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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.

Solar Stocks Struggle to Decouple From Crude

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

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

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

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

Will falling oil drag down solar? photo credit: NREL

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

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

Russia’s Largest Solar Power Plant Opens in Siberia

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

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

Thin-film PV modules. Photo Credit: Hevel Solar

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

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

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

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

A Bright Future For Solar Energy In Schools

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

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

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

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

The Recent Brighter Future Report

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

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

Germany Continues to Lead the Way on Renewable Energy

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

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

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

1. Wind Energy Growth Near North Sea

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

2. Demand Driven by Foreign Companies

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

New Tax on Solar Imports into the U.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sungevity Pursues Opportunities in Europe

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

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

Photo Credit: Earth4Energy

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

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

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

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

World’s first PV and thermal rooftop installed in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: ARENA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Historic 105-0 Vote for Solar in South Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startup launching solar ATMs in India

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Vortex Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: U.S. Army

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

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

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

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

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

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