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photo: Ausra

When Green Wombat sat down for a chat with Ausra founder David Mills back in September 2007, he allowed that it was not unreasonable to expect the Silicon Valley solar startup to soon be building several massive megawatt solar power plants a year. The optimism was not unwarranted. After all, in the space of 12 months Ausra had relocated from Sydney to Palo Alto, raised $40 million from A-list venture capitalists and was about to ink a deal with utility PG&E for a 177-megawatt  solar power project.

That was then. This month Ausra laid off 10% of its 108 employees amid a move to stop building Big Solar projects – for now – to focus on providing its solar thermal technology to other power plant developers and to industries that use steam. (Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector technology deploys flat mirrors that sit low to the ground and concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors. The superheated water creates steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

“I think our competitors will figure this out sooner or later but nobody’s going from a five-megawatt project to a 500-megawatt project. No one’s going to finance that,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat. “If you look at the amount of money it takes to be involved in the project development business, that’s not something a startup can do.”

At least any time soon. Ausra last year opened a robotic factory in Las Vegas to make mirror arrays and other components for the many power plant projects it had on the drawing boards. Just three months ago the company flipped the switch on its five-megawatt Kimberlina demonstration power plant outside Bakersfield. But as the credit crunch hit, financing for billion-dollar solar power projects evaporated. Then in October, Congress passed legislation allowing utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects. As the only well-capitalized institutions left standing in the energy game, utilities are stepping forward as investors.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee says he’s prepared to make direct investments in solar power plants – projects the utility needs to comply with a California mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. Under pressure to meet those targets, California utilities have signed more than four gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements with solar power plant startups like BrightSource Energy, Solel, Stirling Energy Systems and eSolar. Utilities also have begun signing deals for electricity produced by smaller scale photovoltaic power plants built by companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA).

Fishman said Ausra will complete the 177-megawatt Carrizo Energy Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast to supply electricity to PG&E. “If Peter Darbee wants to own Carrizo rather than buy the electricity, we’re willing to do it. It makes sense,” he says.

Ausra will also will complete a second big solar power plant planned for Arizona. But the company has quietly let drop a Florida project for utility FPL (FPL) and is negotiating to offload lease claims it filed on federal land in Arizona and Nevada for solar power plants during the solar land rush.

“Other projects in the pipeline we’ll be selling to utilities or developers for a modest amount of cash with a commitment that those developers must use our technology,” says Fishman.

Fishman notes that the cost of licensing a solar power plant can be $5 million to $10 million a year – and in California it’s a multi-year process – so Ausra will realize some immediate savings by morphing into a technology provider.

Customers for Ausra’s technology include oil companies that could inject solar-generated steam in oil wells to enhance recovery of thick petroleum as well as food processing plants and other heavy users of steam. Fishman just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he says he held talks in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai about using Ausra’s technology for oil recovery and desalinization.

Going forward, he says Ausra’s focus will be on medium-sized power plants. “Maybe next year we’ll do four projects of 50 megawatts a year. It’s a walk before you run situation,” says Fishman. “The financial customers and financial community are going to insist we do medium scale before we do large scale. We’ll still want to do very large projects but given the project finance market, it’ll be a few years from now.”

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first-solar-11

With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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solarcells

Solar cells may generate clean green electricity but manufacturing them involves a witches brew of toxic chemicals that could harm the environment if millions of solar panels end up in landfills, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The California environmental group is calling for solar manufacturers to take back and recycle their panels at the end of their 20-to-25 year lifespan. “We feel it’s a very important time for the solar industry because it is getting ready to take off and before that happens it’s time to look at important issues around designing out some of the toxics,” Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition executive director Sheila Davis told Green Wombat. “The big issue is whether there is a transparent supply chain and whether solar companies monitor their supply chains.”

The solar industry’s trade group says it embraces the report’s recommendations. “We completely support take-back and recycling,” says Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. “We’re in a fortunate position in that we’re still an emerging industry and have an opportunity now to establish standards and proactively set up processes before we end up with solar panels on every rooftop.”

Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy at San Jose solar cell maker SunPower, points out that an industry-backed group called PV Cycle in Europe is developing worldwide standards for the take-back and recycling of solar panels. “It’s not uncharted territory for the solar industry – we have actually been working on it for a while,” she says. “The idea is for industry to design something that makes sense for a global value chain and a global market.”

The toxics coalition was born in the early 1980s after chip plants were found to be contaminating groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals, setting off years of litigation and turning Silicon Valley into a Superfund hot spot. In more recent years, the toxics coalition has pressed computer manufacturers to take back and recycle PCs and reduce the use of toxic materials that often ended up discarded in Third World countries.

Silicon is the key material used in both semiconductors and conventional solar cells and its production and refinement involve various toxic chemicals.

“Although the solar PV boom is still in its early stages, disturbing global trends are beginning to emerge,” the report states. “For example, much of the polysilicon feedstock material (the highly refined silicon used as the basic material for crystalline silicon PV cells) is produced in countries like China, where manufacturing costs and environmental regulatory enforcement are low.”

But unlike computer makers in the 1980s and ’90s, solar companies like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and Sharp are not about to resist efforts to green up their business. “The people working for these companies are completely committed to preserving the environment and it drives the reason for being in solar,” notes Hanis.

And recycling solar panels can be good for business. When Green Wombat visited SolarWorld’s new solar cell factory in Oregon in October,  COO Boris Klebensberger touted the German company’s recycling program as a competitive advantage, both with customers and as a way to reduce manufacturing costs by recovering expensive polysilicon.

For instance, thin-film solar manufacturer First Solar (FSLR), whose cells are made from cadmium telluride, pre-funds the cost of its take-back program through an insurance program so customers are assured that the panels they buy will be properly disposed of at the end of their lifespan. That addresses a particular challenge the solar industry faces: Will the company that makes a particular solar panel be around a quarter century later to take back and recycle its products? And if not, who takes responsibility for doing so?

Davis says the toxics coalition has approached some solar companies but declined to identify them. “We haven’t talked to a lot of them but the ones we have talked to have been responsive,” she says. “I think that’s because most people in these companies do have an interest in being green. They’re much more receptive to looking at models that would promote their environmental performance.”

Beyond corporate self-interest, government policy considerations are likely to drive the solar industry to devise alternative manufacturing processes and implement recycling programs. For instance, European Union restrictions on various toxic materials in electronic products have encouraged computer makers to green their machines lest they be shut out of a major market. And these days, Dell (DELL) and even Apple (AAPL) see a marketing advantage to touting environmentally friendly computing.

The solar industry has time on its side when it comes to developing toxic reduction and recycling programs. While an iPod may end up on the trash heap in 18 months, the typical solar panel won’t come off the roof for decades.

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Amid the daily drumbeat of mass layoffs, here’s some sunny news: Solar startup Suniva cut the ribbon Thursday on a photovoltaic cell factory outside Atlanta.

As solar factories go, Suniva’s plant – the first such facility in the Southeast – is relatively small, making 32 megawatts of solar cells annually until  production is fully ramped up to 175 megawatts in 2010. But the factory will create 100 green collar jobs and it follows the opening of  SolarWorld’s new solar cell fab outside Portland, Ore., that will  produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells, and thin-film solar startup HelioVolt’s factory in Austin. Meanwhile, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup, is expanding its production facilities while Bay Area rival OptiSolar is building a Sacramento factory that will employ 1,000 workers to produce solar cells for the power plant the company is building for utility PG&E (PCG). (Leading thin-film solar company First Solar (FSLR) operates a factory in Ohio as well as plants in Malaysia.) But Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) last week said it has put plans for U.S. factories on hold due to the credit crunch.

The Suniva grand opening comes on a good news-bad news day for the solar industry. On one hand, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate alternative energy proponent and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy. But the solar industry faces a tough year ahead. On Thursday, research firm New Energy Finance, echoing other analysts, predicted prices for polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – would fall 30% in 2009. That’s bad news for conventional solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech if they’ve locked in silicon supplies at higher prices but provides an opening for further growth for thin-film solar companies that make solar cells that use little or no polysilicon.

“We expect to see significant drops in the price of modules next year,” wrote New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich.  “Any manufacturer who does not have access to cheap silicon and who has not focused on manufacturing costs is going to be in trouble. The big shake-out is about to begin. The next two years will change the economics of PV electricity out of recognition.”

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solarcells

photo: Southern California Edison

While demand for solar panels is expected to continue to grow by double-digits in the years ahead, 2009 could be a make-or-break year for some companies, according to an analysis from HSBC Global Research.

After grappling with a shortage of polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – for the past couple years, the industry now faces falling prices. The spot market for polysilicon has plummeted 35% since October, writes HSBC alternative energy analyst Christine Wang, who predicts prices will fall 30% next year.

That’s bad news for solar module makers who locked in long-term contracts at higher prices – which looked like a smart move when polysilicon was in short supply and prices rising rapidly. “The winners will likely be the companies with competitive cost structures, scale, good product  quality, strong balance sheets, and strong customer relationships,” according to Wang. “We believe that new entrants and small players will suffer the most as they lack brand recognition.”

The culprits are the usual suspects – the global financial crisis as well as some cutbacks in subsidies from countries like Spain. Solar cell companies that have rapidly ramped up production over the past two years now may be saddled with too many high-priced products.

Wang downgraded Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) and set a price target of $4.50 – down sharply from HSBC’s earlier target of $55. Suntech was trading at near $10 Monday afternoon but still nearly 90% off its 2008 high.  (SunPower (SPWRA), First Solar (FSLR) and other solar cell makers have also seen their share prices nose-dive.) “High portion of polysilicon based on contract prices will hurt Suntech,” writes Wang, who estimated that 80% of Suntech’s polysilicon supply is locked into contracts “on less favorable fixed prices.”

Falling panel prices is good news for solar system installers like Sungevity and Akeena Solar (AKNS) and their residential and commercial customers. When Green Wombat ran into Akeena CEO Barry Cinnamon in San Francisco at the announcement of Better Place’s Bay Area electric car project, he said he was in no rush to enter into long-term contracts with solar cell suppliers as he expects prices will continue to fall in 2009.

Still, not all the news is gloomy for the industry. Wang expects that the financial crisis won’t derail government support for solar, given climate change pressures and state mandates to increase the use of renewable energy. The move by utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) to sign long-term contracts for electricity from photovoltaic power plants will also keep demand high in coming years.

Wang projects solar cell demand will grow 45% between 2008 and 2012. “Developed countries are increasingly focused on environmental protection and curtailing the causes of climate change, and we do not believe this trend will shift just because of a (hopefully) short-term financial crisis,” she wrote.

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solana1The credit crunch is taking a toll on the United States’ nascent solar industry, scuttling big renewable energy projects and curtailing expansion plans, solar executives said Wednesday as they proposed the inclusion of green incentives in the Obama economic stimulus plan.

Spanish energy giant Abengoa, for instance, has put on hold plans to build its 280-megawatt Solana solar power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Arizona Public Service (PNW) in a $4 billion deal, said Fred Morse, senior advisor to Abengoa Solar.

“We have serious issues getting financing,” said Morse during a conference call held by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Congress in October passed a 30% investment tax credit crucial to the solar industry. But Wall Street’s meltdown has scared off investors that normally would finance large solar projects in exchange for the tax credits.

“The investment tax credit was passed but unfortunately there was no ‘I’ in the ITC,” Morse added. “We have trouble finding tax-equity investors, the financing is gone.”

Suntech America president Roger Efird said that after Congress passed the investment tax credit, the Chinese solar cell maker immediately doubled its sales force in the U.S. That expansion has now hit a wall.

“Plans to double our sales force by the end of 2009 are currently on hold, primarily because business has slowed in fourth quarter because of the credit crunch,” he said. “We had been considering establishing manufacturing in the U.S. The timing of those plans depend on the growth of the market in the U.S. and how long it takes to get through this downturn.”  Suntech’s (STP) stock – like those of rivals SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR) – has been walloped by the market chaos and is down 94% from its 52-week high.

Ron Kenedi of Sharp Solar said the dealers and installers who buy the Japanese solar module maker’s products have had a hard time securing credit to finance their operations.

In response, the solar industry’s trade group on Wednesday proposed that the federal government cut through the credit crunch by adopting tax and investment policies to stimulate the solar sector and create 1 million jobs.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $10 billion program to install 4,000 megawatts of solar energy on federal buildings and at military installations. “The Department of Defense alone could jump start this industry and it could have widespread impact on the use of solar, similar to what it did for the Internet,” said Nancy Bacon, an executive with Michigan thin-film solar cell maker Energy Conversion Devices (ENER).

Bacon noted that the federal government is the world’s largest utility customer, spending $5.6 billion annually on electricity. “This would create 350,000 sustainable jobs,” she said. “The solar industry is ready to deploy these systems immediately.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association also wants Congress to enact a 30% tax refundable tax credit for the purchase of solar manufacturing equipment to encourage solar companies to build their factories in the U.S. That would result in an estimated 315,000 new jobs. Making the current investment tax credit refundable would also help loosen up financing for solar projects, the association said.

Other policies on the SEIA agenda:

  • Establishment of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require states to obtain a minimum of 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025, with 30% of the total coming from solar.
  • Rapid deployment of new transmission lines to connect cities to remote areas where wind and solar power is typically produced.
  • Expedited approval of solar power plant projects on federal land in the Southwest.
  • Creation of an Office of Renewable Energy in President-elect Obama’s office to coordinate the procurement and permitting of solar power and transmission lines.

“We are working closely with the Obama energy transition team and have been in contact with Congress,” said SEIA president Rhone Resch. “These polices are exactly the kind of shot in the arm our economy needs today.”

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photos: SolarWorld

HILLSBORO, Ore. – A solar cell factory has sprouted in Oregon’s Silicon Forest amid the region’s old-growth semiconductor plants. And who is providing these well-paid, high-tech green jobs, investing in America rather than fleeing to Asia to set up shop? The Germans.

Bonn-based SolarWorld AG on Friday officially flips the switch on the United States’ largest solar cell plant. (See the Fortune video here.) The company, the world’s fifth largest solar cell manufacturer, has recycled a former Komatsu factory built to produce silicon wafers for the chip industry  Last week, SolarWorld America president Boris Klebensberger gave Green Wombat a sneak peak at the new Hillsboro plant and talked about why a German company, whose domestic solar market is the planet’s largest, is pursuing a made-in-America strategy. (SolarWorld’s German rival Solon AG, meanwhile, on Friday opened a smaller solar module plant in Tucson, Ariz.)

“I know a lot of people will say, ‘You idiot, Boris. You can’t manufacture in the U.S.,’ ” says Klebensberger, 39, who sports a hoop earring and has a penchant for saying what’s on his mind.

That has been the conventional wisdom. While thin-film solar companies like First Solar (FSLR), Solyndra and Energy Conversion Devices (ENER) have built factories in the U.S., traditional silicon-based module makers such as SunPower (SPWRA) have outsourced production overseas.

But SolarWorld is counting on its expertise in manufacturing in high-cost Germany and its new American branding to give it a competitive advantage. “Made in America is a very big selling point,” says SolarWorld marketing director Anne Schneider. “Customers like that.”

Like other solar cell makers, SolarWorld is trying to build a brand around an increasingly commoditized product. “Even in a commodity business this is a brand,” says Klebensberger. “If you have to choose between two products that are technologically the same,  you’ll probably choose the one made in the U.S.”

SolarWorld jumped into the U.S. market in 2006 when it acquired Royal Dutch Shell’s solar cell factory in Camarillo, Calif., and a silicon ingot plant in Vancouver, Wash. “This was an opportunity for SolarWorld to establish itself in the U.S. market very quickly and get an employee base,” says Klebensberger, who also serves as COO of SolarWorld’s global operations.

The company was founded in 1998 by, as Klebensberger puts it, “five crazy guys who people thought were on drugs” when they said they were going into the solar business. (Klebensberger was employee No. 7.) But Germany’s lucrative incentives for renewable energy quickly turned the nation into a solar powerhouse and SolarWorld went public in 1999. Revenues – $931 million last year – have been growing around 30%-40% annually and the company has a market cap of $3.1 billion.

SolarWorld saw a potentially huge opportunity in the U.S. but the Shell plant was relatively small – producing 80 megawatts of solar cells annually – so Klebensberger went shopping for a new factory. He ruled out California – too expensive – before settling on Hillsboro, 20 miles west of Portland.

The cost of living was reasonable – at least compared to California – and Oregon is on the forefront of promoting sustainability and the green economy. And just as importantly, Intel (INTC) and other chip companies had opened semiconductor factories, or fabs, in the area in the 1980s and ’90s. “A lot of our workforce came from established chip companies or those that closed their fabs,” says Klebensberger, sipping tea from a coffee cup emblazoned with “Got Silicon?”

“The manufacturing and product is different but the raw starting material is the same and there’s a lot of similarity in the equipment,” adds Gordon Bisner, vice president of operations and a chip industry veteran. “There’s a lot of the same skill sets from a maintenance and engineering standpoint and understanding the basic manufacturing principles and what it takes to manufacture a product successfully in the United States.”

Klebensberger’s team found an old Komatsu silicon wafer fab that had stood empty for years. They bought the 480,000-square foot building for $40 million last year and began retrofitting it. “We needed a quick ramp-up,” says Klebensberger. “This business is all about speed.”

The retrofit took about 15 months – though the minimalist gray industrial decor of the Komatsu era remains. When fully built out in a couple of years, the plant will produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells annually and employ 1,400 workers. In the meantime, the target is 100 megawatts by the end of 2008, and 250 megawatts in 2009.

In one corner of the building, a room of steel vats cook up polysilicon, producing eight-foot-long silicon ingots in the shape of giant silver pencils. Those ingots are taken to another room where wiresaw machines slice them into wafers. The wafers then travel down a conveyor belt where robots wash them and scan for imperfections.

“What’s critical here is the equipment,” says Bisner over the hum of the machines. “Our competitive advantage is how we use the equipment, how can we get every little bit of photovoltaic cell out of the end of the line. It takes equipment, it takes technology and it takes people too.”

In an adjoining room, the wafers are imprinted with contacts and transformed into photovoltaic cells. Depending on customer demand, SolarWorld will sell both silicon wafers and finished cells. The company currently gets 10% to 15% of its revenues from the U.S.

SolarWorld isn’t the only solar company wanting a made-in-America label. Sanyo this week announced it will build a solar cell factory in Salem, south of Portland. And Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) earlier this month acquired a California-based solar installer and announced a joint venture with San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) to build solar power plants. Suntech chief strategy officer Steven Chan told Green Wombat this week that Suntech will likely open factories in the U.S. within a couple years.

Says Klebensberger, “We provide green jobs. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”

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