Y Combinator-Backed Bright Aims To Bring Solar Power To Mexico

By: Sarah Buhr

Jonah Greenberger envisions Mexico’s rooftops covered in cost-effective, environmentally friendly, dark blue solar panels. The 28-year-old founder of Y Combinator-backed solar power startup Bright left his job working in fossil fuels at Chevron to work on lowering exorbitant energy costs for the people of Mexico.

“The third world pays the most for electricity. Mexico has the most potential to be disrupted because it’s really sunny there,” he told me over the phone.

The electric system in Mexico is both expensive and complicated. The government subsidizes the poorest people, and the wealthier citizens end up paying the most. Fees can get up to over $4,000 USD in the hot month of August when not subsidized, according to the Mexican Federal Electric Commission.

Solar energy could lower power bills by 20 to 50 percent per household, according to Bright. It works by installing the panels for free and then providing a subscription service similar to what we do here for cable television. Private investors purchase the solar panels and front the installation costs. The investors then lease the use of the panels to the homeowner. The investor makes their money back on the power generated from the panels.

Y Combinator tends to take on co-founding teams. Greenberger is an unusual choice as a sole founder. But it seems the idea for Bright was enticing enough to bring him into the batch.

“I think that inexpensive sources of planet-friendly energy are one of the most important things for us to pursue,” Y Combinator president Sam Altman said in regards to why he chose Bright. “The correlation of quality of life and cost of energy is huge.  Also, Jonah’s first market seemed like a very good decision, and we think energy businesses that innovate on financing are interesting.”

Bright competes with one other solar provider in Mexico called Envolta. This company both builds and installs the panels and then finances them to customers. Bright doesn’t build the panels itself. Instead, it leverages a large contractor system in Mexico to install ready-made panels. Both companies ultimately own and then lease the panels to customers.

It seems a no-brainer to install something that won’t cost a dime and will lower your energy bill a ton. However, it’s not all sunshine. Bright needs to make sure the households that agree to installation will actually pay up each month. But the country has existed on a mostly cash system up until the last few years. That means there’s not a lot of repayment history to go on. Bright compensates for that with a built-in software system that pulls in data where it can find it from government systems and public databases.

I think that inexpensive sources of planet-friendly energy are one of the most important things for us to pursue.

— Sam Altman

The startup says it’s currently doing about one installation a day and believes it will hit 50 installations by demo day. That doesn’t seem like a lot when compared to app downloads, but to Greenberger that number is right on target to start netting the fledgling startup a six-figure profit by the end of the year.

One installation costs an investor about $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the contractor and area. Households then start to pay Bright about $250 per month on average for the use of power. Bright splits that payment with the private investor.

Households are allowed, based on the Bright contract, to cancel the service at any time. Should they do that, the investor may take a loss. Greenberger says this means Bright needs to carefully select those households that are the least likely to do that in order to lower risk for investors.

Greenberger would like to eventually build out the software so that it is easy for private investors and contractors to sell the service directly themselves. Though Mexico seemed the most profitable first choice to him, he also mentioned plans to expand into Chile and Brazil next.



Apple’s £1.25bn Europe data centres will run entirely on renewable energy

Tim Cook says Apple’s two data centres, in Ireland and Denmark, will be among the largest in the world and have most advanced green building designs

Apple Operations International, a subsidiary of Apple Inc, in Hollyhill, Cork, Ireland. Apple’s green initiative represents a significant private investment in the European renewable sector. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

Apple has announced £1.25bn plans to build two data centres in Europe powered entirely on renewable energy.

Chief executive Tim Cook said the developments in Galway, Ireland and Jutland in Denmark would be Apple’s largest-ever European project and would “introduce some of our most advanced green building designs”. At 120,000 sq m each, the centres will be among the largest in the world.

Apple offsets its data centres’ power use by investing in renewable energy capacity. At the Denmark site, some generation will be done on site. But in Ireland the offsetting will take the form of new projects in other parts of the country.

The tech sector has come under pressure in recent years to account for the environmental impact of its energy use. Apple’s commitment to renewable energy is an attempt to rehabilitate its image after being named the “least green” tech company by Greenpeace in 2011 – mainly because of its heavy reliance (54.5%) on coal power for its data centres.

Last year, Greenpeace praised Apple’s rapid turnaround. The company says its data centre power is now 100% from renewable sources.

Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice-president of environmental initiatives said: “We’re excited to spur green industry growth in Ireland and Denmark and develop energy systems that take advantage of their strong wind resources. Our commitment to environmental responsibility is good for the planet, good for our business and good for the European economy.”

The initiative will represent a significant private investment in the European renewable sector. One-third of Denmark’s and 16% of Ireland’s electricity comes from wind. Mogens Jensen, Denmark’s minister for trade and development cooperation said Apple’s choice of Denmark confirmed the country’s “position as a world leader within green solutions and renewable energy technology”.

The centre in Jutland will also capture heat from its servers and transfer it into nearby homes.

The chief executive of the Irish Wind Energy Association Kenneth Matthews said the Galway development was the first of a number announcements expected for Ireland in the coming months. He said there could be “several hundred megawatts” of new renewable capacity funded by a coming boom in Irish data centres.

Apple has not specified the type of renewable energy it will use in the centres. However Matthews said: “We really expect it to be onshore wind” and this would represent “a really great vote of confidence in the electricity system” in Ireland. The vast majority of Irish renewable power comes from onshore wind, a sector from which the Tories in the UK have promised to slash subsidies.

Apple would not release details on the energy load of its new European projects, so it is not clear how much new capacity the new projects will add to either country’s renewable sector. Apple’s massive Maiden data centre in North Carolina has a 40 MW solar farm attached to it, slightly smaller than the UK’s largest solar farm. The centres will begin operating in 2017.



Tesla’s First Solar-Powered Supercharger-Store-Service Center Is Almost Ready

By: Geroge Parrott

Tesla Supercharger site with photovoltaic solar panels, Rocklin, California, Feb 2015

Electric-car maker Tesla Motors has rapidly been opening Supercharger DC fast-charging stations throughout the U.S. and outside the country.

But despite its goal of providing solar-generated electricity at those sites, Superchargers thus far have drawn on electricity from the conventional power grid.

That’s about to change.

In Rocklin, California (20 miles northeast of downtown Sacramento), Tesla is building its first location that will incorporate every one of its customer offerings in a single location.

There’s a Tesla showroom where new cars are displayed, a Service Center, and a row of Supercharger fast-charging stalls–with a massive array of photovoltaic solar cells to power the entire site.

Only about 4 miles from the Rocklin location is another Supercharger site, at the Roseville Galleria Mall.

But freeway access there is neither immediate nor direct, so Tesla appears to have added the eight additional Supercharger stalls just a minute or so off the Interstate 80 exchange at the Sierra College exit.

To do the work, Tesla chose a local company–Phil Haupt Electric of Roseville–with previous experience in electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) installation and maintenance.

“I was very flattered to have our company selected to do this installation,” commented owner Phil Haupt, “and we used all local employees and even purchased all of our materials locally.”

Many of Tesla’s Supercharger installations are done by companies operating on a wider regional or near-national basis, with contracts to create one fast-charging site after another, even across state lines.

Tesla has consistently indicated that it would further power to its specialized Superchargers via solar panels, but the Rocklin location takes the company’s “green energy” commitment further.

The whole roof of the service and showroom area and almost every possible area in the whole perimeter of the property has been fully fitted with solar photovoltaic panels.

The panels, of course, have the added benefit that they shade the actual Supercharger stations from the hot Central Valley summer sun.



How Do You Know Your Solar Panels Are Working Correctly? You Probably Don’t

By: Katherine Tweed

A new study finds that real-time data doesn’t always uncover issues with PV systems.

As Brewster McCracken and his team at Pecan Street Research Institute were gathering solar photovoltaic data from houses in their ongoing research, they were surprised by how many PV systems had gaps in their energy production. It was even found that one set of panels had been down for months.

The findings compelled Pecan Street, an Austin, Texas-based organization that investigates water and energy use behavior, to take a deeper dive.

A new study from Pecan Street has found that most solar PV systems only experience minor issues and that solar PV is largely maintenance-free. But the minor issues can often impede power production for days, weeks or even longer. In most cases, the homeowners had no idea there was a problem.

“It’s a minor issue. But by not detecting it, it becomes an issue where you’re losing value on your solar panel even though it’s a $5 issue to fix,” said McCracken, CEO of Pecan Street.

In the study, 54 of 255 homes experienced minor issues, such as blown AC fuses and ground fault interruptions. Many of the problems required less than $25 in parts and less than an hour of an electrician’s time to be resolved, if an electrician was needed at all. Only two homes had more serious issues, inverter failures in both cases.

The study found that most homeowners had no idea their panels were malfunctioning, even though they may have real-time data from their solar installer. In many cases, they were down for weeks to months, Pecan Street found.

“Data is just data,” said McCracken. “Odds are it’s very hard to figure out” problems by just looking at raw, real-time data, he said. Many of the problems, especially ground fault interruptions, can look like the dips in production from weather changes. For people who are only looking at 30-day bills, it’s even harder to tell.

The study also found that while the average solar PV owner is more of an energy geek than the average person, there are limitations. “There’s car guys, and then there’s the rest of us,” McCracken said. And for the rest of us, there are “check engine” lights.

Despite the move to real-time energy data, disaggregation services and utilities providing alerts for high bills or outages, solar PV owners do not often have the same alert services for their panels. As solar becomes more and more mainstream, such services become even more necessary.

To meet the needs of the market, Pecan Street is launching Pecan Street Sol, an alert system for PV systems. The service is free and available to PV system owners who have an eGauge-compatible energy monitoring system available with their panels. For those without an eGauge device, another piece of hardware is needed to use the app.

EGauge takes data from panel circuitry. Devices that are eGauge-compatible have various names, including LightGauge (Lighthouse Solar), Hot Purple Energy, and Revolve Solar. A list of eGauge installer partners can be found on the company’s website.

Missing from that list of names are the two largest installers in the U.S., SolarCity and Vivint. SolarCity recently launched MySolarCity app, but it does not come with alerts. For customers with systems that are not eGauge-compatible, the devices cost about $500, plus the cost of installation, which will vary. Pecan Street can recommend contractors and electricians that can install the devices, or a solar installer could also be a resource.

For utilities that are looking to get into the rooftop solar business, offering access to such an app should be an obvious customer service tool. While customers may not engage more frequently with the utility because they have it, they’ll be glad to have it if they need it. “Alert services are low-engagement platforms,” said McCracken, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.”



Sunny business: India to trump US with 750 megawatt solar power plant

Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko

The construction of the world’s largest solar power plant is underway in central India. When the 750-megawatt site starts operating in August, 2016, the project is set to overtake America’s 550-megawatt ‘Desert Sunlight’ in California.

The world’s largest solar power plant that will be generating 750MW of electricity had been recently commissioned in Rewa district of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the Times of India reported on Monday.

Now, the 40-billion-rupee ($643 million) project is close to acquisition of 1,500 hectares of land, and by April government agencies are believed to start inviting tenders from developers. It is a joint venture of state-run PSU Urja Vikas Nigam with Solar Energy Corporation of India, and at least 20 percent of the energy generated by the plant will be used within the Madhya Pradesh state.

We are planning to inaugurate the plant on August 15, 2016. The plant will be developed in three segments of 250 MW each. Land acquisition will be over by end of month and over 90 percent land for the project is owned by government,” additional chief secretary for new and renewable energy, SR Mohanty told the Times of India.

He added that, “No clearance from pollution control board is required for the project. We have to sign a joint venture agreement between state-run PSU Urja Vikas Nigam and Solar Energy Corporation of India and a detailed project report will be prepared. Preliminary reports are already prepared and we will complete formalities by April and we will be in a position to invite tenders.”

As the country embraces clean energy, India plans 25 solar parks and several major solar power projects in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Jammu and Kashmir. But the production of the Madhya Pradesh project is going to cost less than any other, at an estimated 5 rupees (US8 cents) per unit.

By 2022, India plans to install 100GW capacity of solar power. China aims to achieve the same goal by 2020.

“We have always spoken of energy in terms of megawatt. It is the first time we’re talking of gigawatt. We have no option but to make a quantum leap in energy production and connectivity,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, addressing a global conference, RE-Invest 2015, on Sunday.

However, in spite of all the advantages of solar power use in the rural India, there are some critics due to low availability of land.

“I would love it to be lower,” Energy Minister Piyush Goyal said last year. “But the ambitious plans India has to expand infrastructure, create jobs, improve the lives of people, get 24/7 power in every home, I think considering the huge magnitude of the demand shift, for renewables to meet this kind of demand will have serious challenges.”