Enphase Is Back With a Microinverter-Integrated Solar Module

Microinverter pioneer Enphase has achieved the convergence of solar module and microinverter once again, several years after the company's first attempt. 

This month, LG will begin selling a so-called AC module manufactured with an Enphase microinverter intact. The product ships flat; before commissioning, the inverter easily snaps into place 1.5 centimeters off the back of the panel to allow passive airflow cooling. The same concept is coming in partnership with Jinko late in the third quarter or early in the fourth. More partners are in the works but have not been named.

By combining these elements, Enphase can pitch more pronounced cost savings on installation time, helping installers compete in a tight market.

The new product arrives at a time when Enphase itself is fighting for market share in the competitive module-level power electronics segment. The company reported $30 million in cash at the end of the first quarter, with operating expenses this quarter expected to hit $18 million. Enphase has spent months scraping away costs and pushing through new iterations of its core product.

The AC module could be a major new revenue source, if the market responds the way Enphase and LG predict it will. But don't think of it as just a life-saver for Enphase.

"We’re feeling very comfortable with where we are financially," said CEO Paul Nahi. "The AC module isn't addressing any of those [issues], it's just the right business decision in general ... I see the AC module as the future of rooftop solar."

"Part of our mission"

The new development is not a surprise -- nor is it a first.

Enphase built a more primitive AC module several years ago. That microinverter bolted onto the frame, so it was not as wholesomely integrated as the new version. It did not take off at the time.

Three years ago, LG also released an AC module with its own microinverter. That expensive product didn't catch on either. SunPower acquired microinverter company SolarBridge in 2014; now all of its Equinox-branded modules come with the microinverter built in.

For Enphase, this product represents the culmination of a long-time drive to simplify solar electronics.

"It is very much our intention to basically make the inverter disappear," Nahi said. "That, to us, is the logical endgame when it comes to solar. It has been part of our mission pretty much since day one."

The combined module makes life easier for installers. It reduces the number of different components they need to keep in stock, and reduces the time spent on the roof plugging things in. The goal is to enable installer to do two full residential systems per day with a crew of three people, Nahi said.

The collaboration came in response to installer interest, said Ryan Collins, the solar sales manager who oversees distribution for LG. 

"What we found was the market generally installs LG and Enphase at the same time anyway, so it's kind of a natural pairing," Collins said.

Market indicators suggest the AC module could reach 75 to 80 percent of residential module sales, in short order, he added.

Crunch time

There's a strong deductive case for why this product makes sense. Now, Enphase and LG will have to see how the markets respond. One thing is for sure: they have big hopes.

"The vast majority of our business will be AC modules in the near future," Nahi said.

It's hard to predict exactly how long it will take to transition away from the model of selling discrete microinverters, he noted.

A few factors could slow that journey.

The nature of the AC module locks in one combination of module and inverter. Installers will have to weigh the benefits of easier installation versus the costs of reduced flexibility.

Enphase competitor SolarEdge has been selling modules embedded with DC optimizers for five years, but it hasn't surpassed 10 percent of the company's sales, said Lior Handelsman, founder and VP of product marketing and strategy. He attributes that to the limitations the integrated module puts on installers to chase deals from different providers and mix and match based on the job.

"If you're tied to one module brand and one inverter brand, by all means buy [an AC module]," he said. "But if you want to play the market and buy different brands and have a mixture of inverters and of modules, then it might not be the best solution for you."

The vision from Enphase is that installers choose to standardize on the microinverter, and then have a range of AC modules to pick from. That maintains some degree of choice, although it will be a while before there's a full spectrum of options.

It's also important to prove out how attractive the ease of installation will be for installers.

"It's hard to show that you’re actually saving money on labor unless you’re like SolarCity and you track the minutes spent on the roof," said Scott Moskowitz, who analyzes solar inverter markets at GTM Research.

This reflects the business adage that you can't improve what you don't measure. Large and well-funded national installers run detailed time and motion studies to get their rooftop installs down to a science. Mom and pop installers who don't track that data may need more convincing that it really will save them money.

That hasn't been a problem in Enphase's beta studies, Nahi said.

"You don’t need a stopwatch," he said. "We’ve heard very consistently that once they’ve done a couple of installs, there’s no going back."

Shared responsibilities

Bringing a third actor into a decision can complicate the process, and the AC module supply chain puts Enphase in the position of relying on other companies to sell its product.

As it stands currently, Enphase sells the microinverters to the module manufacturer, which builds it into the module and sells it to installer partners. The end customer buys an Enphase product without Enphase selling it to them.

Enphase is doing joint sales calls and joint marketing alongside the manufacturers to raise awareness around the product, and will do so with new partners when they come online, Nahi said.

"We chose our partners very carefully," he added. "We’ve chosen a select few because we want to make sure they have the infrastructure to address it."

Both Enphase and LG want this product to succeed, but that doesn't mean their incentives are perfectly aligned. LG also sells nearly identical modules without the inverter built in; if a customer pushes back on the AC module pitch, LG can still walk away with a deal even if Enphase doesn't.

The most successful model for selling AC modules so far has been SunPower, which sells both the module and microinverter as part of a fully integrated system through its own dealer network, Moskowitz said.

"Their AC module is one company’s product," he said. "Enphase has to collaborate with third party module vendors and get the message out to the broader market."

With so few attempts at selling AC modules to date, there is no reason to write off Enphase because it relies on third parties to sell. At the same time, it couldn't realistically become its own solar module distributor, given the tight cashflow situation.

As the company pushes toward profitability and lower operational expenses, it will just have to budget in more time spent advocating a sale that's ultimately in someone else's hands.

Why 100% Renewables May Create an ‘Evolutionary Dead End’

We’re back in familiar territory on the podcast this week. Once again, we are revisiting Mark Jacobson’s famous -- some might say infamous -- 100% renewable energy scenario.

This week, we’re rounding out our previous conversation with Professor Jacobson by turning to Dr. Christopher Clack, the lead author of a critique of Jacobson’s modeling, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June.

Dr. Clack is the CEO of Vibrant Clean Energy, a grid modeling firm. His expertise is in mathematics, statistics and optimization. He formerly worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado.

Dr. Clack is also the co-lead author of a 2016 paper in the journal Nature Climate Change looking at how the U.S. could slash carbon emissions by 80 percent.

In this podcast, we talk about Clack's rebuttal, Jacobson’s rebuttal to Clack’s rebuttal, the meaning of the debate over 100 percent renewables, and the reason so many academics targeted Jacobson’s work. 

This podcast is brought to you by Wunder Capital, an award-winning investment platform that allows you to invest directly in solar projects and earn up to 8.5 percent annually. Create an account for free at WunderCapital.com/gtm.

Additional reading and listening:

An Antidote to the Utility-Versus-Renewables Conflict

A New York Times analysis this month tallied the states that recently rolled back net metering and other policies to encourage distributed solar, attributing the developments in large part to a well-funded network of utility lobbyists.

In much of the nation, though, the solar-versus-utilities dynamic has given way to a more nuanced give-and-take over the future of the grid.

Although the political tensions are acute in many regions of the country, both parties can often get much more done as partners than as enemies. Earlier this year, I got to watch that process play out in real time.

Every year, the Rocky Mountain Institute convenes an eLab Accelerator, which brings in professionals from around the distributed energy industry and groups them with utility staff, politicians and other community stakeholders to tackle real world energy challenges. (I observed under Chatham House rules, meaning I can report topics discussed, but not attribute comments to individual participants.)

The teams hashed out their differences over several days at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah, tucked away from Wi-Fi and anything resembling a typical office environment. When they emerged, they reported a newfound understanding of the diverse perspectives at play beyond their own organizations.

"Not only are we bringing people together outside a formal proceeding or other legal process, but the way we bring them together is designed to create trust and transparency and equity in the conversation," said Leia Guccione, the principal at RMI who oversees design and execution of the Accelerator, in an interview after the event.

This produces more than good feelings.

A gathering of Illinois energy experts at the first Accelerator, in 2014, created kernels of agreement that led to the state's bipartisan 2016 clean jobs bill. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities produced a staff white paper on microgrids directly influenced by a partnership between the city of Hoboken and utility PSE&G. Design work by New York City, utility Con Ed, and others last year spawned an electric-vehicle RFI.

The list goes on. Something about the process gets results.

Beyond technical expertise

The design of the eLab stems from a simple premise: Improving the grid is not fundamentally an engineering challenge.

"When you look at what it's going to take to transform not just the U.S. electrical system but probably any system in the world, it’s much more than just a technical challenge," Guccione said. "You have institutions and organizations and all these financial and legal and regulatory and social issues that are also part of reinventing the system, so we need to take approaches that are equal to that challenge."

Tackling one of those issues but not the others can doom a project.

In one case this year, Duke Energy had a plan for a new combined-heat-and-power plant to be hosted on Duke University's campus. The costs penciled out, it stacked value streams and addressed electrical needs on site and in the nearby distribution grid. But it didn't have popular support on campus. Even the high-level backing of the university administration couldn't stop that popular opposition from putting the project on hold.

Several teams at this year's Accelerator explicitly focused on local engagement as a core tenet of their project.

Duke Energy teamed up with the City of Charlotte and other local stakeholders to brainstorm how to deliver a microgrid to fortify the city's Public Safety Campus. Since this project could serve as a model for other utility-led microgrids, the team's discussions led to a deeper discussion around how to balance local benefits, like resilience, with value delivered to ratepayers, like grid services and renewable energy integration.

A team from Washington, D.C. took a similar grassroots approach to planning non-wires alternatives for reducing peak load growth as the city's population rises.

A team from Oakland, California endeavored to meet grid reliability needs while replacing a peaker plant with distributed energy resources and respecting and advancing the local needs of the residents.

Another group deliberated on how to place solar-plus-storage microgrids throughout Portland, Oregon to serve as hubs in the event of a major earthquake.

The teams toiled to prove whether the fix would work for the community it was meant to serve -- not just work technically.

Level the hierarchy

Pulling top grid thinkers away from stale conference rooms and into a remote setting helps them focus more intensely on the conversation at hand, Guccione said.

"It helps people step back from the smaller problems that are consuming them in their day-to-day lives and reconnect with the fundamental things that are motivating them to do the work they do," she said.

The Wild West landscape also changes the way people interact. Much of the business of grid evolution unfolds in the highly formalized, quasi-judicial world of state regulatory proceedings. The RMI process pulls individuals out of their own workplace hierarchies, and sits them down next to similarly unmoored counterparts from other organizations. The flat power structure attempts to remove differences between groups, and to generate insights that the participants wouldn't encounter in the usual way of doing business.

"It’s neutral territory," Guccione said. "Nobody has the upper hand at this kind of venue."

As night falls at the Sundance Mountain Resort, the slant glint of light on mementos from owner Robert Redford's role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hints at the possibilities of unlikely partnerships.

EIA Data Reveals California’s Real and Growing Duck Curve

We’ve covered the growth of the duck over the half-decade since the term was coined by California state grid operator CAISO, named after the shape of a grid with midday solar bellies and steep evening necks in its supply-demand curve. This year has brought increasing proof that the duck curve has grown up, and much faster than expected. 

The latest comes in this week’s report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on CAISO’s net system loads and wholesale energy market prices over the past six months. In that time, average day-ahead hourly energy market prices during the 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. period -- the “neck” of the duck -- have spiked to nearly $60 per megawatt-hour, compared to about $35 per megawatt-hour in the same period in 2016. 

There’s also a rising morning ramp in prices, one that’s actually higher than the prices of last year’s evening peak. At the same time, prices for the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. period have fallen to near $15 per megawatt-hour, driven by the excess supply of solar, wind, and this year, hydropower. Steeper ramps and deeper bellies add up to a recognizable shape.

This average includes both the relatively moderate load curves of wintertime, and the cool spring days when solar was producing and the state wasn’t using air conditioning -- the season when the duck curve’s manifestations are felt the strongest. This spring witnessed a record-setting amount of negative pricing, as hydro, solar and wind power added gigawatts of excess energy to the system, forcing CAISO to curtail resources until demand picked up. 

EIA dove into data for the last week of March from 2012 to 2017 to illustrate how CAISO’s net system load -- the real electricity demand and supply balance across California’s transmission system -- has shifted over that time. Taken as an average across the week, the curve for 2017 and 2016 are clearly showing the change into a duck, with clear dips in midday demand representing solar’s influence (although they’re not as stark as those revealed in energy pricing data). 

But this gentle curve is creating new challenges for the grid operator, as revealed in the chart of changes in net load during the day’s four ramping periods, measured in gigawatts. 

At least during the week depicted, CAISO’s needs for ramping resources grew significantly compared to years past, both to ramp down after the morning peak, and ramp up during the evening peak. That’s the metric driving higher hourly prices in the morning and evening hours, which “reflect a premium for a particular characteristic that not all generators can deliver: the ability to increase output on command.” 

How Sungrow Is Ramping US Inverter Growth Amid Chinese Market Uncertainty

The Chinese solar market is slowing, and it's creating some interesting dynamics for the country's domestic inverter companies.

China is projected to drop slightly from 41 percent of new global solar PV installations in 2016 to 39 percent in 2017, and continue down to about 20 percent by 2022, according to the latest Global PV Inverter and MLPE Landscape report and Global Solar Demand Monitor from GTM Research.

While China will remain the world’s largest solar market over the next five years, market uncertainty has pushed Chinese inverters companies of varying sizes to expand their global reach, according to Scott Moskowitz, senior analyst in GTM Research’s PV Systems and Technologies group. For pure-play inverter company Sungrow, this represents a unique opportunity.

Sungrow is not the first pure-play company to look beyond its home region in search of global growth. Back in the early part of the decade, SMA’s shipments looked similar to Sungrow’s in terms of concentration in its home market. Sales for SMA were highly concentrated in continental Europe. However, as European markets declined and price pressures increased from China, German-headquartered SMA was forced to accelerate its international expansion strategy and restructure its business.

Meanwhile, Sungrow expects to double its exports this year from 2016.

“Sungrow continues to focus aggressively on international expansion and exported over 1 gigawatt of inverters in 2016 for the second year in a row,” said Moskowitz, lead author of the latest GTM Research inverter report. "However, global brand recognition continues to be a challenge" for inverter companies working outside of their home country. 

The question of what traits are needed to scale globally as a pure-play inverter company are timely, but Sungrow is hardly a global laggard. The company has been the second largest inverter supplier in the world when ranked by megawatts shipped every year since 2013, according to GTM Research. Huawei took over the top spot from SMA in 2015.

Much of the business for both companies, however, is in China. Despite the size of the Chinese market, diversification is increasingly key for Chinese inverter companies. Top-tier Chinese inverter companies have been relatively successful expanding into the low-price feed-in-tariff markets of Europe and Australia, but share gains in South and North America have been harder to come by.

Sungrow has started to make inroads in the U.S., with both its central and three-phase string inverters. The company doubled its three-phase string inverter shipments in 2016 as string inverter prices have declined. It has recently released a 125-kilowatt, 1,500-volt string inverter, the highest power density for a string inverter to date, which is currently being shipped for projects in North America.

GTM forecasts both string and central inverters will continue to see steady price declines through 2022. Sungrow has won a few significant projects in the region, notably with Swinerton Renewable Energy and a 205-megawatt utility-scale project in California.

“Global growth requires significant investment in sales and servicing as well as R&D and marketing,” said Moskowitz. “It will not be easy for Sungrow to achieve, but shifting demand will necessitate trying.”

Sungrow has made strategic decisions to invest in its service team, including bringing over Roberto Cardoso, who previously headed up ABB/Power-One's service operations. U.S. developers “have to know if there is going to be a service organization around for the life of the product,” Allan Gregg, CTO at Sungrow USA, told Greentech Media in 2016.

It has also invested in novel architecture with its virtual central inverter concept. The virtual central inverter brings together the benefits of the command and control of central inverters with the lower O&M of string inverters, but in the U.S. where central inverters still reign supreme, Sungrow is investing in market education about the benefits of how developers and EPCs can use this technology in practice.

As Sungrow tries to get traction around its virtual central inverter concept, there is one area where Sungrow has a benefit over the technology giant and inverter market leader Huawei, notes Moskowitz.

While the U.S. market is still warming to string inverters for utility-scale projects, Sungrow also sells central inverters and Huawei does not. “Sungrow only has to convince U.S. EPCs to use its inverters rather than to change how they think about utility system design,” Moskowitz said of Sungrow trying to build its market share.

For any inverter company, a laser focus on staying ahead of regional trends will be increasingly important as prices come down further in the next five years. “Inverter prices continue to fall aggressively and the market is consolidating,” said Moskowitz.

“Tomorrow’s inverters must be smarter and more versatile due to high penetrations of solar and the rise of energy storage," he said. "Pure-play vendors like Sungrow are often most able to respond to such challenges.”

Some Final Words From Outgoing GTM Editor Eric Wesoff

After 10 years of service, 3,000 articles written, and 10,000 articles edited, I'm taking leave of GTM. Helping GTM grow and succeed from its early days is one of my favorite things I've ever done.

I'm sending gratitude to the people and companies that are fighting the clean energy fight, the GTM founders for being smart enough to hire me, to everyone who ever worked at GTM, to writers and copy editors everywhere, and especially to our readers and commenters.

Shameless self-promotion

Here are a few articles I'm proud to have written:

Last words

  • When I started tracking renewables in 2003 (pre-GTM), non-hydro renewable sources made a meaningless contribution to the grid and nobody was making money. Fifteen years later, non-hydro renewables make a very small contribution to the grid, and some folks are making money. With that in mind, I'll suggest that the sniping going on over the 100 percent renewables goal modeled by Professor Mark Jacobson is an epic example of Sayre's law: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low."
  • That said, consider running for local office on a renewables platform. Apply for a job at your state's PUC -- they are hiring. Call the offices of your elected officials and politely tell the aides how you feel about solar, wind, and storage. Invent something new. Found a renewable power startup. Write an article or an op-ed. Teach someone young about energy policy.
  • As much as it pains me to say this, Gary Kremen was mostly right. Eight years ago, over breakfast, the entrepreneur and Match.com founder told me that there was no economy of scale in nationalizing a home contractor business like HVAC or plumbing or SolarCity, Verengo or Sungevity.
  • Throughout my tenure at GTM, or my entire lifetime for that matter, no fuel-cell company has had a profitable year. Bloom Energy remains a private company. And the damn $3 million half-built hydrogen filling station on the corner of my street remains half-built.
  • A C student should not be leading our energy policy or safeguarding our nuclear stockpile.
  • Calling negative news "fake news" is the mark of a despot. With exceptions, the press is doing a decent job of reporting on the incompetence and malfeasance of the Trump administration. Access for the sake of access is bullshit -- journalists need to band together and walk out of the room when faced with propaganda and lies.       

Greentech Media editorial is in the capable and creative hands of Editor-in-Chief Stephen Lacey, Senior Editor Julia Pyper, Grid Whisperer Jeff St. John, and Staff Writer Julian Spector. 

If your language is too salty for the comment section, you can reach me at wesoff@mindspring.com.

Conservative Groups Come Out Against the Suniva, SolarWorld Trade Case

Opponents of the Suniva-SolarWorld trade case have a new, and perhaps surprising, set of allies: conservative policy groups.

The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have come out against the recent petition to impose tariffs on imported crystalline silicon solar products, joining in a coalition with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and others. Mounting dissent from across the political spectrum could help convince Republican President Donald Trump to refuse the introduction of trade barriers.

The Energy Trade Action Coalition (ETAC) officially launched on Friday to coordinate opposition to the trade case. Financially troubled U.S.-based solar product manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld launched the dispute this spring, claiming that imported solar equipment has "heavily distorted" the market and caused "significant harm" to America's solar manufacturing base.

The case was filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act, which is an obscure section of U.S. trade law that could allow the president to impose tariffs, minimum prices or quotas on solar products from any country in the world if the ITC finds "serious injury."

The petition specifically seeks duties of 40 cents per watt on imported cells and a floor price of 78 cents per watt on modules, which could be devastating to the broader U.S. solar industry. Implementing these tariffs is projected to erase one-half of all solar installations expected to come on-line through 2022, according to GTM Research.

The ITC agreed to take up the case in May, and is expected to issue a recommendation in September. That proposal then goes to President Trump -- who has repeatedly said that he intends to bring back U.S. manufacturing jobs -- to accept, change or reject the recommended remedy.

ETAC said its mission is to "actively engage with the Trump administration, Congress, the media and the public to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining access to globally priced products to support American energy industry competitiveness, sustain tens of thousands of good-paying American manufacturing jobs, and preserve the principles of free trade in a global marketplace," according to a press release.

The coalition includes a variety of trade associations, companies and organizations, representing utilities, co-ops, manufacturers, suppliers, solar developers, retailers, local union workers, small businesses, venture capital groups and conservative free-trade advocates. It's that final category of participants that could raise some eyebrows. 

"The worst kind of trade protectionism"

The Heritage Foundation is not widely thought of as a solar advocate. The organization has argued for letting the solar Investment Tax Credit expire, criticized U.S. military investments in solar power, and applauded Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, which could slow the adoption of renewables in the long term. The conservative policy think tank has received funding from organizations tied to the Koch brothers, who have strong financial ties to the fossil fuel industry and have been accused of lobbying against rooftop solar.

The Koch brothers are also backers of ALEC, a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private-sector representatives, which has opposed state-level renewable energy standards and helped craft policies that make residential solar less attractive. However, ALEC is also a member of the new coalition opposing the Suniva and SolarWorld trade case. 

Implementing tariffs on imported solar equipment would likely slash demand for new projects and make solar less competitive with other sources of power. So it would make sense that groups that have traditionally supported fossil fuels would support the trade petition. However, right-leaning members of ETAC say they're predominantly concerned about protectionist measures and the damage they will cause to one of America's high-tech growth industries.

“The Section 201 solar industry trade case will undermine one of the fastest-growing All of the Above Energy jobs sectors in states across the country, solar energy installation,” said Sarah Hunt, director of the Center for Innovation and Technology at ALEC, in a statement. “We must avoid rewarding this opportunistic use of U.S. trade laws."

“Tariffs meant to protect one industry can, and often do, have significant damaging effects on other domestic industries,” said Tori Whiting, research associate at The Heritage Foundation. “Imposing tariffs under Section 201, as Suniva and SolarWorld request, would be a step backward by adding another layer of federal subsidies, which is something the Heritage Foundation opposes in all instances.”

The R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, also joined ETAC. Eli Lehrer, the group's president, said the solar case is "an example of the worst kind of trade protectionism." Washington, D.C.-based R Street broke off from The Heartland Institute in 2012, after the Chicago-based group ran a provocative billboard that portrayed people who believe in global warming as being psychologically equivalent to the Unabomber.

When asked why certain conservative groups had joined the effort to oppose solar tariffs, ETAC spokesperson George Felcyn said it comes down to the effects on the broader economy. 

"It’s fairly common in these types of coalitions that members may disagree on some issues, but are unified on the focus of the coalition," he said. "I’ll let the individual groups speak for themselves on support for energy, but what unites everyone is a belief in free trade and an understanding that unfairly imposing tariffs on imports invariably creates significant damaging effects on downstream domestic industries."

"This is not a partisan issue"

ETAC says the requested tariffs would double the price of basic ingredients used by the broader solar industry. The $23 billion U.S. solar industry employs roughly 260,000 American workers in solidly compensated jobs across the country. A recent study by SEIA found that an estimated 88,000 jobs, about one-third of the current American solar workforce, would be lost if the trade protections proposed in the petition are granted. 

The two companies at the center of the ITC case employ approximately 1,000 people in the U.S. That number has been declining recently as the companies have dealt with major losses. Georgia-based solar manufacturer Suniva filed for bankruptcy protection in April, and SolarWorld Americas narrowly escaped a similar fate with a recent $6 million cash infusion.

The two companies, both of which have foreign parent companies, do offer manufacturing jobs -- the kind of jobs the Trump administration has sworn to protect, which has created a lot of uncertainty around the trade war. When asked how ETAC views this issue, Felcyn said the coalition believes that combating the tariffs will actually boost U.S. manufacturing.

"There are many more U.S. manufacturing companies and jobs that are threatened by cutting off the basic inputs needed by the industry that are at stake here," he said. "It’s critical to look at the supply chain as a whole and consider all the other companies that depend on these inputs."

He added that there are more than 35,000 solar manufacturing jobs covering everything from racking and mounting products to inverters and trackers that are made in the U.S. "So the effects on U.S. manufacturing speak for themselves," Felcyn said.

SEIA is spearheading the fight against new import tariffs and is also a member of ETAC. Dan Whitten, vice president of communications, said this issue is not about politics. 

“SEIA has been vehemently opposed to this petition from the beginning, and we know there are a lot of other organizations and industries that have similar beliefs about this case," he said in an emailed statement. "This coalition provides a coordinated platform for groups to come together to voice concerns about the harm this could cause to the more than 260,000 Americans working in solar today. This is not a partisan issue. The damages that would result if this petition prevails would be widespread.”

The utility-scale solar sector would be especially hard-hit if Suniva and SolarWorld win. Ben Gallagher, a solar analyst with GTM Research, said the tariffs would increase U.S. utility single-axis tracking system pricing from $1.08/Wdc to $1.56/Wdc, "which is...more or less 2015 system pricing." Former SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch recently told reporters that utility-scale PPA prices would double, triggering "several [gigawatts' worth] of potential demand erosion."

The utility-scale market, which has driven the industry's growth to date, would also see significant job losses, by SEIA's calculations. The number of  jobs in the utility-scale solar space is projected to shrink by 60 percent, while residential and commercial employment would fall by 44 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

American utilities are procuring increasing amounts of solar energy thanks to rapid cost declines, and utility executives are (or at least they were) bullish on solar's future. Koch Industries, as a major player in the energy space, has ties to utilities, which may be another reason why certain conservative groups have joined the solar dispute. Meanwhile, renewable energy continues to poll well among American voters from across the political spectrum

Saltwater’s Second Wave: Aquion Has Emerged From Bankruptcy Under a New Owner

After four months in limbo, saltwater battery maker Aquion is back in business.

Juline-Titans LLC acquired the bankrupt Aquion at auction for $9.16 million on June 20. That price beat out a stalking-horse bid of $2.8 million from Austrian energy storage firm BlueSky Energy. Aquion announced a resumption of operations July 21.

The good news: This nontoxic, long-duration alternative to lithium-ion technology has another shot at scaling up sales.

The bad news: $9.16 million is just a fraction of the $190 million in venture capital and debt the company had raised from investors including Bill Gates, Gentry Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital, Bright Capital, Advanced Technology Ventures, Trinity Capital Investment and CapX Partners, Yung’s Enterprise, and Nick and Joby Pritzker.

Calls to the company’s new media contact were not returned in time for publication, and the company website returns an "Oops!" error message, so new details are scarce regarding any strategic changes.

Even the new leadership remains a mystery. The CEO named in the press release, Philip Juline, has no online presence to speak of. He does not appear on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or in any previous media interviews. There is, however, a LinkedIn profile for a Philip Zhang who is listed as CEO of Juline Capital.

His statement in the company's announcement signaled more continuity than difference.

"We are refocused on technology and go-to-market opportunities that will grow significant volume for the company in the coming years," Juline said. "We now need to focus on what we do best -- creating the safest, cleanest and lowest-cost per kWh-cycle battery technology in the world -- with a simple business model that can effectively compete in the marketplace."  

He also called for "renewed focus" on China and global markets.

The new corporate owner is another source of mystery. Juline-Titans, which registered in Delaware on May 30, is an affiliate of a Chinese investment holding company, China Titans Energy Technology Group, which specializes in power electronics. The more recent announcement, though, refers to the new investor as "a majority-American joint venture."

The terms of the contract suggest the new owner will pull the assets out of the existing factory near Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Here's what we do know about the company's status.

Aquion had achieved 250 deployments with a cumulative 35 megawatt-hours globally. It targeted long-duration, long-life applications, with a special appeal for microgrid and off-grid applications. Highlights include a 1-megawatt-hour system backing up the residence and working farm of Medtronic founder Earl Bakken and a roughly 350-kilowatt-hour installation at an organic winery and farm in Sonoma, Calif.

The company built a full-fledged factory outside of Pittsburgh capable of producing 200 megawatt-hours annually, well more than Aquion has manufactured thus far. 

To outside observers, the decision to invest early in a large manufacturing facility may look foolhardy. Plenty of other battery companies have gone bankrupt after completing expensive factories of their own. Aquion, though, made a bet that controlling their means of production offered a better shot at achieving the cost declines needed to stay competitive.

The unexpectedly rapid declines in lithium-ion battery costs -- more than 50 percent in the last three years -- undercut those cost-curve plans Aquion made several years ago. That will still be a challenge under new ownership.

If anything has changed, it's that long-duration alternative chemistries have gradually become more familiar. Every additional month of real-world run time helps.

The strong track record of sales indicates Aquion can find buyers for this technology if it searches far and wide. The thing it didn't have was money; it had grown too big for VCs to keep pumping in cash, but wasn't big enough to attract private equity or other deeper pockets.

The key to a successful reboot lies in the willingness of Juline-Titans to pony up for operational costs until the pipeline really takes off. With minimal data on the skill or inclinations of this new ownership, it's hard to say what will happen next.

New Startups Fuel Growth in the Energy Blockchain Ecosystem

Tokyo Electric Power Company has cemented its interest in blockchain technologies with a major stake in peer-to-peer energy trading platform developer Conjoule.

The Japanese utility giant pumped €3 million ($3.5 million) into the German startup as part of a €4.5 million ($5.3 million) Series A funding round alongside German energy company Innogy SE.

Innogy had been incubating Conjoule within its Innovation Hub division since late 2015, after one of the Hub’s staffers, Conjoule’s co-founder and Managing Director Sam Warburton, came up with the idea for the renewable energy peer-to-peer marketplace.  

“Using blockchain technology, the Conjoule team [is] building one of the most exciting technology developments to enable new transactional models in energy,” according to a press release from Tepco.

The investment, which should allow Conjoule to increase its technical team and launch its platform commercially across Europe, follows Tepco’s alliance with Shell, Statoil, Centrica and others in the blockchain-focused Energy Web Foundation in May. 

“We aim to develop the use cases and the platforms using blockchain technology in the electricity and energy sector with this participation,” Maki Murayama, of Tepco’s international public relations group, told GTM.

Tepco sees a growing role for peer-to-peer energy transactions in Japan as distributed generation leads to an increasing level of "prosumers" being involved in “local production for local consumption,” Murayama said.

Conjoule is beta-testing its blockchain-based peer-to-peer platform with a restricted number of users this year, after developing a simulation based on real historic data in 2015 and creating a minimally viable product for real-world testing in 2016.

It is planning to launch commercially in 2018, with an initial focus on Germany and the Netherlands and possible expansion into Austria and the U.K.

“Our target is to be the peer-to-peer platform of choice for distributed electricity producers, consumers and prosumers in Europe and in selected markets globally,” said Warburton.

He admitted Conjoule was entering an increasingly crowded market for energy blockchain platforms, though. Other startups in the space include Drift, Grid Singularity and Electron.

Nevertheless, Warburton said: “We believe our energy market experience, track record, focus on the needs of our customers and improvement of their ‘customer journey’ with us mean that we are in an extremely strong position compared to many of the other companies.” 

For now, other energy blockchain players have been broadly receptive to Conjoule’s appearance on the scene.

Annie Satow, media relations manager for Siemens, which last November partnered with New York-based peer-to-peer platform developer LO3 Energy, said: “This announcement is further confirmation of the market’s interest in blockchain technology.” 

Other energy blockchain developers noted how Conjoule might form part of a wider technology ecosystem in which different blockchains are used for different forms of exchange.

Conjoule superficially appears to be very similar to the blockchain-based solar generation rewards program SolarCoin. But Francois Sonnet, co-founder of ElectriCChain, an energy generation data project, said there are differences between them. 

“SolarCoin comes on top of peer-to-peer energy platforms such as Power Ledger, Grid Singularity or LO3 Energy, and provides a solution to the whole solar value chain, utilities and governments,” he said. “It is distributed on top of government-backed subsidies.”

Ian Worrall, founder of an energy blockchain startup called MyBit, which is aiming to raise funds through a token sale crowdfunding initiative, was similarly quick to draw a distinction between his company’s offering and Conjoule’s. 

“What they are doing is tokenizing energy itself to trade to neighbors,” he said. “What MyBit does is tokenize the actual hardware so investors can profit from the revenue solar panels produce and make solar panels more accessible to people with financial constraints.” 

What seems to be emerging is a web of different energy blockchains with very specific applications, such as trading electrons with the person next door, helping landowners raise cash for solar panels or making it easier to take advantage of subsidies.

While this arrangement may suit energy blockchain startups seeking a niche in a bustling market, it isn't clear how so many choices of peer-to-peer systems will make things easier for end users, as all the platform developers claim.

Trying to understand blockchain's role in the energy sector? Listen to our recent episode of The Interchange podcast for a detailed overview.

Why California’s Cap-and-Trade Bill Was Such a Big Deal

After numerous attempts, a desperate plea from the governor, and some pot-sweeteners to industry, legislators in California finally passed an extension of cap-and-trade to 2030.

It’s a big deal. California is the world’s seventh-largest economy. With Governor Brown vowing to fill in the climate-diplomacy vacuum left by Donald Trump, it would have been a huge setback to let cap-and-trade languish. We'll look at the significance.

Then, can geothermal heating and cooling follow the path of solar? Dandelion, a new startup spun off from Google X, is betting on it.

We'll end with a look at the wave of executive departures from SolarCity's team in the aftermath of the Tesla acquisition.

This podcast is sponsored by Mission Solar Energy, a solar module manufacturer based in San Antonio, Texas. Visit Mission Solar at the upcoming Solar Power International conference at Booth 3975. You can find out more about Mission’s American-made, high-power modules at missionsolar.com.

Recommended reading:

  • GTM: California's Extension of Cap-and-Trade Provides More Certainty to Cleantech
  • BlogX: Introducing Dandelion
  • GTM: SolarCity Co-Founder Peter Rive Is Leaving Tesla
  • Bloomberg: At Tesla, Departures Mount at a Critical Time