Solar Energy 101

Solar energy is a “green, environmentally-friendly energy solution. By using the sun as a natural, clean source of energy, solar energy is able to create electricity or heat in a way that doesn’t involve any fossil fuels being burned or undesirable emissions into the air. Furthermore, the sun is a sustainable, renewable source of energy that isn’t going to run out or be depleted, so there’s no need to worry about dwindling natural resources with solar energy.

Of course, when it comes to solar energy there is one limitation that needs to be considered. The sun isn’t always out. That makes solar energy an intermittent source. If it’s cloudy, raining, or simply dark outside, solar energy systems aren’t absorbing the sun and, as a result, aren’t able to produce energy. To compensate for this, most solar energy systems are built to store energy or they have a backup source of energy, like the electric grid. This allows the energy user to still get power even when the sun isn’t out at the moment.

For solar energy technologies, there are two basic types – active and passive. Active solar technologies utilize solar PV (short for “photovoltaic”), heated water, heat, or solar thermal electric to produce electricity. Passive solar, on the other hand, creates heat and is used for lighting structures.

Below is a closer look at some of the most popular solar energy technologies.

  • Solar PV—A solar photovoltaic (PV) system uses components like solar panels to absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity, an inverter to switch the electrical current from DC to AC, and other accessories to complete the system. Panels are very common and can be installed on all sorts of structures and properties. They can power anything from a home to an entire commercial facility, depending on their size.
  • Passive Solar—In passive solar systems, the sun’s energy is utilized through the actual design or layout of the structure. Everything from windows to floors to walls are meant to distribute energy from the sun, heating a structure in the winter and rejecting the heat during the summer. No mechanical or electrical devices are used.
  • Solar Heating—In some cases, passive solar might not be enough, so supplemental heating is needed through the use of certain other active solar technologies. A space heating system can utilize a solar energy collector to concentrate and distribute heat through the structure. For more robust applications, parabolic trough collectors, evacuated tube collectors, and other advanced solar heating technologies may be useful.
  • Solar Thermal Electric—Solar thermal electric technologies are somewhat similar to solar heating because they too harness sunlight to create heat. The difference, however, is that solar thermal electric technologies create an amount of heat great enough to power a generator that then pumps out electricity.

Businesses and homeowners alike can take advantage of solar energy technologies to go green and save money!

Utility Sales Tax Exemptions

Many states offer utility sales tax exemptions (or partial exemptions) to encourage companies to operate facilities in their state. The qualifications for these exemptions vary from state to state. However, most states require “predominant use”.

A particular utility type (electricity, natural gas, water, etc) has predominant use when the majority of that utility is being used for exempt purposes. To prove whether or not a utility has predominant use, a utility study is required. The utility study must be both accurate and comprehensive in order to minimize risk exposure.

What is a Utility Study?

A utility study is an engineering report that analyzes your company’s utility usage. The purpose of the study is to determine your percentage of exempt usage. In most states, you must be using the utility (e.g. electricity, natural gas) predominantly for an exempt purpose (e.g. manufacturing, agriculture).

Third Party Consulting Firms

Although it’s possible to perform a utility study yourself, it can be quite complicated and time consuming. Each state has its own set of requirements regarding how the study should be performed. In addition, the tax code (for example, what is or isn’t considered exempt) varies from one state to the next.

But more importantly, most states prefer that you use a third party firm to do your utility study. In fact, some states require it. The reason being that a third party firm is more likely (in the state’s opinion) to produce accurate, non-biased results.

When choosing a consulting firm to do your study, make sure they have experience doing studies and filing for exemptions in your particular state. This will help to ensure that the process goes smoothly. And of course, get multiple quotes to make sure you get the best price.

How Much Does A Utility Study Cost?

A utility study involves collecting information on each and every piece of equipment at your facility. So, the price will be dependent on the size of your facility and the quantity of equipment. Also, since the third party consulting firm will need to travel to your facility, your location may be a factor.

That said, here are a few pricing examples. If your facility is a 20,000 square foot shop and you’re using a local firm to do the utility study, your cost may be as low as $1,500. If your facility is a 60,000 square foot manufacturing plant, a utility study may cost you $2,500-3000. And finally, if you’re using an out of state firm to do a study on a 250,000 square foot facility, it will most likely cost you over $5,000.

Bay Area City to Add Free Solar to 130 Low-Income Homes

Over the next three years, the city of Richmond in the East Bay area will be adding solar to 130 low-income households there – without the city or homeowners paying a dime. At a city council meeting on July 21st, Richmond approved the new $550,000 contract with nonprofit GRID Alternatives.

Two solar workersIn June 2014, Richmond had greenlighted an Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) with Chevron Richmond, through which the city will receive, over ten years, $90 million. (This agreement was a result of the planned $1 billion modernization by Chevron of its Richmond Refinery.) One third of the $90 million is slated for projects to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The costs for the current project will be paid out of these funds.

The schedule for the installations, according the city’s contract, is as follows:

  • First year (FY 2015/2016): estimated 25 solar installations
  • Second year (FY 2016/2017): estimated 50 solar installations
  • Third year (FY 2017/2018): estimated 55 solar installations.

Again according to the contract, the project will provide during the three years “over $2.2 million in energy cost savings for families in need, over 15,000 hours of job skill building experience in solar installation for community volunteers and job trainees, and [prevent] nearly 7,000 tons” of emissions.

The installations also require GRID Alternatives to employ trainees from RichmondBUILD, a successful local career-training program also supported by Chevron. The nonprofit will be hiring at least one RichmondBUILD trainee per project.

GRID Alternatives’ mission is “to make renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities.” It has installed well over 1,000 solar systems in the Bay Area since 2005. Since 2007, it has completed 145 installations for low-income households in Richmond.


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Will Low PV Prices Kill Small Wind?

With solar photovoltaic (PV) panel prices going lower and lower, solar arrays are quickly taking the place of small wind power projects and residential turbines. Is this the beginning of the end for small wind?

For many years, renewable energy enthusiasts in the northern areas of the United States favored small wind turbines, or a combination of wind and solar PV to produce electricity. Until recently, the installed cost of small wind turbines (100kW or under) was cheaper than that of PV However, the small turbine business has been plagued with problems since its inception. Many small turbines have been overhyped and under-performing. New machines have hit the market only to disappear at an alarming rate, leaving heart-broken consumers and red-faced dealers.

In a decade that has seen very few technical advancements in small wind systems, PV has shown huge advancements in technology, like micro-inverters, power-point tracking and increased efficiency. At the same time, Chinese PV manufacturers have driven solar panel prices down from $4 per watt in 2005 to less than $1 in 2015- in some cases under 50 cents (under 3 dollars per watt with all installation costs added.) Small wind turbine prices vary widely, with installed costs from $3- $6 per watt. Solar has the inherent advantage of being a solid-state technology, unlike wind turbines, which have a lot of moving mechanical parts. When parts move, they break, and all but a few wind turbines on the market have pretty dismal maintenance records, compared to PV.

In their latest issue, Home Power Magazine published their annual Wind Turbine Buyer’s Guide, even the long-time trade journal and advocate of small wind sounded apologetic about the prospects for buying small wind machines. Author’ Roy Butler and Ian Woofenden (one of the nation’s leading experts on small wind turbines) wrote that: “The people who are disappointed with their wind systems tend to have short towers, low-budget and mismatched equipment from newer companies or importers, and installation by inexperienced people. Most have unrealistic expectations of the wind resource and wind systems. These installations have high failure rates and low energy production. We’ve seen many systems that rarely generate any energy—and a system that costs even as little as $20,000 to as much as $100,000, but only generates a handful of kWh, is making very expensive electricity.”

Unlike solar PV, which has rapidly become integrated into the services provided by electrical contractors, small wind turbine installers are still generally “wildcatters,” start-up businesses looking to carve out a niche in a new energy market. Many lack the training to design a system properly, or they look to inexpensive, untested manufacturers for equipment. Home Power’s Buyer’s Guide does not single out any of these less-than-reputable companies, but they only include a handful of companies with under 10 or even 5 years of service. They make it clear that years in business is important. An elite few companies make completely reliable machines, like Bergey Windpower, who has a rock-solid reputation and nearly 40 years in the business.

There will always be off-grid applications for small wind turbines. Remote locations– particularly those with long, gray winters– can benefit greatly from using a solar along with wind, which works best on windy days, often when the sun is not shining. Coastal areas are also strong contenders fro small wind. On the upper end of the power-producing spectrum, large, utility scale wind projects are work-horses for producing a portfolio of diverse renewable energy sources. However, the window of opportunity for residential and small business wind turbines seems to be closing quickly. It would appear that only a major paradigm shift, or a huge jump in the price of silicon, will keep small wind on the map for residential customers.

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Warren Buffett Loves Solar…As Long As He Owns It

This week, NV Energy, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to buy electricity from the 100 MW Playa Solar 2 power plant in Nevada at a jaw-droppingly low price of $0.0387 per kWh. Meanwhile, NV Energy’s lobbyists are doing all they can to make it more expensive for Nevada residents to produce their own solar power.

It would seem that Mr. Buffett loves to sell solar to his customers, but he does not like the idea of his customers making their own power. From a strictly business perspective, this is not surprising– after all, why buy rooftop solar from your homeowners or businesses at retail rate, when you can make and sell your own for a tiny fraction of the price?
The problem is, as in most of the United States, utilities in Nevada are government regulated, and operate in government-sanctioned monopoly service territories. This means that residents and businesses in NV Energy’s territory do not have a choice of who they buy their electricity from, and they have no other options as to who they can sell their solar power to. This means that it is up to the Nevada Legislature and the Nevada Utilities Commission to decide what is fair to both parties.

During the 2015 Nevada legislative session, NV Energy paid no less than 11 lobbyists to do their bidding… more than any other single organization (one NV Energy Lobbyist, Pete Ernaut, was even an adviser to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval on two election campaigns.) They fought attempts to raise the state’s cap on net metering by 235 MWs, but in the end, reached a compromise with solar advocates that allows more solar to be net metered, but adds a monthly service charge to the bill of solar producers. This effectively lowers the price that NV Energy has to pay for rooftop solar and extends the payback period for solar owners, supressing solar industry growth in the state, at least in the rooftop sector.

Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Mr. Buffett has always enjoyed the massive tax breaks that investing in renewable energy brings, and Berkshires strategy for using utility regulations and state incentives to corner the market on renewables is nothing new. In Iowa, lobbyists for Berkshire-owned MidAmerican Energy used the same strategy throughout the early 2000’s to develop large, utility-scale wind farms while simultaneously suppressing farmer-owned wind projects in their service region.

In many states, solar businesses have been succeeding, despite the roadblocks thrown up by utility companies and their highly-paid lobbyists. “Across the country the utility industry is pressuring regulators and elected officials to limit solar energy’s growth, and the same thing is happening in Nevada,” Gabe Elsner, executive director of the Energy & Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based clean energy think tank told Bloomberg Business. “NV Energy is trying to protect their monopoly by squashing competitors.”

Last June, Warren Buffett spoke at a utility business conference in Las Vegas and said he is prepared to double Berkshire Hathaway’s commitment to renewable energy. That would bring his solar and wind investments to $30 billion. It would also appear that most of that will go to large solar plants like Playa 2, and as little as possible to homeowners. And he is willing to hire a lot of lobbyists to keep it that way.

About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Obama Administration: Addressing “Energy Inequality” with Solar Goals

When President Obama comes out with a “visionary” executive plan to bring solar energy to America’s underclass, it is sure to elicit “vigorous” responses from supporters and detractors alike. The question is, does either side have an accurate view of what the President’s plan really MEANS?

In general, the President isn’t getting much love from either the left or the right when it comes to the approach he has taken toward renewable energy projects so far. He has neither been willing to level the playing field by reducing the massive tax breaks enjoyed by the coal and gas industries, nor has he moved to open monopoly utility markets to competition from solar. His latest initiative, designed to bring solar power to federally subsidized housing is finding lukewarm support on the left, and skepticism, dismissiveness and contempt on the right.

Neal Asbury of NewsMax Finance succinctly summed up the hair-on-fire extremity of the radical opposition in his July 9th exercise in selective fact torturing entitled Renewable Energy May Be Popular, But Beware the Costs:

“As we’ve discovered, corruption runs rampant in green energy, thanks to massive tax breaks and other taxpayer handouts for Obama cronies. In most cases the money granted to these projects is never repaid, and instead of creating jobs, jobs are actually lost because we don’t invest these valuable resources in more productive areas of our economy.”

Asbury goes on to pillory Obama’s support for renewable energy, with a throw away line about the cost effectiveness of nuclear energy that is questionable at best. “If you factor in the cost to buy land and build the plants and run them, nuclear is far cheaper for the amount of energy it can generate.” As written, Neal’s statement may be true, but it’s intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, what he is leaving out are the most important factors. The environmental costs of mining Uranium are huge, not to mention the cost of processing, and of course, disposal of spent fuel. Add in the cost of insuring nuclear plants (which taxpayers are on the hook for) and President Obama’s little plan for solar on low income housing suddenly looks pretty cheap. If one is looking for cronyism in the energy business, one needs to look at cronyism in ALL sectors, not just solar.

In an opinion piece from the other end of the political spectrum at the Huffingtom Post, Kyle Ash of Greenpeace gave the president a brief compliment by writing that:

“On Tuesday, President Obama announced a great initiative to increase the affordability of solar power in communities across the country. This is part of the White House’s plan to increase the installation of climate-friendly energy sources while recognizing the country has serious challenges when it comes to environmental justice.”

A few paragraphs later, Ash blasts Obama:

“President Obama’s climate legacy will come down to a simple equation—his efforts to reduce climate pollution minus his actions that increase it. There is so much bold action the President could take on climate as the chief executive of taxpayer-owned fossil fuels and federal policy on fossil fuel supply. But this President is often doing the opposite of what he should.”

Unfortunately, neither Asbury nor Ash spend much time on the details of the President’s announced plans. The entire laundry list of executive actions can be read at, but a few of the highlights include:

  • Launching a National Community Solar Partnership to unlock access to solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and business that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar systems.
  • Setting a goal to install 300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to make it easier to install solar, including clarifying how to use Federal funding;
  • Housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, power companies, and organizations in more than 20 states across the country are committing to put in place more than 260 solar energy projects, including projects to help low- and moderate- income communities save on their energy bills and further community solar; and
  • More than $520 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities to advance community solar and scale up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.

To continue enhancing employment opportunities for all Americans in the solar industry, the Administration is announcing the following executive actions and private sector commitments, including:

  • AmeriCorps funding to deploy solar and create jobs in underserved communities;
  • Expanding solar energy education and opportunities for job training; and
  • The solar industry is also setting its own, independent goal of becoming the most diverse sector of the U.S. energy industry, and a number of companies are announcing that they are taking steps to build a more inclusive solar workforce.

So what is the administration’s plan actually going to DO? As it turns out, not much. The plan consists of a lot of tweaking on existing programs, convening new “partnerships,” (made up of the usual cast of utilities, industry groups and NGOs), setting new implementation goals, launching a webinar series on job opportunities, and setting a goal for diversity in the solar workforce. Hardly a bold step forward, and an initiative anyone in the solar industry would consider “too little, too late” in an 8 year tenure.

The question is, why bother? With the 2016 presidential race ramping up earlier than ever, it’s no wonder that the President’s modest proposal has gotten very little press, and even lease praise. Any community-based projects that Mr. Obama launches at this late date are bound to be orphaned in a little more than a year.

About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Why the Solar Impulse Matters

How can a huge, slow, single-seat plane change the world?

One day before the United States pauses to celebrate the 239th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, the Solar Impulse 2 solar airplane completed its record-breaking 4,000 mile flight from Japan to Hawaii, taking another small step in the world’s quest to declare independence from fossil fuels.

The Adventure Begins

261E194500000578-2970372-image-a-49_1424959792299For those who haven’t been following the Solar Impulse adventure, here’s a little background: Solar Impulse is privately financed project with the goal of flying a solar-powered plane around the world. Based in Switzerland, the project is led by two adventurous aeronauts– Swiss businessman André Borschberg and adventurer Bertrand Piccard (Piccard gained fame for co-piloting Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to circle the world non-stop.) Solar Impulse is funded by a consortium of international businesses including Omega SA, Solvay, ABB, Bayer MaterialScience, Swisscom, Swiss Re , Toyota and FMB Energie. The Solar cells are provided by European solar manufacturer SunPower.
The single seater plane is powered only by solar, with a wingspan of 236 ft. (wider than a Boeing 747), yet weighs less than an SUV. The wings and fuselage are covered with 17,248 photovoltaic cells rated at 66 kW. It has four, 17.4 horsepower electric motors and four 41 kWh lithium-ion batteries. It has a maximum speed of 78 miles per hour.

Solar Impulse 1, the prototype and predecessor of the current model, achieved many “firsts” for a solar plan, including the first intercontinental flight for a solar airplane, flying from Spain to Morocco. However, Solar Impulse 2 has achieved truly epic flights since taking off on the first leg of the journey from Abu Dahbi in March, 2015. The journey has taken Borschberg and Piccard across Asia, over Oman, India, Myanmar and China, across the Pacific to Japan, and now to Hawaii. The latest 118 hour leg, completed by Andre Borschberg, is a record for manned, solar-powered flight, as well as an absolute record for a solo, un-refuelled flight. Borschberg’s time beats that of the American Steve Fossett who spent 76 hours in a single-seater jet in 2006. If all goes well, the Solar Impulse’s two pilots will break more records before finishing their circumnavigation of the globe. The final leg of the flight, from New York to Morocco, will take an estimated 120 hours.

Why the Solar Impulse Matters

Great feats of endurance have always captured the human imagination. Some are achievements of great physical training and mental discipline, like British Cyclist Alex Dowsett’s recent shattering of track cycling’s world one hour record by 446 meters. Other great feats include a technical element as well. Take, for example, Australian skydiver Felix Baumgarter’s jump from a balloon 24 miles above the earth’s surface. In a special pressurized spacesuit, Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. Solar Impulse is one step beyond even these amazing recent achievements. Requiring the physical endurance of a marathon runner and the nerves of a test pilot on the part of Piccard and Borschberg, there is no denying the human endurance element. But there is even more to what Solar Impulse represents. our_adventure

Obviously, we aren’t going to be traveling in solar airliners any time soon, but Solar Impulse exhibits the rock solid reliability of current solar technology, as well as presenting another successful example of combining solar with lightweight Lithium-Ion battery tech. Solar Impulse is taking Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car concept out to its “bleeding edge.” Solar Impulse ignites the imagination, opening up a whole world of possibilities for solar powered transport. It can also spark an interest in science and technology in kids who may not have seen a really exciting application before. -2015_03_09_Solar_Impulse_2_RTW_1rst_Flight_Abu_Dhabi_to_Muscat_Landing_Revillard_28

Gliding quietly over deserts, jungles and oceans, Solar Impulse leaves no contrail, no “environmental footprint.” It is a symbol of what is best about the human “impulse” for adventure. The epic aeronautic voyage transcends borders and cultures. Piccard and Borschberg are sharing peace and goodwill in countries that may not share political or economic philosophies, but all share a love of great human achievement. Without massive government backing or huge military research budgets, Solar Impulse is a soaring example of what technology should be.

About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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Biomimicry: Using Nature’s Solar Technology

The concept of imitating natural systems in the built environment is known as “Biomimicry,” and it holds great promise for advancements in many areas of technology, including solar. Several new, cutting edge research project are looking at biomimetic solutions to solar’s nagging problems.

Plastic Solar Panels Imitate Photosynthesis

A UCLA press release this week announced chemists there have developed a new solar cell design that is inspired by the way that plants generate energy through photosynthesis. The team’s full report, entitled Long-lived photoinduced polaron formation in conjugated polyelectrolyte-fullerene assemblies is available at the website of the journal Science.

photo: UCLA

photo: UCLA

“Biology does a very good job of creating energy from sunlight,” said Sarah Tolbert, a UCLA professor of chemistry and one of the senior authors of the research. “Plants do this through photosynthesis with extremely high efficiency.”

In the search to find a lower-cost alternative to the silicon solar cell, scientists are looking at several different plastics, but to date, the new non-silicon cells lack the efficiency needed to compete. According to the report, “the two components that make the UCLA-developed system work are a polymer donor and a nano-scale fullerene acceptor. The polymer donor absorbs sunlight and passes electrons to the fullerene acceptor; the process generates electrical energy.
The plastic materials, called organic photovoltaics, are typically organized like a plate of cooked pasta — a disorganized mass of long, skinny polymer ‘spaghetti’ with random fullerene ‘meatballs.’ But this arrangement makes it difficult to get current out of the cell because the electrons sometimes hop back to the polymer spaghetti and are lost. The UCLA technology arranges the elements more neatly — like small bundles of uncooked spaghetti with precisely placed meatballs. Some fullerene meatballs are designed to sit inside the spaghetti bundles, but others are forced to stay on the outside. The fullerenes inside the structure take electrons from the polymers and toss them to the outside fullerene, which can effectively keep the electrons away from the polymer for weeks.”

Although the technology is far from ready-for-primetime, it shows some very exciting promise. Yves Rubin, a UCLA professor of chemistry and another senior co-author of the study says, “We don’t have these materials in a real device yet; this is all in solution…When we can put them together and make a closed circuit, then we will really be somewhere.”

Moth Eyes Inspire New Solar Coating

Meanwhile, across the country at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists have developed a new water-repelling, anti-reflective glass coating that could increase the efficiency of solar panels by up to six per cent. Mimicking the characteristics of moth eyes and lotus leaves, the new coating is produced using inexpensive industry-standard techniques, resists high temperatures and is also super tough.

“While lotus leaves repel water and self-clean when it rains, a moth’s eyes are antireflective because of naturally covered tapered nanostructures where the refractive index gradually increases as light travels to the moth’s cornea,” said Tolga Aytug, member of ORNL’s Materials Chemistry Group.
The full report, Monolithic graded-refractive-index glass-based antireflective coatings: broadband/omnidirectional light harvesting and self-cleaning characteristics can be read online.

leaf-veins-537x357Popularized in a 2002 book entitled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by science writer Janine Benyus, the motivations behind biomimicry are as old as humanity. In her Biomimicry Primer (available as a free pdf download), Benyus writes:

“Yearning for something that works for instead of against life, professional innovators are heading outside to see how other species have managed to survive for 3.85 billion years. Their models are organisms that manufacture without “heat, beat, and treat,” and ecosystems that run on sunlight and feedback, creating opportunities rather than waste. The resulting designs are functional, sustainable, and not surprisingly, beautiful as well. Beauty is a large part of why biomimicry resonates. Our search for mentors brings us back into contact with the living world, a place we were tuned to appreciate. Having spent 99.9% of our planetary tenure woven deep into the wild, we humans naturally admire the weaverbird’s nest, the conch’s shell, the scales of a shimmering trout. In fact, there are few things more beautiful to the human soul than good design.”

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Thin Film Makes Solar Headlines

The past month has brought good news and bad news for thin film solar enthusiasts. In May, Chinese giant Hanergy Thin Film’s stock took a mind-boggling dive. Meanwhile, this week, First Solar has set a world record for cadmium telluride thin film solar module efficiency, hitting 18.6 percent aperture efficiency.

Thin film solar cells have been used in small-scale applications since the 1970’s for consumer electronics beginning with calculators, and more recently appearing on solar yard lights, emergency radios and cell phone chargers. Thin film technology has been scaling up to larger applications, now competing with conventional crystalline silicon (c-Si) panels. Commercially available thin film panels are made of cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), and amorphous and other thin-film silicon, unlike conventional solar c-Si cells. Thin film panels are cheaper and flexible, making them more versatile than their rigid c-Si competitors, but the big stumbling block is their lower efficiency. This means that it take a larger area to produce the same energy as a c-Si panel.Thin_Film_Solar-300x237

Early in the 2000’s thin film panels were the talk of the solar industry. Giant corporations like British Petroleum invested heavily in the promise of thin film. Thin film startups promised that efficiency comparable to conventional solar cells was just around the corner. Unfortunately the promises just didn’t materialize quickly enough for many solar speculators, and despite a spike in sales of thin film during a shortage of c-Si panels in 2010, the overall share of the solar market held by thin film continues to remain flat– below 10%.

BP dropped thin film in 2003, before it got out of the solar business altogether in 2011. Also in 2011, Solyndra, a manufacturer of a cutting edge thin film technology, suffered a high-profile collapse, further sullying the reputation of thin film products. Now, Hanergy Thin Film, and its parent company Hanergy Holdings are in the midst of a complete meltdown. The Securities and Futures Commission has announced its plan to investigate Li Hejun, Hanergy’s founder and chairman. It has been a tough five years for thin film, to say the least.

Despite Hanergy’s claims of huge efficiency upgrades, their technology appears to be vaporware. However, the last two heavy hitters in the thin film world– First Solar and Solar Frontier– appear to be in an all-out race to the top. Solar Frontier, a Japanese company, set the aperture efficiency record at 17.8 percent late in 2012. This month, American manufacturer First Solar topped that record, hitting 18.6 percent. Raffi Garabedian, First Solar’s Chief Technology Officer stated that: “First Solar’s CdTe thin film is now rightly categorized as a high performance product. At one time, we might have been characterized as a low cost, low efficiency technology, but consistent with our technology projections we are now proving that CdTe thin film delivers both industry-leading performance AND sustainable thin-film cost structures.”

series-3-black-plusSo where is thin film headed? In a recent article in Renewable Energy World entitled “7 Reasons Thin Film Is Alive and Set to Win in Solar”, author Brad Mattson, CEO of Siva Power wrote: “Developments in the past six months indicate that thin film is not only experiencing a revival, it is positioning itself for a run at silicon. The world’s largest solar panel power plant? 290 MW of thin film. Solar charging stations for Tesla in China? Thin film. Record for the world’s highest efficiency solar panel? Thin film. Biggest solar project planned in Africa at 400 MW? Thin film.”

Although Mr. Mattson’s outlook may be overly optimistic, he makes a valid point, and that is, thin film is finding its niche, and it is not competing with silicon panels for residential use. Large installations where space is not a factor, or in Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) applications. Despite the recent roller coaster ride, thin film appears to be moving up.

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CSP: PV Not the Only Game in Town

With the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels plummeting and the advent of the era of PV “solar farms,” large scale solar thermal projects have not been getting much love lately, at least not in the USA. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is a workhorse technology for large-scale solar power generation. So why aren’t we hearing more about it?

What is CSP? According the the Solar Energy Industry Association’s Website: “Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate the energy from the sun to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity. The thermal energy concentrated in a CSP plant can be stored and used to produce electricity when it is needed, day or night. Today, over 1,400 MW of CSP plants operate in the United States, and another 390 MW will be placed in service in the next year.” Built-in storage. That’s the holy grail of solar, right? Why are we not all over this?

Casandra Sweet of is not-so-optimistic about CSP. In an article published last week, she points out that “The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert is supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. But 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40% of that, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.” Technical difficulties are cited as the reason for the slow takeoff.

Ivanpah is not the only California CSP project to take a hit lately. Another project by Ivanpah’s developer, BrightSource, has officially been canceled, with local officials citing concerns over danger to wildlife as well as the area’s drought-stricken groundwater supply as the primary reasons for cancellation.

solar-irradiation-in-Saudi-Arabia-from-Wikipedia-commons-While CSP is taking a beating stateside, plans for giant expansions in CSP generation are underway across the globe, mostly in equatorial regions where conditions are perfect for massive solar generating projects. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone plans to add as much as 54 GW of concentrating solar generation in the next few decades. Morocco’s ambitious Noor-Quarzazate Concentrating Solar Plant project has received $47.8 million in financial backing from the European Union (EU), and plans are in the works to connect the Noor stations to the EU grid. The Noor project consists of three phases: Phase 1 includes a160 MW parabolic trough-power project. Phase 2 includes two projects, Noor II and Noor III, with generating capacities of 200 MW for Noor II and 150 MW at Noor III. Phase 3 of Noor-Quarzazate project will not be a CSP plant, but rather a 50 MW solar photovoltaic generating facility. Tunisia is also looking to sell into the EU power market with a 2 GW CSP plant called TuNur. British renewables investor Low Carbon, developer Nur Energie and Tunisian investors, with funding from the African Development Bank, would transport the energy via a 600km cable from Tunisia to Italy, where it has already secured approval for a grid connection. This would be the beginning of delivering major amounts of Middle Eastern solar to all parts of the EU.

 Photo by Amble via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Amble via Wikimedia Commons

In the Americas Spanish CSP developer Abengoa has put in a plant in Mexico, and recently one in Chile. They also have several plants in the USA, but development here seems to have stalled. Why? It seems that the USA’s unique system of government-sanctioned utility monopolies, along with inconsistent state and federal environmental regulations concerning power generation technologies make it a tough market for CSP. Also, in states like California, where the market for CSP is favorable, the population density makes it impractical. Until desert states like Arizona and New Mexico recognize the full potential of their solar resources, the energy producers of the Middle East may continue to dominate, even in the post-fossil fuel economy.

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Second Time Around: Bay Area Gets PACE Financing… Again

The PACE financing program for solar installations – standing for Property Assessed Clean Energy – has recently experienced a revival in the Bay Area.

The program makes solar financing easy by allowing residential homeowners to borrow the upfront costs of installing solar panels, and then to repay the loan as a line item on their property tax bills over a 20-year period. Because it is considered a special tax assessment, it remains with the property if the house is sold. And PACE can help with the California drought as well, since the program now also covers water-saving home renovations, such as systems to collect “gray water” from sinks and showers.

solar_coinsIn California, the first commercial and residential PACE programs were inaugurated in 2008, and were first established in Berkeley about five years ago. However, it was at about that time that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, began to oppose PACE. PACE loans are essentially attached as liens on properties. This means that, in event of foreclosure, PACE loans would have to be paid off first, which might become a major problem for the Federal government if many PACE program homes with government-sponsored mortgages went into foreclosure. So in 2010, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced that they would cease purchasing mortgage loans secured by properties with outstanding PACE loans.

To remedy the situation, in 2013 Gov. Brown signed into law Senate Bill 96, which established the PACE Loss Reserve Program to mitigate the risk to mortgage lenders from PACE financing. The program created a $10 million fund, designed to cover any of Fannie Mae’s or Freddie Mac’s losses attributable to PACE liens. However, a spokesperson for the FHFA was recently quoted as saying, “We have not changed our policy at all” towards PACE.

Despite concerns that the FHFA might redline entire cities or towns participating in the PACE program, however, this has not occurred, and the agency does not appear to object to PACE in cases where other lenders are willing to bear the risk of mortgages for homeowners who participate in the program. In December, San Francisco became the first large city in California to return to residential PACE financing since the program was halted. The Executive Director of PACENow, David Gabrielson, says: “State and local government sponsored PACE programs are driving economic activity, creating local jobs, and helping achieve carbon reduction and other environmental goals.”


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Lithium Batteries and Solar: Where are We Headed?

Residential Battery Systems (RBS) are the topic of much excitement and speculation in the solar world recently. Tesla, the electric car giant lead by entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk recently rolled out their new “Powerwall” system to much fanfare. Hot on their heels is Trina, the Chinese solar giant, who announced one week later that they, too will be rolling out a new RBS with a soft launch in Australia this summer. Bosch, GE, LG, Sony and Samsung are all close to releasing similar products.

Both the Tesla and the Trina systems, although very different, are built on a backbone of Lithium Ion batteries. Up until recently, Lead Acid batteries were the only realistic option for RBS because of the high cost of Lithium Ion technology. Now, it would appear that Lithium Ion is ready for prime time in the RBS world. The question is, are Lithium Ion batteries a game changer for solar, or just a stepping stone to the next energy storage technology?

Lithium Ion 101

InternationalBatteryCellLead-Acid (LA) batteries, similar to those in a car, have long been the only viable option for residential storage when it comes to solar. The cost was relatively affordable, but there are a lot of downsides to lead acid batteries. They require a lot of maintenance, they release gases that must be vented, and they are very heavy. Large Format Prismatic (LFP) Lithium Ion batteries have a lot of advantages, (and a few disadvantages,) over LAs.

  • LFP is about one-third the weight of a lead-acid (LA) battery.
  • LFPs take up about half the volume of an LA battery with equivalent energy storage
  • LAs don’t perform well at low temperatures. LA performance drops by 50% at -4°F, compared to 8% with LFP.
  • LA batteries’ discharge voltage tapers as charge decreases.LFP batteries’ voltage remains steady until they are close to being fully discharged.
  • Stored LA batteries lose up to 15% of their electrical capacity per month, compared to 1% to 3% for LFPs.
  • Wet LA batteries need constant maintenance. LFPs require no additional liquid to maintain their electrolyte levels.
  • LA batteries have an average lifespan of about five years; LFP batteries have an estimated longevity of 10 years.
  • LA batteries are cheaper up-front than LFPs, their lifetime price per kWh can be higher.

Until recently, the need for a battery management system (BMS) for integrating Lithium Ion batteries has been the limiting factor in their use in renewable energy applications. Tesla, Trina and others are finally tackling that problem, and it appears that LFP batteries for storing solar energy is a market where we will be seeing a lot of action in the next few years.

Are LFP Batteries the Answer?

Right now, Lithium Ion technology is ready for prime time, and appears to be both affordable and scalable. Electronics manufacturers have vast experience with Lithium Ion batteries which currently power everything from mobile phones to cordless power tools. For companies like Bosch and Samsung, scaling up to residential storage is a no-brainer. For the near-term, it looks like there will be a gold-rush in LFP batteries, and despite the hype surrounding Tesla’s Powerwall, the real action appears to be with the tool and electronics giants.

However, Like Nickel Cadmium (NiCAD) or Nickel-Metal Hydride (N-MH) batteries (does anyone remember them?) battery technologies come and go. Lithium Ion technology has taken a long time to come to this point, and it is still considered too expensive for many applications.

Trina-Solar-batteriesSince 2009, a consortium comprising IBM Research and five U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories (National Renewable, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, and Oak Ridge) have hosted an annual symposium at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee called “Beyond Lithium Ion.” Held last week, Beyond Lithium Ion VIII featured discussions of Sodium Ion technology, Lithium Air batteries, Lithium Sulphur, Zinc Air, Vanadium Redox Flow batteries, and Liquid Organic Redox batteries (ORBAT.) Of all the various technologies being explored, ORBATs appear to be the most revolutionary, bringing forth a non-toxic technology that requires no precious metals to the world of large-scale energy storage.

None the less, while we wait for ORBATs to become a reality, Lithium Ion technology is where the action is for the near future, and consumers are enthusiastic. While non-standardized BMSs may keep total system costs high, the actual price of Lithium Ion storage is expected to fall 50% in the next 5 years, according to executives at LG.

Reference: Home Power

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