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Cleaner, safer energy services

posted Apr 8, 2014, 9:16 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

The cost of energy in South Africa has increased rapidly and this trend shows no sign of abating. In 2013, the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) announced that the price of electricity will increase by at least 8% a year for the next five years until 2018, while the cost of paraffin [kerosene] – an energy source commonly used amongst low-income communities across South Africa – has more than quadrupled since the year 2000.

While the South African government has made great strides in delivering access to basic services for previously disadvantaged populations since the onset of democracy in 1994, there remains much to be done. More than 3,4 million people do not have a grid connection, and even among those that do, many continue to use multiple sources of energy (e.g. paraffin, candles) as a coping strategy for dealing with rising energy prices. Power cuts also occur quite regularly, particularly in low-income communities (townships). Dangerous and polluting energy products (such as braziers, paraffin stoves and candles) are widely used and devastating shack fires are commonplace, affecting thousands of people every year. One solution to this problem is the implementation of privately led, market-driven initiatives that aim to not only deliver clean, safe and reliable energy products to low-income communities, but also provide entrepreneurial opportunities to residents. EnerGcare is attempting to do just this.

Established as a for-profit social business in 2010, EnerGcare was created with three key objectives in mind:

  • Firstly, to reduce energy poverty through increasing access to affordable renewable and efficient energy solutions at the "Base of the Pyramid (BoP)";
  • Secondly, to reduce unemployment and poverty by providing opportunities to start EnerGcare franchises and/or selling EnerGcare products through existing township-based retailers;
  • Finally, to reduce pollution and environmental degradation through replacing fossil-fuel based energy appliances and practices with EnerGcare products.

EnerGcare was developed and implemented as a partnership between PlaNet Finance, Restio Energy and The Business Place Philippi. Says Frances Fraser, Regional Director of PlaNet Finance Southern Africa: "developing a model for sustainable access to clean and renewable energy options, requires a strong partnership between different stakeholders committed to resolving these issues."

So, how does it work? EnerGcare is built around a network of Independent Distributors (see interview with Independent Distributor Ncediwe Singiswa) – currently operational in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Potchefstroom – who reside in the townships themselves. The Independent Distributors market and sell a range of renewable and efficient energy technologies for cell phone charging, cooking, heating and lighting. All products sold by EnerGcare need to carry manufacturers' warranties, be affordable, user-friendly, robust and meet the quality standards of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the World Bank's Lighting Africa initiative. Independent Distributors buy goods at wholesale prices, enabling them to earn a commission on each product they sell. Explains Thabo Tsobane, EnerGcare Project Manager: "townships have limited awareness of these products. That is why we are using a direct sales approach where people can actually touch the products and see how they work". EnerGcare further provides after-sales support as well as induction training, sales training, an EnerGcare starter kit and on-going marketing support.

EnerGcare is a proud flagship project of the Western Cape government's '110% Green' Initiative that aims to connect environmental preservation with economic growth through creating a green economy. It is also registered on other renewable and clean energy platforms and databases including the Cape Town Green Map, Enviropaedia and the REEGLE Clean Energy Information Gateway.

2014 will see EnerGcare rapidly expand its operations into South Africa's rural and peri-urban areas, working with established retailers and local authorities. The initiative is also set to grow its network of distributors through cooperation with organisations such as the SEDA Atlantis Renewable Energy Business Incubator (SAREBI), and has a number of exciting new products being added to its catalogue.

2011 was ninth-warmest year since 1880

posted Jan 21, 2012, 8:54 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

Washington - The global average temperature last year was the ninth-warmest in the modern meteorological record, continuing a trend linked to greenhouse gases that saw nine of the 10 hottest years occurring since the year 2000, NASA scientists said on Thursday.

A separate report from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the average temperature for the United States in 2011 as the 23rd warmest year on record.

The global average surface temperature for 2011 was 0.92 degrees F (0.51 degrees C) warmer than the mid-20th century baseline temperature, researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies said in a statement. The institute's temperature record began in 1880.

The first 11 years of the new century were notably hotter than the middle and late 20th century, according to institute director James Hansen. The only year from the 20th century that was among the top 10 warmest years was 1998.

These high global temperatures come even with the cooling effects of a strong La Nina ocean temperature pattern and low solar activity for the past several years, said Hansen, who has long campaigned against human-spurred climate change.

The NASA statement said the current higher temperatures are largely sustained by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is emitted by various human activities, from coal-fired power plants to fossil-fueled vehicles to human breath.

Current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceed 390 parts per million, compared with 285 ppm in 1880 and 315 by 1960, NASA said.

Last year was also a year of record-breaking climate extremes in the United States, which contributed to 14 weather and climate disasters with economic impact of $1 billion or more each, according to NOAA . This number does not count a pre-Halloween snowstorm in the Northeast, which is still being analyzed.

NOAA's National Climatic Data Center said the average 2011 temperature for 2011 for the contiguous United States was 53.8 degrees F, which is 1 degree above the 20th-century average. Average precipitation across the country was near normal, but this masks record-breaking extremes of drought and precipitation, the agency said. - Reuters

Originally posted on IOL Scitech

Hong Kong clean air targets fail to impress

posted Jan 21, 2012, 8:46 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA   [ updated Jan 21, 2012, 8:48 PM ]

Hong Kong - Environmentalists on Wednesday expressed disappointment at new clean-air targets for Hong Kong, as research showed pollution-related illnesses killed more than 3,000 residents a year.

In the face of mounting public criticism and allegations that it is soft on polluting industry, the government on Tuesday announced its first revision to air quality objectives (AQOs) in 25 years.

But the tighter standards will not be implemented until 2014 and fall well short of World Health Organisation guidelines.

“We welcome these measures as a small step in the right direction, but I have to say they are disappointing,” Friends of the Earth Hong Kong senior environmental affairs manager Hahn Chu said.

“These measures fall far short of WHO guidelines and do not guarantee public health safety.”

The new objectives impose more stringent limits on the atmospheric concentration for seven pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead.

For the first time the city will measure airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5, which are more harmful than the larger particles currently measured.

Heavy polluting vehicles will be phased out, hybrid or electric vehicles will be promoted and more use will be made of natural gas.

Mike Kilburn, head of environmental strategy at independent think-tank Civic Exchange, asked why two years had passed since the government pledged to update its air quality targets.

“These are the same air quality objectives that the government put out in 2009 and they came out unchanged. Frankly we see this as the government's reaction to Beijing rather than the demand of Hong Kong people for clean air.”

Beijing bowed to a vocal online campaign earlier this month and said it would provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measurements ahead of the Lunar New Year on January 23.

Kilburn said the 2014 timeframe for Hong Kong's new standards would allow infrastructure projects like a planned third airport runway to go ahead despite pollution concerns.

Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau said the WHO standards were a “distant target” for a city like Hong Kong, which is regularly blanketed in smog from factories and power stations in mainland China.

“Given the surrounding environment of Hong Kong, we cannot set a goal that is unachievable,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the University of Hong Kong released updated research showing 3,200 Hong Kongers died each year from illnesses related to bad air, up from the previous estimate of 1,000.

Economic losses to the southern banking and finance centre were estimated at HK$40 billion (more than $5 billion) annually.

“Hong Kong's air quality has been deteriorating over 20 years and today presents a serious daily threat to the health of the public and for future generations,” the university said in a statement.

It said official air quality standards used to communicate health hazards to the public were “primitive and seriously misleading”.

“The risk categories... bear no relationship to the currently measured bad health outcomes in the population,” it added. - Sapa-AFP

Originally posted on IOL Scitech

Can Projects Move Ahead In This Difficult Economic Environment?

posted Dec 11, 2011, 5:08 AM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

For the past two years, the renewable energy industry was able to take advantage of a powerful financial vehicle, namely the 1603 Grant in Lieu of Tax Credit that was offered to developers of qualifying projects. But with the grant set to expire at the end of 2011, many are wondering how the industry will fare without it.

"The financing of wind projects and solar projects and other technologies is going to fall back to the pre-grant incentives, namely the production tax credit and the investment tax credit," said Jeff Davis, a partner and co-head of the renewable energy practice at Mayer Brown.

During those pre-incentive days, projects relied on funding from tax equity markets, which at the time had plenty of money to offer. But since the crash in 2008, the tax equity market hasn't bounced back as much as many hoped it would. "Unfortunately, corporate America still hasn't returned to the halcyon days of yesteryear where there were significant profits and thus tax bills," said Davis.

He thinks the tax equity markets are still under tremendous pressure. "We are still in a situation that we've been in since 2008 where the tax capacity or the ability to monetize those production tax credits and investment tax credits hasn't really recovered," he said.

Jonathan Postal, senior vice president at Main Street Power, also thinks the grant will be allowed to expire and that it will cause "a significant hiccup to the financing market."

Postal thinks we'll see more innovation in deal financing, similar to what we saw before the grant was passed. "You're going to need multiple partners, different ownership structures. Banks aren't going to just do the financing, " he said.

"I don't think the private equity groups are going to be as game to do just the pure equity play, so it's going to make things significantly more challenging," he continued.

Ed Feo of USRG Renewable Group said he'd expect to see the capacity of the tax equity market drop by as much as 40 percent if the grant is allowed to expire, something that he is prepared to fight tooth and nail. He said of the grant, "the smarter bet is that it is going to expire and those of us who are willing to fight to the death are going to say 'call me on December 24th and I'll let you know.'" Feo believes that there is still more analysis that needs to be done on the number of jobs that will be impacted in the renewable energy sector if there is no grant. He isn't prepared to write it off yet.

Main Street Power's Postal isn't that worried about losing the grant. He indicated that his company is actively seeking good deals and is ready to scoop up those solar deals that have all their ducks in a row but just can't take the project "across the finish line."

He thinks the grant program allowed a lot more players into the field, many of whom brought just one deal to the table. After the grant expires, "the guy that has one good project will be in trouble," he said. "We'll be happy to look for partners to sell those."

Another issue that will surely play out in 2012 will be the extension of the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy projects. That program is scheduled to sunset on Dec. 31, 2012. Feo thinks it will be extended but admits that the political climate is pretty difficult right now. "This is not a happy time for renewables on the political side," he said.

Mayer Brown's Davis thinks 2012 could be tough on the wind market one way or another but especially by the end of 2012. "It's a little easier to say that at the end of 2012, we'll see a significant falling off if that [the PTC] is not extended regardless of what happens to the grant," he said.

Will that mean that solar will maintain a steady project pipeline but wind won't? "For 2012 it's hard to say who's going to feel more pain or who's going to withstand the pending expiration. Certainly, once you get past 2012, unless we get an extension of the PTC, solar is the clear winner," said Davis. Solar projects can take advantage of the PTC until 2016.

That said, Main Street Power's Postal thinks that solar deals will certainly be more difficult to close in 2012. "I think, by the end of the year [2012], it will end up being less solar was done in '12 than was done this year [in 2011]," he explained.

The other key trend to watch in terms of renewable energy financing will be the price of solar panels. "High-quality Chinese panels are coming in south of a dollar or certainly in that range so people are doing forward pricing on that number for a year from now and you're looking at 80 cents [per watt] for panels, even 75 [cents per watt]," he said. Postal believes those low prices are a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, with prices that low, many markets are getting pretty close to grid parity, he said, which would mean more and more attractive deals in certain high solar markets. "On the other hand it's not U.S. companies [that are making the equipment], he said, something that angers many in the industry. An international trade dispute was recently filed against Chinese panelmakers, which could result in higher prices for crystalline silicon panels in the future.

Project developers benefit from low prices, however, and Postal was quick to add that once grid parity is achieved, U.S. companies still benefit. "It is U.S. project companies like ours [doing the projects] - it's just the equipment that is coming in from overseas," he said.

Renewable energy financiers agree that no matter what, 2012 will be a tough one for renewables. While the first half of the year may look better than the second half due to the completion of projects that began under the grant, the second half may turn out to be pretty bleak.

"I think '12 is going to be rough," concluded Postal. "I think you're going to see a lot of the finance space, the development space."

Postal said he expects that many of the "three- to five-person firms" that set up shop recently to try to ride the renewables wave will close in 2012. "I think a lot of them will decide 'this is too painful to stay in this industry,'" he said.

By Jennifer Runyon, Managing Editor,

New Switch Could Improve Electronics

posted Dec 3, 2011, 8:29 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have invented a new type of electronic switch that performs electronic logic functions within a single molecule. The incorporation of such single-molecule elements could enable smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient electronics
electronic switch
The research findings, supported by a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, were published online in the Nov. 14 issue of Nano Letters.

"This new switch is superior to existing single-molecule concepts," said Hrvoje Petek, principal investigator and professor of physics and chemistry in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and codirector of the Petersen Institute for NanoScience and Engineering (PINSE) at Pitt. "We are learning how to reduce electronic circuit elements to single molecules for a new generation of enhanced and more sustainable technologies."

The switch was discovered by experimenting with the rotation of a triangular cluster of three metal atoms held together by a nitrogen atom, which is enclosed entirely within a cage made up entirely of carbon atoms. Petek and his team found that the metal clusters encapsulated within a hollow carbon cage could rotate between several structures under the stimulation of electrons. This rotation changes the molecule's ability to conduct an electric current, thereby switching among multiple logic states without changing the spherical shape of the carbon cage. Petek says this concept also protects the molecule so it can function without influence from outside chemicals.

Because of their constant spherical shape, the prototype molecular switches can be integrated as atom-like building blocks the size of one nanometer (100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) into massively parallel computing architectures.

The prototype was demonstrated using an Sc3N@C80 molecule sandwiched between two electrodes consisting of an atomically flat copper oxide substrate and an atomically sharp tungsten tip. By applying a voltage pulse, the equilateral triangle-shaped Sc3N could be rotated predictably among six logic states.

The research was led by Petek in collaboration with chemists at the Leibnitz Institute for Solid State Research in Dresden, Germany, and theoreticians at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, People's Republic of China. The experiments were performed by postdoctoral researcher Tian Huang and research assistant professor Min Feng, both in Pitt's Department of Physics and Astronomy

ScienceDaily (Dec. 1, 2011)

Drop in Carbon Dioxide Levels Led to Polar Ice Sheet

posted Dec 3, 2011, 8:21 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

A drop in carbon dioxide appears to be the driving force that led to the Antarctic ice sheet's formation, according to a recent study led by scientists at Yale and Purdue universities of molecules from ancient algae found in deep-sea core samples.
The key role of the greenhouse gas in one of the biggest climate events in Earth's history supports carbon dioxide's importance in past climate change and implicates it as a significant force in present and future climate.

The team pinpointed a threshold for low levels of carbon dioxide below which an ice sheet forms in the South Pole, but how much the greenhouse gas must increase before the ice sheet melts -- which is the relevant question for the future -- remains a mystery.

Matthew Huber, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue, said roughly a 40 percent decrease in carbon dioxide occurred prior to and during the rapid formation of a mile-thick ice sheet over the Antarctic approximately 34 million years ago.

A paper detailing the results was published on Dec. 1 in the journal Science.

"The evidence falls in line with what we would expect if carbon dioxide is the main dial that governs global climate; if we crank it up or down there are dramatic changes," Huber said. "We went from a warm world without ice to a cooler world with an ice sheet overnight, in geologic terms, because of fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels."

For 100 million years prior to the cooling, which occurred at the end of the Eocene epoch, Earth was warm and wet. Mammals and even reptiles and amphibians inhabited the North and South poles, which then had subtropical climates. Then, over a span of about 100,000 years, temperatures fell dramatically, many species of animals became extinct, ice covered Antarctica and sea levels fell as the Oligocene epoch began.

Mark Pagani, the Yale geochemist who led the study, said polar ice sheets and sea ice exert a strong control on modern climate, influencing the global circulation of warm and cold air masses, precipitation patterns and wind strengths, and regulating global and regional temperature variability.

"The onset of Antarctic ice is the mother of all climate 'tipping points,'" he said. "Recognizing the primary role carbon dioxide change played in altering global climate is a fundamentally important observation."

There has been much scientific discussion about this sudden cooling, but until now there has not been much evidence and solid data to tell what happened, Huber said.

The team found the tipping point in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for cooling that initiates ice sheet formation is about 600 parts per million. Prior to the levels dropping this low, it was too warm for the ice sheet to form. At Earth's current level of around 390 parts per million, the environment is such that an ice sheet remains, but carbon dioxide levels and temperatures are increasing. The world will likely reach levels between 550 and 1,000 parts per million by 2100. Melting an ice sheet is a different process than its initiation, and it is not known what level would cause the ice sheet to melt away completely, Huber said.

"The system is not linear and there may be a different threshold for melting the ice sheet, but if we continue on our current path of warming we will eventually reach that tipping point," he said. "Of course after we cross that threshold it will still take many thousands of years to melt an ice sheet."

What drove the rise and fall in carbon dioxide levels during the Eocene and Oligocene is not known.

The team studied geochemical remnants of ancient algae from seabed cores collected by drilling in deep-ocean sediments and crusts as part of the National Science Foundation's Integrated Ocean Drilling program. The biochemical molecules present in algae vary depending on the temperature, nutrients and amount of dissolved carbon dioxide present in the ocean water. These molecules are well preserved even after many millions of years and can be used to reconstruct the key environmental variables at the time, including carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, Pagani said.

Samples from two sites in the tropical Atlantic Ocean were the main focus of this study because this area was stable at that point in Earth's history and had little upwelling, which brings carbon dioxide from the ocean floor to the surface and could skew measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Huber said.

In re-evaluating previous estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels using deep-sea core samples, the team found that continuous data from a stable area of the ocean is necessary for accurate results. Data generated from a mix of sites throughout the world's oceans caused inaccuracies due to variations in the nutrients present in different locations. This explained conflicting results from earlier papers based on the deep-sea samples that suggested carbon dioxide increased during the formation of the ice sheet, he said.

Constraints on temperature and nutrient concentrations were achieved through modeling of past circulation, temperature and nutrient distributions performed by Huber and Willem Sijp at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The collaboration built on Huber's previous work using the National Center for Atmospheric Research Community Climate System Model 3, one of the same models used to predict future climates, and used the UVic Earth System Climate Model developed at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

"The models got it just about right and provided results that matched the information obtained from the core samples," he said. "This was an important validation of the models. If they are able to produce results that match the past, then we can have more confidence in their ability to predict future scenarios."

In addition to Huber, Pagani and Sijp, paper co-authors include Zhonghui Liu of the University of Hong Kong, Steven Bohaty of the University of Southampton in England, Jorijntje Henderiks of Uppsala University in Sweden, Srinath Krishnan of Yale, and Robert DeConto of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The National Science Foundation, Natural Environment Research Council, Royal Swedish Academy and Yale Department of Geology funded this work.

In 2004 the team used evidence from deep-sea core samples to challenge the longstanding theory that the ice sheet developed because of a shift from warm to cool ocean currents millions of years ago. The team found that a cold current, not the warm one that had been theorized, was flowing past the Antarctic coast for millions of years before the ice sheet developed.

Huber next plans to investigate the impact of an ice sheet on climate.

"It seems that the polar ice sheet shaped our modern climate, but we don't have much hard data on the specifics of how," he said. "It is important to know by how much it cools the planet and how much warmer the planet would get without an ice sheet."

ScienceDaily (Dec. 1, 2011)

How Tariffs Could Impact Solar Industry

posted Nov 25, 2011, 7:43 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

Would tariffs placed on Chinese solar panels amount to "protectionism?" Are the companies most critical of the trade complaint "just crying foul?" And what's more important to American companies, the race to grid parity or the desire to reclaim solar manufacturing from China?

With the creation of competing coalitions, the sides have been clearly labeled, and the opinions have become increasingly entrenched. But there remains a striking lack of clarity about what happens if and when tariffs are placed on solar panels and cells imported into the U.S., and how that could ultimately impact American businesses and American solar capacity.

Those answers are hard to come by as the solar industry anxiously waits for an investigation of whether China has been illegally dumping solar panels into the U.S. market to come to an end. Will the prices coming out of China be ruled legitimate? Will the U.S. International Trade Commission find culpability, but implement a small tariff that would give American panel makers a moral victory but keep the U.S. market open to Chinese companies? Or will the tariffs be so high that it will sever the market to Chinese companies, and significantly increase the price of solar?

News developments over the past week continue to cloud the road ahead as SolarWorld in Europe considers its own trade complaint and as China weighs filing its own anti-dumping petition against American polysilicon manufacturers.

But this much is clear. There are many stakes in this battle, and just as many perspectives. To get a better sense of the potential road ahead, we spoke with executives across the industry about the challenges they face and the outcome they envision.

For today’s first installment, we spoke with Andrew Beebe, Chief Commercial Officer for Chinese panel manufacturer Suntech, and Mark Simmons, Chief Operating Officer for ClearEnergy, a distributor who recently decided to sever ties with panels coming out of China because of difficulties associated with volatile prices.

In the second installment next week, we’ll hear from Ben Santarris, the Head of Communications with SolarWorld, and Jigar Shah, CEO of the Carbon War Room and founder of SunEdison.

If you have a perspective you'd like to share, please comment below or send an email to

The Chinese Panel Maker

Perhaps no other company outside of SolarWorld finds itself more central to the trade complaint than Suntech. The company’s Chinese operations are massive, the biggest in the world. But the company has also targeted the U.S. manufacturing sector in a way that no other Chinese company has. Its 40 MW facility in Goodyear, Ariz., is now churning out American-made panels targeted to American-built solar projects that will power American lives.

Suntech has been a vocal player in the American solar space, but its American position — and one could argue its future American prospects — are threatened by the trade petition. SolarWorld’s complaint targets Chinese panels and cells, meaning the cells Suntech makes in China and ships to its facility in Arizona could themselves be hit by the tariffs meant to protect American solar panel makers.

Suntech’s Beebe is adamant that regardless of the outcome of the trade dispute, his company is here to stay, and that the projects for which it is supplying panels, including Sempra’s 700-MW Mesquite Solar project outside Phoenix, will move ahead as planned. Mesquite’s initial 230 MW will use Suntech panels, including some made at the facility nearby.

While some argue that a Chinese company’s presence in the American market is about turning a couple of screws and slapping on a “Made in the U.S.A.” sticker, Beebe says the opposite is true for facilities that import the cells made in China.

“The module process is labor intensive and it’s real,” said Beebe. “It’s the most manufacturing intensive part of the process. Making cells is a significant process as well but our cell lines [in China] are extremely automated. If you’d walk through the production lines [of cell manufacturing], you’d see very few people.”

Its production facilities aside, Beebe says his company sources so much of its products globally that the company perhaps felt a bit insulated when word about a possible trade dispute began to circulate. With offices in Europe and Japan, as well as in the U.S., Beebe says Suntech sees itself as a global company as much as a Chinese company. He says they source on average 50 percent of what goes into each panel from outside China, and 25 to 30 percent comes from the U.S., mainly from polysilicon.

That means the company is hugely invested in the American and European markets, and it in fact sees the Chinese companies that are often grouped as one entity in the American media as the firms they need to beat on pricing and efficiency.

“Our fiercest competitors are our Chinese peers,” said Beebe. “There’s no real, general love across this industry from a Chinese standpoint.”

It’s those Chinese companies, says Beebe, who have the most to lose in the price wars regardless of the outcome of the trade complaint.

“We’re in a hyper competitive environment,” he said about the falling prices and the eventual shakeout that many are predicting. “The cost leader here is a U.S. company, First Solar. It’s not due to one country or another; it’s due to the extraordinary rush of companies that has taken place over the last couple of years, and it’s led to an oversupply of capacity. It’s been a great time to be a customer of solar, but the inevitable ramification of that is not everyone is going to make it.”

The U.S. Distributor

Regardless of what was driving down prices, Simmons realized he had a problem on his hands last spring. Simmons and his bosses from his parent company in Germany were seeing the prices begin to slide. As a distributor, he was buying panels from China-based UpSolar, and in April the wholesale list price for developers and installers was between $1.82 and $1.93 per watt.

From there, the prices of what he was buying from China (which he said he cannot disclose) dropped so dramatically and so quickly, that he found himself stuck with inventory that was being undercut almost daily. To keep pace with the prices, and the surging demand, Simmons had to continually buy the cheaper modules and find a way to get rid of the higher cost inventory. But by the time those modules would get in his hands, eight or nine weeks later, the prices would no longer be competitive. It’s an issue he says that many distributors are grappling with.

“The distributors get stuck,” he said. “They can’t sell what they previously had, but if they stop buying, then they only have the more expensive modules left. You have this pressure from the installers saying, ‘Hey, I can get it cheaper elsewhere,’ and it’s probably true in this case.”

By July, when more Chinese panels were imported into the U.S. than all of 2010, Simmons knew some changes were needed. With $1.5 million in Chinese panels in inventory, he did what few in the industry did. He changed his business plan and moved away from the Chinese imports.

“We cancelled containers that were on the way,” said Simmons. “If the question is cheap, cheap, cheap always, then whoever can buy the largest volume with the fastest delivery will always be the cheapest. And there’s no sustainability in that model.”

So now Simmons buys American-made panels from Sharp and panels made by Sovello in Germany. But he didn’t have to pay April prices once he made the changes. According to Simmons, the wholesale list price offered to developers and installers for those Sharp and Sovello panels are now between $1.34 and $1.37 a watt, having been forced to come down to compete with the Chinese prices. He says he could buy Chinese panels direct from manufacturers for under $1 a watt if he wanted to.

“We’ve gotten really positive reaction since we went away from China,” said Simmons. “But talk is cheap. ... We’re still constantly asked for cheaper, cheaper and cheaper. At least 90 percent of the market is looking for cheap.”

As a smaller distributor, he’s been content to focus on the 10 percent of customers that are perhaps looking past the initial price. If and when tariffs are set, he believes more in the industry will end up seeing things from his vantage point.

“[Once tariffs hit], it will stabilize the market,” he said about the cost per watt. “The list price of modules — the distributor prices for manufacturers — I think will stabilize in the $1.30 range. In the $1.20 range there will be some margin for manufacturers. Under $1.20, manufacturers will not be able to stay in business. Manufacturers are dying off and it’s already happened. That’s the result of not stabilizing.”

He also sees return on investment (ROI) as a far better measuring stick than cost per watt, which is generally how prices are measured. The combination of energy efficiency and panel cost is ultimately what will define the financial success of a project, he says.

“At $1.35, panel prices are already low enough. You don’t need cheaper modules to get a good ROI,” said Simmons, whose company uses energy efficiency tools in combination with solar to get a quicker payback. “More important than grid parity is ‘sellability.’ You have to show a price they can afford and an ROI they can approve of. If you use the right product mix, we’re there already anywhere in country.”

By Steve Leone, Associate Editor,

First Solar Achieves 5GW Photovoltaic Production Milestone

posted Nov 17, 2011, 9:07 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) today announced cumulative production has reached 5 gigawatts (GW), or 66 million solar modules, capable of generating enough clean electricity to power approximately 2.5 million homes. The company began commercial production in 2002 and has since grown to become one of the world’s largest solar module manufacturers, with 36 production lines on three continents.
“This milestone helps advance our mission of providing clean solar electricity at affordable prices. Our ability to scale high-volume production has been a key factor in reducing the cost of renewable energy,” said Tymen DeJong, First Solar Senior Vice President of Global Manufacturing.

First Solar recently announced that implementing technologies and processes derived from its research and development (R&D) program produced a world-record 17.3 percent efficient cadmium telluride solar cell in July, resulting in average module conversion efficiency of 12.4 percent from its best-performing production lines during the third quarter.

Efficiency gains have also enabled the company to begin production of 87 watt modules, which produce higher amounts of electricity when installed in the field.

Five GW of solar generation displaces 3.3 million metric tons of CO2e annually, the equivalent of taking 650,000 average cars off the road or planting 84 million trees each year.

On a life cycle basis, systems using First Solar modules also have the lowest carbon footprint and fastest energy payback time—the amount of time a system must operate to recover the energy that was required to produce it—of any other photovoltaic technology. This enables systems using First Solar modules to provide the greatest and fastest environmental benefits.

TEMPE, Ariz.--(Solar Energy News)

Experts Say, Killer Solar Flares Are a Physical Impossibility

posted Nov 16, 2011, 8:57 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

Given a legitimate need to protect Earth from the most intense forms of space weather -- great bursts of electromagnetic energy and particles that can sometimes stream from the sun -- some people worry that a gigantic "killer solar flare" could hurl enough energy to destroy Earth. Citing the accurate fact that solar activity is currently ramping up in its standard 11-year cycle, there are those who believe that 2012 could be coincident with such a flare.
solar flares
But this same solar cycle has occurred over millennia. Anyone over the age of 11 has already lived through such a solar maximum with no harm. In addition, the next solar maximum is predicted to occur in late 2013 or early 2014, not 2012.

Most importantly, however, there simply isn't enough energy in the sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth.

This is not to say that space weather can't affect our planet. The explosive heat of a solar flare can't make it all the way to our globe, but electromagnetic radiation and energetic particles certainly can. Solar flares can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite to Earth causing it to be off by many yards. Another phenomenon produced by the sun could be even more disruptive. Known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), these solar explosions propel bursts of particles and electromagnetic fluctuations into Earth's atmosphere. Those fluctuations could induce electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids. The CME's particles can also collide with crucial electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt its systems.

In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone relies on cell phones and GPS controls not just your in-car map system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that govern financial transactions, space weather is a serious matter.

But it is a problem the same way hurricanes are a problem. One can protect oneself with advance information and proper precautions. During a hurricane watch, a homeowner can stay put . . . or he can seal up the house, turn off the electronics and get out of the way. Similarly, scientists at NASA and NOAA give warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators, and airline pilots before a CME comes to Earth so that these groups can take proper precautions. Improving these predictive abilities the same way weather prediction has improved over the last few decades is one of the reasons NASA studies the sun and space weather. We can't ignore space weather, but we can take appropriate measures to protect ourselves.

And, even at their worst, the sun's flares are not physically capable of destroying Earth.

Posted on ScienceDaily

How Energy Levels Align in a Critical Group of Advanced Materials: Engineers Solve Energy Puzzle

posted Nov 6, 2011, 8:49 PM by GreenerZA SolarSolutionsZA

University of Toronto materials science and engineering (MSE) researchers have demonstrated for the first time the key mechanism behind how energy levels align in a critical group of advanced materials. This discovery is a significant breakthrough in the development of sustainable technologies such as dye-sensitized solar cells and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

Transition metal oxides, which are best-known for their application as super-conductors, have made possible many sustainable technologies developed over the last two decades, including organic photovoltaics and organic light-emitting diodes. While it is known that these materials make excellent electrical contacts in organic-based devices, it wasn't known why -- until now.

In research published in Nature Materials, MSE PhD Candidate Mark T. Greiner and Professor Zheng-Hong Lu, Canada Research Chair (Tier I) in Organic Optoelectronics, lay out the blueprint that conclusively establishes the principle of energy alignment at the interface between transition metal oxides and organic molecules.

"The energy-level of molecules on materials surfaces is like a massive jigsaw puzzle that has challenged the scientific community for a very long time," says Professor Lu. "There have been a number of suggested theories with many critical links missing. We have been fortunate to successfully build these links to finally solve this decades-old puzzle."

With this piece of the puzzle solved, this discovery could enable scientists and engineers to design simpler and more efficient organic solar cells and OLEDs to further enhance sustainable technologies and help secure our energy future.

Posted on ScienceDaily

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