Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mesa Considers Solar Incentives for Homes, Businesses

Mesa is preparing to bolster incentives to residents and businesses who want to cut their electric bills by installing solar panels.

Solar panels can be seen on the roofs of homes
in this East Valley subdivision

The city’s current approach hasn’t made solar a popular option. Of the 15,000 customers in the Mesa-owned utility, only five homeowners have solar panels. But other homeowners are considering solar panels if the city offers the right incentives, said Frank McRae, Mesa’s energy resources director.

Now, Mesa doesn’t allow homeowners to get credit when solar panels produce more energy than a house consumes. The meter simply stops.

But the city is looking to have meters spin backward at time of excess energy production, which McRae said is an important financial consideration for those considering panels.

“There is more of an incentive for them,” McRae said.

Some homeowners have probably put off solar panel installation until the city allows them to get credit for that extra energy production, he said.

Mesa’s initial round of incentives will be small. It will offer rebates of $1,000 per kilowatt of solar production, with a limit of 5kW for a home and 10kW for a business. The program is capped at $100,000 of incentives, split evenly between businesses and homes.

The city will study the financial impact to avoid losing money if its solar customers begin producing large amounts of energy. After evaluating that, Mesa will look at the possibilities of industrial-level solar production.

“Then we’ll use that data to see how the city can invest in solar in larger scales, whether buying large power plants or put in our own facilities,” McRae said.

The solar program will include energy audits. It’s more cost-effective to address leaks or poor insulation than to install excess solar panels on an inefficient building, he said.

“We feel that’s really important when customers are contemplating solar to make sure they’ve done as much as possible to make sure they’re consuming energy as efficiently as possible,” McRae said.


New Solar Cell Design Harvests Sun from All Sides

A drawback to most solar panels is they are flat. That means when the sun moves across the sky their efficiency drops when the sun moves out of range. A new "hemispherical" solar cell solves that problem by having collection units around all sides of a dome.

Japanese company Kyosemi has been working with micro solar cells that come in non-traditional shapes. Their Sphelar range, working with domes or spheres offers a few interesting options.

In one version the domed shaped micro cells are attached to another dome or hemisphere.

There are a variety of benefits to this multi-layered design shift to rounded cells. It means the mini dome shaped collection units don't need to move to capture sunlight, making full use of the sun's rays. These mini domes are located on a hemispheric base unit that also maximizes the exposure to the sun.

The unique shape reduces the need for motors that often turn the flat panels
, and because they units aren't flat they require less surface area and can pack more units into a smaller space.

Kyosemi also has spherical cells attached to pliable flat surfaces. With the surfaces able to bend into a variety of directions they can be mounted on a diverse amount of surfaces. And, with the rounded collection units they can collect sun from all sides.

The company reports that these new commercial units are able to yield energy earlier in the morning and later in the evening than standard flat units.

The rethink certainly goes a long way to making solar energy more accessible and functional as we look towards a future of alternative energy sources.


Solar Cells and Batteries Could 'Go Viral'

Investors looking to get fabulously rich may want to place a few bets on solar cell and rechargeable battery technology. At least, that's one way to frame an onstage chat between U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and billionaire Bill Gates at a recent energy innovation conference.

A combination of breakthroughs in solar and battery technologies will allow them "to go viral in the same way that cellphones went viral not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world," Chu said at the annual summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy.

The agency is a branch of the energy department that President Barack Obama launched in 2009 to spur innovation. The concept is to provide the short-term funding needed to push research out of the lab to something that can attract private sector investment.

One success story showcased at the summit was Envia Systems' new lithium-ion battery that has achieved an energy density of 400 watt hours per kilogram, which is nearly twice that of existing rechargeable batteries.

The breakthrough could extend the range of electric vehicles from 80 miles to 300 miles per charge as it slashes the battery cost by 50 percent. The project was spurred by a $4 million grant from ARPA-E and builds on research started at the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in California.

Such a battery sounds fantastic for the rollout of EVs as the specter of $5 gas lurks around the corner. Applications of this type of technology could also help bring clean electricity to the 2 billion people in the developing world who live without it today.

Chu sees a marriage between cheap, efficient rechargeable batteries and cheap efficient solar cells going viral in the developing world, akin to the way cellphone technology leapfrogged traditional landline networks.

"You can bring this power to small villages to places where you can read at night, to where you can run a refrigerator where you can keep your medicines safe, to where you can run things to pump water for your irrigation," Chu said. "We see this as having huge potential worldwide."

That's the pitch Chu made onstage at the conference as he chatted alongside Microsoft chairman Bill Gates at the summit. ( is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.)

These days, Gates spends most of his time with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is primarily focused on global health initiatives. Cheap energy is essential to improving lives, he notes.

"Without advances in energy, (people) stay stuck where they are," he said, adding the caveat that the world's poor are also the most vulnerable to global climate change. That means supplying them with fossil fuel energy isn't the best way to achieve its goals.

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"The imperatives of reducing the negative impacts on those people and providing them with the things where they can raise themselves up lead you back to wanting continuing innovation in energy with the constraint of no greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Getting that type of innovation, however, is increasingly difficult in a world where investment in energy research and development is drying up.

"It is crazy how little we're funding this energy stuff," Gates said.

One of the reasons we don't, he noted, is that the information technology revolution that made him fabulously rich has warped our minds on how quickly research and development works. Energy innovation is likely a 50- to 60-year cycle.

That kind of cycle, the Wall Street Journal notes, has limited the venture capital available to energy startups partly because investors have already made bets on clean tech companies that have yet to turn a profit. As a result, these early investors don't have money lying around to plow into new ventures.

But, spurring investment in energy innovation, Chu noted, remains paramount to making clean tech truly go viral and changing the world for the better.

"If one can get wind and solar and energy storage down to where the whole package is cost competitive with any form of energy, then it takes off and this is what we're very focused on in the Department of Energy," Chu said. "We want these things without subsidies just to take off."


Friday, March 30, 2012

Tempe-based First Solar Inc. Facing SEC Scrutiny

Tempe-based First Solar Inc. reported in a regulatory filing this week that it is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possibly breaking fair-disclosure rules.

Companies with publicly traded stock must share information with all investors at the same time so that some investors don't have an illegal advantage over others.

Trading company stock on the basis of non-public disclosures can be a violation of insider-trading rules. New fair-disclosure rules were passed in 2000 to prevent companies from selectively disclosing information to certain investors before others.

A violation can bring civil financial penalties.

The company said in its annual filing that it commenced an internal investigation of a possible disclosure violation Sept. 23.

The company said it investigated whether anyone at the company broke the disclosure rules regarding the failure of one of First Solar's projects, the Topaz Solar Farm near San Luis Obispo, Calif., to secure a federal loan guarantee.

First Solar said that after its investigation, conducted by independent outside counsel on behalf of the board of directors, the company appointed a new vice president of investor relations.

Before that executive was hired in November, First Solar's board fired CEO Robert Gillette after two years of service and reinstated CEO Michael Ahearn, who is serving as the interim CEO.

But the SEC informed the company it was conducting its own investigation, First Solar reported.

The company did not provide any further details in its explanation of the investigation, and a spokesman declined to comment.

A day before First Solar announced the loan fell through, Jefferies and Co. Inc. analyst Jesse Pichel said in a note to investors that he did not believe the company would get the loan guarantee.

Pichel said in that note that he was basing his opinion on reports in the trade press regarding the project and a possible buyer, so it remains unclear whether the potential disclosure breach originated at First Solar or with that potential buyer.

First Solar announced on Sept. 22 that it would not receive a $1.9 billion Energy Department loan guarantee for the massive California solar-power plant.

The fair-disclosure rules state that to be in violation, a person making the disclosure "must know (or be reckless in not knowing) that he or she would be communicating information" that was important to company finances and was non-public. The rules also require the disclosure be made public as soon as possible if a violation accidentally occurs.

First Solar eventually sold the Topaz project to power company MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. of Iowa, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

First Solar's business strategy has been to make solar panels, and it entered the power-plant development business to line up a pipeline of large power plants to sell its panels into. The company never intended to own Topaz itself.

MidAmerican will sell electricity from the Topaz project through a 25-year deal with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and the 3,500-acre solar field is located in that utility's California service territory.

The Topaz plant will have a maximum capacity of 550 megawatts, making it the largest photovoltaic solar-power plant in the world, tied with another First Solar project under way.

In direct sunlight, the plant will generate enough electricity for about 137,500 homes, based on averages commonly used by Arizona utilities. California utilities generally estimate lower per-resident power use, and First Solar reports the plant will be able to power about 160,000 homes.

Another analyst, Satya Kumar of Credit Suisse, this week questioned why First Solar was actually building the Topaz power plant to a size of 586 megawatts, and speculated whether it was to compensate for lower-than-expected production from its panels.

The extra 36 megawatts alone could power about 9,000 homes and cover about 500 acres with solar panels.

First Solar spokesman Ted Meyer said the extra 36 megawatts was not to compensate for low power from its panels, but to handle the "parasitic load" between the inverters that change the power to alternating current, and also to compensate for power lost in transformers, power lines and other infrastructure.

He said that oversizing plants in such a manner is common.


Now Solar-Powered Rickshaws for Green Delhi

The Capital is turning green with a vengeance. After promoting the use of electric cars and the use of green technologies, Delhi will soon see the solar-powered rickshaws on its roads.
Soleckshaws or solarpowered rickshaws

Around 1,000 of these rickshaws, which come in three variants, will be introduced in different parts of the Capital by June. Senior officials of the Delhi government's environment department said the final plan is to increase the number of such rickshaws, also called soleckshaws, to at least 10,000.

The plans also include allowing the use of these rickshaws by licensed operators at key archaeological sites, education institutions, corporate campuses, for waste disposal and in carrying goods in old, congested markets such as Chawri Bazaar, Chandni Chowk and Sadar Bazaar.

The state government's environment department is considering a subsidy proposal to these solar-powered (battery fitted) rickshaws that can attain a maximum speed of up to 25 km/hr.

"We already provide subsidies to green, battery-powered vehicles that operate in the city. Such vehicles get a 15 per cent subsidy on base price, VAT exemption and road tax refund. A similar proposal is under consideration for these rickshaws," a senior officer of the state environment department said.

The licences of these rickshaws have been approved by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi which will also select the routes (or areas) where they will operate. Government officials said areas where these rickshaws will be introduced in the first phase are Dwarka, Delhi University, Rohini, Pitampura and trans-Yamuna areas (East and North-East Delhi).

These rickshaws have been designed and developed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI). These designs are now being manufactured by six manufacturers selected by the government.

The rickshaw's three variants are: Rs.45,000 (for a metal frame body), Rs.75,000 (for a plastic frame) and Rs.85,000 (plastic frame with a better battery). The range for the basic variant is 40km per charge. It will take four to six hours to charge a battery. The plastic frame rickshaw will run 80km per charge, while the top of the line model will run a 100km per charge.

Harish Kumar, managing director of Green Wheels India - one of the firms which will supply these rickshaws across the Capital said the preparations were in full swing.

"We intend to meet the target by June this year. We are already interviewing the rickshawpullers. Those selected will be given basic training. We will also be transferring the licenses to them. They already pay around Rs.40-50 per day for each rickshaw to the mafia. They will pay a similar EMI to us but end up owning the rickshaw," Kumar said.

He said his firm was already in the process of setting up solar panels all over the Capital, where the rickshaws could be recharged. Talks were also on with a leading petrol pump chain to set up charging stations, Kumar added.

Other than being eco-friendly, efficient and faster, government officials feel these soleckshaws will also be a great help to the old and the weak - who too work as rickshaw pullers in the city.

These licenses will be valid for the next three years. Manufacturers and government officials said that once the concept becomes popular and more of these rickshaws are introduced, their manufacturing cost will come down.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

BMW and Honda Fitting Solar Panels at Their Car Factories

Motoring giants BMW and Honda are set to be next in line to fit solar pv panels at their production facilities.

Both of the behemoths in the automobile industry are looking to start incorporating more on-site solar electricity generation. Honda has been installing solar power generation systems at their plants all around Japan and they have so far reached a total combined capacity of 3.3 megawatts.

Honda's own solar power branch is Honda Soltec and they are using their own solar panels, the "Honda Soltec CIGS thin-film solar cells" on all of their branches. Among the recent installations by Honda there's been a 9 kilowatt-solar power system fitted at the Honda Cars Tokyo Chuo dealership. This installation marks the beginning of a solar power initiative from Honda that will see over 100 dealerships fitted with similar solar panels.

BMW has been pulled over to the 'green side' after having just recently finished installing 400 solar modules that each has a 240 watt capacity. They have been installed at BMW Manufacturing's heritage museum and visitor centre which is situated next to their South Carolina plant, in America.

According to the article on Energy Matters, the half a million dollar solar power system provides all of the electricity that is needed for BMW to power the Zentrum Museum. It is hoped that it will eventually be powering three new electric vehicle charging stations throughout the company's main facility.

If you are confused about renewable energy types and are looking for more information, then contact the independent renewable energy advisors at Enerfina. As well as providing consumers with information on equipment such as solar panels and air, ground and water source heat pumps, Enerfina can also put customers in touch with renewable energy suppliers that offer great prices on new equipment; so visit the website today.


Soaring Sustainability: Eagles Sign with Solar-Power Giant at Phila. Stadium

A year and a half after first announcing plans for solar power at the Eagles' stadium, the franchise announced Thursday that it had teamed up with a new partner - solar giant NRG of Princeton.
An artist's view of solar panels at Lincoln Financial Field.

NRG will design, build, and operate an array of more than 11,000 solar panels and 14 micro wind turbines that, over the course of a year, will provide six times the power used during all Eagles home games at Lincoln Financial Field, the team said.

This time, the Eagles are working with a major player, a company that has already done a similar project at the Redskins' stadium, in the suburbs of Washington.

Not that there's a competition, but team officials said it would be the biggest solar array in the NFL.

"It was important for us to be as green as we could be," said Eagles chief operating officer Don Smolenski. "We're trying to be leaders in this area, and if that inspires others to try to catch us . . . it's one of those things where everybody wins."

The installation is due to be completed by December.

Plans call for a wall of panels on the south-facing facade of the stadium - visible from I-95. More panels will be mounted atop the overhangs at the top of the stadium.

Still more will cover some parking spaces. Cars will be able to park underneath, and Smolenski said - half-jokingly - they will not interfere with tailgating or pregame football-tossing.

Plans also call for helix-shaped wind turbines atop the stadium. However, these will be more eco-eye-candy than energy workhorses.

"They'll provide a visual and a symbolic representation of our commitment to clean energy," Smolenski said.

The arrangement is basically a typical "power purchase agreement," where NRG owns the equipment and the energy it generates. The Eagles provide the real estate and agree to buy power back from the company for 20 years at predetermined rates.

Mayor Nutter said he was thrilled the Eagles were moving forward with the project. "This highly visible sustainability project will be viewed by hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians during Eagles game broadcasts and by commuters on the I-95 corridor every day."

NRG has been actively wooing professional sports teams and other major venues.

The idea is that the millions of people who attend or tune in to NFL games every year "will see that solar power really is a viable reality," said company spokesman Stephen Morisseau. "It's not science fiction or off in the future."

In December, the company announced agreements to bring solar power to the stadiums of the New York Jets and Giants, as well as the New England Patriots.

The Eagles are credited with setting a new pace for the league when they launched a Go Green! campaign in 2003.

The team first announced plans for renewable energy at the stadium in 2010. The cornerstone of the project was a cogeneration power plant that would use either biodiesel or gas. That idea eventually fizzled because the logistics became too complicated.


Solar Experts, Governor Brown's Top Energy Advisor Gather for San Diego Solar Energy Symposium

In an effort to continue the San Diego region's rapid deployment of residential and commercial solar power installations, CleanTECH San Diego and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) are co-hosting the San Diego Solar Energy Symposium on March 6 at the University of San Diego (USD). The symposium will feature a number of distinguished guests from the solar industry to discuss the future of solar power in San Diego.

"No matter how much has been done, we've only just tapped into the full potential of rooftop solar solutions and mass adoption," said Jim Waring, President and Chief Executive Officer of CleanTECH San Diego. "The lessons learned are the platform from which the region can grow to reach its full solar energy potential."

Michael Picker, Senior Advisor to California Governor Jerry Brown for Renewable Energy Facilities, will keynote the symposium, discussing the region's solar market and how to build a foundation for sustainable solar energy growth. A host of industry experts including representatives from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Kyocera Solar, REC Solar, Xtreme Power Solutions, Soitec, UC San Diego and the Clean Coalition will bring perspective to today's trends and challenges as well as outline a San Diego vision for solar power generation over the next decade. Scott Anders, USD Energy Policy Initiatives Center Director, and Andrew McAllister, Director of Policy and Strategy for the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE), will moderate the panel discussions.

"Transforming solar from a niche technology to a mainstream resource is a complicated undertaking. Our San Diego event brings together a productive mix of viewpoints that can serve as a model for the conversations that must take place across the nation," said Bob Gibson, SEPA Vice President of Market Intelligence.

SDG&E echoed the need for collaboration as the region continues to move forward and distinguish itself as a solar power leader.

"SDG&E is fully committed to the development of solar power and entered into 12 contracts with developers for 897 megawatts of new solar energy in 2011," said James P. Avery, SDG&E Senior Vice President of Power Supply. "The Solar Energy Symposium is a key part of our ongoing effort to collaborate with leaders in the solar industry, policy makers and our customers as we progress in transitioning SDG&E to a clean energy future."

To register, visit

Tuesday, March 6, 20121:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. PT (reception to follow)University of San Diego, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice5998 Alcala Park San Diego, CA 92110

About CleanTECH San Diego CleanTECH San Diego is a private, non-profit member organization formed in 2007. As one of the nation's premier cleantech cluster organizations, its mission is to position the region as a global leader in the cleantech economy. CleanTECH San Diego serves as a catalyst for a diverse group of stakeholders to advance a common agenda. For more information, visit

About SEPAThe Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) is an educational non-profit dedicated to helping utilities integrate solar power into their energy portfolios. With more than 1,000 utility and solar industry members, SEPA provides unbiased utility solar market intelligence, up-to-date information about technologies and business models, and peer-to-peer interaction. From hosting national events to one-on-one counseling, SEPA helps utilities make smart solar decisions. For more information, visit


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Solar Panels for Your Home? Maybe!

Recently, the Oakdale Environmental Management Commission recommended to the City Council that solar panels be installed on the roof of City Hall.

Because of the potential for energy savings, the council agreed, the project was begun last fall, and it is nearing completion at this time. This project made me wonder whether solar panels would bring similar energy savings in residential applications.

Since issues regarding solar energy and solar panels are much too complicated to address in one article, I narrowed my thoughts to three basic questions: the expense, the return on the expense, and the product’s durability.

But before I could even think about the basic cost of solar panels, I realized solar panels are not for everybody. Unless you have a good straight southern exposure with a fair amount of roof square-footage and lots of sunny days, solar energy is likely not an option for you. One article I read suggested windy days can reduce the efficiency of the panels due to the dust and dirt on the panels. As to the cost, the range can vary from $16,000 to $27,000; and you can attribute many variables to this wide range of costs.

While the cost may seem discouraging, you have to think of this as a long-term
investment; every indication is that solar panels would pay for themselves through electricity savings. Most experts suggest payback would be between 14 and 16 years, and the average lifetime of the panels themselves is about 20 years. With proper upkeep, though, experts think 25 to 30 years is possible. Warranties are often offered and should be requested.

There are incentives that can considerably reduce the costs as well as the payoff time.

The federal government offers a tax credit, while both the state of Minnesota and Xcel Energy offer rebates. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was recently extended through 2017 with a 30 percent tax credit on the cost for both commercial and residential installations. The extension also removed the $2,000 tax credit limit on the residential buildings.

In Minnesota, Xcel Energy offers a $2.75 per watt rebate for Minnesota-made panels in addition to a $2.25 per watt rebate for Xcel Energy customers.

According to the January edition of the Midwest Energy News, a Chinese imported panel would cost around $12,000 to $18,000 before incentives, but a comparable project using Minnesota-made panels costing $25,000 to $27,000 could be reduced to $5,000 with the federal credit and the rebates.

Hopefully this information gives you a place to start if you are interested in solar panels for your home. For more information check resources available through the Minnesota Department of Energy Resources, which offers a list of helpful questions you should ask a renewable energy installer as well as an outline of the complexity of the project. Other resources are available at the City of Oakdale’s Generation Green page.

One final point: do not lose sight of the literally hundreds of tons of carbon emissions saved by this alternative energy source.


GE Solar Investments Top $1.4bn in The Last Year

A GE subsidiary has bought a $100m stake in a 127MW US solar project, taking the company's investment in the sector to $1.4bn in the past year.

GE Energy Financial Services' latest investment is in LS Power's $550m Arlington Valley Solar Energy II project in Arizona. Construction on the plant is now expected to start next month with a view to producing enough electricity to power 53,000 homes from 2013.

Overall, GE now boasts investments in solar projects worth $5bn across Australia, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United States and is also building what will be the largest US solar panel factory, a 400-MW solar plant in Aurora, Colorado.

"We started last year with the goal of increasing our investments in solar power given improving solar technologies and decreasing costs, and have exceeded our own expectations by doubling our portfolio, investing in attractive projects across the globe," said Alex Urquhart, president and chief executive of GE Energy Financial Services.

Prices of solar panels fell around 47 per cent over 2011, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which, combined with a glut of panels on the world market, is aiding project developers while simultaneously putting many manufacturers' margins under pressure.

US company Abound Solar is the latest to be affected, yesterday announcing it has laid off 280 employees and delayed plans to open a new factory in Indiana, which was part of a project backed by $400m in federal loan guarantees.

Abound said it will cease production of its first-generation solar module and focus efforts on refitting equipment and overhauling its production process in order to launch a next generation high-efficiency module. Mass production of this new module, which Abound expects to have between 12.5 and 12 per cent efficiency, should begin by the end of 2012.

"While this is a difficult move with regards to temporarily reducing our workforce, we know that accelerating the introduction of our next generation module will bring significant benefits to our customers and allow us to create even more jobs in the future," said Craig Witsoe, president and chief executive of Abound Solar.

"Current market conditions are challenging for all US solar manufacturers, but the long-term winners will be manufacturers of the lowest cost per watt, most reliable systems."

One man who is putting his faith in solar is Warren Buffett, whose MidAmerican Energy Holdings is planning a second fund round for its $2.4bn Topaz Solar Farm in California after the first $850m round was over subscribed by $400m.

The bond offering was originally planned to be $700m, but was bumped up in the face of the higher than expected demand. The second tranche is likely to cover the balance of the $1.265bn MidAmerican requires to complete the 550MW project.

MidAmerican bought the Topaz project from First Solar in December and in the same month purchased a 49 per cent stake in NRG Energy's $1.8bn Agua Caliente solar project in Arizona.

The company has also invested or committed around $6bn in wind energy projects and last month created a business unit to expand its oil and gas portfolio to include investments in wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric projects.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Solar Leader Abound Suspends Work

Longmont-based Abound Solar, recipient of a $400 million federal loan guarantee to expand solar panel production, said Tuesday it is laying off 280 workers and delaying a new factory in Indiana.

The layoffs represent 180 full-time workers and 100 part-time employees, according to the Longmont Times-Call. That is about a 70 percent reduction of Abound's 400-employee Colorado workforce.

"We are facing tough market conditions and falling prices," Steve Abely, Abound's chief financial officer, told The Denver Post.

Abound will take six to nine months to install new equipment and develop a solar panel that will be 20 percent more efficient and more cost competitive, the company said.

"Hopefully by then the market will recover," Abely said.

The price for solar panels has collapsed, dropping almost 60 percent to $1.10 a watt between 2009 and 2011, according to industry consultant Solarbuzz.

The decline was caused by Chinese manufacturers, backed by low-cost government loans, ramping up production, Abely said.

In July 2010, Abound received a $400 million federal loan guarantee from the same Department of Energy program that financed a $535 million loan for Solyndra, a California panel maker that went bankrupt.

Taxpayers are responsible for covering Solyndra's $535 million loan.

Abound has used $70 million of its loan guarantee and will not be able to use any more until it again begins production and hiring, Abely said.

"Solyndra cells were never cost competitive," Abely said. "We are competitive."

The aim is to begin rehiring workers toward the end of the year in Longmont, Abely said.

The biggest part of Abound's guarantee is for a new plant in Tipton, Ind., that was slated to have 1,200 workers.

Initially, Abound said the plant would start operation at the end of 2012, but the company said in a statement that it would have an "update" on the facility in the middle of 2013.


Australia Solar Flagships: Moree Solar Farm Rebids

The Moree Solar farm is a proposed 150-MW solar photovoltaic installation that was chosen in June 2011 as the ‘winner’ of government funding under the Australian Federal Government’s Solar Flagships Program. If installed, the farm will be the largest solar PV project in Australia, and among the largest in the world. Until recently a joint venture between Australian renewable energy developer Pacific Hydro, Spain’s Fotowatio Renewable Ventures, and BP Solar, the Moree Solar Farm Consortium underwent a restructuring after the rejection of its project proposal.
Mock up of the proposed Moree Solar Farm

The Solar Flagships Program is Australia’s most high-profile solar power support scheme, designed to aid in the commercialization of large-scale, grid-connect solar technologies in order to move Australia closer to taking advantage of one of the continent’s most abundant resources. The program is to provide AUD$1.5b towards deployment of both concentrating solar power (CSP) and solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies. Funding recipients are selected through a competitive vetting process; one of the basic requirements is for applicants to first secure funding from private organizations.

Round 1 of Solar Flagships has thus far gone off with only a slight hiccough for the CSP project winner—the Solar Dawn Consortium’s proposed plant in Chinchilla, Queensland—which was granted a deadline extension in order to allow it to make its private funding requirements. The Moree Solar Farm Consortium’s project, on the other hand, failing to secure funding by the the deadline and having been ‘significantly altered’ from its original form, was thrown back into the pool with the competitors it had originally bested.

Theories have been flying around as to exactly what happened to Moree, but it seems to be growing increasingly clear that the major factors were BP Solar’s withdrawal from the solar PV industry (but nevertheless lingering as a partner in the Moree Solar Farm), and the difficulty of securing Power Purchase Agreements with the 3 quasi-government utilities that dominate the electricity market. The Moree Consortium was competing against projects backed by 2 of these 3 utilities, and Origin, the only utility not submitting a bid for a project had, according to Greens Senator Christine Milne, ‘torn up’ the PPA contract with Moree just before the deadline, leaving the consortium’s project with essentially no financial assurances to speak of. If they don’t have a buyer for the electricity, the project bears no promise of making money, scaring off investors and making it impossible to meet private funding targets.

The Moree Consortium resubmitted its bid along with its competitors’, but with changes to overcome both the issues of BP’s withdrawal and the problem of PPAs. To fix the first problem, the two remaining stakeholders of the project have increased their respective shares and enlisted Spain’s Acciona to handle engineering, procurement, and construction. As for the second issue, in a dramatic move that could have a potentially significant impact on uptake of grid-connected renewable energy in New South Wales and across Australia, Pacific Hydro has decided to establish its own retail energy license, thereby avoiding the need to negotiate PPAs with any of NSW’s ‘Big 3′ utilities. This also makes Pacific Hydro NSW’s only electricity retailer devoted solely to renewable energy.

Pacific Hydro’s move is expected to pave the way for further large-scale renewable energy developments in the state, and more broadly across the country—even if the Moree consortium does not re-win the bid. The state’s Big 3—Origin Energy, AGL Energy, and TRUenergy—are in effect the ‘gatekeepers’ of the electricity grid, and aside from requirements to create/purchase Renewable Energy Certificates to meet obligations under Australia’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (the Enhanced Renewable Energy Target or eRET), they have little interest in facilitating the spread of large-scale, grid-connected renewable energy generation. This problem has even been acknowledged by the secretary of the Federal Department of Energy.


Solar Consolidation Is Easier Said Than Done

Even a stronger-than-expected fourth quarter hasn't lifted the tenuous position of many of the world's solar manufacturers. There's too much supply in the market and very little differentiation between products, and some balance sheets are absolutely terrible.

Consolidation has been predicted for some time, with little action from manufacturers. But eventually something has to give. Either companies with weak financials and low-margin products go bankrupt, or they sell to an interested buyer for fire-sale prices. Suntech (NYSE: STP  ) CEO Zhengrong Shi thinks even Chinese suppliers need to be consolidated at this point.

The tough question is, how will it happen? U.S.-based companies such as SunPower and First Solar aren't likely buyers of Chinese suppliers, who generate most of the world's modules, because they have differentiated products in their own right. So consolidation will probably take place inside China, where government loan subsidies could be transferred from one company to another. Let's look at the likely candidates.

Who's in trouble

LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK) and Renesola (NYSE: SOL) made my list of companies that may be in trouble. Both reported negative gross margins in the third quarter, and both are toiling in the weak supplier market. Neither has a strong balance sheet, either, with Renesola carrying $524 million in short-term debt and LDK Solar sporting an incredible $2.4 billion in short-term debt.

JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO  ) and Jinko Solar are arguably slightly higher on the food chain. JA Solar did report a gross loss in the third quarter, but the company has very little in short-term borrowings and nearly enough cash to cover its long-term debt. Jinko Solar has a weaker balance sheet but had a 3.7% gross margin even after taking a 9.6% hit because of an inventory provision.

If companies were looking for equipment and capacity on the cheap, JA Solar or Jinko Solar would be good options. But will buyers emerge before short-term funding dries up for these companies?

Possible buyers

Despite the overcapacity in the market, Chinese suppliers are always looking to add capacity, and acquisitions may be a way to do that. But the number of buyers is fairly limited. Trina Solar, Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE  ) , and Suntech Power are all considered Tier 1 suppliers, but their balance sheets don't necessarily lend them to acquisitions.

Yingli Green Energy had $1.3 billion in short-term debt and another $431.7 million in long-term borrowings as of the third quarter, with almost $930 million in cash. At the same time, Suntech had $1.6 billion in short-term debt -- triple the amount of cash on hand. Those aren't balance sheets that lend themselves to acquisitions. Trina Solar also has more debt than cash, but with less than $400 million classified as short term, it could be a buyer of a company at the right price.

Buyers outside the solar industry may emerge as well. Total bought a majority stake in SunPower last year, and other companies could be targets. General Electric is expanding its sold unit, Sharp is quietly one of the biggest solar manufacturers in the world and could expand through acquisitions, and I've argued for years that 3M should get in the game.

What happens next?

I'm most interested to see what happens next in China. Will the Chinese government support solar companies indefinitely, or will the short-term funding end eventually? More importantly, what happens to the first company that fails in China? Will shareholders be wiped out, as they would be in the U.S. or Europe, or are the rules of the game different?

There aren't any obvious buyout targets or buyers in solar right now, making consolidation difficult to predict. That's why I would stick with companies with strong balance sheets and industry-leading margins right now. Someone is going to fail, and you don't want to be riding a leveraged balance sheet to the poorhouse. For another energy stock, check out our report called "The Only Energy Stock You'll Ever Need."


Monday, March 26, 2012

First Solar May Be in Real Trouble

Last September, I asked whether First Solar (NAS: FSLR) was becoming obsolete, and we may be getting our answer sooner than expected. My theory was that as overall solar system costs fell, the balance of system costs (land, inverters, etc.) would begin taking up more of the cost and therefore put an emphasis on more efficient modules. Since your big limitation in a solar installation is land, I thought falling costs would play into the hands of high-efficiency companies like SunPower (NAS: SPWR) and away from First Solar. The day I wrote the article, shares ended the day at $64.75.

Since then there's been nothing but bad news for First Solar. The company announced a change in management, a shift in strategy, and lower earnings guidance.

Yesterday, when full-year 2011 earnings came out, they were worse than even the lowered guidance had anticipated. Fourth-quarter net sales were down $345 million from the third quarter to $660 million, and the company lost $4.78 per share. Earnings were negatively affected by a goodwill impairment charge for the components business, warranty expenses, and restructuring. We'll get to the red flag that brought up in a minute.

The cost lead evaporates

First Solar used to be the lowest-cost manufacturer by a wide margin. Now, Chinese manufacturers are starting to catch up, and it's showing in First Solar's financials.

First Solar said the cost per watt was $0.73, comparable to the $0.76 cost per watt Canadian Solar (NAS: CSIQ) said it has achieved and close to the $0.94 Trina Solar (NYS: TSL) is making modules at. But even though First Solar increased efficiency to an average of 12.2%, Canadian Solar and Trina Solar are still producing more efficient modules, so First Solar's modules aren't as attractive at the same cost.
Not every manufacturer can match First Solar's costs, but they're quickly catching up. When they do, First Solar is going to need to unleash higher-efficiency modules or risk losing out on even more module sales.
Warranty worry

Between June 2008 and June 2009, First Solar made modules that experienced premature power loss in the field, and the company is paying for the mistakes right now. It posted a $125.8 million loss to add to warranty reserves to pay for replacement of modules and other costs. It doesn't appear that these costs will continue, but it's worth keeping a close eye on.
The sad solar player

Compared with SunPower, which was excited about new products and opportunities in new markets, First Solar's management sounded like a sad puppy on the conference call. Michael Ahearn referenced "draconian measures" when referencing feed-in tariff changes in Germany. Tone isn't always indicative of performance, but in this case it's just another red flag for me.

Lowered expectations

First Solar is planning to idle part of its plant in Germany for up to six months; it's going to delay commissioning its Mesa, Ariz., plant; and it's discontinuing work in Vietnam. Read between the lines, and First Solar doesn't think its manufacturing facilities have much of a future.
Revenue expectations were also revised down to a range of $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion from previous estimates. Profit is still expected to be $3.75 to $4.25 per share in 2012.
What keeps me in the game

As much as I realize the strategic weakness, I can't ignore that First Solar is one of the only profitable solar manufacturers, despite this quarter. First Solar also has a 2.7 GW systems pipeline, which will maintain earnings at a profitable level for the near future and for big-name systems backers such as NRG Energy (NYS: NRG) and MidAmerican Energy. These buyers show the confidence utilities have in First Solar's large-scale plant developments.

If First Solar wanted to make a strategic change to becoming a power-plant developer instead of a module manufacturer, it probably could and still generate a decent profit. But in the meantime, the company will keep bumping along.

If the stock jumps in the coming weeks I may cash out, but I view the downside risk as small enough to hang on to my shares. My much bigger solar bet is on SunPower, but First Solar will stay in the game despite this disappointing quarter.


GE Unit Buys Stake in Arizona Solar Project

GE Energy Financial Services, part of General Electric (GE.N), said on Wednesday it bought a stake in a large U.S. solar power project for $100 million, bringing its investments in the sector to $1.4 billion in the last year.

The deal was the latest big solar purchase by companies eager to own utility-scale plants that have benefited from government targets for renewable energy and a now-expired federal grant program that pays a portion of a project's costs.

GE EFS has so far invested in a gigawatt of solar projects in the United States, Australia, Spain, Canada and Italy, and is likely to sign a deal in India in the next few months, Chief Executive Alex Urquhart said in an interview.

The new U.S. investment will give GE EFS a stake in the 127-megawatt Arlington Valley Solar Energy II plant being developed in Arizona by LS Power, and more than doubles GE EFS's investments in solar from the previous year.

"This year we made a conscious decision to try to grow our solar investment," Urquhart said. "We've been successful, in fact more successful than we thought."

The company declined to give details how large its ownership stake in the plant would be, or expected return on investment.

Investors have been attracted to large solar plants like Arlington Valley because they receive a steady, predictable income stream from electricity sales and have very low operational costs, unlike fossil-fuel plants, which must purchase coal or natural gas.

GE EFS joined with utility company Exelon Corp (EXC.N) in a deal announced last year to buy First Solar's (FSLR.O) 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight plant in California, which is expected to cost about $2 billion to build.

Several large-scale U.S. solar power plants have attracted big investors, including Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings (BRKa.N), NextEra Energy (NEE.N) and NRG Energy (NRG.N).

GE EFS targets investments in both renewable and conventional energy around the globe, and last October bought about $1 billion in energy project debt from the Bank of Ireland.

Its move to develop solar in India would make it one of the early investors in the country, which is expected to grow into one of the world's largest solar markets in the coming years.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity for solar in India. It's early days, and clearly there will be ups and downs, but we're very interested and we're making our first investment in the space," Urquhart said.

GE EFS also has a team looking at financing residential and commercial solar rooftop installations.

A glut of solar panels helped drive prices down by 50 percent for the equipment, which turns sunlight into electricity last year.

That decline, plus lower "balance of system" costs to build solar installations, is helping solar narrow the cost advantage that fossil plants and wind power currently have.

The LS project will be eligible for a U.S. cash grant program that will cover about 30 percent of its $550 million construction cost.

That grant program expired at the end of December, and reverted to a tax credit for projects that were not started by the end of the year.

Solar power plant developers typically sell those tax credits in the "tax equity" market to financial groups or other companies that use them to reduce their tax exposure.

In addition to GE EFS' energy stake, the LS Energy project received $466 million in short- and long-term debt financing from Prudential Capital Group, part of Prudential Financial, Banco Santander and other institutional finance groups.

The plant, which will be built in Maricopa County, Arizona by Fluor Corp (FLR.N), will sell its power output starting next year to Sempra Energy's (SRE.N) San Diego Gas and Electric, which is required by California to meet 33 percent of its demand with renewable power.


Fury as Solar Subsidy Scheme Cut Short

The Federal Government is under attack from the Greens, the Coalition and the solar industry after pulling the plug on a solar energy rebate scheme yesterday.

The $320 million bonus scheme encourages households to reduce emissions by switching from older electric hot water systems to solar or heat pump systems.

Householders were eligible for up to $1,000 in rebates for making the switch.

The scheme was scheduled to run until the end of June, but at 5:00pm on Tuesday the Government declared that anyone who had not yet paid a deposit would miss out.

Parliamentary Secretary Mark Dreyfus has defended the sudden announcement as good practice, saying it stops a spike in demand pushing it over budget.

"As a Government of course we need to be fiscally responsible with taxpayers' dollars," he said.

"This was a time-limited program. It was always intended and always stated to be going to close in 2012 and that's what's occurring."

Greens Senator Christine Milne says that is appalling and jobs are at now risk, but Mr Dreyfus denies that.

"Local manufacturers, retailers and installers have known since the inception of the program five years ago that this program was closing," he said.

Senator Milne says it is no way to administer a renewable energy program.

"The Government apparently has learned absolutely nothing from Green Loans, from all the problems we had with the changed rules with the solar schemes previously," she said.

She says the scheme should have been extended, not cancelled early "at such ridiculously short notice".

"We've got manufacturers of solar hot water systems in Australia who are already suffering because of the high dollar and because of competition from imported, instantaneous gas from Japanese manufacturers," she said.

"One of the really big problems we've had with solar up to date is boom and bust - a set of rules put in place, then suddenly means-testing is introduced, then dates are changed, and the industry just throws up its hands.

"You've got manufacturers who anticipate a certain level of demand and then the Government cuts the rug from underneath them. It is not good governance. It is ad hoc. It's poor planning. And it's undermining the jobs of the future."

The Coalition's Greg Hunt says it is an echo of other schemes, like the green loan program.

"If this Government thinks standard practice is to give no notice, no warning, no readiness, no preparation and then to shut down an industry sector overnight then it has learned nothing from pink batts, green loans and the solar panel debacle that occurred under Peter Garrett," he said.

Gareth Jennings from manufacturer Rheem, which employs 1200 people at five plants, spent much of yesterday in Parliament House lobbying all parties to extend the scheme.

He found out it was being closed off at 4:55pm.

"I think it's fair to say that we're shocked," he said.

"Our industry is at its lowest level that it's been for around about five years and we just don't think now is the time to be withdrawing one of the few pieces of support that's still there to help establish a renewable energy industry."

John Grimes, the chief executive of the Australia Solar Energy Society, says the decision has left solar businesses gearing up for a last minute rush, in the lurch.

"It has been the pattern where when the public has become aware subsidies are being wound down, that people tend to act," he said.

"What that means is that solar hot water companies have scaled up for an expected spike in demand.

"Instead, all of that's stopped, and all of those jobs are now at risk."

Mr Jennings hopes the Government will reconsider its decision.

"We're now going to see the market perhaps halve overnight," he said.

"We've been successful in redeploying people as the market has been changing on us.

"But it's getting to the stage where we're going to have to take some hard decisions about our business."


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Solar Rebate Shutdown Defended as Good Budget Practice

THE nation's solar industry says 7200 jobs are at risk after the surprise axing of the Gillard government's solar hot water rebate program.

The Gillard government was unapologetic today, saying the halting of the program with 30 minutes' notice was good budget practice.

Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Mark Dreyfus, said industry had always known the rebate would wind up in 2012, but conceded that manufacturers had only been told yesterday the program was about to end.

“It would not have been appropriate to tell individual businesses because to do so would give a competitive advantage to an individual business,” he said.

Clean Energy Council Acting Chief Executive Kane Thornton said the unexpected decision had put green jobs at risk.

“This decision will immediately affect sales and will put more than 1200 manufacturing jobs and 6000 installation, sales and back office jobs in jeopardy,” he said.

“This industry has been struggling with the effects of a high Australian dollar just like the car industry, just like the steel industry and just like other home grown manufacturing industries.”

But Mr Dreyfus said the $320 million program would have suffered cost overruns if it had been allowed to continue.

“This is good budget practice, to shut a project of this nature in this way, because what it does is avoid a sudden spike in demand, it avoids budget overruns, it's responsible economic management to do this,” he said.

Opposition climate spokesman Greg Hunt said the decision had pulled the rug out from under blue collar workers and small business owners and families without notice.

He said there was $24.5 million allocated in the 2012-13 budget for the program to continue, which Tony Abbott later seized on in question time.

The Opposition Leader said Julia Gillard had been “caught out” by the revelation.

But the Prime Minister said the program would not be needed once the carbon price kicked in from July 1.

“First and foremost obviously under carbon pricing, obviously there is an incentive for change,' she said.

“Under the renewable energy scheme households installing the typical hot water system will still receive between $800 and $1000 in renewable energy certificates.”


Rebate for Solar Hot Water Axed

A household rebate scheme for solar hot water systems has been abruptly axed by the Gillard government, prompting warnings it will cost clean energy manufacturing jobs.

Climate change parliamentary secretary Mark Dreyfus issued a press release at 5pm yesterday announcing the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme was being shut down.
More than 250,000 households have used the rebate to help replace old water heaters with solar systems.

The scheme offers a $1000 rebate for a solar hot water system and $600 for a heat pump.

Mr Dreyfus said households must have installed, purchased or ordered and paid a deposit on a system before close of business yesterday to qualify. Rebate applications must be lodged before June 30.

Industry representatives acknowledged they had been warned the scheme would close this year, but had hoped it would be extended after the government allocated it $24.5million in budget forward estimates for 2012-13.

Gareth Jennings, government relations manager with manufacturer Rheem, said losing the rebate would leave the industry in disarray and ‘‘tens of millions of dollars’’ of solar systems sitting in warehouses.

He said the industry had been hurt by the high Australian dollar, which affected exports and left it struggling to compete with imported gas hot water systems. Up to a third of Rheem’s 1200 staff worked in solar water manufacturing.

‘‘We’ve got to work out what we are going to do with these people tomorrow,’’ he said. ‘‘With this we could see the market halve overnight — we will be back to being a cottage industry. All of that means jobs.’’

Mr Dreyfus said the $320million scheme had helped households cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce power bills.

Coalition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt said the announcement was a huge blow to the solar industry and would cost jobs.

‘‘They needed to give the industry reasonable notice. Instead it has come to a crashing halt,’’ he said. ‘‘The government simply manages to do enormous damage to the solar sector on a repeated basis.’’

Greens deputy leader Christine Milne said: ‘‘This scheme should have been extended, not cancelled early, particularly not at such ridiculously short notice and with no reason given.’’

This afternoon, Mr Dreyfus told reporters in Canberra that the government's decision to end the scheme was about "responsible economic management".
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He said that support for the solar industry would continue through the renewable energy target and in the longer-term through the carbon price.

"Of course we are concerned about jobs," he said.

"There has been an extraordinary outbreak of hysteria from some of our political opponents."

Households installing solar hot water can still qualify for a separate incentive payment of up to $1000 under the small-scale renewable energy scheme.

It is believed the $24.5 million allocated for the axed scheme next financial year is to process outstanding applications and evaluate the success of the program.


Federal Solar Hot Water Scheme to Close

The federal government is closing a rebate scheme that has provided $320 million to householders who install more environmentally-friendly hot water systems.

Junior climate change minister Mark Dreyfus says Labor's renewable energy bonus scheme will close at the end of June - but systems must be ordered by Tuesday.

Under the scheme the government offers rebates of $1000 to install a solar hot water system or $600 to install a heat pump hot water system.

Mr Dreyfus said to date 250,000 households had replaced older more carbon-polluting hot water systems under the scheme.

"To be eligible for the rebate before the scheme closes systems must be installed, ordered (and a deposit paid) or purchased on or before February 28," Mr Dreyfus said in a statement.

"Applications lodged up to June 30 will continue to be processed. Applications received after June 30, 2012 will not be eligible."

Mr Dreyfus said the Gillard government was continuing to support households to install climate-friendly hot water systems through the small-scale renewable energy scheme.

The Australian Greens were quick to criticise the government's decision to wind up the scheme.

Deputy leader Christine Milne said it shouldn't have been cancelled on Tuesday evening without any notice when it was scheduled to be phased out in the middle of the year.

"This scheme should have been extended, not cancelled early, particularly not at such ridiculously short notice and with no reasons given whatsoever," Senator Milne said in a statement.

"This decision demonstrates the government hasn't learned the lessons of the stop-start rooftop solar schemes, the green loans debacle and so many other examples through the Gillard, Rudd and Howard years."

Senator Milne said the solar hot water industry had invested in stock, parts and production schedules and the decision to axe the scheme "treats all those investments with contempt".

Opposition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt later accused the government of committing "solar vandalism" by shutting down the hot water rebate scheme after shops had closed on Tuesday.

"In a repeat of the damaging sudden closure of the solar panel rebates by then minister Peter Garrett the Labor Government has again, without notice, abandoned a key solar program," Mr Hunt said in a statement.

"This will be devastating for families who had been contemplating installing a solar hot water system."

The opposition spokesman said it was contradictory for Labor to scrap the solar scheme when it was happy to slug families with a carbon tax from July.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pacific Hydro Seeks ‘Significantly’ Less Australia Solar Funding

Pacific Hydro Pty, a partner in a venture planning a 150-megawatt solar farm in Australia, is seeking less government funding than it originally wanted after prices of panels that convert sunlight into electricity fell.

“It’s a significant part of the cost, which means we’ve been able to offer a significant reduction to the government,” Lane Crockett, Pacific Hydro Australia’s general manager, said by telephone from Melbourne today. He declined to give the revised cost of the project, estimated at A$923 million ($995 million) when it was awarded government funds in June.

The cost of solar panels fell 47 percent last year after the 10 largest makers of traditional silicon devices, including China’s Suntech Power Holdings Co. (STP), doubled production capacity in 2010, Bloomberg New Energy Finance data show.

After winning A$306.5 million in federal funds last year, Pacific Hydro and its partners in the proposed Moree solar plant failed to sign a supply accord with a retailer in time to reach a financing deadline. That prompted the government to reopen the competition to other bidders.

AGL Energy Ltd. (AGK), Suntech and TRUenergy Holdings Pty Ltd., unsuccessful in the first round of the government’s grant program, were invited to reapply for Australian funds. Pacific Hydro said its group submitted a revised application on Feb. 24.

Pacific Hydro, a unit of Industry Funds Management Pty, is starting its own retail energy arm, enabling the company to purchase the power from the solar farm, Crockett said. Madrid- based Acciona SA (ANA) will provide engineering and construction services, Pacific Hydro said Feb. 26.

BP Plc (BP/), a partner in the project, withdrew from the venture in New South Wales state after deciding last year to exit the solar business globally. Pacific Hydro and Fotowatio Renewable Ventures will take up the ownership stake previously held by BP.

“We had a number of roadblocks in front of us,” Crockett said today. “We’ve now got around those.”


China Aims to Boost Domestic Solar Sector

The Chinese government has set new targets for domestic growth in the solar power sector under its latest five-year plan.

During China's last five-year plan (2005-10), the country's production of solar panels grew more than 100 percent annually, with more than 90 percent of its panels exported to the United States and Europe.

China's new plan comes as the U.S. Department of Commerce is to make a preliminary determination Friday regarding anti-dumping and anti-subsidy trade petitions against Chinese solar manufacturers to halt what the petitions characterize as pervasive, systemic use of state support to injure the U.S. industry.

And a report released Monday by U.K company IMS Research shows that four of the five largest suppliers of photovoltaic modules by shipment volumes are Chinese firms.

In December, the U.S. International Trade Commission issued a preliminary determination saying that the Chinese imports are harming the U.S. solar manufacturing industry.

The new plan for the solar industry, published by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, aims for the country's leading polysilicon manufacturers to achieve a production capacity of 50,000 tons by 2015 and for top solar panel makers to have a capacity of 5 gigawatts.

It also calls for 80 percent of solar equipment and auxiliary materials to be produced in China.

As for sales targets, China's new plan aims for at least one solar company to reach $15.9 billion in sales by 2015 and up to five other companies to achieve sales of $7.9 billion, also by 2015.

Lu Yeung, an analyst at Union Bank of Switzerland told Recharge News that he expects the new plan to encourage consolidation in China's solar sector, giving leading companies more room for expansion. He said it shows government support for mergers and restructuring of companies.

"It's a medium-term positive for the (domestic) sector," Lu said.

Under the new plan, China aims to reduce the cost of solar power to 12 cents per kilowatt hour by 2015 and by 9 cents by 2015.

Chinese government data indicate that the country installed about 2.2 gigawatts of solar power last year.

"It is time for integration of the industry," said Wu Zhonghu, an expert at the China Energy Research Society, was quoted as saying by China Daily newspaper. "The PV solar industry has a prosperous future but at present, there are many obstacles, including high costs, shrinking overseas markets and a lack of related laws and regulations to supervise the industry."


Solar Training Program Leads to New Jobs for Affordable Housing Residents

Everyday Energy ( recently hosted an Introduction to Solar Photovoltaic Installation course for residents of Los Robles Apartments, an affordable housing community owned by Community Housing Works.

This two-day training is part of Everyday Energy's ongoing partnerships with their affordable housing clients to create training programs that help those hit hardest by the bad economy.

"We have partnered with our clients to create solar training programs that provide residents with employable skills in a growing industry, plus we are able to train and recruit new employees to work for our company," said Scott Sarem, CEO of Everyday Energy.

This introductory course provided participants with the general knowledge needed to work as Solar PV Installation Assistants and laborers and included both classroom and hands-on training. A heavy emphasis was placed on the basics of electricity, energy production, and safety. During the course, students practiced carrying solar panels, setting-up and climbing ladders and participated in a safety meeting.

As a result of this training, Everyday Energy hired three of the course participants to join their installation crew. Course participants are scheduled to begin work this week at Los Robles Apartments in Vista, CA.

"This project will produce 263,000 kWh of electricity annually and is especially significant to our newest crew members that live at Los Robles Apartments. They will be able to truly benefit from their installation work and share those benefits with their families and neighbors," said Chris Taylor, COO of Everyday Energy.

Everyday Energy
Based in Oceanside, Calif., Everyday Energy specializes in photovoltaic solar and energy efficiency projects for the Multi-family housing and multi-tenant commercial projects. Everyday Energy has designed, financed, and installed the most Multi-family Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) projects of any company in California.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Solar-Panel Giant Poised to Get Even Bigger

One of the world's fastest-growing solar-panel manufacturers, Tokyo-based Solar Frontier, may soon increase production still more with help from its oil-company-funded parent company, Showa Shell Sekiyu.
This factory in Japan, opened last year by Solar Frontier,
can produce 900 megawatts of CIGS solar panels.

In 2007, Solar Frontier built its first factory, which had the capacity to make 20 megawatts of solar panels a year. It's since built a plant every two years, culminating in a 900-megawatt plant in Kunitomi, Japan, that started production last year. Now it's evaluating building a fourth plant in Japan after it was selected by the Japanese government to receive funding to build a factory. It also plans to build a new plant in the Middle East in connection with Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell. Saudi Aramco owns 15 percent of Showa Shell, and Shell owns 35 percent. Solar Frontier has seen significant demand for its solar panels: for example, earlier this year, the company announced that it would supply solar panels for a large (up to 150-megawatt) solar-power plant in California.

Solar Frontier makes CIGS solar panels, which are based on a thin film of semiconductor made from copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. The semiconductor material is far better at absorbing sunlight than silicon, so less of it is required, and it can be processed using fewer steps than silicon. Both attributes could reduce the cost of a solar panel. But it's proved difficult to manufacture CIGS panels at large scales and at costs low enough to compete with the incumbent technology. Dozens of companies have tried, but so far, they make only relatively small amounts of solar panels. One such company, Solyndra, famously failed to reduce the costs of the process and ran out of money.

Solar Frontier, with nearly a gigawatt of solar-panel production capacity, is the notable exception. The company's direct competitors include other CIGS companies, but also silicon solar-panel manufacturers and First Solar, which makes thin-film solar panels based on cadmium telluride. Taken together, these companies make most of the world's solar panels. Solar Frontier declined to give specific cost figures, but it says its costs are competitive, even with low-cost Chinese solar-panel makers using conventional silicon technology. Because its panels work well in low-light conditions, they can generate more electricity than silicon solar panels of the same peak power output. The company says this allows its customers to earn more revenue from solar-panel installations than they could using other solar panels.

Since starting work on the technology decades ago, the company has developed a number of innovations, says Gregory Ashley, chief operating officer of the American operations of Solar Frontier. It has developed techniques for ensuring the precise composition of the CIGS material, and developed a technique for adding sulfur to the mix to improve power output. It learned how to make the thickness of the material extremely uniform to aid in patterning it to make solar cells, and eliminated the need for cadmium, a toxic metal. The innovations brought down manufacturing costs and allowed the company to achieve the world record for CIGS solar-panel efficiency.

Typical solar panels coming off its factory floor are 13 percent efficient—lower than for silicon solar panels, but higher than panels made by one of its most direct competitors, First Solar, which makes thin-film solar panels from cadmium and tellurium. First Solar's panels are typically about 12.4 percent efficient. That company says it will soon increase panel efficiency to 14 percent, making it competitive with many silicon solar panels.

Erten Eser, a scientist at the Institute for Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware, says the key to the company's success is its stable funding. Decades-long development for solar panels is typical—it took that long to reach large-scale production of silicon panels and First Solar's thin-film panels, the two technologies that account for almost all solar-panel production in the world.

Like First Solar, Solar Frontier hasn't had to worry about having its funding cut off. "Solar Frontier never had problems with money. They never had to answer to any venture capitalists," Eser says. "At the end of the day, of course, they're going to be successful when they have time and money working on their side."


BP Bails On Moree Solar Farm

BP's involvement with solar power continues to crumble. The company has reportedly exited the Moree Solar Farm consortium; but another major player is ready to take its place.

A few months ago we reported BP Solar was winding down its PV interests. At that point, BP’s joint solar venture in India with Tata Power Co. was said to be conducting "business as usual", however BP was soon out of the picture.

At that stage, it was understood BP would stick with the Moree Solar Farm project; a $923 million large-scale solar PV facility - part of Australia's Solar Flagships initiative.

However, with the consortium behind the project unable to meet all of their funding conditions and proposing substantial changes, the Australian Government decided to re-open bidding. The Moree Solar Farm consortium - which consisted of BP Solar, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures and Pacific Hydro - will now need to resubmit a proposal.

But it seems BP is taking its bat and ball and going home. According to a Bloomberg report, a Melbourne based spokesman for BP said the company has indicated it wishes to leave the consortium and won't be party to the new bidding round.

All is not lost for the consortium though - it appears Spain-based renewable energy company Acciona SA will step up to the plate, provide engineering and construction services.

Acciona previously had its finger in the Solar Flagships pie, but pulled out in 2010; stating factors including uncertainty in Australian energy markets and the absence of an offtake contract.

Acciona is no stranger to the Australian renewable energy sector; but its interests have been mainly confined to wind farms. Its Mt Gellibrand Wind Farm project, to be constructed near Colac in south west Victoria, recently received final approval from the Victorian government. The company also operates the Waubra Wind Farm in Victoria, the Gunning Wind Farm in New South Wales and is a partner in the Cathedral Rocks Wind Farm in South Australia.


Why AREVA Thinks Solar and Fossil Fuels Should Work Together

AREVA, the world’s largest provider of nuclear energy and a French majority state-owned company, made waves in early February by announcing its plan to add a “solar booster” to a U.S. fossil fuel plant in Arizona.
AREVA Solar Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) assembly

By 2013, AREVA expects that the H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station — a coal and natural gas power plant near Tucson, operated by Tucson Electric Power — will derive 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600 homes, from AREVA’s solar steam technology. That technology, officially known as Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR), involves placing angled mirrors in the desert to reflect sunlight and concentrate it on a turbine filled with liquid to generate steam, from which electricity is derived. The electricity would be used to assist the H. Wilson Sundt plant during peak load times.

But the Tucson project is just the beginning of what AREVA envisions it can do on a global scale for solar steam.

“There are several other potential plants in the U.S. where this kind of hybrid approach would make sense,” said Jayesh Goyal, AREVA’s VP of North American sales, in a phone interview with TPM.

“We’re also seeing business opportunities on a global scale, at plants across the world. We already have projects being worked on in India, Australia and South Africa. The potential is huge. There are over 100 plants where this could be done today.”

Of course, it’s worth pointing out — and AREVA readily admits — that it has only recently gotten into the solar steam game, having acquired American solar startup Ausra in February 2010. It was Ausra that developed the CLFR technology that AREVA is now peddling around the world.

“Solar is a capital intensive industry,” Goyal said, “To be able to have success in this space you cannot do it alone as a startup.”

Further, Goyal noted that the CLFR technology it acquired along with Ausra is a perfect fit for the nuclear giant, given the fact that the nuclear fission process itself generates electricity by first using nuclear reactions to heat up and drive steam turbines.

“We have expertise in steam management,” Goyal explained, “We understand steam, we know steam, we know it is a good fit for this type of utility implementation — to get more electricity output from existing fossil fuel plants by combining solar energy.”

Goyal also brushed off the shortcomings of his company’s technology that were observed by leading alternative energy publication Greentech Media. One shortcoming being that solar steam, also called concentrated solar power, or CSP, requires lots of land area to spread out mirrors. Also, Google — the search engine company — attempted to devise its own solar steam conversion generator and gave up, shuttering that program after apparently finding it too capital intensive.

Goyal takes issue with the characterization that all CSP technologies are necessarily land hogs.

“We’re highly land efficient,” Goyal said, “Especially considering our technology, as opposed to other, more traditional solar panels, uses standard components — glass, steel, and the construction occurs on site.”

Indeed, the leading type of solar energy in the world and the kind most outside of the industry are familiar with is called photovoltaic solar power. That relies on growing crystalline cells to produce the panels, which must occur at other facilities. The market is currently pretty much owned by China, which has managed to produce panels at markedly less cost than the rest of the world through subsidies and manufacturing concentration, sparking what may likely be a trade war with the U.S.

Indeed, speaking of markets, Goyal is dead-set on his assertion that AREVA’s solar steam hybrid plants also help local labor markets, precisely because such construction occurs on site.

“The Tucson plant is fairly small, though,” Goyal admitted, “There will likely be 50 or so jobs created during construction.”

As for why AREVA can succeed where Google failed, Goyal’s answer was simple:

“I don’t want to speculate,” he told TPM, “But I don’t think it was their core business. Energy is our core business. We have a proven track record. And we see CSP as a better long-term solution than short-term as well.”


Thursday, March 22, 2012

ESA Renewables Receives Approval on Feasibility Study for 20MW Pennsylvania Solar Project

ESA receives approval from local utility company for its 20MW Claysville, Pennsylvania solar farm

Lake Mary, FL., March 22, 2012 - ESA Renewables, (ESA), a leading turnkey solar solutions provider recently received their feasibility study approval from the utility company.

"The results of the feasibility study were all positive,"said Jeffrey Burkett, President of ESA Renewables. "There are no potential capacity conditions."

The intent of the feasibility study is to determine a plan, with preliminary cost estimates, to connect the solar PV project to the utility network at the location specified by the interconnection customer. The results of this Feasibility Study show the necessary upgrades to the site as well as the assumption that there will be no environmental impacts associated with this project.

"The Claysville solar farm is moving along smoothly as expected," said Jeffrey Burkett, President of ESA Renewables. "This photovoltaic generation facility will generate decades of clean electricity for thousands of residents and we are proud to be an integral part of this solar project."

This ground-mount photovoltaic generating facility would be in operation for a period of twenty years on property located on West Route 40 in Washington County. The planned site is a grid connected 20MW solar photovoltaic generation facility, divided in 20 units, each of them with a 1 MVA step up transformer.

ESA plans to construct, commission, monitor, and operate and maintain (O&M) the solar array during the lifespan of the system. Utilizing ESA’s proprietary control and monitoring system via a secured connection, ESA’s system managers will have immediate access, from anywhere in the world, to pertinent real-time data being generated from the solar farm. They will be automatically alerted of events to allow for quick response. Performance data will also be collected and stored for later analysis, simulations, testing, etc. — all essential for effective preventive and corrective maintenance.

About ESA Renewables, LLC:
ESA Renewables has positioned itself as a leader in the industry providing turnkey solar PV systems worldwide. ESA owns and operates a diverse portfolio of more than 500 solar PV power generating facilities located in the United States, Puerto Rico, Spain and Italy. ESA’s scope of services includes financing, engineering, construction, testing, monitoring, and operation and maintenance. With headquarters in Castellon, Spain, ESA has additional offices in Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Canada, Chile, South Africa, France and Italy. For more information about ESA Renewables, LLC, please visit or call 407-268-6455.