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Updated: 3 years 40 weeks ago

Ford Partners With GE on Electric Vehicles

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 15:00

Ford and General Electric each have a few horses in the race when it comes to alternative fuel vehicles.

General Electric has committed to having 25,000 alternative fuel vehicles and sells electric vehicle charging stations and compressed natural gas as a CNG in a Box system for fueling stations.

Ford, on the other hand, is launching a total of six EVs across the U.S. and Europe. The carmaker already has a partnership with Leviton for its consumer car sales, but will market GE’s Wattstation EV charger for commercial applications as part of the new collaboration. 

As part of GE’s push to overhaul its own fleet, the company will purchase 2,000 Ford C-MAX Energi cars. Just as GE is also purchasing other EVs, the partnership with Ford is hardly exclusive. The announcement is the first agreement of a commercial charging partnership for Ford, but it might not be the last.

The agreement also involves research projects, including research at Georgia Tech to study the driving and charging habits of GE drivers. General Electric also has its own Vehicle Innovation Center, which will use some Ford cars for its customers to test alternative fuel vehicles.

“Understanding driving and charging habits is key to advancing vehicle and charging infrastructure,” says Professor Bert Bras of the Sustainable Design & Manufacturing laboratory at Georgia Tech. “Through access to vehicle data, we can accelerate research and development of new technologies to further improve efficiency, driver satisfaction and environmental benefits.”

Ford and GE are hardly alone. For every company with a stake in the EV game, whether it's the vehicles or supporting infrastructure, there is usually at least one partnership. Charging companies look for shelf space at big-box stores and partnerships with carmakers. Power electronics companies like ABB are also teaming up with carmakers and utilities to investigate a second life for the car batteries.

One of the most important factors in the success of EVs and plug-in hybrids will likely be on-board telematics that can tell people how their battery is performing. Ford announced earlier this month its SmartGauge feature for its plug-in hybrids that allow the cars to learn frequent destinations to maximize the use of the electric-only mode.

This is another area where partnerships abound. Duke Energy, which is working with GE and Ford, is also working with Toyota on a different pilot. Honda has joined with IBM and Pacific Gas & Electric.

All of these collaborations, and probably many more to come, could be an exercise in futility. Or if electrified personal transportation takes off, they will be key to the future of mobility.

Beyond Meat: Tastes Like Chicken

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 13:59

“Chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.” -- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential 

By 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth. And most of them are going to want a steak for dinner. More livestock will place an even greater burden on land, air, and water.

Rising meat consumption in China is now double that of the U.S., according to the USDA and Earth Policy Institute. 

A VC acquaintance recently mentioned that having a "fake meat" company in one's VC portfolio was becoming a must-have, like having a cloud computing firm or a failed thin-film solar company. 

Kleiner Perkins has invested in a firm called Beyond Meat, formerly known as Savage River Farms, which produces a plant-based chicken substitute. Other investors include Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams.

“We have to find a way to replace animals as a source of protein,” said Kleiner Partner Amol Deshpande in an earlier interview. “I don’t think the climate can subsist … with the amount of livestock that we have.”

A company backgrounder states, "We are really passionate about moving people to plant-based diets, because it is better for human health, animal welfare and the environment."

With technology licensed from the University of Missouri based on the work of Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, Beyond Meat has a heating, cooling, and pressurizing technique that allows plant-based materials to mimic the texture and mouthfeel of meat, according to the firm. 

Beyond Meat's product contains: "Water, Soy Protein Isolate, Pea Protein Isolate, Amaranth, Natural Vegan Chicken Flavor (Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Natural Flavoring), Soy Fiber, Carrot Fiber, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Dipotassium Phosphate, Titanium Dioxide, and White Vinegar." The mixture is processed and formed to approximate chicken.

The meat substitute is available in the prepared food section at Whole Foods supermarkets in Northern California -- so I ate some of the stuff, for this, our first food review at Greentech Media.

I found the Beyond Meat chicken strips absolutely as uninteresting as chicken. (Full disclosure: I'm a vegetarian, so it's my memory of chicken I'm comparing it to.) The product sort of passes for chicken but the mouthfeel and "springiness" of the stuff are just a little off and a bit "mushy." It veers into the "uncanny valley" of very close but a little weird. I ate the stuff in a faux chicken salad, in a chicken curry, and plain atop a salad. The product was best under a thick sauce where it did not immediately betray its legume lineage.

Personally I prefer my soy, peas, and amaranth in their original non-extruded soy, pea, and amaranth form. I am puzzled by the need to go through heroic measures and processing to make grains mimic a bird. But if people are willing to substitute this stuff for livestock on their plate, the world might be more efficiently fed.  

The market for meat substitutes is worth $340 million, according to David Browne, an analyst at Mintel, a market-research firm that tracks these things. RTS Resource, another market analyst firm, sees "firm growth" in the meat analogue sector. Whole Foods sells a number of plant-based meat substitutes made from soy, grains, veggies, or mushrooms. I've had some of those, which often similarly fall into the Close, But No Cigar and Why Bother? categories.

Another alternative meat firm is Sand Hill Foods, rumored to be funded by Vinod Khosla and helmed by Prof. Patrick Brown of Stanford University. According to Nick Halla, the Director of Business Development's LinkedIn page, Sand Hill Foods is "combining cutting-edge science and product development to revolutionize the food production industry and make it more efficient and sustainable." The firm employs Chris Davis as "Director of Protein Development." Founder Patrick Brown mentions the goal of "Developing practical, constructive strategies for eradicating animal farming" on his LinkedIn page.

Going even further than working with beans and redesigned proteins is the work of Jason Metheny, Mark Post and others who are focusing on stem-cell grown or cultured meat grown in the lab -- a process that is still a bit further away from commercialization. A VC colleague argued, "I think the potential for consumer backlash is huge. It's one thing to develop a soybean-based meat product. It's another to develop a test-tube engineered protein." Mark Post suggests that cultured meat could be grown much more efficiently than livestock.

As KP's Deshpande said, “If you want to talk about agricultural land use, water use, [and] energy use, it really boils down to one thing: livestock. To me, if there is a place to attack the[se] problem[s], that is where I would attack it. Everything else is minor in comparison.”

Wind After the PTC

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 12:00

The buzz at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Fall Symposium is that AWEA hopes to negotiate a phase-down of the two-decades-old, $0.022 per kilowatt-hour incentive, the production tax credit (PTC), as part of the upcoming congressional tax reform.

The failure of Congress to extend the tax credit, which expires December 31, has sent the industry tumbling. MAKE Consulting forecasts this year’s ten-plus gigawatts of new installations will fall next year to, at best, three gigawatts. But industry watchers believe the re-election of President Obama, who staunchly defended the PTC during his campaign, foretells a one-year renewal early next year.

Such a renewal, noted Bracewell & Giuliani energy specialist Frank Maisano, may include new language essentially giving developers an extra year by awarding the tax credit to projects that start construction by the PTC’s term end rather than only those that are in service by the deadline.

Longer-term prospects for the incentive are less bright because it faces attack by conservative congressional tax reformers who claim to be ideologically opposed to federal spending.

A reliable industry insider told GTM the industry needs about two technology cycles for innovation to bring the levelized cost of wind generated electricity to subsidy-free competitiveness. A technology cycle is two to three years, he said. After the short-term renewal, he added, AWEA hopes to negotiate a phase-down of perhaps five years with Congress.  

Such a phase-down might involve gradually shortening the PTC’s ten-year duration or reducing its amount.

Ray Henger, Chief Financial Officer, OwnEnergy: "If the PTC ramp-down occurs simultaneous with flat gas prices and no changes in state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) or federal legislation to drive demand, it is very difficult for wind to win a contract with a utility. But I don’t think 100 percent natural gas makes sense. So what will the states require as a fuel mix?"

John Eber, Managing Director, Energy Investments, JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM): "We want to move the industry toward becoming competitive without the subsidy. That was the whole purpose of it -- to be a bridge. It is taking longer than people thought, probably because of natural gas dynamics. But you can see it coming. Look at the capacity factors this year. They are unbelievable. And the cost has come down significantly. We are on the path. The question is, how much time do we need?"

Daniel Elkort, Director, Legal Services, Pattern Energy: "What scares me a little is that we are talking about a sudden change to the PTC versus a gradual reduction in cost. What people don’t talk about much is that we are in a very low-interest-rate environment and our business is very capital-intensive. For an independent producer competing with a utility, cost of capital is a huge issue. Right now, long-term interest rates are 5 percent and 6 percent. You can absorb cost excesses or lost PTC value. What if interest rates pop up 200 basis points or 300 basis points?"

A wind industry veteran said that it comes down to having a push and a pull. The PTC was instituted in 1992, he recalled, but it didn’t start really driving growth until state RPSs were widely instituted after 1999. That, he said, added demand to the return developers could expect from providing supply.

At present, load is flat due to economic stagnation, excess capacity, energy efficiency improvements, low natural gas prices and the filling out of many state mandates. Technology advances will continue to grow efficiencies. But an economic recovery could grow demand, put excess capacity to work, and drive up the price of natural gas. And state legislatures may increase existing mandates.

How Microgrids Helped Weather Hurricane Sandy

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 11:00

Amidst the blackouts that came with Hurricane Sandy’s East Coast assault, a few islands of light and heat stood out. From the suburbs of Maryland and bucolic Princeton, N.J. to the hardest-hit sections of downtown Manhattan, microgrids -- building or campus-wide backup power systems that can disconnect, or “island” from the grid -- stood firm during the storm, proving their value in a disaster.

But don’t get too excited about seeing every building hooked up with generators, batteries and high-tech gear to allow it to power itself during everyday blackouts. It turns out that building true microgrids like these takes a ton of planning in advance, as well as ongoing fine-tuning of the system to make sure it’s working for the benefit of the building and the grid alike. 

Take the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak research facility in Maryland, which rode through two days without grid power on its own 5.8-megawatt natural gas-fired turbine and diesel generator system. But that system wasn’t turned on as backup, said Tom Glennon, engineering director for Honeywell’s building solutions business, which installed and operates the system -- it’s on all the time.

That’s because White Oak gets all its heat from its power generators, making them a central part of its all-the-time heating and cooling cogeneration system, he said in an interview last week. The same type of cogeneration system kept New York University’s campus partly running during the hurricane, and Princeton University’s 40-megawatt cogen facility kept 4,000 apartments, 35 high-rise buildings, townhouses, garages, three shopping centers and six schools running for nearly two days.

Not everyone can justify the cost of building a cogeneration plant into their campus, however. In the case of White Oak, the FDA is constantly performing critical experiments that it doesn’t want to see interrupted by even a momentary blip of grid instability, Glennon said. Indeed, constant clean power was one of the requirements written into FDA’s agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration, which runs federal properties, to move to the new facility, he said.

A true microgrid is much more than a backup power system, however, even if it also does that as one of its core functions. It also has to include real-time, on-site controls to match the microgrid’s generation and storage capacity to power use in real time, as well as some way to interact with the grid, Glennon said.

“It’s a highly engineered solution. That’s why you have to look at the project holistically,” he said. And, of course, unless it meets the specific needs of the customer, putting buildings or campuses under their own power is likely too expensive a solution in comparison to cheap and (almost always) reliable grid power.

New Market, New Technologies

Even so, the market for microgrids -- or at least, technology that supports some or all of the functions of a microgrid -- is growing rapidly. The military is a big customer, for both remote and in-building applications. But so are university campuses like U.C. San Diego and its groundbreaking microgrid project, as well as utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric that host microgrid projects.

Whether these new building-grid systems come with islanding capability (making them a true microgrid) or without it (making them more of a “virtual power plant” design) will depend on how valuable islanding is for the customer, Glennon noted. Startups including Viridity Energy, REstore, Powerit Solutions, Enbala and others control building energy loads in response to grid signals, not to isolate themselves from the grid but to support it while making money at the task. Energy services giants like HoneywellSiemens, Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric and others are connecting smart building control systems to the smart grid, while smaller companies and startups like Spirae, Integral Analytics and Power Analytics (formerly EDSA) specialize in managing the self-contained, self-maintained power systems involved in the microgrid process.

At the same time, many buildings are finding they can use existing backup power systems for grid purposes, a specialty of companies from demand response providers EnerNOC to startups like Blue Pillar. Developing nations such as China and India, which have unreliable and unstable power, are seeing new markets for microgrid-type systems emerge out of the larger market for simple, old-fashioned diesel backup generators -- the same type of technology that still runs most backup power systems in the U.S. and Europe as well, by the way.

Meanwhile, Japanese companies such as Panasonic, Fuji, Hitachi, Toshiba and Sony are rolling out combinations of home energy controls, plug-in vehicles, fuel cells, solar panels backed by batteries, and other technologies to help the country deal with its ongoing power crisis. The same technologies are being tested in Europe and the United States as well.

Making Microgrids Worth It, All the Time

Microgrids have obvious benefits when the grid has gone down. But where’s the economic benefit when they're up and running? First of all, it’s important to note that the grid goes out a lot more than most people realize. Momentary sags and surges on local distribution feeders is a common cause of breakdown and work stoppage at high-tech facilities like semiconductor fabs, research labs or data centers -- and a microgrid should include local power quality and smoothing features to make sure it’s meeting the customers’ needs.

Automation is also key. While White Oak manually took itself into island mode in advance of Hurricane Sandy, it’s also gone off the grid about a dozen times over the past year or so, Glennon noted. Sometimes that was for a planned outage, but other times it was in automatic response to grid instabilities, or wholesale power outages lie those that came after last summer’s “derecho” storms that knocked out power for regional utilities Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric.

Getting a whole campus switched over to on-site power is a tricky issue for microgrids -- though one that White Oak mostly avoids by always having its gas-fired generators up and running. More typical backup power systems rely on batteries, flywheels, fuel cells or other fast-acting power sources to carry critical loads, while local backup generators or microturbines are “spun up” to power larger loads.

At some point, fully functioning microgrids could sell their on-site power back to the grid -- but there’s got to be a compelling reason to get into the game. The FDA hasn’t used White Oak’s generation capacity to meet demand response calls for Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM or bid its spinning reserve capacity into the regional power market, Glennon said, mainly because that’s not its purpose. But certainly a microgrid-connected campus could cap its own power usage to prevent expensive demand charges, or shift power usage to off-peak hours to avoid high peak power prices.

Nor has the White Oak facility been tied to any of the region’s wind or solar power systems, he said. Using microgrids to smooth out intermittent wind and solar resources could make that on-again, off-again power easier for utilities and grid operators to handle. 

Innovations in Crystalline Silicon Offer Hope to Struggling PV Supply Chain: New GTM Report

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 08:00

The global photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing sector continues to be besieged by problems of overcapacity and mounting financial losses. However, a new report from GTM Research indicates that equipment vendors, material suppliers, component manufacturers and startups are pushing the needle on advanced technology concepts like never before, in a bid to further increase efficiencies and lower the cost curve of crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV technology.

Titled Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013: Markets, Strategies and Leaders in Nine Technology Areas, this 262-page report closely examines the benefits, challenges, key vendors, and market penetration prospects of nine advanced technology platforms being commercialized in the 2012 to 2014 timeframe. The nine technologies covered in the report are:

  1. Quasi-mono wafers
  2. Diamond wire sawing
  3. Kerfless wafers
  4. Selective emitters
  5. Reduced-silver metallization
  6. Dielectric-passivated backside cell architectures
  7. Conductive adhesives
  8. Encapsulant alternatives to EVA
  9. Frameless and plastic-framed module designs

“Silicon PV is entering an era of unprecedented technological progress,” said Andrew Gabor, Consulting Analyst at GTM Research and author of the report. “While most c-Si cost reductions until now have stemmed from economies of scale and reductions in the cost of key consumables, the next few years will have to see technology innovation playing a dominant role in driving down costs. Platforms such as diamond wire sawing, selective emitters and reduced-silver metallization will enable higher cell and module efficiencies, more efficient material utilization and higher throughput processes that will keep the cost of silicon PV declining for years to come.”

FIGURE: Key Findings From Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013

Source: Innovations in Crystalline Silicon PV 2013

“The rate of technological innovation for c-Si is overwhelming and the potential impacts on PV module cost, performance and reliability are difficult to understand or predict," continued Gabor. “This report aims to help readers navigate these topics. We have made concrete recommendations based on both technology and cost/performance merits and do not shy away from controversial conclusions.”

GTM Research analyzes more than 150 vendors in this report and identifies the following companies and their technologies as potential market leaders:

  • Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT): Ion implantation diffusion for mono c-Si
  • Dai Nippon Printing (Tokyo:7912): Polyolefin encapsulant
  • DuPont (NYSE:DD): Ionomer encapsulant
  • Hitachi Chemicals (Tokyo:4217): Conductive adhesives for cell interconnection
  • Komatsu (OTC:KMTUY): Diamond wire sawing
  • Meyer Burger (SIX:MBTN): Diamond wire sawing
  • Schmid Group: Mask/etchback selective emitter for multi c-Si and TinPad™ rear metallization

Australia’s enLighten Looks for LED Support Abroad

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 17:00

One of the biggest advantages to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, is their inherent controllability. That controllability means that people can create settings for when they’re home or away, or better yet -- a sensor can tell when people are in the room.

Unless of course that person is not a person, but rather a robot in a warehouse, where the lights aren't always needed for it to do its job. 

An Australian LED company, enLighten, recently took a trip across the Pacific to introduce its technology to Bay Area investors after winning the 2012 Australian Clean Technologies competition. That technology looks a lot like various other companies that tout LEDs and controls. But there is one major difference.

EnLighten’s latest product, which will be released in a few months, takes out the human element, according to David Whitfield, CEO of enLighten. “From the grassroots, it’s philosophically different,” he argued.

The lighting system, which runs on a mesh radio network, is connected to what Whitfield called a “big brother” of an RFID card. Just like a building ID security card that most office workers carry around, the lighting card can tell the system where the people are. The company, however, also has other products that rely on more traditional motion sensors. 

You might be thinking that seems redundant if there are occupancy sensors attached to the lighting network, but not so, says Whitfield.

He claims his company has a solution that’s far more cost-effective than those from competitors. Like other LED companies that are experiencing substantial growth, enLighten saw 500 percent growth year over year from 2011 to 2012. Whitfield said the average payback for its projects was about 18 months.

For warehouses or other industries where there are non-humans on the move, the solution does not turn off and on unnecessarily. “Because it’s a people-based system, we don’t have problems with equipment or other heat sources,” said Whitfield. For large office buildings, Whitfield argued that many people are already carrying access tags.

Like other LED companies, enLighten has realized energy savings from the technology is just the beginning. “It wasn’t until we were developing our lighting controls that we realized how much intelligence we were gathering,” said Whitfield. His company is currently talking to a large industrial building controls company and looking at HVAC companies that might be able to integrate enLighten’s information into their products.

EnLighten was traveling as part of an international Cleantech Open group in San Francisco, but it seems as if the company has plenty in Australia to keep it busy. Australia’s carbon tax will continue to fund energy efficiency investments as the country focuses on lower-carbon energy use at home while exporting much of its coal and gas to Asia.

EnLighten was primarily visiting the U.S. to meet investors, but there is plenty of competition from other startups in the LED space, such as lighting controls companies like Lumenergi and Daintree Networks to LED providers like Cree and Digital Lumens.

For now, there’s space for plenty of new ideas in the burgeoning market. “The awareness level is at the bottom of the hill, but it is already climbing,” said Whitfield. “Energy efficiency appears to be something that still hasn’t really been discussed by most people in business.”

The CSP Storage Technology Race Heats Up

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 16:00

The race for the lead in concentrating solar power (CSP) development accelerated in recent weeks with major advances from SolarReserve, BrightSource Energy and Abengoa, the three primary contenders. Each advance moves solar power plant technology closer to its future.

BrightSource Energy (BSE) got final California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approval of revised twenty-year power purchase agreements (PPAs) with Southern California Edison (SCE) (NYSE:EIX) for a 250-megawatt power tower project at its Rio Mesa site and for a 250-megawatt tower project at its Sonoran West site with two hours of storage capacity.

BSE will deploy its next-generation technology at Rio Mesa, scheduled to go into service in 2015. Sonoran West, scheduled for completion in 2016, will be BSE‘s first use of its steam-heated molten salts storage system.

Spain’s Abengoa (PINK:ABGOY) began construction on two South African CSP projects. Both Khi Solar, a 50-megawatt power-tower project with two hours of storage, and KaXu Solar One, a 100-megawatt parabolic trough project with three hours of storage, won long-term PPAs from South Africa’s publicly owned Eskom utility in competitive bidding. Both are expected to be operational in 2016.

SolarReserve secured PPAs with Eskom for its Letsatsi and Lesedi 75-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) projects and its 88-megawatt Jasper PV project. PV is not SolarReserve’s first priority. But at its current low price, “photovoltaics have traction,” SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith said. “There is a demand and we are responding to the demand.”

“In our hearts, we view CSP with storage as the long-term solution,” Smith said, “but we are a development company. We have been looking at PV for a number of years. Sometimes technology is site-specific and sometimes it is market-specific. South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Chile and the Western U.S. are very good for towers with storage, but those markets are going to build PV, too. We are in both.”

To bid in South Africa, Smith explained, development had to be “pretty much complete,” with fully permitted sites, the interconnection and ancillary requirements in place, twelve months of solar resource site studies done, and debt and equity commitments approved.”

Abengoa had “a bit of a head-start,” Smith said. “We weren’t quite ready with CSP so we bid our PV projects. They are a bit easier to permit.” But SolarReserve’s 100-megawatt Redstone CSP project with storage is now fully permitted and will be bid in the May 2013 round, Smith added.

Smith wanted to talk about the CSP technology race. He discounted Abengoa’s trough technology because, he said, it cannot get its therminol fluid heated above “about 750 degrees Fahrenheit (F).”

The molten salts used by all three technologies to store heat solidify at just below 500 degrees F, Smith explained. Power towers get their fluids, compressed steam for BSE and molten salts for SolarReserve, to over 1000 degrees F, allowing almost twice the heat to be transferred for storage. 

“Our direct competitor is BrightSource Energy,” Smith said, and he believes SolarReserve’s Pratt &Whitney-Rocketdyne technology is ahead.

“Our project with storage is in construction and will be in commercial operation next year. BSE is transitioning their technology and have a ways to go until they have a storage solution. It is a work in progress. They won’t start construction until 2014 or 2015. We have a technology that exists.”

BSE has repeatedly said it is following its own roadmap, though its timeline matches Smith’s claims and SolarReserve’s 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes project, which will have ten hours of storage, remains on schedule in northern Nevada. It has a twenty-year PPA with Nevada Power with a publicly announced PPA rate of $0.135 per kilowatt-hour.

“We have four U.S. projects in development,” Smith said. “The 150-megawatt Crossroads project in Arizona will soon receive its final permits.” It also has a transmission interconnection, though not a PPA. “We would like to begin construction by the end of 2014.” Quartzite, SolarReserve’s second Arizona project, “is in late-stage permitting. We hope to get the final permits by mid-2013.”

The Saguache Project, two 100-megawatt Colorado power tower units, is also fully permitted. “We are in discussions with power off-takers but don’t yet have PPAs.”

The 150 megawatt Rice power tower project in Southern California, with a PPA from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) “is our next project. It should be in construction by the end of 2013,” Smith said. “It will have 7.5 hours of storage. For us, that amount of storage will be easy,” he added, but for BSE “7.5 hours of storage using a direct steam system is very expensive.”

BSE uses solar-heated compressed steam to drive a turbine. For storage, it will use the steam to heat molten salts. SolarReserve uses the sun to directly heat molten salts. Both will release the stored, heated salts to create steam that, even in the absence of sun, can drive the plant turbine and generate electricity.

BSE has frequently expressed reluctance to participate in a public tit-for-tat about the technologies’ merits but Smith was unhesitating. “Steam is the wrong thing to use to heat salt. You should be using the sun’s energy to heat salt. A steam to molten salt heat exchanger is not very cost effective or efficient. They go from steam to salt and back to steam. Why would you do that?”

Wind Power PTC Gets Republican-Led Support Group

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 15:00

Individual elected Republicans have stood up in support of the wind energy production tax credit, even if it means cozying up to folks like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council. But now wind-friendly Republicans have a wind-backing group they might feel more at home with: the new Red State Renewable Alliance.

The group, launched this week, is headed up by John Feehery, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican consultant, strategist and pundit (you know how that works in the capitol) who has had stints as the communications man for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay on his resume.

Image via Red State Renewable Alliance

“Studies show that the wind energy production tax credit pays for itself, cuts utility costs for consumers, and we all know that it is a clean energy resource,” Feehery said in a statement. ”We at the Red State Renewable Alliance will tell the story of wind energy and the wind PTC in new and innovative ways, and we will convert the doubters out there.”

The group notes that 75 percent of U.S. wind capacity is in Congressional districts held by Republicans; that 67 percent of wind manufacturing plants are in GOP districts; and that 71 percent of districts held by Republicans have either wind turbines or component manufacturing facilities.

Red State Renewable Alliance comes on the scene at a time of considerable soul-searching among Republicans about the degree to which the party seems fundamentally at odds with a changing electorate. As the party struggles to become less repellent to women and various minorities, might it also temper the anti-renewables stance that gripped it like a fever through much of President Obama’s first term?

It might not be a bad idea. A new survey shows that independent voters -- and even Republicans -- might be opening their eyes to the climate-change threat. Pollster John Zogby just reported that “half of Republicans, 73 percent of independents and 82 percent of Democrats” are worried about the growing cost and risks of extreme weather disasters fueled by climate change, a big shift from a poll three years ago that “showed two-thirds of Republicans and nearly half of political independents saying they were ‘not at all concerned’ about global climate change and global warming.” And renewable energy isn’t looking too bad to these folks, Zogby said:

Asked to pick the highest priority to help solve America’s energy challenges, twice as many voters select renewable energy like wind and solar power (38 percent) than any other choice. Independents favor wind and solar over fossil fuels by a 4-to-1 margin -- 48 percent pick renewable energy while just 12 percent select the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and only 11 percent prioritize more oil and gas drilling on America’s public lands.

Savvy politicians seem to be picking up on this: This week, Republican governors Terry Branstad of Iowa and Sam Brownback of Kansas, along with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), joined with Democratic governors John Kitzhaber of Oregon and John Hickenlooper of Colorado to push for the wind production tax credit to be renewed beyond Dec. 31.


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

GreenBuild: Battery-Backed Hotels, Smart Lighting, PACE Finance and More

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 13:00

GreenBuild, the country’s biggest building efficiency and sustainability design and technology conference, hit San Francisco last week. As one might expect, the conference was accompanied by a flurry of news on green building projects and partnerships.  

One of the more interesting items comes from San Francisco-based startup Stem and electric vehicle and battery startup Coda. The two announced Thursday that they’ve deployed a building energy optimization system at two San Francisco hotels -- the InterContinental in SoMa, opened in 2008, and the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, first opened in 1926.

You’d be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar properties in terms of energy technology and design than the LEED-certified SoMa hotel and the Jazz Era Mark Hopkins, which still uses steam boilers to run its plant. But Brian Thompson, Stem’s founder and CEO, said in an interview last week that the startup can handle both types of challenge -- the building that’s so new it’s hard to find any more efficiencies to wring out of it, and the building that’s so old it’s hard to know where to begin.

That’s because Stem doesn’t touch the actual building systems it optimizes, he said. Instead, it installs a battery and control systems at the building, connects it to the building power line via an inverter, and then uses that battery to store grid power when it’s cheap and discharge it when prices peak -- all without asking the building owner to do a thing. Typical energy bill reductions are in the 10 percent to 20 percent range, with ROI predicted in under three years, but often faster.

Can batteries actually be cost-effective in this way? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just turn down the lights and raise the thermostats during peak events to save money? Not necessarily, Thompson contends. First of all, most building owners and operators care far more about keeping occupants comfortable and safe than shaving money from their power bills, which puts practical limits on how much spare energy they can dial back at any given moment.

Secondly, Stem’s databases and cloud-based optimization platform can fine-tune the battery’s operation to maximize economic return, compared to most other building energy storage or power generation systems, Thompson said. That, in turn, is enabled by the big data analytics and real-time software that builds energy profiles of its buildings, using one-second power data, and then incorporates some 50 other variables into the equation.

That’s a similar kind of building energy analytics that we’ve seen deployed by startups like First Fuel, Retroficiency, Viridity Energy, BuildingIQ, SCIenergy and SkyFoundry, to name a few players in the building energy efficiency space. Stem differs from those in that it’s tapping an actual power source, rather than the end systems that consume power.

Of course, other green building projects are also using batteries as part of their mix. But Thompson contends that they’re not optimizing their use. Instead, they’re typically setting them up either for emergency backup power, or setting them on daily schedules that don’t necessarily reflect the best economic return, he said.

Indeed, one of Stem’s core economic advantages is that it can cycle its batteries far fewer times, by picking and choosing which times yield the highest economic impact. That extends battery life, and thus the working lifetime of the asset, improving ROI, he said.

In the case of the San Francisco projects, Stem is using 60 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion batteries from Coda, which has its own grid energy storage line of business. But Stem is battery-agnostic, Thompson said, and is working with other battery partners with unnamed retail and commercial property customers, he said.

At the same time, the complexity of commercial power rate plans plays to Stem’s benefit, Thompson said, since the software can analyze that complexity and pick out best options at a fraction of the speed and cost of hiring humans to figure it out.

“We have a real-time scalable data processing engine in the cloud that allows us to make decisions on the fly for our systems on the ground,” he said. “Most systems that use data collect data and store it -- and then it has to go read all that data,” a process that doesn’t lend itself to real-time management of building assets like batteries or automation systems.

Thompson and colleagues developed the technology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and launched the company, formerly called Powergetics, in 2009. The 30-employee startup has raised more than $10 million in VC funding from the Angeleno Group and Greener Capital, as well as investor David Buzby, a former SunEdison board chairman.

In other GreenBuild news:


- Last week saw a new development on the front of property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing -- putting the cost and payback of retrofits onto property tax bills. On Tuesday, San Francisco became the latest municipality to launch its own commercial PACE program, bringing building systems giant Johnson Controls in on a $1.6 million project to retrofit building property management firm Prologis’ headquarters at the city’s historic Pier 1 building. (Johnson Controls also launched new partnerships for its Panoptix cloud-based building management platform last week, including a set of apps partners like BuildingIQ and First Fuel).

About 90 percent of the project cost is being covered by 20-year, low-interest bonds backed by the property tax assessment created by the PACE program. That sets up a payment stream that doesn’t change when buildings change hands -- an important barrier to investing in efficiency in the commercial real estate world. In the case of the Pier 1 project, the bonds were bought by Clean Fund of San Rafael Calif., a specialty PACE finance provider.

PACE financing is one of several new financial models being tested in the commercial building efficiency retrofit market. As for the residential market, PACE schemes have suffered setbacks under federal rulings that barred Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from backing mortgages that included solar or efficiency property tax assessments, though we’re seeing new home PACE programs emerge that could help surmount those problems. 


- Can networked building lights save enough energy to make them worth the cost? We’ve seen a growing chorus answering that question in the affirmative, with startups like Adura, Redwood Systems, Daintree Networks, Digital Lumens and others announcing some big energy savings from their deployments.

The City of San Jose and light networking startup Enlighted joined that chorus on Wednesday, announcing that they’ve cut lighting bills at San Hose City Hall by 53 percent since deploying Enlighted’s distributed intelligence lighting control nodes in the building. The project wasn’t just aimed at saving energy -- it was also done to respond to employees complaining about the quality of light in their workspaces, which had led some to ask building maintenance staff to remove ceiling fixtures and had then brought in their own lights.

San Jose’s City Hall was already LEED Platinum certified when Enlighted came in, showing that there’s still room for squeezing even more energy efficiency out of even the most shiny-new green buildings.

Opower 4 Launches Enterprise Analytics for the Smart Grid

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 12:00

Earlier this month, we reported on Opower’s move to take on the big data coming off the consumer-facing smart grid.

On Monday the company announced that its platform, Opower 4, is officially live. The analytics engine, based on Cloudera’s Hadoop infrastructure, supports Opower’s core competency of delivering behavioral feedback to energy customers to help them be more efficient.

But it can do much more. In the past year, Opower has shifted from a utility favorite as an easy, light-touch customer engagement offering to an enterprise-level software platform, according to Alex Laskey, president of Opower. “Utilities see us as a way to get a more 360-degree view of their customers,” he said.

Opower, which is best known for mobile and mailed energy reports to customers, takes in about 90 billion meter reads a year from more than 75 utilities. The energy savings can sound miniscule; it’s about 2 percent across the 15 million households receiving its product, according to the company.

But that 2 percent is sustained over years, rather than merely representing an initial bump. But there are far more savings during peak times, said Laskey, about 20 percent to 30 percent, even without a thermostat. Those savings are possible because of Opower’s enterprise customer engagement platform, which customizes information using data from different utility platforms and crunches it with the thermal profile of individual homes, weather and historical usage.

Opower’s latest engine allows the firm to do four things for utilities: increase behavioral engagement, deliver better energy information to customers and utility workers, fine-tune retail and marketing offerings, and finally, provide home control.

The first step is what Opower has been doing all along. Delivering more tailored information to both customers and call centers can make calls more productive, because customer service agents have far more information at their fingertips to help resolve issues with angry customers.

The increased information is also key to the third point, offering more tailored retail and marketing. Like other companies in the space, Opower has started partnering with big-box stores. Opower might help a utility set up a program to offer 300,000 coupons to customers that seem most likely to use the offering for a more energy-efficient item. With individually barcoded coupons, Opower can then tell the utility who specifically actually used the coupons and determine who might benefit from more offerings.

Lastly, there is home control. Opower announced an agreement with Honeywell last year, although the relationship is still in its early days. Earlier this month, Ogi Kavazovic, Opower’s vice president of marketing and strategy, told Greentech Media that the company sees itself as the manager of a utility’s customer outreach program.

It’s not the only one: Aclara runs web portals for dozens of utilities; EcoFactor works with utilities and will be part of Comcast’s Xfinity offering starting in 2013; Tendril has various pilots and some large rollouts in the U.S. and abroad. Efficiency 2.0, which is like the RecycleBank of home energy management, was acquired by C3 earlier this year.  

Opower is also working with a handful of utilities in other countries, including EDF in France, EnergyAustralia, First Utility in the U.K. and China Light & Power.  

Opower is still pulling in new customers, but for the first time, the majority of its revenue is coming from existing clients. “Now that we’re enterprise, we can help with other sticky problems,” said Laskey. Opower acknowledges that being the customer partner for utilities means always getting it right. “There’s zero tolerance for a mistake,” he said of issues such as issuing high bill alerts.

Going into 2013, Opower will help utilities, such as Baltimore Gas & Electric, manage peak time rebate programs. It will also integrate its Facebook offering directly into the utility web portals and continue working with Honeywell on a hardware offering, likely through utility channels.  

“We’re driving customer participation in other programs,” Laskey said of Opower’s offerings. “But we’re also driving customer satisfaction.”

Who Will Succeed Energy Secretary Steve Chu at DOE?

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 00:00

Obama's second term will see Hillary Clinton depart as Secretary of State, Leon Panetta depart as Secretary of Defense, and Steve Chu likely to step down from his post as Secretary of Energy.

We're not going to handicap the now-controversial State post or the post at the DOD -- but we will check-in on the Obama DOE, a department that has its successes as well as tactical and structural failures. 

Rob Day writes that the DOE "needs to transition from a focus on technological innovation (without losing the progress made there) to a focus on commercialization and consensus-building."

Who could get that job done? Who gets to guide Obama's energy policy, such as it is, over the next four years?

We've had a Nobel Prize-winning scientist in Chu. Perhaps we need a DOE Secretary who is more of an engineer, financier, CEO, and/or political adept. Here's a list:

  • Jim Rogers: The CEO of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) said that that he was glad to be considered for the DOE role but did not anticipate taking the "lower-paying job." (Rogers made the comment during a November 8 earnings call.) Duke owns 58,000 megawatts of coal, gas, and nuclear power plants. Politico was the source of the "short list" which included Rogers as well as Cathy Zoi, now with Silverlake Kraftwerk and before that the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency; Kathleen McGinty, a director at NRG Energy and an operating partner at VC Element Partners; and Lewis Hay, the CEO of NextEra Energy. The right-wing Heritage Foundation takes issue with those choices here.
  • Bill Gates: "He has extensive experience running huge organizations [and] he’s been a proponent for years of doubling energy research funding in the U.S. What better perch to accomplish this than the boss of the DOE?" said Justin Raade, CEO of Halotechnics. And of course, "If he’s not happy with the amount Congress appropriates for DOE he can just top off the budget with a few billion of his own funds."
  • Elon Musk: If you're going to go with a fiercely driven engineer, I'd suggest we drop Gates and go with Musk. He sent a rocket to the space station, pioneered electric vehicle maker Tesla, and is Chairman of PV installer SolarCity. Now it's time for Musk to face a real challenge -- making the 16,000-employee DOE more efficient and more effective. Don't expect Musk to fund fuel cells, however.
  • Thomas Steyer: Steyer is the founder of hedge fund Farallon Capital Management and the co-founder of OneCalifornia Bank. He created the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University and is the co-founder of the Advanced Energy Economy Foundation, a think tank/lobbying group promoting a better business environment for advanced energy.
  • Susan Tierney: Tierney co-led the 2008 Obama DOE Agency Transition Team and assisted Energy Secretary Steven Chu early on. She was Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy in the Clinton administration. Tierney turned down the Deputy Secretary of DOE job in 2009. She is an energy consultant for the Analysis Group.
  • John Podesta: Chief of Staff in the second Clinton Administration, Chicagoan Podesta founded and chairs the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in D.C. He was the co-chair of the Obama transition team in 2008.
  • Steve Westly: Reportedly on the short list for the DOE post last time, Westly brings executive, political, and investor experience. He was State Controller and CFO of California from 2003 to 2007 and a leading candidate in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Westly is founder of The Westly Group, a greentech VC firm. He was an early employee at eBay.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger: No one doubts the governor's credentials on solar power and renewables -- his policies were instrumental in establishing California's solar leadership, as well as setting a 33 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard. Arnold would bring some Hollywood scandal to the DOE, which is lacking in that regard. And having Schwarzenegger in charge of the DOE's nuclear security program would be exciting.


Who would be the right person for the job?

Cathy Zoi, a former CEO of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and Kathleen McGinty, the Clinton-era chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This could be a private- sector draw too — there’s talk of Lewis Hay of NextEra Energy and Jim Rogers, the head of Duke Energy who was co-chairman of the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

Read more: Cathy Zoi, a former CEO of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and Kathleen McGinty, the Clinton-era chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This could be a private- sector draw too — there’s talk of Lewis Hay of NextEra Energy and Jim Rogers, the head of Duke Energy who was co-chairman of the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

Read more:

obably the Cabinet secretary the White House wants to see go the most. Nobel Prize cachet aside, the Solyndra debacle has been a disaster, and the Hill is unhappy too. Possibilities here include Cathy Zoi, a former CEO of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and Kathleen McGinty, the Clinton-era chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This could be a private- sector draw too — there’s talk of Lewis Hay of NextEra Energy and Jim Rogers, the head of Duke Energy who was co-chairman of the Democratic convention in Charlotte.


Read more: Cathy Zoi, a former CEO of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and Kathleen McGinty, the Clinton-era chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This could be a private- sector draw too — there’s talk of Lewis Hay of NextEra Energy and Jim Rogers, the head of Duke Energy who was co-chairman of the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

Read more:

CPV News: SolFocus Restructuring Itself for Sale

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 16:00

SolFocus, a pioneering concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) firm, is "restructuring the company for sale," according to VP Nancy Hartsoch. The firm's investors "have decided they want to sell," said Hartsoch.

SolFocus will have 18 megawatts of high concentration PV deployed in the field by yearend, along with a strong pipeline of future projects. The firm has had quarter-to-quarter growth in revenue for six consecutive quarters, according to Hartsoch, who added that the product in the field is outperforming expectations, and unlike some other CPV manufacturers, there are no product issues.

It's a cash flow problem for SolFocus, not product performance or lack of sales. And the hopeful path for the company is to find a buyer for the technology, project pipeline, and core team.

It's sad news for one of the CPV industry's stalwarts.

NEA is the firm's largest investor and has put $60 million into the company since 2006. Scott Sandell of NEA is on the board of the firm. Total investment to-date has been $230 million from NEA, NGEN, Apex et al. Earlier this year, SolFocus had been working with investment bank Advanced Equities to raise a Round E of VC funding, but Advanced Equities has its own issues and recently announced that it would be closing shop.

SolFocus was most recently working on developing  a 450-megawatt solar project in the border region of northern Mexico. At 50 megawatts with the potential to expand to 450 megawatts, it could easily be one of the largest CPV developments on earth. The largest currently operating CPV power plant in the world is the 30-megawatt Alamosa project with hardware from the struggling CPV firm Amonix.

Spectrolab, JDSU, and Solar Junction are certified suppliers of the triple-junction compound semiconductor solar cells. JDSU has since discontinued its efforts in CPV.

The competition for CPV is still flat-panel PV, which has large-scale installations quoting all-in system prices of below $2.00 per watt. SolFocus joins GreenVolts, Energy Innovations, Skyline Solar, and  Amonix as CPV players that have had to restructure, fold, or sell the business in today's merciless solar market.

Itron Teams Up With Panasonic for Japan Smart Meter Market

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 12:16

Itron (NASDAQ: ITRI) and Panasonic announced a strategic alliance to develop a smart meter platform specifically tailored for the Japanese market.

To meet the needs of the Japanese market, Itron will develop a smart meter that will use 3G cellular, but can also support RF mesh and power line carrier. For Panasonic, the agreement will allow it to expand its communications business into the smart grid sector, which will offer another path to market for its connected home energy products.

While North America is a slowing market for smart meters, the focus has shifted to Europe and Asia. In Japan, the government has mandated smart meters be installed over the next ten years.

“We’re proud to partner with Panasonic to deliver a proven solution that will serve as the foundation for the types of programs the government, utilities and people of Japan envision for their future,” Philip Mezey, president and COO of Itron Energy, said in a statement. “Itron’s technology will help the people of Japan realize their energy management and conservation goals.”

Partnerships in local markets are increasingly important. In Japan, Panasonic is competing with Toshiba, which bought Landis+Gyr in 2011. While the Swiss-based metering company makes Toshiba a major player in the utility space, it also boosts Toshiba’s consumer offerings in the residential space, especially with a focus on efficiency.

The agreement between Itron and Panasonic is hardly surprising given the shifting landscape of smart meter growth. Here is more on Itron’s third-quarter earnings news from GTM Research smart grid analyst Zach Pollock last week:

U.S. smart meter maker Itron had few surprises in its third quarter 2012 earnings call last Thursday. CEO LeRoy Nosbaum affirmed earlier GTM Research predictions of flat to slightly negative sales through the end of 2012 and heading into the first half of 2013. Don’t single Itron out, though -- this trend isn’t unique to the Liberty Lake, Wash.-based company, but rather reflects the state of the industry as a whole.

What’s driving the slowdown? In North America, only a handful of potential multi-million endpoint contracts remain, and regulators have become increasingly stringent in approving business cases for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).  In Europe, macroeconomic and political uncertainties as well as immature standards have delayed tenders at several utilities such as France’s ERDF. Concurrently, large projects won several years ago are now coming to a close.

The impact of project ramp-down has been significant. Itron’s global electric business revenue decreased 24 percent in constant currency from Q3 2011, largely due to the fact that several key OpenWay projects in North America have been completed or are nearing completion. Those include deployments at CenterPoint Energy, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and BCHydro.

Other marquee projects including Detroit Edison have also progressed rapidly, Nosbaum said. As a result, the company’s OpenWay backlog from the five aforementioned projects has decreased to $285 million -- down from the post-stimulus high of $949 million in Q3 2010.

The acquisition of cellular smart meter company SmartSynch (now Itron Cellular Solutions) added $60 million to backlog in Q2 and will be a critical component in acquiring new business going forward, given that Itron’s largest competitor, Silver Spring Networks, also offers RF mesh and cellular networking capabilities.  Itron’s management also noted the scope of the project at Michigan utility Consumer’s Energy has expanded, and there may be an opportunity to improve margins by utilizing Itron meter hardware in tandem with Itron Cellular Solutions communication modules.

In other smart grid earnings notes, smart meter and building controls networking technology vendor Echelon’s revenues in the Americas were down 67 percent from Q3 2011, largely due to the company’s marquee project with Duke Energy Ohio nearing completion. While Duke is still awaiting regulatory approval in its Indiana service territory, it appears Itron will be providing additional OpenWay meters in Ohio, as well an unspecified number of meters in the Carolinas, through a $43 million contract announced in the previous quarter.

While the North American investor-owned market has slowed substantially, there has been increased activity among both municipal and cooperative utilities, which collectively account for about 30% of the U.S. market. Despite the flurry of activity, including Itron’s recent win at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the sales volumes won through new municipal and cooperative contracts will be unable to fill the void in sales from the declining IOU market.

Given the slowdown in North America, and tempered growth expectations in Brazil following the Brazilian regulator’s August opt-in decision, vendors’ focus will to shift to Europe and Asia, where several RFPs should breathe life back into the industry in late 2013, most notably through offerings at ERDF in France, Iberdrola in Spain, and Tepco in Japan. However, it is important to note that contracts outside North America are typically awarded to more than one vendor. Such was the case at Spanish utility Iberdrola, which awarded a one-million-meter contract to seven different vendors in the first quarter of 2012.  Despite being selected to provide Iberdrola with its meter data management system, Itron did not have a competitive offering in the first bidding process. However, the company expects to have a qualified product ready in time for Iberdrola’s next RFP.

China should not be overlooked either and Echelon has positioned itself nicely to acquire new business through a joint venture with Holley Metering. However, meters and associated communications chips are becoming increasingly commoditized in China and there could be significant downward price pressure from domestic vendors.

CNN Political Pundits’ Advice to the Wind Industry

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 10:00

CNN political pundits Paul Begala (former advisor to Democratic President Bill Clinton) and Ari Fleischer, former advisor to Republican President George W. Bush, shared the keynote American Wind Energy Association Fall Symposium session and discussed the implications of the November 6 election for the wind industry.

The election was “the dog that didn’t bark,” Begala said. While other mature democracies are seeing rioting over elections during these hard times, “We got a clear mandate.”  The Democrats gained seats despite the economy. Tea Party candidates were rejected. Though Republicans retained control of the House because of redistricting, Begala said, “More Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans.”

“On election night, the Romney people really thought they won,” Fleischer said. “The Republicans hit their targets. But the Democrats hit their even higher targets. Something drove an upsurge in voter participation.”

When the discussion turned to wind, both offered insider advice on how to get the industry’s vital production tax credit (PTC) renewed.

Begala: Your industry should not present itself to Congress as a supplicant. They work for you. You create jobs and power homes and businesses in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet. And this is one of my favorite planets. Present yourselves as what you are: a great American industry.

Fleischer: The biggest threat to your industry is tax reform. In search of lower rates, they will look for loopholes. And a loophole is in the eye of the beholder. The likelihood is, given divided government, no changes will be made. But never take that for granted. Keep working both parties. Your biggest vulnerability will come from my party.

Begala: Every time we’ve created a lot of jobs, it came from a specific sector. In the '90s, it was IT and the biosciences. After September 11, it was national security. The president thinks this time they will come from renewable energy. Domestic jobs, high paying jobs, manufacturing jobs, green jobs. I think they can.

Fleischer: A congressman or senator listens to people who create jobs in their state or district. That is your most powerful voice. Who goes on the chopping block? The history of Washington is that most everything does get extended. But it is a bumpy ride. You have to show you are on your way to standing on your own, that this is a bridge, that it helps national security, that it helps the rest of the economy, that it is not something permanent. Particularly after Solyndra, you have to show them the economics are reasonable.

Begala: I’d rather have 100 Solyndras than one Koch brothers. Solyndra went under because the Chinese played unfair and undercut it, not because it was corrupt.

Fleischer: Your strongest arguments are going to be that wind is clean energy, made right here in the United States. For the country’s security, you want to have a diverse selection that can be turned up and down in response to the market, and renewables must have a level playing field to be part of that mix. The problem is how to define a level playing field. Every energy industry received some form of subsidy or tax provision. There is a government hand on every energy playing field.

Begala: If it was me, I would go to lawmakers, throw a quarter down and say, "That’s all I want. Twenty-five cents for every dollar you give the Koch brothers and Exxon" -- which are mature, developed industries. They don’t need any help. They are the most profitable companies on the planet and we are giving them four times the subsidies we give wind. That’s insane.

Fleischer: The bigger issue is the marketplace and commodities. That is the biggest obstacle to your industry. If the price of natural gas continues to drop, that will determine demand for your product, more than anything else. Free markets are still free markets, even with government involved.

In answering questions from the audience, both said the lame duck session could bring an extension of the PTC.

“Go see Spielberg’s Lincoln,” said Begala. “If you can abolish slavery during a lame-duck session, certainly you can do these things.”

“The fiscal cliff has to be settled before December 31,” Fleischer said. “And there ain’t nothing like a tax bill that’s about to pass for many little tax extenders provisions to get attached. That’s the way it has always been done.”

Begala said he was all for a carbon tax. Fleischer said Republicans might be for one except that such taxes rarely go to deficit reduction. “Usually the money goes to fund something else.”

Begala bemoaned the passing of the days when climate change was a bipartisan cause. “Republicans moved away,” he said. “Somehow it became antithetical to conservatism. I don’t get it.”

“There is settled agreement about the problem,” Fleischer responded. “But will the solution change global warming or just feed the government appetite for spending?”

At the end of the discussion, in answer to the question of who might run for President in 2016, Fleischer endorsed Vice President Joe Biden for the Democrats, saying it would be as much fun as this year’s Republican primary debates. Begala noted that Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio has already begun visiting Iowa.

For Solar Power Employment, Think Installer

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 17:00

If you've got your eye on a job in the green economy, especially one in the solar power industry, don’t think about working in a manufacturing plant. Get yourself trained on installing, not making the panels. That’s where the jobs are, according to new details from the Solar Foundation’s annual Solar Jobs Census that were released on Wednesday.

The group said that as of the end of September, installers employed 57,177 people in the U.S., a 17.5 percent increase over 2011.

“The growth by installers, especially at larger firms, signals that this sub-sector is heading toward a period of consolidation and maturation on par with other successful industries at this stage of the growth curve,” TSF Executive Director Andrea Luecke said.

Strictly on a percentage basis, the broad category that includes research and development and finance saw the biggest gain, moving up 46.1 percent in the past year to 8,105 jobs.

Image via the Solar Foundation

Meanwhile, the manufacturing subsector, plagued by overcapacity and overwhelmed by very inexpensive Chinese imports, was moving in the opposite direction – from 37,941 jobs in 2011, to 29,742 in 2012. Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar’s leading trade group, said in a statement that the segment is evolving and remains viable.

“While manufacturer jobs losses are unfortunate, this is a sign of a maturing and highly competitive global industry,” Resch said. “We’ve seen this consolidation trend in other industries, and we’ll see it again. Still, more than 1,000 solar manufacturers operate in the U.S., and with strong demand expected in 2013, they are positioned to make a rebound. This makes it all the more important to continue smart federal and state solar policies that drive private sector investment.”

Earlier this month, the Solar Foundation put out the top-level findings from its annual survey of solar employment, pegging total U.S. jobs at 119,016, up 13.2 percent from 2011.

For the year ahead, employers were forecasting another new 20,000 jobs. As the Solar Foundation noted, however, anticipated growth has tended to be overly optimistic, although steady gains -- outstripping overall national employment growth, in fact -- have consistently been registered.

“Though we have found in the past that employment projections tend to overestimate job growth, the actual growth documented by the Census series has nonetheless been impressive,” Luecke said. “The fact that such a large proportion of employers anticipate adding jobs despite the difficulties facing the solar industry suggests that solar employment will continue its upward growth trajectory.”

The Solar Foundation said the report -- done with BW Research and technical assistance from Cornell University -- was compiled using data collected from more than 1,000 solar companies. That gave the report a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.


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

Chevy Volt Batteries to Get Second Life in Grid Storage

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 15:14

What happens to that expensive lithium-ion battery in your electric vehicle when its useful life in your car ends? The anticipated growth of EVs and hybrids will result in tens or hundreds of thousands of used batteries in the coming years.

Do the batteries get thrown into a landfill? Recycled? Or can that battery pack find a second life on the electrical grid?

It's still early days for the role of electro-chemical energy storage on the electrical grid -- but utility Duke Energy, grid hardware giant ABB, and automotive manufacturer General Motors are deploying automotive battery packs to understand their usefulness on the electrical grid. Company spokespeople called this "the world's first research effort with EV batteries" for grid applications.

ABB will integrate battery packs supplied by GM into an energy storage system and provide them to Duke for installation on the grid "somewhere in its service territory." Duke spokespeople said that the goal would be to look at the value streams that can be gained from this new application. Applications include:

  • Back-up power during power outages
  • Reducing peak power and spikes in demand
  • Strengthening the distribution system
  • Integrating renewables and managing intermittency
  • Frequency regulation


"Batteries located close to the customer will help integrate solar power" according to the Duke spokesperson. GM is providing five battery packs for this project. ABB adds an inverter, electronics, and integration to the bare battery. The Chevy Volt’s battery will still have significant energy storage capacity, even after its electric vehicle life, according to GM.

The five used Chevrolet Volt batteries will be integrated into a system able to provide two hours of electricity for three to five typical American homes. This application is typically referred to as Community Energy Storage or CES and its economics and technological robustness remain to be proven. The system and the grid will have to be able to intelligently move power in and out of the batteries and do so in a way that benefits the utility and the consumer.

There are questions regarding this type of energy storage deployment and this type of collaboration can help to begin to answer these questions. If the price of energy storage and batteries has remained the obstacle, certainly the price of a ten-year old EV battery could change the economics of community-scale and grid-scale energy storage.


GE’s 20,000th Wind Turbine Tells a Tale of the Wind Industry

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 14:00

GE (NYSE:GE) got into the wind business in 2002 when it bought Enron Wind at a going-out-of-business-sale bargain price.

In November 2012, GE installed its 20,000th turbine. GE is the biggest turbine manufacturer in the U.S. and the world’s third largest. More than 3,000 of GE's turbines will be built in 2012, a year in which GE said it will break its previous annual capacity installation record of 3.99 gigawatts.

But in a recent interview, GE General Manager Matt Guyette said that “more than 70 percent of GE’s wind turbine deals so far this year have been overseas.”

The U.S. wind industry is doing everything possible to get turbines in the ground before the December 31, 2012 expiration of the production tax credit (PTC). But because Congress did not extend the PTC for 2013, the industry has pulled back. Plants have been shuttered, workers have been laid off, and developers have set sail for foreign shores.

Some say wind is ready to face life without the PTC, but Capitol Hill insiders expect a one-year retroactive PTC extension to come in the early weeks of the next session of Congress.

But the manufacturing of heavy-duty, high-tech machines like GE’s workhorse 1.6-megawatt and 2.5-megawatt machines requires twelve to eighteen months of lead time. And the hundred-million-dollar or billion-dollar development deals involving thousands of acres of land and twenty-year power purchase agreements with utilities take one to two years to complete.

So GE will be doing business in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific next year.

GE is hardly alone. Spanish mega-developer Iberdrola (PINK:IBDRY) which, according to industry insiders, has one of the strongest balance sheets in the renewables industry, announced Q3 2012 earnings up 12 percent and said it will slow growth in its U.S. business “until more favorable conditions arise.”

Goldwind USA (PINK:XJNGF), a subsidiary of the Chinese wind giant formed in 2010 to go after the booming U.S. market, is redirecting its project development toward Latin America.

This is the trajectory of the wind market in 2013.

Solar Balance-of-System Costs Account for 68% of PV System Pricing: New GTM Report

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 12:59

Over the course of the past year, the solar PV balance of system (BOS) market has gained considerable attention as the next lever in driving down installed systems costs. In 2008, 67 percent of an average project’s total cost was in the PV module, but today, thanks to an industry sea change, 68 percent of total cost resides in BOS, which includes a variety of structural and electrical components, labor and soft costs.

Given this new world order, the step-function reductions needed to help solar power deliver energy at or below costs of other generation sources will come from BOS technologies and efficiencies over the next four years. As a result, BOS manufacturers around the globe are being squeezed as the market landscape becomes more crowded.

GTM Research has just published Solar PV BOS Markets: Technologies, Costs and Leading Companies, 2013-2016, a 162-page report on global BOS markets, BOS component innovation and the survivability of leading BOS players. The report includes market sizing for both structural and electrical BOS, as well as total BOS demand forecasts by market segment (residential, non-residential, utility) and major national market (Germany, Italy, Rest of Europe, China, Japan, India, Rest of Asia and the U.S.). The report also offers industry professionals value-added BOS cost roadmaps for c-Si and CdTe, fixed-tilt and axis-tracking, and residential, commercial and utility projects.

FIGURE: BOS Cost Breakdown 10 MW Fixed-Tilt Projects in U.S., c-SI vs. CdTe

Source: Solar PV BOS Markets: Technologies, Costs and Leading Companies, 2013-2016

“BOS manufacturers around the globe are being challenged to offer products at reduced prices, in addition to providing value-added benefits like professional engineering services, highly integrated components and lengthy, robust product warranties,” said MJ Shiao, the report’s co-author and a Senior Analyst at GTM Research. “Our report examines each of the BOS product segments, its key players, market forecast and potential game-changing innovations that will drive success."

However, delivering a bankable and effective product to the solar BOS market is not easy. Manufacturers must balance scaling to meet volume targets, innovating in a way that is meaningful to the market, creating surety around new, innovative products in the form of bankability and guarantees, all while driving down costs.

GTM Research finds BOS innovation challenged by regional differences in quality, labor costs, codes and standards and material availability. Scaling manufacturing in new markets has also been a risky proposition for established manufacturers, as volume is dependent on stable incentive policy and good infrastructure to allow rapid adoption of PV systems.

FIGURE: BOS Market Taxonomy

Source: Solar PV BOS Markets: Technologies, Costs and Leading Companies, 2013-2016

This report is bullish on the BOS industry’s capability to deliver on promises of cost reduction,” said Stephen Smith of Solvida Energy Group and the report’s lead author. “The advent of technology decision-making based on historic system performance is upon the industry, which will result in maximum system performance and long-term operation. The cost pressure will also push many existing BOS players to the edge, and the eventual industry landscape will be less crowded, more realistic and more grounded in actual data than marketing claims. Coupling this with diminishing solar incentives -- the anticipated reduction in BOS costs will result in a more predictable and investment-ready industry.”

An “Energy Data Center” for California’s Smart Grid?

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 12:00

California leads the nation in green policies and programs, from its decades-long battle to keep per-capita energy consumption flat via efficiency (accomplished), to getting one-third of its power from renewable resources (still in the works). It’s also a leader in smart grid, with more than 16 million smart electric and gas meters deployed by its big three investor-owned utilities, and millions more coming from municipal utilities around the state.

Just how all that data is sorted, collected and managed has been a hot-button topic. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has spent the past few years working on rules for protecting the privacy and security of customer data collected by smart meters, in-home energy devices, demand response programs and other forms of smart grid technology.

At the same time, the CPUC has been trying to make smart grid data as open and accessible as possible -- primarily to the customers who own the data, but more broadly to as wide a set of third-party software, hardware and service providers as possible, to jumpstart a market for smart grid-to-home energy efficiency.

Last month saw a new proposal from the CPUC for an “Energy Data Center” (PDF) that could help solve the problem. Essentially, authors Audrey Lee and Marzia Zafar propose a central database to hold all the state’s smart grid data, scrubbed or “anonymized” to protect individual privacy, but otherwise open and available to all comers to do with as they wish. The CPUC issued a “scoping ruling” this week (PDF) to set the terms for public comment and involvement in the discussion.

The Energy Data Center is a fascinating concept, and in an important market for setting smart grid trends and standards. The CPUC has created an intricate set of categories for data in its smart grid privacy and security proceedings, but has largely excluded “aggregated data that does not contain personally identifiable information” from its strictest protections -- or restrictions, depending on your point of view.

Indeed, one of the key concepts is to make this anonymized bulk data available to the public, whether for a curious customer or a dedicated research team. But the CPUC’s proposal also lays out several use cases that would require the Energy Data Center to handle non-scrubbed data -- such as smart meter reads with a customer name or address attached -- in more secure ways.

For example, the CPUC is already providing non-anonymized data to state universities or local governments via nondisclosure agreements, the paper noted. The Energy Data Center would ideally be a central repository of that secured, private data, as well as a clearinghouse for NDA-bound research partners to access it, analyze it, and churn out reports -- again, with any public disclosures scrubbed of personal identifiers.

Indeed, because the CPUC is only allowed to enter into NDAs with other government entities, the Energy Data Center itself will have to be hosted by a government player, such as a University of California campus, the paper noted. That means that the CPUC needs to hash out the rules for what it’s legally allowed to do to promote the creation of an Energy Data Center before it proceeds. In other words, this thing could take years.

Where’s all of the state’s smart grid data going now? Today, it’s pretty much contained on the servers and storage devices of the utility and its various smart grid vendors. But the sheer scale of data has pushed the meter vendors into partnerships with big data experts. Itron is working with IBM and Teradata on a data center to store and manage the flood of data coming from its multi-million-meter deployment with Southern California Edison, for example, and Silver Spring Networks, the startup that networks smart meters for PG&E, and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is working on big data with investor and partner EMC.

At the same time, meter data management (MDM) providers in the California market, such as Itron, Ecologic Analytics (now owned by Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr) and Aclara, are all key players in converting smart meter data to a multitude of formats and functions, including customer presentment. No doubt they’ll be working closely with utility partners on whatever level of scrubbed, anonymized data the proposed Energy Data Center might require.

Beyond just managing the flood, California’s utilities are striving to squeeze more value out of their smart meter deployments. The CPUC has been putting pressure on PG&E, SCE and SDG&E to start turning on their meter-to-home ZigBee radios, to start providing customer data via web portal and Green Button download, and to start making the back-end IT changes that will allow third-party devices and software to link up with whatever platforms and marketplaces emerge for the state’s smart-metered customers. 

Indeed, the CPUC’s briefing paper takes a pretty adversarial tone to utilities regarding their data-sharing ways to date:

Currently, many organizations request access to customer usage information to research customer usage patterns and to measure the effectiveness of various State and Commission energy-related programs, such as energy efficiency and demand response. Yet, such information is not readily available. When a utility does make it available, it is often out of scope, aggregated beyond what is necessary to protect customer privacy and not useful to the requestors, and outdated. An ongoing concern is whether, and to what extent if any, the utilities act against the interests or wishes of the customer and erect barriers to limit the opportunity for authorized third parties to obtain customer usage information. An additional concern is whether the utility acts as barrier against the sharing of aggregated data with governmental organizations that are seeking data for research or operational purposes.

What might a California Energy Data Center look like? Texas may provide a model with its Smart Meter Texas portal, where the state’s smart metered utilities share information with customers via a common platform run via the state’s grid operator, ERCOT. Of course, Texas also allows retail electricity providers in its deregulated market to provide their own customer web portals, iPhone thermostat control apps, text-message information alerts, Green Button data downloads, and the like.

California’s market, while not competitive like Texas', is still a bit of a hodgepodge. Beyond the state’s big three investor-owned utilities, there are big municipal utilities like SMUD, or Glendale and Burbank in the San Fernando Valley, collectively adding millions more smart meters to the state’s tally. Big natural gas provider Southern California Gas has embarked on its own 1.5 million smart meter upgrade with partners including Itron, Aclara and Capgemini.

If the CPUC’s decisions so far are any guide, it’s likely that all of these entities will be contributing to the Energy Data Center. The CPUC ruled in August that municipal utilities and natural gas providers were subject to the same data privacy and security rules as were the big three IOUs, although the issue is still being contested by some parties.

Did Wind Swing the Election?

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 11:00

“The wind industry was unofficially on the ballot,” American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) CEO Denise Bode said in the opening session of AWEA’s Fall Symposium. The Obama administration “made us a top priority in this election.”

Bode said wind became “a referendum on the ballot. We didn’t mean to be, but Governor Romney came out against the PTC.” Industry lobbyists had spent the previous year educating policymakers on the importance of and broad-based voter support for the $0.022 per kilowatt-hour tax credit to the industry.

In response, Bode recalled, President Obama made renewal of the PTC one of his top five issues, and “[the wind industry] became a referendum on the overall agenda.”

Wind won, according to Bode, with 88 percent of PTC supporting candidates for the House and 86 percent of PTC supporting candidates for the Senate PTC winning seats. Maine even elected a wind developer, Angus King, to the Senate.

“Virtually every candidate who was good on wind either won re-election or was replaced by somebody who is good on wind,” observed OwnEnergy Founder/CEO Jacob Susman.

A new poll done on the day after the election of people who voted in Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado found that energy was as important an issue for many voters in those crucial swing states as foreign policy, and that it was more important than abortion.

This is a new and different finding than that in many previous polls that have shown that renewables are popular with voters. This one showed such preferences impacting actual voting decisions.

The poll was commissioned by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and conducted by bipartisan pollsters Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin.

“A majority of 2012 voters in these four swing states said energy was very important in their vote decision,” it reported. “More than three-in-five in every state,” the poll found, saw “a clear difference between the candidates in their position on energy.” President Obama’s energy position, poll numbers showed, “held slightly more appeal.”

In states otherwise narrowly divided, there were clear differences in Iowa (9 percent), Ohio (4 percent) and Colorado (3 percent). In Virginia, which otherwise might have been inclined toward Romney, the candidate's stance on energy issues tempered his lead.

The poll also found, as have many previous polls, that voters “want to see cleaner energy encouraged in their state.” Voters prefer natural gas, solar and wind to coal, oil and nuclear. Natural gas led everywhere but Iowa, where wind led.

According to the poll results, “There is strong agreement to transition toward cleaner energy sources” in the four swing states polled, and “swing-state voters are significantly more supportive of a candidate who advocates shifting to cleaner energy sources” (80 percent in Iowa, 75 percent in Colorado, 72 percent in Virginia, 70 percent in Ohio), for spending on clean energy R&D (77 percent in Iowa, 76 percent in Virginia, 75 percent in Ohio, 72 percent in Colorado), and for a national renewable energy standard (76 percent in Iowa, 70 percent in Colorado, 69 percent in Virginia, and 67 percent in Ohio).