Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Solar power grows up

One of things we learned from the aircraft industry was that all the great innovations were driven by improvements in powerplants.  The reason is obvious.  If the new motor is lighter and more fuel efficient, the same airplane using the new propulsion source will lift a greater load and fly farther.  The most famous example was Charles Lindbergh who realized that the then-new Wright J-5 Whirlwind could lift off with enough fuel to fly him from New York to Paris with range to spare.  Because the Whirlwind was so light, efficient, and reliable, long-distance flying like he demonstrated would soon become routine.

So now we see that the essential technology area in a possible all-electric society is going to be storage.  And so Elon Musk of Tesla is being taken seriously by the other carmakers because he has demonstrated that storage has now reached the stage that an electric Lexus / Corvette is possible.  He hasn't done mind-blowing things but he has seized on the potential offered by the lithium-ion battery.  In the article below, we are seeing that Tesla could wind up making a bunch of money selling or leasing their battery packs to homeowners who want to even out the output of their PV cells.

Or not.  Once Musk proves that a lithium-ion battery pack combined with PV cells will allow Californians in the near future to unhook themselves from the public-service utilities, there is absolutely nothing that would prevent someone else from manufacturing and leasing such installations—including the local utility.  The truth is my electric company is extremely reliable and obviously buys quality equipment.  So if the numbers were comparable, I would rather have them install and service my lithium-ion / PV set-up.

Even though we are getting close to a major change in how homes are powered, we still face large hurdles.  Utilities are cautious—and for good reason—they have a huge bundle invested in doing business the way they are doing it right now.  Furthermore, lithium simply MUST be a limited resource.  So if batteries could be replaced by supercapacitors fabricated from carbon, buying a bunch of expensive, slow-charging lithium batteries will look pretty silly.

Why You Might Buy Electricity From Elon Musk Some Day

In California, homeowners are pulling the plug on their utilities by storing solar electricity in Tesla batteries.


At first glance, there’s nothing particularly Jetsons-like about Marco Krapels’ 1940s-era home in a prosperous suburb that lies in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. Open the garage door, though, and it’s Tomorrowland.

Attached to the wall is a charging station for Krapels’ Tesla Motors Model S electric sports sedan. And next to the charger are two metal boxes that effectively render Pacific Gas & Electric, the 108-year-old utility that serves Northern California, irrelevant. One box channels electricity generated by the SolarCity photovoltaic panels on the house’s roof. The other, a 10-kilowatt Tesla lithium-ion battery pack, can store up to three days’ worth of carbon-free electricity generated by Krapels’ solar array. Open the garage door and it’s Tomorrowland.

In other words, during the sunniest part of the day, when no one is at home and power demand is low, the Tesla battery pack can store the excess electricity for use in the late afternoon and evening when power prices spike. No dirty and expensive utility electrons needed. “I should technically be able to function with solar and just the battery indefinitely as long as the sun shines,” says Krapels, a renewable energy financer.

And the cost? Thanks to California incentives that subsidize 60 percent of the cost of energy storage, Krapels is paying less than $40 a month for the battery pack as part of a lease deal with SolarCity, the Silicon Valley company that installed the solar battery system.

“To be able to make my own power and store my own power and use it when I want to is liberating,” says Krapels as he stands in his garage. “I don’t want to have to buy power from PG&E at peak rates, I want to use my own power. You see this power line going from the street to my house? I look forward to the day when I cut that wire.”

But that day has not quite arrived. The Tesla energy storage unit – it’s is a smaller version of the battery pack that powers the Model S – has sat unused since it was installed in Krapels’ garage last spring. PG&E, like other big California utilities, has refused to connect residential solar-battery storage systems to the grid unless homeowners pay a fee that can run $800 or more.

That fee fight is a fig leaf for a much bigger struggle that is unfolding over who will control the production and distribution of energy in the US – old-line monopoly utilities or a new generation of green tech companies like SolarCity and Tesla that put that power in the hands of their customers.

“Utilities are not a massive fan of people being able to disconnect from the grid,” Peter Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and chief operations officer told The Atlantic. “But just trying to fight energy storage and kill it is going to backfire on them.”

The trend in so-called distributed generation is being driven by the plummeting price of solar panels, the growing production of advanced batteries for electric cars and government regulators who have imposed mandates on utilities to buy an increasingly percentage of the electricity they distribute from renewable sources. In October, California regulators ordered the state’s three big utilities to obtain technology to store 1,325 megawatts of electricity generated from wind, solar and other renewable but intermittent sources of energy. But the biggest existential threat to utilities may well be SolarCity and Tesla.

That’s spawning innovation in an industry that has long seemed stuck in a technological time warp. Stem, a Silicon Valley startup, for instance, is installing $100,000 54-kilowatt lithium-ion battery systems in hotels and other businesses to allow the storage of electricity when prices are low to avoid high rates utilities charge commercial customers when demand spikes. NRG Energy, meanwhile, is testing a device that will let homeowners generate their own electricity from natural gas.

But the biggest existential threat to utility hegemony may well lie with SolarCity and Tesla. (The two companies have a combined market cap of $18.8 billion; PG&E’s is $18.3 billion.) In 2010, the California Energy Commission awarded SolarCity $1.8 million to study the feasibility of integrating its solar panels with batteries made by Tesla. (Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, serves as SolarCity’s chairman and is the cousin of the company’s founders.)

SolarCity spent three years developing the software that controls the interaction between a photovoltaic array, the Tesla battery and the grid. Rive says the company has offerered the solar storage system to select customers – more than 300 so far – who either want backup power in the event of an electricity outage, or who like Krapels, want to pull the plug on their utility. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, as of July 1, there were 319 applications to hook up rooftop solar arrays with storage systems that could a total of 10 megawatts of electricity.

PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – California three big utilities – however, have argued to regulators that such subsidized storage systems would saddle other customers with the cost of maintaining the power grid and thus they should be charged connection fees. In California, homeowners already receive a credit for the solar electricity they send to the grid that is used to pay for the power they use when the sun isn’t shining. If homeowners can hook up batteries to their solar arrays, the utilities asked, what’s to stop them gaming the grid by storing electricity from the transmission system when rates are low and then selling it back to the utilities when rates are high?

The California Public Utilities Commission is debating those issues now and in apreliminary ruling in October, it said utilities should allow homeowners to connect energy storage systems to solar arrays at no extra cost for the time being. But in a nod to the utilities’ concerns that some homeowners would arbitrage the grid, the commission said homeowners would have to pay connection fees if their energy storage systems can store more electricity than their solar panels generate.

To Krapels, though, utilities are fighting what will ultimately be a losing battle. “I’m a real believer in energy independence for the individual, not just for the utility or some big fossil fuel company,” he says. “So many traditional infrastructures have been disrupted and I think energy is next.” more
The shakeout of Germany's solar industry continues.  My guess is that they are going to make a mighty effort to rescue as much as possible of the investment they made learning how to make solar cells.  Germany didn't become an export giant without learning how to nurture infant industry.

Germany's Solarworld takes over Bosch's solar business

hg/dr (Reuters, dpa) 26NOV13

German company Solarworld has announced it's acquiring the complete solar business of Bosch. The takeover will result in the first German solar firm with a manufacturing capacity exceeding one gigawatt.

In the middle of a large-scale restructuring drive, Bonn-based Solarworld went on the offensive Tuesday by announcing the takeover of Bosch's complete solar business, known as Bosch Solar Energy.

Solarworld said it would acquire a solar cell production unit and a module facility in Arnstadt in the eastern German state of Thuringia, and would employ 800 workers there. The company did not reveal any price for the transaction, to be completed by early next year.

Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner had put up the company's solar business up for sale in spring of this year after investing 530 million euros ($717 million) in the location to see the subsequent price collapseon global markets, burning about 2.4 billion euros in the process.

German solar companies struggle to stay solvent

Solarworld runs production facilities both in Germany and the US, where it has a base in Hillsboro, Oregon. The company emphasized the acquisition will see the emergence of the first German solar firm with a manufacturing capacity of over one gigawatt.

Together with the Arnstadt facilities, Solarworld will thus become the largest solar technology company in the western world.

CEO Frank Asbeck said he saw the move as a commitment to defend Germany's outstanding position in photovoltaic production, mentioning the company's high quality standards and its willingness to offer 25 to 30-year warranties for its products. more


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