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Solar Tribune

Solar Energy News, Analysis, Education
Updated: 37 min 14 sec ago

The Truth About Solar and Silver Prices

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 9:30am

In August of this year, Wall Street Daily predicted that solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing would be “The Unlikely Driving Force Behind an Imminent Surge in Silver Prices.” In fact, all over the web, precious metals watchers are predicting a jump in silver prices due to increasing demand for the highly conductive metal by the booming PV market. According to an October 21, 2014 article at Forbes.com, “Assuming a balanced market in which supply matches demand, the demand for silver from the solar PV industry will rise from 10% of the total demand for silver in 2014 to around 15% in 2018.” However, since 2011, PV sales have risen to new heights, while silver prices have dipped to a five year low. What gives?

Currently, PV manufacturers use between 15 and 20 grams of silver in a new solar panel (by comparison, a new laptop contains approximately .75 grams of silver.) The Forbes article bases it’s projections on the assumption that 2.8 million ounces of silver are required to generate 1 GW of solar power, and that The incremental PV capacity addition in 2018 is expected to be between 39 and 69 GW. Are these assumptions realistic? And if so, will they actually translate into higher silver prices?

Will solar stop the decline in silver prices?

The reduction of silver use in PV panels is one of the holy grails of the solar industry. R&D teams have reduced usage of silver as much as two thirds in some new panels. Copper, nickel and tin are all showing promise as replacements for silver in PV panel busbars. A sudden turn in the global price of silver could be a major hit to PV manufacturers, or it may be the catalyst for a new wave of post-silver PV. In their 2012 report entitled ““Key Issues and Innovations in Photovoltaic Metallization,” Lux Research reports that the “Drive to reduce silver use is inevitable. Over the past decade, silver prices have risen six-fold to about $30/ounce, necessitating lower usage and other work-arounds. Applied Materials’ double-printing tool reduces silver usage by 30% relative to conventional screen printing and improves absolute cell efficiencies by 0.3% to 0.5%, offering the nearest term bang for the buck. But the technology roadmap won’t stop there.” Obviously, silver markets have been a roller coaster ride since the $30 an ounce numbers at the time of the Lux report to a current price of $17.44 (as of this writing, October 2014.) Now, PV manufacturers are happily chugging along, producing PV panels at under $1 per watt retail. Solar demand is growing rapidly, copper and tin based panel alternatives are back on the shelf and yet, silver prices remain in the basement, as compared to 2011, when silver was pushing $50 an ounce.

In addition to advances in technology that are lowering silver demands for solar panels, there are other factors that are affecting silver prices. These factors are far outside of the world of solar manufacturing. Precious metal prices have been highly volatile in recent years due to economic and regulatory factors having nothing to do with industrial demand. Fears about the market, currency fluctuations and an overall lackluster economy in the wake of the recession drove prices up, and, of course, what goes up must come down. Last year, demand for silver dropped and so did the price, but the low price has once again sparked demand, including the Indian jewelry silver market, which bought 17% of the silver in 2013. Despite the demand, silver prices remain low, leading speculators to scratch their heads. In many respects, the projections of PV manufacturing driving silver prices higher sounds a bit like wishful thinking.

At this point in time, the markets are a confusing place to be, and even the seasoned pros are struggling to make sense of the current directions in both the silver and the solar markets. With solar stocks being unjustly penalized by falling crude oil prices ( see “Solar Stocks Struggle to Decouple from Crude”) we are seeing powerhouse companies like industry giant SunPower down 23% and China’s upstart Trina Solar down 30%. Can silver fans really count on solar’s growth to spur a recovery in silver prices? At this point, it’s a stretch. And what about solar enthusiasts? It looks like a the grey clouds over silver and solar stocks may have a “silver lining” for them. For now, weak silver prices and lower solar stocks probably mean cheaper solar panels in the near term.

Solar Water Heating: In the Shadow of PV

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 5:36am

It would be hard not to notice the rush of activity in the worldwide photovoltaic marketplace in recent years, but you may not have noticed that at the same time, solar thermal technology has been rapidly overshadowed by the unprecedented growth and popularity of PV. Once heralded as the most cost effective way to capture and store the sun’s energy, sales of solar water heating systems have not kept pace with the new generation of “plug and play” PV products. The reality of solar thermal’s technical complexities, in combination with misinformation about solar thermal’s versatility and practicality have lead to stagnation in the marketplace. In fact, the rise of cheap PV lead to Martin Holladay’s pronouncement that “Solar Thermal is Dead” in a 2012 article at greenbuildingadvisor.com.

“Solar water heating is only practical in southern climates…”

We often hear that solar water heating doesn’t make sense in northern states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin. In fact, Holladay makes the case that with plummeting PV prices, it may actually be cheaper to heat water with PV now than it is to us a solar thermal system. With PV panel prices dropping below $1/watt, this may be even more true than when Holladay’s article was initially published. Still, thanks to incentive programs, affordable solar domestic hot water (sdhw) systems are still going up in northern states. According to the Daily Northwestern, The city of Evanston Illinois has had 85 new DSHW systems installed this year. In addition, niche markets for solar water heating are popping up, in the hotel industry, greenhouses and residential and public pool heating.

The solar heated greenhouse at Dickinson college photo: dickinson.edu

Meanwhile, SDHW continues to see modest growth and continued popularity in southern states like Arizona and Florida. Can solar water heating make a comeback in the US? As with PV, the key will be seeing the installed price come down, and sadly, right now, that isn’t happening.

Solar Stocks Struggle to Decouple From Crude

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 4:27am

Since late September of this year, the stock market has given investors a bumpy ride as it continues its current downhill slide.

Along with other sectors, the solar market has also taken a dive. On top of this, solar is experiencing and additional drop due to relatively low oil prices. This one-two punch is hitting the solar market hard.

Solar stocks are at a 3 month low, and some have given up all of their 2014 gains at this point.

Will falling oil drag down solar? photo credit: NREL

The solar market is in a period of steady growth, and has been a good bet for investors in recent years. In 2014, worldwide solar installations are on course to meet predictions of 42-48 GW. Unfortunately, as the market has a tendency to react to fear and current news stories like the Ebola problem are giving traders pause. However, low oil prices and their effect on solar stocks is a puzzler. In the US, Solar competes primarily with coal-fired electricity, which supplies 39% of the nations energy supply. Meanwhile, petroleum supplies only 1% of US electrical generation. Petroleum prices could drop precipitously, and make virtually no dent in the price of electricity. On the other hand, solar does compete directly with natural gas, which is the nations #2 source of electricity, providing 27% of US electrical generation. Back in March, CNBC reported that price links between solar and crude prices had “begun to break down completely.” However, current conditions indicate that the uncoupling from petroleum is not yet complete.

In recent days, some solar stocks have shown small rallies, while others remain flat. Investors seem to be waiting for indications that the slide has reached bottom, while others are more optimistic. Market watchers at some websites like seekingalpha.com are calling it a good time to buy, but others remain cautious. Marketwatch.com reports that solar’s fundamentals remain strong, despite its current “guilt by association” with oil.

Russia’s Largest Solar Power Plant Opens in Siberia

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 11:26am

The Kosh-Agachsky plant, which has a capacity of 5 megawatts (MW), is the record holder in Russia for solar-power generation. The plant launched on September 4, 2014 and is located in Altai Republic, Gorno-Altaysk, Russia. Kosh-Agachsky allows the region to be power-independent instead of relying on energy from other parts of the country.

Thin-film PV modules. Photo Credit: Hevel Solar

Andrei Tsygulev told local reporters that the power station will generate almost twice as much power as the 2.7 to 3.5MW needed, and that the remainder of the power will be sold to other areas in the region. Tsygulev is the deputy head of the Kosh-Agach district for construction and architecture.

Russian president Vladimir Putin attended the grand opening. He says the plant will provide a large amount of employment and give the production sector an opportunity to get a market.

The plant is the first of five PV facilities planned to be opened by 2019 at a total cost of RUB5 billion. It was initiated by Hevel Solar, which is located in Moscow, and was founded in 2009 to develop clean solar energy in Russia.

The predecessor to the covenant record holder title is a plant in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan that was opened in 2013 and has an output of 2MW.

A Bright Future For Solar Energy In Schools

Wed, 09/24/2014 - 4:00am

Solar energy has been touted for years as a potential solution to the massive energy crisis which is only beginning to rear its head in our nation. One of the key locations where solar energy is poised to cause a revolution is in the nation’s schools.

Many schools are using solar energy to cut down on their utility bills. This is excellent news for teachers, many of whom can finally begin to be paid at the level they truly deserve for all of their hard work, long hours, and unending dedication. Solar energy is truly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the realm of education.

A SolarCity installation in San Rafael, CA. Credit: SolarCity

The Recent Brighter Future Report

A recently published report, known as Brighter Future: A Study On Solar In U.S. Schools, has publicized some fascinating facts and statistics which are well worth getting to know. Some of the key findings which the study has uncovered are as follows:

  • Over 450 school districts in the United States could instantly save more than a million dollars each over the next 30 years by installing a solar energy system.
  • Out of the total of 125,000 schools that currently operate in the United States, between 40,000 and 70,000 could adopt solar energy without spending hardly anything on the conversion.
  • There are already over 3,700 schools in the United States that possess solar installations.
  • The solar PV systems that already exist at American schools combine for a staggering total of 490 megawatts. Between all of them, they generate an amazing 642,000 megawatt hours of electricity in a years’ time.
  • All of the energy produced in schools by solar energy amounts to $77.8 billion in normal utility bills. This amount of money could do a revolutionary amount of good if spent elsewhere.

Germany Continues to Lead the Way on Renewable Energy

Mon, 09/22/2014 - 7:57pm

In recent years, Germany has become notable for its excellence in the renewable energy markets. Fueled by government subsidies in the industry, the renewable energy businesses in Germany has been quickly growing. In fact, this industry was growing so quickly that the government called a halt to many of its subsidy programs in the area. However, businesses have been resilient in face of these changes, since growth in these markets has continued. This will explore how the renewable energy markets in Germany are projected to advance in the coming years.

The solar power plant in Alt Daber near Wittstock was constructed on the site of a former Soviet airforce base. The decentral power plant covers an area equivalent to over 162 football pitches and provides up to 19,000 four-person households with solar power. Photo Credit: Belectric

1. Wind Energy Growth Near North Sea

Driven by high winds in the area, the North Sea has become a popular destination for wind turbines. Many of these turbines stand hundreds of feet into the air and tower over the sea below. Placed in an intelligent grid, these wind turbines have become very common at wind farms located in northern Germany. In the coming years, these wind farms will only continue to grow as Germany aims to power its entire nation with renewable technology. This power will be used for everything from factories to individual homes. In the process of implementing this plan, the country will continue to advance its expertise in the renewable energy markets.

2. Demand Driven by Foreign Companies

Since Germany has become a specialized hub of renewable energy technology, companies from around the world have sought its expertise. This is especially true in the Chinese markets, where manufacturers have been increasingly interested in solar technology. Thanks to Germany’s advances in recent years, clean energy costs around the world are projected to fall. This will likely lead to more widespread adoption of solar and wind technologies in Europe and abroad. With the nation’s expertise already in place, it will continue to be a strong player in the renewable energy markets for years to come.

New Tax on Solar Imports into the U.S.

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 4:23am

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it added import duties to Chinese manufacturers’ solar panels and related items. 

The new duties add more than eighteen to thirty-five percent plus to these solar imports. The newly assessed duties will of course raise the prices of imports manufactured by Trina Solar Inc., Jinko Solar Holding Co., Ltd., and Yingli Green Energy. The shares of these companies immediately traded down on the announcement by an average five plus percent. Solar World Industries America, a U.S. subsidiary of German-headquartered Solar World, petitioned for the closure of a loophole that helps Chinese solar businesses to duck import duties. The U.S. Department of Justice first evaluated the issues in 2012.

Ingot Manufacturing Facilities at Trina Solar. Photo Credit: Trina Solar

U.S. solar companies’ shares also traded higher on the news. First Solar, in partnership with conglomerate General Electric, and Sun Power, partnering with Google, are already strong performers in the stock market. Solar installations in the United States were almost USD 14 billion in 2013, but about half of solar products installed were actually made in China. Rooftop solar is an extraordinary example of China’s dominance in the sector, controlling about seventy percent of the equipment installed.

The response to the Department of Commerce’s decision was negatively received by China’s government. In what was viewed as a retaliatory gesture, China’s imposed anti-subsidies of U.S.-imports of about fifty-three to fifty-seven percent on polysilicon. Regardless of the new U.S. duties, solar equipment and manufactured products are still controlled by Chinese businesses. And since China holds almost ten percent of outstanding U.S. national debt, it’s clear that the country has bargaining power with the United States.

Sungevity Pursues Opportunities in Europe

Fri, 09/05/2014 - 4:18am

The Californian company Sungevity recently signed a deal with the Neatherlands utility company E.ON Benelux to create a partnership offering services in solar energy.

Photo Credit: Earth4Energy

The arrangement calls on Sungevity to use their marketing and solar design platforms to serve utility customers, and the services will be promoted in a co-branded way.

The partnership follows investments made in April by E.ON in Sungevity. The investments enabled Sungevity to combine that capitalization money with other investors such as GE Venture to expand their holdings in Zonline, a Dutch solar company, and enabled them to obtain complete ownership. The resulting organization will be known as Sungevity Netherlands.

The Netherlands solar market has now reached grid parity with more traditional power sources. This parity has been achieved gradually over several decades in which retail electricity rates have steadily risen while solar costs have fallen. “Obviously, the lines have to cross,” said Sungevity CEO Andrew Birch. According to Birch, there are at least eight other European markets where solar parity has also been achieved.

Analysts credit the success of solar power in the Netherlands to the fact that the European energy market is further evolved in utilizing solar power than countries such as the United States. Sungevity is currently negotiating with U.S. utilities to establish partnerships, however the demand for solar power in the U.S. is not as great as in Europe at present.

World’s first PV and thermal rooftop installed in Australia

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 2:51pm

An Australian home now has what is believed to be the world’s first solar panel roof that produces both electricity and heat for the home.

The $5 million project was developed by building materials firm BlueScope with support from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The system includes thin-film solar panels which are set on steel roofing sheets to generate electricity.

This building-integrated photovoltaic-thermal (BIPV-T) system, on an inner-city home in Sydney, also has a thermal duct system warms and cools air to supplement air conditioning.

“Today we are witnessing an exciting new technology solution moving from the lab to be prototyped on everyday Australian rooftops for the first time,” said ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht.

Credit: ARENA

“This new integrated PV system has been designed to provide a low cost system for Australian residential, commercial and industrial rooftops,” he said. “It has the potential to reduce installation and energy costs as well as reduce peak energy demands placed on the grid.”

The system replaces the home’s original corrugated steel roof, and has also been installed in another part of the country, replacing a tile roof.

“These first installations are an important step as the technology moves towards commercialisation and cost competitiveness with conventional rooftop PV,” added Frischknecht.

The system is made to not only replace existing roofs, but also can be used for new residential, commercial and industrial buildings.

“The roofing systems have been specifically designed for Australia’s climate and buildings, to ensure effectiveness and reliability, “ said Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Bob Baldwin.

Other cost-saving measures – aimed to make such systems attractive from a price perspective – include reduced packaging and transport, improved building energy efficiency and easy, low-cost installation.

 

A Historic 105-0 Vote for Solar in South Carolina

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 5:43pm

Solar industry advocates, green enthusiasts and environmental conservation groups are basking in the sun today.

With a historic 105-0 vote on Wednesday, May 21, South Carolina’s House of Representatives approved of advancing solar technologies and making other crucial energy usage changes to help end residential and commercial reliance on fossil fuel electric power generation.

Critics of solar technology advancements have gone to great lengths in the past to block such bills in the U.S. “Palmetto State,” including the state’s many utility companies. Since 2013, state legislators have had to make numerous changes to their original recommendations to craft a compromise bill that would receive unanimous approval.

Although the bill won’t completely stop fossil fuel usage by the state’s residents and power companies, it’s still considered a successful, much needed first step in a region known for majority support of traditional approaches to power generation.

According to “The State” newspaper, the blocks to this legislation were finally overcome because of the increasing general advance of solar programs around the country and a desire by power companies to recoup related costs.

If passed into the law by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, at least 2 percent of the average peak demand for power over five years must become solar generated by 2021. The bill also approves of third-party rooftop solar power leasing and raises the cap on the amount of nonresidential solar energy usage up to 1 megawatt.

The bill is expected to go through final House and Senate approvals later today.

Startup launching solar ATMs in India

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 1:35am

Vortex Engineering, an Indian start up, is rolling out solar-powered ATMs to facilitate banking in rural parts of India.

The ATMs use the same amount of energy as a conventional light bulb, and can operate without air conditioning is heat up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Vortex’s solar-powered ATMs emit at least 18,500 kg of CO2 each year, when compared to conventional ATMs.

“Our ATM is a customized solution to rural India’s unique problems where power is scarce, accessibility is poor, crisp notes are rare and the language and dialects vary. Yet, it a product that is scalable across geographies,” Kannan Lakshminarayan, co-founder and chief technology officer at Vortex Engineering, told CNBC.

“I have always been motivated by the social impact of work on society. Local problems need local solutions. When you import solutions, you can at best be only second rate,” says Lakshminarayan.

Credit: Vortex Engineering

In addition to being powered on solar energy, the ATMs have a simplified, energy efficient design with fewer parts that could require repair.

Next year, Vortex Engineering will supply at least 5,000 ATMs across the country. At the moment there are about 150,000 ATMs in India – a country with a population of 1.2 billion.

Construction to start on U.S. Army’s largest PV array

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 5:05am

Construction on the largest solar PV installation at a U.S. army site will begin this month at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

“This will be the largest solar array in the department of defense on a military installation,” said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment.

The installation is expected to provide about 25 percent of the electricity required at Fort Huachuca each year. Construction will start on April 25, with the solar panels expected to go live in late 2014.

Credit: U.S. Army

“Energy is an installation priority,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Ashley, Fort Huachuca commanding general.

“The project goes beyond the megawatts produced. It reflects our continued commitment to southern Arizona and energy security,” he said. “The project will provide reliable access to electricity for daily operations and missions moving forward.”

The solar project will be owned, funded, operated and maintained by Tucson Electric Power and E.ON will work on the design, engineering, procurement and construction.

“The project establishes a new path for an innovative partnering opportunity among the U.S. Army, other federal agencies, private industry and the utility provider,” added deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability Richard Kidd.

This solar installation will add to the U.S. Army’s goal of using 1 GW of renewable energy by the year 2025.

Research discover light-emitting solar panels

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 11:44pm

Scientists in Singapore have discovered a new material that acts as a solar panel in the day, and a light panel at night.

The researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed solar cells from a material called Perovskite. These cells don’t just convert sunlight to electricity, but also have the capacity to emit light.

Such a material could be used to make cell phone or tablet screens that can be recharged simply by exposing them to sunlight.

“What we have discovered is that because it is a high quality material, and very durable under light exposure, it can capture light particles and convert them to electricity, or vice versa,” said Assistant Professor Sum Tse Chien, a Singaporean scientist at NTU’s School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (SPMS).

Credit: Nanyang Technological University

“By tuning the composition of the material, we can make it emit a wide range of colours, which also makes it suitable as a light emitting device, such as flat screen displays.”

The discovery was made when Assistant Professor Sum asked his postdoctoral researcher to shine a laser on the new Perovskite solar cell material they have been working on – and the solar cell glowed!

“What we have now is a solar cell material that can be made semi-translucent. It can be used as tinted glass to replace current windows, yet it is able to generate electricity from sunlight,” said Assistant Professor Nripan Mathews, another of the researchers responsible for this discovery.

“The fact that it can also emit light makes it useful as light decorations or displays for the facades of shopping malls and offices,” said Dr Mathews.

Thanks to an easy manufacturing process, this Perskovite material is five times less expensive than current Silicon-based solar cells.

“Such a versatile yet low-cost material would be a boon for green buildings. Since we are already working on the scaling up of these materials for large-scale solar cells, it is pretty straightforward to modify the procedures to fabricate light emitting devices as well. More significantly, the ability of this material to lase, has implications for on-chip electronic devices that source, detect and control light,” he added.