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photo: eSolar

In my new Green State column on Grist, I take a look at the implications of California startup eSolar’s 2,000 megawatt solar thermal deal with China:

Forget Red China. It’s Green China these days—at least when it comes to making big renewable deals.

Friday night, a Chinese developer and eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., signed an agreement to build solar thermal power plants in the Mongolian desert over the next decade. These plants would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity. It’s the largest solar thermal project in the world and follows another two-gigawatt deal China struck in October with Arizona’s First Solar for a massive photovoltaic power complex. Altogether, the eSolar and First Solar projects would produce, at peak output, the amount of electricity generated by about four large nuclear power plants, lighting up millions of Chinese homes.

Is China the new California, the engine powering the green tech revolution?

Yes and no. When it comes to technological and entrepreneurial innovation, Beijing lags Silicon Valley (and Austin, Boston, and Los Angeles)—for now. But as a market, China is likely to drive demand for renewable energy, giving companies like eSolar the opportunity to scale up their technology and drive down costs.

[We’ll pause here to state the obvious: China’s investment in renewable energy and other green technologies is miniscule compared to the resources devoted to its continued building of coal-fired power plants and efforts to secure dirty oil shale supplies in Canada and elsewhere.]

“All the learning from this partnership will help us in the United States,” Bill Gross, eSolar’s founder and chairman, told me. “I think as soon as the economy improves in the rest of the world and banks start lending, there will be a lot of competition in the U.S. and Europe. But, until then, China has the money and the demand.”

In a one-party state, a government official saying, “Make it so,” can remove obstacles to any given project and allocate resources for its development. Construction of the first eSolar project, a 92-megawatt power plant, in a 66-square-mile energy park in northern China, is set to begin this year

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” says Gross, who is licensing eSolar’s technology to a Chinese firm, Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants. Another Chinese company will open and operate the projects

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: eSolar

In The New York Times on Monday, I follow up on my story in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times on China’s move into solar thermal power with a 2,000 megawatt deal with eSolar of California:

China’s plans to build 2,000 megawatts of solar thermal power using technology from a California company, eSolar, will also include the construction of biomass power plants to generate electricity when the sun sets.

The solar and biomass plants will share turbines and other infrastructure, reducing the projects’ cost and allowing around-the-clock electricity production, according to Bill Gross, eSolar’s chairman.

“That supercharges the economics of solar,” said Mr. Gross in a telephone interview, noting that the addition of biomass generation will allow power plants to operate at 90 percent of capacity.

Under terms of the deal announced Saturday in Beijing, eSolar will license its “power tower” technology to Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants over the next decade.

Another Chinese company, China Shaanxi Yulin Huayang New Energy Co., will own and operate the first projects to be built in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in northern China.

A local shrub grown in the surrounding region to fight desertification, called the sand willow, will supply fuel for the biomass power plants, according to Penglai Electric.

“It’s an economical use of a resource that’s already in place,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. “That’s a very savvy move, rather than attach an energy storage system to the solar project.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about a ground-breaking solar thermal deal struck by eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., to build two gigawatts of power plants in China over the next decade:

ESolar Inc. of Pasadena signed an agreement Friday to build a series of solar thermal power plants in China with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts, in one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind.

Coming four months after an Arizona company, First Solar, secured a contract to build an equally large photovoltaic power plant in China, the ESolar deal signals China’s emergence as a major market for renewable energy.

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” said Bill Gross, ESolar’s chairman and the founder of Idealab.

Under the agreement, ESolar will provide China Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. the technology and expertise to build solar “power tower” plants over the next decade. Those solar farms would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity; at peak output that would be equivalent to a large nuclear power plant. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The initial project, which includes a 92-megawatt solar power plant to be built this year, will be located in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in the Mongolian desert in northern China. The region has become a hot spot for renewable energy, with the 2,000-megawatt First Solar project planned 60 miles to the north.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Next month the United States Department of Energy will release a study finding that China contains huge underground repositories that could be used to store 100 years of carbon emissions. As I write in The New York Times on Thursday:

China has vast underground repositories that could store more than a century’s worth of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities, according to a report to be released by the United States Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The study, conducted with scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that the geologic formations are in close to a large percentage of the country’s power plants.

That could permit “the continued use of cheap, domestic coal within China while supporting CO2 emissions reductions via the capture and geologic storage of the associated CO2,” according to an eight-page summary of the study.

The full report will be released in November.

“A lot of the policy dialogue and technical discussions have this really sharp dichotomy — either you use coal and bad things happen to the environment, or you forgo coal and bad things happen to the economy,” James Dooley, a scientist at the laboratory and an author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re trying to say maybe there’s a third way here.”

Such technology, which remains untried on a commercial scale, comes with high costs, because capturing and storing carbon emissions consumes significant amounts of energy and water. The potential environmental impact of putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground also remains unknown.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: Todd Woody

In my Green State column for Grist on Thursday, I write about Wheego, an Atlanta startup that will soon begin selling an electric microcar called the Whip.

I took the Whip for a spin around San Francisco with Wheego chief executive Mike McQuary riding shotgun but what really grabbed my attention was the fact that the chassis and body are made in China. While U.S. automakers take halting steps toward weaning themselves from the internal combustion engine, the Chinese are positioning themselves to make the great leap forward into the electric age. As I write on Grist:

A traffic jam is developing on the electric highway.

A decade after General Motors killed the electric car, big automakers and startups are revving up to put battery-powered vehicles on the road over the next couple of years. One of the latest entrants is Wheego, an Atlanta company that is about to launch the Whip—a tiny low-speed “neighborhood electric vehicle” that will be upgraded in 2010 to a full-speed, highway-ready car.

Wheego chief executive Mike McQuary brought a Whip to San Francisco last week, and I took the car for a spin around the city. (More on that in a bit.)

You see quite a few neighborhood electrics across the Bay in Berkeley where I live. Their top speed is around 25 miles per hour and many look like glorified golf carts or cast-offs from an East Bloc auto factory, circa 1984. And at the risk of stereotyping, most seem to be driven by the proverbial little old leftist lady in tennis shoes who glides down the hill for the weekly nuclear disarmament rally outside the Cal campus (circa 1984).

The Wheego Whip, on the other hand, looks like a “real” car (PDF brochure). Somewhat similar in appearance to the Smart fortwo or Think City EV, it’s a two-seater microcar sporting all the mod cons—power windows, Bluetooth stereo, iPod/iPhone jack, air conditioning.

Like Coda Automotive’s forthcoming electric sedan, the Whip’s body and chassis are Chinese made—another sign that China is emerging as a player in the nascent electric car industry—while the battery comes from Canada and the motor from Wisconsin (U-S-A! U-S-A!). The Whip will be assembled in California in the Los Angeles exurb of Ontario. Other electric startups are following a similar business plan, making the old Detroit automotive model increasingly look as viable as a Hummer.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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first solar

Photo: First Solar

First Solar became the first U.S. solar company to break into the Chinese market on Tuesday and it did do in a big way when it signed an agreement to build a two-gigawatt thin-film solar power plant in Inner Mongolia. As I write in The New York Times:

Chinese government officials signed an agreement on Tuesday with First Solar, an American solar developer, for a 2,000-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built in the Mongolian desert.

Set for completion in 2019, the First Solar project represents the world’s biggest photovoltaic power plant project to date, and is part of an 11,950-megawatt renewable-energy park planned for Ordos City in Inner Mongolia.

The memorandum of understanding between Chinese officials and First Solar, the world’s largest photovoltaic cell manufacturer, would open a potentially vast solar market in China and follows the Chinese government’s recent moves to accelerate development of renewable energy.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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CODA Front_hires

photo: Coda Automotive

A new electric car company, Coda Automotive, emerged from stealth mode this week and unveiled a $45,000 sedan that it says will hit the streets in 2010.

The Santa Monica, Calif., startup is an offshoot of Miles Electric Vehicles, a maker of low-speed neighborhood runabouts. The CEO is Kevin Czinger, a veteran of Goldman Sachs (GS), Fortress Investment Group and dot-com era online grocer WebVan. Goldman Sachs’ Mac Heller serves as co-chairman and the board includes John Bryson, past chairman and chief executive of Edison International (EIX). Coda has raised $40 million from the Angeleno Group and other investors.

Green Wombat took a spin in the car, called the Coda, earlier this week in Southern California. As I wrote in my Green State column on Grist:

Open one of those minimalist black boxes that contain a shiny new iPod and you’re greeted by five words—“Designed by Apple in California.” In much smaller print would be the phrase “Made in China.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the strategy of the latest entrant in the electric car sweepstakes: Santa Monica-based Coda Automotive. At a defunct Wilshire Boulevard Jaguar dealership on Wednesday, the startup emerged from stealth mode and CEO Kevin Czinger literally pulled the cover off the Coda, a $45,000 battery-powered sedan set to go on sale next year in California. Coda is an offshoot of Miles Electric Vehicles, a maker of low-speed “neighborhood electric” runabouts.

The Coda sedan, which resembles a previous-generation Honda Civic, is a highway-ready, 80 mph five-seater that will travel 90 to 120 miles on a charge, according to the company.

And it is likely to be the first Chinese-made car to hit American roads. The car’s 333-volt lithium ion battery pack comes from the Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint-Stock Co., a huge state-owned corporation that supplies batteries to Apple and other consumer electronics companies.  Coda has established a joint venture with Tianjin Lishen to design and sell batteries for transportation and utility storage. The sedan’s design, brand and intellectual property will be owned by Coda, but it will be manufactured and assembled in China by Hafei, a state-owned automobile and aircraft manufacturer.

Read the rest of the column here.

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