Friday, January 29, 2010

White House Awards Clean Energy Tax Credits

Recently the White House awarded $2.3 billion in Recovery Act Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credits for clean energy manufacturing projects in over 40 US states - and with most of this money targeted to create jobs in the US solar industry. It's the right time to take a close look at PV market developments, competition and technology trends.

What will be you doing in 2010 to be clean and green?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Solar Bibles on Way to Haiti

As international aid agencies rush food, water and medicine to Haiti's earthquake victims, a United States group is sending Bibles.

But these aren't just any Bibles; they're solar-powered audible Bibles that can broadcast the holy scriptures in Haitian Creole to 300 people at a time.

The Faith Comes By Hearing organization says its Bible, called the Proclaimer, delivers "digital quality" and is designed for "poor and illiterate people".

It says 600 of the devices are already on their way to Haiti.

The Albuquerque-based organization says it is responding to the Haitian crisis by "providing faith, hope and love through God's word in audio".

The audio Bible can bring the "hope and comfort that comes from knowing God has not forgotten them through this tragedy," a statement on its website says.

"The Proclaimer is self-powered and can play the Bible in the jungle, desert or ... even on the moon!"

Tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents are living outdoors because their homes have collapsed or they fear aftershocks following Wednesday's quake.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Solar Water Heaters Mandatory in Hawaii

As of January 1, 2010, building permits on all single-family new home construction in Hawaii may not be issued for homes that do not include a solar water heating system. This legislation, SB644, was enacted in June of 2009; however, the state energy resources coordinator may be able to provide a variance for this requirement if:

  • Installation is impracticable due to poor solar resource;

  • Installation is cost-prohibitive based upon a life cycle cost-benefit analysis that incorporates the average residential utility bill and the cost of the new solar water heating system with a life cycle that does not exceed 15 years;

  • A renewable energy technology system is substituted for use as the primary energy source for heating water; or

  • A demand water heater device approved by UL is installed; provided that at least one other gas appliance is installed in the dwelling. (A "demand water heater" means a gas-tankless instantaneous water heater that provides hot water only as it is needed.)

While the legislation is already in effect, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission must still adopt specifications for the required performance, materials, components, durability, longevity, proper sizing, installation and quality of solar water heaters.

Already, even before the impact of this new legislation is felt, there are over 65,000 solar water heaters in use in Hawaii today, including thousands on the Big Island. In fact, Hawaii ranks number one in the nation when it comes to using energy from the sun to heat water.

With an eye toward the future, Hawaii law makers understand that conventional water heaters are typically the largest electricity consumer in the average household, gobbling up nearly 40% of consumption. Hawaii's move to force solar heating is a big step for a state that relies heavily on imported fossil fuels for 90% of its supply. This bill has been a long time coming - when the legislation was first introduced five years ago, a barrel of oil cost just $40. Since then, the price has more than tripled.

Overall, solar water heating may save about $6 to $12 or more per person per month when replacing a standard electric resistance water heater. The savings, of course, will vary by household based in part on each person's hot water usage.

Using solar water heating can help keep electric rates down by also reducing electricity demand during the peak evening times from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. when people often use hot water for washing dishes, taking showers, and so forth. To meet this evening peak demand, less efficient electricity generation units must be brought on-line by the power companies. These less efficient units cost more to run and this increase in cost is passed on to consumers.

Not surprisingly, builders and developers were against the new bill, saying it would add too much to the cost of new home constructions. Another surprising opponent was the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. Ron Richmond, with the association, said in an interview with the Star Bulletin, the new legislation would cost home buyers about $2,100 more to have the solar water heaters installed. The average solar water heater, according to the article, currently costs about $5,250, before rebates.

The length of time required to recoup your original investment (payback) will vary widely and depend on whether the purchase is paid for outright or financed and how much energy (electricity, gas, etc.) is saved. Simple payback is the length of time required to recover your investment through reduced or avoided costs. You can expect a shorter payback in areas that have higher energy costs, where the family uses a moderate to large amount of hot water per person, and for homes with more occupants. Finance charges will also lengthen the payback period.

While this new program may make some new homeowners balk at first, there are additional benefits when the cost of a solar water heating system is included in the mortgage for a home purchase. The interest rates are usually lower than on a short-term loan. In addition, the small additional increase in the monthly mortgage payment may be more than made up for in reduced energy costs (electricity or gas).

In the short run, those purchasing new homes in Hawaii may feel a pinch in their wallet upfront in having to install a solar hot water heater; however, over a short period of time, these new homeowners will easily recoup their investment. And, more importantly, by diversifying the State of Hawaii's mix of energy resources by using more renewable energy, such as solar, helps to make Hawaii less dependent on non-renewable energy sources and, in my opinion, a Greener place to live.

Recession Hits Solar Industry

The recession is having a glaring impact on America's solar power industry.

Demand for solar products has dropped globally, prices have plummeted. Complicating efforts to expand, the industry in the United States faces intense competition from foreign governments making massive investments in what many see as the future of energy.

Facing the difficult economic reality of competing on the world stage, Massachusetts based Evergreen Solar, Inc is turning to China. Lauded as a leader among green energy businesses in the state, the company is taking advantage of the subsidies, cheap labor and production costs offered in Asia.

It's a simple matter of dollars and sense.

"You have low labor costs and low overhead costs in China but, you also get enormous help from the government and so it's difficult to compete in the United States if you have to contend with higher labor costs and lower government assistance," said Rick Feldt, the CEO of Evergreen Solar.

The move comes a little more than a year after the opening of the company's state of the art facility in Devens where hundreds of workers will continue to make some components, while panel assembly will largely shift to China. The state of Massachusetts backed the building of the facility with a $58 million dollar incentive package made up of loans, grants, lease and tax breaks- including roughly 20 million in cash grants.

"That was very helpful but, if I put it in perspective, it's a 430 million dollar facility- 20 million dollars is about 5 percent," Feldt explains.

Compared to the incentives other countries offer, Feldt believes the United States is lagging. Case in point- Evergreen Solar's other facilities overseas have seen much greater government backing.

"We built our joint venture factories in Germany because it's federal help, not just state help. We got 45% on the first factory- not five- and we got 30% on the next two factories. As we go to China, we're getting low interest loans on 65% of the factory and equipment. So although the state has been very progressive and helpful, as compared to the types of help you can get by other countries, the U.S. really lags considerably," Feldt said.

The down economy is further frustrating the company's continued growth.

"When we started the facility, we broke ground a couple of years ago- we thought we'd be selling panels today- this quarter- at 3 dollars and 25 cents or 3 dollars and 50 cents a watt. We announced in the third quarter that we're selling panels at 2 dollars and 41 cents a watt- 45% decline in prices from where that were a year and a half ago," said Feldt. "That has been devastating."

Still Evergreen Solar is optimistic and focused on long-term growth.

The company promised 350 new jobs as part of the bargain when excepting funds from Massachusetts- an expectation that was far exceeded when initial hiring brought in 800 workers.

It's unclear exactly how many of the new jobs will be lost due to the expansion plans but Massachusetts will remain the company's innovative hub, where their unique silicon wafer and cell technology will continue to be produced. Hundreds of jobs will be retained.

"We plan to be in the state for a long time," assures Feldt.

Governor Deval Patrick, who has vowed to make Massachusetts a leader in green energy, repeatedly praised Evergreen Solar during the company's growth and worked diligently to support expansion.

He expressed disappointment with the decision to send some manufacturing business to China but officials within the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs say Evergreen Solar is more than upholding it's end of the bargain.

"They've told us they have every intention, even if they do move some of their operations to China, that they're going to maintain that commitment they made to the state. I think we made a good investment, a good bet," said Ian Bowles, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "It's very hard to find any other companies that created four or five-hundred new jobs in our state in the last couple years."

Massachusetts boasts 250 companies that provide some type of solar related product or service and, according the the Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs, jobs in the industry have more than doubled in recent years.

Still, state leaders say the federal government must make a bigger investment in clean energy if the United States is to remain competitive in this growing field.

"We have an industry that's going to boom in the future. You'll see trillions of dollars on energy infrastructure roll-over and be reinvested in the next generation and getting a big slice of the jobs that are created from that as we make a transition to a low carbon economy is the opportunity and the challenge for the United States as a country," Bowles said. "Are we going to get into that game or are we going to cling to the past and watch China and Europe move ahead aggressively? That's the dynamic currently."