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Feb 21, 2014  | Tom Cheyney  | 0 Comments

A tale of three solar leaders

Recent news from First Solar, SolarCity, ATK Technologies merit closer looks for disparate reasons

Two of the three solar leaders highlighted in this post should be familiar to the PV crowd, but the third company probably does not have the same level of name/brand recognition. First Solar and SolarCity often find themselves in the news and as the topic of stock market analyst chatter, but ATK Technologies attracts more attention in aerospace and defense circles. Recent announcements from the threesome merit a closer look for disparate reasons.

In advance of First Solar’s fourth-quarter and year-end earnings looming next Tuesday, the industry titan has had a few announcements of note. In pipeline-pushing news that will no doubt be highlighted during the analyst call, the U.S. Department of Interior’s greenlighting of the 300MW Stateline Solar Farm in California and the 250MW Silver State South site on Bureau of Land Management properties in California and Nevada has garnered the most attention. Both projects have been shrunk in size from their original footprints to accommodate desert critter habitats, water runoff, possible archaeological finds, and other considerations, and both projects boast SoCal Edison signed PPAs.

But a curious biographical tidbit buried in the First Solar press release detailing the newly appointed EVP/general counsel’s work history elicited an eyebrow raise. Before Paul Kaleta joined NV Energy (his gig previous to his new one at First), he served as VP/general counsel for Koch Industries from 1998-2004, according to his LinkedIn profile. Uh huh, that Koch Industries, the privately held corporate mothership of the climate-change denying, fossil-fuel loving, renewable energy blocking, Tea Party supporting Koch brothers, Charles and David. I’m just sayin’….

(CORRECTED) Another sector leader and stock market darling, SolarCity, coincidentally will issue its Q4 financials Monday, and in the run up to that eagerly awaited call the company shared a recent commercial contract win that caught the Curator’s attention. The PV firm will install a ~1MW system on the rooftop of Unical Aviation, a growing Los Angeles area aircraft parts supplier with a customer list that includes the likes of Boeing.

The new customer reckons it will save in the neighborhood of $200,000 in its first year of solarization, representing a reduction in its electrical bills of as much as 80%. Given the petroleum dependence of the aircraft industry, this project represents a nice symbolic—and practical—carbon offset. A “duh, of course, solar” statement in the press release from Unical EVP Leonardus Karsana made me smile: “Everyone is going to switch to solar, especially in sun-drenched states. It’s just a matter of time.”

Although ATK Technologies may not be a player in the terrestrial solar industry, the company is a balance-of-systems leader in the original solar market–the orbital and planetary space PV biz. Remember those cool-looking UltraFlex solar wings on the long-lived Mars Phoenix Lander? ATK made those BOS beauties, as well as scores more circling the globe and beyond. The company’s latest pair of three-panel arrays integrates the high-efficiency ultra-triple-junction solar cells that power the U.S. Air Force’s just-launched GPS IIF-5 satellite. Its San Diego facility also manufactured the “composite solar array substrates,” according to the press release.

What really bears repeating from the announcement is ATK’s failure rate: the company has “achieved 100% on-orbit success on all solar arrays and deployable systems delivered and launched to date.” While there might be wiggle room for the occasional PV module and inverter quality flaw or poorly installed array down here on Earth, there’s zero tolerance for failure in space where the ASPs of the solar power system can be astronomical and the term “mission critical” carries genuine gravitas.


Sources: First Solar, US Dept. of Interior, SolarCity, ATK Technologies, Spaceflight 101, Boeing, USAF

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