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Inferior solar panels in the United States

Published by The Editors | Filed under photovoltaic

Foreign markets get more reliable solar panels than the United States, according to testing lab TÜV Rheinland PTL. Failure rates for panels for use in the U.S. are higher than those outside the county. No data was presented on the panels’ efficiency.

“manufacturers make two grades of panels: one for the U.S. and another for Europe,” says Mani Tamizhmani, TÜV’s president. Panels do have to pass federal tests for safety in the U.S. but “consumers here don’t yet know to ask for quality certifications,” he says.

Until U.S. standards catch up, could there be an opportunity for grey market panels that were manufactured for foreign shores?

Insurance should cover replacement costs of the panels for homes.

Resources: Business Week - Second-Class Solar Panels?

Not in Germany’s backyard

Published by The Editors | Filed under policy

Germany was supposed to be the unquestioned leader in green energy by now (they still lead most countries). But they’re not as far along in technologies such as wind power as some would have expected. The cause is the usual suspects: political squabbles; environmental reviews; not-in-my-backyardism; company battles.

With these virtues in mind, the government passed its Renewable Energy Act in 2000, extending the favorable tariffs to wind farms in Germany’s North Sea and Baltic waters. By 2002—the year in which annual installations on land peaked at 3240 MW—developers had filed 29 proposals for offshore farms that together would have had a generating capacity of 63 GW, which was equal to half of Germany’s entire installed capacity at the time. Germany’s ministry for the environment (its Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, or BMU) forecast that 500 MW of offshore wind would be operating by 2006 and that an additional 2500 MW would come on line by 2010.

Then the plans crashed headlong into political reality. Almost immediately, conservationists and marine ecologists questioned proposed incursions into near-shore areas where millions of migratory birds breed and feed. The BMU handled that challenge by studying it carefully and then, in 2005, designating permissible zones for wind development that were far from shore and in deep water.

Key Stats: Germany must develop offshore wind farms in 20 to 40 meter deep water that is generally located 40 kilometers offshore. Contrast that with the U.K., Ireland or Denmark which allows offshore wind farms in 20 meter deep water that is within 15 kilometers of shore.

Resources: IEEE Spectrum - Germany's Green-Energy Gap

Solar panel costs continue to decrease

Published by The Editors | Filed under photovoltaic

The cost of a solar panel installation continues to fall, which is good news for homeowners looking to install a home solar power system. The cost decrease is due to an increase in solar panel production, especially in China, and a decrease in solar panel demand, especially in Spain.

For solar shoppers these days, the price is right. Panel prices have fallen about 40 percent since the middle of last year (2008), driven down partly by an increase in the supply of a crucial ingredient for panels, according to analysts at the investment bank Piper Jaffray.

The price drops — coupled with recently expanded federal incentives — could shrink the time it takes solar panels to pay for themselves to 16 years, from 22 years, in places with high electricity costs, according to Glenn Harris, chief executive of SunCentric, a solar consulting group. That calculation does not include state rebates, which can sometimes improve the economics considerably.

While the U.S. federal solar energy incentive has been increasing, with the removal of the tax credit cap, state and local incentives have been decreasing. Still, the solar panel price decline is so far making up for those decreased incentives. Creative financing options have also led to increased home solar panel installations.

Key Stats: California is the largest residential solar panel market in the country, and residential installations increased 50% year over year from July 2008 to July 2009.

Resources: New York Times - More Sun for Less

Home power problems, military solutions

Published by The Editors | Filed under future tech, photovoltaic, policy

It’s 2012, in the middle of the night. The batteries that your solar panels charged up during the day are on the blink, and power in your home is fading fast, so you might miss tonight’s episode of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant (there is really a show called this, we’re not making it up). You’re freaking out. All of a sudden in parachutes a team from the 82nd Airborne. You freak out some more. But they’re carrying portable fuel cells that they use to power your home back up. Crisis averted.

So this ridiculous scenario would never happen (the show you’d be worried about missing is actually another revival of Fox’s Paradise Hotel), but you will probably be enjoying better alternative energy solutions thanks to the U.S. military.

Can DARPA now score another double success by changing how both the military and civilian worlds consume and produce energy? DARPA’s first goal is always to magnify the might of the U.S. armed forces. That’s why Arlington (Va.)-based DARPA is devoting an estimated $100 million of its $3 billion annual budget to alternative energy.


In addition to spurring the development of palm-size fuel cells, DARPA has contracted with companies to miniaturize solar cells that would supplant the need for generators. It now wants to develop inexpensive diesel and jet fuel from algae that could be produced in the battle zone. All three programs include the aim of accelerating the manufacture of any new product by private companies, from whom the military could buy.

We’d wager that the entity responsible for the Internet will end up making some significant contributions to the field of alternative energy.

Key Stats: Current solar panel technology converts 20% of sunlight to electricity. DARPA's goal is to product panels that are 40% efficient.
Current cost of algae based fuel is $20-$30 per gallon. DARPA's goal is $3 per gallon fuel.
$400 million in stimulus dollars have been allocated to a new agency in the Energy Department, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

Resources: BusinessWeek - Can the Military Find the Answer to Alternative Energy?

Home solar panels with little or no money down

Published by The Editors | Filed under photovoltaic

(Welcome to those visiting from All Things Eco #63. Subscribe to this site.)

Do you want to power your home with solar generated electricity, but don’t want to (or can’t) make the initial large investment in photovoltaic panels? Thanks to companies like SolarCity, you can get your own residential solar power system for little or no money down. (Kind of like, “No cash, no credit, no problem.” Maybe not the ‘no credit’ part.)

Enter SolarCity. After the Budwigs put $1,000 down, the three-year-old startup installed panels on their modest ranch home that meet almost all the family’s electricity needs. SolarCity also took care of the many complexities that make going solar such a hassle. The company designed and purchased the system and lined up building permits, financing, and government tax breaks. In return, the Budwigs agreed to lease the system for 15 years at $73 a month—$95 a month less than they pay, on average, for conventional power. They expect to recoup their $1,000 investment in less than a year.

SolarCity provides leasing of solar panels to both residences and commercial properties. They’re currently only in California, Oregon and Arizona, but plan to expand to 10 more states by the end of 2010. A competitor, SunRun, offers solar panel leasing in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. Do a search for ‘solar panel leasing [your state or city or community]’ to find other companies that offer this type of home solar panel power option, but do your due dilligence!

Key Stats: Common benchmark is that alternative energy needs to product electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, which would still be 40% more expensive than coal plant produced electricity.

Resources: Business Week - The Next Energy Innovators

For the city dwellers

Published by The Editors | Filed under wind power

Majid Rashidi, a mechanical engineer, has devised a way to increase wind turbine efficiency by putting them on water towers mounted on top of city buildings. His tests show that wind turbines mounted on a water tower generate 4 times as much power as those just mounted on a mast. This is due to a concentrator effect and other complicated fluid dynamics formulas that we won’t get into. Four turbines generated enough power for about 6 families. These would be great for all those old industrial buildings that have been converted into condos.

Resources: BusinessWeek - Water Towers to Catch the Wind

Suntech Power CEO predicts solar market will take off in 2010; will have grid parity by 2012

Published by The Editors | Filed under photovoltaic

Solar power for the home fans can take some comfort in Solar Power Holding’s CEO’s belief that President Obama’s policies to subsidize solar power will cause a ramp up in solar power installations starting in 2010. He also predicts grid parity for solar power by 2012.

What is grid parity? It means getting the cost of producing solar energy down to the point where there is no difference between it and competing fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. For Suntech that means about 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. Currently, Suntech’s cost is about 35 cents, yet Shi says that by 2012 his production line will reach his target.

He plans to do this through a combination of cheaper silicon prices and by increasing the conversion efficiency of the photovoltaic panels. Reaching grid parity also means governments can phase out their current alternative energy subsidies which are currently what make costs competitive with fossil fuels.

Key Stats: Grid parity is 14 cents per kilowatt-hour.
11.1 gigawatts of solar panels are predicted to be produced in 2009, up from 7.7 gigawatts in 2008.

Resources: Fortune - China's New King of Solar

It’s raining radio waves

Published by The Editors | Filed under future tech

PG&E have agreed to purchase power from a startup, Solaren, that will gather the power in a space based solar farm and then beam it back to Earth as radio waves which will them be turned into electricity. Part of the deal is that PG&E only pays for power delivered, so if Solaren can’t pull this off, presumably PG&E owes them nothing.

Resources: Fortune - Heavenly Solar Plants

Waste not, …

Published by The Editors | Filed under hodge podge

Do you generate several tons of trash at your home a day? Are you tired of paying to have it hauled away? Do you want to use it to power your home, WITHOUT burning it? You may be in luck, as IST Energy has developed a machine that turns your garbage into power, for the low, low price of $850,000.

Bags of garbage are fed into a hopper at one end. Inside, the rubbish is squeezed into pellets, which are converted to flammable gas that can run an on-site generator. The machine ingests up to three tons of trash daily, unleashing enough power and heat to run a 200,000-square-foot building for a day.

All right, maybe this machine isn’t practical for a home, but we’d bet someone will roll out a home version sooner or later. We wonder what your average homeowners’ association would think of these bad boys.

Resources: BusinessWeek - Dumpster Diving for Fuel
IST Energy

Drastically increase your fuel economy

Published by The Editors | Filed under automotive

How can you increase your fuel economy without buying a new hybrid? Through driving techniques known as eco-driving or hypermiling.

Even without futuristic technologies, drivers can achieve eye-popping fuel economy in their current cars with nothing fancier than their brains and some lighter feet. The idea is to maintain momentum much as on a leisurely bicycle ride: accelerating only gradually, coasting whenever possible and constantly adjusting speed to minimize the need to stop.

Trials in Europe, Japan and the U.S. are finding that drivers commonly improve their fuel economy upwards of 20% after deploying a handful of eco-driving techniques. Among them: Driving more slowly on highways, shifting gears earlier in cities and shutting off the engine rather than idling at long stops.

Can’t handle driving this way on your own? Don’t worry, auto manufacturers are adding technology into cars that will let you automatically drive this way.

Within the next two years, Nissan Motor Co. plans to start offering in the U.S. and Japan a feature that it calls the “eco-pedal” — a sensor that, when the driver is accelerating too piggishly, pushes back against the driver’s foot.

Key Stats: A Toyota Prius made an 844-mile trip around Texas on a single tank of gas.
Car engines operate most efficiently at 60% of full throttle.

Resources: WSJ - Efficient Drivers Cut Emissions, but Stir Up Hot Air
MotherJones - This Guy Can Get 59 MPG in a Plain Old Accord. Beat That, Punk.