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 there are tariffs for 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.
The bad news about global warming continues unabated. This fall the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (fondly referred to as the IPCC) sent up an emergency flare. According to Amjad Abdulla an IPCC board member and chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, “The report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life, as we know it.“ Obviously, small island states are at the most immediate risk. But if the earth’s warming trend continues, many populated areas around the globe will essentially be uninhabitable.
I read the entire report. It’s complex, dense, hard to understand and full of bureaucratese. There were two conclusions in the report that were especially surprising to me. First, unless the world acts immediately and intensively, there is almost no chance that global warming will be less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The reason is that there is a lot of inertia in the earth’s climate system — we are already on a rapid warming trend. The second conclusion is that an immediate worldwide investment of roughly $900 billion per year will be required to stay below this 1.5% threshold.
On a positive note, I learned a lot of new TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). My personal belief is that our grandchildren will be saddled with the economic and sociological disruptions that global warming will cause. Nevertheless, there is a large portion of our population that remains skeptical about global warming and its potential impacts. One reason for this global warming divide relates to economics. Some industries — particularly those dependent on fossil fuels — will be negatively impacted (“harmed” is the non-bureaucratic term). On the other hand there will be many industries that will benefit…not only solar and wind, but also from all the jobs created from the transition away from fossil fuels: EVs, heat pumps, more extensive electrical infrastructure, control systems and as yet undeployed new energy technologies.
As an solar enthusiast, I’m obviously biased. But the consequences of global warming are so severe that even the skeptics should consider immediate action as a form of an insurance policy. In case the skeptics are wrong about global warming, an investment now can avoid a disaster later. For more about the IPCC’s recommendations to stabilize and reverse global warming, listen to this week’s Energy Show.
One of my favorite Hemingway books is “The Sun Also Rises.” It’s about Spain, bull fighting and a group of lost generation friends in Paris in the 1920s. But this show is an energy podcast, not a book report. So with apologies to Ernest Hemingway — here in California — the sun also rises. But it rises at night with battery storage.
Governor Brown recently signed into law a bill called SB 700, which establishes an additional $800 million dollars of incentives for behind the meter battery storage. These incentives, part of the Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), are designed for both commercial and residential systems. SGIP is the biggest battery storage incentive program in the U.S. For the past year and a half, our battery storage customers have been using SGIP funding to reduce the costs of their combined solar and storage systems.
These incentive programs don’t appear automatically. The California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) worked for three years to finally get this storage incentive passed. Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of CALSA, explains the key reason for these storage incentives: “What we’re trying to do is create a mainstream market for energy storage — just like we’ve done for solar photovoltaic systems.”
Why did it take so long? There was intense opposition from electric utility business interests who do not want customers storing their own energy, just as they do not want their customers generating their own solar power. Utilities benefit financially when they install their own “grid-sized” batteries on their side of the meter, just as they benefit from large utility scale solar farms. From an overall perspective we still need utilities, not necessarily for electricity generation, but primarily for long distance transmission and local distribution of electricity.
Utilities have provided a terrific service to the world for over 100 years. Now, with inexpensive solar and batteries, utility customers can install their own generation and storage systems. To learn more about why the Sun also Rises At Night with Batteries, Listen to this week’s Energy Show.
People complain about high electric bills almost as often as they complain about the price of gas. And for two good reasons. First, utilities consistently raise their electric rates — not only for inflation, but also to increase their profits. So even if you don’t change your habits, your electric bills will generally keep increasing (like my waistline). Depending on where you live, these rate increases can average 3% -7% per year. The second reason is that we are using more and more electricity. Our 21st century lifestyle is much more energy intensive: we have more appliances, electric vehicles, electronic toys and cellphones, use heat pumps for space conditioning and hot water, and rely on more air conditioning as the climate gets hotter.
The average electricity consumption in single family homes in the US is 900 kwh per month. Although the average electricity cost around the country is 13.5 cents per kwh, there is a tremendous cost variation depending on location, climate, and cost of living. For example, in Hawaii, the average electricity cost is 33 cents per kwh. The official data for California indicates that the average cost of electricity is 20 cents per kwh. I question these averages because when I look at PG&E’s current electric rate, the baseline rate tier is 20 cents per kwh. Tier 2 electric rates (up to 400% of baseline electricity or about 400 kwh) is 27 cents a kwh. Tier 3 electric rates, defined as “super users” are 40 cents per kwh. If you require a lot of air conditioning, have a swimming pool, a bunch of networking and home entertainment equipment, or an electric vehicle, congratulations: you are likely a “super user.” Once you are in the super user tier — over about 1300 kwh per month — you are paying 40 cents for every kwh you use.
Obviously, if your home has a sunny exposure, solar makes great sense. But many people do not have that option. So what can you do? The first step is to find out what is causing those high electric bills. Buy or borrow a gadget called a “Kill A Watt Meter” and do some electricity sleuthing around your home. Some of the electricity hogs that I’ve found over the years include a defective AC compressor motor, keeping the temperature too cool in the summer and too hot in the winter (the fan motor in your furnace uses a lot of electricity), pool pumps running more than required, old refrigerators, vampire energy loads, and an abundance of electronic gadgets (including lighting, security, music and networking systems).
For more about the clever and insidious ways that our electricity providers separate us from our hard-earned dollars, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.