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

Portlandia may not be the sunniest of places, but it’s exporting solar energy in the form of photovoltaic panels used to build carbon-free power plants.

On Wednesday, SolarWorld — the German photovoltaic module maker that operates a big factory in Hillsboro, Ore. — announced it would supply panels and help develop an 11.6-megawatt solar farm in the Southern California desert for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

That’s a fairly small solar power plant. But it’s notable in that SolarWorld is jumping into the solar power plant development business. It’s also notable that the LADWP, the nation’s biggest municipally owned utility — immortalized in the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown for making the water grab that enabled modern Los Angeles — is taking steps to wean itself from coal-fired power.

For SolarWorld, the LADWP deal is back to the future. Ben Santarris, SolarWorld’s public affairs manager, told me that in 1981, during the solar dark ages, the world’s first 1-megawatt photovoltaic power plant was installed in Southern California by a firm subsequently acquired by the German company.

Santarris said solar panel supply had hindered SolarWorld’s power plant ambitions. But with the expansion of its Oregon factory, the company is back in the game.

“Just recently, for instance, we finished engineering and supply for a 1 MW system for the city of Bakersfield, and we are working on other similar projects in the distributed generation range of utility-scale projects,” Santarris said in an email. “Expansion of our U.S. capacity to 500 MW, however, has allowed us to resume our former vigor in multi-megawatt projects.”

And while California utilities have cultivated a clean and green image — you won’t find coal-fired power plants in the Golden State — the dirty little secret is that out-of-state coal supplies about 20 percent of our electricity. The LADWP is particularly coal-dependent, getting about 40 percent of its power from the black stuff.

California regulators have prohibited the state’s three big investor-owned utilities from signing any more long-term contracts for coal-fired power, and the LADWP has pledged to replace coal with renewable energy.

As part of that effort, SolarWorld is supplying 46,322 photovoltaic panels for what is called the Adelanto project. The LADWP will own and operate Adelanto, now under construction, when the power plant is completed.

The deal comes after the region’s dominant utility, Southern California Edison, has signed 1,081 megawatts worth of deals for photovoltaic power plants just since January.

Increasingly, it’s a solar world and we just live in it.

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

The people want to topple the petro-energy regime.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday all but called for a Tunisian-style revolution to overturn the United States’ old energy order.

“It is breathtaking to see: people by the hundreds of thousands who want change … who want to throw off the old order and subvert the status quo. It is fascinating to me how rapidly the debate in the Middle East shifted from — could the people rise up to could the rulers hang on?” Scharzenegger said at the United States Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in National Harbor, Md., according to his prepared remarks. “And then when the demonstrations reached a critical mass, the old structures gave way. They could not stand up to the momentum of the future.”

“All of which brings me to you here today,” the governator continued. “What you in this room also are saying by the work that you do is: We want to subvert the status quo. We want change. Innovation. We want to overturn the old energy order.”

Schwarzenegger, of course, made climate change and green energy cornerstones of his administration. But in his speech Tuesday before policymakers and politicians gathered at the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) he offered a full-throated call to move beyond the tired climate change debate and get on with the job of building a renewable energy economy.

Echoing the themes of last year’s successful campaign to crush Proposition 23, a ballot measure that would have derailed California’s landmark global warming law, Schwarzenegger linked green technology to the creation of jobs, a healthier environment, and international competitiveness.

“We have about 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year from petroleum-related air pollution, and we have 6.5 million annual hospital visits by people with respiratory illnesses caused by the same thing,” Schwarzenegger said. “These deaths are far greater in number than the combined deaths from car accidents, drunk drivers, gang wars, suicides or Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“The suffering and expense of these petro-deaths needs to be recognized,” he added. “Think what it means when in the Central Valley of California one in six children use an inhaler. People need to think about that.”

Schwarzenegger also repeated warnings that other countries threaten to leave the U.S. in the coal dust.

“China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas,” he added. “We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas.”

As is his wont, the former governor recalled his bodybuilding days to compare the negative perception of the sport in its early days to views of alternative energy today.

“We needed to change bodybuilding’s whole perception, so it wouldn’t simply be equated with men in skimpy bathing suits,” said Schwarzenegger.  “We began using different names — pumping up, working out, fitness training, weight resistance training. We started talking about health benefits and how it improves your performance in sports and how it keeps you younger.

“And now weight training has become an integral part of millions of people’s lives,” he continued. “Today totally normal people talk about their abs and their pecs. Today, in the same way, we are stuck on global climate change.  Let’s face it … if we haven’t convinced the skeptics by now, we aren’t going to. So, unless the North Pole breaks off this spring and floats up onto the north shore of Long Island, let’s move past the old arguments.”

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about WeatherBill, a San Francisco startup that announced a $42 million round of financing from Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures:

Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures have led a $42 million financing round in WeatherBill, a San Francisco start-up that insures farmers against extreme weather that can cripple crop production.

Founded by Google alumni, the four-year-old company runs computer simulations to predict the likelihood of extreme weather in any given location at any given time and charges farmers accordingly.

“We provide protection to farmers of unexpected weather primarily caused by extremes of rainfall or temperature, something we’re seeing more of because of climate change,” said David Friedberg, WeatherBill’s chief executive, citing the recent floods in Australia and drought in China.

“By getting a guarantee on what one might make on an acre of farming, farmers can feel more comfortable about making investments in their operations,” Mr. Friedberg, who was a founding member of Google’s corporate development team, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

He said WeatherBill has now raised just under $60 million from investors that also include NEA, Index Ventures, Allen & Company, First Round Capital, Atomico and Code Advisors.

The investment marks a growing interest by Silicon Valley venture capital firms in the nascent sustainable agricultural market, also called Ag 2.0, which is loosely defined as environmentally beneficial farming,

“Recently we’ve been very, very interested in the impact of technology on agriculture,” said Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor and founder of Khosla Ventures. “I realize that agriculture is an unusual area for venture capital but I would submit that agricultural technology has the same potential in agriculture as biotechnology had in pharmaceuticals or chip technology had in telecommunications.”

Bill Maris, managing director of Google’s investment arm, however, made clear that his firm was not about to trade in the company Prius for a pickup truck, taking pains to describe WeatherBill as a cloud computing startup not an agriculture or insurance play.

“This is a technology company working on something that is going to have a real-world impact on a foundational global industry, which is agriculture,” Mr. Maris said. “Helping famers protect their financial futures and protect the global food supply is something I think we all can be passionate about.”

Mr. Friedberg said WeatherBill’s computer scientists and climatologists crunch weather data and feed it into computer models run on hundreds of servers and are updated several times a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: Better Place

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

First Chicago gets Rahm Emanuel, now electric cars.

Well, at least an electric car infrastructure. In a move that indicates electric cars won’t just be a phenomenon of Greater Portlandia, utility Exelon and the city will roll out 280 charging stations across Chicagoland by year’s end. Two stations will even be solar-powered.

It’s part of a smart grid demonstration project, partially funded by the federal government, to get a jump-start on the potential impact on the electric system if Chicagoans start buying battery-powered vehicles in big numbers.

Windy, snow-swept Chicago doesn’t exactly pop to the top of the list as an EV epicenter. But former Mayor Richard M. Daley made greening the second city a priority, and according to a spokesperson for Exelon — which owns Chicago utility ComEd — Illinois ranks in the top 10 when it comes to hybrid car ownership.

“ComEd is preparing now for what may be a large influx of PHEVs in the market and managing its impact on the grid,” Kerry Kelly-Guiliano, the Exelon spokesperson, said in an email, referring to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. “And they are putting in place the charging infrastructure to demonstrate that Chicago is plug-in ready.”

The locations for the charging stations have yet to be determined, but Kelly-Guiliano said they would most likely be deployed at places like shopping malls, Chicago’s two airports, and rest stops along the Illinois Tollway in the city.

Chicago follows another unlikely hot spot for electric cars, the petro capital of Houston. Late last year, utility NRG Energy announced plans to build a $10 million electric charging network in a 25-mile radius surrounding downtown Houston.

Initially, Chicago’s electric charging network will be used by a fleet of electric and hybrid cars maintained by ComEd.

Now we just want to see Mayor Emanuel behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt.

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a Google-backed startup that unveiled a new power conversion technology it claims will dramatically cut the energy consumption of motors, electronic gadgets and other devices:

A Southern California start-up backed by Google and prominent venture capital firms announced on Wednesday a technology it claimed could slash the electricity consumption of a wide range of devices like industrial motors, hybrid cars, computers and cellphones.

The result could be electric cars that drive farther without recharging, the disappearance of bricklike device chargers and solar panels that generate more electricity, according to the founders of Transphorm.

The company, based in Goleta, Calif., has developed a power conversion module that it says cuts energy waste by 90 percent. Currently, about 10 percent of the energy generated in the United States is lost as electricity because it is converted from alternating current to direct current and back, according to Umesh Mishra, Transphorm’s chief executive.

“That converts to hundreds of terawatts of energy loss,” said Mr. Mishra, a professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during Transphorm’s unveiling at the Mountain View, Calif., offices of Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment arm. “We will save hundreds of terawatt hours when Transphorm’s technology is fully implemented, the equivalent of taking the West Coast off the grid.”

The four-year-old start-up has raised $38 million in funding from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital to develop a new type of power conversion module based on gallium nitride, a compound used in LEDs. Google has yet to test Transphorm’s power module as the product hasn’t been available.

“The opportunity is to take 300 coal plants off grid effectively, said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Mr. Mishra said Transphorm had signed up customers like Yaskawa Electric Corporation, a Japanese maker of motors and industrial robots, and would introduce its first products in March.

Current conversion modules are based on silicon, a material that Mr. Mishra said was “running out of steam” in its ability to more efficiently convert power at high voltages.

He compared silicon-based power conversion modules to a dimmer switch that stayed warm even as it lowered the lights. A gallium nitride power conversion module is akin to a standard light switch that completely cuts the flow of electricity when turned off.

“Gallium nitride allows you to do that conversion without wasting energy,” said Mr. Mishra. “It can hold maximize voltage when off and minimizes loss.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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.

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

Are Californians forking over too much green for green energy?

A new report from a ratepayers advocacy group found that the price of electricity in 59 percent of renewable energy contracts signed by the state’s three big utilities exceeded the market price referent, or MPR for all you utility junkies.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty regulatory calculus, the market price referent is based on the price of electricity from a 500-megawatt natural gas-fired plant, the dominant power source in California. The MPR is a benchmark to gauge the competitiveness of solar power plants, wind farms and other renewable energy projects.

The “Green Rush” report from the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which is part of the California Public Utilities Commission, generated headlines in a state that loves to hate its monopoly power providers.

“Of the 184 renewable energy contracts presented to the CPUC for approval since 2002, only two have been rejected,” the report states. “When these renewable contracts start delivering energy, costs will impact ratepayers.”

But a closer look shows that the reality is a bit more complicated.

The ratepayers advocate looked at contracts signed by California’s three big investor-owned utilities – which supply 68 percent of the state’s electricity – since the Legislature imposed a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, in 2002. The RPS required utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

According to the report, 77 percent of the contracts signed by Pacific Gas & Electric were above the MPR as were 41 percent of those inked by Southern California Edison and 47 percent of deals with San Diego Gas & Electric.

Regulators keep the terms of those contracts in a black box so it’s impossible to know just how much more utilities are paying for renewable energy. Most contacts are for solar power.

However, not a dime gets paid until a project comes online and begins generating electricity. So, PG&E may well have agreed to exorbitant rates in a contract it signed in 2009 with a company planning to beam solar energy from space generated by an orbiting power plant (really). But unless those rockets lift off with their payloads of solar panels, the ratepayers are off the hook.

According to the report 14 percent of renewable energy contracts have failed so far and 15 percent have been delayed. Since 2002, photovoltaic module prices have plunged and as some projects are scrapped they inevitably will be replaced by cheaper technology.

In December, for instance, Southern California Edison abruptly canceled a longstanding contact with Tessera Solar for the 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant to be built in the Mojave Desert. A week later, Tessera sold the project to K Road Power, a New York firm that says it will replace most of the solar dishes, which have never been commercially deployed, with tried-and-true solar panels like those found on home rooftops. And this month, Tessera sold a second big solar dish project, the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley power plant, to AES Solar, which builds photovoltaic farms.

Solar module prices have fallen 50 percent over the past two years and it’s probably no coincidence that utilities increasingly are signing big deals for photovoltaic power plants.

When Southern California Edison this month submitted for approval contracts for 20 small photovoltaic farms that would generate 250 megawatts of electricity, all were priced under the MPR.

A word about the MPR: It’s somewhat a theoretical construct as it assumes fuel prices are fixed for the life of the power plant. Natural gas prices, of course, fluctuate wildly and currently are headed down. In a of couple years, who knows? The MPR also does not take into account the cost of carbon that may be imposed on greenhouse gas-spewing power plants in the years to come.

The ratepayers advocate, however, is justified in arguing for more transparency in the approval of these renewable energy contracts. Opening up that black box and letting in some sunshine just might spur more competition for solar contracts.