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Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing

I’m going to have to start posting more frequently. My last post was about solar firms going bankrupt in China and now my cleantech news is about how solar is set to rebound. Seems like something should have happened in between that post and this one.

Actually, a few biobased chemical deals were announced. Thanks BASF and Evonik!

Stuttgart solar cell project

Making a better solar cell. Credit: University of Stuttgart Institute of Photovoltaics

Anyway – back to solar. Earlier this week, Lux Research (a rather skeptical gang generally) put out a summary of a new research report titled “Solar’s Great Recovery: Photovoltaics Reach $155 Billion Market in 2018.”

Actually, solar had a great 2012 – at last in the U.S. – but that was mainly due to installations of several large utility projects. The business of producing those solar modules had hit some major potholes. Around five years ago, solar demand was hindered by high prices – held up by shortages of key polysilicon raw material, but balanced by huge subsidies in Europe, especially in Spain and Germany. Then – in the nature of boom and bust cycles – the high prices prompted huge polysilicon capacity increases. Then prices fell, Europe cut subsides, the recession hit… and all that new capacity made solar prices tank and inventories piled up. Whew – what a tale.

In a fun new twist, according to Lux analyst Ed Cahill, the solar crisis will become a boon as record low prices boost demand. (And after that what will happen? Stay tuned).

The rise will take place as those cheaper installations (especially utility and commercial rooftop) become routine and spread into new markets. U.S., China, Japan, and India are expected to speed up installations. That will help to power (no pun intended) a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10.5% over the next three years.

A few other things might help – according to this New York Times article, the U.S. and Europe are both working to smooth over trade disputes with China. Regional pricing schemes may take the place of tariffs. China had been accused of exporting solar modules at prices less than the cost of production (a practice called “dumping”). China, in turn, accused polysilicon makers in the U.S. and Europe of doing the same thing.

All of this fun news is not likely to help revive solar module manufacturing in the U.S. or in Germany. But new technology might. My colleague Alex Scott flagged a news item from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Photovoltaics. Researchers there have tested a crystalline silicon solar cell with a 22% sunlight conversion efficiency. It is difficult to say how much a module made of these cells would convert, but a traditional module is normally around 15%.

The secret to the team’s work is a design that puts the metal contacts on the back layer of the cell, using a laser. While hanging out on the back of the cell, the material will not block light hitting the front of the cell. Ta-da! More electrons.

 

 

No Magic In China’s Solar Industry

Sunday I picked up an actual print copy of the Washington Post. In the Business section was a feature by Steven Mufson on the rise and fall of Chinese solar firm Suntech – which was at one time the world’s largest producer of crystalline silicon solar panels. In mid March the firm defaulted on $541 million worth of convertible bonds.

(The story of Suntech’s founder and now-former CEO, Shi Zhengrong, is also captured in the feature. A true rags to riches tale.)

In the waning months of 2012, pundits were forcasting major financial problems for some of China’s humongous solar companies – but many expected that the government would prop them up with loans to keep them afloat. There were many reasons why it might have: China wants to hold on to its dominance in making solar modules for export, it has huge targets for domestic installations, it has a policy of subsidizing industrial expansion, and it can provide both cheap electricity and cheap financing.

Mufson explains how Suntech was caught up in a very expensive race to the bottom in solar module production – overcapacity (in expensive facilities) and rapidly shrinking margins, fueled unhelpfully by China’s green economy plans. The U.S. added to the woe by slapping a tariff on solar modules imported from China (oversupply set the stage for what trade officials like to call dumping).

Mufson writes:

Until now, policymakers in China have used subsidies to create a world-leading “green tech” industry that would push the country up the economic value chain. But green tech doesn’t guarantee thriving businesses. In the race for global solar supremacy, world manufacturing capacity has grown to 60 gigawatts, most of it in China. That outpaced solar demand, which is expected to reach about 35 gigawatts this year, enough to power about 26 million homes. So prices of photovoltaic panels have plummeted, and it will take three to five years for overcapacity to shrink, says Bill Wiseman, managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey’s Taipei office.

China has other very large solar producers in addition to Suntech and LDK. They also have Trina Solar and Yingli. Four huge vertically integrated module makers was at least two too many. Analysts will be watching margins and debt very carefully now that it is clear that China’s future financial support for solar companies is not guaranteed.

Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents

Thanks to the wonders of internet technology (specifically, online newspapers, e-mail, and Twitter), I have been immersed today in a veritable blizzard of communications about whether particular technologies are bad for us or for the planet, and what should be done about them. Truly, a wide range of people, opinions, and actions.

GMOs
I much enjoyed a radio interview/debate about legislation that would force food makers to label food containing genetically modified organisms. If you have a few spare minutes, check out this KPBS San Diego piece featuring Steven Briggs, Distinguished Professor, Section of Cell and Developmental Biology, UC San Diego, and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

http://www.kpbs.org/audioclips/17711/
[the interview starts at about minute 1:10]

The show addresses a bit of background: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a GMO labeling bill in the Senate. A state referendum in California to require labeling was defeated in the recent election. And a recent poll claims that 91% of consumers are in favor of labeling.

In the interview, Briggs states that efforts to require GMO labeling are based on confusion about GMOs and are not about nutrition or safety but about ideology (specifically anti-corporate ideology). Bronner, on the other side, says consumers want information about GMOs and have a right to know. He says that while our experience so far does not show that GMOs have caused health problems, the consumers want to understand what method of agriculture produced their food. He also states that GMOs promote non-sustainable farming.

In the interview, Bronner mentions two aspects of GM technology that you can read about in C&EN:
A new GM apple
http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i14/Engineered-Apples-Near-Approval.html
And new seed traits that confer tolerance to older herbicides 2,4 D and Dicamba http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i21/War-Weeds.html

For a longer, though more one-sided discussion of the possible benefits of GMOs, there is a new book out, called the God Species by Mark Lynas, a historian and writer of global warming warning books. He recently did an eco-about-face and came out in favor of GM technologies. Prior to that coming out, he had been an anti-GMO activist.

For a hefty dose of his thinking, you can read an essay here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/04/time-to-call-out-the-anti-gmo-conspiracy-theory/

He would probably not be in favor of requiring GMO labels on food. In the essay (actually a speech) is this line: “Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.”

Cosmetics Ingredients/Industrial Chemicals
I also got an e-mail titled “Shareholders urge Avon to Detox.” An investor fund with strong activist leanings, the Green Century Equity Fund, has filed a shareholder resolution asking Avon Corporation to phase out what it calls hazardous chemicals in its cosmetics and personal care products. Green Century urges Avon to follow the lead of Johnson and Johnson, which said it would phase out certain ingredients starting with its baby products.

The fund lists 1,4-dioxane, retinyl palmitate, formaldehyde, triclosan, and phthalates as some of the hazardous chemicals of concern commonly found in many personal care products.

The general outlines of this campaign has been in the works for a good while – you can read more in a C&EN feature from back in 2010: Preservatives Under Fire
http://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i20/Preservatives-Under-Fire.html

Taking a much broader scope, public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have collaborated on a book detailing the political history of lead exposure and public health. They wrote an essay that got picked up and republished on Bill Moyers website. The title would make any chemical firm’s PR department clench: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube. The gist is that the decades-long fight to reduce children’s exposure to harmful lead will be fought again against today’s common stuff like vinyl, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/29/your-body-is-a-corporate-test-tube/

Nuclear Weapons
I’m including this mostly because it involves terrific story telling. Three outsiders on a peace mission from God broke into nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge National Lab. As profiled in the Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/

Solar Boom in Japan, with Battery to Match

Japan has been making large strides in solar since the Fukushima disaster, and those efforts look set to accelerate, at least in the near term. The country, which is not blessed with a wealth of fossil fuel resources, had relied heavily on nuclear energy, but it is now spending big for solar installations as well as energy storage.

Just in time for Earth Day, Bloomberg is reporting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to spend around $204 million on a battery system to stabilize the flow of solar power on the northern island of Hokkaido. The location’s less expensive land has attracted ground module solar power systems. The report did not state what type of battery will be used, though Cleantech Chemistry will be looking for updates. The ministry is targeting 2015 for the system to be up and running (up and storing?)

The country began a generous feed in tariff for solar in July, which attracted just over 1.33 GW of installations through the end of January of this year. According to IHS iSuppli, the FIT is around 42 cents (in U.S. currency) per kilowatt hour, which is quite generous.

Though the tariff may be scaled back as systems come online, IHS forecasts that Japan will install 5 GW of solar capacity this year. To put that figure in perspective, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association reports that 30 GW of grid-connected solar was installed globally in 2012, about the same as in 2011.

Natural Gas and Cleantech

Cleantech fans: it is time to educate yourselves. Set aside for a moment your interest in wind energy, solar, bio-based chemicals, biofuels, and electric vehicles and read this week’s story about what the U.S. may do with its abundant natural gas.

Here are some things that the country can do with natural gas: it can make electricity, upgrade it to useful chemicals, use it as a transportation fuel, or export it. The U.S. has access to so much natural gas that it could do all four things. And do them all cheaply, and profitably compared to our trade partners.

At this point, even if you only use your knowledge about the promise of cleantech at cocktail parties, you should start to think about the impact of abundant natural gas on your favorite technologies.

My colleagues Jeff Johnson and Alex Tullo’s feature asks what effect DOE policies on liquefied natural gas exports might have on the chemical industry and the wider economy. The flip question – not addressed in the story — is what impact natural gas that stays in the U.S. will have on the competitiveness of renewable energy and materials innovations.

At the recent ARPA-E show, I saw energy technology that is seeking to take advantage of abundant natural gas – and the speakers at the conference were rather fixated on the topic. (see my story on the ARPA-E Show in this week’s issue). Alert readers will recognize which minority member of the Senate appears in both articles.

I hate to give away the ending of the natural gas story but (spoiler alert!) U.S. natural gas prices will stay low even if we ramp up exports. When I was in school and my class learned about the Panama Canal, one of my classmates couldn’t understand why engineers had to build locks to compensate for the different sea levels between the Pacific and Atlantic. Once you connected the two oceans, wouldn’t they level out? Well, no.

Similarly, there is a small aperture through which natural gas would escape U.S. borders via the export market. Liquification imposes a significant surcharge on every unit of gas, it costs a lot to build a plant to do it, the export hubs need to be brought online, and there is a backlog in approving facilities. But read the full story and get the full picture.

There’s Still Hope for Energy & Materials Start-ups

Funding for cleantech and related start-ups can be feast or famine. Government, venture capital, and corporate backing ebbs and flows. One constant, though, is that technology entrepreneurs should never miss a chance to get in front of investors.

On February 25, start up executives will pitch to investors at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. An event run by Future Energy will provide the space, a slide template, and a panel of experts for Q&A. In the audience will be people from corporations and other kinds of investors who will be attending the ARPA-E gathering to hear from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and the folks who dispense money from DOE.

Future Energy is a part of a larger organization called Ultralight Startups. Shell, through its program Shell Game Changer, is the main sponsor. Future Energy founder Graham Lawlor tells Cleantech Chemistry that unlike internet startups which are legion and fill to overflowing many investor pitch events, his events are specific to energy and cleantech and he has to go out and find tech start-ups for the slots. But he’s not worried, because the scientists and engineers are out there with good ideas.

In 2012, Future Energy held two events in Boston and two in New York. This year they’ll head also to Silicon Valley. At the ARPA-E event in DC, two of the companies pitching won their slots through an online voting mechanism. You can go to their website to apply for future events through the first half of the year (tell your friends!). You can see a video of United Catalyst at an event last year pitching technology for inorganic catalysts designed for cellulosic ethanol production. The pitches are only 3 minutes long, so its good to pare down your story to bare essentials.

Also investing seed money in energy start-ups is Lux Capital, which today announced commitments totally $245 million for its third venture fund. The fund is fairly broad- the firm is looking for unusual opportunities in energy, healthcare and technology.

The ever-enthusiastic Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital co-founder and managing partner, describes his strategy this way:

“At Lux, we are sticking to our knitting to build a concentrated portfolio of extraordinary companies in unconventional areas,” says Wolfe. “Many of the themes and entrepreneurs we’re excited about—in 3D printing, metamaterials, robotics and breakthroughs in solid-state electronics—are non-obvious, and that’s by design. We believe the combination of brilliant entrepreneurs and deep scientific innovation drives immense industry shifts and profits. Both at Lux and our companies, we’re growing rapidly and calling for the boldest and brightest that want to invent and invest in the future.”

 

Thin film solar maker Miasolé bought by China’s Hanergy

Hanergy, a China-based renewable energy company, announced today that it has completed its acquisition of thin-film solar firm Miasolé. The buyer first reached a purchase agreement with Miasolé’s investors in September.

Of the many photovoltaic manufacturers out there – and/or recently bankrupt – Miasolé is one of the most elegant. And not just because of its attractive-sounding name (news reports online have stripped it of the accent aigu — it’s pronounced MiasolA).

Miasolé makes thin film solar cells of the copper indium gallium selenide variety. This is an attractive technology because it is possible to make CIGS as efficient as heavier traditional polysilicon solar PV. The first thin-film technology was based on amorphous silicon (a technology that Hanergy plans to abandon), which was much less efficient than traditional solar cells. In theory, CIGS can be manufactured in long, flat, flexible sheets and installed in places that cannot support other kinds of solar panels.

For now, CIGS material on the market has an upper-bound efficiency of about 12% or so, while traditional solar starts there and goes up a bit. CIGS are more expensive, and are much more difficult to manufacture.

For Miasolé’s part, in May the company reported that NREL confirmed a 15.5% efficiency on its newest commercial, flexible CIGS cells. It is not clear what the efficiency of a fully installed system would be. But it shows that this firm has been pushing the technology. Back in 2011, it worked with semiconductor maker Intel to help it ramp up its manufacturing. At the time, the company said it was using a low-cost sputtering technology for materials deposition.

News reports have estimated that Hanergy spent about $120 million to buy Miasolé’, a company that was valued as high as $1.2 billion in 2008. Hanergy makes most of its money by generating power from hydroelectric installations. Last year it also snapped up Solibro, a unit of Germany’s solar manufacturer Q-Cells.

Hanergy says it will keep the Miasolé CIGS manufacturing operations going in California. Meanwhile, another CIGS start-up, SoloPower, recently began production in Portland, Oregon.

Qteros: Back from the Dead?

Cleantech Chemistry HQ got an interesting e-mail yesterday. It stated that Qteros, an industrial biotech start-up of yore, has resurfaced. The firm had officially closed down earlier this year “because of adverse market conditions.”

Qteros’ technology was – and is – based on what the founders call the Q microbe. This critter is a two-in-one biofactory. It chomps down on biomass and also ferments the sugars into ethanol. It seemed that the firm’s microbe was well regarded, but the path to commercialization was murky. Cleantech Chemistry earlier reported that the firm was regrouping and maybe looking for a buyer.

That buyer, it turned out, was to be three of the company’s original founders. The firm was a tech spin off of the U. of Mass. Amherst. Original COO – and now CEO – Stephan Rogers of Amherst says “Having examined all the research, we now see an immediate pathway to commercialization with the current technology. The company is going to pursue a new and different, less capital-intensive business model. Part of our strategy to quickly get to market is to partner with others who have deep experience in microbial research to help us jump-start the process.”

Also at Amherst and still on the company’s scientific advisory board is Susan Leschine, who discovered the Q microbe. Qteros’ connection to the school will remain very cozy, it appears from the press release. It seems that the developers will move in with fellow researchers and will not seek out their own lab or office space until sometime in mid 2013. So it may be a little while before we hear more about the road forward.