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Solar Tribune

Solar Energy News, Analysis, Education
Updated: 6 min 54 sec ago

Solar Suds: California Boasts World’s Largest Solar Brewery

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 9:08am

This weekend, many Americans will be enjoying the culmination of the 2014-2015 NFL season by drinking some of their favorite frosty adult beverages while watching the Seattle Seahawks and The New England Patriots face off in Super Bowl XLIX. What they may not know, is that they may be drinking beer brewed with solar power.

The MillerCoors brewing company has announced the completion of the largest photovoltaic (PV) solar installation at any brewery in the U.S. In the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale, California. Installed by SolarCity, one of the states premier solar installation providers, The 3.2 megawatt array consists of more than 10,000 solar panels installed across ten acres. The array will produce enough electricty to brew more than 7 million cases of beer each year.

State Senator Ed Hernandez of West Covina commented: “This project will help MillerCoors control its energy costs and support clean energy jobs, and demonstrates that MillerCoors is doing its part to reduce carbon emissions and help the state meet its clean energy goals.”

According to MillerCoors, the project will help to offset electricity use on the local grid during periods of high demand. It will also help further reduce the brewery’s traditional energy use, which has decreased by more than 30 percent over the last five years. The brewery also creates biogas from wastewater to power two GE Jenbacher engines, and the new solar project continues to illustrate the company’s commitment to energy independence.

Kim Marotta, Director of Sustainability, MillerCoors.
photo: denverpost.com

Solar Adds to Home Sale Value, New Report Shows

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 11:54am

Over the last 10 years, there has been a great deal of debate over residential solar and its impact on the value of homes. Up until recently, information was incomplete and most information on the subject was anecdotal. A new study led by researchers at Lawrence Berkley labs finds that a solar installation does indeed add significant value to homes.

Rooftop solar PV (photovoltaic) systems increased the sale of homes an average of $15,000, according to researchers led by Ben Hoen and Ryan Wiser of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Berkley Labs worked on the report in cooperation with researchers from Adomatis Appraisal Services, Real Property Analytics/Texas A&M University, University of California at San Diego, San Diego State University, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Their new study (entitled “Selling into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of Solar Homes”) found that home buyers are definitely willing to pay more for homes with a host-owned PV systems. Host-owned means that the system is owned by the property owner, not a third-party-owned or leased system. This study did not include information on third-party owned systems (but future research on the value of third-party-owned systems is planned for the future.) However, the study did cover eight states and various housing markets, PV markets and home types. The team analyzed nearly 22,000 sales of homes– almost 4,000 of which contained PV systems– in eight states from 1999 to 2013. This doubled the number of homes analyzed in previous studies and producing the most authoritative estimates to date of price premiums for U.S. homes with PV systems.

The researchers found that the “average premiums across the full sample equate to approximately $4/W or $15,000 for an average-sized 3.6-kW PV system. Only a small and non-statistically significant difference exists between PV premiums for new and existing homes, though some evidence exists of new home PV system discounting. A PV green cachet might exist, i.e., home buyers might pay a certain amount for any size of PV system and some increment more depending on system size. The market appears to depreciate the value of PV systems in their first 10 years at a rate exceeding the rate of PV efficiency losses and the rate of straight- line depreciation over the asset’s useful life. Net cost estimates—which account for government and utility PV incentives—may be the best proxy for market premiums, but income-based estimates may perform equally well if they accurately account for the complicated retail rate structures that exist in some states.”

“Previous studies on PV home premiums have been limited in size and scope,” says Ben Hoen, the lead author of the new report. “We more than doubled the number of PV home sales analyzed, examined a number of states outside of California, and captured the market during the recent housing boom, bust, and recovery.”

Interestingly, Forbes reported on an earlier 2011 report on the California real estate market Understanding the Solar Home Price Premium: Electricity Generation and ‘Green’ Social Status and found: “For the average installation, the authors found that solar panels added a $20,194 premium to the sales price of the house based on repeat sales data (houses were in the mid-$500,000 range). Solar is really expensive to install—the average total system cost is $35,967, but the effective price to homeowners with subsidies including the federal tax credit is $20,892. Thus, homeowners appear to recover approximately 97% of their investment costs – in addition to the savings associated with reduced energy bills.”

Reading the rather unimpressive report and the lukewarm response by Forbes only 4 years ago reflects the huge advances that the solar market is making as installed costs continue to drop. With more and homes featuring host-owned solar generation, the real estate industry is desperately in need of reliable methods to value the rapidly growing number of solar homes. The number of US homes with solar PV installations has grown to more than half a million, as of 2014.

“As PV systems become more and more common on U.S. homes, it will be increasingly important to value them accurately, using a variety of methods,” says co-author Sandra Adomatis, an appraiser who helped develop the Appraisal Institute’s Green Addendum and who has written and spoken extensively on valuing green features. She noted, “Our findings should provide greater confidence that PV adds a quantifiable premium to a wide variety of homes in California and beyond.”

The research was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, DOE supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. Learn more at energy.gov/sunshot.

Readers who would like to read more about the research and the findings can download the full 2015 report, “Selling into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of PV Homes”, as well as a fact sheets, and a summary slide deck here.

Saudi Moves To Corner the Energy Market May Include Solar

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 6:11pm

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the current plummet in oil prices is driven in part by OPEC’s desire to hurt the North American shale oil industry. Could they also be looking at a future in the solar market?

Speaking at the opening day of the fourth Solar Arabia summit in Riyadh in October of last year, Hamed al-Saggaf, executive director of the Saudi Electricity Company, told attendees that the kingdom must learn to wean itself off its dependence on oil and gas for electricity production.

“If we continue to consume fuel at the same rate, then there will be a great lost opportunity,” Saggaf said. “We have to start pursuing solar now.”

With a peak electricity load of 57 GW and a growing, power-hungry middle class, Saudi Arabia has begun to give greater consideration to its energy future, especially with the increasingly politicized oil market.

In a recent article for Market Watch, Satyajit Das (author of Traders, Guns & Money) wrote: “In theory, Saudi Arabian oil and foreign policy are separate. In practice, they are related. Low oil prices hurt Iran, Saudi Arabia’s competitor for Middle East political influence…. Low oil prices also hurt Russia, which also supports Syria and Iran. Low prices also undermine the financial basis of Islamic State militants, whose sales of cheap smuggled oil funds their military activities….Low oil prices can be seen through a Saudi prism as reprisals against the U.S. It is designed to undermine American attempts at greater energy self-sufficiency through aggressive exploitation of its shale gas and liquid resources. It is revenge for America’s strategic rebalancing away from the region to a greater Asian focus. The oil strategy is a signal from Saudi Arabia that it still wields significant power on the geopolitical stage.”

Now, solar is playing an odd supporting role in Saudi Arabia’s game of economic/political energy brinksmanship. The solar industry has struggled to take off in the energy rich nation, despite the obvious solar assets the desert nation has. Now, with a battle on over oil, there appears to be a somewhat counter-intuitive spike in interest in solar for the Saudis. What solar seems to be providing is not only security from the perspective of the utility sector, but also a potential future energy export.

  • Just last month, it was announced that General Electric (GE) has won a contract to supply a 600 MW integrated solar combined-cycle power plant for the Green Duba project in Saudi Arabia, according to recent reports. It is being developed in the Saudi port-city of Duba by the country’s utility, the Saudi Electricity Company. The project represents what is expected to be a series of concentrating solar combined-cycle power plants.
  • This week, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority announced on Thursday that a consortium of Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power and Spain’s TSK had been selected to build a solar power plant in the UAE emirate. The utility’s chief executive, Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, also announced that the size of the plant, Phase Two of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, would be increased to 200 MW of generating capacity from the previous target of 100 MW.
  • A consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power International has won a 1.7 billion euro contract to build two solar power plants totaling 350 megawatts in the southern Moroccan city of Ouarzazate, according to the Moroccan solar energy agency. The two plants are the second phase of the 500 MW Ouarzazate project, which is part of a government plan to produce two gigawatts of solar power by 2020, equivalent to about 38 per cent of Morocco’s current installed generation capacity.

Is Saudi Arabia quietly moving to expand their energy dominance into the electricity sector? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Saudi-built solar generation could be delivering power into the European Union’s grid in the next 10 to 20 years.

Desertec was an ambitious project to do just that, launched in 2003. The German-led initiative aimed to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching right across North Africa and the Mediterranean region and connecting to Europe via special high voltage, direct-current transmission cables, which lose only around 3% of the electricity they carry per 1,000 kilometers. The tentative total cost of building the project has been estimated at 400 billion euros.

As of this writing, it would appear as if Desertec has bitten the dust, with a major exodus of European investors. However, with the recent Saudi/Spanish solar deals, it looks like the Saudi’s may be picking up some of the pieces, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a push to complete the Morroco-Spain grid link. Will the Saudi’s make a move to deliver solar to the EU’s grid?

The implications are serious. Large amounts of inexpensive solar electricity pouring onto the European grid could have an effect similar to that shock currently being felt by the fledgeling US shale oil industry.

 

 

2016 Presidential Campaign: Solar Scorecard

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 11:29am

Which Candidates are Strong on Solar?

A we enter the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, a plethora of Republican and Democratic hopefuls are powering up their campaign machines. Many are already taking up part-time residence in the “first in the nation” states of Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to separate themselves from the pack.

In the wake of the Obama administration’s mixed bag of hits and misses on energy policy, some Republicans are looking to use the Solyndra debacle and supports for solar power in general as a sign of the failure of Democratic energy policy. Other Republicans have their own solar success stories to tell. On the Democratic side as well, the current group of front runners range from strong solar supporters to openly anti-solar.

Solar Tribune has compiled a list of the leading candidates as of the beginning of 2015, and assigned each a grade, based on their commitment to solar power. Admittedly, it is a somewhat subjective process, but the criteria is as follows:

A- Strong support in statements and actions
B- Support in statements, moderate action
C- Moderate support in statements
D- Little or no support
F- Anti-Solar in statement or action

This ranking does not reflect the candidates philosophy on markets vs. incentives, climate science, support for fossil fuels or any other criteria other than their actual statements regarding solar’s significance in the future of the nation’s energy mix, and their personal actions to help or hinder the growth of the industry.

REPUBLICANS

Jeb Bush: C
Jeb Bush currently is currently generating a lot of heat in the Republican field, and is very popular with the big-money funders needed to mount a successful campaign.
Bush endorsed setting a national goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, but as governor of Florida, he did not promote much in the way of solar policy. Florida does not have a renewable portfolio standard, property tax exemptions, or a statewide solar power rebate system.

Chris Christie: A
Chris Christie is probably the most outspoken advocate for solar energy of any of the leading republican contenders. Gov. Christie stated that “The future for New Jersey is in green energy and already we’ve put in place policies to broaden our access to renewable sources of energy, cleaner natural gas generation and ending our reliance on coal generation.” Christie signed into law an acceleration of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for solar energy and a reduction of the solar alternate compliance payments.

Ted Cruz: F
Although Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has not gone on record as being vehemently anti-solar, he has been remarkably silent on renewable energy issues in general. However, Cruz has long been active in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has provided model legislation for many conservative state legislators across the country, and is currently promoting rolling back net metering and charging solar energy producers for access to the grid.

 

Mike Huckabee: C
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has not offered a lot of specifics as far as renewable energy policy goes, other than voicing support in general for reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. His home state of Arkansas has average to above average solar policies.

 

 

Bobby Jindal: C
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has said: “Republicans seem instinctively to oppose cultivating…solar and wind power. Likewise, Democrats often stridently oppose… oil, coal, and nuclear power. Here’s an idea: how about we do it all? That’s not a Republican or Democrat solution. That’s an American solution.” Meanwhile, he has signed legislation to end solar tax credits.

 

Rand Paul: C
Senator Rand Paul makes no bones about his beliefs that government should not be playing favorites in the market, so it is so surprise that he is not a fan of government-funded solar programs. In fact, he blames “government intervention” for much of the nations energy problems. Sen Paul has stated: “”I favor tax incentives for alternative energy, but I oppose subsidies, which has the effect of allowing the government to choose winners and losers.” If taken at his word, that means he opposes subsidies for fossil fuels as well, which give them an unfair advantage over emerging renewable technologies.

Rick Perry: D
As governor of Texas, Rick Perry has done a lot to promote utility scale wind power development, but very little in the way of leadership on solar development. In 2005, he signed a bill requiring Texas to have 5,880 megawatts of renewables capacity by 2015. The state has already surpassed that requirement, primarily through large wind. The Texas Public Utilities Commission, appointed by Perry, has blocked significant implementation of net metering.

 

Marco Rubio: C
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has stated his support for a broad energy mix, including more biofuels, and more nuclear, solar and wind power. However, he has been skeptical about the role of renewable energy. “What I have a problem with is this idea we can windmill our way into the 21st Century,” he said.

 

 

Paul Ryan: F
Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan, Like Senator Ted Cruz, is heavily tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In addition to supporting ALEC’s anti-solar agenda, Paul Ryan has tried to make an example of solar incentives as a poor use of federal funds. Despite his criticisms, several of the projects he has sited as failures have actually been successfully completed.

 

 

 

DEMOCRATS

Joe Biden: B
Vice President Joe Biden has been an outspoken supporter of renewable energy around the globe. In fact, his brother, Frank Biden, is involved in developing solar projects at luxury resorts in Central America and the Middle East. Biden has had a primarily pro-renewables voting record in the senate.

 

 

Hillary Clinton: A
At the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told warned the audience that the U.S. “cannot afford to cede leadership in this area,” addressing China’s growing position in the solar marketplace. “Our economic recovery, our efforts against climate change, our strategic position in the world all will improve if we can build a safe bridge to a clean energy economy.” Clinton had a strong pro-renewables voting record in the senate.

Bernie Sanders: A
The Senator from Vermont has been a stalwart advocate of renewable energy, and solar in particular, for many years. In 2010, Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to encourage the implementation of 10 million rooftop solar projects in 10 years. Unfortunately, it didn’t go anywhere. An Independent and self-described “socialist”, Sanders plans to run for the Democratic Party nomination.

 

Elizabeth Warren: C
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is still relatively new to the US Senate, and she has not taken a strong stand on solar issues as of yet. Senator Warren is known as a strong financial regulator in favor of bank reforms, and on her website she states: “Right now, renewable energy competes with old energies that get lots of special breaks from Washington. We know that we can generate power with alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower.”

 

Jim Webb: F
Jim Webb is considered a moderate Democrat from the coal-producing state of Virginia. As Senator, he held a very conservative position on energy issues. Rather than solar and wind, Webb has stated that “I believe the way to go with coal is to get the technology to address the issues, rather than to put coal out of business. And I’m a strong believer, from the time that I was 18 years old, in the advantages of nuclear power.”

Turbulence in the Energy Market: What Does it Mean for Solar?

Wed, 12/31/2014 - 4:56pm

As we usher in 2015, we see a great deal of volatility in the energy sector, both domestically and internationally, both in the fossil fuel market and the renewable energy industry. An interconnected web of economics, politics and technology, it is hard to know what might be over the horizon. One thing is for sure, though– we are in a state of flux, and headed for more change. To paraphrase the great Bette Davis in the classic 1950 film “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seat belts…it’s going to be a bumpy year!”

Low U.S. Oil and Gas Prices Pull Solar Stocks Lower

If you live in the USA, you would have to be living under a rock to not notice the plummeting gas prices. In an article earlier this fall, I discussed why solar stock prices are being wrongly tied to the liquid fuels market, and why they should be decoupled. Plans for large solar thermal generation projects are being shelved because of low photovoltaic (PV) panel prices. The price of natural gas is approaching a two-year low. Internationally, wind-power development continues to be strong, while stalling in the US. The only stable market seems to be coal, which is rarely affected by anything.

What are some of the root causes of the turmoil, and what does it all mean for those of us in the solar industry? Let’s take a look at how we got here and where we might be going.

To begin with, the slowdown in the global economy is causing less demand worldwide. This is very bad for Russia’s economy, but here in the US it certainly is making consumers happy. The other reason that US pump prices are so low, is that US production has doubled recently, due in part with new shale oil drilling and fracking technology.

image: economist.com


As far as natural gas, the warm winter is putting downward pressure on the market with decreased demand for heating. Lower gas prices may mean cheaper peak electricity prices, and that may create less demand for solar in 2015. Particularly hard hit may be the utility-scale solar installations and community solar gardens that are popping up across the country. More relevant to the installation of distributed residential and business-scale generation will be the actions of the new congress and state legislatures, many of which slid farther into the conservative column in the last election.

Where is Solar Headed in 2015?

Some stock analysts are predicting a rally for solar stocks at the beginning of 2015, despite the drag that crude prices have been putting on solar in recent months. The market watching website Seeking Alpha recently ran an article entitled A January Comeback for Solar Stocks that makes a lot of great points. Recent indicators may be showing that solar stocks are finally decoupling from the liquid fuels price crash, and a bounce may be in cards for the new year. The optimistic writer goes as far as to say that “tax-loss related selling is a more likely culprit than plunging oil prices for solar’s losses,” which may very well be the case.

image: seekingalpha.com


However, another big factor in the outlook for solar is not related to oil or gas prices in the United states at all, but rather what is happening in China. First, the Chinese economy in general seems to be losing a little steam. Second, the US government is raising tariffs on Chinese made solar panels. This action comes after Chinese manufacturers have driven several US manufacturers out of the market by dumping solar panels onto the U.S. market, in some cases below the cost of production. It is hard to imagine that these tariffs will not raise panel prices in the US, but China has managed to get around tariff rules in the past. According to the New York Times; “The main beneficiary of the ruling is likely to be Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation that is already the second-largest exporter of solar panels to the United States, after China and narrowly ahead of Taiwan. Western, Japanese and Korean companies are pouring investment into extensive operations there, seeing it as a stable country with a fairly low cost yet highly skilled labor force, and without China’s persistent trade frictions with the West.”

The Solar industry has been divided on the Chinese tariff. Fledgeling American solar manufacturers have been fighting for their lives in the wake of the flood of cheap Chinese equipment. For those that have survived, it is questionable as to whether or not they can still recover. The tariff may have a positive effect on stock prices of U.S. manufacturers initially, but if equipment costs go up, it’s going to hurt the installers, and slow the market. If state governments and utility companies continue to cut subsidies and rebates or implement user’s fees for grid access, 2015 could get very rough for American solar installation companies.

Still, the Solar Energy Industry Association points out the big gains in 2014, and predicts another record year for 2015. “The U.S. installed 1,354 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the third quarter of 2014 to total 16.1 gigawatts (GW) installed PV capacity, with another 1.4 GW of concentrating solar power (CSP) capacity, enough to power 3.5 million homes. This quarter was the second largest quarter in history for solar growth, and SEIA and GTM Research predict another record-breaking year for 2014, with total installed capacity reaching three times the size of the market just three years ago.”

Global Outlook

While the US Solar industry seems mired in uncertainty, solar continues to move ahead in many other parts of the world. “Global PV end-market demand continues to set new records, restoring investor confidence in the PV industry after several years of overcapacity and declining profits,” said Michael Barker, senior analyst at Solarbuzz. “Having been put on hold over the past six months, due mainly to trade-related uncertainties, record quarterly and annual shipment levels will prove crucial to investors that have been hesitant to commit to new capacity funds.”

Despite the fact that US utilities are preferring to cash in on the availability of cheap Chinese PV, Solar thermal generation is going full-bore in equatorial regions like Chile, South Africa and Morocco. Just this month, Germany announced that it will be loaning $796 million to Morocco for solar thermal development. There are even plans to link the Moroccan plants to Europe’s power grid.

Despite stumbling a bit at the end of 2014, there is still plenty to be optimistic about for the Solar Industry in coming years. The market seems to be approaching a global tipping point, where despite the manipulations of governments and energy companies and banks, Solar energy generation is truly here to stay.

Happy Solar Holidays!

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 12:57pm

Did you know that solar energy is at the root of many holiday traditions? December is a time for celebrating faith, family…and the power of the sun!

Each December, people of nearly every culture around the world celebrate a significant holiday. In the Christian community, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews celebrate Hanukah. In the Hindu world it is the time for the celebration of Diwali, and for followers of Islam, it is Eid-al-Adha. In China, it is Dongzhi, and Kwanzaa is a pan-African celebration also observed in December. For many ancient cultures, though, December was a time for festivals marking the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and celebrating the beginning of the gradual return to longer days and shorter nights. For those of us in the solar business, more hours of sunlight is a reason to celebrate as well!

The gathering of family and friends to celebrate faith and community is a welcome break from the long, dark winter, no matter your cultural heritage. But many of us don’t really know the roots of some of our winter holiday traditions. For instance, in many cultures, the winter festival is known as a “Festival of Lights.” The tradition of decorating with candles or torches goes back to ancient times, when the long, dark nights were difficult and dangerous, especially in agricultural communities. At the time of the winter solstice (December in the Northern Hemisphere, June in the Southern Hemisphere), ancient people going back to Neolithic times gathered together on the shortest day of the year to light up the long night with the warmth of fire and fellowship.

Diwali candle photo:fest300.com


Saturnalia was the winter feast of ancient Rome which occurred in the week leading up to December 25th. Celebrating the agricultural god Saturn, Saturnalia was a time of feasting and exchanging gifts. Other traditions like decorating with greenery and trees is also thought to date back to Saturnalia, as many of the pagan traditions were kept alive even after the advent of the Holy Roman Empire.

Dongzhi is the winter solstice feast in China and much of east Asia. Again, agricultural in origin, it is a time for gatherings to eat special foods that are not prepared at any other time of the year. In India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, Diwali is celebrated to mark historical events, tell stories and myths. The myths celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, hope over despair.

As you can see, many, if not all of our winter festivals are attached to the in the seasonal movement of the sun. Much like our agricultural forbearers who relied on the sun for their livelihoods, solar businesses see a natural slow-down at this time of the year. Systems in northern regions are at the lowest point in their daily production. In colder areas, performing installations become more challenging, and work slows down. And like the farmers of ancient times, it is a good time for solar businesses to reflect on the past year and plan for the next.

Solstice Solar Science 101

For those of us in the United States who live in the mid-latitudes, daylight ranges from about 15 hours around the summer solstice to around 9 hours close to the winter solstice. Just why is this?
As we know, the Earth’s axis is not perpendicular to the sun. It is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, so that it tilts as it spins, and that tilt changes seasonally in relation to the the sun. On the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere of the planet (everything north of the equator) will face directly away from the sun, putting the North Pole in complete darkness.

This means that the sun crosses the sky at its lowest trajectory as seen from the Northern Hemisphere, and therefor the Northern Hemisphere receives the fewest hours of daylight. Not only are there less hours of daylight, but the intensity of the light varies as well. For instance, In Chicago Illinois, the solar radiation in December is 2.7 kWh/m 2/day. In late June, it is 5.97 kWh/m 2/day. This mean weaker sunlight, and less hours of it.
What does this mean for a solar array? It means dramatically lower output. For instance, if we look at the PV Watts calculator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s website, we will see that a 10kW photovoltaic solar array in Caribou, Maine, could be expected to produce over 1100 kWh per month near the time of the summer solstice, and only about 690 kWh per month in December. In Brownsville Texas, the same array will produce over 1200 kWh per month at the summer solstice, and 740 kWh in December.

Celebrate the Sun!

No matter your faith or cultural heritage, it is easy to see that the energy from the sun is essential to life on our planet. It’s no wonder that our ancestors chose the solstices as times for celebration. Just as farmers have used the sun to grow crops and harvest energy (in the form of calories) modern solar technology harvests the majority of its “crop” in the summer months. Now that winter is upon us and life has slowed down for a while, let’s take the time to be thankful for all that we have. Family, Friends… and the bountiful energy of the sun! Happy Solar Holidays!!

The sun’s path a the winter solstice photo:nasa.gov

The War Over Rooftop Solar

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 5:48pm

Is Distributed Generation dead? Perhaps not, but some utility companies are trying hard to redefine DG and privately owned residential solar is not part of their plan. In 2014, distributed local solar power constituted over 25% of new power plant capacity, but that growth won’t continue if powerful utility lobbyists have their way.

Since the invention of the modern grid-tied inverter, U.S. advocates for solar have battled for the right to generate power with small-scale solar arrays. American homeowners and businesses wanting to install solar have had to deal with as many different policies as there are states in the union, some much more favorable to rooftop solar than others. States like Massachusetts and Maryland offer tax credits or other incentives, while states like Oklahoma and Arkansas are openly hostile toward solar development. Monopoly electrical utilities can pile fees and charges on owners of private solar generation that prevent projects from being economically feasible, and blocking all but committed (and wealthy) environmentalists from using solar.

photo credit: NREL


According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s website, “Distributed generation (DG) refers to electricity that is produced at or near the point where it is used. Distributed solar energy can be located on rooftops or ground-mounted, and is typically connected to the local utility distribution grid. States, cities and towns are experimenting with policies to encourage distributed solar to offset peak electricity demand and stabilize the local grid.”

However, there is a good deal of disagreement about exactly what constitutes “distributed generation”, when to comes to solar photovoltaics (PV). In 1997, the federal government established the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative” (MSR). The goal of the MSR was to transform markets for distributed solar technologies by facilitating the installation of PV systems. Although the effectiveness of this program is debatable, it did illustrate the push to open up access to the grid to individuals who wished to install a grid-tied solar array, and it gave support to the small systems approach to Distributed Generation. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of solar photovoltaic installations in the US and the equally rapid decline in installed cost of solar has made solar more attractive to utility companies, who are now more interested in building their own “distributed” solar generation facilities than allowing their customers to install their own PV generation. Utilities are building large, multi megawatt solar plants in the same way they have developed small gas generating stations in the past. Utilities prefer a model where generation is distributed, but ownership is not.

In 2013, Arizona regulators voted 3-2 to set a fixed charge of 70 cents per kilowatt of system capacity on solar producers, to recoup their own capital costs. That’s roughly $5 a month for an average system that Arizona electric companies can now charge the people who are offsetting the utilities peak demand and covering their own maintenance costs. In April of 2014, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin followed suit and signed the “solar surcharge” bill into law, permitting utilities to charge an extra fee to any customer using distributed power generation, such as rooftop solar.

Net metering, the policy which allows small systems owners to use their solar energy to receive credit for the energy they produce at retail cost, is capped at a percentage of total generation in over half the states in the U.S. With small systems going in faster than ever, potential solar generators in many states will begin to come up against net metering caps, virtually freezing out new residential and business installations. These caps are so low in most states, that they make no practical sense at all. With solar at 1% of peak demand, the intermittent nature of solar poses no danger to grid stability. In fact, solar generation matches peak demand. Hot, sunny days when demand is greatest, solar is producing at its peak.

Why the hostility toward small systems? Up until recently, utility companies have seen rooftop solar as a novelty. Now, with the solar boom, the marginal threat of small solar is growing rapidly. They let the camel’s nose under the tent flap, and now the camel wants in. At the same time, the current low installed cost of solar is giving utilities solar ambitions of their own.

Utilities prefer to keep their eggs in as few baskets as possible. Losing control of their generating capacity is not something they want to do, because in their model, they make power and send it to customers on a one way street. They are far from ready to give up the early 20th century transmission model. Their solution? Solar farms.

Topaz Image: First Solar


In November, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Solar flipped the switch on Topaz, the world’s largest solar farm, weighing in at a whopping 550 Megawatts, and located near San Luis Obispo County on California’s Carrizo Plain. Buffet’s company will top its own record next year, bringing the 579 Megawatt Solar Star online, also in California.

Just this month, First Solar, the same developer who built the Topaz plant, announced their entry into the “Residential” solar market. However, they are not going into the rooftop solar business. Instead, they are partnering with Clean Energy Collective to build “community” solar farms. This unique approach allows those who live in locations that are impractical for rooftop solar to buy into a larger solar farm.

image: Clean Energy Collective


“Distributed generation in the form of community solar expands the addressable market dramatically beyond the traditional residential or commercial sectors,” said Jim Hughes, First Solar’s CEO. “This innovative and cost-competitive approach will further establish solar, and specifically community solar, as a critical part of the global energy mix for all markets.”

The community solar approach is a huge step forward in allowing consumers access to solar technology, and it’s definitely a trend to watch. Large solar farms put huge amounts of clean energy onto the grid in a short amount of time. So why are lobbyist for companies like Buffet’s trying to shut out rooftop solar? Is it really a threat to their business model? After all, the more distributed the generation, the more resilient the grid. After all, with energy storage solutions on the horizon, residential customers may not need to beg for grid access much longer. They’ll just cancel their electrical service.

Gatherings of the Tribe: Grassroots Solar Events Build Community Support

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 7:27pm

For many years now, I have had the pleasure of attending renewable energy expos, solar industry conventions and meetings of the “solar community” both large and small. As the solar energy industry has grown from a niche market into a mainstream technology, the media often focuses on large, international trade shows. But what about your local solar get-together?

The Solar Power International conference turns 15 this year, and The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) held its 19th annual National Solar Tour in 2014, with fledgeling events like PV America offering new forums for solar pros to get together and see the latest that the industry has to offer. But what about the regional, state and local events? Some of these grassroots solar pow-wows have been around even longer than the “big boys,” and are still going strong. What I love about these more “homegrown” events is that they really foster a sense of community. They are also the first step for many solar newbies into the wonderful world of sustainable living.

Texas Renewable Roundup photo:digitaljournal.com


For example, the Texas Solar Energy Society has fourteen years under its belt with their annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Sustainable Living Expo, which takes place in Belton, Texas. In 2014, they featured speakers on not only solar issues, but topics like “Rainwater Collection: 10,000 Years in the Making,” “Combining Wind and Solar Power Systems in the Home” “Backyard Aquaponic Farming: From Small to Large Systems,” “Building a High Performance Home- the Balance Between Your Vision & Wallet,” and “Electric Vehicles: Creating the Market in Texas.”

SolWest is Oregon’s long-running renewable energy fair, now going into its 17th year. SolWest takes place every June, where, according to their website, “Dozens of one-hour workshops help participants understand the basics of solar electricity, low-cost do-it-yourself solar projects, setting up wind, microhydro, or solar hot water systems, creating an off-grid paradise, constructing green buildings, raising small livestock, gardening, preserving food, and more.”

SolarFest in Vermont started in 1995 when a “group of friends with overlapping passions for music and renewable energy planned a big party.” In 2015, Vermont SolarFest will celebrate their 20th anniversary by staying true to their roots, celebrating music, art and renewable energy.

Way up North,the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) has hosted their annual Alaska Renewable Energy Fair for 10 years. They feature workshops on self-sufficiency topics, off-grid living, residential and commercial solar, and even sustainable 401K investing!

The grandaddy of all of the grassroots renewable energy gatherings is the Midwest Renewable Energy Associations Energy Fair. In 2015, they will celebrate 26 years of gathering in the woods of Wisconsin near Custer, just outside of Stevens Point. This event draws as many as 25,000 people each summer, and offers three days of non-stop classes, workshops, demonstrations and camaraderie. Every major manufacturer of solar equipment exhibits at the Energy Fair, but unlike the big industry trade shows, MREA’s event has the added attraction of locally brewed Wisconsin Beer and live music under the tall pines, not to mention the VERY Wisconsin tradition of a Sunday morning pancake breakfast, with a LIVE POLKA BAND!! You haven’t lived until you have done the “Chicken Dance” with a bunch of hung-over solar industry reps, jacked on fresh maple syrup and organic coffee!

photo:MREA


These renewable energy fairs, sustainable living of expos and solar festivals may lack the slick polish of a major international trade show, but they retain the “hippie spirit” that kept solar and windpower technology moving forward during the dark days of the 80’s and early 90’s. After President Reagan “pulled the plug” on subsidies for renewable energy projects in the early 80’s, these technologies were orphaned, and subsequently adopted by off-griders and “back-to-the-landers.” In the late 90’s, There was a bump in interest in solar due to concerns about grid-security related to the “Y2K bug.” Thankfully, Y2K came and went with only comparatively minor computer issues, but the interest in solar and wind power remained. Now, these gatherings of the “solar tribe” have gained main-stream legitimacy, but in many cases, they have kept their backwoods roots. At the MREA festival, you find an amazingly eclectic mix. From Silicon Valley executives to Amish farmers, Chicago IBEW electricians to organic farmers, visitors and solar enthusiasts from Iceland to India. The workshops continue to showcase workshops on “Do it Yourself” (DIY) projects, but increasingly they also include sessions on tax issues, grants loans and other financing options, building and electrical code issues, professional certification and other issues relevant to solar pros.

Next summer, if you are a solar professional, a homeowner exploring the possibilities of solar for your home, or a business owner looking into the opportunities to take advantage of the benefits of solar, take a look at the events close to home. Chances are, you will have a great time, learn a lot, meet some wonderful people, and come home at the end of the weekend with a new-found excitement for solar.

To find a local, state or regional solar, renewable energy or sustainable living event in your area, check the following resources:Home Power Magazine– Events page

A New Direction For Solar

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 5:22pm

Since the advent of modern solar technology, common wisdom has always taught us that solar panels should face the equator. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, that means south. Now, with falling panel prices, the South-facing paradigm may be falling by the wayside.

Photo Credit: NREL.gov

As we know, the suns relative position to any given location on earth changes not only throughout the day, but throughout the year. It rises in the East and sets in the West each day, while it rises higher in the sky during the summer and lower in the winter. The seasonal change is less drastic the closer you are to the equator. Solar collectors, be they Photovoltaic (PV) electrical generating panels or solar thermal collectors which create heat, perform best when they are perpendicular to the sun’s rays. For this reason, solar installations have traditionally been designed with a tilt toward the equator, relative to the latitude.

In the world of PV solar, high PV panel prices have always required optimum system performance for maximum economic benefit. In many cases, this meant seasonally adjusting the tilt of panels or using “trackers” to automatically adjust the tilt of the array though the day. For fixed arrays, like roof mounted systems, South has always been the required direction. Now, as panel prices are falling, we are seeing many more panels being mounted on roofs facing east and west. So what gives?

photo: http://jb-electrical.co.uk

The paradigm-buster in this case is more economic than technical. Your PV panel may loose a degree of performance by not facing south, but the value of the power during a given time of day may make other orientations more financially attractive. For instance, panels facing West will be exposed to less sun during the day than panels facing south, and will therefor make less power. But the power produced by the west-facing panels reaches its peak in the late afternoon, at the same time that demand for utility power peaks. As people come home from work and school, air conditioning goes on, along with TVs washing machines and other appliances. Utility companies rely on more expensive natural gas “peaking” plants to generate power during these times, and so the power produced costs more. That means that late afternoon solar generation is worth more, too.

According to a report from the Texas-based research firm Pecan Street: “residential solar systems, and particularly west-facing rooftop systems, may also act as a fairly impactful peak demand reduction device for utilities struggling to meet afternoon demand in hot summer months.”

Key findings from the report included:

Counting only the electricity generated by a rooftop solar system that is actually used in the home (and therefore not counting electricity that was sent to the grid because it could not be used in the home), homes averaged a 58 percent peak demand reduction for electricity from the grid.

South-facing solar systems cut peak demand from the grid by 54%, while west-facing systems reduced their homes’ peak demand from the grid by 65%.
During peak hours, homes used 80% of the power generated from the rooftop systems and returned 20% to the grid. In the homes with south-facing systems, 78% of the power generated was used in the home; 22% was returned to the grid. 
In homes with west-facing systems, 84% was used in the home; 16% was returned to the grid.
Over the course of the full day, 64% of the energy generated by the rooftop systems was consumed on-site; 36% was returned to the grid.

Over the course of the full day, and not including surplus energy returned to the grid, the solar systems provided 36% of the average power used per home.  Nearly a third (32%) of the power was generated during peak demand hours.
In the wake of findings like those of Pecan Street, The California Energy Administration has announced a new $500 incentive for new, West-facing solar arrays.

“We are hoping to squeeze more energy out of the afternoon daylight hours when electricity demand is highest,” said David Hochschild, lead commissioner for the agency’s renewable energy division, which will be administering the program. “By encouraging west-facing solar systems, we can better match our renewable supply with energy demand.”

In Europe, where solar installations far outpace those in the United States, the South-facing paradigm is rapidly becoming a problem for utilities. According the The Telegraph: “… Professor Ralph Gottshalg of Loughborough University…said Germany has too many solar panels which means that its grid is disrupted on sunny summer lunchtimes with a flood of solar power so cheap it has to be almost given away. He is urging to the UK to follow Germany’s recent policy of putting panels on east-west facing roofs to smooth the supply of power during the day and prevent spikes of power at midday.”

So, what about East? According to Professor. Gottshalg, there should be more solar going in on East roofs as well. This is true, from the perspective of solar as an offset for a users overall demand for grid power. However, in most areas, the power generated in the morning will be worth less money than that generated in the afternoon. However, in some areas, morning usage might be higher, for instance in colder rural areas in the North. Also, shading can be an issue at individual locations, and a wide open Eastern solar window may be a more viable option than a partially shaded southern or western exposure.

So what about trackers? Don’t they still offer the most power throughout the day? Stated simply, yes. However, tracking system technology has not fallen in price as quickly as panel prices. In most cases, it is now cheaper to buy more panels and use them less efficiently than it is to use tracking technology to maximize panel output.
The one glaring exception to this discussion is, of course, off grid-applications. When storing electricity on-site in a battery bank, utility time-of-day pricing does not apply. For everyone else, it looks like solar system designs may be looking to a new direction.

Solar Values = American Values

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 12:49pm

“By the way, if you want to have a war over oil, leave me out of it- because I don’t think we need it. All I have to say is, go solar! Go wind! Let a little freedom into your life, and help your neighbors stay free, too.”

Richard Perez, Publisher, Home Power Magazine- keynote address, I-Renew Energy Expo, Sept.8, 2001

Home Power #1: 1987

Just three days before the terrorist attacks that rocked the nation, Richard Perez, the publisher of the independent renewable energy publication Home Power addressed a packed audience at one of the nations oldest gatherings of wind and solar power enthusiasts. He inspired the audience with a talk about the importance of freedom. Freedom to make one’s own choices, and accepting the responsibilities that come with that freedom.

It has been more than 13 years since Perez gave that speech and the solar landscape has changed immensely. Solar is no longer primarily the purview of off-grid survivalists and back-to-the-land hippies. The installed price of solar has dropped from above $10 per watt to under $4. More states around the nation are encouraging solar development, and the economic benefits of solar are becoming more obvious by the day. And yet, there remains a strong anti-solar contingent in the United States. But why? In post-911 America, isn’t freedom still an American value?

Home Power: Today

Many will point out the obvious political divide between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, but on closer examination, this separation is relatively superficial in the debate over solar values. Despite the perception that using solar energy to generate power is a “left-coast liberal” idea, using renewable energy sources like wind and solar has long been favored by many extremely conservative individuals. The motivations for using solar may be different for liberals and conservatives, but historically, there has been plenty of interest on both ends of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately for energy consumers (and that includes just about everyone in America) solar has become a strawman for both of Americas big political parties. Before the advent of major debate over climate change in congress, the debate centered simply around how new technologies would mature in this country. “Mandates” or the “free market?” This was the crux of the argument as we entered the 21st century. Now, anti-climate legislation activists paint solar as part of a scheme to raise taxes, while pro-climate legislation activists paint opponents of solar as “anti-science” or the “tools of the oil industry.” In most cases, both parties are arguing points that are peripheral to the central issue: the inevitable move away from the 19th century central station generation model toward a more distributed generation model.

Contrary to popular belief, all large energy companies are not opposed to renewable energy. Both BP and Shell Oil have dipped their toes in the solar market, and Shell executives have been quoted as saying that solar may grow to be the planets biggest power source by mid-century. Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy boasts a generation portfolio that is 30% wind power and growing. Energy companies understand that renewable energy, and solar in particular are coming on strong. However, they want to be in control of the transition. MidAmerican energy fought to keep any and all farmer-owned wind projects off of their grid until economics were right for MidAm to build its own wind farms. Other large utilities see the writing on the wall, with the rapid decline in cost of solar. Some embrace it, others fight it, and because of their powerful political lobbyists, politicians reflect those concerns.

However, more and more political conservatives are recognizing that distributed electrical generation through solar and wind is ultimately the most consistent with their own core conservative values. The central station model and national transmission grid grew from the federal social programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” That infrastructure is aging, and so is the technology. The market needs to be opened up, and individuals deserve the right to make their own energy choices.

Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said that she supports solar development as “a free market issue that gives consumers more choice.”

Although Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has sided with utilities to kill solar development in his state, his neighbor to the South, Governor Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa, has signed an extension of a wildly successful solar tax credit program in his state. Utility company lobbyists are having an increasingly difficult time keeping the lid on solar’s success in the market, and Conservatives are realizing that solar is a “free market” success story, whether they like it or not. It’s hard to argue with the conservative credentials of these solar supporters. Even Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the Conservative icon and former Republican Arizona legislator has been a vocal supporter of solar development.

Debbie Dooley Photo: midwesternenergy.com

Gov. Terry Branstad photo:qctimes.com

Among Democrats, the majority support renewable energy development, because of their core value of protecting the environment. BUT… the devil is in the details. Once again, political special interest groups play a major role in how Democratic legislators view the implementation of solar. Unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have traditionally opposed distributed generation, and clung to the central station model because power plants have traditionally employed many IBEW members. Because of their traditional ties to unions, many Democrats prefer to see solar deployed and owned by–wait for it–the large utility companies. One egregious example is in Oklahoma, where a bill to fine individuals who use solar passed 29 Democrats in the state House and 12 Democrats in the state Senate.

As we can see, when focusing on core values, there is a great deal of room for agreement over the value of solar development. Freedom to choose our energy source, freedom to advance new and better technologies, freedom from foreign entanglements over energy and freedom from pollution; It would be hard to find an American who doesn’t share those values. Solar values ARE American values. It’s when special interests get involved that the waters get muddied, and progress stops. And let’s face it… inertia in the marketplace is good ONLY for the old and established businesses. If the US hopes to compete in the global marketplace of the 21st century, it is time to open up the energy market to new technologies. After all, if survivalists and hippies can agree that solar is a good idea, why can’t Republicans and Democrats?

What Futurists Say About Solar Energy

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 4:27pm

“Their predictions range from near-term to long-term, from the mundane to the fantastic, but many futurists, regardless of their focus, see solar power in our future.”

NASA.gov


In the realm of science fiction, solar energy has long played a role as a primary energy source in imaginary futures. Ever since Dr. Hans Zeigler outfitted satellite Vanguard 1 with photovoltaic panels back in 1958, solar energy has sparked writers imaginations. From the solar space-yachts of Aurthur C. Clarke’s Sunjammer to the horrific solar-powered swarms of killer “nano-bots” in Michael Crichton’s Prey, solar energy production is a technology that speculative fiction writers have always seen as part of our future. But what about the people who’s job it is to PREDICT the future, rather than imagine it? What do “Futurists” think about the role solar energy will play in the coming century?

Futurists, sometimes called “Futurologists” are those social scientists, economists and others analysts who spend their time examining current trends and studying future scenarios. They may work for governments, corporations and other organizations. They may be academics, business consultants, journalists or bloggers, and their focus may vary from economics to technology to human relationships, but most take an interdisciplinary approach to predicting the future. Their predictions range from near-term to long-term, from the mundane to the fantastic, but many futurists, regardless of their focus, see solar power in our future.

Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s best known futurists. Kurzweil currently serves as director of engineering for Google, but is probably best known for his writings on life extension, artificial intelligence and transhumanism in books like The Singularity is Near and The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil is optimistic about solar as part of a sustainable future. He points out that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years. According to Kurzweil, within 14 more years, solar could be providing 100% of the world’s energy needs.

A more conservative near-term outlook on solar comes from Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He wrote in 2011: “The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now. In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America. 10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today.”

Futurist consultant and podcaster Heather Schlegel is downright pessimistic about solar’s future. Not so much about solar technology, but more about changing human habits. She wrote: “It hit me this week. Energy conservation and the development of solar and wind energies is akin to caloric restriction. Sure, it has been scientifically proven to help you live longer, but you certainly can’t be a body builder on it. Nor can you express your human potential on it. (Unless that is living long enough for the Singularity – a noble cause in it’s own, but one I care not to achieve.) Sure solar and wind will give us some energy, but they just help us put off dealing with peak oil. The amount of energy in oil is so highly concentrated and it is so easily chemically manipulated. We are not going to stop using oil and coal before we use them up no matter how much solar, wind and bio-fuel energies are available.”

Others are taking a longer view. Stewart Brand is a technologist, internet pioneer and founder of The Long Now Foundation. In a Mother Jones interview, Brand was asked: “What’s the most promising new energy source?” Brand replied: “It might well be space solar. Because the main problem with solar on the Earth’s surface is that it is so intermittent, and we don’t have decent storage yet. The advantage of having something out at synchronous distance is that it’s in the sun all the time. You can beam down, via microwave, significant juice, about nine times greater than you’d get on the Earth’s surface.”

The idea of getting outside of the earth’s atmosphere to collect energy goes back to the work of another famous futurist, physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson first explored this idea back in 1960, in a Science Magazine article entitled Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation. With the advent of private space flight, Dyson’s megastructure, now known as a “Dyson Sphere,” might actually be quite literally on the horizon.

In 2012, Canadian futurist and io9 contributing editor George Dvorsky wrote an article entitled How to build a Dyson Sphere in 10 (relatively) easy steps. He states: “We are closer to being able to build a Dyson Sphere than we think. In fact, we could conceivably get going on the project in about 25 to 50 years, with completion of the first phase requiring only a few decades. Yes, really.” Of course, Dvorsky’s “relatively” easy steps include mining materials on the planet Mercury…

Regardless of their personal favorite scenario, futurists seem to agree that sooner or later, we will be harvesting the majority of our power directly from the sun. With solar panel sales increasing exponentially, Kurzweil’s 14 year scenario may not be such a big stretch, and with individuals increasingly taking control of their own energy production, they gain increased independence.

Futurist Brian Sovryn is an entrepreneur, game designer and the host of the popular technology podcast Sovryn Tech. Sovryn is a strong proponent of online privacy, digital freedom and transforming society thorough decentralizing technology. He sees solar as playing a role in increasing personal freedom. “To merely call solar power ‘cheap power’ is a mistake. It is diversified, abundant power. Solar may well be the proof and the underpinning of an economy where no one is limited by the high cost of energy.”

Hopefully, Sovryn is right. If we risk living in a world of Crichton’s solar nano-bots, We will need Clarke’s Sunjammers to carry us to the brighter solar future.

Lovington, NM to Launch Solar Trash Can Pilot

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 7:10am

Lovington, New Mexico is the latest city to consider solar-powered trash cans as a way to save money. The solar trash cans compact the trash, cutting down on overflow and reducing the number of weekly pickups required.

image: bigbelly.com

The Albuquerque Joural reports that regular trash containers in public places must be picked up between three and five times a week, according to Jeff Sabin, government affairs manager for Waste Management, the companying selling the high-tech bins. “We’re reducing the carbon footprint,” Sabin said. “Fewer collections save the company money.”

The solar trash bins being considered for the pilot program are similar to those currently being used in other cities, like, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The 300-pound boxes, made by Big Belly Solar, cost about $3,800. One side of the unit is for recycling, the other for trash. They are powered by a 12 volt, integrated off-grid solar panel.

James Williams, Lovington City Manager says, “I would like to attempt a pilot program deploying two to four of these in the downtown area to see how they work,” Williams told city commissioners at a recent meeting. “I think it would help with some long-term savings in staff and fuel costs.”

Although the solar trash compacting bins are being used in many of the larger cities in the U.S., Lovington is one of the first smaller cities to consider the solar trash cans. Lovington has a population of about 11,000. Fort Collins, Colorado, Jupiter Florida and Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina are currently using the Big Belly units.

Small College Makes Solar a Big Priority

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 6:09pm

Nestled among the cornfields of Southeastern Iowa, Maharishi University of Management is not your typical small college. More than 40 years after its founding, this unique campus has become a showcase of sustainability and solar technology.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best known as man who taught meditation to The Beatles, bought the defunct Parsons College campus in Fairfield, Iowa in 1971 and set up an accredited university to teach his philosophy of world peace and enlightenment through meditation. Along with computer science, accounting and other standard courses, the curriculum stresses healthy lifestyles and a healthy environment.

Biology Professor David Fisher launched the nation’s first college sustainability bachelor’s degree program at MUM in 2003. The Sustainable Living Department offers courses in solar, wind and other alternative energy systems, water management, permaculture, alternative building techniques, and performance design for the built environment, and their building serves as a hands-on showcase for the technologies they teach. On an annual basis, the building is not only a “net zero” building, but actually produces as much as 40% more energy than it consumes.

The south wall of the MUM Sustainable Living Center.

Opened in 2012, the Sustainable Living Center at MUM is a showpiece of green building technology. The 6,900 square foot building features sustainable infrastructure including daylighting, a greenhouse and edible landscaping, gardens, rain catchment, earth block and “whole tree” construction and both solar thermal and solar photovoltaic (PV), as well as a wind turbine. The architectural style, known as “Vedic” architecture, marries eastern and western styles and reflects the philosophy of the university, while exceeding LEED platinum standards.

Dan Chiras is currently a visiting professor at the Sustainable Living Center. Chiras serves as the Director of the Evergreen Institute and is author of over 30 books on solar and sustainability topics, including The Natural House, The Solar House, The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy and many more. Chiras said of the MUM building: “The Sustainable Living Center is one of the greenest—if not the greenest—classroom buildings on a college campus in the world! It’s an extraordinary model of ecological sustainability and an inspiration to those seeking to build a sustainable human future. The building is a pleasure to teach in and a great learning tool for students.”

Solar Features At The SLC:

The Sustainable Living Center sports 12.5 kW of PV panels to provide electricity. The PV panels are grid-tied by two 2.5 kW and one 5 kW SMA Sunny Boy inverters. An Outback 3.6 kW battery based inverter also stores energy in an off-grid battery bank. The solar PV at the Center puts out an average of 16,250 kWh per year.

A drain-back solar water heating system with 750 square feet of evacuated tube solar thermal collectors capture solar energy that is then stored in a 5,000 gallon tank, where it is then pumped through the in-floor heating system. The collectors provide about 30 % of the heating for the building. Additional heat comes from a ground source heat pump, which uses electricity from the solar and wind systems to provide 75,000 BTUs per hour.


In addition to the solar arrays, The Sustainable Living Center features a Bergey XL 10 wind turbine on a 100 foot latticed tower. The estimated annual output is 17,00 kWh, with power production peaking in the winter and spring. This compliments the solar PV, which produces most of its power during the summer months, when wind speeds are typically much lower.

The SLC has an annual energy use of about 30,000 kWh, including lighting, heating and cooling, fresh air circulation office equipment and classrooms, which is already amazingly low for a building of its size.

Not only at the Sustainable Living Center, but across the entire MUM campus, sustainability initiatives are in full effect. In fact, the school achieved a perfect score for sustainable food sourcing and is the first college in the United States to offer an organic, 100% vegetarian menu. The college encourages bicycling and energy efficiency and is currently in the planning stages of a large-scale solar array to offset more of their electrical use with solar energy.
Read more about the MUM Sustainable Living Center at: https://www.mum.edu/academic-departments/sustainable-living/buildings/sl-bldg/

USDA Announces New Loans For Solar

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 3:30pm

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced the first of $250 million in loans it plans to distribute to rural electric cooperatives through the Energy Efficiency Conservation Loan Program (EECLP.)

image: nrel.gov

EELCP is a new program to assist rural utility customers with energy efficiency upgrades and residential-scale solar installations. According to an announcement released last week: “…The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program is a new effort allows USDA Rural Utilities Service (RUS) borrowers to implement energy efficiency upgrades for consumers through the use of loans for energy audits and energy efficiency upgrades, including weatherization, HVAC improvements, high efficiency lighting and conversions to more efficient or renewable energy sources, such as consumer-scale solar power and ground source heat pumps.” This is the first time that non-profit utilities serving rural areas can use this USDA financing to make capital investments on the customer’s side of the meter, and the change could have a great deal of potential for customers interested in installing a solar array. This new Energy Efficiency Conservation Loan Program is available only to rural utility providers, and money is loaned at Treasury rate plus 1%.

The first two loans will be awarded to Rural Electric Cooperatives in Arkansas and North Carolina.
North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, Inc. will use a loan of $4.6 million to fund primarily energy efficiency measures, as will Roanoke Electric Membership Corporation, which will receive up to $6 million. However, future loans could be used by RECs to assist their customers in the installation of solar equipment, and the loans will be paid back through utility bills. The program is designed to increase economic activity in rural areas, and is expected to improve opportunities for distributed generation in rural area, which often have more potential for wind or solar power than urban dwellers.

For more information, visit USDA.GOV

AC Solar Modules: The Future of PV Panels?

Mon, 11/03/2014 - 1:09pm

Photovoltaic (PV) modules produce DC electricity, and how that DC power is converted to grid-quality AC is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the industry. Up until 2008 when Enphase released their first micro-inverter, large “string” inverters connecting multiple solar panels were the industry standard. Now, inverter technology has advanced to the point that small micro-inverters are being integrated into the panels themselves, allowing each panel to make its own AC power. Unlike field installed micro-inverters, a factory installed, hardwired DC to AC component eliminates any onsite DC wiring and simplifies permitting and installation, but will they catch on?

image: energy.gov

LG is one of the companies that includes a new AC panel among their newest offerings. According to Ellen Kim, senior vice president of Energy Solutions at LG Electronics USA: “Our most recent innovation from the LG Mono X module series is the Mono X ACe, which is designed to maximize AC-power output to deliver premium installation flexibility for installers and easy monitoring for the end users. Its optimized design includes a ‘plug and play’ feature, which improves the overall safety and speed of rooftop installations by minimizing the connectivity labor, reducing cable work and increasing its energy yield. This makes installing and using solar modules simpler than ever.”

LG’s website claims that their MonoX ACe reduces thee installation time of 12 panels from 70 to 41 minutes. Particularly on large utility-scale arrays, this could mean a significant savings in installation costs. Ellen Kim continued: “Solar panels give homeowners a path toward energy independence, while offering convenience and exceptional functionality. LG’s advanced new energy-efficient technology in our latest modules provides consumers with the opportunity to become a more sustainable member of society, in addition to delivering long-term cost savings.”

Simplified installation with AC panels. image: LG.com

LG’s MonoX Ace carries the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification, but not all panels marketed with an inverter package inverter do. Consumers, installers and inspectors all need to be aware of the difference between a panel and inverter package and a “true AC panel”, as specified by the U.S. National Electric Code (NEC). It describes an AC panel as: “a complete, environmentally protected unit consisting of solar cells, optics, inverter and other components, exclusive of tracker, designed to generate AC power when exposed to sunlight.” A true AC module will be certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) and requires that they meet UL standards 1741 and 1703, which cover both the panel itself as well as the integrated inverter. It is important to make sure that the product you are choosing is listed specifically as an AC panel, evaluated to UL 1741 and carry an AC nameplate rating. Texas-based SolarBridge Technologies, California’s Andalay Solar, and a handful of other companies are banking on these integrated panels to be the next wave in grid-tied PV technology.

The beauty of the AC panels is that they eliminate the need for any DC wiring on the job site and therefor eliminate a lot of confusion, both for electricians and electrical inspectors. Also, grounding is simplified greatly. This “plug and play” wiring, along with expanded capabilities for system monitoring and management have a lot of appeal, but will this translate into widespread adoption and strong sales?

There are obvious downsides to the AC panel concept as well. Micro-inverter reliability has been a problem. This means that micro-inverter failure means changing the entire unit, panel and all. Even if a micro-inverter performs as expected, the panel will probably last longer than the inverter. Not to mention that upgrading inverters and re-using panels really isn’t an option, either. There are definitely some advantages to keeping the inverter and panel separate. Despite these issues, we can expect to see a lot more AC panels coming onto the market in the next few years.

Off-Grid Solar Updates

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 12:21pm

With utility-scale solar installations may be grabbing the headlines, but off-grid solar is alive and well.With increasing concerns about out aging transmission and distribution systems and more demand for electricity in remote areas, the off-grid solar industry is quietly breaking new ground.

Equal Earth Offers Off-Grid Financing

Equal Earth, a San Diego based renewable energy company, has announced that the company is offering customers long-term financing for off-grid solar systems through innovative solar lease and loan programs.
The project will be launched first in Hawaii by Equal Earth subsidiary Green Tiki, and will be available to homeowners and businesses. Hawaii is a perfect testing ground, because of the high rate price of electricity charged to ratepayers. In the future, Equal Earth plans to expand its off-grid solar financing solutions to other markets, particularly those markets where utility rates are high, due to limited distribution.
According to Equal Earth Chairman, President and CEO, Andrew Duggan. “In many places, because of what’s happening with the utilities, off-grid solar is no longer an option, but a necessity,”

Outback Develops Off-Grid Products for International Market

Earlier this summer, off-grid industry leader Outback Power announced the introduction of SmartHarvest, a series of products aimed at the international market.
The SmartHarvest line will kick off with the release of a maximum power-point tracking charge controller (model SCC-20-100 MPPT) and an inverter/charger ( SPCU 1024) that combines a maximum power-point tracking charge controller and 1kW inverter into a single unit.

Envision Solar To Roll Out Off-grid Car Charger

photo:envisionsolar.com


Designed to sit in a standard 9′X18′ parking place, the EV ARC (Electric Vehicle Autonomous Renewable Charger) will feature a 2.3kW Solar Array that will generate an average of 16kWhrs per day. The power will be stored in a 22kWhr battery bank. The EV ARC will be designed and fabricated in the US by Envision Solar.

Microinverter Leader Takes on Energy Storage

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 10:12am

Enphase, whose microinverter took the solar industry by storm in 2008, has continued to dominate the microinverter market ever since. They aren’t resting on their laurels, however. At Solar Power 2014 in Las Vegas, Enphase rolled out its plans to move into the energy storage market as well.

Photo: Enphase

This is a great sign for the solar industry. Energy storage has been one of the issues that has plagued solar since its inception. The commitment of one of solar’s biggest players to develop a line of batteries opens up a lot of possibilities, particularly for the residential market. The modular battery system can give homeowners the ability to store solar energy for nighttime use and optimize solar power consumption. Ultimately this will give system owners greater energy independence.

“Storage is going to be a multi-billion dollar market and will be essential in helping solar gain broader acceptance and higher penetration,” said Raghu Belur, co-founder and vice president of products and strategic initiatives at Enphase. “It provides benefits for the system owner, while also helping with grid stability. We are bringing the same technological innovation to storage that we brought to solar, by pairing our innovative distributed architecture with the best-in-class battery chemistry in the industry.”

The Enphase AC Battery is actually a DC battery equipped with an on-board S-series Enphase inverter to convert the power to AC. The batteries themselves are manufactured by Japanese battery giant ELIIY Power. “We believe the intelligent combination of solar power and storage will be an increasingly important energy solution for the world,” said Hiroichi Yoshida, president of ELIIY Power. “We are so honored and excited about our partnership with Enphase, which is a testament to our batteries’ performance and safety. The combination of our leading battery technology with Enphase’s leading power electronics creates a truly innovative storage solution. We welcome the opportunity to deliver volume quantities of our high-quality batteries and to work together with Enphase to become a global market leader.”

The batteries will be available in 275W and 550W models. The Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries have a 10 year life expectancy and a 1.2 kWh storage capacity. The “smart” battery will integrate into the Enphase “Enlighten” monitoring system and will “learn” over time to optimize energy savings.

No release date for the AC battery has been given, but you can read more at: http://enphase.com/ac-battery/

Morocco To Open Giant Solar Thermal Plant

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 10:31am

Morocco does not share the oil wealth of its neighboring countries, but it still has plans to compete in the world energy market. According to The Moroccan Agency of Solar Energy, one of the worlds largest solar thermal plants is on track to open in 2015. Mr. Mustapha Elbakoury, a spokesman for the agency, told Morocco World News, “According to the program, the progress made by the workshop Basin of Ouarzazate will allow the station, ‘NOOR 1’ to enter into action next year [2015].”

photo: moroccantimes.com


Although neighboring Algiers and Libya rank number 15 and 27 in world oil production, Morocco sits at number 96. Despite its lack of resources, it is one of the sunniest places on earth, with over 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, and up to 3600 in the desert regions. By comparison, Yuma, Arizona, which is nicknamed “the sunniest place on earth,” averages 4,000 hours.

NOOR 1, the first of the solar thermal plants, will generate 160 megawatts of electricity. It is part of the larger Ouarzazate project which will utilize both photovoltaic panels (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) thermal generators. It is the first installation in what is excepted to grow to 2,000 MW of solar generation by 2020. NOOR 2 and NOOR 3 are slated to begin construction in 2015 as well.

Morocco’s “ace in the hole” is the fact that it is the only African nation that is connected to the European electrical grid. This link to the European grid will give Morocco access to a 400 billion Euro market for electricity. However, if the Moroccan project proves successful, we can expect to see a large jump in CSP plants sprouting up across North Africa and the Middle East, where fast-growing economies demand more and more electricity.

CSP technology currently boasts a worldwide installed capacity of 1095 MW, and is the most widely deployed solar technology behind PV, Which has grown to a whopping 139 gigawatts. CSP is particularly popular in the Mediterranean region, with major developments in Spain totaling over 600 MW. CSP plants have also been developed in the american Southwest, but developments have stalled due to low PV panel prices.

The Truth About Solar and Silver Prices

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

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

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

Will solar stop the decline in silver prices?

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

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

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

Solar Water Heating: In the Shadow of PV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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