Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Solar Company Says GRU Isn't Fair

Khepera Solar LLC sues, alleging favoritism in the selection process.

An applicant that twice lost in a lottery for capacity in Gainesville's solar feed-in tariff program filed a lawsuit against the city last Tuesday, arguing that Gainesville Regional Utilities showed “impermissible favoritism” and “improper manipulation” of the selection process.

The plaintiff, Khepera Solar LLC, a company set up by Annie Orlando to operate a 100-kilowatt solar-energy system at her business, Atlas Screen Printing and Embroidery, is asking the court to compel the city to give it capacity in the system before the end of the year, when a federal grant for solar projects runs out.

The grant refunds 30 percent of construction costs, a significant chunk for Orlando, who estimated her system would cost $495,000 to build. Without the grant, she said she would not be able to afford to build the project.

“I don't think I'm asking for anything that I don't deserve, in a sense,” she said. “The application process was very clear about what the requirements were, and I met all the requirements. Other people didn't.”

Earlier this year, Orlando and other applicants complained that some contractors, including Solar Impact, that were awarded capacity in the program, which pays system owners for the electricity their systems produce, did not meet the criteria to apply.

For example, Solar Impact's owners had listed various limited-liability corporations for each application but did not register the LLCs until after the application was successful. Their applications were not denied, however, and several were successful in a lottery for 2.7 megawatts of capacity.

In September, the City Commission reopened the process, scheduling another lottery for 1 megawatt of space available to unsuccessful applicants.

Orlando's project again was not selected.

The lawsuit, filed in Alachua County circuit court, contends that GRU in the process ignored its own bidding guidelines, which would have disqualified some projects.

“We have concerns that public contracting not be done by lottery and that exceptions shouldn't be made for some applicants and not others in the process,” said Patrice Boyes, Orlando's attorney. “Going forward we would like to see a level playing field.”

GRU spokesman Dan Jesse said Tuesday that the utility's attorney had not yet received the suit and he therefore couldn't comment on the case.

“Since we haven't received anything, there's nothing we can comment about,” Jesse said.

In September, after the City Commission moved to make more capacity available for unsuccessful bidders, GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger said the process had been “equitable.”

“We recognize that not everyone agrees with that conclusion,” Hunzinger said.


Protecting Solar Subsidies for Homes and Small Businesses

Here's some good news for homeowners and small commercial firms. It appears likely they will not be shut off from the subsidies that promote development of solar systems on their homes and businesses.

In the latest effort to stabilize New Jersey's unsettled solar market, the state Office of Clean Energy has floated a proposal that would extend utility-sponsored loan programs to residential and small business customers. Existing programs are due to expire at the end of this year. That would quash concerns from some solar advocates the Christie administration is pulling out of the residential and small commercial market.

A draft Energy Master Plan (EMP) unveiled by the Christie administration this June recommended that priority be given to larger-scale projects that would be located on brownfields, landfills, and large commercial warehouses, at the expense of smaller, more expensive, installations on homes and at small businesses. The rationale behind that approach is that larger projects drive down the cost of solar systems, which eventually are borne by ratepayer subsidies.

It is still unclear whether the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) will adopt the proposal to expand the utility loan programs, but many in the industry have lobbied for doing just that. They view expansion of the programs, in which utilities finance solar installations through long-term contracts, as a way to deal with the steep drop in the prices of solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), which owners of solar panels earn for the electricity they produce.

With the prices of the SRECs falling by more than half in the past few months, some solar executives fear the once thriving solar market in New Jersey could crash. Long-term contracts setting a fixed price for the certificates give investors the assurance they need to keep putting their money into the sector, they argue.

"The best way to do that is to expand the EDC [Electric Distribution Company] program because it provides built-in stability for the SREC market," said Lyle Rawlings, vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association at a recent stakeholder meeting on the issue.

With solar one of the few sectors enjoying growth in New Jersey's struggling economy, the issue over what to do about the slump in the industry is attracting increasing attention from the Christie administration and lawmakers, although they are not necessarily in agreement on what needs to be done to stabilize the marketplace.

For the most part, the utility-run loan programs have provided a way to install solar at a lesser cost than systems built relying on spot market prices for the certificates. Because of lucrative state and federal incentives, the price of SRECs has fallen from the mid $600 range to the $200 level, a trend blamed on an oversupply of the certificates.

The state expects the oversupply of SRECs to continue into 2013, so if the utility-loan programs are continued they would not start up again until then, according to a straw proposal prepared by the Office of Clean Energy. They also would be limited to residential and small commercial projects.

Beyond expanding the utility programs, the state proposal also raises the option of accelerating the requirement that energy suppliers need to purchase more of the electricity they supply to customers from solar systems, an approach an advisory group to the BPU endorsed. Under the state's proposal, however, that option would only occur if it does not increase the burden on ratepayers.

"If we are increasing the program, then the ratepayer has to come out with some cost savings," said Michael Winka, director of the Office of Clean Energy.

The state proposed an additional option—doing nothing. With most experts expecting lucrative federal incentives to promote solar to expire at the end of the year, there is an argument that simply allowing those benefits to end will deal with the oversupply of SRECs by eliminating an incentive that had attracted many investors to the sector. That proposal, however, drew little support at a stakeholder meeting last week in Iselin.

The consensus at the meeting seemed to favor extending the utility loan programs, although there was some dissension raised by the Division of Rate Counsel, which questioned whether an extension of thoe programs and acceleration of the requirement to buy more solar would lead to new rate spikes for ratepayers.

There are three similar utility loan programs run by Jersey Central Power & Light, Atlantic City Electric, and Rockland Electric. Public Service Electric & Gas runs a separate solar loan program, which it also is proposing to continue, along with a Solar 4 All program that involves putting solar panels on utility poles and installing solar gardens and rooftop installations.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can Solar Power Be Efficient?

Solar power has always been considered an environmentally friendly energy source. Duke University research could make the strategy not only green but also cost-efficient.

Atop Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, assistant professor Nico Hotz is constructing a test-model hybrid solar cell to capture sunlight and use it to heat a water-methanol combination.

The system creates hydrogen that can be stored and used to power fuel cells later.

"With a hybrid system in the summer, we can turn 28.5 percent of the energy produced into something else - that's 10 percent more than with a conventional system," Hotz said.

He's testing whether his system can work at a large scale.

"In the winter, the increase is the same: 15 percent versus 5 percent. It's a more efficient system."

Hotz compared the hybrid to three existing systems: one that directly converts sunlight to electricity and splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, one that stores converted sunlight in different types of batteries, and one that is simpler, though similar, to Hotz's. The hybrid is the least expensive, he said, with installation costs totaling $7,900. Conventional installations can cost as much as $40,000.

The hybrid mimics conventional solar cells by collecting sunlight. It is different, however, because it runs a water-methanol mixture through vacuum-sealed copper tubes coated with aluminum and aluminum oxide. This structure allows the water to heat up to at least 200 degrees Celsius (392 Fahrenheit). The heat is necessary to produce hydrogen. Hotz said standard solar cells reach only 60 to 70 degrees Celsius (140-158 Fahrenheit).

At the appropriate temperature, Hotz's team infuses small amounts of catalyst to kick off hydrogen production.

"This reaction produces hydrogen efficiently," Hotz said. "It can be used immediately or stored in a tank to be used later, perhaps by homeowners who want it in the winter months to supplement their other energy sources."

However, according to Clemson University engineering professor Rajendra Singh, a commercial application of Hotz's research is unlikely.

"This is great basic research, but it won't change the world." Singh said. "There's not a single system in existence that can economically produce hydrogen."


Solar Projects Change Looks of Bay Area Schools

Solar panels on carports and shade structures are serving a dual purpose at Cambridge Elementary -- creating energy for the school, while shielding students and cars from the weather.

"Now, students line up under them for P.E., so they're not in the direct sun," said teacher Lizzy Enzweiler, as she watched fourth-graders kicking balls on the blacktop recently beneath two large solar panel arrays. "The other day, the after-school program got rained on and they all ran under it. So, it protects them from the rain too."

Across the state and nation, elected leaders are praising solar projects as a way to cut costs while going green. Money saved on utility costs could help stave off layoffs or program cuts during the state's continuing financial crisis, they say.

Solar projects are a key element of state schools chief Tom Torlakson's "Schools of the Future" initiative, which seeks to change California laws to encourage more renewable power systems, such as one he visited at Aragon High in San Mateo in September. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez and a presidential adviser, visited Los Medanos Elementary in Pittsburg in October, which has saved 33 percent on its utility bills through energy-saving measures, including ground-level solar panels.

Federal and state incentives have prompted a dramatic rise in school solar projects throughout the state during the past decade, along with funding options that range from bonds to low-interest loans to power purchase agreements. The California Solar Initiative launched in 2007 offered rebates for installation, resulting in 191 megawatts of active K-12 and community college installations as of June, with another 141 megawatts planned or under construction.

Over 30 years, the projects are expected to save schools and colleges about $3 billion in energy costs, with an anticipated net savings of $1.5 billion, after subtracting installation and maintenance costs, according to data compiled by SunPower. The San Jose-based company has partnered with the California School Boards Association to promote solar energy at schools.

It recently celebrated the completion of a 1 megawatt project at West Valley College in Saratoga and a 3.3 megawatt project in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Contra Costa County. In the nearby Mt. Diablo Unified School District, SunPower is in the midst of constructing the largest K-12 solar project in the country, expected to generate 11.2 megawatts on 51 sites, which are anticipated to save $221.8 million over 30 years. This includes $16.1 million in California Solar Initiative rebates over five years, plus $205.6 million in estimated utility bill savings for three decades.

"It's one of the best investments that this school district has made maybe ever," said Mt. Diablo board President Gary Eberhart. "Certainly, it's one that's going to pay off larger than any other ever made. If we hadn't done this, we could have been closing schools and laying people off."

The district is spending $59 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds plus $34 million in general obligation bonds on the project, which voters will pay off as part of a $348 million construction bond measure approved last year. The district plans to divert the solar rebates into its general fund to help pay for school and district operating costs.

Bill Kelly, SunPower's managing director, said he expects the trend toward solar energy in schools to continue.

"The core goal is to deliver compelling savings," Kelly said. "That's really driving the interest in solar."

While most communities are happy with the projects, some in the Mt. Diablo district have questioned the savings calculations and complained that the solar panels have changed the appearance of campuses.

"I have not been pleased with their industrial look, the removal of trees that had provided natural shade, and the interference with blacktop and playground areas in some of our schools," Mt. Diablo district trustee Cheryl Hansen said in an email.

But in the South Bay, West Valley College President Lori Gaskin said the normally white or metal-colored carports have been painted brown, so they blend into the wooded Saratoga hills campus. Gaskin calls the carports on both sides of the parking lot entrance the "solar gateway" to the campus, since it's one of the first things people see when they arrive.

"They see not only our beautiful campus, but also a tangible commitment that we have to sustainability," she said. "So, for us, it's not just getting those concepts, but it's putting into practice those concepts for the longer term well-being of our campus."

In light of the recent Solyndra collapse, some taxpayers have questioned whether solar projects are good investments. But Frank Biehl, vice president of the East Side Union High School board in San Jose, said he sees no relationship between Solyndra and school projects.

"They're a manufacturer of solar panels, with different technology," he said.

California school districts, on the other hand, have contracted with companies such as Chevron Energy Solutions and SunPower, which guarantee that their projects will produce the power promised. If they don't, the companies pay the districts.

As the trend toward solar energy in schools continues, officials predict they will continue to reap rewards that go beyond energy savings.

Solar panels provide shade, parking lot lighting under the carports and space for electric car charging stations, said Jeffrey Kingston, vice chancellor of facilities for Las Positas Community College.

"There's a lot of primary and secondary benefits," he said.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Energy Secretary Chu says White House Did Not Pressure Him on Loan to Failed Solar Firm

An unapologetic Energy Secretary Steven Chu defended a half-billion-dollar federal loan to a solar-panel manufacturer that went belly up, even as he told a House committee recently that he was unaware of dozens of key details that led to the debacle over Solyndra Inc.

Under hours of hostile questioning from Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chu declined several opportunities to say he was sorry, but acknowledged that in hindsight the deal was “extremely unfortunate” and “regrettable.”

“Certainly knowing what I know now, we’d say ‘no,’” Chu said during a daylong hearing before the energy panel’s subcommittee on investigations. “But you don’t make decisions fast-forwarding two years in the future and then go back. I wish I could do that.”

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the subcommittee, said after the hearing that Chu should be fired.

“I just think he has failed the test. The fact that he’s unaware of so many things makes me think that he’s not the best person for the position,” Stearns said.

Chu insisted that politics played no role in his department’s decision to loan Solyndra Inc., $528 million before it went bankrupt and laid off 1,100 workers.

Testifying under oath on a widening controversy, Chu took responsibility for the disastrous 2009 loan, but said he was unaware of many details about the loan or financial problems that Solyndra faced — including predictions by Energy Department staff two years ago that the company was likely to face severe cash-flow problems.

Chu repeatedly said he didn’t know until recently of problems with Solyndra or suggestions of political interference on the company’s behalf by the White House or Energy Department officials.

“I am aware of it now,” he said at least five times.

Chu refused to apologize for the loan debacle, calling it “extremely unfortunate” but based on factors beyond his control. He blamed the company’s demise on “totally unexpected” market changes — including an influx of cheap imports from China and the collapse of the European market for solar panels — that led to a steep decline in the price of Solyndra’s product.

Solyndra, of Fremont, Calif., was the first renewable-energy company to receive a loan guarantee under the 2009 stimulus law, and the Obama administration frequently touted it as a model for its clean energy program. Chu attended a 2009 groundbreaking when the loan was announced, and President Barack Obama visited the company’s headquarters last year.

Since then, the company’s implosion and revelations that the administration hurried a review of the loan in time for the groundbreaking has become an embarrassment for Chu and Obama and a rallying cry for GOP critics of the administration’s green energy program.

Contradicting assertions by several committee Republicans, Chu said no one from the White House ever contacted him to make a political decision on the loan.

“I want to be clear: Over the course of Solyndra’s loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations,” he said.

Still, Chu acknowledged mistakes and said that if he had the chance to do it again, he would not have approved the $528 million loan.

Chu also said he doesn’t expect taxpayers will recover much of the money lost in the transaction.

Again and again, Chu expressed ignorance of issues related to the loan or the Obama administration’s handling of it. For instance, Chu said he did not know until this week that some unidentified DOE officials had urged Solyndra to delay an early round of layoffs until after 2010 midterm elections.

“I was not part of that decision, and I certainly would not have been in favor of that decision,” he said.

Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., asked Chu how closely he was involved in the loan process.

He has to approve the loans and be briefed on them, Chu replied, “and I ask questions about the loans as they come up.”

Chu also denied he was influenced by a major Obama campaign donor, George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who invested $400 million in the solar company through an investment vehicle connected to a family foundation. Kaiser has said he played no part in helping Solyndra win the 2009 loan, but emails released last week show he discussed Solyndra with the White House on at least one occasion. Kaiser also directed business associates on how to approach the White House and Energy Department to help Solyndra deal with its financial problems.

Chu told lawmakers he did not know who Kaiser was when the loan was approved. He says he is aware of Kaiser now, in the wake of media reports about Kaiser’s investment in Solyndra.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he found that hard to believe, since Kaiser was an Obama financial “bundler” who visited the White House frequently in 2009, while the Solyndra loan was being considered.

“Everybody and their dog at DOE knew who he was and what he was involved in,” Barton said of Kaiser. “We have on the record that he was around the White House at least 16 times in the time period the Solyndra loan program was being reviewed.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the energy panel, said he was astonished at how many red flags about Solyndra — including many from the Energy Department itself — were either ignored or minimized by the Obama administration.

“At every opportunity, Solyndra and DOE officials, including Secretary Chu, publicly assured the American people that Solyndra was on track and would eventually thrive, right up until the time that Solyndra declared bankruptcy,” Upton said.

Rep. Martin Griffith, R-Va., said he had a hard time believing that Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was as out of the loop as he claimed.

“I know you didn’t leave your brains at the door,” he told Chu.

Chu said his decision to approve the loan was based on the analysis of experienced professionals and on the strength of the information they had available to them at the time.

Chu also took responsibility for a later decision to approve a restructuring of Solyndra’s debt that allowed Kaiser and another investor to move ahead of taxpayers for repayment in case of default.

The Energy Department faced a difficult decision in late 2010 and early this year, Chu said: Force Solyndra into immediate bankruptcy or restructure the loan guarantee to allow the company to accept emergency financing that would be paid back first if the company was still unable to recover.

Chu said it was worth noting that U.S. taxpayers remain first in line for repayment of the initial loan and noted that private groups invested nearly $1 billion in Solyndra.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was unimpressed.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about politics, I’ve seen a lot of emails from within the administration about politics,” he told Chu. “I don’t see any chain of emails looking out for the taxpayer money. That’s what stinks the most about this.”

Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy on the loan guarantee program, noting that Upton and other Republicans have sought support for projects in their districts even while slamming Chu and Solyndra. Upton and other Michigan lawmakers tried to get federal support in 2009 for United Solar Ovonic, a struggling manufacturer in their state.

United Solar did not receive a loan and its parent company, Energy Conversion Devices Inc., said last week it was suspending manufacturing and laying off 500 workers.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Suniva Powers Georgia's Largest Solar Canopy for Laredo Bus Facility

1.2 MW Solar Array is the Second Largest Solar Canopy at a U.S. Transit System.

Suniva, Inc., a U.S. manufacturer of high-efficiency crystalline silicon solar cells and modules, today announced that Georgia's largest solar canopy at the Laredo Bus Facility in Decatur, GA will be Powered by Suniva(TM). The 1.2 MW solar canopy is the second largest in the country at a U.S. transit system. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will be holding a ribbon cutting ceremony to unveil the project this Friday, Nov. 18th from 11:00 a.m. -- 11:30 a.m. ET.

"We're proud of the fact that Suniva's cells and modules, created here in Georgia, are being used to power the solar canopy at the Laredo Bus Facility," said Bryan Ashley, chief marketing officer for Suniva. "The solar canopy is the biggest project of its nature in Georgia, and will generate enough electricity to offset the majority of the facility's annual electricity consumption."

In 2009, MARTA received a $10.8 million federal grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) Program. Thanks to this funding, the project has created new "green-collar" jobs in metro Atlanta and is harnessing clean, renewable solar power to operate the Laredo Bus Facility in a significantly more energy-efficient and cost-effective way. The project features 4,888 PV panels and will generate the same environmental benefit as planting more than 285 acres of trees a year.

"We're thrilled that the solar technology used to build the canopy for the bus facility was born out of Georgia Tech's PV lab. To be able to use home grown technology to power this landmark project is a clear demonstration of the clean energy innovation and leadership found here in Georgia," said MARTA Board Chairman Jim Durrett. "This project will further enhance MARTA's growing sustainability program, which already includes clean fuel buses, water reclamation and harvesting operations and waste recycling programs."

Suniva's high-efficiency modules contain more than 80 percent U.S. content and are fully "Buy America" compliant. For more information, please visit

About Suniva

Based in metro-Atlanta, GA, Suniva(R) manufactures high-efficiency crystalline silicon solar cells and high-power solar modules using patented low-cost techniques. Led by an internationally regarded team of business executives and photovoltaic scientists, the Company leverages exclusive licenses to critical patents and patent-pending intellectual property developed by founder and CTO Dr. Ajeet Rohatgi at the Georgia Institute of Technology's University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaic Research, which is funded by the Department of Energy. Suniva sells its advanced solar cells and modules worldwide and is dedicated to making solar generated electricity cost competitive with fossil fuels. For additional information on how Suniva is making solar more sensible in the global market, please visit


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Jupiter's New Solar-Powered Trash Bins Already Having Effect Across Florida

That's the job of the high-tech trash bin perched on State Road A1A at Marcinski Road.

The new solar-powered container has a sensor that turns on the compactor when the bin is close to full. When the chest-high barrel is finally full of compacted trash, it emails the trash collection department for a pickup.

Regular trash containers in public places must be picked up between three and five times a week. They often overflow, scattering aluminum cans and food containers down the sidewalk, said Jeff Sabin, a government affairs manager for Waste Management.

The new green containers are covered, and because of the compacting, pickups are required less often, he said.

"We're reducing the carbon footprint," Sabin said.

Waste Management's contract with Jupiter to collect residential and commercial trash includes public areas such as the beach on A1A. Fewer collections save the company money, Sabin said.

Delray Beach has its own trash collection service. The city negotiated with Waste Management in April for four containers and will get six more in the next month. The city also plans on buying three more, bringing the total to 13. They will be placed on the beach, Atlantic Avenue and in public parks, said Rich Reade, the city's sustainability officer.

Open containers have to picked up on a daily basis. The new ones only have to be picked up twice a month, Reade said.

"(Delray Beach) will save about $15,000 a year. That's a return on our investment in about four years," Reade said.

The 300-pound boxes, made by Newton,Mass.-based Big Belly Solar, cost about $3,800. One side is for recycling, the other side for trash.

The solar panel on the top powers a 12-volt battery. When the trash compactor turns on, which can be as often as once an hour, it hums like an automatic dishwasher. A cell-phone-like device notifies a website set up for the municipality when the container is full.

"I've noticed much more bottles and plastic cups in the containers. It's been a big boost for recycling," said Jennifer Wilster, environmental communications outreach manager for Melbourne. This city in Brevard County has 15 containers in downtown areas and parks.

The containers are increasingly popular in cash-strapped cities seeking to save money in trash collection. Philadelphia has bought 900 and Chicago about 500. Florida locations using the containers include Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Florida Atlantic University and Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, said Matt Volpi, Big Belly's director of product marketing.

"Communities save on gas. Plus, the covered containers keep away seagulls and - in some places around the country - bears," Volpi said.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Solar Industry Falls Into Shadow in 2011

Investors in the solar industry have needed a strong stomach this year, and that’s unlikely to change soon.

Falling prices for solar panels amid slackening demand in Europe and a faltering global economy helped to push three U.S. companies into bankruptcy, including Solyndra, the solar panel maker that received $535 million in federal loan guarantees.

The Market Vector Solar Energy exchange-traded fund, as of mid-October, was down some 58 percent compared with a 3 percent drop for the Standard & Poor’s 500.

For now, analysts expect solar will continue to struggle, and that several more firms in the U.S. and Europe could disappear.

That survival-of-the-fittest period should end by the second quarter of 2012, however, analysts expect the solar industry can turn around and eventually thrive as new markets in China, the U.S. as well as elsewhere in Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East begin to grow, and as solar becomes less reliant on government subsidies.

“What we’re seeing is that falling panel prices are making solar PV (photovoltaic) more cost-effective today,” says Colm O’Connor, portfolio manager at Kleinwort Benson Investors, subadvisor to the Calvert Global Alternative Energy Fund. “In some markets we see solar energy becoming competitive, minus subsidies, with retail electricity prices in 2012.”

For now the industry’s troubles are worse than the broader market because seven-tenths of the 100 percent growth the industry experienced in 2010 was driven by accelerated demand in Europe.

That demand has fallen off amid the euro-zone’s economic travails, shrinking bank lending in Europe, and a decrease in government solar subsidies in two of the industry’s biggest markets last year, Germany and Italy, say analysts.

To Jesse Pichel, a clean-tech analyst at Jefferies, the biggest culprit is a tight lending environment, in which banks “view solar as a low priority,” and buyers wait for panel prices to hit bottom.

“If we can get some improvement to consumer sentiment and financing, this industry should explode, and I would anticipate we would have very strong growth on the other end of this financial recession that we’re in,” Pichel says.

Prices And Profits
For now, profit margins for many companies are suffering from tumbling prices. The trend has been exacerbated by growth of efficient, low-cost producers in China, analysts say. (Some solar companies assert China is unfairly beating the U.S. on price with the help of government subsidies, and is dumping product here below cost).

Solyndra, for instance, “was based on a business model and was able to get funding for a $2 per kilowatt hour cost structure,” says Stephen Simko, as senior stock analyst at Morningstar. “Clearly that’s not a winning proposition.”

The other problem is investors and installers are reluctant to commit to new projects if they think prices are still falling, says O’Connor.

In 2008, the then-faltering solar market was lifted from the doldrums by generous subsidies in Italy. But governments struggling with weak finances are unlikely to step up and spur the market with subsidies today, analysts say.

Instead, analysts expect falling prices will eventually make solar a more cost-effective alternative energy source, widening its appeal and creating demand from a wider array of countries.

New demand will come from what O’Connor describes as emerging solar markets, mainly China and the U.S. Smaller markets in Malaysia, Thailand, India and the Middle East will also emerge.

“This is a healthy development as it reduces the concentration risk and subsidy risk associated with European installations,” says O’Connor.

Signs of a more diverse market are already emerging.

“This year you have potentially five to 10 markets that could install 200-500 megawatts (each). The UK has come out of nowhere and may install 300 megawatts this year. If you put those together you get to 1 to 5 gigawatts of demand which compares to the 2.3 gigawatts Italy installed last year,” says Matthew Page, a portfolio manager at the Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy fund [GAAEX 3.30 -0.07 (-2.08%) ].

“The real bears will say no growth” in 2011, Page adds. “I think we can easily see 20 percent growth.”

US Vs. China

The companies destined to benefit from any turnaround will be low-cost, efficient producers, and companies that offer cutting edge, cost-effective, new technologies, analysts say.

U.S. companies can’t compete against the scale and efficiency offered by China’s low-cost, automated producers, such as Trina Solar, Yingli Green Energy, and Suntech, many analysts say, but they can offer advanced technologies.

O’Connor points to the thin-film technology developed by First Solar, a technology General Electric will be using in a new $300 million, 400-megawatt plant in Colorado.

Another is SunPower, which makes high-conversion efficiency solar modules, although some analysts view SunPower’s technology as too costly.

Simko at Morningstar believes the U.S. now has the technological edge, as companies pour resources into research and development. An example is MiaSolé, a Silicon Valley start-up, funded by venture capital, which makes copper indium gallium selenide, CIGS, thin-film solar modules and recently struck an agreement with Intel to build a factory

“If you take a longer view, you could start to see some improvement in existing solar technology start to emerge, and if it does, that will come from the U.S.,” he says.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

China Solar Makers Face ‘Suicidal’ Prices on Excess Output

Losses for China’s largest solar manufacturers, including Suntech Power Holdings Co. and JA Solar Holdings Co. may continue through next year as declining shipments prompt them to slash prices and liquidate inventory.

Shipments at Suntech will fall about 20 percent in the fourth quarter from the third, the world’s largest panel maker said today in its third-quarter earnings report. JA Solar, the country’s biggest cell producer, also said shipments will fall sequentially, and it wrote off inventory in response to falling prices, driving down gross margins.

Cell prices have fallen 59 percent since Dec. 27, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Seven Chinese companies reported lower gross margins since yesterday and three said margins have moved into negative territory, an unsustainable level, said Hari Chandra Polavarapu, an analyst at Auriga USA in New York.

“Liquidation is leading to suicidal pricing.” Polavarapu said in an interview today. There are too many solar companies in China, he said, and they are cutting prices to maintain share. “China’s strongest manufacturers are sacrificing profitability because the weakest players still exist.”

Chinese solar manufacturers expanded capacity faster this year while demand growth slowed in Europe, the top regional market.

“We are seeing a softening in the European market continue into the fourth quarter,” Suntech Chief Executive Officer Zhengrong Shi said today on a conference call. “We expect that the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first half of 2012 will be a challenge for all solar companies.” Panel shipments for 2011 will be about 2,000 megawatts, down from an Aug. 22 forecast of 2,200 megawatts, Suntech said.

‘Pricing Has Collapsed’

JA Solar said it expects shipments of solar cells and modules of 310 megawatts to 330 megawatts in the fourth quarter, compared with 445 megawatts last quarter. Neither gave a forecast for next year.

“Demand has not lived up to expectations and pricing has collapsed over the last three quarters,” Aaron Chew, an analyst at Maxim Group LLC in New York, said today in an interview. “Most of the major cell, wafer and module manufacturers are poised to report four quarters in a row of losses and this is just the first one.”

Suntech reported a net loss of $116 million for the third quarter, or 64 cents an American depositary receipt, on sales of $809.8 million. JA Solar posted a net loss of $59 million, or 36 cents an ADR, on sales of $388 million.

Falling Margins

Gross margin, a measure of profitability after accounting for the cost of the goods, was negative 4.3 percent at JA Solar, down from 22.5 percent in the third quarter of 2010. Suntech’s margin fell to 13.3 percent from 17.9 percent.

Hanwha SolarOne Co. reported gross margin of negative 10.8 percent, down from positive 24 percent a year earlier, and LDK Solar Co. fell to negative 3.6 percent from 22.2 percent.

Margin also decline at Canadian Solar Inc., which released its results today, and at JinkoSolar Holding Co. and Trina Solar Ltd, which both issued reports yesterday.

All wrote down inventory in the third quarter except Suntech, which did so in the second.

Suntech rose 17 percent to $2.62 in New York. JA Solar rose 5.3 percent to $1.60, LDK gained 6 percent to $3.00, Canadian Solar increased 13 percent to $2.48 and Hanwha climbed 15 percent to $1.39.


Plant Takes Heat Over Chinese Solar Panels

A massive new Westford solar-power plant heavily subsidized by state and federal aid is using the same kind of cut-rate Chinese solar panels that drove publicly backed Evergreen Solar and Solyndra out of business, drawing the ire of Massachusetts labor and business groups.

“These are types of things that we need to put a stop to,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman told the Herald yesterday. “We know that the best way out of this down economy is (to create) jobs here.”

Robert Rio of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts called it “hypocritical to be using (tax) benefits to create jobs in China.”

Boston’s Cathartes Private Investments and developer/partner Nexamp unveiled the $23 million solar project this week, attracting state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan and bragging that “what distinguishes this project from others is that all of the developers, financiers, operators, utility-partner and end-users will all be Massachusetts companies.”

That’s all true, but the list omits the company making the plant’s solar panels: China’s Suntech Power.

Cathartes chief Jim Goldenberg confirmed yesterday that the panels come from China. He said Cathartes chose Suntech for price reasons.

“The more our project costs to build, the more of a subsidy it’s going to require — which ultimately comes from ratepayers and taxpayers,” he said. The project, built on 22 acres in Westford off of Route 3, will be the state’s largest private solar producer, generating 4.5 megawatt of power.

But Cathartes’ move comes just months after Evergreen filed for bankruptcy despite getting a $58 million state-aid package backed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

The solar-panel maker blamed cheap Chinese competition for its demise, which threw about 800 Bay State employees out of work.

California solar-technology firm Solyndra likewise cited Chinese competition in seeking bankruptcy last month.

Solyndra failed — at a cost of 1,100 jobs — even though President Obama had championed a $535 million federal loan guarantee for the firm.

Cathartes is getting a $6 million U.S. government investment tax credit and a $5.8 million low-interest loan awarded by quasi-public MassDevelopment and funded with federal money.

Patrick yesterday defended the project’s backing, noting that Chinese solar firms compete fiercely.

“It has a whole lot to do with substantial government subsidies that China provides that a state like Massachusetts can’t keep up with,” Patrick told the Herald. “Most developers will (just) look for the best price.”


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Consumers Urged To Install Solar Panels Before Subsidies Cut

Consumers have been warned to install solar panels as soon as possible, in anticipation of fierce subsidy cuts that will make them less financially attractive.

Industry experts fear the government is about to at least halve feed-in tariff (Fit) rates, threatening up to 25,000 solar jobs, after officials were surprised at the speed of take-up.

"If the government goes ahead with the reduction of the rates, it would mean those taking up the scheme in April 2012 will not receive as much money for their energy as those who signed up prior to the changes, so it really is important to start thinking about installing solar technology sooner rather than later," said Helen Booker, solar expert at Npower.

The money allocated to the Fits was set at £867m to 2015, with annual spending of £80m in 2011-12 rising to £161m in the next financial year. But the unexpected degree of enthusiasm for the feed-in tariffs, by which households gain a guaranteed income for every unit of energy their panels produce, means the money is already running out. Current and planned installations add up to about £100m worth of feed-in tariffs, according to the industry.

More than 100,000 microgeneration systems – mostly solar panels – adding up to about 320 megawatts (MW) of capacity have been installed in the UK, nearly all since new feed-in tariff subsidies were introduced in April 2010. Around 100MW more are estimated to be in the pipeline.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates that installations are set to top 500MW, which would far outpace the budget.

Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary, appeared to confirm fears of a subsidy slash last week when he said that the costs of solar technology had come down. "It is absolutely right that the department goes on looking at the appropriate levels of subsidies to bring on these important technologies, and that is obviously what we will do," he said.

Although the subsidies are paid for through small increases on consumers' energy bills, and do not pass through the government at any point, the Treasury insists that they be included on the national balance sheet, which means they add to the deficit.

Ministers are also understood to be wary of headlines in sections of the media proclaiming "green taxes" to be a leading cause of increases in energy bills, though Huhne called such claims "wildly exaggerated" and promised a review of the real costs. He said that as oil and gas prices continue to rise, investments in renewables would bring down bills and protect consumers from price volatility.

Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solarcentury, said: "[This is] the ridiculous spectacle of a government destroying jobs it had only just created to save next to nothing, given the tax paid by those jobholders and the unemployment benefit avoided, merely to pander to a Daily Mail lie machine that has green measures detracting from the national economy rather than adding." He accused the nuclear and gas industries of conducting a propaganda war against green energy.

The widespread rumours of a shake-up are already having an impact. Empower Community, one of the first national-scale social enterprises seeking to use the Fits for community benefits – and to bring large-scale investment from pension funds into the energy sector – called a halt on its project in light of the rumours.

Daniel Green, of solar installer HomeSun, said the level of cut was crucial: "There have been price reductions in the solar market, and it is right that government reduces the tariff. A 25% reduction could be made to work, but anything more than that could be disastrous, placing jobs in jeopardy."

Howard Johns, the chairman of the Solar Trade Association, said: "Industry accepts there's a need to reduce the tariffs – we asked for that months ago. But to go for another knee-jerk fast-track review is highly damaging and puts at risk the 25,000 jobs that the UK solar industry has created. The high take-up of the Fits should be seen as a success story."

Perceptions that the subsidies have been directed to middle-class households are mistaken, according to the industry. Installing solar panels can help to alleviate fuel poverty, and lower income households without the cash to spend upfront on panels can take up deals by which they get the free energy but the installer takes the feed-in tariff income. Dozens of social housing landlords are also working on installing panels on their housing stock, though they have lagged behind the private sector so cuts to the subsidies will hit them disproportionately.

Mother-of-four Amanda Matthews, a customer of solar company Engensa living in Houghton Conquest, said: "The money we save will pay for basic stuff – food, clothes, holidays for our family. Long term we could not continue with energy bills the way they were. Going green is brilliant but this decision is really for us to live."

Engensa cited another example of one customer who was almost forced to move house because of high heating bills, but was able to stay put after taking up a deal to have free panels installed. Green of HomeSun said many of the company's customers were pensioners, for whom the £200 or £300 per year they saved was "critical".

The rates are due to be reviewed in April 2012, but by then – if installations continue to increase at their current rate – the cost for the year will have shot up much higher. No one can predict the future take-up rate, but if the total reached much above £200m, that would be enough to use up the entire budget for the rest of the parliament – because whatever is spent this year is also committed for each of the following three years.

Last week, the government also announced reductions to the subsidies for large-scale renewables such as wind power, which are separate to the feed-in tariffs. Both sets of changes were putting off investors, said Phil McVan of Myriad CEG Power. "Continued government dithering and changes to policies and support is set to strip away investor confidence and it hasn't just hit the brakes but stuck everything into reverse. This leaves the prime minister's 'greenest government ever' boast looking fairly hollow. All the uncertainty has created a wave of frustration and bemusement across the industry, which will mean investors sit on their hands because of the lack of transparency and clarity over what is actually happening."


Just How Desperate Are Chinese Solar Importers?

Coalition says Chinese Importer Group Caught Repeatedly Stretching Truth

The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), seven U.S. manufacturers of crystalline silicon solar cells and panels supported by over 140 U.S. companies and more than 10,000 employees, today called on a group of Chinese solar importers to explain a number of deceptions that CASM contends the importers' news releases have trumpeted.

CASM contends that a news release issued by the Chinese importers on Nov. 15 cherry-picked quotations from a statement of industry trade association Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI), inaccurately implying that the association has taken a position against the SolarWorld-led coalition's trade case alleging illegal Chinese trading practices. In fact, SEMI has assumed a neutral position.

CASM embraces SEMI's statement that the association "has long advocated for a strong, effective and enforceable rules-based international trading system that promotes free and open trade with all parties acting in line with their commitments. This allows companies to compete on the basis of quality, technology and service within a predictable system according to rules that governments have negotiated in bilateral, regional and multilateral settings."

In that light, CASM fully endorses SEMI's support for the right of CASM members, and employers in any U.S. industry, to avail themselves of U.S. and WTO trade laws to determine whether foreign producers are dumping and receiving unlawful subsidies. If Chinese producers are found to violate U.S. and WTO laws, the SEMI statement indicates it would make sense to support the findings of U.S. and international authorities and any remedies associated with them.

In another instance of the importers' deception, an interview in The Oregonian newspaper suggested that backers of the Chinese importers improperly implied a recent study by the nonprofit Environment California on the state's solar incentives supported the position of the importers, according to CASM. In response to a release from the importers on Nov. 14, the Portland newspaper reported on an interview with the California group's leader:

"'We do not have a position on any international trade issue,' said Bernadette Del Chiaro, who directs the nonprofit's clean-energy programs. She said that groups organizing against SolarWorld's trade complaint mistakenly claimed she had taken a position opposing the company's case."

"We are eager to debate the Chinese importers on the facts of our petition," said Ben Santarris, SolarWorld's head of corporate communications and sustainability for the Americas. "However, when the importers deliberately mislead the public about nonprofit groups' positions, you have to wonder whether anything they say can be taken with any degree of credulity."

Moreover, in the importer group's very first news release, it cited a so-called survey by PV Magazine showing 76 percent of respondents opposed the filing of the petition. The importers failed to mention, however, that the "survey" was a voluntary and arbitrary reader-interaction feature in which 140 web surfers answered the magazine's "Question of the Week."

"By almost any standard, to claim that 140 voluntary participants in a reader-interaction feature on a web site with 50,000 unique visitors a month somehow reflects industry or public opinion is patently reckless," said Santarris. "In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association right now is featuring a nationally representative survey on its website that suggests a bipartisan, 82 percent majority of the public supports U.S. solar manufacturing. Maybe that's why the importers are resorting to quoting informal reader features."

The next step in the SolarWorld case will be a Dec. 2 vote by the U.S. International Trade Commission on whether subsidized Chinese exports have harmed the domestic industry. If it finds in favor of the CASM petition, the first possible determination on "critical circumstances" could come as soon as Jan. 12, meaning importers of record could later be required to deposit estimated duties on imports back to this past Oct. 14. The Commerce Department determined Nov. 9 that the petition had support from companies producing more than half of U.S. output and the case raised enough concern to warrant intensive federal investigation.

The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing is made up of seven companies that manufacture solar cells and modules in the United States. These member companies have plants in nearly every region in the United States, including the Northwest and California, the Southwest, Midwest, Northeast and South and support several thousand U.S. manufacturing jobs.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Easy Loans Now a Burden for China Solar Firms

Generous state bank loans to Chinese solar companies, a bone of contention for their Western counterparts, are threatening the financial health of the firms, as they grapple with falling product prices and tumbling demand from their biggest customer, Europe.

The huge funds that flow into China's solar sector, in which local governments hold stakes, have boosted production in the first half despite fragile demand, depressing product prices and setting off an anti-dumping probe by the United States.

State banks provide easy loans to the sector amid the Chinese government's push to develop clean energy. Provincial governments that have helped build solar companies are also pressuring banks to continue lending, which may add to the woes of the struggling industry.

The glut of production and swelling inventories of the panels that turn sunlight into electricity have already driven down prices by about 40 percent so far this year. Analysts expect prices to slide by another 10 percent by early next year.

"The longer and larger the Chinese bank lending bubble for solar inflates, the sharper and more unpredictable will the eventual fundamental correction be due to industry consolidation," Credit Suisse analyst Satya Kumar said.

"We need much sharper production cuts, which will only happen when the debt bubble bursts," he said, warning that the industry may suffer a prolonged period of depressed product prices unless China tightens lending.

Total borrowings at top 13 listed Chinese solar companies had doubled to about $15 billion as of June 30 from a year ago, according to CLSA. Majority of those debts are with Chinese banks and are due within a year.


China's support to its companies has angered U.S. solar firms, which say Chinese producers can undercut American prices as they receive massive cash grants and other subsidies.

However, mounting unsold products, spiraling debts, shrinking profits and a worsening market could lead to a major shakeout of the legions of weaker Chinese companies, analysts and bankers say.

"Over the next six months, there won't be profits to be made," said CLSA's solar analyst Charles Yonts. He expects some companies to start defaulting on loans and put themselves up for sale.

"Balance sheets across the solar sector are already stretched to breaking."

China's LDK Solar Co Ltd last week sharply lowered its revenue outlook due to price falls, joining First Solar Inc, Trina Solar Ltd, Yingli Green Energy Holding Co Ltd and Renesola Ltd, among others, in cutting targets for the year.

Among the U.S.-listed Chinese firms such as LDK Solar, Suntech Power Holdings and Canadian Solar, LDK has the highest credit risk, according to CLSA.

Wells Fargo solar analyst Sam Dubinsky dropped coverage of LDK last week, saying he was "not convinced shares are a viable investment," due to increasing liquidity risks in light of its balance sheet geared to short-term borrowings.

LDK did not respond to an email from Reuters seeking comment about its credit position.

Canadian Solar, China Sunergy, LDK and Suntech had net gearing ratios -- a measure of financial leverage -- of more than 100 percent, making them vulnerable to any further slide in product prices, analysts said. The median net gearing of companies in the sector is 46 percent.


Despite requests for more lending from local governments, Chinese banks in Jiangsu, one of the country's largest solar panel production bases, are tightening lending for local solar companies, according to banking sources.

"We are worried about this industry every day," a senior loan banker who has knowledge of loan arrangements with Chinese solar companies told Basis Point, a Thomson Reuters publication.

"The industry is going through a painful reshuffle. Some companies will face tremendous problems and even go bankrupt," said the banker, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Cash-strapped companies may be forced to raise capital on poor terms or cut investments if banks tighten funding.

Shanghai-based solar panel maker JinkoSolar Holding has raised short-term bank-accepted notes in the second quarter by eight folds from a year ago to pay its suppliers, highlighting the liquidity challenges faced by the industry, according to Susquehanna Financial.

JinkoSolar's Chief Financial Officer Longgen Zhang said issuing bank-accepted notes is a common industry practice.

"It helps keep a healthy cash flow," the CFO said, adding that the company keeps a strong balance sheet.

Banks are also becoming more selective in extending loans amid growing fears that the industry may face further difficulties.

"Banks are becoming uncomfortable with many companies' debt levels and as a result, are likely to become unsupportive to uncompetitive producers," said Colm O'Connor, fund manager at KBC Eco Fund Alternative Energy.

But relatively big firms such as GCL-Poly Energy Holdings and Trina Solar should be able to survive the downturn as they enjoy the support from their state shareholders or local governments -- who need to keep the plants afloat to boost employment.

"The companies are large employers. Local governments will strongly encourage banks not to close out lines of credit and roll over short term debts," said an analyst who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

LDK, which is backed by the Jiangxi provincial government, plans to triple its polysilicon capacity to 55,000 metric tons by 2013, just as it braces for lower revenue.

In September, China Development Bank, one of China's three policy-oriented banks, approved a $713 million loan deal with GCL Poly, which is 20 percent owned by sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp.


Solar Panels Unveiled During Ceremony At Carson High School

Taking a drive along the freeway through Carson City, said Mark Korinek, it is apparent what the town values.

“As you drive, you'll see the 1.2-megawatt solar array at the National Guard,” he said. “Then you'll see the 300-kilowatt array at Eagle Valley Middle School.”

Korinek, operations manager for the Carson City School District, went on to list solar arrays on state and city buildings and more planned to be built at Western Nevada College.

Those, combined with the 9,604 photovoltaic solar panels installed at five schools throughout the district, create about 4 megawatts of power.

“I believe, per capita, we could call Carson City ‘Solar City,'” he told the crowd gathered Wednesday to celebrate the completion of the 195,000 square feet of solar arrays installed throughout the district.

The ceremony was held next to the five acres of photovoltaic panels at Carson High School, Nevada's largest site-servicing solar project.

“What a great privilege and honor it is to be mayor of Solar City,” said Mayor Bob Crowell. “This is what Nevada is all about, and this is what Carson City is all about.”

The project came to fruition with a partnership between the Carson City School District and Reno's Hamilton Solar Inc.

Representatives for Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., presented both organizations with letters of commendation.

“(Heller) loves the partnership element that went into this,” said Pam Robinson.

Richard Stokes, superintendent of the Carson City School District, likened solar energy to the “black gold” discovered by the Beverly Hillbillies.

“In this great Nevada sun, we have the ability to generate electricity that will generate money that can be used in the classrooms, paying teacher salaries, and growing curriculum. It's really going to be a tremendous boon for the Carson City School District,” he said.

A rebate through NV Energy reduced the district's $11 million bill for the project to $1.25 million.

Korinek said the panels are expected save about 3 million kilowatt-hours per year, which, depending on energy costs, could be about $400,000 annually.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Solar, Wind Systems Pose New Dangers For Firefighters

As fire calls go, this one on a cold January night earlier this year was most unusual for Villas Fire Chief Richard Harron Jr.

Stiff winds were causing a Bay Drive windmill to spin out of control. The brake failed and the turbine was sending large amounts of electricity into connections in the homeowner’s garage. If there was an off switch somewhere, Harron didn’t know where it was. Even after an electrical panel was pulled on the 10-kilowatt windmill, the system was still creating electricity. The windmill company had to be called to come and cut the connections.

“The emergency disconnect actually failed. It didn’t work. It caused an electrical surge and fire in the electrical components in the garage,” Harron said.

Since then Harron has made sure his firefighters have training in dealing with alternative energy systems including wind turbines and solar panel arrays.

It’s a side to alternative energy the public doesn’t hear much about. Such systems create electricity. Even if power is turned off to the home, and incident commanders at fires typically have dispatchers call the electric company to do this right away, solar panels and windmills keep churning out energy as long as the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

This can cause fires and be a danger to those responding. Harron said it isn’t just firefighters in danger but also police officers, EMTs and others at the scene.

One problem is a lot of new technology is coming out and there seems to be as many differences as similarities.

“Every system is different. One company says it can never happen. Another says it could happen. They all should have electrical shut-offs. They should be on all solar and windmill systems,” Harron said.

Shutting off the system may not be enough. A solar panel system is still charged with energy between the panels and the electrical connections. It can cause a potentially dangerous shock.

A typical residential solar panel system has a maximum of 600 volts. This is considered a low-voltage threat, but nationwide nearly 300 workers a year die from such low voltage electrical incidents, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Fire Safety.

“The one problem is you can’t shut these things off. If there is light, there will be power,” said acting Director Bill Kramer of the Division of Fire Safety.

Kramer, a firefighter for 38 years, said firefighters must treat alternative energy systems as they would other systems.

“The bottom line is we have to treat them like any other live electric, because they are. We deal with live electric every day. I don’t think it’s anything we should be scared of,” Kramer said.

The division has created a PowerPoint training program that is available to fire companies.

Kramer said the division is working to create building codes to alert firefighters to alternative energy systems in their towns. This would allow firefighters to do something called a pre-plan, in which they study a property in advance and have details on any features relevant to fighting a fire.

“We’d like to develop a mechanism where a (construction) permit is pulled and the Fire Service is notified. They can make contact with the installer and pre-plan that system,” Kramer said.

A pre-plan for a solar array on the roof of a house could be important. Firefighters often ventilate smoke from a fire by cutting a hole in the roof, so they need to know in advance where panels are.

Firefighters can’t cut off energy being collected by the panels, but there usually is a way to stop it somewhere between the panels and the electric meter.

Kramer said there have been some solar systems that have failed and caused a fire, and the division is still investigating the Bay Drive windmill incident, but the main worry is not the systems causing the fire. The main worry is firefighters arriving to fight a structure fire and having to work around a fully charged alternative energy system.

A typical system

As long as the sun is out, solar panels are hot. The sunlight excites electrons on the panels and knocks them loose. Conductors capture them and create an electric current.

The DCA even warns that spotlights at night can create electrical current in the panels. It warns firefighters that covering the panels with tarps may not be enough to shut them down.

“Treat all systems as energized regardless of the time of day,” advises the DCA PowerPoint presentation.

If a panel breaks, all the electricity in the system can be released at the break point.

But the systems typically have some shut-offs. The panels create DC, or direct current, and there is often a DC disconnect box. This current is funneled to an inverter that converts the DC to AC, or alternating current. There is often an AC shut-off as well. Connections before the shut-offs would still be hot.

“There are no state laws that say they have to identify where the shut-offs are. Nothing is pre-labeled. It’s on us and on the homeowner,” said Harron.

After the inverter there is a breaker panel that can send AC power to the house, with the excess going to a meter and then the region’s power grid.

A windmill also sends power to an inverter and presents similar dangers to firefighters such as shock, ventricular fibrillation, thermal injury, and, if the equipment catches fire, inhalation issues.

Some alternative energy systems store excess energy in lead-acid batteries, which creates additional hazards. Batteries can create dangerous gases in a fire.

The weight of the systems is another issue. A 40-panel solar array adds 1,400 pounds to the load on the roof. New technology is even using roof or siding shingles as photovoltaic solar cells.

Cape May Fire Chief Jerry Inderwies would like to see a symbol developed alerting responders to such systems, similar to the triangle symbols used to warn about truss roof and floor construction.

“It would be nice if the building was marked, if that was the code. If there’s a snowstorm and the roof is covered, you might not see it,” Inderwies said.

He also would like to learn more about shut-off switches, and hopes the homeowner will at least learn where they are. His department is taking a class on solar systems later this month.

“We’re aware of it. I’ve handed out a lot of literature to my personnel from the Internet. It’s cropping up, and we have to deal with it,” Inderwies said.

A solar state

There are only a handful of wind turbines in the region, but solar arrays are being built at such a rate that New Jersey recently passed California as the No. 1 state for the type of solar panels that create electricity, photovoltaic systems. New Jersey has 24 percent of the nation’s photovoltaic panels, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, with 11,245 systems generating more than 430 megawatts of power.

Many are large commercial projects spurred by federal tax credits, state incentives including no sales tax, and payments made mostly by utility companies that burn fossil fuels.

Bigger projects may be more important to pre-plan. The Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority is about to activate a 1.3-megawatt solar field, featuring 5,473 panels covering seven acres of ground at the Bayshore Road plant, in Harron’s fire district.

“We’re going to train on that. The MUA is going to assist us with the training,” Harron said.

Authority Executive Director Matthew Ecker said the solar system takes conventional electric energy to power the equipment that converts DC current to AC current. In a power outage, Ecker said this equipment would not operate and there would be no electricity from the panels going to the utility or the power grid.

“Energy is collected but not transferred. It’s stored,” Ecker said.

Harron is still worried about all that power being there when firefighters arrive.

“It’s like the hybrid cars. Its new technology all the fire departments have to overcome,” Harron said.

Feds getting involved

The National Fire Protection Association has a task force looking into changes to the electrical code to protect first responders. It could result in a standard way to shut down the energy leaving the system. The NFPA’s Mark Earley said the code requires shut-offs, but they are not the same for all systems.

“First responders are looking for an easy way, a rapid way, to disconnect. They need the installers to make a system to easily do these kinds of things,” said Earley.

Still, he noted solar systems are still energized at the panels even if this energy is not being distributed.

Underwriters Laboratories, a private nonprofit organization that tests and certifies products, has been studying the problems under a Department of Homeland Security grant.

“An on-line training program for firefighters should be complete next month. We work with fire departments,” said the UL’s Fire Protection Engineer Robert Backstrom.


Schools' Solar-Powered Electric Vehicle Charging Stations First in Nation

Solar-Powered Twin Hills Schools May Be America's Greenest District's Growing Enrollment, Expanding Budgets Counter National Trend

When Twin Hills School District recently unveiled its new electric vehicle charging stations, it became the first public school district in the nation to let teachers, staff, parents and the community recharge their cars on campus using solar power.

The charging stations, powered by solar arrays, make the four-campus district America's greenest, according to Les Crawford, its superintendent. The solar arrays and charging stations were made possible through Measure M funds, resulting from a county-wide ballot initiative that earmarked sales tax receipts for infrastructure improvements. The investment in solar power reduces the district's utility bills to near zero and will pay for itself in just a few years.

"Allowing members of the community to use the PEP (plug-in electric power) stations is one way we can thank the community for coming through for us with Measure M funding," said Crawford. "And it's nice to know we're contributing to a cleaner environment for all of us, not just our Twin Hills community."

In 2007, the district teamed up with Persinger Architects and Associates, a local design firm, to create a plan for greening the campuses in the 56-year-old district whose oldest school, Apple Blossom, dates to 1958. In addition to installing PEP Stations and enough solar arrays to enable three of its four campuses to drive 100% of their electricity needs from solar power, saving $85,000 in annual utility costs (and creating shaded parking spaces and outdoor areas where kids eat their lunch), the district implemented one of the nation's most aggressive recycling programs, reducing its solid waste to near zero. A renewable energy curriculum brings the greening initiative into every Twin Hills district classroom.

"We are committed to providing sustainable and environmentally responsible architectural services to California's schools and we're delighted to have worked on this project with the Twin Hills School District. Integrating the solar arrays into the covered walkways and car (and kid) ports marries design and functionality into everyday structures found on school campuses," said Alexis Persinger, Principal Architect of Persinger Architects. "We hope our sustainable and ecologically-sound designs inspire parents and students alike."

Solar power and electric-vehicle charging stations aren't the only innovations at Twin Hills School District; they're just two of the ways this small, semi-rural public school system is bucking a national trend.

The four schools that make up the Twin Hills School District in western Sonoma County, about an hour north of San Francisco, are adding art, music and technology classes while maintaining class sizes at 20 in grades K-3 and 28 in grades 4-8, without layoffs or schedule reductions, and achieving stellar academic performance. These impressive statistics have enabled the district to draw students from across a wide geographic area encompassing both Sonoma and Marin counties.

"Think private, act public," is what Superintendent Les Crawford tells his teachers. "If you don't act entrepreneurial, you will get stuck, which is the problem with many public school systems. When you get stuck, you cut instructional days, increase class size, layoff teachers. You've got to think like a business. Look where you're going next, not where you've been. That's the only way you're going to increase enrollment by 40% in this economy."

"At a time when other districts are cutting and declining, we're adding and improving," notes Superintendent Crawford. "Whether we're a model for other districts nationally is not my call. What I do know is that even a public school district can think like a business by being responsive to the needs and concerns of its client population. For us, that means treating students with respect, acting responsibly toward our staff, being stewards of the environment, and good citizens in the community."


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Toray Unveils State's Largest Solar Farm

Rhode Island's largest consumer of electricity is getting a power boost from its new solar farm.

Spanning three acres in the heart of Quonset Business Park, Toray Plastics America unveiled its new solar farm recently — the largest solar farm in Rhode Island.

Construction on the $2-million project finished in August, nearly a year after Toray began the process to install the 445-kilowatt solar photovoltaic farm. Comprised of 1,650 solar panels between two separate farms on Toray’s 85.5-acre campus, the farms are expected to generate 624,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year to help the company offset its electricity costs.

Toray Plastics, which has locations in 19 countries under its parent company Toray Industries, specializes in manufacturing materials such as films formerly found in VHS tapes, carbon fiber (like the one used in the energy efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which uses 20 percent less fuel) and the aluminum lining in potato chip bags.

But, something as simple as the lining in your Doritos bag takes electricity, and lots of it. Toray is the state’s largest consumer of energy, and with rising electricity costs, the company is looking to lessen the blow of its electric bill. Since Toray built its plant in Quonset, it has seen its electricity costs rise from $11 million in the mid 1990s to $25 million today. The Institute for Energy Research reports Rhode Island has the eighth-highest electricity price per kilowatt hour in the nation. The power generated from the solar farm amounts to less than one percent of Toray’s needed power, according to Toray.

The 1,650 panels rotate on an axis, pivoting east to west with the movement of the sun, taking a total of 30 minutes to pitch from one side to the other.

The panels were immediately put to the test only a few weeks after construction wrapped up as Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the region. But, the panels held up to the strong winds and members of Toray are optimistic about the farm’s next weather obstacle — this year’s winter. Osada says that the panels can be rotated up to a 50Âș angle to avoid snow piling up on top of them.

The project was financed by Toray and state and federal funds, including stimulus funding from the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Toray also received a $1 million grant from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation

“If we didn’t have that stimulus money, we couldn’t have made this project,” said Senior Vice President Shigeru Osada.

Toray estimates that the project will have paid for itself in about three years — 35 years if the stimulus money had been absent.


Solar Thin Films, Inc. Reaches Agreements for Option to Convert Debt

Solar Thin Films, Inc. today announced that certain entities had entered into agreements with two of the Company's largest creditors granting each of the Entities an option to purchase the debt which was owed to them by the Company. These Entities entered into agreements with the Company in which the Company gave each of the Entities an option to convert an aggregate of $836,506.51 of the Company's debt into shares of the Company's common stock at a conversion price of $0.01 per share. There can be no assurance that any of these options will be exercised. The Company remains liable for the full payment of the principal, interest and all obligations pursuant to its indebtedness to the creditors if the options are not exercised.

Management has been advised that during the month of October another entity (the "Entity") will enter into an agreement with the Company's largest creditors granting the Entity an option to purchase the debt which was owed to such creditor by the Company. This Entity intends to enter into an agreement with the Company granting an option to the Entity to convert an aggregate of $1,176,466 of the Company's debt into shares of the Company's common stock at a conversion price of $0.03 per share. There can be no assurance that this option will be exercised. The Company will remain liable for the full payment of the principal, interest and all obligations pursuant to the Company's indebtedness to such creditor if the option is not exercised.

If all of the options are exercised, this will be a major step in cleaning up the Company's balance sheet. In addition, the Company intends to restructure itself into an international developer and syndicator of solar power projects.

About Solar Thin Films, Inc. Solar Thin Films, Inc. was formerly engaged in the manufacturing of solar module production equipment and turn-key amorphous silicon module factories. The Company is establishing itself as, an international developer and syndicator of solar power projects.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Early Efficient House Finally Gets Solar Installation

Solar power has exploded onto the scene in recent years along with a host of other renewable energy sources and an increased focus on efficiency. High electricity bills and gasoline prices have convinced many Americans that it is finally time to take alternative energy seriously and the country has already started to see the benefits.

But this is not the first time the country has taken such an interest. In the early 1970s, the relatively young Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to flex its muscle and implement an embargo, sending prices for almost everything skyrocketing. Immediately the country began to take concerns about energy security seriously, implementing numerous programs to promote efficiency and independence from fossil fuels.

One of these programs was Solar Energy Research Institute, which has since transformed into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado. The SERI and the NREL after it have pushed the envelope of renewable energy efficiency regularly, but John Avenson is still benefiting from the agency's earliest projects.

In 1982, SERI attempted to construct the "house of the future" in the nearby Denver suburb of Westminster. The goal of the house was to use cutting edge techniques to reduce the need for electricity and heating. Windows and roofs were designed to make use of sunlight during the cooler winter months and provide shade in the summer. Thick walls and an insulated foundation sought to retain as much of house's heat as possible.

Yet, the technologies available to SERI in the early 1980s simply does not compare with the options available now. Since buying the house, John has gone to even greater lengths to improve his energy efficiency, conducting audits of most aspects of his house, upgrading light switches, installing LEDs and supplementing the insulation. He even negated the need for lighting during the day with SolaTubes, a product that makes clever use of sunlight by reflecting it throughout the house.

Most importantly, however, John added a substantial residential solar installation. SERI knew solar power was the future of electricity, but they also knew the technology at the time simply had not advanced far enough. Instead, the agency made the house solar-ready, with the roof perfectly designed to hold solar panels and much of the other infrastructure in place. So in 2006, John contacted Colorado solar installer SolSource about adding a rooftop solar installation.

SolSource added 28 solar panels, each boasting a capacity of 170 watts, to the house. Overall the system can produce as much as 4.7 kilowatts of solar power at peak capacity and at any given point, John estimates the solar system puts out around 3.8 kilowatts. Each month the system produces around 585 kilowatt-hours, and John estimates he saves around $65 on electricity alone each month. SolSource even provided a meter that John could use to monitor his energy usage and production, showing that over the course of the installation's lifetime it has produced more than 32.4 megawatt-hours. Shockingly, his net usage over five years amounts to only 539 kilowatt-hours, less than half of the amount the average American household used in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Of course, according to the EIA, residential electricity rates in Colorado have risen since 2006 from 9.02 cents per kilowatt-hour to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009. Through July of 2011, the EIA reports that prices had risen as high as 11.17 cents per kilowatt-hour. That represents a nearly 24 percent increase in only five years. As prices continue to climb, these savings will only grow.


China Trade Petition Divides Solar Industry

The U.S. solar industry is divided over a petition by a handful of companies aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to impose duties on Chinese solar imports.

The rift within the industry – which has pitted a group of seven solar panel manufacturers against major solar developers and power generators – underscores the complexity of the United States’ trade relationship with China on renewable energy.

SolarWorld Industries America, a solar panel manufacturer, filed petitions Wednesday with the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission alleging that China is illegally subsidizing its solar industry.

The company alleges that China is flooding the U.S. market with underpriced solar panels and subsidizing its solar industry in violation of World Trade Organization rules. China’s efforts, the company says, are burdening U.S. solar manufacturers and are partly responsible for seven U.S. companies going out of business or downsizing in the last year.

Among the U.S. solar panel manufacturers that have collapsed this year is Solyndra, which received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Obama administration in 2009. The company declared bankruptcy in early September after laying off 1,000 workers, igniting a firestorm in Washington over investment in renewable energy.

“The Chinese industry is illegally seizing control of the U.S. solar market and manufacturing and our jobs,” SolarWorld President Gordon Brinser told reporters earlier this week when the company announced the petition. “Solar technology was invented here and we intend to keep it here."

The petition has caused a backlash in parts of the solar industry, with several companies raising concerns that the effort will hurt some solar companies by raising the cost of panels.

“Putting a trade barrier in place that would protect this market and keep it safe for a group of manufacturers who can’t compete would stop growth,” said Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, a solar developer.

“These companies can’t compete in the market so they’re trying to use tariffs so they can sell their more expensive panels.”

Julie Blunden, vice president of external affairs at SunPower, echoed Harris’s opposition to the petition.

“We think it’s an unfortunate distraction,” she told reporters earlier this week.

Solar panel prices have dropped by more than 40 percent in 2011. That’s great news for U.S. solar developers and generators, who have access to an inexpensive product.

But U.S. manufacturers are struggling to compete with countries like China, which has invested billions to build its domestic solar industry and produces huge quantities of cheap panels.

Harris said lower cost solar panels are essential for the success of the industry.

“It’s a global industry and I think what you have going on here is an industry that’s having a tremendous amount of success in driving the cost down,” Harris said. “Those cost reductions are really key to the future of the industry and it’s what’s driving its growth and success.”

But companies like SolarWorld say that they simply can’t compete with the low-cost solar panels produced by China.

The company’s 3,000-page petition alleges that China subsidizes its raw materials, provides preferential loans and offers discounted land, power and water to companies, among other things. The petition also says China is “dumping” underpriced solar panels into the market, making it impossible for U.S. companies to compete.

“These subsidies are enormous in size and scope and they are illegal under U.S. law and World Trade Organization law,” Timothy Brightbill, counsel for SolarWorld, told reporters Wednesday.

Six other solar manufacturers have signed on to the SolarWorld petition. But all of the other companies remain anonymous, fearing backlash for challenging China.

Shayle Kann, a solar industry analyst at GTM Research, said cheap solar panels from China and other countries have been a boon for the solar industry in general, but have made it tough for U.S. manufacturers to stay in business.

“There’s been an extended trend of manufacturing of solar panels moving to China. It’s similar to other industries, a big part of that is that they’ve been able to manufacture cheaply,” Kann said.

“The upside of that is solar panels have gotten a lot cheaper over the last several years, the downside is that it’s come at the expense of manufacturers in Europe and the U.S.”

But Kann said it’s still unclear whether China is violating trade rules.

The solar industry’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, has not taken a formal position on the petition, noting that it has a broad membership that likely has differing positions on China’s role in the solar sector.

“Falling prices are good for consumers, we’ve said that and we think that’s a good thing,” Tom Kimbis, SEIA’s general counsel, told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “This case will determine if price reductions are a result of unfair trade activity.”

Solar industry executives say the industry is experiencing major growth in the United States, despite criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill who have raised red flags about renewable energy in light of the Solyndra debacle.

They point to a recent study that says the U.S. solar industry employed more than 100,000 people in 2011, a 6.8 percent increase from last year. A separate study says solar panel installations increased by nearly 70 percent in the second quarter of 2011 when compared to the same period last year.

Harris says the petition distracts from the industry’s recent successes.

“Well, I think it’s a disappointment because it masks the success the industry has really seen,” he said.