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.