The Week in Solar

A new series in which we’ll comment news we think is having a significant impact on the sector. 

Short positions in solars increase. This morning, there is a story out on increasing short positions in the solar sector which bemuses (somewhat) the author. His explanation is that it is a position to take advantage of a bursting of the bubble in oil, which, according to the author, those shorts must believe is pretty imminent. The author himself doesn’t belief there is a bubble in oil but (just like us), seems to think a correction is due

By the way, just to reassure you somewhat, TSL seems to be one of the least affected, although even it’s short interest rose 43% in 2008. But compare this to SOLF (Solarfun), where the short interest increased a whopping 495% this year and you realize what we’re talking about. Speaking about Solf, it had some nice news out:

SOLF wins major contract. It won it’s largest contract to date, supplying 47MW in cells to Schuco International KG from Dec 2008 to Oct 2009, so this is not a multi-year contract and should have a significant impact on next years growth (prices were not disclosed, so it’s difficult to say anything about profits). This is a good sign, demand is still increasing.

Problems for building solar plants in the US. The federal government has placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact, which is expected to take about two years. The Bureau of Land Management says an extensive environmental study is needed to determine how large solar plants might affect millions of acres it oversees in six Western states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Very curious, this. It’s the same government that wants to drill for oil in Alaska’s wild parks? This sudden bout of environmental awareness seems unreal. Despite all the nice words about getting rid of America’s addiction to oil in the state of the union address a couple of years ago, the government has done little to nothing for renewable energy. In fact, the incentives that are in place for renewable energy are still threatening to expire at the end of the year, efforts to renew the bill have come to nothing.

We could go on and on about the follies of US energy policy, but we’ll leave it at that for the moment. It doesn’t seem to have halted the following very important deals though:

Sunpower  gets utility deal. Now this really is big news. They’re not even waiting for grid power parity. Sunpower is generally recognized as having the cells with the highest efficiencies, but these are also expensive, as they use a lot of polysilicon.

It’s significant in another way, as thin film technologies (and technologies that concentrate sunlight with the help of mirrors or tracking devices) were supposed to steal the limelight in the utility market. This deal shows that traditional silicon players are still very much in the utility market and once polysilicon will get less scarce, it will get a lot cheaper giving this part of the solars a tremendous boost.

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)–SunPower Corp. (SPWR) shares jumped as much as 17% Thursday after the company received a contract from a Florida utility to build the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the U.S., the latest sign that utilities are turning towards solar as a viable energy alternative.
“This illustrates a very important trend,” said Pavel Molchanov [yes, he analysis IOC as well!], an analyst with Raymond James. “The trend is that utilities are starting to get into solar in a very big way.”

And First Solar (FSLR) is already moving into the utility business. Now First Solar, which makes “thin film” solar modules, is getting into the utility business, winning approval Thursday from California regulators to build the state’s first thin-film photovoltaic solar power plant. The 7.5 megawatt project – expandable to 21 megawatts – will sell electricity to Southern California Edison (EIX) under a 20-year contract.

While First Solar (FSLR) supplies solar modules to power plant builders in Europe, this is apparently the first time it has acted as a utility-scale solar developer itself. First Solar tends to keep quiet about its projects and did not return a request for comment. But a troll through the public records reveals some details of what is called the FSE Blythe project. The solar farm will be built in the Mojave Desert town of Blythe by a First Solar subsidiary, First Solar Electric. The company paid $350,000 in January for 120 acres of agricultural land in Blythe, providing a tidy profit for the seller, which had purchased the property for $60,000 in June 1999.

These are quite monumental developments, it’s the beginning of a trend. We knew First Solar was already playing this field, but that a traditional PV player like Sunpower is also in it functions like a proof of concept.

Technology: A new way to concentrate solar light. It’s a novel approach to concentrating solar light, usually (micro) lenses are used. Looking to make solar panels cheaper, MIT researchers have created sheets of glass coated with advanced organic dyes that more efficiently concentrate sunlight. The researchers, whose results appear in this week’s issue of Science, say that the coated glass sheets could eventually make solar power as cheap as electricity from fossil fuels.

“This could be the cheapest solar technology,” says Marc Baldo, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. “And I think one day, it could be competitive with coal.” Another story about it appeared in this week’s Economist:

An alternative now being tested is called the luminescent solar concentrator (LSC). Instead of focusing the sun’s rays on a cell, as a solar tracker does, an LSC first traps them, wherever they have come from, and then delivers them to the cell using what is known as a waveguide. No moving parts are involved.
Many researchers around the world are working on LSCs. The latest group to report, in a paper in this week’s Science, is led by Michael Currie and Jonathan Mapel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They reckon they can triple the efficiency of such devices, and thus launch them on the path to success.

And another source:

Toyota build solar cars. Huh?! It sounds silly, and it is. But it’s also true. The panels, supplied by Kyocera Corp would be able to power part of the air-conditioning on high-end versions of the gasoline-electric Prius. It’s not likely to be cheap either, so we can’t really see any advantage. It’s basically something of a stunt.