Category → Solar
Remember that old school-yard comeback? “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”? It looks like the unfair trade claims that the U.S. and Europe lobbed at China’s solar industry have bounced back and stuck.
Last October, the U.S. Commerce Dept. made good on a months-long threat to impose a 24-36% tariff on solar panels imported from China. And last week, China completed the tit for tat by putting a tariff on U.S.-made polysilicon, the main raw material used for solar cells. [h/t Washington Post]
Originally, the U.S. accused China of unfair trade practices – saying the government heavily subsidized the industry and manufacturers were selling modules at less than the cost of production, a practice known as dumping. The EU took similar action early this summer.
China pretty quickly started to point out that the U.S. has given large grants to polysilicon producers, which has helped them quickly build huge new, more efficient production facilities. Those facilities export a lot of polysilicon to China. C&EN has covered this part of the industry pretty closely – both Hemlock Semiconductor (majority owned by Dow Corning) and Wacker Chemie had big expansion plans, some of which are now on hold.
So let’s review. Tariffs don’t tend to take an unfair situation and make it fair. What they do reliably produce is uncertainty and higher prices – at a time when what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but cheap, renewable energy (well, and love, too).
The general idea is that the solar panel tariff will protect U.S.-based manufacturers of solar panels, but frankly, we lost that war a long time ago. At the time the original complaint was lodged, China already had a 2/3 global market share. Will any of the solar companies that folded because they couldn’t compete on price now re-open their doors?
It has truly been an awful downward spiral for developed-world solar makers. Trying to stay in business while panel prices plummeted was like trying to catch a falling knife. But in the time that was happening, guess what industry was booming in the U.S.? Solar power! That is, the projects built to create electricity from the sun. Cheap panels plus renewables mandates and tax incentives magically created several utility scale solar farms. [Take that, shale gas!]
And while the U.S. doesn’t compete very well with China on commodity crystalline silicon solar panels, we do lead the market in new and efficient types of inverters, which convert DC current from the panel to the AC current that runs your TV. More demand for cheap solar panels has meant a boom time for makers of inverter equipment.
U.S. companies that innovate can still make a buck in solar these days. But it is a mature, consolidated industry and not every player is going to stay afloat, regardless of where they do their manufacturing.
Solar Impulse is spending the week in Washington, DC, and the C&EN headquarters is slightly abuzz with geeky giddiness. So, living a mere 15 minutes from the solar plane’s temporary home in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport, I couldn’t resist the invitation to a Solvay-sponsored event with the pilots and crew on Tuesday evening. Melody
twisted my arm kindly invited me to write about my visit for the Cleantech crowd.
I had to walk past the ginormous Discovery space shuttle, which is spending retirement at the Udvar-Hazy Center, then dodge raindrops to get to the the temporary hangar housing Solar Impulse just outside of the museum. The rainy weather and mugginess of the hangar didn’t exactly create the setting you’d expect for admiring a plane that runs on energy from the sun. But I digress. Compared to the robust space shuttle, the solar plane looks like an oversized toy glider. As Alex Scott pointed out in his article on the chemistry behind Solar Impulse, the plane has a wingspan about the same as a 747′s but weighs about the same as a small sedan. There is no other way to describe the cockpit than as tiny. It’s basically a chair with a bubble over it. And, of course, there are lots and lots of solar panels.
Before the pilots’ presentation, I was in a group chatting with a member of Solar Impulse’s communications team. When asked about the plane’s assembly at Moffett Airfield near San Francisco, she explained that it took the team basically three days to put the plane together and equated the process to assembling furniture from IKEA. No nails, just glue. Hopefully, no leftover parts. It is, apparently, that amazingly simple.
Bertrand Piccard was the first of the two pilots to speak. His psychiatry background came through as he talked about changing your altitude in order to fight against the winds while in a balloon. My mind was starting to drift away a bit when he brought me back with this line: “This is all very poetic, but useless. Let’s make it practical.” He then showed a picture taken at the end of his around-the-world-in-a-balloon mission in 1999. “Many people think this is the last picture of a balloon trip,” he said. “In fact, it is the first picture of Solar Impulse.” Piccard then shared that it was the amount of fuel spent on the trip and that there was only 40 kilos left at the end that ignited the Solar Impulse project.
André Borschberg spoke more about how the plane actually works. While listening to him, I came to realize that Solar Impulse epitomizes the theme of the fall national meeting in Indy: Chemistry in Motion. Without chemistry (again, read Alex’s excellent article), this plane would have never taken flight.
Hearing Piccard and Borschberg speak and looking up-close at the plane was all very cool, but I’m left with the feeling of “What next?” Borcshberg pointed out that they had considered making the plane large enough to accommodate two people, but safety became an issue. So to me, at this point, Solar Impulse is really just a proof of concept. Under certain conditions, one can indeed travel long distances at both night and day using only solar power. But I go back to Piccard’s statement earlier and wonder how do we move from poetic to practical? Certainly, the materials created for this plane will find new uses elsewhere and to make our current vehicles greener, but we’re still pretty far away from using only solar to get us in motion. Or is Solar Impulse’s role as a solar energy, nay, innovation ambassador enough for now?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is no other way to say it. This year has been a terrible one for cleantech firms hoping to access the public markets to fund commercialization. Investors seem to be allergic to the very idea of owning stock in a cleantech firm.
Cleantech Chemistry thinks that one might still squeak through before the end of the year – SolarCity just slashed its offering price and number of shares and may now raise $92 million in an upcoming IPO, down from an initial expectation of $151 million. New York Times Dealbook blog has the details. [Update: CC was correct - SolarCity is live and trading up]
SolarCity is not pushing some obscure technology – it buys industry standard solar panels, and leases them to residential homeowners. This business model has become a common way for homeowners to get around the high up-front costs involved in generating their own power.
Should SolarCity decide instead to withdraw its IPO, it will join a long list of cleantech firms that had second thoughts this year including BrightSource Energy (solar), Enerkem, Fulcrum Bioenergy, Coskata, Elevance, Genomatica (all biofuels and biochemicals), and Smith Electric Vehicles. (Hat tip to Cleantech Group for helping with the list).
The good news is that many of these firms are successfully raising money from private investors including venture capitalists, corporate partners, bankers, and the Federal Government (sometimes in combination as when a loan guarantee is offered from DOE or USDA).
Two firms did go public in 2012, though both raised less money than originally hoped. Ceres, a plant biotechnology company focusing on proprietary energy crops, and Enphase, a maker of a new type of solar inverter, clipped their wings a bit but made it out of the gate.
Moving to the New Year, the true effect of a lost year for IPOs may be mainly one of image. True believers will continue to invest in cleantech firms, but for the general investing public, it seems that the bloom is off the rose for pre-commercial companies in the sector. That means fewer stakeholders to help spread the risk of new technologies, and increasing competition to appeal to deep pocketed private investors such as chemical firms and oil and gas giants.
I wish I could be in Portland, Oregon today to watch SoloPower start up its first production line of thin film CIGS solar panels. The company says it can manufacture in a continuous process to make its solar material in strips as long as one mile.
The company asserts that its thin, flexible modules are a good fit for building-integrated solar, especially in locations where heavier, traditional glass panels cannot be installed such as on warehouse roofs. The modules are certified to an efficiency rate of 9.7 to 12.7%.
But it’s not so much the technology itself that is interesting, but rather SoloPower’s business model and whether it can succeed in selling what it admits is a premium-priced product while the traditional silicon modules continue to drop in price, taking down many efficient producers with them.
SoloPower is already having to bear up under scrutiny because it will be able to tap into almost $200 million in DOE loan guarantees, under the same program that was behind the Solyndra kerfuffle. NPR did a nice job this morning interrogating SoloPower CEO Tim Harris. Read or listen to the short piece here.
NPR rightly points out that Solyndra was backed by $1 billion in private funding and accessed half a billion dollars in its own DOE loan before going bankrupt. But SoloPower doesn’t have a billion bucks to lose, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Instead of comparing SoloPower to Solyndra I’d like to compare it to Gevo, a maker of biobased isobutyl alcohol (what it calls isobutanol). Both firms are pursuing a capital-light strategy.
SoloPower’s first production line will have a small eventual annual capacity of 100 MW. So far, it has spent only its own investors’ dollars. Gevo, a now public company, is spending somewhere around 25% to one-third the cost of a new fermentation plant by converting existing corn ethanol plants.
When a company that has a technology without a track record wants to build its first large plant, it faces financing risk on top of technology risk. Range Fuels built a shiny new plant in Georgia to make ethanol from wood chips. But since the technology did not work upon start-up, Range could not pay its monthly loan overhead, and the factory was repossessed by its financing bank and sold at auction (Range also had a DOE loan guarantee).
Early this week, Gevo told investors that it had stopped making isobutyl alcohol at its facility in Luverne, Minnesota. Instead, it turned the switch back to ethanol. Gevo’s plan to convert an ethanol plant in Redmond, South Dakota is on hold. The company said though it successfully made isobutyl alcohol in Luverne, to reach its target run rate would require more work. Meanwhile, both locations can still produce ethanol.
Though Gevo’s investors weren’t happy with this news, Gevo has given itself plenty of time to fix its problems, saying it would reach its target run rate in 2013 (it could take a year and still make this deadline).
Reducing a company’s financing risk doesn’t do much to reduce its technology risk – or in SoloPower’s case, its market risk – in either the short or long term. But it may help a company last beyond just the short term. Given the pitfalls of technology scale-up, that could make all the difference.