Mumbai start-up uses solar energy to preserve seasonal produce, tackle undernourishment

Posted on March 1st, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



A Mumbai-based start-up has used solar energy to preserve seasonal produce, helping prevent undernourishment among rural women and women farmers.

All that S4S Technologies (Science for Society) did was provide solar conduction dryers, which dehydrate vegetables and fruits, to 230 rural women in 17 of Maharashtra’s villages. Another group comprising 200 women from villages in Thane and Aurangabad — called the control group — were not provided with the dryers.

Developed by S4S, the electricity-free solar-powered food dehydrator uses controlled radiation technology to trap the infrared rays that dry fruits and vegetables. The dehydrated products regain their original properties when put in water. Every year, 25%-30% of the 250 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables produced in India are lost.

“Undernutrition or malnutrition is intergenerational. It passes from a mother to her children,” said Vaibhav Tidke, chief executive officer, S4S. “Undernourishment is attributed to poverty, which results in poor ability to buy food and maintain dietary variations, food shortage across off-seasons when agri-products are not available on farms, gender inequality as women are not equipped to buy and supply nutritional food, and poor feeding practices that rely on staple food as major component of diet.”

The women were trained to use the dryers to dehydrate onions, fenugreek, spinach, dried ginger, mangoes and papaya. These dehydrated products were integrated in their daily diet, especially during the lean season — January to June — when fresh produce is not available for consumption.

The fact that vegetables were ready to be consumed during the lean season increased the Dietary Diversity Score — amount of nutrients in one’s diet — in the experimental group by 37% more than the control group.

“During the lean season, women end up eating starchy food. They boil potatoes with salt and some spice; all of which has no nutrition,” said Tidke. “Dehydrating locally available seasonal food and cooking it improved the women’s haemoglobin count by an average of one point — from 8g/dL to 9g/dL, for instance,” he added.

With the dryer reducing moisture content in agri-animal produce and maintaining nutritional values, women farmers and rural women can preserve seasonal produce for six months to a year, without using chemicals.

“When vegetables, fruits or any agricultural products are dehydrated, there is a less-than-5% loss in minerals and protein activity owing to the controlled temperature increase during the drying process. The concentration of nutrients, vitamins and protein activity is increased by almost five times owing to the removal of water. Hence, the net gain is enormous,” said Bhaskar Thorat,head, chemical engineering department, ICT, and advisor for S4S. “This concentration increases energy levels and improves haemoglobin levels,” he added.

In addition to consuming the dried product and preventing wastage, the women also sold the surplus. Of the 200 women in the experimental group, 105 sold the surplus dehydrated food — approximately 20,000kg of agricultural products.

With more than Rs10 lakh in proceeds, the consumption of dehydrated vegetables and fruits helped the women save Rs40 to Rs60 a week during the lean season.


The team plans to write to the state women and child welfare and tribal departments with the proposal to introduce solar conduction dryers in villages.

“There needs to be a policy intervention in terms of installing solar dryers at the panchayat levels,” said Tidke.

The two-year project was executed by S4S, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai and Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition. It is supported by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Department of Biotechnology), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID

The solar conduction dryer is a patented technology recognised by the UN, USAID, UKAID, FICCI and University of Texas. It costs three to five times less than other solar dryers and processes 1 tonne material annually.


“Fabulous” Precious Metal Kickstarts Energy-to-Fuel System, Solar Style

Posted on February 24th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



 Scientists at Duke University have figured out how to tease just a little more fabulousness out of rhodium, a rare element that the jewelry finishing trade considers to be fabulous enough already. The research team has deployed rhodium in system that uses solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into methane, aka natural gas. The idea, eventually, could be to capture waste gas from industrial operations and convert it to usable fuel.

Both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases, so at first blush there doesn’t seem much to gain. However, if you look at the hazards and risks of natural gas fracking — including “fugitive” methane emissions — sourcing methane from captured waste gas starts to look pretty good.

Solar Energy + CO2 = Fuel

The new Duke University breakthrough solves one of the problems that has been giving researchers conniptions for years.

Rhodium is an excellent catalyst, but it produces carbon monoxide and other undesirable byproducts when used for CO2 conversion. According to Duke, the ratio is about half methane and half undesirables.

That inefficiency makes the pathway to commercialization all the more difficult. That’s compounded by the price of rhodium, which can cost 10 times more than gold. Rhodium is also susceptible to wide swings in the global commodities market.

The Duke team seems to have solved both problems at once. Leveraging the relatively new (well, new-ish) field of plasmonics, the team was able to work with nanoscale bits of synthetic rhodium that were optimized for light near the ultraviolet range.

When exposed to light in that range, the resulting CO2 conversion leaned toward producing methane without the byproducts.

Here’s an explainer from Henry Everitt, a scientist at a US Army R&D center who is also an adjunct professor at Duke:

“Effectively, plasmonic metal nanoparticles act like little antennas that absorb visible or ultraviolet light very efficiently and can do a number of things like generate strong electric fields…For the last few years there has been a recognition that this property might be applied to catalysis.”

Among the many next steps involved in getting this thing out of the lab and into the streets, the team will be looking at ways to use natural sunlight instead of UV light.

There’s A Catch…Or Is There?

The Duke study has just been published in the journal Nature Communications under the title, “Product selectivity in plasmonic photocatalysis for carbon dioxide hydrogenation.

If you caught that thing about hydrogenation, that refers to the use of hydrogen in the reaction.

That should send up a red flag or two because right now a primary source for hydrogen gas is methane gas. Hydrogen already has many industrial uses and demand for hydrogen will rise if the whole fuel cell thing catches on (it already has, in some sectors). Methane conversion would add yet another straw to the methane load, solar powered or not.

So, is the Duke breakthrough really all that helpful?

It could be, eventually.

Aside from fossil sources, animal waste and other types of biomass are sources of methane emissions (yes, that includes cow farts). Current research indicates that globally, domestic livestock accounts for a large portion of methane emissions so rise in demand for hydrogen could help accelerate efforts to reclaim those emissions and put them to use.

Research teams all over the globe are also busily applying themselves to the task of “splitting” water to produce hydrogen, and powering that process with solar energy or other renewables.

And, speaking of fuel cells, back in 2013 CleanTechnica covered a rather interesting study indicating that a catalyst based on rhodium and cobalt could enable fuel cells to generate their own hydrogen on the go.


Thai Solar Energy to develop 154.9MW PV project in Miyagi prefecture, Japan

Posted on February 24th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



In a letter to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, Thai Solar Energy announced that it has acquired the rights to construct and own a 154.9MW solar project in Onikobe, Miyagi prefecture, Japan.

As part of the deal, Thai Solar will hold a 60% stake in the new project, while Sino-Thai Engineering & Construction will hold on to the remaining portion of the project.

The installation, which will be developed over 332.8 hectares of land, will require an investment of US$539 million on the part of Thai Solar Energy.

The 154MW project will require an investment of US$539 from Thai Solar Energy. Image: Portland General Electric / Flickr

In addition to the current acquisition, both Thai Solar and Sino-Thai will acquire the companies of PurpleSol and SolarOne in order to complete the project.

PurpleSol has obtained certification for power distribution, as granted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — along with other required and necessary licenses including a deal regarding grid connection with electricity utility providers.


Solar panels get a face-lift with custom designs

Posted on February 23rd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Residential solar power is on a sharp rise in the United States as photovoltaic systems become cheaper and more powerful for homeowners. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that solar could reach 1 million to 3.8 million homes by 2020, a big leap from just 30,000 homes in 2006.

But that adoption rate could still use a boost, according to MIT spinout Sistine Solar. “If you look at the landscape today, less than 1 percent of U.S. households have gone solar, so it’s nowhere near mass adoption,” says co-founder Senthil Balasubramanian MBA ’13.

Founded at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Sistine creates custom solar panels designed to mimic home facades and other environments, with aims of enticing more homeowners to install photovoltaic systems.

Sistine’s novel technology, SolarSkin, is a layer that can be imprinted with any image and embedded into a solar panel without interfering with the panel’s efficacy. Homeowners can match their rooftop or a grassy lawn. Panels can also be fitted with business logos, advertisements, or even a country’s flag. SolarSkin systems cost about 10 percent more than traditional panel installations. But over the life of the system, a homeowner can still expect to save more than $30,000, according to the startup.

A winner of a 2013 MIT Clean Energy Prize, Sistine has recently garnered significant media attention as a rising “aesthetic solar” startup. Last summer, one of its pilot projects was featured on the Lifetime television series “Designing Spaces,” where the panels blended in with the shingle roof of a log cabin in Hubbardston, Massachusetts.

In December, the startup installed its first residential SolarSkin panels, in a 10-kilowatt system that matches a cedar pattern on a house in Norwell, Massachusetts. Now, the Cambridge-based startup says it has 200 homes seeking installations, primarily in Massachusetts and California, where solar is in high demand.

“We think SolarSkin is going to catch on like wildfire,” Balasubramanian says. “There is a tremendous desire by homeowners to cut utility bills, and solar is finding reception with them — and homeowners care a lot about aesthetics.”

Captivating people with solar

SolarSkin is the product of the co-founders’ unique vision, combined with MIT talent that helped make the product a reality.

Balasubramanian came to MIT Sloan in 2011, after several years in the solar-power industry, with hopes of starting his own solar-power startup — a passion shared by classmate and Sistine co-founder Ido Salama MBA ’13.

One day, the two were brainstorming at the Muddy Charles Pub, when a surprisingly overlooked issue popped up: Homeowners, they heard, don’t really like the look of solar panels. That began a nebulous business mission to “captivate people’s imaginations and connect people on an emotional level with solar,” Balasubramanian says.

Recruiting Jonathan Mailoa, then a PhD student in MIT’s Photovoltaic Research Laboratory, and Samantha Holmes, a mosaic artist trained in Italy who is still with the startup, the four designed solar panels that could be embedded on massive sculptures and other 3-D objects. They took the idea to 15.366 (Energy Ventures), where “it was drilled into our heads that you have to do a lot of market testing before you build a product,” Balasubramanian says.

That was a good thing, too, he adds, because they realized their product wasn’t scalable. “We didn’t want to make a few installations that people talk about. … We [wanted to] make solar so prevalent that within our lifetime we can see the entire world convert to 100 percent clean energy,” Balasubramanian says.

The team’s focus then shifted to manufacturing solar panels that could match building facades or street fixtures such as bus shelters and information kiosks. In 2013, the idea earned the team — then officially Sistine Solar — a modest DOE grant and a $20,000 prize from the MIT Clean Energy Prize competition, “which was a game-changer for us,” Balasubramanian says.

But, while trying to construct custom-designed panels, another idea struck: Why not just make a layer to embed into existing solar panels? Recruiting MIT mechanical engineering student Jody Fu, Sistine created the first SolarSkin prototype in 2015, leading to pilot projects for Microsoft, Starwood Hotels, and other companies in the region.

That summer, after earning another DOE grant for $1 million, Sistine recruited Anthony Occidentale, an MIT mechanical engineering student who has since helped further advance SolarSkin. “We benefited from the incredible talent at MIT,” Balasubramanian says. “Anthony is a shining example of someone who resonates with our vision and has all the tools to make this a reality.”

Imagination is the limit

SolarSkin is a layer that employs selective light filtration to display an image while still transmitting light to the underlying solar cells. The ad wraps displayed on bus windows offer a good analogy: The wraps reflect some light to display an image, while allowing the remaining light through so passengers inside the bus can see out. SolarSkin achieves a similar effect — “but the innovation lies in using a minute amount of light to reflect an image [and preserve] a high-efficiency solar module,” Balasubramanian says.

To achieve this, Occidentale and others at Sistine have developed undisclosed innovations in color science and human visual perception. “We’ve come up with a process where we color-correct the minimal information we have of the image on the panels to make that image appear, to the human eye, to be similar to the surrounding backdrop of roof shingles,” Occidentale says.

As for designs, Sistine has amassed a database of common rooftop patterns in the United States, such as asphalt shingles, clay tiles, and slate, in a wide variety of colors. “So if a homeowner says, for instance, ‘We have manufactured shingles in a barkwood pattern,’ we have a matching design for that,” he says. Custom designs aren’t as popular, but test projects include commercial prints for major companies, and even Occidentale’s face on a panel.

Currently, Sistine is testing SolarSkin for efficiency, durability, and longevity at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory under a DOE grant.

The field of aesthetic solar is still nascent, but it’s growing, with major companies such as Tesla designing entire solar-panel roofs. But, as far as Balasubramanian knows, Sistine is the only company that’s made a layer that can be integrated into any solar panel, and that can display any color as well as intricate patterns and actual images.

Companies could thus use SolarSkin solar panels to double as business signs. Municipalities could install light-powering solar panels on highways that blend in with the surrounding nature. Panels with changeable advertisements could be placed on bus shelters to charge cell phones, information kiosks, and other devices. “You can start putting solar in places you typically didn’t think of before,” Balasubramanian says. “Imagination is really the only limit with this technology.”


Bill Nye-backed startup uses particle accelerator to make solar panels 60% cheaper

Posted on February 23rd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



A startup has created a method for using a particle accelerator to slice microscopically thin silicon wafers that reduce the cost to manufacture solar panels by more than 60% by eliminating waste material by 50 to 100 times.

The company, Rayton Solar, kicked off a Regulation A+ equity crowdfunding campaign in July. The campaign, which received SEC qualification last month, has garnered more than $7 million in equity reservation investments, according to its founder Andrew Yakub.

Since the SEC's qualification last month, the company has received an additional $844,000 from crowdfunding.

Bill Nye, the host of the science television series Bill Nye The Science Guy, visited Rayton's Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters and put his name behind the company by producing a video explaining the process of using a particle accelerator to manufacture silicon wafers.

Rayton Solar was founded in 2012 when Yakub, then a design engineer at the UCLA Particle Beam Physics Laboratory, saw the need for a less expensive method for producing silicon wafers, the basis for solar panels.

Along with working at the University of California, Los Angeles, Yakub was running a solar installation company at the time that relied on a federal grant program that made installing solar cost effective. With the grant program due to expire, Yakub wanted to invent a cheaper and more efficient solar cell.

The raw material of most conventional solar cells today is crystalline silicon. While silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth, it must first be refined in a furnace at temperatures as high as 1,800-degrees Celsius and undergo other expensive chemical processes before reaching the solar-grade purity of 99.999%, which allows it to collect light that can be turned into electricity.

Once in pure crystalline form, manufacturers use diamond saws to slice ingots from the silicon crystal to be used in solar cells, which make up solar panels. The sawing process, however, can turn as much as half of the material into dust, and the silicon wafers produced are up to 200 microns (about .007-in) thick.

Yakub said he patented a method for slicing silicon ingots using a proton particle accelerator, which produces a wafer just three microns thick and with no wasted material.

The proton particle accelerator costs about $2 million, Yakub said. But even with the added expense, manufacturers would still see at least a 60% reduction in silicon wafer manufacturing costs, he said.

One particle accelerator, Yakub said, can produce enough silicon wafers to manufacture six megawatts worth of solar cells per year, which is enough to equip about 1,000 homes with solar panels.

Today, thin-film silicon cells are already used to make a small number of solar panels. The manufacturing process -- called vapor deposition -- can be slow and more expensive than standard silicon crystalline production.

"This employs the use of a growth crystalline substrate where the new silicon is grown slowly on top to 30-50 microns. This method is slow and energy intensive, but also requires the use of 30-50 micron thick silicon," Yakub said. "At Rayton, we use a well-known technique of growing a large single crystalline boule (the ingot) and then exfoliating a thin 3-micron-layer of silicon off of it. We are a 'top down' technique while the vapor deposition methods are a 'bottom up' technique."

Tyler Ogden, a solar analyst at Lux Research, said Rayton Solar is developing "a flashy technology, merging two of the hottest applications of physics – particle acceleration and photovoltaic generation – but with dubious prospects."

"Their attempt to apply particle accelerator technology currently used for medical applications to cleave a thin wafer from a float-zone silicon ingot is an elaborate solution to reduce silicon waste. The process needs to occur in a vacuum, is likely very energy intensive, and requires a completely novel cell architecture to ensure adequate performance from the thin wafer," Ogden said.

Rayton, Ogden continued, is embarking on a "a science experiment that seeks to displace industry standard processes and as such are decades away from commercialization and are unlikely to get there."

Yakub, however, said that because the growth of a single crystal ingot is already industrially scaled and produced worldwide, Rayton Solar doesn't experience the same complications from the silicon crystal growth method used in thin-film solar cell production.

"And we can ensure that the highest quality of silicon is used in our exfoliation step. Going down to 3 microns from 30-50 microns realizes further cost reductions," Yakub said.

One issue that arises from slicing silicon to only 3 microns thick is that its efficiency, or ability to collect light photons, is greatly reduced. Because the slicing technology is so efficient, however, electronic-grade or float-zone silicon can be used, which has a vastly higher efficiency compared with standard silicon used for solar cells, Yakub said.

"Float-zone silicon is 10 times more expensive as a raw material, but we use 100 times less of it so therefore it becomes more economical," Yakub said. "So Rayton's process creates solar panels that are 25% more efficient than the industry standard."

Yakub, whose company is privately held, plans to run the fund-raising campaign over the next year and then license the particle accelerator technology to solar panel manufacturers.

"Our plan is to prove this works with one machine at a commercial scale as a proof of concept," he said. "Then we can license the technology out to larger manufacturers."


How a Pacific Island Changed From Diesel to 100% Solar Power

Posted on February 22nd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



On a recent Wednesday evening on the island of Ta’u—one of the outer islands in American Samoa—most of the people in all three villages are at pese—or church choir—practice. The annual island-wide youth group showcases are coming up and each choir senses the pressure of having to perfect their routines.

For the Faleasao village choir, there is added pressure from being the smallest village on the island. But this year, the underdog choir believe they have a special routine that will blow away the competition. Their secret weapon: Disney's Moana. Specifically, an adapted version of the song "We Know The Way," complete with synchronized dance moves to mimic life as voyaging islanders.

In a nearby home, a TV is tuned to a local Samoan news station, but the sound is muted. The only noise is the low humming of a box fan and the distant singing of the village choir. Musu Fuiava Mutini happily hums along, glued to her tablet device. Mutini, 82, is a village elder who has seen her home change immensely through the years.

“Before, there used to be lots of people living here," she says. "But in the time of Hurricane Tusi in 1987, everything was destroyed. Most people moved away, to Pago Pago [capital of American Samoa] or the U.S.” She pauses and sighs, caught in a distant memory. "This island is very different now."

In many ways, islands like Ta’u are a microcosm for our planet. Space and resources are both limited and the success of human communities depends on the effective management of these critical components. In looking toward a more sustainable future, the hundreds of residents of Ta'u have put their faith in a new solar energy project, which some say they would like to see replicated around the world. (See how Pacific Islanders are living with climate change.)


In November, Ta'u saw the completion of a new solar-powered microgrid, which shifted the entire island’s energy generation from 100 percent diesel fuel to 100 percent solar. (The island's population varies with the season but usually falls between 200 and 600 people.)

The solar project was installed by SolarCity, a California-based company recently purchased by Elon Musk’s Tesla. The $8 million project was funded by the U.S. Department of Interior and the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA).

Located on seven acres of land on the northern coast of the island, the system includes 5,328 solar panels, generating 1.410 megawatts of electricity. The energy can be stored in 60 Tesla Powerpacks—large batteries that allow Ta'u to stay powered for up to three days without any sunlight.

Installation of the panels wasn't easy—Ta'u is some 4,000 miles from California. Extra considerations had to be made for the island’s extreme humidity and likelihood of severe tropical storms. As a result, the system was built with the capability of withstanding Category 5 hurricane winds.

The last time Ta’u underwent an energy revolution was in 1972, when ASPA constructed a diesel power plant and provided island-wide electricity for the first time. Prior to that, kerosene lanterns were the primary source of evening light. For the few families who could afford it, small home generators were a luxury. For everyone else, life moved at a slower, simpler pace.

Introducing diesel generators to Ta’u essentially introduced a new way of life. Suddenly, lights turned on with the flick of a switch and the list of activities around the villages and inside homes increased drastically. With electricity also came new ways of preparing and preserving food, thus changing local diets. Pretty soon, the loud humming of diesel generators became a part of the island’s soundtrack.


Even with the relatively small amount of energy consumers on Ta’u, the offset of fossil fuels from switching over to solar power is significant: about 110,000 gallons of diesel, not to mention the amount of fuel it takes for shipping. These numbers can make a strong argument for bringing these types of renewable energy projects to island communities, but the reality is that there is still trepidation around the idea of uprooting the status quo.

“There are islands that have conferences upon conferences where all they talk about is sustainability,” says Danielle Mauga, one of ASPA’s engineers, when asked about the decision to proceed with this multi-million dollar project.

“A lot of other islands are working towards the same goal, yet this island has managed to achieve a major milestone by being able to claim energy independence with solar power,” says Mauga. (Learn about a solar microgrid in Haiti.)

Aside from the environmental concerns of burning diesel fuel, another side effect was the loss of the self reliance of old. Instead, people on Ta'u relied on the shipment of food, supplies, and drums of oil.

That left them at the mercy of shipping schedules. Although a supply vessel is supposed to arrive every fortnight, delays due to weather and mechanical problems are frequent, sometimes even stretching for months. Rationing of food and fuel is a regular occurrence.

Many other Pacific islands face the same reality of dependence on imported goods and energy.


But since switching over from diesel power to solar power, life on the island of Ta'u has gone on as usual. People in all three villages resumed their daily routines—work, tending to the plantation, going to church, resting, repeat—without missing a beat. In fact, when ASPA and SolarCity officially “flipped the switch” for the solar power plant (and simultaneously switched off the diesel generators) in November, the lights around the island barely flickered.

When the diesel power plant was built over four decades ago, the changes were immediately felt by the community. This time, the new solar facility—though just as monumental of a technological shift—does not have the same life-changing sensation for consumers of the public utility. Switching from kerosene lanterns to a light switch is a much more obvious disruption to daily island life than switching from diesel to solar power.

But this is exactly what makes the Ta’u solar energy project a success, say the project's backers. People can go about their normal routines without any interruption, even though everything has changed behind the scenes.

And yet, it seems as though everybody on this little island is aware that they are a part of something special. Ask anyone in Ta’u what they think about the project and they will probably mention one of two things: relief that they no longer have to rely so heavily on unreliable shipments of fuel, and an understanding that 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel is no small amount.

The project has also seemed to sow the seeds of sustainability. In the island's classrooms, children yell out buzzwords like “Going Green” and “Saving the Planet” when asked to reflect about solar energy, while adults see it as a boon that will save them money and stress in the long run.

Looking up from her tablet, village elder Mutini says the solar panels may help brighten the future of the island. "I think these new changes to the island are good blessings," she continues. "Maybe the changes will bring more people back here again.”


Just as ancient Polynesians once viewed the ocean as a set of pathways between islands, Samoans today also have a deep sense of interconnectedness with the world beyond their shores. Technology, connectivity, and travel options have improved exponentially, thus making the distance between even the remotest islands seem closer than before.

The solar project on Ta’u may also help inform conversations that are taking place on other islands around the world. Communities want to know if renewable energy is worth the investment, if the technology is reliable, and if people will respond well.

Ta’u's elders hope their future will more closely resemble their distant past, when people were self-sufficient and living in harmony with their environment.


Solar energy powers sustainable solutions

Posted on February 22nd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Every mouthful of food eaten by virtually every creature on Earth depends ultimately on the sun. But it can do much more than nurture the crops that feed us − and humans are starting to exploit this potential in striking new ways.

Farmers are now using solar energy to do far more than simply enable their crops to grow. Already it’s helping them to irrigate their fields and to clean their dairy equipment.

Only about 5 per cent of Africa’s cultivated land is irrigated, compared with Asia’s 41 per cent. Until recently, the other available methods have been manual irrigation, which is time-consuming and laborious, or petrol or diesel pumps, which are too expensive for many farmers and also add to greenhouse gas emissions.

But now there’s another way – solar-powered irrigation pumps. One pioneer of this technology is Futurepump, based in Kenya but importing the pumps from India.

Its top-of-the-range SF1 pump costs about US$650, but the company says it pays for itself in one to two years and will enable farmers to save $100-200 a year.

Solar energy converted

The pump’s solar panel directly converts solar energy into electrical power, which is transferred to a simple motor that rotates a flywheel, whose turning moves a piston up and down to draw water through the pump cylinder.

The pump, which can produce enough water to irrigate about half an acre of land per hour, works on sunny and cloudy days, in the early morning and late into the evening – and is easily transportable.

Another Kenyan solar energy entrepreneur is SunCulture, which has developed what it calls its AgroSolar Irrigation System. This draws water from any source − for example, a lake, river, stream, well or borehole − using solar power.

The solar panels provide the pump’s power directly without the need for batteries or inverters. Water is pumped into a raised storage tank by day, and all the farmer needs to do in the evening is to open a valve on the tank so that the water flows down through a filtration system and onto crop root zones via drip irrigation tape.

SunCulture’s system costs US$890, and farmers using it have reported yield increases of 300 per cent or more. Trained technicians and agronomists provide buyers with on-farm training, soil analysis and agronomy support by mobile phone and via a call centre.

Both SunCulture and Futurepump have been longlisted in the 2017 Ashden Awards, an annual international competition to encourage sustainable energy.

Proximity Designs, the winner of one of Ashden’s 2014 awards, is based in Myanmar, and introduced treadle pumps and other sustainable agriculture technologies to the country a few years ago.

It has now launched a solar irrigation pump, the Lotus, described as “radically affordable”: It costs US$345, a price that provides buyers with the pump itself, 260W of solar panels and a stand.

The Lotus can pump more than 15,000 litres of water a day, and the company estimates it will take farmers about 11 months to pay back their costs when they convert from a diesel pump.

Farmers in dry parts of Myanmar can expect this return to be even quicker.

Accessible to farmers

Designers had difficulty in creating a pump to fit neatly into the 2-inch tube wells that are found throughout Myanmar. But the product had to be easily accessible for rural farmers.

In the Mandalay region, for example, water levels are low and falling, making an alternative to increasingly expensive diesel pumps really important.

In Central America, Costa Rican dairy farmers have found another use for solar energy, and one which again means higher incomes for those who adopt it.

A solar company, Enertiva, has designed solar water heaters that supply hot water for washing farmers’ milking equipment and tanks.

The country’s buoyant dairy industry has high standards, inevitably meaning high costs as well − including for electricity or gas to provide the hot water essential for keeping milking equipment clean.

Farmers who used the fossil fuels can save around US$1,400 per year with the solar heaters, so can pay back their loan within one year.

Enertiva’s technology, which will work throughout the tropics and is now also being used in Guatemala and Panama, won an Ashden Award in 2015.


Solar jobs soar as Maryland prioritizes renewable energy

Posted on February 22nd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Matt McDonough and his crew rolled up to the Brooklyn Park home around 8 a.m., unloaded their ladders, harnesses and tools, and got to work tiling another roof with solar panels.

It was a typical workday for the four-man team. They don't talk much as they check electrical connections and begin hauling equipment up to the roof of the single-story 1920s home because, after hundreds of installations, they have it down to a science. The job will take a day, maybe two, and when it's done, they'll be on to the next one.

"There's never a time we don't have work," said McDonough, who leads one of 10 installation crews at Solar Energy World.

Business is booming for Solar Energy World and other solar companies in Maryland, as sun-sourced energy becomes more affordable and accessible. Attracted by solar-friendly policies and mounting demand, solar companies are flocking to the state and hiring in droves. Maryland added 1,160 solar jobs in 2016, a 27 percent jump from the previous year, bringing the industry's employment to more than 5,400, according to an annual solar jobs census by the Solar Foundation.

The U.S. solar market nearly doubled last year, with production capacity growing 95 percent to 14,626 megawatts, according to a preview of the upcoming U.S. Solar Market Insight report, a collaboration between the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. While residential capacity grew steadily, the biggest gains last year came in utility installations, many of them made to address state rules.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers voted to override Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a requirement that a quarter of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. The move accelerated a previous goal that renewable energy account for 20 percent of the state's electricity by 2022.

Across Maryland, from the Eastern Shore to Harford and Howard counties, solar companies have installed acres of solar arrays on farmland to sell power to utilities and others.

But these big projects don't drive employment like rooftop installation and maintenance does, according to the Solar Foundation, a research and education nonprofit organization.

"We're constantly interviewing," said Geoff Mirkin, CEO of Solar Energy World, "so if and when the next opening comes up, we're ready."

The Elkridge company's revenue nearly doubled to $31 million in 2016, up from about $16 million in 2015, and expects more growth this year, which means more hiring. Mirkin, who has 93 employees, wants to add two more installation teams, for a total of 12, by the end of March and is considering establishing new field offices to expand the company's service area beyond the Baltimore-Washington region.

SolarCity, one of the nation's largest full-service solar companies, is expanding its service to customers of Easton Utilities, along Maryland's Eastern Shore, this year.

The company has five offices and more than 800 employees in Maryland, making the state one of SolarCity's larger markets, a spokesman said.

Solar companies looking to grow face a unique hiring challenge: How to find workers with experience in a relatively new line of work.

"The solar industry is growing so quickly, it doesn't have a tremendous pool of qualified candidates to choose from," said Andrea Luecke, the Solar Foundation's president and executive director. "They're really hiring a lot of people by looking for basic competencies, people who have transferable skills and are willing to put in the time to help the company grow."

That's the case for Direct Energy, a Texas company that established its solar business by acquiring Howard County-based Astrum Solar in 2014. This year, the company expects to add up to 15 workers in Maryland to its Mid-Atlantic division, which employs between 60 and 70 solar employees in the region. Another 100 support staff are based at Direct Energy's solar headquarters in Columbia.

"The vast majority of people we hire, it's their first job in solar," said Anthony Bramante, Direct Energy's head of residential solar for the Mid-Atlantic division.

Bramante and Mirkin, of Solar Energy World, said they look for workers with experience in construction or electrical work who can be trained in the intricacies of solar installation.

Ethan Goddard had just graduated St. John's College with a liberal arts degree when he heard a radio ad for Solar Energy Services and decided to apply for an installer job. Two years and a few promotions later, he's a commercial project manager at the Millersville company.

"There was a certain point after I got promoted to a crew leader I remember thinking, 'I might have stumbled on a career,'" said Goddard, 25, of Annapolis. "It was something I never thought would happen."

McDonough, the Solar Energy World installer, built custom doors for 10 years before making the move to solar. He'd heard the pay was better and liked the idea of doing something "for the better good," he said.

Workforce development programs in Maryland have honed in on the solar industry's appetite for workers and openness to on-the-job training.

Civic Works, a community services organization in Baltimore, last year launched a three-month solar job training program for city residents who have struggled in the past to secure jobs.

"We just saw that the industry was exploding and there were a ton of job openings," said Evie Schwartz, an associate director of outreach and production. "The companies were growing, but there was a skills gap."

The program, run through the nonprofit's Baltimore Center for Green Careers, partners with local solar companies to include two-month apprenticeships. The program also covers basic construction skills and social skills, and guarantees job placement for all graduates.

Civic Works is expanding the program to include career development for solar employees, to help them advance professionally.

It also plays into an initiative Baltimore launched last year to bring solar panels to the rooftops of low-income city residents. The state Public Service Commission finalized regulations last week for community solar programs, through which a group of homeowners or renters can share the costs and benefits of a solar installation.

Betony Jones, associate chair of the climate program at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Berkeley, cautioned against workforce development programs that focus exclusively on solar skills. Participants would be better off learning solar as part of a broader skill set that they can apply to construction or electrical jobs outside the solar field, she said.

"When you're just investing in solar training, it can almost be a dead-end job," Jones said. "It's a good entry-level job, but you kind of hit a plateau as a solar installer if all you know is solar."

While some solar businesses can't seem to hire fast enough, others said last year wasn't the boom previous years have been because of growing competition and the deflating effect that has had on prices for renewable energy credits, a key incentive for homeowners and businesses to invest in solar panels.

"There's definitely more demand for solar, but there's a lot more competition, as well," said Rick Peters, president of Solar Energy Services. "We've been a bit of a victim of our own success."

Homeowners and businesses sell their solar energy for renewable energy credits, which energy suppliers buy to meet state requirements for using renewable energy. In Maryland, however, the price of a renewable energy credit has collapsed to $18, from about $120 a year ago, according to SRECTrade, a renewable energy credit transaction and management firm that tracks bid prices.

Peters said the drop slowed sales and Solar Energy Services had to lay off a few workers, though they have been hired back as business picked up again.

He said he isn't sure whether the state's mandate to increase the amount of renewable energy used will make much of a difference, but is hopeful it will help.

Others credit the state's policies with bolstering solar businesses.

Sunrun, a San Francisco-based residential solar company has done system installation and leasing in Maryland since 2011, but opened its first field office in the state in December 2015.

The company spent much of last year hiring, and now employs 50 people at its Linthicum Heights office, said Andy Newbold, a Sunrun spokesman.

"The bottom line is Maryland set up an environment that was conducive to solar businesses coming to the state," Newbold said, "and we're obviously not the only ones selling here."


These Marines Beat the Odds to Build a Solar Energy Fund

Posted on February 22nd, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



As marines, Rye Barcott and Dan McCready had plenty of experience performing under pressure, but neither had much knowledge about the high stakes world of investing and finance. That didn’t stop them from leaving their well-paying day jobs to start their own firm.

Launched in 2013, Double Time Capital invests in utility-scale solar farms in North Carolina. In just over three years, the firm has raised seven funds, totaling $80 million, from investors including Prudential Financial, Burt’s Bees, former Bank of America chief executive Hugh McColl, Jr., and former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who now advises the company. Altogether, Double Time has financed 36 solar energy projects, which collectively produce roughly 10% of North Carolina’s solar power and power around 30,000 homes in the state.

Strictly speaking, Double Time is not a venture capital firm. It often invests in projects that are still under construction, and may not produce a profit for several years. However, solar farms typically take advantage of various state and federal tax credits to help with building costs. (North Carolina, for example, offered a 35% tax rebate for renewable energy projects until 2016. It has not been offered since, but Barcott says that does not affect its projects currently under way.) As a result, says Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, such funds typically need fairly sophisticated investors, who can make use of the tax credit while they wait for the solar farms to start producing energy. Investors are eventually rewarded because state utilities are required by law to purchase a percentage of their power from independent energy producers, including solar farms, usually through fixed multi-year contracts.

It’s a complicated time for solar energy producers. On the one hand, Barcott and McCready’s plans run counter to many of the prevailing national trends around alternative energy. The falling price of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas has dampened enthusiasm for projects like solar and wind in some sectors, for one. The Trump administration is also openly hostile to the idea of climate change, and seems uninterested in making clean power a cornerstone of any new national energy strategy.

At the same time, it’s possible the Trump administration will eventually warm up to solar: there’s a growing national demand for clean energy. But perhaps more importantly given the political climate, solar projects have the potential to create jobs and stimulate spending. Today, they account for nearly 40 percent of all new power infrastructure buildouts in the U.S. in 2016 according to industry research.

Hostile president or not, Barcott and McCready are confident they found a market opportunity. While SolarCity, Vivint and their ilk install individual solar projects on commercial and residential roofs, Barcott and McCready wanted to address the financing needs of the utility-scale solar developers, which provide power directly to the electrical grid via solar farms. Even a small farm—typically around 40 acres, with more than 80,000 panels—costs upwards of $10 million. And such projects have a huge need for capital.

“Solar isn’t just cleaner, smarter energy, or good American infrastructure, it’s also a component of our national security and, ultimately, our energy independence,” McCready says.

Barcott and McCready discovered their interest in solar via paths that were sometimes circuitous and overlapping. Both served in the marines during the second Iraq War, although they actually met later at Harvard Business School in 2009.

After graduating, McCready worked at McKinsey as a management consultant, and grew increasingly intrigued with solar power, particularly after learning marines in Afghanistan had used small, portable solar panels to supplement their reliance on diesel engines. Barcott worked for Duke Energy, where he led a clean energy investment team for Rogers. At one point, Barcott called McCready in for assistance on a solar deal, and they began discussing their own venture in 2012.

Barcott and McCready hit the ground running—in fact "Double Time” refers to the military command for speeding up the rate of a march. They held more than 1,000 meetings to win potential investors in the year leading up the launch of their first fund. At times, they even enlisted some Gonzo tactics to find prospects: They once attended a multi-day conference for investors, and decided to post flyers near elevators of the venue, offering Marine Corps-style workouts starting at 7 a.m. As it turns out, an executive from Prudential showed up for one. Prudential is now an anchor investor in two of Double Time’s funds.

Both men say their ultimate goal is for the firm to have a positive impact. “We believe in building a business that can have a transformative role, and that can have a positive effect on climate change,” Barcott says.

And that sits right with investors like Rogers, who says the current political backlash against alternative energy sources will vanish as the price of solar solar energy continues to drop. By some estimates, it’s fallen by 62% in the last eight years, and it could soon be cheaper than coal. “As solar comes closer to being the most affordable option in the market, it does not matter who is president,” Rogers says. “Affordability will win the day.”


Sandia scientist paving the way for solar energy

Posted on February 17th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



A local scientists is paving the way when it comes to solar energy. He is hoping we could soon see the technology developed at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque homes.

It is a growing field.

“It works by getting sunlight in and turning it into electricity,” Murat Okandan, mPower CEO said.

Scientist Murat Okandan says people are realizing the benefits of solar energy and are using it more and more, but he says there are limitations.

“The standard cells are fragile and brittle so if you bend and flex them, they’ll break,” Okandan said.

It is why Okandan worked with other Sandia Labs scientists to develop new ways of processing cells.

He calls them Dragon scales. They are flexible, durable, solar cells.

“This will allow you to make it lighter, make it larger areas and fold up into very tight areas lets say for satellites or UAV’s and be able to then fly longer distances or cover larger areas,” Okandan said.

Imagine a version of these prototypes folded up to fit in your backpack. Take it on a camping trip to charge your laptop or phone. Its flexibility even makes it possible to go on clothing.

Eventually, Okandan sees this wrapped around homes or even cars, covering all exposed areas to get the most out of the sun’s rays.

“Having it start here and hopefully go at a much larger scale is a very exciting opportunity,” Okandan said.

This was made possible thanks to a program at Sandia labs. It allows scientists to leave to start their own business with their technology, while guaranteeing their job at the labs for up to three years.

“mPower is taking technology developed at the labs to the energy sector, so its a win-win,” Mary Monson, Sandia National Labs said.

mPower just got its license to commercialize the technology last month. The program at Sandia labs that allowed Okandan to start mPower has also allowed for 46 other tech companies to form in New Mexico.