Monday, March 31, 2014

Solar Power Continues to Have an Impact on Australia’s Energy Market

Australia’s energy market is beginning to evolve at a rapid pace and this has a great deal to do with the country’s continued focus on solar power. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator, solar power is having a major impact on the supply demand of electricity. The organization’s latest forecasts show that demand for electrical power continues to drop significantly lower than what it had previously anticipated. The forecast also shows that the consumption of electrical power continues to fall as well.

Data shows that homeowners and businesses that embrace solar power are relying less on national energy grid

Consumption of electricity from the country’s energy grid is being linked to an increase in solar installations at homes and businesses throughout Australia. Homeowners have become quite interested in solar power because of its economic benefits. By installing solar panels on the rooftops of their homes, many people are finding it possible to generate their own electrical power, thereby relying less on energy utilities. This means that they are beginning to pay less for electricity and consume less of this electricity from the energy grid.

Data could be used by utilities to call for a slowdown in Australia’s renewable energy goals

The data from the Australian Energy Market Operator could be used by utilities to highlight the problems that solar power is causing in the energy market. As consumers and businesses alike become more reliant on solar energy, they are spending less money on the energy that is being produced by utilities. Some utility groups have suggested that this could lead to higher energy prices for those that do not adopt solar power.

Government remains divided on the issue of rapid solar power adoption

The Australian government has been somewhat divided on the issue of solar power and how it is affecting the energy market. Some lawmakers believe that renewable energy is the key to a more sustainable and economically healthy future. Other lawmakers suggest that too much support for solar power could harm the energy market, making energy prices fluctuate wildly and placing some homeowners under unnecessary financial strain.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Solar Power Captures Investors' Attention

Despite all the excitement surrounding solar energy over the last couple of decades, the technology has yet to go mainstream. However, that is slowly starting to change.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the slow spread of solar energy has been the high cost associated with converting a household to take advantage of solar energy. While the long-term savings can be substantial for homeowners who convert their homes to solar power, it can be hard to see the advantage of those savings when considering spending upwards of $20,000 to make the change.

The good news is that for new homebuyers, the choice is now a bit easier. Homebuilders have been increasingly offering solar panels in new home construction, which makes it considerably easier for homebuyers to outfit their homes with panels since the initial cost is spread over the lifetime of a mortgage as opposed to a one-time fee.

The benefits of solar panels to both homeowners and municipalities are also catching the eye of various local governments, and we have already seen two different towns in California require solar panels installed on all newly constructed homes.

While I remain optimistic that solar panel is going to assume a more meaningful role in mainstream life, not everything is going so smoothly at the current time. A big player in the industry, First Solar Inc. ( FSLR ) recently ran into trouble after posting weaker than expected fourth quarter results. Earnings were 89 cents per share, well below the $1.03 consensus estimate. Quarterly revenues were $768, sharply lower than the $969.4 million Wall Street had forecast.

The company blamed lower revenues from commercial installs as being the primary driver for the weak quarterly results.

In addition to the weaker than expected fourth quarter results, First Solar also issued first quarter guidance in a range of $0.50 to $0.60, well below the $0.81 expectation.

However, another top player in the industry, Chinese based Trina Solar ( TSL ) was able to post strong quarterly results. The company boasted a 73% year over year increase in revenues, and operating income of around $14 million (up from a loss of $70 million in the previous year.) The quarter was aided by strong sales growth in China, where selling prices actually moved a bit higher.

Two other big companies in the industry, JinkoSolar ( JKS ) and SunPower Corp. ( SPWR ) each posted better than expected results for their recent quarters.

A big reason why I remain bullish on the sector is that it does appear as though solar energy is starting to gain traction, particularly in the U.S. A recent report from the Solar Energy Association indicates that solar energy is taking on a more pivotal role in the U.S.

According to the report, solar represented 29% of all new electricity capacity last year. That figure was up from just 10% in the previous year. A big reason why solar panels are going up so fast can be tied back to a drop in cost. During the fourth quarter of last year, the average cost of a solar system was running at $2.59 a watt, that is down 14% year over year, and a significant drop from the $8 a watt average as recently as 2009.

Last September, we took our last look at the solar industry and at the time I suggested that perhaps the best way to play the industry was with a hedged option trade on the Guggenheim Solar ( TAN ) exchange-traded fund. The reason being that this ETF holds the biggest names in the solar industry, so you could take advantage of the overall strength of the industry, but shield yourself against any volatility that may hit one or two stocks.

At that time, TAN was trading at $29.42, and I suggested setting up a January 20/24 bull put credit spread with a target return of 12.7%, or 36.4% o an annualized basis (for comparison purposes only). As it turns out, the stock closed on January expiration at $41.77, so investors who followed my advice easily locked in their total return on the trade.

Now, I am once again going to look to set up a new hedged trade on TAN. At the current time, I remain just as bullish on the sector as I was back in September, but still believe that the volatility within the sector warrants another hedged trade. Is it possible that we could enjoy a better return by simply buying shares of TAN at the current time? Sure, but in a volatile sector like solar, it is better to be safe than sorry.

A nice hedged trade on TAN would be the July 31/35 bull put credit spread. IN this trade, you would sell the July 35 put, while at the same buying the same number of July 31 puts for a credit of 40 cents. The trade has a target return of 11.1%, which is 31.9% on an annualized basis (for comparison purposes only). TAN is currently trading at $46.04, so the trade has 23.1% downside protection.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Solar Power Threatening Future for U.S. Electric Utilities

A persistent warning light is flashing for U.S. electric utilities. The utilities -- big and small, for- and not-for-profit -- are facing serious disruptive technology. The old business models are in danger.

The unlikely disruptive technology that is causing the trouble is rooftop solar power.

Back in the energy turbulent 1970s, solar was a gleam in the eye of environmentalists who dared to dream of renewable energy. It looked like a pipe dream.

Very simple solar had been deployed to heat water in desert homes since indoor plumbing became the norm. Making electricity from the sun was many orders of magnitude more complex and it was, anyway, too expensive.

The technology of photovoltaic cells, which make electricity directly from the sun, needed work; it needed research, and it needed mass manufacturing. Hundreds of millions of dollars later in research and subsidies, the cost of solar cells has fallen and continues to go down.

Today, solar certainly is not a pipe dream: It is looking like a mature industry. It is also a big employer in the installation industry. It is a player, a force in the market.

But solar has created a crisis for the utilities.

In order to incubate solar, and to satisfy solar advocates, Congress said that these “qualifying facilities” should be able not only to generate electricity for homes when the sun is shining, but also to sell back the excess to the local utility. This is called “net metering” and it is at the center of the crisis today -- particularly across the Southwest, where solar installations have multiplied and are being added at a feverish rate.

Doyle Beneby, CEO of San Antonio, Texas-based CPS Energy, the largest municipal electric and gas utility in the nation, said, “The homes that are installing solar quickly are the more affluent ones.” The problem here, he explained, is that the utility has to maintain the entire infrastructure of wires and poles and buy back electricity generated by solar in these homes at the highest prevailing rate -- often more than power could be bought on the market or generated by the utility.

Steve Mitnik, a utility industry consultant, said that 47 percent of the nation's electric market is residential and the larger, affluent homes -- which use a lot of electricity, and generally pay more as consumption rises -- are a critically important part of it. Yet these are the ones that are turning to solar generation, and expect to make a profit selling excess production to the grid.

But who pays for the grid? According to CPS Energy's Beneby, and others in the industry, the burden of keeping the system up and running then falls on those who can least afford it.

The self-generating homes still need the grid not only to sell back to but,more importantly, to buy from when the sun isn't shining and at night.

For some in the utility industry, net-metering is just the beginning of a series of emerging problems, including:

- Big investments are needed in physical security after the sniper attack last October at PG&E Corp.'s Metcalf transmission substation, which took out 17 huge transformers that provide power to California's Silicon Valley.

- New investment is needed in cybersecurity.

- Improved response to bad weather is a critical issue, especially in some Mid-Atlantic states.

Beneby believes the solar incursion into the traditional marketplace might be the beginning of more self-generation -- such as home-based, micro-gas turbines -- and utilities will and must adjust. He is something of a futurist and points out that in telephones, once a purely utility service, disruption has been hugely creative.

Environmentalists are as disturbed as the utilities. Some are calling the imposition of a surcharge on rooftop generators, as in Arizona recently, an attempt by the greedy utilities to stamp out competition. But many are seeking alternative solutions without a war over generating, and without punishing those unable to afford their own generation.

Brian Keane, president of SmartPower, a green-marketing group with solar-purchase programs in Arizona and many other states, has looked for cool heads to prevail on both sides of the issue. “I don't have an answer,” he said, calling for dialogue. Also the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group, has been talking with the National Resources Defense Council.

It isn't your father's electric utility anymore, or your hippie's solar power.


Friday, March 28, 2014

China Solar Faces Credit Crunch As Power Stations Starved For Capital

China’s solar panel makers have reaped what they have sewn. Overcapacity has put them in the crosshairs of a financial market reluctant to extend debt. And now the entire sector faces a dilemma — consolidate, or face continued pressures on the bottom line.

Many of China’s best known solar companies have been posting net losses instead of profits.

To add insult to injury, there is the newly added problem of Chinese power stations unable to get financing to acquire solar panels. The capital demand for new power station construction is predicted to be around 60 billion yuan ($9.79 billion) per year, much of which cannot be satisfied by local capital markets.

Cai Ning, president of Shanghai Ronglian Finance Leasing Share Co, mainly attributed the capital shortage to lagging financial aid from Beijing despite strong official support for green energy. Solar power accounts for less than 1% of China’s electric power grid. Moreover, most banks are hesitant to lend for the construction of new solar power stations, although the solar panel manufacturing sector is slowly recovering, Ning told China Daily on Monday.

A bright spot for solar just got dimmer as power companies struggle with financing to fund solar electricity.
China’s government wants solar power to go from around 10 gigawatts currently to 35 gigawatts by the end of 2015. But demand will have to come from outside of China if power stations there are unable to spur demand due to capital costs.

JA Solar Holdings, a major China solar company trading an average of 2.6 million shares daily on the NYSE, reported fourth quarter and year ending results on Monday showing net income of $23 million in the fourth quarter compared to a net loss of $37 million in the third.  At the end of the year, the company was sitting on $350.2 million in cash with short term debt of $327 million.

For the first quarter of 2014, JASO said it expects total TOT +0.52% cell and module shipments to be between 580 megawatts and 610 megawatts, respectively. For the full year 2014, JASO expects total cell and module shipments to be between 2.7 gigawatts and 2.9 gigawatts, including 200 megawatts of module shipments to the company’s downstream projects. Last year, JASO shipped 302.2 megawatts of cells and 363.3 megawatts of modules worldwide.

JASO’s numbers are indicative of a slightly healthier than expected China solar industry. The manufacturers are coming off a very low base following European trade sanctions in 2012 and the ongoing crisis in the E.U., China’s main market for photo-voltaic panels.

On March 4, rival Trina Solar reported its fourth quarter and year-enders that showed a decline in shipments and top line.  For Trina, solar module shipments were 770.1 MW during the fourth quarter compared to 774.6 MW in the third quarter. Net revenues were $525.6 million, a decrease of 4.1% from the third and net income was $9.6 million, a decrease of 3.5% from the third.

Those numbers might look a little depressed for a year that actually ended on a high note for Trina Solar.

For example, module shipments were approximately 2.58 GW, compared to 1.59 GW in 2012. Total net revenues hit $1.77 billion, an increase of 36.9% from 2012. And the company’s net loss for the full year was $77.9 million, a decrease of 70.8% from 2012′s losses.

At least Trina is heading in the right direction.

Then in November, LDK Solar said its third quarter net revenues rose to $156.6 million, compared to $114.7 million in the second quarter of fiscal 2013, and $291.5 million for the third quarter of fiscal 2012. The stock has been the biggest lower of the threesome, down 22.8% year-to-date.

For equity investors, JASO has been the clear leader, up 27%.

But China’s credit crunch could ultimately pose a problem for all three.

JASO’s CEO Baofang Jin said today that the company plans to diversify further out of China and Europe. ”We plan to build out our position in key markets across Asia, Europe and North America…Latin America and the Middle East, where we have gained a solid foothold in recent months,” said Jin in a statement before today’s conference call with investors.

JASO’s target is to grow its shipments by over 30% this year to between 2.7 GW and 2.9 GW, credit crunch be damned.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Solar Powered Toilet Turns Waste to Want

Basic, safe, sustainable sanitation remains an issue for approximately 2.5 billion people world-wide. These people do not have access to running water or safe sanitation methods such as sewage systems or water processing plants. Now, with sufficient sunlight, a new solar powered toilet can serve up to a family of six while turning their waste into a product that they may want. A University of Colorado at Boulder team has developed a toilet that is not only solar powered but can generate biochar.

Biochar was used as a farming aid in the Amazon basin almost 3,000 years ago. The indigenous people took wood and leafy greens and roasted them in smothered fires. These low temperature burns created charcoal as opposed to ash. The people then took the charcoal and buried it in the fields to fertilize crops. With the arrival of the Europeans, this type of farming was soon gone but the layers of biochar remained. In the 20th Century, these deposits of black soil were found and in the 1990s it was discovered by scientists that this black soil was actually made by man. The soil deposits were immense. Some of the deposits were up to six feet deep with a total acreage on the order of 180,000 square miles.

Scientists are currently theorizing that the black soils are self-propagating. The biochar acts like humus and becomes colonized by earthworms, fungi, microbes and other creatures. In fact, the soil organisms produce molecules that are carbon-based, which means that they stick to the charcoal and, over time, increase the carbon content of the soil. This keeps greenhouse gases, such as the carbon from decomposing plants, from escaping into the air. So, the biochar made from biomass is a carbon sink which means that for each ton of biochar, the soil would be capable of holding a minimum of three times the amount of carbon.

The self-contained solar powered toilet was developed by Karl Linden, a professor of environmental engineering at Colorado University in Bolder. The toilet uses the sun’s energy to sterilize the solid human waste, a need and a want of approximately 40 percent of the Earth’s population. In addition to the sterilization of the waste, this particular toilet turns the waste into biochar. Not only simply a soil additive, the resultant product from the toilet may be used for heating.

The toilet utilizes the sunlight to heat up the waste and turn it into biochar. This process is done by using eight parabolic mirrors which focus the light on a small area. This, in turn, heats up a bundle of fiber optic cables which transmits the heat to a reaction chamber. The temperatures in this reaction area may exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Colorado University team’s efforts were partially funded by a challenge issued by the Gates Foundation. The idea behind the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” is to seek and develop a new and reinvented toilet. The goal is to create a product which is able to not only sterilize both the solid and liquid waste but produce something useful as an end result. The current toilet designed by the university team is intended to function for a single family of four to six people but the team is also working on a larger version which may be useful for multiple households.

This solar powered toilet will be on display on March 22 in Delhi, along with 15 other inventions from sources such as Caltech and the National University of Singapore to Delft University of Technology located in the Netherlands. This convention will display a variety of toilets, all of which have been winners of the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”. This particular toilet from the University of Colorado will be on hand for those who want to view the product and see how a solar toilet is able to turn human waste into biochar.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Solar Farms are Growing, but What’s the Attraction?

solar farm Newlands Solar Farm construction off Newgate Lane, Fareham. Paul Holmes-Ling, left, and Frank Blaeul. Picture: Paul Jacobs (14422-4)
Solar farm panels are set to become a regular sight across the UK’s countryside.
The shiny panels, all neatly lined up, are popping up on fields that were once ploughed by farmers. Typically they are situated on lower-grade agricultural land and the attraction for the owners of this type of land clearly lies in the panels’ ability to generate cash, especially as some agricultural land struggles to compete as supermarkets hammer down prices. Project manager Frank Blaeul and business development manager Paul Holmes-Ling, from Vogt Solar, invited The News to see the work taking place to build a 27-hectare site on land off Tanners Lane, west of Newgate Lane, Fareham. More than 150 people have been working on the 66-acre site to install 3,418 racks of panels, with 24 panels on each rack, since work started last September.

Mr Blaeul said: ‘Compared to other construction sites, the most difficult was the logistics to bring our deliveries as we can’t move because there is no spare land left. We have had some 100 lorries bringing in panels, with restrictions to not bring in the panels between certain times. That’s really hard to manage. We’ve had to create an access track to spread the material across the field and that’s also very hard.’

The panels will stay on the land for 25 years and then it will be reviewed.

Mr Holmes-Ling says all the materials, including the panels, can be recycled at the end of its life and there is very little concrete on the site, as the racks of panels are hammered like a post into the ground.

The only concrete hard standing is under a few substation bases and takes up a very small percentage of the site.

‘It arrives as lump of concrete and the can be picked up like a lump and taken away. It’s basically like a big Meccano set’ says Mr Holmes-Ling.

‘There’s nothing that can’t be recycled, it’s very simple. It’s temporary.’

All the panels are lined up facing south to get the maximise efficiency, which Mr Blaeul says is one of the reasons rooftops are not efficient for a large-scale solar farm.

‘Also maybe not everybody wants one on their roof. Every panel here is facing the perfect direction, at the perfect angle – if you look at people’s roofs they are not in the ideal place and it’s economically more expensive to put it on people’s roofs and also to maintain.

‘It’s not for every house. It can also be too heavy for a warehouse roof to cope with.’

The company plans to plant wildflowers under the panels once the site is finished.

Mr Holmes-Ling says, ‘The whole site will become a wildflower meadow, yes there are panels on it but the amount of land taken up by the panels is only the post and they are quite high from the ground and we will be planting underneath them. As it is fenced-off too, you won’t get dogs and walkers coming across it, so this area will become a nature reserve.’

With this winter’s wet weather, the site was very muddy, but Mr Holmes-Ling says this is one of the reasons the farmer was so keen to transform the use of his land.

‘Because it was such a wet field it was very hard to grow things on. At the end of its life, it can be turned back to agricultural land and you’ll find that the land has improved as grass has grown on it, it’s been given a rest, and the land will be better quality when we give it back,’ says Mr Holmes-Ling.

Once complete, the site will generate enough energy to power around 5,500 homes. It is the biggest Vogt Solar site in construction, although its largest is in South Wales and is roughly three times the size of the site in Fareham.

Vogt Solar has other sites under construction in Kent, Devon, Essex. It also has other operational sites in Kent, West Sussex, Devon, Cornwall and South Wales.

All these sites are in sunny, coastal locations.

Mr Holmes-Ling says this is one of the main reasons for picking the Fareham fields.

‘The key reasons for this site are the high radiation levels, it’s close to a grid connection, it’s a flat site and a big site and all those add up to make it a good site for solar. Out of all the sites I’ve dealt with this is probably the most perfect site.’

But what about other renewable technologies?

Mr Holmes-Ling explains, ‘You can’t compare it to wind, as you want solar in this part of the country as it’s sunny. If you look at average wind speeds here, compared to Cornwall or Northumberland, the speeds would be nowhere near. Each technology has its place.

‘What I like to get across is the right technology in the right place. This is definitely the right technology here. You couldn’t put wind turbines here because of the proximity to properties and the noise issues.

‘Another thing is, if you would like to adopt a renewable energy then it has to be as efficient as possible. As this site is so flat and has such good radiation levels it will be as efficient as it can be.’

One thing is for sure solar farms are growing in number and will be an increasing feature in our countryside.

Mr Holmes-Ling says, ‘What we need is a balance of energy provided by a mixture of nuclear, coals and renewables. There will be sites that solar fits and there will be more solar sites in the future. It’s not the answer to the whole energy problem in the UK, but it is certainly part of the solution.’ 


The site is one of the first in the area and caused much debate when it was proposed to Fareham Borough Council.

The original plan was for 123 acres, which was scaled back due to the strength of opposition from some parties.

There were fears that the reflection would affect planes landing at nearby Daedalus, about the health risks of living near the panels, the loss of wildlife and factors such as noise and light pollution.

One of the driving factors for such opposition was the fear that this land had been set aside as a strategic gap between Fareham and Gosport, meaning it is not allowed to be built on to prevent the two towns merging into one.

Or perhaps it was that this land, which was once free for dog walkers to stroll across, although it was private property, is now closed off by a metal fence.

Mr Holmes-Ling says he believes this was one of the main reasons for opposition.

‘They were never meant to walk on the land as it was private property so they were trespassing. There’s now a net improvement in the footpath as we have made footpaths that do exist with a wide track. We have improved the rights of way by installing proper, dedicated footpaths; before it was a narrow track and now it’s a 5m wide path that people can actually walk down.’

Mr Holmes-Ling adds, ‘Normally we don’t have as much anti for any of our sites. The issue here was we are on the edge of a town and there wasn’t any other solar farms that people could go and see. In Kent there are many sites that people could see and think “yes, I don’t really mind solar”.’

Either way the solar farm in Fareham has paved the way for other applications and the largest solar farm in England, big enough to provide energy for 11,000 homes on 200 acres of land in Southwick, was approved in December.


Gosport and Fareham Friends of the Earth supported the project and held a demonstration outside the Civic Offices in Fareham before the decision meeting.

Tim Pratt, from Friends of the Earth, said that solar energy was needed in order to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels.

He said: ‘We want to see Fareham playing its part in the transition to the non-carbon energy which is so badly needed.’

Norman Pasley, also from Friends of the Earth, said: ‘We support the development.

‘While some people are dismissive, or unsure, or admit they haven’t thought about it, other people understand that solar energy is clean energy, and, on balance, this solar farm makes sense.’

The group also collected a petition in support of the application with more than 60 names.


September 2012 Plans made public for 123-acre site in Fareham, which would make it the largest in the UK providing power for 14,000 homes.

October 2012 Public speak out in support saying it would protect the strategic gap at first public consultation

November 2012 Plan submitted to Fareham Borough Council

December 2012 Council extends comment period due to amount of reaction both for and against

February 2013 Plan is due to go before councillors for a decision but Vogt Solar pulls it at the last minute

June 2013 Plans scaled down to 66 acres and public consultations held

September 2013 Plans passed by Fareham Borough Council

October 2013 Work starts on site

March 2014 Construction on site is due to finish

April 2014 Planting of wildflowers and ecological works


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Go Solar: Vermont Senate Passes Net Metering, and other Friday Statehouse News

MONTPELIER - Vermonters who have been waiting to get solar panels will finally be able to make their homes more energy efficient. The Senate unanimously passed a net metering bill 28-0 Friday.

The net metering program in Vermont allows people to install solar panels and sell their excess power back to the grid. But there's a mandated cap of 4% of the utility company's peak load, and several Vermont utilities hit that cap in 2013, forcing them to stop the program and not allow any more customers to install solar.

The bill that passed Friday raises that cap to 15%.

Gabrielle Stebbins is the Executive Director of Renewable Energy Vermont. She's been working to get this legislation passed ever since companies started hitting the cap.

"Many, many customers I know...have been waiting to be able to put solar on their roof," she said. "And they can finally do it."

Water Quality

A bill to clean up Lake Champlain didn't make the crossover deadline Friday; but the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee has requested an extension. The crossover deadline required House or Senate bills to pass out and cross over to the other chamber by Friday. State Rep. David Deen (D-Poultney) is the chair of the committee, and says since the bill needs to go to so many committees for consideration, it needs more time.

"The bill really does reach out and try and touch all of the major sectors that provide pollution to the waterways of Vermont," Rep. Deen said. That includes phosphorous runoff from farms and other pollutants.

If the extension isn't granted, the bill can't pass this session.

"I will probably break down and cry," said Rep. Deen.

3SquaresVT Over-payments

The House Human Services committee made it just in time, passing a bill they've been working on since day one of this legislative session.

The state accidentally overpaid food stamp recipients using federal dollars, and the federal government wants it back. Families that have been receiving the money have spent it, not knowing the amount was calculated incorrectly.

"The bill is very simple," said State Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), the chair of the committee. "It says the state is responsible for the errors that they make, and not the recipients of food stamps in Vermont, known as 3Squares."

It would cost the state over $600,000 to pay back the money. The bill is headed to appropriations to consider whether to spend that money. Appropriations gets an extra week to pass bills.

All money bills get that extra week, so the FY 2015 budget and property tax bills still have another week, as does the Paid Sick Leave bill.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Fire at REC Solar Energy Plant in Tuas, no Injuries Reported

A fire took place on Friday morning at the Tuas manufacturing plant of Norway-headquartered solar energy firm REC.
A fire took place on Friday morning at the Tuas manufacturing plant of Norway-headquartered solar energy firm REC.

The fire broke out at about 11am and involved three exhaust fans on the building's rooftop. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) sent three fire engines and several other supporting vehicles to the scene.

They put out the blaze within 20 minutes of arrival.

Part of the outer wall of the plant was observed to be blackened and burnt and the building had been evacuated, when The Straits Times arrived on the scene. No injuries were reported.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Solar Cell Performance Improves With Ion-Conducting Polymer

Image: KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology have found a way to make dye-sensitized solar cells more energy-efficient and longer-lasting. Drawing their inspiration from photosynthesis, dye-sensitized solar cells offer the promise of low-cost solar photovoltaics and - when coupled with catalysts - even the possibility of generating hydrogen and oxygen, just like plants. A study published in August could lead to more efficient and longer-lasting dye-sensitized solar cells, says one of the researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

A research team that included James Gardner, Assistant Professor of Photoelectrochemistry at KTH, reported the success of a new quasi-liquid, polymer-based electrolyte that increases a dye-sensitized solar cell's voltage and current, and lowers resistance between its electrodes.

The study highlights the advantages of speeding up the movement of oxidized electrolytes in a dye-sensitized solar cell, or DSSC. Also on the team from KTH were Lars Kloo, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and researcher Muthuraaman Bhagavathi Achari.

"We now have clear evidence that by adding the ion-conducting polymer to the solar cell's cobalt redox electrolyte, the transport of oxidized electrolytes is greatly enhanced," Gardner says. "The fast transport increases solar cell efficiency by 20 percent."

A dye-sensitized solar cell absorbs photons and injects electrons into the conduction band of a transparent semiconductor. This anode is actually a plate with a highly porous, thin layer of titanium dioxide that is sensitized with dyes that absorb visible light. The electrons in the semiconductor diffuse through the anode, out into the external circuit.

In the electrolyte, a cobalt complex redox shuttle acts as a catalyst, providing the internal electrical continuity between the anode and cathode. When the dye releases electrons and becomes oxidized by the titanium dioxide, the electrolyte supplies electrons to replenish the deficiency. This "resets" the dye molecules, reducing them back to their original states. As a result, the electrolyte becomes oxidized and electron-deficient and migrates toward the cathode to recovers its missing electrons. Electrons migrating through the circuit recombine with the oxidized form of the cobalt complex when they reach the cathode.

In the most efficient solar cells this transport of ions relies on acetonitrile, a low viscosity, volatile organic solvent. But in order to build a stable, commercially-viable solar cell, a low volatility solvent is used instead, usually methoxypropionitrile. The problem is that while methoxypropionitrile is more stable, it is also more viscous than acetonitrile, and it impedes the flow of ions.

But with the introduction of a new quasi-liquid, polymer-based electrolyte (containing the Co3+/Co2+ redox mediator in 3-methoxy propionitrile solvent), the research team has overcome the viscosity problem, Gardner says. At the same time, adding the ion-conducting polymer to the electrolyte maintains its low volatility. This makes it possible for the oxidized form of the cobalt complex to reach the cathode, and get reduced, faster.

Speeding up this transport is important because when slowed down, more of the cobalt complexes react with electrons in the semiconductor anode instead of with the electrons at the cathode, resulting in rapid recombination losses. Speeding up the cobalt lowers resistance and increases voltage and current in the solar cell, Gardner says.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Solar Power a Lucrative New Opportunity for Punjab SMEs

Santosh Kumar, Director, Science and Technology,
Union Territory of Chandigarh
Vishav Mohan (name changed), a small entrepreneur based in Ludhiana, Punjab, was running a sewing machine company that was losing money owing to the decline in demand caused by a glut of cheaper models imported from China. He is now setting up a unit to manufacture solar panels for solar photovoltaic power generation on the same premises.

Other entrepreneurs in the region have already embarked on this road.

Vikram Hans, managing director of Multi Overseas India Private Limited, Chandigarh, said that owing to the increase in opportunities in solar power generation, he is manufacturing solar power inverters with high charging capacity. "There is huge demand from the telecom sector, as solar gen-sets are more cost effective than diesel gen-sets. Solar power is not an option but a strategic compulsion now. So there is a lot of scope for business expansion."

Jagat Jawa, director general of the Solar Energy Society of India, said that due to a fall in the cost of solar power generation in the past four to five years, the business had become lucrative for SMEs. "Four years back the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission had fixed the tariff of solar power at Rs 17.91 per unit, and this has now decreased to one-third. SMEs can make modules, solar cells, cables and small electronic parts. They can register as channel partners with the ministry of new and renewable energy to avail of business opportunities."

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission launched in January 2010 by the Union government has set the ambitious target of deploying 20,000 Mw of grid-connected solar power by 2022. One of the ways through which the mission aims to reduce the cost of solar power generation in the country is through domestic production of critical raw materials, components and products. This is expected to open new opportunities for small and medium entrepreneurs.

"There is a huge demand-supply gap in the availability of grid-tied photovoltaic inverters and bi-directional electricity meters. Most of these are either imported or provided by the big players, and are expensive. SMEs can make use of available technologies to manufacture such items. This would not only cut the government's import bill but also slash the cost of power generation," said Santosh Kumar, director, Science and Technology, Union Territory of Chandigarh, and also the director of CREST (Chandigarh Renewal Energy and Science & Technology Promotion Society).

Chandigarh is one of the four model solar cities (the others are Nagpur, Pune and Mysore) selected by the Union government for setting up rooftop solar photovoltaic power systems. In a model solar city, a subsidy of either 50 per cent of the project cost or Rs 19 crore is given for solar power generation.

Uni-directional meters are used when the power is drawn from the grid. But in case of power generation by the consumer, a bi-directional meter is required which can register the electricity consumed and can also measure the surplus power supplied to the grid by the consumer. Such meters are presently available at an exorbitant price (about Rs 20,000 each). These meters can be sourced at a third of the price if manufactured by SMEs, added Santosh Kumar.

SMEs can also manufacture grid-tied invertors. These inverters can 'sense' the grid. When the grid shuts down, they divert power from the grid to the battery, saving power.

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has been conducting a high-resolution satellite imaging survey to develop a web-based GIS tool for assessing the availability of rooftop space and radiation in Chandigarh. Amit Kumar, director (energy-environment) at TERI, said that SMEs can start making photovoltaic inverters, charge controllers, electrical components and metallic mounting structures.

With the tariffs for conventional power increasing owing to the high cost of coal and diesel, and the cost of renewable energy declining owing to the availability of better technologies, India is expected to reach grid parity (when the cost of renewable and conventional power equalises) by 2017. And since the Indian climate supports solar power generation, the investment in this field would be sustainable.


Friday, March 21, 2014

NY-Sun Program Awarded With Additional Funding in New York

Solar energy has won a major victory in New York. The state has become one of the leading markets for solar power thanks to the NY-Sun initiative, but the initiative itself has been running out of financial support. The initiative has been the linchpin for several solar projects throughout New York and has helped bring solar energy to homeowners throughout the state. NY-Sun had initially been expected to expire in the near future, but the New York Public Service Commission has changed that.
$216 million in funding approved

During a special meeting, the New York Public Service Commission approved a petition from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to extend the funding for the NY-Sun program throughout 2015. Some $216 million in funding has been approved and this money is expected to support approximately 260 megawatts worth of residential energy development.

Governor praises solar energy

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo notes that solar energy has become fundamental to New York. The state has been working to distance itself from fossil-fuels in recent years in order to comply with federal emissions regulations and reduce energy costs. New York has managed to establish itself as a leader in the solar field by providing attractive incentives to energy developers focused on residential projects. Through NY-Sun, the state has managed to expand the accessibility of solar power to homeowners significantly in recent years.

Businesses turn to solar power

Solar energy is not only being tapped as a residential power source, of course. Businesses throughout New York are beginning to embrace solar power in order to mitigate energy costs. These businesses are also being pressured to reduce their emissions in order to comply with state and federal emissions regulations. Solar energy has proven capable of helping these businesses break away from fossil-fuels.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Solar PV Industry to See Demand Hit 49 GW in 2014

Solar photovoltaic demand is forecast to reach 49 GW in 2014, up from 36 GW this year, according to findings in the latest quarterly report from NPD Solarbuzz.

According to the report, the fourth quarter of this year (Q4'13) will be another record quarter for the solar PV industry, exceeding the 12 GW threshold for the first time. Furthermore, demand in the first quarter of 2014 (Q1’14) will also set records.

Over the six-month period from October 2013 to March 2014, the solar PV industry will install almost 22 GW, which is greater than all PV installations between 2005 and 2009, during the previous high-growth phase of the industry driven by the European market.

NPD Solarbuzz says record solar PV demand in Q4’13 is heavily weighted toward the three leading countries for end-market - China, Japan and the U.S. Two-thirds of all solar panels installed in Q4 will be located in these three countries.

By the end of 2014, many of the leading Chinese crystalline silicon module suppliers will be reporting silicon and non-silicon costs below $0.50/w, NPD Solarbuzz predicts. The resulting growth in operating margins will then provide a solid foundation upon which to guide new capacity additions that have been on hold now for 18 months.

"Manufacturing over-capacity and pricing erosion within the PV industry was previously a key factor in limiting annual growth to 10%-20% between 2011 and 2013," says Finlay Colville, vice president at NPD Solarbuzz. "With a more stable pricing environment and the prospects of increased end-market globalization, NPD Solarbuzz forecasts a return to annual growth above 30% for the PV industry in 2014."


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sparks Fly As Solar Toilet Meets Hydrogen Fuel Cell

We were mighty impressed when a solar toilet from the California Institute of Technology won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge” last year, and now the winning team of toilet reinventors has fulfilled the promise of their championship endeavor. As toilet champs, the team won a $100,000 grant to fine tune their device, and the result is a solar toilet that generates energy in the form of hydrogen, which it saves in a fuel cell.

Who Needs A Solar Toilet, Anyways?

The Gates Foundation is probably better known for its work in AIDS, but it launched the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge to solve another profound challenges facing the world today: how to provide sustainable sanitation for the 2.5 billion people who don’t have access to modern facilities.
Solar Toilet with Fuel Cell
The result has to be something with low costs, low or no water usage, and little or no polluting effluent. In effect, that means the toilet cannot simply discharge into a septic system or other collection facility.

In the low cost category, you can eliminate fossil fuels partly due to unpredictable price swings, so that leaves renewable energy as an option (that’s good news for us following the solar vs. diesel race, btw).

The Caltech solar toilet fit the bill on all counts, which is what you’d expect considering that CalTech also provides the academic management platform for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
How The Caltech Solar Toilet Works

The solar panels are needed to provide electricity for running a little tank-like gizmo called an electrochemical reactor. When the toilet flushes, waste goes into the reactor and is broken down into hydrogen gas, water, and solids while being disinfected with chlorine.

The water can be recycled to flush the toilet again, or used to irrigate crops. Meanwhile, the natural process of microbial digestion goes to work on the solids, which are rendered into an organic fertilizer.

The result is a toilet that generates zero waste while producing three useful products: water, hydrogen gas, and fertilzer.


If your ears pricked up when we mentioned hydrogen, that’s where the fuel cell comes in. Earlier this month, the fuel cell company SAFCell announced that it has been selected by Caltech to integrate its hydrogen fuel cell into the solar toilet.

Basically, the fuel cell will act as a battery, storing energy so the reactor can operate at night. As needed, it can also provide additional energy during the day to run the facility.

 SAFCell won the assignment partly because its fuel cell can tolerate the “impure” hydrogen gas produced by the reactor, eliminating the cost of a purification step.

The company also won points for its rugged design, and for proof of that you can take a look at the wearable fuel cell that SAFCell is developing for the US Army.

Let’s also note for the record that kitchen and bathroom whiz Kohler Co. also recently announced its support for the Caltech solar toilet.

What About The Rest Of Us?

For those of us in urban areas with modern wastewater treatment facilities, the human waste reclamation process is already well under way. New York City’s massive Newtown Creek treatment plant demonstrates the concept with dramatic flair, in the form of gigantic landmark-worthy egg shaped digesters that convert solids to fertilizer while capturing methane gas.

Currently the methane is too “wet” for commercial use and is used to power equipment at the plant. A new food waste recycling pilot project in partnership with the utility National Grid is under way, which will add a treatment step and enable the gas to be distributed offsite.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Scottish Solar No Slouch

While wind energy may be the renewables poster child in Scotland, the solar power sector's performance in 2013 has also been impressive.
Data from Ofgem, the regulator of electricity and gas markets in the UK, shows Scotland’s installed solar PV capacity has reached 106MW - an increase of 28MW (36%) on the same time in 2012. At the end of 2010 Scotland hosted just 2MW of solar panels.
More than 28,000 homes and 450 commercial premises in Scotland now have solar power systems installed.
"The total may be small when compared to wind energy, but reaching 100 megawatts of installed solar capacity still represents a significant milestone on Scotland’s path toward generating only pollution-free electricity," said WWF Scotland director Lang Banks.
Dr Anne-Marie Fuller, a Business Development Executive for the Energy Technology Partnership and chairperson of the Scottish Solar Energy Group says Scotland receives approximately 80 per cent, and in some areas 90 per cent, of the solar radiation of Germany.
Dr Fuller believes "there is absolutely no reason we couldn’t be deploying significantly more solar if we really wanted to" and sees the technology's greatest opportunity in utilising rooftop real estate in urban areas; generating power close to the point of consumption.
Scotland has experienced what will likely be a record year for renewable energy; with data from the first 9 months of 2013 showing overall renewables generation 4 per cent higher compared to the same period in 2012.
By the end of September this year, installed renewables capacity exceeded 6.4GW in Scotland, an increase of 14.6% (825 MW) from the third quarter of 2012.
Scotland is aiming for 100 per cent of its electricity to be generated via renewable sources by 2020 and is on track to meet a 2015 interim target of 50%.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Is solar in Spain Losing its Shine?

Despite a strong showing for renewable energy in Spain this year,
is solar set to lose out further in 2014? Wikipedia/Rotger
Provisional 2013 Spanish figures show that while renewables continue to dominate, further growth for the solar sector is in doubt.

According to provisional figures published by the Spanish grid operator, in 2013 Spain covered 4.9% of its electricity demand by solar systems and added 140 MW of new solar PV. The figures revealed that renewable energies dominate the Spanish energy landscape, yet challenges remain.

Spanish electricity grid operator Red Eléctrica de España (REE) released its provisional figures for 2013 concerning the country's electricity demand. According to the figures, 3.1% of Spain's electricity demand was covered by solar PV, while an extra 1.8% of electricity demand was covered by concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies.

Compared to the 3% and 1.3% of electricity demand covered by solar PV and CSP technologies respectively in 2012, this year represents a slight increase.

Increased power production was the trend for all other types of renewable technology too, which in 2013, REE said, provided a record 42.2% of the electricity demand,10.5% higher than in 2012.

Spain's impressive renewable power generation increase in 2013 was partly favoured by the high rainfall in the early part of the year and also by the high penetration of wind energy in the Spanish electricity system. Specifically, hydro and wind energy contributed 14.4% and 21.1% of the country's electricity demand in 2013, compared to 7.7% and 18.1% respectively in 2012.

The rest of the country's 2013 electricity demand, provisional REE data shows, was met by nuclear power (21%), coal (14.6%), combined cycle plants (9.6%) and various other cogeneration types of plants (12.4%).

Spain adds 140 MW of new solar PV
Spain's installed power capacity in 2013, the REE report says, was also increased by 556 MW, all by renewable technologies.

Of these, solar PV contributed 140 MW, CSP added 300 MW and wind projects installed an extra 173 MW of new renewable power capacity.

Despite these installations being relatively low, at the end of 2013 renewable energies represent 49.1% of the total 102.3 GW installed power in Spain, REE reported.

Additionally, the country has succeeded in becoming a net electricity exporter for the tenth consecutive year, exchanging power with France, Portugal, Andorra and Morocco. Exports in 2013 stood at 16,913 GWh and imports at 9,955 GWh. These last reports are particularly encouraging for the Spanish energy business, which saw overall 2013 demand for electrical energy fall by 2.1%.

One cannot ignore the Spanish success in achieving high penetration of renewable energies in its energy system. However, the government has been heavily criticised for failing to reduce renewable energies support on time, resulting to a massive energy tariff deficit, which in turn brought draconian cuts in the sector. Under these circumstances, further renewable projects development in 2014 looks rather improbable.

2013's solar PV sector development was incremental, and 2014's prospects do not appear any better. Spanish solar PV developers face the imposition of new significant cuts, with the abolition of the FITs altogether being perhaps the most significant event of the year to end tonight.

1 MW lithium-ion battery system in Seville
On the contrary, investment in renewable energy-related innovation and technological development looks far more promising. In a separate release published last week, REE said that the company's investment in R&D in 2013 exceeded €14 million, an 80% increase compared to the previous year, and part of its 2012-2016 innovation and technological development plan.

This plan includes projects aimed at the development of an integrated transmission grid at a European level, the incorporation of new technologies into the grid, sustainable development and the promotion of new resources for system operation, such as energy storage.

This is the case of the 1 MW lithium-ion battery-based storage system that REE announced last week it connected to the transmission grid in Seville. The system, REE says, is the first European electrochemical energy storage system connected to the transmission grid and is capable of storing energy equivalent to the simultaneous demand of 300 households, for use at any given moment when required by the system. The project was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).


Sunday, March 16, 2014

10 Predictions for Rooftop Solar Power in 2014

 1. Net metering will win in big solar states and lose in small solar states. The efforts of SEIA, Vote Solar and others make a tremendous difference -- but the biggest factor is voters who want more solar. As such, states with a strong solar constituency (like California with almost 200,000 rooftop systems) will be most successful in passing solar-friendly policies. The lesson for the solar industry is that we need strong grassroots support coupled with effective lobbying. Happy net-metered voters are the foot soldiers who will win this war.

2. Nothing definitive will happen with the ITC in 2014, even though extending the ITC is a priority for all segments of the industry. The 30% ITC is the swing factor in states where electric rates and incentives are low. Although the ITC is not required where the economics of solar are already compelling (like HI and CA), there is no other single federal policy that is effective for both customer-owned and third-party-owned systems.

3. Public utility commissions will timidly propose changes to existing utility business models. The irresistible force of cheaper solar technology is stronger than the immovable object of a high guaranteed rate of return for utilities. I use the word “timidly” because utilities have money, political clout and legions of lawyers to effectively lobby to retain their business model.

4. The profitability of investor-owned utilities will begin an inexorable twenty-year decline. Factors such as slower growth in electricity sales, a decline in utility-owned generating capacity, higher borrowing rates, long-term customer uncertainty, inexpensive power substitutes (solar, wind), and the inevitability of cost-effective localized battery storage will apply downward pressure to utilities' stock prices. There is no good news for utilities (except EVs), and it is wishful thinking that they will act altruistically on behalf of DG solar instead of rationally on behalf of their investors.

5. Solar paperwork will get easier in some locations and tougher in others. San Jose, California is a great example of fast, over-the-counter solar permits. And PG&E has implemented procedures so that it can turn around interconnection applications in less than a week. But these victories are generally localized and temporary. Starting in 2014, San Jose will begin enforcing state fire code limits on rooftop solar that eliminate the best 30% of roof area, and PG&E is, after all, an investor-owned utility. Two steps forward, one step backward.

6. Prices for all solar equipment will continue their gradual decline. We are on track to meet GTM’s <$0.50/watt module cost target by 2016. Just because it’s nice to have consistently profitable solar manufacturers doesn’t mean we’ll achieve that goal. There will still be companies that will sell at a premium because they are “better” in some way. But since supply is still greater than demand (and supply can be ramped up relatively quickly), price premiums will not be sustainable, as other manufacturers will sell at marginal cost.

7. Customer acquisition costs will stay stubbornly high. Right now, they're on the order of $1/watt when sales-related overhead is included. Lead gen services, better software, and new prospecting tactics are unlikely to make much of a dent in these customer acquisition costs, because there are so many smart and aggressive companies with money to spend on marketing to keep their top line growing. Factors that will eventually reduce these costs are lower incentives, standardized solar equipment, better customer awareness of the costs and benefits, and more people having solar so they can refer their friends (the “diffusion” effect, which has been so successful in Germany).

8. Small solar companies will co-exist with large downstream installers. Little guys won’t go out of business, but they may go into hibernation when the air- and web-waves are blanketed with ads. Small installers will thrive because their overall operating costs are low and their service levels are high. New financing options, including bank loans and credit unions, will make it easier for local installers (as well as electricians, roofers and HVAC contractors) to compete with “no-money-down, free solar” offers.

9. New solar distributors will crop up, and old solar distributors will consolidate. The business of solar distribution will start to streamline when solar installation components become more standardized. We are not there yet; currently, the plethora of products and specifications makes it too difficult for distributors to establish well-stocked local distribution facilities. It is exactly this type of localized product availability that improves supply chain efficiencies for electricians, roofers and other contractors.

10. More focus will be directed toward mundane components like solar roof flashings, grounding, racking, job preparation and supply chains. RMI and Georgia Tech just released a terrific time-and-motion study of rooftop solar installations. Their conclusion: the biggest cost reduction opportunities are with integrated racking, and in eliminating the array of little nuts, bolts, wires, clips, pieces and parts that don’t add any functional value to the system, but still need to be assembled on the rooftop.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Board Votes to Place Solar Panels on Roofs of Three More Schools

After their first year of operation, the Mehlville School District's solar panels are on pace to save the district money on utilities just as predicted by officials, who will add more panels this year.

The Board of Education voted 6-1, with Secretary Rich Franz opposed, at its December meeting to expand the district's solar energy program to the roofs of three more schools.

Franz voted for the first set of solar panels last year and said he supports solar energy, but he wants more time to gauge the success of the current panels before adding more.

Under solar-panel leasing arrangements that are popular with schools and fire districts, districts can lease solar panels with no up-front cost and save money on utility expenses, even with the lease payment factored in.

The plans are especially popular now, with rebates available from Ameren Missouri that allow the solar company to pay less for the solar panels.

The district will install panels at Mehlville Senior High School, St. John's School and Buerkle Middle School, using the same vendor selected through a competitive bidding process last year, St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar.

District and StraightUp Solar officials chose to pursue more panels now because one of the Ameren rebates available to StraightUp was scheduled to run out at the end of the year.

This time, StraightUp offered flexible options for leases, including shorter terms and a lower monthly rate: 10 years rather than the 20 years of the existing agreement, and $139 in rent a month rather than the current $186 a month.

At the end of the 10 years, the district can buy the solar panels at fair market value and continue to use them as long as they last or let StraightUp remove them. The panels are warrantied for 25 years.

StraightUp also gave the district the option of converting its existing 20-year lease on its current panels to a 10-year agreement, while keeping the same $186 monthly rate.

The board voted 6-1, with Franz again dissenting, to convert last year's agreement to a 10-year lease.

The previous 20-year agreement was slated to save the district roughly $130,000 in energy costs over the decades of the lease.

With the new set of panels, the district projects it will save $42,621 over the next decade, and with the conversion of the first solar project to a 10-year lease with no lease payments from years 11 to 20, the savings on the existing panels could more than double to $302,782 over the course of 20 years.

The estimates are based on the cost of energy increasing by 5 percent a year.

"Again, we feel it's a win-win because if we're saving some money, we're still saving taxpayer dollars," Superintendent Eric Knost said. "Any amount of savings, when it's no out-of-pocket cost up front — it just makes sense to at least consider."

Director of Facilities Steve Habeck determined which schools could handle solar panels based on the age of roofs, since newer roofs will need less maintenance during the decade of the leases.

District officials do not plan any further solar expansion due to maintenance that may be needed on the remaining schools' older roofs, Knost said.

The existing solar panels are on the roofs of Hagemann Elementary, Bernard Middle, Oakville Senior High, Beasley Elementary and the Witzel Alternative Academy and are used by some students for class projects.

Franz voted in favor of installing the panels last year, in what was a 6-0 unanimous vote, with board member Mark Stoner absent. Stoner now serves as board president.

Franz said he likes the up-front money saved, but wants to test out the district's existing equipment longer before expanding the program. Some solar companies are also not viable, he noted, pointing to the high-profile bankruptcy of solar manufacturer Solyndra.

"I would assume that one of the reasons you want to do a 10-year lease instead of a 20-year is that this isn't the healthiest industry in the world?" Franz asked Dane Glueck, president of StraightUp.

StraightUp had also offered the district another 20-year plan, but Knost said he preferred the flexibility of the shorter lease.

"There may have been an implied statement that we offered a 10-year lease because we are concerned about the viability of the solar industry past 10 years," Glueck said. "We left a 20-year option on the table, and this is not our 'take this because we're not going to be around' answer, this is another option to give more flexibility to the district if you so choose to take that.

"But not because we are concerned about our viability past 10 years."

Last year, the board issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for a solar vendor, with Brightergy and other solar companies submitting proposals. The district selected StraightUp because it was competitive on price, offered better, American-made equipment and service and was the only company that offered to install Tigo Maximizers, monitors that allow the district to monitor the panels and can be used for educational purposes, Knost said.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Solar is an Option to Consider in Dover

DOVER -- Solar is a possibility that the School Board and town may be considering in months to come.

"If the town wants to go in on it with us, then all the town buildings and the school can all be a part of this," said Dover School Board Chairman Rich Werner. "You buy back the electricity that's created. Green Mountain Power powers it, then we'd have to pay a percentage."

On Dec. 10, he told the rest of the board that if the change to solar is made, the rough savings would be 50 cents on every dollar, or half the cost of oil.

Currently, Werner said the oil bill is $35,000 a year.

If the board chooses to go with an investor who would pay the upfront costs associated with installing solar panels, a deal could be made where the school would end up with the equipment once the investor was paid back.

Dover Selectboard Chairman Randy Terk sat in on the discussion. He said he had spent 14 years in the solar business and went on to explain that the deal likely would be what is known as a "true lease."

"The user would be considered the owner for tax purposes," continued Terk. "Those kinds of transactions are fairly common."

When asked about how many acres would be needed for the project, Werner said that if the buildings use 50 kilowatts of power, roughly four acres would be required for a facility.

"Behind the school was mentioned as a possibility," he added.

Werner called for the board to hear more about its options from representatives of different companies and to see how much power the town uses. If both entities needed more energy, then a bigger facility would be needed.

In October, Werner had discussed potential plans that could benefit both the school and community through improvements at the school. The first item on his list had been reviewing the heating system to see if a more economical system could be a better fit at the school. The next had been to survey the roof and get an opinion of its current condition.

Werner said if the roof is 30 years old, the board may opt for more energy efficient choices. He plans to use the School Board meeting on Jan. 14 to have representatives discuss available options.

Werner "the window for this type of stuff is closing in two years."

"The upfront credit is the big cash flow," said Terk, referring to deals involving solar. "The appreciation is an interest free loan ... When you sell it, you need to recapture it."

Werner said there were several contracts of its kind within the state.

"It sounds like something we can work on together," he continued. "$15,000 is a penny in the tax rate."


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Solar Program Remains a Challenge in Palo Alto

When Palo Alto launched in spring 2012 a program that allows local businesses to sell solar energy to the city, officials lauded it as the latest example of the city's commitment to green energy and, in the words of Councilman Pat Burt, an "excellent example" for other utilities to follow.

But more than 18 months later, the program known as PaloAltoCLEAN (Clean Local Energy Available Now) still has no participants, prompting utilities officials and council members to consider revisions. Earlier this month, the City Council Finance Committee heard the latest presentation about the new program and recommended keeping it in place with few changes.

"We still don't have any takers in the program," Assistant Jane Ratchye told the committee on Dec. 17. "We think we're close to having some takers for this program."

Approved by a unanimous vote in March 2012, the program enables commercial customers to build solar systems on their properties and sell power to the City of Palo Alto Utilities under a long-term, fixed-rate contract. The current rate for this energy is 16.5 cents per kilowatt hour for a 20-year contract (the council raised it from 14 cents after getting no participants in its initial bid). Because this rate would entail a subsidy from ratepayers, the council agreed last December to cap participation to 2 megawatts.

Even so, commercial customers have been reluctant to build solar panels and sell energy to the city. A staff report from the Utilities Department notes, however, that "there continues to be interest by developers in the CLEAN program" and argues that the 16.5 cent/kWh price is "sufficient to attract projects and that further education of property owners about the program will yield program participation."

"Despite the lack of participation, there have been positive outcomes from the program offering," the report states. "The program prompted developers to take a serious look at the cost of developing solar projects in Palo Alto, and some of them shared that information with CPAU staff."

Utilities Director Valerie Fong stressed the value of all parties in the discussion picking up experience in what is known as a "feed-in tariff" program.

"Staff would like to gain experience working with this tariff and working with developers," Fong said. "I think the market place needs this experience as well so that they can understand how to do projects under these sorts of opportunities."

The committee voted unanimously to keep the program going under the rate of 16.5 cents per kilowatt hour, though members agreed with Burt's suggestion to raise the cap from 2 megawatts to 3 megawatts. Burt, who chairs the committee, noted that the city has received some proposals for solar projects on city-owned properties, including at the Palo Alto Airport and at a city-owned garages. Though neither plan has materialized to date, the possibilities are still there, Burt said.

"We do have the possibility that we can go from of waiting, waiting to where a couple of these pop and we have to say no to one of them because we didn't have the allotted capacity in the program that would allow (them)," Burt said.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wearable, Solar Soldier Power Nears The Battlefield

Seeking to solve one of the most intractable challenges of 21st century low-intensity warfare – supplying power to troops laden with electronic devices and deployed to remote battlefields – the U.S. Army is developing wearable solar panels that will be integrated into uniforms.

Today’s infantryman (or, rather, infantryperson) carries around a dozen pounds of batteries, according to Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).  ”If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we’re saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field,” Hurley told Mashable.

More importantly, wearable solar could save lives: as documented in Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy for Military Applications, in forward operating theaters like Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous assignments is delivering fuel (and batteries) to soldiers in the field.

CERDEC is looking for other innovative, lightweight ways to provide what it calls “Soldier Power,” including kinetic energy.  Bionic Power, a Vancouver-based startup, has developed a knee brace that would capture the kinetic energy of a marching soldier and supply it to portable devices.  Called the PowerWalk M-Series, the brace could supply up to 12 watt-hours of electricity, enough to charge two or three smartphones.  The lightweight device would be another step forward for the technology movement examined in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting.

Last year Bionic Power announced that it has secured contracts with the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Canadian Department of Defense to test the PowerWalk.

Paging Tony Stark

The eventual goal, naturally, is an Iron Man-style exoskeleton that can collect its own energy, enhance the wearer’s physical capabilities, and supply data and communications from integrated devices.  Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the superhero armor is being developed by universities and commercial labs under the direction of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.  TALOS was first announced by the perfectly named Admiral Bill McRaven, the commanding officer of the Special Ops branch, earlier this year.  It’s still somewhat theoretical – a prototype is not expected for at least 3 years – but it’s already spawning some potentially powerful innovations in materials research.

One of the most intriguing is a nanotech “liquid armor” that would morph on impact (i.e., when struck by a bullet) from a flexible fabric into an impenetrable shell.  “It transitions when you hit it hard,” Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”

On the Runway

The military, of course, is not the only field interested in wearable solar and other futuristic forms of apparel.  The fashion world is forging ahead in this area as well.  The Wearable Solar project, launched by Christiaan Holland from the HAN University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, collaborating with solar energy developers and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, has produced a line of dresses with built-in solar cells.

“Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy,” Van Dongen told the online fashion magazine Dezeen at the Wearable Futures conference, in London.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Solar Facility to Get Honor

JEFFERSON -- At its third annual Energy Policy Summit in January, RENEW Wisconsin will recognize the six largest non-utility-owned renewable generation projects built in Wisconsin in 2013, with one of them being in Jefferson.

Titled "We Mean Business," RENEW's summit is set for Jan. 10, 2014, and will take place at The Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus.

All six clean energy projects to be inducted into RENEW's Million Watt Club next month have a minimum electric generating capacity of one megawatt (MW). These installations are designed either to supply energy directly to the host facility or a Wisconsin utility. The combined generating capacity of the Class of 2013 installations is 19.6 MW, compared with the 15.4 MW that came online in 2012.

Jefferson Solar is a 1 MW facility located in the city of Jefferson and is interconnected to Jefferson Utilities. This plant, Wisconsin's first commercial solar energy plant, produces electricity for sale to WPPI Energy. Project participants include Half Moon Ventures as owner and S&amp;C Electric as general contractor.

The Energy Policy Summit is a fitting venue to honor the people and organizations that embraced the vision of energy self-sufficiency and job creation and made it happen in Wisconsin," RENEW Wisconsin's Executive Director Tyler Huebner said.

Their solar, wind, and bio-energy installations created jobs, reduced the flow of imported fossil fuels into Wisconsin and demonstrated responsible environmental stewardship. They truly deserve the recognition, as well as everyone's appreciation," Huebner said.

Others to be honored include Galactic Wind Farm, a 10 MW facility in the town of Springfield in Dane County; Forest County Potawatomi Community (FCPC) Renewable Generation Digester, a 2 MW facility located in Milwaukee; Dane County Community Digester, a 2 MW facility located in the town of Springfield in Dane County and Rosendale Dairy Digester, a 1.4 MW facility located near Pickett in Winnebago County.


Monday, March 10, 2014

California More Than Doubles Solar Power Market in 2013

2013 has been an impressive year for solar power.

In the past 12 months, California more than doubled its entire rooftop solar installations from 1,000 MW to over 2,000 MW.

To put this in perspective, it took California over 30 years to build 1,000 MW of rooftop solar, hitting that landmark in early 2013. Today, California is closing out the year with more than 2,000 MW of rooftop solar systems installed statewide. The California Public Utilities Commission's (CPUC) latest figures report 1,917 MW of rooftop solar, but those numbers exclude basically all of Pacific Gas and Electric's 2013 installations, by far the largest market in the state, as well as a significant number of installations in other utility territories.

By comparison, California added 500 MW of distributed solar in 2012 - also a banner year. If California continues to grow its rooftop solar market at its 2013 pace, the state may very well top 5,000 MW in 2014 - far exceeding the goals of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which aimed to install 3,000 MW of rooftop solar by the end of 2016.

When utility-scale solar projects are added in, California’s total solar power picture well-exceeds 4,000 MW today - nearly twice as much installed capacity as exists at California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon.

These numbers aside, California won’t have a clear picture of 2013 - or 2014 for that matter - until all of the utilities’ data on rooftop solar installations is released to the public - something resisted by the utilities and still pending at the CPUC.

Meanwhile, rooftop solar continues to face battles on multiple fronts with regards to net metering, incentives for solar heating and cooling systems, the future of tax credits, and the reining in of permitting and interconnection costs and obstacles. Whether California continues this historic growth depends largely on policy decisions to be made in 2014.

As reports of 2013 being the driest year in California history roll in, California’s solar power growth is long overdue by many accounts. But no matter how you slice and dice the numbers, 2013 was a good year for solar power and another example of California's leading the country toward a clean energy future.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Chip-Scale Solar Energy Harvester Delivers 0.75 to 9 V

Sol Chip Ltd. (Haifa, Israel) has begun offering an energy harvester photovoltaic cell chip, the Saturn 100, that produces six selectable voltages from 0.75 volts to 9 volts. Sol Chip, founded in 2009, has a technology that enables the integration of standard solar energy conversion technology with established very large scale integration (VLSI) technology.

Although this could allow fine-grained solar conversion one of the primary applications is expected to be as an energy harvest device that extracts energy from office lighting and uses a capacitor for storage to provide a 24-hour power source. The maximum power that can be extracted in full daylight from the company's first chip is 4 mW and in office lighting the power extracted is up to 5 µW.

The size of the die is not publicly declared on the company website but it would appear to be about 1cm by 1cm. Additional voltage levels and also several voltage and power levels can be delivered simultaneously from separate pins of the device.

Sol Chip describes its Saturn chip as the "everlasting solar battery." The solar cell is also available on an evaluation board, the Eval-101.

Sol-Chip Energy Harvester information page


Saturday, March 8, 2014

2014 Will See Growth in Solar Power Industry, UAE Expert Says

Vahid Fotuhi, head of strategic advisory at Access, a project-development company focusing on power and water, looks back on 2013 and is pleased with the advances made in his industry over the past 12 months. Satish Kumar / The National
Vahid Fotuhi still remembers the observation that moved him towards a career in solar power.

In 2007 Mr Fotuhi began with BP’s oil trading division in Dubai as an analyst, where he was involved in quantifying the region’s fossil fuel exports.

By 2009 he had noticed a shift in the movement of oil and diesel, with tankers carrying fuel into the Arabian Gulf countries, rather than just exporting from them.

“At first it was only a trickle, a few ships coming to the region, but then we saw the trend explode where every year you would have a doubling of quantities,” says Mr Fotuhi, a Canadian of Iranian descent.

An economist by training, he knew this was not sustainable as oil producers needed increasing amounts of fuels to satisfy domestic demand and were paying international prices importing it.

“It reached the point where a country like Saudi Arabia was importing a million tonnes of diesel every month for the whole summer, costing them US$1 billion [Dh3.67bn] a month, just in terms of import fuel cost,” Mr Fotuhi says.

“That is when I made the jump.”

He was convinced that with their abundant solar resources, Gulf states would eventually consider solar power to respond to rising energy demand.

So in 2009 he started a solar division within BP and, with the help of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, he founded the Emirates Solar Industry Association (Esia) for companies in this field.

But in 2011 BP decided to shut down its solar-energy business, leaving Mr Fotuhi with a dilemma.

He decided to persevere with solar power and now works as head of strategic advisory at Access, a project-development company focusing on power and water.

Looking back on the year just gone, Mr Fotuhi says he is pleased with the advances made in his field over the past 12 months.

In March, Masdar launched Shams 1, a 100-megawatt facility in Madinat Zayed, which is the country’s largest solar plant to date.

In October, Dubai followed with a 13MW solar photovoltaic plant, which uses sunlight to produce electricity.

Next in line in Dubai is a 100MW facility also relying on PV technology, to be built in about three years.

In Abu Dhabi, Noor One, a 100MW solar PV plant is still awaiting approval from the Abu Dhabi Executive Council. Mr Fotuhi says he is optimistic “that in the next few months something positive will happen”.

In September, Esia was renamed the Middle East Solar Industry Association, reflecting the regional aspirations of its members. Mr Fotuhi predicts this will be one of growth for the industry.

“I am bullish and I think the slow march will pick up pace and you will see more capacity installed across more countries in the Middle East,” he says.


Friday, March 7, 2014

3 Reasons Why Africa is Going Solar

In many ways, Africa is the final frontier. Although humans originated from Africa, technology is often the last to come to Africa.

In the West, we take light bulbs, refrigerators, and other appliances for granted. While those products were invented a long time ago, they have yet to make their way to the majority of Africans. According to the International Energy Agency, almost 60% of Africans still do not have access to electricity. 

As Africa modernizes and solar costs trend lower, solar energy is poised to play an integral part in Africa's electrification.

Perfect environment
Because of its proximity to the equator, Africa gets more sunlight than other solar markets such as Germany or China. Greater solar radiation makes solar power more affordable. Africa also has a lot of desert land next to major population centers. That close geographic proximity allows utility-scale power plants to be built without major detriment to farming and power to be transmitted economically. 

No resource curse
In many parts of Africa, rent seeking and corruption go hand in hand with drilling for oil and natural gas. The diversion of money away from better places for growth is a big reason why many countries with great resource wealth have trouble developing their economies.

Unlike drilling for oil and natural gas, diverting funds from solar energy projects is much harder. One can count the number of solar panels on rooftops or in utility scale projects as opposed to generally not knowing how much oil has been pumped from an oil field. Because of solar energy's greater transparency, international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF may be more willing to finance solar projects versus other methods. 

Less need for infrastructure
In many places, access to fresh water is the rate limiting step to electricity generation. A great deal of water is needed to generate power from coal, nuclear and natural gas. Getting water from the ocean is not an option because salt water is too corrosive to metals. Because fresh water is scarce, many African communities use their meager water resources for growing crops and for daily living requirements rather than for producing electricity.

Generating electricity from coal, nuclear, and natural gas also requires an adequate power grid to transport power to homes. For many countries, building such grids for rural areas is cost prohibitive.  

Solar panels do not require water or an adequate grid to produce electricity.

The bottom line
Solar power is not perfect for Africa yet. When the sun goes down, solar power runs dry. Battery costs need to come down for solar to be widely adopted in Africa.

That being said, the long-term trend is very good. Africa's population is set to double to around 2 billion people by 2050.

Most of those people will at some point have access to electricity. Solar economics and lower battery costs will eventually make solar energy very competitive in providing electricity.

First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) , whose specialty is making affordable utility scale power plants, will benefit.

Chinese solar companies like JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS  )  and Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ  ) will also do very well since China is Africa's largest trading partner.

Because of its wealth, South Africa is currently very active in developing its renewable energy resources. It is a leading indicator of a future trend.

Total, the majority owner of SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) ,  was recently selected to build a 86-megawatt project in South Africa.

JinkoSolar has already won a large order of 274 megawatts in South Africa.

First Solar has stated that it will bid on South African projects next year.

The increase in solar adoption in South Africa should presage broader adoption in other African nations. As Africa electrifies, investors of leading solar companies and Africans themselves will benefit greatly.
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