Our daily review of alternative energy begins today with the latest rankings of solar PV makers by sales. Also, a recent study by Cornell University researchers on the release of methane as a result of hydraulic fracturing drilling gets some pushback, and a major US utility signs on for battery storage at a Texas wind farm.
A new report from IMS Research has shuffled the deck a bit on the largest solar PV module suppliers in 2010. Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: STP) has captured the top spot, replacing First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) which held the top ranking in 2009 and fell to second in the 2010 ranking. Both Canadian Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: CSIQ) and Hanwha SolarOne, Ltd. (NASDAQ: HSOL; formerly Solarfun) moved up two places in the rankings, to sixth and ninth places, respectively. SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWRA) lost two places, coming in at the eighth spot.
Suntech’s shipments of solar PV modules grew by 130% in 2010, while First Solar’s shipments grew by less than 50%. The ranking changes favored China’s low-cost producers, while US producers First Solar and SunPower, the only US companies in the top ten, both fell in the rankings. The IMS Research report also noted that JA Solar Holdings Co., Ltd. (NASDAQ: JASO) increased production by 180% in 2010 and is now the world’s largest producer of solar PV cells.
In a related solar story, First Solar’s head of operations is leaving the company at the end of April and he could be looking to find a CEO role at another solar maker. Bruce Sohn was passed over for the CEO position at First Solar, but his expertise at manufacturing processes would surely be welcomed at any number of competitors. It is likely, however, that First Solar has a non-compete agreement with Sohn, so he could have to wait a year or more before landing a CEO job.
Recent research from Cornell University charging that methane releases from hydraulic fracturing in shale gas deposits has drawn a quick reply from at least one industry group. The rebuttal points to five specific issues it has identified with both the methodology and the conclusions of the Cornell study.
A lot of the rebuttal is “inside baseball.” For example, the group points out that the Cornell research blames lost and unaccounted for gas for the loss of between 1.4% and 3.6% of all gas produced. All that gas is not necessarily lost because at least some of it is used to process the gas and to power the compressors that push the gas through the pipelines.
If the gas is really lost, then that’s a significant problem. But if, as the industry claims, the lost gas reflects an accounting problem, then it could be no issue at all, or at least a smaller one.
It’s here that producers have to take on a share of the blame for the accusations they make against the Cornell study. There is little reliable, publicly available data on most of the issues the Cornell researchers tried to address. The industry claims a proprietary interest in all sorts of information, from the contents of its hydraulic fracturing fluids to the actual amount of gas produced at a given well.
The industry’s own demand for secrecy works against it in cases like this. When an issue such as lost gas and methane emissions makes the news, the industry’s first reaction is to deny everything. The next reaction is to delay for as long as possible providing any useful data.
The position boils down to, “Trust us — we know what we’re doing.”
That’s not good enough, especially after trusting led to last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A better model might be that old Cold War policy: “Trust — but verify.” That means regulation, probably federal, which is even more an anathema to the industry than the press or the public.
Finally, Duke Energy Corp. (NYSE: DUK) has signed a deal to install a 36-megawatt battery storage system at its Notrees wind farm in west Texas. The system will use dry-cell battery technology supplied by Xtreme Power Inc. to store power from the 153-megawatt wind farm when demand is low or when the wind is not blowing. Using large battery technology to even out intermittent generation from wind or solar generation is getting a toe-hold this year, and could be on its way to playing a larger role in alt energy projects.