Google & SolarCity partner on $750M fund for rooftop solar

Solar installer and financier SolarCity announced on Thursday that it plans to raise a $750 million fund to invest in installing solar panels on the rooftops of home owners, and $300 million of that fund will come from tech giant Google. While Google has put over $1 billion into clean energy projects over the years, the commitment to the SolarCity fund is Google’s largest to date, and the entire fund will be the largest one ever created for residential solar projects.

The deal shows the momentum behind the booming solar panel industry in the U.S. Solar energy represented over a third of all new electricity in the U.S. in 2014, and that could grow to 40 percent in 2015, which would be a new record. The solar industry is now a major U.S. employer, employing twice as many workers as the coal industry; SolarCity employs more workers in California than the state’s three large utilities combined, said SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive at the ARPA-E Summit earlier this month.

This isn’t the first time that Google has put money into a SolarCity fund. In the Summer of 2011, Google committed $280 million into a similar solar installation fund created by SolarCity. That collaboration was one of the first examples of a corporate entity (and not a bank) agreeing to invest in solar projects. Usually SolarCity works with banks like Citi, U.S. Bancorp, or Goldman Sachs to raise these types of funds.

SolarCity NASDAQ

The remaining $450 million of the $750 million fund will come from debt financing, says a SolarCity spokesperson. The entire fund will cover the upfront costs of installing solar panels on the roofs of “thousands” of homes across 15 states.

SolarCity’s business was built around creating solar-as-a-service deals where it can offer a homeowner the installation of solar panels and the accompanying solar energy in exchange for a monthly fee over several years (say, 20 to 25 years). That monthly fee is usually less than the homeowner would pay for their monthly utility bill. Thus the homeowner can buy solar energy without having to pay for the high upfront cost of the installation of the solar panels.

SolarCity panels on a Walmart, courtesy of SolarCity.

SolarCity panels on a Walmart, courtesy of SolarCity.

This type of solar-as-service deal has transformed the solar energy industry and opened up solar energy for tens of thousands of people that wouldn’t previously have been able to afford it. By the end of 2014 SolarCity, the largest installer in the U.S., had installed a cumulative 1 GW of solar panels on its customers rooftops, and the company plans to install another 1 GW within 2015. A gigawatt is the size of a large natural gas, coal or nuclear plant.

Google wants to invest money into funds like SolarCity’s because it can provide a return (8 to 12 percent) on the investment. The deals with homeowners tend to generate pretty reliable revenue over time because homeowners — particularly the kind getting solar installed — tend to pay their utilities. But because these financing deals are becoming more mainstream as solar becomes more of a commodity, the returns have been slipping in recent years.

It’s arrived: The evolution of clean power & data centers

The world’s largest internet companies are turning to clean power to run their data centers like never before. This month we saw huge clean power deals from Apple, including big solar projects planned in California and Arizona, and a big wind buy from Google to provide local power for its headquarters in Silicon Valley.

But it wasn’t always this way. It’s only been in the last several years that Apple, Google, Facebook and others have been embracing clean power as a viable option to provide a significant amount of power for their data centers, and it’s taken years for the power industry, and the internet companies themselves, to adjust to and learn about this emerging world.

Google/Connie Zhou

Google data center, image courtesy of Google/Connie Zhou

If we take a peek back at this history, we can see how it slowly emerged. Let’s take the state of North Carolina where Google, Facebook and Apple all have some of the largest data centers in the U.S. to power some of their east coast operations. Work in that region provided key learnings for how these companies developed their individual strategies for how to adopt and embrace clean power.

I took my first road trip around the area in the summer of 2012 and wrote about the companies’ complicated relationship with the region’s dirty and clean power options. In late 2013, I took another trip to investigate Apple’s already built monumental solar farms there.

Facebook's data center in North Carolina.

Facebook’s data center in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Gigaom/Katie Fehrenbacher

Back in 2006, when Google first started looking at the state for building its east coast data center (the facility was announced in early 2007), clean power wasn’t at the top of mind for even Google, who later pioneered using clean power and has invested over a billion dollars into it. In those years, North Carolina’s power grid only generated four percent of its electricity from renewable sources, with coal at 61 percent and nuclear power at 31 percent. Google just plugged into the grid there anyways without a working strategy to incorporate clean power.

Gary Demasi, who has helped lead Google’s efforts purchasing clean power for data centers, told me in an interview for that initial story that Google, at the time, was obviously cognizant of the somewhat dirty energy-generation mix of North Carolina, but that Google has “gotten more proactive and aggressive since then.”

All the internet companies have.

Apple's fuel cell farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina

Apple’s fuel cell farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina

Three years later in 2009 when Apple and Facebook were considering building data centers in North Carolina, clean power was still an early idea. It was attractive in some emerging ways, but the state and local utilities weren’t offering the type of clean power options that the internet companies wanted.

That’s why in late 2011 Apple started building its unusual and massive solar farms in the area. Built by SunPower, these solar farms now stretch across hundreds of acres and now generate more solar power than Apple needs for that facility. The company also has a fuel cell farm built beside the data center. Apple agreed to plug into the state’s grid, but it was also generating its own clean power that went back onto the grid and made up for its use of the dirty grid power.

Apple's solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farms ended up putting pressure on local utility Duke Energy and the state to recognize that if there was ample clean power provided to these customers from the power grid, then they wouldn’t need to build their own. In late 2013, Duke Energy officially asked the state’s regulators if it could sell clean power from new sources to large energy customers that were willing to buy it — yes, thanks to restrictive regulations and an electricity industry that moves at a glacial pace, this formerly wasn’t allowed.

Now Duke Energy has a clean energy supply program in the state. And just this week, Duke Energy issued a request for proposal asking for project builders to build 50 MW worth of solar projects in the state.

So utilities and state regulators are adjusting to internet companies’ desires, but the internet companies are learning, too. While Apple’s solar farms and fuel cell farm in North Carolina were the first of its kind and ahead of the curve, Apple’s deals with First Solar in California and local utility Salt River Project in Arizona seem somewhat more sophisticated. They’re far larger, and they were done far in advance of construction.

Apple's solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple’s solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple will buy solar power from First Solar’s planned solar farm in Monterey County via a fixed, low-cost 25 year power purchase agreement, and will also buy solar power from Salt River Project’s farms in a similar way, too. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said that the way that the deal in California, in particular, is structured the company will actually save money in power costs over the long term.

So what was once a more expensive, niche source of power has now become a substantial clean power option — and one that now big name internet companies feel more comfortable embracing. In California, utility-scale solar farms — which is basically what Apple is buying from in Monterey County — can be built for as low as $1.68 a watt, according to GTM Research, thanks to a combination of private markets, a decade of lowering technology costs and federal and state incentives.

Google plans to buy 43 MW over 20 years from new wind turbines being built at Altamont Pass

Google plans to buy 43 MW over 20 years from new wind turbines being built at Altamont Pass

Solar panels are at the cheapest time in history. Wind power, too, is similarly cheap. Google’s deal to buy power from the revamped Altamont Pass shows how wind turbines have come down considerably in price and up in power.

Now, the official embrace of these internet companies and clean power is just one part of the story. There’s a whole host of smaller data center operators that can’t afford to deal at the scale of Google or Apple. But Google and Apple are still paving the way for the smaller companies by changing utilities minds that there’s a good business to be had in clean power.

At the end of the day, data centers are only consuming a couple percentage points of U.S. energy. So they’re not necessarily the leading energy problem these days, but since they are owned by influential and consumer-facing brands, they could do a lot to initiate the development of clean power outside of the tech industry.

Why Chile has emerged as a big solar market

It might surprise you to learn that Latin America — including Mexico, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean — was the region that showed the fastest growth in history for solar panel projects last year, according to a recent report from GTM Research. While the area’s 625 MW worth of solar panels installed in 2014 might look small compared to the estimated 6.5 GW installed in the U.S. during the same time (1000 MW = 1 GW), the annual growth rate for Latin America was a staggering 370 percent between 2013 and 2014, while the U.S. was just 36 percent.

Why did that happen? Well, more than three quarters of that growth in Latin America came from the quick emergence of solar panel projects being installed in Chile — in particular, in the high, hot, flat, barren desert lands of Northern Chile. The Atacama Desert has some of the world’s most intense sunlight and an area of 40,000 square miles.

For example, just two weeks ago a 70 MW solar panel farm — one of the largest in the world built to sell power on the wholesale market — was completed by SunPower in El Salvador in the Atacama Desert. The site uses 160,000 solar panels on single-axis trackers built on 328 acres leased from the Chilean government. The solar system can provide the equivalent electricity for 70,000 Chilean homes.

First Solar is building what could be the largest solar project in Latin America, a 141 MW solar panel farm called the Luz del Norte Solar Power Plant, north of the city of Copiapó, Chile. That site is expected to be finished by the end of 2015, will use 1.7 million of First Solar’s solar modules, and will produce enough electricity for over 173,962 homes.

The Topaz solar panel farm, that uses First Solar panels in CA.

The Topaz solar panel farm that uses First Solar panels.

Because of the unique geography of northern Chile, it’s one of the most productive solar regions in the world. And there’s also a growing desire for power in the area, from mining and other industries that are ready to buy up as much solar power as the local utilities and power markets are willing to generate.

All of this means that Chile has emerged as one of the areas in the world where solar panels are truly competitive economically, even without subsidies. In the U.S., the federal investment tax credit and loan guarantee programs, as well as state mandates like California’s renewable portfolio standard, have largely pushed the solar market. While Chile does have some solar incentives, the economics are good before they kick in.

In Chile, financial institutions are eager to back projects and new business models around solar projects have emerged. The U.S. government’s development finance institution, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), financed 70 percent of the $200 million El Salvador project through long-term non-recourse project debt.

Despite the fast growth rate, it will take several more years for the Chilean solar market to grow to muliple gigawatts. Chile is expected to have another solar boom in 2015.

This Berkeley startup & its energy machines are about to take off

A decade ago the sprawling artist compound just off of Ashby Avenue in an industrial part of West Berkeley, Calif, was filled with flame-throwing robots, stacks of shipping containers and towering Burning Man-inspired sculptures. During my college years at the University of California, Berkeley, and for several years afterwards, the place — then called The Shipyard — was the stuff of legend, hosting shows where huge metal art machines battled each other, and organizing events titled things like How to Destroy the Universe Festival.

Today it’s the headquarters of All Power Labs, an energy startup that emerged out of the ashes of the collective as a way for engineer artist, and all-around-noncomformist Jim Mason to provide power for the compound after the city of Berkeley repeatedly turned off their electricity. “The city was not excited about our interpretation of the building code,” Mason recalled of the group’s offgrid beginnings last week during an interview in All Power Lab’s offices, which sit just above their open machining and fabrication workshops.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, in the headquarters of All Power Labs, Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, at the headquarters of All Power Labs, in Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.

Instead of art machines, the place now produces machines that make distributed clean energy and are mostly shipped to the developing world. Over the past seven years, the group has been building devices called gasifiers that take plant waste (like walnut shells and wood chips) and turn it into electricity with a byproduct of biochar. It’s decades old technology — which was popular during World War II and is still used on a large industrial scale today — but Mason’s vision was to shrink down the tech to a personal scale, not just to run The Shipyard off the grid, but also to make it available to anyone who wanted to make it or buy it.

Now after years of refining the systems, All Power Labs has shipped 500 products and employs 40 workers. The team — a combination of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry execs — has been gaining momentum, transitioning from their early DIY days into what they hope is a stable and predictable product-oriented energy company.

The group reportedly generates upwards of five million dollars in revenue a year, has been awarded several recent patents around core technology, and last month won a $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build out a large gasifier in a shipping container that can turn the waste from fire-prevention forest thinning in the Sierra Nevada mountains into usable, on-demand, local electricity. The award still needs to be officially voted on and approved by the CEC.

This week the team officially brought on Cal-Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen as a founding board member. Kamen described All Power Labs’ products to me as “very exciting as a technology and a systems solution.” While All Power Labs has long operated off of sales to support its growth, the company is now looking to take advantage of this recent momentum to raise funding to scale up and keeping refining its products.

All Power Labs' latest gasifier is large enough to fit in a shipping container, and the company is using a grant from the CEC to finish work on it.

All Power Labs’ latest large gasifier fits in a shipping container, and provides over 100 kW of power from plant waste. The company is using a grant from the CEC to finish development work on it.

A backwards evolution

It’s taken a good seven years for the team to get to where they are today. “This wasn’t the plan,” explains Mason, who has a degree in anthropology from Stanford, the mind of a mechanical engineer, a background working in open source online communities and the spirit of a Berkeley radical. All Power Lab’s Director of Strategic Intiatives, Tom Price — who has been an environmental manager at Burning Man and spent years working on community solar projects — describes the company’s evolution as “completely backwards.”

In the traditional Silicon Valley tech startup world, co-founders might build a prototype or a basic app and then start raising money from investors to build out and launch the product. In contrast All Power Labs has been entirely bootstrapped, and slowly meandered around to their current commercialization strategy. Their development has been as organic as the produce being sold across the street at the health food coop Berkeley Bowl.

Originally, Mason’s idea was to take the open source, participatory, and collaborative culture that they’d fostered in the art collective and at Burning Man, and bring it to energy. Mason looked to the personalized, layered, and meaning-filled relationships that humans have developed around resources like food and transportation in modern times (picture all the foodie movements and hot rod culture) and wondered if the same type of relationship could be fostered around energy generation and use.

An All Power Labs' gasifier being run in Liberia.

An All Power Labs’ gasifier being run in Liberia.

Soon after the city shut off their power, Mason started reading about gasifiers via an old Swedish gasifier manual; Sweden has long been a world leader when it comes to converting waste into energy. Gasifiers use heat to transform plant waste into a gas similar to natural gas that can be used to run an engine and produce electricity. A basic gasifier is about as complex as a traditional wooden stove and can be assembled with simple tools like a hammer and wrench.

Gasifiers are also interesting from an environmental, and emissions perspective, because they can produce “carbon negative” energy. Plants and trees harvest carbon from the atmosphere, and when they are later put into a gasifier as waste, the remaining energy is extracted and the leftover byproduct is the carbon-based biochar, which can go back into the soil. As Price said, “Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

In the early days, and partly to cultivate the personal energy experience, All Power Labs made kits called Gasifier Experimenter Kits (GEKs), which were free CAD files that walked users through the steps of making the gasifiers from off the shelf parts. While the kits received a lot of attention from enthusiasts (many in the U.S.), even the early adopters sometimes found the notoriously tempermental tech difficult to get up and running and operating for substantial periods of time.

[pullquote person=”Tom Price” attribution=”Tom Price, All Power Labs” id=”912301″]”Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”[/pullquote]

Over the course of several years, the team slowly decided they wanted to provide a product that was much easier for their customers to use, instead of just providing them the means to create the technology. All Power Labs also started to get an increasing amount of interest from local entrepreneurs in developing areas in Africa and Asia that needed low cost, off-grid power to run their businesses, had access to abundant biomass (many operated in agriculture regions) and wanted to replace their expensive and dirty diesel generators with something else.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.

All Power Labs no longer sells these kits and the tech has evolved into the company’s three current gasifier products. The first is the company’s staple, the Power Pallet, which produces 15 kW to 18 kW of power, fits in the bed of a truck, costs $30,000 or $1.50 per watt, and represents the bulk of the shipments.

All Power Labs now has Power Pallets operating in 40 countries, including in Liberia using old rubber trees, the Philippines using coconut shells, and in Haiti, gasifying corn cobs. They had to temporarily halt their on-the-ground work in Liberia when Ebola hit.

At that $1.50 per watt price point, a customer that buys a Power Pallet to replace a generator and diesel fuel can recover their costs in 15 months, Price said. That price also significantly beats the cost to install solar panels, which can cost $2.27 a watt for large rooftop solar systems for companies and organizations, and $3.60 a watt for residential systems, according to GTM Research. And unlike a solar panel, the Power Pallet can run around the clock, whenever it’s got plant waste to gasify.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Systems has two other products in the works. There’s the Power Cube, a regulation compliant version of the Power Pallet for the European market that is just starting to go into production. And there’s the Powertainer, which is the larger, 100 kW unit that the company is working on with the CEC grant, and which isn’t yet on sale publicly (they’re shooting for 2016).

Despite the fact that the tech is centuries old, All Power Labs is still able to claim at least three patents for new gasifier innovations. Price said that they’re also using state of the art materials like cast in place ceramics in the reactor, and the electronic brain of the systems — which use Arduino sensors — are utilizing the latest in electronics, helping the gasifiers bypass many of the messy problems that plague older systems.

Gasifiers, in general, are messy systems, and produce tar, a dirty pollutant. They also can be very temperamental, which is one of the reasons why the technology hasn’t taken off on a broader scale. In addition to those two hurdles, the lifetime of the systems are dependent on how often the owner runs them; the basic four cylinder engine in the Power Pallet might need to be replaced after two years.

What’s next?

While All Power Labs has been commercially operating for years, it hasn’t fully transitioned into a streamlined business with automated manufacturing or some of the typical operating metrics that guide larger production companies. In the energy generation world, technology needs to be predictable and repeatable. Variation in products should be minute. And the more reliable the products are out of the gate, the less time the All Power Labs engineers need to spend in the field fixing them.

That’s one reason the company is looking to raise a Series A round of $10 million, so it can continue to “productize” the technology. It has also brought in some more experienced management in recent years: COO Alejandro Abalos joined the company two and a half years ago after spending a combined decade at solar companies GreenVolts, SunPower and PowerLight. Price also joined close to two years ago, too. Clearly they’re excited about the potential, even after having worked in the newly booming industry of solar.

A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.

A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.

It could be difficult for All Power Labs to raise funds from traditional venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Many of the larger firms that were once aggressive on cleantech have now moved away from new investments. The firms that are continuing to invest in energy now tend to take a lighter approach, opting to support digital energy focused startups that might require less capital to scale.

But there’s a growing amount of money being invested in clean energy in general in the world (much of it in solar projects and offshore wind), and there’s still some money for equity in early stage technology, though much of it is coming from outside the Valley. Corporations, like Shell, Siemens and GE, are looking to make energy investments as part of their corporate R&D strategy. And more family offices are willing to support energy startups that have a triple bottom line.

The Altaeros, high altitude wind turbine.

Altaeros’ high altitude wind turbine, which Softbank invested in.

Some of the deeper investor pockets can be found in Asia. For example, telecom giant Softbank has a new fund to invest in early energy generation and storage technologies that can be implemented in Japan and Asia. Japan is struggling to remake its energy generation mix after the nuclear disaster.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has backed some of the harder to fund startups out there. Some startups have been able to scale dramatically with funding in China, like Boston Power, LanzaTech and EcoMotors.

And there’s still some funding in the Valley for big energy ideas. Cleantech heavyweights Nancy Pfund and Ira Ehrenpreis have teamed up at DBL Investors for a new fund. Groups like Other Lab and M37 are testing out new models around developing energy innovation that are part government lab, part corporate lab and part Valley incubator. And perhaps the few VC-backed energy companies that have done well, like Tesla and SolarCity, will help produce the next-generation of entrepreneurial energy investors willing to make bigger, and smarter, risks in new energy startups.

I do wonder how the team at All Power Labs would feel at the end of the day about joining up with the sometimes slick, and always-optimizing, investors of Silicon Valley, or even investors outside the Valley. It would help them reach another of level of efficiency and growth, but it could also mean giving up some of their core tenets and lifestyle.

But whatever happens to the group going forward, they have the enthusiasm, momentum, and innovative thinking rarely seen in such an organically-emerging startup. And if their gasifiers are ever able to reach any substantial scale, they could have a profound effect on the emergence of off-grid power in the places that need it most.

An increasingly rare type of solar farm goes online in California

When the huge solar farm just outside of Las Vegas called Ivanpah opened up in early 2014, many lamented that this type of solar plant, called solar thermal, could soon become a dinosaur. Late last week another of these large solar thermal farms was officially turned on, and it truly could be one of the last of this size built in the U.S., thanks to a one-two punch of changing incentives and economics.

Large utility-scale solar panel farms use rows and rows of solar panels to directly convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Solar thermal farms, on the other hand, uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat liquid that produces steam and makes electricity from a turbine. These sites are essentially using the heat of the sun to produce electricity.

Abengoa's solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Abengoa’s solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Spanish power giant Abengoa celebrated the opening last Friday of a huge 280 MW solar thermal farm called Mojave Solar, built just outside of Barstow, California. The project can provide enough solar power for 90,000 homes in California, and was built across 2 square miles.

Abengoa said the site will generate $169 million in tax revenue over 25 years, provided a peak of 2,200 construction jobs, and now employs about 70 people. California utility PG&E is buying the power from Mojave Solar, and the facility will help PG&E meet California’s state mandate to generate a third of its electricity from clean power by 2020.

Abengoa finished another 280 MW solar thermal farm in Gila Bend, Arizona at the end of 2013. Years ago, power companies were as bullish on solar thermal farms as they were on solar panel farms, which are increasingly being constructed in the deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona.

The Topaz solar farm.

The Topaz solar farm, built by MidAmerican, outside of San Luis Obispo

But a few years ago the price of solar panels began to drop dramatically, from an average installation cost of $5.79 per watt in 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, to $2.71 per watt in the third quarter of 2014 (this is the average cost blended across all types of installations). Utility-scale solar panel installations can be as low as $1.68 per watt according to GTM Research.

As a result, some power companies that had solar thermal farms planned converted these sites over to solar panel facilities. Other companies that had developed businesses off of developing solar thermal sites cancelled projects in the U.S. that were no longer deemed economical and focused internationally.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

But ultra cheap solar panels are only part of the headwinds facing large utility-scale solar thermal farms in the U.S. There’s also a couple of important incentives that have been changed as well.

First off, the federal investment tax credit (ITC), which delivers a 30 percent tax credit to solar project developers, is planned to be cut to 10 percent by the end of 2016. While it could be extended, the uncertainty is threatening the construction of utility scale solar farms, using both solar thermal and solar panels. The New York Times noted in an article this weekend that there are no future large solar thermal projects planned in the U.S.

Then there’s the fact that federal incentives in the form of loan guarantees are also no longer widely available for solar thermal plants. When Ivanpah was built, it used a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. government to construct its 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers. Likewise, Abengoa’s Mojave Solar used a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to finance construction. These types of large loans are no longer regularly coming out of the Department of Energy.

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

While large solar panel farms are still low cost enough that they could continue to be constructed, solar thermal farms the size of Ivanpah (392 MW, 5 square miles), Mojave Solar (280 MW, 2 square miles), and Solana (280 MW, 3 square miles) are far less likely to get built in the future. (Though, solar panel projects will also be impacted by the reduction of the ITC.)

Utilities calculate how much clean power they need (most likely to meet a state mandate) and then compare it to the cost of building a new natural gas plant, a wind farm or either type of solar farm. If natural gas plants, or other types of clean power, are cheaper than solar thermal facilities, then it’s an easy decision.

But large solar thermal farms could still find life outside of the U.S. They can uniquely store thermal energy at night, providing electricity far longer than solar panel farms without energy storage can.

BrightSource, which is the startup behind the Ivanpah site, recently announced a joint venture with China’s Shanghai Electric Group to build utility-scale solar thermal plants in China. Their first proposed project is to build two 135 MW solar thermal projects in the Qinghai province of China.

Moth eyes inspire scientists to cut reflection on solar panels

The eyes of the common moth have led to a novel discovery that could boost the efficiency of solar panels. Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a way to create an ultra-tiny texture on silicon (which is the most common material for solar panels) that cuts down on a solar panel’s reflection in the same way that a moth’s eyes operate.

A moth’s compound eyes have textured patterns made up of tiny posts, with each one smaller than the wavelength of light. When light hits the moth’s eye, much of it is absorbed and passes into its cornea without disruption. The moth’s eye evolved in this way so that it could see better at night, and so that its eyes wouldn’t glimmer and attract predators.

Chuck Black of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials displays a nanotextured square of silicon on top of an ordinary silicon wafer. The nanotextured surface is completely antireflective and could boost the production of solar energy from silicon solar cells.

Chuck Black of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials displays a nanotextured square of silicon on top of an ordinary silicon wafer. The nanotextured surface is completely antireflective and could boost the production of solar energy from silicon solar cells.

While mimicking moth eyes to create anti-reflective surfaces is quite common (glare-free TV screens, other solar cell research) the scientists at Brookhaven used a polymer material called a “block copolymer,” which can self-organize into tiny patterns, to create a template for texturizing the surface of a silicon solar cell (solar cells make up a solar panel). Companies use self-assembling block copolymers to make things that need a textured surface, like the soles of shoes and adhesives.

A closeup shows how the nanotextured square of silicon completely blocks reflection compared with the surrounding silicon wafer.

A closeup shows how the nanotextured square of silicon completely blocks reflection compared with the surrounding silicon wafer.

The scientists then used the block copolymer texture as a template for creating the tiny post patterns in the silicon solar cell using a plasma of reactive gases. The chip industry commonly uses this method to manufacture electronic circuits.

Details of the nanotextured antireflective surface as revealed by a scanning electron microscope at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials. The tiny posts, each smaller than the wavelengths of light, are reminiscent of the structure of moths' eyes, an example of an antireflective surface found in nature.

Details of the nanotextured antireflective surface as revealed by a scanning electron microscope at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials. The tiny posts, each smaller than the wavelengths of light, are reminiscent of the structure of moths’ eyes, an example of an antireflective surface found in nature.

The scientists discovered that simply texturizing silicon solar cells in this way could cut down on the reflection of the cell and make it more efficient than the anti-reflective coatings commonly used today by solar cell makers. The scientists say their method outperforms a single layer of anti-reflective coatings by 20 percent. They’re still looking into how this could be a cost advantage as well.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is funded in part by the the Department of Energy Office of Science. Physicist Charles Black led the moth eye research via Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). The research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications and submitted for a patent. The findings could have more applications for making anti-glare windows and boosting the brightness of LEDs.

Where the clean energy money flowed last year

New investments in clean energy — from project financing to government funding to VC — rebounded in 2014 to $310 billion invested globally, just shy of the annual global record for clean energy investments in 2011, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That is 16 percent growth from the amount of funding that went into clean energy in 2013. The founder of Bloomberg New Energy finance, Michael Liebreich, who is also chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said that while BNEF was predicting a bounce back in 2014, the annual figures “exceeded our expectations.”

The $310 billion includes a lot of things, like investments in new big clean energy projects — say, a new solar or wind farm or a battery bank — funding into rooftop solar projects, government funding in clean energy R&D, money into corporate R&D (from GE, for example), new investments in the public markets (like an IPO, or Tesla’s convertible issues), and equity investments into developing technology from venture capitalists and private equity investors. Silicon Valley makes up a very tiny fraction of this overall investing.

OffshoreWind

It was the big clean energy projects (asset financing) that grabbed most of the money ($171 billion). Solar panel farms in China and the U.S., and offshore wind farms in Europe received the lions share of these funds.

Solar was single biggest contributor to the clean energy funding, says the report, delivering almost half of the total, the sector’s highest contribution to date. In addition, there were seven European billion-dollar offshore wind projects financed, including ones in the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany.

Tesla owners take a ride in the new Tesla "D" model electric sedan at the Hawthorne Airport on October 09, 2014 in Hawthorne, California.

Tesla owners take a ride in the new Tesla “D” model electric sedan at the Hawthorne Airport on October 09, 2014 in Hawthorne, California.

China, in particular, was responsible for 29 percent of the world’s total clean energy investments, and the country drew in $89.5 billion for clean energy last year. China’s investment in solar made up the majority of that. U.S. solar investments were high, too.

While early stage VC investing continues to be important for developing future clean energy companies (the next-generation of Tesla’s and SolarCity’s of the world), VC and private equity investments in clean energy remained a small portion of the overall funding, at $4.8 billion for the year. That figure was up 16 percent from the year earlier, but far below the $12.3 billion record in 2008.

Looking for a job? Try the solar industry

The growth rate for jobs in the solar industry last year was almost 20 times higher than the national average employment growth rate in the U.S., according to a new report out from non-profit The Solar Foundation. In 2014, 31,000 new solar jobs were created, delivering a U.S. solar workforce of 173,807, which was 21.8 percent bigger than the U.S. solar workforce back in November 2013.

The solar industry now represents 1.3 percent of all jobs in the U.S., making it larger than some fossil fuel sectors like coal mining. And it grew faster than some growing fossil fuel industries did last year, adding more jobs in 2014 than both the oil and gas pipeline construction industry, and the crude petroleum and natural gas extraction industry.

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

Over the past four years about 81,000 solar jobs were created, showing growth of 86 percent over four years. These are jobs like installers of rooftops solar systems and ground-mounted solar systems, solar sales and marketers, and corporate jobs at big American solar companies like First Solar, SunEdison, SunPower and SolarCity (added 4,000 jobs in 2014).

Two huge solar panel farms just went online in California, which employed about 400 workers each. For the first three quarters of 2014, more than one third (36 percent) of the new electricity capacity built out in the U.S. came from solar systems, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

This year the solar sector expects to add another 36,000 jobs, showing even more growth in 2015, says The Solar Foundation. At the same time, the solar industry is worried that if the federal incentive, the investment tax credit, is lowered (it’s set to expire but could be renewed) in the near future, it could curb some of the recent growth in the sector.

HelioVolt to finally auction off assets from its solar factory

The obituaries for thin film solar startup HelioVolt were written about a year ago, when the thirteen-year-old company — after over $200 million in funding and no major sales deals — finally said it had halted manufacturing at its factory in Austin, Texas, and was doing layoffs. Now on Tuesday, a company that organizes auctions, Silicon Valley Disposition, said it will hold an auction on Wednesday and Thursday for all of HelioVolt’s assets at its factory.

HelioVolt will be selling off all of its solar panel manufacturing equipment like sputtering tools, laminators, ovens, factory robots, sensing and cleaning systems and office equipment (even the coffee maker). Interested parties can also buy the entire lot, and if that bid is accepted, it will override individual asset sales.

HelioVolt equipment

HelioVolt equipment

HelioVolt developed solar panels that use an ultra-thin layer of semiconductor material from the mixture copper-indium-gallium-selenide (or CIGS) to convert sunlight into electricity. The majority of the solar panels on the market today use a much thicker layer of silicon semiconductor to do the electricity conversion. The founder of HelioVolt, BJ Stanbery — who we first interviewed back in 2007 — got into CIGS back in the 1980’s and invented the CIGS manufacturing process that HelioVolt used in 2001.

Many venture-backed startups, as well as big companies, have worked on making CIGS panels over the years, betting that if the thinner semiconductor material could be used (so it’s less expensive) and if/when silicon prices rise, CIGS would be cheaper. Well, instead of rising, the price of silicon solar panels has actually dropped dramatically over the past several years, in essence halting most of the potential cost benefits of CIGS panels for the time being.

HelioVolt solar assets up for auction.

HelioVolt solar assets up for auction.

High profile CIGS flame-outs include Solyndra, MiaSole, and Nanosolar. Billions of dollars of venture capital funding went into CIGS companies. However, down the road, CIGS panels could still play an important role for more flexible, thinner solar panels. Japanese company Solar Frontier has been one of the only ones producing CIGS panels at any kind of scale.

Even as HelioVolt struggled along with the other CIGS makers, it held on for a long, long time. In late 2011, Korean giant SK Group showed an interest in the company and made a $50 million investment. And in 2012, HelioVolt was still plodding along with small pilot installations in Austin.

But in early 2014, according to local reports, SK Group pulled any more support for the company, and HelioVolt started looking for an acquirer or other investment. Clearly Stanbery didn’t find the deal he wanted and now the company’s technology might have to live on piecemeal at other companies.

A huge floating solar farm will be built on a reservoir in Japan

Japan has been aggressively building solar projects — close to 11 GW in two years — in the wake of the decision to dismantle its nuclear plants following the Fukushima disaster. Now the country is even looking beyond land for places to install solar panels.

A new large floating solar panel farm — supposedly the world’s largest in terms of capacity — will be built on top of the Yamakura Dam reservoir in Chiba prefecture in Japan (see map below). The 13.4 MW solar system will be built by a joint venture created by Japanese electronics giant Kyocera and financing company Century Tokyo Leasing, called Kyocera TCL Solar, and the plant is supposed to be in operation by March of 2016.

Floating solar panels, a project similar to the one that will be built by Kyocera.

Floating solar panels, a project similar to the one that will be built by Kyocera.

The electricity from the project, which will be produced by 50,000 Kyocera solar modules over a 180,000 square meter stretch of water, will be sold to Tokyo Electric Power Company. The modules will be installed on a floating platform.

The marker in the lower right hand corner is the Chiba reservoir.

The marker in the lower right hand corner is the Chiba reservoir, to the east of Tokyo Bay.

Japan has over 71 GW of clean energy projects approved, and 96 percent of those are solar, according to Bloomberg. The country already had a long history in the solar industry before the Fukushima disaster and the implementation of its clean energy incentive program. Japan is home to some of the largest solar panel makers in the world, including Panasonic, Sharp and Solar Frontier (part of Showa Shell). Here’s a list of some of the other solar projects that have been built in Japan in recent years.