Is Solar Finally Catching On In California?
By Bill Moore
(Editor's note: Due to problems during taping, the first two minutes of the interview are missing. Our apologies to Mr. Rudin and our listeners).
California has always been a pacesetter for the rest of the United States, in fashion, building styles, cars and pollution control, to name a few. Now the state is pioneering an entirely new frontier, energy shortages resulting in dramatically higher energy bills. The causes are many and the solutions are painful.
But exciting new program sponsored by Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power or LADWP is starting to make the phones ring at Siemens Solar in nearby Camarillo, California. Just as EV World was about do our interview with Art Rudin, the manager of marketing and training at Siemens Solar, he was finishing up yet another telephone call from a prospective customer looking for a measure of independence from the threat of ever-higher electricity rates.
When we finally got Rudin corned for our interview, we asked him to explain the significance of a recent press release announcing the installation of a new residential sized PV system on a home in the San Fernando Valley.
$5 Per Watt Buy Down
As it turns out, the newly installed 1kW (1000 watt AC) installation on Nick Ray's home in Sherman Oaks, California featured in the photo above is only one of a hundred new PV installations in the LA area that are using Siemens Solar products under a new rebate program. And according to Rudin, inquiries from potential new customers in Los Angeles are increasing "exponentially".
Two events got the ball rolling. One is the current energy crisis in California, from which LADWP customers have, for the most part, been spared. While electric rates around the state have doubled, Los Angeles has avoided such increases because LADWP did not participate in deregulation. The public utility was also farsighted enough to recognize the contribution PV solar could make in the future. It's goal is to have 100,000 PV systems installed by 2010.
So, last January LADWP announced its own solar electric (PV) buy-down program, similar to one started by the California Energy Commission 3 years ago. CEC's program provides a $3 per watt rebate. Always alert to opportunities to encourage new technology and better paying jobs, as well as keeping its wealth within the community, LADWP created its own rebate program.
At the opening of a new Siemens Solar manufacturing facility in Chatsworth, California in early February, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan said, "Los Angeles is a shining example of how world-class cities can encourage new business and promote the use of alternative resources that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which foul the air and pollute our environment."
Under the LADWP program anyone, be they a homeowner or commercial business, can qualify for up to a $5 per watt rebate on a newly installed PV system as long as the PV manufacturer was located in the greater Los Angeles area. Siemens Solar is the first such manufacturer. If the customer chooses a manufacturer from outside the area, the rebate would amount to a still respectable $3 per watt. In the case of Nick Ray's 1000 watt system in Sherman Oaks, the rebate would amount to $5,000. The maximum rebate per residential system in $50,000 and on a commercial installation it is $1 million.
Given recent moves by The White House to promote greater use of fossil fuels while reducing or eliminating dollars spent on renewables research and development, as well as hasty efforts in California to build more power plants, LADWP's program seems a bit out of step with the times. We asked Rudin why LADWP was funding the program instead of investing its dollars in more gas-fired turbines or similar technology.
"They tell us they believe in this technology," Rudin replied. "They believe that it can help reduce their peak load demand and provide a strong infrastructure for the long run." Rudin said he doesn't know what the net contribution of these new systems is at this point. And clearly, 100 small-scale PV systems scattered across a metropolitan area the size of LA will make only a modest, at best, contribution to the energy needs of the community, but it is a start.
"The reality is when you generate electricity from your home, any excess you produce. . . goes to neighbors (who) absorb those electrons you're producing. We do know, however, is that if a significant number of homeowners, business owners used photovoltaic we would not have a problem with power in California. The key to all this is that when you put a system in you are lowering your operating costs for the next thirty years."
Clearly, from the utility's perspective, encouraging consumers to install PV systems as peak shaving devices makes a lot of sense. The average crystalline-based PV system like that built by Siemens has a 30 year life span. Even better, it has no fuel costs or associated air pollution. It seems like a real win-win situation for everyone. The utility gets the extra capacity it needs while consumers lock in energy rates at today's dollar for the next 30 years.
Solar Becoming Cost Competitive
According to Rudin, not only is the cost per watt of PV systems coming down, but so is the cost of the accessories that are needed to make the system work including the inverter and mounting hardware.
"The other issue is," he explained, "that traditionally solar systems have been custom designed to try to optimize performance and minimize cost. But as we know, when you customize things, as they become more popular, they actually become more expensive. So, we developed a series of standard packages and made them easy to install, and that helped reduce the cost, as well."
Siemens Solar's basic package consists of standard 500 watt panels or "building blocks." A typical 1000 watt unit would reduce the owners need for grid-power by about one-quarter while a 2000 watt unit would cut it in half, assuming an average daily consumption of about 14kW hours.
At present, PV supplies only about one-half of one percent of America's electricity needs, Rudin estimated.
Thin-film or PV ?
There are two basic types of PV technologies; thin-film and semiconductor-based. Siemens Solar currently concentrates its manufacturing efforts on the latter, but is also developing a thin-film approach, as well.
Using the very same process used by computer chip manufacturers, Siemens "grows" ingots of pure crystalline silicon that resemble a salomi when complete. The "salomi" is sliced into very think wafers. Using a process akin to making computer chips, the necessary circuits are etched into the silicon. These individual wafers are attached in series to build a module and the modules are assembled into a panel.
The panel is laminated like auto safety glass to protect it from the elements and glazed into an anodized frame for ease of handling and installation. Rudin explained that a single silicon wafer that might produce 25-30 computer chips can only create one solar cell. So a wafer that is worth as much as $25,000 to a computer chip manufacturer like AMD or Intel, is only worth about $5 to Siemens Solar, which puts pressure on the company to continue to drive down production costs even while material costs continue to climb.
The second technology is called "thin-film". It uses a materials deposition process to apply extremely thin layers of PV materials on a substrate that can be a thin roll of plastic sheeting. This process has the potential to be significantly faster and cheaper than silicon-based PV, though at this present time, crystalline cells remain the less costly of the two.
One advantage, however of thin-film over silicon is its ability to be formed into more flexible PV product designs including solar "shingles." Rudin contends, however, that it is only about one-third as efficient converting photons to electrons and is less durable. A thin-film system would require three times the surface area to generate the same amount of electricity as that put out by the semiconductor-based PV system.
While Siemens Solar which was originally founded by my friend Bill Yerkes, an EV World subscriber, as Arco Solar has focused most of its attention on silicon PV cell production, it is also working on its own thin-film technology. Called CIS, this technology promises to offer conversion efficiencies close to that of silicon along with improved durability.
Besides potential cost breakthroughs in the panels themselves, Rudin said that volume manufacturing will also bring down the cost of the inverter, the critical sub-component that converts direct current from the PV panels into alternating current in phase with the electric grid.
But What's the Payback?
There is a myth that has circulated over the years that it takes more energy to manufacture a PV panel than you would ever get out of it, making them a net energy consumer rather than producer. A recent study done by Siemens Solar demolishes that myth. Rudin pointed out that their study demonstrated that a PV panel will reach net energy gain, meaning it will have produced the equivalent amount of energy it took to make the panel in the first place, in just 18-36 months time. "It's a very quick payback today because of the efficiencies involved in manufacturing solar cells."
In order to determine how large a system a homeowner needs and therefore how much it will cost, you need to know how much energy you currently use, Rudin explained. Many customers come to him and ask how big a system they need based on the size of their home instead of their actual energy usage.
"We find that knowing how much electricity you consume is really the question to ask," Rudin said. "Once you do that the next question to think about is, do you get good sunlight access? People don't often recognize that there may be tree or some other obstruction that provides shading during part of the day and therefore reduces the amount of energy available from the system. And so those are important factors."
He added that its also important that once you decide to invest in a PV system you make sure the installer you hire is reputable, well-trained and backed by the manufacturer. Siemens Solar maintains a list of company-trained and certified contractors around the US.
Continued next week.... Rudin talks more about available incentive programs, net-metering and the part electric vehicles an play to either help or hurt the success of PV.
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