June 16, 2011
Petra Solar turns cities into sun-power farms
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Jersey City, N.J., may be an unlikely place to find a utility-scale solar farm, but Petra Solar has found a way to generate electricity from the sun even on hard-paved urban streets.
Bolted onto street-light and utility poles across Jersey City and other urban and suburban areas of the state, a five-foot by two-and-a-half-foot solar panel is attached about 15 feet above the ground, tilted south toward the sun.
Each new solar panel from the privately held South Plainfield, N.J., clean-energy technology firm generates about 225 watts of power, adding to generation capacity and helping utilities meet renewable-power requirements.
“It allows you to deploy quickly and cost effectively because you don’t have to invest in land, you’re not building substations or transformers,” said Petra Solar Chief Executive Shihab Kuran.
Under a contract with Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (NYSE:PEG) — New Jersey’s biggest utility — Petra Solar is now about halfway through its $200 million commitment to provide 40 megawatts of solar power in six cities and 300 rural and suburban communities in the utility’s service area. So far, it’s put up about 95,000 of the panels with a total generation capacity of 20 megawatts, enough power for 3,250 homes.
Petra Solar sells the panels to utilities, which are responsible for maintaining them during an expected life span of 25 years.
Petra Solar says it takes just 30 minutes to install one of its panels, which feeds its electricity directly into the utility’s power lines. Included in the gear are devices that hook up to an AT&T (NYSE:T) communications network to allow utilities to remotely monitor their electricity lines.
The network gear helps old-school copper power wires behave more like an Internet-based information-technology system.
“The panels help create distributed energy, which takes stress away from central generation stations,” Kuran said. “When you generate power closer to the load, it’s more effective. Also, the smart-grid technology lets utilities have their eyes and ears open to what they’re delivering to their customers and that allows them to deliver the right amounts of power.”
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Kuran said he came up with the idea to use utility poles when he asked a prospective employee during a job interview to brainstorm about ways to apply solar technology.
“I was challenging the candidate to think outside the box in order to tackle the challenges we faced in New Jersey, where land is expensive…and the labor rate is high,” Kuran recalled in a phone interview with MarketWatch. “I looked outside my window and saw a pole. I said, ‘How about if we put (the solar panel) on the pole?’ ”
Panels draw complaints, praise
While the panel program continues to fan out across Public Service Electric and Gas Co.’s service area, the utility has drawn aesthetic complaints from some residents and municipal officials.
Robert Cotter, a director in the Division of City Planning for Jersey City, said municipal officials held a meeting with PSE&G to complain about Petra Solar panels upsetting the integrity of some historic blocks. Cotter said the city has no plans to mount any legal challenge because they would almost certainly lose.
“They agreed to remove five or six of them, but we’re stuck with them,” Cotter said. “Some folks do think they’re beautiful because they help create more sustainable power. I just don’t notice them any more.”
Steven Fulop, a city council member in Jersey City, said he’s heard complaints about the panels.
“It certainly distorts the streetscape and in particular the historic districts that we have worked to protect,” Fulop said. “We have always been told the poles are owned by the power companies and we have very little ability to stop them.”
New Jersey resident Bob DuVal gave a mixed review of the panels. While he’s not crazy about the appearance, he hasn’t noticed anyone criticizing them.
“They are ugly,” DuVal said in an email to MarketWatch. “Quite frankly, I have not heard of anyone…complaining about the panels. And since they are ‘green’ tech, anyone complaining will be immediately ostracized.”
Petra Solar CEO Kuran disagreed with the notion that the panels are aesthetically lacking and pointed out that solar power generated from photovoltaic cells doesn’t pose the environmental risks associated with nuclear power and produces less emissions than natural gas generation.
“When you look at solar panels and their benefits… to me they’re beautiful, productive and clean,” Kuran said. “They help keep neighborhoods clean and help prevent power outages.”
Pole to pole
Fran Sullivan, a spokesman for PSE&G, said about 1,200 solar panels are being put up per week under the Petra Solar contract.
PSE&G maintains that it doesn’t need a building permit or other paperwork to put up the panels since they’re placed onto existing light and power poles.
PSE&G obtained an approval to put up the Petra Solar panels in 2009 by a vote of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said John Reinert, a spokesman for the board.
In Tenafly, N.J., concerns were raised about the panels in a historic district, and PSE&G agreed to take down some of the units, Sullivan said.
In Wyckoff, N.J., the local building department sent out a cease and desist letter to PSE&G on the grounds that the panels may violate local zoning laws against communications antennas on residential rights-of-way.
Sullivan said the company has stopped putting up solar panels in Wyckoff and that its legal team is reviewing the letter.
“Our position is that state law provides us with the authority to install the units,” Sullivan said. “We plan to pursue this issue with Wyckoff but hope to reach an amicable solution with them.”
At the end of 2010, PSE&G counted 117.4 megawatts of solar, including the Petra Solar panels, the utility said in a June 10 release.
Newark, N.J.-based PSE&G placed third behind Pacific Gas & Electric (NYSE:PCG) and Florida Power & Light in a ranking of 230 utilities in the amount of solar power in its service territory, according a survey by the Solar Electric Power Association.
“Because of strong public policies in support of renewable energy, PSE&G and our customers are able to develop a large amount of solar power,” Al Matos, PSE&G vice president, said in a prepared statement. “That is helping to drive the cost of solar down, create jobs, and drive economic growth in New Jersey while making the state a leader in solar power.”
Following Petra Solar’s contract with Public Service Enterprise Group — the parent company of PSE&G — it’s now in discussions with other U.S. utilities, Petra Solar’s Kuran said. It has also signed memorandums of understanding to sell the panels to overseas utilities in Jordan.
Petra Solar announced a $40 million venture-funding round in early 2010. Craton Equity Partners and Espirito Santo Ventures led the investment, which also included Element Partners, Blue Run Ventures, OnPoint Technologies and National Technology Enterprises Co., a Kuwaiti firm. Petra Solar raised its first round of financing in 2007 with $14 million.
Kuran said Petra Solar, which now has about 175 employees, is not seeking any additional financing right now.
A buzz in clean technology
Petra Solar has been generating a buzz outside the Garden State on Wall Street, where the company touted the art of marrying solar power to smart grid technology at the Jefferies 11th Global Clean Technology Conference. See story about the clean-technology conference.
In his presentations and in interviews, Kuran points out that while California enjoys the status of the biggest user of solar panels U.S., the origins of the photovoltaic cell go back to Bell Labs in New Jersey.
Kuran took lessons he learned in the chip industry while working at Fairchild Semiconductor (NYSE:FCS) and elsewhere and applied them to power grids.
“We recognized the life-altering importance of ‘distributed’ computing and communications models provided by cell phones and laptop technologies,” Kuran said. “We wanted to offer similar solutions in the solar energy field, so I founded Petra Solar to bring distributed solar generation to the market.”
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