Monday, January 31, 2011

Good News for Solar Hot Water System Rebates

Good news for New Hampshire residents mulling over the idea of buying solar powered hot water systems: a new mix of federal and state rebates and tax credits.

The state's Public Utilities Commission has expanded its maximum rebate to $2,900.

Broken down, that's a maximum $2,000 from federal stimulus money (which was raised from $750) plus a maximum $900 available from New Hampshire's renewable energy program. And another piece of good news: folks getting the maximum $2,900 rebate can also get a 30 percent federal tax credit.

Not everybody gets the maximum, though.

The amount of your rebate depends on the power potential of your solar system.

Kate Epsen of the PUC explained that if you purchase a $10,000 system that produces 6 to 19.9 MBTU (million British Thermal Units), the mixed state and federal incentive, plus the IRS federal tax credit, can be as much as $5,000.

For systems that are 20 to 29.9 MMBTU, the number goes to $5,150 available and for systems of 30 MMBTU or higher, the incentive climbs to $5,300, assuming the same purchase price. Larger systems however cost more money upfront, she said, which increases the federal tax credit in turn.

Companies like Revision Energy have set out to explain to potential customers what the rebates can mean for them. In one scenario, the company says a typical residential project involving 2 flat plate collectors that produce around 18.25MMBTU and cost $10,500 can mean an incentive package that adds up to $5,750.

There is, however, a flip side to New Hampshire's move to increase the amount of the individual rebate: it lowered the number of slots to about 248, meaning that folks wanting to take advantage should hurry in order to get the $2,000 federal chunk. The state portion of the rebate will likely continue even when the federal money runs out.

Epsen says that the PUC's new rebate structure has increased interest. The commission has processed 133 applications out of which 112 qualified for the $2,000 federal rebate.

In order to receive the requisite $2000 federal rebate, Epsen said, applications must be processed and invoices issued before February of 2012.

More on federal credit

The 30 percent federal tax credit — established by Congress in 2005 and labeled the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit — was capped at $2,000 for sun-powered energy systems. But that cap has been removed. So, when calculating the costs at tax time, you can include the not only your new system's equipment costs but also labor. And you can carry the credit forward into other tax years too.

Jim Gamble, owner of GreenSource Energy Solutions Solar Store in Concord, argues that customers should hurry because the funding history of the Renewable Energy Fund is inconsistent largely because it depends on utility payments under New Hampshire's Renewable Portfolio standard.

"We saw how quickly the funds dried up for the residential solar electric rebate last year," said Gamble.

Sarah Brown, president of Green Alliance, an organization that promotes environmentally responsible businesses, agrees.

"Everyone is very concerned about what the new Republican state leadership will do in terms of axing state incentives," she said. "They have made it clear that they are looking to do that."

Brown said several New Hampshire and Maine solar companies are beginning to offer unique financing options to spread initial costs of getting a solar system up and running.

Her group works with Dover-based Seacoast Energy Alternatives (SEA) Revolution Energy, as well as Concord-based Green Source Energy Solutions, companies she said are working to take the "initial financial pain out of what is a long-term cost saver."

She said that some area companies, for example, are teaming with mortgage and loan companies to make it so that a new solar system is seen as a home equity investment by a lender.

"The major hurdle for most businesses or residences considering solar is the initial up-front cost," said Brown. "So of course rebates help reduce this risk and the financing is like the icing on the cake.

"Combining rebates, tax credits and financing is the magic triangle that is really going to put solar on the map for the entire Northeast."


Solar Panel Efficiency Improved with Ferrocene

Scientists at Melbourne's Monash University have developed a new generation of solar cells which they say could lead to significant improvements in solar panel efficiency.

A report in the journal Nature Chemistry details the Melbourne team's research.

The technology they are developing uses dye sensitised solar cells containing electrolytes made out of an iron-based organometallic compound called ferrocene. Ferrocene is also called a "sandwich compound", because it sandwiches an iron atom between two organic rings to form a highly stable compound structure.

Their research into solar cells using this 'iron sandwich' is published today in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Dye sensitized solar cell technology has been around for more than 20 years. Until now the cells have worked by using iodide based electrolytes, and a chemical compound dye to absorb sunlight.

Solar cells based on this technology have proved to be viable low-cost alternatives to conventional silicon solar cells. They're found in products such as flexible back pack solar panels used to charge cell phone batteries.

Lead author, Monash PhD student Torben Daeneke, together with Dr Udo Bach, Professor Leone Spiccia, and colleagues, have replaced the traditional iodide electrolyte with a ferrocene compound.

Rising solar energy efficiencies

Bach says the solar cells using the ferrocene compound electrolytes were found to have energy conversion efficiencies approaching that of iodide.

"Extensive research around the world since 1991 has improved the energy conversion efficiency of traditional iodide electrolytes to about 12 per cent."

"But in just 2 years of work, a single PhD student at Monash was able to achieve energy conversion efficiencies of 7.5 per cent using ferrocene compound electrolytes."

"And since the paper was submitted for publication, that's gone up to 8 per cent," says Bach.

Silicon based solar cells achieve energy conversion efficiencies of 20 per cent.

Iodide problems

Improvements in the performance of iodide based electrolytes by small adjustments in the types of chemicals used for the electrolyte are petering out.

Bach says while there are other ways to try and improve them, they still have limitations because of their complex chemistry and corrosive nature.

"Previous efforts to use non corrosive ferrocene type metal compounds as the electrolyte have resulted in poor performance with far less conversion efficiency," he says.

"What's different this time was our decision to exclude oxygen during the assembly process."

Bach explains that they have overcome the problem of electrolytes decomposing in oxygen, by constructing the cells in an environment filled with an inert gas.

"Another problem with ferrocene is its strong charge recombination effect which causes charge carriers generated through photon conversion to recombine before their energy can be collected."

Bach says a number of specific changes were made to suppress this recombination effect.

"We included additives to cut down recombination, customized the semi conductor layer and used an organic dye with stronger light absorbing properties, developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne."

One of the great advantages of ferrocene, is the ease with which its structure can be altered, a property that could be used to further improve its efficiency.

Bach says research will now focus on improving the system to fine tune the electrochemical properties, slightly modify the chemical structure and evaluate the stability of the ferrocene based solar cell.

Dr Ashraf Uddin from the University of New South Wales School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy says the Melbourne-based researchers seem to be addressing an important issue in improving the energy conversion efficiencies of ferrocene electrolytes. But he raises several potential obstacles.

"We also need to know more about the product's reliability, the sort of durability or life span the cells are likely to have. And then there's the issue of production costs."

Uddin says these types of solar cells could do more than recharge cell phones and laptop computers.

"They could be included in the body work of cars or on the walls of buildings to help generate electricity."


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Solar Power Going Plastic

Cheaper and lighter compared to its more expensive, cumbersome silicon cousin, plastic photovoltaics (PV) could herald a revolution in the solar power market, according to a UK solar panel expert.

"Plastics are much cheaper to process than silicon. In principle the devices we've been making might be very, very cheap and cover large areas," said David Lidzey from the UK's University of Sheffield.

Unlike rigid silicon panels, plastic (or organic) PV is far more flexible making it easier to install, which Lidzey says could hand it a huge advantage.

"If you've got panels that almost roll up like a big sheet of wallpaper then that might be a very good way of powering developing countries," he said

Polymer solar panels differ from most commercial plastics like polythene which are essentially insulators.

Turning them from a material that prevents conductivity into ones that promote it requires chemists to "tweak their molecular structure," says Lidzey.

But he says some everyday plastic products aren't a million miles away from the plastic PV he's researching.

"If you look at a (chip) packet, what you've got is a plastic film, a few layers of inks and a printed metal layer to keep the materials fresh. Rearrange the order of those layers and you get to a structure that's very similar to the PV devices we're looking at," Lidzey said.

On of the leading lights in developing plastic PV is U.S.-based tech company, Konarka who are already applying their "Power Plastic" technology to a wide range of products including luggage and parasols.

Larger arrays are also being fitted to street furniture, as can be seen with San Francisco's bus shelters.

Researchers are also hopeful that buildings could also get the plastic treatment in the future.

In 2009, Konarka installed a "curtain wall" to an outside section of its Florida offices as part of a pilot project.

Plastic PV, say the company, can absorb sunlight from "all sorts of ranges" allowing it to be installed onto vertical walls.

Founded in 2001, Konarka are one of many companies trying to perfect the technology. And the news is increasingly promising. But there are some issues to be resolved before plastic can truly find its place in the sun.

Whereas silicon has an efficiency of around 15-18%, plastic devices can only achieve 7-8% at best, currently.

Problems also remain with operational lifetime. Silicon devices will generally last around 20 years and are very stable, Lidzey says.

Organic-based (plastic) systems are less so, degrading much more quickly. But things are improving.

"There is a lot of activity to find out what the mechanisms are by which these materials degrade so we can produce better packaging materials to prevent this," Lidzey said.

He concedes there is some way to go before plastic PV catches up with silicon's superior efficiency and durability, but even that might not be an issue, he says.

"The idea is that you might not need to catch up provided you can make them cheap enough," he said.

"My guess is that it will be between five and ten years, and then we will see a significant volume of devices being made from plastic."


Japan May Cut Solar Feed-in-Tariff

Japan may cut the rate that utilities pay for surplus solar power supplied by households by 12.5 percent in the year starting April, the Nikkei reported, without saying where it got the information.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to lower the feed-in tariff to 42 yen (51 cents) per kilowatt, the newspaper said. The current rate is 48 yen per kilowatt.

Japan introduced the feed-in tariff in November 2009 to encourage use of clean energy and help cut the country’s carbon emissions. The tariff will be reduced because the cost of solar panels has fallen, the Nikkei said.

The ministry will make a final decision by mid-February, according to the Nikkei.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Solar Company Announces Three Florida Projects

Nautilus Solar Energy, LLC ("Nautilus Solar") announced today its entry into the Florida solar market with the acquisition and development of two distributed generation projects, as well as the development of a third greenfield utility scale project. In Gainesville, Nautilus Solar is currently constructing the Green Cove 131 kW solar photovoltaic project at the Regional Airport, and a 352 kW solar system on the roof of The Exchange Shopping Center.

For both projects in Gainesville, Nautilus Solar entered into a Power Purchase Agreement with the Gainesville Regional Utility ("GRU") under its Feed-in-Tariff program. Under this agreement, the GRU has agreed to buy the power generated at a fixed rate for 20 years. Construction of both systems is expected to be completed by the end of April 2011.

Nautilus Solar CEO James M. Rice said, "With these projects we are pleased to enter into the Florida Solar Market. Gainesville Regional Utility has shown renewable energy leadership by offering one of the first municipal Solar Feed-in-Tariff programs in the country. We look forward to working with them on these project and others in the future."

The Green Cove solar project is being installed on two RD Air Services, LLC hangers. Each hanger will support approximately 273 solar panels, totaling 65.52 kW. The project will be built and operated by Pure Energy Solar International, Inc.

The Exchange solar project is being installed on the rooftop of Stafford Properties' Exchange Shopping Center. Utilizing 1,500 solar panels, the system will produce enough power for 40-50 homes in the surrounding area. Early development of the project was completed by Bright Path Energy and The Real Thing. The project is being built by Inman Solar.

Based on standards set by the U.S. EPA, by generating 637,969 kWh of solar energy annually, the two Gainesville projects will offset approximately 458 metric tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of keeping 88 cars off the road.

In Taylor County, Nautilus Solar is developing a 10 MW project that has a site under option with a completed environmental review. The project is moving forward based on a ground mount 10 MW single axis tracking system. Once complete, the project will provide a $45-50 million investment in a county designated as a Rural Area of Critical Economic Concern. Additionally, through cooperation with Taylor Technical Institute, the project will provide educational and training opportunities for students.


TVA Unveils Electric Vehicle Charging Station Prototype

With nary a sunbeam in sight, TVA and the Electric Power Research Institute on Tuesday unveiled a concept for charging the electric vehicles that are just beginning to hit the local highways.

Equipped with about 12 kilowatts' worth of solar panels and a battery array with about five kilowatt-hours of storage, the six-parking-spot station will be used to analyze the potential impact of electric vehicles on the electric grid as well as ways to supplement that power. It is the first of two such stations to be built in East Tennessee and will serve as a research prototype to model how electric cars can be juiced up when they're away from home.

"We want to be the fuel that supplies electric cars," said Rudy Shankar, TVA vice president for technology innovation. But adding a new source of electric demand could impact the overall cost and availability of power, he said.

"We don't want to have any negative impact on the grid reliability," he said. "We don't want to have an impact on the ratepayers."

Called a SMART station, for Smart Modal Area Recharge Terminal, the first station is located at EPRI's Knoxville research center off Dutchtown Road. The second prototype, with 25 spaces, will be located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is participating with TVA, EPRI, charger maker ECOtality and other private and public partners in a nationwide effort, known as the EV Project, to study electric vehicle infrastructure.

The stations will go through three to six months of testing before a series of new stations will be added in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville, bringing the total of charging spaces up to 125. The EPRI site is for research use only.

The project coincides with the introduction of several electric vehicles into the American marketplace. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt began rolling off production lines late last year. And later this year the Mitsubishi i-MiEV will be introduced in the United States. The three cars were on display at the Tuesday event.

The station cost between $500,000 and $600,000 to build with the expense split between TVA and EPRI, according to James Ellis, TVA senior manager for transportation and infrastructure. The power provider and utility research firm will study different aspects of electric vehicle charging, including consumer behavior, the impact on the electricity system, infrastructure design and development and a variety of battery systems. The organizations also will use the charging stations to assess electric vehicles' potential to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

While the solar panels can help offset demand on the grid - the sun shines the hottest when demand for electricity is the highest - the batteries can be used to supplement the power on not-so-sunny days and stabilize the grid itself, said John Halliwell, project manager for electric transportation at EPRI's Knoxville office. The company also has research offices in Palo Alto, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C.

"If you only had solar you couldn't charge the vehicle," he said, "but by having the grid tie you can charge in any weather."

For electric vehicles to remain a less-expensive alternative to petroleum-powered cars and trucks - it costs about $1 to drive 40 miles in an electric car, according to Ellis - owners will have to charge them primarily at night, utilizing electricity during down times when electricity is plentiful and cheap.

But "there's always going to be some daytime charging in the public space," Halliwell said. "This is one way to sort of offset that."

Each spot can get more than 2 kilowatts in solar-powered charge, with the system powering about 7,000 driving miles per year, he said.


Friday, January 28, 2011

How Well Does the UN do at Creating Green Jobs? Not Well

How much money did the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s flagship anti-poverty agency, spend to create 5,280 "green" jobs around the world?

UNDP has said the price tag is $53.9 million—an average of $10,208 per job spent in 2010 on 135 environmental projects world-wide.

But according to documentation, the projects that generated those jobs have a total cost of about $1.68 billion—which would work out to a much more staggering average figure of about $288,700 per job.

The wildly differing size of those price tags for a fairly trivial amount of employment emerged as part of a muted rebranding effort at UNDP. Top management is trying to burnish some of its credentials in the face of internal critics who feel that when it comes to merging environmental management and economic development to solve poverty problems, UNDP is not very good at its job.

The stakes for UNDP are high. UNDP spends about $570 million a year on implementing environmental programs and projects, mostly on behalf of outside donors.

Half of that funding comes from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which calls itself the world’s "largest funder of projects to improve the global environment." GEF is a partnership which includes 182 governments, as well as numerous international institutions, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The United States contributed $86.5 million to the GEF last year, according to a U.S. Treasury official.

Since 1991, GEF has dispensed $9.2 billion, plus more than $40 billion in additional co-financing, around the world, on its environmental mission. Its focus is on fostering environmental projects that cut carbon emissions and preserve the planet, and that have "global benefits."

Much of that project money, about $286 million a year, has been showered on UNDP. According to an internal evaluation of UNDP’s environmental stewardship, environmental projects funded by GEF and managed by UNDP’s array of national offices around the world are now a substantial portion of the global bureaucracy’s livelihood.

Indeed, the report says, “GEF financing has become essential in at least 15 of the 29 country offices interviewed [for the study], to pay for professional staff and maintain a substantial portfolio of activity. The poverty area [of UNDP’s work] receives much less external funding,” and instead comes from the organization’s regular, or “core” budget. Moreover, “the GEF is not mandated to tackle poverty,” as the study puts it.

In other words, UNDP manages environmental projects in part to pay the rent. For the most part, the evaluation notes, its environmental work has been kept separate from its main focus on development and energy projects in the poorer parts of the world—a situation that the study concludes has not been necessarily good for either.

All of that, however, appears to be about to change—because the world-wide environmental movement is also apparently changing its view of the relationship between development and the environment, especially in the wake of the failed attempt to get a new, global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December, 2009.

The old view was that poverty and environmental decay went hand in hand, as poor people abused scarce natural resources in the struggle to survive. The new view is that the so-called “poverty-environment nexus” can be managed differently so that environmentalist projects can lead poor people to win new employment and better standards of living in the global “green economy”—especially at a time when traditional anti-poverty aid from budget-conscious Western nations is drying up.

The new, virtuous “poverty-environment nexus” is increasingly hailed by environmental activists as a vehicle for transferring new wealth to the poor. And that praise is likely to rise to a crescendo in the months ahead, culminating at a new Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in May, 2012—two decades after the first Earth Summit in the same city put environmentalism solidly on the global agenda.

The explicit aim of the Rio+20 Summit is to give increased momentum to the notion of “sustainable development in a global “green economy,” and to establish new instruments of “global governance” to make those changes permanent.

One sign of the impending change of emphasis is UNDP’s curiously specific claim about creating 5,280 jobs through its environmental projects. The claim popped up—with no price tag attached—in a top management response to the internal evaluation, which is highly critical of the agency’s effectiveness and desire to use environmental tools to manage that nexus differently.

Both the study and the response are due to be presented to UNDP’s 36-nation supervisory Executive Board, which meets starting on Jan. 31.

According to the 112-page study document, UNDP’s ability to marry its environmental projects and anti-poverty efforts has been “haphazard” and uneven; “monitoring and evaluation for the poverty-environmental nexus is almost entirely missing in UNDP”; and the agency’s environmental agenda is driven mainly by opportunities to secure funding from outside sources for its activities.

Moreover, the study says, some UNDP staff are “genuinely not convinced that the poverty-environment nexus is necessary or workable,” and “hard data on the benefits of the approach are not available.” It adds that “if integrating environmental management and poverty reduction is to become a widespread reality, evidence must be available demonstrating that it produces benefits in a timely and efficient manner.” But currently, “there is little incentive to include, monitor and evaluate the role and benefits of including poverty-environment linkages in projects.”

Above all, the study says UNDP itself apparently does not yet know how to go about the task of blending its environmental role with its anti-poverty mission.. According to the internal report, the agency’s “strategies and policies do not provide a conceptual framework or model on how to include the poverty-environment nexus in policy advice or programs.”

The lack of anti-poverty consciousness on the environmental side of UNDP’s business is matched, apparently, by a lack of environmental consciousness on the economic development side of the house.

Buried in a footnote in the study is the observation that “UNDP does not currently require environmental impact assessments for its projects, though a new safeguards policy is being developed that may require environmental assessments for some projects.” Elsewhere, the report snipes that the lack of environmental safeguards is “based apparently on the assumption that UNDP projects do not cause environmental harm.”

(By contrast, the World Bank, which is the mainstay of global anti-poverty financing, has an environmental impact policy that dates from 1991.)

Bottom line: UNDP has learned how to talk a good game on using environmentalism to alleviate poverty, but “policy is not yet systematically translated into practice.”

Yet the evaluation also argues that UNDP still has a major part to play in the global green transformation, in large measure due to the fact that its country office are the most widely spread U.N. presence around the world and it already plays an important role as a development coordinator. It also gives UNDP credit for helping GEF to “recognize how these projects affected poor people in the areas around [them]"

Finally, the study warns that “if these efforts are to be more successful in the future, UNDP will need a better understanding of why mainstreaming environment, particularly in relation to poverty reduction, is proving so challenging.”

The full report:

In its 11-page rejoinder, UNDP is clearly eager to show the Executive Board that it is getting with the program. It declared it will start breaking down the barriers between its traditional anti-poverty efforts and environmental areas early this year. New environmental safeguards on its work—approved by management just as the critical evaluation was being finalized-- will be rolled out through 2011. (But they will apply only to new projects, a UNDP spokesman told Fox news.)

“There is a need for further analytical work to broaden the measurement of poverty,” the agency’s management declares in its response. Moreover, “UNDP will continue to further integrate poverty reduction and environmental protection into GEF-financed projects,” saying this new, improved approach is “is already generating relevant socio-economic quantitative data that previously was not captured.”

Then comes its highly specific and very modest jobs claim: “2010 data obtained from 135 project implementation reviews (47 percent) of GEF projects implemented by UNDP indicate that approximately 5,820 jobs have been created and 2,730 (46 per cent) of these jobs are held by women.”

But where did those curiously specific figures come from? And what was the full cost of creating them, which UNDP did not mention?

UNDP initially provided summary details of the projects that generated the employment figures—but not the total cost—to Fox News on request.

UNDP also said that the 5,280 job figure was “likely an under-estimate,” since it had never tallied the employment impact of its environmental work before 2010.

But when asked the total cost of the 135 projects, UNDP at first did not answer. It later added that “total disbursements for these projects was $53.9 million in 2010”—which only added to the fog, since the agency also told Fox News that they were among a group of GEF projects “that have been under implementation for more than one year as of July 2010.”

Using GEF websites, Fox News was able to locate the project documents for 128 of the 135 GEF projects on the list provided by UNDP, and discovered they were funded roughly 25 percent from GEF resources, and the rest from various governments agencies and other participants.

But there the figures provided by UNDP and those recorded on the GEF website parted company. According to the GEF website, the projects cited by UNDP appear to have cost the trust fund alone at least $430 million. With co-financing added in, the total jumped to a whopping $1.675 billion.

Those would be eye-popping figures anywhere. But they are even more dramatic when measured against the average annual incomes of the countries where the GEF projects are located.

These range from desperately poor nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo (per capita income : $160 in 2009) and Niger ($340) to moderately more prosperous Pakistan ($1,000) and Uzbekistan ($1,000) to such middle-class nations as Chile ($9,470) and Croatia ($13,720).

Moreover, most of the programs had little or nothing directly to do with poverty in any form. Mostly, they are concerned with such legal or quasi-legal matters as zoning, regulatory improvement, or augmenting the boundaries of environmental protection zones.

Those on the list provided to Fox News, for example, include “consolidation and implementation of the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Program” (cost: $2.8 million), “Capacity building for planning, decision making and regulatory systems and awareness building/sustainable land management in severely degraded ecosystems “ in Cuba ($29.3 million) , and “Integrated conservation of priority globally significant migratory bird wetland habitat” in Kazahkstan ($38.4 million)

Other projects appeared to be directly concerned with upgrading the skills of bureaucrats. One such: “Strengthening national capacity in Rio Convention implementation through targeted institutional strengthening and professional development” in Uzbekistan ($640,000).

Moreover, the documentation associated with many of the projects appeared to be in vast disarray. A number of the projects on the UNDP list appeared to have ended years ago. In others, parts of the documentation were not included on the website. In still others, portions of the electronic paperwork appeared to have been openly altered.

Whatever the helter-skelter state of affairs, it seemed clear that in many cases, substantial amounts of money had gone into government and regulatory offices in countries where corruption is often not unknown, and perhaps to pay for consultants who were helping those officials renovate their administrations.

But that too raised a question: didn’t those people already have jobs?


Fool's Gold Could Help Produce Solar Energy

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine are working on a new project to utilize the currently considered useless, but also most abundant mineral in the earths crust, iron pyrite, known as fool’s gold, as a potential bonanza for the solar industry.

UCI researchers believe they are on the cusp of creating a new method of processing this mineral, one that is typically regarded as garbage, so that it might convert sunlight into electricity at roughly the same rate as existing silicon technology.

The team plans to process the pyrite into a thin film that can be used for photovoltaic cells. This will set up iron pyrite as serious competition for the current, but scarce and toxic earth minerals used for cell phones and touch screens, such as indium, a costly mineral selling at about $300 a pound. This high demand mineral is currently only mined in a single California location, but plentiful in China, who is now stockpiling and prohibiting its exportation along with cadmium and amorphous silicon. Some of these minerals are rare, super toxic, and not all that efficient.

The fool’s gold project does however face some challenges. While iron pyrite was studied during the 80’s and 90’s along with other abundant minerals such as zinc phosphide, copper oxide, and copper sulfide, lack of urgency and financing caused the research to fade out.

The major setback to the processing of fool’s gold is that the material has poor voltage. The mineral is full of microscopic pockets that suck in electrons, limiting conductivity and the ability to convert solar energy into electricity. The team at UCI is working on filling in the gaps.

While the $2 billion market for solar is growing in the US, not much of the photocell production takes place on our domestic soil. The race is on to bring home all aspects of production to compete on a global market and boost our economy, regardless of government support.

Finding new sources of elements for the development of photovoltaics is the key to innovation, production and the implementation of new products and new jobs on the local scene. I look forward to following this project among others that can inspire and implement change - a break from the status quo.


What do Solar and Chickens Have in Common?

Perdue plans to harness the sun to help run its Delmarva-based poultry and grain empire.

The company announced Wednesday that it would install more than 11,000 solar panels - covering the equivalent of 10 football fields - at its corporate headquarters in Salisbury and at its feed mill in Bridgeville, Delaware

The company, one of the largest in the chicken business, says its solar play will be one of the biggest on the East Coast.

The panels, made by Standard Solar based in Rockville, will actually be owned and operated by Washington Gas Energy Services Inc.

Perdue signed a 15-year agreement to buy the electricity produced by the panels - 3,700 megawatt hours of electricity a year, on average, the company says, which it estimates is roughly what it takes to power 340 homes. Of course, since the sun doesn't shine all the time, the amount generated at any one time will vary.

Steve Schwalb, Perdue’s vice president of environmental sustainability, estimated the electricity from the solar panels will reduce Perdue’s carbon footprint by 3,000 tons per year.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Frame-Free Solar Panels - BIPV

Global Solar Energy Inc. set out 15 years ago to invent a flexible solar power panel for soldiers.

Since accomplishing that mission, Global Solar - which operates Arizona's only manufacturing plant for thin-film photovoltaic cells - has had to reinvent itself to adapt to a rapidly changing market.

Global - which was initially funded by an investment subsidiary of Tucson-base UniSource Energy Corp. - hit the market with its portable solar power packs in 2004 and still sells those products to militaries worldwide.

In recent years, the company has ramped up production of strings of thin-film solar cells for large-scale solar installations, opening a 100,000-square-foot plant on South Rita Road and another in Berlin in 2008.

The company hoped to capitalize on a lower production cost for its thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) photovoltaic cells, amid a run-up in prices for more common silicon-based modules.

"Everything was ripe for us to come in with a lower-cost product and really be able to compete," Global Solar President and CEO Jeffrey Britt said.

But by late 2008, the highly cyclical price of silicon-based photovoltaics was plummeting, due to recessionary demand pinch and oversupply and a flood of low-cost modules from China.

"Our business model was kind of flipped around - we were no longer significantly cheaper than crystal silicon, we were only competitive," said Britt. "When you have a new technology, you have to have some kind of incentive for a customer to try a new technology, and if it can't be price, what is it?"

The company decided to shift its focus to a new product line in "building integrated photovoltaics" (BIPV) - systems that are applied directly to a building, without glass-clad frames or mounting frames.

In 2009, Global announced a partnership with Dow Chemical Co. to develop photovoltaic roofing shingles as part of Dow's participation in a U.S. Energy Department initiative to commercialize American solar technologies.

In September, the company rolled out a new flexible solar module, the PowerFLEX BIPV, which consists of Global's CIGS modules laminated into 300-watt strips. The strips can be directly attached to rooftops with adhesive. That avoids the need for costly and heavy glass-clad panels and mounting frames.

"We've really gone back to our roots of a flexible product that is lightweight," Britt said. "We're no longer taking our flexible solar cells and laminating them behind a piece of glass, which sort of takes all of that advantage away."

Marketing the product mainly through roofing materials companies, the company is building up orders and ramping up production of its new stick-on panels.

The panels start out with strings of PV cells produced in Global's factory, which employs about 130 people at 8500 S. Rita Road. Reels of thin, flexible stainless steel are run through four different coating processes, adding thin layers of molybdenum, CIGS materials, cadmium sulfide and indium tin oxide.

From there, the reels are sent through a machine that prints circuitry in conductive silver ink. The material is then slit and strung with conductor material to form module strings, which are automatically tested under artificial sunlight for quality and efficiency before being packaged for panel makers or cut for other products.

On the company's new BIPV panel production line, the solar strings are arranged in roughly 19-foot-long strips, laminated with durable vinyl with an adhesive backing fitted with plugs that allow installers to quickly link panels.

Global is marketing its BIPV product in the U.S., Europe and Asia, but Britt sees more immediate opportunity initially in Europe and Asia, where land is relatively scarce and building codes favor building-integrated PV because of its light weight.

France, Italy, Spain and Germany have special incentives geared toward BIPV, while Japan has very strict building codes because of earthquakes, Britt said.

"You can imagine having a heavy load of glass on a rooftop is not an ideal situation in an earthquake-prone country," Britt said.

Industry analysts expect BIPV to be a leading sector of solar growth in the next few years.

NanoMarkets LC, a Virginia-based market research firm, projects that worldwide shipments of BPIV products will grow from about $1.9 billion in 2010 to nearly $6 billion in 2014 and more than $16 billion by 2017.

While Britt declined to discuss revenue figures, he noted that the company has an annual production capacity of about 75 megawatts, or 75 million watts, with a wholesale value of about $1 per watt.

Light weight is an asset

The head of a local solar energy installation company that is currently testing Global's new BIPV panels said he sees wide potential for the product.

The product's light weight makes it ideal for carports, which often can't bear the weight of glass-encased, metal-framed panels, said George Villec, owner of GeoInnovation LLC since 2004.

"The glass is so heavy, sometimes you have to redesign the whole structure," he said. Putting the system on existing flat building roofs is trickier, Villec said, because you have to worry about adherence and water management.

Even so, Global's plant is important to give consumers a choice of a U.S.-made product and to keep Tucson competitive in the solar market, Villec said.

Until recently, Global was the only commercial-scale manufacturer of PV cells in Arizona.

Suntech, a Chinese maker of silicon PV modules, recently opened a cell manufacturing plant in Goodyear, just west of Phoenix.

"I think it's critical," Villec said of Global's expanding presence. "We're losing business to Phoenix, which is wooing some of these companies like Suntech."

PV shingles not far off

Arizona is home to larger solar companies, including Tucson-based Solon Corp., which assembles its PV panels from cells made elsewhere. Solon owns a 20-percent stake in Global Solar and uses its PV strings in some applications.

Tempe-based First Solar Inc. is the world's biggest thin-film supplier, but it makes its cadmium telluride cells in plants in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia.

Britt said Global will continue to make and sell portable PV charging systems, which it supplies to about 15 militaries worldwide.

"It's actually a fairly small business, but with good margins," he said.

Global is still working with Dow on the PV shingles, which are expected to hit the retail market later this year, Britt said.

Meanwhile, the company continues to boost the energy-conversion efficiency of its thin-film cells.

In 2009, the company set a federally certified benchmark for cell efficiency at 15.45 percent. Global's production cells have an efficiency approaching 12 percent, and Britt said the company could approach the 15-percent efficiency mark for production cells in the next three to four years.


Cincinnati Zoo Going Solar

The Cincinnati Zoo has begun installing a solar power array that it hopes will provide about a fifth of the park's energy needs by April.

The zoo says it will be the country's largest urban solar array that is accessible to the public.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that workers began installing the first of 6,400 panels on metal canopy structures Wednesday.

Melink Corp. of nearby Clermont County is the developer and designer of the project and will own and operate the 1.56-megawatt system, which costs about $11 million.

An interactive kiosk will explain to zoo visitors how the array works and how much energy is being produced.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama: Continued Funding for Renewable Power

At a solar power company in downtown San Francisco, Edward Fenster plans on doubling his workforce to 8,000 people in the next year.

Fenster is chief executive of SunRun, a company that puts solar panels on residential rooftops.

Over the last four years, his business has grown from one employee (himself) to 4,000, most of them contractors SunRun hires to do the installations.

Sun Run's growth spurt is in large part due to the subsidies it enjoys from the federal government. Fenster expects his customers to more than double next year.

Generally, tax breaks mean the federal government absorbs about 30% of the costs for a solar project. That's fairly standard across the wind and solar industry. Fenster knows just where his business, and others like it, would be if those subsidies disappeared.

"No solar business would survive," he said. "I can't imagine you'd find much new wind construction either."

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama called for continued funding for renewable power, part of a broader plan to improve the nation's infrastructure. In his prepared remarks, Obama said that investments in clean energy "will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."

But with the deficit high on everyone's mind, finding that money will prove challenging.

Obama said Tuesday night that to help pay for alternative energy investments, he is urging Congress "to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's," he added.

Still, various subsidies, including tax credits and direct grants, are already in place for companies that produce electricity from wind and solar. They cost the government about $5 billion in 2010. Ethanol subsidies cost another $6 billion.

This doesn't take into account various Department of Energy programs, including research and development grants. The Energy Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The stimulus effort set aside over $100 billion for various clean technology programs to be spent over several years. The funding includes money for solar and wind production, but also cash for R&D, conservation programs and clean water initiatives, according to Sheeraz Haji, head of the research firm the Clean Tech Group.

Only about $25 billion of that has been spent, said Haji, making the remaining $75 billion a tempting target for deficit hawks.

Even the tax credits for wind and solar production are not safe. It's not thought that mainstream politicians from either side of the isle are looking to ax them -- they've been the government's primary means of supporting renewable energy for decades. But there are growing calls for their demise.

"If 30 years isn't enough for the industry to stand on its own feet, you have to ask how long it will be," said William O'Keefe, chief executive of the Marshall Institute, a think tank. "There's just been too much given to alternatives that cannot sustain themselves."

O'Keefe doesn't buy the job creation argument, saying it doesn't make sense to pay people to produce things that don't make money.

From agriculture to automakers, O'Keefe is against subsidies for any industry.

He's all for funding R&D into new, cheaper renewable technology. He just doesn't want to fund the production of electricity at rates that he says are too high. This is especially true, he says, at a time when renewables account for a small part of our overall energy demand.

According to the Energy Information Administration, renewable energy excluding big hydropower accounted for about 6% of the country's total energy production in September of 2010. The vast majority of that was ethanol and other biofuels; wind and solar accounted for just 1%.

Although the numbers are small, they are over twice what they were in 2006.

Plus, prices are falling fast.

SunRun's Fenster said the price of a watt of electricity from solar power has dropped from $90 in the 1970s to $1.65 today. He said the industry won't need subsidies forever. In five years it can get by on a 10% subsidy, he said, and none shortly thereafter.

And that's the main argument supporters of the subsidies make. Renewable power is growing at a huge clip, and is necessary to protect the environment and to replace dwindling supplies of fossil fuel, especially oil.

The government has every right to be in the renewable business, they say, as the fuel promotes a public good - namely, clean air and energy independence.

Plus, when put in perspective, they say the subsidies aren't that large. The Environmental Law Institute estimates renewable energy received $29 billion in subsidies from 2002 through 2008. Over the same time, the say the fossil fuel industry got $73 billion in subsidies, although a big chunk of that was in the form of a tax credit oil companies can take for paying royalties overseas.

And while the U.S. stimulus may have allocated $100 billion for environmental programs, China's stimulus plan is thought to have set aside $250 to $350 billion, according to Clean Tech's Haji.

"They are totally kicking our butts," said SunRun's Fenster. "As a country, we need to look toward the future."


Third Lawsuit Filed to Stop Solar Farm

Three local groups and a back-country activist filed suit Thursday against federal officials, asking a judge to stop an already troubled 10-square-mile solar farm.

They claim officials violated federal environmental laws in approving it and other projects.

"In an ill-conceived rush to accommodate massive renewable energy projects vying for multi-billion dollar federal tax credits ... the federal defendants precipitously approved unnecessarily destructive energy development," they said in the suit.

The lawsuit in the third in San Diego federal court seeking to block construction of the Imperial Valley Solar Project.

Lawyers for the federal government and the developers say the project was approved properly, and point out that it was changed to deal with possible harm to wildlife and cultural sites.

In one of the earlier suits, a San Diego judge ordered developers and federal officials a month ago not to begin construction until they have consulted with the Quechan, a Yuma-area Indian tribe.

A second lawsuit targeted six big solar farms with claims they would damage sacred sites.

The Imperial Valley Project would feature around 28,000 mirrored dishes pointed at the sun in order to concentrate heat on Stirling engines, which would turn it into electricity.

Developer Tessera Solar said it doesn't have money to build the project and is looking for a buyer. It sold a sister project in San Bernardino County to a San Diego firm that scrapped plans to use dishes exclusively and is now working to build it using photovoltaic cells.

Tessera and sister company, Stirling Energy Systems, are both owned by NTR, an Irish conglomerate.

San Diego Gas & Electric featured the Stirling dishes in promoting the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, which is also the target of a lawsuit by the three groups seeking to stop this project.

The suit was filed by the Protect Our Communities Foundation, Backcountry Against Dumps and the East County Community Action Coalition, as well as Boulevard activist Donna Tisdale.

It names the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as their leaders, Ken Salazar and Robert Abbey, respectively.


Kyocera Expands Solar Module Production

Kyocera Corp., a Japanese maker of electronic components, is building a plant to make solar-power modules in the Czech Republic, as it seeks to expand production outside of Japan, President Tetsuo Kuba said.

The new plant in Kadan, with an annual capacity of 360 megawatts, is expected to be completed later this year and bring total production in the country to 560 megawatts a year, the company said today in a statement. Kyoto-based Kyocera also said it completed a second plant near Tianjin in China, increasing production capacity there to 360 megawatts.

Kyocera faces competition from lower-cost solar module producers in China, Kuba said at a press conference in Tokyo today. The company plans to win overseas market share by focusing on its technology and reputation, he said, declining to give specific sales targets.

“Solar power generation is more expensive compared with other energy so without subsidies, you can’t sell it,” Kuba said. “The market changes drastically depending on what kind of policy governments implement.”

Kyocera aims to raise annual global production to 1 gigawatt by the year ending March 2013, from 400 megawatts in 2009. The company gets about 50 percent of sales outside Japan, he said, without giving a further breakdown.

Government support for Chinese manufactures makes the country a “tough market,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean we should give up China,” he said. “There is room for us in the Chinese market even though it is a tough market.”


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DOE Offers $967 Million Loan Guarantee for Solar Project

The Department of Energy is handing out more loan guarantees for solar projects. Thursday morning, the DOE said it had offered a $967 million loan guarantee for the Agua Caliente Solar project, a 290-MW, photovoltaic facility that will be built in Yuma County, Ariz., and which NRG Energy said it planned to buy from First Solar last month.

The Agua Caliente project will use panels from First Solar, is set for completion in 2014 and is supposed to create 400 construction jobs. Northern California utility PG&E plans to buy the electricity from the project. NRG plans to invest up to $800 million in equity in the project, and the deal between First Solar and NRG requires that First Solar installs, operates and maintains the project.

This is the third big round of DOE loan guarantees for the solar industry. Last summer, the DOE awarded close to $2 billion in loan guarantees to Spanish solar company Abengoa Solar and Colorado-based solar panel maker Abound Solar. Abengoa Solar was awarded a $1.45 billion loan guarantee to help it build Solana, a solar thermal, trough-based, solar farm that is under contract to sell power to Arizona utility APS in Gila Bend, Arizona. BrightSource also received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to build out BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar project, which is the first new solar thermal power plant being built in California’s deserts in 20 years.

Loan guarantees essentially serve as a promise by the government to make good on a loan if the company can’t, and typically enable better interest rates and lower costs than would otherwise be available to a company for project financing. As DOE Loan Chief Jonathan Silver told us recently, it takes about six months “soup to nuts” to get these applications processed and finalized.

These types of solar projects make sense for the DOE loan guarantee program, because these are the first projects from some of these solar firms in the U.S. The idea is to get a company like BrightSource across the so-called “valley of death,” between proving the technology and building out and scaling up actual plants. Solar projects also offer construction jobs and good press.

Silver told us recently that the “first couple biofuels deals” will be announced “shortly” for the loan guarantee program, and that biofuels will likely be among the next several loan guarantees issued. In the coming year, he said, we’re also likely to see “additional interest” in nuclear and “advanced fossil fuel technologies,” such as “clean coal” and carbon capture.


Higher Efficiency Solar Cell Film Inspired by Moths

Researchers in Japan have created a new film that when covered onto solar cells, can cut down on the amount of reflected light and help capture more power from the sun.

The idea was inspired by moths, whose eyes allow them to see well at night, are also covered with a water-repellent, anti-reflective coating that makes their eyes among the least reflective surfaces in nature and helps them hide from predators in the dark.

"Surface reflections are an essential loss for any type of photovoltaic module, and ultimately low reflections are desired," says Noboru Yamada at Nagaoka University of Technology Japan.

Their estimates show that the annual efficiency of solar cells by 6 percent in Phoenix and by 5 percent in Tokyo.

"People may think this improvement is very small, but the efficiency of photovoltaics is just like fuel consumption rates of road vehicles," said Yamada.

The team is now working on improving the durability of the film and optimizing it for many different types of solar cells.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Amateur Radio Operators to Track NASA Solar Sail

A NASA solar sail has unexpectedly ejected from its mothership — more than a month late — and is flying free above Earth, and the space agency is hoping amateur radio operators will help track it.

NASA's NanoSail-D satellite was supposed to eject from its mothership, a satellite called FASTSAT, on Dec. 6. But that apparently didn't happen.

Now, analysis of FASTSAT telemetry by engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama indicates that NanoSail-D has popped free on its own, the space agency announced Wednesday.

Ground-based satellite-tracking efforts confirmed the ejection, NASA officials said.

"We knew that the door opened and it was possible that NanoSail-D could eject on its own," Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at Marshall, said in a statement. "What a pleasant surprise this morning when our flight operations team confirmed that NanoSail-D is now a free flier."

But is NanoSail-D working?
Engineers aren't sure yet if NanoSail-D, about the size of a loaf of bread, is operating. To find out, officials are asking for help from amateur radio operators, also known as “hams.” They want folks to listen for the little satellite's signal, which can be found at 437.270 MHz.

The NanoSail-D science team is hopeful the nanosatellite is healthy and can complete its mission, which is a demonstration of a solar sail system. This technology could lead to further development of solar sails for future missions, officials have said.

"This is great news for our team. We're anxious to hear the beacon which tells us that NanoSail-D is healthy and operating as planned," said Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at Marshall. "The science team is hopeful to see that NanoSail-D is operational and will be able to unfurl its solar sail."

A three-day countdown to unfurl the sail
After ejection, a timer within NanoSail-D begins a three-day countdown as the satellite orbits the Earth. Once the timer reaches zero, four booms will deploy and the nanosatellite's sail will start to unfold. Within 5 seconds, it should unfurl into a 100-square-foot polymer sail.

If deployment is successful, NanoSail-D will stay in low-Earth orbit between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions, officials said.

On Dec. 6, 2010, NASA triggered the planned ejection of NanoSail-D from FASTSAT, which was carrying several other scientific payloads as well.

At that time, the team confirmed that the door opened and data indicated a successful ejection. Upon further analysis, however, no evidence of NanoSail-D was identified in low-Earth orbit. So the team concluded that NanoSail-D likely remained inside FASTSAT, officials said.

NanoSail-D is not the first spacecraft to attempt to demonstrate solar-sail technology. In June 2010, Japan's Ikaros probe deployed its solar sail, becoming the first craft to cruise through space propelled only by sunlight.


Municipal Red Tape Frustrates Solar Companies

Ken Button, the president of Verengo Solar Plus, a residential solar panel installer in Orange, Calif., says his company — and his industry — are being strangled by municipal red tape.

Fifteen Verengo employees, Mr. Button said, are dedicated solely to researching and tailoring permit applications to meet the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the dozens of towns in the company’s market. And because most jurisdictions require applications to be submitted in person, Verengo employs two “permit runners” whose only job, Mr. Button said, is to “take those permit packs and physically drive them around, stand in line, and pay the fees.”

“We have 50 different permitting authorities within 50 miles of our office,” Mr. Button said. “They all have different documentation requirements, different filing processes, different fee structures. It’s like doing business in 50 different countries — just in Southern California.”

His lament is being echoed by solar companies across the country.

In a new study, the industry estimates that the permit dance adds an average of $2,500 in costs to each installation, and streamlining things could provide a $1 billion stimulus to the residential and commercial solar power market over the next five years.

The analysis, which will be released publicly on Thursday, was prepared by one of the nation’s largest solar leasing companies, SunRun, and endorsed by Verengo and at least a dozen other service and installation firms.

At a time when the Obama administration has vowed to redouble its efforts to create a green economy — and, more recently, to remove regulatory roadblocks and promote growth — companies that sell and install solar panel systems for residential and commercial customers are clamoring to be among the first in line.

“This is in essence a hidden tax on solar,” Mr. Button said.

The industry’s analysis, which has been shared with officials at the White House and the Energy Department, urges the federal government to create incentive programs that would nudge municipalities to adopt common codes, fee structures and filing procedures. Germany, Japan and some other countries that aggressively promote solar power have already used such streamlined permitting.

Administration officials said that they were seriously studying the issue, and that they planned to reveal initiatives and funding opportunities to address it.

The analysis suggests that permit standardization could make solar power — still typically an expensive proposition even with various subsidies — competitive for roughly half of the nation’s 128 million homes within just two years. Today, only about 80,000 households have installed solar power in the United States.

The Energy Department has already begun tackling the lack of standardization in the solar industry, in part through its Solar America Board of Codes and Standards, established under the department’s Solar Energy Technologies Program in 2007.

The solar ABC’s, as the program is known, links policy makers, solar panel manufacturers, installers and consumers to create a central clearinghouse for information on solar building codes and best practices.

But the analysis urges the Obama administration to do more to encourage local officials to adopt the codes and procedures outlined by the solar ABC’s — including the creation of a prize program similar to the Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion program created as part of the 2009 stimulus package to encourage and reward states for efforts to reform education.

Such a contest would provide grants to cities in specific solar states that show the most progress adopting standards. The paper also calls for the creation of a common online permitting tool and funds for local education and advocacy efforts aimed at further streamlining solar panel installation. It also seeks to standardize formulas for calculating permit fees, which can range from nothing in some communities to more than $2,000 in others.

“There’s a huge range from one town to another,” said Bill Condit, the head of operations for Trinity Solar, one of the largest solar providers in New Jersey. “Basically there is no standard.”

Tales of wild variation — and attendant frustration — abound.

In Westminster, Colo., for example, solar installers say permit approval can take anywhere from three to six weeks and that the office is only open four days a week. In Broomfield, less than 10 miles from Westminster, applications are approved in a matter of days, but there are arcane stipulations about the thickness of underpanel sheathing and rack components.

Meanwhile, Erie, 12 miles north of Broomfield, has some of the most expensive permit fees in the state, but installers praise it for allowing permit packages to be submitted by e-mail.

In many ways, solar installers are simply dealing with the effects of the economic downturn, which has left some cities understaffed and sometimes turning to higher fees to help balance budgets.

Jay M. Trevino, the executive director of the planning and building agency for Santa Ana, Calif., which charges no fee for solar panel installations but typically takes four to six weeks to process permit applications, said that he sympathized with installers. But he added that his office had just one electrical engineer on staff to review plans — and not just for solar panel installations, but any building project.

Still, he said solar permitting might benefit from a process similar to the handouts developed by his agency for homeowners seeking approval of projects like room additions or patio covers. If their projects adhere to the standards prescribed in the documents, permitting is more or less automatic.

 Rob Cahill, manager of business development at San Francisco-based SunRun and the chief author of the company’s white paper, said that as equipment and technology costs fell, stagnant “soft costs” associated with bureaucracy represented a larger portion of the overall installation price tag. Using data from Barclays Capital, Mr. Cahill estimated that local permitting and inspections processes added 13 percent to out-of-pocket costs for a homeowner installing solar panels in 2007.

Today, the SunRun report says, they add 33 percent — and that could rise to 50 percent in a few years.

Some cities have been held out as examples of streamlined processes, including San Jose, Calif., and Philadelphia, , and also Portland, Ore., which offers online permitting.

Mr. Button of Verengo Solar says he would be happy to see some progress in one area — shortening the time his team has to wait for an inspector to show up and look at an installation.

“When you call for an inspection, the best that you can get is, ‘Well, we’ll be out there either in the morning or in the afternoon.’ ” Mr. Button said. “I mean, even the phone company will give you a two-hour window.”


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tennessee Solar Plant To Come Online

The largest solar electrical generation plant within the seven-state Tennessee Valley Authority is now in Jackson and is scheduled to begin generating electricity this week.

The 5.5-acre solar farm is located at 96 American Drive, on the north side of Flex Drive across from the north entrance of Procter and Gamble.

The solar farm is divided into two sections. One will supply electricity directly to the TVA. The other will supply electricity to an adjoining warehouse and plant, once the home of American Olean and Dal-Tile. The plant is now owned by Jackson Industrial Holdings, a subsidiary of New York-based Meridian Development Partners, said Michael Katz, managing director. This is the company's first venture into solar electric generation for individual buildings and power grids.

"Lessons from here will be used on other properties," he said.

Those lessons will help Meridian and other companies turn abandoned warehouses into fully or partially self-sustainable warehouses, giving new life to thousands of abandoned properties throughout the nation, he said.

"The overabundance of vacant industrial property in this country is huge," said Katz, whose company specializes in purchasing and rehabilitating industrial property. "Doing this will help rejuvenate them for new uses the former (owners) did not see."

The first section of the solar farm contains 4,704 Sharp solar panels manufactured in Memphis, said Robbie Thomas, president of Efficient Energy of Tennessee, which is installing the electrical generation farm. Each of the panels is capable of generating 224 watts that can produce a total of 1,000 kilowatt hours of direct current power hourly, he said. These panels are connected to the TVA grid through power lines provided by Jackson Energy Authority.

The TVA will pay the daily market rate for the electricity produced by the solar panels and also for renewable energy credits created by the solar farm to National Energy Group, the farm's owner, Thomas said. He did not know the amount of either on Thursday.

The second section of the solar farm contains 210 panels capable of producing 47 kilowatts of DC power each hour. This section of panels will be connected directly to the former Dal-Tile warehouse to supplement electrical power provided to the building, Thomas said.

The total cost to construct the solar farm is around $5 million, he said. The federal government will reimburse about $1.5 million, or 30 percent, in federal grants, Thomas said. No state or local grants were provided to offset the cost of installation, he said.

Meridian Development Partners bought the former Dal-Tile building in the summer of 2007, Katz said. The warehouse has ceilings ranging from 18 feet to 29 feet high. Katz said his company will redesign the building's interior to suit multiple tenants instead of one industrial client.

A portion of the former Dal-Tile warehouse currently is being leased to one company for storage. There are no other businesses inside the main building at this time, Katz said.

But the building is in a highly visible industrial park, it has a railroad spur to its east and Interstate 40 is less than eight miles to the north. The addition of the renewable energy source that will help offset the daily cost of operations should make finding future tenants for the building even easier, Katz said.

"Jackson is the hub of an automotive nexus that seems to be reasserting itself," he said, "and renewable energy sources are now a big part of a company's strategy."


New Jersey Competes for Largest Solar Roof Installation

In the last century, builders raced to erect the tallest skyscraper in the world. This century, developers compete for a different feat: largest solar installations.

Since 2008, the North American record for the biggest solar installation on a single roof has been upped at least three times, with two more record-breaking attempts still under construction.

In New Jersey, in the past month alone, two projects have been announced that would double what is thought to be the current record for an installation, a FedEx facility in Woodbridge.

Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabeth announced plans for a solar installation on the mall's roof. To be completed in August, it will produce 4.8 megawatts, 11 percent of the mall's energy needs, according to numbers from PSE&G.

That project is neck and neck with one planned in Carteret on the roof of a distribution center for White Rose Inc., slated to produce 5 megawatts of energy a year.

"People will start claiming that they're the largest one," said Alan Epstein of KDC Solar, which will own and operate the Carteret project.

"It's like a fish story, to a certain extent," he said.

It's no coincidence that the state is an epicenter of solar growth in the country, experts say.

"Along with the rest of the solar industry, we follow where the incentives are," said Christina Skellenger, development manager for Gerding Edlen, which coordinated the Jersey Gardens project. "We probably do 50 to 75 percent of the work that we do in New Jersey."

With varying incentives in place through 2026, the state should see plenty of record-breaking projects, said Shayle Kann, managing director of solar for GTM Research, which analyzes the market.

"New Jersey's market is certainly more mature than any other state, other than California," Kann said. "Last year was a great year, (and) 2011, we also expect to be a very strong year in New Jersey."


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Solar Power Helping Marines

U.S. Marines may be on the verge of turning a long-time enemy into an ally. In this case, that enemy is the desert sun. Thanks to flexible solar panels, the sun can help run military equipment — and it may even cut down on casualties.

By using solar power and placing an emphasis on energy conservation, Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment say they cut diesel consumption in their generators from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons a day.

The regiment tested the equipment in Afghanistan at the end of last year, in what may be the first large-scale military test of solar power there.

Marines who used the technology say it helps in three main ways:
  1. Fewer Supply Convoys — With less need for fuel and batteries, fewer trucks are exposed to possible attacks on the road.
  2. Quieter Is Safer — Units that rely on diesel generators to keep equipment running at night could go quiet while running on batteries, making them harder for the enemy to find.
  3. Efficiency — The foldable solar blankets are light and don't take up much space. That should help patrols' mobility, and save space for other supplies — like ammunition, as one sergeant says.
That all sounds great — but another report, from a Marine training exercise here in the U.S., adds a different perspective. To work properly, the solar panels needed bright sun — something that was less abundant in the test areas of Virginia than in Afghanistan.

But for the Marines in that test, the biggest stumbling block was time:
An eight-hour charge for a single AN/PRC-119F SINCGARS radio battery took between three to four hours, which makes this an unrealistic option for Marines on the move, said Sgt. Taylor Clark, a communications instructor with The Basic School in Quantico.
"If you're on a patrol, you are not able to stop and set up for four hours; it's not very 'recon friendly,'" explained the Metairie, La., native.
Clark mentioned that in order to keep the SPACES charging at optimal levels, it had to be continually rotated to keep it in direct contact with the sun as the day progressed. It also had to be kept completely free and clear of sand, which can be time consuming and tedious when in a desert, he said.
Still, the recent tests showed that using alternative energy on military missions has both tactical and environmental benefits. And in both the Virginia and the Afghanistan tests, Marines praised the panels for being durable, light and simple — kind of the trifecta for field gear.

Just in case your appetite for Clancy-esque military-speak hasn't been sated, here's a last soupcon: The so-called Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System (SPACES) was deployed in a new program called ExFOB — that's Experimental Forward Operating Base to you.

Want that used in a sentence? Just ask a man known as Gunny:
ExFOB has provided immediate energy to my boys," said Gunnery Sgt. Willy Carrion, 'I' Company, company gunnery sergeant. "Logistics and resupply to my men is essential to our mission accomplishment. Marines can sustain themselves on little food and water, but the time we have saved on convoys for fuel and batteries, has been crucial.


Solar More Popular Than Expected - Subsidies Running Out

Despite four years of economic malaise, Californians have been installing solar panels at the speed of light, pushing down subsidies and creating turmoil in the solar installation industry, according to some industry observers.

California politicians, notably former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have long tried to stimulate the economy by pushing legislation designed to help "green" industries, such as those that develop or distribute solar and wind energy, or promote energy efficiency. They hoped such businesses would create jobs for sidelined construction workers and foster innovation.

A subsidy established to grow the solar industry may have worked too well: Californians bought up so many solar panels that the training wheels were pulled away too quickly, shaking up the industry as some companies folded while others expanded to take their place.

A bright beginning

California started redirecting utility ratepayer funds into the California Solar Initiative in 2007, and provided $2.167 billion to fund it. Legislators set up the program so that generous subsidies would lure in buyers early by reducing high costs, but dwindle as solar energy became more popular and solar power businesses could stand on their own. The subsidies fell in discrete steps as Californians achieved certain milestones in solar electricity generating capacity. Ideally, the subsidy would drop one step a year, administrators said.

But Californians burned through the money faster than expected. As of the last quarter of 2010, commercial, nonprofit and government customers of Southern California Edison had reached the eighth level of 10, and the utility's residential customers reached the sixth, both several years ahead of schedule.

San Diego Gas and Electric Co.'s residential customers are at step 8, and nonresidential customers have no steps left ---- they must sign up for a waiting list and hope someone else drops out.

An official for the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which administers the subsidy for SDG and said the speed with which the public used up the subsidies surprised local solar installers and suppliers.

"There was no preparation for this," said Katrina Perez Morton, a program manager for the center. "This was not something they (installers and suppliers) saw coming. They expected a 10-year program."

Darker days

As subsidies fell, some solar installers couldn't handle a sudden drop in demand: National installation company groSolar shuttered its El Cajon office and got out of the residential installation business in California two weeks ago; Solana Beach installer Sequoia Solar Inc. folded; Akeena Solar, based in Los Gatos, stopped installing in California; and the list goes on.

"The real magic point happened from May 2010," said Scott Gordon, vice president for sales for Murrieta solar installer HelioPower.

That was when, in San Diego County, the subsidy took a big drop, from $1.10 per installed watt to $0.65. A typical residential installation in the state is 5,000 watts, which means the subsidy declined from $5,500 to $3,520, a difference that caused a drop in demand. Today, it's at $0.35 per watt, which pins the subsidy at $1,750 for a typical system.

Daniel Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Solar Power in San Diego, said he thinks newer installers just weren't aware of the seasonality of the solar installation business, and they didn't plan for a normal drop in sales in winter.

"For newer companies, it’s a major eye-opener. They think their ship is sinking," he said. "It just so happens, the rebate level is so low, people are looking to that as why sales are down."

Gordon said he thinks that some companies failed to anticipate that the drop in subsidy would come with a drop in demand, and so they failed to manage their savings to get through any lull.

Solar still shines

But he also said HelioPower is still doing big business in other parts of California, and as a result, the company has been hiring staff and adding offices. Though subsidies in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. territory in Northern California were at the same step as in San Diego, he's doing plenty of business there, thanks to substantially higher electric rates. And he's still doing installations in Southern California Edison territory because the utility's subsidies are still high.

Edison subsidies are just now dropping a step to $1.10 per watt for residential customers, and there's still room in its nonresidential program, said Gary Barsley, solar initiatives and self-generation programs manager for Edison.

Barsley said PG and E charges more for electricity than Edison, so PG and E's customers have stronger financial incentive to install solar. He didn't offer a clear explanation for why Edison's customers have been installing solar panels slower than SDG and E's customers.

Indeed, San Diego County leads all counties in California in residential solar capacity, with 23.8 installed megawatts of solar panels among 5,245 residential customers. Riverside County is fourth, with 2,007 applicants installing 11.5 megawatts. Among nonresidential applicants, San Diego County ranks first in applications, but fourth in capacity, with 21.8 megawatts. Riverside County is fifth with 16 megawatts. One megawatt can power 650 typical houses.

Sullivan disagreed with Gordon's assessment of San Diego installations. He said his business increased 50 percent in 2010 from 2009, and 2011 looks good, too.

He said that although the subsidy has dropped, the cost of solar materials and installation dropped faster. According to the California Solar Initiative, costs per watt dropped 22 percent in inflation-adjusted terms in SDG and territory for residential customers to $8.04 per watt (before subsidies), and they dropped 9 percent in Edison territory to $9.64.

Sullivan's not worried about the industry surviving the subsidy.

"We see a new company jumping into the solar industry every week or every couple weeks," he said. "We see the same amount falling out. They think it's a way to get rich quick, they come in, they see it's not easy, and they fold. Companies such as ours, they've been fine, and sales have continued to increase."


Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Green Energy Can't Power Green Jobs

Evergreen Solar announced last week that it was closing its plant in Devens, Mass., laying off 800 workers, and moving production to China.

Evergreen’s factory had received more than $40 million in subsidies, which led many to see the plant closing as lesson in the futility of green energy and industrial policy. But what does Evergreen’s story really teach us about solar energy, public subsidies and the future of American manufacturing?

Evergreen Solar’s story begins in 1994, when three alumni of Mobil’s solar division broke away to form their own company. They started in a 2,500-square-foot lab in Waltham, Mass., which has long housed innovative industry, including America’s first integrated textile mill and the Waltham Watch Company, which pioneered high-quality watches with interchangeable parts. Today, Waltham is a venture-capital hub that succeeds by providing abundant commercial real estate and easy access to the scientific community of greater Boston.

Proximity to cutting-edge ideas was surely an advantage for Evergreen Solar in the early days because its principals worked with Emanuel Sachs, a distinguished mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who invented the “string ribbon” process for making solar cells.

“String ribbon” technology was Evergreen’s big idea; it offers the possibility of far more affordable photovoltaic cells. Evergreen began selling “string ribbon” solar panels in 1997 and moved to a much larger space in Marlboro, Mass., in 2000.

Evergreen proved adept at finding financing and global partners. The company went public in 2000, which provided funds to expand operations and repay the venture capitalists, such as the Utech Fund, which placed an early bet on “string ribbons.”

An early infusion of $5 million also came from Kawasaki in 1999. In 2005, Evergreen and the European solar company Q-Cells came together to construct a production plant in Thalheim, Germany. Given Evergreen’s global reach, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is now producing together with Jiawei Solarchina.

Evergreen Solar’s move to China was supported by a $33 million loan from the Chinese government, and it has suggested that the Chinese production was cheaper because “solar manufacturers in China have received considerable government and financial support.”

But surely China’s skilled, low-wage labor force is a far more important source of its low costs. Japan’s success in the 1980s was also attributed to its activist industrial policy, but subsequent research found that government subsidies backed losers more often than winners.

Joshua Lerner’s superb book “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Princeton University Press, 2009) reviews public efforts to support start-ups and entrepreneurship worldwide and reminds us that “for each effective government intervention, there have been dozens, even hundreds, of failures, where public expenditures bore no fruit.”

I suspect few readers will really think that Evergreen Solar was shortchanged by American governments. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory contracted with the company in its early days. More recently, Massachusetts agencies gave tens of millions of dollars to the company.

Conservative critics, such as Michelle Malkin, argue that the Devens closing provides a warning about green energy: “the myth that ’green jobs’ are a boon to the economy keeps getting pierced by failed green jobs boondoggle after failed green jobs boondoggle.” But it was always a mistake to think that clean energy was going to be a jobs bonanza, and we should be investing in green technology whether or not it produces jobs. .

America has had many high-tech breakthroughs over the past half-century, but those innovations have rarely provided abundant employment for the less educated workers who need jobs most. The Devens closing reminds us that even when ideas are “made in America,” production is almost always cheaper in China.

Failed public investments, like the money spent in Devens, reflect both the fact that public officials are rarely skilled venture capitalists and that governments pursue many objectives that lead them away from solid investments. It’s easy to see why any governor would be excited about a green-energy manufacturing plant in a less prosperous area of his or her state. But the same forces that made Devens political catnip meant that it was unlikely to be a long-term success.

Manufacturing solar panels in Devens never played to Massachusetts’ core strength: the creativity that emerges naturally when smart people are clustered together. Forty years ago, greater Boston was suffering from the same deindustrialization that afflicted all older American cities. The region came back, buoyed not by renewed manufacturing plants, but by technological innovation, much of which was connected to the region’s rich research community.

Evergreen Solar’s early years were an example of the synergy between schools and start-ups, and greater Boston’s universities will surely continue to spin off new companies. Professor Sachs, for example, has moved on to 1366 Technologies, a solar company in North Lexington, Mass., financed by a Waltham-based venture-capital fund.

Massachusetts’ edge lies in ideas, not products. Those ideas are best produced in creative clusters, built around cities, where knowledge moves easily from inventor to entrepreneur. The only production that really needs to occur in greater Boston is the early-stage manufacturing that can be an important part of the research process. Mature companies, like Evergreen Solar, naturally move their factories to lower-cost areas.

Energy from the sun that doesn’t require vast carbon emissions or dependence on difficult allies is something devoutly to be wished. The main difficulty with solar energy has always been cost, which is why the falling price of solar panels that seemingly pushed Evergreen to close Devens is actually good news.

As long as solar panels are getting cheaper, we shouldn’t worry about where they are being produced. We should continue financing research on solar technology as long as that research continues to produce cost-cutting breakthroughs, like “string ribbon” technology, but we shouldn’t pretend that cheaper solar energy will end up employing millions of our less-skilled citizens.

For decades, local economic success has come from entrepreneurship and education, not large-scale manufacturing. The Devens closing doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with clean energy, but it does suggest the difficulties inherent in trying to beat China at cheap manufacturing. In the long run, America will be richer than China only by having smarter citizens, and that requires the skills that come from schools and cities, not dispersed factories.

Edward L. Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Triumph of the City.”