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image: General Electric

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about General Electric’s bid to to become a major player in the U.S. solar industry:

SAN FRANCISCO — In a move that could shake up the American solar industry, General Electric plans to announce on Thursday that it will build the nation’s largest photovoltaic panel factory, with the goal of becoming a major player in the market.

“For the past five years, we’ve been investing extremely heavily in solar,” said Victor Abate, vice president for G.E.’s renewable energy business. “Going to scale is the next move.”

The plant, whose location has not been determined, will employ 400 workers and create 600 related jobs, according to G.E. The factory would annually produce solar panels that would generate 400 megawatts of energy, the company said, and would begin manufacturing thin-film photovoltaic panels made of a material called cadmium telluride in 2013. While less efficient than conventional solar panels, thin-film photovoltaics can be produced at a lower cost and have proven attractive to developers and utilities building large-scale power plants.

G.E. has signed agreements to supply solar panels to generate 100 megawatts of electric power to customers, including a deal for panels generating 60 megawatts with NextEra Energy Resources.

G.E., a manufacturing giant, operates in a range of energy businesses, from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. It has been aggressively expanding its energy portfolio, particularly through acquisitions.

Mr. Abate said G.E. had completed its purchase of PrimeStar Solar, the Arvada, Colo., company that made the thin-film photovoltaic panels. G.E. said the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently certified that a PrimeStar solar panels manufactured at its factory in Colorado had set a 12.8 percent efficiency record for cadmium telluride technology. Conventional solar panels typically are 16 to 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

“We believe we’ll be a cost leader, a technology leader and we’re excited about our position in a 75-gigawatt solar market over next five years,” said Mr. Abate.

The global conglomerate’s entry into the highly competitive photovoltaic market is likely to prove a significant challenge to First Solar, the thin-film market leader and the dominant manufacturer of cadmium telluride panels.

Also at risk are start-ups like Abound Solar, a Colorado company that in December obtained a $400 million federal loan guarantee to build factories to manufacture cadmium telluride panels.

G.E.’s initial panel manufacturing capacity will be a fraction of the more than 2,300 megawatts of capacity that First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to have online by the end of 2011.

But Mr. Abate said that G.E.’s solar effort would parallel the rise of its wind energy business.

“It’s a $6 billion platform and it was a couple of hundred million dollars in ’02,” he said of the company’s wind division. “When you look at G.E., we’re very good at scale. In ’05, we were building 10 turbines a week. By ’08, we were doing 13 a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Friday, I wrote about the organizers of California’s No on Proposition 23 campaign resurrecting their coalition to press for green energy policies in the Golden State and Washington:

George P. Shultz, the Republican former secretary of state, and Thomas F. Steyer, the Democratic hedge fund billionaire, are reviving the coalition that campaigned last year to defeat Proposition 23, the California ballot measure that would have derailed the state’s’ landmark global warming law.

Their new organization, Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, will push for greater investment in green technology and the enforcement of the global warming law, known as A.B. 32, according to Mr. Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco.

“We’re going to be fighting to make sure it is implemented in a way that not just creates businesses here, but the jobs stay here, and we get the kind of growth that will show the country that this way of thinking is intensely practical and real world,” Mr. Steyer said on Friday at a news conference.

“I hate to say we’re getting the band back together, but we’re getting the band back together,” he added.

Mr. Steyer and Mr. Shultz served as co-chairmen of the “No on 23″ campaign, which drew support from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, mainstream businesses, labor unions, environmentalists and minority groups. The No campaign won 61.4 percent of the vote last November to reject Proposition 23, which was largely backed by two Texas oil companies.

Mr. Shultz said the new group also hopes to have an impact in Washington, but he and Mr. Steyer were vague on specific policies they would support.

“The most important thing the federal government can do is to have substantial and sustained support for energy R&D – that’s what’s going to produce the game changers,” Mr. Shultz said.

In a speech last week in San Francisco, Mr. Steyer laid out a national strategy to fight Republican efforts to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But on Friday, he kept his focus on California, saying that the “No on 23″ campaign had about $1 million left in its coffers that would be used to support the new group’s efforts.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo:  jfraser

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

Where could you get 797 people to stand in line outside a nightclub to attend a $100-a-ticket fundraiser for a nonprofit that advocates for solar energy? Not-so-sunny San Francisco, of course.

The queue to get into the Vote Solar Initiative annual spring equinox bash snaked down the street Monday, and even the sun made an appearance during a break in the deluge that has been soaking the Bay Area for the past week.

Now, I don’t cover the party beat. But as someone who lived in San Francisco during the dot-com boom of the late ’90s and worked at the leading chronicler of the era, The Industry Standard, I came to see parties as an indicator of any boom.

Back then, the line for the Standard’s weekly rooftop bash routinely stretched down the block. (It was the only magazine I’ve ever worked for that employed its own doorman.) What started out as reporters and editors knocking back a few beers ballooned into an over-the-top bacchanal, taken over by PR people and advertisers. (For the Standard’s second anniversary, the magazine rented out San Francisco City Hall and installed hot-and-cold running martini and sushi bars.)

Well, we all know how that ended.

There was plenty of drink and slow food to be had at the Vote Solar bash, and a self-confident air of optimism among the largely young crowd. But given the politicians and corporate solar heavyweights like SunPower and Suntech backing the event, it’s clear that the green scene promises to have far more staying power than the dot-com bubble.

“We’ve got to make sure this city is on 100 percent renewable energy,” San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee told the crowd. Folks in attendance were decked out in cowboy hats, to commemorate the defeat last year of Proposition 23 — the ballot measure backed by Texas oil companies that would have derailed California’s landmark global warming law.

“Not just municipal,” added Lee, noting the city now generates 17 megawatts of solar electricity. “Everybody has got to do that. Everybody. We want the whole city in 2020 to be 100 percent renewable energy.”

Adam Browning, VoteSolar’s executive director, told partygoers that action on pro-solar policy would shift from Congress to the states.

“We’ve got real trouble and out of crisis comes opportunity,” he said. “The way forward will probably not be at the federal level. Talk about real trouble. Which leaves us with our strategy at the state level.”

While Vote Solar was born in California, it’s now expanding its lobbying efforts to the East Coast and the Midwest.

Another reason to party like it’s 2011.

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In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about the strategy of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, the leader of the campaign against Proposition 23 last year, to fight efforts to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions:

Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?

For years, Mr. Steyer, a billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager, assiduously maintained a low profile while becoming a major donor to Democratic candidates. That changed in 2010 when he led the successful fight to defeat Proposition 23, a California ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies and a company controlled by Charles G. and David H. Koch, the secretive billionaire brothers and bankrollers of conservative causes.

Proposition 23 would have effectively derailed the state’s landmark global warming law, which would have been a big setback for California’s blooming green technology industry. Mr. Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, is the main financial backer of Greener Capital, a venture firm that invests in renewable energy start-ups.

Now Mr. Steyer appears to be itching to take on the Koch brothers and their supporters as Republican lawmakers seek to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “As an investor who one might say is insanely obsessed with energy and its generation and use around the world, it seems crazy to me we would roll back science-based clean air standards because there are skillful political operatives and wealthy political donors who really want to get rid of E.P.A. regulations,” he said in a speech Monday evening at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco. “That seems nuts to me.”

While Mr. Steyer did not mention the Koch brothers directly in his speech, he assailed their support for Proposition 23 during the campaign.

Mr. Steyer, who said he had spent time consulting with the Obama administration after last November’s election, laid out a political strategy to focus on swing states and promote environmental regulation as a boon for job creation, drawing on lessons from the battle over Proposition 23.

“It’s all about public health and clean air,” he said. “It’s all about creating new jobs and really what we’re fighting is self-interested dirty energy companies.”

He noted that opponents of a Democrats’ failed efforts to pass climate change legislation last year had gone state by state to talk about potential job losses from capping greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our strategy going forward as a group is that we have to have answers on the state and local level,” Mr. Steyer said. “The idea that we would change the way energy is generated and used in the United States without engaging the American people locally in a real way seems to me to be wrong.”

Mr. Steyer said he had consulted with Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and adviser to former President Bill Clinton, to gain a better understanding of how the civil rights movement organized its campaigns.

“I asked, ‘How did you guys do it? How did you change the way Americans think about civil rights, something that nobody was anxious to engage on as far as I can tell but where there was a gross need for change, just as there is here,’ ” Mr. Steyer said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

The California Legislature is moving to put into law a regulation requiring the state’s utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But how did California’s three big investor-owned utilities do in meeting a previous mandate to secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from carbon-free sources by the end of 2010?

Close, but not quite. Overall, the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind farms, solar power plants, geothermal, and biomass facilities, according to a new report from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison fell just short with 19.4 percent of its power coming from renewable sources. PG&E didn’t do as well but 17.7 percent of its electricity is green. The smallest utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is the brownest of the bunch, with renewables accounting for only 11.9 percent of its power portfolio.

State regulators estimate that the three utilities will collectively hit the 20 percent target — one of the most aggressive in the United States — by the end of 2012. Of course, they have an even bigger mandate to meet eight years after that.

The good news is that the trajectory looks positive, if the growth in renewable energy generation in recent years is any guide. For instance, the percentage of green electricity in PG&E’s portfolio jumped from 14.4 in 2009 to 17.7 in 2010 while Southern California Edison increased its percentage of renewable energy by two points in 2010.

Hitting the so-called RPS — renewable portfolio standard — admittedly is a tricky business. A review of more than 200 renewable energy projects the utilities have signed shows that many have come online, some have cratered, and others are in limbo as environmentalist and developers face off over the impact of big solar power plants on desert flora and fauna.

There have also been big changes in renewable energy technology in recent years. The price of photovoltaic modules has plummeted over the past two years and utilities have been recently signing deals to buy electricity from photovoltaic farms at a pell-mell pace.

Still, expect stricter scrutiny of these deals as the 2020 deadline approaches, pressure mounts to make good on the 2010 mandate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointees to the public utilities commission weigh in.

Of the hundreds of renewable energy contacts the utilities have submitted for approval, only two have been rejected — a wave energy deal and a wind project.

Meanwhile, regulators list a project to transmit 200 megawatts of electricity to PG&E from an orbiting space-based solar farm as “on schedule.”

Beam me down, Scotty.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

In just about every story on renewable energy, there’s a familiar cast of characters: green power developers, utilities, and sundry state and federal regulators. But there’s one key player that often lurks in the background – the grid operator.

In the Golden State, most of the power grid is controlled by the California Independent System Operator. Based in a suburb of Sacramento, Cal ISO, as it’s known, essentially ensures that electricity supply and demand stay in balance to prevent brownouts, blackouts, and other catastrophic failures.

The agency also approves requests for big solar power plants, wind farms, and other renewable energy sources to connect to the grid. You may win approval for your project from the California Energy Commission and the United States Interior Department, but unless Cal ISO gives you the green light to plug into the grid, that big solar farm is nothing but a big white elephant.

The prospect of thousands of megawatts of intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind jolting the grid — and then blinking off when a cloud passes overhead or the wind dies — poses a huge balancing act for grid operators. That’s especially true in place like California, which has mandated that a third of its electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020.

So it was significant, if little noticed, when Cal ISO this month announced it would begin to integrate energy storage devices like batteries and flywheels into the grid.

Energy storage is increasingly seen as crucial for greening the grid. Electricity from wind farms, which in California typically generate the most power at night when demand is low, could be stored in giant battery arrays and released during the day when demand and rates rise.

Utility Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, plans to store energy in the form of compressed air pumped into a cavern. When needed, the air would be released to power an electricity-generating turbine. The utility is also exploring using renewable energy to pump water uphill to a reservoir. When demand spikes, the water would be allowed to flow downhill and run a turbine.

Another utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, plans to install lithium ion battery arrays at solar-powered homes to store electricity produced by photovoltaic arrays.

And last year, the California Legislature passed a law requiring regulators to determine if the state’s three big investor-owned utilities should be required to generate a certain percentage of electricity from energy storage.

Cal ISO’s early energy storage plans are modest, with just an initial 5 to 10 megawatts of storage integrated into the grid once federal officials given their okay. But it’s likely to be only the start.

“The integration of renewable sources introduces new requirements to reliably manage the grid,” Cal ISO’s chief executive, Yakout Mansour, said in a statement. “Our five-year strategic plan points out that storage technologies bring unique operational solutions to grid management as a tool for helping balance renewables on the system.”

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