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As economics shift, wind developers see the light on solar power

A farm in Ontario, where the owner opted for solar panels over wind turbines. (Photo by spanginator via Creative Commons)

A farm in Ontario, where the owner opted for solar panels over wind turbines. (Photo by spanginator via Creative Commons)

Wind energy companies are getting into the solar game.

An ongoing lull in wind projects and falling solar panel prices has wind companies looking to add solar projects to their portfolios.

In the U.S., 2013 is projected to be a lost year for the wind industry, which added more than 13 gigawatts of capacity in 2012 but could do as little as 3 gigawatts this year in the aftermath of the latest uncertainty over the federal wind production tax credit.

Meanwhile, solar is surging. Duke Energy President Gregory Wolf recently predicted that U.S. solar installations could surpass new wind additions this year for the first time ever.

So instead of sitting on their turbines, wind developers are diversifying, hiring solar experts and broadening their portfolios to include photovoltaics.

“I don’t know of a wind company that isn’t at least looking at solar,” says Shanelle Evens Montana, a legislative and regulatory affairs associate for EDF Renewable Energy.

The trend extends throughout the supply chain, from consultants to construction and engineering firms. Some companies are even dropping the word “wind” from their names.

EDF Renewable Energy, a San Diego company with an office in Minneapolis, is developing one of the country’s largest solar-wind hybrid projects in California’s Mojave Desert, pairing a 140-megawatt wind farm with a 143-megawatt solar farm.

Solar is still a relatively small part of EDF’s portfolio — it’s developed less than 300 megawatts of solar compared to more than 3,500 megawatts of wind. But its solar business been growing in recent years with an eye towards the current wind slowdown.

“I think part of it was seeing that [gap],” says Evens Montana. “It was also just seeing positive opportunities.”

A need to diversify

Congress extended the wind production tax credit (PTC) for one year in January, but much of the damage was already done, as uncertainty caused many companies to postpone planning for larger projects. Another factor is the schedule of state renewable mandates — many utilities have already met the early benchmarks.

Those kinds of disruptions have been an unavoidable part of doing business in the renewable energy world, idling industries every few years as incentives come up for renewal.

“I’ve learned over the years we needed to diversify,” says Dan Juhl, a 35-year veteran of the industry who is founder, chairman and CEO of Juhl Wind. “I start planning for the falloff of the PTC the day after they pass it.”

In the past, Juhl Wind diversified its business by adding electrical engineering and operations services for existing wind farms. This time around, it decided to step up its investment in solar and storage technologies.

As much as uncertainty over incentives pushed wind companies to think about other opportunities, the pull of solar power’s rapidly improving economics has been a more important factor.

“The biggest thing was just seeing the dramatic drop in the cost of solar,” says Blake Nixon, president of Geronimo Energy. “We had always had our eyes on entering the solar business once we thought economic viability was within 18 months. Frankly, we were surprised how fast that came up, because costs fell off so fast.”

Earlier this year, the company changed its name from Geronimo Wind and hired a solar professional to build a new solar development unit. It won’t be from scratch, though. That’s because much of its existing expertise easily transfers from wind to solar, Nixon says.

Overlapping skills

Wind companies that already have in-house skills related to GIS mapping, real estate contracts, and transmission issues, for example, are finding those apply to solar. And the customers are often the same, too.

“They don’t line up perfectly, but overall they’ve very similar,” says Evens Montana.

Most of EDF’s solar projects have been in states like California or New Jersey, where policies have driven early adoption of solar power. Evens Montana sees its Midwest solar business growing as the economics continue to improve.

Geronimo Energy has modest solar goals in 2013. It hopes to install 1 or 2 megawatts by the end of the year, compared to 200 megawatts of wind power. Next year, it could do anywhere between 5 and 100 megawatts, with policy being the big variable, Nixon says.

If the Minnesota legislature approves a solar electricity standard, requiring utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from solar by 2030, it would drive demand for utility-scale projects in addition to the commercial rooftop ones that Geronimo is currently pursuing.

Juhl Wind, meanwhile, believes smaller-scale solar and storage projects will be a source of growth. The company has developed a product called Solar Bank that combines solar and storage for peak-load management and back-up or off-grid power.

“We’re going to be busy this year in all of our fields, but we’re going to be more busy with solar this year,” says Juhl.

Evens Montana expects most wind developers entering the solar market, especially larger companies, will focus on utility-scale projects, which lines up better with their expertise. The synergy they see is similar to the way wind and solar generation can compliment each other on the grid. The wind can still blow even when the sun isn’t shining, and vice versa. That’s why Nixon and other wind developers are optimistic.

Says Nixon: “We see the solar business going from a very modest piece of our business to a very substantial piece very quickly.”

Comments (10)

“We had always had our eyes on entering the solar business once we thought economic viability was within 18 months. Frankly, we were surprised how fast that came up, because costs fell off so fast.” Please, Mr. Nixon, I’m a big fan of solar energy but am not a fan of the way those in the renewables industry “justify” their chasing of state and federal tax money. Wind energy has lost political momentum as an increasing number of citizens get harmed. You want the money without the hassles. That’s why you’re “diversifying your portfolio.” Now we’ll get to see if these companies are talking about responsible implementation of this technology with retro-fitting of existing structures, or if they intend to blanket the land with enormous bird-charring panels.

By Mary on Feb 25, 2013

How, exactly, would a solar panel “char” a bird?

By Ken Paulman on Feb 25, 2013

People who want “money without the hassles” don’t develop renewable energy. They post anonymous and factually-deficient comments to the web and get paid by the fossil fuel industry.

By Dave Bender on Feb 25, 2013

I think every wind turbine should have solar photovoltaic panels mounted on the sunny side of the tower. Everything needed to get that electricity to the grid is already there. Why not increase daytime output, even when the wind is not blowing.

By Will Wiese on Feb 25, 2013

See you guys at the Solar Jobs Act hearings next week.

By LKlisch on Feb 25, 2013

Our Munich group just applied for several “heat” recapture and syn-gas technologies that push the price of raw materials in solar by more than 50% while boosting the efficiency of non- yellowing- standard silicon from from 15% to 43.9 %. The German F.II.T.s will expire with 52 rooftop GW installed 2which will occur in about 2 years. However, with the efficiency boost by 300% and cutting prices by 50% will push the price per installed kWh to well below grid parity, and we can expect the German solar industry to be installing close to 20 GW in capacity by mid 2015. That is, by the end of 2025, over 272.000 mWh in rooftop solar will have been installed in Germany despite its much lower insolation than in the U.S..
The U.S. and China overtook Germany in terms of total installed wind- but the coutnry already has 30 Gigawatts up and is steadily building out at rates of about 2.8 Gigawatts p.a.- expected installed capacity by the end of 2025…

By Kent Doering on Feb 27, 2013

Oops, hit the wrong button. Expected installed capacity in domestic onshore and offshore wind will be about 100 gWh by the end of 2025 with the increasing build out of wind. The Desertec Wind build out on the Atlantic coastline of Morocco will see another 7.500 big Siemens turbines going up, providing an additional 45 gWh is capacity- (with high utilitisation rates.) 30′% will stay in Morocco and the rest will be transported via HVDC to Germany. But solar will still be one of the chief suppliers of renewable.

By Kent Doering on Feb 27, 2013

Up until 2011, nuclear provided 25% of German energy needs. Several plants were shut down, and the rest are scheduled to be off by the end of 2022. Af first, it was thought the plnts were a total write off. However, engineers have been sutdying horizontal drilling -and considering adapting it from the gas and oil industry. Namely dual pipe drive downs in circular formation around a shut down nuclear plant- driving out horizontally, and doing dual pipe, dry hot rock steam generation- around the plants. As these geothermal will only produce 200°, the new approach will be to put big sets of heat difference Stirling motors on the heat exhausts, and use them to generate HVDC pulsed at 42. kHz- which in turn generates hho at a rate of 1 kWh = 300 cubic liters of gas per hour. 10 mWh Stirling power will thus generate 30.000.cubic meters of gas per hour, sufficient to drive a 250 MW Siemens gas turbine, with its exhausts- heating the geothermal steam from 200 to the expanded high pressure 300° c steam needed to drive the turbines. Those rebuilds will add power to the converted nukes, and the brown´s gas enables onsite radioactive waste transmutation. New geothermal is also planned. So we can count on at least 120 gWh in converted nuke to geothermal and new geothermal by the end of 2025. i.e. at least 40% of future German energy needs.

By Kent Doering on Feb 27, 2013

There is another “renewable” building out in Germany that American´s rarely mention, but one with enormous potential. Agrarian bio-waste- cattle, pig, and poultry manure methane recapture. At the mment, about 5000 German farms are already equipped with it, generating 800 megawatts. When all 200.000 German farms are built out by 2025 – with manure methane recapture- they will be producing 32.000. gWh. (Agrarian and forestry regions with wind, manure methane recapture,wood chip chp systems, plus rooftop solar, and farmer wind co-ops produce 3 times more power than they consume. (Google “Wildpoldsried” as an example.

By Kent Doering on Feb 27, 2013

Kent, do you work for Siemens? That’s an amazing reduction in cost per watt for PV – even half that would be great.
That’s a lot of distributed generation. Will a major upgrade in transmission and smart grid go along with the new generation? The hho is synthetic gas? From what feedstock?
Will the geothermal, syn gas and bio gas back up the wind and solar? I suppose they’re in the process of trying to get the right balance between the two so they don’t over build either one.

By LKlisch on Feb 27, 2013