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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 30, 2010.

A subsidiary of NRG Energy on Tuesday said it will invest up to $450 million in a 250-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to be built by Silicon Valley’s SunPower on the central California coast.

The New Jersey-based power provider, which operates a fleet of fossil fuel and nuclear plants, has emerged as significant investor in solar projects.

In October, NRG agreed to invest $300 million in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar thermal power plant now under construction in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The company has also struck a partnership with eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif., startup, to build solar power plants in the desert Southwest. And NRG owns a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Blythe, Calif., and has other solar projects under development in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In the deal with SunPower, NRG Solar will take ownership of the California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County and responsibility for financing the project. SunPower said on Tuesday that it is seeking a federal loan guarantee to build the solar farm and has received a draft term sheet from the United States Department of Energy.

SunPower, a solar power plant developer and one of the U.S.’ largest manufacturers of photovoltaic modules, will build and operate the San Luis Obispo project. The company, based in San Jose, Calif., has a 25-year contract to sell the electricity generated by California Valley Solar Ranch to utility PG&E. Construction is set to begin next year and when the project is completed in 2013 it will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes, according to the company.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 24, 2010.

Electricity generation in the United States fell 4.1 percent in 2009, the biggest drop in 60 years, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The survey offers a snapshot of the impact the recession had on energy markets and shifts in the power supply as coal costs rose and natural gas prices plummeted. Industrial demand for electricity, for instance, dropped by 9.1 percent in 2009 to the lowest level in 22 years.

Expectations that Congress would pass legislation to impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions may have also encouraged a move away from carbon-intensive electricity production, the report stated.

Electricity produced from coal-fired power plants fell by 11.6 percent in 2009 from the previous year while generation from natural gas increased by 4.3 percent, according to the report.

“In 2009, annual average natural gas wellhead prices reached their lowest level in seven years,” the report said. “Increased supply due to the availability of shale gas, coupled with mild winter temperatures and higher production, and storage levels, and significant expansions of pipelines capacity also worked to put downward pressure on natural gas prices.”

As Southeastern states switched to natural gas, coal’s share of the nation’s electricity production fell to its lowest level since 1978.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared on Novembrt 24, 2010.

As it becomes ever more clear that Congress has retreated from climate change legislation faster than a Greenland glacier, cities and states are starting to focus on adapting to the inevitable.

A report released this week by the California Adaptation Advisory Panel laid out the myriad threats climate change poses to the Golden State — as well as strategies to anticipate and prepare for rising sea levels, along with more wildfires, heat waves, and water shortages.

“Failure to anticipate and plan for climate variability and the prospect of extreme weather and related events in land development patterns and in natural resource management could have serious impacts far beyond what has already been experienced,” the report states.

In short, California needs to deploy monitoring technology along its 1,100-mile coastline and overhaul its approach to land use decision-making.

Eight cities and counties across the United States, meanwhile, have joined what is being called the nation’s first climate adaptation effort. The participants are Boston, Cambridge, Mass.,  Flagstaff, Ariz., Tucson, Ariz., Grand Rapids, Mich., Lee County, Fla., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Created by the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a Washington nonprofit, the Climate Resilient Communities program gives the cities and counties planning and database tools to prepare for rising temperatures and sea levels.

“Local governments have a responsibility to protect people, property, and natural resources, and these leading communities wisely recognize that climate change is happening now, and that they must begin planning for impacts that will only become more severe in the coming decades,” Martin Chávez, ICLEI USA’s executive director and a former mayor of Albuquerque, said in a statement.

The idea is to create a standardized municipal planning process to prepare for climate change.

Cities can use the organization’s Adaptation Database and Planning Tool, or ADAPT, to conduct a survey of their vulnerability to climate change and develop and implement a climate preparedness plan.

Just as responsibility for combating global warming has fallen to cities and states in the wake of Congress’ failure to act, so has the duty to get ready for an uncertain future.


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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 23, 2010.

A coalition of environmentalists, national security advocates and budget hawks on Tuesday called for an “oil security fee” and deployment of new transportation technology  to lessen dependence on imported oil and to promote “mobility choice.”

“Oil’s virtual monopoly over transportation fuel coupled with limited economical and convenient alternatives for moving people and goods have made oil a strategic commodity and the lifeblood of the domestic and global economies,” stated a report released by the coalition, called Mobility Choice. “Choice involves both having a range of fuels to power the passenger fleet and having alternative options to driving to accomplish our daily rounds.”

The group called for an “oil security fee” on gasoline and diesel to reflect the true cost of securing oil supplies as well as policies to promote more efficient mass transportation, telecommuting and mixed use residential development.

“We’re not paying the security price of oil at the pump,” Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington, D.C. non-profit, said during a press conference Tuesday.  “It’s important to internalize that cost with an oil security fee either at the pump or upstream.”

While the odds of Congress passing legislation to impose such a fee may be slim, the group’s advocacy of technological solutions to slash fuel use and promote mass transit may receive a more favorable hearing.

“Information technology has changed the worlds of commerce and leisure, allowing us to contact colleagues and loved ones around the globe nearly instantly,” the report stated. “Yet much of America’s transportation infrastructure is still basically stuck in the 1950s.”

The nation’s 300,000 traffic signals are a case in point.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on community solar power plants:

In an article in the special Energy section of The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about a developer who wants to sell “garden plots” in a 15-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Davis, Calif., so that residents can go solar without having to cut down trees in the city’s urban forest to install rooftop arrays.

While solar power plants seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, the Davis project dates from 1987, when the utility Pacific Gas and Electric built P.V.U.S.A. — Photovoltaics for Utility Scale Applications –- to test various nascent technologies.

Matt Cheney, a veteran renewable financier in San Francisco and founder of CleanPath Ventures, eventually acquired P.V.U.S.A. and received the city’s blessing to expand the power plant from around one megawatt to 15 megawatts.

Last week, I took a took a tour of the solar farm, a veritable outdoor Smithsonian of solar power displaying a dozen photovoltaic technologies. Some have become common sights on rooftops and at power plants while others barely left the laboratory before failing and bear the name of start-ups long gone.

Built on an abandoned wastewater treatment plant and surrounded by farmland on Davis’s outskirts, P.V.U.S.A. features two-story-high thin-film solar panel arrays that were on the technological cutting edge in their day but only became commercially viable in recent years.

Strips of early solar tiles designed to serve as power-generating roofing material are laid out on a wooden platform.

And behind rows of more conventional solar panels lies a field of what looks like photovoltaic sunflowers. Pods of 25 small mirrors designed to concentrate the sun on a high-efficiency photovoltaic cell suspended on a stamenlike strut.

“They installed them back in 2004 and 2005, and two months into the installation, it stopped working and the company didn’t want to deal with them anymore,” said Dang H. Dang, P.V.U.S.A.’s on-site manager, as jackrabbits darted among the arrays.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times special Energy report, I write about how community solar power plants offer residents a chance to own photovoltaic arrays without putting panels on their roofs — or cutting down trees:

DAVIS, Calif. — In this environmentally conscious college town, thousands of bicyclists commute each day through a carefully cultivated urban forest whose canopy shields riders and their homes from the harsh sun of this state’s Central Valley.

The intensity of that sunshine also makes Davis an attractive place to generate clean green energy from rooftop solar panels. And therein lies a conundrum. Tapping the power of the sun can also mean cutting down some of those trees.

“Davis has spent many, many decades getting trees planted and improving energy efficiency by virtue of shade trees that cool houses,” said Mitch Sears, the city’s sustainability program manager. “But if you want solar energy, it’s not rocket science that you need the sun.”

Now a San Francisco company, CleanPath Ventures, is promoting a solution to allow homeowners to keep their trees and go solar at the same time. CleanPath plans to expand its existing solar farm on the city’s outskirts and then sell “garden plots” to homeowners who would own the electricity generated by their patch of photovoltaic panels. Apartment dwellers and other residents whose homes are not suitable for rooftop solar arrays would also be able to own a piece of the power plant.

“If you moved down the block, you’d take the electricity production with you just like if you make an investment in a community garden, wherever you live you’ll benefit from what’s grown in the garden,” said Matt Cheney, a longtime financier of renewable energy and the founder of CleanPath Ventures.

Community solar power plants are seen as a way to expand the availability of renewable energy while taking advantage of the economies of scale that result from installing thousands of solar panels in a central location rather than scattered on thousands of individual homes.

“To get the energy benefits of solar there’s no reason to drill holes in a roof,” said Jim Burke, manager of the SolarShares program for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which serves the region surrounding the state capital.

The utility, known as SMUD, started SolarShares, one of the nation’s first community solar-power-plant programs, in July 2008 when it offered customers the opportunity to buy electricity from a 1.2-megawatt photovoltaic power plant built on a turkey farm southeast of Sacramento.

“People love solar, but we required you to own a roof” and that it face a certain way, said Mr. Burke. “Multifamily buildings were usually excluded and renters were excluded.”

Then there was the tree issue.

“SMUD has planted hundreds of thousands of trees to shade rooftops and then with solar we’re saying cut them down,” he noted.

The SolarShares program gives customers the option of buying power from a half-kilowatt or a one-kilowatt portion of the solar farm. For instance, for a household that uses 2,158 kilowatt-hours a year, a one-kilowatt solar system would cover about 81 percent of their electricity consumption and cost $21.50 a month. However, the household would receive a monthly credit for the solar electricity produced that would average $13.96.

The pilot SolarShares program sold out within six months and there’s now a waiting list, according to Mr. Burke.

He said SMUD was planning a one-megawatt community solar-power plant that would be built next year and was exploring the placement of up to four megawatts of solar farms on highway rights-of-way owned by the state transportation agency.

Like a community solar farm in St. George, Utah, and a proposed solar garden in Falmouth, Mass., the CleanPath project in Davis would offer residents the chance to buy a physical part of a solar farm.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Four months ago, General Electric fired up the imaginations of would-be entrepreneurs tooling away in garages everywhere when it offered up $200 million as part of an “Ecomagination Challenge” to crowdsource smart grid and renewable energy ideas.

On Tuesday, the global conglomerate announced the first set of winners, a dozen startups that collectively will secure $55 million in investment from GE and two venture firms collaborating with the company, Foundation Capital and RockPort Capital Partners.

The winners hail from everywhere from Silicon Valley to Sweden. Most are developing technology for the smart grid.

Others are focused on smart buildings. ClimateWell of Stockholm is making heating and cooling systems designed to operate not on electricity, but on solar-heated hot water. Soladigm of Milpitas, Calif., meanwhile, manufactures windows that incorporate electronics that allow them to darken — keeping buildings cool during sunny summer months. In winter, they lighten to trap the sun’s heat.

The payoff for these companies goes far beyond the cash. Given GE’s involvement in just about every aspect of the electricity distribution system as well as its smart home efforts, the global behemoth is a huge market for their services.

“We are working with these new partners to accelerate the development and deployment of these concepts on a scale that will help drive a cleaner, more efficient, and economically viable grid,” Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The partnerships formed through this Challenge represent a new way of doing business at GE as we continue to expand our broad digital energy offering in the growing power grid market.”

GE also named five Innovation Challenge award winners that will each score $100,000. Among the most intriguing startups is Capstone Metering, a Texas company developing a smart water meter, and WinFlex of Israel, which is developing an inflatable wind turbine.

GE and its venture capital partners received nearly 4,000 entries in the contest.

“This is perhaps the largest participation in an open innovation challenge a company has ever generated,” GE executive Beth Comstock said on a conference call Tuesday.

Another executive noted that the company received many ideas from individuals, which will prove valuable to GE.

“It gives us insight into how consumers are thinking about energy and energy efficiency,” he noted.

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