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Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about the latest political machinations in Australia that derailed carbon cap-and-trade legislation at the 11th hour and sets the stage for a national election fought largely over climate change:

As I boarded my flight back to California in Brisbane, Australia, last Wednesday, I received an email alert that the Australian Senate had just defeated the Labor government’s climate change legislation. Only days earlier victory seemed all but assured, allowing Australia to go to Copenhagen with an iron-clad, albeit weak, agreement in hand to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which per capita are among the highest in the world.

Then in the course of 24 hours the conservative opposition Liberal Party sacked its leader—who had pledged to pass the government’s cap-and-trade legislation—and replaced him with a one-time global warming denier and quickly voted down the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The defeat gives Prime Minister Rudd the trigger for an early election that would largely be fought over climate change. (If Parliament twice rejects a government bill, the prime minister can ask that the legislature be dissolved and a snap election called.)

In August, after the Senate first rejected the center-left government’s cap-and-trade legislation, I wrote in Grist that the defeat reflected the peculiarities of the Australian political system rather than the viability of a cap-and-trade system.

I’m not so sure any more after watching the latest reversal unfold during a visit to the Lucky Country.

Just as Australia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the environmental affects of climate change, a national election waged over cap-and-trade will offer a preview of voters’ willingness to pull the lever for action on climate change.

You can read the rest of the column here.

image: courtesy cinephobia via Flickr

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Photo: Ausra

Ausra has become the latest credit-crunched solar startup to seek a buyer/investor to bankroll its expansion. As I write Tuesday in The New York Times:

Disrupting trillion-dollar energy markets is expensive, as solar companies like OptiSolar and Solel have found. Both sold out to larger, deep-pocketed companies this year.

Now Ausra, a high-profile solar company bankrolled by some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, has become the latest renewable energy startup to put itself on the block.

Ausra, which makes solar thermal equipment to generate electricity, is in negotiations with three large international companies interested in taking a majority ownership stake in the venture, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The negotiations were first reported by Reuters.

All three potential acquirers are companies that make equipment for conventional power generation. Ausra declined to comment. Founded in Australia to build solar power plants, Ausra relocated to Silicon Valley and secured funding in 2007 from marquee venture capital firms Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and other investors.

Ausra soon filed plans to build one of the first new solar farms in California in 20 years. The company also built a factory in Las Vegas to manufacture long mirror arrays that focus the sun on water-filled tubes to create steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.

But as the credit crunch made building billion-dollar solar power plants an increasingly dicey proposition, Ausra switched gears earlier this year to focus on supplying solar thermal equipment to other developers.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Ausra

Silicon Valley solar startup Ausra in January decided to get out of the solar power plant business and focus on supply solar steam systems to developers. As I write in The New York Times today, the company has announced deals in Australia, Jordan and, soon, the United States:

Ausra, a Silicon Valley solar start-up, burst on to the green-tech scene in 2007, bankrolled by marquee venture capitalists and armed with ambitions to build gigawatts of solar farms.

Earlier this year, though, the company abruptly changed course, abandoning its solar power plant business to focus on supplying solar thermal technology to other developers.

Now the deals are starting to roll in.

On Wednesday, Ausra said it has signed a contract to provide a solar steam system to a German developer, MENA Cleantech. MENA plans to build a 100-megawatt hybrid solar farm in Jordan that will rely on an oil-fired boiler to generate electricity when the sun does not shine.

Robert Fishman, Ausra’s chief executive, said his company also has agreed to build a 23-megawatt solar steam plant adjacent to a 750-megawatt coal-fired power station in Queensland, Australia. The company’s mirror arrays and boilers will produce supplemental steam to boost the coal plant’s electricity production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

IBM on Tuesday said it has signed  a deal to help build a smart grid for utility EnergyAustralia. Some 12,000 sensors will be installed on the Australian utility’s transmission network around Sydney to monitor electricity distribution and detect outages and other problems. It’s IBM’s largest smart grid project of its type to date.

Big Blue will build the software systems to integrate the sensor data into the operations of EnergyAustralia, which runs the country’s biggest electricity distribution network. In dollar terms, the deal is small – just A$3.2 million (U.S. $2.2 million) – but significant in showing the viability of transforming analog electricity distribution systems into an intelligent network, according to Michael Valocchi, an executive with IBM’s (IBM) global energy and utilities unit.

“The electricity distribution operator will have a real-time view of the network and will be able to pinpoint outages quickly and reduce their length,” Valocchi told Green Wombat. “What I really like about this deal is that it starts to show and harden the message that smart grid is much more than automated metering. As you see more distributed energy and renewable energy out there, this type of sensor and this type of intelligence on the grid will help manage that.”

The sensors will be placed mainly at EnergyAustralia’s substations and around transformers, Valocchi says.

IBM had previously rolled out a smaller version of the smart grid system in Denmark. And in February the tech giant announced a deal to build a smart utility and water system for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.  While overseas utilities have been quicker to smarten up their analog power grids, Valocchi says the United States should not be far beyond, especially as federal stimulus money for smart grids begins to flow.

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photo: Alan Horsup, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

In the ultimate in green corporate branding, Swiss mining conglomerate Xstrata is spending millions of dollars to save one of the world’s most imperiled large mammals, Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat. It’s the first time a corporation has agreed to finance the recovery of an endangered species, and in return Xstrata gets its name on everything from wombat websites to educational DVDs to the shirts worn by wildlife workers. Not to mention lots of green goodwill.

My story on Xstrata and the northern hairy-nosed wombat appears in the March 23 issue of Time Magazine. (See “Wombat Love” and the accompanying photo gallery.)

Only about 115 northern hairy-nosed wombats — a nocturnal, bearlike burrowing marsupial — survive in a single colony at Epping Forest National Park in a remote part of Queensland. The Xstrata money is paying for the creation of a second colony some 700 kilometers away as an insurance policy against a calamity at Epping that could wipe out the species.

I’ve been following the efforts of a small band of dedicated wildlife officials, led by conservation officer Alan Horsup, to save the northern hairy-nosed for the past couple of years. I have been privileged on a few occasions to encounter the extremely reclusive critter, which has rarely even been photographed. (Warren Clarke, who took the photos for my Time Magazine story, captured some of the best shots of the northern hairy-nose ever taken.)

Below is a video I shot of a wombat grazing during my most recent visit to Epping in January. It’s not the best quality but is notable for the fact that once we spotted the wombat it did not disappear down a burrow but let us get an extended glimpse of its behavior.

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photo: Better Place

Silicon Valley startup Better Place on Tuesday announced a deal with Hawaii’s governor and the state’s biggest utility to build an electric car charging network throughout the islands.

The agreement comes less than two weeks after Better Place CEO Shai Agassi and the mayors of Northern California’s three largest cities unveiled a plan to build an electric car infrastructure for the San Francisco Bay Area. Better Place also has signed similar deals with governments in Australia, Denmark and Israel.

Agassi said the network of charging posts and battery swapping stations will be ready by 2012. That’s roughly the target date for Better Place’s other projects, which means the year-old startup will be simultaneously building electric car networks in four countries while raising billions of dollars in project finance.

Renault-Nissan will supply electric cars for the network. Better Place will own the car batteries and charge drivers for the miles (or kilometers) driven. By removing the battery from the purchase price of electric cars – the most expensive component – Better Place hopes to sell vehicles at prices competitive with their fossil-fueled counterparts.

Appearing with Agassi at a press conference at the capitol in Honolulu, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said the Better Place partnership offers the state the opportunity to slash the $7 billion it spends annually on imported oil and provide a market for renewable energy. Hawaiians pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the U.S. and the state has set a goal of obtaining 70% of its energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030.

“It’s not a simple goal – we’re looking to end our dependence on oil,” said Agassi, who shed his customary dark suit for a gray polo shirt and wore a lei. “Any form of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal – is here in Hawaii.”

“This will be the blueprint where six or seven million visitors will come and experience first-hand what it’s like to drive an electric car,” added Agassi, 40, a former top executive at business software giant SAP. “You couldn’t ask for a better advertisement.”

Utility Hawaiian Electric (HE), which supplies 95% of the state’s power, will generate renewable electricity equal to what the Better Place network consumes and work with the company on developing the charging infrastructure.

“The price of oil is irrelevant to us – we have to reach a clean and secure energy future,” Lingle said.

Better Place’s latest deal came on the same day that General Motors (GM) and Ford, which have asked for a multi billion-dollar bailout from Congress, (F) announced plans ramp up production of hybrid and electric cars.

“It’s a win-win-win – the only loser in the equation is oil and that’s ok,” said Hawaiian Electric executive vice president Robbie Alm. “Green cars will provide the market for renewable energy.”

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In late 2006, there was something of an exodus from Australia as solar startups decamped for California, frustrated by the long-entrenched conservative government’s tepid support for renewable energy. On one Sydney-to-San Francisco flight alone could be found David Mills, co-founder of solar power plant company Ausra, and Danny Kennedy, chief of solar installer startup Sungevity.

Flash forward 18 months and solar energy companies are beating a path back to Australia. Ausra recently opened up operations Down Under, and last week Silicon Valley solar company SunPower (SPWR) acquired an Australian solar installer called Solar Sales. So is Oz the next hot solar market? By all accounts, the sun-baked environmentally conscious country should be. But the move into the South Pacific is another example of how governments’ ever-morphing renewable energy policies are spurring solar companies to move operations around the globe.

“Obviously there’s a lot of sun in Australia but with the recent change in government there’s a policy environment that could be much more favorable for us,” Peter Aschenbrenner, SunPower’s vice president of corporate strategy, told Green Wombat. “We decided to get in now. It was a little opportunistic as the owners of  Solar Sales were looking to monetize their investment. It follows a model of a previous acquisition in Italy where we got in before the market headed north.”

Last November, a left-leaning Labor government took power in Australia, immediately signed the Kyoto Accord and expanded a national subsidy for rooftop solar panels. Meanwhile, individual Australian states, much like their American counterparts, have enacted their own incentives. Three states – Queensland, South Australia and Victoria – have adopted “feed-in-tariffs” that pay homeowners a premium for electricty produced from solar panels – up to four times the prevailing power rates. Solar homeowners that return  more electricity to the grid than they consume can zero out their power bill or even earn cash from their utility.

But the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown the same propensity to alter the rules of the game mid-stream as its predecessor, which wreaked havoc on the wind industry several years ago when it abruptly curtailed a renewable energy target. The Rudd government already has changed course on a national solar subsidy – which provides rebates up to $A8,000 for photovoltaic systems – to make it available only to households earning less than $A100,000 – which qualifies as middle middle-class in Australia’s big cities. Some of the states in turn have limited their subsidies. Victoria – Australia’s second-most populous state – will pay premium solar rates to only 100,000 households.

Given that solar is a game that moves as you play and the relatively small size of the Australian market (population: 20 million) Kennedy for one is cautious about doing business in his homeland.

“I think that it’s potentially a good market in the future,” says Kennedy, a former longtime Greenpeace activist who’s close to Australia’s environment minister and other government officials. “But it’s not living up to its potential because there’s a set of mixed signals from the federal and state governments and no certainty from one year to the next.”

Just how quickly the market can change has been illustrated by Spain, a solar hotspot that has attracted SunPower and other solar power plant builders as well as financiers like GE Energy Financial Services (GE)  with its lucrative premium rates for green electricity. But now the Spanish government is considering cutting its feed-in-tariff and limiting it to an annual 300 megawatts of installed solar, 100 megawatts of which must be rooftop photovoltaic systems. By contrast, some 1,100 megawatts of solar were expected to be installed this year. That would dramatically change the economics for solar energy companies that have moved into the Spanish market.

“This is something we’ve been preparing for,” says Aschenbrenner of SunPower, which has focused on building photovoltaic power plants in Spain. “With our global footprint, we are well placed to move allocation around as these markets wax and wane. In Spain, we’ve been working on building a dealer network to focus on the residential and small commercial markets.”

In Australia, SunPower will need to ramp up its new acquisition since Solar Sales operates on the country’s isolated West Coast while most of the country’s population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. About half of Solar Sales business has been building off-the-grid power systems for Outback communities that rely on diesel generators for power. Aschenbrenner says he expects that business to continue but the focus will switch to residential solar.

photos: Todd Woody

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