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Archive for the ‘alternative energy’ Category

photo: BrightSource Energy

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Some good news on the environmental front for a change: Global investment in green technology in the first quarter of the year spiked 52 percent compared to the previous quarter, to $2.57 billion. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm.

The increase represents a 13 percent jump over the first quarter of 2010, and indicates that investors’ appetite for renewable energy, electric cars, and other green technologies continues to rebound from the recession.

But the numbers aren’t exactly good news for entrepreneurs toiling away in their garages on the next new thing. The first quarter results show that investors are focusing on existing portfolios rather than financing a lot of new startups. In fact, 93 percent of that $2.57 billion represented so-called follow-on investments.

“In the first few months of the new year there have been a rash of large later-stage deals which have propelled 1Q11 to the second highest quarter ever for clean tech VC investment,” Sheeraz Haji, the Cleantech Group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see some big private equity firms entering the space.”

So who got the money?

Solar companies were the big winners, taking in $641 million in 26 deals, according to the Cleantech Group. About a third of that went to a single startup, BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., solar thermal power plant builder. And venture capitalists seem to have a renewed appetite for cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic technology, an area they poured a couple of billion dollars into back during the green tech boom. One such startup, MiaSolé, scored $106 million in the first quarter.

Electric cars also proved popular among investors as the new year got underway. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a super sleek plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, took in $150 million. At the other end of the electric spectrum, Coda Automotive, another SoCal startup, took in $76 million for its middle-of-the-road four-door.

Biofuels are back as well, taking in $148 million. The largest share, $75 million, went to a California company called Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is developing a process to turn municipal waste into ethanol.

North America still accounts for the lion’s share of investment — 85 percent in the first quarter, a 43 percent rise from the same period last year. And Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did the most deals — nine.

But in a sign that corporate America is increasingly seeing green tech as a good bet, GE Energy Financial Services took third place for the number of deals done.

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photo: KB Home

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a home builder installing solar arrays as standard equipment in new developments in Southern California:

Among the standard features offered for new homes at Manzanita at Paseo del Sol, a KB Home development in a desert suburb southeast of Los Angeles, are nine-foot ceilings, six-panel doors and a 1.4-kilowatt solar array.

While KB Home has offered rooftop photovoltaic panels as an option for some time, the home builder now will make solar arrays from SunPower standard equipment on more than 800 homes in 10 communities being built in Southern California.

“This is a game changer for our industry and a powerful way for us to compete in the marketplace, especially with resale homes,” Craig LeMessurier, KB Home’s director of corporate communications, said in an e-mail. While pricey solar panels are often found on the roofs of high-end houses, it’s notable that KB Home is installing the arrays on homes with base selling prices that range from $250,000 to $360,000. In California, that’s starter home territory.

KB Home estimates that the standard 1.4-kilowatt solar array will supply about 30 percent of the electricity for an 1,800-foot to 2,000-foot square home. Of course, that all depends on how much a homeowner runs their air conditioning, for instance.

Rooftop solar can be a hedge against California’s high and rising electricity rates. And given the intense sunshine and air-conditioning demands in desert areas where KB Home is building its latest developments, such arrays will generate more electricity than they could in, say, San Francisco. Homeowners will also qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit as well as state incentives.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a Google-backed startup that unveiled a new power conversion technology it claims will dramatically cut the energy consumption of motors, electronic gadgets and other devices:

A Southern California start-up backed by Google and prominent venture capital firms announced on Wednesday a technology it claimed could slash the electricity consumption of a wide range of devices like industrial motors, hybrid cars, computers and cellphones.

The result could be electric cars that drive farther without recharging, the disappearance of bricklike device chargers and solar panels that generate more electricity, according to the founders of Transphorm.

The company, based in Goleta, Calif., has developed a power conversion module that it says cuts energy waste by 90 percent. Currently, about 10 percent of the energy generated in the United States is lost as electricity because it is converted from alternating current to direct current and back, according to Umesh Mishra, Transphorm’s chief executive.

“That converts to hundreds of terawatts of energy loss,” said Mr. Mishra, a professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during Transphorm’s unveiling at the Mountain View, Calif., offices of Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment arm. “We will save hundreds of terawatt hours when Transphorm’s technology is fully implemented, the equivalent of taking the West Coast off the grid.”

The four-year-old start-up has raised $38 million in funding from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital to develop a new type of power conversion module based on gallium nitride, a compound used in LEDs. Google has yet to test Transphorm’s power module as the product hasn’t been available.

“The opportunity is to take 300 coal plants off grid effectively, said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Mr. Mishra said Transphorm had signed up customers like Yaskawa Electric Corporation, a Japanese maker of motors and industrial robots, and would introduce its first products in March.

Current conversion modules are based on silicon, a material that Mr. Mishra said was “running out of steam” in its ability to more efficiently convert power at high voltages.

He compared silicon-based power conversion modules to a dimmer switch that stayed warm even as it lowered the lights. A gallium nitride power conversion module is akin to a standard light switch that completely cuts the flow of electricity when turned off.

“Gallium nitride allows you to do that conversion without wasting energy,” said Mr. Mishra. “It can hold maximize voltage when off and minimizes loss.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Are Californians forking over too much green for green energy?

A new report from a ratepayers advocacy group found that the price of electricity in 59 percent of renewable energy contracts signed by the state’s three big utilities exceeded the market price referent, or MPR for all you utility junkies.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty regulatory calculus, the market price referent is based on the price of electricity from a 500-megawatt natural gas-fired plant, the dominant power source in California. The MPR is a benchmark to gauge the competitiveness of solar power plants, wind farms and other renewable energy projects.

The “Green Rush” report from the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which is part of the California Public Utilities Commission, generated headlines in a state that loves to hate its monopoly power providers.

“Of the 184 renewable energy contracts presented to the CPUC for approval since 2002, only two have been rejected,” the report states. “When these renewable contracts start delivering energy, costs will impact ratepayers.”

But a closer look shows that the reality is a bit more complicated.

The ratepayers advocate looked at contracts signed by California’s three big investor-owned utilities – which supply 68 percent of the state’s electricity – since the Legislature imposed a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, in 2002. The RPS required utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

According to the report, 77 percent of the contracts signed by Pacific Gas & Electric were above the MPR as were 41 percent of those inked by Southern California Edison and 47 percent of deals with San Diego Gas & Electric.

Regulators keep the terms of those contracts in a black box so it’s impossible to know just how much more utilities are paying for renewable energy. Most contacts are for solar power.

However, not a dime gets paid until a project comes online and begins generating electricity. So, PG&E may well have agreed to exorbitant rates in a contract it signed in 2009 with a company planning to beam solar energy from space generated by an orbiting power plant (really). But unless those rockets lift off with their payloads of solar panels, the ratepayers are off the hook.

According to the report 14 percent of renewable energy contracts have failed so far and 15 percent have been delayed. Since 2002, photovoltaic module prices have plunged and as some projects are scrapped they inevitably will be replaced by cheaper technology.

In December, for instance, Southern California Edison abruptly canceled a longstanding contact with Tessera Solar for the 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant to be built in the Mojave Desert. A week later, Tessera sold the project to K Road Power, a New York firm that says it will replace most of the solar dishes, which have never been commercially deployed, with tried-and-true solar panels like those found on home rooftops. And this month, Tessera sold a second big solar dish project, the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley power plant, to AES Solar, which builds photovoltaic farms.

Solar module prices have fallen 50 percent over the past two years and it’s probably no coincidence that utilities increasingly are signing big deals for photovoltaic power plants.

When Southern California Edison this month submitted for approval contracts for 20 small photovoltaic farms that would generate 250 megawatts of electricity, all were priced under the MPR.

A word about the MPR: It’s somewhat a theoretical construct as it assumes fuel prices are fixed for the life of the power plant. Natural gas prices, of course, fluctuate wildly and currently are headed down. In a of couple years, who knows? The MPR also does not take into account the cost of carbon that may be imposed on greenhouse gas-spewing power plants in the years to come.

The ratepayers advocate, however, is justified in arguing for more transparency in the approval of these renewable energy contracts. Opening up that black box and letting in some sunshine just might spur more competition for solar contracts.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared on November 30, 2010.

A day after Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s “Sputnik speech,” in which he warned that China was investing billions in renewable energy while American politicians bickered over small-potatoes stimulus spending on green technology, a report from Ernst & Young released Tuesday confirmed Asia’s ascendancy.

“A new world is emerging in the clean energy sector with China now the clear leader in the global renewables market,” the report’s authors wrote.

Ernst & Young publishes a quarterly “country attractiveness” index for investors that ranks nations’ renewable energy policies, renewable energy markets, and other factors.

China took first place — again — ousting the U.S. from the spot it had occupied between 2006 and 2010.

“China’s record spending on its wind industry this quarter represented nearly half of all funds invested in new wind projects around the world,” the report states. “Figures released for the second quarter of 2010 showed that China invested around $10 billion in wind out of a global total of $20.5 billion.”

Half the wind turbines that will come online this year worldwide will have been made in China, according to the report.

“Since reaching top spot in our index in September, China has opened up a healthy gap from other markets,” Ben Warren, an Ernst & Young executive, said in a statement. “Cleantech, including renewable energy, represents a significant part of the country’s future economic growth plans.

“The level of wind energy being deployed in China shows what can be achieved with a carefully planned energy and industrial policy that elevates cleantech to a national strategic level,” he added. “The Chinese solar industry is also fast becoming of great importance in the global marketplace.”

And China clearly has its eye on the U.S. market. As I wrote last week, one of China’s largest solar companies has formed a joint venture with California startup SolarReserve to build photovoltaic power plants in the desert Southwest.

And it’s not just China the U.S. has to worry about in the green energy race. According to Ernst & Young, South Korea, Romania, Egypt, and Mexico are rising fast as their governments devote more resources to renewable energy.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 30, 2010.

With NRG Energy’s announcement on Tuesday that it will invest $450 million investment in a California photovoltaic project, the New Jersey-based power provider has pledged a total of $750 million for big solar plants in the past two months.

A new report from GTM Research indicates why NRG sees such sunny prospects for the solar business. According to the researchers, utilities in the United States already have signed contracts for 5,400 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power plants that will be built by 2014 with another 10,100 megawatts in negotiation.

The U.S. utility-scale photovoltaic market is expected to grow from $1 billion in 2010 to $8 billion by 2015, the report said.

“The global PV industry is increasingly turning its attention toward the U.S. utility PV market as a driver of global demand over the next five years,” the report’s authors wrote. “Indeed, conditions appear right to support massive growth.”

That growth is being driven by a 50 percent fall in the price of photovoltaic modules since 2009 as well as state mandates that require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

The price of natural gas, though, will play a critical role in the competitiveness of solar power plants.

While solar farms can produce electricity at near-competitive rates with natural gas-fired power plants during peak demand in some states, the plunge in natural gas prices in recent years has put more pressure on photovoltaic developers to lower costs.

“From the perspective of the U.S. utility PV market, the importance of being within competitive range of a natural gas project is nearly as valuable as becoming cheaper, the report said. “In order for the U.S. utility market to take off, the key argument to be made by developers to utilities, and by utilities to their regulators, is that PV can deliver power at a competitive rate with other peaking facilities.”

No surprise that the largest solar market remains in California, where the state’s three big investor-owned utilities hold contracts for 78 percent of the nation’s 5,400 megawatt pipeline of projects.

But there is one dark cloud that threatens to rain on this photovoltaic parade: Project financing.

As part of the federal stimulus package, the government offered renewable energy developers the option of taking cash grants to cover 30 percent of a project’s costs in lieu of an existing investment tax credit. With the cash grant program expiring at year’s end, developers will have to turn to so-called tax equity investors who take the investment tax credit in exchange for cash to finance power plant construction.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared:

China’s increasing domination of a rapidly expanding solar module industry is revealed in a report that shows that Chinese companies are expected to account for nearly 72 percent of new photovoltaic manufacturing capacity this year.

For instance, China’s LDK Solar will add the most new capacity in 2010 with 1,420 megawatts coming online, according to iSuppli, an El Segundo, Calif., technology research firm.

Norway’s REC took second place with 1,090 megawatts of manufacturing capacity expected to be added by year’s end.

But Chinese companies held seven of the top 10 positions on iSuppli’s list, representing 6,445 megawatts of manufacturing capacity.

Suntech Power Holdings will add 1,025 megawatts while JA Solar will expand manufacturing by 1,000 megawatts. Yingli Green Energy will add 800 megawatts of capacity by the end of the year while Trina Solar Energy will install an additional 700 megawatts.

“I go to Shanghai every six weeks and the scale of the operations is just jaw dropping, absolutely jaw dropping,” Conrad Burke, chief executive of Innovalight, a Silicon Valley solar company, said in a recent interview.

Innovalight itself abandoned plans to manufacture its own photovoltaic panels in late 2008 and now licenses a patented “silicon ink” to JA Solar and Yingli that boosts the efficiency of their solar modules.

“There’s nothing in California that even comes close to the scale in China,” said Burke.

In fact, earlier this month, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley startup that makes thin-film solar panels, announced it would shutter an existing factory in Fremont, Calif., and delay plans to expand a new manufacturing plant built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee. The company cited competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers as a major factor in its move to scale back production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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