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Will Low PV Prices Kill Small Wind?

Wed, 07/22/2015 - 11:43am

With solar photovoltaic (PV) panel prices going lower and lower, solar arrays are quickly taking the place of small wind power projects and residential turbines. Is this the beginning of the end for small wind?

For many years, renewable energy enthusiasts in the northern areas of the United States favored small wind turbines, or a combination of wind and solar PV to produce electricity. Until recently, the installed cost of small wind turbines (100kW or under) was cheaper than that of PV However, the small turbine business has been plagued with problems since its inception. Many small turbines have been overhyped and under-performing. New machines have hit the market and disappear at an alarming rate, leaving heart-broken consumers and red-faced dealers.

In a decade that has seen very few technical advancements in small wind systems, PV has shown huge advancements in technology, like micro-inverters, power-point tracking and increased efficiency. At the same time, Chinese PV manufacturers have driven solar panel prices down from $4 per watt in 2005 to less than $1 in 2015- in some cases under 50 cents (under 3 dollars per watt with all installation costs added.) Small wind turbine prices vary widely, with installed costs from $3- $6 per watt. Solar has the inherent advantage of being a solid-state technology, unlike wind turbines, which have a lot of moving mechanical parts. When parts move, they break, and all but a few wind turbines on the market have pretty dismal maintenance records, compared to PV.

homepower.com


In their latest issue, Home Power Magazine published their annual Wind Turbine Buyer’s Guide, even the long-time trade journal and advocate of small wind sounded apologetic about the prospects for buying small wind machines. Author’ Roy Butler and Ian Woofenden (one of the nation’s leading experts on small wind turbines) wrote that: “The people who are disappointed with their wind systems tend to have short towers, low-budget and mismatched equipment from newer companies or importers, and installation by inexperienced people. Most have unrealistic expectations of the wind resource and wind systems. These installations have high failure rates and low energy production. We’ve seen many systems that rarely generate any energy—and a system that costs even as little as $20,000 to as much as $100,000, but only generates a handful of kWh, is making very expensive electricity.”

homepower.com


Unlike solar PV, which has rapidly become integrated into the services provided by electrical contractors, small wind turbine installers are still generally “wildcatters,” start-up businesses looking to carve out a niche in a new energy market. Many lack the training to design a system properly, or they look to inexpensive, untested manufacturers for equipment. Home Power’s Buyer’s Guide does not single out any of these less-than-reputable companies, but they only include a handful of companies with under 10 or even 5 years of service. They make it clear that years in business is important. An elite few companies make completely reliable machines, like Bergey Windpower, who has a rock-solid reputation and nearly 40 years in the business.

There will always be off-grid applications for small wind turbines. Remote locations– particularly those with long, gray winters– can benefit greatly from using a solar along with wind, which works best on windy days, often when the sun is not shining. Coastal areas are also strong contenders fro small wind. On the upper end of the power-producing spectrum, large, utility scale wind projects are work-horses for producing a portfolio of diverse renewable energy sources. However, the window of opportunity for residential and small business wind turbines seems to be closing quickly. It would appear that only a major paradigm shift, or a huge jump in the price of silicon, will keep small wind on the map for residential customers.

The post Will Low PV Prices Kill Small Wind? appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Warren Buffett Loves Solar…As Long As He Owns It

Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:01am

This week, NV Energy, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to buy electricity from the 100 MW Playa Solar 2 power plant in Nevada at a jaw-droppingly low price of $0.0387 per kWh. Meanwhile, NV Energy’s lobbyists are doing all they can to make it more expensive for Nevada residents to produce their own solar power.

It would seem that Mr. Buffett loves to sell solar to his customers, but he does not like the idea of his customers making their own power. From a strictly business perspective, this is not surprising– after all, why buy rooftop solar from your homeowners or businesses at retail rate, when you can make and sell your own for a tiny fraction of the price?

The problem is, as in most of the United States, utilities in Nevada are government regulated, and operate in government-sanctioned monopoly service territories. This means that residents and businesses in NV Energy’s territory do not have a choice of who they buy their electricity from, and they have no other options as to who they can sell their solar power to. This means that it is up to the Nevada Legislature and the Nevada Utilities Commission to decide what is fair to both parties.

During the 2015 Nevada legislative session, NV Energy paid no less than 11 lobbyists to do their bidding… more than any other single organization (one NV Energy Lobbyist, Pete Ernaut, was even an adviser to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval on two election campaigns.) They fought attempts to raise the state’s cap on net metering by 235 MWs, but in the end, reached a compromise with solar advocates that allows more solar to be net metered, but adds a monthly service charge to the bill of solar producers. This effectively lowers the price that NV Energy has to pay for rooftop solar and extends the payback period for solar owners, supressing solar industry growth in the state, at least in the rooftop sector.

Flickr/CC BY 2.0


Mr. Buffett has always enjoyed the massive tax breaks that investing in renewable energy brings, and Berkshires strategy for using utility regulations and state incentives to corner the market on renewables is nothing new. In Iowa, lobbyists for Berkshire-owned MidAmerican Energy used the same strategy throughout the early 2000’s to develop large, utility-scale wind farms while simultaneously suppressing farmer-owned wind projects in their service region.

In many states, solar businesses have been succeeding, despite the roadblocks thrown up by utility companies and their highly-paid lobbyists. “Across the country the utility industry is pressuring regulators and elected officials to limit solar energy’s growth, and the same thing is happening in Nevada,” Gabe Elsner, executive director of the Energy & Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based clean energy think tank told Bloomberg Business. “NV Energy is trying to protect their monopoly by squashing competitors.”

Last June, Warren Buffett spoke at a utility business conference in Las Vegas and said he is prepared to double Berkshire Hathaway’s commitment to renewable energy. That would bring his solar and wind investments to $30 billion. It would also appear that most of that will go to large solar plants like Playa 2, and as little as possible to homeowners. And he is willing to hire a lot of lobbyists to keep it that way.

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About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Obama Administration: Addressing “Energy Inequality” with Solar Goals

Sat, 07/11/2015 - 8:09am

When President Obama comes out with a “visionary” executive plan to bring solar energy to America’s underclass, it is sure to elicit “vigorous” responses from supporters and detractors alike. The question is, does either side have an accurate view of what the President’s plan really MEANS?


In general, the President isn’t getting much love from either the left or the right when it comes to the approach he has taken toward renewable energy projects so far. He has neither been willing to level the playing field by reducing the massive tax breaks enjoyed by the coal and gas industries, nor has he moved to open monopoly utility markets to competition from solar. His latest initiative, designed to bring solar power to federally subsidized housing is finding lukewarm support on the left, and skepticism, dismissiveness and contempt on the right.

Neal Asbury of NewsMax Finance succinctly summed up the hair-on-fire extremity of the radical opposition in his July 9th exercise in selective fact torturing entitled Renewable Energy May Be Popular, But Beware the Costs:

“As we’ve discovered, corruption runs rampant in green energy, thanks to massive tax breaks and other taxpayer handouts for Obama cronies. In most cases the money granted to these projects is never repaid, and instead of creating jobs, jobs are actually lost because we don’t invest these valuable resources in more productive areas of our economy.”

Asbury goes on to pillory Obama’s support for renewable energy, with a throw away line about the cost effectiveness of nuclear energy that is questionable at best. “If you factor in the cost to buy land and build the plants and run them, nuclear is far cheaper for the amount of energy it can generate.” As written, Neal’s statement may be true, but it’s intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, what he is leaving out are the most important factors. The environmental costs of mining Uranium are huge, not to mention the cost of processing, and of course, disposal of spent fuel. Add in the cost of insuring nuclear plants (which taxpayers are on the hook for) and President Obama’s little plan for solar on low income housing suddenly looks pretty cheap. If one is looking for cronyism in the energy business, one needs to look at cronyism in ALL sectors, not just solar.

In an opinion piece from the other end of the political spectrum at the Huffingtom Post, Kyle Ash of Greenpeace gave the president a brief compliment by writing that:

“On Tuesday, President Obama announced a great initiative to increase the affordability of solar power in communities across the country. This is part of the White House’s plan to increase the installation of climate-friendly energy sources while recognizing the country has serious challenges when it comes to environmental justice.”

A few paragraphs later, Ash blasts Obama:

“President Obama’s climate legacy will come down to a simple equation—his efforts to reduce climate pollution minus his actions that increase it. There is so much bold action the President could take on climate as the chief executive of taxpayer-owned fossil fuels and federal policy on fossil fuel supply. But this President is often doing the opposite of what he should.”

Unfortunately, neither Asbury nor Ash spend much time on the details of the President’s announced plans. The entire laundry list of executive actions can be read at whitehouse.gov, but a few of the highlights include:

  • Launching a National Community Solar Partnership to unlock access to solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and business that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar systems.
  • Setting a goal to install 300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to make it easier to install solar, including clarifying how to use Federal funding;
  • Housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, power companies, and organizations in more than 20 states across the country are committing to put in place more than 260 solar energy projects, including projects to help low- and moderate- income communities save on their energy bills and further community solar; and
  • More than $520 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities to advance community solar and scale up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.

To continue enhancing employment opportunities for all Americans in the solar industry, the Administration is announcing the following executive actions and private sector commitments, including:

  • AmeriCorps funding to deploy solar and create jobs in underserved communities;
  • Expanding solar energy education and opportunities for job training; and
  • The solar industry is also setting its own, independent goal of becoming the most diverse sector of the U.S. energy industry, and a number of companies are announcing that they are taking steps to build a more inclusive solar workforce.

So what is the administration’s plan actually going to DO? As it turns out, not much. The plan consists of a lot of tweaking on existing programs, convening new “partnerships,” (made up of the usual cast of utilities, industry groups and NGOs), setting new implementation goals, launching a webinar series on job opportunities, and setting a goal for diversity in the solar workforce. Hardly a bold step forward, and an initiative anyone in the solar industry would consider “too little, too late” in an 8 year tenure.

The question is, why bother? With the 2016 presidential race ramping up earlier than ever, it’s no wonder that the President’s modest proposal has gotten very little press, and even lease praise. Any community-based projects that Mr. Obama launches at this late date are bound to be orphaned in a little more than a year.

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About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Why the Solar Impulse Matters

Sat, 07/04/2015 - 12:47pm

How can a huge, slow, single-seat plane change the world?

One day before the United States pauses to celebrate the 239th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, the Solar Impulse 2 solar airplane completed its record-breaking 4,000 mile flight from Japan to Hawaii, taking another small step in the world’s quest to declare independence from fossil fuels.

The Adventure Begins

For those who haven’t been following the Solar Impulse adventure, here’s a little background: Solar Impulse is privately financed project with the goal of flying a solar-powered plane around the world. Based in Switzerland, the project is led by two adventurous aeronauts– Swiss businessman André Borschberg and adventurer Bertrand Piccard (Piccard gained fame for co-piloting Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to circle the world non-stop.) Solar Impulse is funded by a consortium of international businesses including Omega SA, Solvay, ABB, Bayer MaterialScience, Swisscom, Swiss Re , Toyota and FMB Energie. The Solar cells are provided by European solar manufacturer SunPower.

The single seater plane is powered only by solar, with a wingspan of 236 ft. (wider than a Boeing 747), yet weighs less than an SUV. The wings and fuselage are covered with 17,248 photovoltaic cells rated at 66 kW. It has four, 17.4 horsepower electric motors and four 41 kWh lithium-ion batteries. It has a maximum speed of 78 miles per hour.

Solar Impulse 1, the prototype and predecessor of the current model, achieved many “firsts” for a solar plan, including the first intercontinental flight for a solar airplane, flying from Spain to Morocco. However, Solar Impulse 2 has achieved truly epic flights since taking off on the first leg of the journey from Abu Dahbi in March, 2015. The journey has taken Borschberg and Piccard across Asia, over Oman, India, Myanmar and China, across the Pacific to Japan, and now to Hawaii. The latest 118 hour leg, completed by Andre Borschberg, is a record for manned, solar-powered flight, as well as an absolute record for a solo, un-refuelled flight. Borschberg’s time beats that of the American Steve Fossett who spent 76 hours in a single-seater jet in 2006. If all goes well, the Solar Impulse’s two pilots will break more records before finishing their circumnavigation of the globe. The final leg of the flight, from New York to Morocco, will take an estimated 120 hours.

Why the Solar Impulse Matters

Great feats of endurance have always captured the human imagination. Some are achievements of great physical training and mental discipline, like British Cyclist Alex Dowsett’s recent shattering of track cycling’s world one hour record by 446 meters. Other great feats include a technical element as well. Take, for example, Australian skydiver Felix Baumgarter’s jump from a balloon 24 miles above the earth’s surface. In a special pressurized spacesuit, Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. Solar Impulse is one step beyond even these amazing recent achievements. Requiring the physical endurance of a marathon runner and the nerves of a test pilot on the part of Piccard and Borschberg, there is no denying the human endurance element. But there is even more to what Solar Impulse represents.

Obviously, we aren’t going to be traveling in solar airliners any time soon, but Solar Impulse exhibits the rock solid reliability of current solar technology, as well as presenting another successful example of combining solar with lightweight Lithium-Ion battery tech. Solar Impulse is taking Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car concept out to its “bleeding edge.” Solar Impulse ignites the imagination, opening up a whole world of possibilities for solar powered transport. It can also spark an interest in science and technology in kids who may not have seen a really exciting application before.

Gliding quietly over deserts, jungles and oceans, Solar Impulse leaves no contrail, no “environmental footprint.” It is a symbol of what is best about the human “impulse” for adventure. The epic aeronautic voyage transcends borders and cultures. Piccard and Borschberg are sharing peace and goodwill in countries that may not share political or economic philosophies, but all share a love of great human achievement. Without massive government backing or huge military research budgets, Solar Impulse is a soaring example of what technology should be.

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About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Biomimicry: Using Nature’s Solar Technology

Fri, 06/26/2015 - 12:02pm

The concept of imitating natural systems in the built environment is known as “Biomimicry,” and it holds great promise for advancements in many areas of technology, including solar. Several new, cutting edge research project are looking at biomimetic solutions to solar’s nagging problems.

Plastic Solar Panels Imitate Photosynthesis

A UCLA press release this week announced chemists there have developed a new solar cell design that is inspired by the way that plants generate energy through photosynthesis. The team’s full report, entitled Long-lived photoinduced polaron formation in conjugated polyelectrolyte-fullerene assemblies is available at the website of the journal Science.

photo: UCLA

“Biology does a very good job of creating energy from sunlight,” said Sarah Tolbert, a UCLA professor of chemistry and one of the senior authors of the research. “Plants do this through photosynthesis with extremely high efficiency.”

In the search to find a lower-cost alternative to the silicon solar cell, scientists are looking at several different plastics, but to date, the new non-silicon cells lack the efficiency needed to compete. According to the report, “the two components that make the UCLA-developed system work are a polymer donor and a nano-scale fullerene acceptor. The polymer donor absorbs sunlight and passes electrons to the fullerene acceptor; the process generates electrical energy.
The plastic materials, called organic photovoltaics, are typically organized like a plate of cooked pasta — a disorganized mass of long, skinny polymer ‘spaghetti’ with random fullerene ‘meatballs.’ But this arrangement makes it difficult to get current out of the cell because the electrons sometimes hop back to the polymer spaghetti and are lost. The UCLA technology arranges the elements more neatly — like small bundles of uncooked spaghetti with precisely placed meatballs. Some fullerene meatballs are designed to sit inside the spaghetti bundles, but others are forced to stay on the outside. The fullerenes inside the structure take electrons from the polymers and toss them to the outside fullerene, which can effectively keep the electrons away from the polymer for weeks.”

Although the technology is far from ready-for-primetime, it shows some very exciting promise. Yves Rubin, a UCLA professor of chemistry and another senior co-author of the study says, “We don’t have these materials in a real device yet; this is all in solution…When we can put them together and make a closed circuit, then we will really be somewhere.”

Moth Eyes Inspire New Solar Coating

Meanwhile, across the country at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists have developed a new water-repelling, anti-reflective glass coating that could increase the efficiency of solar panels by up to six per cent. Mimicking the characteristics of moth eyes and lotus leaves, the new coating is produced using inexpensive industry-standard techniques, resists high temperatures and is also super tough.

“While lotus leaves repel water and self-clean when it rains, a moth’s eyes are antireflective because of naturally covered tapered nanostructures where the refractive index gradually increases as light travels to the moth’s cornea,” said Tolga Aytug, member of ORNL’s Materials Chemistry Group.
The full report, Monolithic graded-refractive-index glass-based antireflective coatings: broadband/omnidirectional light harvesting and self-cleaning characteristics can be read online.

Popularized in a 2002 book entitled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by science writer Janine Benyus, the motivations behind biomimicry are as old as humanity. In her Biomimicry Primer (available as a free pdf download), Benyus writes:

“Yearning for something that works for instead of against life, professional innovators are heading outside to see how other species have managed to survive for 3.85 billion years. Their models are organisms that manufacture without “heat, beat, and treat,” and ecosystems that run on sunlight and feedback, creating opportunities rather than waste. The resulting designs are functional, sustainable, and not surprisingly, beautiful as well. Beauty is a large part of why biomimicry resonates. Our search for mentors brings us back into contact with the living world, a place we were tuned to appreciate. Having spent 99.9% of our planetary tenure woven deep into the wild, we humans naturally admire the weaverbird’s nest, the conch’s shell, the scales of a shimmering trout. In fact, there are few things more beautiful to the human soul than good design.”

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Thin Film Makes Solar Headlines

Wed, 06/17/2015 - 12:39pm

The past month has brought good news and bad news for thin film solar enthusiasts. In May, Chinese giant Hanergy Thin Film’s stock took a mind-boggling dive. Meanwhile, this week, First Solar has set a world record for cadmium telluride thin film solar module efficiency, hitting 18.6 percent aperture efficiency.

Thin film solar cells have been used in small-scale applications since the 1970’s for consumer electronics beginning with calculators, and more recently appearing on solar yard lights, emergency radios and cell phone chargers. Thin film technology has been scaling up to larger applications, now competing with conventional crystalline silicon (c-Si) panels. Commercially available thin film panels are made of cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), and amorphous and other thin-film silicon, unlike conventional solar c-Si cells. Thin film panels are cheaper and flexible, making them more versatile than their rigid c-Si competitors, but the big stumbling block is their lower efficiency. This means that it take a larger area to produce the same energy as a c-Si panel.

Early in the 2000’s thin film panels were the talk of the solar industry. Giant corporations like British Petroleum invested heavily in the promise of thin film. Thin film startups promised that efficiency comparable to conventional solar cells was just around the corner. Unfortunately the promises just didn’t materialize quickly enough for many solar speculators, and despite a spike in sales of thin film during a shortage of c-Si panels in 2010, the overall share of the solar market held by thin film continues to remain flat– below 10%.

BP dropped thin film in 2003, before it got out of the solar business altogether in 2011. Also in 2011, Solyndra, a manufacturer of a cutting edge thin film technology, suffered a high-profile collapse, further sullying the reputation of thin film products. Now, Hanergy Thin Film, and its parent company Hanergy Holdings are in the midst of a complete meltdown. The Securities and Futures Commission has announced its plan to investigate Li Hejun, Hanergy’s founder and chairman. It has been a tough five years for thin film, to say the least.

Despite Hanergy’s claims of huge efficiency upgrades, their technology appears to be vaporware. However, the last two heavy hitters in the thin film world– First Solar and Solar Frontier– appear to be in an all-out race to the top. Solar Frontier, a Japanese company, set the aperture efficiency record at 17.8 percent late in 2012. This month, American manufacturer First Solar topped that record, hitting 18.6 percent. Raffi Garabedian, First Solar’s Chief Technology Officer stated that: “First Solar’s CdTe thin film is now rightly categorized as a high performance product. At one time, we might have been characterized as a low cost, low efficiency technology, but consistent with our technology projections we are now proving that CdTe thin film delivers both industry-leading performance AND sustainable thin-film cost structures.”

So where is thin film headed? In a recent article in Renewable Energy World entitled “7 Reasons Thin Film Is Alive and Set to Win in Solar”, author Brad Mattson, CEO of Siva Power wrote: “Developments in the past six months indicate that thin film is not only experiencing a revival, it is positioning itself for a run at silicon. The world’s largest solar panel power plant? 290 MW of thin film. Solar charging stations for Tesla in China? Thin film. Record for the world’s highest efficiency solar panel? Thin film. Biggest solar project planned in Africa at 400 MW? Thin film.”

Although Mr. Mattson’s outlook may be overly optimistic, he makes a valid point, and that is, thin film is finding its niche, and it is not competing with silicon panels for residential use. Large installations where space is not a factor, or in Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) applications. Despite the recent roller coaster ride, thin film appears to be moving up.

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CSP: PV Not the Only Game in Town

Sun, 06/14/2015 - 12:24pm

With the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels plummeting and the advent of the era of PV “solar farms,” large scale solar thermal projects have not been getting much love lately, at least not in the USA. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is a workhorse technology for large-scale solar power generation. So why aren’t we hearing more about it?

What is CSP? According the the Solar Energy Industry Association’s Website: “Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate the energy from the sun to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity. The thermal energy concentrated in a CSP plant can be stored and used to produce electricity when it is needed, day or night. Today, over 1,400 MW of CSP plants operate in the United States, and another 390 MW will be placed in service in the next year.” Built-in storage. That’s the holy grail of solar, right? Why are we not all over this?

Casandra Sweet of MarketWatch.com is not-so-optimistic about CSP. In an article published last week, she points out that “The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert is supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. But 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40% of that, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.” Technical difficulties are cited as the reason for the slow takeoff.

Ivanpah is not the only California CSP project to take a hit lately. Another project by Ivanpah’s developer, BrightSource, has officially been canceled, with local officials citing concerns over danger to wildlife as well as the area’s drought-stricken groundwater supply as the primary reasons for cancellation.

While CSP is taking a beating stateside, plans for giant expansions in CSP generation are underway across the globe, mostly in equatorial regions where conditions are perfect for massive solar generating projects. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone plans to add as much as 54 GW of concentrating solar generation in the next few decades. Morocco’s ambitious Noor-Quarzazate Concentrating Solar Plant project has received $47.8 million in financial backing from the European Union (EU), and plans are in the works to connect the Noor stations to the EU grid. The Noor project consists of three phases: Phase 1 includes a160 MW parabolic trough-power project. Phase 2 includes two projects, Noor II and Noor III, with generating capacities of 200 MW for Noor II and 150 MW at Noor III. Phase 3 of Noor-Quarzazate project will not be a CSP plant, but rather a 50 MW solar photovoltaic generating facility. Tunisia is also looking to sell into the EU power market with a 2 GW CSP plant called TuNur. British renewables investor Low Carbon, developer Nur Energie and Tunisian investors, with funding from the African Development Bank, would transport the energy via a 600km cable from Tunisia to Italy, where it has already secured approval for a grid connection. This would be the beginning of delivering major amounts of Middle Eastern solar to all parts of the EU.


Photo by Amble via Wikimedia Commons

In the Americas Spanish CSP developer Abengoa has put in a plant in Mexico, and recently one in Chile. They also have several plants in the USA, but development here seems to have stalled. Why? It seems that the USA’s unique system of government-sanctioned utility monopolies, along with inconsistent state and federal environmental regulations concerning power generation technologies make it a tough market for CSP. Also, in states like California, where the market for CSP is favorable, the population density makes it impractical. Until desert states like Arizona and New Mexico recognize the full potential of their solar resources, the energy producers of the Middle East may continue to dominate, even in the post-fossil fuel economy.

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Second Time Around: Bay Area Gets PACE Financing… Again

Wed, 06/10/2015 - 2:18pm

The PACE financing program for solar installations – standing for Property Assessed Clean Energy – has recently experienced a revival in the Bay Area.

The program makes solar financing easy by allowing residential homeowners to borrow the upfront costs of installing solar panels, and then to repay the loan as a line item on their property tax bills over a 20-year period. Because it is considered a special tax assessment, it remains with the property if the house is sold. And PACE can help with the California drought as well, since the program now also covers water-saving home renovations, such as systems to collect “gray water” from sinks and showers.

In California, the first commercial and residential PACE programs were inaugurated in 2008, and were first established in Berkeley about five years ago. However, it was at about that time that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, began to oppose PACE. PACE loans are essentially attached as liens on properties. This means that, in event of foreclosure, PACE loans would have to be paid off first, which might become a major problem for the Federal government if many PACE program homes with government-sponsored mortgages went into foreclosure. So in 2010, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced that they would cease purchasing mortgage loans secured by properties with outstanding PACE loans.

To remedy the situation, in 2013 Gov. Brown signed into law Senate Bill 96, which established the PACE Loss Reserve Program to mitigate the risk to mortgage lenders from PACE financing. The program created a $10 million fund, designed to cover any of Fannie Mae’s or Freddie Mac’s losses attributable to PACE liens. However, a spokesperson for the FHFA was recently quoted as saying, “We have not changed our policy at all” towards PACE.

Despite concerns that the FHFA might redline entire cities or towns participating in the PACE program, however, this has not occurred, and the agency does not appear to object to PACE in cases where other lenders are willing to bear the risk of mortgages for homeowners who participate in the program. In December, San Francisco became the first large city in California to return to residential PACE financing since the program was halted. The Executive Director of PACENow, David Gabrielson, says: “State and local government sponsored PACE programs are driving economic activity, creating local jobs, and helping achieve carbon reduction and other environmental goals.”

 

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Lithium Batteries and Solar: Where are We Headed?

Sat, 06/06/2015 - 8:21am

Residential Battery Systems (RBS) are the topic of much excitement and speculation in the solar world recently. Tesla, the electric car giant lead by entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk recently rolled out their new “Powerwall” system to much fanfare. Hot on their heels is Trina, the Chinese solar giant, who announced one week later that they, too will be rolling out a new RBS with a soft launch in Australia this summer. Bosch, GE, LG, Sony and Samsung are all close to releasing similar products.

Both the Tesla and the Trina systems, although very different, are built on a backbone of Lithium Ion batteries. Up until recently, Lead Acid batteries were the only realistic option for RBS because of the high cost of Lithium Ion technology. Now, it would appear that Lithium Ion is ready for prime time in the RBS world. The question is, are Lithium Ion batteries a game changer for solar, or just a stepping stone to the next energy storage technology?

Lithium Ion 101

Lead-Acid (LA) batteries, similar to those in a car, have long been the only viable option for residential storage when it comes to solar. The cost was relatively affordable, but there are a lot of downsides to lead acid batteries. They require a lot of maintenance, they release gases that must be vented, and they are very heavy. Large Format Prismatic (LFP) Lithium Ion batteries have a lot of advantages, (and a few disadvantages,) over LAs.

  • LFP is about one-third the weight of a lead-acid (LA) battery.
  • LFPs take up about half the volume of an LA battery with equivalent energy storage
  • LAs don’t perform well at low temperatures. LA performance drops by 50% at -4°F, compared to 8% with LFP.
  • LA batteries’ discharge voltage tapers as charge decreases.LFP batteries’ voltage remains steady until they are close to being fully discharged.
  • Stored LA batteries lose up to 15% of their electrical capacity per month, compared to 1% to 3% for LFPs.
  • Wet LA batteries need constant maintenance. LFPs require no additional liquid to maintain their electrolyte levels.
  • LA batteries have an average lifespan of about five years; LFP batteries have an estimated longevity of 10 years.
  • LA batteries are cheaper up-front than LFPs, their lifetime price per kWh can be higher.

Until recently, the need for a battery management system (BMS) for integrating Lithium Ion batteries has been the limiting factor in their use in renewable energy applications. Tesla, Trina and others are finally tackling that problem, and it appears that LFP batteries for storing solar energy is a market where we will be seeing a lot of action in the next few years.

Are LFP Batteries the Answer?

Right now, Lithium Ion technology is ready for prime time, and appears to be both affordable and scalable. Electronics manufacturers have vast experience with Lithium Ion batteries which currently power everything from mobile phones to cordless power tools. For companies like Bosch and Samsung, scaling up to residential storage is a no-brainer. For the near-term, it looks like there will be a gold-rush in LFP batteries, and despite the hype surrounding Tesla’s Powerwall, the real action appears to be with the tool and electronics giants.

However, Like Nickel Cadmium (NiCAD) or Nickel-Metal Hydride (N-MH) batteries (does anyone remember them?) battery technologies come and go. Lithium Ion technology has taken a long time to come to this point, and it is still considered too expensive for many applications.

Since 2009, a consortium comprising IBM Research and five U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories (National Renewable, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, and Oak Ridge) have hosted an annual symposium at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee called “Beyond Lithium Ion.” Held last week, Beyond Lithium Ion VIII featured discussions of Sodium Ion technology, Lithium Air batteries, Lithium Sulphur, Zinc Air, Vanadium Redox Flow batteries, and Liquid Organic Redox batteries (ORBAT.) Of all the various technologies being explored, ORBATs appear to be the most revolutionary, bringing forth a non-toxic technology that requires no precious metals to the world of large-scale energy storage.

None the less, while we wait for ORBATs to become a reality, Lithium Ion technology is where the action is for the near future, and consumers are enthusiastic. While non-standardized BMSs may keep total system costs high, the actual price of Lithium Ion storage is expected to fall 50% in the next 5 years, according to executives at LG.

Reference: Home Power

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Two Sacramento Area Universities Compete for Solar Home “Bragging Rights”

Tue, 06/02/2015 - 12:51pm

Two universities in the Sacramento area are competing with 15 other college and university teams – and with each other – in the Solar Decathlon 2015 contest, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The two institutions – California State University, Sacramento (a.k.a., Sacramento State, or CSUS) and UC Davis (UCD) – were among those that had been selected from a field of 140 entries to compete in the two-year event. It will conclude in Irvine, CA, in October.

Computer-generated model of part of the design for CSUS’ solar house, Reflect Home (from the Team Solar NEST webpage: http://bit.ly/1AICayx)

The Solar Decathlon 2015 rules require each competing team to construct a net-zero house (i.e., one that uses no more energy than it produces), which must be not only cost effective and energy efficient, but attractive. The two university projects are known as “Reflect Home” (CSUS) and “Aggie Sol” (UCD). There is no monetary prize, but only, according to Lindsey Crosby, architectural manager of the Reflect Home project, “bragging rights” for the institution that constructs the winning solar home.

The Reflect Home team’s project executive, “decathlete” Rosni Pann, said, “We wanted to reflect Sacramento not only in the house’s architecture but its openness.” Amber Archangel, reviewing the plan for the house for the website CleanTechnica, was impressed by this very aspect of it, praising its “spacious outdoor deck that expands the interior spaces and lets the light ‘cascade in,’” and noted that it had “surprisingly more livable space than we usually see in a Solar Decathlon home.”

“Sneak preview” of part of UCD’s solar house, Aggie Sol (from the Aggie Sol Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/1Q3cu6y)

Aggie Sol is an M-Power house which, so far, has involved the efforts of about 250 UCD students from various fields of study. As stated on the project website, “In designing a wooden house, we will minimize cost by using a widely available material and by tapping into an existing pool of wooden construction expertise.” Notable features of the house include a home plumbing system relying on gravity, not pumps, an all-electric HVAC system, passive heating and cooling, thick straw bale walls to retain heat, and occupancy sensors.

After Solar Decathlon 2015 ends in October, both teams have plans for the houses they are building. The Reflect Home team intends to turn their house into a sustainability learning lab, and the Aggie Sol team hopes that its house will be of use as a residence for agricultural students.

In California, the other teams competing in Solar Decathlon 2015 are: California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and, collectively, University of California at Irvine, Chapman University, Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College.

 

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What’s Going On With Chinese Solar Stocks?

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 7:20pm

CNN reported today that as Hanergy Thin Film’s stock collapsed last week, Li Hejun, the company’s CEO, was joking with listeners at a renewable energy conference. In the time it took him to give his presentation, his personal fortune had dropped by $15 billion, and his corporation lay in ruins.

The Hanergy crash was just one of several high profile Chinese solar companies that have made headlines recently…and not in a good way. Recently, in its annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Chinese solar PV manufacturer Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd. said, “There is substantial doubt as to our ability to continue as a going concern.” Shortly after the report, Yingli stock fell to an all-time low of $0.72 after closing at $1.49 the previous day.

After the collapse of Chinese solar giant SunTech in 2013 and LDK Solar in 2014, many stock watchers are wondering if Yingli and Hanergy are headed down the same road. Yingli shows some signs of recovery recently, but Hanergy continues to plunge as regulators move in to investigate. What is going on here?

Empty Hanergy plant. photo:Bronte Capital


In April, Sneha Shah of Seeking Alpha wrote: “Last year, 61% of its (Hanergy’s) total revenues came from sales to its parent and affiliate companies. About 94% of its sales were made to its parent company in 2011, and no sale was reported to the outside parties in 2012 and 2013. This has raised questions as to the saleability of its solar modules, and also why the company is making such high margins when compared to global leaders like Trina Solar, Jinko Solar and others.”

In a shocking report at Bronte Capital, the author posted photos of a nearly empty Hanergy factory taken just six weeks ago. “I went to visit Hanergy’s main factory in China about a six weeks ago. It was almost entirely silent. There was essentially no production of solar cells at all and the accounts that suggest significant production and sales are entirely fraudulent.”

As for Yingli, the story is not as bad, but it certainly isn’t great. Yingli is taking a beating in both the US and European market, where it is subject to anti-dumping tariffs, due to its dubious past business practices. According to the NY Times: “The (Commerce) department announced anti-dumping duties of 26.71 percent to 78.42 percent on imports of most solar panels made in China, and rates of 11.45 percent to 27.55 percent on imports of solar cells made in Taiwan. In addition, the department announced anti-subsidy duties of 27.64 percent to 49.79 percent for Chinese modules.” These tariffs, along with similar ones levied by the nations of the European Union will likely prevent Yingli from showing much in the way of growth in the years to come.

A Few Bright Spots For Chinese Solar

photo: The Guardian


According to the Motley Fool article entitled Need Another Reason to Avoid Chinese Stocks? How About This Solar Scandal?: “If you think Hanergy is an isolated incident of market manipulation or outright fraud from China, you might want to check the history of Chinese stocks as recently as a few years ago. Rino International, China MediaExpress, Puda Coal, Advanced Battery Technologies, Longtop Financial Technologies, and many more were found to be misrepresenting themselves to investors, and in some cases they didn’t have much of a business at all.” However, despite the fraud and mismanagement that seems to run rampant among some Chinese corporations, not all Chinese solar stocks are in the dumpster.

Trina Solar is looking strong, announcing this week that it will be the second big name to jump into the residential lithium-ion battery business, nipping at the heels of Tesla. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk rolled out the new “PowerWall” last month to much hoopla, but Trina’s “soft launch” of their new battery looks promising. In addition, Trina reports that during the first quarter of 2015, net revenues were $558.1 million, a decrease of 20.8% sequentially and an increase of 25.5% year-over-year. Total shipments were 1,026.2 MW, consisting of 891.7 MW of external shipments which were recognized in revenue, and 134.5 MW of shipments to the Company’s downstream power projects.

Jinko Solar also beat first quarter expectations. Jinko reported $0.88 earnings per share (EPS) for the quarter, beating estimates of $0.46 by $0.42. The company had revenue of $443.50 million for the quarter, compared to estimates of $372.17 million. During the same quarter in the previous year, the company posted $0.20 earnings per share. The company’s revenue for the quarter was up 36.9% on a year-over-year basis.

Several analysts have recently commented on the stock. Analysts at TheStreet upgraded shares of JinkoSolar Holding Co. from a “sell” rating to a “hold” rating in a research note on Friday, May 1st. Separately, analysts at Zacks upgraded shares of JinkoSolar Holding Co. from a “sell” rating to a “hold” rating and set a $30.00 price target on the stock in a research note on Friday, May 1st.

ReneSola is also getting some modest love from investors. gurofocus calls ReneSola “ Good Stock To Buy For The Long-Term…Although ReneSola’s performance in the past has not been very exciting, we see it is indeed making the right moves to fuel its growth going forward.”

The bottom line seems to be, despite the horrifying headlines about Hanergy, savvy investors may still find good investments in Chinese Solar, as long as they do plenty of research.

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From Dump to Dynamo: EPA Launches Giant Solar Project in Bay Area

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 3:19am

On May 13, 2015, at Hayward, California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) celebrated the launching of the first project by the Regional Renewable Energy Procurement Program (R-REP), described as “an unprecedented collaboration of government agencies.”

The head of the EPA, local officials and executives from the solar power industry met at the 24-acre West Winton former landfill, situated across the bay from San Francisco, where 19,000 solar panels will be installed. The project also represents the launch of the Federal Aggregated Solar Procurement Project (FASPP), the first federal partnership to purchase solar power across multiple federal agencies: the Forest Service, the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration. It was inspired by the R-REP program.

“This is about reducing carbon emissions, saving money and growing jobs. It’s a win all over the place,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. She added, “Combining the purchasing power of local and federal governments is a common-sense approach to combating climate change, reducing taxpayer costs, and spurring innovation.”

Four Bay Area counties – Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara – pooled their resources for the R-REP project, which will save tax dollars through economies of scale. The West Winton solar system, which is expected to be completed next year by SunEdison, will generate 6.6 MW of energy, enough to provide power to over 1200 homes, and is one of the largest urban solar projects in California. It will be financed through cost-saving power-purchase agreements: the solar vendors will own the panels, while the counties will pay for the energy through the utility PG&E. Public sites that will receive power include community centers, libraries, fire stations, medical facilities, city halls and educational facilities.

It is estimated that the R-REP programs collectively will involve 186 solar sites, power 19 Bay Area public agencies, create 839 jobs, generate 31 MW of solar power and result in $108 million in savings. The collaborative procurement of renewable energy is anticipated to provide these benefits to public agencies:

  • Reduced transaction costs and administrative time;
  • Competitive contract terms compared to similar projects;
  • Standardized procurement documents, financing and process;
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • Local economic activity and job growth.

Susan Muranishi, Alameda County Administrator, was quoted as saying, “This project is nothing short of transformational” for creating a model for government agencies to maximize their resources and to overcome environmental threats.

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Students Race for Solar (and Life) Knowledge in Riverside County

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 3:19am

This past weekend, students from 41 Southern California high schools participated in the 13th Annual Solar Cup race, held on Lake Skinner at Temecula, near Winchester in Riverside County.

Teams from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, operating boats powered totally by solar energy, competed in the race, which is sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.

Past Competitors in the Annual Solar Cup Race (Photo: Solar Cup website: http://bit.ly/1GmqS3E)

The event was the culmination of a seven-month educational program for the teams, which started in October 2014. Newcomer teams and veterans competed in separate divisions, and all participants were sponsored by a water district or other utility. The program’s goal is for participants to learn, according to the program’s website, “about conservation of natural resources, electrical and mechanical engineering, problem solving” and other skills. The competition originally began in 2002 with just eight high schools and about 100 students participating. For the 2015 event, about 1000 students enrolled.

The competing crafts are all 16-foot-long single-seat boats, constructed with kits made of marine-grade plywood supplied by MWD. During the events, only one “skipper” can be present in each boat, but a team is required to equip the boats with steering, solar panels, batteries and motors. The motors may produce up to 320 watts, and the maximum weight of the boats, including the skipper, cannot exceed 450 pounds. The competition was held over three days, and consisted of the qualifying event (Friday), the endurance race using solar panels (Saturday), and the sprint race, using battery power without the panels, followed by the awards ceremony (Sunday).

Solar Cup coordinator Julie Miller was quoted as saying, “Solar Cup supplements textbook curriculum with hands-on experience giving these bright students an opportunity to learn about California’s natural resources, while fostering an interest in science, math, environmental and engineering careers.” Fred Olmedo, an engineering teacher at McBride High School in Long Beach, said, “This is as close as it gets to real life, in my opinion. [The students] are really using their critical-thinking skills [and] problem-solving skills. I mean, it’s just like the whole nine yards…It’s what you would want in an engineer.” One challenge the McBride students faced involved the solar controller and battery, which were ordered from China… and arrived without instructions. The students figured out what to do, partly from the Internet, but mostly by their own ingenuity.

 

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The Little Utility That Could

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 6:29am

Warren McKenna, the Manager of Farmers Electric Coop in Kalona, Iowa is a soft spoken fellow. However, it only took one sentence to bring an auditorium full of solar installers and electrical contractors to their feet for a standing ovation.

After a full day of presentations from state and local leaders on solar energy at the Iowa Solar Installers Summit in 2009, McKenna presented on a panel along with representatives of investor-owned and municipal utilities. When McKenna took to the podium, he smiled, cleared his throat and said, “Well, I don’t have a powerpoint presentation. But I DO have a feed-in tariff!” The crowd roared with approval.

Warren McKenna of FEC photo:presscitizen.com


Since 2008, Farmers Electric Coop (FEC) has been a national model for utilization of solar. The tiny, 650 person cooperative electric utility serves customers in the heart of Amish country and is the states oldest electric utility, but despite its long history, FEC is leading the way into the future. McKenna’s savvy, cost-effective approach to providing clean, locally produced power has caught the attention of much larger utilities across the country, and his start-small, pay-as-you-go business plan has proven to be a hit with co-op members as well as the solar industry.

FEC has a multi-tiered approach to reaching its goal of 15% renewable energy by 2025. First, co-op members can contribute $3 per month to a voluntary program that helps offset the cost of their solar feed-in tariff for local members who want to install solar. It also pays for biodiesel for their back-up generators.

Next, McKenna began training his own in-house team to keep installation costs low. FECs own licensed electricians started by installing some small projects, including 1.8 kW at two local schools, and at McKenna’s own home, proving that McKenna was willing to put his own money where his mouth is. “I might be the only utility manager in the nation that gets all of his kwhrs from the sun.”

The FEC feed-in tariff (FIT) was one of the first of it’s kind in the nation. Co-op members who own their own solar arrays get two electric meters, one to measure their consumption and the other to track monthly solar generation. For solar production up to 100% of monthly use, the credit is determined at the cooperative’s retail rate. Production above and beyond 100% of the members monthly use is paid a rate of $0.06/kWh. The FIT has a term of 10 years, which allows the producer to pay down the system faster, and guarantees the utility less expensive solar generation (between $0.08 and $0.10/kWh) in the future.

Members also have the option of using solar rebates rather that the FIT. The rebates amount to $0.50 per watt up to a maximum of $2,500. The rebate option adds flexibility to the individual member and how they choose to finance their project.

After six years of research, training, number-crunching, planning and careful investments, McKenna quietly lead FEC to the top tier of the nation’s solar utilities. Last year, (2014) FEC opened the largest solar farm in Iowa. The 2,900-panel solar array is capable of generating more than a million kilowatt-hours a year. With the solar array, Farmers Electric Cooperative is capable of generating 1158 watts of solar per customer, putting it among the highest per-capita solar generation rates of all the utilities in the country. In fact, it provides more than double its next closest competitor, and only recently was passed up by the Pickwick Cooperative in Tennessee, which now generates 1679 watts per customer. The ranking of utilities come from a recent report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). But McKenna doesn’t plan on being #2 for very long. “By the end of 2015 we should exceed 2000 watts per customer.”

photo: 25X25blog


What’s in the future for Warren McKenna and FEC? “With the help of Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association we are working on passing Iowa PTC legislation to free up existing tax credits so that we can double the size of our solar farm… We started down this road doing experimental projects that proved successful. When we had consultants tell us the payback was 20 years and their recommendations weren’t favorable, the Board of Directors looked back at these first projects as proof that this technology worked and that we could count on it long term. The customer response and feedback has also supported our efforts to keep moving in the direction of adding even more locally sourced renewable energy. It’s been a win-win for the cooperative and its membership.”

FEC may be small, but their message is loud and clear. Like the innovators who started the Farmers Electric Cooperative to bring reliable electricity to rural residents in the last century, FEC continues to innovate, with a model that is leading the utility industry into the 21st century.

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Palo Alto Seeks to Lead in “Solar Ready” Housing in Bay Area

Fri, 05/15/2015 - 4:29am

Just before Earth Day, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously passed an ordinance mandating that all new single-family residences in the city be “solar ready.”

The new regulation is consistent with the objectives of Palo Alto city government in recent years, which has sought not merely to comply with but to go beyond already strict state energy requirements. The new regulations are part of what the city calls a new “energy reach code,” by which it will require buildings to exceed state energy requirements by 15 percent. The ordinance expands upon the city’s Green Building code of 2008, which at the time was the most stringent in the state. According to the city’s website, the goal of Green Building is “to design, build, and operate a new generation of efficient, environmentally responsible, and healthy buildings.”

The ordinance mandates that all new single-family residences dedicate 500 feet of roof surface to the potential installation of solar panels. Conduits must also be provided by builders to support the future wiring of a solar system. (Exceptions to the rule include, for example, cases in which trees block sunlight from a roof, making harnessing solar energy impossible without eliminating the trees.) The goal is to quadruple local solar power generation by 2023.

The Palo Alto local building code is more aggressive than state requirements, according to a report by the Development Services Department. According to a story in Palo Alto Online, the staff of Peter Pirnejad, the director of the department, estimates that, for a home measuring 2,400 square feet, the new requirements would add about $2,000 to the construction bill, but that this would be cost effective if the cost of installation is amortized over 30 years.

According to the Palo Alto Patch, the city has already cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an estimated 37 percent from 1990 levels.

 

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San Diego Still #2 City for Solar in U.S., But Will It Remain a “Shining City”?

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 4:29am

As had been the case the previous year, San Diego attained the number two spot, after Los Angeles, in overall solar capacity in the second annual survey of major U.S. cities (65 in all), called Shining Cities, published earlier this Spring by the Sacramento-based Environment California Research & Policy Center.
The other three top five cities were Phoenix, Indianapolis and San Jose. In addition, according to an Environment California press release, San Diego exceeded Los Angeles in the growth of solar power capacity, as it installed 42 megawatts of solar power in 2014, as opposed to 34 MW for Los Angeles. The document also revealed that the city came in fourth in solar-per-capita, behind Honolulu, Indianapolis and San Jose. San Diego is also among the group of cities that Environment California calls its “Solar Stars”: that is, the 14 cities that can claim 50 or more watts of installed solar PV capacity per person.

Although it would seem only natural that a sunny city such as San Diego would be a solar leader, Dan Jacobson, a program manager at Environment California, was quoted as claiming that sunshine had little to do with it. “The reason San Diego is in such good shape for solar is that [the city has] done such a good job of making it financially attractive,” Jacobson said. For example, multifamily housing complexes can gain special solar incentives, and home loans are available for the installation of solar systems that can be repaid through property tax assessments. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said: “Solar energy is a key element to the City’s proposed Climate Action Plan, which calls for 100 percent renewable energy use in the City by 2035.”

However, the Environmental California release also notes that utilities throughout the country are “campaigning intensely” to slow solar adoption by increasing fees for solar households, seeing the phenomenon as a “direct threat to their business model.” An executive with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), James Avery, claims that, though his utility does not oppose solar power, solar adoption makes the grid harder to run, and solar customers pay less towards maintaining it. However, this infographic by Vote Solar, based on a published report, suggests that for California energy users in general, benefits to the grid through net metering outweigh costs by over $92 million.

 

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Disadvantaged Households in Fresno to Get Solar… and Financial Relief

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 4:25am

A new statewide pilot program in California is giving free solar panels to households in disadvantaged areas, starting with communities in Fresno. Called the Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP), it is eventually intended to serve about 1800 households throughout the state.
Senate Bill 535, passed in 2012, directed state and local agencies to try to improve California’s most vulnerable communities through the investment of part of the proceeds from quarterly auctions of the state’s cap-and-trade program. A total of $75 million has so far been set aside for LIWP.

The LIWP solar panel program is administered by the California Department of Community Services and Development (CSD) and has three purposes:

  • to produce greater environmental sustainability in heavily polluted communities in order to combat climate change;
  • to provide cheaper energy bills for low-income residents of such communities;
  • to provide local job training in solar panel installation.

A community’s eligibility for the program is determined by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) through an analysis tool known as CalEnviroScreen 2.0, which, according to its website, determines “California communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution.” Fresno was chosen to inaugurate the program because of the high number, more than a dozen, of disadvantaged and polluted neighborhoods in the city, including the downtown, south and west areas.

To implement the program, CSD partnered with the Fresno Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which in turn partnered with the corporation Sunrun to provide the solar systems. Brian Angus, the CEO of Fresno EOC, said: “We are helping to improve the lives of these low-income families, providing job training in solar installations and contributing to our state’s environmental goals.”

The program profiles two early recipients of the program, Fresno residents Salvador and Ricarda Mendoza. Ricarda, 61, works a low-wage job, and Salvador, 66, who is unemployed, is ill and requires very expensive medication. They applied for the program because it is projected to reduce the couple’s energy bills by 75 percent. Ricarda was quoted as saying: “I am glad, because now we will have more money for my husband’s medical expenses.”

In addition to Fresno County, Sacramento, Merced, Madera, Tulare and Los Angeles counties will be served by the program.

 

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Tesla’s Powerwall: Giant Leap or Small Step?

Wed, 05/06/2015 - 10:54am

Tesla’s announcement of their new Powerwall stationary battery created quite a whirlwind of excitement. As the dust begins to settle and the initial volleys of hyperbole from from both critics and fans die down, what does the launch of Elon Musk’s new brainchild actually mean for solar users?


For those of you who have been under a rock for the last week, Uber-entrepreneur Elon Musk stepped out on stage at the Tesla Motors Hawthorne Design Studio on April 30th to announce the much anticipated release of their new, not-so-top secret product: a stand alone energy storage device called the Powerwall. According to the Tesla press release: “Powerwall is available in 10kWh, optimized for backup applications or 7kWh optimized for daily use applications. Both can be connected with solar or grid and both can provide backup power. The 10kWh Powerwall is optimized to provide backup when the grid goes down, providing power for your home when you need it most. When paired with solar power, the 7kWh Powerwall can be used in daily cycling to extend the environmental and cost benefits of solar into the night when sunlight is unavailable.

Tesla’s selling price to installers is $3500 for 10kWh and $3000 for 7kWh. (Price excludes inverter and installation.) Deliveries begin in late Summer (2015).

Powerwall specs:

Mounting: Wall Mounted Indoor/Outdoor
Inverter: Pairs with growing list of inverters
Energy: 7 kWh or 10 kWh
Continuous Power: 2 kW
Peak Power: 3.3 kW
Round Trip Efficiency: >92%
Operating Temperature Range: -20C (-4F) to 43C (110F)
Warranty: 10 years
Dimensions: H: 1300mm W: 860mm D:180mm”

One enthusiastic Blogger immediately proclaimed “Tesla’s Elon Musk Just Changed The World Forever” and followed the bold title with the statement that “Not since Karl Benz was tinkering around in his garage engineering what would become the automobile has history had a more defining moment than when Elon Musk unveiled the solar powered Tesla Energy Wall (sic).

It was a dream of Nikola Tesla to bring free energy to the world that eluded him his entire pioneering life but Elon Musk is going where no business heretofore has ever gone by smacking the faces of the most entrenched energy Robber Barons that have long suckled the profiteering teat of unsustainable energy.”

Forbes was one of many other, less enthusiastic news sources to take a major shot at the Powerwall with an article by Christopher Helman entitled “Why Tesla’s Powerwall Is Just Another Toy For Rich Green People.”

Despite the scathing title, The article is riddled with inaccuracies and questionable assumptions. For instance, the author states: “And here’s where the economics of the Powerwall break down. If you do not have a big enough solar system to get your home entirely off the grid, then there is simply no point whatsoever in paying 30 cents per kwh to get electricity via the Powerwall. At night, when you’re not generating solar power, you could simply get your electricity from the grid. For an average 12.5 cents a kwh.” Not only is he assuming that the power wall is only going to be used to store solar generation, but he is also adding the kWh cost of solar generation from a LEASED system to the kWh price of the Powerwall, then comparing it to an average kWh price, with no mention of the on-peak price in an expensive power market like California or Hawaii (or Jamaica, or Saudi Arabia), where the Powerwall would excel. Readers in the comments section pounded Mr. Helman, and he finally had to respond by saying: “… I honestly hope we all have economically sensible battery backups in our homes in 20 years. I’m thankful that rich, green early adopters lead the way.” In the fine print he is thankful for “rich, green early adopters,” despite the contemptuous tone of the articles title.

Ramez Naam may have the laid out the best, most comprehensive, big picture analysis of the significance of the Powerwall in his article, “Tesla Battery Economics: On the Path to Disruption.” Naam, unlike Helman, looks beyond the Power Wall’s ability to compete directly on simple economics against current, dirty U.S. fossil fueled electric generation. He notes that the U.S. is not the only market for the Powerwall. In many sunny countries, electrical prices are far higher. “Even Germany,” Naam points out, “gets enough sun that the price of rooftop solar is below that of grid electricity. And in Germany, feed-in-tarrifs to homes that put solar on the grid are plunging. There’s now a roughly 20 euro cent difference between the price of retail electricity and the feed in tariff in Germany. That’s 22 US cents. So if the Tesla battery is really 15 cents per kwh, it makes more sense for German solar customers to store their excess solar electricity in a battery than it does to provide it back to the grid.”

Naam also points out that:” For some parts of the US with time-of-use plans, this battery is right on the edge of being profitable. From a solar storage perspective, for most of the US, where Net Metering exists, this battery isn’t quite cheap enough. But it’s in the right ballpark. And that means a lot.

Net Metering plans in the US are filling up. California’s may be full by the end of 2016 or 2017, modulo additional legal changes. That would severely impact the economics of solar. But the Tesla battery hedges against that. In the absence of Net Metering, in an expensive electricity state with lots of sun, the battery would allow solar owners to save power for the evening or night-time hours in a cost effective way. And with another factor of 2 price reduction, it would be a slam dunk economically for solar storage anywhere Net Metering was full, where rates were pushed down excessively, or where such laws didn’t exist.
That is also a policy tool in debates with utilities. If they see Net Metering reductions as a tool to slow rooftop solar, they’ll be forced to confront the fact that solar owners with cheap batteries are less dependent on Net Metering.”

Even detractors like the writer at Forbes can’t completely hide their enthusiasm for what Musk has done. It has got to warm the heart of the most cynical free-market capitalist to see the rise of a figure like Musk. A disruptor, a big picture technologist on par with Thomas Edison, bringing forth innovation by laying his own money on the table and taking personal responsibility for his failures, as well as successes. Unfortunately for the Forbes crowd, this time, the innovation is coming from outside the old boys network.

The post Tesla’s Powerwall: Giant Leap or Small Step? appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Solar: A Good Technology in Bad Times

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 6:54am

No one can deny that the solar industry is booming. There may be disagreements as to why…opponents claim that solar is too dependent on government subsidies, while supporters point out that solar’s rise is due primarily to market demand for a solid new technology. One thing’s for sure, though– solar is flourishing in times that are very uncertain, both economically and environmentally.

One of solar’s strongest selling points has always been its fixed cost. Paying up-front for electrical generation (or offsetting natural gas, in the case of solar thermal systems) has always been seen as a solid hedge against the inevitability of rising energy prices, or against other negative economic impacts, like inflation. The U.S. Energy Information (E.I.A.) that “Residential electricity prices increased during 2014, with growth ranging from 1.3% in the Pacific Coast states to 9.8% in New England.” Many consumers see this upward trend as a good reason to make the jump to solar.

Of course, the off-grid solar system is the energy source of choice of those who want a solid source of back-up electricity, are located in remote areas where grid power is impractical, or want to “cut the cord” to the utility company completely. Battery storage technology is a hot topic right now, with high profile investors like Elon Musk looking at the solar/battery option as a strong contender for future energy development. In addition, the “prepper” community has always seen solar as part of a portfolio of technologies necessary to survive against what they see as an inevitable collapse of society as we know it. As unlikely as some of these “doomsday scenarios” may seem to others, solar is proving to be an important tool for dealing with more localized catastrophes that are happening right now.

For California farmers locked in the grip of a record-breaking drought, solar is providing a very real key to economic survival. California is suffering from a one-two punch from the drought– not only are crops suffering from lack of water, but hydroelectric dams are unable to generate electricity due to the low water levels. Almond farmers are among the worst hit, and some are adapting by downsizing their agricultural operations and installing large solar generating plants. Not only does this provide much-needed alternative income to the farmers, but it helps in offsetting the loss of the hydro-powered generation. According to Grist:

“Solar power has exploded in California over the past two years as a number of enormous utility-scale projects have come online. California has almost 10,000 megawatts of solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, producing enough power to meet 5 percent of state demand in 2014. Over half of that is from big utility systems, which fill acres and acres with both photovoltaic and mirrored solar systems.”

Even in earthquake ravaged Nepal, solar is being utilized by search and rescue teams, triage centers and hospitals. A small non-profit organization, Empower Generation, was already working in Nepal at the time of the quake on April 25th, 2015. According to their website:

“On 27 April we set up a solar powered charging station at our office in Lazimpat and we are donating solar lights to hospitals in Kathmandu. We have also started working with fellow clean energy social enterprise Kopernik so we can distribute lights to Dhading, a region devastated by the quake, where we have three women entrepreneurs based…Rescue and relief efforts currently underway are being hindered by unreliable access to energy in the areas most affected. In the wake of this tragedy, Empower Generation is in a unique position to offer immediate relief on the ground with our existing inventory of solar power kits and our strong local distribution network.”

Empower Generation is accepting donations to cover the cost of providing solar lighting to emergency workers and others as recovery efforts move forward in Nepal.

Aside from the more mundane day-to-day reliability of solar power as a source of clean, renewable energy, the very nature of solar generation makes it an ideal tool for mitigating the negative impacts of natural catastrophes, as well as man-made economic disasters. In good times or bad, solar helps to light the way to a bright future.

Utilities: If You Can’t Beat Solar, Buy It

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 7:52am

“Community Solar” projects are popping up all over the United States, providing large amounts of centrally-located, clean, renewable solar generation to utility customers in the area. On the surface, this would appear to be a great step forward for solar. But, there’s a catch.

All solar generation that displaces old, dirty fossil fuel generation provides an environmental benefit and provides jobs in the community. But when it comes to economics, not all solar is created equal. Community solar “gardens” or larger community solar “farms” are a great way for homeowners and businesses to participate in the clean energy revolution without making the up-front investment in the equipment. They can also allow wider participation by providing solar energy to apartment dwellers, renters and other people for whom owning a solar photovoltaic (PV) system is just not practical. However, the ownership structure and regulatory guidelines under which these solar projects are built can make them not a truly “community solar” project, but rather a cover for large utility companies who wish to maintain their monopoly over the community electrical market.

One such project is currently coming under fire in Michigan. Consumers Energy Company is proposing a 10 MW community solar program that would be spread out among several facilities, each at 500 kW or more. Full-service customers would be able to subscribe to the pilot program and receive a bill credit in proportion to their contribution for energy, capacity and renewable energy credits produced at a facility. On the surface, this would appear to be a boon for the Michigan solar industry. However, a coalition of renewable energy advocates, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Ecology Center and the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association fear that Consumers’ proposal would “monopolize” the community solar market, as the utility seeks to prevent independent third parties from developing projects within its service territory.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s second-largest electric and natural gas utility, providing service to more than half of the state’s residents in all 68 counties in the Lower Peninsula. Consumers Energy is the principal subsidiary of Jackson-based CMS Energy Corporation. Consumers proposed 10 MW community solar pilot program would be the first program of its kind from one of the two major investor-owned utilities in Michigan. However, the Consumers Energy proposal would not allow third-party development of community solar projects, only projects built and owned by Consumers. This would virtually eliminate any chance for private development of solar, or any opportunity for free choice on the part of the consumer.

Brad Klein, staff attorney with the Chicago-based ELPC, said shutting out third parties is a “major issue.”

“It’s sort of a larger theme as utilities are thinking about different ways to move into the solar market,” he said. “We think having different options for customers, different types of programs other developers can offer, would provide a lot of public benefit. It helps provide accountability about pricing — friendly competition is also good for customers.”

Why do utility companies object to allowing private ownership of solar generation in their service territories? After all, in many cases, utilities buy power from lots of third party generators. According to a recent story at the PVSolarReport: “Most utilities see a solar array on a customer rooftop the same as they see an energy efficient refrigerator. It means the customer buys less electricity. In some states, policies called “decoupling” tend to hold utilities harmless to these sales losses in order to encourage more investment in cost-effective energy efficiency. But with solar, utilities tend to ignore the benefits that this energy provides to the electricity system unless someone tells them to account for it.

In Minnesota, for example, the state legislature passed a “value of solar” program that requires the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to calculate how much solar energy is worth to its grid. In 2014 and 2015, the utility has reported that the value of solar energy is higher than the cost to the utility in buying it from customers via net metering. Other studies have shown similar results, including one in Maine, in Missouri, and in many other states.”

Some utility-based “community solar” programs are truly community-owned projects, however. The tiny, member-owned Farmers Electric Cooperative, based in Frytown, Iowa has developed a 750-kilowatt solar farm on nine acres. It is be the single largest solar energy project in the state.

“This is part of our Cooperative Energy Plan to cut outside energy purchases by 25 percent,” said Warren McKenna, who manages the co-op, which serves 640 members. Farmers Electric Cooperative is located in the heart of Iowa’s Amish country, and the co-op has embraced solar on every scale, from the giant community solar farm, down to providing off-grid solar power to small telephone kiosks used by the areas Amish farmers.

photo: Matt Zimmerman

Of course, successfully replacing 25% of generation with locally produced solar is going to be easier on a small scale, like that illustrated by Farmers Electric, than for Michigan’s energy giant Consumers Energy, but the principle holds true on every scale. Embrace the new, clean technology that customers want, allow them a choice of products, and sell it to them at a reasonable cost.

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