Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Red Herring: Three Huge Solar Trends

As solar industry prepares for its largest U.S. conference, three big trends are already clear.

Solar news announcements are already flowing in advance of the largest solar conference in the United States, which kicks off Monday.

More than 3,500 attendees have already registered for Solar Power 2006 in San Jose, and the Solar Energy Industries Association is expecting on-site registrations to bring that number to at least 5,000, said Noah Kaye, the association’s director of public affairs, Friday.

That compares with 1,100 attendees last year, he said. “It certainly reflects the growth in the industry and the fact that this industry is attracting more interest from more different commercial industries than every before,” he said.

Market policies have raised to California’s allure for the solar industry. The U.S. federal government created tax credits to support renewable energy, and California created the largest solar program in the country (See Schwarzenegger Signs Solar Law, California Solar Gets $2.9B).

Because of that, the conference is getting strong interest from the rest of the world, especially from Germany Taiwan, and China, Mr. Kaye said. About 30 percent of the registered attendees are coming from outside the United States, he said. “I think this reflects the growing belief that the United States is going to be playing an increasingly larger role in the global solar industry going forward,” he said

The expected attendance still places the conference below the 21st European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition in Dresden, Germany, which counted more than 6,500 attendees this year (see Solar Supernova, Solar: ErSol Buys Into Thin Film, Blitzstrom Buys More Thin Film , Sun Cools New Refrigerator, Solar Energy For The Poor, Clean Energy Goes To The Movies, Entering A SolarWorld, Fat Deal For Thin-Film Solar, Solar Comes Out At Night).

But Julie Blunden, vice president of external affairs at solar manufacturer SunPower, said the company sees the conference as “the unveiling of the U.S. solar industry in a new and improved form, now that we’ve got a real market.”

So it’s no wonder the announcements are streaming in. Early announcements point to three trends that conference goers can expect to see next week.

1) A focus on silicon

A worldwide shortage of solar-grade silicon, the key material that turns sunlight into electricity in most solar-power systems, is constraining market growth.

According to a report by Photon Consulting, the research and consulting arm of trade magazine Photon International, there’s worldwide demand for 5 gigawatts of solar power, but only enough silicon to supply between 2.2 and 2.4 gigawatts.

Solar manufacturers and integrators are trying to ensure they will have enough products to grow by signing long-term agreements for silicon and solar modules. On Thursday, for example, PowerLight announced it signed a five year, $150-million agreement to buy solar cells from Q-Cells, a large German solar cell manufacturer (see PowerLight Snaps Up Solar Cells).

Startups with technologies that use less silicon to produce more watts of electricity are also benefiting from the shortage.

On Tuesday, SolFocus said it signed an agreement for Moser Baer India to manufacture and distribute its concentrating solar panels in India and neighboring countries, and also said it raised an additional $7 million in funding from Moser Baer to close out its Series A round of funding. The company raised $25 million in July (see SolFocus Soaks Up $25M).

SoLFocus is Palo Alto, California-based startup that uses lenses and mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a tiny amount of germanium, which converts the sunlight into electricity more efficiently than silicon (see Concentrating the Sun).

2) More Funding

Investment in solar power is heating up even more, and roughly 300 conference attendees have registered from the financial sector, Mr. Kaye said. With big names like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson making commitments to clean energy, it could be getting harder more money—but many investors are certainly willing to try (see Too Late To Get Into Cleantech?).

Aside from SolFocus, which Tuesday raised an additional $7 million, bringing its Series A round to $32 million, VantagePoint Venture Partners told VentureWire on Tuesday that it is hoping to raise more than $150 million for a clean technology fund.

EnerWorks, a solar thermal company, also announced Thursday that it raised $3.65 million from Chrysalix Energy and Investco Capital, and Fat Spaniel said Friday that it has raised an additional $3.5 million in Series A financing from DFJ Element and Chrysalix Energy.

Fat Spaniel provides software and web-site integration services to remotely monitor and manage distributed energy systems, and says its software transforms energy data into easy-to-understand presentations and makes them accessible from any Internet-enabled device (see CalCEF Invests In 10 Startups, Energy Startup Gets $3.5M).

The money brings Fat Spaniel’s round to $7 million. President Chris Beekhuis said Fat Spaniel will use the money to expand further into wind power, fuel cells, and variable speed drives, and also to expand into Europe and other regions. It will also expand further in the solar market, he said.

No longer Birkenstock-clad early adopters, now many of solar customers are big businesses that are asking installers for more intelligence from the get-go so they can more effectively manage their energy costs, he said.

3) Advances in supporting technologies

Aside from announcements about new cells and modules, you can expect plenty of news about all the other parts and services required to grow the solar industry. Fat Spaniel is one example. Another is Xantrex Technology, a publicly traded inverter company. Inverters convert power from DC to AC, for instance to turn energy into usable electricity.

Xantrex said Friday that it plans to unveil two new inverters at the conference.

The first, the XW Battery-Based System, is an off-grid product, meaning it can be used by homes with no connection to the electrical grid. The inverter is more efficient than competitors’, converting 93.5 percent of the AC into DC, compared with an average of about 90 percent for other off-grid inverters, said CEO John Wallace.

The off-grid inverter can convert up to 6 kilowatts of AC into DC, is intelligent enough to be able to convert power from wind, solar, hydro generators, and batteries all at once, and provides power that’s high-quality enough to be able to run delicate plasma televisions, he said.

The other product is the GT 5.0 Grid Tie Solar Inverter, a grid-connected inverter that is more reliable and “handsome” than competitors’, Mr. Wallace said. Unlike most inverters for grid-connected solar-power systems, the system continues to operate as if it were an off-grid system when there’s a power outage.

All these support technologies are essential to making solar mainstream, companies said.

“Cells are of course very important, but a lot of the cost is in installation and transportation,” Mr. Wallace said. “If you can do the installation in an hour instead of a day, you save the cost of two guys for a day. If you add a percent of efficiency in the inverter, that’s just like adding a percentage of efficiency in the whole array. There’s a multiplier effect, and we can pass that onto the customer.”

Source: Red Herring

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