Thin film photovoltaics
What’s past is prologue
The annual calendar transition elicited the usual array of year-end reviews and look-forward previews, as content-rich news and analysis sites noted their most-read posts and solar prognosticators of various stripes weighed in with their viewpoints for the months ahead. Pure-play photovoltaics portal PV-Tech saw solar shakeout stories dominate its leading news stories of 2012, Renewable Energy World’s most-eyeballed article was the series of replies from 32 different sources addressing its question about the most difficult issue facing the solar industry, and Greentech Media’s most-commented features included its post about Amonix’s plant closure and the state of CPV—the only one on its list with a solar hue.
Indie blogger Ed Gunther’s top 10 found his piece on CIGS purveyor Nanosolar’s efficiency and cost roadmaps garnering the most attention on the Portfolio, while SolarNovus’s page-view leader focused on the growing solar carport trend. Rather than parse out its site analytics data, PV magazine offered a lengthy year-in-review/what’s ahead piece by Cheryl Kaften, which ably ran through many of the recurring themes of 2012—upstream bankruptcies and consolidation, low module prices, growing overall installation rates, trade disputes, new financing models—as well as positing some things to watch for in the new year. There’s even an entertaining “whiteboard drawing video” on the RENVU site (and YouTube) summarizing Vince Font’s “solar outlook for 2013” REW feature.
We haven’t had to wait long for some truly big news to break in 2013. Two front-runners for the top 10 lists that we’ll be pondering in 11 months or so come from opposite ends of the financing spectrum: Warren Buffett’s Mid-American Renewables solar unit’s epic multibillion-dollar purchase of SunPower’s 579MW (AC) Antelope Valley Solar Projects in the Southern California desert and the official launch of Oakland, CA-based Mosaic (formerly Solar Mosaic), the venture-backed PV crowdfunding group that offers regular folks a chance to invest as little as $25 in well-vetted commercial projects (such as affordable housing complexes) and get at least a 4.5% return to boot.
As one would expect, the Mid-American solar play garnered quite a lot of coverage. Forbes’ Todd Woody nutshelled the deal well, Greentech’s Eric Wesoff spoke with SunPower CEO Tom Werner, PV-magazine collared industry analyst Goetz Fischbeck for his thoughts on the acquisition and other areas of interest in the U.S. utility market, and PV-Tech’s Mark Osborne threw his two pence worth into the discussion in a blog-column. The consensus seems to be this is really good news for the industry as a whole (at least those that think utility-scale power plants should be part of the equation and big money has a role to play in establishing solar as a legit asset class) and pretty positive for the midterm prospects of SunPower. Werner put the megadeal into thought-provoking perspective: “This is almost the size of a coal-fired power plant. Just think: four or five years ago, if we would have said that was going to happen, people would have thought you and I were crazy.”
Fischbeck and especially Osborne raise an interesting point about Mid-American one day being able to evaluate the comparative performances of two very different photovoltaic technologies—SunPower’s high-efficiency monocrystalline-silicon-based panels and First Solar’s lower-efficiency but temperature-coefficient-superior CdTe thin-film units. The pair of PV module systems will respectively comprise the power blocks at Antelope Valley and other sites owned or partially owned by Mid-American and built/operated by First Solar: the 550MW Topaz project in central California and the mostly-operational 290MW Agua Caliente farm in Yuma County, AZ. Also worth noting is that First Solar is already well along in building another project in the Antelope Valley, the 230MW AV Solar Ranch One owned by Exelon, which lies just a few miles across Highway 138 from the other, bigger site that will soon see the shovels turning.
Although the dollar amounts are waaay more modest than Buffett’s behemoth-like spend, Mosaic’s democratized, quasi-microfinance-level online marketplace for clean energy investing offers a truly fresh approach to the financing of midsize solar rooftops. So far, the group has seen $1.1 million in investments funneled through its system for a dozen projects, but the fun will really start now that the founders have opened the door for investors in California and New York (and accredited wealthier individuals) to put their money into a trio of sites in California in need of a collective $603,000. SFGate has a workmanlike write-up, while the Mosaic company blog and GigaOM/Earth2Tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher, who was one of the first journos to profile the firm, also shed some light on “the Kickstarter of solar.”
Over on the real Kickstarter, another solar-oriented project has blown away its goals. With three days to go as I write this, the WakaWaka personal solar power station has earned more than $338,600 in pledges from over 4750 backers, to absolutely kill the original goal of $50,000. The prototype devices, a robust fit-in-your-pocket size PV charger for mobile phones and tablets, can power up those handhelds in a day; they also feature LED lights that will last for up to 40 hours if you don’t use the battery juice for the phone. These are the same Dutch guys who successfully raised money via Kickstarter for their WakaWaka solar LED lamp in 2011, a product that has garnered a lot of media attention and is already making a difference for power-less folks in the developing world, outdoor enthusiasts, and greenpower tech geeks. The high-efficiency PV bits incorporated into the cleverly designed gizmos are none other than 23%-efficient SunPower cells, the same slices of monocrystalline silicon that will, once integrated into panels, power those massive solar farms that Mid-American just invested in and plans to start building later this year.
PHOTO/EFFECTS OF AGUA CALIENTE SOLAR PROJECT BY TOM CHEYNEY
Tags: CdTe / cadmium telluride, commercial/industrial-scale solar, CPV / concentrated photovoltaics, crystalline silicon, distributed generation, financing, market research, marketing, off-grid solar, performance and reliability, policy, PV / photovoltaics, renewable energy, solar appliances, solar cells, solar energy, solar modules, solar power, thin film photovoltaics, utility-scale solar