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.