Among the sometimes troubling and downright negative news in the solar space of late, the narrative of one company and the emerging sector it represents has been moving in a decidedly more upward and positive arc. Soitec, the French firm which entered the concentrating photovoltaics area via its acquisition of Concentrix two years ago, has been on a roll for most of 2011, with its momentum accelerating the past couple of months. The closing of the deal to build a new factory in San Diego (and ceremony celebrating the news) combined with the California Public Utilities Commission approval of the power purchase agreement for a 150MW project to which Soitec will supply the CPV modules/systems are the latest examples of the firm’s recent string of successes.
Much of last week’s coverage of the Warren Buffett-branded acquisition of First Solar’s Topaz Solar Farm by Berkshire Hathaway-backed MidAmerican Energy Holdings overlooked the sage multigazillionaire’s numerous indirect investments into photovoltaics. Though known for several forays into wind power, his group also holds a 9.9% interest in Chinese electric car, energy storage, and PV manufacturer BYD, a 10.5% piece of German insurer/project owner and Munich RE; and 4.6% in Korean steelmaker Posco, which has emerged as a solar project EPC firm and investor.
As impressive as the exponential expansion of solar power has been over the past few years, it’s important to remember the last part of that preceding phrase: the industry, as a large-scale global concern, is still in its infancy. During his presentation on module reliability and performance characterization at the recent PV Power Plant USA conference in Phoenix, PV Evolution Labs cofounder/CEO Jenya Meydbray shared some telling factoids. Less than 5% of the total installed solar capacity has been deployed for more than 10 years old, and less than 18% has been generating power (or not) for more than five years. Given the sheer numbers of modules involved and wide range of quality assurance levels—and historical field data samples showing a third of 18-24-year old modules degrading at a guarantee-busting 1% or more per year—no wonder he expects to see a whole lot of warranty claims in the next five years.
If you’re not sure where Barry Broome stands on a particular issue, just give him a few minutes. The man can talk, and when he does, strong opinions leavened with humor often come pouring out of the mouth of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council’s president/CEO. Given his stocky build and tenacious style, it wouldn’t be a stretch to nickname him “Bulldog.” Though forcefully advocating solar power and its role in the current and future economic development of the Valley of the Sun, Bulldog Barry’s keynote address at this year’s PV Power Plants Conference USA and comments at a press briefing following his speech included several loud barks and growls directed at the solar community.
In Chinese culture, the color red signifies happiness, joy, and good fortune. Wedding dresses shimmer in crimson, and flush-with-cash gift envelopes often bear a distinctive scarlet tint. But there was no ruby-hued joy in the just-completed round of quarterly financial announcements from the leading Chinese solar companies, as sales revenues fell, margins evaporated, and inauspicious red ink flowed in Yangtze-like volumes. Comparisons of certain key indicators among the top 10 firms reveal a profitless sector largely reeling from plummeting PV module prices and urgent attempts to balance capacity with demand and rein in costs.
There’s more than one media outlet and many good writers reporting on and analyzing the photovoltaics sector with solid editorial content, something underscored by the sampling of the following five stories posted on the Web over the past few days. Sometimes, hand-crafted aggregation can be a sincere form of flattery. Enjoy the ride.
The solar PV space, like most industries, has many stories and factoids that are overlooked or underreported among the often cataract-like torrent of news and commentary. Still catching up after a brief hiatus, the latest edition of the blog zeroes in on some signals among the recent noise, such as SolarWorld’s upcoming temporary factory closure, Trina Solar’s boss on the record for better or worse, Q-Cells vs. Solar Frontier in a CIGS shipment match, and a comparison of two solar companies’ PV plants powering their own factories.
The term “gold rush” is often synonymous with get-rich quick schemes characterized by a fair share of shady or outright illegal shenanigans, or at least the phrase is used to indicate a lucrative opportunity for those with the acumen and wherewithal to cash in. Although long a cliché, the term still has a way of focusing attention and raising eyebrows. Given the clusterfrak of solar industry controversies over the past few months—from the Solyndra debacle to the internecine pissing match that might lead to a US-China “trade war”—and shall we say “inconsistent” mainstream media coverage of said sector, the New York Times page-one lead news feature on Nov. 12, with the website headline of “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search,” set off another peal of alarm bells this weekend. One of the companies targeted, er, spotlighted in the story, NRG, was in full-damage control mode before the weekend was over, issuing its own multipoint “fact sheet” rebuttal to the NYT piece. For the most part, it provides solid, detailed responses to specific passages and inferences in the NYT report. I thought it worth sharing—at least most of it—in this edition of the blog.
Recurring themes and odd juxtapositions permeated Solar Power International, with multiple examples of AC modules integrated with microinverters or other distributed electronics, “easier, lighter, cheaper” balance-of-system innovations, frameless thin-film panels, and booths of Chinese companies most attendees had never heard of. In the outside exhibit area, vanilla cupcakes were piled up in celebration of Hemlock Semiconductor’s corporate birthday. Wait a second: hemlock cupcakes? Halloween was indeed just around the corner for an industry that seems to embody the trick-or-treat duality of late, the cost or benefit depending on which part of the market stream one swims.
While BYD’s Solar Power International exhibit-hall booth might have been modest in size and the company’s reputation may not be as well-established as its Chinese PV industry counterparts, there are few enterprises that can match the scope of its vertically integrated and potentially synergistic business platform in the renewable and cleantech space. Building around what it calls “three green dreams”—solar power, energy storage, and electric vehicles (with some solid state lighting thrown in for good measure)—the Shenzhen-based, Berkshire Hathaway-backed, $7 billion company just opened its new North American HQ near downtown Los Angeles and signed a deal to provide EV shuttle buses and cars to rental giant Hertz. At SPI though, the emphasis was on BYD’s solar division, a group that has quietly built up more than a gigawatt in crystalline-silicon wafer and cell production capacity and 800MW of module manufacturing capability since 2008.
After four consecutive years of filling – and outgrowing – every major exposition venue in Southern California, the Solar Power International show is taking it on the road to the larger Lone Star confines of the Dallas Convention Center. Rich in wind farms, Texas is not the first, second, or tenth state that comes to mind when one thinks of the solar power industry in the US, though it does boast excellent irradiation, a growing base of companies and installations, and a climate-change denier as governor. Since the 2010 SPI event took place in Los Angeles, the industry barometer has become decidedly more unsettled. Despite the sector’s stormy weather, here’s what I’ve seen with my own eyes during roadtrips over the past few months: things are lively across the US solar PV value chain.
The deserts of southwestern Arizona include a whole lot of empty terrain, interrupted occasionally by one of a handful of small towns, both alive and ghostly, as well as patches of irrigated farmland and mineral excavation sites. The rugged, scrubby landscape stretches for miles on either side of Interstate 8, the main west-east artery in that part of the US. The scale of the vast expanse swallows up thousand-acre parcels like a rattlesnake gobbling up a baby field mouse. But something impressive and historic is rapidly taking shape on 2,400 acres of former agricultural lands and military proving grounds up the road a piece from the tiny burg of Dateland in Yuma County. Agua Caliente Solar Project, the largest utility-scale photovoltaic power plant currently in advanced construction, soon will be generating electricity from an area nearly three times the size of New York’s Central Park.
TSMC Solar’s YC Chao didn’t want to give the wrong impression about the company he runs — the wholly owned subsidiary of the mighty semiconductor foundry is, after all, a start-up. “But there are areas where we are not like a start-up,” he explained “I do not go out and raise money. And I do not brag about the future. We certainly have our own vision how the future is going to be and what we need to do in order to be successful, but we walk our talk, and we do not talk very much.” The company president did talk at length from Taiwan via a video teleconferencing link at TSMC’s North America headquarters recently, in advance of the unit’s regional coming-out party at Solar Power International 2011 in Dallas
Suniva’s 170MW solar cell fab may not have the most ideal process flow, but it is a classic example of how much manufacturing capacity can be squeezed out of available floor space. Analogous to cramming 10 pounds of a certain something into a 5-pound bag, in the case of the company’s facility, three production lines have been inserted into an area originally designed for two. By running four shifts around the clock seven days a week (as it currently is) and fully using the double-tracked printing capability of some equipment—effectively turning those three lines into five—the fab can churn out a run rate of ~100,000 high-efficiency, low-cost monocrystalline-silicon cells per day, while boasting yields in the mid-90s.
Despite the muddy swirl of controversy surrounding that certain “you know who” CIGS company, many of the “survivors” in the most up-and-coming sector of the thin-film PV community just keep going about their business, driving up efficiencies, pushing down costs, closing deals, ramping production, and shipping products. Two Silicon Valley-based outfits, Nanosolar and Stion, have recently announced National Renewable Energy Lab-certified record conversion efficiencies and are both actively ramping production to feed their pipeline of orders. Here’s the latest from two of those left standing.
Terrestrial solar power may be where the megawatt action is, but space-based photovoltaics provides its own intriguing kilowatt-scale technical challenges. In addition to the effects of extreme radiation on solar cells, one key aspect of using PV power in interplanetary space revolves around what the engineers and scientists call LILT, the acronym for “low intensity, low temperature” conditions. No mission has a more difficult LILT scenario than the engineering marvel known as Juno, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5 and is now about two months into its multiyear voyage to Jupiter. Equipped with the largest photovoltaic-panel array-wings of any planetary mission yet, the instrument-laden NASA probe will be the first spacecraft using PV power to venture to the outer planets of our solar system. Two of the Lockheed Martin engineers who played key roles in the design and construction of the array system and its integration into the spacecraft, as well as the head of Boeing’s Spectrolab unit, the group responsible for producing and laying out the strings of PV cells on the panels themselves, spoke with me recently about some of the unique aspects of the design, construction, and assembly of Juno’s solar array and its components.
When I drove up I-880 past the Solyndra buildings in Fremont earlier this week, it was the first time since the shutdown, bankruptcy filing, and subsequent public kerfuffle that I had been in the neighborhood. Stealing glances at the familiar facilities as I sped up the freeway, the nearly empty parking lots reminded me of the human toll and the plight of those thousand-odd employees who were summarily laid off without warning and without severance. But as I learned later that afternoon, many ex-Solyndrans have better prospects than they did a couple of weeks ago.
With its framework structure erect and the first walls attached, the shell of what will be one of the largest PV manufacturing plants in the US is quickly rising from the desert floor in Mesa, AZ, east of Phoenix. The freeway-close First Solar production center will join the company’s mothership factory complex in Perrysburg, OH, as a second domestic site once it comes online next year. During a visit to—and exciting Bobcat ride around—the project this week, I found out that construction activities are in full swing, as the accompanying photos attest.
As the stakes grow, B.J. “Billy” Stanbery knows how to keep his cards close to the vest. The chairman and cofounder of HelioVolt just saw the 10-year-old company’s new equity/lifeline investor, SK Group, push $50 million of chips into the CIGS thin-film PV venture’s pot—but he’s not willing to show his hand just yet. While thrilled to see a South Korean chaebol with its vast resources decide that “CIGS is the best horse to ride into the future” and that HelioVolt is the pony to run that track, he didn’t offer much in the way of detailed information about the race tactics and strategy. Stanbery, along with biz dev VP Iga Hallberg, spoke with me about the strategic investment and provided a few updates on recent progress made by the copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide technology developer and panel manufacturer
Although some PV industry watchers would say the term “disruptive technology” does not belong in the same sentence with “crystalline silicon,” several start-up companies and a host of national labs and research groups in the US and elsewhere would beg to differ. In the most recent Department of Energy SunShot Initiative announcements, corporate and institutional participants pursuing the general topic area of thin crystalline silicon received millions in awards to explore various avenues of developing and manufacturing seriously skinny, often nanoscale wafers or cells out of the solar sector’s primary incumbent material. DOE won’t be cutting Ampulse one of those SunShot checks, but the venture-backed, national lab-connected start-up thinks that its technology, which facilitates the “on-the-cheap” fabrication of c-Si thin-film heteroepitaxial cells on flexible metal substrate “foils,” has a legitimate shot at upending the solar status quo.
Hollywood is both a physical location within L.A.’s city limits as well as a state of mind (or mindlessness, in some cases) and catch-all phrase for what we Los Angelenos call “the industry.” In the solar community, when we say “the industry,” we mean something altogether different, although sometimes the worlds of entertainment and photovoltaics do come into contact. SolarWorld, the company who pulled Larry “JR Ewing” Hagman out of Hollywood exile and turned him loose as a celebrity spokesman, will be making its branding mark Sunday, Sept. 18, on one of the entertainment crowd’s marquee events: the Primetime Emmy Awards. A 49.5KW (DC) PV power system equipped with 225 of the company’s 220W polycrystalline-silicon modules will provide a “solar awning” over the red carpet as the glitterati stroll into the show at the Nokia Theater in downtown L.A.
Racking and mounting may not be the sexiest parts of a photovoltaic installation, but the slickest high-performance modules would be all form and no function without the structural bones of the array to keep them in line with the sun. In the US, these balance-of-systems mainstays also turn out to be the hardware components with the largest percentage of domestic value creation among US installations in 2010, according to the recently released “US Solar Energy Trade Assessment,” produced by GTM Research for SEIA—a real “Made in the USA” story on the solarscape. Although a familiar face in Germany, mounting system firm Renusol is hoping to make an impact on the US BOS market.
Still smarting from the wounds of loan guarantee recipient Solyndra’s shutdown and imminent Chapter 11 filing, the US Department of Energy kept its eyes on the SunShot Initiative prize last week, announcing more than $145 million in awards to be spread across 69 projects run by companies, national and private labs, and universities. The efforts encompass a half-dozen categories, including big R, little d and little r, big D accelerants on the cell, module, and inverter technology, balance of system cost reduction (actually, cost reduction is a recurring theme among all categories), grid integration schemes, building integrated PV, and a chunk of change for IT-laden moves to cut nonhardware costs down significantly. Here’s a closer look at some of the players, numbers, and threads that emerge from the latest DOE innovation seed-corn distribution.
Imagine you left work one evening, excited and exhausted by a job where everything was gung-ho and thumbs-up, moving forward at a 24/7 clip, only to report to work the very next morning and be told the company is closing down, so clear out your desks, get your unemployment packet, and see ya later. You and your coworkers had seen no warning signs, no hint of trouble, and certainly had no inkling that a full and total shutdown was imminent. If you work(ed) for Solyndra, you don’t have to use your imagination to fill in this scenario—it is your new reality.
The data giveth and the data taketh away. In the case of a new study conducted by GTM Research for SEIA, the data giveth a surprising, seemingly counterintuitive view of the US solar industry: The United States was a net solar exporter by a far piece in 2010—including in trade with China—and nearly three-quarters of the direct value of solar systems installed here last year accrued to the US economy, to the tune of more than $4.4 billion. The report factors in the entire value chain—from raw materials to finished products to balance of systems and installation to permitting and other soft costs—and demonstrates that there is a lot more to the total market picture than where solar modules are manufactured and how much they cost. The research also provides a jumping-off point to check in on a commercial project developer/builder, Ra Power & Light, which offers a snapshot of current module pricing, in the first installment of a two-part blog.