Green Tech

Can we make clean energy storage the norm?

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director

This is part two of a two-part series. See part one here.

As the renewable energy industry rushes headlong into the distribution of expensive and toxic energy storage technology, there are signs that cheaper, cleaner, more efficient technologies will emerge soon, two of which were on display at Intersolar.

Flow batteries have been around for several decades, but the clamor for storage systems has brought them out of the labs and into commercial development of late. A flow battery is combination of a fuels cell and a rechargeable battery. The difference between conventional batteries and flow batteries is that energy is stored in the electrode material in conventional batteries but as the electrolyte in flow cells.  Rechargeability is provided by two chemical components dissolved in liquids contained within the system and separated by a membrane. One of the biggest advantages of flow batteries is that they can be almost instantly recharged by replacing the electrolyte liquid, while simultaneously recovering the spent material for re-energization.

Iron-flow technology is among the oldest version of the technology and there are several companies in this niche at varying states of development, the most well known is Electric Fuel Energy (EFE), an Israeli subsidiary of the US-based Arotech Corporation. However, while EFE has made several optimistic announcements about its development, it has not yet announced when the technology will be available even for a beta test.

Further down the road to reality is Energy Storage Systems, Inc. (ESS), who demonstrated their system at a private event during Intersolar. We interviewed Bill Sproull, ESS vice president of business development. 

Video: ESS Iron-flow battery

Flow batteries are the cleanest and least expensive battery technology available, but they are not as well-known as the dirtier and more expensive Lithium-ion batteries. ESS hopes to change that with their iron-based system

Offering a completely new direction, Aquion Energy has developed an aqueous hybrid ion battery based on readily available, renewable and non-toxic components, specifically salt water, stainless steel, carbon, manganese and cotton.

Modular-based Acquion Energy battery
Modular-based Acquion Energy battery

Like lithium-ion and lead acid batteries, after 10 years it will start to lose capacity and will have to be replaced before the generation technology runs its course.  However, at a cost of about $400 per kW/Hr it is a much cleaner and affordable option to the pervasive technologies. Storage capacity and charging cycles are comparable to lithium-ion.

Aquion, however, is the only source of this new technology and has no plans to license the technology presently, which will limit adoption in the foreseeable.  It is, also, only in beta testing at a few sites around the world. It will be several years before it is widely available.

Aquion and ESS are closer to commercial distribution than other alternatives to lead-acid and lithium-ion, and both are targeting separate, though slightly overlapping markets. ESS is looking only to provide systems for large-scale industrial and military applications, while Aquion is looking at smaller industrial/commercial and residential markets. Aqiuon, therefore, is targeting a market awash in lithium-ion options.

The cost difference is also significant. While the initial cost of both systems about $400 per kW/Hr, the Aquion system will lose its effectiveness before energy production technology (wind or solar) reaches its end of life and will have to be entirely replaced. Replacement could add another 50 percent to the cost per watt of $0.17 per watt. ESS, with a much longer lifespan estimates its lifetime cost is $0.09 per watt with no replacement necessary.

Which brings us to the question: if all this is available now, why is it not gaining faster traction? We will deal with that question in our concluding analysis.

Energy storage is big business, but is it safe?

By Lou Covey, Editorial Director

Judging from the number of companies that exhibited at the Intersolar/EES joint conference in San Francisco, energy storage is the next big thing in green energy. It resolves the problem of intermittent over-and under-production that plagues sources like solar and wind. It comes, however, at a high cost to the pocketbook, the environment and personal safety. The good news is that there are alternatives to conventional storage technology. The bad news is those technologies are only now coming to market and are facing an uphill battle with the technology status quo.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Intersolar North America Conference at Moscone Center West, Tuesday July 8, 2014.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Intersolar North America Conference at Moscone Center West, Tuesday July 8, 2014.

First, let's look at the most popular technologies dealing with storage and why storage is even necessary in the first place.

Wind and solar are the most popular sources of green energy today, but they are also two of the most inconsistent, inefficient and costly sources of electricity. Wind only produces power when the wind is blowing and only at a narrow range of wind speed. If the wind blows too fast or too slow, your wind turbine becomes, essentially, useless. Solar produces power most effectively between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. which just happens to be the same off-peak hours when less electricity is needed. Production from solar panels disappears during peak demand times. Adding a storage technology allows systems to save up electricity during peak production times providing "clean" power during peak demand. Because most systems are designed to store between 48 hours to a week of electricity without recharge, they also serve as a valuable source of energy when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine.

The two most common forms of storage technology are lead-acid batteries, similar but larger than the kind of batteries in internal combustion cars, and lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, like those used in electric and hybrid cars and mobile devices. The average lifespan for these two popular technologies is about 10 years. That's where cost comes in as a significant factor.

Since windmills and solar have a stated maximum-generation lifespan of 20 years it means the batteries must be replaced or enhanced at least once during their lifetime (just like you do in any other device) long before the generators die. Both technologies require significant and sophisticated hardware and software technology to charge, maintain and manage the flow of power efficiently and safely. When you combine all that together you get a cost of $1000-$2000 per kilowatt/hour. The average system needs to hold a minimum of two days worth of power, so a 5 kW/hr solar storage product will cost between $10,000 and $20,000 for 10 kW of storage. That's added on top of the $30,000 the energy system cost, and, as stated, it will have to be completely replaced at least once during the life of the energy system. The minimal cost for energy storage, then, is more than half of the cost of the energy system. Even with subsidies that puts the cost of green energy out of the hands of many residential and commercial users. Storage systems have other significant costs that should not be overlooked.

Now let's consider the environmental costs.

Stationary lead-acid battery system (SLABS) have a significant list of environmental compliance, enforcement, and liability concerns because the active ingredients are sulfuric acid and lead -- two of the most toxic substances on earth. A spill may result from the improper handling of hazardous material discharge or a slow and undetected corrosive breach in the battery housing that can cause injurious, if not lethal exposure to employees, workers, or tenants. Overcharging a battery, due to a failure in the software control system, can result in the release of hydrogen sulfide gas, a colorless, poisonous, flammable substance that smells like rotten eggs.

Lead is highly toxic metal and once the battery becomes inoperative, it must be properly collected and recycled. A single lead-acid battery disposed of incorrectly into a solid waste collection system, and not removed prior to entering a resource recovery facility for mixed waste, could contaminate 25 tonnes of waste and prevent the recovery of the organic resources because of high lead levels.

Sixty-four percent of all the lead produced through mining goes into lead-acid batteries and the harmful effects of improper recycling are giving (even in third-world countries where regulations are less stringent) pause in using them from energy storage. The government of India is mandating the elimination of the technology for anything but automotive use. The reason for the ban is that lead from storage batteries placed in unlined landfills is contaminating groundwater.

Lithium Ion

Li-ion batteries have advantages over lead-acid in that they are smaller and lighter making them preferable to electric cars and mobile devices, but they are in their relative infancy in large-scale use.

“We are at the very beginning in energy storage in general,” says Phil Hermann, chief energy engineer at Panasonic Eco Solutions. “Most of the projects currently going on are either demo projects or learning experiences for the utilities. There is very little direct commercial stuff going on."

Moreover, Li-ion is highly unstable and without proper power management, usually via a software solution, they tend to burst into flame (e.g. the hoverboard). Every vendor we talked to at the EES conference dismissed safety concerns, essentially saying that the problem exists with other vendors, not them.

One company, a start up called ElectrIQ Power, provides a turnkey system in a box including the batteries, inverter and control software, which is touted as their claim to safety superiority. Like all other Li-ion system suppliers the warranty for their systems is for 10 years. At that point the battery capacity is 60% of what it was when new, requiring the purchase of a new system or an additional 5 kWh booster pack at the end of the 10 year period.

However, at present they have no plans on helping customers deal with the disposal of the batteries at the end of their useful life. No other Li-ion vendor could answer questions about eventual disposal either.

Video: ElectrIQ Power simplifies home energy storage

Here's an interview with the founder of ElectrIQ Power:

Electric Power is a software company integrating and managing multiple energy storage technologies into a single unit. The system is based on standard Lithium-ion battery technology with hybrid investors.

But beyond safety, the environmental issues facing the production of LI-ion is most troubling. An EPA 2013 report concluded that batteries using lithium, nickel and cobalt, have the “highest potential for environmental impacts”. It cited negative consequences like mining, global warming, environmental pollution and human health impacts.

Take, for example, the Tesla factory near Reno, Nevada. As Nevada is the only source of elemental lithium in the United States locating the factory in that state was an obvious choice and the Nevada government has always been open to toxic industries. Elemental lithium is flammable and very reactive. In nature, lithium occurs in compounded forms such as lithium carbonate requiring chemical processing to be made usable. Typically found in salt flats in areas where water is scarce, the mining process of lithium uses large amounts of water. Toxic chemicals are used for leaching purposes, chemicals requiring waste treatment. There are widespread concerns of improper handling and spills, like in other mining operations around the world. Even in first world countries, Li-ion battery recycling is in the single digit percent range. Most batteries end up in landfill.

Finally, we have nickel-cadmium batteries (NiCd). This is a very old technology that has been in in commercial production since the 1910s. While not as expensive as Li-ion and have more recharging cycles, they are bulkier, have lower power densities, and must be completely discharged before recharging, They also survive longer then Li-ion and have not been know to explode when overcharged.

Ni-Cd batteries have been used early energy-storage applications. For example the 27 Megawatt wind farm operated by the Golden Valley Electric Association In Alaska has used a 3 Megawatt Ni-Cd system stabilization on the island of Bonaire since 2010. But their lack of density and the need to completely discharge power before recharge has made them less valuable to the renewable energy industry. NiCd mining and production is just as toxic as Li-ion and recycling is so toxic they have been banned in the European Union.

So, when it comes to adopting the most popular forms of energy storage in the world the question the market needs to answer is, "how much do we want to damage the environment for it?"

There are alternatives, though. We look at those next.

To be continued...

Wind power has a cost... in human life

This is the next chapter of our series on energy production. We take a look at wind power, it's history, application and challenges. The first time wind power was put to use was in the sails of boats and for more than two millennia wind-powered machines have been a cheap source of power for food production and moving water. It was widely available, was not confined to the banks of fast-flowing streams, and required no fuel. The Netherlands used wind-powered pumps to push back the sea and wind pumps provided water for livestock and steam engines for over a century.

With the development of electric power, wind power found new applications in lighting buildings remotely from centrally generated power, birthing the concept of distributive power systems. Starting in the 20th century saw wind plants for farms or residences and larger utility-scale wind generators that could be connected to electricity grids for remote use of power.

By 2014, over 240,000 commercial-sized wind turbines were operating in the world, producing 4% of the world's electricity. Today we hear news about wind turbines delivering almost all the energy needs for countries like the Netherlands and Germany... for one or two days a year.

What they don’t report as often is the failure rate of those turbines and the loss of life associated with them.

Approximately 120 wind turbines catch fire every year in the UK alone, according to a joint 2014 engineering study at Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh. Beyond fire there are multiple accidents that don’t result in system failure but do result in the death of engineers servicing the systems. In England, there were 163 wind turbine accidents that killed 14 people in 2011. Wind produced about 15 billion kWhrs that year, so using a capacity factor of 25%, that translates to about 1,000 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced (the world produces 15 trillion kWhrs per year from all sources). Even using the worst-case scenarios from Chernobyl and Fukushima brings nuclear up to 90 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced, still the lowest of any energy source.

The United States appears to be the country that is most concerned with windgen safety, as it boasts the lowest number for deaths, injuries and catastrophic mechanical failures of wind turbines in the world. Even so, there are annual protests regarding the relative safety.

So why do countries continue to invest? Possibly for the relatively low cost. Each industrial turbine costs $3 million and can generate up to $500,000 in energy revenue, so they can pay for themselves in 6-10 years and they generate power more consistently than solar. However, it has been shown the effective lifespan of a turbine is less than 15 years, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom that they will last 20 years. The annual cost of maintenance for modern turbines is 2 per cent of the cost, or $30,000 and the cost of replacement parts can be as much as $500,000 over a 10-year period, so the total cost of a typical windmill over 15 years is about $4 million. That comes out to about $2.40 per watt per year for a typical onshore windmill if absolutely nothing goes wrong.

Wind power will continue to be a source of energy for years to come, but only as long as we are willing to pay the premium financially and in human life.


Turbines are foundational to electrical power generation

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director

This is our second part on our series on the weaknesses of alternative power. In this installment, we look at the core of our generation technology, the turbine.

Entering into an evaluation of turbine technology we need to understand how important the technology is to production of electricity. What is going on in California is valuable to that understanding.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill to combat climate change by increasing the state's renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030 at a ceremony Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law that says 33 percent of it power production must come from renewable sources, primarily through solar technology. The state has been lauded recently for advances in this effort and by 2014 total production was 20 percent of the total from renewables. However, that does not mean that 20 percent of the energy the state consumes is from renewables. In reality, California only produces 67 percent of all the energy it consumes, down from 90 percent in 1990.

California is increasingly dependent on power generation from other states, like Utah and Idaho, where the bulk of energy is produced by facilities that burn natural gas and coal to produce steam that drives their turbines. As a result, the power consumed in California is actually dirtier than it was 20 years ago. How this happens is an interesting shell game.

Let’s say you have a coal-fired generation plant producing 1 GW or power every day, 24 hours a day. This power can be used anywhere because the technology is easily distributed through the entire network, but it is “dirty” power because it producing carbon dioxide. You want to clean up the environment so you build a 500 MW solar farm to produce clean, renewable energy. But that farm only produces power, at best, 6 hours a day and can only be distributed in a very small area of the state. And then you shut down the coal-fired plant.

That gives you a net loss of 500 MW so you contract with a Utah utility to buy their excess power to make up the difference, and you have to actually buy more than that 500 MW because you also have to provide power during peak usage, that begins after 4 p.m., when the solar panels go off line. So the carbon dioxide produced by the Utah facility is equivalent to what was produced by your shuttered plant in California.

Here’s the good news, though, by shuttering the coal-fired plant, you have now increased the net amount of energy you produced by renewables by a 1.5 GWs even though you are producing 500 MW less. You now issue a press release saying you have dramatically increased the percentage of renewable power produced by the state… even though you’ve really done nothing for the environment. In fact, you may have made it worse.

Multistage steam turbine blades

Steam turbines have been generating electric power since the early 1900s. In 1903, Commonwealth Edison opened Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, using 32 Babcock and Wilcox boilers driving several GE Curtis turbines, at 5000 and 9000 kilowatts each, the largest turbine-generators in the world at that time. Almost all electric power generation, from the time of the Fisk Station to the present, is based on steam driven turbine-generators. The Fisk turbine was a single stage, with one set of blades, and could achieve a maximum theoretical efficiency of 33 percent but achieved much lower numbers.

Efficiency is determined by the amount of power converted from the steam to usable electricity. Turbine efficiency is determined by the number of blades, their design, the amount of turbulence behind each set of blades, friction and steam temperature. Over the years turbine efficiency has been improved to as much as 40 percent improved as additional stages were added. Again there are limitations even today are based on the quality of the water (seawater, alkaline water, etc.) and the quality of the blades.

However, turbines don’t produce electricity as soon as you flip a switch. The huge and expensive turbines must be gradually spun up (using electrical or mechanical power) before the steam can be gradually applied to heat up and expand the blades to operational levels. This process can take several hours. Utilities have to predict what the demand will be a half day before spinning up the turbines so when the solar arrays go off line at 4-5 p.m. the turbines are generating power enough to make up for the loss. Utilities are producing as much as 110 percent of maximum power from just after noon on day one until demand drops after 8 p.m. That means a significant amount of the power produced during solar peak production is actually wasted energy.

Whether the turbines are driven by steam, hydro or gas, the blades of the turbine need regular replacement and repair, depending on the quality of the working fluid or gas. Heat, contaminants and turbulence can weaken and warp the blades in a relatively short time requiring that the power plant be taken down in part or altogether. There are constant design advances to lessen downtime and increase output, but turbine technology remains inefficient and costly. As a result many utilities, like Pacific Gas and Electric, are divesting themselves of power generation to concentrate on power distribution alone. As more third-party companies take over generation, our ability to maintain a steady flow of power is endangered. If one company fails economically, will we have the ability to make up for the loss of their production?

Is alternative energy really an alternative?

Alternative energy is a huge industry generating and spending money at breathtaking speed. Governments have invested trillions of dollars in building out the industry infrastructure and thousands of private citizens have invested billions in private applications. And yet two-thirds of our electrical energy is generated by fossil-fuel burning technology, just as it was 20 years ago. With all the infrastructure established in the past two decades, the world's demand for energy has outstripped our ability to meet it with alternative power. 1200x-1It's time we admitted that alternative power is not an alternative. It is only a supplement. Once we admit that fact, we may be able to get to work actually finding a real alternative.

This series had its genesis more than 40 years ago with my first foray into investigative journalism; a seven-part series on alternative energy as it was in the 1970s. The conclusion of that original work was that alternative energy lacked the ability to meet the world's needs, much less what in wanted for energy. After 40 years of following the industry I have found it is not much different now. The technology, while more efficient and cheaper now, is still not sufficient to meet demand and probably never will on our current direction. Multiple reports predict that our energy usage will triple in the next 15 years. If “alternative” energy can’t keep up with the need today, how bad will things be in 15 years and beyond?

In this new series we will look at various sources of alternative power; the good, the bad, and the future of each technology, and it will conclude with a look at what might be possible today if only we look outside of the box we have created.

Today we set the stage for where we are.

There have been two contradictory articles in the Washington Post recently. The first stated that the cost of wind and solar have come down dramatically and are close to being on par with coal and oil generation in the cost per megawatt. The article indicates that with those dropping prices, it should make it easier to meet the demand for energy using alternative sources. What the article doesn't state is that the cost is largely achieved through government subsidy, most of which are going away soon, not just in the US, but everywhere in the world. Take away the subsidy and the price will skyrocket.

The second article, however, paints a very different picture. In 1990, two-thirds of all our power production came from coal, oil and natural gas generation plants. That was the beginning of the modern alternative energy industry as subsidies started growing. What also continued to grow was the world's demand for electricity, much of which is driven by the computing industry with always-on computers and data centers, the latter consuming 10 percent of all electricity generated. That demand has required additional generation from carbon-fuel technology to the point that after trillions of dollars in investment in alternative sources, coal, oil and gas still account for two thirds of all generation.

Much has been made of Europe's advances in alternative power. The Netherlands recently announced that their ocean-based wind farms delivered more than 100 precent of their power needs on one day this year and some countries are claiming that 50 percent of their daily needs are often provided by alternative power. What is not discussed is how those alternative sources inconsistent.

Wind produces power when the wind is blowing within a specific narrow range of speed. If the wind speed is too low the turbines don't turn. Too high and the turbine has to be stopped to keep the blades from warping due to the torque placed on them. Solar produces power for 6 hours a day at best, during the summer. That works out great for Spain which gets a lot of sun in the spring, fall and summer. It's not great for Sweden which gets virtually no sun for several months in the year. Bottom line: sun and wind are just not always available.

As a result, Europe is quietly buying coal from the United States so they can gear up their older power plants to provide electricity on a consistent basis. This is good for the US since its coal reserves rival Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. The coal industry has seen US demand drop and harsher regulations keep electricity production from coal severely limited, but at the same time, natural gas is enjoying a rapid increase in demand.

California has been crowing about the rapid increase of its alternative energy production and is predicting that 50 percent of all power produced in the state will be from alternative sources by 2030. That is completely likely as the state closes nuclear and carbon-fuel plants, but California currently imports 30 percent of its power from states producing energy surpluses from coal-burning plants. Part of the problem is that even in perfect conditions, some of the most touted technologies are not producing as expected.

For example, there is a massive facility in Ivanpah, California using acres of reflective panels to focus solar radiation on a single column placed in the center of the facility. The heat turns water to steam which in turn drives traditional turbines to produce electricity. The problem is that the facility is not producing power solely on solar power. They have had to bring in natural gas to supplement the heat source and get the facility up to its promised capacity. The problem lies in the turbines, which are rated at 33.3 percent theoretical efficiency, but in reality operate at 25 percent efficiency.

That brings in the issue of utilities that have the responsibility of meeting power demands from the population. The alternative energy industries promised the utilities that they would have a source of home-produced electricity by using the roofs of customers for solar and wind power. Over the past 10 years that source has proved to be wildly unpredictable and required the utilities to keep current, carbon-fuel plants spun up to 110 percent, just in case the solar/wind production drops off, which happens more often than not. There have been multiple lawsuits going back and forth across the country as utilities and private home owners find that the promises of the alternative energy companies cannot be met with current technologies. There is also an investigation underway by the US Department of the Treasury against several large alternative energy companies regarding over-valuing technology for tax purposes.

When all the facts are in view, the alternative energy industry, in fact, the entire energy sector is in serious disarray. There is hope, but only when we have a realistic view of what is is actually happening.

At the core of the difficulty will be the centerpiece of all energy conversion: the turbine. Turbines are used in traditional energy plants run on coal, oil and natural gas, but they are also used in hydroelectric, geothermal, solar concentration (like Ivanpah), tidal, wind and waste-heat conversion. Without a thorough rethinking of turbine design, we will be hard pressed to find a true alternative.

This series will look at all forms of energy production, from fossil-fuel to experimental concepts and everything in between. We will begin, next, with a look at the problem of turbines.

Sponsored by 3DP-international

Two team up to solve heat problem in PV panels

Two of the oldest solar technology manufacturers, SolarWorld and FAFCO, have teamed up to deal with a significant weakness in solar PV panels: heat degradation.

The problems excessive heat causes the panels is significant. On a hot day, a panel can lose up 10-25 percent of its rated output and over time, consistent heat above 90 degrees Fahrenheit heat can actually cause permanent degradation of up to 30 percent in a couple of years. That information isn’t widely disseminated and few people, even those who sell the technology, knows the problem exists. That’s why when we were talking to PV vendors at the Intersolar Conference in San Francisco, the only people who could acknowledge the problem was at the FAFCO/SunWorld booth.

FAFCO has been providing passive solar water heating products and SunWorld PV panels since the 1970s. They have created several cogeneration systems over the years, but this is the first that marries the two technologies.

FAFCO has invented a heat exchange system known as CoolPV™ that is attached to a back of a typical 3x5 panel. Acting and looking very much like a radiator on a car, cold water is run through the system, drawing  heat off of the panel. Currently, the most common use for the water is heating spas and swimming pools, according to FAFCO president Bob Leckinger.

Leckinger preferred not to give the cost of the system, but claimed it could be recouped within three years. How you might buy the technology is another question.

Leckinger said they are selling product now, but looking on either the SunWorld or FAFCO websites finds no information available on the new systems. And since the companies are focused on recreational uses it’s not likely it will be available for the general public any time soon. That is unfortunate because there are a lot of solar panel farms literally burning up in the American Southwest.

See full interview here:

Energy Storage takes center stage at Intersolar

By Lou Covey, editorial director

The electrical energy storage industry continued to grow in credibility this week at the Intersolar 2015 conference with a co-located show in Moscone West. However, as a possible indicator that it is still a very small market, the Intersolar folks put the show name all in lowercase (ees).

The sector is set to see the installed base grow 250 percent by the end of 2015, year to year, according to GTM research , but according to other reports, that represents a total investment of $2.6 billion world wide. As a comparison, Solar energy installations represent an investment of $172 billion as of the end of last year. The industry has no where to go but up.

Showing a 10MW system at ees

There is no obvious leader rising in the ranks, except by general impression. Until this year the industry has done very little to distinguish itself until Elon Musk announced in May that Tesla will be offering home and industry storage products “real soon,” which was enough for lots of wealthy people that have electric cars and solar panels to put down a big chunk of cash to get their systems… sometime next year (A fool and his money…).

The reality is that the industry has been around for some time and selling products around the world relatively profitably, without a clear leader in the market. One would think that the attention being paid to the Tesla announcement might give them cause for jealousy, but that was not the case at ees. Every single company offering a storage system (and there were many) were practically salivating over their prospects.

“We are selling proven products with higher capacities and lower cost now than what Tesla says they are going to sell,” said Stefanie Kohl, marketing director of Sonnen-Batterie. “We made a decision to enter the US market early last year, and when Tesla made their announcement it was a nice gift to our marketing budget. Now everyone knows what it is and we can provide a better product for a better price." Being first to market is not always best.

Most companies offering storage products at ees called themselves a “market leader” for one reason or another, and Sonnen-Batterie calls itself “the German market leader.” It sold close to 4,000 units of its intelligent energy storage system to home owners, farmers and businesses since entering the German market in 2011. Germany has approximately 1.5 million solar installations currently and more coming every day, so Sonnen-Batterie has a way to go before they reach market saturation, but it seems a good start.

The investment community thinks so, too. Last December, Dutch and German investors sank put up $10 million to fund expansion.

The issue to be resolved is still cost per watt. Storage systems make sense for companies and residential applications when there is money to be spent. With solar installations producing power at $0.33 per watt, they are a pretty good deal over peak power costs from utilities, which is around $0.85 per war between noon and 6 p.m. But adding a storage system can make it a wash or even end up costing more.

So like all alternative energy technology, storage technology is still the realm of the wealthy. But it is a good start in the right direction.

Electric vehicles and hybrids: the science beyond the hype

Electric vehicles are all the rage today with politicians and pundits predicting mass adoption within the decade as a significant means to combat climate change. The reality, however, is not often reported and in a controversial presentation at the 52nd Design Automation Conference in San Francisco, Synopsys scientist Peter Groenevelt walked through the bare facts.

In his bottom line was a basic understanding that electric and hybrid vehicles have a place in society but might not be ready for worldwide adoption. In fact, if you don’t live in a Mediterranean climate and don’t live on flat ground, a conventional combustion engine may be your best choice.

We interviewed Mr. Groenevelt for a quick overview of his talk. If you’d like to receive a copy of his entire slide presentation, send a request to this link.  Here's the interview:

Analysis: Time for the semi and wafer industries to make nice

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director

Last week we did a piece on the dysfunctional relationship between the semiconductor industry and the silicon wafer industry.  Both have the potential of healing the rift and ensuring a profitable give and take for several decades, but there is also the potential that, if attitudes do not change within the next decade, it will get even worse.

IBM is recycling silicon wafers for solar use

Last week’s article pointed out that the wafer companies stuck it to the semi industry when the solar boom hit 10 years ago.  Wafer fabs shifted resources to solar because the requirements for solar cells was not as stringent as those for semiconductors, and then they jacked up the prices for semi customers.  The chip companies took it in stride, but when the solar bubble popped five years ago they started demanding and getting price concessions and have been for several years, in the face of rising demand for computing silicon.

Here’s the rub.  The solar panels containing that silicon had a 20-year lifespan when they were installed.  It is now 10 years later and those early panels are showing degradation now, with an average degradation of 1 percent per year.  By the end of the second decade, early adopters will be back on the power grid unless they replace the older, less efficient panels.  That is going to create a new demand for silicon wafers for solar panel use in 10 years.

IBM stepped up with new processes to recycle semiconductor wafers and will be going into the business of supplying material to the solar industry, but the wafer industry as a whole could repeat history by looking to make a quick killing by selling cheap product to solar and jacking up prices again.  It’s time for both sides to sit down and plan accordingly.

Changing the environment instead of optimizing chip design

By Lou Covey, Editorial Director A few weeks ago we reported on a new data center environment that virtually eliminated heat in a data-processing environment.  We decided to talk to a few companies in the chip world about the potential this development has for chip design and the most comprehensive prediction came from Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing for ARM Holdings.  When considering the potential, Ferguson saw almost unlimited possibilities for advancing data processing.  Here's the interview:

EXCLUSIVE- SLAC installs hyper efficient server

By Lou Covey Editorial Director

A hyper-efficient, high-performance data center was recently installed at a SLAC facility in Menlo Park, California  that operates on an energy efficiency several orders of magnitude over the most efficient data centers in the world--- and it fits on the back end of a pickup truck.

While most server racks operate on a ratio of 1W of cooling power to 3-4W of processing power, the system installed at SLAC operates at a 1 to 200W ratio.  The system is a collaborative project between Intel, Emerson Network Power, Panduit, One Stop Systems, Inc., Smart Modular, Inc. and Clustered Systems.

The high-density, high-performance system, located in the the LCLS (Linac Coherent Light Source) facility, comprises 128 servers in an 800mm wide 48U rack containing four chassis with built in cooling and a 105kW n+2 redundant power supply. Each chassis cools the servers directly via a pumped refrigerant, up to 20 kw per 8U chassis, with up to 5 fitting into a standard IT rack. The space for the fifth chassis was allocated to a high-performance switch.

“This is HPC, Cloud or even a Data Center in a box," said Phil Hughes, CEO of Clustered Systems. “A user can put a system anywhere there is power. No special facilities are required. We have calculated that capital expense can be reduced by up to 50% and total energy consumption by 30%. All investment can go into compute and not have to be shared with bricks and mortar.”

"To be able to pack such computing power into such a small space is unprecedented," said Amedeo Perazzo, Department Head Controls and Data Systems, Research Engineering Division at SLAC.

New Tech Press was given an exclusive look at the system. Watch the first part of the video here:


Tying the home to the Smart Grid

Most of the attention in the Smart Grid is given to the utilities and their controversial wireless smart meters.  But for the consumer to see real value in the technology requires creating a local network of appliances and systems within the home. That's not an easy task. There are many smart appliances on the market ready to tie into the grid, but not everyone is flush enough to go out an buy an entirely new set of appliances.  Somehow, the industry needs to create aftermarket.  At the DesignWest conference, Qualcomm Atheros was demonstrating your their products and techniques can move you closer to  energy efficiency, if not complete independence.  New Tech Press interviewed Qualcomm Atheros product manager Tim Colleran on what's happening.

Can Solar survive Solyndra aftermath?

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director, Footwasher Media

The recent collapse of a few high-profile solar energy companies, like Solyndra and Beacon Power, has caused even the most ardent fans of alternative energy to ask, "Can this industry survive?"  The answer is a resounding, yes and no.  It all depends on what government on all levels does.

Current public impressions of the health of any industry are colored by recent history.  The financial failings of companies and industries considered "to big to fail" are what most people think of when hearing news about solar.  But unlike the auto industry, with a population of three major players, the solar industry is filled with hundreds of start-ups struggling to establish themselves.  Even if one, two or two dozen go down, it is still well populated.

"Although panel manufacturing is in trouble, the solar industry is doing relatively okay." said Chirag Rathi, a senior consultant on the energy industry for Frost and Sullivan. "This is largely due to the advent of solar leasing companies in the U.S. One such company, SolarCity, was even give a contract to install solar power on up to 160,000 military homes. The program was supposed to be supported by the Department of Energy (DoE), which had extended a conditional commitment for a partial guarantee of a $344 million loan to support the project."

Government subsidy and purchase are the key to whether the industry thrives. The DoE recently announced a new initiative to fund solar collection technology development and the Department of Defense (DoD) is under congressional mandate to reduce fossil-fuel consumption by 50 percent.

The reality is that all forms of energy production are heavily subsidized by government throughout the world.  China has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in their solar panel industry.  Spain's financial difficulties are directly tied to the 100 percent subsidy it gave to the industry there, that it can no longer support.  Even Germany, relatively healthy in the world economy, is struggling to maintain its levels of support to the industry.  In the US, most of the government support – Federal, state and local – is actually tied to the installation industry.

"The purpose of government subsidies for renewables is to reduce costs and make them economically viable alternatives to fossil fueled electricity generation." said Jay Holman, research manager for solar energy strategies at IDC. "As the cost of electricity from renewables drops, it is natural that the subsidies drop as well: this is an indication of progress. The trick with subsidies is to encourage industry growth without placing too heavy a burden on electricity ratepayers or taxpayers. A flat, constant subsidy won't do the trick: it needs to drop in line with falling costs."

Holman said Germany and Italy automatically reduce subsidies based on the amount of solar installed in the previous year, which provides transparency and predictability for the market.

"In the US, however, we send the issue back to congress every few years and let them duke it out. That is an incredibly inefficient approach that makes the subsidy situation extremely difficult to predict."

Holman concluded that what the US industry needs is a long term subsidy plan that makes automatic subsidy adjustments based on the rate of installations and/or the cost of electricity from renewables.

Solyndra collapses.  Why are the generals smiling?

The fall of Solyndra was expected, and the DoD is happy

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director, Footwasher Media

The collapse of Solyndra has been the subject of both major news coverage and a foundational bit of political discourse recently.  A closer look at the facts reveals that the reality of Solyndra and the solar industry is far from the speculation, especially when viewed from a military perspective.

In the wider scope, industry analysts and observers wonder what all the kerfuffle is  about because everyone who knew the industry knew that Solyndra was not going to make it, especially in the current market.

"Solyndra's CIGS solar panels were expensive," according the Chirag Rathi of Frost and Sullivan. "The technology was innovative when it started out 6 years ago, but the global market place changed so fast in this time period that it became incredibly difficult for them to compete on price.  Their per watt production cost was widely believed to be above the $6 mark, much higher than the poly-crystalline technology of $1.75 per watt and falling."

According to the industry rule of thumb, for alternative energy to be competitive with fossil fuels, the cost per watt needs to fall below $1.

Rathi pointed out that the solar panel industry is in oversupply with the massive capacity coming out of China and Taiwan. "The Chinese government has provided more than $30 billion in soft loans to the domestic panel manufacturers."

With all this common knowledge, the persistent question has been: Why did the Obama administration push forward with the loan program?  The first answer is, well, that's been the way things have been done for some time.

Contrary to conventional thought, alternative energy gets the lion's share -- by far -- of any government investment in energy, including fossil fuels.  According to the Institute for Energy Research, direct federal subsidy (that's cash, not tax incentives) for renewable energy topped $14 Billion in 2010, while total subsidy of fossil fuel (gas, oil and coal) was just under $3.4 Billion... and 90 percent of the latter was in tax incentives, not actual cash payments.  And since the Solyndra investment was only in the form of loan guarantees, it won't come out of the federal budget until the bankruptcy is complete.  In other words, the fall of Solyndra has not yet cost the government anything.

So what, specifically, did the government get out of the Solyndra deal?  That's where no one is looking, and where you need to look to find the more interesting story.

Find out why the generals are smiling at


Inverters: There's more to solar power technology then just panels

You have your solar panels and you know you are supposed to connect them to your electrical system, but what do we know about inverters? What's best for your solar power installation? Micro-inverter? Mini-inverter? String? Ground mount? Didn't know there were differences? Check out what IdaRose Sylvester, senior correspondent for New Tech Press, learned from from Direct Grid Technologies and you will. Sponsored by element14

Jigawatts and miniJoules! (What the heck's a miniJoule?!)

We've all heard that solar panels are expensive, difficult to install, and need large installation sites to make them cost effective. Join us as Ida Rose Sylvester, Senior Correspondent for New Tech Press talks with Andre Steinau, Director of Minijoule, as they discuss a unique way to overcome some of the challenges associated with solar power. What the heck's a miniJOULE you might ask, miniJOULE is a small solar power plant you can put together yourself, generating some electricity to offset your daily use.

Smart Grid Conference should be on your calendar




The Smart Power Grid Technology Conference (May 12 at the Santa Clara Biltmore, should be on a lot of calendars this coming May.  Smart grid tech is a major new industry that is receiving a lot of bad press from a lack of knowledge and the only way to overcome that is by educating ourselves.

In particular, the session on  "The Transformation of Ratepayers into Customers" will be a significant piece of information. Tom Tamarkin, president of the Uttility Services Customer Link, will set out a definition for the term "smart meters" that takes into account the concerns of the public.

Additional topics include, "Enabling the Smart Connected Home," and "the Role of Smart Lighting in the Smart Grid."