Category Archives: Solar Power

Ontario Test Site no. 3: a rooftop system, but not the Sun Simba Rooftop

Last week, our third test site in Ontario went up. Six Sun Simba panels. I really wish I could say where, but we can’t yet. Keep posted.

Sun Simba Test Site on Parking Garage Roof

View of Generation Two Sun Simba solar panels on a parking garage roof in winter.

For now, you can see it’s mounted on a commercially-available tracking system and supported by a particularly strong parking garage roof; this isn’t the Sun Simba Rooftop.

Six Sun Simba panels installed on a parking garage roof.

To recap, our first test site is just outside of our facility here at 30 Ordnance St. Actually, we recently installed the same tracker at Ordnance as above, and I haven’t yet posted photos to the blog (It looked like this before). Here’s one (just set up & pre-tracking) I really like:

Sun Simba panels mounted on commercial tracker, downtown Toronto

For those who follow us on Twitter, I had posted a link to the above photo there before. Yes, we were highly skeptical of tweeting before, but so far have found it’s pretty useful for finding out about industry info, policy changes, or funding opportunities like this one quickly, and for meeting some pretty interesting, active people, beyond the solar industry – which is also good.

Details of the second test site were posted here. That one also didn’t have location information. Again, can’t wait til we can share lots more data – not only location, but performance too.


Environmentalists: a new challenge to utility-scale solar?

I’d really like to hear what you think of the Sierra Club’s decision to sue the California Energy Commission over its approval of the 663.5 MW Calico solar thermal project in San Bernandino Country, California. One of the largest environmental NGOs coming up against a renewable energy project – seems hard to believe, no?

The lawsuit, filed December 30, 2010, charges that the CEC rushed the environmental review of Calico without fully considering the impacts on rare plant and wildlife species (such as the protected desert tortoise plodding along below), and without identifying adequate mitigation measures.

Photo: Desert tortoise roaming the Calico site.  Photo from BLM biological assessment, courtesy of the Mojave Desert Blog.

I suppose the suit isn’t as big of a shock – outspoken criticism of siting solar projects on undisturbed land emerged well before, and previous projects were blocked for similar reasons.  After BrightSource Energy announced its Ivanpah project, for example, the California Wildlands Conservancy responded by introducing legislation to ban renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert – incidentally some of the land closest to transmission lines and the huge Southern California market.

(Governor Schwarzenegger then countered “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it [them].”)

As a card-carrying environmentalist whose also convinced of the need for large-scale, rapid renewable energy deployment, I admit this lawsuit has left me a bit conflicted: if climate change is a real, pressing, and to many, a livelihood-threatening phenomenon, which I believe it is, should there be special consideration of the  environmental impacts of renewable energy developments in the siting process? By special consideration, I mean in this case – allowing projects to be constructed on public BLM land, and giving developers permission to relocate protected species?

The answer from certain environmentalists has been a clear No – developers should exhaust the widely available rooftops and already-disturbed land before they move on to pristine desert. Some point to the fact that transmitting electricity from solar farms in the desert is inefficient – 10 to 15% of the electricity generated can be lost en route to urban markets. Desert ecosystems in SoCal are unique, irreplaceable, and highly fragile – no place for ‘industrialized solar farms’, it’s argued.

On the other side, Michael Kanellos, editor-in-chief of the popular cleantech news site Greentech Media, was vocal in his disagreement with the Sierra Club, titling his recent editorial on the decision, “Dear Environmental Community: Please Shut Up.” In Michael’s defense, he thinks the risks have been duly analyzed, and emphasizes that renewable energy generation has a zero sum relationship with fossil fuel generation – “Circumscribing solar and wind farms leads to only one thing: more natural gas, coal and nuclear plants”.

So, where do I stand? I think the best available technologies should be deployed at a scale that will meaningfully reduce GHGs. In doing this, some landscape changes are inevitable. But projects shouldn’t be developed in a way that will cause significant and irrevocable harm to the land or to species. For this reason, I actually think the Sierra’s lawsuit could be a good thing – in the best case, it would allow a closer look at the environmental impacts of all proposed solar projects in the SoCal deserts (from my count of the CEC’s website, there are over 3,500 MW proposed), and it would allow careful weighing of what changes are permissible.  As the NYT’s Green Blog notes, casinos, strip malls and subdivisions have permanently changed the SoCal deserts. There are better and worse reasons to alter these desert ecosystems.

Efforts such as Ivanpah’s tortoise monitoring program, and NREL’s study on how to restore habitat shaded by solar panels seem promising of mitigating harmful changes. There’s room for lots more.

Relatedly: I had said I’d earlier to post slides from an SPI presentation made by Jimmy Nelson, a University of California Berkeley PhD candidate, on the environmental benefits of CPV (the type of solar panel that will be deployed at many of the utility-scale projects discussed above). Here they are:

Quantifying the Environmental Impact of CPV

Nelson’s work, which relies on a sophisticated model called the SWITCH model (what that stands for is in the pres.), calculates that CPV’s higher efficiencies mean less water is used and less land is disturbed to generate the same amount of power.  CPV’s energy and GHG payback times are also under half those of conventional solar panels.

An Update:

On February 9, 2011, more than a dozen U.S. environmental NGOs wrote a letter to President Obama urging for a comprehensive, upfront process for siting, planning, and monitoring the environmental impact of renewable energy projects. The letter followed Obama’s State of the Union Address, made on January 25, 2011, during which he announced a target of producing 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

Local Content Rules: Good or bad for the regional economy?

Two conflicting views of the impact of domestic content rules on the regional economy:

1. A study by a coalition of mostly foreign PV producers argues that Ontario’s 60% domestic content requirements will reduce job creation and private investment in the Province, as compared with only a Feed-in Tariff and no domestic content rules.  The study was led by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., a global supplier of PV modules and inverters, and supported by U.S.-based First Solar, Japan’s Sanyo Eletric Co., and Toronto-based Timminco, a silicon processor. According to the president of Mitsubishi Electric Sales Canada Inc., the Dom Con requirements are “poison”.

*Does anyone know where I can find an original of the study?

2.  In sharp contrast, on Bloomberg last week – more news that Spain, which never imposed restrictions on where solar panels could come from, is suffering hugely from its overly generous FIT subsidies.  Not only are farmers losing hard-earned savings on lower than agreed upon feed-in rates, but few green jobs were created, let alone sustained – “The spending didn’t achieve the government’s aim of creating green jobs, because Spanish investors imported most of their panels from overseas when domestic manufacturers couldn’t meet short-term demand.”

Also adding urgency to the issue: Japan, backed by the EU and the US, has taken Ontario’s Dom Con rules to the WTO.

So, what’s better – the FIT and Dom Con Combo, or just the FIT?  Obviously it depends who you speak to – as a Globe & Mail article put it, “Behind much of the push for liberalized trade rules are multinational companies that are eager to keep costs down and locate their manufacturing facilities where it makes the most business sense.”

By itself, that’s not a strong enough platform on which to reject or accept DC rules though. Certainly, in most cases, manufacturing in Ontario does add a premium. But as Ontario is finding out – it is attracting a significant amount of investment and creating jobs (for example, see this and this).  The challenge will be keeping the capacity here once the FIT is removed, but by then there should be a strong base of innovative companies in the Province to move things forward, and what matters equally if not more – lots and lots of solar panels feeding clean electricity to the grid.

What we took home from SPI 2010: optimism for CPV’s next 3 years, 263 really interesting contacts..oh, and some bedbug bites

Last week was my first SPI.  I had been to academic conferences before, notably the American Association of Geographers annual meeting, where I was amazed at 7,000 to 8,000-thick crowds, but at this year’s SPI 28,000 bodies jostled along the corridors of the LA Convention Centre’s three trade show halls, snapping endless amounts of photos with the latest DSLRs, even pulling out self-lighting magnifying glasses (a good thing the Sun Simba is v. difficult to reverse engineer), and taking pages and pages of glossy brochures from people like me, on guard in front of our respective booths.

After the daily pilgrimages to and from the convention centre, the pre-, post-, and during-conference sessions, and the long lines leading up to Starbucks’ counter – what do you take home from a massive and intense event like this? Although I’m a vegetarian, I can imagine it’s a bit like digesting the full burger, animal fries, and milkshake combo from the In & Out Burger, where John Paul insisted we go upon arriving at LAX.

(Photo courtesy of SPI’s Flickr set)

So, after a week back home in Toronto, here are three things that I took home from SPI:

1. A greater certainty that, after a series of false starts and overpromises, the number and scale of concentrating PV deployments will soon pick up. Dr. Sarah Kurtz, a Principal Scientist at NREL and probably the person most capable of an objective evaluation of the technology, said that moves by the established CPV players – Amonix, SolFocus, and Concentrix – past testing to real production, combined with an emerging appetite for utility-scale projects from governments and utilities, point to a growth opportunity for concentrating panels.  Spire’s announcement of 42.3% efficient III-V cells and increasing silicon processing costs also support a degree of optimism for CPV.

As Dr. Kurtz said, however, sustained growth will hinge on field performance: proof of long-term reliability is a must for project bankability. Of course, any new technology needs to demonstrate performance and reliability before widespread market adoption, but in the case of energy technologies, where even small projects can cost a few million dollars, the challenge of gathering the initial data to support large-scale developments results in a bit of a catch-22.

Bankability is the core of our efforts right now, and what we hope our self-funded 2 MW project in the City of Lancaster will achieve.

2. The importance of good government programs. SPI may be an international conference, as its name states, but the locales printed on attendees’ nametags matched up pretty well with the places with the most supportive or effective government solar energy programs. We encountered a number of friendly names and faces from Ontario – including from the Ontario Power Authority, Endura Energy, Helios Solar, and the University of Toronto.  Other well-represented locales included California (of course); New Jersey; and Germany.  On that note, let’s hope Proposition 23 isn’t repealed.

3. Remembering why you’re there. Next to speaking with several very engaging people with very interesting projects, I most enjoyed a presentation during the first day’s CPV session, made by a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley.  With his permission, I’m hoping to post his slides soon.  Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab used their SWITCH model (stands for ‘Solar and Wind Integration with Transmission and Conventional generation on an Hourly Basis’) to evaluate the environmental impacts of CPV versus conventional PV and fossil fuel generation technologies.  CPV panels – namely the SolFocus and Amonix panels studied – came out with less of an impact on all fronts analyzed:

  1. The energy payback time for concentrating panels is a quarter that of conventional PV panels (0.6 and 0.7 years for SolFocus and Amonix modules, respectively, versus 2.2 – 2.7 for Silicon panels)
  2. The greenhouse gases emitted from producing each kWh of CPV module is a half to a quarter that of Silicon panels (20 and 12 tons of CO2 equivalent for SolFocus and Amonix, respectively, versus 45 tons for Silicon panels).
  3. The water demands of module washing are 1.2 to 2.5 times less than other PV technologies (largely because of the efficiency).

We’re looking into doing a lifecycle analysis of the Sun Simba , which use different materials and manufacturing processes than SolFocus and Amonix.

The CPV industry still has challenges though: the areas where concentrating panels perform best are often deserts with fragile ecosystems.  A question discussed in the session was how do you secure large, expensive systems, without fencing off and essentially fragmenting parcels of desert?  I’ve been reading up on this issue on the Mojave Desert Blog here.

About the bedbugs – I’m not going to name the hotel here, because it was honestly only one room, only one night, and they dealt with it, but two of my colleagues were unfortunate victims of the current epidemic across North America.  Perhaps some of the bright minds that we met at the conference could be applied to solving this problem – it may be the post-SPI optimist in me speaking, but it seems like most of the technologies and minds are already there to solve the energy crisis.

MSI and Sun Simbas in Los Angeles: SPI 2010

Morgan Solar is heading to our fourth Solar Power International conference!

13 Morgan Solar employees will be in Los Angeles for SPI 2010, starting with the kick off of the conference on Monday night, through to its close on Thursday, October 14.

We invite you to visit our booth, to come check out our to-scale Sun Simba panels and speak to our engineers, optical scientists, supply chain managers, and Business Development team.

In addition to brothers John Paul and Nicolas Morgan, co-Founders of Morgan Solar, and their father, Senior Advisor Eric Morgan, this year Asif Ansari, Morgan Solar’s new CEO, will be in attendance.


Dates: October 12 – 14, 2010
Location: Booth # 3737, South Hall H

A quick shot of Sun Simba panels awaiting shipping to L.A.:


Morgan Solar secures lease option for 25-acre solar facility in Antelope Valley, California

Following on yesterday’s post, more news about Morgan Solar’s plans to bring the Sun Simba technology to California: last night, the Lancaster City Council voted unanimously in favour of leasing 25 acres of City-owned property to MSI (City of Lancaster report here). An initial 200 kW pilot project will be installed at the Lancaster National Soccer Center.  Provided this meets performance metrics and deadlines, an additional 2 to 5 MW will be deployed on adjacent land.

Depending on its size, the larger solar farm will power approximately 500 to 1250  homes, working towards the regional utility’s goal of generating at least 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2017.

We’ll keep this blog updated on the progress of the Lancaster solar farm.

At Stage 1, this plot of land* may be the future home of 2 –  5 MW of Sun Simbas:

* A note on the land: The City of Lancaster has suffered fairly severe droughts in the past years, and so has responded by providing incentives to wind down agricultural activities in certain areas, in order to protect local water supplies. By building a solar farm at the proposed site, we won’t be taking away from otherwise good farmland.

Sun Simba Test Site Install

After testing the panels at our office the day before, our engineers successfully installed the Simbas at the external test site on Friday (August 6). There was some holding of breath, particularly when the panels were hoisted mid-air by the crane (see below) and then fitted into the pole-mount. Overall, however, the install went smoothly.

This is the start of a major push on our test and demo sites – quite soon we’ll have much more expansive systems in place.

*Some have asked if we can say where this test site is.  Unfortunately at this time we can’t give the exact location due to protection of our IP.  However, we can say that the site is in Ontario.