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August 06 2012


On Our Radar: Oklahoma's Wildfires

Some people who were evacuated are allowed to return home, but the blazes continue in pockets in the northeastern part of the state.

February 09 2012


Living Off The Grid With Solar Power Can Be Simple, Fun, and Challenging

The author and his wife in front of their solar-powered home.Guest Post by Kriss Bergethon

My wife and I were desperate to get out of the city.  It was 2007, we were having an extremely stressful year with work.  I owned a small construction company that was just about to give me a heart attack.  She had a job she hated so much she would cry on the way to work sometimes.  On top of all that, we lived in a duplex with noisy neighbors.  And don’t even get me started on the constant, traffic, sirens, and aircraft noise of living in the city.

That’s when we decided: LETS GET OUT OF HERE – FOR GOOD!  So we started looking for homes in the mountains.  And, as luck would have it, we found our dream home after just one day of looking.  Incredible views, astoundingly quiet, on a beautiful lake and surrounded by Aspen-draped mountains, we thought we had died and gone to heaven.  There was just one thing: there was no grid power in this part of the world.

The home was powered with a solar power system and a backup generator.  Heat would have to come from a wood-burning stove.  It wasn’t exactly roughing it, but it was a drastic lifestyle change.  And so, in the dead of winter, we moved our lives to the peace and quiet of Colorado Rockies.  No more walking to sushi on Friday night.  No more rowdy concerts and raucous cab rides on Saturday night.  We still do those things every once in a while but we don’t miss them as much as we thought we would.  And we also don’t have to deal with car break-ins, dirty air, bad water, rude drivers, and traffic jams.

Living off the grid meant we had to make other adjustments too.  The only lights on in the house at night are ones we are actively using.  We started listening to our iPods with headphones instead of throwing on the stereo and cranking the music.  Laundry waits until a sunny day.  Everything is on a power strip and gets turned off at the end of the evening.  We don’t own a toaster, microwave, clothes iron, or hair dryer.

We’ve become acutely aware of the patterns of the sun and weather.  We open the blinds wide to let the sun pour in and heat the house in the winter.  In the warm summer evenings we close them and crack windows strategically to allow the mountains breezes to cool the house.  We’ve installed a wind generator and tuned into the patterns of our breezes too.  Winter mornings might mean shoveling both the driveway and solar panels clear of snow.

Don’t misunderstand, we don’t live like hermits.  We have a large flat screen TV, three computers, plenty of lighting, and tons of entertainment devices.  We just use them strategically to conserve power, always keeping in mind that the sun is our friend.  Up here we find that we need those things less anyway, with all the hiking, skiing, biking, and boating there is to do here.

We’ve learned a lot about solar, living away from civilization, but mostly about ourselves here.  And I can honestly say this is happiest I’ve ever been.


Kriss Bergethon is a writer and solar expert from Colorado.  You can visit his site at Solar Power for more information.


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January 30 2012


Weighing Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels

A preliminary finding by the Commerce Department suggests that if penalties are levied, they could be retroactive.

January 26 2012


On Our Radar: A Beached Whale

An examination of the whale's ribs and vertebrae indicates that it was probably struck by a large vessel in a coastal shipping lane.

January 25 2012


Historic Buildings May Be Greener Than You Think

"Greening" historic buildings in New York City is often more about optimizing existing elements, like ensuring that cross-ventilation isn't inadvertently blocked, than about radical retrofits

January 18 2012


The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Off-the-Grid Solar

Factory-rated output is not woods-of-Maine output, the author discovers as he adds up the kilowatt hours.

January 03 2012


The Convoluted Economics of Storing Energy

Some companies are betting that the increased use of solar panels will open the way for solar thermal, a kind of energy storage that compensates for the vagaries of photovoltaic generation.

December 29 2011


Bucking Solar Predictions, India Surprises Itself

Two auctions of electricity generated with solar power were far more successful than anyone anticipated.

December 09 2011


Reining In the 'Soft Costs' of Solar

Estimating that 40 to 50 percent of the cost of owning and operating a rooftop solar power system is administrative expenses, the Department of Energy organized a competition to find the best ways of bringing those costs down.

November 30 2011


On Our Radar: Mining Dispute in Peru

A deputy environment minister resigns to protest the Peruvian government's backing for the vast Minas Conga project, which seeks to produce 680,000 ounces of gold and 235 million pounds of copper annually

September 20 2011


Solar Installations Rise, but Manufacturing Declines

It is far cheaper, per watt of capacity, to put a solar panel on a commercial roof or out in the open desert than on a house, which explains the market's changing shape.

September 15 2011


Pennies to Clean Energy, Billions to Big Oil -- Mainstream Media Missing the Real Story on Solyndra

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing yesterday on the ongoing and growing scandal in the wake of the bankruptcy of Solyndra Corporation.

Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after laying off over 1,000 workers, is facing a barrage of attacks by both politicians and the media. The GOP and its right wing media echo chamber in particular have sought to condemn the entire U.S. clean energy sector as a result of an FBI raid of Solyndra's offices.

Things have spun so far out of control inside the Beltway that Rep. David Vitter (R-La.) is disseminating a bill that would, "require an inspector general investigation into any company that receives federal money for renewable energy development and then goes bankrupt."

But Vitter's so-called Federal Accountability of Renewable Energy (FARE) Act is hardly a fair assessment of accountability across the entire energy subsidies spectrum.

Besides serving as an opportunistic moment to dance on the grave of a solar company, in the wake of Solyndra's economic downfall, we're witnessing a true disdain among Republicans for a clean energy technology that was invented here at home, and possesses the potential to help wean the U.S. from deep reliance on foreign energy. In the currently toxic political environment, the GOP seems more interested in ceding that job-rich opportunity to China.

Explaining the bill further, The Hill's Andrew Restuccia wrote,

Co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the bill would require that federal agencies conduct a full audit of any renewable energy projects that have received taxpayer money from fiscal years 2009 to 2011.

The audit must determine how successful the project is, including how many jobs it has created and what its profits are. In addition, agencies would be required to identify which venture capital firms helped finance the project.

Any companies that declare bankruptcy or fail to meet the objectives required by the federal government would be subject to an inspector general investigation under the legislation. 

In other words, the clean energy sector would be held to a completely different standard than is the all-powerful fossil fuel sector. Why don't we hear even more outrage from these same supposedly budget-conscious politicians about the hundreds of billions of dollars dumped by American taxpayers into fully-mature polluting energy sources that we know are harming our health, our climate and our security? How could anyone consider solar power the enemy?

A Lack of Perspective From the Media on Clout of Fossil Fuel Industry

​Solyndra has received a vast amount of media attention since the beginning of September, but very few outlets have conveyed the real story - that the fossil fuel industry receives billions of dollars in government subsidies on an annual basis, and leaves solar and other renewables manufacturers far and away in the dust.

According to a March 2011 story by the Christian Science Monitor, gas and oil interests receive a steep $41 billion per year in subsidies.  Also, according to a July 2010 article in the New York Times​, the fossil fuel industry at-large benefits from tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies on an annual basis.

Honing in on the oil industry specifically, the Times​ discovered that Big Oil receives over $4 billion in tax breaks each year, as shown by an October 2005 Congressional Budget Office report.

In addition, the fossil fuel industry maintains a powerful armada of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. The Los Angeles Times covered the depths of the industry's influence in a May 2010 article,

All told, the oil and gas industry spent $174.7 million and registered 788 lobbyists to influence lawmakers and regulators last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization. Since 1998, the industry has spent $966.8 million on lobbying, making it the sixth-biggest-spending interest group in Washington, the center found.

Furthermore, in a well-researched article today, the Center for American Progress' Brad Johnson revealed that the members who hosted this morning's hearing were the recipients of a lump sum of over $11 million in campaign contributions from the gas and oil industry. Johnson closed his article by pointing out the core flawed premise of this phony scandal. 

The solar industry is truly dependent on subsidies,” subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said at the conclusion of the hearing. Stearns did not express similar outrage about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have gone into subsidizing the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. None of the Republican members of the panel worried about the $11 million in subsidies they have received from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries in campaign contributions.

Rather than examine the dirty energy subsidy implications of this story, opportunistic politicians and media have focused on the *tiny by comparison* $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra initiated by former President George W. Bush and approved by current President Barack Obama. The bulk of the media have instead flocked to the "alternative energy must not be viable" narrative.  

Solyndra Loan was Pennies By Comparison — Were they Set Up to Fail?

It is no wonder then, that handed a loan that was pennies by comparison to what the fossil fuel industry receives in subsidies and tax breaks on an annual basis from the government, Solyndra was bound to fail. The Chinese government, for one, recently handed $20 billion to solar panel corporations.  

Given no tax cuts, no extra subsidies after the initial loans, and handed an astronomical handicap in an energy industry dominated by oil and coal, journalists have yet to ask government officials the crucial question:

With members of both parties finger-pointing and laying the blame on Solyndra, was Solydra, all along, set up to fail by the federal government? Is that what's really going on here?

Dave Roberts of Grist may have hit the nail on the head

For a mix of financial and ideological reasons, U.S. conservative movement activists, operators, and politicos hate clean energy. They don't believe in climate change, they love fossil fuels and fossil-fuel campaign donations, and they think, or want the U.S. public to think, that clean energy is weak, unreliable, marginal, and dependent on government subsidies. They have been trying to make that case for a long while.

What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself. 

One can only hope the terms of the debate change, and quickly. 

July 14 2011


Intersolar North America: Solar Is Ready to Launch

Solar energy is ready to launch and become a mainstream source of energy for the worldI’ve spent the last two days at the Intersolar North America conference in San Francisco, speaking with key people within the industry, from solar panel producers, to developers of testing and control software for solar cell manufacturers, inverter makers, solar system designers, silver paste materials manufactures and more. It was a great opportunity to get an overview of current state of the solar industry.

My take-away from the experience is the recent phenomenal growth in the solar industry and installed base of solar power throughout the world. If your idea of the solar industry is based on what you’ve heard in the past year, or even the past few months, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

Following are some brief insights and examples of developments in the solar industry from my various conversations with some movers and shakers in the industry over the past two days:

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


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May 16 2011


April 29 2011


The Top 10 Solar States

In the case of New Jersey, No. 2, the solar market blossomed because of a state government commitment to greater reliance on renewable energy.

April 21 2011


Study Finds Solar Panels Increase Home Values

A new study from federal researchers finds that the installation of residential solar systems increases resale prices of homes.

March 24 2011


Now, Starter Homes Boast Solar Arrays

KB Home estimates that the standard 1.4-kilowatt solar array will supply about 30 percent of the electricity for an 1,800-foot to 2,000-foot square home.

February 22 2011


January 19 2011


January 06 2011

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