Solar Impulse arrived in the Nation’s capital at fifteen minutes past midnight this morning, landing without incident on runway 19L at Dulles International Airport, thereby completing its transcontinental journey that began in San Francisco on May 3 with stops in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. The historic mission will conclude next month with a flight to New York City.
The flight was not without its drama, however. Starting with an unexpected drenching of the aircraft in Cincinnati due to heavy overnight fog that delayed the takeoff for several hours while the craft was painstakingly dried out to reduce weight and prevent issues with controls freezing up at altitude. The flight was obliged to undergo multiple delays en route, with a particularly frustrating holding pattern before getting clearance to land at Dulles.
Despite all of that, the landing was perfect - “the best landing Dulles has ever seen” in the words of the head of the airport. (The actual landing was recorded - it starts around the 20 minute mark on this video.)
If you are lucky enough to be in the Washington, D.C. area today, you can see the plane during an Open House from 1 to 5 p.m. You can get directions here.
Solar Impulse - the record-shattering, solar-powered airplane - has departed Cincinnati’s Lunken airport, headed for a landing around midnight local time at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. A full schedule of public events are slated for the plane and its crew in D.C. - including a meeting with Energy Secretary Moniz - all intended to raise awareness of the amazing capacity of solar power to change how we think about what is possible.
Here’s their proposed flight plan for today:
This morning’s departure was delayed due to the weight of condensation on the wings - all of which had to be removed before departure could be attempted - a painstaking, “almost surgical procedure” in the words of pilot Bertrand Piccard.
To reach Washington the plane must pass over the Appalachian Mountains which calls for a rather steep climb in the flight profile:
To follow along all day, click on the flight profile to access the Solar Impulse live site - there you can here conversations between the pilot and his support team, track the progress of the flight and read about this amazing aircraft and the people responsible for its success.
Amidst news reports of the permanent closure of SCE’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), an important milestone was largely overlooked: last week solar power produced over 2,000 Megawatts to the grid - nearly the equivalent of the now silenced SONGS.
Before it was shut down over safety concerns in January, 2012, SONGS was capable of producing 2,200 MW of power onto the grid, enough to power approximately 1.4 million Southern California homes. When the plant was taken offline, it created a large gap in the energy mix for the region and an old, gas-fired power plant in Huntington Beach was brought online to support the region - adding conventional air pollution and expanded CO2 emissions along with it.
What a difference a year makes. From the press release issued the same day that SCE was announcing its decision, the California Independent System Operator (CALISO) reported that solar power peaked at 2,071 MW at 12:59 p.m. and noted:
“This new record is remarkable considering the amount has more than doubled since last September when solar peaked at 1,000 megawatts,” says Steve Berberich, California ISO President and CEO. “We are excited by this trend and expect to hit more record peaks on a regular basis.”
Remarkable indeed - doubling solar power production in under a year. And keep in mind that these are the solar resources administered by the ISO - that is, utility scale solar power plants. Not reported in that peak production is all of the rooftop solar around the state, helping to hold down power demands while simultaneously lowering customers’ bills.
Thanks in large part to the addition of more renewable sources, along with improved transmission infrastructure, the Huntington Beach facility is not expected to have to burn fuel this summer to stabilize the grid. (H/t, Devra Wang at NRDC.)
UPDATE - We just learned that the Board hearing to discuss changes to the Solar Incentive Program has been rescheduled to Wednesday, June 19th at 9:00 a.m. (Still at DWP HQ on Hope Street in downtown LA.) We will not be able to attend due to a prior commitment with the USC Solar Decathlon team. Anyone who does attend, feel free to pass on our thoughts below to the Board.
Solar is a great fit for non-profit organizations - environmental awareness and good stewardship of resources go hand-in-hand with the mission of churches and schools. But because non-profits are unable to take advantage of tax incentives, their sole sweetener for going solar are utility rebates - and in the City of the Angels, those rebates are about to drop dramatically before they go away entirely.
LADWP’s Solar Incentive Program (SIP) has been divided into two pieces: Residential and Non-Residential, the latter of which was further divided between Commercial (applicable to taxable entities) and Non-Profit/Government (i.e., tax exempt organizations). The Non-Residential program is being phased out in favor of the Feed-in Tariff program (about which we have written extensively). The thing is - the price paid for energy under the Feed-in Tariff program is just too small to pencil out for entities that cannot avail themselves of the 30% federal Investment Tax Credit and depreciation - and unlike under the existing SIP which offers higher rebate rates for non-profits, the FiT only provides a single payment level regardless of the tax status of the entity.
Most non-profits are looking for modest-sized solar systems in the 30 to 150kW range. That is too small to attract lots of financing options and the boards of many non-profits are reluctant to commit to long-term leases for a depreciating asset.
Bottom line - without the help of a generous rebate, many - if not most non-profits - will be left on the sidelines of solar.
Which makes the news coming out of LADWP all the more troubling. We have learned this week that when DWP goes before its Board on June 18th, it will seek a final re-authorization of the Non-Residential SIP with a requested budget of $15 million and rebate rates of $0.70/Watt for Commercial and just $1.45/Watt for Non-Profits. As bad as that reduction is, when that $15 million is gone, that is it - no further funding of the SIP is planned.
How big is the shortfall caused by the lowered rebates? Assume two neighboring entities, one commercial the other non-profit, that want to install a 100 kW solar power system on their respective buildings. If we assume that the install cost comes in at $4.50/Watt, they are looking at an initial outlay of $450,000. The commercial entity will get a rebate of $70,000 and a federal ITC of $135,000 leaving an out-of-pocket amount of $245,000 - and that is before figuring in depreciation. The non-profit qualifies for a larger rebate, $145,000 under the proposed rates, but that’s it - leaving them with an out-of-pocket expense of $305,000 - $60,000 more than their for profit neighbor.
This is curious and troubling since the LADWP website has indicated - at the same time that we were being given this information - that when the SIP program resumed in July it would offer non-profit rebates of $2.25/Watt - a rate which would actually make our hypothetical non-profit come out ahead. A more modest rate of $2.05/Watt would allow non-profits, at least at this level of project size, to break even.
Rebates are intended to serve a number of purposes but one of those is to help make solar commonplace - to insure that systems are installed where they will be seen and understood to be reliable components of our future. Given that, where should limited rebate dollars be spent: assisting cash-strapped schools and churches to install solar where congregants and students can learn the lessons of sustainability - or simply to aid some company in lowering its operating costs and boosting its profits? (Don’t misunderstand - we are all for commercial rebates, but if it comes down to a choice, surely the non-profits are in greater need of the support.)
On June 18th DWP staff will present this proposal to their Board and perhaps these rates can be adjusted to give more help to non-profits. That would be a welcome outcome, but even more welcome would be an acknowledgement by DWP that as their program plans presently exist, there will soon be no way forward at all for non-profits to adopt solar.
Surely that cannot be the desired outcome.
Nothing like a piece in the New York Times questioning the reliability of some solar modules to get tongues wagging and some pointing fingers at "Chinese dumping" while others tell us that solar technology is just not ready for prime time. To us it raises a different question - does quality sell?
The article, titled Solar Industry Anxious Over Defective Panels, points to installations as close as the Inland Empire, having shockingly high failure rates after just two years of being installed. "Coatings that protect the panels disintegrated while other defects caused two fires that took the system offline for two years, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenues." Wow - that is shocking. So who made those defective panels? The reporter doesn't say.
Nor are any of the problem panels alluded to in this story ever named, citing, in some cases, confidentiality agreements.
Which raises a serious problem with the article: if you cannot identify any of the solar module manufacturers that are having these problems you leave the impression that all solar modules are suspect. (Our analysis on who the guilty party might be is below...)
A quick perusal of the comments to the article reveals the predictable factions: those who echo the Fox News line that solar is a failed technology that only exists because of the Obama Administration's foolish indulgence in Green Tech; claims that all problems in the solar industry are a result of "Chinese dumping" and the associated China bashing; countered partially by a handful of comments from people who actually know something about the industry.
We find the Chinese bashing particularly problematic - after all, the Chinese are not putting a gun to any project developer's head and forcing them to use third-tier panels.
Greed is what is causing that.
We have been in business since 2006 and there have always been high quality solar panels available from reputable manufacturers - and they have always cost more than many of the panels offered to us for use in our projects. Scanning the CSI data (see below) reveals that many projects - including many of the largest projects - were built using those "bargain basement" panels. Why? Because it maximized the project developer's profit.
This is not a new problem, despite it getting a major splash in the "Paper of Record." Indeed, we wrote in the Spring of 2012 about how the decision by project developers to focus on the lowest cost per Watt "will continue to put undue pressure on quality manufacturers around the globe - whether in the US or China. Consumer demand for quality is the ultimate way to improve this situation - and that means educating consumers as to what quality means in this market." A year plus has gone by, but where has that educational effort been? The need is as great - or greater than ever, but sadly, the NY Times piece fails on that score. (If you want to read an earlier, and far more comprehensive article on this subject, check out this piece by the great Felicity Carus: Quality Issues Threaten to Give Solar a Black Eye.)
It's a Friday morning so we decided to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes and go diving into the CSI data to see if we could identify the guilty party alluded to in the NY Times piece. Here is all they gave us to go on - the project has been in place for roughly four or more years (failed after 2 years, offline for 2 years), located in the "Inland Empire" and its downtime resulted in a loss of "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in revenue. From that we concluded that we needed to look at systems from 2010 or earlier, in the Inland Empire - which we took to mean anywhere in the counties of Riverside or San Bernardino - and of at least 200 kW. Those criteria provide us with 28 potential systems, built with solar panels from just seven manufacturers. Here are our results:
What can we say about these manufacturers? Well, certainly BP Solar, SunPower, Kyocera and Sanyo would all be considered top-tier manufacturers of solar panels - although BP is exiting the solar industry and Sanyo is now owned by Panasonic.
As for the others, Evergreen Solar was a US manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy in August 2011. Solar Integrated Technologies was a subsidiary of Michigan-based Energy Conversion Devices which itself filed for bankruptcy in February 2012. Solar Semiconductor is a vertically integrated systems provider with manufacturing facilities in India.
So who is the guilty party? No way to know for sure, but a little online searching reveals other problems for one of these companies. A September 14, 2012 article on the San Diego Union Tribune website documents problems with "Flawed Solar Panels" that were manufactured by Solar Integrated Technologies. According to the article, the panels manufactured by the company, "had a manufacturing defect that allowed water to seep into crevices of the panels, which in some cases created corrosion and in the worst-case scenario could cause a short that could start rooftop fires" - which sounds a great deal like the problem cited in the New York Times piece.