David Anthony’s Last Question – Can We Power the US Solely off of Solar?

By Tao Zheng, with David Anthony, an active cleantech venture capitalist, who passed away in April 2012.

 The sun is the champion of all energy sources, in terms of capacity and environmental impact. The sun provides earth with 120,000 terawatt (TW) energy, compared to technical potential energy capacity of single digit TWs from other renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric. More energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on our planet in entire year. In the last blog, we estimated that the technical potential of electricity generation from rooftop photovoltaics (PV) can take over 1/3 of U.S. electricity consumption demand. The next question is: can we power the U.S. solely by solar energy, technically? The answer will rely on development of utility-scale solar farms and energy storage solutions.

Assuming the rest 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand can be fulfilled by utility-scale PV solar farms, we can estimate how much land required to install such solar farm systems. The total U.S. electricity demand in 2009 was 3,953 TWh with 1% annual growth projection in next 25 years. Two third of U.S. electricity demand is about 2,635 TWh. The PV power density is calculated with a weight-averaged module efficiency using market share for the three most prevalent PV technologies today: crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and CIGS. The resulting PV power density is 13.7 MW/million ft2, assuming an average module efficiency of 18.5% in 2015. If we assume 10 hours/day and 200 days/year with sunshine, the annual available sunshine time is 2,000 hours. The total land required for solar farms to generate 2,635 TWh, can be calculated as:

Total Land Required = Total Energy Generated / PV power density / Annual available sunshine time

                                 = 2,635,000/13.7/2000 = 96.2 ×109 ft2 = 8,937 km2 @ 100 × 100 km

Therefore, to generate energy equivalent to 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand, we need to install solar panels in a tract of land with size of 100 by 100 km, the area about 0.1% of U.S. land. Technically, to provide electricity for entire U.S. demand, we only need to cover PV-accessible residential and commercial rooftop with solar panels and install solar farms in desert area equivalent to 0.1% U.S land. In addition to rooftop and desert, there are many opportunities for installing PV on underused real estate, such as parking structure, airports, and freeway margins. PV can virtually eliminate carbon emissions from the electric power sector.

In comparison, Nathan Lewis, professor at Caltech, predicted a solar farm with land size of 400 by 400 km to generate 3 TW energy to power entire America. The represented area is about 1.7% of U.S. land size, comparable to the land devoted to the nation’s numbered highways. As shown in Figure 1, the red square represents the amount of land need for a solar farm to match the 3 TW of power demand in the U.S. Of the 3 TW energy, only 10% represents electricity demand, and the rest represents other energy needs, such as heating and automobile. Thus, Lewis’ calculation is consistent with our estimation: 10,000 km2 solar farms can generate enough electricity to fulfill 2/3 U.S. demand.

Figure 1. Solar Land Area Requirement for 3 TW Solar Energy Capacity to Power Entire U.S. Energy Demand. (Source: Prof. Nathan Lewis group at Caltech).

One of big challenges using solar to power U.S. grid is intermittency of sunlight. Solar energy is not available at night, and the variable output of solar generation causes voltage and frequency fluctuations on power network. Energy storage technology can smooth the output to meet electricity demand pattern. There are many grid energy storage technologies, from stationary battery to mechanical storage methods. Pumped hydro technology is clearly a better choice for solar energy storage, due to its high energy capacity, low cost, and public safety assurance.

For solar to have a dominant role in the electric power generation mix, in addition to power storage infrastructure, upgrading America’s transmission grid is required. In contrast to traditional electricity generation, solar power collections are distributed across numerous rooftops or centralized in utility-scale farms. Distributed solar requires grid operators to install smart grid technology to monitor power supply and demand and balance thousands of individual generators with central power plants. The current century-old transmission grid needs to be upgraded with high-voltage lines to carry electricity from remote solar farms to consumers. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law by President Obama in 2009, has directed $40 billion to accelerate the grid infrastructure transformation.

The U.S. photovoltaic market has been growing quickly in recent years. In 2010, the U.S. installed 887 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV, representing 104% growth over the 435 MW installed in 2009. Current trends indicate that a large number of utility-scale PV power plants are in the south and southwest areas, such as in the sunny deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona. For example, the Copper Mountain Solar Facility in Boulder City, Nevada, is one of the U.S. largest solar PV plants with 48 MW capacity, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. One of the U.S. Largest Solar Plants, the Copper Mountain Solar Project with 48 MW photovoltaic in Boulder City, Nevada.

Historically, solar PV deployment has been limited by economic factors, since solar energy is too expensive to compete with traditional fossil fuels, due to lack of economies of scale. However, the cheapest solar cells are now being produced for as little as 70¢ per watt. They are selling for about $1.26 per watt, with prices expected to drop to $1.17 next year. Most anticipate the price of solar module, such as thin film, will hit 50¢ per watt within four or five years. First Solar, the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, has told investors that production costs will range between 52¢ and 63¢ per watt by 2014. When companies can produce solar photovoltaic modules for less than 50¢ per watt, solar energy will reach grid parity. Grid parity refers to the point at which the cost of solar electricity rivals that of traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil, or nuclear. The solar module price drop is driven by cheaper manufacturing costs, lower costs for such crucial raw materials as silicon, and rapidly improving technology. A recent study even claims solar grid parity is already here today, based on a legitimate levelized cost of energy (LCOE), calculated the cost in $/kwh. The value of LCOE is determined by the choice of discount rate, average system price, financing method, average system lifetime and degradation of energy generation over the lifetime. Figure 3 illustrates the effect of initial installed cost and energy output on the LCOE value. For a PV system with production cost at $0.5/W, the initial installed system cost will be $1.5-$2/W, after considering labor cost and module margin. If we assume energy output is 1500 kWh/kW/yr, which is reasonable in south west area in the U.S., the LCOE value in Figure 3 will fall in the range between $0.06/kWh and $0.08/kWh, the lower side of grid parity value for the U.S. residential electricity rates range.

Figure 3. LCOE contours in $/kWh for solar PV systems for energy output versus initial cost of the system for a zero interest loan, discount rate of 4.5%, degradation rate of 0.5%/yr and 30 year lifetime (Courtesy of Prof. Joshua Pearce at Queen’s University)

Based on the analysis above, it is reasonable to believe we can power the U.S. electric grid solely by solar PV, technically and economically. Thomas Edison had a great quote on solar energy: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”


David Anthony was the Managing Director of 21Ventures, LLC, a VC management firm that has provided seed, growth, and bridge capital to over 40 technology ventures across the globe, mainly in the cleantech arena. David received his MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 1989 and a BA in economics from George Washington University in 1982. David passed away in April 2012. 

Tao Zheng is a material scientist in advanced materials and cleantech industry. He held 20+ patents and patent applications, and published many peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. Tao Zheng received his B.S. degree in polymer materials sciences from Tsinghua University in China, and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from University of Cincinnati. He obtained his MBA degree with distinction in finance and strategy from New York University, Stern School of Business, where he was designated as “Stern Scholar” and received “Harold Price Entrepreneurship Award”. 

The Triple Crown in Solar

Like it or not, solar is still the crown jewel in cleantech.  Whither goes solar, there goes cleantech.  So I got to thinking about the next decade in solar, and what will determine which companies achieve primacy.  I think there are three races in solar technology to watch these days.  Call it the Solar Triple Crown.  The three races that matter.

Yield! Yield! Yield! – The race to yield performance at volume in thin film.  In thin film, getting the best performing device has never been the issue.  Getting a repeatable process, at scale, on the second and third plant, with solid performance, but most importantly yield, yield, and yield has always been the issue.  We’ll call this our Kentucky Derby of solar, and First Solar has just about won it.   Whether anyone else ever catches them may even be considered irrevelant to the solar industry as a whole now, the race has been run.

Thin X Marks the Spot – The crystalline race to thin.  I was quoted a while back saying that the future of solar in the US was all about thin film, since we’d missed the boat on building a solar manufacturing base in the first wave, and everything else was about fighting low cost manufacturing in China, where we were unlikely to win.  I’ve got a caveat to that now.  A friend of mine in the solar test equipment business told me about a year ago that he knew of a large number of crystalline companies whose research programs were targeting taking two-thirds to an order of magnitude out of the thickness of their technology, in an effort to stay relevant in an increasingly thin film ruled world.  Then at the Cleantech Open Gala I emceed last week, the people’s choice winner was announcing the same thing, a path to higher performance at one quarter thickness.  In crystalline, thickness generally equals cost.  And the materials cost difference between the devices was the core value propostion thin film always pitched over crystalline.  So I’ll caveat my earlier comments that the US solar future is all about thin film.  Maybe it’s about the race to thin in crystalline.  If they can, the thin film (or First Solar if you prefer) Triple Crown coronation might not be cake walk, Kentucky Derby win or not.  We’ll call this the Solar Preakness.  It’s a little longer, a little tougher, and it’s still being run.

Tracker, tracker burning bright – The race to the perfect moving part.  But thin film versus crystalline is no longer the only game in town.  Now it’s about trackers, too.  I never liked trackers.  I always felt one big advantage of solar as a long lived, low operating cost technology was its lack of moving parts.  Using trackers of course, would eliminate that.  But I’ve started changing my thinking.  As the winners of the first two races emerge, trackers become the next big thing.  The technology that makes all others better.  The next largest area of potential performance and $/kwh performance improvement. Serious power for serious people.  The long race, that’s less flashy, and more a grind than the first two.  The Belmont of Solar.  And in trackers, it’s going to be about simplicity, yes, cost, yes, but just like the Belmont, mainly about longevity.  11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978.  All fell short to the grind of the Belmont.

According to Wikipedia, as of 2008 3,889 horses had entered one of the three races.  274 horses have won a race.  50 have won two legs.  Only 11 have won the Triple Crown.  I think in the Solar Triple Crown the Kentucky Derby’s been run and won.  Maybe still a fight, but the we’re largely on to the next race now. The Preakness is just beginning, and no clear winner has yet emerged.  And Belmont hasn’t really started.  But it will.

And that’s good news for all of us in the industry.

My First View of Solyndra Up Close

Solyndra CIGS Panels on South Houston High

I had a chance to see my first Solyndra solar panels in action today.
Three organizations run by friends of mine, HARC, Ignite Solar, and American Electric Technologies, are partnered up to install a 145 kW uber photovoltaic test bed on two schools (Sam Rayburn and South Houston) in Pasadena ISD in Houston, Texas.  They were scrambling around on the roof doing the installation as I watched. A very cool experience.

They’re stuffing an array of 182 Wp Solyndra panels across from an array of 210 Wp Moser Baer crystalline silicon panels on a flat roof penetrating fixed mounting at a 10 degree angle, next door to Uni-Solar amorphous silicon flexible panels (there photovoltaic laminate products) from Energy Conversion Devices (Nasdaq:ENER) with a non penetrating adhesive backing on a 22 degree ribbed roof next to more of the Moser Baer in a non roof penetrating mount on that 22 degree roof. Later they’re putting in more Moser Baer crystalline on trackers.

Unisolar Stick on Amorphous Panels

All the systems are to be wired up to AETI inverters, and will have a weather station, temperature sensors and monitoring.  HARC, the Houston Area Research Council is the system owner, and will monitor the lab for Pasadena ISD, plus they are putting in a kiosk in the schools so the students can see the side by side results live, technology vs technology and school vs school.

A few interesting tidbits.  You gotta love all those slef shadows underneath the 90 Solyndra modules, we will be very interested to see what they actually deliver – though for the price difference, it had better be spectacular.   I hadn’t seen the Uni-Solar product just stuck straight on to a roof before, quite amazing.  The Moser Baer product I’d seen, but it’ll be interesting to watch it go head to head with thin film in different configurations, it’s certainly got the highest power rating of the systems tested.

What really excites me is the side by side comparison.  Ignite and HARC told me they can get actual performance data from each technology type and configuration, that we can compare to costs and rated performance, as well as weather and temperature data, and hopefully this time next year we’ll be publishing a who beat who account with an overunder graph!

Neal Dikeman is a Partner and Jane Capital Partners, a cleantech and alternative energy merchant bank.  He was a cofounder of Zenergy Power, and the founding CEO of Carbonflow, and helped launch Meridan Energy’s solar business, as well as is Chief Blogger of and Chairman of A Texas Aggie, his current project is helping grow Jane Capital’s most recent company,

Craton Barreling Ahead

by Richard T. Stuebi

Being a senior advisor to the firm, I attended last week’s annual meeting of Craton Equity Partners, a cleantech private equity fund manager based in Los Angeles.

While cleantech in its focus, Craton doesn’t take on much technology risk. Rather, Craton generally invests in companies that have largely proven their technologies – or frankly don’t rely much on proprietary technologies – and are already generating substantial revenues, requiring growth capital to build out their business models into sizable scale.

This was illustrated by the stories told by three of Craton’s portfolio companies:

  • Propel Fuels, which is developing a critical mass of biofuel retailing locations – by leasing space at existing gas stations, installing necessary equipment for biofuels, managing fuel delivery logistics, and retail marketing via co-branding – across California, with a view towards replicating this model in other geographic markets in the U.S.
  • Petra Solar, which has standardized a photovoltaic product for installation on power poles, thereby enabling utilities to meet renewable portfolio standard requirements while also improving the quality and management of power throughout their distribution grids.
  • GreenWave Reality, which is aiming to extend the smart-grid “beyond the meter” and into the home, via a centralized radio-broadcasting gateway at the service entrance and a variety of intelligence-enabled radio-controlled applications throughout the home to manage energy usage.

Along with these three presentations by portfolio company CEOs, the Craton senior partners provided their perspective on the state of the cleantech investment markets.

Of note, the Craton partners believe that the collapse of the credit markets over the past few years has yielded good opportunities for its fund to invest equity in companies – some of whom are generating tens of millions of dollars of revenues, and already profitable – that really ought to have been able to secure debt during more normal times, thereby generating attractive risk-return profiles upon which Craton could capitalize. Clearly, Craton was fortunate to have been focused on later-stage private equity opportunities, rather than earlier-stage venture capital opportunities, where the credit crunch has provided no such opening.

The recent addition of Kevin Wall to the Craton team, possessing significant high-level contacts around the world, reflects Craton’s view that many of the best growth and exit possibilities for cleantech in the coming years will occur internationally. This is a sad but entirely legitimate commentary on the state of the U.S. cleantech marketplace: if you want to really do well in cleantech investing in the next several years, you’re going to have to focus a lot of attention overseas.

Consistent with my personal experience, the Craton team noted that the key success factor for their portfolio companies continues to be management quality. Fortunately, they are seeing (as I am) an influx into cleantech of a greater quantity of better talent in the past few years. Of course, this is in part driven by deteriorating economic conditions and opportunities in other sectors of the economy. But, I also sense it’s because many capable people are increasingly drawn to cleantech for other intangible attractions. (I was recently on the phone with an old friend of mine who made a lot of money in real estate and didn’t find it challenging enough – so he’s moving into cleantech. Five years from now, I’m sure this friend of mine will not complain that making money in cleantech wasn’t sufficiently challenging!)

On the whole, it appears that Craton’s first fund is doing generally well, and the firm is beginning to prepare for raising its second fund. The question will be whether Craton’s good performance on paper (no liquidity events yet) will be able to overcome a very tough fund-raising environment. Given their strong relationships in the California marketplace – where cleantech has the most traction of anywhere in the U.S. – Craton’s progress in the coming 12-24 months will be a good barometer of the health of the cleantech investing thesis in the U.S.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Making Niche With Solar

by Richard T. Stuebi

One of the better business books I’ve ever read is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School.

The core message of the book is that disruptive technologies — ones that ultimately change an entire industry — only penetrate a marketplace by first serving tiny niches that aren’t big enough to attract the interest of the incumbent mainstream players. In other words, disruptive technologies can’t and shouldn’t attack a huge market head-on, but rather in underserved little ways that eventually accumulate into big successes.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) has often been touted as a disruptive technology, allowing humans to move off of centralized fossil fuel powerplants to distributed renewable generation sources. As I’ve watched the PV industry for the past decade, I’ve always been amazed at how many advocates try tackling “mainstream” solar, trying to compete head-to-head against the grid. At its current stage of maturation, PV represents a very expensive way to generate electricity, so the only way to make such business models work in places where electricity isn’t very expensive is to gain large subsidies from the public sector (such as the lucrative feed-in tariffs in countries such as Germany).

So, it’s been fun watching the emergence of little niche applications for PV, where the technology can make a difference right away, without requiring the helping hand of government. One such niche has been in compacting public trash recepticles, which was nicely profiled in an article in last Friday’s USA Today.

The secret to the success of PV in this niche is its obviously compelling economics. Sure, at $4000, the solar-powered trash compacter is much more expensive than a generic can. But then again, these compacters require many fewer visits by trucks to pick up full containers. In Philadelphia, trash pickups have been reduced from 17 visits per week to 5 per week, saving $13 million in cumulative trash collection costs over the next 10 years.

Not exactly a sexy application for PV, but the dollars make sense. It’s these types of success stories that will continue to increase demand for PV modules, driving the technology down the learning and scale curve, continually reducing its costs, and in so doing opening up ever more segments of application, until PV becomes cheap enough for virtually all grid-connected applications without subsidies.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

If Larry King Wrote My Column….

by Richard T. Stuebi

You heard it here first: the energy consultancy Douglas-Westwood is claiming in a May 11 white paper that “peak oil” may have already happened, as far back as October 2004, and that the oil price boom followed by economic collapse is indicative of how things will play out over the decades to come as oil supplies are unable to expand in the face of increasing demands. Stay tuned….

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) exposition WINDPOWER 2009 attracted 23,000 attendees to Chicago earlier this month. Glad AWEA didn’t ask me to do the headcount!….

Your stock portfolio isn’t the only thing that’s plummeted. According to a snippet in the March 2009 issue of Power, so too have PV prices fallen, by an estimated 10% since last October, with a further 15-20% decline expected in the coming year. Seems that, after several years of tight supplies, there’s now a glut in the market, due to collapsing demand in Europe….

Lots happening in DC these days. Looks like cap-and-trade requirements for carbon dioxide emissions are making real progress, embodied in the grandiosely called “The American Clean Energy and Security Act” (H.R. 2454) — better known as the Waxman-Markey bill. Cap-and-trade might even pass the House sometime this summer. Don’t think it’s going to be so easy in the Senate, though….

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has created ARPA-E, to fund the initial evaluation of new whiz-bang ideas for energy, just like DARPA’s been doing for out-of-the-box defense gizmos for decades. One can only imagine what’s going to come out of that shop in years to come….

It also appears that the e-DII concept floated by Brookings earlier this year, to create Clean Energy Innovation Centers mainly affiliated with universities, is gaining traction, now having been tucked into the Waxman-Markey bill. Wonder what the national research labs, such as NREL, NETL, ORNL, LBNL and other alphabet soupers, think of this?….

Speaking of NREL, hats off to Joel Serface, who just completed a year’s residence there on behalf of uber-VC firm Kleiner Perkins to help accelerate technology commercialization and spin-outs from the lab. A year in Golden/Boulder is hardly hardship duty, but as Joel indicates in a recent post at this very CleanTechBlog site, it wasn’t enough time to make much of a dent in the bureaucracy….

Congratulations to my former colleague Cathy Zoi, who’s been tabbed by President Obama to lead the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at DOE. Wish her good luck: she’ll need it!….

Let’s hear it for Joseph Romm, now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. In a note in the May/June Technology Review, Romm claims “it’s not possible to have a sustained economic recovery that isn’t green” and calls our economic system a “global Ponzi scheme: investors (i.e., current generations) are paying themselves (i.e., you and me) by taking from future generations.” Whew!….

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce just released a study performed by Charles River Associates estimating 3 million jobs to lost in the U.S. by 2030 as a result of climate change legislation. Last year, the Chamber commissioned a similar study announcing a similar doom-and-gloom result. I’m not saying there won’t be job losses as a result of cap-and-trade – there certainly will – but I don’t think it’s going to be apocalyptic either….

Gotta hand it to Bob Galvin, former Chairman of Motorola. Not content to be retired, he has launched the Galvin Electricity Initiative to promote a “Perfect Power System” to help prevent future blackouts. In a sense, he’s trying to Galvinize the grid….

Last Wednesday evening, the Cleveland Chapter of the American Jewish Committee honored The Cleveland Foundation for its advanced energy initiative. Accepting the award on behalf of the Foundation was President and CEO Ronn Richard. A good time was had by all….

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

The REAL Story on Moore’s Law for Solar

All new industries seem to think they deserve a Moore’s Law. The photovoltaic solar really, really thinks it deserves one, since it kind of sort of looks like a semiconductor business: Photovoltaic Moore’s Law Will Make Solar Competitive by 2015,, Understanding Moore’s Law,, and Silicon Valley Starts to Turn Its Face to the Sun, NY Times.

However the nuances are mischevious. The cost implications of Moore’s Law at heart are built around a constant rate of technology performance improvement (2x transistors every 2 years), implying certain cost improvements. PV’s falling costs curves have had more variables at play. In fact, the real equivalent to Moore’s Law in solar would be to say that cell efficiency or a similiar measure doubles every x years. Most people have tried to apply a Moore’s Law like concept in solar directly to the cost curve, not the technology improvement curve. In fact, the solar costs “Moore’s Law” that seemed the simplest was the idea that every doubling of industry size equaled 10% in cost reductions. But that is not a Moore’s Law, that’s mainly just a description of the supply curve shape and shift, it’s a totally different animal.

I’ve been researching this topic for some time, trying to develop a simple conceptual model to understand falling solar cost curves and their impacts, and I update my cost analysis spreadsheets based on numerous inputs from energy companies, solar developers, solar integrators, as well as module manufacturers. I think I now have a simple, economically sound model with good explanatory power, that allows us to shed some light on why and how the cost curves fall.

We’ll call it the Dikeman Solar Cost Model – DiSoCo Model, and it’s somewhat simple and axiomatic: the value on the supply side = the value on the demand side, broken down into fixed, sticky, and variable components, by market segment.

Over the last couple of years, I’d argue that roughly half of the cost reduction in solar have come from massive increases in larger installations (primarily spreading NRE and installation cost across a larger projects at the installations, as well as dealing improved economics of scale in manufacturing), not really from solar costs themselves. And roughly the other half from actual technology cost reductions.

This is an important distinction as it means that arguably with say 2003 solar technology, if the subsidies and demand had been there to build a whole bunch of 10 MW PV farms, a similiar cost could have been achieved to today’s costs, at least within striking distance (as opposed to a Moore’s law industry where the fundamental technology performance curves would have been 8x better, with drastic cost improvements resulting). Technology costs haven’t necessarily fallen as much as we think, so much as the scale has changed, making costs look like they’ve fallen a significant amount.

And we have to be careful about making generalizations of the technology cost reductions, too. A large chunk of the technology cost reductions at scale (perhaps 50%?) have come from one company, First Solar, out of the hundreds that manufacture PV products. If you take them out of the equation, the falling technology cost curves don’t look so great.

But I’ll posit a cost reduction law for solar that may hold. Roughly speaking, the per unit solar industry costs at a system level fall every year in line with the reduction in per unit subsidies for the key solar subsidy programs in that year, adjusted for interest rates and margin changes. Because if they don’t, they don’t sell product.

Why? We argue that the market is basically willing to pay a set rate per kwh for solar that is reasonably constant over time. The underlying conceptual DiSoCo Model is this: the market’s set rate for solar + the cost of capital + the per unit subsidy = solar system cost + solar system embedded margin. My primary use of the model has been to break out each component, market by market, segment by segment, and analyze how fixed, variable, or sticky they are, to better understand their interactions as conditions change. If this is true, then for a given set rate, same interest rates as last year, then changes in the subsidy either come out of cost or margin. If margin were mature and fixed, then cost changes would equal subsidy changes.

We could extend the model by suggesting that changes in the market set rate is a function of retail and wholesale energy prices, and non direct subsidy programs like a RPSs and RECs, and non market based buyers willing to accept low equity ROEs. We could further extend it by suggesting that some subsidies, like the ITC, may manifest in the cost of capital, not the per unit of subsidy.

In a real life example, when the subsidy programs have built in per unit reductions in them over time or volume (like the Japanese industry maker did, and California does, and many of the FITs do), then the industry has to find a way to take enough costs out to match the reduction, otherwise the margin gets hammered. This suggests that market won’t actually see the cost reductions until the subsidy ends, except where the industry cost reductions exceed the subsidy reductions in a given period (in fact, this was true, and available manufacturing capacity seems to have a big impact on this component also, as for several years, the manufacturer’s didn’t pass on ANY technology costs reductions, but fattened margins and prices instead).

And extending on that, we realize that the swing variable has been manufacturer’s margin at the ingot/wafer, cell, and module levels, not cost, which has tended to be more fixed or sticky than we thought. And in a period of tight supply, as we had in the silicon refining shortage, margin goes up, all else equal, and in period of oversupply, where we are moving too, margin goes down, since the other major components (including, unlike the corollary to Moore’s Law, technology cost) are relatively fixed or sticky over short time frames. The market still only pays what it will pay per kwh, and the subsidies and interest rates are what they are, and so known coming reductions /volumes in per unit subsidies force the industry to find a way to take it out of costs, see margin suffer, or find new markets with new subsidies. Hence, the model allows us to posit the law that the real long term linkage is subsidy reductions to cost reductions, adjusted for swings in margins.

This would help explain the rise of the grid linked industrial market in California and Germany, effectively as a partnership between public policy, manufacturers with limited near term technology cost reduction potential needing economies of scale, and the rise of the PPA/developer model as the facilitator between the two, and explain the continual skinny economics for end users/PPA owners, despite falling costs.

We could further extend that last point by suggesting it can be applied niche by niche, country by country. And better understand the market by realizing that manufacturers, starting with the Japanese firms 5 years ago when the Japen rebates rolled off, and extending currently to First Solar’s and Suntech’s et al moves into power plant development, effectively applied this model on a country by country, niche by niche approach seeking new markets as the subsidies fall and move, in a bid to maintain margins while cost curves were steady.

So the DiSoCo Model is simple enough, it states that the value on the supply side = the value on the demand side, and when breaking the components out and evaluating market by market which are fixed in the short term and which are variable, it has seemed to us to shed some light on why the solar markets have moved the way they’ve moved. And it posits that a market set price exists segment by segment, and therefore that if margins are normal in that segment, reductions in the per unit subsidy levels roughly equal reductions in cost, and only when reductions in cost drastically exceed those of subsidy levels, can price be effected.

And it gives us a very different picture of falling cost curves and price implications than pretending Moore’s Law works for solar.

Neal Dikeman is CEO fo Carbonflow, Inc., a Partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, the Chairman of, and the founding contributor to

Separating Reality from Myth in Mass-Market PV

by Richard T. Stuebi

Rarely have I encountered a subject so widely misunderstood as the retail application of solar photovoltaics (PV).

So many people are terribly excited about PV, and are dying to install it on their house or building as a way to cut their ever-rising energy bills (not to mention the eco-friendly statement a PV system makes). I guess people tend to think that solar energy should be very inexpensive, just because we don’t pay anything to be hit by the sun’s rays every day.

It’s true that, once installed, PV systems cost virtually nothing to operate or maintain. And, it’s true that, once installed, PV systems will reduce energy bills. But it’s the cost of acquiring and installing the PV system that people somehow don’t compute.

In fact, the costs of the equipment to convert solar radiation to electricity are quite high. On top of this, the conversion process is not particularly efficient (less than 20% of the sun’s energy comes out as electricity), and the amount of energy in a given footprint of sunlight is not that great. As a result of all these factors, on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, without any form of subsidy, PV is just about the most expensive way presently available to generate electricity.

Exhibit 1 in a recent paper entitled “The Economics of Solar Power” by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company neatly frames the interrelationship between installed cost of PV ($/watt), annual solar energy yield (in other words, how sunny it is at your location), and the implied cost of electricity from the PV system.

For a place like Cleveland — where we get about 1000 kWh per peak kW of PV installed, and where we are likely to face grid electricity prices of less than $0.20/kWh for the foreseeable future (due to our region’s reliance on already-installed coal and nuclear power) — PV economics only become compelling when the installed cost of a PV system (net of any subsidies) is on the order of $2.50/watt. Absent subsidies (and they are not plentiful here or in most other areas of the country), current PV economics of about $8-10/watt installed are simply not attractive, with investment paybacks of typically more than 20 years.

True, in places like Hawaii (with high grid prices and great solar exposure), PV is pretty attractive. But, for the teeming masses here in the Midwest and Northeast U.S., we need about a 60-80% reduction in installed cost for PV systems to become widely cost-effective (without subsidies) relative to the grid.

Clearly, the PV industry will benefit as grid electricity prices rise with increasing fuel prices and the eventual addition of carbon constraints. Moreover, PV innovators are driving hard for major cost reductions in PV modules, where 75% reductions (from $4/watt to $1/watt) can be foreseen in the next decade or so.

But, the balance of plant — the inverters, the mounting, the wiring harnesses — and the various labor costs — system engineering, distribution, installation — also require similar cost reductions, and are not receiving the same degree of attention. While economies of volume will help, the path to reducing the non-module costs of a PV system is less obvious, and is more a “leap of faith” at present.

Putting aside economics, if not marketed properly, PV systems can set up customers for disappointment in other ways, too. Relative to the size of most buildings, a rooftop PV system will only a small portion of the building’s electricity requirement. Furthermore, unless the system also includes an automatic transfer switch, it will not produce power for the building when the utility grid is down. And, unless the system includes a transfer switch and a battery bank, it won’t be of any help to power your house at night. Many people — even highly educated ones — are unpleasantly surprised when confronted with these facts.

In the long-run, solar energy is likely to be the major player in the energy market. It is, after all, the fundamental source of all the energy on the planet. The improvement of PV over the past few decades is impressive, its future potential is limitless. I just don’t like to see PV misportrayed, today.

With the run-up in energy prices, people are increasingly energy conscious (about time!) — and, worryingly to me, marketers are emerging to exploit widespread customer ignorance about PV.

Just recently, I saw on TV a “K-Tel” caliber advertisement sponsored by a firm called Power-Save Energy. I have to admit, I like their tag-line: “We make renewable doable”. But, I am troubled that their marketing pitches play to some of the fallacies that the mass-market seems to hold about PV. I don’t think this approach best serves the long-term interests of those who endorse a true long-term movement to solar energy.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Tech Giant Intel Joins IBM and Applied in Big Solar Bet

Following on the 2006 and 2007 announcements of technology giants Applied Materials and IBM moving into the solar sector, Intel has joined the fray in 2008 with the spinout of SpectraWatt, its newly created solar division.

I had a chance to chat with Andrew Wilson, a longtime Intel guy who is the CEO of Spectrawatt, about what he is doing. The venture is the result of the last 3 years of extensive business planning, that Andrew said grew out of an off the cuff conversation he had internally four years ago.

While they have very early stage development in the works for some new and novel technology to reduce the manufacturing costs of solar cells, they are not sharing details. The Spectrawatt core business today will be about building a company to manufacture crystalline silicon based solar cells. In the near term the business will be buying wafers and manufacturing cells. According to Andrew, they have a significant supply of silicon secured, and while he cannot say who the vendors are, at least one of those vendors will likely be announcing soon, as the Spectrawatt contract is a material event for them.

So the first question is why x-Si and not thin film? Besides the obvious that it is far and away the biggest market today and a natural fit for Intel, Andrew added two more. Customers care about per kwh cost, and all things equal, how much energy they can get out of the real estate they have (read, efficiency matters). So they think x-Si makes a lot more sense than thin film, especially given the additional issues around stability, manufacturing complexity and materials resource constraints.

Andrew did say that they may vertically integrate later. So I asked why did they start at cells? Andrew explained that since the business comes out of Intel, and Intel is accomplished at processing wafers into products, cells made sense to start with. And at the end of the day they hold the view that the biggest point of value in solar value chain is in creating the cell, moving from low value silicon to high value device. They consider it the largest single value add step.

Andrew and I are in agreement that 2004 was a kind of a magic year changing what the photovoltaic industry is. Andrew stated it was the first year where the average company in every segment of the value chain in solar became profitable. So given today’s environment Intel and Spectrawatt could have conceivably started at numerous places in the value chain. This is where the vertical integration may come in. His view on the silicon supply is that no glut is coming, or at least not a long lived one. The end demand market is growing at 30 to 40% per year, and the silicon supply that is coming on line is in large part subject to long term contracts with fixed prices. The silicon supply additions then are pretty much already spoken for. In Andrew’s mind while growth at the margin will definitely cause some level of boom bust cycles, those long term supply contracts may moderate it more than other people believe. If he is right, and he has secure supplies, a horizontal business like cell manufacturing is a great place to be. If he is wrong, he sees continued vertical integration to manage the growth issue as one of the major avenues industry participants will go done. In this he and I also agree, rapid movements in supply cycles tend to reward vertical integration. And if he gets big enough with Spectrawatt, vertical integration could be a move Spectrawatt makes, too.

It is great for the solar industry to see more technology giants like Intel joining the fray, and perhaps helping drive down crystalline product costs the same way Applied Materials and IBM are looking to drive down then film costs.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding CEO of Carbonflow, founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.

Plug and Play PV

by Richard T. Stuebi

It’s notoriously the case that most photovoltaics installations are custom-tailored — designed, engineered and installed — specifically for each application. This, of course, dramatically increases the cost and hassle factor for a customer to implement PV. For awhile now, PV pundits have stressed that the technology needs to become “plug-and-play” in order to make it much easier and cheaper for customers to buy.

Recently, Cincinnati-based Melink Corporation released a 500 watt ground-mounted PV system with an embedded inverter and a 3-prong electrical cord that plugs into an outside socket, allowing anyone to generate electricity from the sun and use it to help power their house. Called “INGRID” (get it? “In-Grid”), this system costs less than $5000, and can be hooked up virtually immediately without any engineering. All you need (just like a satellite dish) is a clear view of the southern sky.

It’s so simple, basic and obvious that it’s a wonder that Melink was first to market (or at least claims to be first to market) in the year 2008 with such a gizmo. Innovation comes in all sorts of flavors.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Cutting the Cost of Solar the Unsexy Way

Most of Silicon Valley focuses on the cost of the photovoltaic module, and how to bring that down. In fact, most of Silicon Valley focuses on how to fundamentally change the basic technology of the module – from crystalline silicon based to thin film deposition. Very sexy. And very risky. And currently breaking the back of more than one company and investor who is trying. What’s worse, the module is only 30-50% of the per kwh cost anyway.

In the meantime, the cost of solar on a per kwh basis has continued to improve, primarily on the back of unsexy work on the integration and installation side, as well as the growing size of the average photovoltaic installation. This is despite the increase in average module prices in recent years, driven by the silicon shortage.

Cleantech Blog has written about the concern that the real make or break for solar economics is how much power you get out of the system, not just the cost per watt of the panels. We believe that installation and design decisions are the make or break for that variable, not the technology choice. We have also written on the topic of integration and installation, and the need for better data and monitoring on the back end, like our friends at Fat Spaniel are improving, to inform the analysis.

But what about the analysis on the front end of the installation process? Everyone in the industry knows that installation is a large portion of the upfront costs, and everyone knows that how well you design your solar system has large implications for the economics of your installation.

So how do we actually streamline solar from the front end? Well, it’s happening. The solar decision making software tools are slowly developing. There are a number of products available now to streamline the modeling and estimation of solar installation costs and performance, and make the end user and installer’s life easier: including products like CPF Tools, OnGrid, and PVOptimize, which range from spreadsheets to on demand services. My favorite is CPF Tools, by Clean Power Finance, and I had a chance to meet with a couple of their executives, including Joseph Brakohiapa, the other day to discuss what they are doing. For one, they have married solar estimation and modeling tools with an on-demand MRP system for solar installers. I certainly believe in on demand software, and it’s hard to see how modeling tools without links into your inventory and proposal systems can actually take much cost out. And second, they are working to integrate those tools into the financing model for small scale solar loans. When coupled with backend monitoring like Fat Spaniel’s, I can see the path for real progress – and possibly more importantly, I can see a way for both the installer and the end customer to finally begin to manage risk and cut costs.

From monitoring, to ERP, to decision support and business intelligence. No industry in today’s world can scale without it. It’s time the solar sector grows up.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, a blogger for CNET’s Cleantech blog, and the Chairman of

Rising Solar Prices – Where is the Shakeout?

18 months ago I did an article on rising solar prices threatening the industry, and I think it’s time to revisit some of those thoughts.

“One of the most disturbing things about the solar industry, the rising star of cleantech, has been its recent rising prices. According to the survey, module prices are up close to 7% in the US this last year, after years of falling.

The main culprits according to most solar watchers are a combination of:

  • High demand driven in large part by the US state and German subsidy programs
  • Tight supply on module capacity
  • Tight supply on silicon capacity

The first issue here is that rising solar module prices threaten the viability of the industry, at a time when it is gaining momentum and trying to reach critical mass. Worse, almost every manufacturer of solar modules is increasing capacity trying to take advantage of the industry growth. As a result, we think the industry may be in for a rude awakening if that capacity increase begins to outstrip demand, or if key subsidy programs underpinning growth falter for political reasons.

The businesses most at risk are the young technology developers, who are spending significant equity dollars on technology development and building to a critical manufacturing and sales base. These are the businesses that the VC community is funding at a tremendous rate. These aren’t businesses that are throwing off tremendous amounts of cashflow to weather a storm.

One concern, if the market does turn down, the major Japanese, European, and oil company solar manufacturers are likely to lower prices to keep their factories full, and really hurt the smaller businesses. Keep in mind, if you launched a solar business 5-10 years ago, reaching a 20 MW plant would put you in the top 20 manufacturers. With that same launch today, looking ahead five years to when your technology is commercialized, you will have to hit perhaps 50-100 MW of capacity to be an elite player. That’s a big difference that I don’t think the investment community has understood yet. “

I thought now was a good time to rethink some of those conclusions, given all the recent news in the solar energy sector, and add a few new thoughts:

  • I still believe a silicon price reversion to the mean is coming, and a shakeout with it whose winners are the lowest cost and highest capacity providers.
  • Young technology developers are still the most at risk from this.
  • We have since written about Applied Material’s (NYSE:AMAT) entry into solar and the potential for the double junction tandem cells – which are really hybrid thin film/advanced silicon cells. I think this technology, along with dramatically increased industry capacity, and First Solar’s low cost advance into the sector, is moving the bar for new entrants.
  • So perhaps I was off on my expected timing. And perhaps a coming shakeout will be even more drastic. Or maybe I’m dead wrong and the whole industry will keep growing with no business cycles to worry about. You decide what you want to believe.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.

When it Comes to Solar – Lest We Forget

I saw a news article recently on the space walk to do repair and relocation on solar photovoltaic array on the International Space Station.
It reminded me to keep in perspective a bit of energy history. The US basically invented the solar industry to help power the space race. And the industry grew out of that to become a possible solution in the first energy crisis (though still way too early and way too expensive at the time). And we helped keep the industry alive post energy crisis with our off grid market and federal R&D funding.
Now that costs have fallen precipitously, and a wide range of major companies from Sharp and BP to Applied Materials and IBM are in the business to drive costs to the magical grid parity (Cleantech Blog has blogged about this numerous times), it is disappointing to see that the US leadership has fallen victim to stronger government support in newer national entrants like Japan and Germany (which combined have a solar market some 7x larger than ours) who major subsidy programs in place roughly 15 and 5 years ago respectively.

I think it is fair to say that we are not going to regain our leadership in the crystalline silicon end of the business, though perhaps we can make a dent. So perhaps we must look to the growth of thin film technology for our leadership. But there are bright spots on that front.
  • First Solar – Far and away the market leader on size and cost in thin film today with Cadmium Telluride based technology. Location: Arizona/Ohio
  • Energy Conversion Devices – Long-time market leader in flexible thin film amorphous silicon. Location: Michigan
  • Applied Materials – Massive market share in equipment for hybrid thin film/silicon tandem cells which could hammer the crystalline PV business when they hit the market over the next few years. Location: Silicon Valley/Germany and beyond.
  • Silicon Valley – Hundreds of millions of venture capital investment is pumping in to back amorphous silicon and CIGS technology start ups. Some of them will crack the nut, too.
As usual, when it comes to new technologies and reinventing business – we’ll be leading the way. Let’s not give it up this time.
Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.