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Archive for the ‘enviro startups’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In an interview I did with green tech entrepreneur Bill Gross for Yale Environment 360, Gross talks about the future of solar energy, his relationship with Google, and how to avoid battles over building large solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest:

Bill Gross is not your typical solar energy entrepreneur. In a business dominated by Silicon Valley technologists and veterans of the fossil fuel industry, Gross is a Southern Californian who made his name in software. His Idealab startup incubator led to the creation of companies such as eToys, CitySearch, and GoTo.com. The latter pioneered search advertising — think Google — and was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.

That payday has allowed Gross to pursue his green dreams. (As a teenager, he started a company to sell plans for a parabolic solar dish he had designed.) Over the past decade, Gross has launched a slew of green tech startups, including solar power plant builder eSolar, electric car company Aptera, and Energy Innovations, which is developing advanced photovoltaic technology.

But it has been eSolar, backed by Google and other investors, that has been Idealab’s brightest light. In January, the company signed one of the world’s largest green-energy deals when it agreed to provide the technology to build solar farms in China that would generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity — at peak output the equivalent of two large nuclear power plants. And last week, eSolar licensed its technology to German industrial giant Ferrostaal to build solar power plants in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Those deals followed eSolar partnerships in India and the U.S.

ESolar’s power plants deploy thousands of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a slender tower. The heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Last year, eSolar built its first project, a five-megawatt demonstration power plant, called Sierra, in the desert near Los Angeles.

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” Gross likes to quip, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

You can read the interview here.

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photo: Ausra

The week kicked off with French nuclear energy giant Areva’s acquisition of Silicon Valley solar company Ausra. As I wrote Monday in the Los Angeles Times:

French nuclear energy giant Areva has jumped into the U.S. renewable energy market with the acquisition of Ausra, a Silicon Valley solar power plant startup backed by high-profile venture capitalists.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but in an interview on Monday, Areva executive Anil Srivastava said that the price the company paid for Ausra was in line with the $418 million that rival Siemens spent last year to acquire Solel, an Israel solar power plant builder.

That would be a decent payday for Ausra’s investors, which include marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures.

“The current shareholders are very well-reputed venture capitalists and I can assure you they negotiated very well,” said Srivastava, the chief executive of Areva’s renewable energy division.

You read the rest of the story here.

And the week is ending with Thursday’s announcement of another Silicon Valley-European deal. This time, as I write in The New York Times, California’s SunPower is acquiring a European solar developer:

SunPower, a leading Silicon Valley solar company, said on Thursday that it has agreed to acquire SunRay Renewable Energy, a European photovoltaic power plant builder, in a $277 million deal.

The acquisition follows Monday’s purchase of Ausra, another Silicon Valley solar technology company, by Areva, the French nuclear energy giant in a deal that an Areva executive valued at around $400 million.

SunPower has previously supplied solar panels to SunRay, which has a pipeline of projects in Europe and Israel that totals 1,200 megawatts. SunRay, which is headquartered in Malta, is owned by its management and Denham Capital.

You can read the rest of that story here.

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The ability to fast-charge electric cars is seen as key to the adoption of battery-powered vehicles. But as I wrote in The New York Times on Thursday, utilities are worried such devices will overload the grid:

Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, announced a deal this week with a California company, AeroVironment, a maker of electric vehicle charging stations, to introduce fast-charging stations that can charge its battery-powered City car to 80 percent capacity in as little as 15 minutes.

A conventional charger can take eight or more hours to charge an electric car, depending on the battery.

“The development and deployment of very-fast-charge stations will help speed the electrification of automobiles in the United States and globally,” Richard Canny, Think’s chief executive, said in a statement.

But utilities — concerned that fast-chargers could overload the electricity grid — are more cautious.

Think and AeroVironment did not reveal the voltage of their fast-charger but such devices — known in the industry as “Level 3” chargers — generally average around 440 volts. Most household appliances run on 110 volts.

“It is premature to evaluate the feasibility or safety of Level 3 fast-charging equipment,” wrote Christopher Warner, a lawyer for the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, in a brief filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in October. “Such charging may require large investments in infrastructure and load management constraints in order to prevent ‘mini-peaks’ and localized impacts on grid reliability.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about a ground-breaking solar thermal deal struck by eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., to build two gigawatts of power plants in China over the next decade:

ESolar Inc. of Pasadena signed an agreement Friday to build a series of solar thermal power plants in China with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts, in one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind.

Coming four months after an Arizona company, First Solar, secured a contract to build an equally large photovoltaic power plant in China, the ESolar deal signals China’s emergence as a major market for renewable energy.

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” said Bill Gross, ESolar’s chairman and the founder of Idealab.

Under the agreement, ESolar will provide China Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. the technology and expertise to build solar “power tower” plants over the next decade. Those solar farms would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity; at peak output that would be equivalent to a large nuclear power plant. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The initial project, which includes a 92-megawatt solar power plant to be built this year, will be located in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in the Mongolian desert in northern China. The region has become a hot spot for renewable energy, with the 2,000-megawatt First Solar project planned 60 miles to the north.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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image: SolFocus

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about the year-end green tech investing numbers for 2009:

In a flurry of dealmaking bolstered by government subsidies for renewable energy, venture capitalists invested $5.6 billion in green technology companies worldwide in 2009, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

That represents a 33 percent drop over the $8.5 billion invested in 2008 — a reflection, the report said, of the global economic downturn. But the overall amount of venture capital fared much worse, retreating to 2003 levels, according to the report, whereas clean technology investments were on track to match 2007 levels.

“In 2009, clean-tech went from a niche category to become the dominant category in venture capital investing,” said Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco market research and consulting firm. “Clean-tech continued to outpace software and biotech.”

The report’s preliminary survey showed that there were 557 deals in the clean technology space in 2009, compared to 567 deals in 2008 and 488 in 2007.

Solar companies secured $1.2 billion in 2009 — 21 percent of the total and the largest share of venture funding. The biggest deal of the year also went to a solar company, Silicon Valley’s Solyndra, which raised $198 million at the same time it secured a $535 million federal loan guarantee to build a solar module factory.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Solyndra

In The New York Times on Friday, I write that Solyndra, a Silicon Valley photovoltaic module maker, has become the first solar startup in years to brave the public markets:

Solyndra, a well-financed solar module maker, filed a registration statement for an initial public offering on Friday to raise $300 million to expand its manufacturing capacity.

It would be the biggest solar-related offering in years and follows the stock-market debut of the electric car battery-maker A123 Systems in September.

Based in Fremont, Calif., Solyndra emerged from stealth mode in October 2008 having secured $600 million in venture financing and $1.2 billion in orders. The company, founded in 2005 by veterans of the chip equipment maker Applied Materials, has since raised nearly $200 million more in venture funds.

The company makes cylindrical thin-film solar modules designed for commercial rooftops. The round modules collect sunlight from all angles, allowing the solar panels to be placed horizontally and packed close together, increasing efficiency and lowering installation costs, according to Solyndra.

Solyndra secured a $535 million loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy in March to help finance the construction of a second factory near its headquarters. In September, the company applied for an additional government loan guarantee to help pay for the second phase of the $1.38 billion factory, according to the registration statement.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In my latest Green State column for Grist, I take a look at AlertMe, a British startup that’s making a play to become a consumer brand for managing home energy use:

I’m sitting in a conference room at a PR agency on the San Francisco waterfront when the chief executive of AlertMe, a British energy management startup, pulls out his iPhone to check on a colleague’s kilowatt consumption back in the U.K.

The executive, who has the Vonnegutian name of Pilgrim Beart, taps the “history” icon on the screen. “I can see that his wife has arrived home,” he says before touching the energy button.

“They’re watching TV right now,” Beart notes, staring at the iPhone screen. “I could turn the TV off if I wanted to wind them up. I won’t do that. But I will turn off the microwave as no one is using it right now.”

He touches the screen and, voila, 5,300 miles away, the microwave blinks off, saving its owners a few pence and reducing the load on the grid by a watt.

All very cool. And a bit creepy.

Beart has a window into his colleague’s home life because the house is outfitted with AlertMe smart plugs that monitor appliances’ electricity use. Other gadgets track the home’s temperature. Key fobs carried by the homeowners keep tabs on their comings and goings so AlertMe’s software can adjust heating and cooling and turn appliances on and off to maximize energy efficiency.

Of course, Beart’s use of the iPhone as Big Brother was purely for demo purposes. In real life, AlertMe customers’ data remains anonymous. However, homeowners can monitor and control their electricity use on their smartphones.

AlertMe is one of a growing number of startups competing to help consumers cut their electricity use by providing real-time data and services to manage energy consumption. The company is backed by Silicon Valley and European venture capital firms, including VantagePoint Venture Partners, Good Energies, and Index Ventures.

What caught my attention is AlertMe’s strategy. Beart is attempting to build a consumer brand and he’s doing it without relying on digital smart meters, which utilities are slowly rolling out to provide real-time data on electricity use.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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In Monday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about the migration of renewable energy firms from California and the Southwest to the nation’s industrial heartland to tap the down-and-out region’s manufacturing might:

At a recent solar energy conference in Anaheim, economic development officials from Ohio talked up a state that seemed far removed from the solar panels and high-tech devices that dominated the convention floor.

Ohio, long known for its smokestack auto plants and metal-bending factories, would be an ideal place for green technology companies to set up shop, they said.

“People don’t traditionally think of Ohio when they think of solar,” said Lisa Patt-McDaniel, director of Ohio’s economic development agency. But in fact, the Rust Belt goes well with the Green Belt, she said.

In years past, Sunbelt governors recruited Midwestern businesses to set up shop in their states, dangling tax breaks and the lure of a union-free workforce.

Now the tables have turned as solar start-ups, wind turbine companies and electric carmakers from California and the Southwest migrate to the nation’s industrial heartland. They’re looking to tap its manufacturing might and legions of skilled workers, hit hard by the near-collapse of the United States auto industry and eager for work.

For all of green tech’s futuristic sheen, solar power plants and wind farms are made of much of the same stuff as automobiles: machine-stamped steel, glass and gearboxes.

That has renewable energy companies hitting the highway for Detroit and Northeastern industrial states, driven in part by the federal stimulus package’s incentives and buy-American mandates.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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