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Thursday, August 20, 2009

FT discovers energy efficiency

The Financial Times has finally discovered energy efficiency:
This year, McKinsey calculated that in the US alone an investment of $520bn would cut non-transportation energy in the country by 23 per cent of projected energy demand – which would save the US economy more than $1,200bn.

Japan and western Europe are more efficient, but still have hundreds of billions of potential savings, while fast-emerging economies such as China and India have typically grown without much regard for efficiency until now.…

Little wonder, then, that energy efficiency stocks have been outperforming not just the market, but other clean technology stocks, according to recent research from HSBC.

Energy efficiency and energy management specialists enjoyed the strongest sectorial return in clean tech, up 16 per cent on the first half of the year, according to HSBC.
The story seems like a realistic overview, but a little bit stale.

HSBC report (on the HSBC Energy Efficiency & Energy Management Index) came out in June. It was then covered by Reuters and Energy Efficiency News.

I can’t find any 2009 updates on the EEEMI on the HSBC website, perhaps because it’s trapped behind a paywall. Greentech Media (unlike all the other sites) is kind enough to link to the report, ironically located on the NYT website.

Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t there something annoying about blogs and other online news sources that don’t link the original data — because they’re afraid you’ll go to the original site (or circulate the link to the original site)? Shouldn’t the blogger/reporter have confidence in creating enough value that people will want to link his/er site?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't get fooled again

Despite a promise less than a year ago to build a new factory in San Jose, and false hopes raised in April that the plant was back on, Tesla will be moving its HQ and factory to an abandoned Agilent (i.e. HP) factory in Palo Alto.

Tesla got the federal money it needed to build its sedan, which San Jose politicians thought was going to be built at the north end of the city, but was put on hold less than a month later and cancelled in January. The April promise from CEO Elon Musk was only
"I can say, definitively, the power-train engineering will remain in the Bay Area," Musk said. "Silicon Valley has the best electrical engineers in the world, and I'm a big believer in keeping some of the production here in the Bay Area."
If you’re going to pay the high Bay Area housing costs, you might as well have the high status address almost on campus at Stanford. (The San Jose location in Aliso was a long way from anywhere).

Still, I have to wonder whether the San José politicians were either premature in their big announcement or wrote bad contracts.. They won’t make that mistake again, and hopefully thier PV manufacturing bets will turn out better.

It certainly seems that my skepticism 11 months ago was justified:
The idea that the Bay Area will become a hub of manufacturing high-tech cars is just laughable. Because of labor, land, taxes and all the other costs, by the end of the year Intel won’t even have make semiconductors here — and they have a much higher technology content and value per pound.

Most of the parts for an electric car are shared in common with fossil fuel cars, and so if EVs catch on, nearly all of the electric cars in North America will be made in factories owned by the major world automakers (in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky or wherever). Perhaps the Prius will someday be made at NUMMI in Fremont — and even the 2010 plug-in version — but today NUMMI is the only remaining auto plant in North America west of Texas.
As it turns out, Monday’s Tesla announcement came on the same day that the NUMMI plant produced its last GM car after 40+ years of production. Rumor has it that Toyota also plans to leave — ending more than 4,000 jobs.

Tesla is a highly visible symbol of the next generation of passenger vehicles. Whether it will ever be a major employer — or in a century of open innovation, just a supplier of key subsystems — remains to be seen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Solar future not as bright as hoped

Last November, the future of solar power in the US looked bright. Yes, there were some economic problems on the horizon, and the economic contraction pushed down the price of fossil fuels. But still, PV technology has gotten a lot of free publicity and plays nicely to a new social consciousness associated with the new administration, global warming, etc. etc.

On Friday, the snarky “Lex” column of the Financial TImes took a rather dark view of the current situation:
What looked only last year like a shining future for the solar industry has flared into a supernova, incinerating profits and share prices. Demand for photovoltaic panels had been growing at 45 per cent annually from 2000 to 2008, but the industry underwent an aggressive expansion at the wrong time. Finished panel capacity is at about 9,000 megawatts while demand has contracted from about 6,000MW last year to 4,500 in 2009, according to Barclays

The recession is partly to blame, but so is Spain. Accounting for nearly half of global installations last year, Spanish demand is expected to fall from 2,500MW to about 300MW after subsidies were slashed.
WIth a glut of panel production due to last until 2012, Lex predicts a brutal price war that wipes out the less efficient producers.

Lex concluded:
The solar industry’s gold rush mentality and its unhealthy dependence on subsidies are to blame for its travails. The only positive is that private over-investment will make panels cheaper, giving taxpayers who sustain solar power worldwide a better deal.
Whether or not industry officials agree with Lex on the subsidies, “he” is exactly right on the investment. The entire industry’s success will be determined by its ability to drive down the learning curve, both to get manufacturing yields up and production costs down.

The existing firms need to utilize the funding that they already have — from customers, government and investors — to focus on efficiently serving existing pockets of customers that are managing to buy during this economic slowdown.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not quite 230 MPG

There were a lot of headlines Tuesday about the Chevy Volt claim of best case EPA mileage of 230 mpg. Kathleen Pender of the SF Chronicle (which is still alive) does a good job of dissecting the nonsense behind the calculation. Since the “mpg” figure doesn’t count electricity use:
In real life, the cost of driving a plug-in hybrid like the Volt would depend entirely on how far you drive it between charges and how much you pay for gasoline and electricity.

If you drive 20 miles on electricity alone, technically your mpg is infinite. If you drive 20 miles on gasoline alone, you might get 30 mpg or more.
This is a little more scientific than the explanation developed by comedy writers for Conan O’Brian, who noted that the mpg required going downhill, with a sail, etc etc.

Clearly the EPA guidelines need to be revised to give more realistic numbers for plug-in hybrids. But I imagine GM (aka Government Motors) got what they wanted: free publicity for their new (still vaporware) car.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bioavgas two years away?

Business Green quotes an aircraft exec as saying that commercial jet biofuels should be available by 2011:
Dr Alan H Epstein, vice president technology and environment at Pratt & Witney, told Businessgreen.com that the company was confident that the industry's efforts to develop biofuels were on track to attain the official certification new fuels require to be used commercially during 2011.

"We want to certify a biofuel by 2011 and we have an agreement to share results with GE and Boeing," he said. "Between us we make 98 per cent of the engine market and we genuinely are working as a team on this to get the engines certified for using biofuel. We think that is a realistic timescale."
Of course, agreeing on a formulation says nothing about commercial scale production, price competitiveness (for a commodity fuel) or global distribution, each of which could take years to achieve.

Still, I will be the first to admit that perhaps I have been too skeptical of jet biofuels — as long as they’re made from jatropha or algae or some other scalable crop, rather than coconut oil as used in the earliest PR stunt.