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.