I spent two days last week at the Intersolar North America conference in San Francisco, speaking with key people within the industry, from solar panel producers to developers of testing and control software for solar cell manufacturers, inverter makers, solar system designers, silver paste materials manufactures and more. It was a great opportunity to get an overview of current state of the solar industry.
My take-away from the experience is the recent phenomenal growth in the solar industry and installed base of solar power throughout the world. If your idea of the solar industry is based on what you’ve heard in the past year, or even the past few months, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Following are some brief insights and examples of developments in the solar industry from my various conversations with some movers and shakers in the industry over the past few days:
Julie Blunden, SunPower:
This fall SunPower will break ground on the first central station solar power plant in the United States, a 250 megawatt utility-scale facility in San Luis Obispo, California. The plant will cost the local grid operator, Pacific Gas & Electric, less to build than a natural gas plant of the same capacity – grid parity anyone?
In January the company signed a deal with Southern California Edison to build two utility-scale solar power plants in Southern California with a combined generating capacity of 711 megawatts. “We’ve come an enormous way in the past five years”, says Blunden, “something on the order of 2,000 megawatts to almost 20,000 megawatts installed globally across the industry. 20,000 megawatts is equivalent to 20 nuclear reactors in scale.”
Dr. Shawn Qu, Canadian Solar:
Just ten years ago, Canadian Solar was a one-man operation. Founded by Dr. Shawn Qu, today Canadian Solar is among the top six solar cell manufacturers in the world. Canadian Solar focuses on building high efficiency solar cells, modules, and panels, Dr. Qu expects solar cells will soon achieve over 20 percent efficiency. An average solar panel, says Qu will produce up to 275 watts of electricity.
Dr. Qu forecasts solar costs will drop to about $2/watt installed by 2012 or 2013, at which point there will be a “sea change” in market penetration for solar. Within five years he expects to see solar to become a “mainstream source of energy,” providing as much as 10 to 20 percent of global energy needs.
Julian Hawkins, Abound Solar:
The key to the continued growth of solar is economics and efficiency. In other words, says Abound Solar’s Julian Hawkins, finding the “sweet spot” of panel cost and energy output. Colorado-based Abound Solar grew from a research project at Colorado State University by Dr. W.S Sampath. Sampath developed a manufacturing process to make solar cells using glass-coated thin film cadmium telluride instead of high-cost crystalline silicone.
From this initial research, began in 1991, Sampath and two other partners formed Abound Solar in 2007. By significantly reducing materials and production costs, Abound Solar has found that sweet spot of panel efficiency and low cost. “Our panels aren’t the most efficient”, says Hawkins, but they are the most “cost effective.” As companies look to squeeze overall costs and efficiencies, Hawkins says Abound’s approach is helping make solar power a viable option for anyone who wants it.
That approach appears to work, Abound’s growth and expansion has already created 400+ jobs in Colorado. With the announcement of a new solar cell manufacturing plant in Indiana, at least 1000 jobs are soon to be added. Abounds mission is to “power the world with low-cost solar energy” – and create jobs in the process.
John Grubb, Outback Power:
Outback is an example of a long-established company entering the solar power market due to the growing business opportunities available. Makers of high-end inverters and other electrical components, the core market for Outback has typically been for remote and rural power installations – from villages in Latin America and Africa to remote hunting cabins in Alaska.
Much of their business has been for transportation and communications, providing robust inverters and electronics for rail switching, cable, and telephone installations that require safe, reliable power management. Seeing the rapid growth of the solar power industry for residential and commercial use, Outback provides high-end grid-tied interactive inverters for a variety of critical solar power applications.
As Grubb told me, it was only a natural and smart progression for this well-established company to enter the solar industry with their power inverter and management solutions.
Paul Mikos, PsmosFMG:
Paul Mikos is an example of doing good by doing well. I’ll do a follow-up story on Paul and PsmosFMG, but in a nutshell, Paul and his partners formed a company in 2009 that provides turnkey solar power solutions for municipalities and public agencies. One of PsmosFMG’s success stories is the Antelope Valley High School District. PsmosFMG negotiated a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to provide 80 percent of the school district’s power needs at a projected savings of $40 million over the life of the PPA. The project will generate 9.6 megawatts from 10 sites throughout the district.
In addition, Mikos told me that a special “solar curriculum” introduced into algebra classes helped improve test scores by 60 percent during the curriculum’s test period. The company has also established an $80,000 scholarship fund for students, most of whom come from low-income families.
Mikos and his partners are all successful businessmen motivated to do well by doing good – and have a great time doing it. “I didn’t have to work,” says Mikos, “but there’s only so much golf you can play. I wanted to start a business that first of all was fun and would do some good.” Making a profit is nice, but without the first two requirements (fun and doing good), well, it just isn’t worth it for Mikos.
“When my children were in school,” says Mikos, “California’s public schools were among the best; now they rank among the lowest in country.” Mikos saw a way to help the beleaguered school districts of Southern California and perhaps provide some opportunities for students to reach their goals and get to college – maybe even start their own solar energy company one day.
David Kallus, KLA-Tencor:
Squeezing out every last bit of efficiency along the entire production and value chain (from ingot to panel on a roof) is how the solar industry will continue to grow and become the mainstream source of energy everyone at Intersolar expect it be in the near future. Producing high-quality silicon cells is a complex endeavor that requires precision throughout the process. At any point along the production line, faults can arise making a cell sub par or even useless.
KLA-Tencor helps solar cell manufacturers manage the task of monitoring their production lines in real-time. Where before hundreds of cells might come off the line with faults, utilizing KLA-Tencor’s comprehensive real-time measurement tools and FabVision data management software, problems can be spotted and identified within seconds.
Reducing lost productivity and materials is crucial to maximizing manufacturing efficiency and lowering costs Kallus explains. “Before our clients were just shooting in the dark,” says Kallus. With these tools, it’s like, well, a ray of sunshine for solar cell makers.
Steve Daniels, Centrosolar:
German-based Centrosolar focuses on bringing comprehensive solar power solutions to homes and businesses – from financing to power production. Products like the CentroPack residential turnkey system simplifies the process of solar power installation for both the end-user and installer/dealer – another example of creating efficiency and lowering cost.
Centrosolar America has offices in California, Arizona, and New Jersey. Worldwide the company has over 1000 employees in 21 locations. Like everyone else I’ve talked with at Intersolar, Daniels is amazed and thrilled with the explosive growth in solar over the past few years. “The market doubled last year,” says Daniels. “In California the market is growing exponentially.”
As we’ve seen throughout our brief tour here, making solar more efficient, from manufacture to finance and installation, is the key driver of that growth. Where solar power was once a “boutique” energy source, it is fast becoming a main provider of the world’s energy solution. As Daniels puts it, we are now at the point of “solar for the masses”
This article has been cross-posted from GlobalWarmingisReal.com
Tom is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the HippieMagazine.com here on the Important Media network. Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, Planetsave, and Revmodo. Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.