Thursday, April 24, 2008

I’ve Got One Hand in My Pocket and the Other is Holding a Solar Panel

This post is published simultaneously in The Green Leap Forward.

Ecopowered Solutions (EPS), a Beijing and Colorado based startup, aims to bring pocket-sized solar cell batteries, especially to the remote areas of the developing world. EPS’ product, dubbed the SunCell, is a portable solar chargeable battery device that can recharge a whole host of consumer electronics including mobile phones, mp3 players, digital cameras and bluetooth devices (but not laptops as laptops charge at a much higher voltage than SunCell’s maximum voltage setting of 9 volts).

Measuring 5.1 by 3.4 by 0.9 inches and weigh just half a pound (225 kg), SunCell consists of 1.5 watts of monocrystalline photovoltaic panels coupled with an internal lithium ion battery. The SunCell requires 8 to 12 hours of direct sunlight to be fully recharged and when fully charged can typically recharge mobile phone batteries of average capacities three complete times before the SunCell itself requires a recharge.

One of the drivers of growing electricity demand worldwide is the proliferation of portable consumer electronics. A report by In-Sat forecasts the market of portable consumer electronic devices to grow from 2.7 billion units in 2007 to 3.1 billion in 2011. Harnessing solar power to power these portable devices addresses two major issues–first, it relieves electricity demand from an already overstrained electricity grid. Second, it allows users in remote areas without access to grid-based electricity (read, people in much of the developing world) to recharge their mobile phones.

Indeed, besides being a clean tech company, EPS has a social mission to bring clean solar power to the developing world. Kip Stringfellow, the founder and CEO of EPS sat down with The Green Leap Forward to talk about his business, his product and his vision.

GLF: How did the idea for creating a portable solar powered battery charger come about?

KS: Basically, when I first started I felt that there is a lot of potential out there for products that can be really useful and also utilize renewable energy. People are starting to care more and more about renewable energy and everyone always seems to be running out of power for their various electronic devices like cell phones, cameras, and mp3 players. I though a solar powered battery charger would really be a unique product to fill this demand and solar products also allow me to focus on another area I’m really passionate about, international development. There are billions of people in the world without access to electricity and by providing a power source, a whole new range of opportunities become available. Lighting systems, cell phone use in off grid locations, and many other applications open up once you have a reusable power source. I’m trying to find as many ways as possible to get my products into the hands of people that could really use them to change their lives by donation programs I am setting up and also through partnerships I am trying to form to distribute the SunCell in developing countries.

GLF: There are other competing products now in the market. How does the SunCell distinguish itself from other solar powered batter chargers?

KS: There are two main differences between the SunCell and other solar chargers. The SunCell features an internal lithium-ion battery that has over twice the battery capacity of many of the other solar chargers on the market. This means that you don’t have to recharge it as frequently and you can have more power available for when you need it the most. Also, the SunCell has a built-in LED flashlight that comes in handy at night. It can run nonstop for about 6 days so you always have backup light source if you need one.

GLF: What is the biggest market for SunCell currently, and where else are you seeking to expand?

KS: Right now our largest market is in the US but we are actively trying to expand into Europe and other locations around the world. We have received a lot of interest so we are working hard to set up partnerships in different countries in order to distribute and sell as many SunCells as possible. It’s a win-win situation because by expanding sales we do better as a company but we also provide more and more people with a portable power source charged from renewable solar energy.

We are also really trying to expand our donation program by working with international education and health organizations that focus on communities with no access to an electricity grid. So far, donated SunCells have been sent to Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Panama.

GLF: And what about China?

KS: China is an enormous market and like many countries in the world, it is obviously a place where renewable energy is definitely needed. We are working on trying to get a sales program going in China even though this currently presents more challenges than operating a business in the US.

GLF: How is the SunCell priced? How does this compare to competing products in the market?

KS: The SunCell currently retails for about $120 in the US. I believe the SunCell is well priced because of its advantages over other solar chargers. Some other solar chargers in the market are cheaper and others are more expensive. From all the competition I have seen though, I believe the SunCell is definitely the best value and it has better capabilities than some other products that are more expensive.

We also have special pricing for countries where we feel the full $120 retail value will prohibit people from being able to buy the SunCell. I am really focused on trying to get as many SunCells out there as possible so in developing countries, a lower retail price may be the only way for the SunCell to make a real impact. We also have special prices for NGOs and other international organizations that want to purchase the SunCell to distribute them in developing countries.

GLF: Tell us a little more of the donation program.

KS: EPS’ mission is to promote the use of alternative energy technologies and also to provide a vehicle for donating SunCells to people and organizations that can utilize the device to dramatically improve the quality of life in the communities where they are used. There is a link on our website that accepts donations that we pool together, and then we use the donated money to send SunCells and other products to programs in developing countries at cost. Currently, we are donating all SunCells to Partners in Health, one of the largest and most effective international health organizations. SunCells are currently being used by Partners in Health in many of the countries it has operations in such as Haiti and Malawi. They are used by the communities they work in to power cell phones in remote areas and they can be used as lighting systems for people that have no access to electricity.

GLF: It would seem that the needs of the customer in say a mature developed market like the US full of affluent eletronic gadget collectors would differ from that of low-income villagers in Kenya. The practical use of SunCells in developing countries with no grid electricity is pretty obvious. But how do you sell these to urbanites in well developed cities?

KS: You are right, we are really trying to address very different markets in very different countries. The SunCell clearly has a more vital use in places with no grid system but its versatility makes it a great product for those urbanites you mentioned in developed countries. The SunCell, at its core, is a portable battery that has the additional functionality of being able to recharge itself from the Sun. Its internal battery can be recharged with a power adapter that is included with the SunCell so it can be used as just a portable battery. So for urbanites it may be easier to recharge the SunCell from the wall, but with its solar panels the SunCell still provides a lot of value as an emergency power source and can also be extremely useful if those urbanites head out for a camping trip or spend some time off grid.

GLF: And I suppose there is also a symbolic value…

KS: Absolutely! EcoPowered Solutions is trying to combine two areas of focus into one. We are trying to promote clean, renewable solar energy and also improve the quality of life for people with no access to electricity. Solar power is currently one of the best and most effective ways for people in developing countries to have access to electricity and it’s just as easy for people to use in developed countries. All you have to do is put the SunCell in sunlight and everything else takes care of itself! We are really trying to provide simple, cost effective power solutions that anyone on the planet can use and enjoy. The idea is about everyone being able to have access to electricity no matter where they are or where they live.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Solar beats in India

I've hinted before that India is an emerging solar hub. In the estimation of leading venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, the concentration of engineering talent emerging from India is poised to help India grow into a serious clean tech player. I've noticed quite a bit of solar business action this month on the Indian front, so I thought it would be worth compiling some these stories here:

Orb Energy, a provider of solar energy systems in India, a received a prestigious award for US$1 million from the U.S. State Department in support of the goals of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Moser Baer India Limited, a global technology company, recently announced that its subsidiary, Moser Baer Photo Voltaic Limited has signed an agreement with China-based LDK Solar for sale and delivery of high quality multicrystalline silicon wafers to MBPV over a ten-year period commencing in mid-2008 through 2017.

Clear Skies Solar, Inc. (OTCBB: CSKH.OB) announced a $20 million agreement, subject to financing, with Power Cube, a company located in Utter Pradesh, India to develop and construct the first of several solar energy projects in India.

Spire Corporation (Nasdaq: SPIR), a global solar company providing turnkey solar factories and capital equipment to manufacture photovoltaic modules worldwide, will provide Alpex Exports Pvt. Ltd. a photovoltaic module assembly line for that company's operations in New Delhi, India.

Friday, April 18, 2008

6N Silicon and the search for more polysilicon

As promised last post, we'll talk a little more about the silicon supply situation today. Over the past year, we've seen the stock price of listed solar module companies rise with each announcement of a long term polysilicon supply contract. The explosion of the solar industry has created an unprecedented demand for polysilicon, the raw ingredient to crystalline-based photovoltaic solar cells.

Until recently, polysilicon supply was adequately met by the scrap silicon from the semiconductor industry. But such supplies were very soon outstripped by the demands imposed by the solar boom, which bring us to where we are now. We are seeing similar kinds bottlenecks in other alternative energy sectors--the wind industry is experiencing a parts shortage, while the nuclear industry (which by my book is NOT part of the clean energy industry) is also facing a shortage of reactor parts.

There are inefficiencies in relying on semiconductor grade silicon for making crystalline solar panels. Semiconductor grade silicon is 99.999999% pure (nine 9's), whereas solar grade silicon requires a slightly lower purity of 99.9999% (six 9's). Till recently, very few plants specialize is making polysilicon specially for the solar market. Moreover, as discussed previously, the rush to meet polysilicon demand has brought about some environmentally adverse practices. But some companies, like Canadian-based 6N Silicon Inc. (what's in a name? 6N = six 9's of the purity solar grade silicon), are taking novel approaches to address the silicon problem.

6N is located in the greater Toronto area, considered the heart of Canada's metal processing industry. It is also led by its founder Scott Nichol and CEO, Paolo Maccario, both with extensive experience in the metallurgical industry. It is no wonder that 6N's approach applies metal processing techniques to silicon production. The following Q&A taken from 6N's FAQ on its website summarizes its approach:
4. What makes 6N Silicon different?

We take the most basic form of commercially available, impure silicon known as metallurgical grade silicon, and then we apply metal processing techniques to refine it into a very pure form. We utilize equipment that is commonly used in other metal processing industries. This is dramatically different from the current standard vapor deposition process and its high energy requirements.

5. What are 6N Silicon's competitive advantages?

Our primary competitive advantages are related to speed and cost. We are distinguished by dramatically lower capital equipment costs, very low production costs, rapid expansion capability, and our wide flexibility in location. Our process has a much smaller footprint and very low environmental impact. These strengths allow us to utilize conventional warehouse-type facilities rather than highly specialized industrial plants.
6N just received a second-round $20 million investment led by Good Energies, one of the top investors in the clean tech space.

So just how long can we expect the silicon shortage to persist? Some expect the polysilicon shortage to ease in 2009, while a report by Frost & Sullivan indicates that the polysilicon supply will open up this year. Elsewhere, a move by Trina Solar, a Chinese PV manufacturer, to cancel its plans to build its own polysilicon factory left industry observers speculating if such move should be construed as the company's belief that the end of the polysilicon shortage is closer in sight (or if it is merely a reflection of Trina's internal situation).

For additional insights into the silicon situation in China today, click here, here and here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Germany and the High Price of FITness

This interesting article in The Economist on Germany's renewable energy laws talks about how successful Germany's feed-in tariff scheme has been in catapulting Germany's solar industry, and how it has the ironic effect of increasing the price of solar and channeling investments away from possibly more effective renewable energy technologies, causing some backlash amongst politicians who seek to scale back on some of the cross-subsidies afforded to solar.

The feed-in tariff essentially works like this: utilities are required to purchase power form renewable energy sources at a fixed higher-than-market rate that decreases gradually in fixed amounts over a 20 year period. Such fixed rates provides certainty to investors to calculate their returns. The utilities are permitted to pass on the extra costs of purchasing renewable power to its customers by "smearing" such extra costs across the the price of all electricity generated--renewable or not. Because of the relatively small percentage of renewable power compared to overall electricity generation (some 6.7% in Germany for 2006), such a cross-subsidy added a mere 3 euros per month, to the typical German household power bill.

But as the article points out, the feed-in tariff has been so successful that it has had unintended effects:
Cheerleaders for solar had hoped that the increased demand for panels would help manufacturers reduce unit costs, and thus make solar more competitive in the long run. Instead, the rush into solar has led to a shortage of the high-grade silicon used to make the cells, which has soared in price from $25 per kilogram in 2003 to around $400 today. Indeed, such is the demand for solar panels in Germany that it has kept prices high globally. This is wonderful for manufacturers, but makes it more expensive to install solar capacity in sunnier parts of the world, where it would generate more electricity...A euro in cross-subsidies spent on wind power, rather than solar, produces more generating capacity and a larger reduction in carbon emissions.
In my view, we have to keep the longer term view of the silicon shortage in perspective. New capacity for polysilicon will come online within the next two years, and that, hopefully will ease the bottleneck. My next post will delve a little more into the silicon situation.

Monday, April 7, 2008

SolarCity to Bring 3P-Financing to the Mass Market

When asked the question of what stands in the way of solar power adoption, I've often answered that among the barriers is the lack of innovative financing techniques to make the installation of solar panels affordable for the homeowner.

SolarCity, in collaboration with Morgan Stanley, is answering the call to bring such innovative financing to the mass market through its SolarLease program, under which homeowners need only to put $2,000 down, and subsequently pay a fixed monthly fee (not a rate) for a fixed amount of solar power. In other words, SolarCity will arrange for the installation of the solar panels, continue to own such panels, but lease it to the homeowner for the provision of clean solar energy. More importantly, it significantly reduces the upfront costs of purchasing an entire home solar system.

Makes a lot of sense. Afterall, which homeowner really wants to fork out $25,000 for an entire solar system (more than 10 times the upfront fee for the SolarLease program) and physically own those solar panels? Its the power that these panels generate that the homeowner is interested in. SunCity, as the owner of the solar panels, will take advantage of commercial solar tax credits (which are higher than residential solar tax credits) and pass the savings down to the customer. According to the SolarLease webpage, the monthly fixed fee that SolarCity charges would be less than what a homeowner would expect to pay from its utility.

As this article from Greentech Media points out, SolarCity is not the first company to introduce "third-party financing" (or 3P-finaning) to the solar world. The likes of Tioga Energy, MMA Renewable Ventures and SunEdison have been doing it for a while for larger commercial projects. But SolarCity maybe among the first, if not the first, to provide 3P-financing directly to homeowners.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

CSP Heats Up

There has been a beehive of activity on the concentrated solar power (CSP, aka big solar) front over the past week. Lets start with a comprehensive 145 page report on CSP by the Prometheus Institute and Greentech Media. The executive summary accompanies this press release. The report provides an excellent overview on the state of the various kinds of CSP technologies, the current market conditions, and Here are some key findings of the report, as presented in the press release:
  • CSP clearly has a role to play over the next decade. With the current plants, those in construction, those under consideration, and the pace of development, it is clear that some tens of GW of cumulative production over the next decade - possibly as much as 50 GW - of CSP capacity will be installed by 2020.
  • PV will remain dominant in the distributed market. That said, flat plate PV for distributed applications and some fixed or single-axis tracking systems for central systems will remain economically competitive. Unless CSP technologies can match those of PV, the distributed market will be tough for CSP technology to penetrate.
  • Centralized generation market up for grabs. While each of the technologies has core markets that they best serve, it is where these markets overlap that is most interesting for evaluating competition for solar technologies.
The report indicates that it will be at least another decade before centralized CSP achieves "grid parity," and that in the meantime, distributed PV will continue to be dominant. So why the flurry of investment activity in CSP recently (see list of some recent deals below)? One explanation for all the utility-scale CSP deal making of late is the adoption of Renewable Portfolio Standards throughout the increasing majority of states in the U.S., that require utilities to distribute a certain minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy sources.

Reported utility-scale CSP projects reported over the last week:
  • Brightsource and PG&E sign a 900MW solar thermal deal.
  • Florida-based FPL to build a $1 billion, 250MW solar power plant in the California Mojave Desert.
  • Israeli-based Solel to build a 140 million manufacturing facility in southern Spain.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

NREL and Mitsubishi boast new efficiency records

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have achieved conversion efficiency world record for a CIGS (copper indium gallium diselenide) thin-film solar cell of 19.9 percent in testing at a lab. This compares favorably to a conversion efficiency in certain multi-crystalline solar cells of 20.3 percent, providing an important milestone for the coming-of-age of the newer technologies of thin-film vis-a-vis silicon based solar cells. According to NREL, the record was achieved by improvements in the quality of the material applied during the manufacturing process, boosting the power output from the cell.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation claims it has set a new world record with a photoelectric conversion efficiency rate of 18.6 percent in a 150-millimeter square practical use multi-crystalline silicon solar cell, an improvement of 0.6 percent over the company's previous record. The company claims it achieved the new record by (1) adding a low reflectivity surface texture on the multi-crystalline silicon wafer, (2) optimizing the p-n junction to increase electric current generation and (3) developing a process to print electrodes on the surface of the silicon (metallization) to reduce shade loss of front grid electrodes. Such technological adaptations contribute to higher efficiency in small installations such as narrow roofs.