What Is Holding Solar Back?

solarFor years, solar energy has been widely viewed as a promise of clean, abundant energy that simply can’t be kept because of its inefficiency expense. But research into solar panels has advanced to where their cost can be subdued and their efficiency improved.

Yet even if solar energy eventually becomes a major substitute for fossil fuels worldwide – and there is yet no guarantee of that – it still faces major hurdles.

First, the good news: Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems has come out with a new study concluding that solar power will become the most affordable source of power in many areas of the world in the next decade.

For example, the Fraunhofer said, the cost of generating electricity in central and southern Europe will decline to between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2025, and as low as 2 to 4 cents by 2050. This is far less expensive than electricity generated by the newest, most efficient coal- and gas-fired plants, which cost between 5 and 10 cents per kilowatt hour and nuclear plants which cost up to 11 cents.


solar boom

2014 Was the Biggest Year For Solar Power Ever

solar boomWe’ve noted here before the many ways in which solar power is blowing up in the United States: Adding tons of jobs, driving progressive policies, and attracting millions of dollars in investment from major corporations. It’s not slowing down anytime soon: New data from market analysis firm GTM Research finds that 2014 was solar’s biggest year ever, with 30 percent more photovoltaic installations installed than in 2013. Check it out:


Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country’s primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)


The Solar Singularity Is Nigh

520-black-hole-space-warp“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” quipped Yogi Berra. I keep his wise admonition in mind as I make predictions about our energy future, but we have many reasons for optimism when it comes to the future growth of solar.

Here’s the summary: solar is taking over. We can now see many years into the future when it comes to energy. And that future is primarily solar-powered.

Why am I so optimistic about solar’s prospects? Well, let me explain.

The “solar singularity” will, by my definition, occur when solar prices become so cheap that solar becomes the default power source based on cost alone. We aren’t there yet, but we’re probably just a few years away from that point, particularly since energy storage costs are already declining strongly. (I’m not going to address storage in this article further, but, of course, a grid can’t run on variable solar power alone, so we’ll need storage and other backup technologies to ensure reliable grids as solar power penetration grows.)


Solar closes in on cost of coal-fired power — Deutsche Bank

utility-scaleThe cost of roof-top solar power is nearing that of coal-fired power, heralding growing competition with conventional energy utilities and commodities, according to Deutsche Bank analysts.

Residential solar power is already cheaper than residential power prices in many markets worldwide, and closing in on much lower wholesale power prices, they said.

The solar industry would grow 10-fold in the next 20 years, they forecast, and solar power would account for 30% of global power generation by 2050, from less than 1% now.

“Over the next 20 years, we expect over 100 million new customers to deploy solar and roughly $4 trillion of value to be created during this timeframe,” the analysts said, in their report, “Crossing the Chasm”.


Why conservatives are backing solar

Why more conservatives are backing solar power

Why conservatives are backing solarWhen it comes to renewable energy, Barry Goldwater Jr. is willing to admit that the Democrats did something the Republicans should have done a long time ago.

Barry Goldwater Jr. speaks against a proposed tax to be levied against residential solar leasing companies, June 4, 2014, in Phoenix.

“Conservative support for green energy has always been there, but the Democrats capitalized on it more than the Republicans,” the former Republican congressman and Arizona legend told CNBC. “The Democrats did a better job of promoting it.”

As a conservative, Goldwater has become a vocal advocate for solar energy in recent years. He currently serves as the chairman of “Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed” (TUSK), a solar advocacy group that is pushing for energy independence across the country.


Ahmad Chatila

SunEdison CEO Talks Acquisitions, Storage and Emerging Markets

Ahmad Chatila
Ahmad Chatila, President and CEO, SunEdison

SunEdison has gone through many phases as a company.

First, it was a pure-play solar developer that pioneered the power-purchase agreement. Then, it became vertically integrated after getting acquired by manufacturer MEMC. Now, with the development arm becoming the most important part of the company, SunEdison is expanding beyond PV and searching for other types of projects to feed its new YieldCo.

At our upcoming Solar Summit in Phoenix, GTM Research’s Senior VP Shayle Kann will sit down with Chatila to discuss where the company sees the greatest growth opportunities. Judging from the company’s recent acquisitions and expansion, it’s everywhere. (Shameless self promotion: make sure to sign up for the event, featuring the biggest names in solar, before rates go up.)

I recently had a chance to chat with Chatila. Here’s what he had to say about where the company is headed:


walmart solar

Utilities, group square off on solar power

walmart solarPower companies and a coalition of unlikely political allies are squaring off over a proposal that could lead to large-box stores selling solar-generated electricity without utilities getting a cut.

The groups want to allow businesses to sell solar power directly to customers without going through a utility company.

But even as they work toward the same goal, the factions seeking to boost Florida’s solar industry have differing visions of how the increase should be regulated.

Floridians for Solar Choice, a political committee formed in December, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would take the proposal directly to voters in 2016. The group is comprised of an odd coalition of political partners that includes Tea Party groups who see the proposal as pro-free market, and environmentalists eager to boost Florida’s usage of renewable energy.

Their proposal takes a more wide-ranging approach than separate legislation filed by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

They want to completely exclude the Public Service Commission, a panel of utility regulators appointed by the governor.


Vivint Solar creates new “Vivint Solar Labs” technology team

vivintVivint Solar, a leading provider of residential solar systems in the United States announced today that its Solmetric team will be fully integrated into the Vivint Solar operating structure and be known as Vivint Solar Labs. The new research and development team will focus on proprietary photovoltaic installation instruments and software.

Having reached the end of the product lifecycle, the Solmetric SunEye 210 and its line of products – including PV Designer, Solmetric Shade Training and the SunEye Extension Platform – will no longer be available. PV Analyzer will continue to be available.

“We are pleased with the integration of the Solmetric team of engineers and staff into Vivint Solar Labs,” said Greg Butterfield, CEO of Vivint Solar. “We look forward to further development of advanced photovoltaic installation technology that will significantly reduce our cost per watt and expedite solar installations for our customers.”

Vivint Solar acquired Solmetric Corporation in January 2014. Vivint Solar is the second largest installer of solar energy systems to the U.S. residential market with approximately 16 percent market share in the third quarter of 2014, according to GTM Research. In 2014, the company established 23 new sales and installation offices to its 16 previously existing offices. The company plans to expand further in 2015.


sunpower yieldco

Why First Solar, SunPower YieldCo Is Like Coke And Pepsi Coming Together

sunpower yieldcoLong-time rivals SunPower Corporation and First Solar, Inc. surged after the two rivals announced that they had formed a YieldCo.

Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov compared this YieldCo to Duke working with North Carolina or The Coca-Cola Co working with PepsiCo, Inc.

“It’s very unusual to have collaboration of this kind between two of the world’s largest solar developers, which have historically been rivals,” Molchanov told Benzinga. “[They’re] two of the biggest rivals in the solar industry. It’s an intriguing announcement, obviously, and very bullish for both stocks.”

Molchanov noted that First Solar had previously said that it decided against a YieldCo.

“First Solar actually made a U-turn on this issue, because it seemed like they did not want to do it,” Molchanov explained. “SunPower was interested all along. I was expecting SunPower to do a YieldCo, but not together with First Solar.”

SunEdison sees $4trn value opportunity in solar, wind by 2020

sunedison-capacityUS-based SunEdison, now the largest renewable energy company in the world, says it sees a $4 trillion value opportunity in the global wind and solar markets by 2020.

At its presentation to analysts overnight, SunEdison produced a 95-page display making the case for wind and solar energy.

The company argues that the combined capacity for wind and solar will be more than 1,450GW by 2020, about two-and-a-half times larger than the capacity at the end of 2014. The graph below illustrates how SunEdison believes it will be split between wind, large-scale solar, commercial solar, household solar and off-grid installations.


Apple solar

Clean Energy is Just Smart Business for Leaders like Apple, Google

Apple solarApple and Google have changed our lives forever, both because of their technological innovations and sheer size as global corporations. Now, they’re aiming to reshape the energy landscape.

This month, Apple announced plans to spend nearly $2 billion on European data centers set to run entirely on renewable energy, and invested $848 million to secure power from 130MW of First Solar’s California Flats Solar Project under a 25-year power purchase agreement. Google also agreed to replace 370 wind turbines installed in the 1980s with 24 new, more efficient and bird-friendly turbines at the Altamont Pass in the San Francisco Bay Area. Moreover, there has been recent speculation Apple may be working on an electric vehicle to challenge Tesla’s dominance in that market.

These developments are impressive on their own, but they are also part of a new trend among major corporations – whose primary focus is not energy generation – proactively pursuing clean energy projects. So, why are they doing this?

For corporations whose businesses do not rely on fossil fuels, aligning themselves with clean power is proving a prudent move both financially and for public relations.

Clean power portfolios

Of companies whose primary operations do not focus on power generation, Google is one of the most proactive in the world in terms of generating, using, and financing clean power. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) database, its activities include:

  • Ownership of three solar plants that amount to 412.3MW of net capacity, roughly equivalent to removing 100,000 passenger vehicles from the road for a year;
  • Usage of electricity from wind farms that amount to 1,603MW of capacity, roughly equivalent to removing 713,000 passenger vehicles from the road for a year;
  • Financing of nearly $2.9 billion in clean power projects;
  • Acquisition of Nest Labs, Inc., which sells smart thermostats, primarily, and also smoke detectors;
  • And, a public goal to operate on 100 percent renewable energy (Google currently powers about 35 percent of its operations with renewable energy).

Also proactive, Apple’s activity regarding clean energy includes:

  • Ownership of four solar plants that amount to 77.5MW of net capacity;
  • Powering all of its data centers with renewables;
  • Installation of a 10MW fuel cell system – which uses a chemical reaction, rather than combustion, to produce electricity on-site – at a North Carolina-based data center;
  • The launch of HomeKit, an app enabling homeowners to control appliances such as thermostats, security systems, lights, and others on Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, etc.) remotely;
  • And, plans for a completely energy self-sufficient headquarters by 2016.

Outside of tech, Wal-Mart and other non-power companies are proactively pursuing clean energy. Wal-Mart owns and/or uses electricity from solar and wind plants that amount to upwards of 380MW of capacity. By 2020, the company aims to be powered 100 percent by renewable sources.

Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS)

In June 2014, Apple launched HomeKit, an app that makes people’s lives easier by enabling them to control numerous smart devices without having to manage a growing number of different apps from individual manufacturers. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF),

“An example of HomeKit’s capabilities Apple provided when describing its integration with Siri – Apple’s virtual assistant – is for ‘setting a profile for simultaneously switching off the lights, locking the doors, and turning down the thermostat, then activating this profile at bedtime by telling Siri ‘good night’.”

BNEF further posits that Apple’s launch of HomeKit “kicks off a battle for the ‘connected home’ ecosystem,” with Google as a strong competitor.

In January 2014, Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion, the second largest deal at the time for an energy smart technology company. Through connecting to the cloud to access energy usage and weather data, Nest predicts,

“Usage patterns and behavior of its customers [will enable] deeper savings even for customers who do not program the thermostat manually. It can also interact with utility time-of-use pricing where available and integrate with local utility demand response and peak rebate programs to help manage demand.”

Beyond Apple, Google, and utilities, home automation technology has existed for decades, and companies such as iControl Networks, Control4, Vivint, and many others provide a variety of products and services. Apple’s and Google’s entry into the connected home market, however, dramatically stiffens competition and signals accelerated growth in this space.

What’s the significance?

The economics of using, investing in, and generating clean energy are sound.  Apple and Google are first and third in the world, respectively, in terms of market capitalization. These are corporate giants dominating a capitalist system that prioritizes the bottom line. These companies see financial opportunities in the budding connected home market, and they perceive clean power purchases as financially savvy.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t do it.

More specifically, according to BNEF, the motivation behind Apple’s recent $848 million solar purchase “is not just corporate sustainability, but financial. With current incentives available to solar, the levelised cost of electricity for a plant in California could be in the range of low $70s/MWh, perhaps even lower… This cost likely undercuts the retail electricity price currently paid by Apple in the Bay Area.”

Furthermore, the positive public relations benefits of positioning a company as clean and environmentally friendly cannot be understated. This point was underscored this past fall when Google and Facebook joined Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, and Yelp as tech giants leaving the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a front group and model bill factory for many corporate interests including oil, gas, and coal. A large reason Google left ALEC, according to Chairman Eric Schmidt, was the following:

The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”

Exiting ALEC has not been limited to tech juggernauts. Corporations with American brands, such as Wal-Mart, General Motors, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and McDonalds have also left.

For a long time powerful people have depended on fossil fuels for making their fortunes, but affordable alternatives are changing that dynamic. For the many successful corporations whose fortunes are not tied to fossil fuels, clean energy’s increasingly favorable economics and socially responsible brand are proving to be attractive.


sunshot catalyst

New Hackaton Aims To Crowdsource Low Cost Solar

sunshot catalystLimitless solar energy is practically right at our fingertips, and yet the US is still hovering right around the 1% mark when it comes to harvesting all those riches. The other 99% could come around sooner rather than later thanks to a new solar energy “hackathon” hosted by the A-lister crowdsourcing platform Topcoder, from the company Appirio.

Along with our sister site Planetsave, we’ve been noting that despite the catastrophic dip in oil prices the cost of solar is still competitive in many markets, but for solar adoption to take off, a straightup advantage on rates is just the start. This new, unfamiliar technology has to be so easy to understand, easy to buy into, and easy to use, that it’s like switching from stovetop cooking to a microwave oven.

A-List Hackathon For Low Cost Solar

When we say A-list, we mean that Appirio’s Topcoder rounds up 700,000 of what it bills as the “world’s best problem-solving minds” for crowdsourcing projects, with a collective track record that includes Amazon Web Services, Cloud Foundry, Force.com, Heroku, HTML5, Ruby, and Java, along with Google, NASA, Starbucks, and Virgin America.


SunEdison expects strong US Solar growth post-ITC

SunEdison expects significant US market growth post-ITC, contrary to the general view that the US PV market would be hit hard by the tax benefit reduction.

Major renewable energy development company SunEdison expects significant US market growth post-ITC, contrary to the general view that the US PV market would be hit hard by the tax benefit reduction.

SunEdison’s CEO, Ahmad Chatila said at the company’s Capital Markets Day that it was targeting an all-in distributed generation (DG) installation cost of only US$1.5/W in 2017, which would enable retail grid parity in over 25 US States.

Chatila noted that its best-in-class fully-loaded OPEX (Operating Expense) would help support the US$1.5/W DG installation cost as well as its highly flexible vertically integrated technology supply chain.


PV emerging as cheapest power source

Agora Energiewende: solar emerging as cheapest power source internationally

PV emerging as cheapest power sourceBy 2025, solar power in sunny regions of the world will be cheaper than power from coal or gas / Success depends on stable regulatory conditions.

Berlin, 24 February 2015. In a few years, solar energy plants will deliver the most inexpensive power available in many parts of the world. By 2025, the cost of producing solar power in central and southern Europe will have declined to between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt hour, and to as low as 2 to 4 cents by 2050, according to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems commissioned by Agora Energiewende.

Solar power is already cost-effective: In the sunny, desert country of Dubai, a long-term power purchase contract was signed recently for 5 cents per kilowatt hour, while in Germany large solar plants deliver power for less than 9 cents. By comparison, electricity from new coal and gas-fired plants costs between 5 and 10 cents per kilowatt hour and from nuclear plants as much as 11 cents.

These findings could have significant implications for reducing Europe’s energy dependence and for helping the EU achieve its decarbonisation targets for 2020 and 2030. Solar photovoltaic was until now often granted a very limited role due to its high cost when compared to other low-carbon solutions. The Agora-study shows that solar photovoltaic is not only a viable option among renewable energies, but that it could compete with allegedly cheaper options such as coal and gas.

“The study shows that solar energy has become cheaper much more quickly than most experts had predicted and will continue to do so,” says Dr. Patrick Graichen, Director of the Agora Energiewende. “Plans for future power supply systems should therefore be revised worldwide. Until now, most of them only anticipate a small share of solar power in the mix. In view of the extremely favourable costs, solar power will on the contrary play a prominent role, together with wind energy – also, and most importantly, as a cheap way of contributing to international climate protection.”

The study also reveals that electricity generation costs for solar power are highly dependent on financial and regulatory frameworks, due to the high capital intensity of photovoltaic installations.  Poor regulation and high risk-premiums reflected in interest rates can raise the cost of solar plants by up to 50 percent. This effect is so great, that it can even outweigh the advantage offered by greater amounts of sunshine. Graichen says: “Favourable financing conditions and stable legal frameworks are therefore vital conditions for cheap, clean solar electricity. It is up to policy makers to create and maintain these conditions.”

The study uses only conservative assumptions about technological developments expected for solar energy. Technological breakthroughs could make electricity even cheaper, but these potential developments were not taken into consideration.