The first question most homeowners have about outfitting their homes for solar is, “How much will it cost?” Before an accurate number can be determined, many variables must be considered, including the location of the home, the orientation of the system and the amount of electric load that will be covered by the system, to name a few.
In the solar arena, the upfront costs have discouraged many homeowners from making the decision to install solar on their homes. Solar electric systems are expensive because they do something amazing: produce free, clean electricity for 25, 30 or even 40 years.
It turns out that solar electric systems nearly always pay for themselves and then some. Many homeowners would be sold if they could slowly buy into solar, starting with what they can afford today and supplementing when they are financially able, comfortable with the technology and satisfied with the results.
Solar Micro-Inverters Bring Scalability
What is missing from the solar scenario is a situation analogous to that of compact fluorescent light (CFL). When CFLs started making their way onto retail shelves, most of us did not go out and buy the new, more expensive bulbs to replace every incandescent bulb in the house. Instead, most people bought one bulb at a time for $15 or so, considering it a way to do just a bit more for the environment, to invest in future energy savings and to test the waters of the technology. As people became more comfortable with the technology, demand increased and costs went down; now, CFLs are quite common.
Until recently, small-scale solar was difficult due to limitations presented by the photovoltaic (PV) system’s inverter. The inverter converts the direct current (DC) power that a solar electric system produces into alternating current (AC) power that is serviceable to the grid. Commonly, solar electric systems string modules together prior to connecting them to the inverter, which requires system designers to begin with the end in mind when it comes to the maximum power limit the inverter can handle. This design limitation hinders the ability to add on to the system later and causes a decision-making dilemma for the potential solar customer because of cost.
The industry’s solution coincides with the advent of micro-inverter technology several years ago. Microinverters convert DC power to AC power for each module rather than an entire string of modules. Modules manufactured with micro-inverters (known in the industry as AC modules) allow for systems to become scalable, meaning they enable more solar modules to be added when the customer can afford them.
Yet most of the micro-inverter technology still did not adequately fulfill this need for a scalable system until the fall of 2012, when Helios unveiled the SolSimple Module, a revolutionary pairing of a PV module and a micro-inverter. Unlike other AC modules on the market, the SolSimple module produces AC power at the same voltage used in the home and has no exposed DC wiring, making it the only true AC module as defined by the National Electric Code.
The SolSimple Module allows, for the first time, a hasslefree and affordable way for homeowners to start with a small system and add to it at their convenience. SolSimple utilizes a connection system that is inexpensive, flexible and requires virtually no special design. Other micro-inverters require clunky trunk cables that are expensive, call for wire design and Solar Powered Carthave many parts (potential points of failure). These wire systems also change over time, making future expansion cumbersome and costly. SolSimple uses a HomeRun cable— a simple 12-gauge, stranded, three-wire cable that costs less than $2 per foot.
....Although Walmart and Sainsbury’s inhabit the upper reaches of their respective food chains, their energy needs pale in comparison to one of the most (pro)active adopters of solar power—the U.S. military. A story about a recently activated PV plant at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot caught the Curator’s eye, since the MCRD is adjacent to my old stomping grounds in San Diego. The 1.7MW ground-mount system, built by Dynaelectric, is comprised of Helios Solar Works’ well-endowed 410-415W monocrystalline-silicon modules. The Milwaukee, WI-based PV manufacturer (no, that is not a typo) and CASM member (yeah, one of the SolarWorld-led gang involved in the U.S.-China “trade war” actions) makes a compelling argument that size does matter and backs it up with its “module comparison tool” available for download by request on the company website.
As for the MCRD project, “the cost savings and time savings associated with this installation are a testament to the economic benefits of large-format 9T6 Series panels,” according to Helios’ press release. “Installation data from Dynalectric confirmed savings expectations. Bob Riel, VP and division manager of Dynalectric San Diego, estimated that module installation labor alone was cut by 37%, racking material costs were cut by 12%, and racking labor reduced 11%. Mounting and grounding hardware was also reduced by nearly 40%. ‘We were able to get more power on the allocated land and save MCRD money simply by switching to a more powerful module. It is that simple,’ he said.”...
As the nation's trade deficit grows in the face of rising exports, critics say it's time for the U.S. to take a tougher stance on China and other trade- rule violators.
By Steve Minter
In a speech at the second Conference on the Renaissance of American Manufacturing March 27 in Washington, Gordon Brinser, the president of SolarWorld Industries America, posed this question: "How can the United States continue to benefit from an open global marketplace as the vastly different system of state-sponsored capitalism in China emerges as an economic power and increasingly targets our strategic industries?"
For SolarWorld, the question is not academic. The company is embroiled in a major trade dispute with China. SolarWorld is pitted not only against Chinese competitors but an array of U.S.-based interests that benefit from cheap Chinese products and accuse SolarWorld of standing in the way of increased adoption of solar products.
Brinser said it was time for the United States to adopt a "new game plan" for trade in the face of China's economic model "designed to gut and own our key industries."
...So the DOC ruling aims to level the playing field so U.S. and Chinese solar manufacturing firms can compete fairly. This would result in two benefits. First, it would slow, and hopefully reverse U.S. solar panel manufacturing decline. A recent NREL study found that U.S. solar manufacturers actually have a 5 percent cost advantage compared to similar Chinese solar products (not including unfair Chinese subsidies and dumping), so the tariff eliminates the biggest reason why this advantage isn’t playing out in the market. And second, it would increase the incentive for emerging solar technologies, new ideas, and more innovative firms to remain or enter the market. Entrepreneurs and firms are more likely to invest in real innovation if they can foresee potential profits from their risky investments. If China is undercutting the market unfairly, it significantly increases the risk of making these investments, effectively acting as a deterrent to innovation. In other words, by eliminating China’s unfair cost advantage, the tariff would encourage more innovation in the solar industry. This is important because innovation – and not subsidized Chinese solar PV – is what is needed to make solar cost-competitive with fossil fuels everywhere without subsidies. Thus the tariff ruling is potentially a big win in developing a cost-competitive and subsidy independent solar industry...
Written by Michael Eland, President of Eland Electric
First, it was steel. Then came paper. Now, unless the Obama administration acts, Wisconsin's solar manufacturing industry will be the next victim of China's efforts to undercut American manufacturers and destroy jobs.As the president of a company that installs solar systems in the Green Bay area, I have seen the impact of China's efforts first-hand. In the past, we had dozens of options to choose from when buying solar panels. Chinese companies were on the same playing field as the rest.
Today, the situation is quite different. The Chinese dominate the solar industry, representing more than half of the market. How did things change so quickly? The reason: China's tried and true practices of subsidies and dumping.
The Chinese national and provincial governments have provided subsidies at mind-boggling levels. Consider this: between 2002 and 2009, China provided its paper industry $33.1 billion in subsidies that were used to cripple Wisconsin's paper industry. In 2010 alone, the Energy Department estimates the Chinese solar industry got more than $30 billion. Moreover, Chinese CEOs admit they have been dumping their modules at prices they admit are unsustainable.
We are competitors by nature in Milwaukee, whether it's rooting on our small-market Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers or whether it's protecting our standards of living in a community that's second to none.
Helios, a Milwaukee-based solar panel manufacturing company, is competitive, too, and we deliver innovative world-class products. Lately, though, the American solar industry has been undermined by Chinese trade practices that are putting U.S. manufacturing jobs at risk.
At Helios, we believe American manufacturers certainly can compete with Chinese solar manufacturers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy found that, once you add in the cost of shipping, Chinese solar panels are actually more expensive to produce than American ones. However, we simply cannot compete with the Chinese government and Chinese manufacturers. It's not a pretty story.
From 2008 to 2010, China's exports of solar cells and panels to the United States jumped an astonishing 350%. How did China achieve this growth? The Chinese government was unfairly subsidizing its own solar companies to the tune of $34 billion, and Chinese manufacturers were dumping their products in the U.S. market.
A U.S. Senate report released in February outlined some of the impacts:
The U.S. trade deficit in environmental goods with China reached an all-time high in 2011. The U.S. went from a trade surplus in solar products in 2010 to a $1.6 billion deficit in 2011.
U.S. imports of solar cells and modules from China went up 135% in 2011.
European Union and Japanese exporters of environmental goods are also losing market share to China in global markets.
The results? A 40% collapse in prices in the past year forced 12 American plants to close or downsize during the past 18 months.
A Bright Beacon of Hope for Renewable Energy
..."We invite Helios customers to our manufacturing facility to watch their modules being assembled," advises General Manager Brent Brucker, who relishes the opportunity to answer questions for visitors, especially those who are curious about why Helios chose Milwaukee for its headquarters. "The first reason is that three of the company's founders are native Wisconsinites," he says, tallying Milwaukee's other attributes: It's a manufacturing city, people have a strong work ethic and show up at their jobs despite inclement weather; and the area is home to a significant number of skilled craftsmen.
The city also benefits from local manufacturing infastructure. "Within a short distance, we can have special glass and machinery built, as well as wire produced. This allows us to expand our support of the local economy and save on shipping," explains Brucker, who also credits the Wisconsin Department of Commerce's State Energy Program, which provided Helios with a $1.4 million clean energy loan.
One of the myths that Brucker enjoys dispelling is that Wisconsin doesn't receive enough sunshine to support the solar industry. "The most successful country in the global solar market is Germany, which gets the same amount of sun as Seattle and Alaska. Wisconsin gets more sun than either," he says.
Milwaukee-based high-efficiency monocrystalline PV module manufacturer, Helios Solar Works is the first founding member of the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), outside SolarWorld to declare itself a supporter of actions that will lead to duties being applied to solar cells and modules from China. Seven firms with manufacturing operations in the US were said to have formed CASM and petitioned US agencies to investigate module dumping allegations, though until now only SolarWorld, which has led the campaign, had declared involvement.
“We have supported these trade cases from the beginning, and we are pleased to publicly declare that support,” said Steve Ostrenga, chief executive officer of Helios Solar Works, headquarterd in Milwaukee.“Our country can’t afford to give up manufacturing jobs in growth industries to nations that engage in illegal and harmful trade practices.”
According to a statement from CASM, Helios Solar Works was forced to downsize its manufacturing operations as a result of dumped and subsidized Chinese imports of solar cells and modules.
New Hampshire, U.S.A. -- Helios Solar Works, a small solar panel manufacturer based in Milwaukee, Wisc., said Thursday that it is one of the seven companies that worked to file the original trade complaint against the price of solar panels coming in from China.
Until this week, SolarWorld was the lone public face for the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM). The Department of Commerce is expected to announce its preliminary countervailing duty determination as early as March 19 just as the solar industry arrives at PV America-West, a three-day conference and exhibition in San Jose, Calif., that runs March 19-21. The result could impose stiff tariffs on panels coming in from China, and such a move would put severe financial pressure on the rest of the American solar industry that has often benefited from the low-cost panels. It would also make American-made modules more cost-competitive.
The remaining five companies in the seven-member coalition remain anonymous, and there is no requirement that their names ever be made public. However Helios Solar Works decided the timing was right, even as the tariff decision looms and as the rhetoric with the competing Coalition for American Solar Energy (CASE) intensifies.
Helios Solar Works of Milwaukee has been forced to cut jobs as it struggles to compete with imported solar panels from China that are the subject of an international trade dispute.
Helios opened its solar panel factory in the Menomonee River Valley one year ago and expanded to two production shifts by the summer. Its growth path was thwarted because of panels that were being sold in the United States at prices below the cost of production, Helios and a coalition of solar manufacturers contend.
The company is joining a solar industry effort to protest what they see as unfair trade practices, lining up behind SolarWorld, which led a coalition of solar companies that filed a complaint on the matter last year.
In December, the U.S. International Trade Commission voted unanimously that "there is a reasonable indication that a U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules from China that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value."