solar energy


Grand Plan May Settle the Solar Siting Paradox

Remote deserts would seem to be the ideal place for Big Solar — were it only that simple

Can threatened tortoises and utility-scale solar plants coexist in the California desert? Since the solar rush began a few years ago, results have been discouraging. But an ambitious new plan aims to strike a long-lasting compromise. Northern Californians get a chance to weigh in on the process at a public meeting in Sacramento on Wednesday, September 5.

The sprawling Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is scheduled to go online next year.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — just call it the DRECP — is designed to establish habitat protection guidelines for dozens of species, not just the elusive desert tortoise, across an incredible 22.5 million acres of desert caught in the crossfire between conservation and clean energy. Continue reading

Amping Up Local Renewable Power

Think globally, amp locally?

Most Californians rely on electricity from distant sources.

By Thibault Worth

California’s mandated goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 may be bold and ambitious. But there’s room to raise the bar still higher, say proponents of local renewable power.

A report commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown last year — and released this week by Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) — lays out a plan for developing 12,000 Megawatts of renewable power generation close to homes and workplaces by 2020. Continue reading

Green Light for Feed-in Tariff to Spark L.A. Renewable Energy

City Council OK’s demo program to buy power from small-scale renewable generators

Feed-in tariffs from private solar arrays like this one enable the world's largest source of renewable energy.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) now gets to ramp up a pilot phase that could add up to 150 megawatts of renewable electricity after 2016 — enough to power 22,000 homes — all with an eye toward hitting the state-mandated goal of 33% of its power from renewables by 2020. The measure awaits the mayor’s signature, expected late next week.

A common example of the new program would be a commercial real estate or large warehouse owner installing a rooftop solar power system and selling that power back to the local utility. The simplest definition I’ve found comes from another city that just approved a similar program for solar energy, Palo Alto: “Feed-in tariff programs involve a utility paying a fixed price, a “tariff,” for the power that is “fed into” their electric grid from local generation systems.” Continue reading

Solar Energy: What To Do When the Sun Sets

A big solar developer makes a major move toward storing electricity

Solar-thermal plants use mirrors or "heliostats" to focus sunlight on a tower receptor that produces steam to generate electricity.

A major barrier for solar power has always been that it doesn’t work at night (Duh). A few years ago, developers of big “utility-scale” solar projects were able to shrug this off to some degree. But Oakland-based BrightSource Energy has reversed field and decided to add to several projects the ability to store electricity for distribution after dark.

BrightSource managers say times have changed. Where utilities once wanted all the renewable capacity they could get, to meet state requirements, the priority has since shifted to having those renewable electrons available when they’re needed.

“The challenges of integrating photovoltaics and wind into the grid have driven a much deeper appreciation for those that can be highly reliable,” BrightSource CEO John Woolard told me in a phone interview. Continue reading

California Hits Solar Energy Milestone

Homeowners and businesses have now installed one gigawatt of roof-top solar panels, according to a report released this week by the advocacy group Environment California.

A gigawatt – or a thousand megawatts – is enough energy for about 600,000 homes. Only five nations — let alone states — including Germany and Japan, have reached that level. “Even in a bad economy, the solar industry has been growing exponentially by 40 percent per year,” says Michelle Kinman of Environment California. Continue reading

California’s “Solar Lead” Revisited

Technology, yes. Policy, yes. Manufacturing…maybe not so much

This week as Fremont-based Solyndra sets about the grim business of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it leaves in its wake ample confusion over California’s much vaunted “lead” in renewable energy — so much so that last week a national solar industry association felt compelled to issue a statement reassuring us that Solargeddon was not at hand. (Cy Musiker’s interview with Sev Borenstein of UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute provides some solid perspective on the Solyndra collapse).

It didn’t help that Solyndra had been the arc light of California’s renewable power surge. President Obama, Energy Secretary Steve Chu and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had all led media parades through the company’s Fremont manufacturing plant. The bankruptcy announcement came within hours after Chu finished extolling California’s leadership at an energy “summit” in Las Vegas.

John Hild with the new solar array at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. The panels were "made in the USA"-- but by a Chinese company.

Recently I climbed to the roof of the Contra Costa County Office of Education with John Hild, for an overview of a new 700-panel solar array that covers the agency’s parking lot in Concord.

Hild, who manages facilities there, was impressed with the May electric bill, which had dropped to $19 from about $7,200 before the photovoltaic (PV) panels were hooked up. But Hild says it was tough to find American-made panels, something required by one of the incentive programs that CCCOE was tapping into to make the project affordable. In the end, they found some–but they were made in Arizona, not California, by the Chinese solar juggernaut SunTech. Continue reading

Cheap Panels Changing the Game for Big Solar

Developers are moving toward photovoltaic panels for utility-scale solar plants

Photovoltaic Panels at a PG&E's Dixon-Vacaville array. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Photovoltaic solar panels are becoming the new black for large-scale solar projects in California.

Developers of what’s billed as the world’s largest solar project, spanning 7,000 acres in Blythe, California, say the plant will get half of its 1,000 megawatts from photovoltaic panels. This recent announcement makes Solar Trust of America the fourth large-scale solar developer in California to switch from solar thermal to photovoltaic panels, which Solar Trust CEO Uwe Schmidt calls “the right technology at the right time.”

Brett Prior, Senior Analyst at Greentech Media, says that large-scale solar developers have preferred solar thermal but the plummeting cost of photovoltaic panels is changing that.

“Over the last couple of years PV [photovoltaic] panels have dropped significantly in price,” says Prior.

How’s 70% over the last two years for “significant?” Prior says that’s because China is emerging as a major player in panel manufacturing. “Just in the last five years, China has gone from sort of a minimal role to over 50% of all worldwide manufacturing of PV panels.” says Prior.

However, cost of technology isn’t the only factor affecting large-scale solar projects.

“One area where [solar thermal] players are making a lot of progress is incorporating thermal storage,” says Prior.

For some solar developers, thermal storage is a viable feature for solar thermal power and worth the extra cost. Since solar photovoltaic panels only work when the sun is shining, some solar-thermal plants incorporate a feature that uses molten salts, which can store heat throughout the day and be released to generate steam for turbines.

Prior says solar-thermal plants using storage features allow more flexibility to grid demand, which is consistent after the sun sets.

“They can store energy during the morning when it’s not really needed by the grid, deliver 100% output at one p.m. when it’s most needed, and continue to deliver 100% output at eight p.m. when electricity demand drops off,” says Prior.

Despite the emerging energy storage technology, three other large-scale solar plants (links to interactive map, below) have made the transition from solar thermal to solar photovoltaic panels for at least part of the project. Other developers like NextERA’s Beacon Solar, builder of a large project in Kern County, have suggested similar plans.

View Making the Swtich in a larger map

Google Invests Millions in Residential Solar

SolarCity infusion is Google’s largest yet

(Photo: Craig Miller)

Google is giving a boost to the solar industry today – but not to those large solar farms in the California desert. Nope, the company’s largest clean energy investment to date is going to home solar.

Five years ago, SolarCity was a small, Bay Area start-up. Today, it’s getting a $280 million-dollar investment from one of the most influential players in the game.

“We are very excited,” says Lyndon Rive,  CEO of SolarCity. “It’s a big vote of confidence in SolarCity as well as hopefully a big vote of confidence to the entire market.” Continue reading

Creating Power from Both Light and Heat

A key component of new solar panel technology being tested at Stanford. (Photo: Nick Melosh)

In a kind of cruel paradox, heat has always been the enemy of solar panels.  At higher temperatures, photovoltaic cells become less efficient, which is problematic in an industry where efficiency is the name of the game. That heat also represents wasted energy.

Today, researchers at Stanford University announced that they may have helped solve that problem. Nick Melosh of Stanford’s Materials Science & Engineering department set out to make use of the wasted heat. He and his colleagues created a solar cell technology that uses both light and heat to generate electricity. It’s called “photon-enhanced thermionic emission” (or PETE for short). “This is the first time that a process has been reported that can use the heat and the photons together harmoniously,” says Melosh. Continue reading

Intersolar Chair: CA Losing Solar Race

Despite frequent pronouncements by the outgoing governor of the Golden State, the chair of the giant solar industry expo that winds up in San Francisco today says “California and the US are losing badly in the global race” for solar energy deployment.

Eicke Weber of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems made the comment on KQED’s Forum program this morning, during an hour devoted to solar energy prospects.

Weber said that California will represent a tiny fraction of the world’s growth in photovoltaics this year; just 200 of the 10,000 megawatts that he projects will be installed globally. California remains ahead of all other states in the deployment of solar panels. Weber’s forecast for California still represents two thirds of his projected total for the US. That’s “far below what could be expected from a country that’s as rich and sunshine-filled as the United States,” added Weber.

Chinese suppliers had a high profile at this week's solar expo in San Francisco (Photo: Craig Miller)

The global face of solar was impossible to miss at the Intersolar conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Three levels of exhibition space were crammed with industry exhibits. To get there, attendees had to jostle for space on the escalators. Though this was billed as the “North American” conference (following an even bigger one in Europe), the halls included major product exhibits from China, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and other nations. Organizers told the trade publication Solar Industry that they booked 30% more exhibitors than last year for the expo.

While speakers at the conference were calling for more government support for solar and other renewable energy sources, state officials in California were going to the mat to save what’s already in place here. On Wednesday attorney general/gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown said he is suing key players in the mortgage markets, in an effort to save the vaunted PACE program, which finances residential solar projects through property tax assessments. The announcement came even as the California Public Utilities Commission said it was suspending some solar incentive programs for schools and community organizations, after being overwhelmed with applications.

During the Forum discussion, Weber was sometimes at loggerheads with a former colleague from UC Berkeley, where Weber taught for more than 20 years. Weber predicted that rooftop solar could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels within seven years. But Severin Borenstein, who co-directs the Energy Institute at Berkeley, said he considered that forecast to be “at the very optimistic end of the range.”

Borenstein said he was not surprised that the PACE program is in trouble. He said that from the outset, mortgage lenders had been queasy about the program because when properties end up in foreclosure, the banks could find themselves second or third in line for their money, behind counties that finance the PACE energy upgrades.