Monthly Archives: June 2016

After a rocky start, the American solar market is taking off and growing faster than coal and natural gas power. What will it take to make it go truly mainstream?

For the first time, more solar systems came online than natural gas power plants – the top source of electricity in the US . On May 3, 2016, Serena Bruce (front), Richard Cochran (left) and Antwain Nelson (center), workers with Grid Alternatives, installed solar panels at a Northeast D.C. residence. The solar installation marked the millionth American install. Photograph: Eric Kruzewski for the Guardian

Solar energy in the US has had a rocky existence. Ever since Ronald Reagan symbolically removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof in 1986, federal policy has been unpredictable, such that manufacturers and consumers could never depend on reliable incentives to produce and install solar energy systems.

Remarkably, the US solar energy industry is now entering what may be its most prosperous decade ever, thanks to a new wave of federal and state policies and positive economics in the industry, both at home and abroad.

“I think it will actually be bigger than people are projecting,” says Jigar Shah, president and co-founder of Generate Capital, a clean energy investment firm based in San Francisco. “The solar industry is booming right now.”

The US solar industry expects to install 14.5 gigawatts of solar power in 2016, a 94% increase over the record 7.5 gigawatts last year, according to a new market report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Revenues from solar installations also increased 21% from 2014 to more than $22bn in 2015.

For the first time, more solar systems came online than natural gas power plants – the top source of electricity in the US – in 2015, as measured in megawatts, said Justin Baca, vice president of markets and research at the Solar Energy Industries Association. This year, new solar is expected to surpass installations of all other sources, said the US Energy Information Administration.

The rise of solar energy use, especially by homes and businesses with panels on their roofs, is gradually transforming the electricity industry. For more than a century, power plant owners and utilities have controlled the energy delivery service, and some of them enjoy a monopoly.

“We were just a tiny little speck 10 years ago, and now we are really up there with the major established generating technologies,” said Baca. “It’s amazing.”

Sunny path

What’s behind all this? A federal tax credit has played a key role: it enables home and business owners to take off 30% of the price of their solar energy systems from their income taxes. Congress renewed the tax credit last December.

Another factor is cost. It is simply a lot cheaper to install solar these days, largely because cost of components have declined considerably. The wholesale price of a solar panel today is about $0.65 per watt, compared with $0.74 per watt a year ago and $4 per watt in 2008.

The steep decline in prices began initially in Germany. In 2000, Germany adopted policies that heavily subsidized solar power by adding a special charge on consumer utility bills. Utilities use the money collected from that special charge to pay higher rates for solar energy as part of a government policy to promote renewable energy. The higher rates created a huge demand for solar panels, driving manufacturers to compete for those dollars and other countries to institute similar policies. Until last year, it was the largest solar energy producing country in the world.

“They created a massive demand for solar, and manufacturers around the world started stepping up to that,” Baca said. “Prior to that, a lot of solar panels were still largely made by hand. But the scale that manufacturers started growing to allowed a little bit more automation.”

Then China, where labor costs were lower, rose to become a mighty manufacturing force. Chinese manufacturers built massive factories to make solar panels, drove down the prices for solar panels and forced more than a hundred of its competitors in Europe, US and even within China to go bankrupt.

The fallout hurt so many businesses that the US government imposed tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels after determining that Chinese manufacturers were pricing their products at below fair-market values.

The tariffs and increasing domestic demand have boosted manufacturing jobs in the US, which is now one of the top five nations for solar panel producers behind China, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“Now the market’s so large you can actually sustain the large manufacturing plants and support the product locally,” said Shah.

One example is SolarWorld, which is building a giant new solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York. The facility, expected to be in operation later this year, plans to employ 3,500 people. It will produce panels primarily for SolarWorld’s own projects around the world.

Declines in other sources of electricity generation has also helped solar’s growing popularity. The coal business suffered historic losses in 2015 as concern about its greenhouse gas emissions took hold. Just 3 megawatts of new coal generationcame online in 2015, compared to about 2,600 megawatts for solar, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Richard Cochran (center) and Rico Jackson (right), workers with Grid Alternatives, position a solar panel at a Northeast D.C. residence. Photograph: Eric Kruzewski for the Guardian

Dark clouds ahead?

Although the solar market is booming overall, its reliance on government incentives makes it vulnerable to the whims of policymakers. In Nevada, once considered a role model for solar development and a national leader for solar jobs per capita, the state Public Utilities Commission approved a major rollback of solar subsidies and policies last December.

The commission voted in response to a complaint by the state’s largest utility, NVEnergy, which contended that the subsidy – and the billing process required for the program – threatened its profitability.

That change prompted SolarCity, one of America’s largest solar companies, to stop selling and installing new systems in Nevada and take some 550 jobs with it. Another company, Sunrun, did the same. As a result, the industry association expects Nevada to drop from the fifth-largest state for residential solar installations in 2015 to 31st by the end of this year.

Robert Boehm, director of the Center for Energy Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the changes could mean trouble ahead for the industry as a whole.

“My opinion is that many of the utilities in the US would like to do this in general,” Boehm said of curtailing state solar incentives and policies. “The whole rooftop solar thing has really gone south (in Nevada). We were amongst one of better states in terms of supporting rooftop solar. Now we are down amongst probably the worst.”

Energy storage presents another obstacle. Solar remains a small contributor to the nation’s energy supply, accounting for less than 1% percent of total electricityproduction. As it grows and replaces traditional sources of energy, which can produce electricity any time, the need to make solar energy available even when the sun isn’t shining will only grow.

Batteries are emerging to be the solution, but the technology and the manufacturing scale aren’t improving quick enough to make it financially feasible for the masses. One company,Tesla Motors, is attempting to address that problem by building a massive factory in Nevada to build lithium-ion batteries that will go into energy storage packs designed by Tesla for homes and businesses.

Tesla is counting on battery sales to complement its electric car business. Its CEO, Elon Musk, surprised investors last week when he announced Tesla’s plan to buy SolarCity. Musk is the chairman of SolarCity’s board of directors.

Boehm, who has solar panels on the roof of his home, said cheaper batteries will nudge more people to invest in solar equipment.

“I’m kind of an enthusiast, but I wouldn’t do it right now,” Boehm said. “I don’t think the costs are right. We’re seeing the price of batteries come down and they’re improving the performance of them too. The movement’s in the right direction.”

Shah takes a different view. Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about energy storage because they can always count on the utilities if their own solar panels aren’t producing energy, he said. Utilities, on the other hand, should invest in more renewable energy and storage to meet the growing demand and ensure a stable flow of electricity.

“The amount of capital and investment going into to solar is at an all-time high,” Shah said. “I think the economics are clearly very good and we haven’t really even tapped but a very small percentage of our opportunities.”

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On June 23, 2016, after making a pitstop in New York City, Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane aiming to raise awareness of the potential of solar energy in transportation, landed in Seville, Spain, today after a 71-hour flight across the Atlantic ocean. (An ocean trip from New York to Southampton, UK, on the QE2 when it was in service took six days or 144 hours.)

The final approach.(Flickr/Solar Impulse 2)

The solar plane has an absolutely massive wingspan—roughly the same as a 747 jumbo jet’s—to accommodate all the solar cells that power its myriad engines, but its cabin is about the size of a station wagon. As a result, the plane is rather susceptible to turbulence, and so the team of two Swiss pilots had to wait for ideal weather conditions to cross the ocean. Unlike a 747, which can hold up to about 500 passengers, Solar Impulse 2 only has room for the two pilots.

Taking off under the moonlight in New York.(Flickr/Solar Impulse)

The worldwide flight expedition, which started in Abu Dhabi in 2015 but was delayed in Hawaii for a few months after some fuel cells broke, is led by Andre Borschberg, a Swiss businessman and pilot, and Bertrand Piccard, the pilot who completed the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999. The team, aiming to show what’s possible with solar power, had planned to land in Paris, to mimic Charles Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic in 1927, but because of weather patterns, it had to settle for the southern Spanish town.

Solar Impulse 2 in its hangar at JFK before heading out for Europe.(Flickr/Solar Impulse)

The trip from JFK airport in New York across the Atlantic covered over 4,200 miles as the plane traveled at 28,000 feet above sea level, according to Motherboard. The arduous trip made the average transatlantic flight on even the most budget airline sound appealing: The plane’s cabin is not pressurized, meaning the pilots had to wear oxygen masks, and were only able to rest for about 20 minutes at a time, a representative for the team told Motherboard. Not exactly enjoyable, but it does point at a potential future where aviation is not governed by fossil fuels, even if it’s a distant one.

The zero-emission plane will be making its next stop somewhere in Greece or Egypt—depending on the weather—before it returns to Abu Dhabi.
9/11 Memorial in Pittsboro, NC

When the town of Pittsboro got a piece of the World Trade Center, they got a much larger piece than they anticipated. The large steel beam was delivered in 2011 by a semi-trailer and it was set up as a memorial to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The beam is angled towards its original home in New York City.

However, as it sat there was something missing from the memorial: lighting. Chatham County had difficulty fundraising the necessary funds to completely finish the project. This is where United Solar Initiative stepped in to provide lighting to this somber reminder of the attacks. USI used donations from various sources to set up a few solar panels that power four lights at the memorial site. These lights and a battery ensure that the flag behind the memorial is lit continuously, while the memorial itself is lit until late evening.

Help from United Solar Initiative enabled the memorial to take another step towards completion. Companies donated their materials and money, and solar workers donated their time to help shine a light on the great sacrifices made by the firefighters during the attacks of 9/11.


Article By: Karen Klepacz

The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft has set off from New York to cross the Atlantic, one of the toughest stages of its attempt to fly around the globe using solar energy.

The pilot, Bertrand Piccard, will attempt to reach Seville in Spain in about 90 hours.

It is the first ever attempt to cross the Atlantic in a purely solar-powered aircraft.


Mr Piccard takes short naps while the plane is in flight.

The Atlantic crossing will be “the longest distance we have had to fly this year,” the Solar Impulse team said.

The flight was supposed to begin on Sunday but was delayed by bad weather.

Plane graphic

Mr Piccard, a psychiatrist, is sharing the 35,000km (22,000 mile) round-the-world journey with Swiss entrepreneur Andre Borschberg.

The Impulse, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 747, is covered in 17,000 photovoltaic cells to capture the sun’s rays.

It landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on 11 June after a five-hour flight from Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

The record attempt began on 9 March 2015 in Abu Dhabi, and has taken the aircraft across Asia and the Pacific to the United States.


LEG 1: 9 March. Abu Dhabi (UAE) to Muscat (Oman) – 772km; 13 Hours 1 Minute

LEG 2: 10 March. Muscat (Oman) to Ahmedabad (India) – 1,593km; 15 Hours 20 Minutes

LEG 3: 18 March. Ahmedabad (India) to Varanasi (India) – 1,170km; 13 Hours 15 Minutes

LEG 4: 18 March. Varanasi (India) to Mandalay (Myanmar) – 1,536km; 13 Hours 29 Minutes

LEG 5: 29 March. Mandalay (Myanmar) to Chongqing (China) – 1,636km; 20 Hours 29 Minutes

LEG 6: 21 April. Chongqing (China) to Nanjing (China) – 1,384km; 17 Hours 22 Minutes

LEG 7: 30 May. Nanjing (China) to Nagoya (Japan) – 2,942km; 1 Day 20 Hours 9 Minutes

LEG 8: 28 June. Nagoya (Japan) to Kalaeloa, Hawaii (US) – 8,924km; 4 Days 21 Hours 52 Minutes

LEG 9: 21 April. Kalaeloa, Hawaii (US) to Mountain View, California (US) – 4,523km; 2 Days 17 Hours 29 Minutes

LEG 10: 2 May. Mountain View, California (US) to Phoenix, Arizona (US) – 1,199km; 15 Hours 52 Minutes

LEG 11: 12 May. Phoenix, Arizona (US) to Tulsa, Oklahoma (US) – 1,570 km; 18 Hours 10 Minutes

LEG 12: 21 May. Tulsa, Oklahoma (US) to Dayton, Ohio (US) – 1,113 km; 16 Hours 34 Minutes

LEG 13: 25 May. Dayton, Ohio (US) to Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania (US) – 1,044 km; 16 Hours 47 Minutes

LEG 14: 11 June. Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania (US) to New York (US) – 230km; 4 Hours 41 Minutes

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On June 6, Apple Energy, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Cupertino, CA-based iPhone pioneer, asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission(FERC) for permission to sell electricity from multiple power plants located across the United States.

Apple AAPL -1.54% is a leading corporate investor in large-scale clean energy projects, including solar projects, hydroelectric facilities and fuel cell that run on biogas. Apple has a pipeline of more than half a gigawatt of solar under development globally, according to PV Tech.

Apple uses electricity generated by its power plants to power the company’s data centers, retail stores and corporate offices. If granted market-based rate authority from the FERC, Apple would be able to sell surplus electricity generated at any of these plants to other companies at wholesale rates.

Apple owns data centers in California, North Carolina, Oregon and Nevada. The filing said the sales would potentially take place “in the Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Northeast, Central, and Southwest Power Pool Regions.”

Assuming that the FERC grants Apple’s request for market-based rate authority, Apple could begin reselling power by August.

Article By: William Pentland

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© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Bamford
Daw Khin, 60, stands beside members of the Village Water and Sanitation Committee. Behind them is the solar water pump system that now brings water to every household.

In a Myanmar community affected by drought, easy access to safe water is hard to come by. With support from UNICEF and the Government, the village purchased a solar powered water pump and now all households get water pumped straight to their homes.

MAGWAY REGION, Myanmar, 3 June 2016 – Mon Taw village is a community located in Pauk Township, north-western Myanmar. Most regions of the country receive large amounts of rainfall each year, but Magway regularly experiences droughts, which are being exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.

As a result, safe water is often only available 100 metres below the surface of the ground, making it very difficult to access.

“We used to rely on a hand pump which didn’t work properly in the summer because the water level would drop so low,” says Daw Khin, 60, who is both a headmistress at the local school and the Manager of the Village Water and Sanitation Committee. “It meant we’d have to travel really far to collect water. It was a real burden for us.”

Solar-powered water

In 2014, to help make safe water more accessible, UNICEF collaborated with the State Government to help the community secure a solar-powered water pump system. The village came together to contribute 40 per cent of the funds for the purchase and construction of the system.

The innovative solar pump system uses light energy to pull safe water up from deep below the earth’s surface. The water then flows into a large storage tank which stores enough water to ensure sufficient provision throughout the day. Gravity allows water to flow freely through a pipe system, directly to households.

Compared to hand-pumps or diesel powered pumps, solar pumps rarely break down. But just in case, the Village Water and Sanitation Committee collects a small fee from each household once per month, based on their water consumption (an average of US$1 per month per household).

© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Bamford
Umar Khim and Daw Mya San stand next to their new piped water source in Mon Taw community.

This means that the community is now completely self-reliant in terms of water supply. And because of the initial investment made by the community, they feel a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for the system. The piped connection (directly to the household) has also had a major impact in terms of convenience.

“We don’t mind paying for our water now as it’s so much more convenient than before,” says Daw Khin. “One dollar a month is affordable for everyone in the community, and because the pump hasn’t broken down yet – we have more than US$1,000 available in our reserve fund. We’re hoping to use some of the balance for health and education projects.”

Reaching more communities

One of the households benefiting from the improved water supply is the Khim family. “It’s so great now that we have water flowing directly to our home,” says Umar Khim and Daw Mya San. “It has made our day-to-day lives so much easier, giving us time to focus more on family and other things that make us happy!”

In 2015-2016, UNICEF Myanmar is supporting the installation of 15 new systems across the country which aim to reach around 20,000 people. This is helping to contribute towards the Government’s strategy to reach 70 per cent of the population with piped water by 2030 (only 8 per cent of the population in Myanmar currently have piped water access).

Article By:  Emily Bamford

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