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Updated: 1 year 46 weeks ago

Startup Boulder Wind Power on the Verge of a Big Deal?

Tue, 11/27/2012 - 14:15

Boulder Wind Power (BWP) is a power electronics and generator startup that just completed a proof-of-concept test for its innovative permanent magnet direct drive wind turbine generator.

The $46 million raised by BWP in Series A and Series B investment from Molycorp (NYSE:MCP), New Enterprise Associates, and CEO James Maguire went toward new Colorado headquarters, a personnel expansion, and proving out its high-efficiency, low-maintenance generator concept. The company is now working on deals with several international wind turbine OEMs that will see its technology through prototype testing and commercialization, according to founder and former Director of the NREL's Wind Technology Center Sandy Butterfield. Butterfield is now BWP CTO and former Suzlon executive Andy Cukurs is aboard as CEO.

Nondisclosure agreements prevented him from naming the manufacturers in the pending deals, said Butterfield. “We’ve chosen international OEMs we think are market leaders and share our vision that radical innovation is needed to drive down the cost of wind energy,” Butterfield explained. BWP would license its generator designs and provide key components. The OEMs the company contracts with will incorporate the BWP technology into their designs and assemble the generators.

One of BWP’s potential partners is a leading Chinese OEM, Butterfield said. Noting that 3Q 2012 financials from Goldwind (PINK:XJNGF), Mingyang and Sinovel, three of the biggest wind manufacturers in China and the world, were uniformly down, Butterfield said he believes the Chinese market “is going through a temporary slowdown but remains the largest market in the world and should see continued growth.”

Butterfield said BWP executives are well aware the deals they are working on have similarities to the one that ended in disaster for AMSC (NASDAQ:AMSC) when, last year, Sinovel abrogated a contracted shipment and was later found to have (allegedly) stolen codes for AMSC’s power electronics. AMSC's legal actions against Sinovel, asking for $1.2 billion in losses and damages, are now working their way through China’s courts.

“Licensing your technology has risks, whether in China or any other part of the world,” Butterfield said. “The challenge is to pick partners who will respect contractual terms and intellectual property law.” BWP has, Butterfield added, specifically sought partners who seem to understand they need to do these things to compete in the global marketplace.

Wind industry watchers say the world is waiting to see if the Chinese courts’ decisions in the AMSC cases reinforce a climate favorable for international trade.

Butterfield said he hopes to close a first deal that will include commitments for prototypes within the next nine months. The time frame for a commercial prototype, he explained, is something like eighteen months. So, he estimated, it would be about 27 months to broad scale commercialization, when the deal is finalized.

“The BWP technology is in a completely new category,” BWP Product Manager Peter Smith explained. “It is a different approach to a permanent magnet direct drive machine. All the other designs are radial flux configurations with iron cores. Ours is the only viable one that features an air core and axial flux.”

Conventional wind turbine technology incorporates a high-speed gearbox with a doubly fed induction generator (DFIG) to translate the mechanical energy of the wind into electricity. That is “probably close to 80 percent of the machines currently delivered globally,” Smith said. “State-of-the-art designs are moving away from the conventional gearbox drive train because it is complex and has a lot of precision parts, parts that wear and fail and require peripheral systems.”

Reliability will be a crucial consideration as the wind industry pushes, in the coming five years, toward unsubsidized grid parity and moves into harsher ocean environments.

Three newer options, Smith said, are “the iron core permanent magnet direct drive generator used in Siemens’ (NYSE:SI) latest turbine and by Vensys and Goldwind and the medium-speed gearbox/ medium-speed iron core radial flux permanent magnet generator and high-speed gearbox/high-speed iron-core radial flux permanent magnet generator combinations offered by the Switch and Danotek."

Startup Danotek, Butterfield and Smith acknowledged, would have to be considered one of BWP’s main competitors.

“In the last eighteen months, we’ve developed a product line that has allowed customers to give us firm orders that created a backlog of $54 million,” Danotek CEO Donald Naab was recently quoted as saying. “In many ways, we felt like we were being treated as if we were a $1 billion entity, and we’re really in the early stages of revenue generation.”

Danotek, funded by Khosla Ventures, CMEA Capital, GE Financial Services (NYSE:GE) and Statoil Technology (NYSE:STO), does not provide the entire drivetrain, just the medium- and high-speed permanent magnet generators.

Other iron-core radial flux permanent magnet generators come from ABB (NYSE:ABB), GE Power Systems (formerly Converteam), Winergy, and the Switch. Moventis (PINK:MVTS), Bosch-Rexroth, ZF Group and Winergy are among the major medium- and high-speed gearbox suppliers.

Update: SolarCity Sets IPO Share Price

Tue, 11/27/2012 - 12:05

Just announced: SolarCity looks to sell 10 million shares of its stock at $13 to $15 per share in its maiden offering. A total of 65,012 shares are to be sold by stockholders. SolarCity's plans to raise $201M have been pulled back -- the firm now looks to raise approximately $151 million, according to this filing with the SEC.

(click to enlarge image)

 

***

There is a long list of withdrawn cleantech IPOs  -- BrightSource Energy, Elevance Renewable Sciences, Genomatica, Coskata, Fallbrook Technologies, Solyndra, and Smith Electric Vehicles.

And while the list of actual cleantech IPOs -- Tesla (TSLA), Enphase (ENPH), Kior, Gevo, Amyris, Codexis -- is growing, the list of successful cleantech IPOs is not.

SolarCity, the VC-funded and tax-equity-bankrolled solar installer and financier, aims to reverse that trend.

SolarCity will launch its $200 million maiden public offering before the end of the year, according to a person close to the deal who was cited in Reuters. The institutional investor road show starts after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

SolarCity has benefited from the glut of solar manufacturing capacity, the collapse of solar panel pricing, and the questionable solar manufacturing policy of the Chinese government. Cheaper solar panels means lower costs for SolarCity and presumably for its customers. As per the firm's S-1, Trina, Yingli, and Kyocera are the primary module suppliers for SolarCity. Inverters are sourced from Power-One, SMA, Schneider, and Fronius.

SolarCity's third-party financing model allows residential and commercial customers to install solar with no money down. Third-party ownership is one of the few solar success stories of recent years, having long surpassed 50 percent of residential solar customers in California, Arizona, and Colorado. Here's the statewide growth of third-party ownership in the U.S., according to GTM Research:

Source: GTM Research

 

SolarCity's S-1 registration emerged from its JOBS Act-imposed review in October and shows the 2,000-employee company looking to list on the Nasdaq under ticker symbol SCTY, with Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and BoA Merrill Lynch as co-lead underwriters.

Losses are growing at the firm, but so is revenue. The firm had $59.5 million in revenue in 2011, $32.4 million in 2010, and $32.6 million in 2009. The firm had $49 million in net losses on $71 million in revenue for the first six months of 2012, compared to a $35 million net loss on $20 million in revenue for the first six months of 2011.

 

SolarCity's $210 million in VC funding and $1.9 billion valuation comes from Elon Musk (with a 31.9 percent pre-IPO stake), Draper Fisher Jurvetson (26.3 percent), Generation Investment Management (7.5 percent), DBL Investors (7.4 percent), with the remainder coming from Silver Lake Kraftwerk, Valor Equity Partners, Nicholas Pritzker, the Mayfield Fund, et al. SolarCity landed more than $1.5 billion through tax-equity investment funds and other financing vehicles. 

Rob Day notes that the structure of the most recent round from Silver Lake "adds pressure for this to be the last round of financing into the company before an IPO (barring possibly just re-opening the Series G if needed), and it puts the company into an 'IPO or bust' situation, as far as some very important investors are concerned."

 

The Woodlawn Associates analysis of the SolarCity S-1 (cited by Rob Day here) provides an analysis of SolarCity's IRRs. Day notes that "SolarCity appears to be getting pretty industry-standard IRRs...but it also suggests there's no magic returns advantage to the company, other than benefits of scale to attract the lower-cost capital." Day notes that customer acquisition costs have started to drop after several flat years, although this may be due to customer mix rather than process improvement.

There are a few lawsuit red flags in the S-1 related to the U.S. Treasury Grant program and SolarCity's accounting.

The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Treasury has issued subpoenas to a number of significant participants in the rooftop solar energy installation industry, including us. The subpoena we received requires us to deliver certain documents in our possession relating to our participation in the U.S. Treasury grant program.

In particular, our subpoena requested, among other things, documents dated, created, revised or referred to since January 1, 2007 that relate to our applications for U.S. Treasury grants or communications with certain other solar development companies or certain firms that appraise solar energy property for U.S. Treasury grant application purposes. The Inspector General is working with the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the administration and implementation of the U.S. Treasury grant program, including possible misrepresentations concerning the fair market value of the solar power systems submitted for grant under that program made in grant applications by companies in the solar industry, including us.

We are not aware of, and have not been made aware of, any specific allegations of misconduct or misrepresentation by us or our officers, directors or employees, and no such assertions have been made by the Inspector General or the Department of Justice. However, if at the conclusion of the investigation the Inspector General concludes that misrepresentations were made, the Department of Justice could decide to bring a civil action to recover amounts it believes were improperly paid to us. If it were successful in asserting this action, we could then be required to pay damages and penalties for any funds received based on such misrepresentations (which, in turn, could require us to make indemnity payments to certain of our fund investors).

And this, also from the S-1:

In October of 2012, we were notified that the Internal Revenue Service was commencing income tax audits of two of our investment funds which audit will include a review of the fair market value of the solar power systems submitted for grant under the 1603 Grant Program. If, at the conclusion of the audits currently being conducted, the Internal Revenue Service determines that the valuations were incorrect and that our investment funds received U.S. Treasury grants in excess of the amounts to which they were entitled, we could be subject to tax liabilities, including interest and penalties, and we could be required to make indemnity payments to the fund investors.

If the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. Treasury Department disagrees now or in the future, as a result of any pending or future audit, the outcome of the Department of Treasury Inspector General investigation or otherwise, with the fair market value of more of our solar energy systems that we have constructed or that we construct in the future, including any systems for which grants have already been paid, and determines we have claimed too high of a fair market value, it could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and prospects. For example, a hypothetical five percent downward adjustment in the fair market value in the approximately $325 million of U.S. Department of Treasury grant applications that we have submitted as of August 31, 2012 would obligate us to repay approximately $16 million to our fund investors.

 

So, is SolarCity's IPO the liquidity event that frees cleantech from its fiscal winter?

On one hand, solar installation and finance is a different world from PV panel manufacturing, one with actual profit margins. SolarCity profits from the remarkable drop in solar pricing and the growth in third-party ownership financing. Greater scale means more access to lower-cost capital. SolarCity has shown strong growth, while its management has executed on its business plan and adapted to changing markets. There's also Chairman Elon Musk, who seems to have his own reality distortion field and a hot hand of late.

On the other hand, if you view SolarCity as a solar company (rather than a specialty leasing/finance firm) there are potential headwinds from investors. Recent solar IPO aspirant BrightSource could not sell its IPO because of "market conditions" -- and because it was overpriced. Enphase, the pioneering solar microinverter firm, made it through the public window, but its stock is being painted with the same savage brush as the rest of the solar industry. If the market treats SolarCity the way it treats Enphase or Suntech, the company has a problem.

What competitive advantage does SolarCity really have? How high is the barrier to entry in this business? Are there more efficient sales channels to the solar customer? Are Vivint, OneRoof, SunPower or SunEdison better positioned for customer acquisition and scale? When will SolarCity stop losing money and turn a profit? And how are the returns from the firm's many projects split between its funding partners?

In any case, December now has the potential to be a very exciting month for cleantech.  

 

Energy Efficiency Market Roundup: Serious, Hara, Enertiv

Tue, 11/27/2012 - 12:00

Serious Energy: Spinning off half the triple windows

Serious Energy (formerly Serious Materials) has had well-publicized difficulties in the last year.

Its attempt to reinvent itself by expanding from building materials (drywall and then windows) into monitoring software ran awry and needed serious fixing.

The latest reorganization move: In October, Serious spun out half of its windows product line, the triple-layer window operation it had acquired by buying Alpen Energy Group. Ironically, windows had provided one of the best moments in the company’s history, the re-glazing of the Empire State Building. The new operation will be named Alpen High Performance Products. According to Environmental Building News, a number of original Alpen executives and employees are remaining or returning, including Alpen founder Robert Clarke and CEO Brad Begin. Alpen had been a highly regarded, successful, ultra-efficiency manufacturer since 1981. Industry observers hope that the company will resume its prior path.

Serious Energy now has one less unrelated technology to pull through the construction recession. Curiously, the company is retaining an additional building windows product, along with the drywall and monitoring software businesses. Some of the messiness in simplifying the company appears to be a legacy strategy of buying a grab bag of bankrupt building materials factories.

Enertiv: Hedge fund data mining tactics for disaggregating your building’s energy loads?   

Enertiv, a New York City startup, replied to our recent profile of Verdigris and its application of high-rate sampling to the building-energy-monitor problem of disaggregation.

Enertiv currently markets a high-rate (one-third of a second) hardware sensor suite coupled with a conventional software dashboard. According to founder Connell McGill, the company has begun development of a high-rate disaggregation algorithm, with a twist: “Leveraging our proximity to Wall Street, we have several hedge fund software developers applying data decomposition methods from financial trading.”

Founded in 2011, Enertiv is similar in size to Verdigris. The company has raised $600,000 of angel and founder funding. The firm lists a number of revenue installations for their existing product generation, including New Haven and Stamford (Connecticut) Public Schools, AFB Management, and certain YMCA and Quiznos locations.

Hara: Leaner and tighter after a heavyweight beginning

Hara, the San Mateo, California-based energy monitoring software startup, has attracted several waves of attention. The firm pulled in over $45 million from a gold-plated lineup of investors including KPCB, Itochu, Nth Power, and GE. Ray Lane (of KPCB and Hewlett-Packard) is Chairman. The Hara website lists over 50 customers, including Harvard University, Hewlett-Packard, Safeway, and the city of Las Vegas.

However, according to Marketing Director Melissa Matlins, “We have reacted to tightened conditions in our industry in the last year, and feel that we have achieved a leaner, more effective operation.” New products continue to come out, especially the smartened UtilitySync. She adds, “Today we are very focused on an easy, affordable software solution.” 

Head count has fallen from 55 to 35, according to Matlins.  A storm signal here?  Privately held Hara does not disclose operating results. The firm just announced a new CEO.
 

Blue Pillar: Defining a Digital Network for Building-to-Cloud Efficiency

Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:00

Eventually, the building will become an IT platform for managing energy a bit like we manage data today. But to get there, you don’t just have to make fans, chillers, lights, backup generators, smart load control circuits and the rest of a building’s hardware smart enough to act as IT assets. A platform -- software that ties these disparate devices into the multiple, overlapping technical and economic models that help humans decide how to manage their building -- is also required.

One example came recently from Blue Pillar, a startup with about $10 million in VC and software and digital controls now optimizing building energy assets for clients like Tenet Healthcare and the U.S. Air Force (PDF). Last week, Blue Pillar launched its “Digital Energy Network” -- essentially, a repackaging of its existing building control system for deployment via the cloud.

Blue Pillar is far from the first company to bring a cloud-computing-based building energy management offering to the market, of course. Over the past few years, most of the big energy services giants have rolled out cloud platforms promising everything from efficiency project management to real-time building energy optimization, with names like Schneider’s StruxureWare, Honeywell’s Attune, Siemens’ Apogee and Johnson Controls’ Panoptix. At the same time, startups like BuildingIQ, Viridity Energy, SCIenergy, SkyFoundry  and others are tackling discrete parts of the building energy-IT puzzle.

Each of these contenders is taking a different approach to moving different aspects of building energy management into the cloud. Blue Pillar’s DEN platform, for its part, ties together a bunch of disparate functions across this building endpoint-to-enterprise dashboard nexus in some interesting and noteworthy ways. Here’s a quick look under the hood.

The Building as the Network

Blue Pillar calls its DEN a “turnkey system of subsystems,” a term that’s useful on multiple levels. Let’s tackle the individual building first, where Blue Pillar, founded in 2006, got its start testing generators and other emergency power systems that keep critical medical services up and running during blackouts.

That work quickly led the startup to look at using those backup generators to shave peak loads, serve demand response calls from utilities, and other functions during the time they weren’t needed for emergencies, CEO Kevin Kushman said in an interview last week. Early work with customers like Orlando Health System and Duke University Health System (PDF) saw the startup adding its digital end-point control and networking gear to multiple building circuits and end devices, from HVAC systems to medical oxygen flow control panels.

All those disparate devices -- generators, switchgear, automatic transfer switches, fuel systems, cogeneration units, chillers, etc. -- are connected to Blue Pillar’s Asset Interface Microservers (AIMs), boxes that sit within the building and coordinate the platform’s data monitoring and dashboarding functions, as well as automation capabilities.

While some customers just want to track how much energy they were using and make sure critical gear kept running, others are working on optimizing their energy use to meet efficiency goals or cut power bills, Kushman said. So far, the savings and benefits from such projects have paid off in anywhere from a couple of years to as quickly as six months, depending on the individual case, he said.

Kushman sees a potential $1-billion-per-year market for energy efficiency and management in the medical industry alone in the United States. But Blue Pillar is also expanding into other industries, including manufacturing, telecommunications and data centers, including some customers soon to be named in Europe, Kushman said. Another big customer is the U.S. Air Force, which has detailed (PDF) a project with Blue Pillar and big property management firm CBRE to meter and manage power use at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

The Property Portfolio as Power Grid Asset

Blue Pillar’s AIM servers don’t just manage the buildings they’re in, of course. They also connect via the internet to Blue Pillar’s cloud-based Enterprise Software -- a system that the startup has more or less rolled out with big customer Tenet Healthcare across sites in Texas, Florida and California, and is now making available to a broader customer base.

Moving to the cloud allows Blue Pillar to handle a multitude of tasks to help customers squeeze more value out of the not-insignificant cost of setting up their buildings for digital energy controls. Take, for instance, Blue Pillar’s asset library, or reference model for the hundreds of different makes and models of building gear found across a typical customer’s real estate portfolio.

Putting that library to work begins at the commissioning stage, when Blue Pillar can send out iPad-equipped engineers to audit a customer’s building and model its energy assets and loads in a matter of hours, compared to days or weeks for the more typical clipboard approach of traditional energy audits, Scott Prince, executive VP of sales and marketing, said last week.

Blue Pillar’s enterprise platform also translates and normalizes data flowing from building networking technologies such as ModBus, BacNet and LonWorks into a single interface -- a web services “handoff” between these various protocols, as Kushman described it. That’s critical for a digital control network that intends to be able to influence power use profiles across multiple building systems, as well as across properties, sometimes in multiple states, in something close to real time.

How are customers using this building-to-portfolio energy control platform? In some cases, customers are bidding into demand response programs, whether traditional day-ahead markets with Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, or the faster, 30-minute to 10-minute window programs available to customers in Texas, he said. Others are using Blue Pillar’s control capabilities to limit demand charges, or the penalties utilities apply to customers who exceed a maximum power use limit at any point during the month -- a hefty part of many commercial and industrial power users’ utility bills, Kushman said.

Blue Pillar works with partners such as EnerNOC on enabling demand response for its customers, as well as handing direct control over to those customers who want to work directly with their utility, Kushman said. New technologies to automate and speed up utility-to-customer communications, such as OpenADR, are also on the startup’s roadmap, he said, though he didn’t mention any specific projects using the technology.

Importantly, Blue Pillar is a "closed-loop" system, Kushman said, meaning that the same platform that's commanding building endpoints and systems to do stuff is checking out the energy use and power cost changes that result from those actions. Surprisingly few of today's traditional building management systems meter their own energy use, although commercial/industrial interval meters and new smart meters can provide whole-building power data that's of some use in closing that gap.

Maltese Cybersecurity Group Claims SCADA System Hacks

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 17:00

Here’s some worrisome internet video for the smart grid industry. Maltese cybersecurity outfit ReVuln has released video of what it says are a series of simple, online hacks of SCADA control platforms from giants like GE, Schneider Electric, Eaton, Siemens, Rockwell and Kaskad. Mark it as another clear sign that securing the smart grid starts with securing the previous generations of technology it rests upon.

ReVuln, which bills itself as a specialist in both “offensive and defensive security,” says its video demonstrates its ability to access and in some cases gain control of SCADA systems.  These “zero-day” exploits, so called because they represent previously unknown vulnerabilities, are “server-side and remotely exploitable,” ReVuln claims, some via the internet, others from a computer within the internal network.

It’s the latest bit of unwelcome news for SCADA control vendors. Over the past few years, they’ve seen their software come under attack from various security and hacking groups claiming to be able to access and alter the operations of power plants, refineries, grid substations and other forms of industrial controls. Regulators and lawmakers have been taking notice, and the Obama administration has said securing the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyber-threats is a top priority.

We’ve covered the specific issues surrounding smart grid security, as well as reports of hacks -- some of them false alarms, others potential real-world intrusions by foreign actors. The Department of Homeland Security, which monitors the grid, has reported a massive increase in cyber-intrusions from foreign governments, private parties and “hacktivist” groups across the nation’s cyber infrastructure.

According to news reports, ReVuln hasn’t released details of how it has allegedly hacked the multiple SCADA systems named in its video. Instead, it plans to sell them to third parties, according to a report from TechWorld. Indeed, the company’s video is accompanied by a statement saying that “other 0-day vulnerabilities owned by ReVuln affecting other well known SCADA/HMI vendors have been not included in this video,” with emphasis on the word "owned."

The practice of selling the knowledge of cybersecurity vulnerabilities to governments or moneyed interests, seemingly out of the pages of spy fiction, is actually going on today, Phil Lin, product marketing director for cybersecurity company FireEye, said in a September webinar. ReVuln and French firm VUPEN, which both sell vulnerabilities openly to third parties, have come under strong criticism from the cybersecurity industry for the practice. Even so, industry experts say that this kind of trading of vulnerabilities, both to use now or to save for later, is likely far more common than openly reported.

 

ReVuln: SCADA 0-day vulnerabilities from ReVuln on Vimeo

GE Acquires LED Lighting Startup Albeo Technologies

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 15:19

General Electric Lighting has signed an agreement to acquire the Boulder startup Albeo Technologies.

The purchase will help GE boost its ability to offer all-LED solutions to customers, especially in the area of industrial lighting.  “This acquisition is a big boost for GE customers moving aggressively toward an all-LED building envelope in new construction and retrofits, including retail, commercial and industrial high-bay applications,” Maryrose Sylvester, president and CEO, GE Lighting, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Albeo raised $8 million in a series C funding round. Albeo saw a 50-percent increase in revenue in 2011. Commercial and industrial sectors are moving more quickly toward LEDs than other sectors, with a significant increase in sales for many players in the market.

For cold storage and data centers, in particular, the payback is usually less than two years. Albeo works in one of the world’s ten largest data centers to provide an all-LED solution.

"Some of our biggest customers told us they wanted a GE-quality solution for high bay,” said Sylvester. “This acquisition accelerates our development of cutting-edge technologies that brings customers the energy-efficient solutions they need. That’s what customers get at the end of the day -- a refined, highly modular and scalable platform that delivers the GE quality they’ve come to expect.”

For Albeo, the move to become part of GE allows it access to GE’s worldwide paths to market and huge research and development capabilities.

The announcement comes at the same time GE released a report on the “Industrial Internet,” which is essentially the networking of industrial machines, could add $10 trillion to $15 trillion to global GDP.

Lighting is a perfect example. In commercial buildings, lighting gobbles up 35 percent to 40 percent of electricity. With LEDs and controls, that figure can be vastly reduced. The savings are so great that, although cold storage and data centers have been early adopters, large office spaces and various other types of manufacturing and commercial operations are investigating LEDs.

A 2010 Enterprise LED Lighting report from Groom Energy and GTM Research also found that the market for LEDs in parking garages should start to mature going into 2012. "GE is making a statement that they need to broaden their product offering faster, and Albeo fits into a category where they didn't have a competitive LED product [in the] high bay [category]," said Jon Guerster, CEO of Groom Energy Solutions and the report author. "This is an early industry, developing at a rapid pace, and consolidation is to be expected."

Outside of commercial and industrial applications, the interest is still nascent. There will be some groundwork laid in 2012, but GTM Research and Groom Energy see the period of 2013 to 2015 as the breakout years for those markets.

Earlier this year, Jeff Bisberg, CEO of Albeo, told Greentech Media that the LED market was wide and there would be a lot of winners. For Albeo, the market just got a whole lot bigger.

While there will likely be more consolidation in the fixture market, Guerster said to keep an eye out for large incumbents, like GE, acquiring an LED chip company. "That would be a much bigger statement about how serious they are about the LED lighting market."

SunShot Hopes $10M Can Boost 10 Solar Startups

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 15:04

Remember QBotix? It’s the Silicon Valley startup that in September unveiled a system that uses a robot sliding along on a track to adjust photovoltaic mounting systems so the solar panels are constantly reoriented to sop up maximum sun power. The company got a vote of confidence from the U.S. Department of Energy this week, pulling in a $972,874 SunShot Incubator 7 grant.

QBotix was one of 10 grant recipients in the program that’s intended to “launch new startups and business units within existing companies to accelerate innovative solar technology development.” 

A total of $10 million went out in this round, bringing the program’s total outlays to $92 million since it was started in 2007 under the Bush administration (and you thought only the Obama administration picked winners and losers!).

The DOE claims the $92 million -- amounting to 0.0027 percent of the fiscal year 2012 budget (but spread over several years) -- has helped draw in $1.7 billion in private investment, or $20 for each dollar the feds have put up.

There have been losers, as you’d expect in an incubator program in an industry that’s as globally competitive as solar. Abound Solar, in Colorado, got funding back in 2007 and has failed, and in quite ugly fashion. The Intel spinoff SpectraWatt also bit it. And just this week, the concentrating photovoltaic company SolFocus, while still alive, said it was seeking a buyer.

But other early funding targets -- Semprius, 1366 Technologies and Alta Devices among them -- are still slugging away, trying to bust out.

Among the latest crop of companies receiving funding, Enki Technology of San Jose was the biggest winner, getting $1.5 million to supplement its own $1.8 million to work on low-cost antireflective and anti-soiling technologies, the DOE said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Seeo, of Hayward, Calif., was awarded $317,536 (with a cost share of $79,384). What’s the hope? According to the DOE:

Seeo, in partnership with SunEdison, is developing an Energy Storage System (ESS) that pairs the breakthrough lifetime of Seeo’s solid-state battery with a set of control analytics designed to optimize performance when operated alongside solar. This program combines a field demonstration with an evaluation of how financing mechanisms such as power purchase agreements (PPAs) and leases can be employed to accelerate adoption of distributed PV with advanced energy storage.

For the full rundown of the new funding recipients, see this PDF from the Department of Energy.

***

Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from EarthTechling. Author credit goes to Pete Danko.

A Case for Innovation in Crystalline-Silicon Manufacturing

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 14:00

The following is the second article in a series on GTM Research's latest solar report, Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013: Markets, Strategies and Leaders in Nine Technology Areas. To read the first article, click here.

The woes of the upstream PV industry have hit manufacturing equipment vendors particularly hard. Just in the two weeks, industry titans Applied Materials, GT Advanced Technologies, and Meyer Burger reported heavy losses in their PV equipment divisions. With all the overcapacity in the industry, why would any existing PV company invest in new manufacturing equipment? And why would any potential new player want jump into this mess?

The answer has to do with the pace of crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV innovation, largely driven by the industry’s equipment and materials vendors. This is also an area in which the U.S. is strong -- far stronger than in the cell/module manufacturing area where the news, policymaking, and government support have been overly-focused.

The U.S. is home to world-class PV equipment makers such as: Amtech, Applied Materials, BTU, Coherent, Despatch, DEK, GT Advanced Technologies, Newport, Sierratherm (Schmid), TP Solar, and Spire. It is also home to the operations of leading PV materials companies such as: 3M, Ceradyne, Cookson, Diamond Wire Materials Technology (Meyer Burger), DOW, Dow Corning, Dupont, Ferro, Flexcon, Guardian, Hemlock, Madico, PPG, STR, REC, Saint Gobain, Tyco Electronics, Technic, and Ulbrich. Domestic vendors also abound within the downstream balance-of-systems portion of the value chain.

Innovations leading to higher module efficiencies have a strong leveraging effect on the total cost of an installation and its levelized cost of electricity, justifying an improvement of roughly $0.06 per watt in module selling price for every full point in absolute efficiency improvement beyond the average industry baseline. Conversely, falling behind the industry incurs a penalty in selling price that may have an even steeper slope. The power of the efficiency lever often justifies the very best in processing equipment, and the cases in which lower-cost/lower-efficiency solutions make sense are becoming increasingly rare.

My own impulse when I heard about Suniva choosing Varian's (now part of Applied Materials) ion implantation technology for its solar cell diffusion equipment was to question such an expensive choice. But even when taking into account a conservative three-year depreciation time on the equipment, the analysis shown below for a 2,400 cell/hour, relatively expensive cell processing step indicates that most equipment changes yielding a 0.2 percent or greater improvement in efficiency can be justified. Ion implantation promises far higher improvements than this as well as other benefits, and the major equipment vendors happen to be U.S.-based or -owned (Applied Materials, Intevac, Amtech).

FIGURE: Break-even Machine Cost as a Function of Efficiency Improvements for Two Different Module Selling Prices: High-cost Step
Source: Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013: Markets, Strategies and Leaders in Nine Technology Areas

Other examples of new equipment with short payback times abound within all segments of c-Si PV manufacturing, for example:

  • Diamond wire sawing for monocrystalline ingot wafering
  • The latest metallization firing furnaces from Despatch or TP Solar
  • Schmid TinPad for eliminating rear silver paste
  • NPC or Meyer-Burger stringers for soldering 4 or 5 interconnect wires per cell
  • Meyer-Burger or Schmid wire array solutions for cell interconnection


And coming soon -- lower cost n-type and reduced-oxygen p-type mono ingots grown with GT Advanced Technologies’ HiCz equipment. This technology is a critical enabler for for new cell architectures on n-type wafers and for rear dielectric passivation on p-type cells with a reduced level of light-induced-degradation. New low-cost atmospheric plasma dielectric deposition systems from Schmid are an enticing match for these cells.

In reporting on the recent PVSEC tradeshow in Frankfurt, industry press and commentators criticized the lower attendance and lack of new products and innovation. These individuals were perhaps more interested in reporting on a cohesive doom-and-gloom story than on capturing reality. Booth after booth displayed exciting new and improved materials, processing/characterization equipment, and end products.

To those who get thrills by “revolutionary” approaches, perhaps they didn’t see as much as they wanted, but for those technologists who appreciate the evolutionary approach that carries our industry forward -- every 0.1 percent improvement in module efficiency, every $0.005 per watt reduction in manufacturing cost, every tightening of the efficiency distribution curve, every 0.1 percent improvement in yield -- the show was a cornucopia of riches for which four days were far from adequate.

The pace of innovation within c-Si PV is accelerating, with more engineers than ever focusing on reducing costs and improving performance. Those companies with the ability to upgrade their lines and invest in new equipment will have significant competitive advantages going forward. This is, of course, difficult to accomplish for companies struggling to stay afloat at all. Those companies with the operations experience, economies of scale, and the ability to invest in the best new equipment will be the future industry leaders.


Which technology innovations will drive c-Si PV forward? And which strategies are equipment and material players employing to gain traction for their technologies? Click here to get the latest from GTM's Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013 report.

Chicago Picks Motiv for Electric Garbage Trucks

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 13:29

A handful of garbage trucks in Chicago will be a whole lot quieter than their predecessors, thanks to an all-electric powertrain control system (ePCS) from Motiv Power Systems.

The Bay Area startup won a contract for up to $13.4 million, its largest customer contract to-date, to provide the city of Chicago with 20 electric refuse trucks using a traditional chassis outfitted with Motiv’s ePCS system.

“We don’t design a truck chassis to be electric,” said Jim Castelaz, CEO of Motiv. “Instead, we work with a whole industry of vehicle modifiers.” By having a plug-and-play technology that works with established truck frames, such as Detroit Chassis, Motiv says it can deliver the benefits of electric at lower costs.

The refuse trucks will each sport ten 20-kilowatt-hour battery packs which will provide at least 60 miles of range. Garbage routes are an ideal fit for an electric truck, as long as the collection station or dump is not too far. “We look for fleets that run vehicles that get a low MPG so they’re using a lot of diesel and go on predictable routes,” said Castelaz.

Motiv’s technology is essentially its controllers that optimize the power flow between the chassis and the batteries. The software also offers predictive maintenance, which can provide added value. The vehicles also come with an in-house charger, a 60-kilowatt, three-phase charger that can operate from about 208 to 600 volts. For the garbage trucks, they will take about three hours to charge, said Castelaz. Motiv estimates the cost of fuel for the trucks will be about one-eighth that of diesel.

The first of the twenty garbage trucks is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2013, but in the meantime Motiv is also working on expanding into other types of trucks, including a flatbed for the city of Bakersfield, Calif., and it is also investigating solutions for utility trucks and refrigerated delivery trucks. “We want to have our technology in a variety of chassis by the end of 2013,” said Castelaz.

The motives of customers vary, but generally fall into a few categories. Many, like Chicago, have mandates for greener fleets, whether using hybrids, natural gas or electric vehicles. In California, some cities and towns are focusing on air quality issues. For large companies, the volatile price of diesel has pushed them to investigate other technologies.

Although the technology may be new, Castelaz said that part of his company’s appeal is that the rest of the truck is a known quantity. Motiv finds the best batteries for the truck’s job (and battery companies that will be around years from now) and uses off-the-shelf motors. Detroit Chassis will provide the refuse chassis and Loadmaster will provide the truck body for the Chicago contract.

The appeal of electric vehicles for fleet vehicles with known routes is growing. The federal government, and companies such as General Electric, have committed to shifting to alternative-fuel vehicles. Last week, electric bus maker Proterra raised $23 million to scale its production of electric municipal buses and fast-charging systems.

As states and municipalities need to meet increasing regulation, whether related to noise, smog or carbon, electric vehicles large and small could get a closer look.

Nanosolar Ships 10 MW of CIGS PV Panels to Valencia Solar Project

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 13:00

Is there still life in the CIGS solar materials system? The answer is "maybe" if Nanosolar's recent announcement is your data point.

Nanosolar, the San Jose-based CIGS thin-film roll-to-roll solar company, just announced its largest solar installation to date -- a 10.6-megawatt solar project in the Valencia region of Spain. The project was developed by Smartenergy Invest and Advanta Capital and is now energized and on-line. Nanosolar is the panel supplier and is not involved in project development.

I spoke with Stefan Zschiegner, the VP of Worldwide Marketing at Nanosolar, last week. He verified that the project used 50,000 of Nanosolar's panels with cells from the San Jose, California factory and panels assembled at the firm's Luckenwalde factory. Zschiegner claims that the unique design of the company's panel makes it easy to install and has the potential to lower system cost and get solar "competitive with grid electricity prices."

In order to be "competitive with grid electricity prices," solar panels need to be inexpensive with good conversion efficiency. Nanosolar's VP would not reveal the cost of the panels in terms of dollars per watt, the efficiency of the panels, or the volume of shipments Nanosolar expects to make in 2012. Since Zschiegner was being so communicative, I also asked about the current valuation of the company, the location of Martin Roscheisen, and the true identity of the JFK shooter. He remained silent on these inquiries as well.

Zschiegner did say that the firm would ship more than last year. We estimate Nanosolar's average efficiency to be in the 9 percent to 10 10 to 11 percent range.

GTM Research has these estimates for CIGS solar production numbers in 2011:

  • Solar Frontier, 577 megawatts
  • Solibro, 95 megawatts (Sold to Q.cells)
  • MiaSolé, 60 megawatts (Sold to Hanergy)
  • Solyndra, 40 megawatts (Bankrupt)
  • Avancis, 25 megawatts
  • Global Solar, 19 megawatts (Now selling only consumer solar products)
  • Soltecture, 14 megawatts (Bankrupt)
  • Nanosolar, 10 megawatts

 

The largest CIGS solar project to date is the 140-megawatt Catalina Solar Project in Kern County, California set to supply power to San Diego Gas & Electric in 2013. Japan's Solar Frontier is a supplier for that site and has shipped 80 megawatts of panels to that location so far. First Solar will supply 60 megawatts of cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels to that same location.

Solar Frontier’s monolithic thin-film modules are spec'd at approximately 12.2 percent efficiency, which is a relatively strong number in the thin film world, a bit better than First Solar's 11.7-percent-efficient (average) cadmium telluride material, but still trailing the 14 percent to 22 percent module efficiency of the crystalline silicon vendors. In recent conversations with the company, Solar Frontier set goals of 13 percent efficiency in 2013 and 14 percent in 2014. Solar Frontier has not revealed its costs, either. 

Thin-film solar requires massive capital and human resources -- there's no real ecosystem for each firm's proprietary processes. The next generation of thin film is likely coming from Hanergy, SK Innovation, TSMC , Hyundai, LG, AUO, Mitsubishi, or Samsung, all of whom now have CIGS or a-Si know-how. These are the firms against which Nanosolar must compete.

For Western States Transmission, Will There Be Strength in Unity?

Mon, 11/26/2012 - 11:00

The Western states have 39 or more separate balancing areas in which grid operators control the energy on the system.

When transmission was a matter of moving traditional generation in response to changes in load throughout the Western Interconnect, this balkanized setup was workable. As Load-Serving Entities (LSEs) draw on larger portions of renewables like wind, solar and geothermal energies, managing variability is becoming more complicated.  

A Public Utility Commission Energy Imbalance Market (PUCEIM) group composed of researchers from the National Renewable Energy Lab, the Western Governors Association, and multiple independent agencies is working on a plan to pull the Western Interconnect’s disparate areas together into an Energy Imbalance Market (EIM). 

“If you have wider geographic areas sharing different plants, you can smooth some of that variability,” explained Interwest Energy Alliance Southwest Representative Amanda Ormond. “An energy imbalance market allows dispatch of the lowest cost resource to address energy imbalance when a load turns on unexpectedly.”

The West’s many balancing areas are presently relatively inflexible, Ormond said, “because they have only their own reserves to call on for imbalance. They therefore keep large amounts of energy in reserve to meet potential contingencies. And the last generators you turn on are typically the most expensive.”

"This creates economic inefficiencies,” Ormond said. And as more renewables are added across the West, variability will increase and the inefficiencies will become more costly. With an EIM, there is more flexibility.

“If I needed energy in a very short time scale,” Ormond explained, “I could go to the EIM. If energy there is cheaper and if there is transmission to deliver it, I could buy from the market instead of using that last, most expensive, reserve generating capacity.”

An EIM, Ormond explained, would also add vital situational awareness, maximize transmission utilization, and provide sub-hourly markets to address energy imbalances.

Across the west, she said, there is not a lot of situational awareness in transmission. “In the 2011 San Diego power outage caused by a fault in Arizona, San Diego could not talk to the utilities in Arizona. They literally did not know what was happening.”

While there is transmission congestion in some places, there is drastically underutilized or unused transmission capability elsewhere.Instead of focusing on the need for new transmission,” Ormond said, “we need to make better use of existing transmission. A lot of that is operational reforms like an EIM.”

At present, Ormond said, “if I need energy, the only opportunity I have to buy is on an hourly basis, at the top of the hour. The EIM would introduce a five-minute market. That adds tremendous flexibility. Being able to buy energy for an imbalance over a five-minute time frame really matches up well with what the needs are.”

To preserve the local autonomy of current balancing areas, Ormond stressed, the EIM is being designed as a voluntary market. “In an EIM, if I am a utility and I have a couple of generators that aren’t running, I could offer them to the system. When someone needs energy, they are going to ask for energy. I can either allow that to be scheduled or not.”

An objection voiced by the American Public Power Association (APPA), a utilities advocate which opposes going forward with an EIM for the Western Interconnect, is that an absence of “critical details” about governance, market monitoring and supervision, and cost raise the concern that an EIM could “quickly evolve into a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO).”

It is a market for balancing energy, Ormond said, not an RTO. Legal opinions suggest “an EIM can have a hard wall to prevent it leading to an RTO. It is a centralized unit for dispatch of balancing energy. It is not for capacity. If you offer a unit, it can be scheduled within the parameters you allow.”

Most importantly, she repeated, it is voluntary. “If I want to go into this market, I can. But if I get into this market and find out it is not cost-effective for me, I can step back out.”

The APPA contends that infrastructure and operating costs “could, in some scenarios, outweigh the estimated benefits, with the net costs potentially reaching $1.25 billion in net present value terms over the first 10 years.”

The PUCEIM group, Ormond said, has preliminary cost estimates from the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) Corporation, suggesting an estimated $3.50 per-megawatt hour cost but further cost-benefit analyses, along with potential market design studies, are underway.

“The theory is,” Ormond added, “that EIM will improve reliability, but there are no studies yet to bear that out.”

 

SolarCity IPO Scheduled for 2012 Holiday Season: Reuters

Sat, 11/24/2012 - 15:44

There is a long list of withdrawn cleantech IPOs  -- BrightSource Energy, Elevance Renewable Sciences, Genomatica, Coskata, Fallbrook Technologies, Solyndra, and Smith Electric Vehicles.

And while the list of actual cleantech IPOs -- Tesla (TSLA), Enphase (ENPH), Kior, Gevo, Amyris, Codexis -- is growing, the list of successful cleantech IPOs is not.

SolarCity, the VC-funded and tax-equity-bankrolled solar installer and financier, aims to reverse that trend.

SolarCity will launch its $200 million maiden public offering before the end of the year, according to a person close to the deal who was cited in Reuters. The institutional investor road show starts after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

SolarCity has benefited from the glut of solar manufacturing capacity, the collapse of solar panel pricing, and the questionable solar manufacturing policy of the Chinese government. Cheaper solar panels means lower costs for SolarCity and presumably for its customers. As per the firm's S-1, Trina, Yingli, and Kyocera are the primary module suppliers for SolarCity. Inverters are sourced from Power-One, SMA, Schneider, and Fronius.

SolarCity's third-party financing model allows residential and commercial customers to install solar with no money down. Third-party ownership is one of the few solar success stories of recent years, having long surpassed 50 percent of residential solar customers in California, Arizona, and Colorado. Here's the statewide growth of third-party ownership in the U.S., according to GTM Research:

Source: GTM Research

 

SolarCity's S-1 registration emerged from its JOBS Act-imposed review in October and shows the 2,000-employee company looking to list on the Nasdaq under ticker symbol SCTY, with Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and BoA Merrill Lynch as co-lead underwriters.

Losses are growing at the firm, but so is revenue. The firm had $59.5 million in revenue in 2011, $32.4 million in 2010, and $32.6 million in 2009. The firm had $49 million in net losses on $71 million in revenue for the first six months of 2012, compared to a $35 million net loss on $20 million in revenue for the first six months of 2011.

 

SolarCity's $210 million in VC funding and $1.9 billion valuation comes from Elon Musk (with a 31.9 percent pre-IPO stake), Draper Fisher Jurvetson (26.3 percent), Generation Investment Management (7.5 percent), DBL Investors (7.4 percent), with the remainder coming from Silver Lake Kraftwerk, Valor Equity Partners, Nicholas Pritzker, the Mayfield Fund, et al. SolarCity landed more than $1.5 billion through tax-equity investment funds and other financing vehicles. 

Rob Day notes that the structure of the most recent round from Silver Lake "adds pressure for this to be the last round of financing into the company before an IPO (barring possibly just re-opening the Series G if needed), and it puts the company into an 'IPO or bust' situation, as far as some very important investors are concerned."

 

The Woodlawn Associates analysis of the SolarCity S-1 (cited by Rob Day here) provides an analysis of SolarCity's IRRs. Day notes that "SolarCity appears to be getting pretty industry-standard IRRs...but it also suggests there's no magic returns advantage to the company, other than benefits of scale to attract the lower-cost capital." Day notes that customer acquisition costs have started to drop after several flat years, although this may be due to customer mix rather than process improvement.

There are a few lawsuit red flags in the S-1 related to the U.S. Treasury Grant program and SolarCity's accounting.

The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Treasury has issued subpoenas to a number of significant participants in the rooftop solar energy installation industry, including us. The subpoena we received requires us to deliver certain documents in our possession relating to our participation in the U.S. Treasury grant program.

In particular, our subpoena requested, among other things, documents dated, created, revised or referred to since January 1, 2007 that relate to our applications for U.S. Treasury grants or communications with certain other solar development companies or certain firms that appraise solar energy property for U.S. Treasury grant application purposes. The Inspector General is working with the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the administration and implementation of the U.S. Treasury grant program, including possible misrepresentations concerning the fair market value of the solar power systems submitted for grant under that program made in grant applications by companies in the solar industry, including us.

We are not aware of, and have not been made aware of, any specific allegations of misconduct or misrepresentation by us or our officers, directors or employees, and no such assertions have been made by the Inspector General or the Department of Justice. However, if at the conclusion of the investigation the Inspector General concludes that misrepresentations were made, the Department of Justice could decide to bring a civil action to recover amounts it believes were improperly paid to us. If it were successful in asserting this action, we could then be required to pay damages and penalties for any funds received based on such misrepresentations (which, in turn, could require us to make indemnity payments to certain of our fund investors).

And this, also from the S-1:

In October of 2012, we were notified that the Internal Revenue Service was commencing income tax audits of two of our investment funds which audit will include a review of the fair market value of the solar power systems submitted for grant under the 1603 Grant Program. If, at the conclusion of the audits currently being conducted, the Internal Revenue Service determines that the valuations were incorrect and that our investment funds received U.S. Treasury grants in excess of the amounts to which they were entitled, we could be subject to tax liabilities, including interest and penalties, and we could be required to make indemnity payments to the fund investors.

If the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. Treasury Department disagrees now or in the future, as a result of any pending or future audit, the outcome of the Department of Treasury Inspector General investigation or otherwise, with the fair market value of more of our solar energy systems that we have constructed or that we construct in the future, including any systems for which grants have already been paid, and determines we have claimed too high of a fair market value, it could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and prospects. For example, a hypothetical five percent downward adjustment in the fair market value in the approximately $325 million of U.S. Department of Treasury grant applications that we have submitted as of August 31, 2012 would obligate us to repay approximately $16 million to our fund investors.

 

So, is SolarCity's IPO the liquidity event that frees cleantech from its fiscal winter?

On one hand, solar installation and finance is a different world from PV panel manufacturing, one with actual profit margins. SolarCity profits from the remarkable drop in solar pricing and the growth in third-party ownership financing. Greater scale means more access to lower-cost capital. SolarCity has shown strong growth, while its management has executed on its business plan and adapted to changing markets. There's also Chairman Elon Musk, who seems to have his own reality distortion field and a hot hand of late.

On the other hand, if you view SolarCity as a solar company (rather than a specialty leasing/finance firm) there are potential headwinds from investors. Recent solar IPO aspirant BrightSource could not sell its IPO because of "market conditions" -- and because it was overpriced. Enphase, the pioneering solar microinverter firm, made it through the public window, but its stock is being painted with the same savage brush as the rest of the solar industry. If the market treats SolarCity the way it treats Enphase or Suntech, the company has a problem.

What competitive advantage does SolarCity really have? How high is the barrier to entry in this business? Are there more efficient sales channels to the solar customer? Are Vivint, OneRoof, SunPower or SunEdison better positioned for customer acquisition and scale? When will SolarCity stop losing money and turn a profit? And how are the returns from the firm's many projects split between its funding partners?

In any case, December now has the potential to be a very exciting month for cleantech.  

 

Emerging Solar Strategies, Part 4: SunEdison and the Next Big Thing

Fri, 11/23/2012 - 20:35

SunEdison wrote the first U.S. power purchase agreement (PPA) in solar in 2004. It built the first U.S. and Canadian utility-scale solar projects and the biggest (72 megawatts) European installation. And, in 2010, its deal with First Reserve was the first solar development investment fund to top $1 billion.

SunEdison Distributed Generation General Manager Attila Toth says the next big thing in solar will be distributed generation (DG).

“For us, distributed generation means the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector and the public sector -- everything on the customer side of the meter,” Toth said. It also includes residential rooftops. “Everything that includes dealing with a customer, as opposed to dealing with a utility, is distributed generation.”

Wholly owned by MEMC (NYSE:WFR) since 2009, SunEdison believes, Toth said, “the solar business on the customer side of the meter will grow very quickly over the next few years, in the U.S. and internationally, because the economics make sense."

SunEdison operates and maintains solar on all the viable space at five California prisons. That's 18.4 megawatts of ground-mounted solar, progressively developed since 2006 for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  

“If our solution didn’t make sense, the prisons would not sign with us,” Toth said. “And Kohl's and Wal-Mart would not sign with us.”

In its nearly one-gigawatt portfolio, SunEdison boasts an impressive array of national retailer’s roofs. “We have longstanding relationships with companies like Koh'ls, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Staples. They provide us with their rooftop assets and we build solar systems,” Toth said. “The companies get the advantageous economics and the profile of an environmentally responsible corporate citizen.”

Toth said there are three things driving the emerging DG trend. “The first is grid parity. When I joined SunEdison in 2008, we paid close to $4 per watt for modules. We are now well below $1 per watt. That cost reduction has enabled solar to become very competitive with traditional generation sources.”

Island states like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where imported electricity generation sources are expensive, are at grid parity now, Toth said. Solar-rich states will be there soon. “Grid parity doesn’t happen at the same time everywhere in a state. It happens in a normal distribution. When parts of California are there, towards the end of 2014, Californians will rely less on Governor Brown and more on the pure economics of solar."

The second driver is the fact that the renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) and financial subsidies on which utility-scale solar has depended are somewhat played out.

“Many utilities -- California is an example -- have met their RPS commitments for many years ahead," Toth said. SunEdison, he explained, will focus entirely on building the utility-scale projects in its own pipeline that already have PPAs and on acquiring companies with pipelines of projects that already have PPAs.

“On the utility side, our strategy is M&A-driven,” Toth said. “We made two big acquisitions over the past eighteen months, Fotowatio and AxioPower.” Both came with “significant existing pipelines” of utility contracted projects.

Source: GTM Research’s Q3 2012  U.S. Solar Market report

In DG, on the customer side of the meter, he said, “we have big opportunities for uncontracted megawatts of volume.” The company is gearing up for “an aggressive pursuit of government institutions, retailers and other commercial and industrial customers.”

The residential segment, Toth said, “is a hard nut to crack. I don’t think anybody in the United States has truly cracked it. What we are seeing is just an early start.” But SunEdison is “absolutely” thinking about expanding there against competitors like SolarCity, Sunrun and Clean Power Finance.

“We are working with partners to aggregate demand,” Toth said. “Having proven ourselves in the other segments, investors are coming to us, offering to raise funds with us and attack the residential segment.”

SunEdison is moving cautiously. “We want to make sure we approach the residential sector with a strategy that is truly scalable.”

Free choice, Toth said, is the third driver. “Customers no longer have to depend on incentives or pay high upfront costs. With third-party financing, very soon, on the customer side of the meter, it will be economically equivalent if they buy energy from a conventional source or from renewables such as solar. That free choice can have a big psychological impact. It will drive the trend toward distributed generation.”

Other benefits of DG, Toth noted, are that “you are producing energy where it is being consumed, so you don’t have to invest in transmission and distribution; you balance the grid; and you don’t have the ten percent energy loss that happens with electricity transmitted through the grid.”

Since the Solyndra bankruptcy, solar has been getting highly politicized “bad press,” Toth said. “But the economics, from the end user’s point of view, now make sense. It is not what it used to be twenty years ago. Solar is growing 25 percent to 30 percent, year over year, even in very hard economic conditions. Customers want distributed generation,” he added. “Now that the economics make sense, it will be a thriving business.”

***

Emerging Solar Strategies, Part 1: Centrosolar America; “The entire sales cycle for residential solar is 26 steps.”

Emerging Solar Strategies, Part 2: SOLON; “We are prepared to deal with whatever we need to deal with to play in the market.”

Emerging Solar Strategies, Part 3: DuPont’s Push for Quality Standards; In today’s market, “you have to rely on what you’re buying, not who you’re buying it from.”

Electric Bus Maker Proterra Banks $23M in VC From GM, Kleiner, Hennessey

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 13:59

The electric vehicle tipping point might come from slow, sensible buses instead of sleek EV sports cars or sedans from the likes of Tesla or Fisker.

Proterra, a maker of electric municipal buses and fast-charging systems, raised $23 million from new investors Hennessey Capital and NMT Capital, along with existing investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, GM Ventures, Mitsui & Co. Global Investment, 88 Green Ventures and Vision Ridge Partners. This follows a $30 million infusion in June of last year.

The company is delivering electric buses to transit agency customers and growing fast in the immense global transit market. Proterra has 170 employees today, up from 37 in June of 2011.

Buses drive fixed routes at moderate speeds, so they're an ideal application for electric vehicles. According to the David Bennett, Proterra’s CEO, 85 percent of city bus routes are less than 30 miles. A Proterra bus can completely rapid charge in ten minutes or less on route -- so, there is zero range anxiety and little requirement for behavioral change.

The relatively predictable short distances traveled lets Proterra minimize the size of the battery pack -- with battery packs in the 54-kilowatt-hour to 72-kilowatt-hour range. The Tesla Roadster has a 53 kilowatt-hour pack. 

Proterra’s CEO told us that the firm looks to ship between 40 and 60 buses in 2013. Proterra's buses are priced higher (at about $900,000) compared to conventional buses (at about $500,000) but Bennett sees his firm's price coming down to $800,000 as volumes rise. Plus, the EV buses save $50,000 per year in diesel costs, according to the CEO.

Proterra designs and builds, with a lot of outsourcing, the entire bus including the electric drive, energy storage system, vehicle control systems, and fast-charging stations. The firm uses lithium-titanate batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI) for its safety and charging characteristics. Altair had Q3 2012 revenues of $0.4 million compared to $0.9 million in Q3 2011. The firm makes use of carbon fiber and low-weight materials when it can.

Regulations and policy can help Proterra grow -- California has zero-emission requirements on a portion of buses purchased by municipal agencies and there is $50 million in a new Highway Bill directed toward EVs.

An older GTM article describes a test drive we took in 2009 with a Proterra prototype as "smooth, quiet...and just like a regular bus but no fumes or noise."

 

SDG&E Pushes the Envelope on Cutting Outages

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 13:00

About two weeks after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the mid-Atlantic, one utility stepped up and announced the launch of a sophisticated outage management system years in the planning. 

The utility? San Diego Gas & Electric.

San Diego is a city awash in mild, sunny weather, but that doesn’t mean SDG&E is just sitting back and lapping up the beautiful climate. Instead, the utility, which sits in arguably the most progressive state for the industry, has rolled out an OMS that integrates a geographic information system (GIS) with its Oracle distribution management system (DMS) and smart meters to track outages during storms and to better organize planned outages.

“The ability to identify the outages more quickly is exciting,” said Vic Romero, director of asset management and smart grid at SDG&E.

About four years ago, SDG&E started thinking about bringing in multiple technologies, including the GIS and expanded mobility for field crews. Troubleshooters that were sent out after storms or problems had laptops in their trucks for years, but SDG&E now has mobile terminals for line crews as well. Various utilities are installing different aspects of smart grid, but there are only a handful that are integrating all of the elements -- including OMS, DMS, GIS and smart meters -- to reform the approach to outage management.

Two-way digital smart meters, which are being installed as part of California’s Energy Action Plan, allow SDG&E to know when power goes out at individual locations and integrate that information into its OMS. The system has only been in place for about two months, so there are no figures of savings as far as measured indices like SAIDI, said Romero, but there have been some other glimpses into the benefits the technology is providing.

“Advanced metering infrastructure lets us know fourteen minutes before the first customer call,” he said, “and there’s even more savings on top of that if it’s a breaker.” He noted that sometimes the utility has a crew on site before the first customer even calls.

The smart meters can also be used to manage and monitor power flow with a level of granularity that was not possible before. That visibility allows for better planned outages, said Romero.

During Sandy, a few utilities realized the advantages of their smart meters, including Baltimore Gas & Electric and PECO. Others are focusing on a 21st century OMS; Commonwealth Edison in Chicago is upgrading its system, for example, and EPB Chattanooga is already taking advantage of a cutting-edge system. SDG&E’s northern neighbor, Pacific Gas & Electric, is also investing heavily in reducing outages.

The next step for SDG&E is not to sit back and wait for a wind storm, but to add in self-healing capabilities using fault location isolation and service restoration, which can significantly cut outages further.

For operators, the advantage is more information at their fingertips and real-time intelligence, using software by Obvient, which was bought by ABB’s Ventyx. With the integration of the OMS and DMS, “We’re able to get much more information to the status of the system.”

Despite the fact that its territory is known for beautiful weather, SDG&E also boasts an impressive weather network with onsite meteorologists to better understand localized forecasts. Those forecasts can be used to know when to call for outside help before a storm even starts.

No matter what the project, for utilities like SDG&E, smart grid -- including upgraded outage management -- is simply an evolution. “We don’t stay still,” said Romero.

Green Jobs: Prudencio New CEO at Hara; New Itron CEO; Plus Enphase, LIPA, LDK

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 12:00

Itron (Nasdaq:ITRI) named Philip Mezey as CEO. Mezey was most recently COO for Itron's Global Energy segment. John Holleran was named Itron’s EVP and COO.  

Rodrigo J Prudencio was named the new CEO at Hara, a cloud-based energy and resource data management firm. Prudencio was most recently a partner at Nth Power, a Hara investor along with GE and KP. He replaces Dan Leff, Hara's CEO for less than two years and formerly COO of Enron Energy Services.

Enphase Energy (NASDAQ: ENPH) announced several new senior executive hires: Ciaran Fox is the new VP of quality and reliability, and Martin Rogers is now VP of customer service and support. Rogers was previously at Schneider Electric and Power-One. Steve Lapointe, formerly with Cadence, has been named VP of human resources. 

Robert Roche was named VP of Sales, Marketing and Communications at flexible thin-film CIGS solar firm Ascent Solar.

LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK), appointed Xingxue Tong as CEO. LDK recently received investment from a China state-owned entity.

Long Island Power Authority's COO, Michael Hervey, resigned over criticism for the utility's alleged slow response after the recent storm. Eighty-two percent of LIPA customers lost power during Sandy.

Boralex, a Canadian renewable power producer with an installed capacity of more than 500 megawatts in Canada, the U.S., and France, named Robert F. Hall as Chairman of its Board of Directors.

Harris Utilities SmartWorks named Chris Lewis as VP of business development, focused on smart grid products. Lewis was most recently director of market development with Cognera, a Harris Utilities firm.  

Retroficiency announced that Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and Secretary of the U.S. DOE, has been added as a member of its Advisory Board. The Boston-based startup's technology platform combines public and proprietary data to create building energy models -- ones it says can shed light on where energy is being wasted without entering the building.

Sapphire Energy, looking to produce algae-based green crude oil, named Jeff Webster as COO. Prior to Sapphire, Webster was COO at Solazyme (NASDAQ: SZYM), another algal oil and bioproduct firm. 

Aurora Algae named Lee Covert as SVP of sales. Aurora develops methods for growing, harvesting, extracting and producing algae-derived products. 

Ceramic Fuel Cells (AIM / ASX: CFU) named Bob Kennett as CEO, replacing Brendan Dow. The Australian firm builds SOFC-based small-scale on-site micro combined heat and power (CHP) and distributed generation units.  

Fallbrook Technologies, an engine transmission technology innovator, named John K. Penver to CFO.  

See our article on cleantech VC investor Mohr Davidow and its recent personnel changes here.

The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) is seeking an Executive Director.

Which New Crystalline Silicon PV Technology Concepts Actually Hold Promise?

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 11:00

GTM Research’s latest report, titled Innovations in Crystalline Silicon 2013: Opportunities, Challenges, Costs and Leaders in Nine Technology Areas, is out today, and it’s a refreshing distraction amidst the gloom that hangs over an industry that has been bleeding money for the last year and a half. Authored by Andrew Gabor, formerly of Evergreen Solar and 1366 Technologies, the report takes a close look at several emerging technology areas in crystalline silicon technology that could alter the well-established process flow and device architecture of the c-Si value chain. Each of these concepts aims to improve some combination of factors that are essential to lowering installed or delivered costs of energy, be it cell/module efficiency, energy yield, material utilization, or manufacturing throughput. Below, we present a selection of key insights about the technology areas covered in the report.

Quasi-Mono/Cast Mono

“Has a solid two- to three-year run ahead of it, but … will face severe challenges after that point. In the long term, we see the bigger challenge to multi [crystalline] market share to be from reductions in the cost of CZ-mono wafers and from cell architectures that are dependent on CZ-mono-quality material.”

Diamond Wire Sawing

“While the cost benefits of using diamond wire may be small right now, it is likely that it will be an important technology in the coming years as wafer thicknesses are driven lower, as wire quality improves, and wire costs come down, sawing processes and equipment improve, and kerf recycling takes hold. Although it may be tempting to simply implement diamond wire on existing slurry-based wire saws, the best performance will be achieved with saws customized specifically for the diamond wire and with special attention paid to the coolant and filtration systems.”

Kerfless Wafers

“Saving silicon is great, but if this comes at the expense of cell efficiency, the technology doesn’t stand a chance. Crystal Solar and Solexel appear the most promising long-term bets since they cut out most of the silicon value chain and have wafers that can support high efficiencies. Solexel in particular is far along in its wafer, cell, and module development, has proven high efficiencies, and even novel technology in several areas, but also has a frighteningly tall stack of challenges from wafers all the way to modules."

Selective Emitters

“In terms of efficiency gain potential, the etchback technique developed in Professor Giso Hahn’s group at the University of Konstanz and now being commercialized by Schmid in Germany is another clear winner. […] Schmid appears to now have the largest base of installed selective emitter capacity (> 1.5 gigawatts), although it is not clear what percentage of these systems are in regular use.”

“The value of reducing the tail of the efficiency distribution should be properly accounted for in the CoO benefit. This will be different for each manufacturer. Indeed, this could be the most important benefit since 'low'-efficiency cells are equivalent to yield loss these days.”

Reduced-Silver Metallization

“The cost savings for implementing both thinner and segmented busbars are dramatic. [...T]his is the easiest and most obvious first step for silver reduction.”

“Conventional wisdom holds that copper front metallization will take significant market share from silver within a few years. In 2008, it was thought to be just a few years away. Likely, it will still be a few years away in 2014.”

Dielectric-Passivated Backside Cell Architectures

“[S]elf-restraint is exactly what is needed when considering rear dielectric passivation on p-type wafers. This technology is not yet mature, the process windows are narrow, several extra steps are needed, light-induced degradation (LID) is a problem with mono wafers, and the benefits are likely smaller than advertised. For this level of benefit, there may be better places to spend one’s money and engineering bandwidth."

Conductive Adhesives

“Conductive adhesives are promising materials for the future of both conventional stringing (as a solder replacement), as well as for the assembly of modules with back-contacted cells. Their costs are largely misunderstood by the industry and have significant potential to drop further and actually reduce dollar-per-watt manufacturing costs.”

Encapsulant Alternatives to EVA

“Polyolefin is the most promising material for improved module durability at a similar price point to EVA and which is readily compatible with glass/backsheet module construction.”

“DuPont ionomer is the material to watch for higher transmission and improved module durability at a price point that may be acceptable to the industry.”

“An industry that is selling a two-decade to three-decade lifetime product should not be trying to save a few dollars per module at the risk of high degradation rates down the road that could damage its long-term reputation. More sophisticated customers will start to demand ionomer and polyolefin encapsulants, and our educated guess is that their combined market share may exceed 30 percent by 2016.”

Frameless and Plastic-Framed Module Designs

“The one-size/shape-fits-all module design makes no sense in an age where nearly every market segment is large enough to warrant customization at reasonable economies of scale.”

“The lines between the module and the system are blurring, and we can expect to see even more balance-of-system component integration within the modules in near future. These exciting areas of product development can allow more opportunities for companies to offer differentiated products at non-commodity pricing.”

“We see the following approaches as having the largest potential for high-volume sales in the next few years:  (i) The integrated plastic frame and mounting structure approach for flat rooftop applications taken by SunPower and Solon, and (ii) large utility-scale frameless modules such as those sold by Solaria and Advanced Solar Photonics.”

 

Innovations in Crystalline Silicon 2013: Opportunities, Challenges, Costs and Leaders in Nine Technology Areas was just released. For more information on the report, click here.

Hydro Grows Around The World, And IEA Wants More

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 10:00

We don’t talk about hydropower much in the U.S. when we talk about renewable energy. Many states don’t even count it as renewable. But as a new International Energy Agency report highlights, around the world, hydropower is seen as a significant weapon in the battle against climate change.

Check it out: Since 2005, there’s been more new hydropower generation -- around 600 terawatt-hours -- than wind, bioenergy, solar and geothermal combined (which account for less than 550 terawatt-hours combined).

According to the IEA’s Technology Roadmap for Hydropower (PDF), global installed hydropower capacities have been growing in recent years at an average of 24.2 gigawatts per year. By the end of 2011, total capacity was at 1,067 gigawatts and the new capacity under construction will drive the figure up to 1,300 gigawatts by 2017.

The IEA is enthusiastic about this expansion -- in fact, it wants to see more, aiming for a doubling of hydroelectricity output by 2050, which if accomplished would prevent up to 3 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually.

What about the other environmental angle? In the U.S.,  the damming of the Columbia and Snake rivers has decimated native salmon runs, and the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park has caused similar problems. In China, the Three Gorges projects, while an aid in flood control and a big power producer, are widely considered to be an environmental disaster.

In the Technology Roadmap, the IEA argues that advances in hydropower technology and careful planning, design and implementation can make hydropower a truly sustainable form of energy. For instance, it cites new “fish-friendly” turbine designs like the Alden turbine, a project that has been backed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE, for its part, isn’t looking to use such technology on big, new dams, however. It says it wants to modernize hydropower infrastructure in the U.S., “increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impacts at existing facilities.”

In the early days of the Obama administration, $30.6 million in stimulus funding went to test innovative technologies that the department said could add power generation at just 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, a rate that is highly competitive for renewable energy. One of those backed projects was the Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Facility in Colorado, where two older turbines were replaced by one new unit that can put out 30 percent more energy, according to the DOE.

The DOE is also excited about the possibilities for small hydro. Last November, it announced $17 million in grants for sixteen projects in eleven states, with $7.3 million of that going to ten small hydro projects. The goal, the department said, was “to research, develop and test low-head, small hydropower technologies that can be quickly and efficiently deployed at existing non-powered dams or constructed waterways.”

Another $6.8 million of the money was earmarked for two storage projects, where pumped storage hydropower is used to enable the integration of wind and solar energy, intermittent renewable sources that basically need to be used when they become available.

The challenge for pumped storage projects in the U.S. right now, however, is the price of natural gas, the IEA points out in its report. For pumped storage to be viable, there needs to be a big gap between the price of peak and off-peak power, and the shale gas boom has made gas-fired plants an economically attractive way to produce peak power at a relatively cheap cost. That leaves little incentive for investment in pumped storage.

***

Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from EarthTechling. Author credit goes to Pete Danko.

Hong Kong’s CLP Picks Itron and Cisco for Smart Grid Pilot

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 17:30

Itron and Cisco have landed another smart grid project together -- and this one is on the doorstep to the world’s biggest future market.

That market is China, and the doorstep is Hong Kong, where utility China Light and Power Hong Kong has picked Itron and Cisco for a 4,500-meter pilot project. According to Monday’s announcement, the two will link Itron’s cellular-enabled meters and data collection and management software with Cisco’s grid routers and connected grid management system -- the latter, Cisco’s term for its grid network management system launched last year.

Itron and Cisco started integrating their technologies two years ago, and rolled out their first big customer, Canadian utility BC Hydro, last year. Since then they’ve added customers including National Grid, Duke Energy and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and have also collaborated on a powerline carrier (PLC) technology for European markets.

This is their first joint project in Asia, but not Itron’s first. In fact, the Liberty Lake, Wash.-based company has been working with Hong Kong’s CLP for some time as its meter data management software provider, integrating to the utility’s SAP back-end business platform, Philip Mezey, Itron’s new CEO, said in a Tuesday interview.

But the data from the utility’s 2.4 million existing electric meters are now almost entirely collected from register reads, he said -- in other words, utility workers walking around, reading meters, and typing in the numbers. With Cisco and Itron’s joint smart grid solution on board, CLP is now testing various business cases for bringing smart meter to Hong Kong customers, he said.

“We’re evaluating various business cases for two-way communications, and near-real-time communications, as well as consumer engagement,” including both single-phase (residential and small business) and three-phase (large commercial-industrial) meters, he said. Mezey, formerly COO and president of Itron, replaced CEO LeRoy Nosbaum (who rejoined the company eighteen months ago), to lead a round of restructuring in a planned transition.

Consumer engagement would play a large role in the project, Mezey said, though he didn’t get into particulars. Neither did he say whether or not Itron and Cisco were expecting their pilots to expand to full-scale deployments in the future. But he did note that the utility plans to upgrade most of its 2.4 million meters over the coming decade or so. That’s a big customer by any account, of course, on par with some of Itron’s biggest smart meter customers, such as Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Detroit Edison and CenterPoint Energy in the United States.

Still, it pales in comparison to the broader markets opening up in China. The country expects to need up to 300 million smart meters by 2016 or so, more than Europe and the United States combined. It’s all part of nearly $250 billion in grid investment expected in China over the next five years, as the country grapples with rapid growth and the rise of intermittent wind and solar power on the grid. (For more information, read GTM Research’s report, The Smart Grid in Asia, 2012-2016, Markets, Technologies and Strategies.)

But China has also made it clear that its domestic meter manufacturers will reap the lion’s share of this in-country deployment, with companies like Ningbo Sanxing Electric, Wasion, Hi Sun Technology, Linyang Electronics and Holley Metering lining up pilot projects, some of them reaching millions of endpoints.

China will also require cheaper, less richly functional meters for the bulk of its residential deployments. State Grid Corp. of China, the world’s largest utility, is targeting mass-market residential meters at about $50 apiece or less, compared to the $150-and-up ranges seen in North America and the $100-and-up for European smart meter projects.

Still, there’s plenty of room for smarter, and thus costlier, technology. Smart meter vendor Echelon has a joint ventures with China’s Holley Metering that’s putting its technology into Holley’s gear  -- a model the San Jose, Calif.-based company has followed in Southeast Asia and Brazil as well. In China, Holley’s utility partners are installing Echelon’s PLC smart grid networking technology into already-deployed “smart” meters that haven’t yet been connected to a network -- a virtue of the country’s separate tracks for metering and communications.

It’s likely that utilities will pick and choose high-value customers for such applications. Brazil is another country that wants its smart meters to be able to reach specific, high-value customers. Of course, many commercial and industrial meters have been networked for decades, first by plain old telephone lines (so-called POTS systems), and then via succeeding generations of cellular networks, all the way up to today’s modern smart grid offerings on tap from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and their European and Asian counterparts.

Itron is definitely exploring cellular communications for its Hong Kong pilot, Mezey said, though he added that Cisco’s IPv6-compliant wireless technology, now used to connect smart grid networks for all the partners’ projects, will also play a role in Hong Kong. The two are also looking at powerline communications in Hong Kong, he added -- a testament to the city’s high-rise landscape, where meters in basements may find it impossible to get a wireless signal up to apartments in the upper floors.

Interestingly, Itron is also using its 3G cellular modems, built on top of its acquisition of SmartSynch last year, in a partnership with Panasonic aimed at the Japanese market. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) plans to order about 17 million meters by 2019, and that’s drawn competitors including Panasonic/Itron, Elster, Silver Spring Networks and Japanese partner/investor Hitachi, and Toshiba, which bought Swiss metering giant Landis+Gyr last year. Beyond Tokyo, the country at large is putting smart grid spending in high gear to deal with its post-Fukushima disaster power crisis.

As for Cisco, it has been embedding its IPv6 wireline-and-wireless grid routers and switches in meters from Itron and Elster, as well as smart grid distribution gear from Alstom and Cooper Power Systems (now part of Eaton). Cisco has a deep set of smart grid developer partners, including OSIsoft for big data management, Proximetry for multi-communications network management, and Space-Time Insight for real-time geographic information systems (GIS), to name a few.

It’s all part of a growing trend toward integration in the smart grid field. Schneider Electric and OSIsoft are working on smart meters-as-grid sensors applications, as are Silver Spring Networks and big data management partner (and investor) EMC, and competitors such as Echelon, Elster, Landis+Gyr, Trilliant and Sensus. All will be targeting Asian markets at various price points. After all, if you include China in the picture, it’s the biggest market there is.

A Breakthrough PV Module Rating System?

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 16:00

New solar module rankings from Principal Solar Institute (PSI) based on manufacturers’ own data could add downward pressure to solar prices and move the industry to higher quality standards.

“You always hear about dollars per watt,” explained PSI Executive Director Matthew A. Thompson. “That is a comparison. It helps make some decisions early on, but what you really need to know is how much energy a solar project is going to produce over its lifetime.”

PSI identified seven key characteristics that measure and describe a module’s energy output. “We took these seven characteristics and used publicly available data, largely from the manufacturers themselves,” Thompson explained, “to create a model that would show the modules' 25-year lifetime energy production [LEP].”

The just-launched ratings system, developed over the course of a year, emerged from developer Principal Solar’s aim to identify the best project acquisitions and the best panels for new developments.

“The seven characteristics are a great start,” noted Michigan Technological University professor Joshua M. Pearce, co-author of a landmark solar LCOE study. “The industry must maintain consumer and investor confidence that modules will produce the lifecycle electricity promised. There are reports that some companies are selling lower quality modules to keep up with falling prices.”

The just-released rating system white paper details the seven characteristics.

1. Actual Tested Maximum Power vs. Advertised is the power value and “a primary factor in the design of any solar power system.”

2. Negative Power Tolerance is the manufacturer’s deviation from its design target. “Higher quality production lines control this variation better and manufacture products with a smaller (tighter) tolerance.”

3. Temperature Coefficient at Maximum Power describes the decreasing power output with increasing temperature. “Products with a higher temperature coefficient will have lower LEP.”

4. Nominal Operating Cell Temperature (NOCT) is the characteristic operating temperature of a module. “A higher NOCT amplifies the negative effect caused by the temperature coefficient.”

5. Power at Low Irradiance / Power at High Irradiance Ratio reflects a PV module’s performance in off-peak conditions. “The insolation response combined with the daily insolation is a key component of the LEP.”

6. Annual Power Reduction shows the degradation of a PV module’s output over time from lab testing. “It is of extreme significance to the manufacturers’ warranty policies [and] is used to calculate LEP and contributes to a PV module’s PSI Rating.”

7. Total Area Efficiency is “the degree of coverage of a module” with cells.

Thompson hopes to eventually add a measure that will capture panel durability. “The potential for absolute failure in the field is not part of the seven characteristics, because data is not available from the manufacturers,” he said. But financiers and developers with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake want that information, Thompson said. He hopes to convince more manufacturers to submit their modules for testing. “When failure rates are known, durability will become an eighth characteristic.”

Click here for the complete interactive listings.

Two numbers were derived from the seven characteristics: the PSI rating and a percentile.

“On the crystalline PV list,” Thompson explained, “we only display 500 of the database’s 10,000 modules, from 375 manufacturers. The percentile ranking is the percent of all modules in the database to which that module’s performance is superior.”

The rating number was derived to share the findings without compromising Principal Solar’s competitive advantage, Thompson said. “We invented the concept of an ideal PV module with 100 percent efficiency that does not waste a single drop of sunlight. It has ideal values for all seven characteristics.”

Industry-leading modules, he went on, “produce somewhere in the ten megawatt-hour range over their 25-year lifetime. We divided the calculated LEP by the ideal LEP. That is the PSI rating. It is a ratio.”

The PSI rating and percentile ranking can provide a side-by-side comparison of modules, Thompson said. Price and other factors should be considered. “This is just one factor in the due-diligence process.”

The model does not reflect location, he noted. It cannot, therefore, compare module performance in south Texas versus Massachusetts. “One of the goals of the institute is to develop that level of research [in the future].”

The SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) 343-watt (DC) module is SPI’s top-rated panel with a 100 percentile ranking and a PSI rating of 11.22, almost 7 percent better than the number-six Ningbo Utica’s PSI rating of 10.61, Thompson said. “But maybe the Ningbo costs 20 percent less. That might make it a better value.”

A developer planning on buying 10,000 modules could, Thompson suggested, go to SunPower to negotiate a better price.

Thin film modules are listed separately. The top 500 modules on the crystalline list go from 100 percent to 95 percent of the ideal LEP. The 250 modules on the thin film list go from 100 percent to 2 percent. “I’m not yet sure how to compare thin films,” Thompson said.

Because the ideal LEP calculation is proprietary, to protect PS Inc.’s competitive advantage, the ratings have not been validated by a neutral third party. Thompson said users can decide from the method described in the white paper whether to trust the numbers’ legitimacy.

“I was unable to find their formula for combining the seven characteristics into a single score,” Pearce pointed out. “Similarly, I did not see any mention of them yet in the academic literature. Publishing their protocols openly and all the data would be an enormous benefit for solar PV.”

 Click here for the complete interactive listings.