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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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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times special Energy report, I write about how the success of large-scale solar power plants being built in the desert Southwest depends on how developers deal with the imperiled desert tortoise and other wildlife:

NIPTON, Calif. — On the construction site of the $2 billion Ivanpah solar power plant here, burly laborers slowly walk around their trucks, dropping to their knees to peer underneath before turning the ignition. Hanging on each rearview mirror is a placard warning workers to “Look under your car for desert tortoise before you drive away!”

Road graders and backhoes crawl along at 10 miles per hour, led by biologists wearing green hard hats who scan for tortoises in a landscape studded with creosote bushes. “Nobody is allowed on the site without a biologist to escort them,” said Mercy Vaughn, the lead biologist for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., company that is building the 370-megawatt power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground in the United States in two decades.

The imperiled desert tortoise sets the pace here in the desert Southwest, and how developers deal with a host of protected plants and animals has become crucial to getting vast renewable energy projects built. That means hiring scores of biologists, managing the relocation of species and acquiring thousands of acres of replacement habitat.

With seven large solar power plants already approved that would cover 42 square miles of the California desert with huge mirror arrays, solar dishes and towers, environmentalists and regulators have increasingly become concerned about the impact that industrialization of the desert will have on fragile landscapes.

“If wildlife issues are not at the top of a developer’s list, they should be,” said Karen Douglas, the chairwoman of the California Energy Commission, which licenses large solar thermal power plants. “The footprint of these solar projects is unprecedented, and obviously they can impact a range of species.”

Developers underestimate the importance of desert animals at their peril.

The California Energy Commission in October, for instance, approved Tessera Solar’s huge Calico project in Southern California only after the company agreed to slash the project nearly in half to avoid having to relocate most of the 104 tortoises found on the site this year. And the commission’s staff has indicated that it is unlikely to recommend the licensing of Solar Millennium’s 250-megawatt Ridgecrest power plant because of its impact on the desert tortoise and the Mohave ground squirrel.

Late last month, the Quechan Indian Tribe sued the federal government over its approval of a second Tessera power plant, contending that the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project would harm the flat-tailed horned lizard, an animal proposed for endangered species protection. It is part of the tribe’s creation story.

As the first big solar thermal power project to undergo licensing in 20 years and the first to begin construction, Ivanpah is being watched closely by environmentalists, regulators and competitors over how it handles wildlife challenges.

BrightSource, which is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley and several oil companies, has signed contracts to deliver 2,610 megawatts of electricity to utilities in the state. It took three years for the project to be licensed by the California Energy Commission as BrightSource and environmental groups tussled over the power plant’s impact on the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and other species that roam the 3,582-acre site in the Mojave Desert.

BrightSource shrank Ivanpah by 12 percent, reducing the number of desert tortoises that would have to be relocated and avoiding an area of rare plants. The portion of the project that would most affect wildlife was cut by 23 percent.

The energy commission in September licensed Ivanpah over the objections of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups that argued it would eliminate high-quality habitat for the tortoise.

“If you put a project in the wrong place and even do some things to reduce its impact, it’s still bad,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “We’re really trying to get companies and regulators focused on lands that have already been disturbed.”

The Ivanpah site is just over the Nevada border, about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas. The neon glow of two hulking casinos looms in the distance. An incongruous patch of luminescent green marks an 18-hole golf course adjacent to the site.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but everyone is concerned because there are so many precedents that are being set since we’re the first ones through the hoop,” Todd Stewart, the Ivanpah project manager, said recently as he stood amid the desert scrub as biologists tracked a tortoise that had been outfitted with a radio transmitter. The orange and brown tortoise, which the biologists said was probably 30 to 40 years old, was about the size of a soccer ball.

By 2014, nearly six square miles of government-owned desert surrounding Mr. Stewart will be covered with 347,000 mirrors, each the dimension of a billboard. The mirrors will focus the sun on a three 459-foot towers topped by water-filled boilers to create steam that will drive turbines to generate electricity.

BrightSource executives take pains to point out that they designed Ivanpah to minimize its disturbance of the desert. Vegetation, for example, will be trimmed rather than plowed as equipment is installed.

Following conditions of its license, the company fielded an army of more than 50 biologists to capture and radio-tag tortoises in the 900-acre first phase of the project and ensure none were harmed as construction began.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: White House

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have an exlusive about Silicon Valley solar startup Solyndra’s move to shutter a factory and lay off workers just weeks after it opened a state-of the art plant built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee:

SAN FRANCISCO — Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar-panel maker that won half a billion dollars in federal aid to build a state-of-the-art robotic factory, plans to announce on Wednesday that it will shut down an older plant and lay off workers.

The cost-cutting move, which will reduce the company’s previously announced production capacity, is a sign of the notable shift in the prospects for cutting-edge American solar companies, which now face intense price competition from Chinese manufacturers that use more established photovoltaic technologies.

Just seven weeks ago, Solyndra opened Fab 2, a $733 million factory in Fremont, Calif., to make its high-tech solar panels. The new plant was supposed to be the first phase of a rapid expansion of the company.

Instead, Solyndra has decided to shutter the old plant and postpone plans to expand Fab 2, which was built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

“Fab 2 is much more efficient and cost-effective than our existing facility,” Brian Harrison, Solyndra’s chief executive, said in an interview. “We’re adjusting our plans to be more in line with where the market is and where our business is at the moment.”

When Solyndra filed for an initial public stock offering in December, it estimated it would have a total production capacity of 610 megawatts by 2013 if its two plants were fully built out. The company now expects it have capacity of 285 to 300 megawatts by 2013.

Solyndra abandoned plans for the stock offering in June, citing market conditions.

The company is the most prominent of a wave of Silicon Valley solar start-ups that hoped to transform the economics of the industry. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Energy Secretary Steven Chu helped break ground on Fab 2 last year, and President Obama made an appearance at the unfinished factory in May to extol Solyndra’s innovative technology.

Mr. Harrison noted that the market had undergone a significant shift since Solyndra filed for the stock offering, with solar module prices plummeting as low-cost Chinese manufacturers like Suntech and Yingli ramped up production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a follow up to my story in Friday’s New York Times on the beginning of a solar building boom in the desert Southwest, I take a look at California regulators’ approval of the seventh Big Solar farm in two months, the 663.5-megawatt Calico project:

In an article in Friday’s paper, I write about the solar thermal power plant building boom now under way in California’s Mojave Desert. The looming expiration of crucial federal financial support for the multibillion-dollar projects, though, could turn the boom to bust.

But that hasn’t deterred California regulators, who on Thursday approved the seventh large-scale solar thermal farm since late August.

After years of painstaking environmental review, the California Energy Commission has been green-lighting the massive solar power plants at warp speed so developers can break ground before year’s end and qualify for a government cash grant that covers 30 percent of the cost of construction.

The latest approval goes to Tessera Solar’s Calico project, to be built in the San Bernardino County desert in Southern California. Originally proposed to generate 850 megawatts -– at peak output, that’s close to the production of a nuclear power plant -– the project was whittled down to 663.5 megawatts to lessen the impact on wildlife like the desert tortoise and the bighorn sheep.

It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of even the smaller version of the Calico project until you’ve seen Tessera’s Suncatcher solar dishes on the ground. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a prototype six-dish Suncatcher solar farm at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, each Suncatcher stands 40 feet tall and 38 feet wide with a Stirling engine suspended on an arm over the center of the dish. As the dish tracks the sun, its mirrors concentrate sunlight on the hydrogen gas-filled heat engine. As the superheated gas expands, it drives pistons, which generates 25 kilowatts of electricity.

Now imagine planting 26,540 Suncatchers on 4,613 acres of federal land for the Calico project. Tessera, based in Houston, has also received approval for a 709-megawatt solar power plant to be built in California near the Mexico border. That will require the installation of 28,360 Suncatchers.

“These desert solar projects will provide clean power for our schools, homes, and businesses while reducing fossil fuel consumption, creating local jobs, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten California’s economy and environment,” Anthony Eggert, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in a statement on Thursday.

The cost to build the two projects will exceed $4.6 billion, according to Tessera, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll go online unless the company receives federal loan guarantees that allow developers to borrow up to 80 percent of construction costs on favorable terms. That program expires next September, and Tessera needs to start putting steel into the ground by the end of the year to qualify for the cash grant program.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Friday’s New York Times, I write about the beginning of the long-awaited solar boom in the Mojave Desert and how it may well be short-lived if crucial federal incentives for renewable energy are allowed to expire in the coming months:

NIPTON, Calif. — The long-promised solar building boom in the desert Southwest is finally under way. Here in the Mojave Desert, a dice throw away from the Nevada border, giant road graders and a small army of laborers began turning the dirt for BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion Ivanpah project, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades.

The Ivanpah plant is the first of nine multibillion-dollar solar farms in California and Arizona that are expected to begin construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees that are about to expire. The new plants will generate nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity if built — enough to power three million homes.

But this first wave may very well be the last for a long time, according to industry executives. Without continued government incentives that vastly reduce the risks to investors, solar companies planning another dozen or so plants say they may not be able to raise enough capital to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a burst of projects over the next two months and then you’re going to hear the sounds of silence for quite a while,” said David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, on Wednesday after he announced that his company would invest $300 million in the Ivanpah plant.

Solar developers depend on two federal programs to make their projects financially viable. The most crucial is a loan guarantee program, expiring next September, that allows them to borrow money on favorable terms to finance up to 80 percent of construction costs.

The other is the option to take a 30 percent tax credit in the form of a cash payment once a project is built. Although the tax credit does not expire until the end of 2016, the option to take it as a cash payment disappears this year, making it far less valuable to a start-up company that is just beginning to generate revenue.

With both Democrats and Republicans promising to rein in the federal budget, it is unclear whether lawmakers will extend the programs in any form. “That could stall a number of projects and even lead to the failure of some,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Lux Research, a consulting firm in New York.

Yet no one in the desert here wants to think too much about those looming clouds.

“Ivanpah represents a transformational moment in our energy equation,” said John Woolard, BrightSource’s chief executive, who was joined Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Ivanpah’s groundbreaking ceremony. “It demonstrates that the U.S. can lead in the drive for renewable energy at scale by building the largest solar plant in the world with new technology.”

The eight California projects that are expected to break ground this year will turn 46 square miles of the desert into a futuristic landscape of mirrors, towers and solar dishes. State officials estimate the plants will create 8,000 jobs in a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate.

During its three years of construction, Ivanpah will employ as many as 1,000 laborers in a recession-scarred region.

“In the last year, I haven’t worked,” said Basilio Yniguez, a 36-year-old pipefitter and father of seven, as he helped build a holding pen last week for threatened desert tortoises on the Ivanpah site. “Thanks to the green thing going up, I’m working.”

The state is supporting the industry in part by mandating that California utilities get a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“When you look at the raw number of kilowatt-hours we need, I don’t see how you get there without large central station solar projects,” said Pedro Pizarro, a top executive with Southern California Edison, one of the state’s largest utilities.

Unlike the photovoltaic panel systems found on rooftops, most of the new solar plants will use thousands of large mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives conventional electricity-generating turbines.

“Without the Department of Energy coming in to assume a lot of the risk, you might not find lenders willing to lend, particularly if you’re a start-up with untried technology,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Other hurdles also stand in the way of the solar expansion. For some plants, multibillion-dollar transmission lines must be built to carry electricity from the desert to cities. Some environmentalists continue to oppose the projects’ impact on imperiled wildlife, such as the desert tortoise, and may sue to stop construction.

The competitiveness of large-scale solar thermal plants in California also depends on the cost of natural gas, the state’s dominant source of electricity. According to Mr. Bullard, gas-fueled plants can produce electricity for about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. After including the government subsidies, solar thermal plants are expected to generate power at 13 to 17 cents a kilowatt-hour, which the industry says is close enough in price to be competitive.

So far, Ivanpah is the only California solar thermal project to win a government loan guarantee, although other projects have applied and are awaiting decisions from the Energy Department.

“We are sensitive to the deadlines and are doing everything we can so that these projects can move forward,” said Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the department’s loan program. “There’s a significant demand for these funds.”

The uncertainty has left even some of the licensed solar projects in limbo.

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 United States is on the verge of a solar boom that could provide 4.3 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

There’s just a 12-figure catch: Investors need to put $100 billion into the solar industry to keep the generation of solar electricity growing by 42 percent a year for the next decade to expand capacity from the current 1.4 gigawatts to 44 gigawatts.

“Policy measures such as tax credits, capital expenditure grants, generation incentives and renewable electricity credits will remain a key driver of solar uptake in the U.S. for at least the next three years,” according to the report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. “The current drop in solar costs is taking place just as such policies are being implemented by the federal and various state governments, which is expected to lead to rapid growth in commercial, utility and residential solar power.”

Over the past two years, solar module prices have plunged by 50 percent as low-cost Chinese manufacturers expanded production and entered the U.S. market.

“Policy, rather than sunshine, will remain the U.S.’s greatest solar resource for the next few years,” Milo Sjardin, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s head of U.S. research, said in a statement. “By the middle of this decade, however, the U.S. retail solar market will be driven by fundamental, unsubsidized competition, which should transform the U.S. into one of the world’s most dynamic solar markets.”

Exhibit A for such a phenomenon is Germany. With about as much sunshine as Maine, the European nation became the world’s solar stronghold through policies that rewarded homeowners, businesses, and farmers for generating their own electricity.

Such policies are needed in the U.S., according to the report, given that solar electricity remains four times as expensive to generate than coal-fired power.

Of course, the failure of Congress to pass national climate change legislation and the current attempt to kill California’s global warming law shows that progress on green energy issues is not guaranteed in the U.S. And Congress’ habit of offering short-lived tax incentives for renewable energy and then dithering about extending them when they expire has played havoc with the industry and investors.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts photovoltaic panels will account for 30 gigawatts of the 44 gigawatts of solar electricity generation by 2020, with 14 gigawatts coming from solar thermal power plants. Solar thermal farms deploy huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

That might be a conservative estimate, if the California and federal officials’ rush to green light big solar projects in recent weeks is any indication. On Monday, for instance, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a 1,000-megawatt solar thermal power plant to be built in the Southern California desert.

By year’s end, nearly four gigawatts of solar thermal projects are expected to be licensed. Just 10 gigawatts to go until 2020.

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