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A Different Financing Approach: Solar Millennium Sells 74% Stake in Solar Thermal Power Project

Ucilia Wang: July 10, 2009, 4:23 PM

Solar Millennium and MAN Ferrostaal are jointly selling 74 percent of their 50-megawatt Andasol 3 project in Spain to Stadtwerke Munchen and a holding company created by RWE Innogy and RheinEnergie.

Before the sale, Solar Millennium and MAN Ferrostaal jointly owned 100 percent of Marquesado Solar, the company set up to develop Andasol 3. They owned Marquesado through a joint venture called Solanda.

After the sale, Stadtwerke would own 48.9 percent of Marquesado. The holding company for REW and RheinEnergie would own 25.1 percent. Solanda would keep the remaining 26 percent.

The solar thermal power plant is currently under construction in southern Spain.

Solar Millennium, based in Germany, also has built Andasol 1 and 2, at 50-megawatts each. Andasol 1 has been up and running while Andasol 2, which is completed, is in the testing phase, the company said.

Solar Millennium's CFO, Thomas Mayer, made an interesting comment in a statement about how the company has taken a different approach to financing Andasol 3:

"In contrast to Andasol 1 and 2, which were 80 % debt-financed, we have been increasingly pursuing two alternative financing models for new power plant projects: 100 % equity financing via major investors and fund models. We are pleased that we have been able to win such renowned utilities as investors. Our financing options are the guarantee of our success, even in times of difficult financial market conditions."

Solar thermal power comes from using heat to spur electricity generation. All three power plants use curved mirrors called parabolic troughs to reflect and concentrate the sunlight to heat up liquid inside tubes for harvesting steam. The steam is then used to run turbines for producing electricity.

Each Andasol project costs about €300 million for engineering, procurement and construction, said Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium's U.S. operation, during a recent conference.

Aringhoff said a 50-megawatt project is small for a solar thermal power plant. Larger projects would drive down the costs and produce cheaper solar electricity. Spanish utilities are required to buy solar electricity at premium rates.

Spain offers attractive incentives to solar thermal power project developers, but those incentives are only good for projects that are 50 megawatts or smaller.

Solar Millennium is one of many developers eyeing the U.S. market. The United States doesn't have the same type of incentives as Spain, but it offers tax credits and loan guarantees.

U.S. utilities have been shown to prefer projects at a much larger scale. Solar Millennium announced only last month that it would build two power plants totaling 726 megawatts and sell the electricity to Southern California Edison.

Solar Millennium also has a 250-megawatt deal with NV Energy in Nevada. The utility hasn't disclosed whether it would invest directly in the project or simply buy the electricity through a long-term agreement, which has become a common practice.

Other companies that have announced projects include Abengoa Solar in Spain, BrightSource Energy in Oakland, Calif., Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Md., Stirling Energy Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz., and eSolar in Pasadena, Calif. 

National Semiconductor Moving Into Home Automation,

Michael Kanellos: July 10, 2009, 1:56 PM

Two years ago, National Semiconductor started to push into solar. Now it wants to get into smart grid too.

The company, which turned 50 this year, is looking at ways to provide things like power management chips and microcontrollers to companies that will make smart appliances and technologies for controlling power inside the home, said CEO Brian Halla during an interview. (We visited him as part of a buildup to Intersolar U.S. taking place next year.).

Halla also expressed quite a bit of interest in controllers for streetlights and LEDs.

It makes sense. National essentially makes chips that control some of these functions in computers. One very interesting idea he suggested: the DC home. Right now, Energy from solar panels needs to be converted (via the inverter) from DC to AC so it can be used in the home. It then often gets re-converted into DC. Those conversions cause power losses. Eliminating the double conversion could thus lower power bill.

National, though, will likely concentrate on the home. It won't likely (at least initially) try to provide technology for the components for the wide grid. Why? Utilities will control how and when the grid upgrades occur. Selling to utilities can be demanding and time consuming. Energy efficiency will likely move a lot faster inside the home.

Oregon Startup Sets Up Shop ‘Lightening Fast’ to Sell Chinese Solar Panels

Ucilia Wang: July 10, 2009, 2:36 AM

Centron Solar settled on its name only last month and leased a 25,000-square-foot warehouse within two weeks. It received its $1 million, first shipment of solar panels from China a week ago.

Does Centron represent an emerging business model in the growing U.S. market? The Oregonian ran an interesting story about Centron, which was started by a former Solarfun executive and imports solar panels made by a cluster of companies near Shanghai. These companies produce different components, assemble them into panels and market them under the Centron brand.

The startup claims it could undercut competitors by pricing its panels at least 10 percent cheaper.

The founder, Ocean Yuan, was the president of the U.S. operation of China-based Solarfun until March this year. Yuan moved to Eugene nearly 20 years ago, but lived in China for a long stretch during that time.

Centron sprung up so quickly that its emergence apparently surprised Oregon's economic development officials and SolarWorld, the German company with a large factory in that state, according to the Oregonian.

Yuan said he plans to set up panel assembly factories in the United States in the next few years.


ReVolt, BASF Sign Zinc-Air Battery Development Deal

Jeff St. John: July 9, 2009, 2:05 PM

Swiss startup ReVolt Technology will have chemical giant BASF's help in commercializing its rechargeable zinc-air batteries, the companies announced Thursday.

Financial terms of the deal weren't announced, but BASF said it would put its engineers on the task, as well as provide materials and subsystems to "help BASF to assess today's and future potential of this technology."

Metal-air batteries generate power by exposing metal and an electrolyte to oxygen, oxidizing the metal and releasing energy (see Electricity From Air and Zinc? A Growing Chorus Says Yes).

They can offer many multiples the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, but recharging them is a challenge, as the chemical process they use to generate power is hard to reverse. That's limited their commercial appeal to single-use purposes such as hearing aid batteries.

ReVolt says it solves the recharging problem with a bi-functional air electrode that can reform the oxygen and metal used to power the first reaction in a more energy-efficient way. It also doesn't degrade the materials involved, it says, resulting in a rechargeable battery with about three times the energy storage of its lithium-ion contenders.

ReVolt raised €10 million ($14 million) in a January second round of funding, adding to a 2005 €7 million round and a €1.5 million seed round of funding.

It isn't alone in the quest for the rechargeable metal-air battery. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spinout PowerAir has what it calls zinc-air fuel cells, given that they are "recharged" by removing spent materials and adding fresh ones, as a fuel cell does. It's looking at ways to use the leftover zinc oxide as well.

Lithium-air batteries could offer even greater energy densities, researchers say. Berkeley-based startup PolyPlus is working on lithium air batteries, along with ones using seawater or sulfur as electrolytes, something it says is made possible by its "protected" lithium electrodes that don't chemically mix with the electrolyte. According to CNET, it is developing lithium-air batteries with Quallion, a lithium-ion battery manufacturer with medical device and military customers now seeking to expand into powering idling trucks (see Quallion Seeks DOE Grants For 'Anti-Idling' Batteries). 

IBM also is researching lithium-air batteries, looking at ways filters it has developed for water purification at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.,could be applied to the recharging challenge (see IBM Delves Into Lithium-Air Batteries, Water-Cooled Supercomputers).

ReVolt will be one of 25 European and Israeli green technology startups presenting at the European Tech Tour Cleantech Summit next week (see Green Light post). Perhaps more details on its commercialization plans will emerge then.

SolFocus Raises $30.6M More to Close C Round

Ucilia Wang: July 9, 2009, 8:00 AM

SolFocus has raised an additional $30.6 million to bring the total amount for its C round to $77.6 million, the company said Thursday. The company said it had closed the first part of the funding in January this year.

The Mountain View, Calif., startup said it would use the money to transition from pilot to commercial production of its concentrating photovoltaic systems this year.

SolFocus has developed systems with curved glass reflectors and lenses to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells for electricity generation. The triple-junction solar cells are expensive and make use of gallium-arsenide, germanium and other materials in the III-V semiconductor group.

Through the use of the concentrator, the semiconductors could generate twice the energy as the conventional crystalline silicon solar cells, the company said.

By using the concentrator, the system would only need a tiny sliver of the expensive solar cells. Critics, however, said the savings achieved by using smaller solar cells aren't as attractive now as they used to be, when silicon – the raw material for crystalline silicon solar cells – commanded high prices a few years ago. Silicon prices have fallen quickly over the past year.

SolFocus, founded in 2005, introduced its second system last November. The company engineers the optics and buys solar cells and some other components for assembling each system. The company's vice president of marketing, Nancy Hartsoch, said back then that the new system could concentrate the sun 500 times.

In Thursday's announcement, the company said its system now could focus sunlight 650 times.

The startup has a factory in Mesa, Ariz., for producing 30 megawatts of glass reflectors each year.

SolFocus has inked several agreements to supply the systems to project developers. In March, it announced a 10-megawatt deal with the Samaras Group in Greece. Another customer is EMPE Solar, which plans to build 10 megawatts of projects at different sites in southern Spain.

The company completed a 500-kilowatt project in Spain and a 7.2-kilowatt system for a radio station in San Francisco in 2008. It began generating revenue last year.

Apex Venture Partners led the C round. Return investors include New Enterprise Associates, NGEN and Yellowstone Ventures. New investors included Demeter Partners and Advanced Equities. 

Ascent Solar’s CIGS Panels Get 10% Efficiency

Ucilia Wang: July 8, 2009, 5:34 PM

Back in March, Ascent Solar announced that it had begun regular production of its copper-indium-gallium-selenide panels on a 1.5-megawatt pilot line.

The Littleton, Colo.-based company has since submitted panels from the factory to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for testing. NREL has confirmed that the panels could achieve 10.4 percent efficiency – that is, they could convert 10.4 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity, Ascent Solar said Wednesday.

Unlike some other CIGS companies, Ascent Solar is depositing CIGS on plastic instead of glass, an approach that reduces manufacturing costs and makes the panels flexible for building-integrated projects, the company said. The company has declined to disclose production costs.

There is no shortage of companies developing CIGS panels, but many of them remain in pre-commercial stages. Better-known CIGS startups in the United States include Nanosolar and Miasole, both in the Silicon Valley.

Fremont, Calif.-based Solyndra also produces CIGS panels, and has garnered a lot of spotlight for the amount of contracts (more than $2 billion) it has signed with various distributors, installers and project developers in Europe and the United States.

Being able to produce panels that have at least 10 percent efficiency is considered critical for winning customers. The vast majority of solar panels on the market today have efficiencies that fall between 10 percent and 20 percent. These numbers refer to the average efficiencies of the panels.

Although Ascent Solar is able to achieve 10.4 percent efficiency with its panels, the figure refers to the best result from the testing, not average efficiency.

The average efficiency of the panels from the company's 1.5-megawatt line hovers around 8 percent to 9 percent, said Brian Blackman, a spokesman for Ascent Solar.

The company plans to open a 30-megawatt factory in Thornton, Colo., and begin production there during the first quarter of 2010. 

PG&E Picks Solon for First Utility-Owned Project

Ucilia Wang: July 8, 2009, 1:33 PM

Solon has become the first company selected by Pacific Gas and Electric for installing a solar energy project as part of the California utility's proposed plan to develop and own 250 megawatts of solar energy systems.

The German solar panel maker and project developer plans to contract Silverwood Energy to construct the 2-megawatt project, which would be located next to a PG&E substation in Vacaville.

PG&E first proposed the 250-megawatt project in February this year, an announcement that represented the utility's first plan to own and operate its own renewable energy generation facilities in over a decade, the company said at the time.

Aside from owning its own solar projects, PG&E also proposed to another 250 megawatts of projects that would be developed, owned and operated by independent power producers, who would then sell the electricity to PG&E via long-term agreements.

PG&E has signed many solar power purchase agreements with independent developers in the last seven years in order to fulfill a state mandate for selling renewable electricity. The utility would submit each contract for approval by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

By including 250 megawatts that would be owned by others in its overall 500-megawatt plan, the utility could streamline the contract negotiation process it goes through to buy power from independent power project developers. 

The CPUC is currently reviewing a 500-megawatt plan. PG&E hopes to receive the commission's approval by the end of the year, said the utility's spokesman Jonathan Marshall. The plan calls for the projects to range from 1-megawatt to 20-megawatt in size.

PG&E is calling the 2-megawatt system by Solon a pilot project because the utility plans to use it to learn about owning and operating solar energy systems, Marshall said.

Solon, which makes crystalline silicon solar panels and has a factory in Tucson, Ariz., expects to start the 2-megawatt project in August and complete it by December this year, said Solon spokesman Spencer Smith.