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Updated: 1 year 43 weeks ago

WindBeat: Good News for an Industry on the Verge?

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 14:00

The news has been remarkably good for an industry on the verge of collapse. 

In Oregon, Caithness Energy’s 845-megawatt Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, the second-biggest land-based wind project ever built, went on-line.

The five biggest U.S. projects are: (1) Alta Wind Project in California (Terra Gen, 981 megawatts), (2) Shepherds Flat in Oregon (Caithness Energy, 845 megawatts), (3) Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas (E.ON Climate & Renewables (FRA:EOAN), 781.5 megawatts), (4) Horse Hollow in Texas (NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE), 735.5 megawatts), and (5) Capricorn Ridge in Texas (NextEra Energy, 662.5 megawatts).

In the U.K., the breathtakingly ambitious 7,200-megawatt Iberdrola (MCE:IBE)-Vattenfall East Anglia offshore wind project went into development.

In Northern California, EDF Renewable Energy (EPA:EDF) completed the replacement of 235 Kenetech 100-kW turbines originally installed in 1989 with 50 REpower (ETR:RPW) 2.05-megawatt turbines at its Shiloh Four wind project. This repowering turned a 23.5-megawatt project into a 102.5-megawatt project with quieter, higher-capacity-factor, more wildlife-friendly machines that spread across the landscape in a more aesthetically acceptable way.

The wind industry has not convinced Congress to extend its vital 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour production tax credit (PTC). The incentive expires December 31, after driving impressive growth over the last three years despite the recession.

Most industry leaders expect Congress to act after the November election -- but not before. Manufacturing wind turbines and planning wind projects, however, require twelve- to eighteen-month lead times. 2013 is lost. Siemens (NYSE:SI), Vestas (PINK:VWDRY), Clipper (LON:CWP) and other manufacturers have begun plant closures and layoffs. Blade and tower manufacturers and others in the supply chain have laid people off, closed down and sold out.

A Navigant Consulting study found that a four-year extension of the PTC would generate 95,000 wind-supported jobs and $16.3 billion in investment by 2016. Ending it could cost over 37,000 domestic jobs and $10 billion in investment next year.

Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin just joined Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Kansas Republican Governor Sam Brownback in calling for the PTC’s extension.

A coalition of nineteen companies, including major consumer brands (Ben & Jerry’s, Levi Strauss, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO)) and  Fortune 500 firms (Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Sprint (NYSE:S), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT)) signed on to a letter calling for Congress to act.

Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy, comprised of 240 local Chambers of Commerce from 47 states, also wrote a letter.

Google just announced the purchase of more wind power to supply its Oklahoma data centers, bringing its wind project investments to over 1,200 megawatts. And MidAmerican Wind, a Warren Buffet-owned MidAmerican Energy Holdings (NYSE:BRK.A) subsidiary, just bought two more wind projects in California, bringing Mid-American’s built and/or owned wind engagement to over 3,300 megawatts.

A new report from Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. found wind uses about 77 gallons of water per megawatt-hour, thereby substantiating the wind industry claim that the cumulative 47 gigawatts of wind installed in the U.S. by the end of 2011 will conserve over 27 billion gallons of water every year that would otherwise be used by conventional power plants.

Nuclear plant closed-loop cooling systems, 62 percent of the U.S. nuclear fleet, use 700 gallons to 1,100 gallons of water per megawatt-hour, most of which is lost to evaporation. Open-loop cooled nuclear plants require 25,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons per megawatt-hour, most returned at higher temperature and lower quality.

Closed-loop coal plants, the study reported, use and lose to evaporation 500 gallons to 600 gallons per megawatt-hour. Open-loop coal uses, and returns at higher temperature and lower quality, 20,000 gallons to 50,000 gallons per megawatt-hour.

PV solar plants, the study reported, only require water for panel washing, 520 gallons per megawatt-hour for crystalline-Si and 225 gallons per megawatt-hour for CdTe thin film. Towers with wet cooling use 800 gallons per megawatt-hour and towers with dry cooling use 80 gallons per megawatt-hour. Trough plants with wet cooling use 1,240 gallons per megawatt-hour and troughs with dry cooling use 290 gallons per megawatt-hour.

Finally, the newly constituted Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition has taken up the purpose of getting wind built on and off the Virginia, Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida Atlantic shores.

The coalition’s formation in the so far unexploited region heralds just emerging manufacturing and installation technologies that will allow the making and erecting of turbines at more economic prices. It also heralds the expanded use of new turbine technologies from GE (NYSE:GE) and Siemens that can turn slower and more common wind speeds into affordable electricity.

A strong concern is whether Congress will give a new PTC when it finally gets to the job. Barring the November election producing a political change, the four-year extension is a pipe dream.

A three-year extension, like that granted in 2009, would give the industry time to recover from next year’s inevitable collapse. 

The more traditional one- or two-year extension could be just long enough to leave the industry, at the end of 2014, stuck in political limbo with elections looming again.

Nest Lays Defense Against Honeywell Smart Thermostat Lawsuit

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:59

Amidst the launch of its second-generation smart thermostat, Nest Labs, the startup founded by Apple alums, has been defending itself against the February patent infringement lawsuit filed by arch-rival Honeywell.

Richard Lutton, Nest’s general counsel, told the San Jose Business Journal on Tuesday that the U.S. Patent Trade Office has rejected six of the seven patents at the heart of Honeywell’s lawsuit. Those include claims that Nest infringed on Honeywell’s IP with the round shape of the Nest thermostat, as well as some of the internal workings of the technology.

It’s all part of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup’s strategy of challenging Honeywell’s legal claims prior to trial. Nest fired back against Honeywell’s lawsuit in April, saying that the thermostat kingpin’s claims were meritless and that it would defend itself vigorously against them.

Hiring Lutton was part of that strategy. Prior to joining Nest in April, he managed the patent portfolio of Apple, which just won a $1.05 billion jury award against Samsung over patent infringement claims regarding the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab smartphone.

Of course, Samsung has countered with infringement claims against Apple over its iPhone 5 design, as well as getting a judge to overturn an injunction on the sale of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. It’s hard to predict how these court battles are going to turn out.

Honeywell did not immediately respond to requests from reporters for comment on Lutton’s statement Tuesday. Keep an eye out for official announcements from the USPTO for more developments on this matter.

In the meantime, Nest has been selling its thermostat online, where it’s garnered a “top ten in Amazon home improvement" ranking and a "bestseller" at Lowe's online store. Nest is also selling via the Apple Store, and has started giving away free thermostats under a program being run by Texas utility Reliant Energy.

The New York Times quoted a spokesperson for the 136-employee Nest who said the startup has sold “in the mid-hundreds of thousands” of units to date, though Nest spokespeople would not provide details on unit sales in a briefing last week. The company also declined to comment on the startup's Series C funding round. While Nest has declined to say how much money it has raised to date, reports place the likely amount at between $50 million and $80 million

In the meantime, it’s far from alone in trying to turn the much-ignored smart thermostat into a device that people will want to interact with.  Honeywell, which has some sort of thermostat or energy control in about 150 million homes around the world, also has a line of programmable controllable thermostats, including its latest UtilityPRO thermostats, capable of two-way ZigBee communication, with some 400,000 units deployed as of early this year.

On the utility front, smart thermostats are an integral part of home energy management projects around the world. Canadian startup Energate’s smart thermostats are connecting to utility variable pricing and energy saving programs in Oklahoma and Ontario. Brooklyn-based startup EnergyHub is providing its Mercury software platform for Radio Thermostat of America (sold as 3M) thermostats, which sell for just $99. Arlington, Va.-based startup Opower is working with Honeywell on a next-generation thermostat that combines Opower’s data analytics and behavioral science smarts with Honeywell’s market heft.

That’s only a short list, by the way. Startups like Ecobee, iThermostat, Alarm.com, and many more are also trying to combine smart thermostats with home security and automation systems, utility incentive programs and other paths to market. Whether patent infringement lawsuits will start to impact the broader smart thermostat rollouts going on around the country remains to be seen.

Anatomy of a Utility-Scale PPA for Solar or Wind

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:00

Utility-scale renewables’ power purchase agreements (PPAs), the LA Times recently wrote, are “confidential agreements between solar developers and utilities” that “lock in power prices two to four times the cost of conventional electricity” which ultimately “line the pockets of banks, insurers and utility companies.”

What such reports miss, said Milbank, Tweed Partner Karen Wong, is how competitive the PPA bidding process has become. Utilities’ requests for proposals and request for offers (RFPs/RFOs), Wong said, “are typically closer to 'take it or leave it' offers.”

In today’s California market, the utility has the leverage, Wong said. “There is a huge market of parties who want to sell power and a virtually monopolistic set of buyers who can name the terms and pick the price.”

Utilities say “this is the power purchase agreement you will be bound by. Name me a price on these terms. If you want to change any of my terms, please red line what you want to change.” 

But a bidder doesn’t “want to come across as being difficult,” Wong said. A redlined bid “may not be considered as favorably as one signed on the dotted line without any changes.” Some bidders, she explained, accept the utilities’ standard, just to get a PPA, “without knowing what’s financeable.” This makes it, she added, “difficult for someone who is a real player.”

Wong described six key PPA items: (1) price, (2) certainty of revenues, (3) curtailment, (4) conditions precedent and timing, (5) cure and lender step-in rights, and (6) interconnection.

First, Wong said, a developer “has to get a price that will cover its cost and earn a reasonable return on investment.”

A developer must be certain of payment. “You don’t want to have events of default or triggers that could essentially take the PPA away from you.” Developers must have “adequate cure periods, objectively written, so you don’t find yourself thinking you have a twenty-year PPA, only to find out two days after you sign that the utility can terminate the agreement for default you didn’t even know you triggered.”

PPAs typically allow a project to be curtailed (that is, disconnected from transmission) for reliability or safety reasons. The negotiated term, she said, is about “economic curtailment and what the compensation is.” Aside from some wind developers’ problems with curtailment issues in Texas, she noted, unfair and inadequately compensated curtailment in California does not yet seem to have become widespread.

Because permitting, interconnection, and financing are complex and unpredictable, Wong said, the conditions precedent to, and the timing for, the effectiveness and commencement of the PPA term should be specified in the contract to ensure adequate time to finance and build.

Permitting and interconnection timing are beyond a developer’s complete control, Wong observed. “Usually bankers are willing to commit to provide financing only when they know the PPA is effective. And when they commit to lend, they want to know the developer will not lose the PPA.” Lenders, Wong said, will negotiate covenants in the financing documents to ensure that.  

Because of standardized forms in Europe,  MEMC (NYSE: WFR) CEO Ahmad Chatila recently said, a PPA there can be as short as two pages. Because it is negotiable in the U.S., a PPA here can require two trees' worth of paper.

“When you add in all the technical exhibits,” Wong agreed, “yes, at least two trees. How many pages are in a tree?”

The relationship between financing parties and developer is crucial, Wong said, because the primary revenue source that returns the investment is defined by it. Cure and step-in provisions protect a financing party from a developer’s failures. “You want to know that if a borrower goes belly-up, or doesn’t perform, the utility will let you step in, give you additional time to cure and take over the contract or find another developer to operate it.”

This is often a three-way negotiation, she explained. “The financing parties want the right to cure on their own, where they can step into the shoes of the borrower.” This can create tension if the utility has already completed PPA negotiations, she noted. Astute developers, she said, “will make sure upfront that they have a long enough cure period.”

A developer should also, if possible, have the interconnection done before the PPA is signed, Wong said, “or at least have a very good idea when it will be done, so you don’t make commitments you can’t satisfy in the PPA.”

One problem, she noted, is that both the PPA and the interconnection agreements are often negotiated with two sides of the same utility and, she added, a utility’s transmission side is typically walled off from the contract negotiating side. Yet if the interconnection facilities are delivered late, the utilities’ transmission side “will not pay liquidated damages while, in the PPA, if the power is not delivered by a specific date, the developer may have to pay liquidated damages to the same utility.”

Because utilities get so many bids, Wong observed, they have something of a "pick-and-choose" mentality. In the past, she said, uninformed developers made low-priced bids and then discovered their proposals weren’t financeable.

“Utilities now ask for more bid security upfront,” Wong said.  “Contract viability is increasingly important.  The bidder has to be real and serious. If the bid is accepted and the mandate to negotiate with the utility is awarded and isn’t, the bid security may be forfeited.”

Guest Post: Despite Campaign Rhetoric, Utility Outlook Similar Under Romney, Obama

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:00

Given the distance on energy issues articulated by their campaigns, one would think that the prospects for the utility industry under a President Romney would be radically different than those under a second-term President Obama. There are notable differences (e.g., on subsidies for wind and solar), but for the immediate future, those differences would not amount to much in practice.

That was the outlook provided by Paul Molitor, Assistant Vice President of Smart Grid and Special Projects at NEMA, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Speaking about election implications last week at ABB’s Western Utility Executive Conference, Molitor began by providing a quick rundown on the latest polling, including figures from InTrade where people are betting -- literally -- on an Obama win by nearly four to one. Polls by Rasmussen, Gallup and Real Clear Politics, however, all have the candidates in a statistical dead heat.

Molitor sees the Democrats picking up two seats in the House and the Republicans picking up one in the Senate -- not enough for a supermajority, and therein lies the nub of the issue. A mixed Congress is not likely to make any dramatic changes in legislation, regardless of who occupies the White House.

The one winner Molitor predicts in either scenario: the Keystone XL pipeline. Otherwise, he doesn’t see much change on the horizon. 

“The lame-duck priorities will be the same [regardless of who wins the presidency],” he said.  “Energy takes a back seat to fiscal policy and a mixed Congress is likely to take longer to deal with fiscal issues, so they are less likely to get around to other matters.”

Molitor said there is likely to be much more action at the regulatory level on issues like greenhouse gas emissions, automobile fuel efficiency standards and cross-state air pollution.

His view into the future did not extend to the 2014 midterm elections, but it’s reasonable to assume that by then circumstances will have changed at least with regard to the so-called “fiscal cliff.” At that point we might expect to see the candidates’ positions on energy come more into play.

“The key element of Romney’s plan,” said Molitor, “is to empower states to control onshore energy development and the federal government to control offshore areas.” That means state-level decisions on shale gas development and federal control over offshore drilling. Romney is also big on streamlining regulations to eliminate the “sue and settle” system that characterizes many of the points of contention in energy policy, and he envisions the U.S. becoming not only energy-independent but a net exporter of hydrocarbons by 2020.

That’s an ambitious target -- about as ambitious as Obama’s goal of obtaining 80 percent of the nation’s energy from clean sources by 2035. The president’s energy policy statement, issued in June of last year, places a strong emphasis on environmental issues but it also seeks to “align utility investments” by changing the industry’s business model to reduce its dependence on merely selling more power.

Bottom line: the ideological differences between Romney and Obama are not likely to have much of an impact on the utility industry for the immediate future.

Jimmy Glotfelty, Executive Vice President at Clean Line Energy Partners, spoke during a panel discussion on regulation just prior to Molitor’s presentation and noted that energy policy is made in Congress and agencies such as EPA and FERC. He doesn’t see a President Romney, for example, being able to stop EPA’s coal regulations given recent court rulings. Energy policy is also historically slow-moving.

“Major energy bills only pass about once every decade,” he said. “The president [either one] won’t be able to do much unless they decide to do the unspeakable and compromise.”

In the current political climate, that seems unlikely.

 

***

Bob Fesmire is the Strategic Communications Manager at ABB.

EnerNOC Stakes Its Energy Efficiency Claim: 200M Square Feet and Counting

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 06:00

Over the past few years, demand response aggregator EnerNOC (ENOC) has been building up a business in helping its commercial and industrial clients control their energy use, not just to power down to help balance the grid, but to save energy in the times in between.

EnerNOC’s efficiency business, known as EfficiencySMART, now serves about 250 customers with more than 2,000 individual buildings, adding up to about 200 million square feet under management. That business comes from big utility or government contracts, like EnerNOC’s deals with Southern California Edison or the state of Massachusetts.

But it also comes from some of its existing demand response customers, which now add up to 8,300 megawatts of load at some 13,000 sites across the U.S. and in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. EnerNOC hasn’t broken out how many of those customers are using its efficiency product as well, but it does say the EfficiencySMART business has been growing at double-digit rates. 

As for the technology behind EfficiencySMART, some recent announcements underscore how the Boston-based company is putting it to work. The first comes from EnerNOC’s home state, where it’s been working on a $10 million, Department of Energy-funded project to network about 1,300 electric and gas meters in 474 buildings across 43 state-owned sites for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER).

Last week, EnerNOC turned on its cloud-based platform, which now streams about 1 billion data points per week to the company’s network operations center (the "NOC" in EnerNOC). From there, two things happen, Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of marketing at EnerNOC, told GTM in an interview.

First, all that metering data gets run through the EfficiencySMART Insight platform, where it’s filtered out and analyzed to find patterns that indicate energy is being misspent. That could range from failing equipment that needs to be tuned up or replaced, to human errors like the office temp who always leaves the lights on at night or sets the thermostat too low.

From there, EnerNOC’s efficiency experts work with the data and with their customers to “deliver a prioritized list of actionable energy efficiency measures” that the customer can take. That could range from tweaking the building management system setpoints to a deep-dive retrofit project, though 80 percent of customers found ways to save that offered payback of a year or less, Dixon said.

One thing EfficiencySMART’s platform isn’t doing yet is controlling loads -- there is no closed loop there, Dixon said. Indeed, managing building data can be a bigger IT challenge than demand response, he added. Two building management systems running close to real-time sensor networks could deliver more data than EnerNOC’s entire DR network, which runs on five-minute signals for the most part, he said (that excludes fast, automated projects like the one EnerNOC is doing in Canada’s Alberta province). Whether or not EnerNOC’s demand response customers might choose to use their controllable loads for efficiency remains to be seen, of course.

We’ve seen a host of startups with software to analyze building energy data and find inefficiencies: SCIenergy, Viridity Energy, BuildingIQ, FirstFuel, Retroficiency and others are a few names that come to mind. Some are landing projects and delivering actionable intelligence that results in lower energy bills. Others, like Serious Energy, have failed to find traction for their software.

All of these companies are looking to leverage the exponential growth in data about the built environment to make efficiency easier, cheaper and more popular. Fewer are asking building owners and operators to hand over direct control of energy loads for day-to-day efficiency, however. After all, in the commercial real estate world, keeping tenants comfortable and happy outweighs saving on your energy bill in terms of priorities.

Technology that can fix comfort problems at the same time it’s pinpointing savings could be useful on that front. On Monday, EnerNOC launched the latest update to its EfficiencySMART platform, adding new features including an automated fault detection (AFD) engine that seeks to pinpoint places where the technology chain of control has broken down. Lots of building energy is wasted by cooling and heating simultaneously, for example, while at the same time, some faults that appear on the system could be caused by a malfunctioning sensor, not a broken piece of equipment.

Using a fault detection engine can help pinpoint those errors, particularly those that may be missed by the typical combination of unwieldy BMS data and harried building facilities managers. Outside-air cooling systems are a particular point of waste, Dixon said -- simply put, they’re often preset so that they either suck in outside air when it’s too warm and wet, thus annoying tenants, or never turn on at all for fear of triggering just such an event.  

Solving problems like these requires a pretty complex overlying system to keep the humans involved -- tenants, engineers, accountants, etc., all working on the same page. Of course, showing the math is one thing, and scaling up a real-world energy management platform is another. EnerNOC’s service staff can really help bridge that gap for customers on that front, compared to a software-only solution, Dixon said.

In that sense, EnerNOC could be seen as a competitor to energy services giants like Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens, Emerson, Panasonic, which are all launching software and service offerings to back up their massive installed base of building equipment. EnerNOC doesn’t make its own chillers or building control panels, of course, meaning that it’s as often a partner with BMS and networked equipment vendors.

At stake is a potential gold mine of energy savings -- up to $1 trillion in the United States over the next ten years, based on a $279 billion investment into efficiency over that time, according to a March study from Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Institute. That’s a big market to play in, bigger than demand response, in fact, Dixon said.

Chinese Solar Giant Suntech Gets a Bailout

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 15:30

If you thought China’s solar manufacturing boom was bringing pain only to companies in the U.S. and Europe -- both of which are hounding the Chinese industry for allegedly unfair trade practices -- think again. No less than China-based Suntech Power Holdings, the biggest panel maker in the world, is on the ropes.

China Daily reported late last week that the government in the city of Wuxi, where Suntech is headquartered, is fronting the company $31.7 million. The emergency funding came after the local government there “carried out a series of measures, including granting subsidies and loans, to help solar companies in the area,” the state-controlled news organization reported.

Suntech two weeks ago revealed it had been notified by the New York Stock Exchange that it was in danger of being delisted after its share price fell to an average price of less than $1 over a consecutive 30-day trading period. (The company’s stock hit a 2012 high of $4.18 in February.)

And earlier in September, Suntech announced a restructuring, laying off 1,500 people and temporarily closing part of its production in Wuxi to reduce capacity.

With that announcement, Suntech said global oversupply -- as well as a big U.S. antidumping duty and an EU investigation -- were forcing it to “right-size our production capacity and continue to optimize our organization.”

According to Reuters, Suntech isn’t the only Chinese company getting aid from local governments, many of which, as the China Daily story noted, had invested heavily in solar manufacturers and now are facing the prospect of seeing thousands of workers out of jobs.

China -- led by the likes of Suntech, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar -- has grabbed 80 percent of a European market worth around $26.5 billion. And yet all of those companies have seen their shares fall dramatically as solar prices have plummeted and once stratospheric growth rates have moderated.

One way China is hoping to get through this very rough patch is by boosting its own deployment of solar power, after several years of focusing mainly on exporting to Europe and the United States. The hope is that provincial governments can spur big increases in solar deployment. Xinhua reported just last week that Beijing had asked provincial leaders to “make plans for establishing distributed photovoltaic generation demonstration centers as part of efforts to boost the domestic solar industry amid mounting trade frictions with the United States and the European Union.”

***

Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from EarthTechling. Author credit goes to Pete Danko.

GTM Comment of the Day: SoloPower Flexible Panels

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 15:00

Here's some big feedback from reader "electricaldisobedience" regarding SoloPower's $197 million loan guarantee for flexible solar modules and the firm's premium pricing.

***

Can we all say "Train Wreck."

It's brutally apparent to just about everyone in the solar industry that SoloPower is another Solyndra.  Thin film...save money on installations...ridiculously overpriced modules...new factory...

Anti-loan guarantee zealots are sharpening their knives just waiting for that "I told you so" moment.  And all the remaining real companies in the solar industry will spend the better part of the following year explaining why solar is still a worthy investment.

It is all so obvious.

So a few specific questions for ECD Fan (if he's still alive), Dan the fan Arguelles or anyone really in the know from SoloPower:
1. What are your objective, documented installation costs -- not marketing hype?  In our experience installing "peel and stick" laminates were by far the most expensive projects we ever did (new metal roof, sand, clean with detergent, clean with solvent, hurry to attach adhesive and hope the laminates are straight, roll to remove bubbles, pray the electrical attachment doesn't break...).
2. How do you remove a bad laminate once it is glued down?  Before you answer, try it sometime.
3. How long does your flexible laminate last when it is in a puddle -- a frequent condition here on the east coast?
4. How do you maintain the integrity of your electrical connections when they are literally under water?
5. Low light performance? BFD, those are low energy conditions anyway.  ECD hype.
6. Direct attachment to a hot roof means that there is no ventilation, unlike conventional modules in which air circulates underneath.
7. Almost all roofs can support the extra 3 psf for a solar array.  Marginal rooftops are a small market segment with inherent structural problems.
8. Build it into the roof membrane like SIT?  Still way more expensive than an ordinary membrane and ordinary, reliable crystalline modules.

We should all be aware of these issues with SoloPower NOW so that we as an industry can prepare for the inevitable blowback when they crater into the earth -- hopefully not as spectacularly as Solyndra.

 

In Thin-Film PV, It’s First Solar, Solar Frontier, and Maybe Hanergy

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 14:00

There is no thin-film solar market. There's First Solar with cadmium telluride (CdTe), Solar Frontier with CIGS, and until recently Sharp in amorphous silicon (a-Si), with a few smaller players following behind. There are also a few companies looking at very thin c-Si, such as Twin Creeks or 1366 Technologies.

In cadmium telluride materials, it's all First Solar (FSLR). We've watched Abound Solar fail and GE-PrimeStar slow.

In a-Si, there's Sharp, some stalwart Oerlikon customers, and an amorphous-silicon landscape littered with the carcasses of Optisolar, Signet Solar, Unisolar, and many more.

In CIGS, the distress sales of MiaSolé, HelioVolt, Solibro, and Ascent to Asian conglomerates offer some hope that this now-honed technology might be ruthlessly optimized by these large firms. Thin-film solar requires massive capital and human resources -- there's no real ecosystem for each firm's proprietary processes. The next generation of thin film is coming from Hanergy, SK Innovation, TSMC , Hyundai, LG, AUO, Mitsubishi or Samsung, all of whom now have CIGS or a-Si know-how.

Perhaps we'll see cheap 16 percent thin-film CIGS solar panels yet -- it's just that they're not going to come from a Silicon Valley firm like Nanosolar or Stion or SoloPower.

The endgame yields a few competent long-term thin film players in each materials system. First Solar expects to deploy more than 2.6 gigawatts of solar installations in 2012 with revenue forecast in the range of $3.6 billion at one of the lowest panel costs in the industry.

Sharp is backing away from its amorphous silicon business, retiring 160 megawatts out of its 320 megawatts in Japan earlier this year. Reuters sources have the cash-strapped firm withdrawing its U.S. and EU solar divisions. Perhaps Sharp can focus on Japan's growing residential market but it looks like Sharp is bowing out.

CIGS might see some success from the mutant offspring of MiaSolé and Solibro via Hanergy -- but in the meantime, it's all Solar Frontier.

Solar Frontier has, in a relatively quiet fashion, built out a 1-gigawatt CIS factory that is producing CIGS panels in volume. The firm prefers to call the materials system "CIS" and shipped 577 megawatts in 2011.

The most recent announcement has Solar Frontier shipping 80 megawatts of CIGS solar panels to the Catalina site, the world's largest CIGS thin film installation. The firm has never revealed its costs.

Green Jobs: Agassi Leaves CEO Post at Better Place; New Enphase CFO; First Solar in China

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 13:15

Enphase Energy (Nasdaq:ENPH) appointed Kris Sennesael as its new CFO. Sennesael was most recently CFO at Standard Microsystems (SMSC). The previous CFO, Sanjeev Kumar, gave notice in August. Enphase stock is trading near record lows.
 

The board of electric car battery swap startup Better Place has "removed founder Shai Agassi as CEO and replaced him with Evan Thornley, CEO of Better Place Australia." Agassi will continue as a board member, according to an article in Israel's Globes. The firm has racked up immense losses. Globes quotes Better Place investor Israel Corp president Nir Gilad as saying, "I too would be glad to know when we will start making a profit from Better Place."

Better Place was founded in 2007 with VC funding of more than $750 million from GE, UBS AG, Israel Corp., HSBC Group, Morgan Stanley Investment Management, VantagePoint Capital Partners, Ofer Group and Maniv Energy Capital The firm's business model has drivers lease the batteries in its electric vehicles, and charge or swap them at battery charging stations or at home.

Either you're in the camp that holds that electric vehicles are going to look like internal combustion vehicles with proprietary designs and battery packs integrated into the platform (like Tesla's platform, for instance), or you're in the swappable-battery camp with Better Place. It's always been a controversial idea and the recent rollout in Israel and elsewhere has happened much slower than expected.



First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) appointed Bruce Yung as Managing Director and VP of Business Development for China, to be based in First Solar’s Beijing office. First Solar currently has no projects built or under construction in China, although the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government to build a two-gigawatt PV solar power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia in late 2009.

GTM Research forecasts 5.5 gigawatts of new solar capacity to be built in China in 2012. 




Kurion, a VC-funded firm in nuclear and hazardous waste management, named Ralph DiSibio as chairman of the board. DiSibio has forty years of experience in the nuclear waste industry. Kurion is backed by Lux Capital, Firelake Capital Management and Acadia Woods Partners.

 

Lunera named Shannon Paul Biggs to SVP of Operations, George Sigler to CFO and Michael Bremser to CTO and VP of Engineering. Lunera builds LED-based interior commercial lighting.

 

Doug Payne has left his post as Executive Director of SolarTech to join Distributed Sun as SVP of Corporate Development, according to his LinkedIn profile.

 

Ioxus, an ultracapacitor manufacturer, added Ken Rudisuela as chief technology officer (CTO). Rudisuela has nearly three decades of experience in the advanced battery and ultracapacitor market.
 

Will Energy Be a Hot Button Issue in the Election?

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 13:00

In the 2012 election, issues including job creation, the deficit and healthcare are front and center. The first presidential debate is on Wednesday, and some, if not all, of these topics will be raised.

What is less clear is to what extent energy will join the crowded space of hot-button issues. A recent poll found that “clean air and clean energy policies” were important to undecided voters in swing states -- but it’s not a given that those voters will pick a candidate on the basis of energy policy over other issues. (It's rare for people to say they're against clean air when asked.)

At a recent Clean Energy Connections panel, Travis Bradford, founder of The Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, and Tim Greeff, vice president of government affairs at the Advanced Energy Economy, sat down with Shayle Kann, vice president of research at Greentech Media to discuss what this election could mean for renewables and cleantech.

Because other topics have trumped energy so far, much of the discussion was extrapolating from the limited information at hand, especially regarding Romney’s energy plan.

“Fundamentally, Romney’s energy policy is based on energy independence. Which mostly is about our oil addiction,” said Greeff. “With Romney, there is less ‘drill baby drill,’ but it is more about ‘leveling the playing field.’”

Both Greeff and Bradford agreed that it was difficult to know exactly what a level playing field could mean, and that if it meant cuts across the board in subsidies -- including cutting off subsidies to oil, gas and coal -- it might not be as damaging as some in cleantech are anticipating. A level playing field could also mean keeping traditional energy suppliers at the center of the energy policy.

Of course, it’s mostly guess-work. “[Romney’s plan] focuses on one problem, which is our addiction to foreign oil, and not really about just the addiction to oil. It’s hard to glean what he means,” said Greeff. Even without a solid plan, Bradford, who was also skeptical of what Romney has offered so far, noted that it might not be as bad as many in cleantech are anticipating. “You hope it’s a 2003 Romney that would govern,” he said.

If energy never makes it front and center, there is a chance for some substantial changes to the energy future if real tax reform takes place in the next administration. “It would allow us to redefine how we do energy taxes,” said Greeff. “Everyone’s going to take a haircut and that includes energy.”

In a second Obama administration, both speakers doubted there would be much difference from the first term. Obama will likely continue to push for “all of the above,” while putting his effort behind other issues. Greeff noted that "all of the above" was actually first put forward by John McCain. 

One issue both candidates (and every politician) love to talk about is job creation. But job creation is in the eye of the beholder, said Greeff.  Trying to nail down hard numbers on job creation linked to any industry -- including cleantech -- is nearly impossible.

That being said, solar installations and wind farms are putting people to work, even if Solyndra continues to be a four-letter word in Washington political circles. “Manufacturing jobs tend to get up and walk away,” said Bradford. “Installation jobs don’t.”

The same can be said for energy efficiency retrofits. There is simply no way to have someone in Bangladesh install LEDs at a warehouse in the U.S. Assuming that partisan politics continue into 2013, it might seem like a good time to move through some “safe” legislation that everyone can agree on. Energy efficiency is one such topic.

Don’t hold your breath there either, said Greeff. “Energy efficiency is one of those unfortunate issues that it makes so much sense it has no champion,” he noted. “Even if you have bipartisan support, there’s no vehicle to attach it to to get it moving.” Obama has made strides in his first term with efficiency, including raising fuel economy standards and it's possible that he would use his executive power again to make efficiency gains.

Neither speaker was particularly hopeful for real focus on energy from either candidate. Energy efficiency will continue to be left to the state level, where public utility commissions have more opportunities to incent utilities to become efficient than the federal government. “Utilities are the greatest obstacle and greatest avenue for change in this area,” said Bradford. But if political deadlock in Washington seems frustrating, then the slow slog of public utility commissions to overhaul an outdated regulatory structure is downright excruciating.

One more issue that would likely never come back to Congress for debate, no matter who is president, is cap and trade. However, Greeff did offer one final thought if the subject of a carbon tax is raised from the dead. “You have a better chance of getting that passed with a Republican president,” he said. “The kicker is, what do you do with that money?”

Don’t expect that question to come up, let alone be answered, at Wednesday’s debate.

SXSW Eco Takes Green Mobile Apps to the Streets

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 11:00

SXSW Eco, the second annual green offshoot of the perennial Austin, Texas conference, kicks off this week with a flurry of announcements promising to make going green a socially connected, mobile-delivered lifestyle choice, rather than a chore. Think of software developers as struggling bands, successful entrepreneurs as the rock stars, and VCs and corporate investment managers as the record industry moguls, and you’ve got a rough approximation.

To be sure, SXSW Eco is a smaller affair than its music industry equivalent in March, and carries a softer, more socially focused emphasis, with plenty of authors, designers, sustainability free-thinkers and the like. But it’s also drawing a fair number of the more socially minded attempts to connect consumers to their energy use, whether it’s via iPhone, OnStar or your neighborhood parking meter.

Let’s take iPhones first, or smartphones in general. Pretty much every utility-to-home energy technology vendor out there has a demo app for smartphones, but how many customers use them? So far, most are confined to pilot projects and industry-trade-show floor displays, though we’ve seen some mobile-enabled smart thermostat programs in Texas get some traction.

In the meantime, personal carbon calculators, utility bill estimators and other such apps are out there in multitudes, but few claim to do more than cross-reference the guesses that customers have on their air conditioning use, miles driven to work and other such factors.

Then, of course, you’ve got your social media plays at the energy consuming herd, with smart grid startups like Opower teaming up with Facebook and the National Resources Defense Council, or apps emerging from the energy hackathons taking place across the country that ask users to connect to Twitter and LinkedIn to spread the green message -- and the app’s customer base, of course.

Enter JouleBug, a cute green mobile app that’s backed up by some big data expertise. Company co-founder and president Grant Williard comes from Adobe and I-Cubed/Navisware, co-founder James Wicker was Adobe’s youngest lead computer scientist, and board member Jim Baum led Neteeza through its $1.7 billion acquisition by IBM.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based startup mines data from the EPA, Department of Energy, Berkeley Labs and other such sources, as well as collecting data about users: where they live, what the gas and power costs are, what the weather’s like, and other factors that guide which actions will have the most impact.

That makes JouleBug’s tips on how much money a user can save by, say, biking to work, buying a used versus a new sofa, or changing out incandescent light bulbs for CFLs, a bit more accurate than the standard fare, Williard told me in an interview last week.

The startup is also trying out some new paths to market, including city services. Last month, JouleBug and the Raleigh city council launched a mobile app designed specifically for the city’s needs, Williard said. Residents can compete on Facebook and Twitter (of course) on such tasks as recycling and replacing light bulbs, as with many other comparable services.

But they can also earn kudos for taking the city’s sustainability walking tour, volunteering for community service, riding the bus (the so-called “Raleigh Rocket”) or using one of the city’s Big Belly solar recycling stations, to name a few examples.

This week, JouleBug rolled out a 2.0 version of the software, along with a “communities subscription program” meant to do for other cities what it’s doing for Raleigh. The hope is to bring lots smartphone-carrying residents (along with those that use the web page) into a city-run social network, essentially, and build on that relationship to better conduct its business.

Cities aren’t the only target. JouleBug board member Ken Schwenke founded and led the Off-Campus Dining Network, a college meal-card program, and sold it to international campus dining giant Sodexo in 2006. Williard said that the company is talking to universities about platforms to link students to the rich variety of sustainability drives at college, though it hasn’t announced any partnerships yet.

Then, of course, there’s the utility angle. JouleBug’s app makes it easy for users to connect with their existing utility online account, if they have one, and download power, water and gas billing data that helps “close the feedback loop” between promising and delivering savings, Williard said. JouleBug could easily deliver messages to its users asking them to turn off their unneeded power use during utility peak price events, or warnings to close the south-facing window shades the morning of a hot day to cut down on air conditioning bills later that afternoon, to name a few examples -- though, once again, it hasn’t launched any such projects yet.

So we’ve got the app to get us to bike to work instead of drive. But for those of us who can’t avoid the murderous commute, how about an app to make parking a bit easier?

That’s the idea behind Streetline, the Foster City, Calif.-based startup with the “Parker” app to tell people where to find open parking spaces, via city-installed sensor networks. Streetline, led by SAP alum and SXSW Eco panelist Zia Yusuf, was one of the winners of IBM’s Smartcamp competition last year, and has since launched projects in such cities as Knoxville, Tenn. and Reno, Nev.

In April, it set up a $25 million line of credit with Citi to finance projects for cities, which can use the data collected by the low-power sensor network to better plan their transportation decisions. For those of us who don’t live in sensored cities, Streetline’s app offers other useful tidbits, such as meter timers and the ability to “tag” your car’s location in your smartphone and use it to find your way back to whatever alley or dark garage corner you left it in.

Parking the car gets even more complicated when you’ve got an electric vehicle that needs to charge up. Austin’s working on that too via its Pecan Street Project, a smart grid and green technology testbed with partners like Sony, Intel, SunEdison, Whirlpool, Best Buy, Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr and General Motors.

In July, GM launched its Chevy Volt plug-in charging project in Austin’s Mueller neighborhood, with the goal of getting more than 100 Volts into the hands of residents there, via a special offer of double the usual $7,500 rebate for purchasers of plug-in hybrids.

From there, GM planned to test the smart grid apps it’s developed for its OnStar navigation system to manage plug-in charging en masse, including the ability to slow or halt charging to stabilize the grid. While GM has remained mum on the details of its project, execs from the automaking giant are set to announce some next phases of its project this week at SXSQ Eco. Stay tuned for more details.

Dell and OSIsoft Build Smart Grid Platform for Synchrophasor Big Data

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 06:00

Everyone knows that the smart grid has a big data problem -- but some problems are easier to handle than others. Sure, millions of smart meters need to send out accurate bills every month, and distribution grid controls have to react to changes in power flows and stability in split seconds.

But both of those tasks pale in comparison to the big data challenge presented by phasor measurement units, or PMUs. Also known as synchrophasors, these devices sit on transmission lines and at substations, checking out the magnitude and angle of electrical sine waves at the speed of the grid -- 60 cycles per second in North America, to be precise -- and then synchronizing that data across entire regions and grid networks, using global positioning system radio clocks.

That adds up to a ton of data, all moving very fast, and with accuracy demands that require a high-speed communications system just to capture what the PMUs are sensing. Figuring out what the data means, and what grid operators should do about it, is another challenge altogether. Utilities, grid operators, smart grid partners and government parties like the Department of Energy and its national labs, have been busy building the IT infrastructures necessary to translate those masses of data into actionable intelligence.

On Monday, Dell and OSIsoft launched an integrated hardware-software platform meant to take that PMU data challenge out of the laboratories and into the commercial markets. Dubbed Dell’s Smart Grid Data Management Solution, it's a combination of Dell servers, flash memory, network switches and storage devices that have been custom-rigged, so to speak, to handle PMU data at speeds close to real time, as well as to provide faster, deeper analytics capabilities over the long run.

Dell has a big roster of utility clients for its hardware, but this is its first dedicated product for the smart grid, Jeff Gillespey, Dell’s energy global practice lead, said in an interview. It’s part of Dell’s attempt to expand from IT hardware into more tailored, industry-specific software and “solutions” lines of work, a move that has come with a good number of acquisitions by the Round Rock, Texas-based computer giant.

OSIsoft, the San Leandro, Calif.-based data software company with a large utility client list and a key role in a DOE-funded PMU project that's covering the Western U.S. with synchrophasors, worked closely with Dell on developing the reference architecture of its new platform, Gillespey said. Both partners were brought together by a common utility customer that was searching for a way to manage its PMU data, he said.

PMU data has been available for some time, and it’s been put to use for operational purposes like situational awareness for regional grid operators, or research needs, like analyzing past grid failures to pinpoint the series of events that led to them, and how to avoid them in the future.

But pulling that data out of the past and into day-to-day utility operations represents a huge challenge. PMU expert Schweitzer Engineering Labs (SEL) recommends allocating 60 gigabytes of storage for a 30-day archive of only 4 PMUs, for example, while the DOE-funded Western Interconnection Synchrophasor Program is installing 300 PMUs across the Western U.S. -- or, to use SEL’s math, about 4,500 gigabytes, or 4.4 terabytes, of data per month.

Dell and OSIsoft’s new offering is integrated in a way to accept that extremely high-speed data, process it and store it for quick retrieval throughout its lifecycle, said Amy Price, Dell storage solutions manager. That means it’s fast enough to deliver close to real-time information to energy management systems (EMS), or the software that controls its grid at the generation and transmission level, she said.

That, in turn, could lead to a real-time system to check grid health, as well as assess the results of corrective actions -- a big challenge for grid management systems that are built on models that need to be updated for every change on the real-world grid to work most accurately. Indeed, availability to PMU data, along with tools to use it, could have helped grid operators avoid the series of events that led to the 2003 blackout that left about 50 million people in the Northeast U.S. and Canada without power, according to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and database company Versant.

Dell and OSIsoft haven’t named any customers for the new platform yet, but they’re testing it out with utilities. Rick Reeder, Dell technical expert, said that the one utility that originally asked the partners for the solution is using it in an operational environment, though he wouldn’t name the customer.

There’s a pretty short list of big utilities across the United States that are doing big synchrophasor projects, however. California is one hotspot, where San Diego Gas & Electric has led the pack in incorporating synchrophasor data into the grid state estimator module of its EMS. SDG&E plans to build out an operator user interface and roll out synchrophasors at all its major transmission substations by 2013.

The state’s other big IOUs are following suit. Southern California Edison is investing $42 million in hardware, data storage, operator and analyst user interfaces and data analytics for reports and engineering analysis from now through 2014, as well as $15 million to $40 million through the end of the decade, to install PMUs at 48 substations and about 26 generation interconnections. Pacific Gas & Electric is also taking part with a $42.9 million regional demonstration project.

Other utilities doing synchrophasors include FP&L, Duke Energy, and Idaho Power Authority, with a combined $250 million or so dedicated to synchrophasors. All told, GTM Research predicts that utilities will spend about $800 million on synchrophasor projects from 2011 to 2015. About 35 percent of that, or about $280 million, will be dedicated to operations center spending on new software applications and enhancements to energy management systems -- the category in which Dell and OSIsoft’s new platform would fit.

In the broader context of smart grid IT, Dell and OSIsoft’s launch is one of many new offerings from partners combining software and hardware in easy-to-integrate packages. Last month saw Silver Spring Networks and SAP launch fast-deployment smart grid IT offerings, aimed at cutting implementation schedules from years or months to weeks. Infosys is working with SAP and Oracle on a utility-in-a-box product for integrated customer service, billing and data management, for example, and Cisco and NetApp are deploying similar packages for data center energy management.

Obama Blocks Wind Farm Sale to Chinese: Security or Politics?

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 16:00

Whether there was a national security risk posed by a pair of big-time Chinese executives owning a cluster of tiny wind farms under development near a Navy weapons training facility in northeastern Oregon is difficult to say -- but it probably wasn’t hard for the man seeking reelection to see the political risks.

President Obama on Friday moved to swiftly dispense with a case that mixed China, renewable energy, trade and defense into a giant, complex ball of trouble; he ordered Ralls Corporation, owned by the chief financial officer and the vice president at the large but not state-owned Chinese manufacturing conglomerate Sany Group, to divest itself of the wind power projects.

The Navy's restricted airspace, and a disputed wind farm site (image via U.S. Navy)

This is the first time a president has used his power in such a fashion since President George Bush -- the first one -- stopped the sale of Mamco Manufacturing to a Chinese agency in 1990.

In an executive order, Obama said “there is credible evidence” that led him to believe that Ralls “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States,” but he gave no specifics.

The president stepped in after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) had raised red flags about the Ralls purchase, this past spring, of the projects, which consisted then of everything that comes before wind turbines actually go up at a site: land rights, permits, easements, interconnection agreements, a power purchase agreement (with PacificCorp), etc.

CFIUS is a panel headed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and consisting of the heads of a range of federal departments, Homeland Security, Energy, Justice, State, Treasury and Defense among them. By statute [PDF], the panel can review foreign acquisitions of U.S.-based businesses to ensure the transactions pose no threat to national security.

The Oregon wind farms -- four of them, each with five 2-megawatt turbines, adding up to 40 megawatts of generating capacity -- had been under development in Morrow and Umatilla counties near the Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman, and one of them was in the facility’s restricted airspace, called R-5701, on its east side.

This region of Oregon and Washington state around the Columbia River, a couple of hours or so east of Portland by car, is thick with wind farms. In fact, the massive 845-megawatt Shepherds Flat wind farm that went into full operation just a week ago borders the Boardman Navy test area on the west side, with some of its 334 turbines running right up to the edge of the restricted air space, if not into it.

The Navy has acknowledged it does unmanned aerial systems operations training at Boardman, and a Navy letter [PDF] to the Oregon Public Utility Commission mentioned that R-5701 is the “only restricted area in the Western U.S. in which EA-6.8 Prowler and EA-18G Growler fighter jets based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island (Wash.) can complete Low Level Tactical Training and Surface-to-Air Counter Tactics maneuvers.” The Navy said such maneuvers are conducted “to within 200 feet above ground level.” Turbines towers are often 80 to 100 meters tall, with the spinning blade tips reaching much higher than that.

Court and Oregon documents [PDF] indicate Ralls worked with the Navy to move the site of one of the wind farms 1.5 miles -- from the middle of the Navy’s restricted airspace to inside the southern edge. According to the Navy, until 2009 it had been able to count on the Federal Aviation Administration to keep wind farm developers out of its hair. However, “[s]tarting in 2009,” the Navy said, “the FAA determined the issuance of a Notice of Presumed Hazard for proposed construction within a restricted area was not appropriate and started issuing a Determination of No Hazard for proposed construction within R-5701.”

The Navy, with little leverage to force the wind farm completely out of its space, supported this move in a letter to Oregon regulators. Nonetheless, CFIUS ordered a halt to work on the projects, called High Plateau, Mule Hollow and Pine City, in addition to Lower Ridge, the one that Ralls had shifted to try to satisfy the Navy. (Together Ralls has referred to the wind farms as the Butter Creek projects, which aren’t to be confused with Butter Creek Power, a separate 4.95-megawatt Oregon wind farm that began operation in 2009.)

Ralls went to court to try to overturn the CFIUS order, and made a number of interesting assertions in its complaint [PDF]. First, it said it had no interest in owning the wind farms long-term, and only bought them in order to make sure that Sany Electric Company wind turbine generators were used in the projects. And when Ralls told CFIUS that it was in talks to sell the projects -- believing this would “address CFIUS’s concerns” -- CFIUS amended its earlier order to add that Ralls couldn’t sell the projects [PDF].

Ralls, meanwhile, was eager to get the work done, which brings up another fascinating point: Ralls said in court documents that the project needed to be completed and operating by Dec. 31 in order for the company to take advantage of “approximately $25 million in federal renewable energy investment tax incentives.”

Federal law now allows wind developers to claim an investment tax credit, equal to 30 percent of the cost of a project, in lieu of the production tax credit for wind. But like the PTC, the ITC is set to expire at the end of the year. (It’s possible, too, that the project was far enough along by Dec. 31, 2011 to meet the “safe harbor” provisions of the now-expired Section 1603 program, which allowed developers to take the ITC as a cash grant instead of tax credit.)

These facts only seem to heighten the political dilemma the White House faced. With his opponent talking tough on China these days, did President Obama really want to allow a wind farm near a military installation go into Chinese ownership -- with the possibility that all four wind farms (small though they might have been) might use Chinese components? And then the developer would be rewarded with a $25 million check from the U.S. Treasury when it was all done?

Fox News might have seen a story there.

In a statement, Ralls, which has 90 days to divest itself of the wind farms, noted there were “scores of other wind turbines [that] already operate in the area” where it was building. The company said it would fight the president’s decision in the courts.

***

Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from EarthTechling. Author credit goes to Pete Danko.

Ultra-Refrigerator Pioneer and Auxiliary Power Firm Glacier Bay Shuts Down

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 15:00

Another cleantech departure to mourn: Union City, CA-based Glacier Bay, a maker of auxiliary power systems for Class 8 long-haul trucks, suspended operations in early 2012, according to former employees, Venture Wire, and other sources.

In late spring 2012, Cummins Crosspoint purchased the ClimaCab technology, speculatively the principal asset. As of this summer, Cummins Crosspoint has settled a pre-existing lawsuit by Bergstrom Corp., against Glacier Bay, clearing the way for further production of ClimaCab.

Glacier Bay had taken more than $55 million in investment from NEA Partners, Quercus Trust, The Westly Group, and City Light Capital. Investors and former executive staff have not responded to GTM inquiries.

Glacier Bay was founded in 1990 by G. Kevin Alston, and had its roots making specialty ultra-high-efficiency refrigeration systems. Glacier Bay technology found its way onto racing yachts and flew on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. The company claimed to be the first deployer of R-134a refrigerant, and was a pioneer user of the then newly available aerogel insulation (aerogel as a toothpaste texturizer, by contrast, has been around since the 1930s). There was a period in the early 2000s when an internet search of “aerogel” would yield Glacier Bay and Aspen Aerogels as the only current U.S. non-academic, non-governmental hits. 

In 2006, Mr. Alston sold the company to new investors, and CEO Marc Hoffman (followed by Derek Kaufman) migrated into truck climate-control and auxiliary power. The ClimaCab technology is basically a deep-cycle battery system with an air conditioner, which allows truckers to maintain heating, cooling, kitchen and lighting functions without idling their main diesel through the night.

Revenue rose from $2.5 million in 2008 to $15 million in 2009, but 24 months later the company was out of fuel and on the shoulder of the road. As late as March 2010, the company had raised an additional $15 million in capital. One former senior employee described the news of the shutdown as “completely abrupt.”

ClimaCab competes with auxiliary power units (APUs) based on small engines, and potentially fuel cells and solar cells. Internet reviews by truckers have been mixed, with one individual complaining that the mount interferes with backing the rig and that the system is unreliably maintained by his company. Another replied that his mount and his company maintenance had no problems and he liked the system just fine. This may be one of those new technologies where getting unexpected details smoothed out takes time and makes all the difference.

Overnight idling of trucks is a serious issue, and is rapidly being curtailed both by noise ordinances and by rising fuel costs.  Reports claim idling fuel consumption of as much as 1,800 gallons per year by some trucks. Refrigeration and cooling in general are also an issue of gravity, contributing far more to afternoon peak electric load than all the solar PV yet fielded.

At least the technology of Glacier Bay’s worthy effort appears to be living on.

The 2012 Election Could Pivot on Energy

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 14:00

Recently, GTM asked how the results of the 2012 election will impact U.S. greentech, but a new poll suggests that question put the horse before the cart. The first question is how greentech will impact the 2012 election.

 Public Policy Polling (PPP) asked 22,412 likely voters in eight states considered to have the potential to swing either Republican or Democrat in November -- Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- how they felt about “clean air and clean energy policies” and how candidates’ positions on those issues might affect their vote.

 Using a sample large enough to keep the margin of error below 1 percent, according to PPP Director Tom Jensen, the poll found that, by a margin of 54 percent to 27 percent, undecided voters in those eight crucial states favored President Obama (“a candidate who supports EPA standards to reduce dangerous carbon pollution”) over Governor Romney ("a candidate who says these limits would be bad for business and EPA should not limit carbon pollution”).

 This suggests, Jensen said, that while Mr. Romney needs to make up a 6 percent deficit among likely voters in those eight states (50 percent to 44 percent), “his stances on environment and energy issues could hurt his ability to do that.”

The real question is whether the voters isolated in these new polls will vote on these issues. Polls have long shown greentech topics to be what politicians call "80 percent issues." They get such overwhelming approval from the public it is hard to understand why there is so much controversy.

The question of whether voters think about greentech issues was highlighted in the PPP poll by the fact that the undecided voters polled, when pressed for a choice, went for Romney 32 percent to 20 percent, apparently despite their opinions on energy and the environment. And 48 percent remained unable to choose even when pressed, despite the fact that, as Jensen noted, “Romney’s views are at odds with the very centrist voters he needs.”

Those views, which have been documented as antithetical to Romney's positions by GTM, extend to federal vehicle fuel efficiency standards, EPA mercury pollution controls, and incentives for wind and solar energy.

“Undecided voters have a wide variety of things on their minds,” Jensen acknowledged. “What these poll numbers show is that Governor Romney is out of the mainstream and too conservative, and his positions on these issues are not going to help his cause.”

“Polluters and their allies are spending tens of millions of dollars attacking clean air and clean energy,” noted poll sponsor Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund’s Director Heather Taylor-Miesle, referencing a recent New York Times report that “fossil fuel industries have spent $153 million dollars to unseat President Obama” by attacking his pro-greentech policies.

And, Jensen added, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that “five of every seven attack ads in the eight swing states” was about the poll’s environmental and energy topics.

“But the reality on the ground in these crucial swing states is that likely voters are not buying what the polluters are selling,” Taylor-Miesle said. “The people who will decide this election -- the undecided -- are not in the market.” Or it could be that they are not very interested in greentech issues.

That highlights the question of why candidates and PACs are running the ads. Miesle-Taylor offered an explanation. “They could be talking to donors,” she suggested, “and that speaks to how they would govern.”

A few other key PPP poll findings:

  • Undecided voters in the eight swing states support a presidential candidate who favors higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles by 60 percent to 25 percent. For likely voters, that is 60 percent to 31 percent.
  • Undecided voters support a presidential candidate who favors increased incentives for wind power by 52 percent to 29 percent. For likely voters, that is 56 percent to 35 percent.
  • The PPP poll also looked at Senate races in the eight swing states that could determine which party comes out of the election with control of Congress.
  • Undecided voters support congressional candidates who favor “reducing dangerous carbon pollution from power plants” by 55 percent to 27 percent. For likely voters, that is 57 percent to 33 percent.
  • Undecided voters support congressional candidates who favor “increased incentives for wind power” by 53 percent to 31 percent. For likely voters, that is 57 percent to 34 percent.
  • Finally, PPP polled on likely voters’ opinions about EPA regulation of the oil and natural gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
  • Undecided voters agree that the EPA should protect air and water with “safeguards that hold corporate polluters accountable” by 72 percent to 14 percent and favor “disclosure of chemicals used in fracking” by 68 percent to 17 percent. For likely voters, it is 69 percent to 21 percent. 

The Fate of First Solar’s Two-Gigawatt PV Project in China

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 11:00

First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR) has no projects built or under construction in China. That is significant because the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government to build a two-gigawatt PV solar power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia in late 2009.

The plan was to develop a 30-megawatt first phase as a demonstration project while developing manufacturing capability and a supply chain. Construction was scheduled for June 1, 2010. Phases two (100 megawatts) and three (870 megawatts) would follow by 2014. The last gigawatt would come by 2019.

With GTM Research forecasting 5.5 gigawatts of new solar capacity to be built in China in 2012, the market looks tempting. There is a national goal to build 40 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2020. And there are feed-in tariffs, for which First Solar said its Inner Mongolia project qualifies.

Despite its financial travails since 2009, First Solar has by no means given up the dream of taking its price-competitive cadmium telluride thin-film PV technology to China. It recently added Asia energy veteran Bruce Yung as Managing Director and Vice President of Business Development for China. But, realistically, can a U.S. developer do business in China?

The Inner Mongolia project,” wrote GTM Research Solar Market Analyst Scott Burger, “does serve as a good example for American companies' ability to succeed in the Chinese market.”

The problem begins with the Chinese solar module manufacturing industry’s severe overcapacity.

“There are companies in China with extremely bad debt problems and they are happy to sell panels very cheaply just to get some cash flow in. Pricing in China is extremely aggressive. It is the some of the lowest in the world, if not the lowest in the world,” Burger said. Tier one companies like Suntech (NYSE:STP) and Yingli (NYSE:YGE) are working with established EPCs and making projects happen, Burger said.

But smaller companies are scrambling for a piece of the action. Burger believes China may build as much as seven gigawatts of capacity this year. The problem is at State Grid, China’s main transmission system operator.

“The grid is flooded,” Burger said. “State Grid has pushed back quite a bit. From what we have heard, potentially less than 50 percent of the projects being constructed in China will be grid-connected.”

Chinese developers are taking advantage of very low prices, Burger said, “and putting projects in the ground without proper permits and without following the rules. Then they are going in afterwards and requesting grid interconnection and feed-in tariffs.”

A GTM Research partner in China, Burger said, calls them "wildcatters." "They are just going out and wildcatting for solar," he explained.

“It is hard to say whether or not they will eventually get grid-connected,” Burger said. “My guess is the ones that follow the proper procedures will.”

There is another factor, Burger noted. “Having connections to the right person in the local Chinese government can make the difference between your project sitting in the ground unconnected and your project actually generating revenues.”

Even if they don’t, Burger said, “you have small solar manufacturing companies that are happy because at least their production lines are moving.”

Tier one companies aren’t getting involved in the wildcat projects, Burger said. “They want to be guaranteed they will get paid.”

"They work with bankable EPCs and all of the construction is being done by the Big Five Chinese power companies. They are state-owned enterprises (SOEs).”

The Big Five SOEs are China Datang Corporation (HKG: 1798), China Guodian Corporation (HKG: 1296), China Huadian Group, China Huaneng Group (NYSE:HNP), and China Power Investment Corporation (HK: 2380).

“Most of the project development is being done by SOEs,” Burger said, “and the only way to get anything done is to have strong connections to the government.”

A GTM source in China who asked not to be named said it is unlikely First Solar’s original ambition will be realized in the foreseeable future. But the government might allow the company a smaller “face-saving” undertaking if it can learn how to “conduct business in a less structured, more flexible, incentivized environment.” China welcomes innovation, the source said, if it makes use of Chinese manufacturing resources cost effectively.

If Western players are going to get a foothold in China, Burger believes, they need a strong relationship with a Chinese company. But with so many Chinese solar manufacturers in such dire straits, Burger said, “there is no real incentive for any of these SOEs to work with foreign companies.”

That is undoubtedly why First Solar partnered with the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group solar energy development company, why it has announced it will be working with China Power New Energy Development, and why it hired Yung.

“They are trying to set up those government connections,” Burger said of First Solar. “They are a cost-competitive company. It is hard to say whether they can compete with some of the Chinese companies that are literally willing to sell at almost any cost. I imagine there is potential for them to do business in China just because they are trying very hard to do so. But it is going to take a big investment and they have to have a local partner. And you have to be willing to sell for a very low price.”

White House “Datapalooza” Draws Energy Apps

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 09:00

The White House has thrown a lot of parties at the intersection of big data and energy efficiency over the past year or so, including its Green Button initiative and its Biggest Energy Saver contests.

Monday brings another such shindig from the Obama administration, this one its first-ever “Energy Datapalooza.” Hosted by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and featuring about 150 entrepreneurs, software developers, policymakers and energy experts, the event is meant to showcase ways to use freely available data -- including government data -- to “advance a secure and clean energy future.”

To help out, government and private partners will be putting out new datasets, application programming interfaces (APIs), and the like. It’s all part of DOE’s Energy Data Initiative, which is modeled on similar efforts to open publicly available data to innovation in healthcare and public safety.

So what’s on the menu this time around? I spoke to a few companies launching new platforms and services at Monday’s event that gave a sense of the range of applications that open energy data can be used in, from the individual consumer to the macroeconomic level. Take a look:

 

WattzOn. Launched in 2009 by Twitter Senior Engineering Director Raffi Krikorian and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Saul Griffith, WattzOn started out as a free online tool to help individuals calculate their energy and carbon footprint by entering in their personal data (size of home, commute habits, etc.).

So far, the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup has gotten about 400,000 people to log into its website and check their green credentials against each other and look at averages calculated to deliver localized, personalized tips for saving energy, co-founder Steven Ashby told me in an interview last week.

At the same time, it’s been delving into multiple sources of data to add tools to its core platform, including more than 100 utilities that provide links to customer energy data, he said. It’s also working with military housing contractor Balfour Beatty, the city of San Jose and other business partners, he added.

On Monday, WattzOn launched its latest tool: an “appliance advisor” to help homeowners compare and contrast the energy and environmental costs of thousands of different makes, models and ages of refrigerators. WattzOn uses reams of data from EPA, DOE, the Federal Trade Commission and other official sources, as well as data from other sources, to estimate each fridge’s total cost of ownership, including lifetime energy costs, using regional and national electricity rate data, he said.

There are about 150 million refrigerators in the United States, accounting for about $19.2 billion in annual energy spending, according to 2009 DOE data. More than 45 million of those refrigerators are more than a decade old, which means they were built with old, less-efficient technology that’s only gotten less efficient as it ages, Ashby said.

Indeed, in some cases the cost of keeping that old fridge plugged in for another 10 years can add up to more than the cost of buying a newer model and running it for the same period of time, he said. WattzOn is hoping that its calculator can help lots more homeowners realize that and convince them to invest in a new fridge, saving money and power over the long haul.

The company, which hasn’t disclosed how much private funding it has raised, is planning future advisors for air conditioners, televisions and other household appliances, Beatty said. To make money, it’s looking at white-labeling the platform for appliance makers and retailers wanting to connect potential buyers with up-to-date, accurate energy information, he said.

 

DataMarket. This Icelandic startup, founded in 2008, has been spending the past four years or so building a platform that collects data from some of the world’s central energy intelligence sources and normalizes it for consumption by subscribers.

Founder and CEO Hjalmar Gislason walked me through a demo of the platform, officially launched on Monday, and showed me how it can take simple queries -- say, “jet fuel emissions,” or “Libyan oil production,” to take a few examples -- and deliver reams of data from sources like the DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and other national labs, along with the United Nations, the World Bank, BP’s Energy Outlook and EuroNext, to name some key sources.

From there, users can click through to collect and organize data into charts and other graphical displays, as well as cross-reference similar data from different sources -- say, overlay Nigeria and Norway’s oil production to Libya’s, or compare aviation against other industries in terms of global CO2 emissions. DataMarket continually updates its incoming data, which means that users could embed changes in data in their charts and have them updates as time goes by, he said.

In short, it sounds like the energy reporter’s dream tool -- and for the next three weeks or so, DataMarket is making it available on a trial basis. After that, it’s going to start charging subscription fees in the thousands of dollars range, Gislason said, though he wouldn’t reveal specific pricing figures.

Transphorm Raises $35M for Next-Gen GaN Power Devices

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 01:43

Transphorm of Goleta, California, which is innovating in electric power conversion, just completed a $35 million Round E led by Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ) and Japan's NIEC, a manufacturer of power management semiconductors. Existing investors Quantum Strategic Partners, an investment fund managed by Soros Fund Management, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Google Ventures, Foundation Capital, and Lux Capital also participated in the funding round.

INCJ is a partnership between Japan's government and 27 major firms, including Sharp, Sumitomo Electric, Toshiba and GE Japan. NIEC invested and entered a business relationship with Transphorm. This round brings Transphorm’s total capital raised to more than $100 million. 

The startup is building an energy-efficient gallium nitride (GaN) power conversion module. 

Gallium nitride power conversion is not a new field but Transphorm is looking to achieve it at scale, inexpensively, while charting an independent IP path. The company has said its power modules can eliminate up to 90 percent of all electric conversion losses. Transphorm looks to address power conversion in servers, motor drives, power supplies and inverters for solar panels and electric vehicles. 

Low-cost power conversion is accomplished today with silicon, and good silicon-based power converters can operate with efficiencies in the high-90-percent range. Attempting to displace silicon in power and semiconductor applications remains a daunting task. But the market is enormous and the potential energy savings are huge.

"Silicon has reached its limits in power conversion. It has reached its physical limit. We are using gallium nitride to move away from the path set by silicon," said Umesh Mishra, Transphorm's CEO, in an earlier interview.

The power electronics market is a sector that VC Vinod Khosla believes can most transform the smart grid. (Here's Khosla's viewpoint on power electronics.)
 
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded Transphorm $2.95 million to invent normally-off GaN switches while moving their GaN platform to low-cost silicon substrates. Transphorm's first product was a power diode based on its GaN technology. Transphorm also introduced a 600-volt GaN transistor, which displaces legacy silicon-based power conversion technology and claims to reduce switching losses by up to 95 percent. Transphorm recently demonstrated a 100 KHz 3-phase 2 kW inverter. 

Transphorm has claimed that it was "the first to successfully deliver qualified high-voltage (600V) GaN products." 

The company essentially has created a semiconductor platform for making power converters -- AC to DC power converters, DC to AC converters, AC to AC chips and DC to DC chips -- out of gallium nitride, the same semiconductor material behind white-light LEDs. GaN has its own material ecosystem, which Transphorm might be able to leverage.

Getting a new type of semiconductor to market is never easy and betting against silicon is never a great bet. Transphorm's chips depend on materials, processes, circuits and a module that are unique to the company. Additionally, gallium nitride is not easy material to work with. "You cannot mine GaN. It has to be grown on foreign substrates," said Mishra in an earlier interview.

The company is targeting very specific vertical customers at the moment. First, it will go after servers. Then Transphorm will go after PV inverters, electric motors, and auto makers.

Update: MiaSole Sold to China’s Hanergy for $30 Million

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 18:00

MiaSolé, the most technologically and commercially advanced VC-funded CIGS thin film firm, was just sold to China's Hanergy for $30 million, according to documents sent to MiaSolé shareholders this week, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle

The remaining MiaSolé employees get to work at least another year. 

MiaSolé has raised in the neighborhood of $500 million in VC funding since its founding in 2004. The firm raised most of a $125 million round F in February last year at a pre-money valuation of $550 million. Investors included Voyageur Mutual Funds III, Kleiner Perkins, Firelake Capital, and VantagePoint Venture Partners. Board members include KP's John Doerr, Firelake's Marty Lagod, VantagePoint's Stephan Dolezalek, and Rob Chandra of Bessemer. The firm also closed on $55 million in convertible debt earlier this year.

We have communicated with a party with direct knowledge of the deal. Here are the highlights from that conversation.

  • "The bottom line is a $30,001,000 consideration from Hanergy to merge MiaSolé into Hanergy. The consideration would go first to secured creditors, and then noteholders."
  • "Series F, which has a liquidation preference over the other preferred series would get $1,000.00. This series had $106 million of investment so you might as well call it zero return."
  • "Series A through E get nothing. Common gets $0.00. The same for warrant and options."
  • Merle McClendon, CFO, is getting a $1.65 million retention bonus, John Carrington, CEO, is getting $3.6 million and Bob Baker, COO, is getting $300,000, according to the source.

 

The new owner of MiaSolé is Hanergy, one of China’s largest providers of renewable power. According to The Chronicle, the deal looks to close on Oct. 31, 2012, and the firm will operate as a subsidiary of Hanergy. There is a pledge that "no workers will be laid off in the twelve months following the deal’s close."

Curiously, Hanergy recently acquired another CIGS thin film firm: it purchased Solibro, the CIGS operations belonging to Germany's Q-Cells, in June. It's curious because there's not a lot of synergy between the deposition processes of the two firms. MJ Shiao of GTM Research's Solar Division points out that MiaSolé uses a roll-to-roll sputtering process, while Solibro uses a batch coevaporation process and that's "pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum, as far as CIGS deposition goes."

But Shiao adds, "Hanergy secured a $4 billion (RMB 30 billion) credit line from the China Development Bank last year to expand overseas (as well as build hydro and solar projects), which is helping to fund its Solibro and this acquisition. My instinct is that this acquisition is a play for Hanergy to pursue an aggressive Americas project development strategy. The backing of one of China's largest privately owned clean energy (i.e., hydro) IPPs with a $4 billion China-backed loan will do a lot to improve MiaSolé's bankability, which has been one of the company's main obstacles."

If there's a silver lining, it's that MiaSolé's technology lives on. 

Hanergy owns gigawatts of hydropower assets, wind and solar interests and has spoken of investing $15 billion into the solar industry, according to China Daily.

South Korea's Hanwha now owns Q.Cells, and China's Hanergy now owns the remains of Solibro and MiaSolé. CIGS vendor HelioVolt was rescued by Korea's SK Innovation. CIGS PV vendor AQT went out of business last month.

GTM Research has these estimates for CIGS solar production numbers in 2011:

 

The firm's VC investors have declined to comment.

Solar Stat of the Day: PV Systems Installed Ten Times Faster in Germany

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 14:30

A report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (PDF here) entitled "Why Are Residential PV Prices in Germany So Much Lower Than in the United States?" provides details on just how much cheaper and more efficiently solar panels get installed on rooftops in Germany than the U.S.

The report is a gold mine of data, and we'll take a closer look in the coming days. Solar costs for hardware as well as "soft costs" are addressed, as well as the reasons for the $2.80-per-watt delta in system costs between the two nations. Germany installed four times as many solar panels as the U.S. in 2011 and almost ten times as many megawatts on a per-capita basis.

But we'll leave you with one vexing statistic today.

German residential solar systems, despite being on-average larger (6.8 kilowatts versus 4.95 kilowatts) take only 7.5 hours to install versus 75 hours in the U.S. This includes electrician labor as well as construction labor. The authors of the report appear a bit puzzled by this figure and continue to investigate. One more thing: residential projects take 126 days to develop in the U.S. versus 35 days in Germany.