Category: Ranting

07/20/12

  06:12:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 436 words  
Categories: Ranting

Spammers, Captchas and Goods vs Evil

On a day when some real evil was on display in our country, please forgive the title of this post.  But sadly, for the past two weeks we have been getting bombarded with comment spam and I’ve finally decided to fight back.

What is “comment spam” you ask?  It takes many forms but the most common version is a comment posted to a blog that contains links to nefarious websites in the hope of providing lots of inbound links to the site, thereby raising its ranking with search engines.  Now this form of comment spam has never been valuable from this blog because: a) I moderate every comment and the “spammy” ones never see the light of day, and 2) Any link on this blog (and pretty much *every* blog these days) is marked as “nofollow” which means that search engines ignore them.  So the link-building spam has never made sense here.

Yet what we are seeing more and more every day is even more illogical.  These are often lengthy, random selections of text, presumbably culled from other sites.  This spam makes even less sense given that it does not contain links.  So even if it got posted, what good would it do?  And again, none of these are making it onto the web since I simply delete them.  Well, actually, I do more then that - I take the IP address associated with the spam comment and permanently ban them from my site.  (I actually route them here.  A sense of humor helps in life, yes?)  But of late the numbers have just become overwhelming - I am deleting two hundred spam comments every day!  Worse still - the occassional legit comment tends to get buried amidst the spam and I might accidently delete a valid comment.

So I am upping the anty and adding a Captcha to the comment process on this site.  I apologize for this step - I personally hate Captchas and I fear that it will drive my volume of legit comments down even farther.  But it is a step I have to take as I can no longer devote my time to this endless back-and-forth (I block an IP, they shift to another and hit me with 50 comments.  I block that, and the cycle repeats.  Ad nauseum.)

With luck, this will discourage the spammers and I will be able to turn this off after awhile, but in the meantime I am committed to stopping these bozos in their tracks.

For those “real people” who actually read this, I would greatly appreciate your braving the Captcha hurdle and leaving me a comment.  Thanks for your support.

07/14/12

  05:20:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1278 words  
Categories: Solar Events, Ranting, Energy Storage

InterSolar 2012 Recap

We just returned from InterSolar North America 2012 and here are our reactions to the show, in no particular order, some good, some bad and one really pretty ugly…

IS ≠ SPI

This was our first exposure to InterSolar; previously we had passed up on the show in favor of Solar Power International (which we have attended every year since 2006).  But this year SPI is all the way out in Orlando, so barring another miracle, we will likely have to give SPI a pass.  InterSolar, on the other hand, was close at hand in one of our favorite cities, San Francisco, so we decided it would be a more cost-effective alternative.  That it was, although we almost paid a high price indeed by taking a way-too sketchy route to the convention center Monday evening!  Lesson learned, we stuck to safer, saner routes the rest of the week without incident.

The biggest difference between InterSolar and SPI was in who was there and, more importantly, who was not.  It seemed that every time we searched for a particular manufacturer, they weren’t to be found.  For example, missing in action was: LG (whose panels we discovered at last year’s SPI), Sanyo/Panasonic, and Enphase Energy (though we did run into a number of their key personnel).  This was beyond frustrating since the biggest point of the show is for us to reconnect with companies that we have worked with in the past to learn about their upcoming product lines.  Oh well, that’s what you get for not paying the big bucks for SPI!

Buzz Worthy

Despite that disappointment, there was still plenty of buzz around the show.

Revenge of the Micros

Highest on the buzz meter at the show was the plethora of micro-inverter/DC-DC converter/optimizer manufacturers on hand. This was made all the more intriguing given that the king of the micro-inverter hill, Enphase, was not in the house.  (I was told that they have never exhibited at InterSolar NA.)  Even long-time micro opponent, SMA, was there, touting - if you can call it that - their new micro-inverter.  Indeed, in what has to be the most reluctant product launch of all time, SMA had its micro on display (alongside inverters ranging in capacity all the way up to hundreds of kW).  Imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery and Enphase must surely be blushing.

No doubt, SMA will be around a long while (with or without a micro-inverter offering) but it is hard to see all of these other players surviving.  (As one distributor who carries Enphase now told us, it is really hard to see the value in adding another micro-inverter line to their product card.)  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out over time.

We did learn that prominent, Las Vegas-based installer, Guy Snow, is presently conducting his own temperature performance testing between various micro-inverter lines.  We are hoping that he will share his data with us when his study is complete.

Storage on Display

Energy storage - more for load shifting/shaving than for off-grid use - was another hot topic floating around the hall.

KACO energy storage product

KACO appears ready to try and jump into that potential market, although their tentative product (shown above) will likely need some tweaks for the U.S. market.  Their present device (available in the EU only for now) combines a 7kW inverter with an integrated load management/charge controller device and a bank of batteries.  We were told that the batteries are Lithium-Ion and come with a twenty-year warranty, believe it or not!

Boasting a not-so-modest price tag of “around $40,000,” the box, we were told, is targeted toward the “embarrassingly wealthy."  Well, ok, there are certainly some of those out there, but how many of them have homes that would only need a 7kW system?  And what about the size of the thing?  A house big enough to have room for that rack mounted beauty will need two or three of them to actually handle their needs.

Still, it is a most intriguing product.  As utilities get smarter about pricing energy, look for an ever larger market niche to expand for such load shifting devices.  Combine that with the possibility of a $2.00/Watt rebate under the SGIP program, and energy storage devices might well be poised to be “the next big thing.”

Party Hearty

A solar conference requires opportunities for the solar tribe to hang out and party hearty and InterSolar was no exception to that rule.  Quite the contrary, there were numerous chances - on the conference floor and in a variety of nearby venues - for the faithful to raise a toast, honor the memories of our fallen friends, and lubricate the formation of new friendships.

Beyond a doubt, the folks in the Schletter booth win the award for hospitality - whether offering the best coffee on the floor each morning (along with some tasty pretzels) or the seemingly endless supply of good German brew that appeared each afternoon, they really managed to meet the needs of the crowd (and boy did they draw crowds!).

Our solar Tweet-up was a big hit - but boos to The Thirsty Bear which for some reason was unable to seat us all in the same vicinity.

For me, the most touching moment of the week was during the Solar Battle of the Bands, when tributes were made to our dear friend, Heather Andrews, and others who have died in the past year.  Solar needs all the advocates it can get, and this was just another reminder of how great a loss Heather’s passing was, and how deeply that loss continues to be felt.

Just Plain Fail

Eddie are You Kidding?

Sometimes shows like this reflect the humor level of a barely pubescent boy.  Nowhere was this more on display than on the third floor amongst several of the racking vendors who couldn’t seem to resist making multiple jokes about racks. As in:

“Heh. Heh.  He said, ‘racks’.  Snicker."  (This amidst images of a busty woman doing improbable things with an L-foot.  Or some such.)

Seriously?  And then people wonder why there aren’t more women in solar.  Hint - dropping the sexist humor would be a good start.

The lamest marketing attempt (in the non-sexist category), had to be this:

Designer invertersThat’s right - designer colors for your inverter!  Now that’s how to differentiate your inverter product - not by efficiency, or warranty coverage, or any other aspect of its technical design but by featuring interchangeable color panels.

Uh, note to Sinexcel - you don’t mount these things in your living room!

Count Me Out

And then there was Fire Energy, a solar distributor that has a facility in nearby Chatsworth.  Always eager to find local supply sources, I asked them about what they stocked.  All kinds of things, I was told by the eager salesrep.  Well, what about Unirac, do you stock that?

“Yes,” she said, “but it is generic Unirac.”

“What,” asked I, “is generic Unirac?”

“It is product that we have made for us in China, designed to be as close as we can make it to Unirac’s products without interfering with Unirac’s copyrights [sic].”

Wow.  So your business model - of which you brag to a total stranger - is to rip off your competitor’s designs and build them cheaply in China and you want me to endorse that strategy?  Sorry, not interested.

I suppose it is a sign of the, ahem, maturity of an industry when it can exhibit all the same faults and foibles as any other mature industry, including trade disputes or infringement actions.  It may mean we are reaching maturity, but these sorts of actions are not what the solar industry is supposed to be about.  Come on, folks, we can do better!

06/22/12

  08:55:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 430 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Ranting

Stand with SEIA for Solar!

Regular readers of this blog know that the solar industry has had a PR problem for a long time.  Indeed, part of the reason why we write this blog is to help counter some of those negative images and misinformation.  But now the Solar Energy Industry Association - SEIA - is urging the solar industry as a whole to fight back.  It’s about time.

SEIA has just released a new, two-and-a-half minute video ad highlighting the extent of the fossil fuel industry attack on renewables and calling on the industry, and our allies, to fight back. Here’s the video, check it out:

We have been SEIA members for a long time and fully support their efforts to rally the troops.  Let’s be serious - we are in an existential fight against forces that have vastly greater resources to bring to bear than we do.  What we have had on our side - and why the attack is so vitriolic and unrelenting - is the support of a huge majority of Americans.  But negative advertising works and we are being buried in a flood of negative ads.  If the industry doesn’t push back, in every way possible, we will be rolled - and our progress toward a more sustainable future will be rolled back, as well.

So, if you are in the industry, join SEIA.  Contribute to their PAC.  Add your story to their Solar Works for America campaign.   If you don’t have one already, start a blog.  Speak out on the issues important to this industry.  When you see a posting online that you know is false, reply and counter the falsehood.  If you see an article in the paper spewing the same misinformation yet again, write a letter to the editor (or do it online).  Be a vocal presence for this industry and defend it, every day.

And to our friends out there - clients and would-like-to-be clients - we need your help as well.  After all, for those of us in the industry it is true that our livelihoods are at stake, but none of us got into this business to become rich.  We did it because we thought we could make a living while working on something that would make the world better, one roof at a time.  Now we need you to raise your voices as well: when you hear people say solar isn’t real, or it isn’t affordable, or that there are no “green jobs” - you know better, and your enthusiastic contribution to the discussion carries great weight.

Without you, we cannot win.  Together, we cannot lose.

Let’s get in the game.

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02/05/12

  10:11:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 465 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

Think Solar is DIY? Think again!

The Web is littered with sites proclaiming the benefits of solar as a Do-It-Yourself project and we have previously written about the perils of trying to do solar yourself.  But the recent windstorm in Pasadena provided dramatic proof that some things in life should be left to the pros - and solar is one of them.

Take this installation for example - in a lovely part of Pasadena, the previous homeowner designed and installed this system which had a number of significant problems from the get-go.  Here is the view of the site from the north looking south:

array with shade

The panels that are mounted on the garage go all the way to the ridge, exposing them to higher wind forces.  There are enormous trees to the west and south-east that will provide significant amounts of shade.  The panels on the main roof (that mostly shaded shiny spot in front of the palm tree) are even worse as they are directly facing the tree to the south.  Indeed, from this view from the south, the panels on the main roof are completely invisible:

array from south - main house panels completely hidden

The array on the garage is pitched at 18° whereas the array on the main roof is completely flat.  Both arrays feed the same inverter which had only one MPPT channel - meaning that this system was never able to function at maximum efficiency.  Not a good design.

Now factor in the force of once-in-a-decade winds and life takes a definite turn for the worse.  The new homeowner called us to come out and assess the damage. Here’s how the array on the garage appeared when we arrived:

array damage

It doesn’t look any better in the other direction:

more array damage

What happened here?

This array was attached to the roof using angle-iron from the local hardware store and simple wood screws, not lag bolts, to keep that hardware in place.  Here’s a close-up showing this homebrew attachment “system":

homemade solar attachment system massive fail

Those simple wood screws are a poor substitute for proper lag bolts but the previous homeowner didn’t even give his system a fighting chance as he ignored the rafters altogether (even though they were clearly visible) and simple screwed his gear into the plywood under the shingles. The result was as predictable as it was unfortunate:

odd solar attachment scheme fails

Moral of the story?  The cost of adding solar professionally continues to drop, whereas the cost of doing it wrong is as steep as it ever was.

It was only good luck that prevented these panels from flying into the neighbor’s back yard.  If the wind had come during the day when the panels were generating power (instead of the middle of the night) the possibility of arcing and fire could have made things much worse.

So please, if you are thinking of adding solar as a DIY project this year, think again and call a pro.

Tags:

01/24/12

  10:55:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1107 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, LADWP Rebates, LADWP, Residential Solar, Ranting

LADWP SIP Data Update

Back in October, we wrote about some early trends from LADWP’s restart of their Solar Incentive Program and we thought it would be worthwhile to see how things have fared in the months since. LADWP had some flaws in the dataset issued in December so we decided to wait until the next revision which came out last week. (You can access the dataset here.)  As before, when reporting on project costs/Watt, we used the reported cost and the CSI AC Watts as we believe that is a more reasonable reflection of the value of the projects being proposed.

Prediction Update

In our previous post, we predicted that the Residential rebate program would drop from Step 5 (paid at $2.20/Watt) down to Step 6 (paid at $1.62/Watt) on or about November 26, 2011.  The last confirmed rebate reservation to be paid under Step 5 was #1120 and it was submitted on December 12 and confirmed on December 30.  So our November 26 prediction was not too far off, and a complete application that was submitted by then should have received a Step 5 rebate.

We also previously predicted that the residential sector would run out of rebate funds around April 3 of this year.  How has that prediction held up?  The chart below summarizes requested rebate amounts by week starting with the program restart on September 1, 2011 up through last week.  Also shown is the cumulative amount requested and a linear trendline.

Residential sector daily rebate reservation requests vs cumulative with trendline

As of the last day in the data, the total rebate amounts requested was $11.2 million out of the available $20 million.  It is also apparent from the graph that there has been a significant decline in the requested amounts following week 15 (starting December 8, 2011).  Our revised prediction is that the residential sector will run out of money around May 7, 2012.

Who’s Hot?

A program of this size provides some interesting insights into which manufacturers have the “go-to products” in terms of number of projects and total Watts.  Here is the data from the Residential sector:

chart of top solar panels in LADWP dataset

Yingli leads the way thanks to their heavy use by SolarCity which accounted for 144 of the 188 projects using the Chinese panel.  Kyocera was a strong second, again benefiting from their use by SolarCity in 137 of their 155 projects.  Verengo Solar drove the demand for Suntech panels, accounting for 75 of their 99 projects.  Canadian Solar is the true democratic player in this field, its 80 projects were distributed amongst 31 different installers!

Not surprisingly, different panels demand different prices, but the results are not as clear as they might be due in part to how SolarCity includes its accounting/financing costs into its reported costs.  As a result, both Yingli and Kyocera are substantially higher on average in the data than one would otherwise expect.  For example, Yingli comes in at $8.91/Watt on average whereas Suntech is a mere $6.17/Watt - with both of these being top-tier Chinese panels.  The two manufacturers renowned for their high-efficiency, high-cost products - SunPower and Sanyo - came in at $7.60/Watt and $8.07/Watt respectively.  No one in the industry believes that Yingli panels outperform those produced by SunPower and Sanyo.

Similarly, it is interesting to see what the distribution looks like in the realm of inverters.

Inverters used in LADWP data

No surprise that SMA leads the way; after all, SMA is the largest manufacturer of solar inverters in the world.  Their popularity is driven not only by major players like SolarCity (65 projects with SMA) and Verengo (89), but collectively by 55 different installers.  Contrast that with Fronius, which achieved its #2 ranking almost entirely thanks to SolarCity which accounted for 206 of the 231 projects (89.2%).

Coming in at a respectable third place was Enphase Energy with its 74 projects being distributed amongst 31 different installers - clearly the most broadly distributed installer base in the list.  None of the Enphase installs were performed by SolarCity or Verengo.  Given the sheer volume of installs done by those two companies, surely some of those sites would have benefited from micro-inverters but the leasing giants were not making that technology available to their customers.

Finally, potential clients often ask about the difference in cost between a string inverter system, such as one using SMA inverters, and a micro-inverter system, such as one using Enphase.  The average installed cost for the 334 SMA projects was $7.15/W.  The average installed cost for the 74 Enphase projects was $7.32/W.  That is a negligible difference and given that the two largest players in the data - SolarCity and Verengo - had none of the Enphase projects, we would expect the SMA projects to have a volume pricing advantage from those two companies alone.  Bottom line: in the real world, there is very little cost difference between these two technologies.

Outlier Update - A.S.E.S. Electrical - Still Out There!

One of the more disturbing things that we uncovered in our previous analysis was the degree to which some companies were apparently overcharging their customers.  In particular, we singled out A.S.E.S Electrical Group (aka American Solar Energy Solutions) for being particularly egregious in this regard.  So, after an additional three months of data, how have things changed?

Once again, we restricted the data to only residential projects where the system owner is also listed as residential - a total of 846 projects.  Our previous size filter was 20kW; for this expanded data set we increased the size filter to 45kW, meaning that only companies with at least 45kW of projects in the data would be included. As a result, the chart below accounts for 560 out of the 846 projects described in the data.

Sadly, our results are as disappointing as last time - check it out:

reported system cost, $/csi ac watts - residential sector

What is going on here?  While the average system price declined from $8.91/Watt back in September to $8.24 over the entire dataset, the disparity between the most cost-effective performers and the least is as great as it ever was!  Indeed, our repeat failure as the biggest gouger of solar consumers in Los Angeles is once again, A.S.E.S. but now their cost is more than three times the cost of the lowest price company, Ronco Solar.

Indeed, while A.S.E.S. did lower their cost somewhat, they apparently did it by replacing the Schuco brand solar panels that they were using before with third-tier Chinese panels from Sopray Energy.  (In contrast, Ronco consistently uses Canadian Solar panels, a top-tier Chinese solar panel.)

Certainly caveat emptor applies when purchasing a solar power system, but at some point it seems like the utility should step in and warn its customers about predatory practices.  So how about it, LADWP, isn’t it time to give your customers a heads-up about what is going on?

Put another way, if you are considering going solar and your installer proposes a system that is more than $8.24/Watt - and indeed, that is a very high number for installations today - we have one word of advice: RUN!

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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