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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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Amid the daily drumbeat of mass layoffs, here’s some sunny news: Solar startup Suniva cut the ribbon Thursday on a photovoltaic cell factory outside Atlanta.

As solar factories go, Suniva’s plant – the first such facility in the Southeast – is relatively small, making 32 megawatts of solar cells annually until  production is fully ramped up to 175 megawatts in 2010. But the factory will create 100 green collar jobs and it follows the opening of  SolarWorld’s new solar cell fab outside Portland, Ore., that will  produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells, and thin-film solar startup HelioVolt’s factory in Austin. Meanwhile, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup, is expanding its production facilities while Bay Area rival OptiSolar is building a Sacramento factory that will employ 1,000 workers to produce solar cells for the power plant the company is building for utility PG&E (PCG). (Leading thin-film solar company First Solar (FSLR) operates a factory in Ohio as well as plants in Malaysia.) But Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) last week said it has put plans for U.S. factories on hold due to the credit crunch.

The Suniva grand opening comes on a good news-bad news day for the solar industry. On one hand, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate alternative energy proponent and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy. But the solar industry faces a tough year ahead. On Thursday, research firm New Energy Finance, echoing other analysts, predicted prices for polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – would fall 30% in 2009. That’s bad news for conventional solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech if they’ve locked in silicon supplies at higher prices but provides an opening for further growth for thin-film solar companies that make solar cells that use little or no polysilicon.

“We expect to see significant drops in the price of modules next year,” wrote New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich.  “Any manufacturer who does not have access to cheap silicon and who has not focused on manufacturing costs is going to be in trouble. The big shake-out is about to begin. The next two years will change the economics of PV electricity out of recognition.”

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schwarzenegger-optisolarjpeg
photo: California Governor’s Office

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday terminated talk that the recession will crimp California’s fight against global warming when he ordered every utility in the state to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And in a move that will shake up the land rush to build solar power plants in the desert, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of such projects.

“One of the great things about California, of course, is that we always push the envelope,” said Schwarzenegger at startup OptiSolar’s solar cell factory in Sacramento, surrounded by a triptych of solar panels, utility executives and environmentalists. “That is why today I’m proposing that we set our sights even higher. This will be the most aggressive target in the nation.”

California currently requires the state’s Big Three investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – to secure 20% of their electricity from green energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal by 2010. Monday’s move turns what had been a 33% renewables goal into a mandate and extends responsibility for meeting it to every electricity retailer in California.

Utilities, however, have struggled to reach even the 20% target as renewable energy projects become bogged down in California’s extensive environmental review and licensing process that involves a host of state and federal agencies.

Many proposed massive megawatt solar power plants will be built on environmentally sensitive land in the Mojave and Colorado deserts in California, threatening to trigger years-long battles over endangered species and water.

Take, for instance, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, 400-megawatt solar thermal power plant  to be built by Bay Area startup BrightSource Energy on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. BrightSource, which has a 20-year contract to sell the power plant’s electricity to PG&E, is dealing with the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Game, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the agencies that control access to the transmission grid.

Then there’s environmental fights over extending power lines to connect such projects to coastal metropolises. Late last month, state regulators rejected San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to build $1.3 billion transmission line called the Sunrise Powerlink due to the environmental impact of routing it through sensitive desert lands.  A final decision on the project to bring green energy from the Imperial Valley to coastal metropolises will be made next month.

Schwarzenegger’s executive order requires various state agencies to collaborate to create a one-stop shopping permit process to cut in half the time it takes to license a renewable energy project – which now can be a two-year slog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM also agreed to participate in a Renewable Energy Action Team to expedite the licensing of solar power plants and other green energy projects.

“We will streamline the permitting process and the siting of new plants and transmission lines,” Schwarzenegger said. “We will complete the environmental work up front, dramatically reducing the time and the uncertainty normally associated with any of those projects.”

By March 1, the action team will identify and prioritize those areas of the desert that should be developed first for renewable energy projects based on environmental impacts and access to transmission. The group will also work with another task force that is identifying where power lines should be extended into the desert.

That will affect the fortunes of dozens of solar startups, financiers and speculators — everyone from Goldman Sachs (GS) to Chevron (CVX) — that have filed lease claims on nearly a million areas of desert land that the BLM is opening up for solar power plants. Those with land claims in areas at the top of the list for renewable energy development will find it easier to obtain financing – currently in short supply – to build billion-dollar projects. Those at the bottom of the list may rue the six-figure application fees they paid to stake claims on thousands of acres of desert land.

Behind the optimistic talk and smiles at Monday’s press conference, utility execs and environmentalists who praised the governor’s latest green initiative also signaled that political fights over how to achieve the state’ ambitious renewable energy goals are not over.

“Transmission is absolutely critical to get those renewables from the Imperial Valley,” San Diego Gas & Electric CEO Deborah Reed told the audience. “Assuming a positive decision on Sunrise Powerlink next month, we’ll get to 33% by 2020.”

But when the Nature Conservancy’s Rebecca Shaw took the microphone, she offered a cautionary note. “In our urgency to create a more sustainable future, we must be careful not to destroy the very environment that we are trying to protect,” said Shaw, associate state director for the environmental group.

California’s aggressive renewable energy policies already have had one desired consequence: spurring the creation of green collar jobs. OptiSolar, which earlier this year signed a long-term contract to supply PG&E with 550 megawatts of electricity from a massive photovoltaic solar farm, employs 500 people at its Bay Area headquarters and factory. CEO Randy Goldstein said his company will hire another 1,000 for its new Sacramento factory.

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Photos: Solyndra

SAN FRANCISCO – The chatter of the Financial District types who lunch at One Market is a bit deafening, so I’m sure I’ve misheard when Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet tells me how much funding his stealth solar startup has raised. “You said $60 million, right?” I ask.

“$600 million,” he replies.

That pile of cash from investors ranging from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to Richard Branson to the Walton family wasn’t the only big number Solyndra revealed to Green Wombat in anticipation of the solar panel manufacturer’s public debut Tuesday after operating undercover for more than three years. “We have $1.2 billion in orders under contract,” says Kelly Truman, the Fremont, Calif.-based company’s vice president for marketing and business development.

The stealth startup is a Silicon Valley archetype, along with the baby-faced Web 2.0 mogul and the millionaire stock-option secretary. But perhaps no company in recent memory has managed to hire more than 500 people and build a state-of-the-art thin-film solar factory – in plain view of one of the Valley’s busiest freeways – without attracting much attention beyond a few enterprising green business blogs.

Thin-film solar has been something of a Holy Grail in Silicon Valley, with high-profile startups like Nanosolar – with nearly $500 million in funding itself – all vying to be first to market with copper indium gallium selenide solar cells. CIGS cells can essentially be printed on flexible materials or glass without using expensive silicon. While such solar cells are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, production costs are expected to be significantly lower than making traditional silicon-based modules. (Thin-film companies like First Solar (FSLR) – also backed by the Waltons – use an older technology.)

Yet Solyndra bursts onto the scene with a factory operating 24/7 and a billion-dollar book of business. The reason for Solyndra’s secrecy – and success with investors and customers – is sitting in a bazooka-sized cylinder propped up beside Truman at the restaurant. He pulls out a long, black glass tube that is darkened by a coating of solar cells.

The cylindrical shape is the key, according to CEO Gronet. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel,  to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.

“We can cover twice as much roofspace as conventional solar panels and they can be installed in one-third the time,” says Gronet, a boyish 46-year-old who holds a Stanford Ph.D. in semiconductor processing and was an 11-year veteran of chip equipment maker Applied Materials (AMAT) before he started Solyndra in May 2005.

And because air flows through the panels they stay cooler and don’t need to be attached to the roof to withstand strong winds. That means installers simply clip on mounting stands and then snap the panels together like Legos.

“For flat commercial rooftops this is game-changing technology,” said Manfred Bachler, chief technical officer at European solar installation giant Phoenix Solar, in a statement.

Solyndra’s target is the 30 billion square feet of flat roofspace found on big box stores and other buildings in the U.S., according to Navigant Consulting – a potential $650 billion solar market.  The emerging business model is for a solar developer to finance, install and operate a commercial solar array and then sell the electricity to the rooftop owner. Solyndra’s business is to supply the solar panels to the installers, a market crowded with competitors like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

A good chunk of the $600 million the company has raised has gone toward building its 300,000-square-foot solar fab. A video Gronet and Truman played for me shows a highly automated factory, with robotic assembly lines and robot carts moving the solar modules through the production process.

The fab – which can produce 110 megawatts’ worth of solar cells a year – already is shipping panels to big customers like Solar Power in the U.S. and Germany’s Phoenix Solar – three-quarters of its $1.2 billion in orders are destined for European companies. Solyndra is in the process of obtaining permits for a second 420-megawatt fab in Fremont; upon its completion, Solyndra would become one of the biggest solar cell manufacturers in North America. (Gronet says a third fab will be built in Europe, Asia or the Middle East.)

That has helped Solyndra attract a long list of investors, from Silicon Valley VCs like CMEA and US Venture Partners to Madrone Capital – the Walton family’s (WMT) private equity fund – and Masdar, the Abu Dhabi company whose mission is to transform the oil-rich emirate into a green tech powerhouse. Another high-profile investor is Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund.

“We looked at 117 solar companies and have made two investments, including Solyndra,” says Anup Jacob, a partner at Virgin Green Fund and a Solyndra board member. “Dr. Chris Gronet and his team came out of Applied Materials and really took the best and brightest of Silicon Valley. They’re great scientists and operations people.”

Jacob told Green Wombat that Virgin hired Stanford scientists to evaluate Solyndra’s technology and engineering firms to vet its solar factory. “Because we’re late-stage investors, we were able to look at all their major competitors,” he says. “There’s a number of well-heeled solar companies that have said they are going to do a lot of things but haven’t delivered.”

Virgin concluded that Solyndra could make good on its promise to make solar competitive with traditional sources of electricity. “As a rooftop owner, all you care about is how much electricity you can get from your rooftop at the cheapest price possible,” he says.

One challenge, he adds, was keeping mum about Solyndra. “I gotta tell you that Richard Branson is a guy who loves to talk about what’s he’s doing and it was real effort to honor Solyndra’s wishes to keep quiet.”

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In another sign that the financial crisis is not slowing the solar industry, Suntech, the giant Chinese solar module maker, made a big move into the United States market on Thursday. The company announced a joint venure with green energy financier MMA Renewable Ventures to build solar power plants and said it would acquire California-based solar installer EI Solutions.

Founded in 2001, Suntech (STP) recently overtook its Japanese and German rivals to become the world’s largest solar cell producer. The company has focused on the lucrative European market and only opened a U.S. outpost, in San Francisco, last year.  The joint venture with MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) – called Gemini Solar – will build photovoltaic power plants bigger than 10 megawatts.

Most solar panels are produced for commercial and residential rooftops, but in recent months utilities have been signing deals for massive megawatt photovoltaic power plants. Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) is building a 250-megawatt PV power station for PG&E (PCG) while Bay Area startup OptiSolar inked a contract with the San Francisco-based utility for a 550-megawatt thin-film solar power plant. First Solar (FSLR), a Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film company, has contracts with Southern California Edision (EIX) and Sempre to build smaller-scale solar power plants.

Suntech’s purchase of EI Solutions gives it entree into the growing market for commercial rooftop solar systems. EI has installed large solar arrays for Google, Disney, Sony and other corporations.

“Suntech views the long-term prospects for the U.S. solar market as excellent and growing,” said Suntech CEO  Zhengrong Shi in a statement.

Other overseas investors seem to share that sentiment, credit crunch or not.  On Wednesday, Canadian, Australian and British investors lead a $60.6 million round of funding for Silicon Valley solar power plant builder Ausra. “So far the equity market for renewable energy has not been affected by the financial crisis,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat.

The solar industry got more good news Wednesday night when the U.S. Senate passed a bailout bill that included extensions of crucial renewable energy investment and production tax credits that were set to expire at the end of the year.

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photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat’s story in the new issue of Fortune magazine on the solar power plant-fueled boom in demand for wildlife biologists is now online here. The photo above of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard was taken at a state reserve in San Luis Obispo County.

Or you can read the story below.

The hottest tech job in America

Giant solar plants are being built where dozens of protected species live. That’s good news for wildlife biologists.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — It looks like a scene from an old episode of The X-Files: As a red-tailed hawk circles overhead and a wild pronghorn sheep grazes in the distance, a dozen people in dark sunglasses move methodically through a vast field of golden barley, eyes fixed to the ground, GPS devices in hand. They’re searching for bodies.

In this case, however, the bodies belong to the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the crew moving through the knee-high grain are wildlife biologists hired by Ausra, a Silicon Valley startup that’s building a solar power plant for utility PG&E on this square mile of central California ranchland.

With scores of solar power stations planned for sites in the Southwest, demand for wildlife biologists is hot. They’re needed to look for lizards and other threatened fauna and flora, to draw up habitat-protection plans, and to comply with endangered-species laws to ensure that a desert tortoise or a kit fox won’t be inadvertently squashed by a solar array.

That has engineering giants like URS (URS, Fortune 500) in San Francisco and CH2MHill of Englewood, Colo., scrambling to hire biologists to serve their burgeoning roster of solar clients. “It’s a good time to be a biologist – it’s never been busier in my 15 years in the business,” says Angela Leiba, a senior project manager for URS, which is staffing the $550 million Ausra project. URS has brought onboard 40 biologists since 2007 to keep up with the solar boom. Salaries in the industry, which typically start around $30,000 and run up to about $120,000, have spiked 15% to 20% over the past year.

The work is labor-intensive. “It can take a 30- to 50-person team several weeks to complete just one wildlife survey,” says CH2MHill VP David Stein.

The economics of Big Solar ensure that wildlife biology will be a growth field for years to come. For one thing, there’s the mind-boggling scale of solar power plants. Adjacent to the Ausra project in San Luis Obispo County, for instance, OptiSolar of Hayward, Calif., is building a solar farm for PG&E that will cover 9 1/2 square miles with solar panels. Nearby, SunPower of San Jose will do the same on 3.4 square miles. Every acre must be scoured for signs of “species of special concern” during each phase of each project.

That adds up to a lot of bodies on the ground. URS, for instance, has dispatched 75 biologists to Southern California where Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix is planting 12,000 solar dishes in the desert. “The biologists are critical to move these projects forward,” notes Stirling COO Bruce Osborn. For one project Stirling had to pay for two years’ worth of wildlife surveys before satisfying regulators.

Just about every solar site is classified as potential habitat for a host of protected species whose homes could be destroyed by a gargantuan power station. (Developers of California solar power plants, for example, have been ordered to capture and move desert tortoises out of harm’s way.) The only way to determine if a site is crawling with critters is to conduct surveys.

While that means a lot of jobs for wildlife biologists, it’s not all red-tailed hawks and pronghorn sheep for these nature boys and girls. The work can get a bit Groundhog Dayish, say, after spending 1,400 hours plodding through the same barley field in 90-degree heat in search of the same blunt-nosed leopard lizard. No wonder then when URS crew boss Theresa Miller asks for volunteers to reconnoiter a decrepit farmhouse for some protected bats on the Ausra site, hands shoot up like schoolchildren offered the chance to take the attendance to the principal’s office.

PG&E (PCG, Fortune 500) renewable-energy executive Hal La Flash worries that universities aren’t cranking out enough workers of all stripes for the green economy. “It could really slow down some of these big solar projects,” he says. Osborn can vouch for that: Biological work on the Stirling project has ground to a halt at times while the company waits for its consultants to finish up surveys on competitors’ sites.

For the young graduate, veteran biologist Thomas Egan wants to say just three words to you: Mohave ground squirrel. The rare desert dweller is so elusive that the only way to detect it on a solar site is to set traps and bag it. “There’s a limited number of people authorized to do trapping for Mohave ground squirrels,” says Egan, a senior ecologist with AMEC Earth & Environmental. “If you can work with the Mohave ground squirrel, demand is intense.”

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The looming expiration of a crucial renewable energy investment tax credit doesn’t seem to have spooked investors. Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup Nanosolar said Wednesday that it has secured another $300 million in funding and is jumping into the Big Solar game as well.

Writing on the Nanosolar blog,  CEO Martin Roscheisen said that the latest financing round – the company’s funding now totals half a billion dollars –  comes from oldline utility AES (AES), French utility giant EDF and the Carlyle Group, among other investors. Nanosolar, which prints solar cells on flexible materials, will supply solar panels to the newly formed AES Solar, which will build medium-scale – up to 50 megawatts – photovoltaic power plants.

The Nanosolar news is just the latest of a spate of deals to take solar panels off rooftops and plant them on the ground to generate massive megawattage. Two weeks ago, thin-film solar startup Optisolar won a contract from utility PG&E (PCG) for a 550-megawatt PV solar power plant while SunPower (SPWR) will build a 250-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm for the utility. Leading  thin-film company First Solar (FSLR), meanwhile, has inked deals over the past few months to build smaller-scale PV power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempre (SRE). And thin-film solar company Energy Conversion Devices is assembling a 12-megawatt array for a General Motors plant in Spain.

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