Thursday, October 19, 2006

Solar Power 2006 Wrap-Up

Solar Power 2006 came to an end today. I was on the show floor yesterday, mostly just walking around, checking things out, and asking questions.

The scene was very buttoned-down and corporate, with a distinct silicon-valley tech feel. In years past such a conference would always feature the big players, but you could count on a reasonable contingent of of wacky visionaries touting their wild, and woefully underfunded, concepts. There was very little of that this year, as it seems many of the wacky visionaries have hooked up with venture capital - and there seemed to be quite a few VC reps working the floor, as well.

In fact, if anything the show felt a lot like the dot-com days come again; a bit long on cash and short on sense.

There were a lot of really nice booths. Sharp's was two stories, with a live installation demonstration, MC'd by a perky young woman in a very short skirt. Q-Cells and Suntech -- two cell manufacturers who recently made splashy IPOs, one out of Germany and one out of China -- each set up sizable "lounges" filled with uncomfortable post-modern furniture. Evergreen, a US based cell manufacturer with a unique manufacturing technique, set up one of their string ribbon pullers (not operational). Satcon brought in their 500 kW inverter -- a beast of a unit, about half the size of a bus, as if to erase any doubt that solar power can be utility-scale.

The point of all this is just to say that this show really brought home that the solar industry is just that - an industry - and also a sometimes messy but always fascinating mash-up of widely divergent disciplines and people. For me, the really cool thing about the PV industry is that it there are so many odd, and fertile, intersections.

First of all, there is the matter of scale. At one end, there was a company promoting it's line of 15W - 35W portable power packs, slick little aluminum boxes with cells encapsulated on top and white LEDS in a line along the side, equipped with a DC output and built in batteries. On the other end, you've got stuff like that Satcon inverter; that's 4 orders of magnitude right there. Then you've got PowerLight putting in powerplants that require 22 of those inverters.

Also, there's the sheer variety of personalities and expertise rubbing elbows. I ran into PhDs working on nanotechnology semiconductors, contractors looking at roof racks, VC lawyers, German polymer scientists, new home builders, utility reps, policymakers, and vendors promoting not just what you might immediately expect but also everything from industrial robots to monitoring software to custom module fabrication in Shanghai (promising 1 week turn-around - unless it's a government holiday).

There were a few interesting new products that stood out, although I hesitate to call them products because they were really just prototypes.

On the cell side, XsunX was showing off their roll-to-roll amorphous silicon cells, produced at lab scale. Transparent cells, deposited on plastic film. Very cool but clearly not ready for prime time. Konarka had a booth but wasn't making a big splash. If Nanosolar had a presence, it was well hidden; for all the buzz they've generated they are still staying out of the limelight, continuing to raise gobs of venture capital for a product that does not appear to yet have manifested on the earthly plane.

What with the silicon shortage, concentrators were all over the place. The most interesting one came from a company with a most uninteresting name, Practical Instruments (don't worry, you can still call your solar company Sensible Tools). Anyhow, their module-integrated tracker was pretty neat. I think Energy Innovation's rooftop tracker is interesting too, however, they didn't bring it to the show. I'm not entirely convinced that these concepts which require little plastic gears to turn for 20+ years on a roof are really going to pan out. Roofs are hot, wet, dirty places full of nasty surprises and my feeling is that before long these little integrated trackers are going to get something stuck in 'em. There was also a company pitching this massive mirror-trough system that they claimed could go on a roof, and provide both electricity and process heat with 1500X concentration. I forget what they were called but it's bold, I'll give them that.

BIPV for new homes was low key. Sharp, Kyocera, and Open Energy had products on display, but not prominently. PowerLight didn't have any products on display, focusing instead on presenting videos and photos. GE Energy had one booth space at the show - other big players had at least 3 spaces - and I didn't even notice them (so much for "Ecomagination"). On that note, if “Beyond Petroleum” had a presence, I didn’t see it.

For the most part, however, I was actually a bit surprised at how little was new, given the amount of attention (and IPOs) in the PV world this last year. There's been incremental improvement but not a lot of breakthrough technology. It seems to me that there's a lot of room for improvement with regards to module construction and mounting hardware. All of the big buzz, supposedly crystalline-killing technologies printed onto plastic are barely out of the lab; and the innovative concentrating concepts seem to be poised to break into the market just in time for the polysilicon supply crunch to let up as manufacturing capacity comes on-line.

On that note, SunPower continues to rock. They had a very busy booth and unveiled a quite spectacular 315 W module, larger but not by much than competitor's modules in the 210W range. They seem to still have improvements up their sleeves, and have continue to demonstrate that high-efficiency moncrystalline cell technology is not going to be an easy benchmark to surpass as far as value and reliability.

So, to wrap up, it was quite an interesting show. While there were no blockbuster technologies, it was simply fascinating to circulate through the show, meet with old collegues, overhear conversations, check out ideas and see aspects of the industry that I'm not normally exposed to.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Changin' The Rules

So, as I mentioned previously, there are some pretty big changes in the works for the PV industry. In addition to the recent approval of a BIPV acceptance criteria, there are two other major shakeups in progress.

First, the adoption of a new incentive program in California is barrelling ahead.

On the large commercial side (systems over 100 kW), a Performance Based Incentive will be put into place starting January 1st. This is basically the European feed-in tariff model, with solar generation paid $0.39 / kWh. This was legislated in the California Solar Initiative (CSI) managed by the California Public Utilities Commission. It contains triggers that reduce the incentive amount based on the total rebate reservations in the system, so that as the industry grows the rebate shrinks. This seems like a good model, and hopefully will be as successful as the European and Japanese programs that it is based on.

For small commercial and residential retrofit, things don't change much. There is a declining incentive schedule, but it is still a capacity incentive, starting at $2.50 / Watt.

Where things get interesting is the New Solar Homes Partnership (NSHP). Unlike the other rebates, this is managed by the California Energy Commission. While still not fully defined, there is a draft guidebook. This program is for residential new construction, and it is still a "predicted" performance based incentive program with an up-front rebate computed based on system performance modeling.

Some of the issues that I identified earlier have been dealt with. Specifically, there is a provision for "flexible installation" where a blanket rebate can be taken for homes that fall within certain parameters. This reduces the problem with timing deals versus site planning.

One very interesting and positive aspect is that the PV incentives are linked to energy efficiency, allowing builders who implement energy efficient features (better than 30% lower consumption than already stringent Title 24 energy efficiency code requirements) to gain bigger rebates. Intriguingly, it also writes PV systems into Title 24 for the first time, treating them like any other energy-reducing measure.

Overall, however, the program is starting to look quite onerous, especially for BIPV. The way that data is gathered and BIPV is modeled, this technology is hit with a series of small performance penalties that don't exist in the real world. The resulting decrease in incentive is in effect an increase in cost. The program requires a series of inspections, both by the installer and a 3rd party - adding more cost. It will also eventually require testing to international (IEC) standards that are not currently part of the US certification process, something that will be unique to this market segment. Finally, there is fierce debate over a proposal that will require a unique module power rating system for this market segment.

The "dings" that BIPV takes are particularly problematic because many builders are unwilling to install solar, period, unless it is BIPV. By making BIPV more expensive, the simple and obvious end result is that less PV will be installed and the program goals are less likely to be met.

The intention is to protect the consumer, and ensure accurate system ratings, to which I say bravo. However, it seems to me that this is a poor choice of venue to tackle some of these issues.

The problem boils down to two things.

First, what is the acceptable deviation of an individual module from it's "nameplate rating"? As it currently stands, if you go out and buy a 200W module from company X, UL says that the module must have power within +/- 10% of that rating (or the tolerance on the nameplate - typically +/- 5% - whichever is less). It should be noted that PV manufacturers can readily hold tolerances within +/- 5%. So, according to UL, a 200W module that puts out 180W is perfectly OK.

The problem historically is that if you tested a whole bunch of modules, you would probably find that the "average" 200W +/- 10% module was more like a 190W +/- 5% module. You weren't likely to find any 220 W modules!

As buyers have wised up, this problem has diminished because they've insisted that the average power over some (large) sample meet nameplate specifications, while allowing for a reasonable tolerance.

The second issue, once you've defined how much power a module is expected to make under specific test conditions, is how much energy it will produce in real life. That's what people really care about. So, the question becomes how does one properly model PV system performance? This is quite complex, and as always, garbage in garbage out. The model may be properly designed but if the input parameters aren't collected in a well-defined, repeatable, and very well thought-out way there will be problems. Unfortunately, a lot of the testing protocols are effectively being defined in a committee process at the last minute; some of them simply have large inherent uncertainties; and many are fairly expensive and are not currently required. The CEC software model itself has not been publicly released, so no one has a had a chance to "test drive" it and see how well it predicts the performance of existing systems.

Attempting to implement back-door regulatory controls onto a relatively small subset of the global market, in order to steer the PV industry in a certain direction, is not a good idea in my opinion. There are other venues for this that, while slower, will make changes more uniform.

It should also be noted that in really competive markets, like Germany, manufacturers are guaranteeing very tight tolerances (such as -0% / +2.5%) on modules. This is not because of any government regulations but because consumers are educated and the PV manufacturers jockey to position their products in this manner. It seems to me that the issue will take care of itself as the California market heats up.

Nonetheless, changes are afoot at the national level as well. Currently, work is ongoing to "harmonize" the venerable UL 1703 PV Module standard with IEC 61215 and IEC 61646 . These latter standards are not just for safety, as is the case with the UL standard. They are also concerned with qualification and performance. That is, there is testing included which is designed to ensure that the modules perform as advertised, and will continue to perform for 20+ years. Performance will probably not be part of the scope ruled into 1703, but qualification probably will be.

In any event it makes sense to me that rather than requiring early adoption of IEC 61215 in a subset of California's market, that the CEC simply allow the changes of 1703 to take their course and then fill in gaps if required at that time. They will probably have to require a subset of the testing in 61215 just to gather performance data. This shouldn't be a problem for anyone. However, the full qualification sequence is expensive and time consuming.

The bottom line is that things are changing, and on the whole, in the right direction. However, the devil is in the details. Getting solar on new homes is far easier than retrofitting it later, and it would be a shame to see this powerful section of the market gummed up in red tape. Unfortunately, it seems as if that's a likely outcome under the current plan.

Solar Power 2006

Solar Power 2006 is this week in San Jose. I'll be down there tomorrow - should be interesting.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tanzania pictures up!

TZ - 86, originally uploaded by windswimin.

I just got all of my pictures from Tanzania up on Flickr.

This one is from the solar training. I'm the white guy trying to avoid getting sunburned. I was co-teaching with Alex Mapunda, in the purple shirt, who is an auto electrican from Dar Es Salaam.

All photos are at

Saturday, October 07, 2006

An Important Milestone In Maintreaming Solar Electricity

Last Thursday, in Birmingham, Alabama, an important goal was reached in assuring the mainstream acceptance of solar power.

The accomplishment was the approval of new guidelines (called Acceptance Criteria or AC) by an organization called the International Code Council - Evaluation Services (ICC-ES). This document, AC 365, addresses the safety and performance of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) as a roofing material.

Now, this is all very boring and technocratic. In the big picture, though, it is a huge signal that the PV industry is maturing. It is extraordinarily important that as BIPV is rolled out in ever larger amounts, that it performs the way people expect it to. If sub-par products are being installed, the inevitable failures could cripple the entire industry.

Back in the late '70s and early 80's, badly designed incentive programs resulted in a lot of poorly made solar thermal systems being installed. The subsequent failures set solar energy back 20 years. Given the current state of the world, this cannot be allowed to happen again.

Now before getting into the meat of this, a quick primer is in order here. BIPV are PV modules that are integrated into the building envelope. Thus, they must function as a building material as well as an energy conversion device. AC 365 covers BIPV that is integrated into clay and concrete tile or asphalt shingle roofs. That is, it covers the BIPV products used in most residential new construction. My favorite example (because I designed it) is PowerLight's SunTile.

This type of design is finding a favor among new home builders because the aesthetics are superb as compared to standard "rack and stack" PV systems, with the modules supported above the roof.

Despite builder's enthusiasm for the technology, it is often tempered with concern. Roof leaks are a huge liability for buiders and they seek assurance that the BIPV will be as effective a roofing material as the rest of the roof. Building departments are often even more skeptical. They require proof that these products will be safe in fires, windstorms, and hailstorms; that they won't break if someone walks on them or leak in heavy rains; and will be as durable as other roofing products.

This is where ICC-ES comes in. The International Code Council (ICC) is the semi-public body that writes what are known as model building codes - the International Building Code (IBC) being one example. Building departments then adopt these codes and they have the force of law in those jurisidications. The ICC itself is primarily made up of building code officials and the process of writing these codes is public (though not widely publicized).

ICC-ES deals with products which are not addressed by the building codes -- innovative products that, when local building officials are asked to approve, they scratch their heads. This has been the situation that BIPV installers have faced when trying to pull permits. It requires a lot of education of building officials on the issues, not least because many of the BIPV products on the market may not perform adequately as a roof. AC-365 specifically covers BIPV as a roofing material, and not electrical safety (which is already addressed by Underwriter's Laboratory requirements) or solar performance.

So when ICC-ES releases this draft criteria on January 1st, 2007, this means that there are a standard set of requirements that everyone can go by. Manufacturers can perfom testing, and if successful, obtain an Evaluation Report (ER) that proves to building officials and clients that they comply. This will significantly smooth the permitting process and facilitate the sale of these systems.

The release of this AC is the first step towards the eventual incorporation of BIPV requirements into the International Building Code. Hopefully, these requirements will be written into the 2009 IBC, which will have force of law in many jurisidictions in 2010. At that point, BIPV will be firmly established as a mainstream building material, on par with all other types of roofing.

On a more personal note, I am very happy to have been to be part of this precedant-setting process. I worked closely with ICC-ES staff in writing AC-365. While getting this acccomplished is clearly of great importance to my employer, I was also glad to see that one of our biggest competitors showed up at the meeting and spoke in support of the criteria.

Meanwhile, there are are couple of other very important regulatory issues being resolved at the moment. More on this in a future post.