Green Energy Entrepreneur Series Features Solar Experts from PermaCity, SolarCity and Brightsource

Tuesday, March 31st was the launch of the Green Energy Entrepreneur Series. The first workshop was in Chino… and focused on solar technologies. The brainchild of Larry McLaughlin of College of the Desert, the series is intended to inspire and direct entrepreneurs seeking niches within the green energy space.

Our first workshop was indeed an embarrassment of riches. We were pleased to have heavy-hitter panelists and our own expert moderator and solar expert, Troy Strand, on hand.

What was unique about the workshop and the series is that they are all about opportunity. Where are the solar opportunities? What are the solar challenges? How has each speaker so successfully navigated the field? Through their stories, we aimed to inspire participants. And we certainly did.

Beyond that, the workshop went where participants wanted it to go: We got deeply technical with discussions of “IR Curves” that determine solar production, “Duck Curves,” PV Smoothing,” microgrids, “potential induced degradation,” cell microfractures and more.

Troy Strand and the Technology Overview

After introductions, the workshop shifted into gear with an overview, heavy on technology. EcoMotion’s Senior Specialist Troy Strand is a font of information about solar panels, inverters, etc. He’s been a solar company founder and CEO, and his knowledge was apparent to all.

Troy’s presentation provided a basis for the day’s discussions. He covered the history of solar, the act of converting sunlight to power, and the types of systems being installed and the key challenges with each market sector.

Herb Mendelsohn and SolarCity

Herb Mendelsohn has just joined SolarCity, the largest solar company in the United States. It did 34% of all residential installations in 2014, and is clearly on a roll. Herb moved from a ten person company to a 10,000 person company.  SolarCity has installed more than 650 MW of solar in the United States.

SolarCity recently announced that it would be developing microgrids… turning a corner toward becoming a utility.  After 13 years with PermaCity Solar, Herb is now in SolarCity, a firm with $4 billion in project financing funds. The company is so big that it can afford to make no profit at all on an installation, while making its profit on project financing.  A new office in Roseville will soon be hiring 300 – 400 people.

An actor, Herb began in New York City, a chauffeur driving a limo to feed his acting career. He moved to Los Angeles to do the same. After a gig telemarketing… he found a solar opportunity and has been with it ever since.

We learn that SolarCity has its own monitoring system that not only measures solar production, but also measures the current demand on a facility, enabling a simple graphic that shows total use on site, total generation on site, and any discrepancies between them.

Jonathan Port

Jonathan Port presented another illustration. The founder and CEO of PermaCity Solar, he has elected not to go public… despite a thriving business and 40 MW of projects in the pipeline. He’s passionate about it, even discussing his own house and how he has transformed his pool into a thermal sink for solar heating and cooling.

A California kid, Jon has a love of surfing and the outdoors. He studied city and regional planning in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then got his Masters degree in planning and sustainable design at AUT in Auckland, New Zealand. Twelve years ago  Jon founded PermaCity Solar. Now he owns and operates a highly successful solar company. He shows images of the Forever 21 headquarters, a facility that he has just, taken to net zero thanks to a 5.1 MW, rooftop solar system. The ¾ mile long roof is now adorned with 15,300 Sunpower modules… all mounted without a single roof penetration.

Jon has not only been a solar entrepreneur, but a design entrepreneur.  He has designed and patented racking systems for solar – the first to provide a custom solution for Costco’s standing seam rooftops – and then later to “strap down” rooftop systems without penetrations. The patented system for Costco has been applied to over 30 stores.

His latest invention – now patent pending – is the Solar Strap. Based on an aluminum bar, or strap, it adheres to the roof with anchors every 5 ft. These address wind loading and roof manufacturers do not consider this a penetration.  His breakthrough is especially important given the difficulty in passing ballasted systems through building and safety departments. Straps provide 800 pounds of uplift security per panel.

Joe Desmond

Desmond recanted his career path… from a co-op student at Northeastern University, to Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant – where he designed the innovative SmartLight  and Lightwaves leasing programs… to Parke Industries, a reflector company that he grew in the performance contracting arena. One of its celebrated lighting retrofits realized 78% savings, the Kenneth Hahn Building in LA had been unnecessarily lit 24/7 for years.

Joe then went to Electronic Lighting, a company that saved energy through whole building dimming, low cost dimming for daylight harvesting. It was an early form or load management, an even earlier form of demand response. But as he explained, if the change was indiscernible to occupants, why cut consumption all the time? This led Joe to form a software company called Infotility which aggregated 65 MW for demand response… largely clients within the prestigious Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.

Along the way he learned a lot about consumer behavior. “I will not let an energy efficiency program get in the way of my career,” had said a key account in Taunton.  No, thought Joe, had have to find ways to have efficiency programs and services actually enhance careers, not threaten them!  Similarly, Million Solar Rooftop incentives have to be easy and to make sense to consumers

Joe then went on to become a senior energy advisor in the Schwarzenegger administration, culminating in a two-year stint as the CEC chairman. He was also Deputy Secretary of Energy for California, dealing with FERC issues, the solar scale-up, the NEM cap. Joe told the story of “saving Burning Man,” after planned power plants there were cancelled as a result of his administration’s policy changes.

Later, Joe went on to work at Ice Energy, a company that provides load management services by freezing ice at night for daytime cooling. Ice Energy’s “storage system” actually saves energy due to diurnal temperatures… it’s more efficient to cool at night.

Now Joe’s at Brightsource Energy, and his tales of the development of the Ivanpah Solar Power Project were fascinating. “We make solar steam,” he explained,  which can be used for power generation, for mining, and for enhanced oil recovery. At Ivanpah, the 377 MW, 3,500 acre concentrating solar plant is all about power generation. Its three towers are each 140 meters tall, half the Eiffel Tower.  The $2.3 billion project is owned by NRG, Google, and Brightsource Energy. Fully 2,900 construction workers were employed in the construction process.

Joe recants several of the challenges in bringing the concept to fruition, especially with permitting. The project was “a lightening rod” as it touched on tax policy, land use, species habitat, ad water policies. Stories about the plant’s hugely expensive desert tortoise habitat care that some called “Obama Care for Tortoises.”

The Duck Curve

After lunch, we draw together in a circle to address key issues in solar that will affect entrepreneurs’ paths to success and profitability in the industry. The “duck curve” is front and center, a representation of a utility load profile for the future. It shows the challenge ahead when there is an abundance of renewables during the day. That capacity could well result in a major canyon in traditional utility load profiles… creating new peak demands as renewables come on line in force.

We discuss reports that there was so much solar in Germany that the country has had to cycle its coal plants up and down to address the duck curve, causing terrible emissions and wiping out the mitigation gains made with solar. In California, utilities looking to extend the peak period to 7 PM, this will make solar completely peak non-coincident, therefore solar will have no demand charge offset at all.

Conclusion

The workshop ends with a raffle of John Perlin’s “Let it Shine,” a terrific book documenting the 6,000-year history of solar power.  All participants are eager for the next workshops on energy storage (April 21st at UC Riverside) and microgrids (May 19th at the Inland Empire Economic Partnership in San Bernardino). We walk away with key lessons, among them that to succeed, entrepreneurs have to take risks, to be innovative, to be bold, and to work hard!

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