Sustainablog

This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.

5.10.07

IT Week's Business Green Blog: IBM plotting Green Sigma service


thanks to Peter for forwarding this on


IT Week's Business Green Blog: IBM plotting Green Sigma service

http://green.itweek.co.uk/2007/10/ibm-plotting-gr.html

IBM is poised to launch a new Green Sigma service based on the popular Six Sigma process improvement methodology and designed to help firms cut the carbon intensity of their business processes.

Speaking to BusinessGreen, Peter Williams CTO of IBM's Big Green Innovations division, said the company had trade marked the term Green Sigma and will soon adopt the new best practice guidelines as part of an internal pilot sceme.

He added that the service builds on the Six Sigma lean manufacturing and process management methodologies and "will focus on ways to develop processes to bring down the carbon intensity of products and processes and create a lean green business".

"We plan to pilot it inside IBM and with some external customers, and then refine it and take it to market," he added.

The company will be hoping that the high profile of the Six Sigma methodologies will give the new Green Sigma service a high level of recognition in a consultancy market increasingly overrun by new green services.

John Madden of analyst firm Ovum agreed the service would enjoy a high level of name recognition and predicted that it should provoke considerable customer interest. "There are a lot of customers out there looking for help on how to improve their green credentials and they will welcome a standardised approach that allows them to meaure their performance," he said. "However, IBM is not alone in trying to provide these types of services and firms such as HP are also offering a growing number of green services."

The planned Green Sigma service is the latest in a line of initiatives from the company designed to position it as a provider of green technologies and services. Williams said IBM was also now offering a range of carbon management services designed to help firms undertake the complex assessments required to help them reduce their carbon footprint.

"Most carbon footprinting calculations are pretty rubbish and miss out large amounts of information," he said. "We've developed complex management diagnostic models that assess the relationship between carbon emissions and other business factors."

He cited plans to reduce packaging around products as an example of a process where failure to consider all the complex variables impacting carbon emissions can lead to unexpected results. "Firms may decide to reduce the amount of cardboard packaging around a product and that will seemingly reduce its carbon footprint," he explained. "But what if that leads to more breakages? The product has to be remade and that can actually lead to an increase in its carbon footprint."

The new consultancy services represent one component of IBM's Big Green Innovations initiative, which was launched last year with the goal of uniting the company's various environmentally-focused R&D projects.

Williams said the division was also making good progress in developing intelligent water management and smart energy grid systems and was also working on exploiting its expertise in nano-technology and semi conductor manufacturing to improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of desalination technologies and photovoltaic solar panels.

3.10.07

Cleantech Blog: PV prices have fallen 90% in the past twenty years; 40% in the past five. This is good news to counter a hot-climate future as solar prices drop and coal prices increase


Thanks to Peter for this one
Cleantech Blog

Solar Power 2007
Posted: 02 Oct 2007 07:03 PM CDT
By John Addison (10/2/07) Like a castle under siege, Solar Power 2007 was such a hot event that registration had to be closed a week prior to the conference opening in Long Beach, California. Over 12,500 people attended last week. There was enthusiasm for high growth and technology advancements in photovoltaics (PV) and in large-scale concentrating solar power (CSP).

In 2006, PV grew over 40% to $20 billion in revenue and over 2,500 MW of new solar power. Renewable Energy World. The European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), forecasts a €300 billion industry by 2030 which will meet 9.4 per cent of the world's electricity demand. By 2030, solar is forecasted to be the least expensive source of energy in many sunny regions of the world.

In the last 12 months, over 40% of PV installations were in one country – Germany – where high feed-in tariffs make it financially compelling to sell solar power to the electric utility than to buy power from the utility. Some presenters argued that even in select U.S. markets, such as Hawaii, subsidized solar is at price-parity with grid delivered electricity.

PV prices have fallen 90% in the past twenty years; 40% in the past five. This is good news to counter a hot-climate future as solar prices drop and coal prices increase.

The PV growth rate would be higher, but polysilicon will be scarce through 2010 according to most forecasts from the conference's CEO panel. Polysilicon supply is expected to triple by 2010 from 2006 capacity. The shortage has also been a driver of technology that delivers the required electricity output with less silicon. These technologies include thin film, high efficiency PV, organic, concentrating PV (CPV), and balance of system improvements.

World leader, Sharp (SHCAY) is participating in all these technologies. Sharp continues with market share leadership, despite little growth due to the polysilicon shortage. Sharp plans to bring online new capacity to maintain leadership. Q-Cells (QCEG.F) and Kyocera (KYO) have taken market share from Sharp with their high growth. Suntech (STP) wants to take advantage of China's low cost structure and vast market to surpass all.

First Solar (FSLR) has the cost to beat with its cadmium telluride (CdTe) alternative to polysilicon. First Solar's (FSLR) production costs are $1.25 per watt of generating power vs. $2.80 for traditional solar systems. In the next few years, First Solar plans to be the first to achieve $1 per watt. This year, First Solar did not have an exhibit at Solar Power 2007. It is backlogged for several years, with contracts for $4 billion through 2012. Other cadmium telluride producers are in early-stage mode.

Public utilities had a record presence at Solar Power 2007. Many are mandated to increase their renewable portfolio. For example, the California RPS program requires that by 2010, 20% of their electricity will be from renewables. By 2020, it must be at least 33%. SB1368 closes California to coal produced electricity unless CO2 sequestration is used. This leaves California utilities highly vulnerable to the price of natural gas, providing an added incentive to diversify to renewables.

Utilities are especially interested in large-scale CSP plants delivering 10 to 600 MW. Four GW of CSP is being installed globally. Southern California Edison and San Diego G&E have contracted for 500MW with Stirling Energy Systems. This large-scale plant will include 20,000 curved dish mirrors each concentrating light on a Stirling engine. Other large-scale plants in Europe will also provide hours of thermal storage so that plant output can match the peak load demands of utilities. This counters the utilities' concerns about intermittency of PV and wind. CSP costs are projected to drop to 8 cents/kWh, making it competitive where coal and natural gas greenhouse gas producers must buy greenhouse emission credits.

By 2010 major utility PG&E will meet its 20% target of delivered electricity from clean renewable energy. This will include 553 MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) from a new Solel project. When fully operational in 2011, the Mojave Solar Park plant will cover up to 6,000 acres, or nine square miles in the Mojave Desert. The project will rely on 1.2 million mirrors and 317 miles of vacuum tubing to capture the desert sun's heat. It will be the largest CSP project in the world. Solel utilizes parabolic mirrors to concentrate solar energy on to solar thermal receivers. The receivers contain a fluid that is heated and circulated, and the heat is released to generate steam. The steam powers a turbine to produce electricity.

FPL Group announced $2.4 billion investments in CSP and smart-grid technology. The planned investment includes up to $1.5 billion in new solar thermal generating facilities in Florida and California over the next seven years, and up to $500 million to create a smart network for enhanced energy management capabilities. FPL plans to build 300 MW of solar generating capacity in Florida using Ausra http://www.ausra.com/ solar thermal technology. The company recently received a $40 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB).

Ray Lane, a Managing Partner at Kleiner Perkins gave a compelling opening keynote speech at Solar Power 2007. He declared that there is no energy shortage, because there is no shortage of sunlight. Mr. Lane showed a map of 92 x 92 miles of desert in California and Nevada. Using CSP, that unoccupied area could generate enough solar power to meet all power needs in the U.S. Challenges of such a project include multi-billion dollar investment in high-voltage lines to carry the electricity to remote cities. Storage is another major challenge. Although these investments are significant, the potential will drive strong CSP growth.

Expect solar to continue with its historic 35% growth over the next decade. Forecasts for solar supplying over 9% of the world's energy needs by 2030 are achievable.


John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report. For articles describing the use of
solar power in transportation.

Content provided by and all rights reserved to CleantechBlog.com, the premier site for commentary on clean technologies, news, and issues relating to next generation energy and the environment.


Indian techies see gold in carbon trade


Thanks to Colin for this one

Indian techies see gold in carbon trade
3 Oct 2007, 0001 hrs IST
,Nitin Sethi,TNN





NEW DELHI: The rest of India might be fearing the impacts of climate change but Indian techies are fast realising the business opportunity it has brought to their doorstep.

Cashing on the carbon credit trade, many of them have begun business ventures to write up projects and take consultancies to help Indian and international businesses turn green.

It's a gold rush at the moment — India has the highest number of carbon credit projects in the world. Not surprisingly, the business is also attracting its fair share of not-so-clean operators.

With investments pouring in (more than Rs 40,000 crore is already locked into the Indian industry going green under the global carbon credit scheme), industrial towns like Bilaspur and Indore, along with the four metros, are witnessing a mushrooming of experts and consultants.

"Till three years ago, I was a regular MBA techie helping companies set up supply chains. Then I took the risk of entering this new area," says Ashutosh Pandey of Emergent Ventures Ltd, one of the foremost carbon trading firms in India today.

Having done more than 100 projects in the country, it's now venturing into South Asia and Southeast Asian markets.




In Japan, Going Solar Costly Despite Market Surge


Thanks to Peter for this one

 



Adaptation & Survival
In Japan, Going Solar Costly Despite Market Surge

Listen to this story...by David Kestenbaum 

 
A solar-panel neighborhood in Kobe.
Enlarge
David Kestenbaum

Children play in a Kobe neighborhood where all of the houses have solar panels. They are a line of energy-efficient homes designed by the electronics company Panasonic. NPR

 
 
 
Mapping Climate Change

  
Warming surface temperatures signal a decisive shift in the global climate.

A map showing which parts of the world are warming.
National Geographic Magazine

Click through this map from National Geographic to see how climate change is affecting the planet.

 
 
 
Graphic.
Enlarge
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Government assistance in Japan and Germany has helped sales of solar panels.

 
 
 
Solar panels at a Kyocera factory.
Enlarge
David Kestenbaum

After three decades of losing money, Kyocera is finally making a profit with its solar business. Kyocera produces enough solar panels in one year to cover about 300 football fields. NPR

 
 

All Things Considered, October 1, 2007 · It's hard not to like the idea of solar power. Put some panels on your roof and there you have it — free electricity from sunlight running your TV and appliances. No greenhouse gases, no pollution and no guilt.

The catch: Solar power has always been expensive. But costs have come down. And over the last few years, solar companies are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory: They are making a profit.

Solar Panel Street

Houses with solar panels are still unusual in Japan, but you can get a glimpse of where things are headed in Kobe. In one new development there, the houses come with solar panels pre-installed.

It's row after row of plain box houses. You have to tilt your head back to see the solar panels on the roofs.

A neighborhood boy wearing a "Dinosaur Power" T-shirt sets off to find his mother, Rika Suzuki.

She says she doesn't consider herself an environmentalist. What she likes is not paying electric bills.

"It depends on sunlight," Suzuki says. "But on a nice sunny day. Even though we use all the electronic devices, I feel like we are receiving energy from the sun."

The houses have indoor electronic displays which show how much electricity the panels are generating and how much is being used. Extra electricity gets sold back to the power company. Suzuki says some months, they pay basically nothing.

Suzuki says she feels lucky.

The Philosophy of Energy

So how did all this happen? The solar panels were manufactured by a company called Kyocera, with offices in Kyoto.

Kyocera has $11 billion in annual sales, mostly from sales of high-tech ceramic parts. That's a good thing, because for three decades their solar business was not profitable.

"Last 32 years, we couldn't make money at all, but were spending money a lot," says Isao Yukawa who has been at Kyocera all of those 32 years. He got involved with its solar efforts six years ago.

"Last two to three years we're making money," Yukawa says.

Some start-up businesses expect a couple of years of not making a profit. But 30 years? Yukawa says the company's founder is a very visionary guy.

"At the same time he's a philosopher," Yukawa says. "He talks about work for the people and the society."

Kyocera was founded by Kazuo Inamori in 1959, who is a kind of management guru in Japan.

Do the right thing, Inamori says, profits come later.

Yukawa shows a photo of their solar panels mounted on a camel in Tunisia. The panels ran a portable refrigerator with medical supplies.

"I was told that 1.6 million people still do not have light!" Yukawa says. "Our mission is so much to support these people."

The company's motto: "Respect the divine and love people."

Creating a Market

But if Kyocera's success is a story of perseverance and maybe spirituality, it's also one of government subsidies.

Because the reality was that around 1994, if you wanted to put solar panels on your house — enough to cover most electrical needs — it would cost about $60,000.

Ryutaro Yatsu is a counselor for global environment in Japan's Ministry of the Environment. He says the industry needed the subsidies to create a market, so the costs could decrease.

"In order to bridge the so-called 'Death Valley,'" Yatsu says.

In 1994, the Japanese government paid half the cost of new solar installations. And people took advantage. Sales went up and costs came down by about a third. The government phased the subsidies out gradually and ended them in 2005.

Today, Yatsu says Japan is counting on solar panels to help combat global warming.

"We expect each household to have their own solar panel," Yatsu says.

Germany wants half of its energy generated by renewable sources by the year 2050.

And companies are cranking out solar panels.

In a Kyocera factory panels the size of compact disc cases get passed from one machine to another in an elaborate dance. The company can now produce enough panels to cover 300 football fields a year.

However, things are a bit more complicated.

Retaining the Interest

Solar is on its feet, but it's not exactly off and running. Today's solar boom still depends on government assistance. Solar panels are at the point of making economic sense on their own, but just barely.

If a salesman came to your door and said "I have a way you won't have to pay electric bills," you'd say "great."

But how much are the solar panels? About $20,000 dollars.

How long would it take to make that money back? In Japan, maybe 20 years.

Yukawa says the sales pitch is still awkward.

"Solar business looks so easy," Yukawa explains. "But we have direct door to door guys that have to explain this and that kind of stuff."

The houses in Kobe with the solar panels were built by a division of Panasonic, which is trying out a line of energy-efficient houses.

But Yukawa says the price of solar panels still needs to come down by half before homeowners and builders really take the plunge to buy.

The industry is growing quickly — maybe too quickly. Solar companies now consume about as much silicon as the entire electronics industry, temporarily causing the price of silicon to double, pushing costs up, not down.

 
Related NPR Stories

  • June 28, 2007
Big Retail Stores Prime Solar Energy Generators
  • April 20, 2007
New Approaches Explored for Creating Solar Panels
  • March 19, 2007
Solar-Energy Company Faces Skepticism


2.10.07

The Greening of Google

Thanks to Lloyd for this one

--------------------


The Greening of Google
By: Sandra Upson


Photo: Joson

It's another brilliant day at the world headquarters of the hottest company on the planet. Some shirtless employees are playing a lunchtime game of volleyball while others stride across campus with laptops tucked under their arms. The place fairly crackles with energy, and in more ways than one.

Up here on a roof at Google's leafy and sprawling Mountain View, Calif., campus, with the shouts of the volleyball game just barely audible, sunlight glints off 9212 polysilicon solar panels stretching out toward the horizon. Amid the irregular jumble of angular roofs, a single south-facing wave stands out, a pitch and roll frozen in place against a backdrop of foothills.

Today, like most days, the panels will generate 9000 kilowatt-hours of electricity before the sun fades into a fat orange ball and disappears into the Pacific. All are connected to Mountain View's section of the electricity grid. The solar modules blanket virtually all the free roof space on the eight buildings at the center of the Googleplex [see "

Up on the Roof: Solar ­panels blanket almost all of the available roof space at the heart of the Googleplex. New carports in the parking lot use solar energy to recharge employees’ electric cars.

Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

 
" Even part of the parking lot is covered: two rows of carports, shaped like miniature gas stations, support yet more panels. When the last building is fully connected, by the end of this year, the panels will produce 1.6 megawatts of electricity. It'll be enough to satisfy 30 percent of the buildings' peak demand or power a thousand California homes.

Google's project is the largest corporate installation of solar panels in North America. It has grabbed headlines since Google announced it a year ago. That said, it isn't even in the worldwide top 10 of roof-mounted solar projects. A handful of factories in Germany and Japan take that honor, as well as a couple of roofs in Spain and the Netherlands. At the very least, the search giant's solar play adds one more country to the list of star performers in the world of commoditized sunshine. And it seems clear that Google's array won't be tops in North America for long.

After languishing through much of the 1990s, the market for photovoltaic installations in the United States and several other countries took off about five years ago, and it's now increasing by 40 percent annually in the United States alone [see sidebar, "Photovoltaic Hot Spots" Spain's bullish market grew 100 percent in the past year. And percentages never tell the full story, as Noah Kaye, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), points out. “The German market was relatively flat in the past year, but Germany still installed more [photovoltaics] than the U.S. did,” says Kaye, on behalf of the trade and lobbying group.

California has nonetheless become the second-fastest-growing 
solar market in the world, and that surge, especially in the United States, is being driven mainly by activity on corporate rooftops. Travis Bradford, president of the nonprofit Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, in Cambridge, Mass., calls corporate attention to solar power “an exploding interest.” In 2006, the commercial sector accounted for 60 percent of newly installed capacity in the United States, up from 13.5 percent in 2001, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We've stopped reporting the biggest systems,” Bradford adds. “A new record is set every few months.”

In March, Applied Materials of Santa Clara, Calif., announced a plan to install 1.9 MW of solar power on the rooftops of its Sunnyvale, Calif., complex. And it's not just high-tech titans retooling their roofs: Tesco, the British-based supermarket chain, says it intends to put up a 2-MW solar installation at an office complex in northern California. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, intends to outshine all these companies with multipart plans to put more than 5.6 MW's worth of solar panels on the roofs of 22 stores in California and Hawaii. Two other discount-retailing giants, Target and Kohl's, have also begun transforming their roofs into tiny, independent utilities.

“It's not an illusion,” says Craig Cornelius, program manager for the Department of Energy's solar division. “Corporate solar is really happening.”

Amid the enthusiasm, it's important to keep this latest twist in the solar saga in perspective. Solar energy of all kinds fulfills less than 0.1 percent of electrical demand in the United States, and affordable, commercially available panels have hovered near 15 percent efficiency for years. Despite the recent burst of corporate enthusiasm, the prices of solar modules are expected to continue inching down at just 5 percent a year, and grid parity—the point at which solar panels can compete subsidy-free with utilities—isn't expected until 2015 at the earliest.

It's too soon to say whether these costly corporate installations will go down in history as the first of a limited series of impulsive, feel-good publicity moves by tech start-up billionaires, or as the beginning of a longer-term movement that will help sustain the market for solar photovoltaics during the next decade and enable solar to finally become cost-competitive. One thing is certain: the movement will flourish only to the extent it is nurtured by a complex patchwork of economic and bureaucratic conditions. Of the 9509 new grid-tied solar installations in the United States in 2006, which totaled 101 MW, 70 percent of them were in California. And that's not just because it's sunny. As it turns out, California subsidizes solar in a particularly generous way.

Even without subsidies, solar panels may have found their logical home, at last, in the commercial world. The nice, flat roof design on most commercial buildings, unlike the pleasingly angular but less workable residential roof, is one obvious advantage. But some of the most compelling reasons are intangible.

“It's a key part of attracting and retaining employees,” says Doreen Reid, a senior associate at The Climate Group, a London-based nonprofit that helps companies reduce their carbon emissions. “Students coming out of college are more conscious of a company's environmental image.”

Robyn Beavers, Google's corporate environmental programs manager, confirms the transformative power of solar cells. “I've had so many people e-mail me and say, ‘This is why I love working at Google' and, ‘How can I install solar at home?' ” says Beavers, who presided over the installation project. Google's solar enterprise is part of a larger mission to promote the growth of solar energy, she says. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have invested heavily in Nanosolar, a start-up that specializes in thin-film solar cells. (Both declined to be interviewed for this article.)

For its rooftops, Google chose Sharp modules capable of generating 208 watts each. The polycrystalline silicon cells average 12.8 percent module conversion efficiency. Because solar panels produce dc current, each system requires inverters to change the current into usable ac, and Google used a set of utility-grade inverters with an average of 96 percent conversion efficiency made by SatCon Technology Corp. of Boston. It partnered with EI Solutions, a solar project developer with headquarters in San Rafael, Calif., to do the electrical design work.

Google won't say how much the whole project costs, other than to indicate that it expects to recoup its investment in five to seven years. Nonetheless, experts estimate that a solar installation costs between US $3 and $5 per watt in California, and between $6 and $10 per watt in the rest of the United States after factoring in local and federal rebates for the cost of the system. (According to the Northern California Solar Energy Association, the average cost of installing large systems in the Bay Area in 2006 was $8.58 per watt before rebates, on par with national 
figures.) Using data from California's Solar Initiative program and based on a $2.80-per-watt incentive rate, Google likely retrieved about $4.5 million from California on a project that in total probably cost more than $13 million. Federal tax breaks through the Energy Policy Act of 2005 also help to burnish the appeal of what is still, for many, a prohibitively expensive system.

For other companies, an important piece has been added to the picture for solar. Where research and development have so far failed to slash the price of solar, clever financing schemes have filled the breach. Google's solar project, for all its trendy impact, was financed the old-fashioned way—with cash. But customers without billions of dollars in liquid reserves tend to shy away from such a move.

Rather than requiring that customers buy all the equipment for an installation, which can run into the millions of dollars, solar service providers are persuading customers to sign agreements that in effect turn those providers into miniature utilities.

The office-supply company Staples was among the first to pursue such a scheme—in 2004 with SunEdison, a prominent Beltsville, Md., solar electricity service provider, for a 280-kW installation on two of its California warehouses. The solar installation covered about 10 percent of the facilities' electric loads.

In this arrangement, SunEdison installs the solar modules on a customer's property and is responsible for maintaining them. But, crucially, it does not charge the customer for them. Instead, the customer signs a long-term agreement, usually lasting about 15 years, that locks the customer into buying back the electricity generated by those panels at a fixed rate. Typically, that rate is lower than retail utility prices. Prometheus's Bradford estimates that 40 percent of recent commercial installations have gone this route, and he says that it's likely to grow more popular as additional companies move into solar.

Through such long-term contracts, corporations are cushioning themselves from fluctuations in electricity prices, over both the long and short terms. In the short term, on-site generation lightens the customer's demand from the local utility precisely when the utility needs a break: during peak periods of demand, which are also, not coincidentally, the hours of the typical business day—yet another reason that corporate roofs make sense as hubs of solar activity. During these peaks, electricity prices can double, triple, or even quadruple. “Solar energy is generated when companies need it most, which is typically 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on hot, sunny days,” says Kaye, the SEIA spokesman.

Add to that executive-level nervousness about the prospect of restrictions on carbon emissions and the volatility of electricity prices, and some businesses are finding the case for solar compelling. “Companies can do all of the above,” says Rick Whisman, the director of west region system sales at PowerLight, in Berkeley, Calif., a subsidiary of SunPower, one of the largest solar cell producers and installers in the United States. “They can make a wise decision on energy over the long term. They can reduce their footprint and also be prepared for regulations that may come into play in the future.”

Whisman and others are quick to point out that solar makes sense only as a component of a larger plan. “What has made Google and Wal-Mart so noteworthy is the degree of thought that went into their planning,” says Bradford. Indeed, pursuing electricity generation on-site is of limited value unless accompanied by a suite of energy-efficiency measures to reduce a company's overall demand [see “The Zero-Zero Hero,” IEEE Spectrum, September Wal-Mart is the undisputed leader in driving the adoption of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and the megaretailer hasn't stopped there. It is also modernizing its truck fleet to be more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient, and at a store in Texas, the company is testing sustainable design with an experiment that includes rooftop wind turbines and on-site recycling. Google, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a broad package of ambitious environmental programs [see sidebar, “Google Goes Green” “This is just a first step for us,” Beavers says.

Will the next steps take Google beyond California? Beavers won't say. Google has 15 U.S. offices and several power-hungry data centers outside of California, as well as offices and facilities in 23 other countries. But few, if any, of those places offer the incentives California does.

Driven by those incentives, in the past five years Californians have edged above the threshold of 30-kW demonstration projects to larger systems, such as Google's, spawning a cottage industry of experienced local solar-installation service companies. The California Solar Initiative credits companies based on performance metrics that can amount to one-fourth the cost of the system, which—when combined with a federal tax credit on some solar equipment, and depending on the cost of the panels and the installation—can cover more than 50 percent of a system's total cost. In 2007, rebates in California evolved from being per-watt, based on system size, to a formula that takes into account details of the physical placement of the panels, so that systems that are expected to perform better will be reimbursed more generously. The new calculations factor in the panels' tilt and shading, as well as altitude and azimuth, which are the two coordinates commonly used to describe the sun's apparent position in the sky. The rebates are still part of a tiered system designed to reduce the incentives over time, and in 2008 energy-efficiency requirements will be tied to those rebate dollars. Only New Jersey, among the other 49 states, has shown a similar level of leadership in photovoltaics.

The question now is whether the movement can expand beyond a few isolated states and countries. Data from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a nonprofit that disseminates information on rules and incentives relating to renewables, suggest that Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas are also promising markets. New Jersey, with its second-only-to-California inducements, has the second-highest installed solar capacity, with 18 MW in 2006. By comparison, Florida, the Sunshine State, installed a meager 170 kW of solar energy in 2006, the year that its solar incentives program was launched. Its limited generation capacity speaks to the paltry nature of those incentives.

That disconnect between sunshine and solar output is even more pronounced outside the United States. The global leaders in solar energy, by virtually all metrics, are Germany and Japan. Both countries have sky-high electricity prices: on average 20 cents per kilowatt-hour in both Germany and Japan, double the average price of electricity in the United States, according to 2006 data from the International Energy Agency, in Paris. Starting in the mid-1990s, both governments began pouring money into renewable energy programs. As a result, today, in cloudy Germany, the renewable energy industry has become the country's second largest source of new jobs after the automotive sector. It employs some 200 000 people, according to Paul Runci, a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash., who studies energy research and development trends.

But for corporations, the solar story depends on more factors than rates and rebates. In the United States, state-by-state rules on how to attach solar plants to the grid and how to compensate producers for electricity they export to the grid vary tremendously. The portion of the Google system that has the solar panels, for example, connects to a secondary grid, which does not accommodate excess power fed back into it, according to Johann Niehaus, the lead engineer on the project for EI Solutions. To account for that, the system was scaled both to fit the available roof space and to generate less than 50 percent of the buildings' minimum demand, so that the solar modules never come close to producing more electricity than the campus consumes. What they've installed approaches that 50 percent limit.

That is just one way that interconnection to the grid can be complicated. Other problems stem from what numerous experts have described as electric power companies' lack of familiarity with distributed generation. Some utilities have been reluctant to open up their grids to ever-larger quantities of electricity that they cannot manage. At times, a utility may declare that a generation system warrants an engineering study, which can cost up to $50 000, to analyze the impact of adding the system's electricity to the grid. That may not be prohibitive for Google, but for some prospective buyers it is. “They want to know, are you creating frequency disturbances? Voltage disturbances? How big are you in relation to the peak load on that circuit?” says Christopher Cook, a senior vice president for regulatory affairs and new markets at SunEdison. It's not unusual for a solar project to be killed because of the expense of commissioning an impact study. That's why, in one recent case described by Cook, a school in Virginia abandoned its plan to put solar panels on its roofs.

Some solar watchers have argued that those studies are sometimes unnecessary and redundant. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the Department of Energy, among others, are calling for guidelines to specify when they are needed.

“There are legitimate grid reliability concerns that can be addressed through technical means,” Cornelius, of the Department of Energy, says. “And then there's the other reasons.” Wal-Mart initially had hinted at a solar plan for its stores that would add up to 100 MW, but SEIA's Kaye suggested that the company had found it unfeasible in many states because of slow response rates from utilities. Such bureaucratic bunglings related to connecting to the grid led Wal-Mart to scale down the project to stores in just a few states, at least for now.

Cornelius points to Connecticut as an example of how things can go wrong for solar. Electricity prices there are among the highest in the country—15 cents per kilowatt-hour for the commercial sector in 2007, compared with a national average of 9 cents—and the state is full of congested distribution systems. Nevertheless, interconnection problems have not yet been formally ironed out. These have ranged from the painfully mundane, such as utilities not processing applications quickly, to unresolved concerns for the safety of a utility's distribution engineers. As a result, project developers are not prepared to invest in installations until they are confident the utility will agree to connect them hassle-free. “From the industry's perspective, we look at a state, and if it doesn't have interconnection rules, we say we can't do this project,” Cook says. “It's not: let's go forward and see what happens. It's just simply: this state's not open for business.”

All these bureaucratic problems are surmountable, analysts say, largely by means of new industry standards. Approved in June 2003, IEEE Standard 1547 represents one step toward integrating the technical side of interconnection practices for distributed power sources. “We had something like 3000 utilities, each with their own interconnection requirements,” says Richard DeBlasio, the technology manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Distributed Energy and Electric Reliability program, in Golden, Colo., who chaired the committee that drafted the standard. Since then, at least half of the 50 states have adopted the IEEE standard as well as another, UL 1741, as their minimum technical guidelines for equipment and safety requirements. If the political will is there, the environment should improve for photovoltaic installations. In fact, it's already happening: in June, Oregon's legislature approved a set of policies that can amount to a 50 percent tax credit for solar installations and manufacturing. And the historic materials crunch that has held the prices of panels aloft is likely to abate as new manufacturing capacity comes online starting in 2008.

Although California may be alone in the United States in swaddling itself in polysilicon panels, the leadership of the Googles and Wal-Marts of the world could cause corporate solar installations to pop up on rooftops in the rest of the country in almost no time at all.




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Illustration: Bryan Christie Design


 

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Google Goes Green


Photo: Joson

Solar panels are just one of the many climate-change ­mitigation projects that Google is spearheading.

Plug-in hybrid cars. Google built carports in its parking lot that have solar panels on their roofs. Five outlets dangle down, all of which charge cars on a daily basis. The company is also accumulating a fleet of hybrids as part of RechargeIT, a Google program aimed at speeding the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric cars.

Climate-Savers Computing Initiative. Google partnered with Intel and 20 other companies to create a large industry coalition that will adopt strict energy-efficiency targets for IT equipment.

Upgrades to buildings. “We’re changing lightbulbs, replacing air-conditioning equipment, and ­upgrading building systems to optimize when and how our ­electricity gets used,” says Robyn Beavers, Google’s corporate environmental programs manager.