Monday, October 20, 2008

Solar Power International '08 Wraps Up

the solar coaster wasn't in San Diego this past week for Solar Power International 2008, but luckily, quite a few bloggers and other online media were.

RenewableEnergyWorld hosted the official video broadcast of the event, providing a day-by-day blow of the news and views coming out of San Diego, including some great videos of key speakers. For a more abbreviated version, check out Gunther Portfolio's post, in which he highlights especially the CEO Panel titled "Driving Down Costs," if you only have time for one video:

You'll also find a plethora of stories at GreenTech Media, Earth2Tech and Green Tech Blog covering the event. Here's a few stories that the solar coaster found highlight-worthy:
  • The 10 solar startups to watch at Solar Power International 2008.
  • GreenVolts' newly unveiled CarouSoul unit was the buzz of the exhibition, as Gunther Portfolio reports, while SkyFuel showcases its SkyTrough systems which boat a 35% reduction in cost compared to other parabolic trough technologies.
  • Utility in Gainsville, Florida considers implementing a feed-in tariff, and now, so does Oregon.
  • Speaking of Oregon, the northwestern state has already been put on the solar map thanks to SolarWorld and Sanyo opening up solar manufacturing facilities in Hillsoboro and Salem, respectively.
  • And speaking of maps, 3TIER was in San Diego to show how it uses the Google Maps platform to provide high-resolution data maps of solar, wind and hydro resources. This is yet another example of where the IT meets the ET (energy technology), and the need to reduce information asymmetries in the solar industry. (Remember Fat Spaniel, or even National Semi and Enphase?) Check out 3TIER's solar resource assessment map of the Western hemisphere here.
  • Building Integrated PV (BIPV) in focus.
  • The bleak financial situation might spur consolidation in the industry. There is some discussion of this in the CEO panel video above starting at 47'28" or so, with the Q-Cells CEO agreeing that consolidation is inevitable, but not before margins further upstream in the supply chain, which are still very healthy, get squeezed more.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dilbert Goes Solar

On the eve of a serious week ahead with Solar Power International 2008 taking centerstage in San Diego, the solar coaster would like start things off with something a little more light-hearted (hat tip to Gunther Portfolio):

Oct 9

Oct 10

Oct 11

Of course, there's a serious undertone to it as all kinds of companies try to cash in on the hot PV market. But in this current financial market, will venture capitalists continue to bite? Even more so, suggests this piece by Greentech Media.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Solyndra Reshapes Solar (and Other Thin-Film News)

The emergence of Solyndra, a Fremont-California-based thin-film start-up, out of stealth-mode has created a mini-sensation within the cleantech blogospheare over the past couple of days. The company has caught the industry’s attention for a few reasons: (1) its novel technology, specifically with regards to the shape and configuration of its cylindrical Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) modules; (2) the $1.2 billion in backlog orders that it has announced; (3) the whopping $600 million it has reportedly raised over the past three years; and (4) the quality and reputation of its VC backers.

The unique design of Solyndra’s modules boast two primary advantages. First, the modules are cylindrical instead of flat and are packed together with a minimum gap between modules, creating a self-tracking configuration that allows the modules to capture both direct and diffuse (including light reflected off the surface of the underlying rooftop) sunlight around a 360 degree axis as the sun position shifts throughout the day. This makes additional tracking systems unnecessary, thereby saving costs while boosting photovoltaic efficiency. The vented design also enhances air flow, allowing for better systems cooling than conventional modules, thereby reducing heat accumulation that would otherwise adversely affect photovoltaic performance.

Second, because of such enhanced air flow, the Solyndra systems do not require the kind of anchoring equipment such as roof-penetrating mounts and wind ballasts that conventional systems require to withstand general wind load. Thus, Solyndra’s modules can be installed using “one-third the labor, in one-third of the time, at one-half the cost” says one Solyndra customer.

Speaking of customers, Solyndra has lined up an eye-popping $1.2 billion worth of multi-year contracts in the US and Europe, exclusively targeting, according to Technology Review, commercial rooftop applications. Pretty impressive for a three-year old start-up. All this while hiring 500 employees, building a state-of-the-art thin-film production line (see video below) and raising a war chest of $600 million from high-profile venture financiers (although there is some suggestion of one of its investment rounds not coming through completely). According to Venture Beat, Solyndra’s investors include luminaries such as Virgin Green Fund, Rockport Capital, Argonaut Venutres, RedPoint Ventures, CMEA Ventures, US Venture Partners, Masdar Cleant Tech Fund and Madrone Capital (the Walton family fund that famously backed First Solar, the “Google of thin-film”…for now).

If you are curious about the knitty-gritty on its patent, Green Light Blog covers it here.

Other Thin-Film News

Just so you are caught up on other recent thin-film developments, here’s a hit list:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Beginning of the US Solar Boom?

Its been a big solar news week, but no news was bigger than the $18 billion package for renewable energy that was slipped into the $700 billion Wall Street financial bailout (H.R. 1424, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008) and that that was finally passed by the U.S. Congress on Friday (Oct 4) and promptly signed into law by President Bush. Solar emerged the big winner, with the Green Wombat identifying some of the goodies the solar sector will have in store:
  • "The 30% solar investment tax credit [ITC] has been extended to 2016, giving solar startups, utilities and financiers the certainty they need for the years’ long slog it takes to get large-scale power plants and other projects online. The extension is particularly important to those Big Solar projects that need to arrange project financing in the next year or so.
  • The $2,000 tax credit limit for residential solar systems has been lifted, meaning that homeowners can get a 30% tax credit on the solar panels they install after Dec. 31. That will save a bundle - especially for those who live in states with generous state rebates - and goose demand for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower and First Solar. (If you buy a $24,000 3-kilowatt solar array in California - big enough to power the average home - you can claim a $7,200 federal tax credit. Add in the state solar rebate and the cost of the system is cut in half.)
  • Utilities like PG&E, Southern California Edison and FPL can now themselves claim the 30% investment tax credit for large-scale solar power projects. That should encourage those well-capitalized utilities to build their own solar power plants rather than just sign power purchase agreements with startups like Ausra and BrightSource Energy."
The third point cannot be understated. That utilities can now themselves participate in the ITC should delight authors of the "Utility Solar Assessment (USA) Study: Reaching Ten Percent Solar by 2025" report, the primary theme of which is that utilities have to be the central driving force of the solar revolution (see previous post "Fed Up with Solar"). Its now seems that a more ideal balance of carrots (this new law) and sticks (the renewable portfolio standards in roughly half of the American states that oblige utilities to produce a fixed amount of renewable power by a fixed date) will create winning business propositions for managers of utilities to scale up solar projects.

Julia Hamm, executive director of the Solar Energy Power Association, was quoted in an official statement as saying:
U.S. electric utilities’ engagement with grid-connected solar electricity has increased significantly in 2008, with major photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal project announcements totaling more than 5,000 megawatts...Without the ability to take direct advantage of the ITC, the only viable financial option was to have these plants be owned and operated by independent power producers who then in turn sell the electricity to the utility. The change to the tax credit facilitates utility ownership as another option, which will result in additional projects and innovations.
Ms. Hamm also noted that the ITC extension means that some of the largest planned projects in history, particularly PG&E's 550MW power purchase agreement with OptiSolar and 250MW PPA with SunPower, both of which were contingent on the extnsion of the ITC, could continue as planned.

Solar integrators are no less excited. Earth2Tech has Akeena Solar CEO Barry Cinnamon extolling:
With an eight year extension of the solar investment tax credits and a complete removal of the residential cap for homeowners investing in solar systems – our customers can now realize a full payback of their solar investment in five years instead of 10, delivering a 20 percent return on investment, which in today’s economy is the very best investment homeowners can make.
The obvious looming question is how the global credit crunch will affect the cleantech sector. And even if financing comes through, there are also land use issues that developers of large-scale solar farms will have to contend with, especially in proposed sites such as the Mojave desert which consitute habitat for protected wildlife (See the Green Wombat's article "The hottest tech job in America: Wildlife biologist"). Recognizing the potential land use conflict, the Environmental Protetion Agency has plotted a "Google Map" identifying 480,000 sites that have been previously marred by toxic wastes that could be ideal for various renewable energy projects, including solar (see picture above), because of their cheap land costs and existing infrastructure. Whether these are healthy environments for workers to operate is another issue.

Chinese solar giant Suntech is pinning its hopes on a vibrant U.S. solar market and has wasted no time making an aggressive push into the U.S. market by acquiring Californian solar integrator EI Solutions, launching a joint venture with solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures to develop and finance large scale (10MW and above) solar projects, and enlarging its U.S. dealer network. Suntech expects to triple its sales in the U.S. in 2009.

Across the Atlantic, Spanish solar policy was also recently in the spotlight. With certain solar incentives expiring at the end of September, the Spanish cabinet approved a higher cap for solar installations (500 MW for 2009 and 460 MW for 2010) and a lower reduction in the country's solar feed-in tariff (now 32 to 34 Euro cents) than originally feared. Although the sense is that the solar industry is satisfied with the compromise outcome considering the more draconian reductions in incentives earlier proposed, a noticeable scale-back in the Spanish solar market, till now one of the hottest, is inevitable.

Monday, September 29, 2008

SolFocus in Focus

SolFocus, based in Google Land (Mountain View, California), has been making all sorts of news in recent days. It announced the completion of its first commercial installation, consisting of 500 kw worth of concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) equipment in Spain. SolFocus’ installation is part of a larger 3 MW project spread across two power plants that three different companies are building for its first phase at the Institute of Concentration Photovoltaic Systems (ISFOC) in Puertollano.

SolFocus also announced that it was forming a CPV industry consortium with other participatnts of the ISFOC project, including Concentrix Solar, Emcore, Isofoton and ISFOC itself with the goal of accelerating the development of CPV into the mainstream. One of the practical steps the consortium may undertake is to set standards within the CPV for measuring efficiencies:

People measure it every which way," [Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing for SolFocus] said. "Some talk about panel efficiency, some talk about system efficiency, and some will only talk about [a mirror or lens]. It can be very confusing to developers trying to figure out 'How much energy do I get at the end of the day?' We will work to figure out standards so they can compare apples to apples."

Separately, SolFocus announced that its CPV modules have met the safety and reliability standards of the California Energy Commission and have been placed on the list of approved equipment suppliers for the California Solar Initiative, which will allow SolFocus to participate in the Golden’s State’s solar rebates. According to GreenTech Media, this announcement sets the stage for a possible future announcement of a Californian desert project scheduled for the second quarter of next year.

Let’s take a closer look at their technology.

SolFocus Technology

A review of SolFocus technology on their website is broadly reminiscent of the technology of Nevada competitor, Sunrgi, which we reviewed in May. Essentially, SolFocus’ systems adopt mini-dish designs, concentrating sunlight by some 500 times through arrarys of primary and secondary mirrors onto an optical rod which channels the light onto an area of high efficiency, multi-junction solar cell material (with efficiencies approaching 40%). The systems are mounted onto their proprietary dual-axis (i.e. x and y axis) tracking systems to optimize their alignment to the sun.

The winning features of their design, according to company’s website, is that their systems use just 1/1000th of active material found in standard solar cells, that 95% of the systems is made of aluminum and glass which is readily sourced globally, and that it the systems are designed for durability by being fully enclosed so as to protect its internal components from the elements.

Unlike Sungri’s systems, which rely on special heat dissipating technology, SolFocus’ cells are so small, they can be cooled passively without fans, according to this article.

The following YouTube video throws more color to the SolFocus story:

In the meantime, SolFocus is seeking capital to ramp up its production towards fulfilling its mission of achieving grid-parity (“The SolFocus mission is to enable solar energy generation at a Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) competitive with traditional fossil fuel sources”) for CPV.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Suniva's Light-Trapping Pushes Effiiciency to Over 20%

Suniva, an Atlanta-based startup, announced that is has produced high efficiency monocrystalline solar cells with a conversion efficiency of 20%, representing a significant improvement over the efficiency of 18.5% of its current line of ARTisun cells and close to the industry's leading efficiencies (23.4% by SunPower).

According to its website, Suniva has a three-prong approach to making efficient cells:

  • An improved set of screen-printed contacts. While screen-printing of solar cell gridlines is now a standard practice in the industry, Suniva has adjusted processing parameters and paste to improve contact performance.
  • An improved high sheet-resistance emitter to increase response from the blue end of the solar spectrum (where photons are more energetic) and raise the current level of the device.
  • An improved dielectric passivation layer to minimize recombination of electrons with holes and reflect light for a second pass through the active layer. By improving this passivation, fewer photogenerated carriers are lost at the surfaces and the power output of the cell is increased.

Translating the above bullet points into English, Technology Review ran an excellent piece discussing in greater detail how Suniva achieves higher efficiencies by "light-trapping" through the use of additional texturing on the surface of the silicon layer coupled with the addition of a reflective layer at the back of the silicon surface. This results in the ability to halve the thickness of the solar cell while achieving the same level of light absorption, which in turn allows Suniva to make do with not only a reduced amount of expensive silicon material but also with a lower quality, less pure and cheaper grade of silicon.

In a conventional solar cell, which can have a silicon layer 200 micrometers thick, impurities within the material can easily trap electrons before they reach the surface and escape to generate a current. In a layer of silicon just 100 micrometers thick, however, the electrons have a shorter distance to travel, so they're less likely to encounter an impurity before they escape.

Suniva’s website currently has stated goals of achieving 20% conversion efficiencies by, depending on which specific webpage you are on, 2010 or 2011. It seems that they have already handily outdone themselves. On the other hand, perhaps these are dates by which they hope to have 20% efficient cells fully commercialized, in which case some challenges lie ahead, according to Technology Review:

The results [of Suniva’s cells achieving 20% conversion efficiency] have been confirmed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. But for those tests, Suniva used cells with 200-micrometer-thick silicon wafers, and reaching 8 cents a kilowatt [i.e. grid-parity] will require 100-micrometer wafers. That this is technically possible has been established. The challenge lies in acquiring large amounts of such silicon, since wafers that thin aren't commercially available, [Founder and CTO Dr. Ajeet] Rohatgi says. What's more, factories will need to be retooled to handle 100-micrometer cells, which machines designed to handle thicker wafers could break.

Suniva's approach thus seems to be dispelling the myth that high conversions efficiencies and lower production costs are necessary trade-offs. (As an aside, the silicon-based solar guys aren’t the only kids in the block trying to get wafer thickness down. Utah scientists have devised cutting edge methods to slice germanium-based wafers resulting in less waste, and thus more usable wafers and ultimately lower costs per watt.)

Suniva was spun out of Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Excellence in Photovoltaics, a research group founded in 1992 by the university. According to Venture Beat, the company received US$50 million in a second round of financing earlier this year, and expects to achieve the holy grail of producing cells at US$1 per watt (generally agreed as the cost level corresponding to grid parity) in two to three years time. Suniva ranked #9 in GreentechMedia's list of Top Ten Startups this year.

Suniva has been wheeling and dealing quite a bit for a two-year old (and not heavily capitilized) startup. In June, it announced it would begin production on a 32 MW pilot plant (and expects to add another 100 MW over the next two years) and signed up to a US$300 million wafer supply deal with REC. Just last month, it sealed a US$500 million deal to supply Solon AG, Europe's largest solar photovoltaic module manufacturer, with high-efficiency monocrystalline solar cells through 2012. In the same month, it tappws its India connections through its founder and CTO, Dr. Ajeet Rohatgi (pictured), Suniva entered into a long-term supply contract to supply Titan Energy Systems, one of India's largest and longest-standing manufacturers of solar modules, more than US$480 million worth of high-efficiency monocrystalline silicon solar cells through 2013 to be used in Titan's highest efficiency product lines.

We'll try to keep tabs on the progress of Suniva's ongoing RD&D.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

SOLION--Energy Storage Solutions for Grid-Tied PV

In the U.S., much of the solar buzz over the past week has been centered around the series of blockbuster fundraising rounds for thin-film startups, namely AVA Solar ($104 million) and Nanosolar ($300 million). Xunlight also got into the action with a more modest $11 million capital injection.

However, the announcement that Saft is tying up with Conergy and Tenesol launch SOLION, a large scale energy storage deployment project to supplement residential photovoltaic systems, was a more meaningful development for me, simply because I have argued for some time that the development of effective energy storage solutions is going to be one of the keys to a solar revolution. GreenCarCongresss sums up the role of energy storage quite nicely:

The role of energy storage in an on-grid application—such as that of a residence with solar panels connected to the grid—is to store excess PV energy until it is needed. Effectively, energy storage will ‘time-shift’ PV energy produced during the day, peaking at noon, to make it available on demand. This will both maximize local consumption and enhance the efficiency of the PV system. Surplus energy can also be fed back into the grid, for which the owner of the PV system would be remunerated at a higher tariff.

Energy storage will also increase security of supply while making individual consumers less dependent on the grid and help to boost the development of energy self-sufficient houses and buildings and contribute to the continuous growth of PV as part of the global energy mix...

The main benefit of on-grid energy storage for utilities is that it will reduce the peak load on their grid while at the same time making PV a source of predictable, dispatchable power that they can call on when needed.

Critics of renewable energy and the fossil/nuclear energy establishment like to highlight the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, e.g. click here. I will leave it to the words of Hermann Scheer, one of the most forceful and eloquent advocates for renewable energy, for a insightful rebuttal in his book, Energy Autonomy:

In a strongly centralized and internationalized nuclear/fossil energy supply system, this simultaneity [of production and utilization of energy] is, on principle, not possible. The storage warehouse for petroleum is the oil tanker, for coal it is the coal heap, for natural gas the major storage caverns and the gas tank, for nuclear energy the fuel rod store, and for water power (if necessary) the reservoir. Transport and distribution systems--pipelines, tanker ships and trucks--take on supplementary storage function. Or else it is the power plants themselves that operate as steam power plants, that is, they produce steam, which they must then keep holding in side the power plants as a reserve in case there is a rapid increase in production. All nuclear power plants and all large fossil power plants are of this type...

In its campaign against renewable energy, the energy business never mentions its own storage capacity, as if this were not as easily usable as a reserve for solar- and wind-based electricity...The possibility that the sun might not be shining or the wind might stop blowing just when these sources are most needed to produce electricity is presented as an insurmountable obstacle--as if, by way of contrast, extra coal or uranium could be hauled out of the mines at the very moment there is a spike in demand for coal- or nuclear-based electricity.
Saft, an established name in the battery business, will develop lithium ion battery modules, while Conergy and Tenesol will develop ancillary components. In pilot trials, 75 SOLION energy storage systems will be deployed--25 in Germany and 50 in France--in order to validate the performance of these systems.

It is innovative game-changing initiatives, such as SOLION, that can fully harness the true potential of solar power. We'll be keeping tabs on the progress of SOLION right here at the solar coaster.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NREL beats Boeing Spectrolab efficiency record; Harnessing untapped infrared

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it has achieved what it claims to be a world record photovoltaic cell conversion efficiency of 40.8%.

According to NREL, its new solar cell differs significantly from those of the previous record holder, Boeing Spectrolab, which boasted an efficiency of 40.7 and was also based on an NREL design:
Instead of using a germanium wafer as the bottom junction of the device [as per a the previous design], the new design uses compositions of gallium indium phosphide and gallium indium arsenide to split the solar spectrum into three equal parts that are absorbed by each of the cell's three junctions for higher potential efficiencies. This is accomplished by growing the solar cell on a gallium arsenide wafer, flipping it over, then removing the wafer. The resulting device is extremely thin and light and represents a new class of solar cells with advantages in performance, design, operation and cost.

The following diagram, courtesy of NREL (via Semiconductor Times) depicts the improvements in NREL's new solar cell design:

It is also worth noting that this new observed efficiency mark was measured under concentrated light of 326 suns. One sun is about the amount of light that typically hits Earth on a sunny day. As a result, NREL notes that the new design is suited for "the space satellite market and for terrestrial concentrated photovoltaic arrays, which use lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight onto the solar cells."

Readers of this blog may recall that in July 2007, we reported that a group of researchers form the University of Delaware had claimed the world record for solar cell efficiency at 42.8%. In trying to reconcile these competing claims to the world record, spokespeople from both camps agree that comparing both systems is like comparing apples to oranges. Greentech Media details the reasons why.

Tapping into Infrared

In other research, scientists have developed new semiconductor materials that can tap into the previously unharnessed infrared spectrum of light in order to boost theoretical efficiencies to 63%.

Conventional semiconductors are silicon based and are only able to absorb light from the visible spectrum. Researchers led by Perla Wahnón at the Institute for Solar Energy at the Polytechnic University, and José Conesa at the Institute of Catalysis of the Spanish Higher Scientific Research Council, both in Madrid, Spain, have added titanium and vanadium in order to alter the electronic properties of semiconducting material to boost its theoretical conversion efficiency from 40%. The researchers emphasized that real-world conversion efficiencies would be less than these theoretical efficiencies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The MIT Solar Revolution

Watch out Silicon Valley! The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is steadily making a name for itself as the solar R&D hub America (and thus the world). In noticing one solar news story after another emerging from the venerable university, I decided to provide a summary of MIT’s recent solar activities in one single post.

Announced this April, the Solar Revolution Project at MIT is research program funded by a $10 million gift by the Chesonis Family Foundation. The Project “will focus on three elements—capture, conversion and storage—that will ultimately make solar power a viable, near-term energy source.”

Here at the solar coaster, we previously discussed an MIT spin-off company called 1366 Technologies, which recently won a solar startup competition. But that is just one of several innovations to have gushed out of the MIT solar R&D pipeline. Let's take a look at a few other solar research and business developments emerging from the venerable Cambridge-based research university:

  • Energy Storage

MIT researchers have developed a new water-splitting (electrolysis) catalyst that is easily prepared from earth-abundant materials (cobalt and phosphorous) and that for the first time, potentially operates in benign conditions, i.e. pH neutral water at room temperature and 1 atm pressure. This finding has massive implications for the development of fuel cells as effective energy storage devices and hence address the intermittency problem that solar power faces. Green Tech blog reports that the Masdar City in Abu Dhabi could be a testing ground for the technology.

Separately, A123 Systems, an MIT spin-off and maker of lithium ion batteries for application to electric vehicles, electric grids (with implications for solar and wind) and consumer electronics have filed a registration statement for a $175 million initial public offering on Nasdaq.

  • Solar Concentrator

Covalent Solar, an MIT spin-off, has unveiled a new solar concentrating technology, which consists of organic dyes painted onto glass or plastic that effectively absorb and re-emit light that so that they are then trapped inside and travels within the plane of the glass/plastic and channeled to the edges where it is capture by strips of PV cells. Some light passes through the concentrator, and is absorbed by lower voltage solar cells underneath. Because such an arrangement does not require tracking or cooling features, it is more cost effective compared to other solar concentrating technologies such as those from Sungri, SolFocus or Energy Innovations. According to this video, early tests have demonstrated that use of Covalent’s technology can yield a 20% boost in performance, but the company is hopeful that this will increase to 40 – 50% with further tweaks. GreentechMedia identifies certain technical challenges that the Covalent team will have to address, such as the relatively short lifespan of the organic dyes

  • Solar Thermal Dish

Another MIT spin-off company, RawSolar, has developed a 10 kW solar thermal dish which the company claims it can produce more cheaply than its competitors “because it will use simple, standard materials and components, which can be ordered from local distributors anywhere in the U.S.,” according to Earth2Tech. The dish can concentrate sunlight1,000 times onto an aluminum tube emerging from the center of the dish, thereby heating water held in the tube to produce steam power.

According to RawSolar’s website, its “patented design flexes flat mirror into precisely the right shape without any special tooling or skilled labor, achieving incredibly high performance, long lifetime, and at a very low cost.” Citing the technology’s inventor, David Wood, MIT News reports that the modest scale of the dishes work to their advantage:

Unlike many technologies where economies of scale dictate large sizes, a smaller dish requires so much less support structure that it ends up costing only a third as much, for a given collecting area.

  • Solar Cooling

Promethean Power Systems, yet another MIT spin-off company, boasts an energy efficient hybrid solar powered thermoelectric refrigerator. The company claims their products, suited for rural off-gird or partially electrified area, can provide cooling at an operating cost that is 66% lower than that of conventional units. The company’s vision is to “develop a complete, stand-alone rural refrigeration system that stimulates businesses, reduces dependency on fossil fuels and increases the quality of life in emerging markets by enabling its users to reliably store food, vaccines and other perishable items.” Green Tech blog provides an excellent write-up.

Friday, August 8, 2008

First Solar Goes Big

Recall how we previously discussed that utilities are the stakeholders that should be driving the solar revolution in order to get the U.S. to the dream of “10% solar by 2025.” But First Solar, the Google of solar and the world’s leading thin-film manufacturer is beating the utilities at their own game by going into the utilities business as well. Last month, it announced that it had inked a twenty year purchase power agreement with Southern California Edison to build and maintain a 7.5 MW (expandable to 21 MW) thin-film power plant in Blythe, California. When completed, it would be the largest PV power plant in the Golden State. According to some sleuthing by the Green Wombat, the plant site spans some 120 acres.

Very shortly after, First Solar announced another 10 MW PV power plant project in Boulder City, Nevada for Sempra Generation, the San Diego-based natural gas production company. The PV plant will be built across 80 acres of land adjacent to an existing Sempra natural gas power plant, presenting a unique energy supply proposition in a solar-natural gas hybrid system whereby the natural gas plant supplies the base-load and the thin-film PV system provides the peak load. Such hybrid systems may be the way of the future as they reflect the understanding of the true value proposition of solar today—i.e, solar has already achieved grid parity in many geographic areas during peak demand periods and serve as an effective complement to base-load power supply.

Unlike the case with Southern California Edison, Sempra will actually take over ownership and maintenance of the power plant once construction is completed. However, these two deals are indication of First Solar’s ambitions to vertically integrate its operations, moving from PV module manufacturing to the actual delivery of solar generated power.

As far as utility-scale solar power plants are concerned, thin-film PV, because of their relative conversion inefficiencies, require far more land area than solar thermal systems or non-thin-film PV, and lack the molten-salt storage technologies that some solar thermal systems have. On the other hand, there are no moving parts in a thin-film solar power plant so maintenance demands are reduced and much less water is consumed compared to solar thermal systems that rely on conventional steam turbines to generate electricity (a key consideration in water-scarce desert areas where solar power plants are typically located). And of course, as long as polysilicon supply remains constrained and thin-film conversion efficiencies continue to improve, thin-film PV will continue to gain market share against crystalline-based PV. First Solar is not the first thin-film company to announce plans to build PV power plants; OptiSolar previously announced plans to build a massive 550 MW plant.

One utility that is heeding the call to go solar is Florida Power & Light, which has engaged SunPower to build two PV power plants totaling 35 MW in Florida.


- First Solar announces blow out Q2 financial results.
- Thin-film to grab 28% solar market share by 2012, projects Lux Research.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Solar Prius; GT Solar to List; Country Briefs

The Toyota Prius is going solar. Sort of. It is reported that electricity from Kyocera solar panels attached to a models of the famed hybrid car to be released next year would make up a portion of the 2 to 5 kilowatts needed to run parts such as air conditioning. It won't power the cars for 5 to 8 miles or reduce gas mileage by 17 to 29% as this white paper by Solar Electric Vehicles, a seller of solar electrical systems for cars, would lead us to believe (hat tip to Earth2Tech). Its really more a “symbolic gesture” than anything else.

But this prototype car from Taiwan (again, h/t to Earth2Tech) is totally solar-powered and capable of running at 70 kmh.

Speaking of autos and solar, General Motors will be the beneficiary of the world's largest rooftop solar installation (12 MW) on its assembly plant in Zaragoza, Spain, courtesy of thin film flexible solar laminates from United Solar Olvonic, a subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices.

GT Solar to List

Solar manufacturing equipment company GT Solar has set its IPO terms. It will sell 30.3 million shares at a price range of $15.50 to $17.50 and trade on Nasdaq under the ticker “SOLR.” Interestingly, none of the IPO proceeds are going to be used as working capital; they are all being paid out as distributions to existing shareholders. Infer from this fact what you will about GT Solar’s future ambitions, or better yet, check out their IPO prospectus.

Around the World

Japan is contemplating reviving subsidies for solar installation which were discontinued in 2005. Solar is one of eight pillar strategies in India's climate change action plan. It is short on details but does set some numerical targets, such as the establishment of 1,000 MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) by 2017 and the production of 1,000 MW per year of photovoltaics by 2017. Spain, on the other hand, is contemplating reducing their feed-in tariffs for solar after Germany reduced theirs last month, but by not as much as the solar industry feared.

I am getting more and more reports of solar activities in Korea. With its industrial experience in semiconductors and electronics, I’m betting big things for the Korean solar industry. the solar coaster first mentioned Korea last month. Today, The Korea Times reports that familiar names Samsung, LG, and Hyundai Heavy Industries are all getting active in the solar game, building solar production lines. KCC, South Korea's largest manufacturer of construction materials, will reportedly invest KRW 3.9 trillion (USD 3.8bn) to expand polysilicon production capacity through 2020.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

National Semi Conjures Some Magic

National Semiconductor is the latest semiconductor company to enter the solar industry. It has done so in tantalizing fashion, teasing the industry with vague descriptions of a potentially game-changing product that can dramatically improve systems-level performances of solar installations.

The company announced the development of its proprietary SolarMagic technology, which it says on its website “recoups up to 50 percent of the lost energy, dramatically improving the economics in shaded and other real-world conditions.” SolarMagic optimizes solar panel performance particularly in instances of shade or blockage by debris. The company did not specify what form the technology would take other than that it is a “per panel electronic solution” and that is is “compatible with today's solar architectures regardless of the underlying solar cell technology.”

The very general product description is vaguely reminiscent of Enphase’s per-panel micro-inverters, which, coupled with their proprietary monitoring software, is able to maximize performance of a whole solar system by circumventing the “weakest link phenomenon.” Said National Semi on its website:

Today's systems are limited by the weakest link, and one or two compromised panels can take down the entire string or array. This is somewhat similar to a section of Christmas lights that go out when one light fails. However, with SolarMagic technology, if one panel in a solar installation is shaded, dirty, or otherwise compromised, that panel is allowed to produce what little energy it can while the other panels continue to operate at their full potential.

According to Greentech Media, the device is expected to add 10% to the cost of each panel. Expected to be available commercially in the first quarter of 2009, SolarMagic is currently undergoing pilot tests by California-based solar installer REgrid Power, Inc. According to REgrid Power, the SolarMagic technology has yielded performance improvements of up to 44% in shaded conditions and 12% overall versus systems running without SolarMagic.

the solar coaster is spellbound, and will keep tabs on further product announcements concerning SolarMagic.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fed-Up with Solar

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management did an about turn on its decision to suspend new solar project application in the desert lands it manages. This is good news for proponents of a joint paper by Clean Edge and Co-op America, which projects the US to obtain 10% of electricity through solar by 2025 if it gets its policies right.

BLM Reverses Moratorium on New Solar Project Applications

In May, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a U.S. fedeal agency, announced that it would temporarily suspend the receipt of new applications (but would continue to review the 125 applications already received) for solar projects on the 258 acres of federal lands it manages over 12 states (predominantly in solar irradiance-rich western states) for two years while a programmatic environmental impact study (PEIS) would be carried out. The New York Times ran a story covering industry reaction to BLM’s decision only last week, apparently sparking off a flurry of backlash resulting in a dramatic reversal of the moratorium on solar applications on Wednesday (July 2). As are result, the BLM will continue to accept new applications for solar projects, in addition to reviewing the 125 existing applications, while also carrying out the PEIS.

The reasons for the moratorium in the first place are worth a look. At least one blog as posited that the unspoken reason for the suspension was to give breathing space for the understaffed BLM to process applications currently in their docket. However, the official reason for the suspension—the conduct of a PEIS—deserves further scrutiny. As the feds point out, the law, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act, requires agencies to conduct environmental impact studies on “major federal actions with the potential for significant impact on the quality of the human environment.”

What sort of environmental impacts might large scale solar projects pose? The first thing to recognize is that the lands in question encapsulate fragile desert ecosystems that serve as habitat to a unique diversity of flora and fauna. The environmental impacts of solar projects can be categorized as land disturbance/land use, visual disturbance, hazardous materials, water impact, and others. Click here for more detailed explanations. I have no sympathy for those who charge that solar projects spoil the aesthetic of the beautiful Mojave Desert. It sounds all too Kennedy vs. Cape Wind to me. If you can’t build solar plants on a freakin’ desert, where the hell can you build them? But the concerns of water impact are worth an extra mention. I for one was recently caught off guard to learn from a 2006 government report that certain solar tower and solar trough technologies consume comparable amounts of water to coal and nuclear plants. I need not state the obvious—water is not exactly abundant in deserts. Ooops, I just did.

Indeed, the BLM has previously conducted a PEIS for wind projects on federal lands, and recently published for public comment a Draft PEIS on geothermal energy development. So although the proposed PEIS on solar development may stoke fears of this being yet another case of environmentalists blocking green power, it is consistent with BLM’s past actions and with federal law. I also agree with Green Wombat on the value of having BLM conduct a ecosystem-wide PEIS when he says:

...developing a desert-wide environmental policy is absolutely essential for huge power plants that in total would cover hundreds of square miles of a fragile landscape home to protected wildlife and rare plants. Otherwise, watch each individual project get bogged down in endless environmental challenges.

U.S. Can Achieve 10% Solar Generation by 2025

Still, BLM’s reversal is good news to the proponents of "Utility Solar Assessment (USA) Study: Reaching Ten Percent Solar by 2025," a joint report by Clean Edge and Co-op America that projects that the US can obtain 10% of its electricity from solar power by 2025 if technologists, utilities and policy makers adopt its prescription. Desert solar power is an important component to achieving this goal, and BLM’s reversal only serves to bolster the chances of making this goal reality. I’ll leave it to other blogs to provide you the executive-executive summary of the joint report, but I will highlight two things that stood out for me in reading it.

First, the central premise of the report is that it is the utilities, more than any other stakeholders, which have to drive the solar bus. Promoting distributed power generation in the form of solar panels represents a paradigm shift for delivering power; utilities can’t wrap their minds around how to manage such a dispersed system as they are used to managing centralized coal, natural gas or nuclear facilities. This report is rather refreshing to me as it means that the very institutions that have resisted solar in the past should now come to terms with the new realities that leave them with little alternative but to champion it. These realities, the report points out, include:

  • Rising coal and natural gas costs in the wake of supply scarcity and soon, US carbon regulation
  • The cost-competitiveness of solar power with peak fossil fuel electricity generation
  • The growing number of states that have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards, and some even with solar power set-asides.
  • The declining costs of solar power due to technological improvements and growing economies-of-scale (18% decline with each doubling of capacity).
  • The emergence of new players such as SolarCity who have introduced innovative financing models that spare end-users the upfront costs of owning solar panel installations and making it more attractive to switch to off-grid power options like solar, thus posing a threat to traditional utilities market share.
  • The growth of utility-scale concentrating solar power projects, predominantly in the southwestern desert regions in which the BLM has just relit up the neon “OPEN” sign, still offers a familiar centralized model of energy distribution for utilities to take comfort in.

Indeed, some leading investor-owned utilities have already heeded solar’s siren call. North Carolina’s Duke Energy is one. Since the solar coaster last reported on Duke’s PPA to purchase electricity from Sun Edison’s proposed 16 MW solar PV plant, Duke has announced plans to install distributed PV systems across 850 sites in the Tar Heel State at the cost of $100 million, yielding 16 MW of power, enough to serve 2,600 homes. Duke Energy will own and operate these PV systems and sell the resulting power to its customers. Florida-based FPL has accelerated its own solar investments, with 110 MW of solar capacity in Florida, the self-dubbed “Sunshine State”, pending approvals.

Second, the report mentioned certain game-changing trends that could really accelerate solar adoption which the solar coaster has not dwelled into too much detail to date—smart grid technologies, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and all-electric vehicles (EV). With smart meters, utilities can introduce “real time” electricity pricing and allow consumers to fully appreciate the true value of solar power during peak generation periods. Intelligent grid interconnections can also better facilitate net metering—i.e. allowing PV users to sell electricity back to the grid during periods of excess generation, thus bringing a better return on investment for the PV users.

Energy storage has been considered the “Holy Grail” of renewable energy development as it addresses the issue of intermittency of such sources. It just so happens that the quest to find on-grid energy storage solutions dovetails really well with the quest to build green cars, specifically PHEV/EV. PHEV/EV is where the world of electricity meets the world of auto fuels. The development of PHEV/EV represents additional demands on the electricity grid, but they also represent an additional source of electricity, in the form of storage! Says the report:

Since vehicles typically aren’t’ in use more than 90 percent of the time, they could provide the perfect “vehicle” for storing electricity (in their battery packs), then sell this energy back to the grid at times when it is most needed, such as evening hours after commuters return home. Vehicles’ power might come from rooftop solar carports at work, from residential solar PV systems, or from centralized PV or CSP power plants.

Sounds great time me but one point is worth checking—I was led to believe that the premise of PHEV/EV was that they would be plugged-in in the evenings so as to relieve pressure on an already over-taxed grid. Under this scenario, the feeding-in of electricity by vehicles would not occur at night, when solar systems are not operating. This perhaps suggests that for the co-benefits of solar and PHEV/EV to be fully realized, careful whole-systems planning between both realms of clean energy development is needed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Solar's Journey to the West

This post was originally published on The Green Leap Forward on Jun 17, 2008.

I attended the inaugural Western China Photovoltaic Industry & New Energy Development Forum which was held in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan province earlier this month (June 5-7).

A full transcript in Chinese of the proceedings is available here.

A recurring theme was the need to develop China’s domestic PV market. Although China is among the largest producers of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells in the world, over 90% of such PV cells are exported, leading Shi Dinghuan (石定寰), causing the Chairman of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA) to lament that China ships out its clean energy only to leave pollution (i.e. coal fired power generation) behind. At the end of last year, just 80 MW of solar PV was installed in China compared to almost 6,000 MW of wind energy. But more on this paradox later. Let's first see how Chengdu (成都)and Shuangliu (双流) in Sichuan province are seeking to leapfrog Jiangsu province and Baoding (in Hebei province) as the solar PV manufacturing hubs of China.

Sichuan: the Solar Gateway to the West

Sichuan is pushing solar as its next pillar industry. The governments of Chengdu and Shuangliu have established the Chengdu/Shuangliu Photovoltaic Industrial Park. The goal is to turn the region into a “Western Solar Valley” (“西部光谷”) and achieve RMB 100 billion in annual output. On the first day of the conference, some 17 agreements amounting to RMB 14.5 billion in investments into the Solar Valley were penned.

China has abundant solar resources, with solar irradiation comparable to areas of corresponding latitudes in the US, and comparing favorably over areas of corresponding latitudes in Japan and Europe (click here for Greenpeace’s China Solar PV Report 2007). Tibet, in particular, boasts the best solar irradiance of all of China, in part due to its elevated altitudes which greatly reduces irradiance diffusion. The development of a vibrant solar industry in the western regions is also consistent with the national “Go West” policy of developing China’s interior western and remote regions that have traditionally lagged behind the coastal economies. Incidentally, it is these very western remote regions that are homes to a significant portion of the estimated 15 million people in 2006 with no access to electricity. Distributed energy solutions such as solar PV, among others, can be the most cost-effective sources of power in these regions. But as alluded to earlier, these regions are not where the PV panels are being deployed.

In terms of solar PV manufacturing, Sichuan, and Chengdu/Shuagnliu in particular, boasts certain strategic advantages, such as favorable investment policies, an abundance of hydroelectric power and affordable electric power in general, and the availability of skilled labor from surrounding universities. It also a relatively well developed logistics supply chain given the pioneering work of the aviation industry which Chengdu/Shuangliu has up to now built its economic base around. But take a read at this post for a devil’s advocate point of view on shifting supply chains to the western regions.

Some anchor companies at the industrial park include Tianwei New Energy Resources and Apollo Solar, both of which are taking vertically integrated approaches in developing their operations in Sichuan. Tianwei New Energy Resources Southwest Industry Park, a subsidiary of Tianwei Group, will channel some RMB 3 billion into building solar production facilities with a capacity of producing 200 MW of silicon ingots, 50 MW of solar modules and 100 MW of solar cells and a solar research center.

Another recurring theme of the conference was thin-film PV technologies. The solar industry as a whole has hitherto been anchored on silicon based technologies. The recent explosion of solar demand, however, has cause a short to medium term bottle neck on silicon feedstock supplies, providing a boon to so-called “thin-film” technologies which use little to no silicon. Apollo Solar is striving to be the foremost vertically integrated thin-film PV module manufacturer. The competitive advantage of Apollo is that it has mining rights to certain quarries such as Dashuigou (大水沟) and Majiagou (马家沟) within Sichuan province that gives them access key precious metals such as telluride, bismuth, indium, selenium and others that go into making thin-film modules. Some conference attendees told me that the rumor on the market is that it is Apollo which is providing First Solar, the world’s biggest think-film manufacturer based in Arizona, U.S., with its supply of these precious metals. A factory visit to Apollo’s plant revealed metals processing infrastructure and a think film module manufacturing line in place, but nary an employee in sight. Reportedly, operations are to commence this October.

Quantity AND Quality

Anthony Chia, Vice President of Quality Control at Trina Solar based in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, said at the conference that the way to set Chinese module manufacturers apart from the competition is through quality. Until recently, Chinese modules have suffered from an image problem of having lower quality. Although that has quelled somewhat with established Chinese brands such as Trina and Suntech Power gaining increased global market shares, Chia envisions a world market where it is Chinese, rather European or North American institutions that set quality certification standards. In a very real sense, China’s PV module industry is vulnerable to the whims of these quality certification bodies (or if one might dare read into it, protectionist measures to protect local PV industries). For example in Europe, it currently takes three to six months for newly developed module to be approved for sale by one of these quality certification bodies in the European market, explained Chia. Even minor amendments to certification criteria may threaten to extend the approval process to up to a year. The essence of Chia’s message is this: If China is going to be the world’s leading producer of PV modules, does it not also make sense for it to be the standard setter for quality certification? (I suppose critics might gripe against a potential conflicts-of-interest.)

Domestic Solar Adoption: A Chicken and the Egg Problem?

But I come back to the key issue of developing China’s domestic solar market. There is no doubt that China will have continued success in producing homegrown companies that have mastered the process of low-cost manufacturing and dominate the global PV manufacturing market. But rather than exporting all this clean energy, the Chinese solar industry should think about how it can take steps to develop the local solar market as well.

In my few months of talking to industry professionals, I have gotten the overwhelming sense that everyone is waiting for the government to enact the right policies to spur development. In turn, I have also gotten the sense that the government is waiting for the cost of solar (which in the US costs about 20 to 30 cents per kwh compared to 5 cents for coal-fired power) to drop before it goes all out to push the solar power in the same way it is pushing wind. But the price of solar is not going to achieve these dramatic cost reductions without a scaling up of solar technology deployment, and what better market (for sheerly physical reasons) to scale up solar than in China?

Here’s a preliminary policy prescription from The Green Leap Forward:

  • Enact feed-in-tariffs. The National Reform and Development Commission should promulgate comprehensive feed-in tariffs which require grid companies to purchase solar power at preferential tariff rates. These tariff premiums are to be fixed, but also gradually decreased over a period of, say, 20 years. As a possible "safety valve", these fixed tariff rates can be reexamined periodically to adjust for changing market conditions. The German government, for example, recently reevaluated the feed-in tariffs for solar. The premium that the grid company paid to solar power producers should be spread across all end-users, per the Renawable Energy Law of 2006. The hesitation of Chinese policy makers in adopting feed-in tariffs is something I hope to explore a little more in future posts.
  • Strengthen Solar Lobby. Chinese solar companies should actively lobby the government to push ahead with solar policy reform. It is to their advantage, afterall, to develop a broader customer base. The newly established New Energy Chamber of Commerce may provide an avenue for such activities.
  • Financial Innovation. Think about innovative ways of providing financing for solar installations. Given the early development of consumer credit in China, it may be some time before we can think of mass solar deployment in the residential sector, so continued advances along the credit front should be encouraged. For now, we should think about how third-party financing arrangements—whereby a facility engages another institution that installs and continues to own the solar panels, but sells the solar-generated electricity to the facility owner just like a utility, thereby relieving the user of prohibitive upfront costs of installing and owning the solar panels—can positively alter cost perceptions to solar power. Such third party financing institutions should target commercial and industrial entities, perhaps with the support of provincial and municipal governments which have energy efficiency and renewable energy goals to meet.
  • Technical Capacity Building. Develop the necessary capacity and technical expertise for all steps of the PV value chain, but especially for downstream solar activities such as systems integration, installation, and after-sales services such as performance monitoring and system repairs and upgrades. This will require significant investments in education, but also lead to significant positive externalities such as job creation and spill-over benefits to other electrical engineering sectors.
  • Government Procurement. Initiate mass procurement and deployment of PV in government facilities. Not only does the central government setting a right example work in China, but it provides a necessary starting point for the scaling up of PV deployment. The central government is large enough a bureaucracy after all.
  • Strategically Increase R&D. Much hype is generated whenever announcements on breakthroughs in PV conversion efficiencies or silicon wafer thickness are achieved. But there are plenty of cost reductions to be gained in other parts of the solar value chain. Increasing efficiency of polysilicon production, module assembly, balance-of-systems or even installation are all avenues that R&D dollars can be channeled to increase technological (and hence cost) breakthroughs.

These merely represent my initial thoughts on how to push to PV adoption agenda in China. What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment!

Sidebar: This piece in Renewable Energy World on China's PV industry focuses on polysilicon production.