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Are big companies taking over the solar-energy industry?

There seems to be a shift in the solar energy industry. Just a few years ago, the solar-energy industry was made up of many small companies. Now, it appears that the top 6 solar installation companies are dominating the field more than before. In 2012, the top 6 companies had 31% of the market share. But in 2013, the 6 companies made up 46% of the market, a 15% increase.

This is not automatically bad news for small companies. The industry is growing as a whole, which is good news for everyone. The big companies are not deterring growth for smaller companies. The residential PV market grew 60% from 2012 to 2013. Small companies grew 25% collectively.

Small companies can use effective strategic analysis and action to gain more customers. These strategies include new financial payment models, retail partnerships, and creative advertising.



The Army to get 90 MW of solar for less than fossil fuels

Georgia Power is going to build three 30-megawatt PV solar installations for the US Army at a very low cost. The company will build installations for three locations. The projects will be operational by the end of 2016.

Not only is the solar energy better for the environment, but it is also more cost effective. The projects would cost the Army the same or less compared to other energy sources.

The Department of Defense has an annual $20 billion energy budget and is the single largest consumer of energy in the world. Many projects and initiatives have been already implemented for the US military. For example, the Air Force has 38 megawatts of solar capacity in 24 states.


Illinois RPS fix pushed back another year

A potential law to fund stalled renewable power projects in Illinois will not be passed this year. Environmentalists have been advocating for the initiative for several years. The reason the law failed was because Exelon Corp., the most influential energy provider in Illinois, did not support the measure.

There is a chance the law could be passed next year for solar projects. The smaller bill would allow Illinois to start some construction on solar installations through a bidding process.


Help Grow Solar with the Kankakee Power Pack!

Eco Solar is proud to announce that we are a Kankakee Power Pack Installer for 2013; the Power Pack is an innovative financing and solar market development program first implemented in Milwaukee, WI and now extending to Kankakee, McHenry, Lee and McLean counties in Illinois.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) is launching the Power Pack in Illinois in partnership with the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN), Kankakee Community College, Sauk Valley Community College, Heartland Community College and McHenry County College. Through this program, the MREA will educate consumers about the benefits of solar energy and create a unique solar purchasing program that promotes local businesses and local manufacturing

The Power Pack provides lower-cost solar installation for customers, provides more leads and more jobs for installers, provides more business for local companies and builds on existing programs at Illinois community colleges and IGEN initiatives. Installers use panels and inverters from local companies and installations are completed by trained, certified solar installers (like Eco Solar!). The MREA also provides education for potential customers and works with financial institutions for financing options.

Attend an upcoming “Power Hour” meeting to learn more about the program. Visit the Power Packwebsite for details.

Eco Solar Powers The Bellwether Market and Renegade Craft Fair

Bellwether Market took place on June 8-9 near The Hideout at 1354 W. Wabansia in Chicago and combined food, farm, vintage, collectors, crafters and artists into a fantastic local festival. The PowerCube – our silent, renewable generator – provided power for the primary music stage. Just as we’ve seen with other events, both the artists that used the stage and vendors around us loved the concept of using solar power at the festival. Many of them would like to see us at more events and will ask for clean power in the future now that they know it is a possibility.

A related and upcoming event for the PowerCube will be the 11 on September 7-8 along Division St. in Wicker Park. This festival will feature a collection of today’s best and brightest indie marketers and will now have a green-power edge with the PowerCube. We are very excited to be a part of this, hope to see you there! Check out last year’s poster, we’ll give an update as we get closer to the festival date: the Annual Renegade Craft Fair

Children: Our Future

Teaching children about solar power is exciting when you have a big trailer with wheels and solar panels attached to it. In May 2013, the Eco Solar team brought the PowerCube, a solar-powered generator, to the Academy of Global Citizenship (AGC), a charter school in Chicago. The school’s mission is, “to empower all students to positively impact the community and world beyond.” AGC has an innovative and holistic approach towards education where the children learn about environmental sustainability, wellness education and global engagement.

The team went there to teach students about solar power and renewable energy, but the students ended up providing a valuable lesson to us in the end. We were surprised by all the information these third graders knew about geothermal, wind, hydro, biomass and solar. The Academy of Global Citizenship is educating a generation of children that are learning about energy and the environment with innovative methods.

The PowerCube made it easy for us to connect with the students. We setup the unit to power a fan, which demonstrated how energy from the sun is harnessed and used. We also discussed renewable energy systems and received some insightful questions regarding how our generator works. It was enlightening and inspiring to be around such intelligent and forward-thinking youngsters.

Everyone at Eco Solar realizes that children are very intuitive when it comes to understanding solar power. Children understand that the sun is a major energy source, giving off light and heat every day. One student even drew a picture of the PowerCube with a huge sun over it… take a look for your self. After the discussion the students got a chance to touch the solar panels and investigate the battery system and inverter inside. It was a great day for everyone involved, just ask our guy Richard:

“You are the next doctors, lawyers and politicians of America… with you leading the way, our future is bright.”

Illinois DCEO Goes Big on Solar Grant, Kind Of…

Kinda, sorta, maybe. That’s about the best we can hope for in the solar industry right now in terms of state grant funding. The news broke last week that the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) will offer a hefty grant to solar PV, solar thermal and wind projects in the form of 25% of out-of-pocket project expenses for businesses and 40% for non-profits, municipalities and universities. The minimum project is $100,000 and the max award is $250,000, making this the largest Illinois grant for renewables to date. This isn’t a grant for residential projects, which haven’t been announced for 2013 and will remain separate from this program

Does this mean Illinois will shine in the community solar expansion? Maybe. Probably not. Right now there is no overall budget attached to the program, and recent programs for solar have been less than a couple million dollars, which is nowhere close to what is needed for a statewide expansion of renewable projects. To be fair, the state hasn’t announced its budget yet, so it is possible they will do something significant here, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What is more likely is that the program will be underfunded, meaning that only a few-dozen projects will actually receive grants. The total grand fund for 2011 and 2012 was $1.5 million per year, which is a pittance of what is needed to actively fund solar across the state. The program is not accessible to the people that it is intended to serve; $1.5 million is a handout at best. “Here ya go, solar, good luck to you!” It allows state politicians to claim they support the development of renewables without providing the necessary funding for the industry’s expansion.

There is also the issue of the DCEO’s expectations for the program – they are giving potential applicants, engineers, designers and installers less than one month to get their act together and submit an in-depth proposal. Create a program in March with a deadline in April for a construction project, ridiculous! What this means is the projects that are most likely to receive funding are the ones that are already in development. These projects most likely have financing from the bank and involve motivated customers, but don’t bring anyone new to the table. How does this program foster renewable development in Illinois? It certainly doesn’t allow for any new projects to get funded, which is what the state needs to focus on. I’m not trying to put down the good people at the DCEO, at least they are trying to do something positive. Unfortunately, the policy and funding behind them do not allow renewable programs to have any teeth, and development of solar in Illinois continues at a snail’s pace.

I live in Illinois, so I expect the state to botch this and create a weak program with very little impact. Look what happened to solar incentives last year; grants were almost non- existent in 2012. The state originally diverted those funds to an individual community college training program for PV installers. Why would the state want to fund training for PV installers when there aren’t an excess of projects currently happening in Illinois? As it turns out, one of the community college board members had political ties. Go figure.

Once someone in the Illinois legislature figured this out (or had it pointed out to them, we’ll never know), the state decided to go ahead with a similar program as the 2011 grant. The award amount, however, was cut in half and the application period was open and closed within about a week. Just like 2011, the program remained underfunded and did not register a significant economic impact. It could be said that Illinois took a step back with renewable development in 2012, can we expect them to take two-steps forward in 2013?

Hey state of Illinois, add some zeros to the overall budget for renewable incentives and make the program accessible to the communities you hope to serve. Until then, kinda- sorta-maybe is the best you can do for us.

So what’s the deal with brunch, why isn’t there a linner?

This post is actually about Solar Thermal, I just happened to be watching Seinfeld at the time. But seriously, what’s the deal with solar thermal? It seems like a renewable technology that never really got off the ground. Solar thermal panels look a lot like PV panels, but involve a direct heat transfer with fluid for uses like domestic hot water. Many economists agree that the market for solar PV is set to explode over the next 5 years, but hardly anyone is willing to place a bet on solar thermal. Will the technology become obsolete like the Laserdisc, or is there still room for solar thermal in the renewables discussion?

It’s not too difficult to figure out why solar thermal hasn’t taken off – the payback period is too long for the average customer to tolerate. The main reason for this is recent developments in hydraulic fracking efforts. As a society, we are fracking like the ship is going down. This is a vast energy source that analysts in the oil and gas industry couldn’t have accounted for, therefore any future projections about the cost of natural gas had to be thrown out the window. Like it or not, fracking is here to stay and will be part of the world’s energy portfolio. Natural gas prices are at all time lows, making it hard for renewables to compete as a solution for heating or domestic hot water.

As a result, the solar thermal industry experienced a slowdown and had difficulty attracting investment. Efficiency and tech advancements haven’t progressed; renewable R&D efforts have been thrown into enhancing PV equipment. Geothermal is also becoming a more attractive and cost-effective method to heat large amounts of water, and solar thermal will face competition in this space. Solar thermal installations make sense in some cases, like swimming pools, breweries, dairy farms or anywhere that uses a lot of hot water every day. But these projects are expensive and really not the best option for most situations, and there are potential maintenance issues that are not a problem for traditional HVAC systems.

So my interest in solar thermal is similar to that of brunch: it sounds good in concept, but it takes way too long and the payoff just isn’t there. Someone is always pitching brunch at the bar on Saturday night, like brunch will solve all the world’s problems. “Let’s go to brunch tomorrow! Let’s go to brunch tomorrow!” Your friend shouts with exuberance, and you accept thinking it will be different this time. Perhaps there won’t be a wait, maybe I won’t feel hungover in the morning, I’m sure I’ll be ready to interact with decent society by then. False. “The wait will be an hour.” Great, now I can sit uncomfortably on that little bench in-between the hipster and the yuppie not paying attention to her misbehaved kid. It’s really bright in here, I’m just going to put on my sunglasses inside. How did I get roped into this? By the promise of cinnamon rolls and mimosas? I should be setting my fantasy football lineup, riding my bike or just plain sleepin’ in. So over brunch…

If there was a linner, people would just find a way to ruin it anyway.

Geothermal is so cool!

Actually, it’s really hot…as in geothermal heat. That’s a science pun, plenty more where that came from. What is geothermal, though? Simply, heat rising from the Earth’s core through the crust to the surface. Geothermal is prime example of a renewable energy source that will be around for the next 4-5 billion years. Eventually the core will cool down, but the good news is that the Sun will expand into its red giant phase well before that and burn the planet to a crisp, like a marshmallow that got too close to the fire. So you can take solace in the notion that geothermal heat will flow constantly in your lifetime, so long as you do not possess any eternal-life qualities like the Highlander or that Knights of the Templar guy at the end of Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, which is a very solid movie by the way. That part where the guy turns into a 100-year old in 10 seconds still freaks me out; his fault for choosing poorly in the Holy Grail sweepstakes, gotta think carefully about that sort of thing. But I digress…

What can geothermal do for you, though? If you are building a power plant, you can use this power source with a turbine to generate electricity. On a smaller scale, geothermal can provide heating, air conditioning and domestic hot water for residential, commercial and industrial buildings. To accomplish this, you drill into the ground and set up a heat pump and network of coils. The coils contain the fluid that conducts heat from the ground into air ducts or hydronic floors to heat a space. Think of a geothermal system like a HVAC system on steroids; geothermal performs all the necessary functions of traditional HVAC with high efficiency and dramatically cuts a building’s operating expenses. Geothermal systems can also act as a “heat-sink” for the summertime and provide air conditioning like a reverse refrigerator.

The technology has been around for 50+ years, and costs used to be so high that geothermal only made sense for power plant installations; today, geothermal is a cost-effective system for a wide array of businesses and residences. Unlike solar or wind, geothermal is a constant energy source that doesn’t have to worry about intermittency issues. More and more contractors are offering this solution (including Eco Solar Solutions, just ask!).

The cool (and hot!) thing about geothermal is its simplicity. This is not the Technodrome from the Ninja Turtles, even though something like that would be awesome. It’s just a heat pump with underground coils, fluid and a control room that resembles a traditional boiler room. Yet geothermal remains outside the renewable energy conversation because it isn’t well understood or publicized. Expect to hear more about it in the future as costs continue to fall and building owners look to implement high-efficiency HVAC systems.

The geothermal revolution may take a while to get here, but when it does it will be hot, hot, hot!

Hope for a National Renewable
Energy Policy

After nearly falling off the fiscal cliff, the country now faces sequestration…too bad I have no idea what either of those things are. The President and Congress have a lot on their minds right now, but this is what they were elected to do. Deal with complex problems. Come up with dynamic solutions. Make sure we don’t get sequestered, whatever that means…and finally, promote a comprehensive US National Energy Policy that takes on climate change and promotes clean energy as a means to sustainable development.

The current state-driven renewable energy policies are broken. I’ll begin with my home state of Illinois. Applying for the state grant couldn’t be more frustrating; limited funds, a confusing application process and a very short window mean that a lot of people who want solar get left out in the cold and don’t get the grant. On the contractor level, this delays projects sometimes by a year or more while people hold out for the next round. The situation is even worse in Wisconsin, a state that offers a max of $1,200 for renewable project costs, which is typically 5% or less of the overall project budget. Indiana and Michigan offer no incentives for renewables, so residents of those states have to pay the retail price if they want to install solar.

There are countless other states with similar conflicts; policy makers say they want to encourage sound renewable energy policy, but do not pony-up when it comes to the funding. THE FUNDING IS WHAT MATTERS FOR SOLAR! Sorry to go into all-caps mode, but this is particularly frustrating. Political talk about energy policy is cheap, actions speak louder than words. If state legislators actually want to make an impact and help create new jobs and new businesses, they need to do their part and provide the necessary funding that will provide solar customers with a great return on investment, payback under 5 years and the infrastructure needed to meet the energy demands of the future.

How likely is any of this to happen at the state level? According to my sources, not very, but there appears to be some movement in regards to federal policy. President Obama said in his inauguration speech and state of the union address that his administration will tackle climate change because to do otherwise would be irresponsible and jeopardize future generations. He wants the US to jump into the PV revolution and become a leader in renewable systems and green technology.

Strong talk like that gives me hope, but it’s all just talk if Washington doesn’t fund it…so for now I will remain sequestered on the cliffs of cautious optimism, waiting and wanting for the dream of a National Renewable Energy Policy to become reality.

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