Attention U.S. Department of Commerce: your well-intentioned efforts to help the U.S. solar panel manufacturing industry are not working.
Even with 30%+ tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, the remaining U.S. manufacturers are struggling to stay competitive. The good news, as one would expect, is that there is strong demand for Made in the U.S.A. solar panels – both from ordinary consumers as well as government purchases. However, structural issues with the supply chain for solar components puts the remaining U.S. manufacturers at a substantial disadvantage.
The reasons for these supply chain challenges are simple. Basically, many of the key components that go into solar modules are not manufactured in the U.S., including wafers, cells, EVA and junction boxes. And many of the components that are indeed available in the U.S. — such as glass, backsheets and aluminum frames — are significantly less expensive at comparable quality levels if purchased from overseas suppliers. To make matters even worse, these essential imported solar components are subjected to additional tariffs when imported from certain countries. Essentially, we are shooting ourselves in our foot if we expect U.S. solar manufacturers to be competitive when 30%+ tariffs are applied to most of the major solar components.
A rational plan to make the U.S. competitive in solar manufacturing does not require government support. Instead, it requires government to get out of the way and set a long-term solar manufacturing policy. U.S. manufacturers would instantly be more competitive if they did not have to pay tariffs on imported solar components — particularly cells and aluminum solar frames. Once the U.S. solar manufacturing base is re-established and consistent, U.S. manufacturers could invest in domestic wafer, cell, junction box and other component manufacturing.
How are U.S. manufacturers coping with competitive global issues of cell production and purchasing, U.S. production costs, cell and panel tariffs, local and federal regulations, and shifting national policies? The best way to answer this question is to speak with one of the most experienced U.S. solar panel manufacturers. My guest on this week’s show is Mamun Rashid, COO of Auxin Solar, based in San Jose, California. Auxin manufactures high quality poly and mono solar panels for residential and commercial customers. They also do original equipment manufacturing for tier-1 manufacturers who have “made in the USA” requirements. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show for Mamun’s perspective on the opportunity and challenges for companies manufacturing solar panels in the U.S.
It’s depressing that lithium batteries get almost all of the focus in the energy storage industry. Lithium batteries have a number of advantages, including high energy density, good longevity, declining costs and established integration with electronics, vehicles and stationary energy storage. Although ideal for residential and commercial storage applications, lithium ion chemistries are not great for long term and high capacity energy storage — which are the characteristics that many utility storage installations require.
Flow batteries have the potential to meet these utility storage application needs. Flow batteries use two tanks of liquid electrolyte, separated by a special membrane, that flows between the anode and the cathode within the battery cell. Energy is stored in this liquid electrolyte instead of as part of the electrode material in conventional batteries. The energy storage capacity of a flow battery is related to the amount of liquid electrolyte — bigger tanks provide greater storage capacity. The power output of a flow battery depends on the size of the anode and cathode electrodes in the battery cell.
Since their storage capacity is limited mostly by the size of the electrolyte tanks, flow batteries are great for grid-scale storage. They are also finding applications when sited alongside PV systems. Since the battery can absorb power in excess of what the grid or inverter can handle, inverters can be smaller — resulting in lower equipment costs and greater efficiency.
I heard about new flow battery technology from my friends at NexTracker. I was initially hesitant to learn about flow batteries – one could say I’m in a lithium rut waiting for the commercialization of dual lithium crystalline reactor technology for interstellar travel. But when I understood the real-world benefits of Avalon’s batteries when integrated with utility-scale tracker installations, I was convinced.
So on this week’s show we’re going with the flow. Our guest is Matt Harper, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Avalon. I hope you tune in to this week’s Energy Show as Matt explains the technology behind flow batteries, practical applications, availability of electrolytes, and Matt’s view of how flow batteries have the potential to meet our long duration energy storage needs.
We have all seen those big power plants outside cities that provide power — historically from coal, oil and nuclear and now more recently, natural gas. These utility power plants have served us well for over a century. But technology is passing them by. These old central generation power plants are obsolete. They are more expensive than power generated by wind, solar and energy storage. Even some of the newest gas peaker plants under construction are destined to be obsolete within a decade. New power generating technologies – solar, wind, battery storage, distributed energy resources, virtual power plants, etc. — are steadily improving in terms of cost, duration and reliability.
Unfortunately, commercial and residential electricity customers are saddled with the costs of existing power plants, even ones that have been installed recently. Utilities pass their costs of power generation, transmission and distribution directly to ratepayers. Moreover, utilities are guaranteed a 10% profit based on their net assets. Although they do indeed care about reliability and safety, utilities actually make more money when they own a lot of assets (higher profits) and charge high prices for power (higher revenues).
These new clean, inexpensive power generation and storage technologies are turning the utility industry upside down. Commercial and residential customers can essentially purchase their own power plants for less money than utility-provided power. Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we review the deteriorating economics of utility-based power plants, as well as the implications these new technologies are having on consumers throughout the United States.
Energy storage is critical to our ability to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Basically, we need a way to store the abundance of daytime solar and use this energy at night. Although lithium ion batteries have been getting most of the attention, fuel cells provide another way to convert fuels into electricity.
A fuel cell is an electro-chemical cell that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a reaction of hydrogen or another hydrocarbon fuel, such as gasoline or natural gas, with oxygen. The history of fuel cells goes back over a hundred years — in fact, their first commercial use came from NASA to power orbital space craft. Fuel cells are different than batteries because a battery produces energy from a chemical reaction that is already in the battery, whereas a fuel cell requires a continuous source of fuel and oxygen to sustain the chemical reaction. The great thing about fuel cell technology is they can continue to supply energy for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.
However, fuel cells can either be clean and renewable power sources — or just as polluting as fossil fuels — depending on their fuel source. Currently, most fuel cells use hydrogen as their fuel. Although the chemical reaction of hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen is emission-free (the only byproduct is water), the source of the hydrogen is problematic. Almost 100% of the hydrogen gas used for fuel cells and industrial processes comes from reforming natural gas. As a result, just as much CO2 is produced when hydrogen is used as a fuel, as if the natural gas were to be combusted directly. Nevertheless, future processes in which ordinary water is electrolyzed into its components hydrogen and oxygen can indeed produce hydrogen perfectly cleanly — as long as solar or wind are used to power the process.
More and more fuel cells are finding their way into the conventional power and transportation industries. Bloom Energy is successfully selling their natural gas-powered fuel cells to customers that need a reliable source of backup power. And Toyota has rolled out their Murai hydrogen fuel cell car in areas that have sufficient hydrogen filling stations (most of which are in California). For more about the underlying technology and opportunities for fuel cells, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.
Great solar policy is just as important as great solar technology. Obviously we need the technologies for these products — but we also need the policies so that solar products can be cost-effectively installed. And I’m not just talking about incentives…policies related to net metering, interconnection and permitting are just as important.
Getting good solar policy requires effective political lobbying. I hate to let you down, but these great energy policies did not magically spring from the brains of inspired politicians When I look back at the successes our industry has had over the years — net metering, the California Solar Initiative, Solar Tax Credits, state incentives — all of these policies were based on sound analytical research coupled with effective lobbying.
There are a few companies that specialize in the types of analysis that’s required to put together good policies. One of the best is Cross Border Energy, based in Berkeley California. They provide clients with strategic advice, economic analysis and expert testimony on market and regulatory issues in the natural gas and electric industry. It is my pleasure to have Tom Beach, Principal Consultant of Cross Border Energy as our guest on this week’s Energy Show.
Tom has been influential on many of California’s ground breaking energy policies. He has worked on the restructuring of the states gas and electric industries, the addition of new natural gas pipelines and storage capacity, renewable energy development, and a wide range of issues concerning California’s large independent power community. I also had the pleasure of working with Tom on the California Solar Initiative many years ago. To learn more about the energy industry, real world solar economics, and Tom’s perspective on energy regulatory issues, listen up to this week’s Energy Show.
PS – the Kyocera and SMA rooftop solar system I installed for Tom back in 2003 is still working perfectly, with only 0.4% degradation over the last 15 years.
PPS – his monitoring system is intermittent since his 15 year old computer that runs the software is on its last legs.
Electric utilities got their start in the U.S. in the 1880s. Thomas Edison began transmitting DC power as he literally illuminated the world. Then George Westinghouse (with help from Nikolai Tesla) deployed a better way of delivering electricity with AC power. Both Edison and Westinghouse went on to build tremendously successful companies, aptly named General Electric and Westinghouse Electric respectively. Although dominant in the 20th century, both companies have struggled in the 21st century.
Without a doubt utilities strive to deliver reliable and affordable power all over the world. But new technologies — particularly wind, solar and battery storage — are making the conventional utility business model obsolete. Customers are able to purchase and maintain their own power plants for less money than it costs a utility to centrally generate power and transmit it to every building. There is no doubt in my mind that over the next 20 years we will transition to a network of microgrids supported by some type of intelligent power distribution system.
What we knew and (some of us) loved about conventional utilities is changing. And utilities are fighting back — hard — to maintain their power supply monopoly. So here are Ten Electric Utility Company Myths — some of which were based on fact, and some were simply PR spin.
1. Myth: Utility profits are decoupled from selling electricity
2. Myth: Solar shifts costs to disadvantage ratepayers
3. Myth: Utilities support energy efficiency, we offer rebates
4. Myth: Utilities like EVs. They get to sell a lot more electricity
5. Myth: Utilities like Solar and Battery Storage
6. Myth: Utilities are a public monopoly working for ratepayers
7. Myth: Solar reduces electricity costs
8. Myth: Safety is a utility’s #1 concern
9. Myth: public utilities are the only way to provide reliable and affordable electricity
10. Myth: Solar will disrupt the grid at high penetration levels
Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we go into detail on each of these myths — and explain their implications on ratepayers and competing power industries.
There is no doubt in my mind that the “All Electric future” is inevitable. The only question is how fast…20 or 50 or 75 years? Electric generation and storage technology is getting cheaper, while at the same time the problems with fossils fuels keep getting worse. Many of our new construction customers at Cinnamon Energy Systems want to power their entire homes with electricity. They will not need natural gas for heating, hot water, laundry or cooking. And with EVs, they will not need gasoline for their cars. Naturally, a bigger solar array is required. And battery storage for when the grid goes down — also to maximize savings with time of use rates.
Mankind has been using fossil fuels since we started burning coal thousands of years ago. What does it mean when our homes, businesses, industries and transportation systems operate primarily from electricity instead of coal or oil or gas? In some states our political leaders are pushing for this 100% clean energy transition. The solar and wind industries will obviously benefit – as well as electric utilities which can transition to fueling our vehicles as well as powering our buildings. The coal industry — and eventually other fossil fuels — will steadily decline as their polluting product also becomes too expensive compared to wind and solar. Breakthroughs with clean coal or inexpensive nuclear are becoming less and less likely as renewable power prices continue to decline.
Enabling this transition is a steady stream of new devices and appliances that substitute electricity for fossil fuels. A few examples include heat pump hot water heaters, induction electric stoves and electric vehicles. Please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show for more about this “All Electric future” — and what you can do now to best prepare your home and business.
This week we’re talking about battery storage system safety. But first, a brief digression. As a contractor, the biggest safety concern that I have for all rooftop solar and battery systems is not necessarily with the solar panels or the batteries, but with fall protection. It’s an OSHA regulation that all workers must be secured with roof anchors and proper harnesses when working on rooftops. So make sure your solar contractor installs roof anchors during your installation so the people working on your roof are safe. Back to battery safety…
Look around: there are batteries everywhere. 120 years ago we started with batteries in our cars and flashlights. Now just about every portable device we have requires batteries: cars, laptops, phones, entertainment systems, toothbrushes and wacky Internet Of Things devices. Fortunately, with the proliferation of electric vehicles, the prices for large-scale battery storage systems have declined substantially. We’re now at the point at which in many locations it is cost-effective to install a home or business battery system to avoid high peak electricity costs — and get the added benefit of backup power if your utility is unreliable.
Batteries pack a lot of energy in a small package — but not as much as conventional fuels. The energy density of a standard alkaline battery is 0.14 kwh/kg, and the energy density of a lithium ion battery is 0.5 kwh/kg. Compared to explosive gasoline (13 kwh/kg) and uranium (23 million kwh/kg), stationary batteries used in buildings are extremely safe. Moreover, circuitry required by safety agencies (UL, National Electrical Code) makes it almost impossible for these batteries to burn or explode — even if they are damaged or misused.
Nevertheless, the solar and battery storage industry takes safety issues related to battery storage systems seriously. Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the built-in safety provisions in residential and commercial battery storage systems — as well as the fire safety, transportation and worker training required for their safe installation.