Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Panasonic Will Invest $1 Billion in ‘Green Home’ Plan by 2012

Bloomberg/Tim Mullaney and Mariko Yasu

Panasonic Corp., the world’s biggest maker of plasma televisions, will invest $1 billion by 2012 in a plan to make outfitting environmentally friendly “green” homes and buildings its new core business, an executive said.

The plan focuses on solar-panel and energy-storage technology that Panasonic will acquire in its purchase of Sanyo Electric Co., coupled with home energy-management systems that Panasonic has invented, President Fumio Ohtsubo said yesterday in an interview in New York.

The technology will let consumers monitor their own electricity use and display the data on television sets, Ohtsubo said. The system will be able to connect and monitor all of the appliances in a house, and the solar panels may produce enough clean power to offset any carbon dioxide created from other power the appliances use, he said.

“Our products in consumer electronics and our appliances will benefit from the new core business” as people buy more energy-efficient gear, Ohtsubo, 64, said. “The future is not 20 to 30 years out. Within two to three years, Panasonic can realize this kind of concept.”

He said consumers can achieve energy savings of 30 percent to 50 percent with the new technology.

The company hasn’t determined how much the energy- management systems will cost or how they will be distributed, Ohtsubo said. The Osaka, Japan-based company also doesn’t know what percentage of its overall sales can come from the new business by the end of its current medium-term business plan in 2012, he said.

Sanyo Purchase

Panasonic is offering to buy control of Sanyo, the world’s largest maker of rechargeable batteries, for 403 billion yen ($4.6 billion) to boost its share of the battery market and gain access to Sanyo’s solar-cell technology. The purchase would increase sales of energy-related electronics at Panasonic, the maker of Viera televisions, as the audiovisual-equipment market becomes increasingly saturated.

The company also is entering the market for lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars, Ohtsubo said.

Both plans were prompted by difficulties in generating enough growth in its existing consumer-electronics and appliances businesses, where it competes with Samsung Electronics Co.

“Our growth is not enough compared to Samsung,” Ohtsubo said. “So we want to change our fighting ring from our current categories to a different field.”

FTC Approval

Last week, Panasonic obtained conditional approval from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to purchase Osaka-based Sanyo. Panasonic’s public offer of 131 yen per Sanyo share is scheduled to close on Dec. 9.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and two banks that bailed out Sanyo in 2006 hold about 70 percent of Sanyo’s shares and have agreed to sell at least a 50 percent stake to Panasonic.

Panasonic, which generated 47 percent of its revenue overseas in the past fiscal year, said last year that it aims to raise that share to 60 percent, mostly by boosting sales in emerging markets.

Panasonic is among Japanese companies that plan to start selling 3-D televisions next year. Sony Corp., the maker of Bravia TVs and PlayStation 3 game consoles, said last month that 3-D related products, excluding programming, will generate more than 1 trillion yen in sales in the year ending March 2013. Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp. also plans to introduce 3-D TVs as early as 2010. The Japanese companies will compete against South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc.

3-D Television

Sales of 3-D TVs will likely reach 50 million units in 2012, presenting Japanese manufacturers including Sony with an opportunity to boost earnings, Morgan Stanley said last month.

“That would be quite difficult,” Yoshi Yamada, chief executive officer of Panasonic Corp. of North America, said in yesterday’s interview.

Panasonic narrowed its full-year loss forecast in October by 28 percent to 140 billion yen, citing cost reductions. The company, which also raised its operating profit forecast for the year to 120 billion yen from 75 billion yen, posted a net loss of 379 billion yen in the year ended March 31.

Panasonic, which cut 29,155 jobs in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, probably will pare more than 300 billion yen in costs this fiscal year, compared with its original estimate of 260 billion yen, Chief Financial Officer Makoto Uenoyama said on Oct. 30.

Ohtsubo said today that Panasonic will cut costs at Sanyo after the transaction closes, though he didn’t say whether the moves would involve more job reductions.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tim Mullaney in New York at; Mariko Yasu in Tokyo at

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lotus leaf solar cells soak up more power...

New Scientist, Paul Marks

Solar cells have an unfortunate habit of reflecting back much of the light that hits them, rather than converting it into electricity. A technique that peppers the cells' surface with nanoscale domes could curb this tendency and improve efficiency by as much as 25 per cent.

Peppering the cell's surface with nanodomes increases efficiency by as much as 25 per cent

To ramp up the proportion of light solar cells converted into electricity, Yi Cui of Stanford University in California has focused on ensuring that more light gets through the layers of silicon.

Low-power solar cells in devices such as wristwatches and calculators are made of amorphous silicon, which converts light in the range of 400 to 800 nanometres into electricity. However, around 35 per cent of light is reflected back into the sky.

Cui's team cut this to a mere 6 per cent by depositing the solar cell's usual sandwich of layers onto a quartz base, studded with an array of 100 nm-wide cones set at 450-nm intervals (Nano Letters, DOI: 10.1021/nl9034237).

The first layer deposited is a silver reflector that ensures photons that would otherwise be wasted are bounced back up towards the active layer (see diagram). Then comes a transparent electrode, one made of an active semiconductor, and a final layer of transparent electrode.

Viewed under an electron microscope the surface of the solar cells is covered with dome shapes that look a little like ranks of eggs.

The lack of reflectivity is in fact pretty clear at a glance, says Cui: "The nanodome device looks black while the flat device looks reflective and red, as the red light does not get absorbed." In optical simulations, Cui's team found that the domes acted as waveguides, channelling light towards the active area, a bit like an optical fibre.

In lab tests the extra light made the nanodome solar cells 5.9 per cent efficient, compared with 4.7 per cent for traditional flat film amorphous cells. Cui expects that the efficiency of commercial thin film nanodome cells will be much higher.

The roughness of the new cells at nanoscales also mimics the fibrous bumps on the leaves of the lotus plant, which help it repel water. Water droplets landing on the leaf cannot achieve a contact angle that breaks their surface tension, so they form beads on the leaves rather than wetting them. In the same way water drops will roll off the surface of the nanodome solar panel taking any light-blocking dust with them.

Cui is confident the nanodome technique will also work for solar panels made from the widely used and more efficient polycrystalline silicon. The cells in these panels gather light at wavelengths up to 1500 nanometres.

Darren Bagnall, a solar cell engineer at the University of Southampton, UK, is impressed. "It's a beautiful device," he says. But he cautions that changing the geometry of the cells to achieve the higher efficiencies required of commercial versions could undermine their anti-reflective and self-cleaning properties.

Cui is undaunted. "The geometry of the nanodomes will need to be tuned slightly for different materials but it will work."

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SolarCity & US Bancorp Find New Ways to Finance Solar Projects

Renewable Energy World, Graham Jesmer

As the credit crunch was starting to loosen earlier this year, one of the first glimmers of hope came from the solar energy space. In June, SolarCity and U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC) formed a partnership to finance small- and medium-scale solar projects for homeowners and businesses across the U.S. The two companies created a new US $50 million tax-equity based fund to finance projects under SolarCity's SolarLease program.

The program, which was originally backed by Morgan Stanley, allows homeowners and businesses to purchase power from systems owned and installed by SolarCity through a power purchase agreement (PPA). SolarCity, the system owner, takes advantage of commercial tax credits that it then applies to customer financing.

The USBCDC fund was one of only two tax-equity funds closed in the U.S. during the first half of 2009 that applied to residential solar projects — and both of the funds were created with SolarCity to finance solar installations.

“Tax equity financing has been the primary constraint on the growth of the solar industry, so we’re obviously thrilled and very grateful to U.S. Bank,” said Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity when the fund was first announced. “This fund will allow us to increase our installation throughput and hire more installers to keep pace with strong demand from American businesses and homeowners for affordable, clean solar power.”

SolarCity believes that its business model was the foremost driver in the process of getting the deal with USBCDC closed.

The company said that despite the fact that virtually every solar company in the country was looking to U.S. Bank for financing, SolarCity was chosen for three key reasons: it top quality products, its committment to customer service and the equity that solar adds to residential and commercial real estate.

Rive said making sure these areas of a company's business are strong is the best strategy to be on the radar of financiers in the still difficult economy.

“Prove yourself, make sure you are profitable and execute. It's not about who you know, it's about what you've done. The companies with the best operational track record will be the first in line to get financing,” Rive said.

Earlier this fall, SolarCity and USBCDC doubled the size of the fund to $100 million.

“Following the pilot U.S. Bank fund earlier this year, both parties were interested in continuing and expanding the relationship — SolarCity's customer demand and operational capacity have been growing so quickly that we agreed to double the portfolio size just four months after we created the initial fund. Also, our U.S. Bank fund is unusually versatile in that it can finance both residential- and commercial-scale installations, whereas some investors are interested in one type of project or the other,” Rive said.

Since the expansion, SolarCity has announced the availability of its SolarLease program to customers of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the nation’s largest municipal utility. The company has also announced a new residential solar service in Oregon. SolarCity’s PurePower program allows homeonwers to pay the same rate they were previously paying for electricity from the utility company. PurePower pricing for a 3.5-kilowatt solar system in Oregon, appropriate for a typical three or four-bedroom home, starts at $30/month.

The expansion of the U.S. Bank fund has allowed the company to grow operations substantially to meet increasing demand. SolarCity has hired 140 people in the last 5 months and passed the 4,500-customer mark.

Rive said that SolarCity's growth is part of a wider trend in the PPA market that is taking place because of the market it serves.

“The market that we're addressing is the retail electricity market. So every rooftop out there is a potential for solar. The electricity industry is massive, so in our lifetimes, at least the next 20 or 30 years we are not going to come close to market saturation,” Rive said.

USBCDC, one of the nation's largest tax-credit investors, solely makes investments in tax-credit equity and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is an extension of the group’s long-time experience in the New Markets and Historic tax credit programs, according to Tina Lin of USDCDC's Historic, New Markets & Solar Tax Credit Investments group.

Lin also said that the group is not currently taking advantage of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and its primary focus for renewable energy technologies is on utility-scale solar and wind turbine projects.

“We started investing in the ITC at the beginning of 2008 and have closed 10 solar-based transactions, almost all over a 1 MW in size. Within solar, we've invested in commercial/industrial installations, residential programs as well as funds. Projects have used both crystalline panels and thin-film technology,” Lin said.

The structures of USBCDC's tax equity fund deals run the gamut from direct investment, partnership flip models, lease pass-through to sale lease-back structures. USBCDC's return on investment comes primarily from the tax credits themselves so most funds they create with solar companies have short investment horizons, generally just 5 years, however most transactions are entered into with the goal of doing more business in the future.

Lin said the group’s goal is to create a diverse portfolio of product types and structures while becoming an industry leader as an equity source.

Since the closing of this deal, major changes have taken place in the solar finance space. None larger than the cash grant in lieu of ITC provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act becoming an option for developers. As these funds continue to be released and as the economy in general recovers more players will be back in the solar financial picture, but Rive said that may not last unless the provision is extended.

“The conversion of the ITC to a cash grant has really improved the tax-equity market, and we are starting to see many new investors enter this space because of that. It's very important that the cash grants get extended through 2012. This will give new investors time to understand solar investments,” he said.

See the original article here