Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Will Berkeley spark a solar revolution?

Yesterday, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that will finance PV systems and energy efficiency improvements for homeowners in the city.

Though the plan was announced last week, I haven't had a chance to blog so this is as good a time as ever to write a few words about it.

When I first heard of this, it struck me as one of those "only in Berkeley" type things and rubbed my libertarian streak the wrong way, leading to ornery thoughts.

It's been a long time coming, right? How come the private sector can't get it together to provide financing for residential PV? It has always seemed like a fantastic opportunity for an entrepreneurial approach, so it seems like Berkeley is competing directly with private enterprise here.

But can you usurp private enterprise, if the service isn't really being offered by the private sector? I guess not.

I've come around. The way this is structured is actually brilliant and everyone wins.

So in a nutshell, the deal is that the City pays the upfront cost for the installed system. Then, an assessment is added to the property tax, and through this assessment, the homeowner pays the City back with interest over 20 years.

So here are the main points:

First, (assuming the system is sized properly) the assessment is less than the utility savings, so
it is cash-flow positive for the homeowner; and of course after 20 years, it's free power.

Second, the system and the assessment belong to the property, not to the homeowner. This is critical. It means that value of the system will be properly appraised as part of the property, so there is no risk of losing the value of the system upon sale of the house. Moreover, whether an owner stays in the house for 1 year or 30 years, they still see all upside.

Third, the City is raising the money with a municipal bond; the lowest interest rate anywhere; passing this through to the homeowner helps make the economics compelling.

Fourth, the City gets a guaranteed revenue stream.

The biggest issue that I see is that demand in Berkeley is going to utterly explode. I have a hard time imagining that nearly every homeowner in Berkeley who gets wind of this won't try to sign up. I don't know how any of the local installers will keep up, in the short term at least.

This sounds like a nice problem to have, but of course the concern is that there could be a proliferation of naive, and in all probability (like in any "gold rush") some opportunistic new installers and service providers doing this work -- and doing a bad job. Of course most new entrants will be honest and competent, but it's the inevitable bad apples that worry me.

Balancing exceptional industry growth and the need for installers to support that growth are the realities that properly installing 30-year service life equipment is not easy, there is a rather complex set of reliability, safety, and regulatory / rebate issues to grapple with, and customers who may not have realistic expectations due to relentless solar hype are not necessarily the easiest to please.

The other substantive concern I have is if the contract with the City (and thus the assessment) includes periodic inverter replacements, or whether the homeowner is on the hook for it on their own. Modules are typically guaranteed to product at least 80% of their rated power after 25 years, but most inverters carry a 10 year warranty. This means it is very likely that at least one inverter replacement at the owner's cost over the system lifetime, and possibly two, will be required. At a couple thousand bucks a pop (depending on size) this has implications for system economics. An honest and professional assessment of system economics should assume these maintenance costs as well as the slow degradation in power output.

The inverter issue is quite problematic if a new owner moves in just before the inverter fails out of warranty, and then has to either shell out cash for the equipment, pay the assessment even though they are getting no benefit, or try to get the property assessment canceled (in which case the city is left holding the bag). The city says it will roll out the plan in about 8 months, so hopefully will have the foresight to address this issue.

All that said, assuming this doesn't get bungled up in red tape or political shenanigans -- and there's never a guarantee there, especially in B-town -- it seems inevitable that this idea will spread quickly.

One of the most interesting aspects of solar these days is the leadership of the states in successfully setting de facto national energy policy in the current leadership vacuum at the Federal level. It appears that Berkeley has taken this one step further.

Potentially, this initiative could serve as a seed crystal for a concept that could radically impact the way we produce electricity, nationally, even internationally - one town at a time.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Growing Fuel in National Geographic

There is an excellent article on biofuels in the October National Geographic. It does the best job I've seen in any mainstream publication - perhaps in any publication - of elucidating the importance of feedstocks to the sustainability and ultimately feasibility of biofuels.

The article touches on both ethanol and biodiesel. With ethanol, the article focuses on corn, sugarcane (and the Brazilian experience), and celluosic feedstocks and the tradeoffs of each. For biodiesel, soy is discussed but algae also gets significant attention, including a rare behind-the-fence photo at the Greenfuels plant in Arizona.

I highly recommend picking it up for a read. It also includes a fascinating article about modern pirates in Southeast Asia. So you really can't go wrong.

In other news, Solar Power 2007 was great last week. It was fun to see old friends and colleagues and there was a fantastic sense of momentum.

My presentation on innovation drivers for balance of system components seemed a success, with some good questions, so that was very satisfying.

I only made a couple of the other talks, the CEO forum and the closing plenary. The forum was quite interesting, with some good questions and it seemed, frank answers. Main fact - national SEIA had a lobbying budget of just $20,000 last year and the goal this year is just $60,000. This was to me, just astonishing given the amount of money spent in Washington by the mainstream energy industry.

The highlight of the closing plenary was a tour-de-force presentation by the senior energy manager of Wal-Mart. I was not aware that they are far ahead of the pack in terms of energy efficiency in their stores, though of course I had heard of the solar roll-out. Apparently this is just a pilot and if successful, Wal-Mart has a policy and track record of rolling out energy innovations massively. That is truly exciting stuff.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Jobs in Solar

I've been thinking about this next post for a bit now. I haven't had time to write anything lately but hopefully, I'll be able to post somewhat consistently over the next few months.

What's on my mind is giving some advice to the those that seek a job in the solar industry. There are lots of opportunities out there for the right people, and it's a good time to get your foot in the door. At the same time, as has been noted before, the hype machine is in overdrive. So buyer beware, especially if your livelihood is riding on it.

So let me first start with a cautionary tale. On Friday, the entire board of directors and CEO of Automatic Tooling Systems (ATS), the Canadian company that owned Spheral Solar (and conventional module manufacturer PhotoWatt), resigned in the face of "dissident hedge fund" shareholders demanding a turnaround. ATS's foray into renewable energy (as well as auto industry woes) was blamed for this sory state of affairs. Spheral Solar was actually shut down earier this year and ATS tried to spin off PhotoWatt in an IPO in late March, but failed.

Previously, Spheral was touted as the best thing since sliced bread, an amazing technology that allowed them to make flexible modules, with significantly less silicon, that (in theory at least) boasted near crystalline PV efficiency. Four years ago, the "New Scientist" wrote this breathless article about " 'demin' solar panels to clothe future buildings"; and Future Pundit wrote that Spheral would "start production in 2004" Yet as late as January 2006 the "Clean Break" blog opined, referring to a deal between building products manufacturer Elk (recently acquired by GAF) and Spheral to make building-integrated roofing materials with the technlogy, that "the product is sold before it's even been produced. Now that's the kind of certainty that investors like".

Well, maybe so, but of course that only works out if the company manages to manufacture their technology on a commercial scale. If you've been following the solar industry for any length of time, you come to realize that announcements from a company of the intent to produce, or the ability to produce, or even signed contracts to manufacture and install their technologies means very little if they don't have a track record of doing so (especially if they announced, and then failed, to go into production two years prior).

The point of this cautionary tale is that there are a lot of solar companies out there these days, and there are all sots of announcements and blog posts and what-have-you that make them look like just the greatest new thing. Be skeptical, and be smart, because in the next 5 years or so I think we're going to see a significant shake-out occur in this business.

If you are looking for a job, gut-check the risk level you are willing to take. If there are only a few employees, promises of lots of options, some venture funding and a prototype out in a garage - well, that's a high risk situation. Potentially high reward if it actually does work out of course. But a day of reckoning will come for all start-ups, especially if VC funded. There are a number of well known, seemingly reputable companies that have been around for years now and have yet to set up even modest manufacturing capacity or field a market-ready (i.e. all required certifications) product. There's even one which shall remain unnamed, based in Silicon Valley, which is infamous for being extraordinarily well funded - yet no one I've spoken to has even seen a prototype of their breakthrough technology. That's all well and good for a while but after several years have passed, one must begin to wonder.

Conversely, there are more established players with a reputation, products, vision, and great growth potential; but less speculative upside.

Look at the bigger pattern, the fundamentals, if you will. There's nothing new under the sun (ahem). Thin film was the the Next Big Thing five or six years ago, unfortunately, there were some serious reliability issues and so much for that. Now it's back in vogue. Not coincidentally, this new generation of thin film technologies (most of which is not yet commercialized) arose simultaneously with a rather prolonged shortage of polysilicon, the raw material of relatively high-efficiency crystalline solar cells. Same with concentrating photovoltaics, which saw a lot of effort in the '80s and up until the mid '90s, then largely abandoned as the price of 1-sun cells came down; but resurged with poly shortage driving silicon prices up. The high prices made thin film and CPV look good - trading significantly less silicon usage for low efficiency and mechanical / optical complexity, respectively.

So now it's two or three years later. Some of these new innovators have already fallen by the wayside, others are still working towards commercialization, and one German thin film company made it past the finish line in time and is raking it in (and good for them!).

But it seems that in the opinion of most analysts, the poly situation is already relaxing as many new plants come online. The question is, will these thin film and CPV solutions still be attractive in a world that is not silicon-constrained? In a world where the PV market is being flooded by low-cost, mid-efficiency crystalline PV technology from China while a few of the more technologically positioned crystalline PV players duke it out for high-efficiency dominance, and where vertical integration appears to bring some distinct advantages? Finally factor in that solar thermal powerplant technology (like the SEGS plants or, for a less proven example, Stirling dishes) looks pretty attractive for the really big centralized solar power plant market. In other words, who's going to win? It's a tough one but that's a question I would recommend answering to your own satisfaction before choosing to sign on the dotted line.

Now the foregoing was perhaps more focused on the tech-type jobs but there are other opportunities out there. For instance, there are any number of installation companies out there ranging from Mom and Pops to installers that are becoming regional or even national players, catering to the residential retrofit and commercial markets. It's physical, outdoor construction work. If you have the right skill-set it's a good job and you're bound to learn something about solar.

But still, do your homework, understand their business plan, and understand how the job might change if your employer goes public or gets acquired - and don't be shy about asking a potential employer about, specifically, what's in it for you in one of these cases.

So - the best of luck to all those interested in getting a job in this space. If you are serious, I can definitely recommend showing up at Solar Power 2007 in Long Beach (September 24-27) and getting your own impression of the industry. There's even a Career Center and a "Find Your Dream Job In Solar" seminar.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

TED talks on Africa

TED global recently posted some extremely interesting talks from the June, 2007 conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Among the featured speakers was William Kamkwamba, the young man from Malawi who built a homemade wind turbine for his family (see previous post).

I highly recommend the videos; two in particular are extraordinarily powerful and captivating. Moreover, they are primarily focused on identifying and strengthing positive trends, which is a refreshing change from the litany of negativity often found when Africa is discuessed.

George Ayittey, a Ghanan economist, takes no prisoners in his powerful indictment of the corruption of Africa's elites while lauding the progress made by a new generation of self-sufficient, resourceful African leaders, whom he has branded the "cheetahs" (of whom Mr. Kamkwamba certainly is one). He also relates an insightful viewpoint on how development in Africa is best framed in the context of traditional African economic activity, which while more collectivist in nature is nonetheless very much a market based and capitalist model.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian Minister of Finance, is featured wrapping up the conference with a talk that links macroeconomics, to her own intensely personal experiences of war-torn Nigeria as a young girl in 1969, to the concept that foreign aid to Africa is nothing but payback for the incredible amount of aid, material and human, that Africa contributed to the development of the "first world". It is hard to capture her wide-ranging speech in a paragraph, but it is a tour de force.

William Kamkwamba's portion is brief but it is interesting to see him in person, introducing pictures of his village and family and describing the process of designing, building, and optimizing the windmill. The fellow who interviews him, unfortunately, did so rather badly. Of course, 19 year Kamkwamba is nervous onstage, before a large audience under lights, and speaking in English - and this is one of his first times outside of his rural village. However, what makes the interview difficult is more of a cultural problem. Mr. Kamkwamba answers all of the questions quite literally and exactly; he is very precise and to the point. Unfortunately, the interviewer seemed unprepared for this - which should have been, culturally, to be expected. Instead, he asked somewhat abstract or open-ended questions, and seemed to be depending on Kamkwamba to expound and expand; in short, to meet our cultural norms and make the most of his time in the spotlight. This, unfortunately, reflected somewhat poorly on the young man as the interviewer waited awkardly for him to go on into more details while Kamkwamba waited, smiling, for the next question.

My (short) experience in East Africa, especially in that kind of context -- which is almost analogous to a classsroom situation with the teacher asking a question -- is that the questioner is expected to ask precise, rapid fire questions; and the answerer is expected to respond concisely and to the point. The lack of that dynamic was, I think, confusing to all concerned.

All in all, it is a great group of videos from the Arusha conference (and there are other videos on the page from previous TED conferences focused on Africa), and they come highly recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Surprise, surprise...

Citizenre's plans delayed...until they say...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Three Short Items

First off, I just added MadKast to this blog. That's the little green icon by the post and it will allow you to to easily share posts with others, if you so desire. It's presently by invitation and in beta. Please try it out, and let me know if you like it or if it causes any issues.

Second, I mentioned blogging about Intersolar 2007 in Frieburg. It was certainly a very interesting show. However I've decided not to get into it to avoid any possible disclosure of non-public information about my company's direction and future plans. By the way, this is 100% my decision and my employer has applied no pressure on me whatsoever (in fact, I don't even know if they are aware of this blog).

Finally, it's as good a time as any to announce that I will be speaking at Solar Power 2007 in Long Beach. The unofficial title of the talk is “Off The Rack – Recent Innovations In Mounting System Design”. If you're able to make it, come up and say hi.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Inspiration in Africa

Well, I've been away from the blog for quite some time. I just got married about a month ago and have been on my honeymoon since...well, we stopped through Intersolar 2007 so I'll blog on that too...but anyway that's kept me away from the computer! In the meantime Heliotropic has gotten a lot of attention as a "blog of note" - quite cool.

What I wanted to post on tonight is something quite incredible: The blog of a 19 year old Malawian secondary student, William Kamkwamba.

This is an extraordinary blog for many reasons. First, he started this blog only 2 weeks after learning about the internet at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

Mr. Kamkwamba was attending this conference because of the work he's been doing in is village to provide his family with electricity -- building a wind turbine entirely out of scrap materials and wood, and armed only with his intellect, junior-high education and a book on electricity.

It's an almost unbelievable story...but it is also quite inspiring. Can you imagine what just a little help (books, light to read by, internet access) can do to help people in these communities that are already motivated to improve their lives and hungry for knowledge?

Now, it's clear to me that Kamkwamba is absolutely exceptional and actually something of a genius. Nonethless - there is no greater demonstration of the human potential that is tragically untapped in Africa due a lack of resources in education, basic health care, and infrastructure that we take for granted.

On the positive side, it is incredible to see people like Kamkwamba work with what they have to improve their own lives and it shows that there are any number of ways to solve a problem with the resources at hand. It is truly appropriate technology; if (when) the windmill breaks, he will readily be able to fix it, because he built it himself and the parts are readily available in his community. No need to parachute in expensive parts or specialists from Europe, the US, or even the capital city.

It's the very definition of appropriate technology.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Article Critical of Biofuels in NYT

The New York Times recently published an article from the Council of Foreign Relations entitled "How Biofuels Could Starve The Poor".

This is a hot-button topic for me, having encountered any number of intellectually shallow and/or downright dishonest arguments along these lines.

However, this piece is different. It's well researched, and I largely agree with it's premise and conclusions. It contains a nicely summarized background on ADM's role in the biofuels industry, and how biofuel feedstocks came to be dominated by corn and soy largely by ADM's efforts.

There is an interesting take on the Mexican tortilla situation, highlighting the intricies of the global economy. The article notes that most tortillas in Mexico are made from locally produced white corn, but high prices for yellow corn - mostly used as a feedstock for processed products, including corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol - led Mexican agribusiness concerns to buy white corn instead, thus raising tortilla prices.

Nonetheless, there are a number of significant flaws in the piece. Most glaring is that little attention is paid to alternate feedstocks and their significance, except to point out that they are not presently economical. Well, with corn and soy so heavily subsidized, what do they expect? It is also frustrating to see biodiesel largely lumped in with ethanol, despite significant differences that are mentioned but minimized.

Where the article really goes off the rails is not on the discussions of food security, which seem to be pretty sound, but instead where the authors attempt to make the argument that biofuels will provide little benefit to offset the food security impacts. First, they try to argue that biofuels take a significant amount of energy to make, thus, do not provide much benefit from the standpoint of reducing foreign oil dependence; then, they also try to argue that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. Yet, the numbers they cite in the text give lie to their own arguments.

First on energy balance. Excerpting at length:

"Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the "net energy balance" of biofuels and gasoline -- the ratio between the energy they produce and the energy needed to produce them -- have raged for decades. For now, corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel -- but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.)"

This use of language completely glosses over several salient facts. First, soy biodiesel is clearly much more beneficial than corn ethanol - by something like a factor of 2. Their parenthetic disclaimer that biodiesel made from resturant grease "may be more energy efficient" completely buries the lead. This feedstock results in a much higher net energy ratio, simply because it is being produced from a waste product; thus the only energy that goes into it is that required to collect and convert it, which is relatively very small compared to growing, crushing, and transporting soy oil. Finally alternate biodiesel feedstocks are simply not mentioned. Again, massively improved energy ratios are expected from dedicated feedstocks.

But this is a mild gripe compared to their egregious treatment of perhaps the most salient issue:

"Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels."

Again, ethanol and biodiesel are lumped together - despite a 3 to 4 fold difference in the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions. I don't know about you, but I would consider a (conservative) 50% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from the use of biodiesel highly significant. From a climate change perspective, this is the functional equivalent of doubling the mileage of every diesel vehicle using the fuel! Minimizing this is basically irresponsible.

They cap it with this doozy:

"Another point of comparison is greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, which takes account of relative fuel efficiency. Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. If the blend is 85 percent ethanol (which only flexible-fuel vehicles can run on), greenhouse gas emissions fall further: by 23 percent if the ethanol is corn-based and by 64 percent if it is cellulose-based. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel, whereas blends with 20 percent biodiesel emit 16 percent less, and pure biodiesel (also for use only in special vehicles) emits 78 percent less. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the "green" virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops."

Where to start? First, the assertion that pure biodiesel is "also only for use in special vehicles" -- similar to flex-fuel vehicles for ethanol -- is obviously and patently false. Someone really fell down in the research department on this one. Second, again, we have this significant burying of the lead.

The article is stating that you can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2/3 compared to gasoline with E85 made from celluosic ethanol - and again, nearly an 80% reduction using neat biodiesel! Even the 23% from corn ethanol isn't too shabby.

This is extremely significant and has enormous implications, but the authors characterize these gains as "modest". I challenge them to find another near-term solution that has the potential to cut total US CO2 emissions by over 18%*! I would hardly call that modest; it's a huge "wedge".

Finally, I must point out that the NOx issue is very unfairly characterized here. Stating that biodiesel "can" increase NOx emissions is technically true. However, the jury is very much out on whether it actually does increase NOx emissions in real-world driving. Recent research has increasingly found this to not the case; yet the NOx increase found in a old testbed engine study always seems to come up, with the more recent and more comprehensive studies rarely cited.

Well, it's not all bad; they do point out that:

"The benefits of biofuels are greater when plants other than corn or oils from sources other than soybeans are used. Ethanol made entirely from cellulose (which is found in trees, grasses, and other plants) has an energy ratio between 5 and 6 and emits 82 to 85 percent less greenhouse gases than does gasoline. "

Right...meaning that celluosic ethanol could cut oil imports for vehicles that are today gasoline fueled by something like, conservatively, a factor of 6. An 83% reduction. Oh, but wait:

"For now, however, the costs of harvesting, transporting, and converting such plant matters are high, which means that cellulose-based ethanol is not yet commercially viable when compared with the economies of scale of current corn-based production. One ethanol-plant manager in the Midwest has calculated that fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass, a much-discussed alternative, would require delivering a semitrailer truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day."

This just made me laugh. I mean, this sounds like an awful large volume of material, until you think about oil tankers and coal trains; a single large coal-fired powerplant requires 10,000 tons of coal daily; that's a hundred, 100 ton rail cars daily.

The question is not how much material needs to be transported in, but how switchgrass compares to corn. Presumably a significantly larger volume of switchgrass would need to be transported, but I doubt that this is really a deal breaker on the economics.

What is significant - and the article does an excellent job on this - are the massive subsidies given to corn and soy that make any other feedstock uncompetitive. Really, the purpose of the article is to point out that the incentives for corn and soy feedstocks to make biofuels are truly perverse. These incentives, in concert with speculative hedge fund activities, do have the affect of raising food prices for the poor by significantly affecting agricultural markets globally in highly complex ways. Moreover, the benefits -- both from the standpoint of petroleum dependency and greenhouse gas emissions -- are suboptimum with these feedstocks.

I completely agree with this assessment. What gets me is that the article does a poor job of distinguishing the current state of the biofuel industry from where it should go, and needs to go, which is actually extremely promising. The piece mentions, but fails to discuss in any depth, that these other approaches - based primarily on crop waste, wood crops, and dedicated biofuel crops grown on degraded land - will have negligible impact on food security.

From the title on, the piece gives the impression that biofuels are not a solution, minimizing the benefits and maximizing the spectre of the starving poor. Rather than encouraging excitment about the right way to do things, and highlighting why these approaches are different, it pretty much lumps all "biofuels" together as either destructive or infeasibile and undermines attempts to move towards more appropriate feedstocks by marginalizing biofuels in general.

*Transportation is 33% of CO2 emissions. Gasoline is 60% of this, or ~20% of total emissions. Cutting this by 66% reduces total emissions by 13%. Taking diesel to represent half of the remaining 40% of transportation fuel emissions (a swag), and reducing this 20% by 78%, gets another 5% of total emissions. So, about 18%.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Shipyard

I was remiss in not mentioning in the previous post that the current home base of the Mechabolic project - the Shipyard - is, at this moment, in grave danger.

Details here.

Please do what you can to help, in particular, emails to the City of Berkeley seem to be having an effect.

A Carbon Hat Trick?

Terra Preta. I don't know where I've been, but I had never heard of it until last week. But I'm starting to get very interested in Terra Preta. "Dark Soil", in Porteugese. A sort of miraculous earth found in the jungles of the Amazon, and apparently, for quite some time posing a mystery to science as to how it was formed. No natural process explains it.

Well it turns out that the answer was under the nose of the scientists. It is, in fact, the creation of technology -- a technology of the native peoples of the Amazon, who effectively used it to terraform amazingly productive food forests.

Terra Preta was formed by a type of slash and burn agriculture, not the kind we today associate with the loss of biodiversity and destruction of the forests, but a technique that did just the opposite. In actuality, there was no burning - the technique seems to have involved allowing the biomass to smolder, creating an incredibly carbon rich biochar.

This method, of thermally converting organic matter in the absence of oxygen, actually absorbs prodigous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks the carbon into the biochar. In other words, its an excellent carbon sink - something we need right about now.

Moreover, this biochar material makes for very productive soil, something else that seems pretty useful.

OK, now that's very cool. But what really got me going is yet to come.

You see, the method to produce this biochar - from organic wastes of any type, really - is pretty much precisely the same as the used to produce woodgas.

And woodgas, my friends, can be burned directly in a gasoline engine. Or it can be converted into liquid fuel. Or it can be converted into hydrogen.

So just to make sure I've got this straight. A fuel cycle that converts waste to usable, transportable energy while absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and locking it into a highly fertility enhancing soil amendment. Wow.

So I got turned on to all this from the Mechabolic project, spearheaded by Chicken John and Jim Mason . The famed Burning Man artists / engineers / tinkerers have already built a gasifier in the bed of Chicken John's truck and drove it around Berkeley. But that's just the start. The Mechabolic project is audacious and super cool; check it out.

Meanwhile, hey, this is America. It seems like you could make a good living from something like this. Well, if I was the first one to think of it, would I be telling you? Seriously though, there is a company out there commericalizing this, Eprida. It looks like good stuff.

That said, the potential here is clearly enormous. From a commerical perspective, this may not be the most lucrative proposition - since the basic concept was put into practice thousands of years ago (talk about prior art!), and woodgas has been around for 150 years or so. But I'm sure there are tweaks to take it to scale.

Moreover, this is just the ticket for the Permaculture scene. And if the petroleum economy takes a dump, boy will gasification come in handy!

All that said, what I'm really excited about is witnessing the creations of these Burning Man folks; massively fire-spewing mechanical monsters that suck CO2 out of the sky and deposit in their wake fecund black earth.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

California Solar Incentives...Revisited

Gov. Schwartznegger today announced sponsorship of legislation to fix the California Solar Incentive program in Southern California.

For months now, there has been a flaw in the program that virtually shut down the solar industry in Southern California Edison (SCE) territory. An article in the LA Times yesterday gives background on the issue. Interestingly, the announcement from Schwartznegger's office came late this afternoon, but actually advocacy groups (CalSEIA, PV Now and Vote Solar) have been working behind the scenes since January.

This is a major serving of humble pie the the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), who really should not have launched a program with such a glaring flaw.

The problem, basically, is that SCE required PV customers to go on time-of-use (TOU) rates. TOU basically means that you pay significanylu more for electricity in times of peak demand. In theory, this actually works quite well with solar as rates are generally highest when PV systems put out the most energy. However, SCE's rates stayed high until relatively late in the afternoon, when output would start to trail off. This made PV uneconomical unless you could put in a large enough array to ensure electricity usage in the late afternoon was adequately offset by generation. Unfortunately this proved impossible for most small customers, who were constrained either by space or available capital.

Schwartznegger's bill will immediately and retroactively allow PV customers to go back onto the standard rate.

It is good to see this problem resolved. However, it could just be the tip of the iceburg for issues in the CSI program. Many of the concerns raised previously about the New Homes program have yet to be resolved. Since no systems applied for under the program have been fully signed off on to date, the system has yet to be fully tested. There are also a number of inconsistancies between, and hiccups within, the performance modeling packages used in the New Homes and retrofit programs. Meanwhile, in the large commercial program the performance-based incentive program seems to be going more smoothly, even as installers adjust their product mix to best take advantge of it's structure.

The hope was that the CSI program would be a shining example of an optimized incentive program, but unfortunately it's rollout was rushed due to a legislated start date of January 1, 2007. Meanwhile, the understaffed PUC and CEC, were heavily dependent on consultants who worked with limited oversight. Some of these were not actually PV experts and others brought their own agendas to the table. Additionally, the PUC and CEC efforts were not well coordinated (if they were coordinated at all). All in all, the concept was good but the execution and details rather half baked. Now everyone is trying to sort out how these programs will actually operate in an ad-hoc manner, and the PV industry will pay the price for the CEC's and PUC's bungled rollout. The added overhead and churn effectively reduces the incentives by increasing the costs incurred by the industry to comply.

Schwartznegger's bill is a step in the right direction. It will hopefully resolve this one major problem, but it seems likely that other issues will shake out of the woodwork as the year goes on.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Citizenre - Brief Follow-UP

No, I am not totally Citzenre obsessed but a recent comment on a previous post got me thinking.

The DOE just awarded $168 MM in their Solar America Initiative (SAI). The goal of this initiative is to stimulate PV R&D and manufacturing, with the goal of PV generated electricity being the same cost as conventional energy (grid parity) by 2015. It specifically encourages US-based PV manufacturing.

Now, Citizenre has been claiming that they will effectively be able to accomplish grid parity much sooner, with a fully integrated US-based cell, module, and inverter plant.

However, they were not awarded an SAI grant.

Either they did not apply (dumb move, because all of their competitors did; and were awarded between $3.6 - $20 MM over the next three years); or, they couldn't convince the DOE that they are for real.

I don't know which is the case, but either way I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for these guys to bring down the cost of solar.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Controversy Erupts Over Citizenre

All is not harmonious in the solar world after the publishing of an article about Citizenre in Renewable Energy Access.

The highly critical opinion piece, entitled "Citizenre: A House of Cards?" accuses the secretive renewable energy start-up of setting impossible expectations in the minds of it's "Ecopreneur" sales force and for potential renewable energy customers.

REA has followed up with a highly informative and balanced Podcast on Citizenre.

Citizenre's business model has been one lightning rod of criticism. Rather then selling PV systems, their model is to rent them to consumers at the same cost they are currently paying for electricity. Claiming that they will be able to start doing this in September 2007, in any state with net metering, implies that Citizenre has found a way of achieving "grid parity" -- that is, solar electric generation that is the same cost of buying energy for the utility.

Adding to the furor is the fact that Citizenre is employing the technique of "multi-level marketing" (MLM) to sell their systems. Amway is the best-known company to employ this technique. Independent Ecopeneurs who sign up with the company are given some training, then go out to and get customers signed up and build their "downline". The more levels beneath them in their "downline", the more potential money a Ecopeneur can make on the "residual" income streams passed up the line. This model has it's share of critics.

Adding fuel to the fire, an internal strategy memo was leaked this week that calls into question the underlying economics and marketing strategy. Claiming that the organization has lost control of it's sales associates and their claims - now posted all over the web, of free solar power and millions to be made by signing up - the memo posits a major PR disaster looming for the company. Said PR disaster appears to be unfolding at a rapid pace.

It is quite clear that most informed commentators simply can't get their heads around how it's possible that Citizenre can lower their costs enough to achieve grid parity all the way down to utility rates at $0.07 / kWh.

Citizenre claims the following will allow them to do this:

1) Vertical integration. Citizenre will build out a 500 MW cell and module plant (the largest in the world), coming online in 100MW phases. They claim that Phase 1 will be online in September and 500 MW will be online in 24 months. They will also be building their own inverters, and will standardize the installation systems. They claim this will increase efficiency and reduce the amount of markup in the value chain.

2) AC modules. Each module will have an inverter and this will save installation time, eliminate DC redundancies, and improve efficiency.

3) Low-cost, unconstrained silicon supply. Citizenre will be making cells from ingots that are produced partially with metallurgical grade silicon rather than solar grade polysilicon, which is in relatively short supply due to production constraints and high demand.

5) Claims competitors are not focused on reducing costs, and are trying to rake in "feast year" profits after "famine years" in the industry.

6) Claims they have $650 Million in funding.

Much has been written about the financial aspects of Citizenre's offering. Let me just state that their model implies, in most states, an installed system cost of around $4.00 / Wp. It seems quite a feat given that the average retail price for PV modules in the US is $4.80 / Wp.

Keep in mind that this is before the cost of installation, balance of system components, overhead or margins. I know, but can't tell you wholesale module pricing to a large integrator; and what it costs us to put in systems of all sizes (efficiently). I also know, but can't tell you what it costs a module manufacturer to make a module. However, I can tell you that no amount of vertical integration or standardization gets you to $4 /W installed, in 2007, using crystalline modules. It's not even possible to get there using the most inexpensive thin-film technologies, because they are so inefficient that all of the fixed costs are spread out over fewer installed watts.

Also, I have to point out the $650 million is a lot of dough, yet no investors have been announced, and despite many requests Citizenre has yet to confirm that they actually are in possession of the funds. This has led some to believe that the funding does not exist.

However, assuming for a moment that Citizenre is totally legit and aboveboard, I'd like to focus on some of the technical issues implied by these claims.

First, lets get this out of the way: a new company with no track record in the industry claims to be building the largest solar module production facility in the world. They have not yet selected a site for said plant, never mind started construction nor even gained permits.

From this facility, they say they'll be able to produce UL Listed modules at the rate of 100 MW per year within 8 months. These will be AC modules - PV modules packaged with small integrated inverters of the company's own design.

For reference, industry experts say that in normally would take 18-24 months to bring a 100 MW plant online. Typically, it takes about 6 months to obtain a UL Listing on a module (after production on a pilot line produces product to test). I am speculating that Citizenre may be considering the use unconventional materials in their PV laminates in order to lower costs. If unconventional materials are used this could stretch out UL Listing further. Presumably getting an AC module approved could significantly complicate the Listing process.

Moreover, one would expect that anything done differently along the lines of module construction would also significantly delay product roll-out because of the long-term testing required to validate the reliability of the product. Even with conventional laminate construction, introducing AC modules is a very significant change from normal practice and there will be a steep learning curve; taking customers along the ride up that curve can be painful, if not fatal for any company. Taking shortcuts on reliability testing, while tempting, would be a major mistake. Even small changes in module construction have resulted in major issues, BP's recent experiences being a prime example - they have had two recent recalls, one due to a fire hazard and another due to shorting from a minor production process change.

Most PV manufacturers are extremely focused on quality and reliability because they are on the hook for 25 year performance warrenties, and their brand is at stake. However, reliability is particularly crucial to Citizenre's model. In order for their finances to work, they must be vey confident that their systems will actually produce what they are predicted to produce. This means these guys need to be very sharp with their energy modeling capabilities (which is difficult even for experienced industry players) and they need excellent reliability from their products, both in terms of avoiding physical failures and performance degradation. In order to keep their costs down, they will need to avoid service calls.

Getting back to the AC modules for a moment, let's recall that inverters are the Achille's heel of any grid-tied system. Well engineered power electronics, like inverters, typically demonstrate a Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) of 100,000 hours -- which is to say about 11 years. Like many systems, failures tend to lie on a "bathtub curve". The rate of failures is relatively high for newly installed products; this is often referred to as "infant mortality". Any slight defect in power electronics tends to be revealed quickly once energized (the magical go-genie typically escapes from the device in the form a of a puff of smoke). Over time, failures stabilize at a low level. Then, as the 100,000 hour mark approaches, there is an accelerating frequency of failures as the old dogs lie down for a last nap.

This is relevent because with AC modules, 10-20 of these devices will be deployed instead of one. This means that there is a 10 - 20 X chance of failure. Now, it is true that ACPV will degrade more "gracefully" in case of failure - one failed inverter doesn't take the whole system out of commission. This seems at first blush to be an advantage, but consider a few things. One, if a central inverter goes down it is very obvious if you are paying the slightest bit of attention to system performance. Two, swapping out a centrally mounted inverter is pretty easy. It's mounted in an accessible location and is designed to be readily installed. Three, once you swap out an inverter, it's very unlikely to fail again at that location unless there is a separate problem (i.e. dirty power on the utility side).

Now imagine that you have 20 inverters on a roof. If one fails, system output decreases by 5%. It might be hard to ascertain that this has occured due to normal variations in the weather, but if you are Citizenre, it's hitting your bottom line. The loss will continue until the problem is discovered and technicians are dispatched to fix it - in most cases, said technicians will be from local installers who will be more likely inclined to do a higher margin job, like putting in a system, on any given day. To service it, you have to get on a customers roof, figure out which unit has failed and partially disassemble the array to access and replace it. It all costs time and money. Not only that, but your chances are then 20 times higher that you will have to go back to the same house to replace a different inverter, also a vicitim of infant mortality, a week, a month, or 6 months later. If there is a secondary problem like dirty grid power, it will probably take even more service calls, and scrapped inverters, to figure out what's going on.

Moreover, module-integrated inverters will be operating in a harsher thermal environment -- i.e., much hotter. This will result in reduced lifetime.

Something else to point out on costs - in order to have a fighting chance of determining that an inverter has gone down in a timely fashion, and determining specifically which one has gone down without a snipe hunt, requires that there be fault monitoring & communication capabilities in each inverter; that will add cost. From what I've seen in my time in the PV industry, it's almost always better to have fewer, bigger inverters than many small inverters. The redundancy just isn't worth it - it only leads to deferred replacement and ends up costing more money in the end. There are advantages to AC modules, but the idea has been around for years, and the advantages have never outweighed the liabilites.

So, my point is that the use of ACPV really cuts against their business model, where reliability has to be absolutely paramount; any small gains in efficiency (and these are questionable) will quickly be overwhelmed by reliability problems.

Onto another issue - Citizenre's claim that they will be using metallurgical grade silicon. This means they will be using a silicon source that has no commercial track record and which will result in low efficiency cells and modules -- this will drive cost per watt up, not down. Moreover, it poses both schedule and reliability risks. Let's be clear about this - no one has ever made photovoltaic cells from metallurgical grade silicon outside of pilot lines. Dow-Corning is currently producing this type of silicon from the first factory of it's kind, in Brazil, but it is not intended to replace polysilicon, rather it is typically blended at only 10% with polysilicon. If Citizenre is truely building it's plant around this technology, it is an audicious move indeed - especially given that polysilicon prices are set to fall dramatically starting in 2008 as expected production comes online.

As far as the solar industry not being "lean and mean", I can tell you from experience that at least where I sit, the solar industry is cutthroat about cost reduction. Standard efficiency PV modules are becoming a commodity, with low cost Chinese cells and modules flooding into the market (still significantly more expensive than the cost Citizenre requires). Standardization is not yet a reality in the retrofit market, because it is quite difficult to accomplish. However, successful large system integrators have driven the costs of large-scale PV installations downward very aggressively through standardization and sophisticated logistics; still, costs are significantly higher than Citizenre claims it can achieve in the much more difficult to serve retrofit market. The PV industry is highly competitive at every level of the value chain. It consists of many large, well funded entities staffed with extremely savvy technical and business people, as well as a multitude of small, scrappy, hungry (and increasingly well funded) startups, all competing for market share. Citizenre is correct in identifying the residential retrofit installation market as fragmented and relatively inefficient. However, the fragmentation that exists is a response to market conditions. Small, agile companies with low overhead, a laser-like focus on their local market, a desire to do quality work, and a committment to educating their customers are successful; word of mouth referrals are key. An attempt to parachute in with "standardized" offerings and a slick marketing approach is likely to collide messily with the facts on the ground.

Finally, some thoughts on the use of MLM by Citizenre. This method of sales and marketing is normally used to sell customers on the emotional value of products. Products typically offered by MLMs are things like cosmetics, vitamins, water purifiers, and motivational books - which often have little inherent value, aside from the extent to which the customer (and the salesperson) believe they "need" it. The technique tends to encourage hype and sales for sale's sake.

It heavily depends on motivational themes and "positive thinking" to encourage low level sales associates to work hard for little gain, while often framing questions or dissent as negativity and a lack of will. Rob Styler, the current VP of Marketing at Citizenre, was formerly at Equinox - a MLM company that had numerous civil and criminal suits filed against it, and which eventually dissolved it's assets and setted with victims for $40 million. Interestingly, Equinox focused on "eco-friendly" consumer products. Styler has written a book about the experience. As MLM models often veer dangerously close to illegal pyramid schemes, many question this choice of business model.

This aspect of Citizenre deeply concerns many in the PV industry, because there is clearly a powerful emotional element. Most people who are in the business are "true believers". Those who buy the systems do so, in part, because they want to do right thing and help to solve serious problems. However, PV is fundamentally about technology and financials. Those who have been in the industry for a long time, seem to have a consensus that the right approach is to have a deep understanding of these fundamentals and educate their customers so that they have the facts. In contrast, it appears that Citizenre Ecopreneurs and executives are promising many things that are physically impossible to deliver, at least in the time frame that is claimed.

The problem is that if enough people are taken in by unrealistic hype, once it is revealed that they've been taken for a ride they may turn, not just against Citizenre, but against PV. Once people's trust has been broken, it is extremely difficult to regain it. The solar industry was incredibly burnt by the solar thermal debacle of the early '80s -- another era when the hype machine significantly outpaced reality, and fly-by-night manufacturers dumped shoddy products into an overheated market. That experience, and the long solar winter that followed, has led many to say never again.

For myself, I think that there are many interesting aspects to Citizenre's model. Offering no-money-down financing to residential customers would greatly accelerate PV acceptance. It's not a new idea, it's just that no one has gotten it to work in this difficult market segment. If Citizenre can do it, more power to them.

That said, I hope that if there are unseemly shenanigans frolicking in Citizenre's shadowy recesses, that they are brought to light now. Rumors abound that there are still other shoes to drop with regards to this story. No money has yet changed hands and Citizenre hasn't yet done any permant damage to the reputation of the PV industry. So, now's the time to get it all out in the open. It will be much to Citizenre's credit to transparently address these issues, move forward, and be successful in rolling out solar power to the masses.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

SunTile on CNN

SunTile was recently featured on CNN's Headline News. The video is here.

It's a nice short piece. And it features Ray Kurtzweil! Can't get much cooler than that.

SunTile has gotten quite a bit of media attention in the last six months, but it's very rewarding to see something I've spent so much time and effort on get some props as a featured "cutting edge design" - making "solar power, stylish power" - on a national news show.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Building-Integrated Wind Turbines

turbine_up, originally uploaded by windswimin.

Blue Green Pacific is a renewable energy company that's working towards making microwind energy generation ubiqitous in the urban environment.

As an intial step, they've installed a small Windside turbine on a San Francisco residence. This is the first residental wind turbine installed in the city.

The heavily monitored, seashell shaped turbine is nearly silent, aesthetically unobtrusive, and does well in turbulent, shifty wind environments - all crucial in an urban setting.

It's a great first step in a promising direction. Blue Green Pacific will be collecting data on the turbine's performance to ensure that the economics are compelling. Let a thousand little wind machines bloom!

On a whole different scale, the recently announced "Zero Energy High Rise" in Guandong, China is also an exciting project aiming to bring renewable energy generation to high-density urban setting. The project, commissioned by the Guandong Tobacco Company (!?!) for their headquarters, will supposedly require no net energy to operate due to advanced energy efficiency features, integrated wind turbines, and PV. Hopefully, it will come to pass as envisioned by the architects.

One of the most intriguing possibilities that Building Integrated Wind Turbines (or BIWT) allow is the use of the structure's architecture to accelerate wind flow around and through buildings, and thence into the turbines, improving their performance. Conversely, wind machines could be used to absorb energy from the wind, in effect providing a mechanical shelter belt or wind break in areas where trees - used for millenia in this role - are impractical.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Biodiesel Council Of California

I'm happy to announce my election to the Advisory Council of the Biodiesel Council of California (BCC). In this role, I hope to work with the BCC staff, general membership, and other AC members to guide the BCC's activities this year. I am also looking forward to continuing my education on all things biodiesel and what needs to be done to advance it in a sustainable manner.

On the Advisory Council, I particularly see myself as a consumer advocate - unlike most people active in the BCC, I don't make a living by producing or distributing fuel. If you are a California biodiesel user, I'd like to hear about your experiences and any concerns you may have. If you are interested in using biodiesel but something is stopping you from doing so, I'd like to hear about that as well. Please email me.

The BCC has declared 2007 to the "The Year of the Farmer", with an focus on working with the agricultural community to produce sustainable, local feedstocks for the California biodiesel industry. This is a very important piece of the picture and something I'm excited to learn more about.

I'll post on the BCC's activities regularly as things unfold.

If you are interested in the development of a sustainable biodiesel industry, please consider joining the BCC and supporting their work.