Thursday, August 30, 2012

Maker Blocks

Somewhere out there in the blogisphere I came across a venture capitalist's blog posting about how he schedules time with his fundees. As a former startup founder he remembered the need for large unstructured/uninterrupted blocks of time for creative production. Scheduling meetings in the middle of the day for those sorts of folks is a killer as it punches a hole in a possible "maker block" of time. The day is shot as far as progress goes. So, short, late meetings or early meetings are the order of the day to keep large blocks possible for working.

(pauses to google up the posting - can't find it)

For me this was a great reality check and formalized what I'd been groping toward. Some work requires enough time to get into the flow, get out all the materials (virtual or real or the combination) and crank up the brain and then a period of doing, including failed experiments and then a wrap up/secure the winnings period.  The writer claimed that if you can't do all of that in one go, you won't get very far and should do something else with the time. I think he placed these lengths of useful creative time at 6 hrs minimum. I think 7 is more like it. The cool thing about this insight is that when you don't have that amount of time (for whatever reason) then you should not expect to get the new stuff done and should instead schedule "support" or "utility" work for those times and be happy with that. "Progress" is off the table until you can get a proper block of time. But when you have those blocks (they are hard for me to get) they need to be honored by delivering to that block of time a ready and willing brain. I can do that.

In some ways it is like the difference between quilting and draping. Draping needs a big contiguous bolt of fabric while quilting is built up from smaller bits.  Not a great analogy. But then I did not schedule 6 hrs for this blog posting. So there.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Time out for a motivational posting...

This guy is on to something.  I can't say I've made a study of failure, but the kinds of handicaps he is addressing sound pretty familiar (from both sides winning and not.) Vexing and familiar. But "know thy enemy" and all that.

Even the comments are pretty good (and the comments section there can get petty and political.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Love Love Love online calculators

A number of years ago I was working on refinancing our mortgage and went hunting for mortgage calculators online to help me wrap my head around comparing offers. For me it was like having a fraction of a machine out on the bench so I could tug at parts and trace the wires and look back at the manual and really internalize how the bits interact.  A great exercise.

In that spirit if you are trying to understand Levelized Cost of Energy you could do worse than monkey with the calculator here:

Simple Levelised Cost of Energy Calculator at

Even the disclaimer at the top is informative:
Note that this does not include financing issues, discount issues, future replacement, or degradation costs. Each of these would need to be included for a thorough analysis.
(I might add salvage cost but that is a pretty good list.)

Let's take a look at some of the figures it integrates:

Capacity Factor: There is a link to a map and a less than graceful explanation of the CF. It is entered as a positive number. The pop up description says it is a fraction expressed in a decimal but you enter it in the calculator as a percentage. Anyhow, the idea is no system runs all the time at 100% so you need to factor that in. In the case of Solar that pesky sunset to sunrise period really packs a wallop on the Capacity Factor. Clouds too.

Today's Utility Rates: This does not take into account the tiered structure of most utility rates. Which is understandable as that alone would take ridiculous amounts of programing just to capture the inputs, let alone analysis. There are programs that do it but for simplification an average price of electricity will do.

Go monkey with that calculator and see what you think. If you know of another, add it in the comments.

What that calculator does not provide is insight into the Time Of Use values and Demand Charges which can play a serious role in the cost structure for large utility consumers. Modeling those is a much more case-specific task and requires extensive energy audits to generate the data to feed the evaluation.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Forbes on Cogenra as seen by Vinod Khosla & Tony Blair

In the Forbes story about Khosla & Blair in the context of Cogenera a Concentrator hybrid.
Blair summed up Cogenra’s business strategy reasoning quite nicely: “People will not accept solutions to these things which mean that we can’t enjoy the benefits of modern living,” he told me. “And that is the key to unlocking the support of the people as well. People are very happy and prepared to use clean technology. But not if you tell them to do something that’s unrealistic for their life.”

To me this is one of the the two pincers that will drive the development of whatever will succeed in the solar biz: gotta let the consumer have more, better and for less (ideally both.) Just offering a green option is not enough to dominate. You get to participate, but not dominate.

In addition to the More for Less, anything new and expensive, really, really needs to land in the tax/finance/economic sweet-spot. I think Solar Hybrids are headed in the right direction as far as the technology supplying more for less (point one.) But the new, sophisticated finance approaches and better, more thoughtful and complete Levelised Cost of Energy calculations are coming along as well. That is not a simple matter and will, if we do it right, help to point out where the real value is. Finance, broadly conceived, is, I believe the second pincer - pressing us forward. It might be low-cost natural gas, low-cost flat plate collectors or even low interest rates driving money away from other investment vehicles an into energy hedging investments.

(Most of the finance sophistication is being soaked up into the utility-scale project teams and into the Power Purchase Agreements providers so they can figure out how to profit and how to communicate their offer to customers.)

This pair of forces can work together.  The desire for "more goods for less money" can move people to new behavior (a hard thing - people are hardwired to avoid making a lot of changes and decisions when staying pat is tolerable) but the new behavior has to be easily understood and well presented. Learning how to do that sales job is happening all over the place. Like SunRun, Solar City etc... more on them soon.

Maybe the next thing to talk about is the most famous hybrid: the Toyota Prius...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Concentrating Photovoltaic Collectors - aka CPV reality checking

OK goofing off (by reading about the field so not really goofing off I suppose) and hit this tight little knot of information on the state of play in the Concentrating PV collector business.

Elsewhere I discussed the con artists that are working in the concentrator field but there are some legit players too, for sure. They might fail but it won't be because they are not really trying. The PV-Insider conference brought together a bunch of the real players in the CPV biz. I just played the recording of the CPV investors roundtable and the talk about the tax portion was amazing. The hurdles that project finance teams are going through is daunting. Makes me again worry about how big a part of our economy is taken up by finance. It is becoming a tail that wags the dog I fear.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

OK, OK I'm crushing on Cogenra's press staff

Maybe it is Vinod Kosla's press staff... but here is a fine article in Forbes about Mr Kosla's perspective and why he is investing in Cogenra ($10.5 million)

Short post. Gotta sleep. Tomorrow I'll show off the crazy box of springs.

Worthy Rivals Part Deux !

Check those guys out.   Unlike so many they seem to be pounding through the evolution stages from R&D to delivery and finance.

As you will eventually see, I'm not entirely crazy about driven cooling of the PV cells (but whatcha gonna do?) But if you set that aside they have a straightforward design and they have somethings lots of others seem to miss.

1) A target customer and they are driving directly at those customers: Commercial Accounts (get serious decision makers and big ticket orders)
2) Furthermore, Commercial Accounts that need lots of hot water for sanitation: Dairies, wineries, food processing plants.
3) Commercial accounts where land (aka Solar Aperture) is cheap.

BULLSEYE! There are plenty of those customers out there.

4) A major part of their plan (it seems) is to enter in Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) to take the financing problem out of the customer's to do list (and make money on the finance.)

These guys are putting systems in the ground for paying customers.  Bravo.

Take a close look at the various beauty shots of the collectors and tell me what you think. I see some expensive hand assembled gear (note the plumbing fittings for the PV's cooling jacket) built to take serious wind loads.  I also see light missing some of the PV (could be the photographer did not notice that they were unevenly illuminated.)

They have a video of the product intro at a winery complete with big time VIPs. The video does a good quick layout of the product/value on offer.

Best line is at 4:50 from Vinod Khosla (a very well respected Venture Capitalist.) "Nice that this is a technology that does not need a billion dollars in DOE loan guarantees to get started."

Really, go watch that video. That is the one with the most to chew on but there is plenty on that site to get excited about.  They have great press people too.

Full disclosure, they installed a system at Clover Dairy and I drink their milk - yummy cappuccinos, now with less greenhouse gas!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

OH (who are my readers?)

I started this as a notebook and a "keep myself going" exercise and now that there are a small number of readers I'm crazy curious as to who you are and how you got here. So? Comment already!

OK, the stats have some monkey business in them, looks like there are spam hits. How desperate for traffic must they be to come here to my tiny outpost, posing as a reader? Weird. Like power, when bots and traffic are cheap folks use them for stranger and stranger things.

Anyhow. If you are a real reader then hit me with a comment and tell me what you are seeing out there in the world of PVT hybrids.

Still more worthy hybrids and the logic of going large

Why aren't these guys making a bigger splash? 

I'm talking about: The Volther (now called simply the PV-T it seems) by Solimpeks. If you have a swimming pool these guys should have some of your money in their pocket.

Did you go and look at the presentation? Way deep in there (it is a long document but pretty good.) on pages 11 and 12 they layout the advantages of the superimposed approach they use. By having a front side of crystalline silicon sitting on a thermal collection panel they get to share the same aperture (my definition of a hybrid) and they share the support structure, the installation effort (mostly) and the "two" collectors can share the best spot on the roof.

Here are the advantages they list:
° Dual solar collection –2 usable energy outputs with one collection system.
° Improved PV generation–up to 50% more electricity than an equivalent conventional PV system with same peak output.
° Lower installation cost than an equivalent performance system comprised of a separate Solar PV and Solar thermal systems.
° Less roof space required than equivalent system comprised of a separate Solar PV and Solar thermal systems. In the UK this equates to approx 16m2 of PV-T panels compared to 25m2 of combined separate systems (21m2 PV and 4m2 solar thermal).
° Hybrid PV-T system’s ROI (Return On Investment) is shorter than standard PV systems due to higher electrical yield and off-set heating costs.
° Lifetime of PV cells is lengthened because cell operating temperature is reduced.
(That's pretty ugly formatting right there... sorry reader... but I wasn't sure you'd go to the site and pull down their presentation.)

Part of the trouble (the "why are these guys not making a bigger splash" issue) is natural gas prices, I know. But come on! This is sensible gear and a great way to hedge against rising fuel prices (they can't stay this low) and also a good way to maximize roof space use. Aperture (the amount of sun exposed property you have) is going to become a limiting factor as the panels become cheaper. Does that make sense?

This is worth thinking about. As the panels get cheaper and cheaper, the question changes from "how many can I afford" to "how many can I fit" and that is limited by the available aperture. Mostly this boils down to the roof size and any code limits on how much of your roof you can cover.

At that point you can't get more gear - so you need gear that can get more energy. That is the promise  hybrids offer.  Stay tuned!