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eIQ Unstealths: Another Entrant in PV Balance of System

Eric Wesoff: August 31, 2009, 9:02 PM

Until recently, the electronics used in PV systems – inverters and Balance of System (BOS) have been an overlooked and underinvested part of the solar ecosystem, despite being a more than $2.2 billion market.

But in the last two years, there has been a surge in investment and entrepreneurial activity in solar BoS. We have listed all of the companies in this sub-sector here.

eIQ Energy, a startup in this market, founded in 2007 with a staff of 25 located in San Jose, Calif. just emerged from stealth today. The firm falls into the distributed maximum power point tracking camp (as opposed to the microinverter camp) and has a new slant on the distributed electronics angle.
I spoke with CEO Oliver Janssen, CTO Gene Krzywinski, and VP of Business Development Michael Lamb. "It's important to differentiate our solution," said Janssen. "Like the microinverters and distributed MPPT firms – we have distributed MPPT and performance monitoring."  But the CEO claims that their difference is that they "enable a truly parallel architecture – the panels do not have to be connected in series and you no longer have to design a string." 

Greentech Media has covered the advantages of distributed MPPT before – amongst the many benefits are reduced loss due to shadowing, soiling, or panel mismatch.  It enables differing roof pitches, incremental additions to the system, and provides design and safety advantages.

"We are making each panel do a DC boost onto a bus," said CTO Krzywinski. The eIQ system uses a distributed "vBoost" module – a small DC-to-DC converter that attaches to one or more panels in an array and provides maximum power point tracking while also stepping up panel output voltage to a constant level and creating a bus architecture. The company claims that its architecture enables the connection of unprecedented numbers of panels on a single cable run – up to more than 100 thin-film panels. 

According to the company – balance of system components (cabling, combiner boxes, racks, and design and installation fees) account for 25 percent to 40 percent of an array’s per-watt cost – and represent a substantial opportunity for reduction in up-front expenditures.

"There is substantial cost savings in optimizing the power capacity of the copper plant,  you could connect one hundred or more panels per cable run with a significant savings in the BoS – wiring, combiner boxes, and labor," said VP Mike Lamb.  To make installation faster and potentially less expensive, vBoost modules include an integrated wiring harness with snap-together connectors, eliminating the need for extensive on-site wiring.

"Those savings will more than offset the cost of our system," said Lamb, adding, "Though incremental power boost is one of the benefits of our solution – we are not relying on incremental energy harvest to offset the cost of our system." 

The company's main customer interactions are with installers and PPA providers (as opposed to module manufacturers). "We are installing small commercial beta installations," Janssen noted, adding, "We believe we have a compelling value proposition for commercial applications."
eIQ's modules work with industry-standard central inverters to which the eIQ system provides consistent and steady voltages, allowing the inverter to operate in its most efficient range with maximum reliability.

The investment climate is changing – the once stagnant inverter and balance of plant market is being shaken up by VC investment and entrepreneurial innovation. In addition to being a sector with room for technical innovation and performance enhancement, the inverter market is also more capital efficient than the solar panel manufacturing sector. And capital efficiency is this year’s VC mantra.

eIQ could be one of those capital efficient game-changers. The firm joins SolarEdge, Tigo Energy, and National Senmiconductor as one of the competitors in the distributed MPPT sector and S.E.T. in the parallel architecture field. EnPhase's microinverters remain the dominant player so far in the distributed electronics field with more than 50,000 units shipped since last August.

More details in the GTI Report: The Coming Disruption in the PV Inverter Market.

A Technology Contest for Water Experts

Michael Kanellos: August 31, 2009, 4:55 PM

Imagine H2O will start accepting applications for a contest to find new, commercially practical ideas for alleviating some of the world's water problem.

The non-profit will give away awards of up to $70,000 in cash, prizes and services, but more importantly it will help incubate companies from the ideas. The organizations members include executives from General Electric, Harvard Business School, McKinsey & Co., Trinity Ventures, CMEA, Catamount Ventures and other places. One of the chief obstacles facing water entrepreneurs remains getting noticed, so these connections will help.

Water, according to many, is the perhaps the first major crisis that will emerge from climate change. Regions of Australia and China already suffer from prolonged droughts and crop failures. Approximately four in 10 people in the world are affected by water scarcity. And it's not just overseas. Many southern states are facing increased levels of natural arsenic in the groundwater. Water also consumes a significant amount of power: approximately 19 percent of California's electricity gets used to move, purify and heat water (the figure drops to close to 5 percent if you just count pumping and moving.)

In the middle of the 20th century, there was about 4,000 cubic meters of fresh water per person per year, DHI Water Group told me last year. Now we're close, globally, to 1,000 cubic meters per person per year. One thousand cubic meters per person per year is defined as water scarcity, he said. Water stress is defined as having 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. No matter how you cut it – water has to be consumed and purified more efficiently than in the past.

The demand has prompted GE and Siemens to snap up water companies and IBM to develop technology for desalination and generating power from the interaction between fresh and sea water.

But is the world bursting with startups? Hardly. One problem is the customer base. Municipal water districts constitute one of the largest customer segments, and even among utilities, a naturally conservative lot, water agencies are considered stodgy. Many new companies have instead focused their energies on oil refiners, dairies and others with large daily water requirements. A few companies have gained momentum – Energy Recovery (a desalination expert that IPOed last year), Miox, Oasys, Hydropoint Data Systems – but the number of water companies getting funding pales in comparison to those in solar.

The water also suffers to some degree from not being as cool as electric cars or space elevators. Still, we are going to need to need technology so we don't have to resort to more traditional tools (i.e., guns, bribery) to resolve water disputes.

Would-be entrants have until November 16 to file their entry. Winners will be announced early next year.

Battelle, Areva, IBM and Northwest Utilities Plan $178M Smart Grid Demo

Jeff St. John: August 31, 2009, 2:14 PM

A consortium of Pacific Northwest utilities have joined Battelle, Areva and IBM in seeking Department of Energy stimulus funding for a $178 million project that could be one of the broadest smart grid demonstration projects to date.

The Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project wants to collect energy usage data from 60,000 utility customers and 112 megawatts of energy generation capacity across five northwestern states.

The partners want to spend $178 million over five years to collect information from 15 test sites across a wide range of geographies and population types, as well as test a number of technologies to monitor the transmission system and give homeowners insight into their energy usage.

The partners have applied to the DOE's $615 million Smart Grid Demonstration Grant Program to cover up to half the costs of the project. That's the smaller of two DOE programs created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund smart grid deployments, and is aimed at more experimental projects (see DOE Issues Rules for $3.9B in Smart Grid Stimulus Grants).

So far, publicly announced applications to the demonstration grant program include projects from Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, a transmission grid monitoring system involving multiple Western U.S. utilities, and a handful of smaller research projects that had already been promised research funding (see PG&E Wants DOE Dollars for Underground Air Energy Storage, SoCal Edison Wants A123's Biggest Grid Battery Ever, Green Light posts here and here and DOE Hands Out $47M For Smart Grid Demos).

The first deadline for applications to the demonstration grant program passed last week. As with the larger $3.4 billion pool of grants for commercial-scale projects, industry observers expect thre DOE may give out all the money available in the first round of funding set for later this year (see Green Light post).

The Pacific Northwest project does have some heavyweights on board that could help it compete for its share of the stimulus pie. Battelle runs the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which led one of the first smart grid experiments, the Gridwise project, in 2006 (see The Smart Home, Part I).

Areva is a French nuclear power and electricity giant, and IBM is deeply involved in multiple smart grid pilot projects elsewhere around the world (see Green Light post).

Utilities joining on the project include the federal Bonneville Power Administration, as well as Idaho Falls Power, Portland General Electric, Avista, Seattle City Light and others.

Wyoming: The Land of Wind and Money

Ucilia Wang: August 31, 2009, 1:50 PM

Duke Energy seems to have carved out a good business building wind farms and selling electricity to other utilities. The company said Monday it's set to erect a 200-megawatt project near Casper, Wyo., making it the ninth wind farm for the company in the United States.

The project, which Duke has named The Top of the World Windpower Project, will land on 17,000 acres of public and private in Converse County.

PacifiCorp has agreed to buy the power as well as the project's renewable energy credits from Duke, which declined to disclose the terms of the contract. Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke expects to bring the project online by the end of 2010.

PacifiCorp is a returning customer. It previously signed a contract for all the power from a 99-megawatt wind farm, which also is near Caspar, Wyo. The project is scheduled to come online by the end of this year. Duke is building and operating wind farms through its Duke Energy Generation Services business unit.

Wyoming has been popular with wind farm developers. Duke already is running a 29-megawatt project called Happy Jack Windpower Project in Cheyenne, and it's set to finish a 42-megawatt Silver Sage Windpower Project soon, the company said.

Overall, the company already is operating more than 700 megawatts of wind farms in the country, the company said.

Meanwhile, Wall Street investors are showing a renewed interest in investing in wind farms, reported the Wall Street Journal Monday. Citigroup and Morgan Stanley each put up $100 million for wind projects this month.

Investors said the new federal program that gives the cash-equivalent of the 30 percent investment tax credit has enticed them to put money in not only wind but also solar and other renewable energy projects. 

Exotic Solar Cell Maker Cyrium Gets Its Full-Time CEO

Michael Kanellos: August 31, 2009, 12:59 PM

Cyrium Technologies said today that Harry Rozakis, a veteran of the chip industry, will become the new CEO.

The Canadian company has touted solar cells that can convert 40 percent or more of the light that strikes them into electricity. The cells aren't made of silicon, which some experts say maxes out at 29 percent efficiency. Instead, it makes quantum dot triple junction solar cells. These cells could then be placed under a a concentrator to crank out power. But it's exotic science so naturally you don't see stacks of them next to the barbecues at Home Depot yet. The technology largely emerged from the Simon Fafard. Steve Eglash, a venture capitalists, took over as CEO in December 2007. It then raised $15 million in a Series B round in July. No word on where Steve went.

The secretive Quercus Trust is one of the investors.

Concentrators, like thin film solar companies, are in a limbo state these days. A few years ago, silicon prices were soaring and demand for raw sillicon and solar panels raged. Now, demand has dropped, solar panel manufacturers have managed to squeeze more costs out of their operations and everyone wonders how alternatives to traditional glass 'n' sand solar panels will really fare. We shall see.

Green Odds and Ends: Quotes and More

Eric Wesoff: August 31, 2009, 3:19 AM

Energy Quotes:

"There are liars, damn liars and battery guys. Although fuel cells are a different class altogether."
– Jeff Depew, CEO and Co-Founder of lithium-ion battery firm Imara  

"Utilities are the largest users of electricity in the U.S." 
(Explained by the fact that 7 percent of electrical generation is wasted in transmission losses; Ohm's law you know. This is quite the argument for distributed generation and solar on rooftops.)
– Erfan Ibrahim, EPRI

"Fundamentally VCs are risk adverse – they want no risk in the deal, if we could handle risk we'd be entrepreneurs."
– Victor Westerlind, General Partner at Cleantech VC firm Rockport Capital

A Few More Things

• EnPhase has shipped more than 50,000 microinverters since last August

• Global PV panel efficiency comparison

• Great 1.5-megawatt wind turbine installation video and article

• Most interesting wind turbine designs from gCaptain

When France Ruled Greentech

Michael Kanellos: August 30, 2009, 3:28 PM

It's hard to believe, but the push for solar power pre-dates the oil industry by 20 years.

Back in 1839, 170 years ago, Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolyte cell. (France was an early leader in solar power. A year later, August Mouchet proposed the idea of solar-powered steam engines.) Granted, Bell Labs invented the first silicon PV cell in 1954, 55 years ago, and the idea of harnessing power from the sun dates back to the ancient world. But Becquerel's discovery really served as a foundation of the modern solar world.

Then, in 1859, 150 years ago, Gaston Plante invented the lead acid battery. He demonstrated it at the French Academy of Sciences a year later.

Then we stopped listening to France, and everything went to hell.

On August 27, 1859, 150 years ago, Edwin Drake sunk the first commercial oil well, according to this post in Wired.

Then on December 31, 1879, or about 130 years ago, Thomas Edison showed off what became the blueprint for the commercial incandescent bulb, one of the oldest, largest and last vestiges of vacuum tube technology. (Computers and even stereos shifted from vacuums years ago.) It was a great invention. Unfortunately, it is also somewhat inefficient.