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First Solar Buys Rights to Projects From Ailing OptiSolar

Michael Kanellos: March 2, 2009, 11:45 AM
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. First Solar, the dominant player in thin-film solar modules, has bought the rights to build 1.8 gigawatts worth of solar fields from ailing OptiSolar as well as the rights to build solar farms on 136,000 acres of land that could ultimately produce 19 gigawatts of power. The deal marks a significant expansion of First Solar into power generation. The company bought Turner Renewable Energy, a solar farm developer, in November 2007. So far, First Solar has built a 10-megawatt solar farm. It has also signed contracts to build solar plants for Southern California Edison. The OptiSolar deals, however, dwarf them. The deal also likely marks the beginning of the end, or at least the beginning of a new much smaller era, for OptiSolar. The company came seemingly out of nowhere in 2007 to sign two of the largest utility solar deals up until that point: an agreement to build and operate the 550-megawatt plant for PG&E and a 210-megawatt plant in Canada. OptiSolar said it planned to both make silicon solar modules and sell the power that came from them. It raised over $200 million in funding and even appeared on 60 minutes. OptiSolar said production would begin in 2009 and by 2011 it would have one of the biggest plants in the world. But the credit crunch came. In January, it laid off about 300 of its 600 employees. Technically, that's what First Solar will do to, but First Solar has two decades of solar experience under its belt. OptiSolar isn't the first company to retreat and more are expected (see analysis here). So far this year, Ausra and eSolar have backed away from plans to own power plants. Instead, they will sell solar thermal equipment.

Oerlikon Solar to Overtake Applied Materials in Near Term, Says Analyst

Ucilia Wang: March 2, 2009, 11:19 AM

Oerlikon Solar is pulling ahead of Applied Materials in a race to dominate the amorphous silicon thin-film solar market, wrote Weston Twigg, a senior research analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, in a research note Monday.

Both Oerlikon and Applied don’t expect to ink new sales contracts in the near future, a result of the tough market conditions. But Oerlikon has sharpened its competitive edge by lowering the initial capital costs to install and run its factory equipment, and by its recent alliance with Tokyo Electron, Twigg wrote.

Oerlikon’s customers have produced about 800,000 solar panels, compared with the 100,000 panels made by Applied’s customers, Twigg wrote. Oerlikon also promises to lower the cost of making panels using its equipment to $0.70 per watt by 2012, compared with $0.80 per watt from Applied, he added.

In comparison, First Solar, which makes cadmium-telluride thin-film panels, is alreadt producing at $0.98 per watt.

In the last few years, Oerlikon and Applied have competed fiercely for customers in Europe, Asia and the United States. The two companies offer what’s called a “factory in a box??? -- a complete set of equipment for making solar cells and assembling them into panels.

Their first-generation equipment produces solar cells with a thin layer of amorphous silicon, the key ingredient in converting sunlight into electricity. Both companies also have developed a second-generation technology that adds a second layer of microcrystalline silicon to boost the cells’ power output.

Oerlikon’s partnership with Tokyo Electron also bolsters the Swiss solar company’s competitive edge, Twigg said. Tokyo Electron is becoming Oerlikon’s sales representative in Asia, where both Oerlikon and Applied has a number of customers. The relationship will intensify the already fierce competition between Tokyo Electron and Applied in the semiconductor and flat panel display markets.

Tokyo Electron is the world's second largest semiconductor factory equipment maker, behind Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied. Oerlikon’s parent company, Oerlikon Group, also makes factory equipment for the semiconductor industry.

Although Tokyo Electron has a joint venture with Sharp to develop factory equipment to make solar thin films, it appears that the Tokyo Electron is developing the equipment using Sharp’s patents for Sharp's own use, Twigg said during an interview. So the joint venture shouldn’t pose a threat to Oerlikon’s business, he added.

“Oerlikon is removing some anxiety about Tokyo Electron,??? Twigg said. “By getting behind Oerikon’s technology, Tokyo Electron is bringing a lot of credibility.???

Wind Turbines, Batteries Included

Jeff St. John: March 2, 2009, 10:13 AM

Wind power is the world’s most developed renewable energy source after hydroelectric dams, but it has one big problem — wind doesn’t blow at the same speed all the time, making variable output from wind turbines hard to integrate into the electricity grid.

Japan Steel Works is aiming to ease that problem by building wind turbines with batteries included in them, according to Nikkei via Asia Pulse. The maker of steel products including nuclear plant pressure vessels plans to start selling the turbines, built in conjunction with battery manufacturer Meidensha Corp. next year, according to news reports.

Whether the added cost — as much as twice that of conventional wind turbines — will make it worthwhile remains to be seen. But the two Japanese companies are hardly alone in seeking ways to store wind power, whether to better integrate it into the grid moment-by-moment or store it for use at peak electricity demand times.

American Superconductor Corp. (NSDQ: AMSC) makes D-VAR devices that stabilize voltages from wind turbines to better integrate their power into the grid. The company also licenses its wind turbine designs to customers that build them, many in China (see American Superconductor: The Quiet Wind Player).

Ultracapacitors can serve in place of batteries to smooth wind power going to the grid. Maxwell Technologies has sold ultracapacitor systems to provide backup power for wind turbine blade pitch control systems built by Germany's LTi REEnergy.

As for large-scale wind power storage, methods include long-term standbys like pumped hydroelectric power to capturing energy as compressed air in underground caverns, as well as batteries, flywheels and superconducting magnetic storage (see a Department of Energy list of case studies).

The Iowa Stored Energy Park, a project created by a group of the state’s municipal utilities, is seeking to prove that compressed air can serve as a reliable backup to wind power.

Others are using sodium-sulfur batteries for wind power storage (see Storing Wind Power With Sodium Batteries).

Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL) is testing a system to store power from an 11-megawatt wind farm in Luverne, Minn. using a 1-megawatt, sodium-sulfur battery capable of holding 7.2 megawatt-hours of energy from Japanese company NGK Insulators (see GridPoint to Manage Wind Power Battery Storage).

American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP) installed 6 megawatts of NGK's batteries in 2007 to support its wind operations, at a cost of $27 million. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which partnered with NGK to develop its batteries, got the ball rolling in 2001 with two 6-megawatt storage systems in Japan.

As for other battery technologies, Hopkinton, Mass.-based lithium-ion battery manufacturer A123 Systems said in June it would develop batteries for utilities to help stabilize the grid. 

New Strategy Forces Entech Into Layoffs

Matthew Weinberg: March 2, 2009, 9:22 AM
It’s not a sunny day for the staff at Entech Solar, which plans to lay off 40 percent of its employees as it retools itself. Earlier this year, World Water & Solar, which garners most of its revenue from commercial solar installations, and Entech, a solar panel maker, merged to market a somewhat unusual system that combines silicon photovoltaic cells and a fluid-filled heat pipe. The PV cells provide electricity while the pipe can harvest heat for rooms or hot water. The companies are part of the far-flung Quercus Trust portfolio. The combined system harvests 60 percent of the energy the sun puts out, according to Frank Smith, CEO of Entech. "We will continue to search for opportunities to reduce spending, decrease our cash burn, and allocate resources efficiently as we lay a framework to reach profitability and increase shareholder value," said Smith in a prepared statement. The merger in part took place to turn around continuing losses at World Water. The company reported a net loss of $7.4 million in the third quarter of 2008, before the merge with Entech Technologies. The Entech layoffs could be a warning sign for competitors, like Distributed Solar Power and Millennium Electric from Israel and Cool Energy in Boulder, Colo. Like Entech, these companies are trying to break into the broader solar market with two-way devices.

What Drives Smart Grid? Fear!

Michael Kanellos: March 2, 2009, 9:21 AM
All this time you thought utilities were interested in smart meters and other demand response systems to save power and cut costs. They are, but fear has also become a big motivator, says Jesse Berst, Managing Director of Global Smart Energy, who stopped by our offices late last week to chat. Grid stability has become a major issue in the past few years. Potential transmission breakdowns used to occur once a week or so. Now, it's almost a daily occurrence. Sometimes, a utility can experience a transmission crisis a few times a day. "It is getting really scary," he said. Several utilities are also reaching maximum capacity. Harvesting inefficiently used power from the grid beats trying to build new power plants. And even if they could build them quick, utilities would have to obtain permits and financing. "Even in the Pacific Northwest [with lots of hydroelectric power] we are running out," he said. The push toward renewables will further add instability to the grid. Unlike coal or nuclear, solar and wind can only provide intermittent power right now. Systems for storing renewable energy temporarily (with flywheels, ultracapacitors or lithium-ion batteries) or persistently (with sodium batteries or pumped hydro) remain in the experimental stage.

CO2 to Fuel: How Real Is It?

Michael Kanellos: March 2, 2009, 8:50 AM
Carbon Sciences -- which wants to turn carbon dioxide into consumer products -- says it has completed a prototype manufacturing system that shows how it can convert carbon dioxide, captured from a smokestack, into liquid fuels. Technically, Carbon Science uses biocatalysts -- i.e., enzymes and other naturally occurring catalysts -- into methanol, a liquid fuel. The fuel can later be upgraded through chemical processing into gasoline, butanol or other higher value fuels. For the past few years, the company has touted a system that can convert captured CO2 into calcium carbonates, white mineral powders that can be stored easily or transformed into things like baking powder or raw material for the paper industry. The company has a demo system in a white van: solar panels gather energy to run the chemical reaction. We like the fuel idea, but here are the reservations: 1. There are a whole host of startups trying to exploit bacteria to turn trash into fuel. A great idea, but it's mostly still in development. You don't see a lot of mass produced bug fuel yet. One of the key problems lay in genetically engineering microbes that can produce large volumes of materials (fuels or enzymes) economically before they die. Ethanol companies, for instance, are trying to get yeast to tolerate high volumes of alcohol content. 2. Carbon dioxide is a low-energy molecule. Converting it into something useful isn't easy. How much input energy is required will be a big issue. Many other companies, labs and universities (Sandia National Lab is trying this too.) The fact that no one is on the verge of commercialization underscores that it's a real problem. Take a look at the Counter Rotating Receiver Reactor Recuperator Device from Sandia. Some serious science needs to be worked out. 3. It's a little troubling that Carbon Sciences uses conventional catalysts for its CO2 to carbonates and biocatalysts for this process. That means they are crossing scientific disciplines.