Monday, February 28, 2011

Indiana Airport Seeks Solar Farm Developer

Officials at Indiana's largest airport want to tap into the sun's rays with a solar farm that would be capable of lighting up to 6,000 homes.

The Indianapolis International Airport is looking for a developer to erect thousands of electricity-generating solar panels on 30 acres of land near the end of a runway. The 10 megawatts of electricity they would generate every hour would be sold to Indianapolis Power and Light.

Airport officials tell The Indianapolis Star the solar farm would send a highly visible message of public support for renewable energy.

The airport would lease the property to a company that would build and operate the solar arrays. Other airports, including Denver and Fresno, Calif., have money-making solar farms near runways on property not suitable for other development.


First Solar Considers Mesa AZ for Solar Panel Factory

First Solar Inc., the world's second-largest manufacturer of solar panels, is considering building a factory in Mesa, bringing about 600 new jobs to metro Phoenix, according to sources close to the deal.

Tempe-based First Solar has solar-panel factories in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia, with additional plants planned in France, Vietnam and possibly China.

Should its latest plans come to fruition, Mesa would be home to the fast-growing company's second U.S. solar-panel factory. It opened its first in Perrysburg, Ohio.

First Solar has about 5,500 employees worldwide, with about four-fifths of them outside the United States. About 190 are based in Arizona.

The company announced in October that it planned to build two new manufacturing plants, one in the U.S. and the other in Vietnam, and that each will have about 600 workers.

Texas and Arizona were reportedly in the running for that U.S. plant.

First Solar spokesman Ted Meyer on Friday declined to confirm that the company is zeroing in on Mesa.

"We have not made a decision yet," he said.

Valley sources familiar with the situation confirmed that the panel maker is preparing to announce a deal, but details and terms reportedly are still being negotiated.

Mesa officials and members of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the region's lead economic-development group, declined to comment.

If the company is close to sealing a deal, an announcement likely will not come until after Thursday, when publicly traded First Solar reports its fourth-quarter earnings.

Because of federal securities regulations, public companies have to be careful when they publicize developments that can move stock prices.

Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, an economic-development group that promotes Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and other southeast Valley communities, said that he did not know any details about the project but that such a manufacturing plant would be welcome in his region.

"I have heard presentations by their senior people, and they are quite an amazing company," he said.

Arnett said there are a number of vacant industrial spaces in the region that could house such a manufacturing plant, including spots near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in southeast Mesa, Chandler Municipal Airport in Chandler and the Falcon Field Airport in Mesa.

"If something like this does happen, you just know they are going to be the kind of good corporate citizens that Intel and Boeing have been for many years in the southeast Valley," he said.

Good Jobs
Manufacturing jobs are eagerly sought by states and municipalities because they tend to be higher paying.

Manufacturers also usually are exporters, bringing in money from outside the state.

First Solar, founded in 1999, has grown to become the world's second-largest solar manufacturer after Suntech Power Holdings Corp. of China.

First Solar has been searching for months for a U.S. site to build a 238-megawatt factory to open in 2012.

Solar-manufacturing plants are compared by the amount of megawatts produced by the panels they make, not by the number of panels.

First Solar has projected it will produce solar panels totaling 2,742 megawatts in 2012. The new U.S. factory would represent about 9 percent of its total manufacturing capacity that year. One megawatt can generate enough energy for about 250 homes at once in direct sunlight.

So far, the bulk of First Solar's products have been sold and manufactured overseas. But the company has reported a growing market in the United States, largely because utilities are being required to produce power from renewable energy.

Jordan Rose, an attorney who represents several renewable-energy companies in Arizona, said most manufacturing has been done overseas because of lower production and labor costs there. Now that panels are getting cheaper to build because of increased manufacturing efficiencies, production can be moved back to the U.S.

"You don't have to be in China to make a panel economically (anymore)," she said.

Main Competitor

First Solar's main competitor, Suntech Power Holdings, opened a small factory recently in Goodyear and plans to make 50 megawatts of solar panels a year and employ 150 people.

Landing another solar-manufacturing plant would bring more than just the 600 jobs, Rose said. Manufacturing plants tend to attract research-and-development jobs as well as parts suppliers.

She lauded the growing synergy of solar companies that metro Phoenix is attracting.

"We are watching our sunshine become our economic driver," Rose said. "It's no longer just about tourism and folks who want to live in our great climate."

It's unknown if any state incentives are being offered to the company.

Scottsdale-based economist Jim Rounds said that, if they are, the state needs to make sure taxpayers are getting their money's worth by ensuring the new jobs are high-paying positions.

Nevertheless, he said, a manufacturing plant would be welcome news.

"We have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs over the years," Rounds said. "If this project is real, this is a further way of diversifying our base. But one company locating here is not going to significantly diversify our base. We need to land 20 or 30 like this before we will start to see significant improvements in our economy."


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Renewable Energy Won't Solve China's Water Scarcity

JIUQUAN, China—Business for wind and solar energy components has been so brisk in Gansu Province—a bone-bleaching sweep of gusty desert and sun-washed mountains in China’s northern region—that the New Energy Equipment Manufacturing Industry base, which employs 20,000 people, is a 24/7 operation.

Just two years old, the expansive industrial manufacturing zone—located outside this ancient Silk Road city of 1 million—turns out turbines, blades, towers, controllers, software, and dozens of other components for a provincial wind industry already producing more than 5,000 megawatts per year.

Chen Xiao Yan, a 25-year-old assistant in the New Energy Industry office, said Sinovel, Goldwind, Dongfang, Sinomatech, and 21 other clean energy manufacturers have established plants at the base. Two of those developers also produce equipment for Gansu’s expanding solar photovoltaic industry, which at the end of this year will generate 120 megawatts of electricity.

Within three years, 10 additional manufacturers will build plants in the base, increasing the workforce to 50,000 employees, Chen said in an interview with Circle of Blue.

“It’s what we do here,” she said with a shrug. “We produce energy.”

Northern Gansu is doing that and considerably more. This region of dust and industrial innovation—about as far west from Beijing as Montana is from New York—has very quickly become a booster stage for China’s rocket ride to the top of the global water-sipping clean energy heap. Prompted by a national decision in 2005 to diversify the nation’s energy production portfolio, and to do so with the goal of reducing water consumption and climate-changing carbon emissions, Gansu and its desert neighbors are pursuing clean energy development with a ferocity unrivaled now in the world.

Along with northern Gansu, there are six other wind energy bases and eight other solar power bases being built in China—most of them in the desert regions of northern and western China. China also has a burst of seawater-cooled nuclear power plants under construction along its eastern coast.

China’s National Energy Administration projects that, over the next decade, generating capacity from wind, solar, and nuclear power will more than quadruple, from 53 gigawatts in 2010 to 230 gigawatts in 2020. The other big non-carbon electrical producer is hydropower, which is expected by the government to grow to 400 GW of capacity by 2020, up from 213.4 GW last year. (For reference, one gigawatt, or GW, is equal to 1,000 megawatts, or the generating capacity of a big nuclear- or coal-fired power plant.)

Wind energy now accounts for 42GW, or 16 percent, of the nation’s non-carbon electrical generating capacity. China’s energy officials projected last year that wind energy generating capacity will rise to 150 GW by 2020, though many wind industry executives predict the number will reach more than 200 GW.

Solar generating capacity is expected to jump from less than one GW in 2010 to 20 GW by 2020. Nuclear power is projected to increase from 11 GW to 60 GW in the next decade.

Yet China’s demand for electricity is rising so quickly that the massive investment in new generating technologies will not make nearly as large of a dent in production—or in freshwater conservation—as many people might expect. Simply put: wind, solar, and nuclear power will climb to around 13 percent of the 1,900 GW of generating capacity expected by 2020, according to government data. That’s up from the nearly six percent of the 940 GW of generating capacity today.

The new wind, solar, and seawater-cooled nuclear plants will replace roughly 100 big coal-fired generating stations, which equates to a savings of 3.5 billion cubic meters (nearly one trillion gallons) of water annually, according to academic and government estimates. The clean energy stations also will eliminate around 750 million metric tons of climate-changing emissions annually.

But China’s national water use—591 billion cubic meters in 2010—is anticipated to grow by 40 billion cubic meters a year by the end of the decade. And the increase in water consumption, a good portion of which is spurred by new coal production, is occurring in a nation that is steadily getting drier. (See sidebar)

Put another way, the $US 738 billion that government authorities promised last year to spend on non-fossil fuel power generation over the next decade will jump start China’s clean energy economic transition. The enormous solar and wind-related manufacturing plants across China already employ tens of thousands of people. They are irrefutable evidence of the capacity of clean energy to spur job growth. They also are a signal to the United States and other nations that China is prepared to dominate wind, solar, nuclear, and other cleaner sources of power that global energy economists predict will eventually generate trillions of dollars in revenue each year.

But clean energy development will not solve the commanding threat to China’s modernization – the confrontation between rising energy demand and declining reserves of fresh water. Over the next decade, and likely well beyond that, the water savings from solar, wind, and seawater-cooled nuclear power will not be nearly enough to loosen the noose that water scarcity is steadily tightening around China’s coal production and combustion sector, and its national economy. (See sidebar)

“There may be an ultimate day of reckoning approaching,” said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow and China specialist at the Peterson Institute in Washington D.C. “But there are a lot of intermediate steps China is prepared to take and already is taking to hold it off as long as possible.”

No Turning Back
Chinese development officials insist they have no intention of backing away from the country’s rapid modernization or from using every available energy-producing option to fuel that growth. A powerful transition is occurring in China, much of it focused on attracting new pioneers to the dry northern and western provinces. The strategy appears to be working.

The modern cities under construction in Gansu Province, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Jilin are supported by new factories turning out steel, aluminum, vehicles, appliances, wind turbines, mining equipment, and hundreds of other products intended to supply China’s rapidly expanding domestic markets. High-rise apartments are under construction in clumps of 30-story concrete towers in every major city. Streets and highways are jammed with late-model and expensive cars. Restaurants are full day and night. Long lines form at checkout counters in Western-style grocery superstores.

The provincial economies of northern and western China are growing at a faster rate than the national gross domestic product, which reached 10.3 percent in 2010, according to the latest government figures. The new regional growth has been spurred, in part, by clean energy production and manufacturing, which China recognized was a good fit for the windy, sunny, and dry geography.

A province with 25 million residents and about the same geographical size as Sweden, Gansu has managed energy production and water scarcity for decades.

Oil was discovered around Yumen in the 1930s, and a sizable production and refining industry thrived for over half a century. One of the historical highlights of Gansu’s energy industry is that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a trained geologist and China’s second most powerful political figure, spent the early part of his technical and government career from 1968 to 1982 managing Gansu’s mineral and water resources.

In 1996, provincial officials began to experiment with replacing northern Gansu’s oil sector with wind. They installed four 300-kilowatt wind turbines at the Yumen Jieyuan Wind Power Plant. Cities in Xinjiang, to the west of Gansu, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, east of Gansu, also joined Gansu as the first provinces to experiment with utility-scale clean energy generation.

The sector grew steadily—albeit slowly—for nearly a decade, said executives here in Jiuquan. But, in the earliest years of the new century, wind power began to spin with economic authority.

Prompted by internal concern for the conflict between water scarcity and rising energy demand and the goal of developing new industries that could employ millions, China enacted the world’s most aggressive renewable energy law in 2005. China’s National Development and Reform Commission declared that, by 2020, 15 percent of the country’s energy would be produced by wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower—up from 7 percent at the time.

Since then—and mindful of the external diplomatic pressure surrounding China’s soaring climate-changing emissions—a host of other new policies and publicly financed incentives have been enacted to promote clean power that uses less water.

In 2007, China established a new “water intensity” requirement that calls for industry and agriculture to cut the amount of water they use per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent. In 2009, that target was increased to 60 percent.

The government also mandated that taxpayers share in the cost of developing renewable power with a small fee on their utility bills. Electric utilities are required to buy power from renewable energy producers, which were provided with low-interest loans from the government. China also protected its manufacturers, requiring that at least 70 percent of all wind turbine components must be manufactured in the country. Five of the 15 largest wind turbine manufacturers in the world, as a result, are now Chinese.

Similar incentives were enacted for the solar industry.

The public incentives, combined with China’s determination to both diversify its power sector and develop new job-producing industries, have pushed the country to the front of the global renewable energy industry.

Energy and Water Vectors Cross in Gansu
One of the places that has served as a testing site for the new era of water-sipping clean-energy production is the northern deserts of Gansu, where evidence of China’s big play in clean energy development is in plain view. The New Energy Equipment Manufacturing Industry base—a collection of state-of-the-art clean-tech manufacturing plants—is the largest noncarbon-energy manufacturing center in the world, said Chinese energy officials in Jiuquan.

The base sits at the southern end of a region of wind farms that stretch for miles and encompass more than 5,000 wind turbines. There are also two solar photovoltaic power plants, which are the first in a 25-square-kilometer sun power zone outside Dunhuang that will have the generating capacity of 12 GW by 2025.

Gansu, in other words, hosts one of the largest clean energy zones on Earth. The investment in wind power alone will soon reach nearly $US 18 billion, according to provincial figures. The goal is to install enough capacity to generate 20 GW of wind-powered electricity by 2020, according to Wu Shengxue, deputy head of the Jiuquan Municipal Development and Reform Commission.

In Dunhuang, an art and tourist center near the border with Xinjiang, Ren Tao—a 42-year-old engineer who’s an expert in water supply and energy production and is the general manager of SDIC’s 10-MW solar photovoltaic demonstration plant—described the new solar installation. The year-old, $US 18 million plant is the first utility-scale solar plant connected to China’s transmission grid. It sits at the center of the sunniest region in China and operates more than 3,000 hours a year.

Across the road, a second 10-MW solar photovoltaic plant—built by CGNPC Solar Energy Development Company—began operations late in 2010.

“My challenge,” said Ren, “is to prove that we can produce a lot of energy from the sun at low cost. Green energy is the only option we have to develop this country in a way that reduces pollution, reduces water use, and develops Chinese society.”

Huang Xiao, another of the young professionals managing Gansu’s clean energy industry, is similarly committed. The 25-year-old woman is the executive of general affairs at Sinomatech Wind Power Blade Company, which operates a 40,000-square-meter (430,000-square-feet) plant, employs 1,000 people in Jiuquan, and last year turned out 2,400 wind blades.

Outside her office window, more than a hundred 40-meter white blades, marked by bright red slashes at the tips, are neatly lined up in a staging area, ready to be shipped. There are two other companies in the New Energy Equipment Manufacturing Industry base that produce comparable numbers of blades for Gansu’s wind sector. With three blades installed for every turbine, Gansu’s three wind blade companies are producing 7,200 blades annually, which are enough to install 2,400 industrial-scale turbines per year.

Even in frosty December, the highway leading from the manufacturing base to some of largest wind farms on the planet is a steady trail of diesel trucks carrying blades, turbines, and white-painted steel towers. The newly constructed four-lane expressway runs right through the wind power zone, where thousands of white, Chinese-made turbines stand in some of the country’s strongest and steadiest mainland winds.

Roughly 5,500 turbines have been installed in Gansu Province and thousands more are planned. Energy developers have built new dormitories in the desert for the 15 to 20 workers required to manage and maintain individual wind farms, which typically have 500 turbines.

By 2015, the miles of turbines and wind farms concentrated around Yumen, a small desert city in northern Gansu, will produce 10 GW to 12 GW of generating capacity, said Shi Pengfei, vice president of the China Wind Energy Association. China’s other big wind regions—Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Hebei, and offshore in Jiangsu—also are developing rapidly.

“This all makes a lot of sense for China,” said Qiao Yu, a 30-year-old senior engineer who oversees the China National Offshore Oil Company’s wind farm near Yemen. “We can not always rely on oil and gas and coal. The climate here is changing and our water supply is going down. Nothing can last forever. We must get involved in new energy. Chinese people and the government realize how important this is.”


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ohio Runs Out of Money for Solar Grants

Ohio's state Department of Development recently ceased accepting applications for grants from its Advanced Energy Fund, according to a report from the Columbus Dispatch. In particular, the program was set to reduce costs for residential systems significantly.
Due to the massive popularity of a state-run program designed to entice homeowners and businesses alike to invest in solar power, Ohio recently announced that it has run out of money for the associated grant program.

In all, 204 businesses and consumers applied for grants before November 5 but were told they would not receive them, the report said. The program gave out $15.6 million in grants between July and November.

"The (grants) were structured on a first-come, first served basis," Chad Smith, interim energy resources director for the Department of Development, told the newspaper. "From July to November, we did more projects than we ever did in any fiscal year."

Many consumers left in the cold by the program's shortfalls will still likely be able to qualify for similar grants from programs run by the federal government.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Hollywoods Jon Gosselin Working Installing Solar Panels

Hollywood D-lister Jon Gosselin has walked off the red carpet, climbed a storage building, and started installing solar panels.

The “Jon and Kate Plus 8” dad and former computer technician is in his home state Pennsylvania these days, working construction for a company called Green Pointe Energy.

In photos published by TMZ, the pudgy reality TV star is seen sitting on the roof of a building in a white hard hat, smoking a cigarette and checking his Blackberry.

Apparently, the 33-year-old Gosselin has always wanted to go green.
In a 2009 episode of the show that made Gosselin “famous,” he and wife Kate had solar panels installed on their home and replaced their lightbulbs with eco-friendly LED bulbs.

The pair also built a picnic table from reclaimed wood.

That same year, Jon and wife Kate split after she learned of his affair with a school teacher.

Gosselin, who had been unemployed for months, first showed he wasn’t flush in April 2010 according to TMZ.

“Jon is selling his BMW to raise cash until he gets a job,” a source told at the time. “He's hoping to get $25,000 for it.”

Jon bought the used M3 last year for $30,000.


Quantum Dots - Cheap Solution to Higher Efficiency Solar

Scientists at Stanford University have given the vision of cheap solar power another nudge along the path to reality. They are working with tiny particles called quantum dots, which can be adjusted or “tuned” to absorb different wavelengths of light. Quantum dots are relatively cheap because they can be churned out from chemical reactions, rather than by a fabrication process. The sticking point, as always, is to turn a cheap material into a high efficiency solar energy collector.

The Do-Re-Mi of Quantum Dots
Quantum dots are semiconductors, which are the basic building blocks of modern electronics and a good chunk of solar technology, too. Silicon is one example of a widely used semiconductor. The difference between quantum dots and ordinary semiconductors is a matter of size. Quantum dots are only about one-billionth of a meter – one nanometer – in size, and this gives them a number of unique properties. For the Stanford team’s purposes, the critical difference is that ordinary semiconductors made of one material have a limited ability to absorb energy, but quantum dots can be tailored or “tuned” to accept different wavelengths by adjusting their size, and different sizes can be assembled to form more powerful solar cells.

More Efficient Quantum Dots…Relatively Speaking
As a first step, the Stanford team assembled a solar cell by coating a titanium dioxide semiconductor (titanium dioxide is another promising solar tech material) with a layer of organic molecules. Quantum dots formed at the interface between the semiconductor and the molecules, and the result was a three-fold increase in the efficiency of the solar cell. That sounds like a huge deal but keep in mind that the research is still in the initial stages, and the result was a sort of personal best efficiency of 0.4 percent. The next step is to experiment with more efficient materials for both the quantum dots and the organic molecules, and to improve the design of the solar cell.

A Quantum Leap to Cheap Solar
Solar power is already at or near price parity with natural gas in six states, and the technology is on course to meet overall fossil fuel parity within the ten-year solar and wind energy plan recently laid out by the Department of Energy. Aside from high-tech developments, there are also plenty of effective low-tech energy efficiency solutions at hand. That should be good news, given the generations-long priority this country has placed on washing our hands of dependency on foreign oil.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pivotal Year for Thin Film Solar Companies

In 2007, start-ups developing “thin-film” solar material were all the rage. Venture investors poured hundreds of millions of dollars into these companies, encouraged by the technology’s low-cost potential as an alternative to high-priced polysilicon-based solar panels, as well as by several initial public offerings in the solar market.

But after the recession hit, polysilicon dropped in price, capital dried up and the general demand for solar panels waned.

The fortunes of thin-film solar developers–which use copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS–are now up in the air, and this year may prove pivotal as capital remains in short supply.

Some of these start-ups may seek to transfer into the hands of larger partners. HelioVolt Corp., for instance, is searching for a buyer after raising more than $140 million in venture capital, as VentureWire reported today. “The next step of evolution requires a lot more capital than we have,” said Scott Sandell, general partner at New Enterprise Associates, which was an early backer of the Austin, Texas, company.

SoloPower Inc., another CIGS play, went through a rough period, including CEO changes, but is staging a comeback. It’s relying on government funding to forge ahead in its manufacturing plans. On Thursday the Department of Energy provided a conditional commitment to issue the company a $197 million loan guarantee. This is a strong endorsement, as the program is highly competitive, especially given that it already provided a large loan to another CIGS company, Solyndra Inc. DOE officials previously said they would seek to diversify among technologies.

SoloPower is also applying for $40 million in loans from the State of Oregon. Its investors, which include Crosslink Capital and Hudson Clean Energy Partners, hope that the loans will be enough to go to commercial production, without relying on much additional equity investments. The company abandoned the plan to raise $100 million in new venture last year. Instead, it got its existing investors to offer about half of that first in a bridge, which then converted into equity.

Government funding is also helping Stion Inc.–a Khosla Ventures bet. The company said in January that it received $75 million in loans and other incentives to build a factory in the State of Mississippi.

Miasole Inc., meanwhile, has been making great progress in increasing the efficiency of its CIGS panels. But the company still needs considerable funding. It has been raising about $125 million in venture funding, with most of that already committed, as VentureWire reported. Besides Miasole, other companies that are shipping thin film CIGS panels are Nanosolar Inc., which has raised more than $300 million in venture capital and last year replaced its top management, and Solyndra Inc., which also changed its chief executive and laid off staff after withdrawing an IPO filing and raising more than $1 billion in private equity.


Campbell Soup Unveils Solar Power Station Plans

Campbell Soup Company has unveiled plans to set up a solar power station at one of its US factories. The group has entered into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) and Land Lease Agreement (LLA) with BNB Napoleon Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary of BNB Renewable Energy Holdings, to construct a 9.8 megawatt (MW) capacity PV solar power generation system on 60 acres of its largest plant in Ohio.

Under the terms of the agreement, Campbell will lease the land to BNB, which will own the system and be responsible for its financing, construction, operation and maintenance. The PPA commits Campbell to purchasing 100 % of the electrical power generated by the system, which is expected to provide approximately 15% of the electricity the plant requires annually.

FirstEnergy Solutions will purchase the Solar Renewable Energy Credits from the project. Over the course of the 20-year PPA, Campbell estimates it will save up to $4m dollars based on U.S. Department of Energy projections for the cost of electricity in Northwest Ohio.

The project will also eliminate approximately 250,000 metric tons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

"With the signing of the agreements, the detailed design and construction of the system can now begin and we should be in operation by the end of this year," said Robert Shober, vice president, engineering.

When completed the facility will comprise approximately 24,000 high efficiency solar modules, making it one of the largest such systems in the United States.

The State of Ohio demonstrated its support in October when the Ohio Enterprise Bond Fund agreed to issue $10.5m in bonds to finance a portion of the project.

"This project represents the beginning of a strong future for on-site renewable power generation among major US corporations," said Matthew Baird, a principal and founder of BNB Renewable Energy Holdings.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Proposed 10 MW Solar Plant in Meghalaya

Solar power producer Azure Power has proposed to set up the first solar plant in the Northeast in Meghalaya, India, a 10 MW power plant with an estimated investment of Rs 150 crore.Awaiting approval from the state government, the company made a presentation to Chief Minister Mukul Sangma last Friday.

Company's chairman H S Wadhwa said the proposed plant would be the first and the only private, utility-scale facility in the region to drive development by providing solar power service to communities, governments, and commercial customers in the state.

The plant has been proposed in Built, Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis.Some locations have been identified in the state's Ri-Bhoi and West Garo Hills districts.

"Sustainability of a solar project depends upon at least 250 days of sunshine for which Ri Bhoi and West Garo Hills are ideal locations in the state," Rajan Bhattacharya, the local coordinator of the project, said.

The plant, upon being fully operational would employ most advanced solar photovoltaic technology while eliminating carbon pollution, Wadhwa observed, adding the project would require about 15 acres of land which the state government should provide.

Meghalaya, on an average day, requires 610 MW of power while the state's own production is just 185.2 MW.

In order to meet power demands, the state government is forced to buy power from Power Grid and other sources.


Irish Group Selling US Solar Energy Business

IRISH GROUP NTR is selling its generating facility in Imperial Valley, California to multi-national rival, AES.

NTR announced yesterday that Tessera, its US solar energy business, has agreed the sale of the Imperial Valley project to AES, but refused to reveal a sale price.

NTR is a majority shareholder in Tessera; the other investor is US-based Solar Pioneers. Imperial Valley is the company’s biggest project and will have the capacity to generate up to 709 mega watts (MW) of electricity, enough to supply power to around 700,000 homes.

Last year, NTR said it was delaying the development of its solar power projects as they would require an investment of €2 billion. The company said it would wait for the capital markets’ appetite for such investments to improve before it went ahead.

It wrote down €96 million of the total value of its solar energy division as a result, a move that contributed to a loss of €210 million in its last financial year, which ended on March 31st.

Tessera will continue to own other projects, the biggest of which is another California-based facility, Maricopa. NTR also owns a developer and manufacturer of solar power cells and technology, Stirling Energy Systems.

NTR originally developed toll roads in Ireland, but now owns renewable energy and waste management businesses in Ireland and the US.

The Roche family and the Philip Lynch-led investment vehicle, One51, hold about 70 per cent of the shares. It is a public company but is not listed. Its stock is traded on the grey market.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ontario Quietly Reverses Field on Wind, Solar Energy

Times of international turmoil are great moments for domestic governments to make important announcements they don’t want to be noticed. Especially if the announcement involves a sudden reversal in policy that could seriously embarrass the government.

So Friday afternoon was an ideal time for Ontario’s Liberal government to take a big chunk of its alternative energy program and chuck it overboard. Attention was riveted on Egypt, where spectacular events were unfolding. The perfect opportunity for Premier Dalton McGuinty to engineer yet another major reversal, while paying a minimal price among voters.

After years of touting wind projects as a critical piece of the alternative energy puzzle, the government let slip — very quietly — that offshore wind projects are no longer part of the game plan. Turns out there just isn’t enough scientific evidence that offshore wind projects do a lick of good, said Brad Duguid, the energy minister.

“It’s simply a case of recognizing we need to take a closer look at the science on freshwater offshore wind projects,” said Duguid. “Right now there’s only one in the world we’re aware of, in Sweden. There’s a number of issues that need to be looked at before anything could ever be considered for approval.”

Gee, now wouldn’t you think the government would have checked out the science before insisting wind power was the way of the future? Evidently not. The McGuinty people have been pushing ahead vigorously on the wind front ever since they concluded they could squeeze more votes from trendy enviro-enthusiasts, who are in favour of anything that sounds remotely Greenish, whether it makes sense or not.

They’ve been running into a spot of bother, though, as rural residents grow increasingly agitated at the monster wind towers being slapped up wherever the government sees fit to put them. Turns out the government may have been a bit rash in dismissing complaints that the low-level noise from the turbines can cause health problems. A court challenge launched late in January claims that the 550-metre minimum setback is far too close for comfort, and argues the government didn’t do adequate homework into the potential health hazards when it declared the towers to be free of any danger.

Added to McGuinty’s problems with wind are similar signs of trouble on the solar front. After strongly encouraging individual solar projects, and offering outrageously generous pricing on solar-generated power, the province unexpectedly announced last summer it was slashing the rate it would pay on some projects. On Friday, hundreds more Ontarians were told that installations they’d erected at the behest of the government can’t be connected to the provincial grid because of technical problems. Rural residents, some of whom have invested large amounts in solar generating operations, will be left high and dry. The Toronto Star reports:

“I’ve got $70,000 sitting right out in my backyard,” said Brian Wilson, who lives near Belleville, of his 10-kilowatt solar array. “I can go two doors down and they’ve got $70,000 invested, too.”

But they’ve both been told that they can’t connect to the electrical grid because of technical issues.

“It’s a mess,” says Kim Doherty of Farmed Energy Inc., who supplies solar equipment. He started getting calls from clients this week, saying they’d been told no connections are available for their projects.

One of his clients, a father-and-son team near Strathroy, made a $170,000 down payment on solar equipment, and built four concrete support platforms at a cost of $20,000 each, Doherty said

Angering rural voters, and battering your credibility with the environmental crowd, aren’t great ideas if you run a government that faces an election in eight months. So it’s no wonder that Ontario’s Liberals sought to hide the bad news by releasing it when (they hoped) no one was watching. But the excitement in Egypt won’t last forever, and eventually people will notice that Ontario’s government, once again, has been forced into a humiliating retreat at considerable trouble and cost to individual Ontarians.


Hertz Unveils Major Solar Power Renovation Plan

Hertz, the largest airport car rental firm, will roll out a nationwide plan to install 2.3 MW of solar power cells in an effort to leave a "greener" footprint on the environment. Hertz initially rolled out a 235 kW solar electric system located at their rental facility at Denver International Airport. The company says the system will offset approximately 650,000 pounds of CO2 annually at its Denver location alone.

"Hertz is committed to reducing costs and to sustainable business practices," Hertz Chairman and CEO Mark Frissora explained. "Investing in solar energy for these facilities makes good business sense. We will now look to additional facilities in the U.S. and internationally to further this important program. Once again, Hertz is leading the industry in our commitment to innovation."

"Hertz leads the industry in sustainable practices," Hertz Senior Vice President Richard Broome added. "From our commitment to electric vehicles and other low emission vehicles to our implementation of reduced water usage and now our solar program, we are at the forefront of integrating sound environmental practices with pro-consumer service, efficiency and growth strategies."

Hertz operates more than 8,500 locations worldwide, but the first round of solar power renovations will start in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The renovations will be done by Q3 2011.


Monday, February 21, 2011

10 Million Solar Roof Law Stuck in Congress

The DOE’s newly announced plan to make solar affordable offers Sen. Sanders a chance to breathe new life into his languishing '10 Million Solar Roof Act'.

The Department of Energy's new SunShot Initiative to make solar energy as cheap as coal has given fresh hope to industry enthusiasts. And it may even give life to a nearly dead effort in Congress to put solar panels and water heaters on 10 million of America's roofs by 2020.

The 2010 legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn't had much momentum since the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved it in July, and November's Republican gains in Congress has not helped the measure along. But experts say Energy Secretary Steven Chu's SunShot Initiative may give the Ten Million Solar Roof Act new political legs.

Shayle Kann, managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said that the DOE plan could make the Sanders' bill more politically palatable, because it would drive down the cost of solar installations. The legislation aims to finance the installation of up to 40,000 megawatts of new solar energy.

"These are two parallel but distinct programs. They could play together very well because — to the extent that the SunShot initiative is successful — it will lower the [financial] incentives that are required per project for the Ten Million Solar Roof Act," he told SolveClimate News.

"Any program designed at reducing the cost of solar installations will be a service to any deployment program by lowering costs" to the government, Kann said.

Jared Blanton, a spokesperson for the national Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said that the solar energy plans are aligned because "they both are focused on removing needless regulatory barriers that prevent Americans from going solar."

The DOE initiative unveiled on Feb. 4 aims to accelerate research and development in its solar energy programs — valued at around $200 million annually — to reduce the total installed cost of solar electricity to $1 per watt by 2020, a 75 percent drop from today's rates.

The idea is that unsubsidized solar power could then compete with the wholesale rate of electricity generated by fossil fuels that emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.

As part of the program, the agency also awarded $27 million to nine solar technology companies that are trying to make solar more affordable.

"Magic will occur when [solar] becomes cost-competitive with any form of energy," Chu said at a Feb. 9 renewable-energy conference in Washington. "And when that happens without subsidies, it is going to shoot all over the country and all over the world."

'SunShot' Puts New Energy Into Solar Bill

SunShot, a name inspired by President John F. Kennedy's 1960s "moon shot" goal, will work with government agencies, the energy industry and research laboratories to reduce installation costs, spur growth in the solar energy market and pave the way for new U.S. manufacturing.

The initiative offers Sanders a chance to breathe new life into his bill after it was approved by the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. The senator sits on that committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee, and he also chairs a green jobs subcommittee. The legislation has 16 co-sponsors — all Democrats.

"I look forward to working with the Obama administration to incorporate elements of the new solar initiative into the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act to make the legislation even stronger," Sanders said in a Feb. 4 press release. "We have an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and make America the world leader in solar energy."

During his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed building 20 million solar installations nationwide by 2020 — double the target of Sanders' initiative — although the SunShot doesn't address that goal and Kann said the president's speech was void of the nuts and bolts of policies to get there.
The Ten Million Solar Roofs Act would require $250 million in investments in fiscal year 2012 and an additional $500 million per year from 2013 to 2021. A competitive grant program would help state and local governments boost solar energy deployment in homes, schools and businesses by overcoming barriers such as high expenses and red tape.

By linking his bill with SunShot, and positioning the act as an integral part of the cost-cutting initiative, Sanders is hoping to win new support in Congress. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced companion legislation last session in the House, and is expected to do the same this year.

Cutting Government 'Green' Tape
Will Wiquist, a spokesperson for Sanders, told SolveClimate News that the senator's legislation would potentially adapt to include SunShot's focus on creating a more efficient solar-permitting process for home installations.

He cited a January report by solar financing company SunRun, which estimates that local inspection and permitting fees can add up to $2,500 to the cost of each residential photovoltaic (PV) solar system.
"The solar industry report recommended a competitive grant program to encourage adoption of best practices, an idea which can be incorporated into the Ten Million Solar Roofs legislation to support Secretary Chu's goal of making solar competitive with fossil fuels by the end of the decade," Wiquist said.
Kann said that SunShot is likely to receive a more immediate push from the Obama administration because it is a DOE initiative, whereas the Ten Million Solar Roofs legislation could be slow to wend its way through Congress.

However, he added, SunShot alone cannot achieve its target of reducing solar electricity costs by 75 percent.
"You can't just do it with one program, especially when that one program is designed heavily around R&D. There has to be some kind of deployment program as well, whether it is the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act or something similar," he said.

According to SEIA figures, the U.S. placed fourth in solar PV installations in 2009, behind Germany, Italy, and Japan. The country produces 6 percent of solar system components worldwide, while China accounts for seven of the top 10 solar manufacturers worldwide.


Chile Mining Companies Starting to Use Solar Energy

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile has two claims to fame: It's where 33 miners were trapped underground for nearly 10 weeks last year, and it's one of the driest - and sunniest - places on earth, with some areas receiving rainfall just once a decade. The miners, of course, are part of the copper-rich region's biggest industry, and the sunshine explains why mining companies there are starting to use solar energy to power their operations.

More than a dozen solar installations are planned for the barren plateau in the Andes, which gets nearly double the sun power that Las Vegas receives.

Solar companies say the strength of the sunshine means they can provide the region's dozen or so large mines and hundreds of smaller ones with electricity at prices rivaling energy from plants that burn fossil fuels.

Atacama "has good sun resources and big, unfulfilled demand for power from mining companies," said Tim Keating, marketing chief at Skyline Solar, a Mountain View company that is talking with several mines about providing photovoltaic equipment.

Developers see a strong market for their electricity among the Atacama's power-hungry mines, which typically require 10 to 400 megawatts of power.

More than 80 percent of the electricity used in northern Chile is sold to mining operations, and demand is expected to grow at least 5 percent annually for the next several years, according to Santiago energy researcher Systep Ingeniería y Diseños.

Atacama Solar has applied for a permit to build a $773 million, 250-megawatt solar farm in the region by 2018. Element Power of Portland, Ore., is planning five 30-megawatt projects.

And Spanish energy developer Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica this year will open a 1-megawatt plant at a mine owned by Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile, the state-owned copper mining company known as Codelco.

Swiss mining giant Xstrata says it is studying solar installations for its mines in the Atacama. Codelco says that if the Solarpack project goes well, it expects to expand its use of solar power at mines in the region.

"We have an energy resource here that's absolutely unique," said Silvia Tapia, who oversees renewable energy projects for Codelco. "It's where our operations are, so it's obvious we should use it."

Chilean utilities sell electricity on the spot market for about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, though some mines have long-term contracts for 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, Systep estimates.

Solarpack says its Codelco plant will be able to sell electricity for 10 to 14 cents per kilowatt-hour.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Flat-Screen Maker Launches Into Solar Power

Taiwan's AU Optronics, a leading flat-screen maker, has launched a multi-billion-dollar foray into solar power, as the island tries to outclass China in the growth industry, officials and media said Tuesday.

The company late last week broke ground on a plant that will produce silicon wafers, widely used in the solar power industry, the Economic Daily News reported.

It said the plant, which is scheduled to go into operation in the fourth quarter of this year, will eventually cost Tw$25 billion ($850 million).

AU Optronics also plans to spend Tw$73 billion on a solar cell manufacturing plant in central Taiwan, with construction expected to kick off before the year's end, it said.

Friday's investment -- the latest of a series of similar ones launched by IT giants such as Hon Hai and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. -- comes as the government aggressively pushes for projects to utilise clean energy.

Taiwan's parliament passed a major renewable energy bill in 2009 aimed at adding between 6,500 and 10,000 megawatts of installed energy from renewable sources over the next 20 years. The move partly reflects a scarcity of energy sources on the island.

Even so, the rush to enter an increasingly crowded field has sparked concerns about anticipated global oversupply as China, the world's biggest solar energy equipment supplier, keeps boosting its manufacturing capacity.

Kenneth Lo, chairman of the Industrial Bank of Taiwan, warned Tuesday that if the rush is not checked, solar power may emerge as another debt-ridden sector.

But analysts said the outlook for Taiwan's solar power sector is fairly bright at least for the coming two years, despite the expected steep rise in supply and dumping of cheap China-made products.

"The biggest niche of local makers is quality," Sean Chen of Concord Securities, told AFP.

For instance, he pointed out, solar cells made in Taiwan are more stable than those manufactured in China, where human labour is more widely used, increasing the risk of errors.

"After all, solar cells have to withstand wind and rain for 20 years. Poorly made cells may generate additional maintenance costs for the downstream module suppliers," he said.

Prices of solar cells are expected to fall by up to 20 percent this year, while global supply is forecast to surge 50 percent, he said.

The world saw its installed solar power capacity nearly double to 16 gigawatts last year, as users scrambled to boost capacity before the subsidies offered by countries like Germany and Spain were cut due to budget considerations.


Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturer May Form Solar, LED Units

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, the world's top contract chipmaker, said on Tuesday it was may set up units in the solar and LED businesses.

The move came as TSMC and other Taiwan technology companies have been pushing into the $35 billion global solar energy market to leverage their expertise in chip and LCD manufacturing into new growth prospects.

In September, TSMC said it would complete the first phase of a planned solar energy plant in Taiwan in the first half of 2011 after an investment of over $200 million.

TSMC rival UMC and LCD firm AU Optronics are among companies buying smaller players or building solar cell plants in a strategy that dovetails with a Taiwan government initiative to develop green businesses.

TSMC also set its dividend at T$3 ($0.10).

Before the company's announcement, TSMC shares ended flat, trailing the broader market's 0.4 percent gain.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Magnifying Film Increases Panel Efficiency Up to 300 Percent

As the U.S. government continues to heap billions in subsidies to the world’s wealthiest coal and oil companies, the solar industry has been struggling to make it in the States. This is sad for many reasons, not the least of which is that we’re missing out on one of the biggest growth industries in the world.

Currently there are 16 gigawatts of installed solar power globally. That number will grow to about 1,800 gigawatts in the next 20 years, making it one of the best job creators. U.S. engineers invented the solar panel, and the U.S. should be dominating that market. Instead, foreign manufacturers (particularly in China) have taken our IP and run with it, as we become increasingly dependent on foreign oil and dirty coal operations to meet our power needs.

Fortunately HyperSolar, a new U.S. company, offers a ray of sunny hope on the clean energy frontier.

The company does not manufacture solar panels. It makes them ultra-efficient using a field of science called photonics. Similar to a microchip that moves individual bits of data around at hyperspeed, HyperSolar’s thin magnifying film routes and separates specific light spectrums, delivering them exactly where they’re needed to make an array of PV solar cells ultra-efficient.

I saw an early prototype for such a magnifying optical layer a few years back, but the company was “dark” at the time, so I couldn’t write about the innovation. But I’m as excited now as I was then for good reason — HyperSolar’s optical layer can increase PV efficiency by up to 300 percent!

Theoretically that means cutting the installation cost of a solar array in half. Instead of a home solar system costing $30,000 (or more) it would only cost $15,000 (or less), making the upfront investment much lower and payback periods much quicker.

This is a great example of a disruptive technology that could get us to the holy grail of “grid parity” — meaning that solar would be as affordable as other sources of energy like coal and natural gas. And no more polluting coal mines or fracking for natural gas! The sun (for at least the next 5 billion years) will provide free and abundant energy. It’s up to us whether we want to invest in that technology or continue to destroy our beautiful landscapes for a few more years of “cheap” (i.e. heavily subsidized) coal.

Innovations like this make several recent reports ring true. If we have the political will to overcome the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry on our nation’s energy policy, we could become 100 percent renewably powered in a 2030-2050 time frame.


Calculating Lifetime Solar Energy Cost

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in partnership with an analyst at Gartner, Inc. have developed a new and more instructive approach to calculate the lifetime cost for a solar-generated energy system for comparison to other energy systems.

Usually when people consider the cost of solar energy they use the dollars per Watt metric, which is only a measure of the initial capital cost and the solar panel vendor’s performance specification. This doesn’t take into account the actual energy you will get from the system or other cost factors such as maintenance. A far more informative metric is the levelized cost of energy (LCOE).

"In typical LCOE projections for solar energy, many assumptions are swept under the rug, and we wanted to make a small step toward lifting up that rug and showing how you can truly get a handle on those assumptions to develop a more accurate picture of the potential costs," says Argonne solar researcher Seth Darling, who leads the development of the new approach. LCOE is the cost of an energy supply over its lifetime per energy unit produced.

"Specifically, the Argonne approach uses a Monte Carlo simulation that statistically selects from probability distributions to account for the uncertainly associated with various cost and production parameters," Darling said. A Monte Carlo simulation can produce millions of possible performance outcomes that might occur in the future, weighted to reflect their likelihood.

A variety of stakeholders, including investors and policymakers, are tracking the generational development and commercialization of solar technologies and require greater insight into the projected costs of a solar energy project to aid in decision making.

"Investors need to know their expected return on investment, regulators and policy makers help define the economies of energy productions and require reliable information, funding agencies need a means to analyze proposed technology development, and technology developers want to understand how they will compete relative to other technologies," according to a new paper.

Argonne's optimized approach to calculating the LCOE for photovoltaics will provide each group with better guidance. However, implementing this approach will require development of more rigorous data sets of location-specific solar panel performance and other parameters. Fair comparison to traditional energy sources such as coal or natural gas will require a re-examination of the hidden costs associated with those technologies.

The new methodology is presented in the paper "Assumptions and the levelized cost of energy for photovoltaics" in Energy & Environmental Science. The lead author of the paper is Seth Darling. Argonne researchers Fengqi You and Thomas Veselka and Gartner analyst Alfonso Velosa are co-authors.

DOE's Office of Science provided funding for this research.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Shocking Truth About the Quality of Solar Arrays

Solar panels are supposed to be a set-and-forget technology. Mine have performed just as advertised. All the installer said I need to do is look them over a couple of times a year and rinse off any dirt buildup. The approval and installation process had its delays and gaffes, but all’s well that ends well, I figure. But lately I’ve been feeling less sanguine. Solar experts have regaled me with tales of poor workmanship they find when they do spot checks of installed systems. As improperly installed joints corrode, connections loosen, and wires fray, we may be looking forward to a wave of breakdowns in the coming years. “Not only is there a potential for an increase in system failures, but there is also a potential for a rise in unsafe and potentially lethal situations,” says Corey Asbill of New Mexico State University.

I brought up workmanship last week in the context of municipal codes, permits and inspections. Installers complain about the costly and seemingly arbitrary requirements that many cities, towns and counties impose. But the other side of the story is that local officials have the important responsibility of watching over installers. A couple of people slammed me in the comments field for letting bureaucrats off too easily and giving ammunition to solar’s detractors, but they neglected to address the reality of sloppy installations. A bad fire or lethal electrocution could zap public enthusiasm for photovoltaic power and jack up insurance premiums for all solar homeowners, even those whose installers did everything by the book.

Asbill is an electrical engineer, certified installer and member of a Department of Energy “Tiger Team” that goes around the country offering solar expertise. He tells me about a talk he gave in November 2009 to a meeting of installers and inspectors in Sonoma County, Calif. “It was a really nerve-racking talk, to be honest,” he says. His team had spent several days scrutinizing a sample of 15 nearby solar arrays and finding safety hazards in every one. “I was standing before this crowd and pointing out their mistakes,” he recalls. “I was nervous.”

In an electrician’s version of Where’s Waldo, he put up photos of incorrectly installed equipment and asked the audience to spot what’s wrong. In the photo at the top of this post, for example, the red wires should be white. As code violations go, this one is fairly minor. A skilled electrician never trusts the color-coding, but lots of DIYers are not so savvy and might be led to assume a wire is hot, or not, based on its color.

Circuit breaker without safety label.
This double circuit breaker should have a warning label on it, indicating that the electricity is flowing into the service panel (from the solar array) rather than out (to an appliance or lamp). Again, a skilled electrician takes the right precautions regardless of what labels do or don’t say, but not everyone is so diligent.

Not the right terminal strip.
Here, the installer used a nonstandard part. Asbill speculates that the installers got out to the site only to realize they didn’t bring the right part, so they scrounged around in their toolbox for a substitute. The system works, for now, but will probably wear out prematurely.

Missing chassis ground.
This one is more serious. The terminal at the upper right should have a ground wire in it. Grounding protects you if one of the live wires ever becomes frayed and makes contact with the metal box. Without it, someone touching the box could be electrocuted.

Indoor-rated screws and lugs used outside.
Look at these. The installer used grounding connectors meant for indoor use and they’re already corroded.

Frayed electrical connection.
It doesn’t take an experienced inspector to see that a dangling conductor can’t be good, either.

Inverters missing shutoff switches.
Now this is a real doozy. The installer never put in AC emergency cutoff switches! So there’s no easy way to shut off the equipment if someone needs to work on it.

Despite Asbill’s initial nervousness, he says the audience took his critiques to heart. Sue Kateley, the executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, raves about his presentation to this day. She has her own litany of complaints, such as a cracked electrical conduit that lets water in or is overstuffed with wires, causing mechanical wear. Greg Sellers, president of Burnham Energy, adds that many installers fail to check whether the general household wiring is up to snuff.

Asbill says he understands why installers cut corners and inspectors miss them. Both are overworked and undertrained. The solar industry is expanding so rapidly that education hasn’t kept up. Some states don’t even require electricians or roofers to get specialized training before they enter the solar trade.

Most installers guarantee their work for 10 years, but they don’t do regular check-ups. So I see a huge potential for after-sales service companies to step into the breach. Just as I get my boiler cleaned and checked each fall, I should get my panels examined annually to make sure everything is tight and nothing is hot. Such companies might also offer to upgrade panels when the technology improves enough to warrant it. Solar arrays may be rated for 25 years or longer, they won’t make it that long without some TLC.


Texas Town Known for Refinery Pollution Goes Solar

Life in Pasadena has always revolved around energy. It was the refineries surrounding this Houston suburb that provided its economic and social foundation, as well as its nickname, "Stinkadena."

Now — as oil prices skyrocket, the nation talks about becoming less dependent on foreign oil and some scientists say pollution is causing climate change — Pasadena has laid a stake in tomorrow's energy. It's installed a $2 million solar "lab" on the rooftops and awnings of two high schools, an array that will serve the dual purpose of educating students and saving the district about $15,000 a year on its electric bill.

"We are in a community that uses conventional energy fossil fuels and we embrace their business and what they've given our economy, but we need to look at the future of our economy," said Grace Blasingame, the science content specialist at Sam Rayburn High School in the Pasadena Independent School District.

"It's all about the energy business and this is just one facet of the energy industry," she added.

Even the funding for the project has its roots in old energy, coming from a settlement between the nearby Shell refinery and an alliance of environmental groups that sued the plant over air pollution. As part of an out-of-court agreement, Shell paid $5.8 million for alleged violations, upgraded its refinery to increase efficiency and decrease pollution and put $2 million into the solar project at the high schools.

Now, sitting atop the two schools are three different solar technologies manufactured by Houston-based Ignite Solar that create energy while providing students with raw data that is being integrated throughout the curriculum. Science teachers are using it to teach about solar power. In computer class, the students are plugging the data about how much energy is generated into Excel and PowerPoint as they master those programs. And social studies teachers are using the experiment as a way to educate about the history of energy.

Off in the distance, visible from the rooftops where the glistening panels and silvery tubes absorb the sun's rays and convert them into electricity, are the refinery stacks — still a source of energy, but one that is rapidly being complemented by newer, nonconventional technologies.

Shirleyne Murr-Thompson, an 18-year-old senior at Sam Rayburn High School, has lived in Pasadena her entire life. Her uncles and cousins all work in the refineries, and like most others in the Gulf Coast town she is proud of the community's contribution to the nation's energy supply and thankful the plants are there.

"Without them much of my family would be unemployed," she said.

At the same time, Shirleyne is proud to be part of the project that has produced one of the largest solar arrays in the greater Houston area.

"It's a good thing to get the new energy into our school . . . and teach that it's not a big, scary thing," she said. "You don't have to have just oil."

In the seven days the project has been up and running, the panels have generated enough electricity to power the average home for two months. Blasingame said it is estimated the solar project will fulfill 15 percent of the school's electricity needs.

To make the project a true learning experience, Ignite Solar installed the panels at slightly different angles and with minor variations at each school so that the students would be able to compare and contrast the data, concluding what is most efficient and possibly even coming up with real-life solutions for other businesses and places, said Peter Mathey, the president and CEO of Ignite Solar.

Already, the project is being expanded and the schools will soon get two more technologies, including a tracking device that will allow the panels to follow the sun from east to west as it rises and sets — perhaps saving the schools more money.

"It's good to see solar installed in the middle of all the other industrial facilities that are around," Mathey said.

Kirk Lewis, superintendent of the school district, believes this project creates exactly what America needs to compete successfully in the 21st century: creativity and innovation. Nurturing those characteristics in Pasadena's students is especially challenging, he said, because in most of the district's schools some 75 percent to 95 percent of the students are low-income.

"To be at the forefront in studying and creating those technologies at the public school level is exciting," Lewis said. "To be able to offer them this kind of opportunity is immeasurable."


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Multi-Layered Solar Cell Boosts Efficiency

Solar Junction's solar cell is like a tiny layer cake able to crank out more power per inch than most cells.

The 4-year-old company yesterday said it expects to start production of its high-efficiency solar cells by early next year in its home town of San Jose, Calif. It is also awaiting word in the next few months on an $80 million loan from the Department of Energy, which would give it favorable financing to expand its current demonstration plant to produce 250 megawatts worth of cells per year, said co-founder Craig Stauffer.

Solar Junction cells are designed to be fitted into concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) solar collectors. Originally used in space, CPV systems concentrate the light hundreds of times using mirrors and lenses onto a small but relatively efficiency solar cell. They are typically mounted on racks to follow the sun in desert areas and are used for installations up to 50 megawatts.

The company, which was spun out of Stanford University, last month said that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory certified its cell to operate at 41.4 percent efficiency. For comparison, silicon solar cells are in the range of 15 percent or 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity.

These types of cells, called multi-junction cells, achieve those higher conversion rates by using different materials than the traditional silicon cell and multiple semiconductors within a single package. During manufacturing, there are multiple layers of material deposited onto a gallium arsenide substrate, with each layer optimized to convert a different portion of the sunlight's spectrum.

"In essence, you have three basic subcell materials that take in some light and pass the rest to the next. They are connected serially inside the device just like battery cells," Stauffer explained. There could be up to 20 layers of material used on each cell which is usually a square of about five millimeters, or just a fraction of an inch.

The main customers for these multi-junction cells are CPV solar makers such as Amonix and Concentrix Solar in Germany. But even though this technology has been around for years, it still hasn't become as established or widely used for wholesale electricity production as regular flat solar panels.

Multi-junction cells are more complex and expensive. But Stauffer said that the costs of CPV systems with those cells are getting more attractive due to efficiency gains and higher levels of concentration. CPV solar collectors can now concentrate light 1,000 times, compared to 500 times in the past year or two, he said.

Solar Junction expects to stand out from other multi-junction suppliers with better reliability in high temperatures and higher efficiency, which Stauffer projects will go over 50 percent in five years as the company adds more layers to capture different wavelengths of light.


Solar Company Cuts Incentives Asks State to Cut Subsidy Too

Xcel Energy said Wednesday that it is cutting the financial incentives it offers to customers for solar-energy installations.

In addition, the utility is asking state regulators to approve further cutbacks in the subsidy program.

Xcel said the reductions are justified because the cost of solar panels has been declining and customers no longer need higher incentives to offset installation costs.

But solar-industry officials said the cutbacks will have a severe effect on investments and jobs in the sector.

"This is absolutely devastating to the solar industry," said Neal Lurie, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. "No industry can survive this kind of shock."

Lurie said the subsidy cutback endangers the sector's growth, which has seen Colorado solar-energy jobs increase from 500 to 5,300 since the incentive program started in 2006.

State law provides for incentives and rebates on the installation of solar-energy equipment to meet renewable-energy mandates. The law allows Xcel to establish the level of incentives; the amount of rebates is set separately by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

The combined incentive and rebate drops from $2.35 per watt to $2.01, effective immediately, based on Xcel's change for residential- scale systems that range from 0.5 to 10 kilowatts. Larger systems will incur similar reductions.

Xcel also is asking the PUC to lower rebate amounts so that combined subsidies would drop further to $1.25 per watt — a 47 percent reduction from previous levels.

Solar-industry officials estimated that typical residential systems now costing $5,000 to $12,000 could rise to $8,000 to $16,000 after the reduced incentives and rebates.

Customers whose incentive applications already have been approved will still qualify for the higher subsidies.

Xcel cited a Deutsche Bank study saying the cost of solar panels dropped 50 percent from 2008 to 2009.

"We look forward to the industry's continued progress so that it can ultimately become self-supporting," Xcel Colorado president David Eves said in a statement. "Just as wind energy is now more competitive, solar energy is moving in that direction too."


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Iowa Dems Back $10 Million Solar, Wind Power Plan

Owners who install certain alternative energy systems in their businesses and homes would qualify for tax rebates under a $10 million package of incentives proposed Wednesday by Democrats in the Iowa Legislature.

The plan, which focuses on small solar or wind energy systems, would give homeowners rebates of as much as $3,000, and businesses could receive up to $15,000.

Democrats say the measure would provide $4 million to homeowners, which is enough for 1,300 projects. The $6 million for businesses would pay for 400 projects.

"Our goal is to help a new industry get going," said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.

Jochum argued that a focus on the wind energy industry in past years has led Iowa to become the second biggest wind-producing state in the nation, but much of that generating capacity is in large wind farms. The new focus will be on smaller projects that produce energy for individual homes and small businesses.

"This plan means work for the Iowa construction firms, plumbers, heating and air conditioning contractors who will install and maintain small solar installations and small wind turbines," said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. "Each project will leverage additional federal tax credits."

The incentives would be added to the 30 percent federal tax credit given for such projects.

The proposal was announced at a Statehouse news conference, and the legislation is likely to move quickly. Its future is bright in the Senate but far murkier in the House, where Republicans have a 60-40 advantage and budget-cutting has dominated the opening weeks of the session.

"Where are you going to get the $10 million?" said Rep Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who sits on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "We're cutting throughout state government, across the board."

At the news conference, Democrats pitched their idea as a job-creation plan and brought along business owners to make that case.Dave Krejchi, who heads Dalton Plumbing, Heating and Cooling in Cedar Falls, and he said he's already installing solar water heating units. Among them is a project at the city's recreation center that kept two workers busy for months.

"We could have installed a lot more if there were more incentives," Krejchi said. "We believe solar is a growth industry."

James McCain Jr., who runs a small business in Des Moines that installs small solar and wind projects, said his company had revenues of $500,000 last year.

"We're on track to double that this year," said McCain. "This industry is new to Iowa."


California Town Attracts Solar Firm and 500 Jobs

Belmont has scored its second major technology company of the past seven months, this time attracting a solar firm that plans to bring up to 500 jobs to the city.

SunEdison plans to move its international headquarters from Maryland to an empty office space in a complex at 600 Clipper Drive, just east of Highway 101 and south of the Foster City limits. Self-described as a "global leader among solar companies," the firm develops and maintains solar plants and plans to overhaul the office space through an $8 million renovation aided by state tax breaks and funds.

Company executives said they picked the Belmont office because of its proximity to Highway 101 -- its sign will be visible to about 240,000 drivers per day -- and sto tap into Silicon Valley's talent pool.

They expect to transfer about 100 employees from Maryland and San Francisco and add up to 400 more local workers within the next three years.

"We're recruiting only out of the Peninsula area," said Carole Jacolick, SunEdison's vice president for human resources and administration. "We are growing rapidly."

But the company's move won't benefit the city's finances much initially, as the City Council late Tuesday agreed to waive $86,400 of the $106,400 in permit fees the company would have had to pay as part of the renovation.

"Sometimes I think we do really have to pinch ourselves to get things done around here, and I think this is a time to do it," said Councilwoman Christine Wozniak.

Council members said the concession would sweeten the pot to land a high-profile company.

They added that they'd be reaping other economic benefits from the company's move -- mainly through an influx of local jobs and workers who could patronize Belmont shops, increased property values and taxes on the business's sales.

"A business like this can attract other business to Belmont as well, showing that we are committed to green technology," said Councilman David Braunstein.

Council members said they were worried about increases in traffic in the area as a result of the new employees.

Mayor Coralin Feierbach also expressed concern that local schools would be overcrowded from the flow of new residents, and was adamant that the company hire mostly local workers instead of merely shipping in out-of-towners.

But, they said, the draw of the company was far greater than any of their concerns, and they particularly liked the idea of getting a company that promotes the environment.

SunEdison's relocation comes after Volkswagen of America announced in July that it would move its Electronics Research Lab from Palo Alto to a 40,000-square-foot space in the same Clipper Drive building.

That move involved up to 100 employees, and was a coup for Belmont because the research lab is renowned for its car development.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Solar Farm Planned for Oahu Hawaii

Oahu's first solar farm designed solely to provide power to an electric utility is due to be built in Campbell Industrial Park.

IC Sunshine LLC, a subsidiary of California-based Axio Power Holdings LLC, has agreed to sell power to Hawaiian Electric Co. over 20 years.

The five megawatt solar farm built on 20 acres is expected to power between 500 and 750 homes. It's expected to begin service next year.

The companies said Wednesday they're seeking the Public Utilities Commission's approval of their agreement.

Hawaiian Electric Executive Vice President Robbie Alm says the solar farm would join other renewable energy projects on Oahu, including a wind farm in Kahuku, the city's waste-to-energy plant, and plans to develop biofuels to use in existing power plants.


Property Owners Get Paid for Electricity

More than 400 property owners who use solar power to generate electricity at their homes or businesses are getting paid for it with the help of the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power distributors.

Some residents have large enough arrays of solar electric generation panels that they get rolling credits on their electricity bill or year-end checks. Most are in Tennessee and The Tennessean reports another 200 projects are in the pipeline.

The Generation Partners program allows property owners to feed electricity into the grid and some distributors, like the Nashville Electric Service, pay more than double what the utility charges for power. The program has grown increasingly popular. NES now has 63 customers generating power and 15 others about to begin.

In Ashland City, Carly and Ed Wansing have a $100 credit on their most recent home electricity bill. They installed their panels in 2007 and are leaving the credit to make up for other months when they might use more electricity.

"We build up our credit in the spring and the fall and use the credit in the summer and the winter," said Carly Wansing, an architect with Street Dixon Rick, which also has solar panels.

Their 2.16-kilowatt solar panel system cost them $11,500 after incentives and should take 12 more years to pay off. Along with a $2,000 federal tax credit, the Wansings got a $500 sign-up payment from TVA's Generation Partners program.

Andy Sudbrock got checks from his electric utility in Williamson County last month that totaled $2,010 for electricity generation from panels on the barn at his plant nursery company, Nashville Natives.

"That doesn't factor in all the electricity we didn't have to pay for, either," he said. "We had zero electricity bills all year."

He virtually paid for the $60,000 8.28-kilowatt solar power system in the first year, thanks to some incentives.

About 95 percent of the cost came from a state cost-share program for businesses, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, a federal tax credit and a $1,000 signing bonus from TVA and the distributor.

"It took a year of grant writing and lots of paperwork, but we'll never pay another electric bill, and it will be generating clean energy and income for at least 30 years," Sudbrock said.

In many cases, property owners are producing an amount of energy whose payments don't quite cover the cost of what they burn. Attorney David Lyons has topped his Nashville law office with solar panels but he hasn't been able to claim a check yet.

"I've never had a surplus by the end of the year," Lyons said.

Still the cost of installing solar panels is decreasing and incentives can make a difference. Steve Johnson, owner of LightWave Solar Electric, said the 6.9-kilowatt system on his home would cost about $30,000 today, or $20,000 after incentives.

"You're going to be paying Nashville Electric Service for 12 years anyway," he said. "You're just burning those checks. After 12 years of paying on solar, you have equity. You own something."