PASADENA, CA—While the VIP-laden groundbreaking on the humongous Ivanpah concentrated solar thermal power tower-based project was taking place deep in the Mojave Desert, a more modest, photovoltaically inclined dedication celebration was held under the shade of a framework-style array on the top deck of a parking structure at the California Institute of Technology campus. BrightSource’s 392MW CSP mega-plant may generate a serious amount of centralized-generation solar electricity for the grid when/if it comes online in a few years, but Caltech’s seven separate rooftop systems—totaling 1.176MW (DC) in distributed-generation capacity—have been grabbing photons since late September.
It’s almost like clockwork: First Solar announces quarterly earnings, First Solar nails it again, with more profits and growth. Sure, there are warning signs this time—eroded margins caused by lower module ASPs and foreign exchange issues, the shrinking German market, process pains bringing its Series 3 CdTe panels into production as evidenced by a slight hiccup in its relentless drive to reduce manufacturing costs—but the company saw net sales rise to $798 million, a whopping 36% pop compared to the previous quarter. Net income also went up, to $176.9 million, a more modest 11% hike over the previous period. Few other PV companies come close to these kinds of results, especially in terms of profit margin.
Canadian Solar’s Shawn Qu has come a long way since he matriculated to the University of Manitoba from China in 1989 as a grad student named Xiaohua. He fondly recalls that “cold, cold Winnipeg winter,” walking alone on the icy streets, listening to that “New World music” on his Walkman. These days, he says he doesn’t have much time for music (although he’s putting a good sound system into his new house), since his obligations as chairman/president/CEO of the solar company named after his sometimes-chilly adopted country consume most of his waking hours. I caught up with Qu at Solar Power International; although he was fighting a scratchy throat during our chat, he enjoyed a nice, harmonized view of a booth wall’s worth of photos of Canadian Solar modules deployed in various projects.
While photovoltaics’ crucial role in the renewables revolution is indisputable, that wonderful conversion of photons into useable electricity provides only part of the solution set. What about utilizing much more of that solar energy (as in 80-90%) that isn’t converted by the panels into homegrown juice? Taking a step outside my usual pure-play PV box at the recent Solar Power International show, I met with several innovative companies, including PVT Solar, which hopes to become an all-star player in the hybrid solar technology arena.
The ongoing saga of copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide photovoltaics provided one of the talking-point touchstones of this year’s Solar Power International show. Will solar historians look back to 2010 as the beginning of the Production Age of CIGS? That may be presumptuous and premature, since the thin-film PV’s slice of the overall solar shipment/deployment pie remains small.
Between 2006 and 2009, First Solar set clear benchmarks for all solar cell and thin-film panel manufacturers by expanding at unprecedented rates while, at the same time, commanding industry-leading capex, opex and yield metrics. Over this period, their rapid ascent to leading worldwide producer in 2009 with a (production) market share of 12% was an inevitable consequence of enacting meticulously on this game plan. Indeed, midway through 2009, projected global market demand for 2010 suggested that continuous improvement by First Solar in operating costs, production line throughput, and efficiency would be more than sufficient to retain—or even expand upon—current market share.
Thousands of solar panels help energize the Los Angeles Convention Center, one of the first exhibition hall complexes to put photovoltaic power to work in a meaningful way. Two arrays totaling a combined 392kW were installed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 2000–2002: 144kW on the canopy of the center’s south hall and 248kW integrated as car shades on top of the Cherry Street parking garage.
Have you been confused by the current “sold-out” situation for PV manufacturers and then see reports stating that factory utilization levels averaged 50% or 60%? Finlay Colville, senior analyst at Solarbuzz, explains in this guest blog that a more accurate way of reporting utilization rates among PV module manufacturers is required, one that better matches real-world utilization rates.
Eighty megawatts of cadmium-telluride PV modules represents a lot of glass. As in more than 1.3 million panels’ worth, weighing over 15.6 million kg. And that’s not counting the thousands of tons of steel in the form of posts, tilt brackets, and the like, let alone the hundreds of kilometers of cabling. As impressive as they are, it’s not the massive amount of glass and steel that matters, but the sheer installed AC capacity of the 1150-acre First Solar-built/Enbridge-owned site outside of Sarnia, in the southwestern corner of Ontario a little over four miles from the shore of Lake Huron. Going by the name Sarnia 80, the megasystem is, for the time being, the largest operational photovoltaic power-generating station on the planet, thin film or crystalline silicon, by a couple tens of megawatts. “I call it ‘the brief moment of glory,’” mused First Solar’s Peter Carrie.
Start-up companies face many perils on the path to viability and profitability, but tornadoes are not usually included on the risk/challenge list. In Nextronex Energy Systems’ case, a deadly twister in early June roared within a few hundred meters of the company’s facility outside of Toledo, tearing the side off the local police station, destroying a nearby home, and tossing cars around like Matchbox toys. The PV inverter/system optimization firm escaped unscathed, although the neighbor in the other half of the building sustained minor roof damage. When I asked new boss Bruce Larsen about the storm, he quipped, “I’m glad I became CEO after the tornado, not before!”