Bad Biofuels Vibes, but no Break for Solar

Last week the National Academies released a report about the federal Renewable Fuels Standard - and the scientist-authors basically panned it from top to bottom. As a policy tool, the NAS said, the RFS is unlikely to work. They point out that production of cellulosic ethanol - the type of renewable fuel the policy is supposed to spur production and use of - still struggles to get off the ground. As Jeff Johnson reported in this week's issue, the government estimates this year's haul of cellulosic ethanol will be a mere 6.6 million gal, far below the RFS target for 2011 of 250 million gal. The standard mandates a huge upswing in production of cellulosic ethanol - 16 billion gal by 2022 - at which point it would pass the amount of ethanol the country is supposed to get from corn. NAS points out what most folks would likely observe - that this goal would be very difficult to meet. But NAS goes farther by questioning the green credentials of cellulosic ethanol. As a second-generation or advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol was supposed to be much better for the environment than corn ethanol, and certainly a vast improvement over fossil fuels. But, Johnson reports, the authors forecast major downsides from growing crops for biofuels including "the one-time release of greenhouse gases from disturbed biomass and soil may exceed future reductions of greenhouse gases expected as a result of the shift from gasoline to biofuels." Meanwhile the solar saga continues. The Washington Post is still digging into government e-mails related to the Obama administration's dealings with Solyndra - the defunct solar firm that benefited from a $535 million loan guarantee. It looks like there will be plenty of material to keep this topic open for a while - as I predicted - and the issue will continue to cast a shadow over government actions in the green manufacturing sector. That said, the U.S. will soon become a leading destination for solar installations, as I report in this week's issue. This is a positive development in terms of the country's ability to generate renewable power. But it comes at a price - the low, low cost of crystalline silicon solar cells, mainly imported from China, is likely to blast a hole through a portion of the U.S. solar manufacturing base. If I were to put on my policy hat (first I'd have to dust it off and remove some cobwebs), I'd be pondering a few questions this week. Is it more important for the U.S. to be able to ramp up its capacity to generate renewable solar power by installing cheap solar modules or should the U.S. try to spend...

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The Long Tail of Solyndra

The Solyndra bankruptcy debacle may haunt U.S. support for renewable energy for a long time. It’s been four weeks since news broke that the CIGS-in-a-tube operation would shut its doors, and the debate and recriminations seem to be growing louder with each passing day. Congress and the press are asking some probing questions. Was the company and its technology properly vetted by the Department of Energy? Was political or other pressure applied to the process to make it go faster? More broadly, some are asking if the administration’s plans for clean energy are just a waste of money. C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported on these questions from a Sept. 14 Congressional hearing about Solyndra. He points out that the Solyndra loan – issued back in 2009 – was the first loan to come out of a program created by Congress during the Bush administration. While Congress looks in to the particulars about the Solyndra application, it would be difficult to argue that the loan program itself was too speedily implemented. The New York Times reported from a House subcommittee meeting on Sept. 23 that Solyndra officials took the Fifth Amendment to avoid having to answer questions about the company. Members on both sides of the aisle were displeased with the firm, but Republicans were especially harsh, the paper reports. Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, linked the Solyndra bankruptcy to current negotiations about the Federal Budget. The House had voted to cut loan guarantees for electric cars. As quoted in the Times, he explained: “Yes, we took that money back,” Mr. Burgess said. “If the D.O.E. is going to be chumps, the very least we can do is corral what they’re doing.”...

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Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt
Sep02

Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt

Dow Chemical, maker of the Solar Shingle, has been awarded a $12.8 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Energy to fund building integrated solar products program. The aim of the funding is clear in the name of the DOE program "Extreme Balance-of-System Hardware Cost Reductions." [note: Maybe not quite clear enough - I added the hyphens to help you figure out what Extreme is supposed to refer to.] In short, DOE wants to bring down the installed cost of solar power to $2 per watt - without subsidies. Currently, it's the upfront cost of installing solar panels that puts the breaks on the amount of installed solar in the U.S. Most solar systems are designed to last upwards of 20 years (most experts say you can count on your panels to work for 25 years), but the costs can mean the payback period can stretch out to more than 15 years, depending on where you live.   Sharp offers an awesome and slightly addicting solar cost/payback/savings calculator on its website. Drop whatever you are doing right now (it's the Friday before Labor Day, people, no one expects you to do real work anyway) and go here: http://sharpusa.cleanpowerestimator.com/sharpusa.htm All you need to do is put in your zip code and the amount of your electricity bill and then you can spend a while fiddling with the variables. The default cost per watt of solar power is $7 per watt (or $7,000 per kW as shown in the calculator). With my particulars, a 3,000 kW system would trim my power bill enough to pay for itself in a bit over 16 years. I'd only pay about 1/3rd the full cost of the system (or over $7,000) due to state and Federal tax rebates. So that shows two things: government subsidies are required to make solar even sort of make sense at current prices, and that $2 per watt sounds like a reasonable price target. If you lived in Arizona your calculation would likely be different. Give it a...

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Epic Fail: Solyndra files for bankruptcy

While you were at lunch, the nascent cleantech manufacturing industry in the U.S. collapsed. Actually, that's not quite true, but it is true that Solyndra will file for bankruptcy. This is a big deal - Google News lists 85 news outlets covering the story. Solyndra is famous for its stylish, glass tubular, CIGS-powered, solar rooftop modules. And for raising vast amounts of venture capital. And for getting a $535 million Department of Energy loan guarantee. And for filing for, and later cancelling, a planned IPO in late 2009. Solyndra's success in raising money was an early indicator that venture capitalists had turned to so-called cleantech industries, taking some of the shine off of internet and technology-based start-ups. It was the first company to benefit from the DOE's loan program, part of the 2005 Energy Act. But cleantech -- particularly solar -- has been looking a bit less shiny lately. Earlier this month, Evergreen Solar filed for bankruptcy protection, and its filing shows that the firm does not plan to emerge in anything like its current form. Evergreen also received government largess, getting more than $50 million in support from the state of Massachusetts. Both Solyndra and Evergreen had proven technologies and they had the financial resources to scale up their manufacturing. Compared to many segments of cleantech, this sounded like a pretty good risk for investors. However, both technologies were based, at least in part, on solar module designs that minimized the use of polysilicon. That was smart at the time, because polysilicon supplies were very tight, and shortages threatened to choke the life out of (traditional) solar manufacturing. That was back in 2007-8. But by the end of 2008, chemical makers made plans to ramp up their manufacturing of polysilicon. The stuff was fetching record prices, after all, and it's made from sand. Beginning in 2009, polysilicon manufacturers like Hemlock Semiconductor (owned in part by Dow Corning) and Wacker Chemie began doubling, tripling, quadrupling etc their polysilicon capacity. Billion dollar plus-sized polysilicon plants in the US also won government support. By late 2009 there was an overabundance of polysilicon and an oversupplyof modules in inventory, crushing prices. Firms like Solyndra and Evergreen had raised money and started scaling up manufacturing right as solar modules became a commodity. Chinese manufacturers at that point had their eye on making solar modules for close to $2 per watt. It was not a good time to have a technologically distinct - and more expensive - solar product. In 2010-2011, European countries - especially Spain - cut back on solar subsidies. Germany has trimmed them as well. All solar makers were busy cutting costs...

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DuPont gets Solar Blues from Innovalight
Jul28

DuPont gets Solar Blues from Innovalight

What is silicon ink? Is it magical pixie dust? Innovalight, maker of silicon ink, is a venture capital-funded company in Silicon Valley that was just acquired by DuPont. The announcement came Monday and I've been wanting to post about it but a small problem held me back. I had no idea how Innovalight's product works. I knew what it is though - it's ink (and it sure looks like ink) made up of silicon nanoparticles suspended in chemicals. It can be screen printed in the same assembly line used to manufacture crystalline silicon solar cells. The reason a manufacturer would add this extra step is simple. It increases the cell's ability to capture energy from sunlight by 1%.  Since Monday I've learned a bit more - enough to burden blog readers with my still incomplete understanding. Adding a precision-printed design of this ink to crystalline silicon solar cells allows the cell to capture more energy from the blue wavelength of sunlight. This sentence is where I would describe exactly how the ink makes that happen, so let's pretend I did that. Solar cells are generally hampered in their efficiency by an inability to capture energy from the full spectrum of light. Like the human eye, they do best capturing visible light. But that leaves a wealth of radiation in the UV and infrared part of the spectrum un-captured. Thus the 19% upper limit on even very efficient cells. Interestingly, even within the visible spectrum, blue light is not well captured. My colleague Mitch Jacoby tells me that blue light is energetic enough for a solar cell to absorb and create a flow of energized electrons, but that the high energy electron and the "hole" left behind re-combine before they hit the conducting grids and without creating a current. Many people in many places like NREL have been studying ways to keep them separated and have them move to the negative and positive current collectors. That's why the DuPont press release about the acquisition talks about Selective Emitter solar cells. In spite of the capitalization, the term seems a bit misleading to me, because absorbing is what they're going for. Anyway, selective emitter approaches involve an adaptation to the silicon, the surface and/or the conducting grid to make those electrons from the blue light migrate efficiently. Innovalight's value proposition is that solar cell manufacturers can make selective emitters in their current process by adding a silicon ink screen printing step after texturing the mono crystalline silicon. According to the press release, "Selective Emitter technology could represent 13 percent of crystalline silicon solar cell production by 2013 and up to 38 percent by...

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Washington Redskins Score 8,000 Solar Panels

I really can't resist this little news item. File it under solar and, a new category for this blog- sports. My hometown football team, the wonderous and often frustrating Washington Redskins will add 8,000 solar panels to their new-ish stadium. They will be working with energy firm NRG - that sounds redundant - to generate 2 MW of power from 3 different types of solar panels. They'll include thin film and transluscent versions. The installation will also include 10 electric vehicle charging station for those Volt drivers who spurn the...

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