Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Solar Supper

I'm a big fan of bachelor cooking - one pot, 375 degrees and 45 minutes cook time. My daughters will confirm this. Solar meets the "one pot" criterion which is most important for me. Usually I'll cook lunch at the office because I can put the cooker out at 10:30am and have lunch ready around noon. Generally it's a stew like rice & chicken. Here are some pics from a late afternoon meal of chicken & lentils. I started it at 4pm on a fall day. Within 30 minutes using a Zomeworks Solar Cooker the cooking pot was at 170 degrees F. Supper was 5:30pm. The Zomeworks cooker get food hot fast compared to the Burns Milwaukee Solar Oven because it's a parabolic dish. I like both cookers. I use the ZW at home because it's not very portable. The Burns Milwaukee is compact so I keep it at the office and put it in the corner between meals.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The King is dead. Long live the King: Unirac hires a new CEO

I used to work across the room from John Liebendorfer, the founder of Unirac, in the late 1990's.  We were one of many who passed through Zomeworks to start our own solar companies.  John came up with a rack design that was universal.  This clever universal design would accept any bolt pattern.  It overcame the problem of custom punching each rail to match a specific module bolt pattern.  Errors were rampant.  John left Zomeworks & over coffee at Einstein's Bagel asked me if I was interested in helping sell Unirac.  I declined.  My reasoning was that racking represented 5% of the PV system cost but 50% of the parts count.  I figured I was smart focusing on the other 95% revenue and fewer parts.  What I overlooked was that racking had the highest margins in the solar manufacturing.  It's one reason why today so many companies like Conergy are producing their own racking.  Today you make 5% to 10% making modules but to 40% making racking.

When I started in solar it was still headed by dreamers & visionaries like Windy Dankoff & Steve Baer. John Liebendorfer and his partner Hal Newman were the next generation who professionalized management in the solar industry.  John & Hal sold Unirac and the new owners took it to the another level by hiring Doug May from Trace/Xantrex (now Schneider). Unirac is the now the dominant brand in the US market for residential PV racking.  The new Unirac CEO Peter Lorentz has an impressive resume including a seven year stint at McKinsey.

I miss the dreamers & visionaries but not enough to want them back.  Let's keep their vision & passion but we need the clear eyed professionals to help grow the industry and navigate the next decade.

The king is dead.  Long live the King.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Photowatt Bankruptcy

Photowatt is owned by ATS Automation. ATS made mistakes roughly 10 years ago and shut down the Albuquerque plant to reduce costs.  It must have been heart breaking because the US PV market just was gaining velocity due to the California incentive programs.  That was when the CEC incentive was still in the $4/w range.  Back in the day I used to show up at Photowatt and load modules into the old Zomeworks F-100 pickup I bought for $150.  Photowatt was the low cost provider at the time. Now Photowatt is in bankruptcy.  Harsh.  Expect more 2nd & 3rd tier manufacturers will be going out of biz in early 2012.


Friday, November 4, 2011

LG to buy Suntech?

Very interesting.  LG has denied making the offer but allegedly they offered Suntech (STP) $1 billion (USD) for the company. As STP's stock has a market capitalization of roughly $500 million, is it worth it? No doubt market consolidation will force unwilling bed-fellows but STP lost $280 million in Q2. Ouch! STP was a high flyer and they bet the farm on growth. They invested heavily in manufacturing assets so they could dominate the PV market. Vertical integration was the strategy de jour. Trina, Yingli & Jinko all believed in a vertical world. No lies, it made sense to me. In just 18 months the world for solar has changed.  The smart growth strategy of yesterday is today's Achilles heel.  With low cost silicon & wafer producers like the young giant GCL, STP and others are left holding older lower efficiency manufacturing assets.

Earlier this year I met Dr Shi at the opening of STP's Goodyear AZ plant & jumped at the chance to shake his hand.  How often do you get the chance to shake the hand of a billionaire!?  When I started in the industry 17 years ago we used to joke about being thousand-aire's, and that was on a good month.  Next time I meet him, his personal net worth could be a fraction of what it was.  How the mighty shall fall.  The issue is not about one man's wealth; it's about ten's of thousands of jobs providing sustenance for hundred's of thousand of families.  Hopefully some good will come of this.


US Supports Solar according to Schott barometer

Very heartening to read after seeing the abysmal results of the publicly traded companies today.