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Musk, Tesla and SolarCity: A Bridge Too Far?

Thu, 06/23/2016 - 3:03pm

Elon Musk has people freaking out…again. This summer, he is rolling out “bold visions” quicker than a political speech writer.Fans love to hear his very believable plans for colonizing the planet Mars, but meanwhile here on earth, investors are apparently less excited to follow Musk’s relentless technological push forward into the future. Is Musk finally facing his Waterloo, or will he continue to beat the odds?

It comes as no surprise to some that Musk wants to close the solar/electric vehicle loop by cutting a deal in which his Tesla Motors would be buying one of his other companies, SolarCity, for between $2.59 billion and $2.78 billion worth of its stock. But Musk is the man that some investors love to hate, and Tesla stock dropped by almost 13% following the announcement. CNBC announced that “Tesla shares crater as Wall Street reacts to bid for SolarCity.” RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak told CNBC that while Tesla sees a number of synergies from the transaction, it will not be well received by shareholders. “We suspect the market will be more skeptical of the strategic rational (sic) and the financial/cash flow strain this could add to the TSLA story. By owning the asset, we believe TSLA may be trying the investing partner approach they have taken with shareholders and asking them to stick with them for something they potentially didn’t sign-up for,” Spak said.

Meanwhile, points out that “Tesla’s SolarCity offer is primarily getting hate from people who don’t own the stock – and not only from people who don’t own the stock, but from people who are shorting the stock. People who benefit from the share price falling and people who will not vote on the planned merger.

Famed short seller Jim Chanos went on CNBC to call the deal a “brazen Tesla bailout of SolarCity”. Chanos has been shorting both stocks and he will not get to vote on deal. While he is entitled to his opinion and can try to influence shareholders, it will not have much impact at the end.”

RBC’s Spak may in one sense be right… investing in Tesla or one of Musk’s other ventures requires an act of faith greater than that required by investments in more conventional auto manufacturers or utility companies. Musk is asking investors to partner in a vision of future tech that makes Steve Jobs look like a slouch. That can be impossible pill for some to swallow, particularly those in the financial sector who don’t care to see a nerd beating them at their own game. But for others, it’s all about disrupting the status quo, and so far, Musk is disruptor in chief.

From the Tesla announcement: “It’s now time to complete the picture. Tesla customers can drive clean cars and they can use our battery packs to help consume energy more efficiently, but they still need access to the most sustainable energy source that’s available: the sun… We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.”

That is a vision so sexy, so intoxicating and so RIGHT that for some, gripes from Wall Street stuffed-shirts like Jim Chanos fall on deaf ears. This is about THE FUTURE, not about squeezing out a few bucks by the cynicism of short-selling. Some of Tesla’s biggest investors are ignoring players like Chanos. “It’s a natural evolution of their (Tesla’s) mission to transform transportation into a sustainable business,”Joe Dennison told Reuters. Dennison is a portfolio manager of Zevenbergen Capital Investments, which has about 600,000 Tesla shares, or about 0.4 percent of shares outstanding. It is still early in the process, he said, but “We expect it to go through and believe that most investors who actually own the stock understand management’s long-term vision for the company.”

The bottom line on the merger is, that it is a referendum on Musk himself. If investors say no, and a lot of investors are saying no, there will be no merger. That could be just the thing Musk needs to reign in his blue-sky approach and focus on delivering product. Or, it could be the first card to fall in the collapse of a house of cards.

Regardless of the outcome, expect Musk to do the unexpected. Fans and critics alike are holding their breath, awaiting his next move.

The post Musk, Tesla and SolarCity: A Bridge Too Far? appeared first on Solar Tribune.

MREA: The USA’s Longest Running Energy Fair

Sun, 06/19/2016 - 2:47pm

This weekend marks the 27th annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair, in Custer Wisconsin. You might be asking yourself, “Where the hell is Custer, Wisconsin?” If so, chances are, you are a greenhorn in the solar game.

The granddaddy of solar pow wows, The Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair (or “MREA” as it is known by veteran attendees) is held each June at a converted horse farm in the rolling hills near the tiny burg of Custer, just outside of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Drawing 15,000 attendees annually, MREA somehow manages to maintain its grassroots attitude, and the location has a lot to do with it. The show sprawls across rolling rural countryside, and camping is available nearby in a forest of tall pines. The latenight campground parties at the “Back 40” are the stuff of legend… tales of full blown raves complete with professional lighting and sound systems may or may not be true. This author can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such midsummer pagan  carryings-on, but suffice it to say… fun was had by all. Except those trying to sleep in tents nearby…

The days, however, are all business. The Fair features over 250 workshops and 200-plus  exhibitors. This year’s exhibitors include national firms like rack manufacturer Iron Ridge, solar thermal giant Caleffi, Kyocera, Midnite Solar, Morningstar Charge Controllers and Tesla Motors, and regional heavy-hitters like Next Energy, Lake Michigan Wind and Sun and Full Spectrum Solar. The delightful mixture is spiced up by sustainable living pioneers like regional dairy Organic Valley, Central Waters Brewing Company (a pioneer in solar brewery technology) and Gimme Shelter Construction….a high performance design/build outfit with the BEST COMPANY NAME EVER!

But I digress…. The workshop selection at MREA is really where it’s at. To be asked to do a workshop at MREA is truly and honor, and regardless of the topic– backyard composting to “Introducing the Sonnen Smart Energy Storage System”– presenters come with their “A” game. Chicago IBEW is represented, as is NABCEP…. Right next to yoga instruction and personal carbon reduction. You can up your game as a solar professional while opening your mind to living a healthier lifestyle.This year’s keynote speakers include Nomi Prins, a political-financial expert, journalist and author; J. Drake Hamliton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; John Farrell, director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance; Sandrine Mubenga, CEO of SMIN Power Group and Professional Engineer at the University of Toledo; Tony Schultz, owner of Stony Acres Farm; Tom Wilhelm, professor and program coordinator of electrical technology, business and technology division at Kankakee Community College; and Mike Hornitschek, director of strategic development, StraightUpSolar.

Sandrine Mubenga

Sandrine Mubenga of SMIN Power Group is an example of the global scope of the MREA lineup. Through SMIN Power Group she implements renewable energy solutions in Africa, particularly solar and she developed a fuel cell system for an electric vehicle and a solar-powered hydrogen generating station.  A native of Congo, Mubenga founded the SMIN Power Group in 2011, which specializes in providing affordable electricity to communities using renewable energy.

“Sandrine’s story and contributions to the advancements of renewable energy is beyond inspiring. She’s got the heart, brains and determination to make renewable energy solutions a reality,” said Kaitlyn Kohl, communications coordinator, MREA.

Adding the local focus to the “Think Globally Act Locally” equation, John Farrell, director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis where his work focuses on distributed generation. John’s work appears most regularly on Energy Self-Reliant States, a blog with timely and compelling analysis of current energy discussions and policy.  The posts are frequently enriched by charts, translating the complex economics of energy into tools for advancing local energy ownership and have been regularly syndicated at Grist, CleanTechnica, and Renewable Energy World.

Finally, at the end of a long hot day of attending inspiring and educational sessions held in large outdoor tents, there is cold beer. It is Wisconsin, after all! Live music goes well into the evening on the grounds of the fair, and the assortment of great food available is impressive, and local watering holes in Stevens Point and Custer are packed with solar installers comparing notes and swapping stories.

Sunday Morning marks another “only in Wisconsin” tradition; the “Polka Breakfast,” featuring  Norm Dombrowski & The Happy Notes with amazing all you can eat pancakes, eggs, bacon and more, all prepared by the good folks at Organic Valley, and proceeds go to help support the MREA.

If you missed MREA in 2016, think about adding it to your schedule for next year. Either as an exhibitor, a presenter or just as an attendee. It is the most fun you can have at a world-class industry conference.


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Solar + Storage: Update

Tue, 06/07/2016 - 2:14pm

Battery storage is the name of the game in 2016. Will the solar dream of “cutting the cord” become a reality?

In a January 2016 article entitled Solar Trends to Watch in 2016: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I predicted that “Residential battery storage will not be ready for prime time in 2016. After the Tesla PowerWall hype, it’s going to take a few more years to become reality. Expect a lot of smoke this year- and hopefully we’ll see fire in 2017.” Six months into 2016, let’s take a look at where the energy storage market headed. Will we see batteries hit the mainstream by the end of the year?

A recent report from the Clean Energy Group, based in Montpelier, Vermont, looks at the possible impacts of battery storage on energy bill reduction in multi-family rental housing in California.  The report states that; “Battery storage systems not only provide economic returns today, they can also preserve the value of solar in an evolving policy and regulatory environment. Because batteries empower owners of solar photovoltaics (PV) systems to take control of the energy they produce and when they consume it, storage can deliver deeper cost reductions that can be shared among affordable housing owners, developers, and tenants.”

The major findings of the study are the following:

    • Adding battery storage to an affordable rental housing solar installation in California can eliminate demand charges for building electricity loads, resulting in a net electricity bill of essentially zero.
    • Adding battery storage to California affordable rental housing can almost double the building electricity bill savings achieved over the savings realized through solar alone.
    • Adding battery storage can achieve incremental utility bill savings similar to solar for about a third of the cost of the solar system for owners of affordable rental housing properties in California.
    • Solar+storage projects result in a significantly shorter payback period than stand-alone solar projects.

    However, Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute, thinks the authors of the report are too optimistic about the current state of battery storage. Lovering told the San Diego Union Tribune; “In theory this looks like it would save money and would help make your solar system more economic for affordable housing but the battery technology isn’t there yet, especially not at a cost that would make sense for low-income housing.”

    Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, sides with the Clean Energy Group when it comes to being optimistic about energy storage. Musk believes electricity storage will be a faster growing business than selling cars for his company. “No one is really doing it right,” said Musk about battery storage. “[Tesla’s] Powerpacks can scale on a global basis faster than the cars do. … I think the rate of growth will be several times that of the car side of Tesla.”

    Are Musk and Clean Energy Group a little too optimistic about the state of solar + storage? Beyond the hype, where exactly are we when it comes to battery tech?

    Besides Tesla, the big players in the battery storage space right now are Bosch and Sonnen, both German manufacturers. GE Ventures recently purchased a minority stake in Sonnen, reflecting the global interest in battery storage. With feed-in tariffs being phased out in much of Europe, battery storage may grow more than five-fold by 2020, to at least 170,000 from 30,000 last year, according to the German Energy Storage Association. With Lithium storage prices dropping and demand rising, indications are that storage is on track to pop in the next few years.

    Not only storage pioneers like Musk are thinking about the implications of batteries, however, and not all of those considering batteries are entirely enthusiastic. According to Energy Wire; “Local utilities’ distributed resources, particularly customer-owned solar and storage facilities, may become large enough before long to pose potential threats to the interstate grid. Disruptions in cities or small towns — whether they’re accidental or intentional — could move upstream to the wider grid, said participants at a daylong grid security conference at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission headquarters.

    “There needs to be a lot of work done on distributed resources and how they are effectively integrated into the grid,” said FERC Chairman Norman Bay.” In fact, utilities painted storage as a major threat to grid reliability, along with hackers and terrorism. For the utility industry, which has had every opportunity to integrate solar into their business model, it sounds a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

    Meanwhile, battery storage is advancing, in spite of utility industry complaining and foot-dragging. Industry, businesses and institutions in the US are the first wave to see the benefits of battery storage. One example is an Iowa college that has been at loggerheads with its utility over interconnecting renewable energy projects may find it more economical to go it alone with energy storage.

    An analysis done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that Luther College could save approximately $25,000 in energy costs for each of the next 25 years if it installs a 1.5 MW solar array and a 393 kW battery.

    With these examples becoming increasingly common, battery storage may advance ahead of my January predictions.


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Trump Doesn’t Let Solar Facts Get in His Way

Tue, 05/31/2016 - 12:05pm

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has unveiled his energy plan for America (spoiler alert… it’s a lousy plan.)

“The problem with solar is it’s very expensive. When you have a 30-year payback, that’s not exactly the greatest thing in the world.”  Um…what?

Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican presidential candidate, spoke extensively on the topic of energy at a press conference last week.  Unsurprisingly, Mr Trump’s energy plan seems to be made up primarily of sweeping generalizations and big promises, unencumbered by facts. This comes as little surprise to those of us who have followed Mr. Trump’s ongoing smear campaign against renewable energy. When Trump entered the race last year, I reported on his battle against an offshore wind farm near his resort in Scotland, as well as his claims that solar (which he declared an “unproven technology” despite its decades-long track-record of reliability)  has a “32 year payback”.

It seems that since his last statement, he has shortened his estimate on solar payback to 30 years… which makes him now wrong by only 20 years. Even without the subsidies that Mr. Trump rails against, a simple payback on a residential solar array in Trump’s hometown– New York City– is closer to 10 years. In Hawaii, 5 years. Let me say it again…WITHOUT government subsidies or tax incentives of any kind. Not even depreciation.

At least we in the solar field aren’t getting quite the vitriol that Trump showers on wind power.  “If you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles. If you shoot an eagle or you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles. One of the most beautiful, one of the most treasured birds and they’re killing them by the hundreds and nothing happens. So wind is a problem.”

Yes, we all know the history of the early 1980s Altamont pass wind project and it’s unexpected negative effect on raptors. However, new tower and turbine designs have radically reduced those numbers.  According to the California Audubon Society; “Reducing the kill entirely may not be possible, as long as the wind turbines continue to operate at Altamont. But we believe that significant progress can be made. The CEC estimates that wind operators could reduce bird deaths by as much as 50 percent within three years–the goal stated in our settlement agreement–and by up to 85 percent within six years–all without reducing energy output significantly at APWRA. These reductions could be achieved by removing turbines that are the most deadly to birds and shutting down the turbines during four winter months when winds are the least productive for wind energy, combined with some additional measures.”

What source of electrical generation does Mr. Trump like? Coal. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “The Donald” declared; “Remember this. We’re practically not allowed to use coal any more. What do we do with our coal? We ship it to China and they spew it in the air.”  “Practically not allowed?”   Politifact points out that; “In 2014, coal accounted for 39 percent of electricity generation, followed by natural gas at 27 percent, nuclear at 19 percent, hydropower at 6 percent, and other renewable sources at 7 percent.

In its most recent future projection, the Energy Information Administration predicted that coal would maintain its top spot for electricity generation. Under the most basic economic parameters, coal would decline in future years due in large part to the retirement of aging coal-fired plants but would still account for 34 percent of energy generation in 2040. The enactment of policies that put coal at a disadvantage could drop that percentage further by 2040.”

Despite Mr. Trump’s apparent love of coal, making too many promises leads, inevitable, to major problems. According to the market mavens at Seeking Alpha; “The most confusing of Mr. Trump’s announcements, though, and certainly the one that should be of greatest concern to coal investors, is his proposal to remove all restrictions on the domestic production of petroleum and natural gas. While this would contribute to his energy independence goal, it would be a disaster for the coal mining industry. The Dow Jones U.S. Coal Index lost 81% of its value between 2011 and 2015 as a tripling of U.S. shale gas production caused domestic natural gas production to rise strongly after a multi-decade decline (see figure).”

The bottom line on Donald Trump’s energy plan is this; he is a profoundly ill-informed on energy issues, and apparently his advisors don’t care. The empty promise of “energy independence” that has been so popular with presidential candidates since the Carter presidency has hit a new low. In the past, candidates have promised energy independence and given us lip service after the election, delivering tepid, if any,  progress on energy issues. Trump has taken it one step further. He has created his energy talking points out of sheer fantasy, as if he knows that no one is really listening, and no one really cares about the truth.
He may be right.

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Bay Area Team to Send Unmanned Solar Boat Across Pacific

Sun, 05/29/2016 - 8:24am

It began as a garage project two-and-a-half years ago by a group of engineers that call themselves “hobbyists.” But on Memorial Day, Damon McMillan and his Bay Area team are set to launch a homemade solar boat, named Seacharger, on what would be, if successful, the first voyage by an entirely solar-powered, pilotless craft across the ocean (or at least the greater part of it, as the destination is Hawaii). Previous unmanned solar craft used wave and/or wind power to augment the sun’s power, and a previous solar-only craft that made a voyage round the world had a human pilot onboard.

Photo courtesy of Damon McMillan. Used with permission.

According to McMillan, who has an MS in aerospace dynamics and works in the unmanned vehicle industry, the Seacharger project started out as an attempt to create a robotic sailboat that would cross the ocean, something that had never been successfully done. Somewhere along the way, the sailboat idea got scrapped, and the boat became a solar-powered motorized vehicle.

The team began at the end of 2013 by gluing together two dozen foam pieces to plug a fiberglass hull mold. The vehicle measures 91 by 22 inches and is topped by two ultra-thin, Renogy 100-watt photovoltaic panels. The panels are attached to a lithium-iron-phosphate battery bank, suspended below the craft, which powers the brushless motor, similar to those seen in small hobby planes. The craft includes a watertight enclosure situated between the panels, containing an Arduino-based autopilot, GPS and satellite modem circuitry; this enables McMillan to navigate the boat from hundreds of miles away. Seacharger weighs 50 pounds and has a cruising speed of about three knots. McMillan estimates that in daylight it can go on indefinitely and, because of its battery storage, it can also travel for three nights before losing power.

Last month, McMillan tested the boat on Shoreline Lake near Mountain View, as recorded in his blog. The intended path of the boat was shaped like a rectangle, but its actual course more closely resembled a lasso. “Sure, it looked a bit like a drunken sailor,” McMillan wrote on the blog, “but it DID work. Just gotta tune some gains.”

The creation of Seacharger was, according to McMillan, a frustrating, trial-and-error process. “If I had started believing that I had to get to the end tomorrow,” he said, “I never would have continued. So it’s always just one step at a time.”

The team plans to launch the boat on Memorial Day from Avila Beach, a location about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it will face possible high winds off the California coast.

“This is not a commercial project,” the team claims, “but simply a couple of hobbyists assembling a few pieces of ordinary technology to accomplish an extraordinary feat.”

You can track the boat’s progress online here.


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Ypsilanti City Council Stands Up to ALEC

Thu, 05/19/2016 - 4:14pm

With one of the nation’s highest per capita solar adoption rates, Ypsilanti Michigan is fighting back against anti-solar legislation.

Michigan is just one of the many states where net metering of renewable energy projects is currently under attack as part of massive not-so-covert op by large fossil fuel interests. Rather than taking on the solar industry in a federal level, ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) and other fossil fuel lobbying groups are fighting a state-by-state strategy, with surgical strikes on states that currently have strong net metering bills. Funded by the energy billionaire Koch Brothers, ALEC seeks champions in lower level republican state legislators who are looking to gain notoriety and curry favor with large local utility companies.

In Michigan, State Senator John Proos in the man carrying the water for the utilities.

Senator John Proos

 Last year, Proos introduced SB 438, a broad Republican-backed state energy plan that would, in part, eliminate Michigan’s solar net metering program and replace it with a policy that reimburses customers at wholesale prices after they have already bought their energy at retail rates from utilities.

Allan O’Shea, who runs CBS Solar in Manistee Michigan described the situation perfectly in an article at the Michigan Live website:

“It’s kind of like if I raise tomatoes in my garden, then I’m told I have to turn them into Meijer’s (grocery store) produce department and buy them back at ten times the price. It makes you scratch your head… (The solar industry) would all be decimated if this bill goes through as is.”

Allan O’Shea, CBS Solar

Meanwhile, 18 miles west of Detroit in Ypsilanti, City Council members are speaking out in response to the the attacks upon the Michigan solar industry. On may 17th, 2016, they unanimously passed Resolution No. 2016-109, which reads:


WHEREAS,the City of Ypsilanti supports solar power and strives to be a “Solar Destination”, and

WHEREAS, solar power is included in the City’s Master Plan, Capital Improvement Plan and Climate Action Plan, and

WHEREAS,the city has passed a resolution supporting a 1,000 solar roof goal of SolarYpsi, and

WHEREAS, the City has incorporated solar power in several of its public facilities including the

City Hall,DPS yard, Parkridge Community Center, Senior Center, and the FreightHouse, and

WHEREAS,the City worked successfully to have DTE Energy construct a solar array in the City of Ypsilanti, and

WHEREAS,the elimination of net metering by the pending Michigan Senate Bill 438 would negatively impact the expansion of solar energy and an emerging solar industry

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council of the City of Ypsilanti opposes the elimination of net metering, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be sent to Representative David Rutledge, Senator Rebekah Warren, Kirk Profit and the Members of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee:

  • Senator Mike Nofs, Chair, (R)19th District
  • Senator John Proos, Vice Chair, (R) 21st District
  • Senator Ken Horn (R) 32nd District
  • Senator Tonya Schuitmaker (R) 26th District
  • Senator Joe Hune (R) 22nd District
  • Mike Shirkey(R) 16th District
  • Senator Dale Zorn (R) 17th District
  • Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood (D) 6th District
  • David Knezek (D) 5th District
  • Steven Bieda(D) 9th District

Ypsilanti (the home of Eastern Michigan University and known as “Ypsi” to locals) is a

Dave Strenski, SolarYpsi

haven of progressive thinkers and is home to more solar early adopters per capita than any other town in the state. SolarYpsi is a grass-roots effort in Ypsilanti  dedicated to the use of renewable energy sources, with a goal of completing 1,000 local solar installations. The SolarYpsi website demonstrates their efforts in real time reporting of electrical production from solar panels.  Launched in 2005 by the Ypsilanti Food Co-operative with a grant from the State of Michigan , SolarYpsi has partnered with Recycle Ann Arbor, and DTE Energy.  SolarYpsi installed 12 solar panels on the Ypsilanti’s City Hall     and the River Street Bakery, making it 100% solar powered. Obviously, SolarYpsi is working hard to make Ypsilanti a “solar destination,” and the Proos bill is targeted at stopping that development dead in its tracks. But Ypsi’s residents are making their voices heard.

National anti-solar groups like ALEC know that in statehouses across the country, they can outspend small, local organizations like SolarYpsi and influence state lawmakers with an army of utility company lobbyists. Also, they know national pro-solar NGOs like The Union of Concerned Scientists or the Solar Energy Industry Association cannot afford to put out these brushfires at state capitols all over the nation.  The flaw in ALEC’s strategy is that state legislators love rubbing elbows with big-money supporters, but not as much as they fear losing their seats by angering a majority of voters in their district. This is what the Koch brothers and their ilk don’t understand…that they have already lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the average citizen. Numerous polls show an overwhelmingly positive opinion of solar among most Americans. A recent poll in North Carolina conducted on behalf of Conservatives for Clean Energy found that more than 86 percent of voters support policies that encourage the development of renewable energy, and in Nevada, another state embroiled in a net metering battle, over 70% of those participation in the poll supported protection for current solar owners against net metering roll-backs.

While Ypsilanti’s Council members take official action and grassroots opposition to the fossil lobby and their attacks on indie solar grows, Beyond Extreme Energy is engaged in direct action in and around the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) offices in Washington DC.  BXE’s  #rubberstamprebellion campaign has gone as far as to protesting outside of the private homes of FERC members in an attempt to bring media attention to their cause.

7 arrests outside #FERC (handmaiden of the fossil fuel industry) on day one of #RubberStampRebellion.

— Sane Energy Project (@SaneEnergy) May 17, 2016


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Perovskite: A Quantum Leap for Solar?

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 12:47pm

The new solar cell material is showing promise, but will it live up to the hype?

XPrize CEO Peter Diamandis

Recently, The Huffington Post ran an article by X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis entitled Disrupting Solar. In the first installment in the two-part series, Diamandis writes glowingly of perovskite, a new and promising solar material. Diamandis writes that “Many entrepreneurs and investors are cautious about solar after having been burned in the early 2010s, when a string of solar companies took in considerable capital before shuttering their operations.

That being said, there has been a resurgence of promising startups developing commercially viable solar solutions – and we believe we’ll see perovskite solar cells as early as next year.”

Diamandis, a notable Silicon Valley futurist, entrepreneur and co-founder (with Ray Kurzweil) on Singularity University, has been a big proponent of perovskite in recent years. At this year’s Abundance 360 summit, Diamandis’ annual $12k per seat meeting of “curated entrepreneurs,” perovskite was touted as the “next big thing” in solar generation.

In his article, Diamandis rightly notes that “…Estimates suggest that perovskite solar panels could cost just 10 to 20 cents per watt, compared to 75 cents per watt for traditional silicon based panels — anywhere from 3X to 8X cost savings — making solar panels much more affordable for the average consumer.” Also, that “…the theoretical limit of perovskite’s conversion efficiency is about 66 percent, compared to silicon’s theoretical limit of about 32 percent.”  Diamandis goes as far as to write that “…could enable solar to reach a scale that eventually eliminates dependence on fossil fuels entirely.”

That is a pretty bold claim. This isn’t unusual, though, for Diamandis, who loves to extrapolate, and a claim that is welcome to those eager for a glimpse of “nextgen” solar technology. However, Diamandis’ track record as a prognosticator is a little shaky. After all, in his 2012 book Abundance, he predicted clean, safe “nextgen” nuclear reactors would be coming online soon as well. Techno-Utopians like Diamandis have an attractive message and his optimism is contagious, but how realistic is it?

First off, let’s back up and talk a little about exactly what perovskite is.  Named for a 19th Century Russian mineralogist, L.A. Perovski, perovskite structures are any material with the same type of crystal structure as calcium titanium oxide (CaTiO3). A perovskite solar cell is a type of solar cell which includes a perovskite structured compound, most commonly a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin halide-based material, as the light-harvesting active layer. Perovskite materials such as methylammonium lead halides are cheap to produce and simple to manufacture.Solar cell efficiencies of devices using these materials have increased from 3.8% in 2009 to 22.1% in early 2016,making this the fastest-advancing solar technology to date.

Schematic of a sensitized perovskite solar cell in which the active layer consist of a layer of mesoporous TiO2 which is coated with the perovskite absorber.

Just days before the publishing of the Diamandis piece on The Huffington Post, Scientific American published it’s own article on Perovskite entitled Solar Cell “Wonder Material”—Perovskite—Falls Short of Expectations.  Ironically, this article refutes nearly every claim that Mr. Diamandis makes in his article.  The damning subtitle reads: “New materials may never become efficient for real power, new report says.” The story is reprinted from work originally appearing on Chemistry World, a website of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Essentially, the article states that the promising perovskite technology works well in theory, but not in practical applications.  The article quotes Robert Palgrave of the University College London, UK, who has has reassessed the validity of the tolerance factor in predicting new hybrid perovskite structures.  “The rapid advance of hybrid solar cells is an amazing story,’ Palgrave says. “Having worked on oxide perovskites before, I was sure there would be many more hybrid perovskites to find.” But following failed synthesis attempts in the lab, the team realised “the tolerance factor simply doesn’t work for iodide perovskites.” Ending on a positive note the article states: “Palgrave remains optimistic about prospects in discovering new solar cell materials. ‘It is quite liberating after trying to make new perovskites – now we can use pretty much any organic and inorganic ions we like!”

Meanwhile, scientists outside of the UK are less ready to pronounce perovskites a dead end. A new study by researchers from Brown University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society is much more optimistic about bringing perovskite solar cells to the mass market.

“We’ve demonstrated a new procedure for making solar cells that can be more stable at moderate temperatures than the perovskite solar cells that most people are making currently,” said Nitin Padture, professor in Brown’s School of Engineering, director of Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, and the senior co-author of the new paper. “The technique is simple and has the potential to be scaled up, which overcomes a real bottleneck in perovskite research at the moment.” Padture continues… “The simplicity and the potential scalability of this method was inspired by our previous work on gas-based processing of MAPbI3 thin films, and now we can make high-efficiency FAPbI3-based perovskite solar cells that can be thermally more stable. That’s important for bringing perovskite solar cells to the market.”

For the time being, the dire predictions of UK scientists seem premature in light of the momentum behind perovskite’s popularity in the solar research community. However, Mr. Diamandis might want to revise his prediction of commercial perovskite panels in 2016.


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Bay Area School District Integrates Solar Power With STEM Education

Sun, 05/01/2016 - 3:49pm

On April 28, Berryessa Union School District (BUSD), which operates ten elementary (grades K-5) schools and three middle (grades 6-8) schools in Berryessa in San Jose, held a groundbreaking ceremony at its Piedmont Middle School. The event was to commemorate the inauguration of a district-wide initiative to install solar energy and integrate it with the school’s STEM education program.

The goal of the initiative, paid for through “Measure L” bond funding, is to install a total of 2.4MW of solar energy at all district sites. OpTerra Energy Services, an engineering consultant and design firm and a subsidiary of ENGIE, an energy efficiency services provider, plans to install the systems, which consist of solar shade canopies and ground-mounted units, at all 13 schools and at the district office. These installations will take on from 80 to 90 percent of planned electric load by site, and is expected to result in a 15 percent reduction in overall energy use. It is also intended as a means of environmental stewardship through GHG emission reduction.

Measure L is a bond issue, approved by voters in November 2014, targeting repairs and improvements to district sites. In March 2015, the BUSD leadership had set project goals regarding energy saving, renewable power, energy education and financial impact. It chose OpTerra Energy Services as its partner on the project. A district-wide assessment and analysis was conducted by BUSD and OpTerra of all sites and district property to identify the best opportunities for solar energy generation.

Meanwhile, the OpTerra education team is partnering with principals and teachers across the district. The result of this collaboration will be to use the solar production data as a means of direct STEM learning for students. Educational offerings will be customized to support different grade levels across the district. The entire program is on schedule, though the process took only about a year. (OpTerra’s presentation can be found here.)

Said District Superintendent Will Ector, “Our goal for our new solar program is to set the bar for sustainability at districts across the region. We are proud that as a result of this program, Berryessa’s ability to conserve energy will be complemented by a natural fit education tie-in. The benefits of our solar program are both immediate and long-term, empowering our students, staff, and community to support Earth Day, every day.”

In order to avoid any disruption to classes, solar canopy construction will not begin at school sites until summer.


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What Does the SunEdison Bankruptcy Mean For Solar?

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:59pm

Fossils want to paint SunEdison’s crash as a failure of the solar industry. They are SO wrong…

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to American Public Media’s “ Marketplace Morning Report.” David Brancaccio, the host, was discussing SunEdison’s announcement of bankruptcy filing last week. Brancaccio’s guest, Eric Gordon University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business did a pretty good job of explaining how SunEdison’s “nearly maniacal” growth brought them down, and rapid expansion without adequate capital made their demise inevitable. Brancaccio, however, wasn’t really willing to let Gordon off without trying to draw some conclusions about the state of the solar industry from SunEdison’s greedy, boneheaded nose-dive. “Does it indict the rest of the solar industry?”

APR’s David Brancaccio

Gordon wasn’t willing to go there… he replied that “…Solar power is actually a good industry…There are solar companies that are doing well… solar is attractive even if oil and natural gas prices stay low.” Brancaccio replied, “Well, that’s the key, right? It’s a great business to be in when competing energy source is expensive…that ISN’T the world we live in right now.”

I almost punched David Brancaccio right in the radio dial.

No, you &%*$%!! That IS NOT the key! That is the exact opposite of what Professor Gordon just said!!!” I yelled at the radio.

Brancaccio isn’t the only person in the media out there who is try to frame this as an “indictment of the solar industry.” But, this piece was exceptional in it’s underhanded and indirect approach. Brancaccio opens with a loaded question that puts this idea in the listener’s ear. When Gordon doesn’t take the bait, Brancaccio closes the exchange by giving a summary of the Professor’s statement that is the exact OPPOSITE of what he actually said.

Why am I not surprised? Because the “Marketplace Morning Report” on “Public Radio” opens with the the announcement that the program is sponsored by Koch Industries. Yes, THAT Koch industries.

Perhaps Brancaccio doesn’t know that oil does not compete with solar? No, he knows. In 2014, when oil prices began to tank, many economic experts called for a decoupling of solar from other fossil energy stocks. Here at Solar Tribune, we reported that “…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 nation’s #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.”

Bloomberg, another regular critic of solar, also made a half-hearted attempt to draw false analogies between the SunEdison debacle, fossils and the rest of the renewable industry. Bloomberg’s Liam Denning writes: “SunEdison’s bankruptcy should give everyone in the renewables business at least a moment of pause, though. As in the mining business — and, for that matter, the oil business and pipelines business — SunEdison’s mission creep, governance failure, and sheer recklessness exemplify what can happen when cheap capital hooks up with a can’t-lose story. Like the old energy businesses it seeks to replace, the renewables industry has to sharpen its pencils and convince the market all over again.” On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable conclusion, but earlier in the piece he makes the argument that: like all such models, it lives and dies by its assumptions. And one in particular looks very suspect: That customers will, at the end of their 20-year contract, sign up for another decade at 90 percent of the cost of their previous contract….To which the obvious response is: Show me a piece of technology worth 90 percent of its original value 20 years later. That’s especially so when you consider the whole notion of solar power displacing traditional energy rests squarely on the idea that the technology keeps getting better and cheaper.”

Yes Liam, the generation technology WILL continue to get cheaper. BUT NOT THE ENERGY IT PRODUCES. In 20 years, sadly, we will still be getting the majority of our electricity from traditional sources, and that power is going to continue to get more and more expensive.

Fortune’s headline reportsHow SunEdison’s Bankruptcy is Hurting India’s Solar Market”, while the Business Standard’s headline reads “Why SunEdison’s exit won’t hurt India’s solar sector:Its exit is unlikely to impact the market too much as there are other American and Chinese players waiting to step into the gap.” Wait, What?

Meanwhile, other media outlets, even those that have reveled in their attempts to paint solar as an industry that will never flourish without government subsidies, have not even bothered to draw inferences about the solar industry based on SunEdison’s face-plant.  Forbes, whose writers can be pretty savage in their criticism of solar, ran a very good, factual piece on the machinations that lead to the collapse. Their conclusion is that “It was financial maneuvering that turned SunEdison into a hedge fund darling, but that also led to its failure.”

Luckily, most news sources are more like Forbes on this story.  The simple fact is, it was SunEdison’s foray into the financial sector that sunk it. That says a whole lot about our toxic banking system, but almost nothing about the solar industry. It’s sad though, when liberal stalwarts at Public Radio are behind Forbes and the Wall Street Journal in their analysis of the renewable energy industry.



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Solar Impulse Soars as Energy Bill Crawls

Thu, 04/21/2016 - 1:07pm

After experiencing setbacks last year, both the Solar Impulse and the Murkowski/Cantwell Energy Bill are on the move again. One is a little more exciting than the other, though.

After setbacks last year, pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard are resuming their historic around the globe flight in Solar Impulse 2, the world’s most advanced solar powered plane. This morning, after a few minor weather delays, Piccard departed from Hawaii en route to San Francisco. Solar Impulse 2 will cross North America before flying back to Abu Dhabi, where the journey began in March of 2015. Ironically, while the visionary swiss adventurers soar above the United States using only the power of the sun, the United States congress will continue to flounder forward in search of a new energy bill that can pass through the heavily partisan political quagmire.

After months of delays, the United States Senate finally passed their version of an energy bill, which includes only very modest initiatives for renewable energy. Because it is not exactly the same as the bill passed by the house, the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled before a final version can go to the President for his signature, and their has been talk of a presidential veto if certain conditions are not met. It seems that even a bill designed specifically be be non-controversial can cause conflict in the current political atmosphere in Washington.

Hopefully, the trans-continental flight of Solar Impulse 2 can help raise awareness of some of the important issues that are happening on the U.S. energy scene. Borschberg and Piccard have both been vocal climate change activists, promoting high tech solutions to the world’s biggest environmental problem. Bertrand Piccard has suggested 7 Principles for Solving Climate Change with Clean Technologies that include the following:

  1. Highlight the solutions instead of the problems.
  2. Stop threatening human mobility, comfort and economic development in order to protect nature.
  3. Speak of profitable investments instead of expensive costs.
  4. Offer both rich and poor countries a share in the returns on investment.
  5. Refrain from setting goals without demonstrating how to reach them.
  6. Combine regulations with private initiative.
  7. Act in the interest of today’s generation and not only for future generations.

Piccard has a strong statement to make, and one that Congress should pay attention to…”Very few people will change their current behavior in favor of those living in the future. Let’s demonstrate that the changes we need can already deliver a favorable result on today’s economic, industrial and political development.”

Piccard’s “Let’s do it now, and do it right” approach is one being echoed by a handful of other energy visionaries like Elon Musk of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity fame. One of the keys to visions like those of Piccard, Borschberg and Musk is the rapid development in energy storage technologies, particularly in battery storage. In fact, Piccard and Borschberg have chosen to literally bet their lives on the combination of high efficiency solar and compact, robust batteries. How about the Congress?  Is there anything in the new energy bill for battery storage? In fact there is, in the Senate version of the bill. It proposes to put $50 million a year into research on industrial-scale batteries that would assist large utility providers to better utilize renewables. But for small, residential scale batteries?  Maybe a tax break for early adopters of residential scale batteries?  Nope.

What the Senate is offering up is a mish-mash of corporate handouts to large energy companies, and not much for solar advocates to get excited about. Some of the highlights are:

  • Controversial language promoting wood-burning electrical generation as “carbon neutral” (meaning it adds no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere over the long term). Environmental groups and some scientists have criticized the idea as inaccurate and threatening U.S. forests, whereas other scientists have said federal rules need to be clarified to promote some kinds of forest biomass energy.
  • Faster decisions for energy projects. The bill promises to accelerate federal decisions about permits for liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminals, hydropower dam licensing, and electrical transmission line projects. For example, DOE would have to rule on LNG terminals within 45 days of approval from other agencies. Today, there is no deadline.
  • Electrical grid upgrades. The bill pushes for additional work on cybersecurity for the nation’s electrical grid and improvements in dealing with the spread of small, distributed electricity generators such as rooftop solar panels. It includes $500 million for a 10-year research program to develop large-scale energy storage, a key for renewable energy such as wind and solar that fluctuates throughout the day.
  • Conservation funding. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, created with a portion of oil and gas royalties from federal lands, would become permanent. The program is credited with protecting more than 2 million hectares of land since its creation in 1965. It expired in 2015, only to be kept alive temporarily as part of the budget agreement reached at the end of the year.

(from Science Magazine)

This is not to say that Congress has done nothing for solar. In fact, the extension of the Investment Tax Credit was a major win, and nothing to sneeze at. But the fact that the Edison Institute is in favor of the new Energy Bill,  and it’s emphasis on streamlining regulations for utility providers would lead one to believe that it is payback time after the passage of the ITC, and that big money for large scale storage is a strong indicator that Edison and company are out to shut out the small producer.

Thankfully, while politicians slog through another election cycle, visionaries like Borschberg and Piccard give us something to cheer for.


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Australia: The New Solar Frontier

Fri, 04/01/2016 - 5:58pm

Australia is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the next decade of distributed generation and battery technology.

“It might also surprise you to know that nearly 15% of Australian households have solar panels on their roofs. That’s the highest number of solar panels on people’s roofs per capita anywhere in the world. – Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, speaking on Q&A on March 22, 2106.”

U.S. utility companies should pay close attention to the exploding energy storage market “down under.” While much of the world has been succumbing to the large scale “central station” solar model,  Australia has quietly become the world’s leader in indie solar. When fact-checking Minister Frydenberg’s impressive claim that 15% of Australian households are taking part in the rooftop and residential revolution, it turns out that the current numbers are even more impressive– closer to 16.5%!

Because of generous incentives and strong feed-in tariffs, indie solar has indeed boomed down under. Unfortunately for that huge number of early adopters, regional feed-in tariffs are being slashed across the country, leading to a gold rush of activity in the battery storage space. Tesla has rolled out its Powerwall in Australia first, with a number of strong competitors hot on Tesla’s heels.

The latest player onto the field is Brisbane-based Redflow.  The company has developed the ZCell battery, designed to store 10kWh of electricity — enough to keep most homes running for several days.  Unlike Tesla and others, the new battery does not use lithium. According to Redflow, the ZCell is more recyclable than its competitors.

“The active parts are plastic, aluminium and steel, the fluid electrolyte can be removed and cleaned and put in the next battery so the whole thing is very recyclable,” executive chairman Simon Hackett told Australian Broadcasting. This is going to be a big deal as massive lithium-based battery systems gain popularity. It is easy to be sceptical of Redflow’s claims, but they certainly are looking one step beyond the competition, which is going to be essential in the Lithium-starved market.

Other competitors in the Australian battery boom include Sonnen, LG and Enphase. Even the Australian utility companies are starting to see the writing on the wall. Sydney-based electricity provider AGL Energy, for example, has adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach and is offering its own residential storage kits after investing $20m in Sunverge last month.

Meanwhile back here at home, with American utilities continuing their anti-indie push against net metering, battery storage deployment is picking up in the U.S. as well. As of the third quarter of 2015, 108 MW (94 MWh) of energy storage was deployed in 2015, compared with 38 MW (65 MWh) installed during the same period in 2014, according to a new report from GTM Research. Only time will tell if– or more precisely when– we will see U.S. utilities try to break into the storage market.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, the gold rush is on. A country once criticized for its lack of solar implementation is now the new frontier for the solar industry.  South Australia and Queensland, where retail rates are particularly high and feed-in tariff cuts are hurting indie solar owners, are leading the world in uptake of solar battery storage. According to a recent GTM report entitled     “The Australian Energy Storage Market: Downstream Drivers and Opportunities,” analyst Brett Simon predicts that:

“Australia’s energy storage market is poised for massive growth. As battery prices continue their rapid decline, storage will become more attractive to end customers, especially in the residential sector. This presents an opportunity for a large addressable market for storage system vendors and developers. GTM Research anticipates Australia’s energy storage market will reach 244 megawatts of annual installed capacity by 2020.”

It would appear that where Australia leads, the world will follow, at least when looking at the solar battery storage market in the next several years. Look for new marketing schemes to come online just as fast as new battery technologies as Australian Utility providers scramble to make sense of the disruptive new model for electricity production. AND… look for U.S. utilities to keep a close, VERY close eye on what is happening down under.







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The “Worst States” for Solar: How Bad Are They?

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 2:25pm

States without standardized interconnection and net metering take a beating in the media. Is it justified?

Recently, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) released its latest “Freeing the Grid” report. This scorecard assigns a grade to each state, based on their net metering and interconnection policies. Unsurprisingly, some of the worst ranked states are those where fossil fuels play a large role in the economy. States like Alaska, Alabama,Louisiana,Texas and Wyoming all fare poorly in both categories, while others Nevada, Arizona and Georgia flunk one test but do relatively well in the other. With the fossil fuel lobby working in nearly every state to roll back net metering rules, what can we learn from looking at these grades? How much do these policies hinder solar development?

Nevada, the state that produces the most solar power per capita in the United States (according to a recent Solar Energy Industry of America (SEIA) report), receives an F for net metering rules, and a C for interconnection policies. Texas makes SEIA’s top ten solar states, and yet according to IREC, Texas receives an F for net metering and a D for interconnection policies. Arizona, ranked number two by SEIA gets an F from IREC for interconnection, but receives an A for net metering.

What we see here is that solar production can, in fact, flourish in states with a mixed bag of interconnection and net metering policies. In the Southern tier of states, great solar resources, coupled with low panel prices make large-scale solar projects cash flow regardless of these two key policies. Net metering, in particular is of little or no concern to large solar developers. Where the difference lies is with indie solar, like rooftop and small solar garden projects. SEIA’s numbers do not reflect the number of individuals who are able to own their own solar, just sheer volume, and that volume comes from large, utility scale installations.

More and more solar installation companies are feeling the push to “go big or go home.” This is especially apparent in those states given poor grades by the IREC report. With the renewal of the federal investment tax credit (ITC), we will continue to see a greater move to large scale projects, regardless of the interconnection policies in any particular state.
If we are getting more solar installed and employing more people in states with less “desireable” interconnection policies, what’s the problem, right? The problem is this… not every state has the same requirements, the same transmission and distribution resources, or the same amount of sun. IREC may be barking up the wrong tree when it gives failing grades to strong solar producing states, but so is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  when they try to do away with net metering policies in states where indie solar makes more sense. Until such a time when the nation has a uniform, deregulated marketplace for electricity, free from both government incentives and rate-regulated monopolies, it is up to solar advocates in their individual states to fight to keep the marketplace open for indie producers.


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Good Solar Gone Bad?

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 10:19am

Long the darling of environmentalists, solar is now powering less eco-friendly businesses as well.

Generating energy with solar panels can a very good thing. Solar increases our energy independence and decreases our carbon footprint. Solar can create new jobs and business opportunities while improving the resiliency of our electric grid.  Still, like any technology, solar is neutral. Solar can be used in ways that some people may disagree with.  As the price continues to fall for installing solar, the environmentalists who have long supported government incentives for solar are seeing some of the unexpected consequences of their strategy.

Across the US,large solar arrays are popping up on the roofs of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. These industrial scale livestock operations raise cattle, hogs and poultry… not in the pastoral setting of a Grant Wood painting, but in large buildings that have more in common with a factory than a farm. “Factory Farming” is controversial not only for the living conditions of the animals (which many see as unhealthy and inhumane) but also for the tremendous impact that their waste management operations have on the health of local waterways.

Suffice it to say, operators of CAFOs do not share much common ground with the environmental community. Politically, they are historically mortal enemies. Rural electric cooperatives, who often serve large livestock operations, have also not had warm and fuzzy relationships with solar supporters. So what is turning factory farmers and the rural electric co-ops who supply their electricity into solar lovers? Simple: MONEY.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers 25 percent Rural Energy for America (REAP) grants up to $500,000 for renewable energy systems for ag producers and small businesses. These grants have become a regular funding stream for CAFO solar projects, and often large solar installation companies will offer grant-writing as part of their services to farmers. They establish close working relationships with their local USDA rural development offices, and these grants become increasingly easy for experienced players to obtain. The combination of federal tax credits and USDA dollars, along with state, local or utility incentives, can bring the payback period down to less than one year, in many cases, because of the CAFO’s huge energy demand. They rely on huge cooling and ventilation systems to keep the animals alive during the summer months, and solar matches their peak demand perfectly. Rural Electric Co-ops like the arrangement, because, despite the savings from solar, the confinements are large new customers in what is otherwise a shrinking market base.

Setting aside the issue of humane treatment of livestock, what is the downside of large livestock operations using solar? It’s better than having them use coal-fired electricity, isn’t it? There is an argument to be made there. CAFOs will be built with or without cheap solar power. On the other hand, tax dollars are increasing the profit margin of CAFO owners, while they are not being held responsible for the environmental impacts of their waste disposal. That cost too, in many cases, falls to the taxpayer.

According to a report from the Center on Disease Control: “The most pressing public health issue associated with CAFOs stems from the amount of manure they produce. CAFO manure contains a variety of potential contaminants. It can contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics… animal blood or copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows…Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities—a feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That amount is one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Annually, it is estimated that livestock animals in the U.S. produce each year somewhere between 3 and 20 times more manure than people in the U.S. produce, or as much as 1.2–1.37 billion tons of waste. Though sewage treatment plants are required for human waste, no such treatment facility exists for livestock waste.”

In earlier periods when livestock were raised on pastures, the manure was gradually and evenly distributed across the landscape, creating fertile fields in which crops could be raised. Now, huge amounts of manure are stored in piles or lagoons, then sprayed across the bare ground, where rain can carry the contaminants directly into wetlands, creeks, rivers, lakes, municipal water supplies and eventually, the ocean.

Again, from the CDC report: “Contamination in surface water can cause nitrates and other nutrients to build up. Ammonia is often found in surface waters surrounding CAFOs. Ammonia causes oxygen depletion from water, which itself can kill aquatic life… Nutrient over-enrichment causes algal blooms, or a rapid increase of algae growth in an aquatic environment Algal blooms can cause a spiral of environmental problems to an aquatic system. Large groups of algae can block sunlight from underwater plant life, which are environmental health habitats for much aquatic life….Some algal blooms can contain toxic algae and other microorganisms, including Pfiesteria , which has caused large fish kills in North Carolina, Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay area….Water tests have also uncovered hormones in surface waters around CAFOs. Studies show that these hormones alter the reproductive habits of aquatic species living in these waters, including a significant decrease in the fertility of female fish. CAFO runoff can also lead to the presence of fecal bacteria or pathogens in surface water. One study showed that protozoa such as Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia were found in over 80% of surface water sites tested… in water from manure land application is also responsible for many beach closures and shellfish restrictions.”

Time for full disclosure, here. During the early 2000’s, I was a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists, doing farmer outreach to promote the use of renewable energy. More recently,I worked as a farm energy specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology. There was not, at that time, a lot of discussion about the potential environmental blowback of promoting renewables to farmers through the USDA program. Honestly, we just didn’t think we would be this successful at promoting solar. Like the ethanol mandate and the production tax credit for large-scale wind that came before REAP, massive government intervention continues to add to the economic instability and environmental unsustainability of the agricultural sector. It is long past time for a major overhaul of farm subsidies.  In the meantime, we can still enjoy a cheap, corn-fed, solar-powered pork chop…while we try not to think about where it came from.

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Solar Microgrids: The Next Big Thing

Thu, 03/10/2016 - 6:59pm

First, we realized that we needed to support local businesses, Then local food. Now, the time for local energy has arrived.  Meet the Brooklyn Microgrid.

As a former Brooklynite and long-time solar advocate, my first reaction was sheer joy. My second reaction was realizing that, by moving away from Brooklyn, I may be missing the single most revolutionary act of the decade. The time has come for disruption to happen in the utility industry, and it looks like the first shots of this revolution may be fired not far from the site of the Battle of Brooklyn. Unfortunately, General George Washington’s troops lost the battle of Brooklyn.  Let’s hope these new revolutionaries have more luck taking on the empire than their predecessors.

What these solar revolutionaries have going for them is this: not only do they eliminate some of the issues that utility companies have with ongoing net metering policies, but they add “firming” to the local grid by providing peak shaving at times of heavy loads and creating a neighborhood back-up system to avoid the types of power outage problems experienced by Brooklynites during Hurricane Sandy. The Brooklyn microgrid website quote New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: ““Communities are taking an important first step toward securing their energy future. By ensuring a continuous energy supply, medical facilities and communities can more reliably provide critical services and be better protected in the event that disaster strikes. I encourage communities across the state to participate in the NY Prize program to make their energy systems stronger and more resilient.” This is not a situation where solar producers solely use the grid as storage. They are undeniably supplementing the grid, to the advantage of all parties involved.

How can this seemingly anarchistic utility upstart do business? The key to this model appears to be hanging on a blockchain framework. For those unfamiliar with blockchain technology, this is the open source system that makes Bitcoin a reality. According to our friends at Wikipedia: “A block chain or blockchain is a permissionless distributed database based on the bitcoin protocol that maintains a continuously growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision, even by its operators.[1] The initial and most widely known application of blockchain technology is the public ledger of transactions for bitcoin,[2] which has been the inspiration for similar implementations often known as altchains.[3” In the case of the Brooklyn Microgrid project, the blockchain of choice is Ethereum. According to “Ethereum is a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts: applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference.

These apps run on a custom built blockchain, an enormously powerful shared global infrastructure that can move value around and represent the ownership of property. This enables developers to create markets, store registries of debts or promises, move funds in accordance with instructions given long in the past (like a will or a futures contract) and many other things that have not been invented yet, all without a middleman or counterparty risk.”

If the whole blockchain concept is still losing you, just remember this: it is decentralized. It is not a matter of using a broker to  negotiate the power purchase contract between neighbors, nor is it a boilerplate for hammering out hard and fast deals. It is a completely voluntary agreement entered into by all parties involved, under a so-called “trustless” system. The blockchain may or may not prove to be a successful platform for the contractual agreements of all parties involved, but it certainly is an ambitious idea.

The point really is, succeed or fail, this is a truly forward-thinking and ambitious idea, and one that is long overdue in the solar/utility space. At a time when indie (rooftop) solar is under attack by the forces of the Koch Brothers and their legislative team at ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the time has truly come for neighborhood solar microgrids to become a reality. It speaks volumes that partners in the Brooklyn Microgrid Project include ConEd ( the local utility) The City of Brooklyn, SolarCity, Siemens and other heavy hitters.

There has been a good deal of coverage touting the project as “The First Solar City, Fully Independent From the Grid.” Let’s just say that there is a certain amount of hype happening around the project.  In reality, the goal of the Brooklyn Microgrid is to establish a solar network in just two neighborhoods of New York’s largest borough, the Park Slope and Gowanus areas. And for now, that’s enough.

Ironically, microgrids in the U.S. are not leading the global movement to microgrids. Not even close. In fact, according to Duke Energy former CEO Jim Rogers.  “What Africa can perhaps teach us,” explains Rogers, “is an acceleration of the microgrid… The US will learn from Africa how to go “Back to the Future.”  We will be going “Back to the Future” because when the grid was beginning in the early 1900s what we really had was a lot of little microgrids… and we connected them all together to create the grid we have today.”  Similar to the way that African villages are acquiring and implementing off-grid systems, our businesses, neighborhoods, and homes can become a microgrid as well.

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