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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shining a light on solar power

.Shining a light on solar power

A power-producing roof

As the industry's big confab gets under way, solar companies talk up new tech, new deals and ways to cut costs.

Keep solar power on when power goes out

Savor the irony. When there is a blackout, your solar power system will probably go out too.

That's because most systems are tied to the electrical grid. (In Germany, the utilities pay for this electricity, but in most states here, the utilities give you credit against any grid power you might buy.) To ensure that their workers don't get hurt, utilities shut off all devices that feed power into particular sectors of the grid when doing repairs.

To ameliorate that problem, SMA America, the U.S. group of a larger German company, has released a new version of its Sunny Island inverter. An inverter converts DC power coming from the panels into AC power that can be used in your home or fed into the grid. The company's Sunny Boy inverters are grid-tied. The Sunny Island line feeds the power into batteries instead.

"It's for vacation cabins, or backup systems," said Jeffrey Philpott, marketing manager for SMA America.

The new Sunny Island 5048U, announced at Solar Power 2007 taking place in Long Beach, Calif., has 20 percent more capacity than its predecessor. It can provide up to 5,000 watts of power. So in case you need to start a motor or something (think Charlton Heston in The Omega Man), the Sunny Island will do the job.

Like other inverter companies and even solar panel companies, SMA is trying to reduce the cost of installation and service. Installation is half of the cost of most solar systems.

"The installers like to go out once. They lose the money they made if they have to go out and fix something," he said.

SunPower, the fast-growing U.S. maker of high efficiency solar panels and cells, includes SMA inverters in its systems. SMA also sells through distributors.

Cutting solar panels' high price tag

For all the technical advances in the thriving solar power industry, the large up-front costs of solar electricity in the residential market remains a stubborn barrier to wide adoption.

A number of companies, from installers to panel producers, are taking different routes to try to improve the economics of purchasing rooftop solar panels.

Bringing down the high costs of solar compared to other forms of power is one of the big areas of discussion planned for the Solar Power 2007 conference in Long Beach, Calif., which starts Tuesday.

Installer Akeena Solar on Monday announced Andalay, a panel that it says is more attractive and quicker to install. It is scheduled to further detail the panels, which use 70 percent fewer parts, at the conference.

Panel manufacturer Sharp Solar, too, is expected to detail a mounting and panel system meant to streamline the process of installing panels, and thus lower the costs. Similarly, solar companies are working with builders to pre-install panels or power-producing roof shingles on new homes.

In addition to hardware improvements, solar companies are trying out new business models to make the jump to solar power easier on the pocketbook.

A San Francisco-based start-up, Sun Run, is borrowing a financing model commonly used in the commercial market and applying it to residential customers. On Monday, it announced that it has signed on REC Solar as another installer.

Sun Run's business model is structured around owning the panels on people's homes. So instead of paying all the money to install panels, the homeowner pays for the electricity they produce at a fixed rate.

"We've found that most people are really interested in going green but they also have economic focus in doing it," said Sun Run President and Chief Operating Officer Nat Kreamer, who founded the company earlier this year.

Even though much of the media coverage around solar power focuses on the incremental improvements of converting sunlight to electricity, the actual work of installing photovoltaic panels remains 30 to 50 percent of the total cost.

Sun Run's contract--called a purchased power agreement--won't eliminate the initial cost of getting solar electricity. But it will reduce by about 60 percent the pain of shelling out anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000 for solar panels, according to the company.

Working solar incentives

Sun Run is focusing specifically on California, where people pay different rates depending on how much they consume. But financing is increasingly being recognized as an important part of the solar power puzzle.

Sun Edison and MMA Renewables are two companies that specialize in providing financing and solar power installations for commercial customers.

Other installation firms with similar models have recently received venture capital funding, including Solar City, Tioga Energy and, according to reports, Solar Power Partners.

Solar City's twist on solar installation is group buying. The company canvasses residential neighborhoods. When it gets 50 or so committed customers, it purchases the panels and then sends out teams of five or so installers to erect them. Volume discounts and concentrated installation leads to a reduction of about 20 percent in the overall cost, according to the company.

Purchase power agreements are mainly used in the commercial world. Companies that offer them own and maintain solar photovoltaic panels on customers' rooftops and sell the electricity back to the customer.

In addition to avoiding a large capital outlay for the solar panel installation, customers fix into an electricity rate and thereby get a hedge against rising prices.

"Any way you can use renewables to guarantee stable power prices, allowing homeowners or large industrial customers to fix their power and fuel costs, is a good step forward and an effective way to bring renewables to a broader market," said Alex Klein, an analyst at Emerging Energy Research.

Sun Run's Kraemer said that his company's attempt to bring purchase power agreements to the residential field has met with a good amount of skepticism.

That's in part because electricity is so price sensitive that it leaves little room for a profit margin. Skepticism may also be fueled by the experience of Citizenre, a company that has been signing on homeowners for solar panels with a nominal up-front fee but has yet to deliver on its promises.

Lumeta expands solar roof tile production with Suntech

Lumeta on Tuesday announced a manufacturing deal with Chinese solar panel producer Suntech for Lumeta's solar roof tiles.

Under the deal, Suntech will supply solar modules for Lumeta's building-integrated photovoltaic roof tiles.

Lumeta's Solar S Tile, launched earlier this year, looks just like terracotta concrete roof tiles but are covered with a solar cell that generates electricity. Lumeta, a subsidiary of DRI Companies, announced the supply deal at the Solar World 2007 industry conference.

The solar industry is pursuing building-integrated photovoltaics as a way to reduce the cost of solar electric installations.

One advantage of solar roof tiles is that they don't look any different from a regular roof. However, it is unclear whether they are as economical as traditional solar panels.

Nanosolar to move into production this year

Nanosolar, one of the several companies trying to popularize CIGS solar panels, says it will move into commercial production later this year, and it's already booked the first 12 months of production.

The company hopes to inaugurate its manufacturing facility later this year and start shipping products before the calendar turns to 2008, according to CEO Martin Roscheisen.

"November and the first part of December are going to be extremely busy," Roscheisen said in a phone interview. Technically, Nanosolar is five days behind its own internal schedule, he said.

Nanosolar's flexible Cell Foil product.

(Credit: Nanosolar)Even if production slips a bit, 2008 is looking up. The entire year of production has already been allocated to customers who have placed advance orders. The first 100,000 panels will go to a small number of commercial solar installations.

Roscheisen would not say exactly how many panels the company will make in 2008, but allowed that the 100,000 panels represent "a fraction" of the total output for the year. Back in 2006, Nanosolar said its first factory would be capable of churning out 430 megawatts worth of panels a year. The company will sell its product through wholesalers.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has awarded the company a $20 million, three-year development deal. The company will get $9.5 million between now and October 2008 and the rest will follow afterward, subject to continued availability of funds.

Nanosolar has already received $100 million in financing. Investors include Mohr Davidow Ventures, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Since the company's big funding round in 2006, Nanosolar has been aiming to move into commercial production in 2008.

Solar cells based on CIGS--which stands for copper, indium, gallium, selenide--aren't as efficient as silicon solar cells, but they are less expensive to manufacture. CIGS cells can also be printed on rolls of foil. Conceivably, the roof of a Wal-Mart could be coated with a sheet of CIGS cells to turn the entire roof into a giant solar panel.

Although CIGS cells have been made in laboratories, no one has yet to move to commercial production. Rivals such as Miasole and DayStar Technologies have had to delay their products.

CIGS will no doubt be a topic of conversation at Solar Power 2007, taking place this week in Long Beach, California.

Podcast: Solar dreaming gets real

On the eve of the opening of the solar technology industry's premier gathering, CNET's Michael Kanellos gauges the progress of a business everyone says has a "can't miss" future. But does it?

Only hours to go before Microsoft hits the switch and Halo 3 becomes available. The company's hoping it has a big hit on its hands, but does the product's performance live up to its advance billing?

Plus, do you think you have what it takes to become a astronaut? NASA is giving you the opportunity to live out that dream.

CEOs, Ted Turner, Larry Hagman gather for solar fest

A conference featuring actor Larry Hagman and media mogul Ted Turner? Your first thought is that someone must be colorizing episodes of I Dream of Jeannie.

Actually, the two men are going to be keynote speakers this week at Solar Power 2007, the industry's big annual conference, in Long Beach, Calif. Like the solar industry, the conference has been growing like crazy and the conference will likely be noticeably bigger than last year's fete in San Jose, Calif. (Click here for pictures and articles from that event.)

Among the highlights:

• Turner is expected to talk about DT Solar, a joint venture he formed with Dome-Tech that will create solar power plants for utilities, commercial buildings and industrial sites. Turner is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech Tuesday morning.

• CEOs and other leading executives from the photovoltaic solar industry will hash it out in a roundtable discussion on Wednesday morning. Speakers include Zhengrong Shi, founder of China's Suntech Power Holdings; Thomas Werner, CEO of SunPower, the fast-growing U.S. solar manufacturer known for its high-efficiency solar cells; Steve Hill, president of Kyocera Solar; Anton Milner, CEO of Germany's Q-Cells; Heiko Piossek, CFO of component supplier and installer Conergy; and Ron Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Solar Energy Solutions.

That's a significant portion of the big-name executives in the photovoltaic industry. Suntech may further flesh out its plans to build new industrial parks in China. The company is ranked third right now, behind Sharp and Q-Cells, and is expected to try to become the largest maker of photovoltaic panels, which convert light into electricity. Sharp, Conergy and others will also likely elaborate on their plans to sign up more solar installers.

• Executives from roofing companies and home builders will discuss their plans to integrate solar technology into new construction. Installing solar panels into a home during initial construction cuts down initial costs (installation accounts for about half of the price of adding solar to a building). Companies represented include Lennar, Grupe Homes (which has been installing solar roof tiles in some homes) and Old Country Roofing.

• Solar thermal technology--which some believe is more economically viable than photovoltaic--will also be a major topic of discussion. Several companies, including Ausra and BrightSource Energy, have already sketched plans to build solar thermal plants in California that will be capable of generating several hundred megawatts of power. Utilities in the state, forced and encouraged by recent legislation to get more power from renewable resources, are signing long-term deals with solar thermal companies. (In solar thermal, heat from the sun is harvested and then used to heat liquids, which turn into steam. The pressure from the gas turns a turbine.) CEOs from both BrightSource and Ausra will speak at the show.

Solar thermal water heaters, which use heat from the sun to warm water, will be represented as well. Canadian Alex Winch of Mondial Energy will discuss how his company has been trying to sign large-scale deals for solar thermal water heaters. He is among the presenters scheduled to speak Tuesday afternoon.

• Venture capitalists and analysts will be crawling all over the place. Several panels will discuss the latest trends in solar financing, whether the market has become overheated and when the silicon shortage will end.

• And on Thursday, the last day of the conference, the spotlight will be on Hagman, he of Jeannie and Dallas fame. Hagman actually owns one of the largest personal solar installations in California, according to sources. It generates far more electricity than is used in his home.

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