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Archive for the ‘the green economy’ Category

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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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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Fortune associate editor Julie Schlosser reports from Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference:

PASADENA, Calif — Consumers are feeling the pressure to go green. And it’s hard to ignore. Drinking bottled water is a definite no no. Flying across the country? Buy offsets. The consumer is being bombarded with green marketing and advertising and the result might not be what you expected. All this green guilt and messaging just might be making consumers more skeptical about the growing assortment of green products.

When polled, most consumers overwhelmingly say they want to buy green, according to Joel Makower, head of Greener World Media and author of The Green Consumer. But they aren’t actually doing it. According to the research, Makower says, “If it is green, consumers assume it isn’t good.” And that means, in many cases, green products are entering the marketplace with a deficit.

That was part of the discussion at Monday afternoon’s panel, “The Green Consumer: Myth or reality?” Andrew Shapiro, founder and CEO of GreenOrder, a strategic consulting firm that works with big brands such as GE (GE), GM (GM), Starwood (HOT) and Office Depot (ODP), moderated the panel that included Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirschberg, Elizabeth Lowery of GM, and Makower.

Hirschberg, the CE-Yo (yes, you read that correctly) of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt company, has a fun story to tell. He took organic yogurt into the mainstream long before organics were cool, and he has built a $300 million-per-year business along the way. He has also managed to incorporate green principles throughout the product’s life cycle. “But we don’t even use the word green when we describe what we do,” he pointed out.

Still, he argues, there is obviously a green consumer. “But we think they are more focused on quality.” And the quality does something that millions of dollars in advertising can’t. It creates loyalty, says Hirschberg. “And if loyalty comes from an emotional place, authenticity is the key to creating it.”

What consumers are showing us is that if your company has a high “talk-to-do ratio” when it comes to going or being green, you’ll lose the consumer’s trust immediately. By adopting a sense of humility and focusing on communicating honestly with your consumers, Hirschberg argues, companies can build loyalty.

So how does a company build such a relationship with their customer? By offering them a premium product and one that isn’t just greener, but tastes better, lasts longer, or is more aesthetically pleasing. And as the economy continues to slow, the best way to get a consumer to go green is to give them the goods for less.

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Xantrex_solarwind_imageThe green tech boom is proving a boon for those renewable energy companies that slogged their way through the dirt-cheap oil years of the 1990s, back when wind turbines were about as popular as the Yugo. Take Xantrex, a Canadian company that makes power inverters used in solar energy systems and wind farms. The non-descript boxes (photo below) play a key role in making renewable energy usable, transforming the direct current produced by solar panels and wind turbines into alternating current that can be used in homes and by the power grid. In August, Xantrex began supplying inverters to Silicon Valley Xantrex_solar_inverter
solar cell maker SunPower (SPWR). The Burnaby, British Columbia-based company’s inverter sales shot up 91 percent in the third quarter of 2006 compared to the previous year. The company, which has annual revenue of about $C145 million ($US 122 million), has installed inverters in solar power systems generating a total of 100 megawatts of energy. "Its really gone from a small, fragmented – almost a hobby business – to a business with large and demanding customers, " says Xantrex marketing executive Doug May, a tech industry veteran. "It reminds me of the PC market 20 years ago. There’s a lot of good players, a lot of good technology. I think the business model hasnt shaken out yet."

With utilities like PG&E (PCG), San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX) signing 500-megawatt solar energy deals, and wind farms sprouting across California, Texas and the Great Plains, the prospects for the inverter business look sunny. For instance, HelioVolt, an Austin, Texas-based thin-film solar startup, last week announced a deal with inverter company Exeltech to jointly develop integrated solar power systems. The question is, will someone start rolling up inverter companies, much like solar cell makers have been acquiring solar system installers.

While Xantrex owes its current revenue growth largely to inverter sales, the 500-employee company also makes non-renewable energy inverters, battery storage systems and portable power devices. As concerns about global warming grow, Xantrex is expanding into the consumer market, selling a battery called the PowerHub (at left) Xantrex_powerhub_1800_1
that can store energy produced from home solar and wind power systems. Up next is a solar-powered battery that can charge mobile phones, laptops, iPods and other gadgets. "Weve started to develop a whole set of products called personable renewable energy," May told Green Wombat. "We see the market moving down to the individual consumer."

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