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Can You Hear Me Now? Top 10 Cleantech Buzzwords of 2013

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At some point every year, you hear a word that truly captures the momentum of an industry. Or perhaps it’s a phrase that’s so cliché and overused that you consider asking for your money back every time you hear it at a conference.

In the cleantech industry, there is no shortage of these buzzwords. We’ve gathered our favorites and least favorites here.

Resiliency

The term “resiliency” first rose to prominence after Hurricane Sandy all the way back in 2012. It was easily the most overused word going into 2013, and then it just kept going. Regulators and legislators used it as a calling card for building cities and towns that can better withstand natural disasters.

For many, that means renewable-powered microgrids and a smarter electrical grid that can isolate outages. But it is also a term for engineering shorelines and basic enforcements, such as stronger utility poles and more wetlands. Although the concept of resiliency may ultimately bolster some clean energy efforts, it has already become a catchall for any infrastructure needs in the face of changing climate and increasing storms.

Securitization

Whether you work in solar or energy efficiency, the word “securitization” was inescapable in 2013. Multiple residential and commercial solar developers were working on asset-backed securities in 2013. Last month, SolarCity announced the first offering ever of securitized solar for distributed PV.

The process of securitization is a little slower on the energy efficiency side. Many in the industry are also eager to pool energy efficiency debt and sell it to investors on the secondary market. But there are problems, such as a lack of long-term data and standardization. EDF’s Investor Confidence Project is one of the groups working on the issues, and while there won’t be energy efficiency securitization in 2014, it’s definitely coming down the road.

Change management

Go ahead and ask many of the savvy older utility veterans what the biggest challenge of moving the utility into the 21st century will be. Before they mention regulatory lag or aging infrastructure, they will likely point a finger at colleagues their own age.

Utilities are staid institutions with aging workforces and many manual processes. Bringing these organizations into this century is essential in the coming years, and often that is more about cultural change management and not just cool new automated technologies. The vendors that help utilities break down silos and manage this process as they upgrade infrastructure and systems are far better equipped than those that think they can just drop software in as a solution.

Intelligent efficiency

Saving energy makes sense. But after a while, telling people to carpool and turn off the lights falls flat. Enter intelligent efficiency.

“With dramatic advances in web-based monitoring, real-time data analytics and utilities using peak pricing, that hidden resource is now becoming something tangible: an asset that companies can measure, manage, procure and sell,” writes Stephen Lacey. Efficiency and demand-side management are starting to merge, both in our biggest buildings and in our homes. It’s still early days, but it is here.

Decentralization

All that talk of resiliency in the past year really got a lot of people thinking about microgrids, especially since certain places kept the lights on during recent storms.

Microgrids are mostly still limited to college campuses and DOD projects, but as prices come down, that will change. Microgrids will be part of a larger trend for smaller grids that have their own power source and backup, but can still interface with the larger grid on a regular basis.

Over in the solar world, there is a movement toward using smaller inverters or trackers to reduce the effect of the failure of a single unit, said MJ Shiao, solar market senior analyst with GTM Research. This is driving the push for commercial 3-phase string inverters in the U.S. and string inverters in large-scale solar globally. “We’ll continue to see this theme catch on in 2014,” said Shiao, “especially in the power electronics and moving pieces in solar projects.”

Utility death spiral

There is no sugar-coating what’s happening in the utility industry. Many executives would say that we all still need warm showers and cold beer, and most of us will need the grid for those energy needs in the foreseeable future. But who is left paying for an updated grid is certainly up for debate, and there is a real possibility that some utilities — perhaps hamstrung by sloth-like regulators — will simply be left holding the wires.

It is too early to see a utility circle the drain in 2014, but expect to see regulatory changes that will either be Band-Aids to the utility business model in some regions, and more meaningful changes toward an energy-services future in other territories.

Financial innovation

Securitization, one of the most important words of 2013, is just one financial innovation that has come to the clean energy market. Solar leasing has already significantly changed the market, whilereal estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs) are a few more examples of investment vehicles that could help renewable energy even more.

“The clean energy sector has traditionally been defined by technological breakthroughs,” writes Stephen Lacey. “But now that technologies have matured to a level where investors feel comfortable, financial breakthroughs may just be the most important market driver.”

Grid edge

Large-scale transmission projects aren’t less important than they have been in the past, but it is what is happening at the edge of the electrical grid that is changing the way we produce and use energy. Innovation at the grid edge is driving modernization back up through the distribution grid and all the way to the boardrooms of utilities, where it will transform how they do business.

Distributed generation, primarily rooftop PV, is probably the most obvious current disruptor, but energy storage, electric vehicles, microgrids and even more flavors of demand response are coming down the road. Want to get a better idea of the promise and future of the grid edge? Check out thisreport from GTM Research.

Continue Reading at Greentech Media

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US Solar Market Insight 2013

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If any of you followed my live tweeting of the recent Greentech Media US Solar Market Insight conference, you would have pulled out a few themes, which I will explore more deeply in this post. Overall, the conference highlighted an exciting year in the US Solar market punctuated by some amazing achievements, like reaching the 10 GW installed capacity mark and seeing 51% of residential solar installed in California without a rebate. Solar Curator and Greentech Media’s own journalist team summed up many of the salient points from the event (onresidential solar, the resounding solar statistics of 2013, and the future of utilities in a distributed solar reality). What I wanted to highlight is much more exciting that any statistic discussed at the conference.

Women in Solar Careers are Arriving in Greater Numbers

I would be remiss to leave out this mention, but in my decade in solar, I have many times been the only woman in the room at events and conferences and often been the only technical woman in the room. The representation of women at the conference this year was better than in the past. We even had an impromptu lunch gathering on the first full day of the conference where many of us naturally gravitated to meet each other, network, and share our career stories. The women at the table represented a diversity of roles- a PhD candidate, respected marketing maven, foundation development manager, industry analyst, product manager, and so much more. A number of the panels also showcased a few women in leadership roles representing their area of expertise. It’s a great start, but there is surely more work to do. Congratulations to all the women in solar for representing themselves professionally at the event!

The Era of Solar, Storage, and Utility Collaboration Has Come

The enthusiasm, echoed over and over from utility representatives to industry executives, about collaborating to create the new future of solar, energy storage, and grid management was palpable. Many audience members were taken aback, clear as day by the wide eyes around the room, on many occasions as leaders of utility smart grid groups and solar executives on the same panel agreed instead of facing off, as we have seen more often over the last few years and especially months as net energy metering issues have come to a head.

High profile solar vs. utility battles that have been raging around net energy metering in 2013 (see: the ruling in Arizona’s APS and the passing of AB 327 in CA). Many solar installers have vilified the utilities in their marketing materials or sales pitches, painting them in a broad stroke as the unified enemy that solar is up against. It’s a much more complex story. It’s not “The Utility” in many cases, but the utility rates that solar is competing with.

Utilities have many divisions that often never interact with other. Smart grid groups, a nimble and forward-looking division in some utilities, share little in common with more traditional engineering teams. As witnessed at the conference, the new face of solar is one of embracing the relationships with utilities as a partner to solve the new generation of grid congestion, peak demand, and load balancing issues. Solar + storage was the mantra.

Companies are Targeting Operational Effectiveness and Efficient Delivery

From the Operating and Maintenance panel to the debate on whether the small installer could survive in the solar market of tomorrow, the industry’s sights are turning to evaluating the effectiveness of operations as a way to continue to reduce the cost of solar for the consumer.

Soft costs continue to remain in the limelight, now accounting for 64% the cost of the system according to analysis from GTM Research presented at the conference. From customer acquisition to design to labor, the most nimble companies are looking for ways to optimize, automate, and create efficiencies in order to maintain profit margins while minimizing risk of long-term operation. Many of the largest solar companies have begun to staff up operational effectiveness teams or are currently hiring for these positions. It’s a sure sign of how serious the top players are taking this effort. With so much effort and energy over the last decade to market solar and grab the attention of the consumer, it’s refreshing to see focus on improving the delivery experience.

A few panels highlighted concern for planning for long-term operation and maintenance (O&M)- from reducing long-term risk in order to lower the cost of financing projects to fundamentally changing the culture of design/engineering. So far, companies have treated design phase as a step in order to plan an easy and profitable installation. Instead, experts on many panels suggested considering design in order to perform most profitably long-term. See my post on design scalability for more on this topic.

The Future is Looking Bright for Those Who Plan Ahead

The wrap of from the conference showed clearly that opportunity abounds in solar and the market is set to grow over the coming year and years to come. What are you and your company doing to ensure that you compete profitably in this marketplace?

Original Article on Chaolysti

Solar Industry Scalable Design Services

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If you’re one of the thousands of solar installers comprising the 64% of national marketshare, how can you compete with the big guys who make up the rest? In the last post in this series, we talked about moving to the cloud as a lesson to learn from how the big guys operate. Another target for cost control is design: from sales proposals to engineering. Read on for tips on controlling your design costs.

How Did We End Up In This Design Bottleneck?

Design staff have often been the most difficult to acquire and retain. It’s a remnant of how the solar industry has grown up by fully staffing in each area of expertise and growing those areas lineally as the company expanded. This cycle affecting the staffing of design departments is directly related to the direct-to-consumer customer acquisition strategy that dominates the industry instead of following the Design-Bid-Build cycle of the construction industry. But that’s another post for another time.

Lately, design has become one of the most expensive labor cost centers at a solar company as automation innovations chip away at other costs. Great design staff are also in high demand, low supply, and generally locked up by larger solar installers. You could get in a bidding war for this resource pool and invest a lot in training up talent that will likely leave to chase an opportunity at a larger company with better perks.

Consider instead taking a page out of the book of many leaner solar companies and set up a more flexible design workforce solution.

Step 1: Look for Automation Opportunities

  • Pre-Sale & Proposals

A wide variety of proposal generation tools and services are available now that can help reduce the cost of acquiring your solar customer, focusing on developing a design that the customer will agree to. Remember, the product in residential solar is the design. The quality of the design creates the lasting value in the relationship with the consumer in how it succeeds in meeting the customer’s stated need (reduction in utility bill, offset of certain loads like summer AC, etc). The customer service support, fun brand, and project management is window dressing. Downplay the importance of your design and the associated costs in all the other areas will increase and remain difficult to control due to managing re-work (i.e. the design doesn’t follow local code interpretations, if you allow the customer to change their mind, if sales staff have an incentive to oversell the customer to benefit their own commission).

  • Understand and Document Design Requirements: AHJ and/or Utility

Develop your own database of these design requirements or use one of the public databases. Either way, you must capture and use any special design or construction requirements as far upstream as possible. Otherwise, expect a significant amount of your design staff’s work will result in rework as promises made during sales are rolled back during construction planning.

If your company covers a small enough territory, develop relationships with the building department staff in all the jurisdictions where you do the most of your business. A quick Pareto chart of AHJs where sales happen will show you the 20% of jurisdictions where you likely do 80% of your business. Focus on those relationships first. Then, evaluate the jurisdictions that are giving you the most headaches. Are they worth doing business in based on the amount of rework required?

  • Engineering & Permit Packages

Following from that statement that the design is the product in residential solar, all tools, process, and policies of the solar company should orient around streamlining the delivery of the design until it reaches the roof in the installation moment. Any proposal tool or service should be able to output a series of files or drawings that can be submitted to a local jurisdiction with minimal changes. Proposal tools that cannot hand off to an engineering phase lose value after the sale. If a design engineer must start over from scratch to “draw boxes on boxes” – laying out a property, roof obstructions, and modules- did you actually make gains in sales with your proposal system? If you don’t know, have an analyst run the numbers with you so you can decide the best course of action.

When informed, you can decide if it makes sense to proceed with two separate tools or if it adds value to your business to have One Unified Design Tool with a limited proposal function and a more robust set of features for generating plan set drawings.

Step 2: Consider Outsource/Offshore Options

Companies can have a difficult time carrying the costs of a fully-staffed design department when sales might not always be there to support it. There are many options to flexing the staffing resource pool: from one-man home office designers, solar-specialized design outsourcing firms, to bid-for-design software platforms. You could choose one of these options or, depending on the size of your operation and amount of projects per month, choose a mix of these options. No matter what, ensure you have the right expertise, hand-offs, and quality control checks in place to ensure value is not eroding as is moves through the process.

In order to ensure outsource or offshore options will work, run the numbers and find out if the blended costs of managing the outside resource and providing quality control results in actual costs saved. You may have to look far downstream in your operations to installation or long-term support for indications of this. This is crucial work.

Step 3: Build a Strategy That’s Right for Your Company

From simplifying and automating to blending the right mix of in-house and/or outsourced staff, the most important part of this process is to build the strategy that is right for the size of your company and business model you are operating under. This is where there is no one “right” answer. Only by analyzing your operations, knowing your profit goals, and understanding the process of your company will you know which areas of opportunity need addressing and how. Spend the time investing in this analysis, yourself or with employees or contractors you trust.

If you can’t perform this analysis, you should stop now before trying to streamline anything else. If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it. And if you cannot set a goal for improvement because you don’t know where you are now, you cannot improve. In another post, we will tackle the basics of Lean Process and Critical Path Mapping- great tools for benchmarking and setting operational goals.

Original Article on Chaolysti

Solar and The Cloud: Like Kim and Kanye

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The large solar installers and financiers get a lot of attention. They get a lot of media airtime, utilize comparatively large marketing budgets to acquire their customers, and can support diverse operational roles in the overhead of their company. And yet the top five national solar installers only comprise 36% of the market share (according to GTM Research). If you are a small or mid-size solar installer that is part of the other 64%, what can you learn from how the big guys have set up their solar operations that you can apply to your business? This is the first part of a series on best practices in operating your solar company.

Enter the Cloud.

Cloud operations are making it easier to scale and “right size” your business. They do this by effectively outsourcing the database and application layers of software to remote servers or clusters of servers and serving the interfaces up via the web.

As a small business owner, this means you won’t need to keep track of software versions and manually update dozens of software tools sometimes at great cost. Everything from accounting software to project management tools have moved to the cloud or have extended options into the cloud. It also gives you more flexibility in terms of adding and subtracting seats as your business fluctuates, a challenge in a tight margin construction-based industry as solar energy installation.

Ensure when you are evaluating these solutions that you negotiate carefully based on your estimated usage not just now but based on your growth plan. Can your cloud system scale with your business plan?

Find out how it will integrate with your current business process, especially integrations with humans and customer handoffs. A wise investment to consider is an implementation consultant. They can evaluate any and all unintended consequences of a shift to the cloud including robustness and security of your current internet infrastructure, mobile options, remote access strategies as well as process and people integrations.

Finally, develop a sound change management strategy as part of your IT implementation. Perhaps more critical than the scoping, selection, and setup of the solution, the lack of effective change management strategy can hamper the successful adoption of cloud solutions and create lasting ill affects in company culture and thus, adversely affect customer relationships.

Chaolysti is experienced in change management around cloud software implementation. If you are looking for vendor suggestions, change management strategy, or best practices in cloud solutions, contact us to review your business operations for recommendations.

Original Article on Chaolysti

Silicon Supercapacitor Built by Researchers

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Researchers at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville propose a novel silicon supercapacitor design. Such supercapacitor can be, theoretically, integrated into a silicon chip, opening some interesting options for energy storage.

Batteries effectively store energy but do not deliver power efficiently because the charged carriers move slowly through the solid battery material. Capacitors, which store energy at the surface of a material, generally have low storage capabilities. Supercapacitors bridge the gap between conventional capacitors and rechargeable batteries. Supercapacitors currently cannot store as much energy as batteries, but are able to be charged and discharged much quicker. They also are distinguished from batteries by a much longer lifetime.

“If you ask experts about making a supercapacitor out of silicon, they will tell you it is a crazy idea,” said Cary Pint, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering who headed the development. “But we’ve found an easy way to do it.”

According to the abstract of a paper published in Scientific Reports (see footnote), silicon materials remain unused for supercapacitors due to extreme reactivity of silicon with electrolytes. However, doped silicon materials boast a low mass density, excellent conductivity, a controllably etched nanoporous structure, and combined earth abundance and technological presence appealing to diverse energy storage frameworks.

Silicon supercapacitor research group (left to right): Landon Oakes, Shahana Chatterji, Andrew Westover and Cary Pint.

Silicon supercapacitor research group (left to right): Landon Oakes, Shahana Chatterji, Andrew Westover and Cary Pint. (Credit: Joe Howell / Vanderbilt)

A Vanderbilt University article says that research to improve the energy density of supercapacitors has focused on graphene-based supercapacitors or some other carbon-based nanomaterials. Because these devices store electrical charge on the surface of their electrodes, the way to increase their energy density is to increase the electrodes’ surface area, which means making surfaces filled with nanoscale ridges and pores. An opposite approach would be to use an already structured material like silicon.

Research News @ Vanderbilt website provides more info:

“The big challenge for this approach is assembling the materials,” said Pint. “Constructing high-performance, functional devices out of nanoscale building blocks with any level of control has proven to be quite challenging, and when it is achieved it is difficult to repeat.”

So Pint and his research team—raduate students Landon Oakes, Andrew Westover and post-doctoral fellow Shahana Chatterjee—decided to take a radically different approach: using porous silicon, a material with a controllable and well-defined nanostructure made by electrochemically etching the surface of a silicon wafer.

This allowed them to create surfaces with optimal nanostructures for supercapacitor electrodes, but it left them with a major problem. Silicon is generally considered unsuitable for use in supercapacitors because it reacts readily with some of chemicals in the electrolytes that provide the ions that store the electrical charge.

With experience in growing carbon nanostructures, Pint’s group decided to try to coat the porous silicon surface with carbon. “We had no idea what would happen,” said Pint. “Typically, researchers grow graphene from silicon-carbide materials at temperatures in excess of 1400 degrees Celsius. But at lower temperatures—600 to 700 degrees Celsius—we certainly didn’t expect graphene-like material growth.”

Graph displays the power density (watts per kilogram) and energy density (watt-hours per kilogram) of capacitors made from porous silicon (P-Si), graphene-coated porous silicon and carbon-based commercial capacitors.

Graph displays the power density (watts per kilogram) and energy density (watt-hours per kilogram) of capacitors made from porous silicon (P-Si), graphene-coated porous silicon and carbon-based commercial capacitors. (Credit: Cary Pint / Vanderbilt)

When the researchers pulled the porous silicon out of the furnace, they found that it had turned from orange to purple or black. When they inspected it under a powerful scanning electron microscope they found that it looked nearly identical to the original material but it was coated by a layer of graphene a few nanometers thick.

When the researchers tested the coated material they found that it had chemically stabilized the silicon surface. When they used it to make supercapacitors, they found that the graphene coating improved energy densities by over two orders of magnitude compared to those made from uncoated porous silicon and significantly better than commercial supercapacitors.

The graphene layer acts as an atomically thin protective coating. Pint and his group argue that this approach isn’t limited to graphene. “The ability to engineer surfaces with atomically thin layers of materials combined with the control achieved in designing porous materials opens opportunities for a number of different applications beyond energy storage,” he said.

“Despite the excellent device performance we achieved, our goal wasn’t to create devices with record performance,” said Pint. “It was to develop a road map for integrated energy storage. Silicon is an ideal material to focus on because it is the basis of so much of our modern technology and applications. In addition, most of the silicon in existing devices remains unused since it is very expensive and wasteful to produce thin silicon wafers.”

Pint’s group is currently using this approach to develop energy storage that can be formed in the excess materials or on the unused back sides of solar cells and sensors. The supercapacitors would store excess the electricity that the cells generate at midday and release it when the demand peaks in the afternoon.

Oakes L, Westover A, Mares JW, Chatterjee S, Erwin WR, Bardhan R, Weiss SM, & Pint CL (2013). Surface engineered porous silicon for stable, high performance electrochemical supercapacitors. Scientific Reports, 3 PMID: 24145684

Original Article on The Daily Fusion

Top 4 Current Solar Industry Trends

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Solar Power International is in full swing in Chicago, complete with the flurry of merger and acquisition announcements, product releases, and, my favorite, study and analysis presentations. Greentech Media Research Senior Analyst Nicole Litvak delivered a presentation earlier this week reviewing her evaluation of the trending in residential solar. The most exciting results show an underlying change in the economy and opening up of loan availability and raise some important questions about the direction of effort needed to reduce the cost of solar.

The Return of Debt Financing!

When the housing market crashed in 2007/2008, it had a chilling effect on sales of residential solar. The business model innovation that came to market at that time, the solar lease, created an exciting new market for residential solar and filled the gap that was left when many homeowners saw the equity in their homes dry up. Up until this time, the residential solar market was a cash and rebate-based system. Debt financing backed by home equity was a common way to finance purchasing home solar.

The SunRun, SolarCity, Sungevity models grew rapidly during this period from 2007 until now and are still growing. However, the analysis by Litvak shows a leveling off in the percentage makeup of third-party owned residential solar over 2013 across key US markets.

percentage of new residential installations owned by third partyOver the course of 2013, as the overall US economy has improved (albiet very slowly), lenders have begun to ease restrictions on loaning and, in some housing markets, value has begun to return to homes, though still way off their 2006 peak. (Sorry, California).

Third-party owned residential solar created a philosophical schism in the solar industry. (See my own vs. lease article co-authored with Liz Merry from 2011) Some argued that it eroded the investment options for the homeowner by removing their ability to take tax credits directly, some were upset that – like with any financed products – the consumer ended up paying many times more than the cash value of the system over the course of the lease. Regardless of where many stood on the issue, it was plain as day that it opened up an entirely new market segment and was a viable alternative for solar installers to sitting on their hands and waiting for the lending market to improve.

However, much like in the downstream automobile industry, options to buy create a strong market. You can buy outright, you can lease, you can engage in several different kind of lending options to get behind the wheel. When there are options and choice diversity, there is strength on the side of the consumer. The top solar companies see this and are aligning their sales strategies behind offering choices.

The Rise of Operating and Maintenance (O&M) Services

Much like the auto industry, too, much has changed since the first Model Ts rolled off the production line. An entire robust aftermarket services industry of repairs, upgrades, detail cleaning and much more has grown around the sale of vehicles.

This, too, is becoming slowly visible in the solar industry.

Perhaps the most important innovation outside of the financial model that made the sale of solar possible through third-party ownership was the contractual obligation to long-term maintenance over the period of that contract. When I worked to introduce SunRun’s 0-down solar in Massachusetts in 2009, the maintenance aspect was baffling to potential customers. After all, many of us cash-fueled installers predicated our pitches on the “maintenance-free” systems. Sure, there are no mechanical parts (unless you bought a tracker), so it doesn’t need upkeep the same way a car does, but over time, the wind/sun/rain/ice/nearby tree takes its toll on system production and equipment longevity.

Now, almost five years after the explosion of residential third-party ownership, operating and maintenance or “Fleet Operations” is a rapidly growing division in many of the top solar installers, backed by an even more rapidly growing hardware and software monitoring services sector. Notably, Also Energy announced its acquisition of DECK Monitoring earlier this week at SPI, creating a behemoth monitoring empire with complementary products and markets.

Companies like NextPhase and True South Renewables are already offering white label O&M services to service the portfolios of the top residential solar installers. Expect more competition to enter this space and more innovation combining the monitoring solutions and O&M service providers to continue to coalesce.

Return to Ownership and the Rise of O&M

With Litvak’s analysis showing leveling off of third-party ownership and with many solar providers launching loan programs to promote ownership, diversification in sales strategies should follow. However, I expect that O&M services will become a line item on many of the loan-backed residential sales. While a package part of the third-party deals, the convenience and “peace of mind” behind long-term O&M is not too dissimilar from extended warranties. This is a promising new revenue stream for solar companies and a strong sign from growth in the O&M space.

Consumer will demand the benefits of the established long-term and hassle-free culture of residential solar even with a shift back to ownership. There will be a lot of exciting opportunity in this space.

Original Article on Chaolysti