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Archive for the ‘renewable energy’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about floating solar farms:

PETALUMA, Calif. — Solar panels have sprouted on countless rooftops, carports and fields in Northern California. Now, several start-up companies see potential for solar panels that float on water.

Already, 144 solar panels sit atop pontoons moored on a three-acre irrigation pond surrounded by vineyards in Petaluma in Sonoma County. Some 35 miles to the north, in the heart of the Napa Valley, another array of 994 solar panels covers the surface of a pond at the Far Niente Winery.

“Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 an acre,” said Larry Maguire, Far Niente’s chief executive. “We wanted to go solar but we didn’t want to pull out vines.”

The company that installed the two arrays, SPG Solar of Novato, Calif., as well as Sunengy of Australia and Solaris Synergy of Israel, are among the companies trying to develop a market for solar panels on agricultural and mining ponds, hydroelectric reservoirs and canals. While it is a niche market, it is potentially a large one globally. The solar panel aqua farms have drawn interest from municipal water agencies, farmers and mining companies enticed by the prospect of finding a new use for — and new revenue from — their liquid assets, solar executives said.

Sunengy, for example, is courting markets in developing countries that are plagued by electricity shortages but have abundant water resources and intense sunshine, according to Philip Connor, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Chris Robine, SPG Solar’s chief executive, said he had heard from potential customers as far away as India, Australia and the Middle East. When your land is precious, he said, “There’s a great benefit in that you have clean power coming from solar, and it doesn’t take up resources for farming or mining.”

Sunengy, based in Sydney, said it had signed a deal with Tata Power, India’s largest private utility, to build a small pilot project on a hydroelectric reservoir near Mumbai. Solaris Synergy, meanwhile, said it planned to float a solar array on a reservoir in the south of France in a trial with the French utility EDF.

MDU Resources Group, a $4.3 billion mining and energy infrastructure conglomerate based in Bismarck, N.D., has been in talks with SPG Solar about installing floating photovoltaic arrays on settling ponds at one of its California gravel mines, according to Bill Connors, MDU’s vice president of renewable resources.

“We don’t want to put a renewable resource project in the middle of our operations that would disrupt mining,” Mr. Connors said. “The settling ponds are land we’re not utilizing right now except for discharge and if we can put that unproductive land into productive use while reducing our electric costs and our carbon foot footprint, that’s something we’re interested in.”

Mr. Connors declined to discuss the cost of an SPG floating solar array. But he noted, “We wouldn’t be looking at systems that are not competitive.”

SPG Solar’s main business is installing conventional solar systems for homes and commercial operations. It built Far Niente’s 400-kilowatt floating array on a 1.3-acre pond in 2007 as a special project and has spent the last four years developing a commercial version called Floatovoltaics that executives say is competitive in cost with a conventional ground-mounted system.

The Floatovoltaics model now being brought to market by SPG Solar is the array that bobs on the surface of the Petaluma irrigation pond.

“We have been able to utilize a seemingly very simple system, minimizing the amount of steel,” said Phil Alwitt, project development manager for SPG Solar, standing on a walkway built into the 38-kilowatt array.

“With steel being so expensive, that’s our main cost,” Mr. Alwitt said.

Long rows of standard photovoltaic panels made by Suntech, the Chinese solar manufacturer, sit tilted at an eight-degree angle on a metal lattice fitted to pontoons and anchored by tie lines to buoys to withstand wind and waves.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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image: General Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: BrightSource Energy

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

Some good news on the environmental front for a change: Global investment in green technology in the first quarter of the year spiked 52 percent compared to the previous quarter, to $2.57 billion. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm.

The increase represents a 13 percent jump over the first quarter of 2010, and indicates that investors’ appetite for renewable energy, electric cars, and other green technologies continues to rebound from the recession.

But the numbers aren’t exactly good news for entrepreneurs toiling away in their garages on the next new thing. The first quarter results show that investors are focusing on existing portfolios rather than financing a lot of new startups. In fact, 93 percent of that $2.57 billion represented so-called follow-on investments.

“In the first few months of the new year there have been a rash of large later-stage deals which have propelled 1Q11 to the second highest quarter ever for clean tech VC investment,” Sheeraz Haji, the Cleantech Group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see some big private equity firms entering the space.”

So who got the money?

Solar companies were the big winners, taking in $641 million in 26 deals, according to the Cleantech Group. About a third of that went to a single startup, BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., solar thermal power plant builder. And venture capitalists seem to have a renewed appetite for cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic technology, an area they poured a couple of billion dollars into back during the green tech boom. One such startup, MiaSolé, scored $106 million in the first quarter.

Electric cars also proved popular among investors as the new year got underway. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a super sleek plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, took in $150 million. At the other end of the electric spectrum, Coda Automotive, another SoCal startup, took in $76 million for its middle-of-the-road four-door.

Biofuels are back as well, taking in $148 million. The largest share, $75 million, went to a California company called Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is developing a process to turn municipal waste into ethanol.

North America still accounts for the lion’s share of investment — 85 percent in the first quarter, a 43 percent rise from the same period last year. And Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did the most deals — nine.

But in a sign that corporate America is increasingly seeing green tech as a good bet, GE Energy Financial Services took third place for the number of deals done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: KB Home

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a home builder installing solar arrays as standard equipment in new developments in Southern California:

Among the standard features offered for new homes at Manzanita at Paseo del Sol, a KB Home development in a desert suburb southeast of Los Angeles, are nine-foot ceilings, six-panel doors and a 1.4-kilowatt solar array.

While KB Home has offered rooftop photovoltaic panels as an option for some time, the home builder now will make solar arrays from SunPower standard equipment on more than 800 homes in 10 communities being built in Southern California.

“This is a game changer for our industry and a powerful way for us to compete in the marketplace, especially with resale homes,” Craig LeMessurier, KB Home’s director of corporate communications, said in an e-mail. While pricey solar panels are often found on the roofs of high-end houses, it’s notable that KB Home is installing the arrays on homes with base selling prices that range from $250,000 to $360,000. In California, that’s starter home territory.

KB Home estimates that the standard 1.4-kilowatt solar array will supply about 30 percent of the electricity for an 1,800-foot to 2,000-foot square home. Of course, that all depends on how much a homeowner runs their air conditioning, for instance.

Rooftop solar can be a hedge against California’s high and rising electricity rates. And given the intense sunshine and air-conditioning demands in desert areas where KB Home is building its latest developments, such arrays will generate more electricity than they could in, say, San Francisco. Homeowners will also qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit as well as state incentives.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo:  jfraser

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

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

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

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

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

Well, we all know how that ended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another reason to party like it’s 2011.

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photo: CoolPlanetBiofuels

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about Google Ventures funding a Southern California startup that is developing mobile biofuel refineries that will travel to the fuel source to process agricultural waste and other biomass:

Google Ventures has led a $20 million financing round in CoolPlanetBiofuels, a Southern California start-up that is developing mobile refineries to turn wood chips, agriculture waste and other biomass into biofuels.

CoolPlanetBiofuels, an 18-month-old company, has also attracted the attention of ConocoPhillips, GE Capital and NRG Energy, which participated in the financing round along with North Bridge Venture Partners.

CoolPlanetBiofuels declined to disclose the total capital that it had raised, but it noted that Google Ventures was a major participant in the series B round announced Thursday.

“We take biomass such as corncobs, yard clippings wood chips and fractionate that biomass into discrete gas streams,” said Mike Cheiky, CoolPlanetBiofuels’ chief executive and a longtime technology executive. “Those individual gas streams aren’t really useful by themselves, so we run them through catalytic conversion columns that convert them to useful fuels.”

One limitation of using biomass as a feedstock for biofuels has been the expense of trucking low-value waste long distances to a refinery. So CoolPlanetBiofuels plans to take the refineries to the fuel source by packaging its machines in tractor-trailers.

“Biomass cannot be transported very far because in raw form it has a very low energy content,” Mr. Cheiky said.

He said a typical refinery would consist of a cluster of tractor-trailers that can process 10 million gallons of fuel a year.

“There’s a very large market opportunity here with a lot of headroom for innovation,” said Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing director. “These are early days and this space won’t end up with a single winner but any progress Mike and CoolPlanet can make will have a profoundly positive impact on consumers, the industry and the world.”

So far CoolPlanetBiofuels has built a small pilot plant that is producing biofuel for evaluation by oil companies, Mr. Cheiky said. He declined to identify the companies, citing a confidentiality agreement. The company expects to have its first one-million gallon mobile refinery operating within a year.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: San Luis Obispo County

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a United States Department of Energy official affiming that loan guarantees for nuclear power projects would continue in the wake of the Japanese reactor disaster. He also said loans for a “significant” number of large renewable energy projects would be issued in the coming months:

With many riveted on Japan’s reactor crisis, the head of the  Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program has affirmed that it will continue to finance nuclear projects in the United States.

“Assuming there is a desire in the Capitol to move forward, nuclear remains an important part of the energy mix,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan programs office, said on Wednesday in a presentation at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.

“I point out here that the technology at use in the project we financed is quite different from the ones that have been affected by Japan,” he added. “Nonetheless, we obviously take this quite seriously.”

Mr. Silver’s remarks followed Congressional testimony in Washington by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Chu said that the Obama administration continued to support nuclear energy, noting the president had requested that $36 billion be appropriated for the nuclear loan guarantee program.

During his presentation, Mr. Silver, however, focused on renewable energy.

“In 2010, the loan program was the largest financier of renewable energy program in the world with the exception of China,” said Mr. Silver, a former venture capitalist. “We invested more money into clean energy than the 10 largest project finance groups in the world, public or private sector combined, except China.”

As financing for multibillion-dollar renewable energy projects dried up in the recession and bankers became leery of taking risks on new technologies, solar and wind developers have come to depend on the loan guarantee program.

“The sun shines and the wind blows in red and blue states,” Mr. Silver said. “We are agnostic on the topic of geography and we are agnostic on the topic of technology other than is it innovative and potentially transformative at scale.”

The loan guarantee program has come under fire from all sides, with some green energy advocates complaining that the Energy Department has been slow to hand out cash for projects. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned whether the department has spent its money wisely and have moved to cut funding for the $71 billion program.

An audit released last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general found that poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate some loan decisions.

Mr. Silver did not address the audit on Wednesday but noted that although the loan guarantee program began under the Bush administration in 2005, it was not funded until 2008 and had only 35 employees when he became executive director in early 2009.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: REC Solar

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

The United States solar businesses boomed, as usual, in 2010, growing 67 percent to $6 billion, according to an annual report released Thursday by an industry trade group.

That’s been the story for the past several years, but what’s notable is that solar is no longer just a California thing. The industry is expanding to the East. Back in 2004-2005, California accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the U.S. market. In 2010, that share fell to 30 percent, with 258.9 megawatts of the 878.3 megawatts of photovoltaic power installed that year, according to the report prepared by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

New Jersey is now the nation’s second solar state, with 16 percent of new photovoltaic installations in 2010. And while it is no surprise that sun-soaked states like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are also in the top 10, the list also includes states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Texas, the country’s No. 1 wind power state, made the top 10 with 22.6 megawatts of photovoltaics installed in 2010. The rest of the country collectively put 135.2 megawatts of solar on its roofs.

Back in 2007, only four states installed more than 10 megawatts of solar. Last year, 16 states did. The U.S. now is generating a total of 2.6 gigawatts from photovoltaic panels.

But the domestic market was a relative laggard as the solar boom continued overseas.

“U.S. demand growth was, however, outpaced by a global market boom driven primarily by the German and Italian markets,” the report noted. “Over 17 GW were installed globally in 2010, more than 13 percent growth over 2009. As a result, despite U.S. demand expansion, the U.S. market share of global installations fell from 6.5 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2010.”

That could change in the years ahead, though, as subsidies subside in Europe and solar companies look to the U.S. as the big growth market.

The report predicts the U.S. solar market will double in 2011, but warns that expiring federal subsidies make growth in 2012 and beyond uncertain.

At least one Chinese solar company is betting the solar boom will continue. On Thursday, JA Solar announced it will begin construction this year of a new factory that will have a capacity to manufacture 3,000 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic cells a year, thanks in part to a government loan.

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