Categories: All About Solar Power, Electric Cars that Run on Sun, Energy Efficiency, Energy Storage, Safety

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10/24/13

  10:56:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 615 words  
Categories: Solar Economics, SCE, Commercial Solar, SDG&E, Energy Storage, Solar Policy, SPI 2013

Storage Send-off - Boosts from State & Private Sector

A key to the growth of solar, particularly commercial solar, is the availability of affordable storage solutions.  Two recent developments suggest that we are about to see dramatic growth in this vital market sector.

CPUC Decision

One week ago the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted five to nothing approving a plan to require the three investor-owned utilities (SCE, PG&E, and SDG&E) to procure  1,325 MW of energy storage by 2020, with installation completed by no later than the end of 2024. Both SCE and PG&E are required to procure 580 MW each, with the remaining 165 MW allocated to SDG&E.  200 MW of that 1,325 MW total is to be interconnected at the customer’s site.  In addition, the decision provides a timeline for this to happen with the first 200 MW to be procured by the end of next year.

Other electric service providers, like the munis, will have to procure energy storage equal to 1 percent of their annual peak load by 2020.  Those storage systems can also include customer sited and/or customer-owned storage devices as long as they were installed after January 1, 2010.

Large scale pumped hydro storage (greater than 50 MW) is excluded from the program, but storage obtained from plug-in electric vehicles can be counted.

This is a tremendously significant decision as the mandate will surely drive R&D as well as deployment investment and help provide a ready market for these emerging technologies.

Stem Makes its Move

An announcement this week during Solar Power International shows how that investment is already starting to happen.

Stem offeringsStem - the company with the clever technology for using storage to “smooth out” the demand peaks that drive commercial energy costs - just announced a $5 million project finance fund with Clean Feet Investors (CFI).  From the parties’ press release:

The new financing model, which Stem developed in collaboration with CFI, is designed to open access to a wider pool of customers by removing barriers to adoption, enabling up to 15 MW of energy storage to be deployed. With this financing capability, Stem hopes to follow the dramatic growth trajectory pioneered by the third party ownership model in the solar industry. Stem and CFI plan other innovative financing offers for customers including performance-based and shared savings financing solutions with the capital from this financing.

“In addition to breakthroughs in technology, Stem is focused on driving business model innovation,” said Prakesh Patel, Stem’s vice president of capital markets and strategy. “By working closely with CFI, I believe we have created a unique offering to help accelerate customer adoption of Stem systems. This transaction paves the way for Stem to become one of the first efficiency technologies to achieve bankability.”

“Deployment capital is essential for Stem to get their technology in the hands of their customers – many of whom prefer a “pay as you save” offering,” added Jigar Shah, a principal at Clean Feet, and founder of the largest solar services company, SunEdison.

Allowing companies to install Stem’s technology with little or nothing down will help those companies save money at the same time it allows Stem to ramp up.  This is great news for the solar industry since it is posed to provide the energy that Stem’s system later distributes as needed to offset those costly demand peaks.

Of course, this isn’t exactly great news for the utilities who, if this technology were widely adopted, would see a huge revenue hit as more and more commercial customers were able to lop-off the most expensive energy they now have to procure.  Whether it is the continuation of net-metering on the residential side or the ability to eliminate the worst of demand charges on the commercial side, the pressure on the utilities will only continue to grow.  But for their customers, things have never looked brighter.

10/15/13

  08:53:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 837 words  
Categories: Safety, Ranting

Open Letter to Unirac: Say It Ain't So! -- UPDATED

UPDATE (4/7/2014) – We just heard from the Product Manager for SM-E and he tells us that Unirac expects to have an announcement about the fate of SM-E by the end of April.  Of course as soon as we know more, you’ll know more—watch this space.


Unirac logo

We have used Unirac’s products exclusively since we started in this business some seven years ago.  We have worked with Unirac to supply donations to the owner of a wind-damaged array and for the USC team at the Solar Decathlon.  We trust their products and believe in the company.

But what we have heard recently leaves us pleading, “say it ain’t so.” In response, here’s our Open Letter to Unirac Management:

To: The Decision-Makers Regarding Solarmount Evolution

From: Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun

Subject: Say It Ain’t So

Dear Folks -

You may not know me, but many in your company do.  I am the owner of a solar installation company in Pasadena, California, and I frequently blog about issues in the solar industry.  Today my issue is your apparent decision to discontinue the Solarmount Evolution product.  Folks, with all due respect, this is a terrible decision.  Please let me explain.

end clamp with conventional solarmount

Conventional Solarmount Rail & End Clamp.

We have always used your products on our projects - whether conventional Solarmount, tilt legs, Clicksys, Fastfoot, or Solarmount Evolution - Unirac has been or brand of choice.  We appreciated our shared values - maximizing the durability of the systems that we were installing for our clients.

But one thing about conventional Solarmount always bothered us - the design of the end clamps that you featured.

That design has just never felt right - for a couple of reasons.  For one, there’s the angle - no matter what you do, that clamp is never truly perpendicular to the rail.  Over time, as things expand and contract in the sun, that nut is almost certain to loosen a bit and that clamp just looks like it longs to go “somewhere else".

But then we encountered a serious failure and that got us worrying about a second issue.

That T-bolt is stainless steel but it is sitting in an extruded aluminum channel.  I had seen an overly enthusiastic installer torque that bolt right through the channel - clearly not following procedures, but then there’s lots of folks out there who don’t follow recommended torque settings!   But when I saw what could happen when bad installation practices encountered a generational windstorm, I really became concerned.

FailureHere that T-bolt has chewed its way completely through the aluminum channel resulting in a catastrophic failure of the array.  When we came upon that failure, we turned to you to help us make it right - which we did, together.

The solution involved your Solarmount Evolution product and, having installed it once, I vowed I would never install conventional Solarmount again.  Why?  Because you had truly created a product that was superior in every sense: vastly stronger, clearly more secure over time, and even easier to work with on the roof!

Unirac solarmount(e) end clamp

Solarmount Evolution Rail & End Clamp

Look at the difference between the end clamp on the left versus the one above and ask yourself - which of these would you want securing a solar array to your roof for the next twenty-five years?  Not even a close call, is it?

You had done what every quality manufacture strives to do - you had built the better mousetrap.  We told everyone we spoke to about the benefits of your new product and we used it exclusively on all of our projects thereafter.

We heard some people complain that it cost more than conventional Solarmount.  Frankly, we didn’t notice and we didn’t care.  The product was so demonstrably superior that what difference did it make if it cost a few cents/Watt more?  We certainly didn’t ever lose any business because we specified it - but I can say with total knowledge that we closed some deals simply because of it.

So now we hear that you are going to discontinue the product altogether.

We would implore you to rethink this decision.

Some products, like some television shows, take a while to catch on with the public.  After all, NBC nearly failed to pickup Seinfeld, a program that many critics ultimately considered one of the best ever aired.  Solarmount Evolution is that good - but it needs a longer run to gain traction in the industry.

Here’s a suggestion - you are rolling out a new product for use with commercial flat roofs that greatly reduces your costs in providing that solution to the industry.  Take some of that money that you are going to save thanks to that new product and plow it back into major marketing for Solarmount Evolution.  (Maybe hire Solar Fred to handle the campaign - who better to kick start a product in this field?)

Solarmount Evolution deserves another season - it would be tragic if you were to cancel a hit before it gets a chance to find its audience and shine.

Yours sincerely,

Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun

09/30/13

  10:45:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 531 words  
Categories: Solar News, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

Centex Steps Up - Will Replace Faulty Solar Systems

We have previously reported on - and been critical of - the handling of defective solar tile systems installed in new “solar” homes built by Centex. Now we are happy to report that after much delay, Centex is stepping up to the plate and replacing defective solar tile systems with new, conventional solar arrays. Here’s our update.

Centex "solar home"

Centex Solar Home in Pleasanton, CA

First some background - between 2006 and 2009, Centex built “solar” homes like the one at the right in Pleasanton, California.  These homes featured solar roofing tiles that became the subject of a recall by the Consumer Products Safety Commission and were manufactured by Open Energy Corporation, which became Applied Solar, Inc., which became Applied Solar LLC - which then went bankrupt and ceased operations.

That left Centex to address these problems and as we previously noted, they were taking their time in doing so and were asking homeowners to sign an especially pernicious release of rights before agreeing to undertake repairs.  Then this summer, Centex stopped making repairs altogether after a series of fires broke out in homes that had been “repaired".  Clearly what was needed was for the old tiles to be completely removed, the roof restored and a new, conventional solar array installed.

Well now we are happy to report that Centex has agreed to do exactly that.

From a letter the company sent out to homeowners on September 25:

Based on an independent review of the OE-34 panels, Centex is not confident in their long-term viability and safety. Because of this, we are pleased to inform you that we will replace all existing OE-34 solar panels with new solar panels at no cost to homeowners. This includes all homeowners who have previously had their systems repaired.

In short, we believe resuming repairs is simply not sufficient to address the issues with the original solar panel system. When repairs were suspended and investigations underway, all homeowners were instructed to turn off their systems. We remind you to continue to keep your solar system turned off until the new system is installed.

Our goal is to replace all existing solar panel systems by February 2014. This replacement schedule is aggressive, but we have retained several companies to conduct the necessary work that entails: removal of current solar system panels, installation of new roof tiles in their place, and installation of a new raised-panel solar system. We estimate that it will take approximately two days per home for the removal and installation process.

This is very good news indeed and we applaud the decision by Centex to take this step.  Finally these homeowners will have the “benefit of their bargain” and once again have the opportunity to live in a solar home.

The letter identified the solar modules to be used as coming from either Hanwha or ET Solar and had links for more information about each of those.  Unfortunately, those links appear to be broken so we have uploaded the datasheets for the identified solar modules.  Here they are:

We will continue to monitor this story and we encourage affected homeowners to provide us with info about their experiences with this repair and replacement program in the comments below.

09/03/13

  09:24:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 820 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar News, Commercial Solar, Safety

Fire! Is Solar a Threat?

We saw a piece today about a fire on a distribution warehouse in New Jersey that was gutted in part because the local fire department was afraid to interact with the solar power system on the warehouse roof.  As solar makes greater inroads on commercial buildings, what can we as an industry do to address this concern? (H/T SolarWakeup.com)

The distribution center, owned by Dietz & Watson, was a refrigerated warehouse that supported over 7,000 solar modules according to news reports.  From Google we get this image of the center in happier days:

Dietz & Watson distribution center, new jerseyThis is a very large commercial array by any measure - even if those are 200 Watt modules you are looking at a 1.4 MW install on the roof, to say nothing of the additional capacity installed in the carports to the west.

It is also a very nicely designed array with clear access paths throughout the roof and plenty of potential areas that could be broken open to allow for venting (although I’m sure from a fire fighter’s perspective, they would always want more).

Sadly, this is how it looked during the fire:

warehouse on fire

Here is the view of the blaze taken from the raw video recorded by local TV station NBC10:

Fire on warehouseThis image makes clear that the NE quadrant of the building has been extensively damaged - the black area is where the solar panels have been completely destroyed.

The image also makes clear that the fire department chose to fight this fire from the ground, spraying water and foam onto the roof as opposed to going on to the roof itself.  (There was no explanation given as to the cause of the fire.)

The local reporting indicated that the fire crews were concerned about possible collapse of the roof due to the amount of water being poured onto the fire.  But they also mentioned the concern over possible electrocution:

Firefighters had to pull back at some points because the fully-charged solar panels posed the risk of electrocution.

“With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that,” said [Delanco Fire Chief Ron] Holt.

So what to make of all of this?

There can be no doubt that solar installations have the potential to make the already dangerous business of fighting a fire more hazardous.  Strings of solar panels can produce as much as 600 Volts DC and as a general rule, there is no way to shut them off from the ground.  While a DC disconnect on the ground could isolate the array from a ground mounted inverter, there is still potential in the conductors leading from the roof to the inverter.  If those conductors are shorted together - due to either a fireman’s actions or the fire itself - there is the potential for significant arcing and possibly even electrocution.

Of course, one way to reduce that risk is through the use of microinverters or AC modules.  With a microinverter, the only conductor runs are AC which can be safely switched off from the ground meaning that any conductors coming from the roof to the ground will be safe.  The individual solar modules can still produce power, but there are no strings to slice into or suddenly short to create a dangerous condition on the roof.  While microinverter systems are not generally considered on systems of this size, Enphase recently announced the use of their products on a 2.3 MW commercial array - possibly larger than this one.

Which begs the question - would that have mattered here?  Maybe, maybe not.  The question really is a function of how well would the local fire department understand the difference?  When we talk with local fire inspectors, they are always appreciative of the added safety to be found with microinverter systems but how well does the inspector’s understanding extend to the fire crews reporting to that fire?  Would they have trusted that the claimed safety was real and moved more aggressively to fight the fire on the roof?  Or would they have elected to play it safe?

The solar industry can work to develop safer products - which microinverters surely are - but that won’t matter if local fire crews aren’t educated as to how best to fight these fires.  Interestingly, while local codes require solar installers to provide all sorts of largely useless signage on our arrays - for example, specifying the nominal AC voltage and current as if that would make the least difference to anyone - there is no requirement to indicate whether the type of inverter being used.  Absent such signage, how would a local fire crew know what they were facing?

Maybe our friends at Enphase can design a placard to attach to our AC disconnect switches that advises the local fire department that throwing that one switch renders the conductors coming down from the roof safe.

So much of what we must do in the solar industry is education - this is perhaps one area where we need to improve our efforts.

09/01/13

  08:21:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 65 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Decathlon - 2013

fluxHome Final Walkthrough Video

Team USC has produced their final video walkthrough of fluxHome, their entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon - check it out!

My favorite bit - that they managed to work in a shot of an Enphase microinverter on top of the solar panels.  Good that they had a spare!

Oh, and in case you want to see the very latest progress, check out the Live Feed.  Fight on!

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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.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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