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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Environmentalists against solar energy

Normally when it comes to environmental policy, the renewable energy industry is on the side of the angels. A rare exception is Sen. Diane Feinstein’s imminent proposal to block off portions of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy projects.

As the AP summed it up:
California's Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.

Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last Friday that such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.

Feinstein said she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.
The main focus on the controversy has been on solar energy. The Mojave is the site of America’s first commercial-scale solar (thermal) energy system, the nine plants of the Solar Electricity Generating Systems dating back to 1985. The 354 MW capacity were once the largest in the world.

However, the desert is not far from the wind farms of the Tehachapi Pass, which with more than 4000 turbines is said to be the 2nd largest collection of wind generators in the world (after the Bay Area’s Altamont Pass). Depending on the boundaries, the monument might impact either wind generator or transmission.

While exacerbated by the increased clout of environmentalists in the White House and and Congres, the controversy has been simmering for a while.

Nearly 12 months ago at the Yale Climate Change Conference, Gov. Schwarzenegger blasted environmentalists. It was in the context of the San Diego’s planned powerline to Imperial County, but it would also apply to this month’s dispute:
One energy expert the other day said that the California Mojave desert which is a vast space with thousands of square miles is one of the best spots on planet earth for solar power plants. Pacific Gas & Electric wants to put three huge solar plants right there. And the whole world the Germans, the French, the Canadians, the Japanese they all want to come out to California and put solar power plants in the Mojave desert and in other places. The only thing is that the problem is getting that new energy to the power grid because of environmental hurdles.

What they have here is a case of environmental regulations holding up environmental progress. I don't know whether this is ironic or absurd. But, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it. (Applause)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the real world. We have to make some tradeoffs. I think both the environmental activists and their opponents cannot let "perfect" become the enemy of "possible," because the fact of the matter is nothing is perfect. Solar still needs transmission lines.
The governator is well-informed. For now, utility-scale plants appear to be the future of solar energy generation in California (if not the Southwest), and those plants require land that has high insolation, proximity to population centers and transmission lines back to those cities.

Moving the panels out of California will increase the transmission costs — both in terms of capital costs and transmission losses. It will also make it harder for California utilities to meet their 2020 renewable energy mandate.

Even the progressive editorialists of LA Times are skeptical:
We'll withhold judgment on Feinstein's monument proposal until she actually produces it -- the senator is still studying which lands to protect in a swath between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The decision-making process presents a welcome opportunity for dialogue about balancing the need for renewable power with the need to conserve sensitive lands.

Yet perhaps it's possible to love the desert too much; if we go too far in protecting it from solar development, those wide arid spaces promise to become a lot wider in the scorching future.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Plugin without the hybrid

Tesla’s Model S sedan is back on again, after Tesla delayed the sedan and cancelled its San José factory.

In Friday’s paper, the LA Times reports that Tesla claims to be close to negotiating a deal for a factory in the LA region. Apparently the government subsidies prompted the move 300 miles south:
The company has applied for $400 million in government loans, which it says it needs to get the plant off the ground and the Model S fully developed. But because the competitive federal programs favor projects situated on previously used industrial sites (so-called brownfields) rather than new construction, Musk said it would be in the company's best interest to find such a location.

"We did a review, and we just don't have a 500,000-square-foot empty building with 24-foot ceilings," said Reed, pointing out that Southern California, with its glut of abandoned aircraft factories, is rife with such spaces.
The hope is that the $57k Model S — derived from the $109k Roadster — will ship in 2011. However, the LAT points out that Tesla has backed out of other earlier deals.

The first version I heard of the story — on the radio — noted that plug-in hybrids are due next year from a number of vendors, including GM and Toyota. Tesla founder Elon Musk has diss’d the plugins before, although they have the advantage of working with gasoline for longer range trips.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guide to local Cleantech clusters

The website Xconomy has published a directory of San Diego cleantech companies. (I happened to find their collection of SD tech news while looking for something else related to my research interests there).

Their Seattle subsidiary has also published a list of cleantech firms in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, British Columbia).

I’m guessing that the Bay Area list is too big to make it into a blog posting.

Interestingly, the sustainable cities blog Sustainlane lists both San Jose and Berkeley among the top 5 cleantech cities, with San Francisco as a runner-up. Not surprisingly, perennial tech runner up (cf. A.L. Saxenian) Boston also makes the top 5 list.

What seems odd is the omission of Colorado. Maybe I’ve been sensitized by the succession of NREL speakers at SVPVS. However, it seems as though between NREL, the interest at their flagshop university, a supportive state policy and the long-standing interest in environmentalist in Colorado, that a significant portion of the nation’s RE investment would be found there. There’s even a trade association doing a census of the local cleantech firms.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Solyndra gets the first loan guarantee

On Friday, the Obama administration announced its first loan guarantee to a Fremon-based firm:
Energy Secretary Steven Chu today offered a $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, Inc. to support the company’s construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing plant for its proprietary cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels. The company expects to create thousands of new jobs in the U.S. while deploying its solar panels across the U.S. and around the world.
Green blog Climate Progress argues that the administration buried the news by announcing it on Friday.

Still, this gives us a better idea of how and when the administration will be helping RE companies — and also a path forward for RE companies that can’t or won’t deploy utility scale generation solutions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Steven Chu, unfiltered

Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke at the National League of Cities conference Monday. Apparently it was not newsworthy enough to mention on the department’s news website.

However, C-SPAN was there. I came in late on the cable broadcast, but the entire presentation is available on its website.

Chu’s talk was the first 40 minutes of the 75 minute afternoon session. This is a pretty illuminating talk, in terms of showing both the Administration’s policies and his own personal philosophy. It made sense, it was consistent with policy and his career. In general, the Nobel Prize winner spoke like a science geek, particularly when he said spending more R&D on energy research will help America correct its energy imbalance.

The only troubling thing was that at the end, when he started talking about Americans having a moral obligation (as in World War II) to sacrifice their personal desires (e.g. 0-60 in 6 seconds) in the name of the greater good. The most charitable way to read this is that he’s using the bully pulpit to get people to do the right thing. A more troubling view would be that the Administration plans to coerce people to do what the government thinks is right, moving away from market mechanisms and personal choice.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Utilities: where the PV money is

I attended last month’s SVPVS meeting where Chuck Hornbrook of PG&E was the guest speaker. It really changed my viewpoint on California’s PV industry.

Although I’ve had no time to write up here what I heard, blogger Eric Wesoff of GreentechMedia was there and summarized what he heard (and picked up by Seeking Alpha.) Hornbrook’s Feb. 11 slides are also posted to the SVPVS past events website (while some slides match a December 2008 presentation at the City of San Jose).

Wesoff captured the sense of the talk: PG&E wants to avoid generating greenhouse gasses, but will do so by the cheapest means possible. If increasing efficiency is cheaper than PV, then it will use efficiency.

Hornbrook said PG&E is using a three-pronged attack: energy efficiency, increased used of renewable energy that meets California’s Renewable Portfolio Standards, and the ClimateSmart carbon trading scheme. Overall, it sounds like California’s policy to encourage a EE/RE shift seems to be having the desired effects.

I don’t have a chance to elaborate on all the details of the presentation, but there were two big ideas that stick in my mind, even weeks later.

One is that Wesoff says that PG&E has a huge advantage over many (perhaps every) other utility. As Wesoff reports, Hornbrook said PG&E has half the grid-tied solar (i.e. customer-owned panels) in the US. By another measure, PG&E has 2/3 of the PUC’s California Solar Initiative but only 43% of the state’s population.

I didn’t capture the money quote, but the Hornbrook’s point is that PG&E has a lot of customers installing solar — not because we get a lot of insolation, but because of their beliefs. The PG&E territory overlaps some of the most progressive parts of the US — not to mention above-average affluence — so a lot of consumers (and perhaps businesses) are buying solar panels because they believe in them. True believers are a great way to spurt adoption until consumer PV can achieve grid parity.

The second aha! moment was that the PV equivalent of the (alleged) Willie Sutton’s quote. PV manufacturers are making and selling utility-scale PV solutions because that’s where the money is.

On Saturday morning, the lead of the business section in the Merc made my point:
Viewed by many as a potential bright spot in a gloomy economy, solar power's prospects appear to be dimming, at least for the near term.

Applications for new solar projects have plunged in recent months in California as homeowners and business owners struggle to get credit and rein in spending on big-ticket items such as a rooftop full of solar panels.

Solar-sector players remain bullish on the long term, and hope the combination of an increased federal tax credit passed late last year and the stimulus package approved in February will persuade people to add solar. They note that more megawatts of solar power were installed in California in 2008 than ever before.

[PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Zerwer] blamed the decline mostly on the economic downturn. But reductions in state rebates for both residential and commercial solar installations didn't help, Zerwer said. Others in the industry cited seasonal factors as well — fewer people buy solar panels during the rainy winter months.

Statewide, the three big investor-owned utilities, including PG&E, received about half the applications in January and February that they had in each of the last four months of 2008.
Both this week‘s story and the Feb. 11 talk point up a key point. Consumer and producer confidence — and also their ability to pay — have collapsed with the recession.

Electric utilities have capital, cash flow and a credit rating to pay for the mega-million dollar plants; small and young PV startups don’t. Utilities also have a gun to their heads: 20% RPS under contract by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

If the economy remains soft for the next 18-24 months, then (even with government subsidies) PV system purchases by electricity customers could continue to remain soft. If so, then utilities will be the customers driving down the costs of PV through the experience curve — favoring those firms and technologies (like CPV) that are particularly suited to utility-scale generation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Local Cleantech programs

There are a wealth of opportunities here in Silicon Valley for those interested in seminars and networking with others interested in the technology and business opportunities of photovoltaics.

Because I was having trouble keeping track of them — and because at tonight’s SVPVS meeting people reminded me of other events I haven’t been attending — I thought I’d pull them together all in one place.

SVPVS: Silicon Valley Photovoltaics Society
My favorite: an interesting group of speakers, great networking, and best of all it’s free. Here is the charter:
The charter of the Silicon Valley Photovoltaics Society (SVPVS) is to create a forum for entrepreneurs, business people, investors, engineers and scientists which are active or interested in photovoltaics or related technologies.

With a strong society we seek to promote the competitiveness of the PV industry in the Bay Area by improving the awareness of relevant technologies, by forming a network between business and science and by simply getting to know each other in this field.
Meetings are the second Wednesday of the month at PARC. A catalog of past speakers and their presentations are available online. Notices of future SVPVS events are available on the home page or via email subscription.

TiE: The Indus Entrepreneurs
The CleanTech SIG of TiE Silicon Valley focuses on cleantech entrepreneurship. The mission includes
We seek to put together compelling programming that will cover pertinent topics across the vast range of cleantech sectors, including solar, biofuels, energy storage, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, carbon trading, clean coal, and others.
There is no RSS feed and the master event calendar seems to be broken, but the general email announcement list includes CleanTech events.

SDForum has two programs
Both types of events are priced at $30 each for nonmembers. SDForum has is a general email list.

SVASE: Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs
There does not appear to be a home page, RSS feed or mailing list for the events, but the events are listed on the general event page and the Clean Tech events are announced in the general announcement email list.

PARC Forum
The free PARC Forum is not a clean tech series per se, but recent events in the series have been heavily weighted towards cleantech topics. There is an email subscription list and (best of all) a RSS feed. The archive includes video clips (alas in WMV format) of past events.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mapping the cleantech sector

I found an interesting sector diagram at Greentech Media:
2008 Greentech Market Taxonomy
It has the unfortunate problem of calling "Greentech" what the rest of the world calls “Cleantech” (OK, I’m biased). Still, I thought it worth bookmarking as an interesting taxonomy on how to think about all the various segments within the sector.

I don’t think that the NAICS or SIC will ever reclassify all these disparate industries into a common sector — efficiency will remain up with appliances and devices, while power generation will stay with brown (black) power technologies. So this will never officially be a sector, but obviously there are analysts (and reporters and blogs) who will cover it as though it is one.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

EE excuse to buy new Mac Mini

As a longstanding Mac lover (if not a Mac bigot), I was glad to see that Apple updated its family of desktop computers today: the iMac (the main home machine), the Mac Pro (a business machine) and the Mac Mini (essentially a small home server or second machine).

In the press release, Apple’s COO (running Apple in lieu of CEO Steve Jobs) bragged:
The Mac mini is not only our most affordable Mac, it’s also the world’s most energy efficient desktop computer.
Apple’s press release qualified the claim by saying
Claim based on energy efficiency categories and products listed within the EPA Energy Star 4.0 database as of February 2009.
which seems about as good a way to research energy consumption as any. However, when it says the Mini consumes 13 watts while “idle”, it is not clear whether they mean sleep mode (i.e. the wall wart power drain) or when the CPU is on but not doing any meaningful computing.

Fast Company notes that both the Mini and iMac meet the proposed Energy Star 5.0 specifications, which go into effect on July 1.

The Obama administration hopes that investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency will both improve the nation’s energy budget and also stimulate the economy. So for those looking to do their part to encourage such efforts, go buy a Mac Mini. While you’re at it, buy a more efficient monitor — since that’s where the bulk of the power consumption goes.

Behind on my blogging due to work and volunteer commitments. Still hope to catch up before next week’s SVPVS meeting