Dark Solar Process May Change Future – But Not Soon

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Solar energy is a hot topic these days, with frequent reports of new innovations that drive cost down and efficiency up.  Solar modules are designed to absorb sunlight and convert a portion of the light energy into electric power.  Therefore, one thing a solar module shouldn‘t do is reflect sunlight, because every photon that bounces off is one less electron than can be converted from light to electricity inside a given cell inside the photovoltaic (PV) solar module.

So, one challenge for PV solar module manufacturers has been, how to make that module surfaces less reflective.  Currently this is accomplished on crystalline silicon solar modules through the use of surface treatments that add texture to the silicon surface and non-reflective coatings to the exterior glass surface.  These processes have led to a dramatic decrease in reflectivity from crystalline silicon solar modules over time, such that current products reflect very little light.

One measure of the reflectivity is albedo — the ratio of solar radiation across the visible and invisible light spectrum reflected by a surface. Albedo varies between 0, a surface that reflects no light, and 1, a mirror-like surface that reflects all incoming light.  Solar modules with a single anti-reflective coating have a reflectivity of around 0.1.  By comparison, sand has an albedo between 0.15 and 0.45 and agricultural vegetation (leafy crops, etc.) has an albedo between 0.18 and 0.25.  In other words, solar modules have a lower reflectivity than our area’s prevailing ground cover: vegetation (trees, plants), grass, sand, soil, snow (in wintertime), etc.

Solar modules crafted using thin-film technologies rather than crystalline silicon have historically exhibited lower efficiencies (9-11%) than are available with crystalline silicon (15-17%), thus resulting in lower energy production, making it difficult for them to compete with traditional crystalline silicon-based modules with substantially higher efficiencies.  This, together with other challenges they face in the area of manufacturing processes, have caused thin-film silicon companies to struggle, and many have gone out of business over the last few years (Solyndra, Abound, etc).  However, if thin-film technology could “turn the corner” by reducing the manufacturing complexities and costs they currently face (due to their gas film deposition approach) and could also increase efficiency so that their energy production was comparable to or better than that of crystalline silicon modules, that could lead to new market growth for moNREL-developed technology licensed to Natcore.dules using thin film technology.

One approach that has been experimented with in labs is the use of multiple thin-film layers of silicon, each “tuned” to absorb different wavelengths of light, thus generating more electric power per given amount of solar energy striking the cells.

Another innovation may be coupled with this “tandem” silicon layer approach to decrease reflectivity further and thus increase energy production.  Researchers at the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have come up with a solution: peppering a solar cell with trillions of tiny holes.  NREL’s black-silicon process uses an acid bath and a small amount of silver nitrate as a catalyst to oxidize the silicon and thus create these nano-holes.

In just three minutes at room temperature, the process can put a trillion microscopic holes in a 6-by-6-inch solar cell.  Each of those tiny holes traps a bit of sunlight, such that only 2 percent of the light is reflected, according to NREL researchers.  That extra light boosts the solar cell’s power.

This “holes” technique, dubbed “dark solar,” has been licensed to Red Bank, N.J.-based Natcore Technology Inc., which plans to combine it with the company’s own low-cost solar-cell-manufacturing process that uses liquid deposition rather than gas deposition.  The combination of these new processes may lead to the successful fabrication of tandem thin-film “dark solar” cells that have lower reflectivity,  higher efficiency, and lower manufacturing costs than are typical today.

“It’s a perfect coupling of technologies,” says Natcore CEO Chuck Provini.  Natcore is a research and development lab, which seeks to marry these various new technologies and fabrication techniques and bring them to the point where they are reproducible at low cost, and thus can be duplicated in a manufacturing production environment.  Then it will seek to license the combined technologies to solar module manufacturers who would produce modules based on the new “dark solar” tandem cells.

Arise Energy’s Take:  The challenge for Natcore will be getting the engineering of the process right…and that will take time.  So, watch for dark solar and tandem cells to potentially emerge in production solar modules sometime within the next decade.  If and when that happens, we will see lower module costs as well as increased performance of the arrays built using these modules.  And that will take us closer to (or beyond) grid parity with PV solar.

Everything Is Energy

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Roger Duncan is a well respected expert in the area of energy solutions, and a long-time friend of Michael Kuhn, the man whose company, ImagineSolar, provided us (the founders of Arise Energy) our original NABCEP training before we launched our company.  Michael worked together with Roger Duncan to start the first Photovoltaic Solar incentive program in Texas.  The City of Austin Texas’ solar incentive program for photovoltaic systems was launched in 2004.  Roger worked at Austin Energy at the time (as VP, Distributed Energy Systems).

I want to share Roger’s latest presentation with you.  He was a keynote speaker at the last Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA) Conference.  At the conference, he spoke about the future of solar power and introduced the concept of the “unified energy system.”

“The way we use energy, the way we manipulate energy, the way we monitor and move and store energy is changing and it is changing very fast,” says Roger in his presentation.  He then explains that the conventional energy system of the past is one where large centralized fossil-fueled power plants generate electricity and move it in one direction – to buildings.  Also, where our transportation sector runs entirely off petroleum and is completely disconnected from the rest of the system.  As we transform to a unified energy system, we produce power from renewable energy sources as well as fossil fuel.  Buildings not only are more efficient but they are starting to generate their own energy onsite.  The transportation system is moving away from just gasoline to a diversity of fuels and electric power.

This system is interconnected with a smart grid, a bi-directional smart grid that is not only moving information but is moving power back and forth between the points in this system.  The parts of this system are becoming more and more integrated.  The volume and speed of power and information moving between the points of this system is exponentially increasing.   And in order to handle this, we are also exponentially increasing the level of intelligence embedded in the system.  Arise Energy continues to strive to help our clients in Colorado to capitalize on renewable energy solutions, and are excited about the future we see in front of us.  As we continue to implement imbedded computing and imbedded sensors in our home and work environments, we will see more and more automation, and more and more energy savings realized as a result.  Coupled with the implementation of more solar energy solutions, we will build a more sustainable future.  I encourage you to take a few minutes to view Roger’s presentation.  There’s a surprise ending that I won’t give away.

I hope you enjoy the video “Everything is Energy”.   Here’s the link to the video:

Everything Is Energy – Roger Duncan

– Jim Bartlett, Co-Founder & CEO, Arise Energy Solutions

The Impact of PV Solar Solutions on Grid Capacity Requirements

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

While it’s certainly true that photovoltaic (PV) Solar Solutions save their owners thousands of dollars annually over a 30+ year period, and also reduce carbon emissions, there’s another important impact seldom talked about.  This is the impact on Grid Capacity Requirements…specifically the peak capacity that must be provided by local utilities.

Most people just turn on a light switch or the TV without thinking about what’s required to support their usage of electric power.  Any single device – be it a single light bulb, a chest freezer or a large hot-tub – has a specified demand in terms of current required for it to operate at the design voltage (120VAC, or 240VAC).  Small devices such as cell-phone chargers require only tiny amounts of current at 120V, whereas an air conditioning unit or family hot-tub can draw much more power from the grid.  The challenge for utility companies is to figure out how much overall demand for electric power they will experience over the long term and build capacity that will handle the maximum or “peak” demand they may face.  When a utility is unable to supply sufficient capacity to meet the full peak demand at any specific time, the result is often a brown-out, or even a potential black-out due to overloading of the grid.

Thus, electric utilities build their grids so as to produce sufficient power to handle the peak points in demand over time.  But that’s expensive, because the utility essentially needs a network of power plants with the overall capacity to produce energy at that peak level all the time, even if the peak demand only occurs a fraction of the time.  In terms of efficiency of electric energy production, the most efficient grid system would be one where peak capacity is utilized almost 100% of the time, yielding the most energy production and utilization possible from a given set of assets (e.g. power plants).  But in the real world, most electric utilities operate at an average load factor (percentage of total potential capacity) of much less than that:  often just 35-50%.  The gap between potential generation capacity and actual production is essentially wasted capacity…much like empty seats on an airplane that just took off.  The airline could have carried more passengers in those empty seats at almost zero incremental cost.  However, since those empty seats weren’t sold, the plane left the gate, flew its flight plan, and delivered a fewer number of total passengers with less revenue collected, yet at roughly the same costs they would have incurred if they would have booked a full flight.  The situation is similar when it comes to energy production from large generation plants — operating at maximim capacity is always the most efficient.

So, how can a utility company boost its load factor when that’s essentially determined by when consumers decide to turn on their oven, range, hot tub, etc?   A substantial improvement could be achieved in limiting the need for utilities to build larger plants to cover rare peaks in demand, if more electric power consumers were to deploy a combination of energy efficiency (EE) solutions and distributed renewable energy (RE) technologies that would save energy, reduce carbon emissions and assist in balancing the load by time-shifting some of the demand, while offsetting a good portion.  If the use of photovoltaic solar solutions, for example, were more broadly implemented, they would help alleviate some demand, taking demand pressure off of the utility grid and in so- doing, also provide downward pressure on electric utility rates.  Since the production of electric power from solar energy solutions would also take place during daylight hours (in alignment with the period of highest demand for electric power), PV solar installations can make a tremendous impact on net demand that’s required from electric power generation plants…and that can help utilities increase their load factor.  Something to think about.



IBM Sets New World Record For Photovoltaic Cell Efficiency

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

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Working together with Solar Frontier, Tokyo Ohka Kogyo (TOK) and DelSolar, IBM’s Materials Science team has developed an efficient and affordable PV cell made of abundant natural materials—and they have broken a world record doing it!  The team created a solar semiconductor made from readily available elements such as copper, zinc, and tin (known as CZTSSo), and achieved a PV solar-to-electric power conversion efficiency of 11.1% – that’s 10% better than previous designs using this class of semiconductors.

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It is hoped that this breakthrough will herald a cheap and effective way to capture the sun’s energy and power the planet’s electric systems. Currently, most existing PV technologies are either not highly efficient, cheaply scalable or made with abundantly available materials – however that is what IBM aim to change.

By using simple ink-based techniques such as printing or casting, the new method can be easily duplicated, unlike the current way of making PV semiconductors with crystalline silicon. While these are abundant and highly efficient, they have extremely high material purity requirements making them expensive to buy and difficult to upscale. There are other thin-film materials that can be used, such as Cu(In,Ga)(SSe)2(CIGS) and CdTe. While these alternatives  are easy to integrate into buildings and consumer products, their compounds do contain rare and expensive elements that can increase cost.

While the team are ecstatic with their record-breaking success, they are not going to stop now.  In a statement, the team said “the focus of our joint-development team remains to further increase this device efficiency and transfer the technology to environmentally-friendly, high-throughput industrial manufacturing. The hope is that within several years this new class of photovoltaic materials will begin to contribute to the wider availability of lower-cost solar electricity.”

Read more by clicking here: IBM Sets New World Record For Photovoltaic Cell Efficiency | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Sun-Less Solar Cells Could Make Energy From Anything Hot

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Photovoltaic cells that convert heat, not sunlight, to electricity may turn out to be the solution for capturing all the energy we waste through heat, Fast Company reports.

Photovoltaic cells are best known for turning sunlight into electrical power–and they’re big business. But did you know that there’s a type of PV cell that eats heat instead of light to make power?   It could replace the Li-ion battery in your cell phone, and it may also be used to scavenge waste heat from almost anything that normally dumps it into the environment, from your TV’s electronics to your car’s engine (even an electrical one).

Thermal PV technology has been around for ages, and works the same way as the solar variety: Incoming radiation excites the atoms in its semiconductor structure, which then push electrons out–generating current.  And much as is the case for solar PV cells, the advances in the PV thermal technology have all been about improving their efficiency.  Scientists at MIT have recently honed this technology, pushing the efficiency up so far that thermal PV cells are now a viable alternative to all sorts of other tech.  MIT’s breakthrough was to add a layer of tungsten to the front of a PV cell, with a surface that’s been etched on a nanoscopic scale so that when heated it emits infrared light (heat) at wavelengths precisely tuned to the best efficiency of the PV cell behind it.


Right now, MIT is building the tech into tiny silicon micro-reactors. These are tiny furnaces that burn butane to generate heat, and then extract the heat to produce electricity. If that sounds convoluted, then this will impress you: The microreactors are small enough to replace the button cell Li-ion batteries you find in devices like watches, and convert the chemical ingredients that make them tick with three times better efficiency than Li-ion can match. Better yet, when they run out of fuel you simply snap in an extra cartridge of butane to recharge them.

But because MIT’s system is so very efficient, and is based on a material that’s not too rare or expensive, it could be used to build fuel-less heat-scavenging units that are stuck inside all sorts of devices to recover the wasted heat energy that nearly every machine we’ve ever made kicks out (thanks to the lovely laws of physics). How about the hot back of your TV? Or the hot chassis of the electric motor in your Nissan Leaf? Let’s get fanciful and imagine it would be possible to claw back a few milliwatts of energy from the hot shower water you simply let run down the drain.

The MIT team is confident it can further improve the energy density of its micro-reactors though, and they’re confident it could get to the point your smartphone could go for a week without needing a recharge, just by capturing and leveraging energy generated from its own heat.

Energy Efficiency Tips – How to Save Money!

Monday, March 19th, 2012

At Arise Energy Solutions we often have clients ask us about ways they can save energy around their home.  Here’s a link to a slide presentation we developed to help educate our clients about Energy Efficiency approaches and how they can get the best bang for the buck!   Feel free to call us if you have any questions!


Carbon Emissions Keep Track with Worst-Case Scenarios

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

You would think that with all the effort being put behind energy efficiency, renewable energy solutions, and greenhouse gas emission reduction, we would be seeing an impact on global carbon emissions.  The “Kaya” factors that scientists have associated with carbon emissions have long suggested the anticipated CO2 reductions (from carbon intensity and energy intensity improvements) would not be achieved, primarily due to our inability to curb global population growth.   Feel free to email us for more information on the Kaya Identity, which provides an intuitive approach to the interpretation of historical trends and future projections of carbon dioxide emissions.  Basically, it is a mathematical expression that’s used to describe the relationships among the factors that influence trends in emissions: carbon intensity of energy (the amount of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions emitted per unit of energy produced), energy intensity of the economy (energy consumed per dollar of GDP), output per capita (GDP per person), and population.

Anyway, here’s the data to prove the lack of progress thus far…so much for a temporary reprieve from climate change!  According to the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, global greenhouse-gas Carbon Emissions Keep Track with Worst-Case Scenariosemissions jumped by 6 percent in 2010 — a record one-year increase — reversing the lull in carbon pollution that was observed immediately following the financial crisis.  This means our world is now keeping pace with the worst-case emissions scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

Arise Energy strives to minimize carbon emissions through our own operations, while assisting clients in the design and implementation of renewable energy solutions that deliver electrical power with zero carbon emissions for decades after their installation.  Further, these systems save clients on their total cost of energy while reducing their carbon footprints.  For an average sized (4kw) residential solar photovoltaic system installed here in Colorado, we see a typical reduction in CO2 emissions of about 14,500 pounds annually for the life of the system because the solar power generated replaces energy that would have come from burning fossil fuels.

For more information give us a call!

Source:  CO2 Data: IEA.  Scenarios: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Colorado PUC Denies Xcel Request for Interim Rate Hike

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has denied Xcel Energy Inc.’s request for a $100 million interim electricity-rate hike while regulators review the utility’s request for a $141.9 million increase.  The requested increase, if approved, would raise the average residential monthly electric bill by about 6 percent.

Last November Xcel requested a $141.9 million increase, to be effective starting Dec. 23rd.  But since it could be this coming summer before the PUC reaches Solar Dollarsa decision on the request, Xcel asked for the interim hike.  The PUC rejected that request this past Wednesday, saying the company failed to show it would be adversely impacted by maintaining current rates while the commission reviews the $141.9 million request.

Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz says Xcel officials are disappointed because they feel “regulatory lag” is a growing concern, but they’re looking forward to deliberations on the full request.

Arise Energy Solutions Perspective:

“This is great news for Colorado residents living in Xcel’s service area,” said Jim Bartlett, Arise Energy co-founder and CEO.  “After the sizable rate increases we experienced just 18 months ago, this interim increase seems particularly onerous – thus we were very pleased to see the PUC’s ruling against Xcel in this case.”

“Although we’ve received good news for the time being, it’s very likely that Xcel will receive approval for a sizable portion of the requested rate increase later this year following the PUC’s full review of the request,” said Bartlett.  “This should reinforce the importance of making greater investments in renewable energy solutions — and sooner rather than later.  As electric utility rates go up, our solar energy clients see a corresponding increase in the return-on-investment (ROI) from their systems.  That means faster paybacks, and thus a more compelling reason for investing in solar energy now.”

For more information on how a solar energy system can lock in energy rates, save money, and reduce carbon footprints, contact Arise Energy Systems for a free consultation and site assessment.   Call 720-468-3225 or email jbartlett@AriseEnergy.com.

COSEIA Obtains $491k Grant to Fast-Path Solar Installations

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Last month, a Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) team received $491,000 in Federal grant funds to develop a system that will cut red tape and cost for solar panel installations.

“Every municipality has been going about trying to set standards in a piecemeal fashion and that has added to cost,” said Neal Lurie, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association.

Non-hardware costs, such as permitting, installation, design and maintenance account for up to 40 percent of the total cost of installed rooftop system, Permitting processaccording to the US Dept. of Energy, which awarded the grant.

A report released last year estimates that local permitting and inspection costs add roughly $2,500 to the average residential solar installation, nation-wide.

The average residential solar installation is now between $12,000 and $18,000 and half the costs are currently for permitting, regulatory, interconnection, customer acquisition, installation, and other similar charges, Lurie said.

The COSEIA team will work with municipalities to develop consistent lists of best practices, on-line tools and other standards, with the goal of cutting application costs by 25 percent, Lurie said.

“The Energy Department is investing in this Colorado project to unleash the community’s solar potential by making it faster, easier, and cheaper to finance and deploy solar power,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

The Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association team also includes: the Rocky Mountain Institute, the City of Denver, Boulder County, the city of Fort Collins, the city of Golden, and the American Solar Energy Society.

“We’re proud of the work that COSEIA is doing and the leadership our state’s solar industry organization is providing in this area to help cut red-tape and reduce administrative, permitting and inspection costs associated with the installation of solar energy systems here in Colorado,” said Arise Energy Solutions co-founder and CEO Jim Bartlett.  “Through our experience installing systems in a number of counties and municipalities across this part of Colorado,  we’ve experienced a vast range in terms of the application and permitting requirements placed on renewable-energy contractors, and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Bartlett reiterated that all of the unique application processes used by various jurisdictions just add unnecessary time and cost to the application, permitting and inspection process, and that these costs ultimately are passed on to the system owner.

“Every additional dollar spent on aspects of the system that don’t have anything to do with actually generating electric energy, (such as application, permitting and inspection costs) just extends the time required to reach the “break-even” point for a solar solution,” said Bartlett.   “Therefore, anything we can do to streamline the process and make it more “standardized” across all jurisdictions will help lower the total cost of all systems, allowing for more rapid pay-back of renewable-energy system investments, and thus provide a more compelling financial scenario for prospective system owners.”

Arise Energy Solutions, LLC is an active member of COSEIA, and designs, integrates and installs solar energy solutions for clients in the greater Denver metro area.  Over the last two years Arise has worked to document some of the unique aspects of the paperwork and application processes used by the dozens of individual municipalities and counties when those jurisdictions are evaluating, permitting, inspecting and approving solar energy solutions.

Why Will the Cost of Electric Power Continue to Escalate?

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

We often get asked to share our views on why electric energy rates will go up, how fast, and why. The biggest reasons we believe the rates we pay for electric power will continue to go up are related to coal, because most of the electricity used in the US comes from coal fired plants. For as far back as anyone alive can remember, coal has been the dominant source of electric power provided here in the US.  In some places (such as Colorado, up until fairly recently) coal provides as much as 90% of electric power consumed. In other parts of our country coal may only account for 40-50% of electric power production today, but across the country the cost and availability of coal are still tremendous factors in the cost of electric power. Coal Fired Plant

Here in Colorado, Xcel Energy (the dominant electric utility) has developed and begun executing a plan to migrate almost all of its plants from coal to natural gas, with this migration expected to be complete by 2014.  The migration involves closing some coal-fired plants, re-tooling and converting some coal-fired plants so they can burn natural gas instead, and building new natural-gas-fired plants to replace the capacity lost through closure of older coal-based plants.  All of this is a smart strategy… and in rolling it out here in Colorado, Xcel has put our state in a good position.  Not only will the switch to natural gas be beneficial in terms of air quality, it will also prepare us to avoid the brunt of coal shortages that may be expected within the next 20 years.

Using natural gas as the fuel to generate our electric power is a good change. However, it will translate into higher costs for electric power because:

  • The capital investments being made to convert to natural gas are substantial, and Xcel Energy is seeking to have those investments paid back through increased rates. These rate increase requests have already been submitted to the PUC.
  • As we begin to use natural gas to generate electric power, doing so will drive up our rates further, because using natural gas is more expensive than using coal, per unit energy produced. Once again, the increased costs will naturally be passed along to rate payers by the utilities.

Coal resources in this country are now thought to be more like 40 years, instead of the 200+ years we’ve been told repeatedly in the past.  Part of the reason electric power has been so inexpensive here in Colorado (compared with many other parts of the country), is that the largest source of coal in the US is Wyoming, and the cost of transporting that coal to plants in Colorado is very modest given the distance involved.  This can be expected to change as we shift to burning natural gas that’s piped in from much further away.

For an interesting view on the larger issue our country faces as we approach the end of of our coal resources, check out this video interview with Leslie Glustrom, Director of Research and Policy at Clean Energy Action (CEA).   Although the interview is from 2009, the message is still very relevant today.   A report available from CEA includes a detailed analysis of the coal situation in the US.

At Arise Energy, we are passionate about the need for greater investment in renewable energy, and particularly in solar energy in areas where that resource is so abundant, as it is here in Colorado.   We continue to work with the governor’s energy office, COSEIA, and other industry leaders to drive for increased investment in solar energy here in our state, and for the required financing and incentives to make solar energy affordable for more Colorado businesses and homeowners.