As the Cost of Panels Plummets, Energy Utilities Rethink Solar

It has been the “power source of the future” for at least the past 40 years. It’s one of the few things on which people agree across the entire political spectrum. And thanks to the development of more efficient and inexpensive solar panels and intelligent infrastructure like smart meters and inverters, it looks as though solar power’s time in the sun has finally arrived. The amount of solar photovoltaic power generated in the United States has increased from 16,000 megawatt hours in 2007 to 15,874,000 in 2014. That thousandfold increase has caused electric utilities across the country to either panic or seriously rethink their business model. 

Scientists can turn regular seawater into hydrogen fuel

Stanford University

A team of scientists at Stanford have figured out a way to make hydrogen fuel out of saltwater. The discovery could open up the world’s oceans as a potential source of energy. Researchers view electrolysis, or the act of splitting water into hydrogen and gas, as a promising new source of renewable energy. But it comes with many roadblocks; a major one being that only purified water can be used in electrolysis. Seawater tends to corrode water-splitting systems.

Unfortunately, purified water is in itself a scarce resource. Which is why Stanford chemistry professor Hongjie Dai and her team sought out to discover a way to keep salt water from breaking down devices used for water-splitting. “We barely have enough water for our current needs in California,” said Dai in a press release.

The Stanford team layered nickel-iron hydroxide and nickel sulfide on top of a nickel foam core, essentially creating a barrier that would slow down the decay of the underlying metal. By acting as a conductor, the nickel foam transports energy from the power source and the nickel-iron hydroxide sparks the electrolysis. What happens without the nickel coating? The water-splitting device lasts roughly 12 hours, unable to withstand seawater corrosion. But with the nickel layer, the device can keep going for more than a thousand hours.

We’re still far away from harnessing ocean water as a new renewable energy source. The new discovery hasn’t been attempted outside of Stanford’s research labs. But scientists are hoping it will pave the way for increased use of hydrogen fuel.

Solar Power Stations In Space Could Supply The World With Limitless Energy

While on the surface of the Earth, society still struggles to adopt solar energy solutions, many scientists maintain that giant, space-based solar farms could provide an environmentally-friendly answer to the world’s energy crisis.

Only last week, we reported that China was planning to build the world’s first solar power station to be positioned in Earth’s orbit. Because the sun always shines in space, an orbital solar power station is seen as an inexhaustible source of clean energy.

“Above the Earth, there’s no day and night cycle and no clouds or weather or anything else that might obstruct the sun’s ray, so a constant power source is available,” said Ali Hajimiri, professor of electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and co-director of the university’s Space Solar Power Project.

Proposed space solar array SPS-ALPHA, image and concept courtesy John C. Mankins.John C. Mankins

Collecting solar power in space and wirelessly transmitting was first described by Isaac Asimov in 1941 in his short story Reason. In 1968, American aerospace engineer Peter Glaser published the first technical article on the concept – Power From The Sun: Its Future in the journal Science.

Space-based solar power attracted considerable attention in the 1970s as the necessary individual technical components – in essence, photovoltaic cells, satellite technology and wireless power transmission – were developed. Despite the concept being technically feasible, it was considered economically unrealistic at the time and research ultimately stalled.

“The idea seems to be going through a resurgence and it’s probably because the technology exists to make it happen,” said John Mankins, a former NASA scientist who was at the forefront of this field in the 1990s, before it was abandoned.

Aerospace engineer Peter Glaser first wrote about the idea in 1968.Science magazine

Global energy demands are only going to grow, says Hajimiri. The global population is expected to reach a staggering 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report, so methods of generating large quantities of clean energy must be found. A space-based solar power system could provide energy to everyone, even in places that don’t receive sunlight all year round, like northern Europe and Russia.

In April of 2015, a research agreement between Northrop Grumman and Caltech provided up to $17.5m for the development of innovations necessary to enable a space solar power system. Three Caltech professors head up the project: joining Hajimiri were Harry Atwater and Sergio Pellegrino.

Caltech is just one institution working on developing this technology. We know that scientists at the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration in China are constructing a facility to test the theoretical viability of the concept and plans to develop an orbital photovoltaic array were announced in Japan some time ago.

One of the biggest issues to overcome is that of getting an array of solar panels large enough to make the project viable into orbit. Early concept designs in the 1970s featured giant arrays that would’ve proved very difficult to actually get into orbit.

“The systems of the 70s for solar power satellites, the cost estimates suggested, at that time, that it might be as much as a trillion dollars to get to the first kilowatt hour because of the way the designs worked. Essentially a single satellite, a platform, an integrated, monolithic platform about the size of Manhattan,” said Mankins.

However, with SpaceX and Blue Origin slowly driving the cost of orbital delivery down, suddenly the concept seems a little closer to reality.

“Going to modular systems to allow mass production, I believe was the answer to how to get solar power satellite costs down to something more reasonable,” said Mankins.

The multi-rotary SPS (MR-SPS) concept is one with multiple independent solar sub-arrays used to point to the sun.NASA

Details of China’s proposed plans have not been made public, but most concept designs that exist today are based around an idea that the photovoltaic array is composed of a lightweight, deployable structure made of many smaller “solar satellites” that could easily connect together in space to form much larger array and “harvest sunlight.” Equally, this approach also makes assembly, maintenance and repair considerably easier.

“I’ve seen a presentation on what they [China] are presumably doing. I can’t guarantee that’s actually it, but it was by them, about the space solar system. What I’ve seen appears to be a conventional approach, which is similar to what people are currently contemplating,” said Hajimiri.

This completed array would orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth and “beam” the energy back down to the surface. The photovoltaic array converts the sunlight into electricity, which in turn is converted into RF electrical power (microwaves) that are beamed wirelessly to ground-based receivers. These would take the form of giant wire nets measuring up to four miles across that could be installed across deserts or farmland or even over lakes.

A solar facility like this could generate a constant flow of 2,000 gigawatts of power, Mankins estimates, compared to the largest solar farm that exists today in Aswan, southern Egypt, that only generates in the region of 1.8 gigawatts.

It’s unlikely the solar array could be weaponized into a “death ray” like the one seen in Diamonds Are Forever.MGM/United Artists

An orbiting solar array, collecting and storing massive amounts of energy that’s beamed to the surface… You’d be forgiven for thinking this could be the plot of a James Bond movie, if this array was somehow weaponized.

Thankfully, that’s not how it works.

“The energy densities will not exceed what you normally would get. It would definitely not exceed what you get from the sun,” said Hajimiri.

The microwaves that transmit the energy to the surface would be at the so-called non-ionizing radiation frequency. “What that means is that the frequencies are such that unlike x-rays, these are the frequencies at which their photons don’t have enough energy to induce chemical change,  like that ultraviolet or x-rays do,” said Hajimiri.

“I’ve been working on wireless power transmitters that would operate in the microwave frequency range, between about 2 gigahertz and 8 gigahertz, roughly. Wavelengths on the order of 10 to 2 inches. Those wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, including clouds and weather, without interruption, without interference.”

However, Mankins expects there might still be some problems. “There’s always the geopolitics issue. Because when you’re at an equatorial orbit, geostationary Earth orbit, you can see a great deal of the Earth below you. For me, it’s challenging to envision how there would ever be agreement to allow such a thing.”

The team at Caltech have successfully tested their proof of concept on the ground, their photovoltaic prototypes demonstrated they can collect and wirelessly transmit 10 gigahertz of power, so the next step is to perform scaled down experiments in space.

The biggest challenge is to reduce the mass as much as possible without sacrificing efficiency. Of course, that would also help reduce cost, which is probably still the biggest hurdle.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to test it in space within a couple of years,” said Hajimiri.

“Space solar power would transform our future in space and could provide a new source of virtually limitless and sustainable energy to markets across the world,” said Mankins. “Why wouldn’t we pursue it?”

John Mankins has written a book called The Case for Solar Power, which is available on Amazon.

SunPower Unveils World's First 400-Plus-Watt Solar Panels

Boston Scientific (BSX) reported earnings 30 days ago. What’s next for the stock? We take a look at earnings estimates for some clues.

SunPower Corporation SPWR has recently introduced the world’s most powerful home solar panels in markets across the United States, Europe and Australia, equipped to deliver 400 plus watt of power. Additionally, these solar panels are designed to deliver 60% more energy in the same roof space over the first 25 years compared to conventional panels.

A-Series & Maxeon 3 Solar Panels

SunPower’s A-Series panels are built with the company’s fifth-generation Maxeon solar cells, known as Gen 5, which are 65% larger compared to those in the earlier panels. These panels are equipped to absorb more sunlight and ultimately offer more savings to homeowners. The A-Series panels can deliver up to 415 watts of electricity and are the most powerful solar panels that customers in the United States can buy for their home now.

SunPower recently broke the 400-watt, residential solar panel barrier for homeowners in Europe and Australia with its new Maxeon 3 panel, which delivers 400 watts of power from its third-generation Maxeon solar cells. Higher efficiency, improved field performance from lower temperature coefficient, improved reliability due to low reverse breakdown voltage and a uniform dark appearance are the characteristics of the Maxeon 3 technology.

Global Demand Driving Growth

Per Mordor Intelligence, the emergence of the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry will likely generate robust demand for the global residential solar energy market over the 2019-2024 period. In addition, the declining price of solar panels has also encouraged governments across various nations to take initiatives and provide subsidies, which, in turn, are expected to aid growth of the residential solar energy market. This opportunity for expansion and the introduction of highly efficient technologies pave way for solar companies like SunPower to further enhance share in the expanding residential solar market.

In this line, other solar majors like SolarEdge Technologies SEDG and First Solar, Inc. FSLR are also making significant efforts to reap the benefits of the expanding worldwide solar market.

Our View

With the introduction of the world’s first 400-watt plus residential solar panels, SunPower has taken a distinctive leap ahead of its peers as most of the other solar companies have just managed to cross the 300-watt threshold for home solar panels. Compared to other conventional solar panels offered by its peers, SunPower’s highest powered solar panels will give users longer-term energy in lesser space. Going forward, this is expected to significantly boost SunPower’s solar panels sales across its three major markets.

From the context of its 2018 quarterly results, SunPower’s residential demand in the fourth quarter remained solid, with 15% year-on-year volume growth. Moreover, in 2018, the company was successful in adding approximately 40,000 customers to its growing portfolio, bringing its U.S. residential install base to approximately 240,000 homes, with an installed base of more than 1.5 gigawatts. Now, with the company’s new powerful home solar panels, these numbers are expected to witness a notable growth in 2019 and beyond.

Price Performance

In a year’s time, SunPower’s stock has lost 13.4%.

Zacks Rank

SunPower currently carries a Zacks Rank #5 (Strong Sell). A better-ranked stock in the same space is Canadian Solar Inc. CSIQ, sporting a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy).

Canadian Solar came up with average positive earnings surprise of 49.66% in the last four quarters. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for 2019 earnings has risen 15.5% to $2.83 in the past 90 days. You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank stocks here.

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Scientists invent a solar panel that produces hydrogen

Scientists in Belgium have invented a solar panel that produces hydrogen as a source of fuel to heat homes. Using moisture in the atmosphere, the solar panel converts sunlight into hydrogen gas, producing about 250 liters of gas every day.

The team of scientists, lead by Professor Johan Martens, have been developing their hydrogen solar panel for the past 10 years. When they first started, they were only able to produce small quantities of hydrogen gas, but now the gas bubbles are visible the moment they roll the panel out under the sun.

Related: California approves rule to require solar panels on new houses

“It’s actually a unique combination of physics and chemistry,” Martens explained. “Over an entire year, the panel produces an average of 250 liters per day, which is a world record.”

According to CleanTechnica, Martens estimates that 20 solar panels could provide enough energy and electricity to heat up a home and still have some to spare for the following year.

The team is still not ready to build the panels for commercial use, but they are getting ready for a trial run at a home in Flanders. If the tests are successful, the researchers are planning to expand their trials to an entire neighborhood.

Being an extremely combustible gas, hydrogen can be dangerous if not handled correctly. While the general public may have some concerns about using hydrogen as a heating source, the Belgium-based scientists said it carries the same risks associated with natural gas. The hydrogen produced by the solar panels is stored in an oil tank that is installed near the home.

While this technology is certainly promising — and produces zero carbon emissions — the cost of the solar panels, storage tanks and furnace, plus installation, is a big unknown.

That said, the upfront cost may be high, but homeowners would pay off the system over time, especially if they no longer relied on city electricity or natural gas.

There is no word yet on when the hydrogen solar panels will be available on the market, but the scientists are very optimistic about the upper limits of this technology.

+ KU Leuven

Via CleanTechnica

Mitsubishi’s new power system lets your car power your home

Coming this year, Mitsubishi will sell a system that lets you share power between your home and electric car. Launched today at the Geneva Motor Show, the Dendo Drive House (DDH) features solar panels, a home battery, and a bi-directional charger that lets power flow from your home to your car, or from your car to your home — depending on the economics and which needs the power most. DDH supports cars like the Mitsubishi Engelberg Tourer that the company also announced at the show

There are a number of scenarios when having your car charge your home could be useful. In addition to opening up a world of off-grid living, it could also serve as a backup in the event of a power cut, for example. The system could also be useful if your electricity tariff offers you a discount during off-peak hours, when the electricity grid is under less load and cheaper to use as a result. For example, your car could inexpensively charge itself overnight, and then power your AC during the day. Of course, this will only work if you’re not planning on using the car to make any trips during that time.

The system supports both pure electric vehicles as well as plug-in hybrids like the new Engelberg Tourer and existing Outlander PHEV. Mitsubishi plans on offering both professional installation as well as maintenance services for the system as a package from its dealerships. Self-installation won’t be possible.

Mitsubishi is not the only company to have considered using a bi-directional car charger at home. In the UK, the energy supplier OVO announced a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) trial last year, although it lacked the home battery portion of Mitsubishi’s system. Tesla’s original Roadster also supported the functionality before it was removed in later models, and last year its CEO Elon Musk mused that the company could bring it back in the future.

However, while OVO’s system has only been offered on a trial basis to 1,000 households, and Tesla’s plans are currently just theoretical, Mitsubishi says its system will be available to buy later this year. Don’t expect the system to come cheap however. The bi-directional charger itself could cost as much as €10,000 (although Mitsubishi says it hopes to be able to sell it more cheaply), and you’ll also need to pay for the solar panels, home battery, and mandatory professional installation.

Energy Storage Has A Breakout Year On Both Sides Of The Meter

A worker unpacks solar panels at the Connexus Energy Athens Township solar-plus-storage project site in Athens Township, Minnesota, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Connexus Energy Athens Township project integrates large scale battery storage with a solar array to manage peak demand and is the first commercial-battery deployment in Minnesota. Photographer: Ari Lindquist/Bloomberg© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

2018 may have been the year of residential energy storage, according to a leading analyst, but grid storage was no slouch.

2018 was also the year that grid-level batteries broke out of early adopter states, said Dan Finn-Foley, a senior analyst with Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, and began appearing in places that might once have seemed unlikely.

“This isn’t just a Starbucks in California talking about energy storage,” Finn-Foley said Thursday. “We have Alabama, this past quarter Georgia, the Carolinas talking about energy storage. This tells you this is about cost. This is not an emotional decision. This is now about finding the least-cost solution, as a utility, to customers. And that’s a big deal.

“If you can tell a utility this is your least-cost solution, your market is about to take off, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen for front-of-the-meter energy storage.”

Wood Mackenzie has not yet released its report on 2018, but Finn-Foley offered a sneak preview to Clean Energy States Alliance members Thursday, telling them that the fourth quarter of 2018 broke energy-storage records everywhere.

“The really exciting news is Q4 2018. Q4 2018 is going to beat these records handily, quite handily. Even from the front-of-the-meter side, residential/non-residential storage, every metric is going to set a new record for quarter-by-quarter deployments of energy storage.”

While residential storage may still be driven more by emotion than economics, grid-level storage is reaching the magic point where the cost curve crosses the value line.

“That intersection is emerging, that point where cost meets value, sooner than a lot of people in the market anticipated, and the market’s responding. We’re seeing a lot of interest not only in the traditional markets with policy mechanisms in place—California, New York, Massachusetts, etc—but in these non-traditional markets where utilities are looking at solar-plus-storage competing directly with conventional generation peaking applications.”

In addition to the Southeast, notable solar+storage projects have emerged in Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Arizona.

Arizona Public Service recently made headlines by expanding its procurement of 500 MW of storage+solar by 2030 to 850 MW by 2025. But APS also entered into a 7-year contract to buy power from a natural-gas plant. Why is that significant? Because it wasn’t a 20-year contract.

“They’re saying in 7 years, I don’t even know if we’re going to want this natural gas. So we need the flexibility to take it or leave it. I know I say this a lot, this word, but that is a huge signpost. It’s absolutely remarkable that energy storage+solar is so competitive that it is affecting the kind of contracts that a natural-gas plant can receive. This is becoming an existential—I don’t want to say threat—an existential disruptor for the entire energy market.”

Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos-backed fund invests in a global geothermal energy project developer

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the investment firm financed by billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Jack Ma that invests in companies developing technologies to decarbonize society, is investing $12.5 million in a geothermal project development company called Baseload Capital.

Baseload Capital is a project investment firm that provides capital to develop geothermal energy power plants using technology developed by its Swedish parent company, Climeon.

Like the spinoff from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Dandelion Energy, which recently raised $16 million in a new round of financing, Climeon builds standardized machines to tap geothermal energy. But Dandelion is targeting consumers with its technology to provide home heating, while Climeon turns geothermal energy into electricty.

The company’s modules — which stand around two meters cubed, produce 150 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to power roughly 250 European households, according to a company spokesperson.

Climeon, which was founded back in 2011, formed Baseload Capital about a year ago to invest in special purpose vehicles to build the power plants that use Climeon’s technology. Baseload takes an equity stake in these companies and provides debt financing for them.

Through its investment into Baseload Capital, Breakthrough Energy Ventures will help finance and develop these small-scale power plants globally (Baseload has already formed special purpose vehicles that are developing projects in Japan).

Climeon and Baseload Capital focus on three primary industries — geothermal, shipping and heavy industry. “We sell our machines to the [maritime industry] where we turn the waste heat from the engines into electricity (Virgin Voyages has bought several systems), to industries such as steel where they also have a lot of waste heat and then to companies that develop and operate geothermal power plants,” a Climeon spokesperson wrote in an email. “This could be a newly formed SPV or an existing energy company. In the U.S., for example, our modules will be used in an existing geothermal site.”

The company’s pitch is that it’s modular units make it easy to scale up or decommission plants. Modules list for EUR350,000 and customers also spend EUR5,000 per-module, per-year on Climeon’s power plant management software.

So far, the company says it has an order backlog of roughly $88 million.

The investment in Baseload Capital is Breakthrough Energy’s second foray into the geothermal industry. Last year, the company backed Fervo Energy, which uses proven technologies to help speed the development of geothermal energy at a cost of 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

“We believe that a baseload resource such as low temperature geothermal heat power has the potential to transform the energy landscape. Baseload Capital, together with Climeon’s innovative technology, has the potential to deliver GHG-free electricity at large scale, economically and efficiently,” said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in a statement.