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2009 Solar Decathlon

photo: Stefano Paltera/DOE

In my new Green State column on Grist (I’m stealing the above headline from Grist executive editor Russ Walker), I take a look at the state of green tech venture investing gleaned from a recent seminar at the University of California, Berkeley:

Silicon Valley is by nature an optimistic place. After all, inventing the carbon-free future and making boatloads of money along the way is fun. And even though California is slouching toward apocalyptic collapse these days, there’s always another innovation wave to ride.

So it’s always interesting to get a more-or-less unvarnished assessment of the state of green tech, as happened last week when a group of regulators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school. They were there for the Cleantech Institute, one of those pricey, closed-door seminars for executives and government officials. (I was present to “facilitate.”)

The good news: Speakers reported that investors are starting to turn on the taps again when it comes to funding green tech startups.

But don’t expect a return to the halcyon days of 2008 when $4 billion poured into all manner of green technology companies. In the wake of the “Great Recession,” VCs are reassessing their investment strategies as it becomes clear that the success of their portfolios will be influenced to a large degree by government policy and incentives.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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optisolar-panels
photo: Optisolar

SAN FRANCISCO — With the financial crisis dimming solar’s prospects to become a significant source of renewable energy, utility giant PG&E on Tuesday said it will spend $1.4 billion over five years to install 250 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels in California while contracting with private developers for another 250 megawatts. PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee said the utility is also prepared to be a “green knight,” rescuing distressed big centralized solar power plant projects by providing financing so they can get built.

“We have contracted for 24% of our energy to be renewable and we’re concerned whether our [developers] will have access to capital,” Darbee said at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters during a press conference. “We think financing for these projects may be in jeopardy. PG&E is well-positioned with its $35 billion balance sheet to step up and help.”

PG&E’s (PCG) move to take a direct role in obtaining the renewable energy it needs to comply with California’s global warming laws could be big business for solar module panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and First Solar (FSLR). The action was prompted in part by a change in the tax laws that lets utilities claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects.

Fong Wan, PG&E’s vice president for energy procurement, said most of the 500 megawatts of solar panels will be installed on the ground in arrays of between one and 20 megawatts at utility substations or on other PG&E-owned property. (The utility is one of California’s largest landowners.) A small portion may be installed on rooftops, he said.

PG&E said the solar initiative will generate enough electricity to power 150,000 homes and will provide 1.3% of the utility’s electricity supply.

“There’s no or little need for new transmission and these projects can plug directly into the grid,” said Darbee. “Given our size and our credit ratings and our strength, we can move forward where smaller developers may not be able to do so.”

The California Public Utilities Commission must approve PG&E’s solar initiative, which Wan estimated would add about 32 cents to the average monthly utility bill.  An $875 million program unveiled by Southern California Edison (EIX) last year to install 250 megawatts of utility-owned rooftop solar panels has run into opposition from solar companies that argue it is  anti-competitive and from consumer advocates who contend the price is too high. The state’s third big utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), has also proposed a rooftop solar program.

Wan acknowledged that objections to Edison led PG&E to design its program so that private developers would have a 50% stake in the initiative. PG&E will sign 20-year power purchase agreements for privately owned solar installations.

PG&E will also need regulators’ approval to inject equity financing into companies developing big solar power plants. The utility has signed power purchase agreements for up to 2,400 megawatts of electricity to be produced by solar thermal  and photovoltaic power plants to be built by companies like Ausra, BrightSource Energy, OptiSolar and SunPower.

“We are looking at the least risky and most developed opportunities to see where we can be the most helpful,” Darbee said.

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stirling-dishes

photo: Todd Woody

Fifty-four billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, of course. That’s the amount in the $825 billion economic stimulus package –  introduced by House Democrats Thursday – set aside for renewable energy, electric car batteries, energy efficiency and other green projects.

It’s a start, but that’s less than 7% of the entire stimulus package (or, about enough to pay for the Iraq war for five months, or somewhat more than what the federal government is spending to bail out Bank of America). The lion’s share of the cash is devoted to smart grid technology and transmission lines, with a second big chunk going toward energy efficiency retrofits of public housing and weatherization of low-income homes.

That’s good news for a host of startups developing smart grid technology. But the the bill does not address the most pressing issue facing renewable energy companies today: the credit crunch has dried up financing just as billions are needed to fund factories and the construction of solar power plants and wind farms that will be connected to smart grids and new transmission lines. In recent weeks, layoffs have hit the solar industry. OptiSolar – a Bay Area thin-film solar startup that’s building a 550-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to supply electricity to utility PG&E (PCG) – reported to have furloughed half its workforce. And according to The Oregonian newspaper,  SpectraWatt, a solar cell maker spun off from chip giant Intel (INTC) last year, has shelved plans for a factory in Hillsboro, Ore.  Friday morning, Kate Galbraith at The New York Times’ Green Inc. blog reported that layoffs have now hit the wind industry.

The retrenchment comes as utilities are counting on solar power plants and wind farms to come online in the next two years to help them meet mandates to obtain a growing percentage of the electricity they sell from renewable sources. In California, for instance, PG&E, Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) have signed more than four gigawatts’ worth of contracts for electricity to be produced by large-scale solar power stations that will cost billions to build.

Solar startups rely on a provision that allows them to take a 30% tax credit on the cost of building a power plant. Now most of these companies are startups and have no way to use those tax credits as they’re not profitable. Instead, a solar company must essentially trade the tax credits to a firm that can use them in exchange for cash to finance construction. But investors in these deals have all but disappeared as the financial crisis takes its toll. Which is why solar and wind lobbyists are pushing Congress to make the tax credits “refundable” – meaning those companies that don’t have tax liabilities can trade the credits for cash that can be used to finance power plants. “Due to the recession, projects are now being put on hold, factories are closing and workers face potential layoffs unless Congress refines the tax credits now so they work as originally intended,” said Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Rhone Resch in a statement.

The stimulus package unveiled Thursday undoubtedly will be subject to change, but as written it will boost efforts to modernize and digitize the United States’ aging analog power grid. The bill includes:

  • $11 billion for smart grid research and development, pilot projects and the construction of new transmission lines to connect green energy power plants to the power grid. The government will fund 50% of the cost of utilities’ smart grid investments.
  • $8 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy transmission projects.
  • $6.9 billion in grants to state and local governments for energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs.
  • $6.7 billion for renovation of federal buildings, of which $6 billion must be used for energy efficiency retrofits.
  • $6.2 billion for home weatherization programs for low-income families.
  • $2.5 billion for energy efficiency retrofits of public housing.
  • $2.4 billion for carbon sequestration – so-called clean coal – demonstration projects.
  • $2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy research (which includes $800 million for biomass and $400 million for geothermal research).
  • $2 billion in loan guarantees and grants for advanced vehicle battery research.

The smart grid billions will be a boon to companies like Silver Spring Networks, Gridpoint and eMeter that develop software to allow utilities to monitor and manage electricity use in real-time and provide that data to their customers.  “We think 2009 is going to be a good year for us,” eMeter president Larsh M. Johnson told Green Wombat last month. “We’ve seen continued demand from utilities for our services.”

But the billions for the smart grid can be considered a down payment: According to an estimate by research firm New Energy Finance, the price tag for modernizing the power grid over the next 15 years will be $450 billion.

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solana1The credit crunch is taking a toll on the United States’ nascent solar industry, scuttling big renewable energy projects and curtailing expansion plans, solar executives said Wednesday as they proposed the inclusion of green incentives in the Obama economic stimulus plan.

Spanish energy giant Abengoa, for instance, has put on hold plans to build its 280-megawatt Solana solar power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Arizona Public Service (PNW) in a $4 billion deal, said Fred Morse, senior advisor to Abengoa Solar.

“We have serious issues getting financing,” said Morse during a conference call held by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Congress in October passed a 30% investment tax credit crucial to the solar industry. But Wall Street’s meltdown has scared off investors that normally would finance large solar projects in exchange for the tax credits.

“The investment tax credit was passed but unfortunately there was no ‘I’ in the ITC,” Morse added. “We have trouble finding tax-equity investors, the financing is gone.”

Suntech America president Roger Efird said that after Congress passed the investment tax credit, the Chinese solar cell maker immediately doubled its sales force in the U.S. That expansion has now hit a wall.

“Plans to double our sales force by the end of 2009 are currently on hold, primarily because business has slowed in fourth quarter because of the credit crunch,” he said. “We had been considering establishing manufacturing in the U.S. The timing of those plans depend on the growth of the market in the U.S. and how long it takes to get through this downturn.”  Suntech’s (STP) stock – like those of rivals SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR) – has been walloped by the market chaos and is down 94% from its 52-week high.

Ron Kenedi of Sharp Solar said the dealers and installers who buy the Japanese solar module maker’s products have had a hard time securing credit to finance their operations.

In response, the solar industry’s trade group on Wednesday proposed that the federal government cut through the credit crunch by adopting tax and investment policies to stimulate the solar sector and create 1 million jobs.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $10 billion program to install 4,000 megawatts of solar energy on federal buildings and at military installations. “The Department of Defense alone could jump start this industry and it could have widespread impact on the use of solar, similar to what it did for the Internet,” said Nancy Bacon, an executive with Michigan thin-film solar cell maker Energy Conversion Devices (ENER).

Bacon noted that the federal government is the world’s largest utility customer, spending $5.6 billion annually on electricity. “This would create 350,000 sustainable jobs,” she said. “The solar industry is ready to deploy these systems immediately.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association also wants Congress to enact a 30% tax refundable tax credit for the purchase of solar manufacturing equipment to encourage solar companies to build their factories in the U.S. That would result in an estimated 315,000 new jobs. Making the current investment tax credit refundable would also help loosen up financing for solar projects, the association said.

Other policies on the SEIA agenda:

  • Establishment of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require states to obtain a minimum of 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025, with 30% of the total coming from solar.
  • Rapid deployment of new transmission lines to connect cities to remote areas where wind and solar power is typically produced.
  • Expedited approval of solar power plant projects on federal land in the Southwest.
  • Creation of an Office of Renewable Energy in President-elect Obama’s office to coordinate the procurement and permitting of solar power and transmission lines.

“We are working closely with the Obama energy transition team and have been in contact with Congress,” said SEIA president Rhone Resch. “These polices are exactly the kind of shot in the arm our economy needs today.”

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deutsche-bank-green-bankPresident-elect Barack Obama may dismiss notions of a New New Deal to stave off a Great Depression 2.0, but signs of a Rooseveltian shift in thinking abound.

Case in point: This week, Deutsche Bank called for the establishment of a “national infrastructure bank” to create “green” jobs, fight global warming and ensure U.S.  energy independence by investing in an array of projects – from energy efficiency to upgrading the Eisenhower-era power grid to large-scale renewable energy power plants.

The idea of a national infrastructure bank is not new – versions have been proposed by Obama and Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to finance the repair of the nation’s crumbling highways, water systems and cities. Deutsche’s twist is to give such an institution a green mission.

“We believe this confluence opens up an historic opportunity for a new U.S. administration and Congress to take a global leadership position on the issue of the environment and energy security, while addressing current financial problems,”  wrote Deutsche Bank’s Climate Change Investment Research team in its report.

“We’re calling for the national infrastructure bank to go green because in the long run it will save us money and create more jobs,” Deutsche senior investment analyst Bruce Kahn told Green Wombat.

He says Deutsche Bank is not putting a dollar figure on the capitalization of such bank, but the report notes others have suggested a $100 billion investment would generate two million green jobs.

Deutsche Bank (DB) recommends a green infrastructure bank focus on energy efficiency, the transmission grid, renewable energy and public transportation. The green bank would dispense federal funding, make grants to states and cities, issue loans to governments and companies, underwrite public and private bonds, and provide tax credits for public and private projects.

In Deutsche Bank’s analysis, the biggest bang for the buck would come from a massive retrofit program to increase the energy efficiency of the nation’s commercial buildings and make sure the 1.8 million new homes constructed every year are green. Buildings consume as much as 50% of the electricity generated in urban areas and emit about 20% of the country’s greenhouse gases. The work of installing energy-efficient heating, lighting and air conditioning systems is labor intensive and would spike demand for green building materials.

Upgrading and digitizing the power grid to create a “transmission super highway” to bring solar and wind energy from the deserts and Great Plains to the cities could generate as many as 500,000 jobs, according to an estimate by the American Wind Energy Association. The price tag to modernize the grid: $450 billion over the next 15 years by New Energy Finance’s estimate.

One area given short shrift by the Deutsche report is how a green infrastructure bank would support large-scale renewable energy power plants. Wind farms and solar power stations typically require billions of dollars in financing to get built and rely on investors buying the tax credits the projects generate. Those investors have been in short supply thanks to the credit crunch and the collapse of the Wall Street banks that often put up the cash for such deals.

“Everyone’s lost money, there’s no tax equity to be had,”  says Kahn. “But we expect that tax credit equity investors will return to the market, not next month, but in the next couple of years.” Kahn says an infrastructure bank could support green energy power plant projects through loans and loan guarantees.

A green bank would also be good business for Deutsche Bank.

“We have large number of investments at stake, current investments in all these sectors,” says Kahn. “It provides an investment opportunity as this infrastructure bank would not be able to exist all on its own. It would need private capital to invest alongside it.”

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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photo: Ausra

The promise and peril of large-scale renewable energy was on display Thursday as California’s first solar power plant of the 21st century went online near Bakersfield. Under blue skies, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other politicians heralded the five-megawatt Ausra solar station as the vanguard of a new era of alternative energy that would combat the effects of climate change while building a green economy.

Then the CEO of one of the nation’s largest utilities stepped up to the podium and delivered a reality check. “As we all know the capital markets are in disarray,” said PG&E chief Peter Darbee, whose utility has a contract to buy 177 megawatts of electricity from Ausra. “They’re down 40%. The capital markets are going to distinguish between high-risk projects and low-risk projects and the high-risk projects are not going to get financed in the future.”

But he added, “PG&E stands ready to take on the challenge of financing renewables.”

The utility may just have to.

At the solar industry’s big annual conference in San Diego last week, renewable energy executives were euphoric over Congress’ 11th-hour passage this month of an eight-year investment tax credit that would allow big solar power plants to get up and running, eventually allowing for economies of scale crucial to driving down the price of green electricity. Then a dark clouded drifted over the sun-splashed proceedings in the form of three somber-suited men bearing ominous PowerPoint presentations.

The message from Wall Street: The credit crunch will wallop big solar plant projects that need billions of dollars in financing to get built.

Here’s why. It gets a bit arcane but bear with the wombat. The renewable energy legislation passed as part of the financial bailout package allows solar companies to take a 30% tax credit on the cost of building a power plant. Now most of these companies are startups and have no way to monetize, as they say on the Street and in Silicon Valley, those tax credits as they’re not profitable. Instead, a solar company must essentially trade the tax credits to a firm that can use them in exchange for cash to finance construction.

So investors form something called a tax equity partnership, in which they agree to finance, say, a solar power plant in exchange for the tax credits generated by the project. The problem, according Tim Howell, managing director of renewable energy for GE (GE) Energy Financial Services, is that investors’ appetite for tax equity partnerships has taken a nose dive just as the market will be flooded with solar tax credits from a growing number of projects currently being licensed. For instance, he said, 1,000 megawatts of solar projects would generate $1.5 billion in tax credits.

That means there has to be enough investment dollars – or “capacity” in Wall Street lingo – available to buy those tax credits from the solar power companies.  “Competition for tax capacity, which is a scarce resource in tough financial times, is a problem we have to solve,” Howell told a packed ballroom in San Diego.

John Eber, managing director of JPMorgan Capital (JPM), flashed a PowerPoint that showed the total value of the tax equity market at $15 billion last year with 40% going to renewable energy projects, mainly wind. Now that investment banks-which put together the partnerships and sometimes invested their own capital-are all but an extinct species on Wall Street, only an estimated $875 million will be available for all solar projects in 2008. In contrast, he noted, just the solar power plant projects already announced  would need between $6 billion and $8.5 billion in tax equity funding.

“Tax equity is becoming increasingly hard to raise for renewable energy projects,” said Keith Martin, a project finance attorney at the Washington firm Chadbourne & Parke. “Several large institutional investors who put money into renewable energy deals in the last three years have dropped out of the market.”

That, they said, means untried technologies from startups will face higher hurdles to attract investors.

In conversations Green Wombat has had with solar power plant executives over the past couple of weeks, they acknowledge that financing will be much harder to come by but they’re hardly ready to throw in the towel.

“There’s probably a gigawatt of press releases and 200 megawatt of plants that acutally will go live in 2010,” says John Woolard, CEO of Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which has a contract with PG&E to deliver up to 900 megawatts of electricity.

His point: Despite gigawatts of signed utility deals, only a few power plants will actually be built in the next couple of years when financing is expected to be the toughest to obtain. “In 2011, it’s reasonable that 500 to 600 megawatts could happen,” he says. “Those aren’t big numbers for the tax equity market, but if you believe everything that’s been announced is going to be built, then it is a big market.”

California utilities, however, are counting on that big market to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target for 2020. PG&E (PCG), for instance, has signed 20-year power purchase agreements for more than 2.5 gigawatts of solar electricity.

When Congress extended the solar investment tax credit it also lifted a ban on utilities claiming the tax subsidy. Hence PG&E chief Peter Darbee’s statement Thursday that his utility would be willing to make sure its projects get funded by using the company’s considerable capital clout.

“We certainly could look at potentially funding or investing in renewable projects,” PG&E senior vice president Greg Pruett told Green Wombat Thursday. While he said PG&E has no specific projects in mind, it might consider financing construction of solar power plants through a tax equity partnership or a direct investment.

“Say we have a solar thermal company and they have a proven technology and they have done a demonstration plant, but because of the markets they can’t get financing,” says Pruett. “We might consider investing so they can build the plant and get it online.”

He says it’s less likely that PG&E would get into the solar construction business itself.

While it’s anyone’s guess how the markets will shake out by the time solar companies start making the rounds in New York, it’s clear that a shakeup in the nascent solar power plant business is in the offing.

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