Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Problems Cast Shadows of Doubt on Solar Project

One of California's showcase solar energy projects, under construction in the desert east of Los Angeles, is being threatened by a deadly outbreak of distemper among kit foxes and the discovery of a prehistoric human settlement on the work site.

The $1 billion Genesis Solar Energy Project has been expedited by state and federal regulatory agencies that are eager to demonstrate that the nation can build solar plants quickly to ease dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.

Instead, the project is providing a cautionary example of how the rush to harness solar power in the desert can go wrong _ possibly costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and dealing an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration's solar initiative.

Genesis had hoped to be among the first of 12 approved solar farms to start operating in Southern California deserts. To do so, it had to meet certain deadlines to receive federal assistance. The 250-megwatt plant, being built on federal Bureau of Land Management land 25 miles west of Blythe, is backed by an $825 million Department of Energy loan guarantee.

Native Americans, including the leaders of a nearby reservation, are trying to have Genesis delayed or even scuttled because they say the distemper outbreak and discovery of a possible Native American cremation site show that accelerated procedures approved by state and federal regulators failed to protect wildlife and irreplaceable cultural resources.

The problems threaten the entire project, said Michael O'Sullivan, senior vice president of development for Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, one of the largest renewable energy suppliers in North America and the builder of Genesis. The project is to start producing power by 2014. If too many acres are deemed off-limits to construction, "the project could become uneconomical," O'Sullivan said.

Plans for Genesis call for parabolic-trough solar thermal technology to create enough energy to power 187,500 homes. But last fall, as crews began installing pylons and support arms for parabolic mirrors across 1,950 acres of land leveled by earthmovers, the company ran into unexpected environmental and cultural obstacles _ the kind that critics say could probably have been avoided by more rigorous research and planning.

"The issues facing Genesis underline the notion that if you do something quick and dirty, you are going to wind up with big mistakes and unintended consequences," said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Kit foxes became an issue at the site in late August, when two animals died. At the time, biologists assumed the foxes succumbed to dehydration in an area where summer temperatures soar to 118 degrees. On Oct. 5, Genesis crews discovered another fox carcass and sent it to state Fish and Game veterinarians for a necropsy.

At the time, the company was using "passive hazing" strategies approved by state and federal biologists to force kit foxes off the land before grading operations began in November. To scatter the kit foxes, workers removed sources of food and cover, sprinkled urine from coyotes _ a primary fox predator _ around den entrances, and used shovels and axes to excavate about 20 dens that had been unoccupied for at least three consecutive days.

By early November, only three active dens remained, but the foxes using them wouldn't budge, raising the risk of construction delays. The California Energy Commission, which has jurisdiction over the project, scrapped the three-day timetable and said the company could destroy dens that had been vacant for 24 hours.

Five days after making that change, the results of the necropsy came back. The fox found Oct. 5 had died of the first case of distemper ever recorded among desert kit foxes. Ultimately, at least seven kit foxes died.

Deana Clifford, state wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game, said she isn't certain the outbreak is connected to Genesis, "but we know that habitat disturbance causes stress, and when animals succumb to stress they become more susceptible to disease."

State and federal biologists are now trying to prevent the disease from spreading beyond the site. To discourage displaced kit foxes from re-entering the area, electric wires have been installed along the top of waist-high fences originally intended to keep desert tortoises relocated by NextEra from trying to return to their former burrows.

Evidence of a human settlement is of even greater concern to the company. Earthmovers on Nov. 17 churned up grinding stones lying on a bed of charcoal _ possible evidence of an ancient cremation site. In a subsequent meeting with Colorado River Indian Tribes, a federally recognized reservation just east of the work site, Bureau of Land Management officials described the discovery as "unprecedented," tribal leaders said.

The remains are protected by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Work has been halted on 400 acres, or one-fifth of the project's total area, while state and federal archaeologists conduct a detailed assessment.

The discovery did not come as a complete surprise. In 2010 testimony before the state energy commission, archaeologist David S. Whitley warned that Ford Dry Lake, at the southern end of the Genesis site, had been a gathering place for prehistoric people who cremated their dead. Based on surface evidence, at least three locations within the Genesis project area appeared "to represent lake shore village sites that have the potential to contain burials/cemeteries," Whitley said.

To avoid the old lake shore area, NextEra reconfigured the project, moving it about two miles north.

However, the company did not follow customary methods for searching the new site for human remains. Instead of using established but costly and time-consuming procedures, NextEra opted for a new, less exacting search method developed by the state energy commission and the BLM to expedite Genesis and three other desert solar projects.

The energy commission outlined the new method in a Dec. 3, 2009, letter that included a warning: If the search found nothing, but artifacts were discovered later, during construction, the project could be suspended while an exhaustive investigation was performed.

That's what happened. NextEra's search involved digging more than 500 shovel test pits each up to 3 feet deep. It found nothing.

Now the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation is demanding that NextEra halt construction until its own experts can investigate. Eldred Enas, chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, said in a letter to the federal government last month that the discovery of a nestled pair of metates _ stones used to grind acorns, pinion nuts and other staples _ atop a bed of charcoal indicates that it was a cremation site that is "too sacred to disturb."

Separately, a nearby group of Native Americans called La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle is preparing a legal challenge based on the kit foxes and the possible cremation site. Cory Briggs, an attorney representing La Cuna Aztlan, said NextEra received an early warning: "This is the wrong place to build. Instead, they put their foot on the gas pedal in order to get this thing approved and deal with problems later."

The company and regulatory agencies are studying options, which could range from avoiding locations known to contain significant Native American remains to a formal archaeological excavation.

In an interview, NextEra officials acknowledged that in a worst-case scenario, they could decide that they cannot meet the conditions of the company's power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and close down a project that is expected to create 800 construction jobs.

If that were to happen, 80 percent of the project's outstanding loans would be covered by the federal government, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would begin shopping for another renewable energy company that was interested in leasing the property. If there were no takers, the scarred land would be restored with reclamation bond funds, BLM officials said.

Looking ahead, Roger Johnson, deputy director of siting with the state energy commission, said lessons learned from the Genesis project will be included in other high-priority solar facilities.

Jeffrey Lovich, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the challenges facing NextEra are messy reminders of the fact that "peer-reviewed scientific studies to help us tease out the impacts of solar energy development" on the California desert do not exist.

"So there will be very likely be additional surprises as we move forward," Lovich said.


China’s Visible Solar Power Success

Suntech Power’s ebullient Chief Executive Officer Shi Zhengrong got plenty of press at Davos for his proclamation that solar power will be able to compete without subsidies against conventional power sources in half the world by 2015.

Shi said that solar is already competitive with fossil fuels in India, Hawaii, Italy and Spain. Others at the alpine power-fest agreed with Shi, who runs one of the world’s largest and most important solar panel manufacturers. The head of the world’s largest wind company, Vestas, as well as another Chinese solar panel producer, Trina, both said that their companies would also be able to offer products that produce electricity at prices that matched fossil fuels.

We are at a tipping point. No longer are renewable power sources like solar and wind a luxury of the rich. They are now starting to compete in the real world without subsidies. Fossil fuels are not going away. But we can at least look forward to a world where our dependence on fossil fuels will decline.

The waning of the age of fossil fuels is good news for many reasons: the air will be cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions will be cut; and energy security will be improved, meaning that nations won’t have to worry about transporting fossil fuels long distances — often from foreign countries. Within the foreseeable future, a world where political upheavals or natural calamities could threaten supplies could be a thing of the past. With the right policies in place, many parts of the world over the next decade can look forward to dramatically cutting their dependence on fossil fuels.

But how fast this transition takes place depends not only on the technological and market savvy of entrepreneurs like Shi but on smart, forward-thinking government policies.

Only a few years ago it cost more than twice as much to produce electricity with solar panels than through conventional sources such as coal-fired power plants. Dramatic improvements in technology coupled with plummeting prices for polysilicon, a key ingredient, and big increases in solar panel manufacturing capacity have pushed down prices. Bloomberg says that silicon-based panel prices fell about half last year as silicon makers doubled their output and demand fell in a weakened Eurozone.

China, not surprisingly, has staked out a commanding position in solar panel manufacturing. China now accounts for about half of the world’s solar panel and module production. The U.S. which in 1995 produced more than 40% of the world’s panels, accounted for only 7% of global output in 2010.

U.S. solar panel manufacturers have cried foul and in late 2011 they filed an anti-dumping lawsuit against Chinese manufacturers claiming that a variety of Chinese subsidies are allowing the Chinese to sell solar panels in the U.S. below their true cost of production. The U.S. International Trade Commission, which rules on these disputes, agreed in December that the case could go ahead.

The resulting uncertainty will likely slow the progress of solar sales in the U.S. market, but won’t fundamentally change an extraordinary story of unfolding Chinese success in winning market share and driving down prices in an area of profound significance for the future of the world. We’re not talking iPads or running shoes here, but the ability to create electricity from the sun in a way that promises virtually limitless supplies of light and heat without air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. And, thanks to Shi Zhengrong and many others, we can install solar not just for the rich.

China isn’t just a maker of solar power — it now is one of the largest and most important markets for renewable energy. China was behind much of the spectacular 165% growth in Asia-Pacific’s solar installations, according to market researcher NPD Solarbuzz, with Chinese 2011 demand up six-fold from the previous year. China increased its targets for total solar power installation to 15 gigawatts by 2015. That’s up from just one gigawatt at the end of 2010. Targets for installed wind capacity were increased to 100 gigawatts by 2015. These are big numbers.

More money will be on the way to support more technological improvements. China and the U.S. are global leaders in clean-tech spending.

“Countries around the world, especially China, recognize the economic potential in the solar market, and are racing at full speed to capture the lead,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned in a recent speech. “America has a choice to make today: Are we going to be importers or exporters of solar technologies? We can accept defeat and watch the solar jobs go to China, Germany and other countries, or we can get in the game and play to win, creating jobs ….across the country.”

Underscoring Chu’s remarks about the importance of the sector, a new report from consultants PwC says that the value of deals in the renewable energy sector jumped 40% to $53.5 billion last year (2011). PwC notes that in the past hydro-power typically dominated the list of big-ticket transactions in the renewables sector. But “big deals are becoming more common in the wind, solar, biomass and energy efficiency fields,” notes PwC. “For the first time ever, $1 billion-plus deals in these four sectors dominate the list of top deals, outnumbering hydro by seven to one as contributors to big deal flow.”

In short, solar power, and its renewable cousins like wind, are coming of age. Profitability may be elusive and trade battles may intensify, but the overall outlook for solar as a power source has never been brighter. The improved efficiency and lower prices for solar power will benefit a broad range of consumers, from affluent urbanites for whom a solar panel is a novelty to impoverished rural dwellers who can enjoy hot water and lighting. The benefits are not just to individual quality of life but to national security and to a world in which energy policy does not drive foreign policy.

There will be a long march to phase out fossil fuels, starting with the more than $500 billion in annual subsidies they receive globally. But the renewable path is becoming more certain and secure with every passing year. China and the U.S. are competitors in this area. They are also both winners. As trade disputes intensify it’s important to remember that winners will far outnumber losers as the price of renewable energy falls.


ENERGY: Uncertainty Clouds Obama’s Latest Solar Push

President Barack Obama wants to revive the renewable energy push that fostered a solar development boom in the first years of his administration, particularly across the sun-drenched deserts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Wire mesh is wrapped around posts, so birds will not nest in them

But clouding his effort is the expiration of federal programs meant to spur investment, a backlash against the White House’s policies in the wake of the Solyndra debacle, and unresolved questions about where large-scale plants can be built.

“The biggest challenge for the industry comes around the uncertainty,” said Jim Baak, director of utility-scale solar power for Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes clean energy. “In the political reality, it’s kind of hard to get that certainty moving forward.”

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama said the time has come to “double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising.”

He announced plans to free up enough public land for solar and wind energy development sufficient to power 3 million homes, and he called on Congress to pass incentives to bolster the burgeoning industry.

His remarks, however, came after the clock ran out on two such incentives that brought billions of dollars to solar developments in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the Southwest.


Solar projects have for years enjoyed federal support, including an investment tax credit which runs through 2016. The credit can cover as much as 30 percent of costs, but only profitable projects can take advantage of it. Since start-ups cannot generate enough money to do so, they rely on investment partners with enough income to benefit from the credit.

The Great Recession led to a shortage of such investors, who had become a major driver of solar development. Responding to concerns about the downturn’s impact on the industry at large, Congress in 2009 approved a Treasury Department grant program that allows projects and their investors to get a direct grant in lieu of the 30 percent tax credit.

As of late last year, the treasury had issued about $9.6 billion in grants to more than 22,000 small and large projects, helping to leverage $32.9 billion in investment — mostly from the private sector, according to Treasury Department figures.

Despite its popularity, the grant program was allowed to expire at the end of last year. Proponents are calling on Congress to restart it, potentially through language attached to a payroll tax cut extension lawmakers are expected to take up in the coming weeks.

The grants were an alternative to the tax credits, so it wouldn’t cost the government additional money to keep offering the grants, officials from BrightSource Energy reasoned. The Oakland-based company has one project under construction in San Bernardino County and three others in the region still in early stages.

The grant program’s expiration limits the private sector’s willingness and ability to invest in solar, they said.

“For California, it negatively impacts billions of private-sector investment that otherwise could go to work for the benefit of our citizens,” BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said.

A 3,600-acre BrightSource project in the Ivanpah Valley in northeast San Bernardino County was among four Inland solar developments to benefit from a separate federal program, administered by the Energy Department. The Ivanpah solar farm, supported by investments from Google and NRG Energy, has created hundreds of jobs and is expected to supply enough energy to power 140,000 homes.


The Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, also created by Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act, helped finance at least two dozen projects through guarantees totaling more than $16 billion. More than $5 billion in guarantees went to the four projects located in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The guarantee means that if a company defaults on a loan, the federal government pays the debt.

In the Solyndra case, that promise cost U.S. taxpayers $535 million.

The now infamous Fremont-based company filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving the money. Critics seized on the Solyndra scandal as evidence that the administration’s renewable energy policies are misguided.

The program was allowed to end as scheduled last fall, but the Solyndra fallout continues. Inland Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is conducting an investigation into the Energy Department’s loan decisions.

Earlier this month, Issa sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, threatening to subpoena his testimony on the subject if he does not appear before the panel, as previously requested.

“The American people have a right to know why DOE, under your leadership, has wasted billions of dollars of their money,” wrote Issa, who represents a large chunk of Riverside County.

Baak said the negative attention sparked by Solyndra has contributed to the current political climate — one in which re-starting the expired programs would be difficult.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s been such a lightning rod,” he said, noting Solyndra reflects only a small fraction of the program.

One project in Riverside County gave up a loan guarantee when the company changed the technology it planned to use. Others are proceeding as planned.

Among the projects that received loan guarantees was Desert Sunlight, a First Solar development near Desert Center. The government backed more than $1 billion of the loan the company obtained for the project. Other companies that have loan guarantees are Next Era Energy Resources, for a project near Blythe, and Abengoa, for a solar field near Barstow.

An independent consultant hired by the White House to review the agency’s loans issued a report Friday calling for stronger management and an “early warning” system to identify problems with individual loans.


Despite the setbacks, solar projects are moving forward. But progress is slow in designating solar zones that would eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles facing developers.

The Interior and Energy departments are reviewing thousands of public comments collected as part of an ongoing effort to create “solar energy zones” for development on public land. A draft proposal identified 17 zones totaling more that 285,000 acres. More than half of the total — almost 150,000 acres — is in a single zone in eastern Riverside County.

While some environmental concerns remain, there is consensus that the zones will help shape the nation’s future in solar energy. Federal officials began gathering public input more than a year ago, but a final decision on their size and location is not expected for several months.

Baak said the process has meant uncertainty in the short term but will help advance solar growth in the long run. In the meantime, he and other solar proponents say the public is behind them.

A poll, underwritten by BrightSource to assess community support, found that three-quarters of those surveyed support large-scale solar development in California’s desert.

“It shows that a lot of people support this,” he said. “People recognize that this is a homegrown resource and something that’s going to create new jobs.”


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chandigarh Set To Be A Model Solar City

As part of the plan to develop Chandigarh into a solar city, UT administration has decided to set up a solar cell, which would provide consultancy to departments for adding features of tapping solar energy in upcoming buildings. The cell will work for the development for renewable energy projects and energy conservation programmes.

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has prepared master action plan for transforming Chandigarh into a solar city. The draft report submitted by TERI has recommended energy efficiency measures of 20% for both residential and commercial sectors.


Solar Panels Driving Lively Debate in Scenic Town and Village of Warwick, N.Y.

They appeared about two months ago along the rural road: an eyesore to some, a welcome sign of the future to others.

At issue: two dark, trailer-sized arrays of solar panels set on metal posts along Route 94, the gateway to the Village of Warwick.

Jim and Betty Goodline sat inside Salvato's Deli, about an eighth of a mile down the road from the two solar panel arrays, and discussed the aesthetics.

He described them as "neat";

She used the word "cute."

Did they think policymakers should allow solar panels to be installed anywhere people pleased?

"If it's going to save someone money on their energy bills, the more power to them," Jim said.

Warwick Supervisor Mike Sweeton said there has been more curiosity than controversy about the two solar arrays.

But in an Orange County town touted for leading the county in green energy and sustainability, the solar panels have got a lot of people talking.

According to town officials, the panels and the 200 acres they are located on belong to an elderly woman who bought the land a few months ago with her husband to build a dream home. The husband died, and the widow downsized the construction plans, opting for a smaller house, close to the road and powered by solar. She could not be reached for comment.

Deadlines — possibly for a state grant that helped finance the arrays — required the panels be built first.

The town, which has no ordinance regulating solar or wind turbine installations, allowed it. It would have done the same for a garage or similar structure.

So, the mystery of the two solar arrays was solved. But the debate they fanned about the future of green energy regulations continues.

The actual discussion began last month, when complaints about solar panels on historic homes in downtown Warwick prompted village officials to consider guidelines for their installation. Village trustees said they would likely begin talking about the issue next month.

Then appeared the solar panels on Route 94.

Part of the concern is that they lie within a protected view shed. As such, they will have to be blocked from view, as a condition of the building permit on the house when it is built, Sweeton said.

"They're a horror," said Barbara White, co-owner of the Raynor Country real estate agency downtown. "It's a beautiful, scenic road, and then suddenly to see that!"

White's office colleague, Jeannette Wheeler, had a different view.

"I think they're great," she said. "When I look at them, it cheers me to know that someone is going to save money on their electricity bills and have more control over their lives."


Ministers Defend Rapid Cut to Solar Power Subsidy

Ministers have argued that they had to act quickly to slash subsidies to small-scale solar power because the cost of panels has dropped by nearly half in the past year – much faster than the previous government envisaged when it set up the scheme.
Solar panels being installed on a house in south-east London

The government received fierce criticism from the solar industry and environmentalists after the cut and the decision was ruled unlawful in the courts. But ministers have argued that overly generous payments to investors who installed solar panels were in danger of draining the scheme of funds.

They are expected to announce on Thursday a change to the way so-called feed-in tariffs are administered and an injection of funding for the scheme.

Energy minister Greg Barker said the figures on the costs of solar, which he said were independently arrived at, showed the government was right to cut feed-in tariffs. "The costs have come down much faster than Ed Miliband thought in 2010, when the payment was fixed. That has led to much greater deployment," he said.

"We had to take quick action. I know that [the changes to feed-in tariffs] have damaged confidence in the industry. But the new figures speak for themselves."

He said the price falls were good news for consumers and the renewables industry: "There is the potential for solar power to become competitive with fossil fuels without subsidy within the lifetime of this parliament. Solar has gone from being one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy to one of the cheapest."

An average domestic solar power installation cost £15,000 in 2010, but now costs about £8,000. This year the cost could fall to £6,000, according to research from the consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The report will be placed in the House of Commons library on Wednesday in response to a parliamentary question on the issue.

When the consultation on feed-in tariffs was launched in October, the costs of photovoltaic systems had fallen by about a third since 2009, when the original tariffs were set. The new data confirming sharper falls shows that customers on the original feed-in tariffs could be getting a much higher rate of return than was originally intended – or the solar power companies could be pocketing the difference and making substantial profits.

After the government announced its plans to slash feed-in tariffs last year, judges ruled the measures unlawful when they were challenged in court. On Thursday, Barker is expected to announce how the government will change the feed-in tariffs legally.

Barker is expected to announce that feed-in tariffs will be reformed so that they are gradually ratcheted down as the cost of panels declines, as happens in countries such as Germany. This aims to ensure that the rate of return to people installing the tariffs is kept steady at about 5%, which the government believes will give consumers enough incentive to invest in the panels, and installers enough margin to keep them in business.

But in a nod to the travails of the solar industry, which has suffered months of turmoil, uncertainty and job losses since the cut, the government is expected to announce additional spending on the feed-in tariffs.

Originally, the tariffs were allocated about £860m but this is likely to be increased to about £1bn. The tariffs are paid by additions to energy bills, not from the public purse, but the Treasury has limited the amount that can be spent on them because of fears that bills would rise too fast unless there is a brake.

The extra cash is coming from money that was underspent on larger-scale renewables, such as wind farms.

Solar panels have dropped dramatically in price in part because of massive investment in China, which has built hundreds of solar panel factories, mostly geared at the export market. The price falls have created their own problems, as manufacturers in the developed world have struggled to keep pace and some have gone bust or seen their profits wiped out.


Monday, February 27, 2012

County Boasts State's Largest Solar Rooftop

Nearly 23 acres of sun-soaking panels make up the state of North Carolina's largest rooftop solar installation, at least for the present.

Shoe Show Inc.'s $22 million private project sits atop its Cabarrus County distribution facility on Trinity Church Road, near N.C. 73 and I-85.

About 18,500 photovoltaic modules, or solar panels, are estimated to produce about 5 megawatts per year, enough to supply the power needs for more than 600 homes.

The company also installed a $4 million, 750-kilowatt system on its Florence Street building near U.S. 29 in Concord.

Both systems - portions of which have been generating power for months - were created to take advantage of Duke Energy's Renewable Energy Plan, which offers incentives to those who participate in developing renewable energy.

The entire system went online last week. Power collected will be sold to Duke or the city of Concord through a power purchase agreement.

Mooresville-based SunEnergy1, which built the system, said it is the largest rooftop system in the state and one of the largest in the nation. A 20-megawatt solar farm that company is building in Plymouth is larger, but it's on the ground.

Toys "R" Us touts the 5.38-megawatt system being built atop its distribution center in New Jersey as the largest in North America, according to the Charlotte Business Journal.

The solar project Ikea plans in the university area will span 3 acres. Its rooftop will support more than 4,000 solar panels and generate 1.3 megawatts per year, enough to power about 100 homes.

Bob Tucker founded Shoe Show Inc. in Kannapolis in 1960 and has grown the company into the nation's largest independent shoe retailer. It operates 1,123 stores in 37 states and distributes 52 million pairs of shoes per year.

Investing in solar took away from his core businesses of selling shoes, but the benefits outweighed any negative, said Tucker.

"I saw a couple of people who were (investing in solar)," he said. "I knew them and their reputation, and thought if they were doing it, I need to look into it."

Tucker considered renting out the roof to a solar company, then decided against building something to power his facility. Instead, he wanted to build a large-scale system that generates power to sell.

Federal and state tax credits available for solar projects pushed Tucker to move forward.

The federal government allows a project owner to take 30 percent of the project cost as a federal tax credit. N.C. law allows the owner to take 35 percent of costs as a state tax credit.

Tucker said the amount of power the array generates impresses him most.

"It's part of a business, and if it works, it works," said Tucker. "And right now, it's working. What I keep asking is 'How much energy is it producing?' and 'Can you figure out what the real return is going to be?' And we can't really tell until we get three or four months into it."

Tucker said installing the solar array was ultimately a business move, but he's glad it will help the environment. The panels have a 25-year warranty, but their useful life could reach 50 years.

Jack Van Der Poel, Shoe Show's vice president and chief financial officer, said that until now, the push for solar power had never gained momentum, because technology was so expensive and paying for projects only by selling the energy took several years.

"But over the last few years, by having these tax credits, the whole project pays for itself in about five to six years," he said. "If you didn't have those, it would probably take a good 20 years.

"The government realizes (that) in order to get more production from the private sector, they need to put incentives in place to stimulate this, and it has worked," Van Der Poel said. "Everything driving this process was the tax credits and people wanting to take advantage of them."


Solar Tulip Targets Facebook Generation With Designer Power

Aora Solar Ltd. is aiming to win clients from the “Facebook generation” with community-scale generators that double as giant sculptures, according to the designer of its tulip-shaped solar towers.

The facilities, which use a combination of mirrors and fuels such as natural gas or biomass to generate 100 kilowatts of power, combine style and function to persuade design- conscious consumers to erect generators close to their homes, Haim Dotan said at the inauguration of the company’s second plant.

“This project should be put on Facebook so all the children of the world can see it, not only in professional magazines,” said Dotan, who also designed Israel’s pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. “Beauty doesn’t mean that it’s more expensive. It’s down to fun and hard work.”

Aora this month began feeding power to the grid from its second prototype plant in Almeria, southern Spain, and aims to install about 50 of generators this year, Chief Executive Officer Zev Rosenzweig said. He’s seeking to raise $35 million to $40 million of new capital so that he can build several hundred generators in 2013.

The micro solar-thermal plants generate about 100 kilowatts of power and cost about $550,000 each. They’re designed to allow developers to build up capacity slowly without the project loans needed by the biggest solar plants.

‘Many Orders’

“I need the working capital to grow explosively,” he said in an interview at the site of the Almeria plant. “If you’re putting up 200 megawatts of concentrating solar power, you need to find someone who’s going to trust you with a billion dollars and that’s a declining demographic. I believe I will receive many, many orders in next nine months.”

The solar tulip’s combination of solar and combustion- fueled generation means it can guarantee to supply power 24 hours a day with its computer software blending the two energy sources as the weather conditions fluctuate. The cost of power from a solar tulip “compares very favorably” with any other solar-thermal project that has been announced, Rosenzweig said.

The plants use an array of 50 computer-controlled mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a receptor atop a 35-meter tower, which heats compressed air to 1,000 degrees centigrade and powers a turbine. By using air rather than the steam turbines most other solar-thermal plants have, Aora reduces the plant’s water consumption to less than 230 liters a megawatt-hour compared with 3,000 liters for a steam plant, Rosenzweig said.

Sun and Water

“This was developed for use in desert environments where you have the most sun and the least water,” Rosenzweig said.

The plant in Almeria, the only desert in continental Europe, uses water for washing the mirrors and for cooling the air sucked into the compressor when the atmospheric temperature breaches 35 degrees centigrade.

Aora’s strategy contrasts with the approach of rival solar- thermal developers such as BrightSource Energy Inc. and Seville- based Abengoa SA that have been building ever larger plants in southern Spain and the southwestern U.S. in a bid to drive down the cost of equipment. BrightSource is building the world’s largest solar power plant, a 392-megawatt generating complex at Ivanpah in California.

“I gain efficiencies by building a small, simple plant over and over again,” Rosenzeweig said.

The solar tulip can match the power of a utility-scale plant like BrightSource’s by building 100 or more units together. Dotan, a former construction worker with offices in Tel Aviv and Shanghai, imagines the towers painted in different colors stretching out across the desert floor.

Deserts as Gardens

“Deserts are beautiful, but we want to turn them into gardens,” he said. “The sun is going to make the desert bloom.”

Aora, based in Rehovot, Israel, was spun off by EDIG Industries last year and is majority owned by the CPC investment fund. EDIG retains a 17.5 percent stake.

Rosenzweig said the technology can supply power to small communities or business or directly to power companies. Aora is in talks with an architect in California who wants to build one $555,000 plant as the power source for a 60-home development that will be independent of the power grid.

A dairy cooperative in Spain is considering building a tulip and using its excess heat for pasteurizing milk and, through a technique called absorption chilling, to cool the processed milk while producing biogas for the burner from its cow dung.

“It’s a closed loop,” Rosenzweig said. “Anything that comes out of the cow goes back” into the cycle.

Still, Rosenzweig, who previously worked in the nuclear power and defense industries, isn’t relying on the generation that has grown up with Facebook, the largest social network, to deliver his business plan.

“It’ll take about 10 years to catch on with them,” he said.


Solar Start-ups Set New Efficiency Records

Although Alta Devices and Semprius make different types of solar panels, both start-ups have been breaking records in the past few days. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Alta Devices announced that its solar panels have achieved an efficiency of 23.5%, which has been verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as the highest solar panel efficiency to date. And Semprius, based in Durham, North Carolina, has announced that its concentrated solar panels have achieved an efficiency of 33.9%. Unlike traditional solar panels, concentrated solar panels use lenses to concentrate sunlight at intensities of up to 1,000 suns.

In addition to breaking records, another thing these two types of solar panels have in common is that they’re both made of gallium arsenide (GaAs) instead of the more conventional silicon. Although GaAs is more expensive than silicon, it’s much better at absorbing sunlight. To keep costs down, both companies have developed designs that use minimal amounts of the material.

Alta has developed a manufacturing technique that fabricates solar cells about 1 micron thick, which is a fraction of the thickness of other GaAs solar cells. For comparison, the company notes that a human hair is approximately 40 microns thick. In addition to being extremely thin, the solar cells are also flexible, offering the potential to be integrated into roof and building materials, transportation products, and other devices. Last summer, Alta demonstrated that one of these solar cells could achieve an efficiency of 27.6% (some efficiency is lost when multiple cells are wired together and assembled into an entire solar panel).

Alta’s goal is to make solar panels that are cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and to do so without government subsidies. The company is pursuing the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot initiative, which aims to bring solar-generated electricity down to six cents per kilowatt-hour by the end of the decade, making it competitive with coal and natural gas. The DOE predicts that, if this goal is met, solar panels would account for 15-18% of US electricity generation by 2030, up from less than 1% today.

As for Semprius’ strategy, the company’s concentrated solar panels consist of thousands of GaAs microcells the size of a pencil point that Semprius claims are the world’s smallest solar cells. The microcells are robotically stamped onto a substrate using a specialized micro-transfer printing process. The panels contain three layers of the microcells, each modified to convert a different part of the solar spectrum into electricity.

Semprius’ 33.9% efficiency, which was verified by third parties, smashes the previous record of 32.0% for high-concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) solar panels. Further, the panel is not a prototype, but is intended for commercial use. Semprius plans to open a factory in Henderson, North Carolina, this summer and to start manufacturing commercial solar panels later this year. Like Alta, the company also predicts it can eventually generate electricity at a cost competitive with fossil fuels, also without government subsidies.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hottest Places for Solar Panels

It’s a pretty obvious fact that some countries are much, much hotter than others. However, where is the best place to live to benefit from solar panels – is it where it’s sunniest? In the US, California has excellent environmental conditions for solar panels. In particular, a trip to Inyokern, on the eastern edge of Sierra Nevada, in the Mojave Desert, would be the place where you’d most need sunscreen – it receives more solar radiation annually than anywhere else in the whole of North America.

It would seem logical that this would be where you could earn the most money by installing solar panels, since it is where they’d generate the most power. However, while there is a Federal tax credit for renewable energy, additional incentives vary widely from state to state. The seemingly unlikely best state for installing domestic solar panels is, in fact, New Jersey. Indeed, not only is it one of the most attractive places for investment in solar in the US, but in the world. The generous incentives in the Garden State include renewable energy credits, where one credit, worth $650, is paid per 1000kWh generated. Combined with some of the country’s highest electricity costs, at $0.19/kWh compared to the national average of $0.11/kWh, this means that the solar panels will pay themselves off after approximately 4 years, and the payments last for 15 years.

Don’t live in New Jersey? Don’t get disheartened; don’t forget the other forms of renewable energy. Oil magnate, T. Boone Pickens planned to build the World’s biggest wind energy farm in Texas, due to a healthy mixture of incentives and ideal conditions for the generating power from the wind (although he did end up selling of 667 turbines due to transmission issues).

If you don’t even live in the USA, certain countries offer arguably better incentives. Italy is a world-leader in encouraging solar energy, offering a 0.431EUR/kWh tariff for solar power generation over a 20 year period, with a potential 30% increase if the house is certified as energy efficient, and for residents of Milano County, further assistance is available in the form of an interest free loan to buy the system in the first place.

What could happen if the sunniest places worldwide were used for solar power production? Dr Gerhard Knies, a German climate change expert, states that “within 6 hours, deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year.” In November 2007, data gathered over 22 years of study by NASA revealed that the two sunniest places on Earth are a patch of sea in the Pacific Ocean and an area of desert in the Sahara, near the ruined fort at Agadem in south-east Niger. “For some reason there are fewer clouds just there than elsewhere” Paul Stackhouse, a scientist working on the project, told Reuters.

The Desertec charity is a German-led initiative to make use of the abundant sunlight in the Sahara, which regularly experiences temperatures soaring above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The project could start generating electricity as soon as 2015. While there are currently no government incentives in the Sahara for renewable energy generation, the electricity will be exported to Europe, where it could meet up to 15% of its energy needs by 2050. The costs involved are immense – it’s a $400bn investment4. This initial expense, however, ought to be offset by the relatively low production costs of the electricity itself, estimated to be between 0.065 and 0.16 EUR/kWh, and fairly low losses of 4-5% of the power per 1,000km of cabling through which it has to travel to reach other countries.

It would seem projects such as this effort, encompassing 12 different companies across multiple countries, are to be necessary for solar power to be generated on any reasonable scale. Taking advantage of the sunniest places and the economies of scale that come with massive installations is the best sustainable solution because it is the way to produce renewable power at the lowest cost per unit.

In more economically-developed countries, with greater per capita energy requirements, there are usually greater incentives for solar power generation on offer. This certainly helps keep down the costs of infrastructure development and transmission losses, both of which are otherwise greater when the electricity has to be transported thousands of kilometres. However, this is probably outweighed by the much higher average levels of sunshine in many less economically developed countries around the equator, hence the real way for solar to become a viable long term solution is to generate the electricity at the lowest cost possible, no matter whether it’s governments, large companies or individuals paying for it. For this to happen, solar will have to be encouraged in sunnier countries, and so perhaps inter-lateral government investment ought to be expanded to make this happen.


Solar Startups Set New Power Records

If solar startups Alta Devices and Semprius were in the server business, one would be developing a deluxe high-powered server while the other would be stringing thousands of Linux boxes together. Both approaches, though, are showing promise at bringing the cost of solar power down.
Scientist Keith Emery

Alta Devices today said it set the record for the most efficient solar cell, able to convert 23.5 percent of sunlight into electricity. The University of California at Berkeley spin-out said the efficiency mark, verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is a step toward commercializing its novel solar technology.

The company is making solar cells from gallium arsenide, a very efficient material typically used on high-end concentrating photovoltaic collectors or solar panels in space. The difference is that Alta Devices has developed a manufacturing technique to make extremely thin cells only one micron thick. A strand of human hair is about 40 microns to 50 microns wide.

By creating very thin solar cell slices, Alta Devices expects it can make solar panels cheaper than traditional silicon cells or other thin-film technologies. Gallium arsenide also generates electricity well at very high temperatures or low light, which improves its year-round performance.

"Our goal is to optimize the production economics of solar so that it is competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies, leading to broad adoption of solar generated electricity," Alta Devices president Christopher Norris said in a statement.

Last summer, the company came out of stealth mode by presenting a technical paper at a photovoltaic conference that predicted improving performance over time as high as 28 percent. The industry-leading polycrystalline silicon panels have efficiency of 20 percent or more while commercial thin-film cadmium telluride or CIGS cells are closer to 12 percent.

Boosting the efficiency of individual solar cells, which are wired together and assembled into a solar panel, is one of the most important levers manufacturers have for lowering the cost of solar power.

But another solar startup, Semprius, is taking a completely different tack with a design that uses thousands of dot-size solar cells in a collector that concentrates sunlight.

The company last week said that its solar modules, or panels, were tested at converting 33.9 percent of sunlight to electricity. Semprius was able to get that module-level performance with a combination of optics to concentrate light and a low-cost manufacturing solar cell printing process.

Solar "microcells" the size of a pencil point are stamped onto a substrate using a robotic production process in three layers. Then lenses concentrate light 1,000 times onto the gallium arsenide cells.

Solar concentrators such as these work in very sunny areas, such as deserts, and use mounting systems that track the sun during the course of the day to optimize the light angle. Energy giant Siemens last year invested in Semprius, which will aid the company in getting its products to market as banks are typically reluctant to finance new energy technologies. It expects to start manufacturing its solar collectors, aimed at solar energy project developers, in a North Carolina pilot plant in the second half of this year.


Solar Cells from Grass Clippings

Within a few years, people in remote villages in the developing world may be able to make their own solar panels, at low cost, using otherwise worthless agricultural waste as their raw material.

That's the vision of MIT researcher Andreas Mershin, whose work is an extension of a project begun eight years ago by Shuguang Zhang, a principal research scientist and associate director at MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering. In his original work, Zhang was able to enlist a complex of molecules known as photosystem-I (PS-I), the tiny structures within plant cells that carry out photosynthesis. Zhang and colleagues derived the PS-I from plants, stabilized it chemically and formed a layer on a glass substrate that could — like a conventional photovoltaic cell — produce an electric current when exposed to light.

But that early system had some drawbacks. Assembling and stabilizing it required expensive chemicals and sophisticated lab equipment. What's more, the resulting solar cell was weak: Its efficiency was several orders of magnitude too low to be of any use, meaning it had to be blasted with a high-power laser to produce any current at all. Now Mershin says the process has been simplified to the point that virtually any lab could replicate it — including college or even high school science labs — allowing researchers around the world to start exploring the process and making further improvements. The new system's efficiency is 10,000 times greater than in the previous version — although in converting just 0.1 percent of sunlight's energy to electricity, it still needs to improve another tenfold or so to become useful, he says.

The key to achieving this huge improvement in efficiency, Mershin explains, was finding a way to expose much more of the PS-I complex per surface area of the device to the sun. Zhang's earlier work simply produced a thin flat layer of the material; Mershin's inspiration for the new advance was pine trees in a forest.

Mershin, a research scientist in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, noticed that while most of the pines had bare trunks and a canopy of branches only at the very top, a few had small branches all the way down the length of the trunk, capturing any sunlight that trickled down from above. He decided to create a microscopic forest on a chip, with PS-I coating his "trees" from top to bottom.

Turning that insight into a practical device took years of work, but in the end Mershin was able to create a tiny forest of zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowires as well as a sponge-like titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanostructure coated with the light-collecting material derived from bacteria. The nanowires not only served as a supporting structure for the material, but also as wires to carry the flow of electrons generated by the molecules down to the supporting layer of material, from which it could be connected to a circuit. "It's like an electric nanoforest," he says.

As an bonus, both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — the main ingredient in many sunscreens — are very good at absorbing ultraviolet light. That's helpful in this case because ultraviolet tends to damage PS-I, but in these structures that damaging light gets absorbed by the support structure. Mershin thinks that because he and his colleagues have now lowered the barrier to entry for further work on these materials, progress toward improving their efficiency should be rapid. Ultimately, once the efficiency reaches 1 or 2 percent, he says, that will be good enough to be useful, because the ingredients are so cheap and the processing so simple.

"You can use anything green, even grass clippings" as the raw material, he says — in some cases, waste that people would otherwise pay to have hauled away. While centrifuges were used to concentrate the PS-I molecules, the team has proposed a way to achieve this concentration by using inexpensive membranes for filtration. No special laboratory conditions are needed, Mershin says: "It can be very dirty and it still works, because of the way nature has designed it. Nature works in dirty environments — it's the result of billions of experiments over billions of years."

Because the system is so cheap and simple, he hopes this will become a "way of getting low-tech electricity to people who have never been thought of as consumers or producers of solar-power technology." He hopes the instructions for making a solar cell will be simple enough to be reduced to "one sheet of cartoon instructions, with no words." The only ingredient to be purchased would be chemicals to stabilize the PS-I molecules, which could be packaged inexpensively in a plastic bag.

Essentially, Mershin says, within a few years a villager in a remote, off-grid location could "take that bag, mix it with anything green and paint it on the roof" to start producing power, which could then charge cellphones or lanterns. Today, the most widely used source of lighting in such locations is kerosene lanterns — "the most expensive, most unhealthy" form of lighting there is, he says. "Nighttime illumination is the number one way to get out of poverty," he adds, because it enables people who work in the fields all day to read at night and get an education.

Babak Parviz, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington who specializes in bionanotechnology, says this is "a very exciting paper and a very nice step toward integrating biomolecules for building solar cells. This shows a very promising and creative first step toward building organic photovoltaic cells that can use biologically (naturally) produced cores." He adds that while the present system still needs further development, "further work in the field can perhaps improve the stability and performance of these devices."

The research was funded in part by an unrestricted grant from Intel Corp., and also included researchers at the University of Tennessee.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Solar Energy Week in Review: Solar Gaining Steam for 2012

Yes, it’s still cold. It’s just February, but already the U.S. solar industry is picking up steam that will carry it through 2012 and beyond.

Last week saw a number of events showing that last year’s growth in the U.S. solar market is carrying on this year, despite changes in incentives that could hamper its growth.

During the Solar Power Generation USA conference in Las Vegas, Shayle Kann, GTM Research managing director of solar, said that the U.S. solar market is poised for growth in 2012, which should make it one of the top two leading world markets for solar in the next two years.

Some growth will be driven by utility-scale solar deployments, like National Solar Power’s 3rd giant PV project in Florida, which will consist of up to 100 megawatts of solar plots throughout Liberty County.

And the Department of Interior’s proposed Solar Energy Zones in the Southwestern U.S., which is designed to speed development of solar on federal lands, is moving forward, with support both from the industry and environmental advocates.

There’s also a lot of growth in solar that’s being driven by homeowners going solar in markets like California. For instance, a new report by SunRun and PV Solar Report found that residential solar growth in 2011 across California was driven by middle-class homeowners, not the richest. The study found that as more people learn about third-party purchasing options, more are choosing to go solar.

That trend is likely to continue as residential solar may reach grid parity in California as early as 2015. That’s according to Environment California’s Research & Policy Center, which surmised that the falling price of solar and soft-cost reductions is likely to mean installed residential solar could reach $5.25 per installed watt by 2015. With continued net-metering, that level would be at grid parity in the state.

Elsewhere an agreement between PowerOptions and SunEdison in Massachusetts just made it easier for nonprofits and municipalities to get access to low-cost solar. The two are offering net-metering and power-purchase agreements that can allow such organizations access to solar with no upfront costs.

As President Obama mentioned in the State of the Union, the Department of Defense is going renewable in a big way in coming years. To help it make the transition, Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) and American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) are holding a series of forums with DOD officials to connect them with solar industry people and address concerns.

Solar also continues to offer innovative solutions. Last week Tucson Electric Power said it would increase the output of a power plant with solar. The 156-megawatt H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station can be fired by coal or natural gas and already gets some methane from a nearby landfill. But the power plant will get an up-to 5-megawatt boost from the Sundt Solar Boost Project. It uses AREVA Solar 's Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector system to superheat water into steam, boosting the plant’s generating capacity.

On the world stage, Europe also is forging ahead. A stronger than expected finish last year meant that overall, the solar industry surged by 23 percent in 2011 over 2010. That growth is extending in early 2012, according to a new NDP SolarBuzz report.


Sanyo to Dismiss 140 Workers in California Solar Factory Closing

Sanyo Electric Co. will cut about 140 jobs and close an aging solar wafer factory in Carson, California, as it prepares to start up operations at a plant in Malaysia.

The plant, which makes the equivalent of 30 megawatts of silicon ingots and wafers for solar cells a year, will stop production next month and close in October, Masatsugu Uemura, a spokesman for Panasonic Energy Co., said by phone from Osaka. Sanyo is a unit of Panasonic Corp. (6752)

Equipment at the plant, opened in 2003, was getting old and the company found it difficult to expand the business there because of the small size of the site, Uemura said. “Price competition is also getting tough,” he said.

Prices for solar panels and their raw materials fell last year as Chinese manufacturers increased production, leading to excess capacity after European governments cut back on subsidies. Sumco Corp., a Japanese silicon wafer maker, said on Feb. 2 it will cut about 1,300 jobs, or 15 percent of its workforce, as it withdraws from its solar manufacturing business due to declining prices.

Sanyo has a 70-megawatt plant in Salem, Oregon, that also makes ingots and wafers. Panasonic said in November it will invest 45 billion yen ($587 million) to build a 300-megawatt plant for wafers, solar cells and modules in the Kulim Hi-Tech Park in Kedah, northern Malaysia. Production will start in December, Panasonic said.

Uemura confirmed a report on Feb. 3 that Sanyo’s planned job cuts equal about 40 percent of its total workforce in the U.S.


Abound Solar Produces 82.8W Module

Abound Solar, a leading manufacturer of next-generation thin-film cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules, today announced the production of 82.8W modules at their Longmont, Colorado, USA factory. The 82.8W module represents a 12.2 percent aperture efficiency and is being verified by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

The first 82W module was produced in early January 2012 on existing production equipment, and several hundred modules reaching that wattage have been manufactured thus far. Abound Solar expects to begin mass production of 82W modules in the second half of 2012 and 85W modules in the first half of 2013.

"We are very proud of this achievement and I think it underscores the tremendous capabilities of CdTe thin-film technology as a leading solution for competitive, reliable solar power made in the U.S.A.," said Craig Witsoe, President and CEO of Abound Solar. "Abound's R&D team continues to innovate, and we expect to continue increasing our module efficiency and performance. We believe thin-film will soon outpace other forms of PV in regards to cost-efficiency."

Abound Solar produced its one-millionth module in December 2011. Expansion of the Longmont, Colorado factory is currently underway, with further expansion efforts within the U.S. coming in 2013.

About Abound Solar

Abound Solar is a leading manufacturer of next-generation, cadmium telluride thin-film photovoltaic modules. Abound Solar provides a made-in-the-U.S.A. product designed to meet the unique requirements of commercial- and utility-scale installations. Abound Solar uses a robust, commercial-scale, continuous manufacturing process that results in low-cost, high-quality modules that provide superior performance in high-heat and diffuse light conditions.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Solar Projects Take Home of Hoover Dam Back to Future

The small town of Boulder City can claim big-time bragging rights when it comes to producing renewable energy. Leading the nation will do that for a community.
Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler

But solar power has generated more than electricity in Boulder City. The industry has and will continue to generate significant revenue for the city through lease payments.

So much so that Mayor Roger Tobler in his recent State of the City address said the solar projects have the potential to eliminate the city's debt and stabilize its revenue stream far into the future.

Because of this money, Boulder City is being spared many of the drastic spending cuts that other Nevada cities have been forced to deal with because of the economic downturn, including layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts and freezes.


According to City Manager Vicki Mayes, the city will collect a total of about $12 million a year just in lease payments, and that figure doesn't account for one solar company still in negotiations.

She made it clear that most of that money is not yet headed to city coffers; but once projects now in the planning stage begin to produce solar energy, that $12 million will be a reliable source of revenue for decades.

The companies also were required to provide "large upfront payments" to cover the two- to four-year construction period.

In a nutshell, the city stands to collect more than $480 million in rent through the life of the contracts. Tobler said the lease payments have the potential to eliminate the city's debts and it's difficult to argue with the council's optimism. In 2011, the city's budget was roughly $25 million with an ending fund balance of about $2 million. The leases currently in effect will increase the city's revenue by nearly 50 percent.

Mayes said the briefest lease is for 20 years with an option to extend it another two decades while the others range between 40 and 50 years.

Clark County will also benefit from the property taxes the companies will pay to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Some of that revenue will come to the city.

Tobler credits his colleagues on the City Council and those who served on past councils for having the vision to embrace solar projects. He believes the hard work has once again put the city on the cutting edge of new energy technology.

Of the two projects already in operation, one is the largest photovoltaic solar project in the nation; the other is the first large-scale concentrated solar power plant built in 15 years. Photovoltaic technology turns the sun's rays directly into electricity. Concentrated power plants use the sun's heat to power a conventional turbine, which generates electricity.

"This is the greatest story never told," he said. "What we're doing is huge. I have to credit my predecessors with having the foresight to move ahead. We're just continuing what they started."

Tobler also praised the residents of Boulder City for their near unanimous support of the projects.

"It helps to have companies with good track records," he said.


Woo-Jin Kim, a South Korean who attended UCLA and who now lives in Las Vegas, introduced three Korean solar companies to the city and helped facilitate their projects. Two have been approved and one is "very close" to being negotiated, Tobler said. When all is said and done, five companies from three countries will play a role in Boulder City's energy zone.

"Boulder City did a very smart thing," said Kim said.

Because the city owns the land on which the land-intensive projects are built, he said, those companies largely avoided the lengthy process and heavy expense of building on federal land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

"The bureau's environmental impact studies take three or four years and the permits cost ($5 million to $6 million)," Kim said. "Boulder City did its due diligence in terms of who they do business with and the environmental impact, but the fact Boulder City doesn't require the environmental studies makes it a very preferable situation for Boulder City and the solar companies."

Kim said city officials have put out the welcome mat. "The Koreans tell me they don't feel like they're doing business in a foreign country. The city is very forward thinking, and officials like (City Manager) Vicki Mayes are very knowledgeable and wonderful to work with."

That's an opinion shared by Bob Cable, the plant manager at Nevada Solar 1, a company owned by Spanish company Acciona, which built the first solar project in the city.

"They had the forethought to plan ahead," Cable said. "We lease the land from them. We're able to profit and Boulder City gets a pretty healthy payment every year."

Nevada Solar 1 has a 50-year lease agreement with the city for about 400 acres.

Two of the Korean companies Kim's management firm represents, KOMIPO and KOWEPO, will make upfront payments to the city of $5 million and $3.5 million, respectively, to cover rent while the facilities are built on sites ranging from 900 to 2,200 acres.

In addition to its lease payments, Sempra gave the city $500,000 to upgrade its public buildings using "any type of renewable energy," Tobler said in his State of the City address Jan. 26.


The city, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas, was built in 1931 for one purpose: to house thousands of workers to construct Hoover Dam during the Great Depression. Back then, the dam was the largest hydro­electric power plant project in the nation, producing 1,345 megawatts of renewable energy to vast swaths of the Southwest. Today, the dam generates an average of 2,080 megawatts .

More than eight decades after construction began on the dam, Boulder City's Eldorado Valley is rapidly becoming the epicenter of the nation's solar power generation. Copper Mountain Solar 1 is the nation's largest photovoltaic solar power plant. The plant is owned by Sempra U.S. Gas & Power and produces 58 megawatts.

Across the street is Acciona's Nevada Solar 1, a 65-megawatt concentrated solar power facility constructed in 2007. At the time, it was the first major solar operation built in the United States since 1991.

Both companies plan significant expansions, but they are far from the only solar game in Boulder City. About 8,000 acres were set aside to develop the city's "energy zone." Tobler said just about every acre has been claimed by one company or another.

Techren Solar, the third Korean company Kim represents, plans to develop a 300-megawatt facility.


And just as engineers found nearby Black Canyon an ideal place to build Hoover Dam all those years ago, today's generation of renewable energy companies consider Boulder City one of the best places in the world to set up shop.

"Boulder City is more attractive to solar companies than anywhere else," said Scott Crider, Sempra's director of external relations. "There is more sunlight here, plenty of land and available transmission lines."

Sure, there's just as much sunlight in other areas of the Southwest, more than 300 sunny days a year in most places. But few communities are situated so close to a significant power grid, and fewer still have thousands of acres of empty land just waiting for a developer.

The city might be one of the smaller communities in Southern Nevada with about 15,000 residents, but it's a giant in geographic terms.

They city's boundaries take in roughly 200 square miles, making it the largest incorporated community in the state. To put that in perspective, 640 acres constitute one square mile.

In comparison, the city boundaries of Las Vegas comprise about 136 square miles, and Las Vegas is home to about 584,000 residents.


Solar power is here to stay.

Four years ago, the largest photo­voltaic facility in the nation produced 10 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt is equal to 1 million watts. Sempra's next project in Boulder City, Copper Mountain II, will be a 150-megawatt operation.

"We've gained a lot of experience since 2008," Crider said. "We'll be able to build it in less than a year, panel costs continue to drop and we're getting more efficient all the time. Solar is a maturing industry."

Crider said he couldn't divulge the precise cost to build Copper Mountain 1, but he did say it averaged between $3 million and $4 million per megawatt, or close to $203 million.

Currently, Sempra and Acciona are producing a little more than 120 megawatts of solar power. That's enough to provide power to about 40,000 homes.

And both companies enjoy long-term contracts. Sempra has sold its solar energy to San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric, serving Northern California, while Acciona is contracted with NV Energy.

When the other companies go online, about 1,400 megawatts will be generated, enough to provide electricity to roughly 420,000 homes.

Crider acknowledges it is less expensive to generate power using fossil fuels like oil and coal, but he thinks the balance will even out sooner than many people suspect it will.

"We're getting more competitive," Crider said. "In 20 years future Boulder City councils will thank Mayor Tobler and the council for what they've done. Boulder City has a history of being pro clean and green energy, and it goes back to Hoover Dam."

"No headaches yet," Tobler said. "We think this is going to work out well, and we think the city will benefit along with the environment."


Hawaii Solar Companies Join into One Entity

Haleakala Solar Inc. has joined forces with Oahu-based Solar Wave Hawaii, making it one of Hawaii's largest solar and renewable energy contractors and priming it for statewide expansion, the companies announced Friday.

The combined company will employ more than 110 people, about two-thirds of those in Maui County, and there are plans to add 50 more positions this year, mostly on Oahu and Kauai, according to Jeff Powers, Haleakala's executive vice president on Oahu.

Haleakala Solar will be the name of the merged company, with James Whitcomb, founder of Haleakala Solar in 1977, taking over as chief executive officer, and Wendell Choy, chief executive officer of Solar Wave, serving as the company's president.

"We are fortunate to have Mr. Choy join our team," Whitcomb said. "He is an absolute expert in financing solar systems and maximizing energy production from these systems. With his talent and the experienced staff of Solar Wave, we believe we are the pre-eminent solar company in Hawaii."

Powers said that Whitcomb and Choy each bring strengths to the company - Whitcomb with his more than three decades of experience in the alternative energy industry and Choy with his financing expertise.

Choy also is a former Honolulu deputy prosecuting attorney.

The decision to form a single company brings it a "significant improvement in capability and growth potential," Powers said, acknowledging that other solar-power companies may use the merger as a model for better business.

The companies have been on the rising wave of alternative energy growth in the islands.

Haleakala's revenue has grown from $4 million in 2009 to $6 million in 2010 and $19 million last year, Powers said. Solar Wave's revenue was reported at $2 million in 2009, doubling to $4 million in 2010 and rising to nearly $8 million last year.

Haleakala Solar has installed more than 9,000 solar systems since 1977. The company has solar systems on all of the main Hawaiian Islands.

Haleakala Solar employs 94 workers at five Hawaii locations: three on Oahu and two on Maui. On Maui, there is a showroom at the Maui Mall and a baseyard in Puunene. On Oahu, there is a showroom at 2700 S. King St. and administrative offices and a warehouse elsewhere in Honolulu.

Solar Wave has designed and installed systems for Punahou School, Iolani School and Mid-Pacific Institute, as well as many other prominent locations on Oahu, according to an announcement. Solar Wave has also installed systems on the Big Island and Maui.

According to Haleakala Solar, its systems conserve more than 80,000 barrels of oil per year, saving their customers more than $9 million annually, while eliminating thousands of tons of pollutants from entering the skies above Hawaii.

The company plans to open offices on the Big Island and Kauai this year.

A residential solar power system can cost from $15,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of a home, its residents' energy demands and other factors, such as whether there's already a solar hot water system in place, Powers said.


Nissan's Solar-Powered Hybrid Cargo Ship

Toyota might be the world’s largest hybrid automaker, but that isn’t stopping rival Japanese automaker Nissan from trying to become the world leader in hybrid electric car transporter ships.

Its latest ship, announced on Tuesday this week, puts it ahead in the race to have the greenest shipping fleet of any automaker.

Called the Nichioh Maru, the massive roll-on/roll-off coastal transporter ship replaces the usual diesel-powered electricity generators found on most ships with 281 photovoltaic solar panels mounted above deck.

Capable of meeting the majority of the ship’s electrical power requirements, the solar panels massively reduce the amount of diesel fuel burned to generate electricity on each trip.

There’s more too. The ship is also fitted with energy-saving LED lighting throughout its hold and living quarters, while the hull is painted with the latest in low-friction paint, allowing it to slip through the water more easily.

And while it is powered by a huge diesel engine, the engine is controlled electronically to ensure it burns as little fuel as possible.

All told, Nissan says its new ship will lower its fuel bill by 1,400 tons of diesel per year, and lower carbon emissions by 4,200 tons.

The Nichioh Maru is the first ship of its kind in Japan to be used on domestic shipping routes, and will be used to help Nissan deliver new 2012 Nissan Leafs from its factory in Oppama to ports all over the island nation.

Nissan now has two eco-friendly ships it uses regularly to transport 2012 Leafs to customers around the world: The Nichioh Maru, and the City of St.Petersburg -- a ship unveiled last year with an aerodynamic spherical prow designed to reduce fuel consumption.

Toyota, on the other hand, only has one we’re aware of -- the diesel-electric hybrid Auriga Leader car transporter used to bring Toyota and Lexus cars from Japan to the U.S.

We’re pretty sure however, that won’t remain the case for much longer.

We can’t wait to see what comes next.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Vendors Sue Company Building Florida's Largest Solar Farm, Claiming Unpaid Bills

BlueChip Energy, the Lake Mary company building what could become Florida's largest solar farm, has been hit with claims from vendors that say they haven't been paid for almost $500,000 worth of services and materials.

The claims filed in court against BlueChip and its manufacturing arm, Advanced Solar Photonics, have not interrupted work on the massive alternative-energy project in Sorrento, the first phase of which should be completed by year's end, company spokesman Lawrence Hefler said.

Hefler said at least one of the disputes was in the "process of being resolved," but he could not discuss details. One claim was filed by a company that supplied BlueChip with more than 700 solar panels in December 2010, and the other was filed by an Orlando engineering firm that conducted an environmental survey and other tests of the solar-farm site last spring.

The solar-panel supplier, Motech Americas, sued Advanced Solar Photonics last month to collect $466,000 for solar panels and related products, according to documents filed in circuit court in Seminole County by Rich Loudermilk, a Sarasota lawyer representing the Delaware-based supplier. BlueChip has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, a circuit judge last month decided that ECS-Florida, an engineering company in Orlando, was entitled to recover about $25,000 from BlueChip for consulting services it provided last March for the solar-farm site.

Despite the alleged debts, BlueChip recently announced that it was more than doubling the size of the Sorrento Solar Farm project in Lake County — from 200 acres to 500 acres — through a land-lease agreement with Eustis.

The expanded solar project would boast 400,000 photovoltaic panels and, when completed, would generate 100 megawatts of power — enough electricity to meet the annual power needs of 20,000 homes, Hefler said.

The 25-year pact with Eustis allows BlueChip to put about 250,000 solar panels on a field where the city had sprayed its treated wastewater. The field is adjacent to BlueChip's field, a former cow pasture on the west side of County Road 437.

For lending the field, Eustis will receive $150,000 a year in cash and solar power to run its water and wastewater plants, which are on the northwest corner of the site. Eustis pays about $36,000 a year for electricity to power the two plants, said Dianne Kramer, the city's director of development services.

BlueChip, which also has a smaller solar-panel field on the roof of its Rinehart Road headquarters, still hopes to receive a federal grant that was set aside in federal stimulus funds for owners of renewable-energy facilities. Hefler said the company is awaiting word on its application, submitted in December.

"We're pretty confident," he said, noting that the company has met benchmarks for the grant.

Hefler said he does not expect the pending claims of unpaid bills to affect the application for the grant, which BlueChip representatives previously said could be worth as much as $45 million.

Solar Company Natcore Setting up Shop in Rochester

The concept of solar power is nearly irresistible: an endless cascade of sunlight — the ultimate renewable resource — churning out cheap electricity.

The reality of solar power, though, is more problematic as it remains far from cheap. And the U.S. Energy Department projects that electricity from a hypothetical solar energy project going online in 2016 would be about twice as expensive as juice from a new coal plant and more than three times costlier than a natural gas-fed power plant.

But New Jersey-based Natcore Technologies Inc. sees the green of cash in the golden sunshine. The solar energy technology firm is in the midst of setting up a research and development facility at Eastman Business Park that CEO Chuck Provini said should be operational within a couple weeks.

Once it is set up, the company plans to hire 10 to 15 people to staff it as it works on three separate, parallel technology tracks: “black silicon” solar cells that use silicon wafers etched with tiny pores that reflect back less light; stacks of tandem solar cells, each working on different wavelengths of light; and flexible, thin-film solar cells.

Each technology has the possibility of making solar more commercially viable by either cutting the cost of manufacture or upping the efficiency, Provini said last week as he was in town to visit Natcore’s facilities in Eastman Kodak Co.’s Building 308.

Later this month, Natcore plans to bring in prospective customers/investors such as representatives from an Italian solar panel maker, a Chinese solar cell maker and an Indian energy company. Part of Natcore’s sales pitch, Provini said, will be trying to convince those firms to set up manufacturing operations in the United States in exchange for access to Natcore technology — though ultimately, he added, investors will be in the driver’s seat of that decision.

Natcore’s efforts come as the solar photovoltaic market is in the midst of serious challenges, from numerous European nations cutting solar energy subsidies and an oversupply of solar components globally sending prices nosediving to the political issues surrounding the bankruptcy and liquidation of California thin-film solar cell maker Solyndra.

But the oversupply issue is due largely to China subsidizing manufacturers there, and technology under development will make the glut of industry-standard solar cell components on the market now obsolete, Provini said. “You make dramatic changes, you own the industry,” he said.

Natcore also is counting on the cost of oil rising, particularly as a cash-strapped U.S. government cuts oil subsidies, to make solar more financially competitive, Provini said.

The company’s key assets are a group of patents it has licensed or owns outright. And it expects to start earning income from licensing that technology to others later this year. Other revenue streams, such as manufacturing solar cell coating equipment or the reselling of chemicals needed in the manufacturing process, would follow.

Natcore announced in December that it had signed a patent license agreement with the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory giving it access to NREL patents to develop and commercialize black silicon solar cells. And it hopes to have prototype black silicon solar cells within a couple of months, with greater efficiency than what is on the market today.

Tandem solar cell prototypes could be ready within six to 12 months, Provini said. And a workable prototype of flexible, thin-film solar cells — made with Kodak’s thin-film manufacturing capabilities and costing far less to install than traditional solar cells — would take the same amount of time if the company can find investors in the technology, Provini said.

The company signed a lease in July with Kodak. The Building 308 lab will consolidate lab space the company currently has at Ohio State and Rice universities. Being near Kodak and its thin-film capabilities were one key reason why the company opted to put its R&D operations there.

Aside from that, said Thomas J. Scarpa, corporate development officer, “The intellectual pool we can draw on, this is an excellent place. University of Rochester. Rochester Institute of Technology. Ex-Kodakers.”

Natcore is emblematic of what Kodak has been trying to do with its sprawling Eastman Business Park manufacturing campus — make it over into an industrial park. More than two dozen firms, including spinoffs from and former suppliers of Kodak, operate there today.

Kodak is currently in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is in talks about potential sales of some or all of the campus. However, Provini said, “I don’t think (the bankruptcy) is going to affect us.”

And, Provini added with a smile, if Kodak wanted to take some of the hundreds of millions of dollars Citigroup has loaned it during bankruptcy and invest it in Natcore technology, “That’d be a great way to reinvent themselves.”


Cloudy Outlook for Solar Rebates

Australian buyers of solar panels and hot-water systems are being warned they face at least a 12-month wait if they want the full rebate to which they're entitled under the government's renewable energy scheme.
Subsidies for hot water systems and solar panels have ground to a halt.

Industry experts say the government registry through which solar subsidies are paid has all but ground to a halt, leaving consumers who've forked out for the green energy option facing a choice of either a long wait or cutting their losses and accepting a lower rebate.

A stronger than expected boom in solar installation last year has flooded the market with renewable energy certificates - tradeable credits that the government awards to people who install solar systems. These can be sold to electricity suppliers at a guaranteed price of $40 per certificate - but only if they are traded on the government's registry.

The oversupply of certificates has pushed down the market price to about $31, meaning trade on the government registry is virtually paralyzed with a backlog of more than $280 million worth of certificates.

''It does mean that if people took at face value they would get $40 and put them in the (government) clearing house, they will wait a long time,'' said John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Energy Society. ''The message to those people is that really there is no guarantee that those certificates will ever be cleared out of there. I certainly don't see the price of certificates rising to $40.''

The delay is also hitting installers, who often take the certificates off the buyer's hands in return for an up-front discount. One major firm, which did not want to be named, told The Age it was pulling its certificates out of the government registry and selling them on the market at an estimated drop in value of $1 million.