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Posts Tagged ‘solar panels’

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about the return of J.R. Ewing, the oil tycoon villain of the “Dallas” television show. Except this time, he’s pushing solar energy:

J.R. Ewing returns to the small screen on Tuesday, and the boys down at the Cattleman’s Club just might need a double bourbon when they hear what he has to say.

Larry Hagman, the actor who played the scheming Texas oilman on the long-running television show “Dallas,” is reprising his role as J.R. in an advertising campaign to promote solar energy and SolarWorld, a German photovoltaic module maker.

“In the past it was always about the oil,” Mr. Hagman says in a TV commercial that is being unveiled Tuesday at the Intersolar conference in San Francisco.

“The oil was flowing and so was the money. Too dirty, I quit it years ago,” he growls as he saunters past a portrait of a grinning J.R. in younger days and a wide-screen television showing images of an offshore oil rig and blackened waters.

Doffing a 10-gallon hat, he heads outside into the sunshine and gazes at a solar array on the roof of the house. “But I’m still in the energy business. There’s always a better alternative.”

“Shine, baby shine,” he says with his trademark J.R. cackle.

In real life, Mr. Hagman, 78, lives on an estate in the Southern California town of Ojai where he installed a massive 94-kilowatt solar system, thought to be the world’s largest residential array, several years ago.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times last week, I wrote about how Yingli, the Chinese solar module maker, is heading east after capturing nearly a third of the California market last year:

Yingli, the Chinese solar module maker that captured nearly a third of the California market last year, has struck a deal to supply a New Jersey developer with more than 10 megawatts of photovoltaic panels.

The agreement announced Tuesday with SunDurance Energy for the first time brings  Yingli’s reach to the East Coast. SunDurance, owned by a construction and engineering firm, the Conti Group, will install the Yingli solar panels on rooftops, in carports and in ground-mounted solar farms.

“Being able to have a presence on both coasts and in some of the other states that are emerging is very significant for us,” Robert Petrina, the managing director for Yingli’s American operations, said.

He said Yingli shipped 15 megawatts of modules in the fourth quarter of 2009 in the United States. The deal with SunDurance calls for Yingli to provide 10 megawatts through the third quarter of this year. The company had previously supplied solar panels to SunDurance for other projects.

Yingli, based 100 miles south of Beijing in the city of Baoding, opened offices in New York and San Francisco at the beginning of 2009. By year’s end, the company held 27 percent of the California market, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. Its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Chinese firms, including the Yingli rival Suntech, increased their share of the California market to 46 percent, up from 21 percent at the beginning of 2009.

Mr. Petrina said declines in the price of polysilicon — a vital ingredient in solar cells — and in subsidies paid by European countries made it feasible for Yingli to enter the American market.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solyndra-rooftop-2

photo: Solyndra

It’s been a good news, bad news Friday for the solar industry. Silicon Valley startup Solyndra received a half billion-dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a solar module factory while further up Interstate 880 OptiSolar moved to shut down its manufacturing operations.

OptiSolar too had asked for a federal loan guarantee to complete work on its Sacramento thin-film solar cell plant but a decision on the $300 million application couldn’t come soon enough to save the startup. “We continued to be unable to find a buyer for the technology and manufacuring business, and the board of directors decided that we needed to limit ongoing operational expense,” wrote OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer in an e-mail.

First reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker, OptiSolar will shut down factories in Sacramento and Hayward, Calif., and lay off 200 workers.  Earlier this month, OptiSolar sold its pipeline of solar power plants – including a 550-megawatt solar farm that will supply electricity to PG&E (PCG) – to rival First Solar  in a $400 million stock deal. At the time, OptiSolar said it intended to focus on manufacturing solar modules.

The news was definitely brighter Friday for Solyndra, which emerged from stealth mode last September with $600 million in funding and $1.2 billion in orders for its solar panels composed of cylindrical tubes imprinted with solar cells. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel,  to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.

The $535 million federal loan guarantee will allow the Fremont, Calif.-based company to build a second factory, which is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 other jobs once the plant is in operation. The factory will be able to produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar panels a year.

“The DOE Loan Guarantee Program funding will enable Solyndra to achieve the economies of scale needed to deliver solar electricity at prices that are competitive with utility rates,” Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said in a statement. “This expansion is really about creating new jobs while meaningfully impacting global warming.”

Friday’s grant makes good on Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s pledge to speed up processing of renewable energy loan guarantee applications. The department had come under fire during the previous administration for taking years to dole out grants and loan guarantees for electric car and green energy projects.

Meanwhile, First Solar (FSLR) announced on Friday that it had manufactured 1 gigawatt of thin-film solar cells since beginning commercial production in 2002. It took the Tempe, Ariz., company six years to hit 500 megawatts and only eight months to produce the second 500 megawatts. First Solar’s annual production capacity will reach 1 gigawatt by year’s end, according to the company.

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powerstring-picMost people think of National Semiconductor as a chip company. But the Silicon Valley mainstay has been moving into the solar business and on Thursday it scooped up Act Solar, a startup that makes equipment designed to maximize power production from photovoltaic panels.

Act Solar, a three-year-old Santa Clara, Calif.-based company, developed the PowerString, a device that recirculates energy in a rooftop solar array to keep all panels producing electricity in the event that shade, dirt or glitches affecting one solar module don’t impact others. PowerString also allows solar array owners to wirelessly monitor the performance of their systems.

National Semiconductor (NSM) already makes diagnostic and measuring equipment for use in maximizing electricity production from solar panels and will fold Act Solar into that division. “Early field tests and historical modeling have shown that this [Act Solar] solution can cumulatively deliver 40 to 80 percent more power over the operating life of a solar panel installation,” National Semiconductor said in a statement.

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solar_and_your_home_header
photo: Sungevity

Berkeley on Friday hands over checks to the first two homeowners who tapped the California city’s pioneering solar financing program to install solar arrays.

The city fronts the cash for rooftop solar panels for any Berkeley business or homeowner, who pays back the cost through a 20-year surcharge on their property tax bill. If a home is sold, the surcharge rolls over to the new owner. The city council created a Sustainable Energy Financing District and launched a $1.5 million pilot program for the Berkeley FIRST Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology) in November to finance 40 rooftop systems. It took all of nine minutes for those 40 slots to be filled when the online application went live.

Berkeley issued a bond for the programs that was bought by Oakland-based Renewable Funding, which financed the solar arrays and whose president, Francisco DeVries, devised the Berkeley program when he served as Mayor Tom Bates’ chief of staff. Renewable Funding now is taking the program nationwide as cities from Portland to Tuscon consider adopting similar solar financing schemes. Under legislation enacted last year, any California city can implement a Berkeley-style program.

Municipal financing of solar arrays has become even more attractive since October when Congress lifted a $2,000 cap on federal tax credits for residential systems. Homeowners now can claim a tax credit for 30% of the cost of a solar system. When a state rebate is added, the cost of going solar in California has fallen by half.

Municipal financing programs are good news for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA), SunTech (STP), Akeena (AKNS) and First Solar (FSLR), the thin-film solar company that recently jumped into the residential market.

On Friday, Berkeley homeowner Jeanne Pimentel will receive a check from the mayor to hand over Borrego Solar, which installed her solar panels while homeowner Aaron Mann will sign his check over to Sungevity.

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freescale-pwr-conversion_lr1

photo: Freescale

Freescale Semiconductor on Monday is unveiling a new power conversion technology that the chipmaker says will dramatically enhance the efficiency of solar cells and other devices by allowing them to operate at low voltages.

That means a single solar cell attached to a mobile phone or other handheld device could charge the gadget. The bigger potential is to maximize the electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. which typically contain a dozen or more solar cells each. When a cloud or a tree shades part of a solar panel, power output from all the solar cells drops because they are linked together. By integrating Freescale’s power convertersamsung-blue-earth1 into each solar cell, those that aren’t shaded can still produce electricity, according to Arman Naghavi, general manager of Freesale’s Analog, Mixed-Signal & Power Division.

That’s because each solar cell can operate at much lower voltages when Freescale’s (FSL) converter is used. While most electronics need a jolt of 700 millivolts to begin working, Freescale’s technology allows them to operate on as little as 320 millivolts. (See video below.)

Sounds geeky but the consequences could be far-ranging, reducing electricity consumption and opening the door to a new generation of solar-powered devices.  One big hurdle to using solar cells to power everything from laptops to street lights is that it takes too many of them to produce enough power to be practicable. After all, who’s going to carry around a solar panel to charge their MacBook.

Freescale’s technology could change that equation. “For instance, you wouldn’t have to put a battery in a garage door opener – just add a solar strip on the remote control,” Kevin Parmenter, a Freescale applications engineering manager, told Green Wombat. (Samsung last week announced it would start selling a mobile phone (photo above) equipped with a solar panel but it’s unclear just how much talk or texting time it would allow.)

Other uses are more sci-fi: self-powered nanosensors that tap the technology to harvest ambient heat or friction in the environment.

The converter will hit the market in the second half of 2009. Potential customers include solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP) as well as biomedical companies and defense contractors. Freescale, headquartered in Austin, Texas, was spun out of Motorola (MOT) in 2004.

“It really helps the entire green movement,” says Naghavi. “We are seeing a tremendous interest from lots of areas historically we have never touched or played in.”





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csi-report

The other day I ran into Danny Kennedy, president of solar installation company Sungevity, on the playground as we were picking up our kids at Malcolm X Elementary (we live in Berkeley). I had spent the week chronicling layoffs at various solar and wind companies so it was with a bit of trepidation that Green Wombat asked Danny how business was going at at Sungevity.  “Great,” he replied as I quizzed him about the impact of the recession. “We’re as busy as ever.”

Apparently so. A report released Wednesday by the California Public Utilities Commission shows that residential and commercial rooftop solar installations in the Golden State more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year to 158 megawatts. What’s more, a record-breaking number of applications to participate in California’s $3 billion solar rebate program were filed in December as the drumbeat of bad economic news grew deafening and the state’s unemployment rate hit 9%.

Are Californians being crazily contrarian? While one would think that a $30,000 solar array would be one of those luxuries most people would put on the back burner in bad times, there are some solid economic reasons for the surge. First, rebates for solar systems under the California Solar Initiative get less lucrative in 2009 as incentives fall as the amount of installed solar rises.  Then in October Congress lifted the $2,000 cap on the federal tax credit on solar arrays, allowing homeowners and businesses to take a 30% tax credit on systems installed after Dec. 31.  Add in the state rebate and the cost of a solar system in California suddenly fell by half.

“The surge in applications occurring in the fourth quarter of 2008 is particularly noteworthy given the slowdown in the economy that occurred during the same time period,” the report’s authors noted. “In addition to environmental benefits such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, it appears that solar energy is benefiting California by serving as an economic bright spot in the economy.”

And therein lies some lessons as the U.S. Congress debates how to promote green jobs. Two years into the California Solar Initiative, the taxpayers’ investment of $775 million in solar rebates has yielded $5 billion in private investment in solar projects and rapidly expanded the state’s renewable energy industry, according to the report. That’s helped create strong solar companies like solar cell maker SunPower (SPWRA) and markets for thin-film solar companies such as First Solar (FSLR). The decade-long program is on track to achieve its target of 3,000 megawatts of rooftop solar and in the first two years of the program more solar has been installed in California than in the previous 25 years.

While California regulators expect the pace to continue in 2009, the big unknown is how many homeowners and business owners will drop out of the program and cancel their applications if the economy continues to deteriorate rapidly this year. The current dropout rate is 15%, according to the report.

“We are hopeful that many of those pending projects will move forward,” Molly Tirpak Sterkel, who oversees the California Solar Initiative for the utilities commission, told Green Wombat. “We’re also cognizant of the economy and economic forces that may pose a threat to those installations.”

Demand for solar is far stronger in Northern California than in sunny SoCal. Northern California utility PG&E’s (PCG) customers have installed more than twice the megawatts of solar than Southern California Edison (EIX) customers. And the report notes that while applications for commercial arrays in PG&E’s territory rose 71% between April and December 2008, they fell 23% in Southern California Edison’s area. San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), which covers a much smaller service area, saw applications triple for residential solar arrays.

Sterkel says it is unclear why Northern Californians are going solar at a much faster rate than their southern counterpart, but it may be due to differences in electricity pricing and more mature solar markets in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. “There’s just that many more solar companies with experience, installations and sales channels, ” she says.

Solar panels seem to be sprouting from Bay Area rooftops like California poppies after a late winter rain. In Berkeley, the city has launched a program that pays for residential and business solar arrays upfront and let owners pay the cost back over 20 years through an annual assessment on their property taxes.

Which also may explain why I seem to be seeing more of those Sungevity signs around town.

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