar panels using an open-source model, and this allows customers to design using Solantro’s integrated chips or to apply the company’s software with proprietary or customers’ panels.

“We have antiquated power grids worldwide,” Pontello says, pointing out how frequently Solantro’s founder and CEO, Antoine Paquin, remarks on the fact that if Nikola Tesla were to come back today, he would still quite easily understand the current power grid. (Tesla, best known for devising the alternating-current electric-supply system, died in 1943.) Pontello says the transmission lines and towers that make up the existing power grid were not designed to meet emerging means of power generation or methods of distribution—a problem Solantro hopes to overcome.

“We are seeing a convergence between energy technology and communications in a ‘Third Industrial Revolution,’” Pontello says, referencing Jeremy Rifkin, the oft-quoted author and consultant to governments and global organizations. “Energy will be accumulated, stored, and distributed laterally in the same way we download, store, and transmit information through the Internet. The creation of a renewable-energy regime, loaded by buildings, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, distributed through an energy Internet [i.e., a smart intergrid], and connected to zero-emission transport, is the way of the future.” He adds that microgrids for remote locations, including those in the developing world, will reduce the use of diesel generators. “The carbon era is coming to an end,” he says.

The way Pontello sees it, the world is starting to develop technologies that allow the real-time tracking of energy use, which will make people smarter energy consumers. “Most of us lack an intimate relationship with energy,” he says. “In the future, that will change. Energy-use monitoring will appear on our smartphones and our tablets. We will take a greater interest in conservation.”

WHY LAW? 

“I come from a long line of merchants. Law provides a framework for breaking challenges down to their fundamentals and tackling big-picture issues in efficient ways.” 

The products Solantro is developing, including reactive-power and four-quadrant microinverters, respond to regulatory requirements across global markets. And, Pontello says, his company has a significant marketing edge because it’s much easier to integrate such features and functions at the semiconductor and software level.

In providing legal support, Pontello’s advice needs to be practical, right-sized and time-sensitive—“fast legal prototyping,” as he describes it—and scalable. His company faces regulatory and customer-driven requirements that are dynamic, but that’s one of the primary reasons he likes working there. And, with global photovoltaic-industry revenues expected to grow by 35 percent between 2014 and 2020, he still has plenty to do.

“We have to proactively think about change and tweak our business thesis as we prove and disprove assumptions,” he says. “We also have a roll-up-your-sleeves start-up mentality. The entire organization is working with a sense of immediacy and urgency.”