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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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photo: Todd Woody

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

The California Legislature is moving to put into law a regulation requiring the state’s utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But how did California’s three big investor-owned utilities do in meeting a previous mandate to secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from carbon-free sources by the end of 2010?

Close, but not quite. Overall, the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind farms, solar power plants, geothermal, and biomass facilities, according to a new report from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison fell just short with 19.4 percent of its power coming from renewable sources. PG&E didn’t do as well but 17.7 percent of its electricity is green. The smallest utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is the brownest of the bunch, with renewables accounting for only 11.9 percent of its power portfolio.

State regulators estimate that the three utilities will collectively hit the 20 percent target — one of the most aggressive in the United States — by the end of 2012. Of course, they have an even bigger mandate to meet eight years after that.

The good news is that the trajectory looks positive, if the growth in renewable energy generation in recent years is any guide. For instance, the percentage of green electricity in PG&E’s portfolio jumped from 14.4 in 2009 to 17.7 in 2010 while Southern California Edison increased its percentage of renewable energy by two points in 2010.

Hitting the so-called RPS — renewable portfolio standard — admittedly is a tricky business. A review of more than 200 renewable energy projects the utilities have signed shows that many have come online, some have cratered, and others are in limbo as environmentalist and developers face off over the impact of big solar power plants on desert flora and fauna.

There have also been big changes in renewable energy technology in recent years. The price of photovoltaic modules has plummeted over the past two years and utilities have been recently signing deals to buy electricity from photovoltaic farms at a pell-mell pace.

Still, expect stricter scrutiny of these deals as the 2020 deadline approaches, pressure mounts to make good on the 2010 mandate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointees to the public utilities commission weigh in.

Of the hundreds of renewable energy contacts the utilities have submitted for approval, only two have been rejected — a wave energy deal and a wind project.

Meanwhile, regulators list a project to transmit 200 megawatts of electricity to PG&E from an orbiting space-based solar farm as “on schedule.”

Beam me down, Scotty.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: SolarCity

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

California solar companies are continuing their eastward expansion, with Silicon Valley’s SolarCity on Wednesday acquiring the residential operations of one of the East Coast biggest solar installers, groSolar.

With the acquisition, SolarCity, California’s largest residential solar installer, will move into Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. SolarCity is on something of a spending spree  — in January, the company bought Clean Currents Solar, a Washington, D.C., solar installer, and expanded its operations to the nation’s capital and Maryland.

Meanwhile, Sungevity, an Oakland, Calif., solar installer, raised $15 million from investors in December to expand into six Northeastern states.

“What I see happening in this market is that in order for the solar industry to survive without subsidies, we have to get to economies of scale and build a trusted brand,” Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive, said in an interview. “I see consolidation continuing with those companies that get economies of scale offering more services.”

Citing California state figures, Rive said the number of solar installers in the Golden State had fallen from 525 in 2007 to 250 by the end of 2010, even as the residential solar market grew by 40 percent a year.

“Most of them just went out of the solar business,” says Rive. “A lot of people who got into solar were electricians, roofers, and the like. They realized it’s a very difficult business, and without scale it’s not competitive.”

The question, of course, is whether California solar companies will find the same success in the not-so-sunny Northeast as they navigate different local incentives for solar and a region that is less culturally green than their home state.

The California market, after all, is a monster: home to nearly 40 million people and a state policy to subsidize a million solar roofs. Not to mention a mandate requiring utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 — a policy that is translating into contracts for thousands of megawatts of photovoltaic power.

In some ways, the East Coast market is terra incognita, as no state matches the intensive solar data gathering of California. For instance, SolarCity thinks groSolar is the Northeast’s largest solar installer, based on its 2,500 customers, but doesn’t know for sure.

“I think the East Coast market is the perfect market,” says Rive. “There’s some logistical challenges — there’s more trees and an older housing stock. From a cultural point of view, I think they’d very much like to see the savings and have the benefit of using clean power.”

But the biggest challenge is political, as solar incentives in the Northeast have waxed and waned with over the years.

“When you go into any new state, the biggest pitfall is the volatility in policy,” says Rive.

Still, Rive and his California competitors believe their experience toughing it out in the United States’ biggest solar market gives them a leg up as they head East.

“California is an incredibly competitive market, so it teaches you to be fairly nimble and to keep your product offerings sharp,” Rive says. “As you go into other markets, that learning can be applied.”

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

Southern California Edison on Wednesday announced another big photovoltaic power plant deal, this time to buy electricity from a 250-megawatt solar farm to be built by First Solar.

Add that contract to 831 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power purchase agreements the Los Angeles utility signed with SunPower and Fotowatio in January, and you’re talking some serious solar — more than a gigawatt. At peak output, that’s the equivalent capacity of a big nuclear power plant. I wouldn’t be surprised to see SoCal Edison execs tooling around town with “I ♥ PV” bumper stickers on their Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs.

(And before you all hit the comment key, we know that a nuclear power plant generates electricity 24/7 while a solar farm only produces power when the sun shines.)

“First Solar’s industry-leading technology makes solar PV an excellent option for clean, emission-free power we can deliver to our customers,” Marc Ulrich, the utility’s vice president for renewable and alternative power, said in a statement. “When we get projects of this magnitude, we make great progress toward our renewable energy goals.”

First Solar’s Silver State South project won’t be built in California, but in neighboring Nevada, as its name implies. Like another First Solar power plant project in Nevada, the 50-megawatt Silver State North solar farm, Silver State South is planned for federal land in the Mojave Desert.

The United States Interior Department last October signed off on a lease for the Silver State North power plant, but the 250-megawatt project for Southern California Edison is still undergoing environmental review.

First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told me Tuesday that the company hopes to secure a lease for 2,500 acres of desert land near the casino border town of Primm by the end of 2011. (The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on its website said it expects to issue a decision on Silver State South in 2012.)

According to Southern California Edison, Silver State South is set to begin producing electricity in early 2014 and will be fully built out by May 2017.

There are some obstacles to overcome, however. The project depends on the construction of a major transmission line proposed by Southern California Edison.

And it would be built adjacent to an area that some environmentalists consider key habitat for the imperiled desert tortoise and other fauna and flora. Last month, a 370-megawatt solar thermal power plant under construction by BrightSource Energy a few miles away became the subject of a lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds Projects. The suit contends the Interior Department and BLM officials failed to properly consider the environmental impact of the BrightSource project on the desert tortoise and other wildlife.

Regardless of the outcome of the Silver State South power plant, First Solar has plenty of other photovoltaic farms in the pipeline. According to Bernheimer, the company has signed contracts for 2,000 megawatts’ worth of big solar projects.

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