The Coolest New Solar Manufacturing Technology You've Never Heard Of

The Optical Cavity Furnace is a new piece of equipment for making solar cells that is about to rock the photovoltaic industry by slashing costs and increasing efficiency. The news should not just excite tech nerds—by reducing the cost of producing solar cells by nearly three-quarters, this new technology represents another big step on the path to making clean energy the cheap kind of energy. Here’s how it works. By using optics to more efficiently focus visible and infrared light, the Optical Cavity Furnace can heat silicon wafers used in solar cell production much more precisely and uniformly than previous forms of solar cell manufacture. The resulting solar cells are stronger, more efficient, and have fewer impurities. The National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, the DOE office responsible for the research, and a corporate partner AOS Inc. are now working to bring this technology to scale. The partners plan to build an industrial-scale Optical Cavity Furnace capable of producing 1,200 highly efficient solar cells per hour. NREL has cooperative research agreements with many of the country’s biggest solar cell producers.

Another Milestone: Renewable Energy Surpasses Nuclear Power by 18%

According to the most recent issue of the "Monthly Energy Review" by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), with data through June 30, 2011, renewable energy has passed another milestone as domestic production is now significantly greater than that of nuclear power and continues to close in on oil. During the first half of 2011, renewable energy sources (biomass & biofuels, geothermal, solar, water, wind) provided 4.687 quadrillion Btus of energy or 12.25% of U.S. energy production. By comparison, renewables accounted for 11.05% of domestic production during the first half of 2010 and 10.50% during the first half of 2009. (On the consumption side, which includes oil and other energy imports, renewable sources accounted for 9.45% of total U.S. energy use.) More significantly, energy production from renewable energy sources in 2011 was 17.91% more than that from nuclear power, which provided 3.975 quadrillion Btus and has been declining in recent years. Energy from renewable sources is now equal to 79.83% of that from domestic crude oil production, with the gap closing rapidly.  

Beacon Power: Another energy loan gone bad

Another alternative energy company that received a loan guarantee from the U.S. government has filed for bankruptcy. Beacon Power, which makes energy storage devices used to help the power grid become more efficient, filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company received a $43 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy last August. "This latest failure is a sharp reminder that DOE has fallen well short of delivering the stimulus jobs that were promised," Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns said in a statement Sunday night. "Now taxpayers find themselves millions of more dollars in the hole." Stearns is leading an investigation into the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel maker that received a $535 million government loan guarantee last year. The Beacon bankruptcy will likely only make that investigation more urgent.

Wind energy driving down consumer electric rates

Wind energy is more affordable than ever, and new installations across the country are saving consumers money on their electric bills, as utilities rush to lock in long-term favorable rates. "This is what a successful business looks like with stable tax policy. Utilities are locking in a great deal for their electric customers while it's available. We're keeping rates down all across the U.S., even in the heart of the South," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), pointing to recent wind power purchases by the Southern Company in Alabama, Austin Energy in Texas, and Xcel in Colorado as examples. The U.S. wind industry installed just over 1,200 megawatts (MW) in the third quarter, and about 3,360 MW on the year so far – but has more than 8,400 MW under construction. That is more than in any quarter since 2008, as the federal Production Tax Credit has driven as much as $20 billion a year in private investment.  "This shows what we're capable of: adding new, affordable electric generation," said Bode. "Traditional tax incentives are working. There's a lot of business right now, people are employed, and manufacturers are looking to expand here in the U.S."  

Biofuel investments keep on coming

Developing biofuels continues to be a bright spot in the cleantech world. Two startups, plant genetic engineering company Chromatin and biofuel producer ZeaChem, announced separately on Tuesday that they have raised new rounds of funding.  Chicago-based Chromatin said it has lined up $10 million – the first close of the D round – from investors including the venture arm of oil giant BP and the investing arm of product firm Unilever. Chromatin has developed a technology to genetically modify energy crops so that they grow fast and abundant, and its plant of choice if sorghum, a grass with some desirable, natural characteristics as a bioenergy feedstock, such as a high tolerance for drought and heat.

Solar Trade Case May Backfire on US Firms

Like Detroit automakers taking on the Japanese a generation ago, the seven American solar panel makers that filed a trade case on Wednesday against China might find that a legal victory, if it comes, may not translate into business success.In the 1970s and ‘80s, American car companies won a long series of trade cases to limit Japanese car imports. Japan’s automakers responded by moving assembly lines to the United States, creating many new blue-collar jobs. But they kept most of the high-paying design and engineering positions back in Japan. The new factories in the United States not only shielded Japanese auto companies against most further trade protectionism but helped them stay competitive when the yen soared against the dollar.   Meanwhile, American consumers had many new, affordable choices in cars — while Detroit continued to have trouble competing with its Japanese rivals. Don’t be surprised if Chinese solar companies try to pursue a similar path, which could benefit American consumers of solar power if it helps propel the technology beyond its current niche status.

U.S. Solar Jobs Census Finds Solar Employment Soars As U.S. Economy Lags

The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit solar education and research organization, today released its second annual review of the solar workforce in the United States. The report, titled, "National Solar Jobs Census 2011: A Review of the U.S. Solar Workforce" found that hiring in the solar workforce is on the rise. More than 100,000 Americans are now employed in the solar industry.  "The solar industry has grown into a major economic force with more than 100,000 employees in the United States," said Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation. "We expect even greater growth in the foreseeable future. But policymakers, workforce training providers, and the industry must work together to continue creating good jobs for skilled workers."  As of August 2011, the National Solar Jobs Census 2011 identified more than 17,198 solar employment sites and 100,237 solar jobs in all 50 states. The solar industry's job growth rate of 6.8 percent is significantly higher than the 2 percent net job loss in fossil fuel power generation and the economy-wide expectation of 0.7 percent growth over the same period.   

Solar Power International held this week in Dallas, Texas

Solar Power International 2011, October 17-20, is in Dallas, Texas to generate powerful new ideas, connections and business for the solar industry—and your enterprise. 24,000 professionals from businesses spanning the entire spectrum of the industry for four days of product exploration, discussion, professional enrichment and networking. As ususal AltEnergyMag.com will bring all the news coming from this years show via our SPI Newspage .  Make sure to post your company news and check back regularly. Follow us on Twitter @AltEnergyMag

Nissan developing a 10-minute car charger, report says

One of the main arguments against electric cars is that it takes too long to recharge the battery. Even using a DC fast-charger, going from 0 to 80 percent capacity still takes about 30 minutes. But Nissan is working on a new super-rapid charging system that can recharge a drained EV battery in 10 minutes, which could be a game changer for the industry. Nissan engineers and researchers at Japan's Kansai University have created a new capacitor electrode made of tungsten oxide and vanadium oxide instead of the usual carbon, according to an article in Paul Tan's Automotive News. According to an unnamed report, the new capacitor electrode can hold more power and reduce charging time without reducing capacity or voltage.

SolarCity to develop 1.6MW solar project for California school district

The project for the Chico Unified School District was announced along with the launch of SolarChico on Friday, a collaborative community initiative offering residents and businesses discounts on solar power. SolarCity will also donate a portion of the SolarChico program's revenues to the District and conduct free educational solar workshops throughout the community. "Chico Unified School District is excited to support the City of Chico's emissions reduction goals and celebrate our shared commitment to clean energy with our SolarChico Community Program, which we hope inspires more of our community to go solar," said Kelly Staley, Chico Unified School District Superintendent. "SolarChico will generate new funds for the District, which we will utilize for much needed facilities projects."

Small wind heading into boom period, report says

The small wind industry is about to enter a major growth spurt. It is poised to grow from a $255 million industry in 2010 to $634 million industry in 2015, according to a recent Pike Research report. The report attributes a growing interest and expected success in the coming years to the fact that small wind is currently more efficient and, therefore, cheaper on a cost-per-watt basis than solar photovoltaic cells. Because the return on investment can take as little as 5 years to 10 years, depending on area wind conditions, it offers an accessible option to small businesses, farms, and communities even in the absence of state or federal incentives, according to the report. But perhaps the most interesting statistic thrown out there by Pike Research is that it expects the average price of a small wind turbine system to reach $4,150 per kilowatt by 2015.

U.S. Dept of Energy - Solar Decathlon 2011

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.  AltEnergyMag.com was on hand to check out this years entrants and has highlighted them in a 4 part series . Results: Overall Winner - The University of Maryland won top honors overall by designing, building, and operating the most cost effective, energy efficient and attractive solar powered house. Purdue University took second place followed by New Zealand ( Victoria University of Wellington) in third place. Peoples Choice - Appalachian State University. “The team’s passion and enthusiasm were contagious,” said Terri Jones, Solar Decathlon Communications Contest official. “The People’s Choice Award is a popular vote, and I believe the Solar Homestead house and team appealed to people on many levels.” Communications Contest - Middlebury College ,  T"his team’s holistic approach to communications was refreshing; they achieved in all aspects of communications—not just in one area,” said Ryan Park, director of business development for REC Solar Inc., who presented the award on behalf of the Communications Contest jurors. “This team made renewable energy technologies familiar to the public, which we believe will help people more easily embrace these technologies. And isn’t that what it’s all about?” Engineering Contest - New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington) .  "The New Zealand house was beautifully executed, with extreme attention to detail and craftsmanship and an intuitive tree-ring visualization system, which makes it easy to understand energy use throughout the house,” said Engineering Contest juror Dr. Hunter Fanney. Architecture Contest - The University of Maryland .  “WaterShed achieves an elegant mix of inspiration, function, and simplicity. It takes our current greatest challenges in the built environment—energy and water—and transforms them into opportunities for spatial beauty and poetry while maintaining livability in every square inch,” said Architecture Contest Juror Michelle Kaufmann. Affordability Contest -   We have a tie between Parsons The New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology who built Empowerhouse for less than $230,000,   Team Belgium (Ghent University)  With its E-Cube  valued at $249,568.09. More Results to come...

Solar cell breakthrough could hit 40 percent efficiency

Researchers using novel materials to build photovoltaic cells say their efforts could nearly double the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells. The cells being developed by teams from the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University have the potential to achieve a light-to-energy conversion rate, or solar efficiency, of 40 percent or better, according to the researchers. The photovoltaic cells are intended for use in satellites and space instruments. Currently, the silicon-based solar cells that NASA uses in its satellites and instruments have efficiencies of only up to 23 percent, according to NASA statistics. And today it was announced that the research teams are getting more money--a total of $1 million in new funding--to further their work. Of that, about $735,000 will come from NASA, $237,000 from the University of Arkansas, and $86,000 from Arkansas State. Omar Manasreh, professor of electrical engineering at the Optoelectronics Research Lab at the University of Arkansas, has been developing the technology so far with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He leads the research team along with Liangmin Zhang, assistant professor at Arkansas State.

New Report Shows U.S. Solar Outpaces Global Market: PV Demand Grows 69 Percent Year-Over-Year

The U.S. solar energy industry continued its rapid growth through the second quarter of this year, gaining a greater share of the total global market according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)'s latest quarterly U.S. Solar Market Insight report. Leading the way was the U.S. solar photovoltaics (PV) market, which installed 314 megawatts in the second quarter, 69 percent more than the same period last year and 17 percent more than the first quarter of 2011. The U.S. remains poised to install 1,750 megawatts of PV in 2011, double last year's total and enough to power 350,000 homes. "The second quarter data illustrates that the U.S. solar industry continues to be one of the fastest growing in America," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. "More than 100,000 Americans are employed in solar, twice as many as in 2009. They work at more than 5,000 companies - the vast majority being small businesses - across all 50 states."  

First Solar, SunPower move ahead on solar farms

Amidst intense scrutiny of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program via the Solyndra scandal, September has still emerged as critical for a series of solar companies that hope to close federal loan guarantees and start construction on solar farms by the end of the month. First Solar, for one, received the final permit for its 550 MW Topaz Solar project in San Luis Obispo County in California yesterday, said the county's senior planner, John McKenzie. With that construction permit, First Solar plans to start building Topaz by Sept. 30, said company spokesman Alan Bernheimer. Meeting that deadline will ensure the company remains eligible for a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy that will back part a $1.93 billion loan led by the Royal Bank of Scotland.

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