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Friday, December 10, 2010

The end of the solar house fad

Residential PV is a core segment for the industry, solar hot water in California dates back 100 years, and passive solar design can be traced back to Roman times. So the use of solar energy for houses is both an ongoing market and nothing new under the sun.

However, the idea of college teams competing to build solar houses is a fad that’s just about run out of steam: the business model is fundamentally broken.

The way it’s supposed to work is that students work together to build an energy efficient house that runs off renewable energy. SJSU has its ZEM House. Students learn not only about principles of EE/RE design but also get a chance to put those principles into practice. A side benefit is that the tangible artifact creates visibility both on and off campus for the students, the school and the overall green movement.

The reality, however, is that making a tangible artifact costs money: the numbers I’ve heard are between $800k and $2 million, depending on the competition, team, local costs etc. For example, the 2009 Team California house (produced jointly by Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts) cost $1.3 million to participate in the Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the Department of Energy.

A million bucks is a lot to spend on a house that isn’t really going to be used, and may in fact be torn down or soon forgotten. A lot of that money will go to contractors and PV suppliers and other, but that’s not the most efficient way to use public money.

Meanwhile, $1 million could do a lot of good in many other ways. It could pay for 50 student-years of scholarships at a public university. It’s a good start for endowing a professorship of PV or RE or EE (which can range from $1-5 million, depending on the school). It could install 100 KW of PV capacity on the school roof, or at city hall, or on local residences. (BTW, designing and installing that capacity would be almost as instructive as building a throwaway house).

One local college, Santa Clara University, participated in 2007 and 2009 in the national Solar Decathlon. My understanding is that they won’t be back. The reality is that schools have only so much fundraising capacity (and donor base) and that is better used for either more direct student benefit or a more permanent infrastructure.

So what will replace it? Virtual design competitions? Electric car races? Prototype-scale systems? As with any other business — clean or otherwise — these pedagogical approaches need to be cost-effective and supported by a viable business model

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Some observations on global solar adoption

I just spent two days at a workshop for solar equipment producers sponsored by Festo AG. (I was invited to support its efforts to build a Festo-sponsored open innovation community.) Several of the speakers offered great statistics, history and other facts about the development of the industry.

Below are a few “stylized facts” about where PV is being produced and used.

1. Solar Price is Relative

Substitute costs are the key driver of solar adoption. If energy is cheap, no one wants expensive RE. If energy is expensive, RE may not seem all that expensive. European adoption is high due to high fossil fuel prices, while US has historically had cheap energy. However, with our high insolation and high (Tier 4 or Tier 5) utility bills California is almost break-even without subsidies today, Hawaii too. Germany is a long way off, China will be decades away at 5c/kWH.

2. Roadmaps Help

The PC industry grew for 40+ years with a a technology roadmap based on Moore's Law. There is evidence that PV cost cuts also provided a predictable roadmap. According to consultant Ruurd Boomsma, the prices generally fell 5-6% per annum, much more slowly than LCD prices over the past decade. (However, prices fell more dramatically in 2009 and it’s not clear if that’s the new normal or a one-time shock.)

3. US is Inherently Messy

It is clear that the US policy regime is more fragmented, confused and contradictory than either Germany or China. Although Germany has Federalism, the RE policy is mainly at the national level, not the staaten. In most other countries, the states/ provinces are relatively weak and the RE policy is made at the national level. Also, RE policies (eg. for residential solar) are better understood in countries with national policies than in the US (where the major policies are at the state level).

4. Jobs Follow the Entire Value Chain

There's been a lot of discussion (and hand-wringing) on the huge shift of PV production to China and elsewhere in Asia. However, the major shift has been for cells. Modules are more expensive to ship and to inventory, and may continue to be produced near (or closer to) actual use. Installer jobs will also remain in the developed economies and perhaps the balance of system too.

5. California isn’t Serious About Green Jobs

California has spent lots of money on RE subsidies and is proud to lead the nation in such subsidies — just as it led the nation in regulating tailpipe emissions for years. However, the state has been trying for 20 years to destroy the local manufacturing base through regulation and taxation. If not for the dot-com boom, this would have been pretty obvious a decade ago, but the lagging recovery (and 12% unemployment is making them visible now.)

Mayors, legislators and governors claim to want green jobs, but their bureaucracies tie up new manufacturing efforts with red tape through opaque discretionary approval processes. (I heard a few choice examples Tuesday). It’s no coincidence that the silicon has left “Silicon Valley: that Santa Clara-based Intel is building factories in Oregon and Arizona and New Mexico but has closed its last factory in Silicon Valley. SV alumni and VCs start companies here because it’s convenient, but the manufacturing is going elsewhere.

Five years from now, I predict there will be no large-scale solar manufacturing in California. The PV manufacturing growth for California and the Southwest will be in Nevada (no income tax), Arizona and New Mexico.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sputnik fallacy redux

In his speech Monday to the National Press Club, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that clean energy represents a new "Sputnik” for the US. In this remake of the space rate, the Red Chinese are playing the role of the USSR.

To quote from the official press release:
A New Sputnik Moment
Secretary Chu said that China's investments in clean energy technologies represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. While China's experience with rapid, large scale deployment of technologies makes it an important global testing ground and creates opportunities for scientific partnerships between our two countries, it also means that America cannot afford to take our scientific leadership for granted. Secretary Chu stressed that our economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy.
Dr. Chu’s slides even more explicitly make the Sputnik analogy, quoting Dwight Eisenhower.

As CNET reported his remarks:
Chu said that the U.S. needs to fund research in clean-energy technologies in order to stay apace and take advantage of the economic opportunity that cleaner energy technologies represent globally.

"America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us energy we want inexpensively and carbon free," he said during his presentation, which was Webcast. (Click for PDF of slides.) "I think time is running out."

He said there are risks in the status quo which were detailed in a report called Business Plan for America's Future which was authored by business leaders including Bill Gates, venture capital investor John Doerr, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

The report said there are many benefits to moving to a cleaner energy system in the U.S., including public health, protection from climate change, and cleaner air, but none of these are recognized by the free market. Also, the scale of investment required in new energy technologies in beyond the scope of commercial companies, which is why the government should fund research and development.
As I noted six weeks ago, there are two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, the cheap Chinese manufactured goods are helping reduce CO2 outputs even if they take market share from US and German firms: Western leaders have to decide which is more important, saving jobs or saving the planet.

Secondly, the idea that renewable energy policy can be approached like a moonshot is a fallacy that was demolished by three leading innovation economists (who all have strong environmental sympathies). (Official Research Policy article here, working paper here).

Dr. Chu’s answer is to throw more money at federally funded technology development. I realize that Dr. Chu is a scientist who spent years spending DOE R&D money, but the answers are going to found in industry, not federal labs.

Yes, the US is and remains the innovation leader of the PV world. But the problem is not technological innovation, but in business models and manufacturing efficiencies. I don’t know what kind of business advice Chu is getting, although both Doerr and Immelt have shown their priority is to get the government to subsidize their EE/RE bets.

Nothing that Chu suggests will change the fact that China has 4x as many young people and will someday have 4x as many science PhDs as the US. Nor will it change the fact that the cost of capital and land and labor (and energy) is so much cheaper for Chinese manufacturing that none of his proposals would bring back US manufacturing in any significant way.

If the US is not going to be exporting manufactured goods to any significant degree, what can it do? It can try to imitate Germany of a decade ago and sell lots of goods to its domestic market before that market is swamped by imports. Or it can try to export technology, services and other innovations that are not so manufacturing- and cost-sensitive.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding a good niche

As in any other industry, the success of new cleantech businesses usually depends on finding a good niche. Yes, the big oil companies would like to start with billion (or trillion) dollar market segments, but most other companies need to start with a small, well-defined, highly motivated and easy to target segment.

Today the Merc offered a profile of an intriguing electric vehicle company that seems to be taking a different tack than Tesla, Fiskar and the other big VC-funded firms. Green Vehicles Inc. of Salinas (an hour south of San Jose) is selling the Triac, a tricycle commuter car for $25K, with a top speed of 80mph and a “real” (not best case) range of 100 mph round trip.

The $25K MSRP does not include the $7,500 Federal subsidy and a state subsidy (under AB 118) of up to $5,000. So you pay the 10% sales tax on the full $25k, but still the car is cost-competitive (to buy, before operating costs) with conventional cars selling for around $13,500 — and there aren’t a lot of cars in that range. It would get me the 12 miles to work, or the 4 miles to the LRT to work or the CalTrain to San Francisco.

The car is severely limited in size (two people) and like other pure EVs, in range. But to me, this could be the ideal commuter car to throw into the portfolio as a third car, say for households with a teen driver that has a 2-5 mile one-way trip to high school or the mall job.

More importantly, the low up front cost will allow someone to experiment with this restricted-capability vehicle — inherent in pure EV models — to see if it fits their lifestyle. Even if it only holds two people, I think a $14k vehicle (after incentives) has a much bigger audience than the $57k ($35k after incentives) Tesla Model S sedan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An honest (ex) politician

Corn-based ethanol makes no sense from the stand point of economics, food policy, energy policy or land use policy. Monday, former senator and presidential hopeful Al Gore admitted this reality: even as a former politician, it puts him in a select group who will admit this Emperor Has No Clothes. (It also confirms the speculation at the time of his divorce that he never plans to run for president again).

As Reuters reported:
"It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol," said Gore, speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens, Greece. First generation ethanol refers to the most basic, but also most energy intensive, process of converting corn to ethanol for use in vehicle engines.

"First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small," he said, referring to how much energy is produced in the process.

The U.S. ethanol industry will consume about 41 percent of the U.S. corn crop this year, or 15 percent of the global corn crop, according to Goldman Sachs analysts.
Alas, half of the GOP senate thinks they’ll be a presidential nominee in 2012 — about the same number of Democrat senators assume it’s possible for 2016; pandering to foolish farm state subsidies is a bipartisan effort. (Perhaps the GOP House members will live up to their budget-cutting claims.)

So while it would be nice to end the ethanol craziness, it seems like things are going to get worse before they get better.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tortoises for Global Warming (tm)

I’ve previously written about the perverse goals of some environmentalists and politicians to block RE development protect wildlife. or, worse yet, to save views in Cape Cod or the Mojave Desert. Some of the same activists who want government to force through spending and approval on RE facilities cringe when there’s a tradeoff between reduced CO2 emissions and other environmental goals.

The NYT’s green blogger, environmentalist Todd Woody, does an unusually good job of capturing both sides of this dilemma in his blog posting and article today about how more than 4 gigawatts of newly-authorized capacity (mostly solar thermal) will likely transform the Mojave Desert — despite repeated objections by the Sierra Club and other environmentalists.

The flashpoint of the Mojave controversy is the California Desert Tortoise. As Woody writes:
The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant development of the desert – from casinos and strip malls to subdivisions and off road recreational vehicle areas – took their toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.
However, as Woody also notes, the new plants will provide resources, funding and data to better understand the tortoise and how to preserve it. (In other words, much as building a shopping center sometimes funds archaeological digs that otherwise would not have happened.)

The article suggests that the controversy is far from over. In the short run, it may get stronger as Gov. Brown appoints one or more wildlife environmentalists to replace Schwarzenegger appointees who consi entire favor RE over wildlife. In the long run, the actual evidence gathered by the newly-funded scientists should resolve the debate one way or the other.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Profiting from environmental catastrophe

The Chicago Climate Exchange has collapsed and is going out of business. It originally announced last month that it was scaling back, but now the plans are apparently to close up shop in December.

The exchange was created to trade carbon emission credits, in anticipate of a US cap-and-trade bill, but the bill died in the 111th Congress and its prospects are non-existent in the 112th.

Popular Science sees this as a bad thing: if the US won’t trade carbon credits, other countries will. Investor's Business Daily sees it as a good thing, further evidence that “job-killing” environmental regulation is temporarily on the back burner.

Like anything profiting from a government-created market, the major investors were among the most politically well-connected. According to IBD, the financial losers in the death of the CCX are its two main investors,Al Gore's Generation Investment Management and Goldman Sachs. Also losing out is Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae CEO during the subprime fiasco, who owned a patent on trading related to trading carbon emissions of residences.

Perhaps with the retrenchment of the CCX, the investors and regulators can solve the inherent problems of the carbon-trading schemes, including their potential for money laundering and the risk of fraud in countries with low transparency and/or weak legal enforcement.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Never believe a politician

The NY Times ran a story Saturday (picked up by the Merc) about the dedication of the new BMW electric car factory in the former East Germany. If nothing else, it proved that political hyperbole is not just endemic to the US but apparently a disease that afflicts the would-be ruling class the world over.

Just as our president has visited the shiny new PV plant of the (now-troubled) Solyndra, so Chancellor Andrea Merkel was on hand for the opening of the Leipzig plant scheduled to crank out EVs starting in 2013. Merkel’s picture was used in the dead tree Merc (I don’t get the dead tree Times).

There were no quotes from Merkel in the story, but the Times found the prerequisite hyperbole from the local governor:
“We’re at the beginning of an auto revolution,” said Stanislaw Tillich, the prime minister of the state of Saxony.
Despite this glowing prediction, NYT Germany correspondent Jack Ewing interpreted the company’s announcement as predicting limited production of only tens of thousands of units each year. Politicians notwithstanding, BMW appears to see this as a limited niche for now. (Various web sources suggest that BMW sells about 1 million cars/year, the majority of those 3-series sedans.)

Also, the new car seems like it will be less of a BMW and more a new subbrand, Megacity, a sister to the BMW-owned Mini brand. The factory already produces the BMW economy car, the 1-series, that we don’t see here in the US. I don’t know if this is to start a new brand for electric cars or (more likely) protect the performance reputation of the main BMW brand.

The Merc headline (but not the story) also trumpeted this as competition for Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors. While the rumored volumes dwarf anything yet demonstrated by Tesla, it’s hard to see how an electric econobox will draw demand from the existing Roadster.

We would have to see the actual list prices of the vaporware Megacity — as well as Tesla’s planned sedan — to predict whether the former will cannibalize sales of the latter. Based on what I’ve heard so far, this would be like asking whether Camry drivers will trade down to a Yaris — it’s possible if there’s a $30k difference but probably not if there’s a $10k difference.

However, a planned BMW PHEV sounds like a direct competitor for the Roadster:
BMW said it had also decided to produce a plug-in hybrid sports car known provisionally as Vision Efficient Dynamics. The car, which has been displayed at auto shows as a design study, will accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than five seconds, but be more fuel-efficient than most economy cars now on the market, BMW said.
The fabled BMW image, engineering and track record (in both senses of the phrase) could give it an edge over the fledgling Silicon Valley firm.

The three-cylinder diesel BMW would not be available until “2013 or 2014” at a price above €100,000. So for now, the limited-range all-electric Roadster has some breathing room.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An expensive way to not save the planet

In Monday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson wrote about administration plans to make a $10.5 billion down payment on a $200 billion cost of constructing 13 high speed rail corridors (including $19 billion for California).

A few choice quotes:
What would we get for this huge investment?

Not much. Here's what we wouldn't get: any meaningful reduction in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, air travel, oil consumption or imports. Nada, zip. If you can do fourth-grade math, you can understand why.

We are prisoners of economic geography. Suburbanization after World War II made most rail travel impractical. …Trip origins and destinations are too dispersed to support most rail service.

Only in places with greater population densities, such as Europe and Asia, is high-speed rail potentially attractive. Even there, most of the existing high-speed trains don't earn "enough revenue to cover both their construction and operating costs," the Congressional Research Service report said. The major exceptions seem to be the Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon lines.

President Obama calls high-speed rail essential "infrastructure" when it's actually old-fashioned "pork barrel." The interesting question is why it retains its intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities. They imagine public benefits that don't exist and ignore costs that do.

Samuelson predicts economic disaster for California if it spends $43 billion to build a high-speed rail system it can’t afford to operate. Or rather he predicts that the current economic disaster will get worse.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

America's RE problem: consistency, not dollars

Over the weekend, the NY Times ran an article summarizing the great building boom of utility-scale solar projects for the Mojave desert that has been approved in the past 60 days.

It minimized the difficulties the developers have faced getting federal, state and local approvals, and instead focused on the gun to their head: the looming expiration of federal subsidies.

As reporter Todd Woody wrote:
The Ivanpah plant is the first of nine multibillion-dollar solar farms in California and Arizona that are expected to begin construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees that are about to expire. The new plants will generate nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity if built — enough to power three million homes.

But this first wave may very well be the last for a long time, according to industry executives. Without continued government incentives that vastly reduce the risks to investors, solar companies planning another dozen or so plants say they may not be able to raise enough capital to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a burst of projects over the next two months and then you’re going to hear the sounds of silence for quite a while,” said David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, on Wednesday after he announced that his company would invest $300 million in the Ivanpah plant.

With both Democrats and Republicans promising to rein in the federal budget, it is unclear whether lawmakers will extend the programs in any form. “That could stall a number of projects and even lead to the failure of some,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Lux Research, a consulting firm in New York.
Reading this in my Sunday Merc was eerie, because it exactly echoed what I read Saturday night about the beginning and end of the first wave of Mojave solar thermal development during the 1980s, where the nine plants of the Solar Electricity Generating Systems developed by Luz International once accounted for 95% of the world’s solar electricity generation capacity.

Writing in a technical report for Sandia National Laboratories, Luz’s former business development VP, Michael Lotker, summarized how the company was repeatedly forced to plan its projects in between the institution of subsidies (such as RE tax credits) and their expiration. Often this meant that a 18 month project had to be completed in ten months — and in one case seven months — as the company was squeezed between knowing that the credit was available and the deadline for generating electricity before the credit expired.

Knowing that Luz had a gun to its head, investors, suppliers and even the unions exploited the company’s desperation knowing that it had to agree to almost any terms to make the project happen. As a result, the company ran out of money, which helped discourage any future company from taking the risks that it did.

If the government is paying for something — whether directly via procurement contracts or indirectly via tax subsidies — it has a strong interest in helping its suppliers (in this case of renewable energy) improve their efficiency. More efficiency is a win-win — either the government can get more of it supplied or it can get the same quantity at a lower price. So with the unpredictable, irregular or erratic policy — such as “temporary” credits renewed one year at a time — pushes up costs both for the firms and the society that is subsidizing those firms.

Both Woody’s story and the earlier report by Lotker highlight an important point for US renewable energy policy: the most important thing (as with any policy that impacts business) is consistency and predictability.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

GE: green energy or greenwashing?

For more than five years, GE has been branding its green/environmental/sustainability efforts as ecomagination. It has custom domain, a Twitter feed and a prize contest (using open innovation ideas). It event spent nearly $3 million for a 2009 ecomagination SuperBowl ad.

When GE rolled out the campaign, a grad student writing in Monthly Review (which proclaims itself an “Independent Socialist Magazine”) was more than a little skeptical
As environmental degradation continues to expand in tandem with global capitalism, environmental consciousness becomes a new marketing strategy. GE's newest invention is to present itself as an environmental crusader. "Ecomagination" is its latest moniker, proclaiming that one of the world's largest corporations has gone green, embracing environmentally-friendly policies and promising to provide the world with solutions to environmental problems. All we have to do is trust the company and continue our lives, preferably as its customers, and it will bring us the clean, pure world shown in its advertisements.
An anti-envirnomentalist’s op-ed in the New York Sun was equally skeptical:
Environmental activists are cheering General Electric's new "Ecomagination" initiative. That's a hint that the rest of us should beware of the gimmicky-sounding program.

"Ecomagination is GE's commitment to address challenges such as the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy, reduced emissions and abundant sources of clean water," CEO Jeffrey Immelt said. "And we plan to make money doing it. Increasingly for business, 'green' is green."
Skepticism or not, there is a substance behind the ad campaign of the $150 billion/year conglomerate.

After selling its first turbine in 1901, GE quickly moved into renewable energy by selling a turbine for hydroelectric power generation. Its turbine expertise also led to its involvement in nuclear plants, as well as a range of fossil fuel power generation systems. Its decades-long experience with power transmission has also made it one of the most aggressive corporate backers of smart grid — the subject of the 2009 Super Bowl ad.

GE’s position in wind is more recent. In 2002, it spent $358 million to buy the wind energy assets of the bankrupt Enron Corporation, which had bought the business five years earlier. Founded in 1980 by Jim Dehlsen, Zond Energy shipped its first turbine in 1981. (Early on, Zond also purchased turbines from Vestas to install in its pioneering Tehachapi wind farm).

While GE’s wind business is the market leader in the US, 80% of its sales are in the US — perhaps a legacy of the lack of global focus by Zond or Enron. In its home market, it seems to be losing share to foreign competitors like Siemens of Germany and Suzlon of India. Like other Western makers, it has minuscule share in China due to trade barriers, and so last month formed a 51/49 joint venture with a Chinese partner.

GE also entered the PV industry via acquisition, with its 2004 purchase of the bankrupt AstroPower and its process for thin-crystalline silicon cells. More recently it has invested in various thin film processes, including CdTe and CIGS. A year ago, a GE R&D exec said solar was “the next wind for us.”

GE mentions solar thermal as a line of business but doesn’t say much about it publicly.

The contribution of these RE efforts to GE are a mystery, as it doesn’t break out wind or solar financials. Overall, the energy infrastructure segment of GE accounted for 24% of its $155 billion in 2009 revenues — but 62% of its $11 billion in profits. In mid-2008 it predicted $1 billion in solar revenues by 2011, but no progress report on how close it is to reaching that milestone.

Monday, October 25, 2010

To nuke, or not to nuke?

Nuclear power’s disadvantages — technical, economic, social acceptability — will probably prevent it from making much difference in solving climate change problems. Energy, both literal and metaphorical, spent on nuclear power is energy not spent working on other parts of the menu of choices for addressing climate change issues.”
— Lee Clarke, “The Nuclear Option,” in Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society
In a countries like France and Japan, the lynchpin of efforts to reduce carbon emissions (and imports of fossil fuels) is electricity generated from nuclear power. Overall, Clarke says that fission reactors generate 14% of the world’s electricity, and 20% of that in the US.

In the US, proponents of nuclear power argue that it’s a proven technology, it substitutes directly for the dirtiest of electric sources (coal), and the greenhouse gas emissions are zero. This option is particularly salient for moderate environmentalists (or at least liberal Republicans) who worry about GHGs but consider the nuclear question long since settled.

Of course, opposition to nuclear power in the US dates back more than three decades. I recall rock concerts and traffic jams in a futile effort to block PG&E from building the 2.2 gigawatt plant in the isolated Diablo Canyon — opening in 1985 as one of the last new nuke plants in the US.

Some of the environmental opposition is dispassionate and logical, focusing on the lack of political will (and technical uncertainties) regarding storage of spent nuclear fuel. Other opposition is hysterical, right up there with the anti-vacinnation campaigners who worry about imagined mercury risks (from vaccines that no longer use mercury as an antibacterial).

Similarly, some of the economic arguments are more sound than others. Nuke plants have huge capital budgets, long approval processes, and require complex and expensive technical and security training to operate safely. As with all economic policy arguments, the arguments against (or for) plants are subject to the usual lies and distortions because no one checks who was right 30 years later.

Some try to combine the approaches. Just as death penalty opponents claim (rightly or wrongly) that death penalty litigation is more expensive than 40 years of room and board, some environmentalists say that whether or not the plants are safe, they put too much of a rate burden on ratepayers.

Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Routledge International Handbooks)In his chapter from the Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society, sociologist Lee Clarke is openly skeptical of environmentalists (such as Stewart Brand) who believe the threat of global warming is greater than the threat of nuclear power. While not anti-corporate like some authors in this edited volume, he clearly has the same objections to nuclear power today as did leading environmental groups 20 years ago long before IPCC, Kyoto and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Still, one doesn’t have to agree with the motivations of people like Prof. Clarke to agree with his conclusions. Even if nuclear power is the right solution, is it a feasible one? Even with a major push, given the restrictions on where plants can be placed American voters and regulators are unlikely to approve more than a modest increase in the number of reactors. Another complication is the need to replace 40+ year old reactors as they come up for decommissioning, perhaps (as in Southern California) building them alongside the old ones.

Meanwhile, US (and IAEA) policy is not going to promote putting up fission reactors across South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

If politics is the art of the possible, then the reality is that nuclear power (at best) will make a small difference. While those who want to reduce manmade global warming might want to support any proposed nuclear projects, they can’t be counted on to solve the entire problem.

Meanwhile, from a business standpoint, the stagnant industry already concentrated with four manufacturers consolidated to three: GE Hitachi, Westinghouse and Areva NP of France. What business there is will go to incumbents, not new entrants.

And even these companies recognize the long odds: none are placing all their eggs in a nuclear basket. GE has leveraged its turbine skills to remain (for now) the dominant seller of wind turbines in the US market, one of five major players overall, while Hitachi is concentrating on turbines for the Japanese niche market. It also has a solar business, as does Westinghouse (through its partnership with the company formerly known as Akeena) and Areva (which bought the SV firm Ausra in 2009).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Apollo metaphor: crash and burn

The Merc’s website (but not the dead tree paper) had a story Thursday afternoon about the California branch of the Apollo Alliance, a lobbying effort by “business, labor, community and environmental leaders” for policies to support cleantech companies and cleantech jobs. The story wasn’t picked up by other outlets because there isn’t much new: the Apollo Alliance is based in San Francisco, already had a rollout effort in California in October 2008, and the group issued a press release three weeks ago supporting AB32 and attacking Prop 23.

The Merc story highlighted the support of cleantech businesses, but the website and the group’s publications suggest that the Apollo Alliance is more of a political group run by an alliance of labor and environmentalists. The New Apollo Program manifesto lists a 14-member board chaired by longtime legislator (later state treasurer) Phil Angelides, and the board also includes the head of three environmental groups, two labor unions and noted environmental activists Van Jones and Robert Redford.

While the Alliance seems intended to win clout through its big name backers, it seems an otherwise unremarkable example of the three factions to lobby for government regulation and spending to support cleantech companies and onshore jobs. For example, the Merc story says:
"We've seen energy policies stall at the federal level, and it makes what's happening in California all the more important," said Cathy Calfo, executive director of the Apollo Alliance. "It's important to have a comprehensive strategy to move toward a clean energy future."
However, there is the matter of the name. To the question of “Why do we call it the Apollo Alliance?” the group’s website says:
Like JFK’s Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon in under a decade, an Apollo project for energy freedom must be big, bold and fast. Here’s the speech President Kennedy gave when he announced his Apollo project at Rice University in Houston, September 12, 1962 …
The problem is, renewable energy or energy efficiency are not suited to an Apollo-like project. That’s not my conclusion, but that of three of the world’s leading innovation economists — David Mowery of Berkeley, Dick Nelson of Columbia and Ben Martin of SPRU — in an article they wrote just to rebut such policy silliness, who share the goals of the Apollo Alliance but explicitly reject its policy metaphor (if not its specific policies).

As they begin:
Many supporters of government action argue that the problem is so great, the need for new environmentally friendly technologies so urgent, and the time remaining for implementation of solutions so limited, that a “Manhattan Project” or an “Apollo Program” is needed.
and then note how the two metaphors have been around for more than a decade. From that, they summarize four reasons why the metaphors not only are wrong, but will lead to policies that won’t work
We emphasize at the outset that we share the broad concern of these authors about the immense risks of global climate change, and we agree that strong, well-resourced government technology policy is part of the solution. However, proposals to model such a policy explicitly on the Manhattan or Apollo projects are, as this paper will argue, wrongheaded, and if adopted could waste resources and limit the prospects for success. Although the prospect of global warming raises technical and economic issues that are, if anything, even more daunting than those posed by a lunar landing or the crash wartime program to develop an atomic bomb, the nature of these challenges is quite different. Most importantly, both the Apollo and Manhattan projects were designed, funded, and managed by federal agencies to achieve a specific technological solution for which the government was effectively the sole “customer”.

By contrast, technological solutions to global climate change must be deployed throughout the world by many different actors, and these deployment decisions will require huge outlays of private as well as public funds. Both the industries developing and producing these solutions and the sectors in which the technologies will be deployed comprise a very heterogeneous group, ranging from wind power to internal combustion and from electric-power generation to dairy farming. …

Another point of contrast between the R&D programs that will be needed to combat global warming and these earlier federal “models” is the relatively high degree of administrative centralization in both the Manhattan and Apollo projects. As we note below, the tension between centralization and decentralization in large-scale R&D programs is an important issue in program design for which broad prescriptions are likely to be unrealistic or vacuous. But government R&D programs to combat global warming will involve numerous organizations, and consequently mechanisms for the coordination of priorities, resource allocation, and performance evaluation will be essential.

Lastly, unlike the development of an atom bomb or of a manned space vehicle, halting or reversing global warming almost certainly cannot be achieved solely through ‘supply-side’ policies and the development of technological ‘solutions’. Indeed, one of the largest dangers created by the Manhattan or Apollo metaphor is that it may be adopted by politicians seeking to avoid the far more painful demand-side policies aimed at changing human behavior and halting the ever growing demand for energy previously regarded as a prerequisite of ‘human progress’.
I can’t possibly summarize a 14,000 word research article in a brief blog post, and I encourage people to read the article in its original — either the official version at the Research Policy or the working paper published by Britain’s equivalent of NSF.

However, this is yet another reminder (as if we needed another one) that innovation policy is too important to be left to politicians or lobbyists, but instead needs to be handled by people who know something about the subject.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

End to solar thermal? Not so fast!

September and October have been great months for utility-scale solar thermal projects in California, as the state (with cooperation from the Feds) approved six projects with 2.8 gigawatts of capacity in the Mojave desert. Five of these are proven trough systems, while the sixth plans to use a Sterling engine.

However, Michael Kanellos and Brett Prior of GTM speculate it’s the beginning of the end for solar thermal. Their argument is sound in principle, but I wonder if their timing is premature.

Most of the advantages of the solar trough systems are also its disadvantages: it's low tech, decades-old proven technology that works well at scale. For years, the world’s largest solar facility — and California’s entire utility scale solar capacity — consisted of the nine SEGS sites totaling 354 MW in Eastern Mojave. The GTM argument is that the main solar thermal systems — both trough and tower — are about to lose to PV on cost per watt and LCOE, and that the price of PV technology will continue to improve more rapidly than that for thermal.

I think the latter is certainly true — PV costs have been coming down for decades, while many of the thermal parts are mature and proven. Also, the moving parts on heating water and running turbines guarantee significant operating costs that are not seen by PV, which are essentially semiconductors covered by glass windows that need to be washed.

Has it crossed over yet? I think the crossover is coming, but the fact that all six utility scale systems are thermal rather than PV suggests it’s still a ways off — or at least that PV manufacturers can’t ramp up production capacity quickly enough to generate gigawatt-capacity plants.

While the costs are attractive, PV clearly has more risk in the short term than the proven thermal technology. That (as they argue) other utility scale systems plan to use PV suggests the crossover is coming, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

The other thing about the argument is that it says little about the economic viability of thermal systems either operating or under construction. If utilities have signed a PPA with the RPS gun to their head, they still need the contracted capacity at the agreed-upon price.

In fact, if both Jerry Brown gets (re) elected (even odds) and Prop. 23 fails (it’s outspent 3:1), then utilities are going to need whatever capacity they can get to meet the RPS standard of 33% by 2020. Keeping the 33% requirement will give an extra 2-5 years of life to the solar thermal market (beyond whatever its natural lifespan is) as buyers wait for PV manufacturers to ramp up capacity to meet a global — not just California — demand for renewable energy.

Renewable energy is a capital-intensive commodity business. At some point solar thermal companies will have a hard time competing for the bulk of the market, but for now they can — in best Monty Python fashion — note that “I’m not dead [yet].”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lessons from greening Google's billions

Although I don’t follow wind all that closely — if for no other reason that it will make a relatively small contribution to increasing California’s use of renewable energy — it was hard to miss news this week of Google’s investment in a planned $5 billion wind transmission line off the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The “Atlantic Wind Connection” (as it’s called) is interesting on several levels. The ownership is split between Google (37.5%), an investment company called Good Energies (37.5%), and the Japan trading company Marubeni (15%). The deal came about from a chance meeting between developer Trans-Elect Development and Good’s desire to find new projects to invest in.

The announcement is interesting on many different levels.

One is that this is a sizable bet among a series of ongoing RE investments by Google. It appears that it fits nicely with the founders’ philosophical support for renewable energy, as announced by Larry Page three years ago (and reflected in their personal investments in Tesla among other cleantech startups.) The announcement also reflects Google’s strengths at mass communications in web-enabled world, as much of the press coverage was just a paraphrase of the key details provided by Google and its partners in its posting and press conference. (A rare exception was the National Geographic story.)

The second point is that, as the Heritage Foundation noted, this is a rare example of a large RE project being funded by private investors rather than hefty government subsidies. They quote approvingly from the official announcement by Google’s “Green Business Operations Director”:
We believe in investing in projects that make good business sense and further the development of renewable energy. We’re willing to take calculated risks on early stage ideas and projects that can have dramatic impacts while offering attractive returns. This willingness to be ahead of the industry and invest in large scale innovative projects is core to our success as a company.
Third, this is a reminder of the importance of transmission infrastructure for any large-scale renewable energy projects: where the power is generated (wind coastal shelves, sunny deserts) is not where it needs to be consumed. The 350 mile transmission line would be built about 22 miles offshore, and come ashore in four places: Northern NJ, Southern NJ, Delaware and Southern Virginia. It would eventually have a capacity of 6 gigawatts of power. The project construction would take from 2013-2021.

Fourth, as an April paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points out, a wide geographic dispersion of wind farms can ameliorate one of the biggest disadvantages of wind power — dramatic fluctuations in output — by smoothing that output over a broader geographic base. The law of averages may make large scale wind generation more useful than the existing wind farms concentrated in a few localized areas like the Tehachapis and the Altamont Pass.

Fifth, the unique advantages of the Mid-Atlantic region point out the limitations of offshore wind more broadly. As the NYT article summarized:
The lure of Atlantic wind is very strong. The Atlantic Ocean is relatively shallow even tens of miles from shore, unlike the Pacific, where the sea floor drops away steeply. Construction is also difficult on the Great Lakes because their waters are deep and they freeze, raising the prospect of moving ice sheets that could damage a tower.
So if the plants have to be located far enough offshore to avoid objections over aesthetics but in shallow enough water to operate a fixed platform, there are limited opportunities to do so.

Sixth, it appears that local and state governments have conflicting motives between NIMBYism and a desire for local jobs — to the point of discouraging East Coast use of renewable energy generated in the Midwest. (A similar dynamic has occurred here in California). Again the NYT captured it nicely:
Nearly all of the East Coast governors, Republican and Democratic, have spoken enthusiastically about coastal wind and have fought proposals for transmission lines from the other likely wind source, the Great Plains.

“From Massachusetts down to Virginia, the governors have signed appeals to the Senate not to do anything that would lead to a high-voltage grid that would blanket the country and bring in wind from the Dakotas,” said James J. Hoecker, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who now is part of a nonprofit group that represents transmission owners.
Finally, the construction of a transmission line does nothing to solve the daunting cost problems of offshore wind energy. Parochial governors aside, the cost of building and operating wind turbines in the ocean is higher than on flat dry ground: 50% higher is the estimate provided by the NYT.

More generally, the prices of wind generation are not falling as quickly as solar, and in fact ticked up last year at the height of a deep recession. (What’s up with that?) Blogger Tom Fuller argues that wind has a fundamental problem of lack of competition — where a cartel of a few large manufacturers controls the supply of generating equipment — and predicts an eventual triumph for solar:
There are a lot more [solar] manufacturers, and they are increasing capacity continuously. Each new generation of fab provides 20% performance gains, and the next generation of wafers is longer, wider, thinner and less likely to break. Innovations for their balance of system peripherals come from a variety of outside companies in their supply chain, and the inexorable march to grid parity is nearing its goal.

They both get the same level of subsidies, which amount to a pittance overall. So what’s the difference?

Solar sells to consumers, too. Residential, small business, offices and plants. Solar scales down as well as up. And their customers are you and me–cranky and demanding if things don’t work, unwilling to sign long term contracts, wanting to see bottom line improvements rather than brochures showing acres of installations.

So solar will win. Not because they’re nicer guys, but because their industry is more fragmented and they have more demanding customers.

Which, I believe, is the way the system is supposed to work.
So perhaps offshore wind will be the only local supply of RE available to the Northeast, but — as with everything else over the past 40-50 years — the region will remain an expensive place to live and work. In other words, not a good place to put a Google server farm.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can we win the clean energy race? Should we?

Browsing the WSJ.com website, I found an advertorial that proclaimed
China Becomes “Clean Energy Powerhouse”

China, determined to be on the forefront of green technology, “is emerging as the world’s clean energy powerhouse,” according to a recent study from The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit organization based in Washington, DC

For the first time ever, China topped all nations last year in investments in low-carbon energy like wind and solar power. Over the past five years, environmentally friendly energy finance and investments in China grew from $2.5 billion to $34.6 billion, almost double the $18.6 billion in investments attracted by the United States.

And that is only one part of the country’s growing emphasis on environmentally friendly products and practices. Along with ambitious targets for wind, biomass and solar energy, China aims to spend 34 percent of its $586 billion stimulus package on green projects.
The advertorial, sponsored by Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, went on to note the airline’s involvement in carbon offsets and the other customary forms of greenwashing used by big businesses. (I don’t take the dead tree WSJ anymore, so I didn’t see when/if it ran in the real paper.)

Pew is an environmental advocacy group that got a lot of coverage when their study of G-20 countries (entitled “Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?”) came out in March. A well-orchestrated PR campaign — tied to legislative hearings in Congress — brought the issue back to the forefront last month.

The numbers in the report compiled by Bloomber New Energy Finance seem accurate. However, the conclusions seem intended to stampede US public sentiment towards greater Federal spending (or mandated ratepayer spending) to subsidize the sale of RE equipment in the US. To quote from the executive summary:
This report documents the dawning of a new worldwide industry—clean energy—which has experienced investment growth of 230 percent since 2005. Demonstrating its strength, the clean energy sector declined only 6.6 percent in 2009 despite the worst financial downturn in over half a century. In 2009, $162 billion was invested in clean energy around the world. …

Within the G-20, our research finds that domestic policy decisions impact the competitive positions of member countries. Those nations—such as China, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain—with strong, national policies aimed at reducing global warming pollution and incentivizing the use of renewable energy are establishing stronger competitive positions in the clean energy economy. …

There are reasons to be concerned about America’s competitive position in the clean energy marketplace.

Relative to the size of its economy, the United States’ clean energy finance and investments lag behind many of its G-20 partners. For example, in relative terms, Spain invested five times more than the United States last year, and China, Brazil and the United Kingdom invested three times more. In all, 10 G-20 members devoted a greater percentage of gross domestic product to clean energy than the United States in 2009. Finally, the Unites States is on the verge of losing its leadership position in installed renewable energy capacity, with China surging in the last several years to a virtual tie.

The U.S. policy framework for reducing global warming pollution and promoting renewable energy remains uncertain, with comprehensive legislation stalled in Congress. On the other hand, America’s entrepreneurial traditions and strengths in innovation—especially its leadership in venture capital investing—are considerable, giving it the potential to recoup leadership and market share in the future.

Policy, investment and business experts alike have noted that the clean energy economy is emerging as one of the great global economic and environmental opportunities of the 21st century. …

Nations seeking to compete effectively for clean energy jobs and manufacturing would do well to evaluate the array of policy mechanisms that can be employed to stimulate clean energy investment. This is especially true for policymakers in the United States, which is at risk of falling further behind its G-20 competitors in the coming years unless it adopts a strong national policy framework to spur more robust clean energy investment.
In other words, the Pew argument is that there is a “race” and the US is losing. This is a proven rhetorical device: The “missile gap” was used during the Eisenhower administration and the Space Race during four administrations to build support for massive Federal spending on aerospace technology.

But perhaps the argument is less effective today. Some of a libertarian bent would argue against Pew by saying (roughly) “if other countries want to waste their money renewable energy, let ’em.” This is probably preaching to the choir — those who buy this argument weren’t going to listen to Pew and vice versa.

My own concern is: is it reasonable to believe that US mandates for RE will create jobs and a self-sustaining US industry? The success of Vesta and other Danish wind turbine companies is the best case. The NYT reported Wednesday about similar hopes by Silicon Valley companies using advanced technology to efforts to keep up with Chinese manufacturing costs.

Worst case is the ongoing collapse of the German solar industry (after years of the world’s best solar incentives). Another is the one-way shift of solar jobs by US designers to Chinese factories — in parallel to most other medium-technology manufacturing moving to China or other offshore locations.

But suppose we can win the race: Should we? The leading academic journal on innovation policy, Research Policy, ran a series of four articles this month on how innovation policy should respond to the global warming threat. The lead article by three of the world’s leading innovation economists emphasized the broad dissemination of clean energy technology to reduce global carbon emissions rather than hoarding to help domestic energy producers:
In recent years, the threat of global climate change has come to be seen as one of the most serious confronting humanity. To meet this challenge will require the development of new technologies and the substantial improvement of existing ones, as well as ensuring their prompt and widespread deployment.

Combating global warming, as we noted earlier, requires that technological solutions be deployed on a global scale as soon as possible. … Much more than “technology transfer” will be required, although support for the global dissemination of information and, potentially, subsidies for other nations to stimulate the adoption of technological solutions may be important parts of the international scope of such a program.
To put it in plain English: technological solutions to climate change must be shared and perhaps even subsidized for the rest of the world.

So for any US policy, I see at least a four-way tug-of-war of competing goals: helping the business growth and profits of US companies, providing US jobs, spending government (or ratepayer) money most efficiently, and saving the planet. When the US DoD invented the Internet we could have all four, but that outcome seems unlikely for today’s challenges due to both the capital investment and large number of foreign competitors and countries chasing these same clean energy jobs.

I don’t know which goal (or goals) will win out, and without knowing the specifics I can’t personally say which one should win out.


David C. Mowery, Richard R. Nelson, Ben R. Martin, “Technology policy and global warming: Why new policy models are needed (or why putting new wine in old bottles won’t work),” Research Policy, Volume 39, Issue 8, (October 2010), Pages 1011-1023. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2010.05.008

Pew Charitable Trusts, “Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race? Growth, Competition and Opportunity in the World’s Largest Economies,” Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Innovative technology, commodity electrons

One of the points I make when teaching about solar energy — as I did for three classes this week — is that the economics of renewable energy are fundamentally different from that of IT, biotech, or earlier technology-based industries.

The challenge facing renewable energy entrepreneurs is that no matter how innovative a company’s technology, in the end it’s going to be used to produce commodity electrons. And even if the government has a policy that aggressively favors “green” energy over all others, makers of flat silicon panels have to compete with thin film CdTe, CIGS, CPV, solar thermal as well as wind, small hydro and anything else that comes along.

So in the end, really cool technology is going to be judged on cost and reliability during the long life of an expensive capital good. PCs may be thrown away after 3 or 5 years, but solar panels are expected to run 20 years or more. This means that high-volume, high-repeatability, low-cost manufacturing is usually more important than some great advance in science (unless of course that advance cuts costs or improves efficiency more than it raises costs).

Attacking this point is Thursday’s column in GreentechSolar by Tuan Pham, an energy analyst (and HelioVolt biz dev consultant) turned solar investment fund manager. The column’s subtitle says it all: “Considering the implications of the fact that solar is really an energy industry, not a technology industry.”

Some of his points are familiar: commodity electrons, the unsuitability of VCs to invest in capital-intensive projects, and unrealistic growth expectations. Others should be familiar, including the near-commoditization of high insolation land intended for solar farms:
Because we can site solar nearly anywhere the sun shines — solar resources at any given location have been studied for decades by NASA and the National Weather Service — our projects are much easier to develop than other energy projects. … Why would property owners expect to charge significant premiums for land if the sunlight is the same 50 miles down a transmission line?
Other points are more contrarian, including this:
Yet, despite all of the tech money that has flooded into solar in recent years, technological advances have not lived up to expectations. In fact, most of the "technology" that is being funded in solar projects is relatively old. Crystalline-silicon (c-Si) cells were invented at Bell Labs in 1954 and since c-Si efficiencies hit 14% in the 1960s, not very much has changed with the technology. Likewise, the other pieces (balance of systems) that go into a solar generating system involve fairly uncomplicated electrical work and few moving parts. These well-known and reliable generating assets, not an elusive magic technology bullet, are what energy and project investors will fund.
While some of Pham’s conclusions will create heartburn among solar activists, the nudge towards increasing accountability should not. Pham singles out “Pretend PPAs,” in which Purchase Power Agreements are quoted with unrealistic prices and costs that will eventually become obvious.

The recommended antidote for regulators and utilities being compelled to buy renewable energy:
  • Increase and enforce penalties on non-fulfillment of projects
  • Shorten execution time frames (at least for PV).
  • Enforce stiffer penalties on projects that are late.
  • Require bigger proposal deposits.
  • Expedite the interconnection process.
Accountability is good and necessary for buyers, sellers, investors and society. A lack of accurate information and accountability creates market distortions that lead to bubbles and crashes.

The solar industry is approaching a shakeout period, with the strong consolidating the weak. Many venture investors supporting a company with more than $100 million of equity funding will eventually seek other exits if the firms are unable to IPO in the next 18-24 months. (Don’t ask me which ones will go first — my Ouija board is on the fritz.)

Let’s hope that more accurate information leads to the survival of the most efficient and best run firms, rather than those who were lucky at the VC roulette wheel but who lack the resources and capabilities necessary for long-term survival in this competitive industry.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Feed-in tariffs: an idea whose time still has not come

A group of renewable energy activists have been pushing for the US to emulate Germany by instituting a feed-in-tariff. The idea is that the more generous payment to RE generators would increase the installation of RE generating capacity.

The California Public Utilities Commission has been flirting with idea for years, with trial efforts at a smaller scale, and hosting a symposium endorsing the idea last year. The CPUC reportedly endorsed a FiT for systems from 1-20 MW in size, although the F-phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in its recent news.

Is this such a good idea?

A comparatively balanced article by veteran Eric Wesoff of Greentech Media earlier this year discussed the pros and cons of this approach. One important requirement — as with any government manipulation of the market — is predictability:
Gary Kremen, solar entrepreneur and founder of Clean Power Finance, had this to say on the subject: "FiTs are great if they are a long-term commitment on the part of government and utilities. Off-and-on FITs make planning and the mandatory required financing hard, if not impossible."
Those promoting feed-in tariffs tout the undeniable effectiveness of FiT in promoting solar adoption in Germany. However, as Wesoff notes, that comes at a price:
Germany is experiencing a bit of a feed-in tariff backlash as their citizenry reacts to FiT dollars going to Chinese, rather than German, solar module manufacturers. FiTs can also be construed as a tax -- and that's political poison in the U.S.
In other words, subsidies for inefficient power producers are politically palatable if it creates domestic jobs, but not if it ships domestic funds overseas.

The big disaster of FiT is that it doesn’t set prices right, because it uses government fiat rather than the market to match supply and demands. The €15+ billion fiasco in Spain is Exhibit A. Because they are expensive, even some progressive consumer groups oppose their use.

For more than a year, the state has been toying with a modified FiT that it now calls a renewable auction mechanism. The Aug. 24 CPUC decision to create this mechanism seems to be a compromise that pleases everyone and no one.

In particular, it’s design to correct the most egregious errors of the government-set pricing. As Nikki Chandler reported:
Some governments have used fixed-price feed-in tariffs to incentivize renewable energy development. One point of difficulty has been getting the fixed pricing right. If the price is set too low, it does not stimulate the desired level of market activity. If the price is set too high, ratepayers pay unnecessary costs, suppliers throughout the value chain are not encouraged to reduce prices, and the program can lose political support. In contrast, the CPUC program uses competition to establish a price that is both sufficient for project development and protective of ratepayers.
The plan seems to please one group (Interstate Renewable Energy Council) lobbying for a FiT and anger another (the FiT Coalition).

If the supporters are right, the RAM will increase solar adoption in California without paying too much (and also not violating federal restrictions on cross-subsidies issued in July by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.) If RAM opponents (or hard-core FiT supporters) are right, the market-oriented tariff won’t be enough to stimulate a supply of renewable power. I guess (as in Spain and Germany), time will tell.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A completely different Akeena

Anyone who lives in the South Bay has probably seen or heard from Akeena. The company occupies a former car dealership in Los Gatos, and has been aggressively promoting sales workshops at our local wine bar. I kept telling my wife we should go, but apparently now it’s too late.

Last May, Akeena agreed to effectively become an arm of Westinghouse, which didn’t actually have to put up any money to buy the company. Instead of selling “Akeena” solar panels, the company agreed to sell its future panels under the Westinghouse brand, including those it’s already selling at the Lowe’s home improvement warehouses. Akeena Solar, Inc. is now doing business as (d/b/a) Westinghouse Solar.

(Akeena’s already-distressed stock has drifted off into penny-stock land, which will allow Westinghouse to eventually buy the company for less than 5% of what it was worth at its peak.)

Now two different blogs have reported that Akeena is getting out of the installation business to (it claims) avoid competing with dealers. As PV-tech reports:
"Expanding our channels to include authorized dealers in California will accelerate the growth of our distribution business," said Barry Cinnamon, chief executive officer of Westinghouse Solar. "California is the largest state in the country for solar products, accounting for approximately 50 percent of the U.S. market… As we transition to a distribution model in California and sign up new dealers, we will continue to focus on securing new distribution partnerships and adding dealers around the country. We will honor all outstanding installation obligations, and in many cases expect to work with new Westinghouse Solar dealers to take over our remaining backlog of California installation projects."
When GreentechMedia reported on the shift last week, it was generally optimistic. Akeena had already exited installation elsewhere in the US, because it was competing with its installers. However, as it also reported:
A strategic shift like this, however, also means layoffs. Employees said that began today.
Alas, no more sales seminars at the wine bar, and one less large-scale California installer. Some 19 months ago, Borrego Solar got out of residential installation, selling its California and Massachusetts operations to Vermont-based groSolar for an unspecified amount.

So according to a 2009 analysis, that’s two of the four largest California residential installers changing hands in the past two years. Only SolarCity and REC Solar are bigger in the state: while I’d like to say that’s the end of it, clearly more consolidation is coming to the installation industry — not just to panel manufacturing.

Update, Sept 14: Akeena later sold their installation backlog to Real Goods Solar. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Temporary pause in policy schizophrenia

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission approved the 250MW Beacon solar plant . This 2000 acre project about 17 miles north of Edwards Air Force base is in Kern County, at the West edge of the Mojave Desert.

The plan is the first utility-scale solar thermal project approved in California since 1990, and when complete would nearly double the 350 MW of solar thermal capacity near Kramer Junction.

On the one hand, I’d like to be encouraged. The CEC claims to care about greenhouse gasses, renewable energy, keeping generating capacity (and operating jobs) in state, etc. etc.

On the other hand, it’s far easier for a government agency to say “no” in our litigious, regulation-driven society. Whether it be the impact of wind generation on luxury home views or migrating birds, competing values often are used to sabotage reasonable efforts to create long-term green energy infrastructure.

The CEC is hardly done, as there are many other projects planned for the Mojave, with ideal insolation due to low humidity and low latitudes, and located near the demand (and transmission facilities) of the LA metropolis.

Even if the CEC is reasonable, there is still the threat of federal regulators (or politicians) making land use decisions to rule out these ideal locations for what should become gigawatts of RE capacity.

So this week's outcome is a step in the right direction. But it’s only one step of many.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Making money without relying on politicians

Rob Day of Cleantech Investing raises the exact point that I’ve been making for years:
Now that Harry "Lucy" Reid has pulled the climate legislation football away at the last minute, cleantech investors can be forgiven for taking a big sigh and forgetting about climate policy for a while. After all, until a couple of years ago most cleantech VCs were adamant about purposefully ignoring policy efforts and effects, because of the randomness factor it would imply for their investments.
With Obama’s election, I think some cleantech investors and entrepreneurs assumed that Cap-N-Trade, a carbon tax or some other policy change would come along that would make their businesses more profitable.

Like any other special interest, these businesses are certainly free (at least for now) in advocating policies that support their special interest. But then they’re special interests and not real businesses.

I think it’s rational to plan a business based on existing policies that are unlikely to change. In California, RPS is the law of the land and even a Republican governor is unlikely to roll them back.

On the other hand, AB 32 (or the Prop 23 that would repeal it) is a measure that has passionate supporters, passionate opponents and a fairly large middle group that could go either way. So while I don’t agree with Rob Day that Prop 23 passing would be a disaster, I certainly agree firms for the next 90 days have to make long-term investing decisions based on the possibility that it might.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who needs inefficient solar panels?

The IPO of thin-film solar module maker Trony Solar has been cancelled in the light of a lousy IPO climate that also claimed Solyndra’s IPO hopes. The Chinese firm had hoped to raise $200m.

In her story on the cancelled IPO, Camille Ricketts of VentureBeat notes this is in the context of other declines in the thin-film market, including Applied Materials discontinuing its SunFab thin-film integrated equipment line.

Buried near the bottom of her story is the heart of the matter:
Thin-film cells are generally less efficient than their crystalline silicon peers. Their main saving grace — which motivated a lot of investment in the market two years ago — is that they use less silicon. Back when the material was expensive, this made thin-film a compelling proposition. But silicon prices have since dropped, allowing crystalline silicon panels and the companies who specialize in them, namely SunPower, to remain on top.
This raises the question: if crystalline silicon prices continue to fall — as they have for decades — why would we think that thin film companies have any sort of future?

Low efficiency means greater spending per kWh on balance of system — including installation labor and permitting costs that seem more stubbornly resistant to experience curve efficiencies. There’s also the real estate question — due to the space limitations of a rooftop environment, behind-the-meter applications often have trouble generating enough power to meet local demand as it is.

Yes, solar remains an industry of a thousand niches. Flexible thin-film substrates will have a future in building-integrated photovoltaic and other niche applications where it is competing with no PV — rather than silicon PV.

Still, we’ve known that a shakeout is coming in PV, due not only to the high level of investment in solar startups but also the importance of scale economies to overcome increasing cost pressures. The shakeout is going to be brutal to makers of low-efficiency components and modules.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Green jobs: supply and demand

In a year of anti-incumbent sentiment, the Democrat candidates for governor and senate here are planning on emphasizing their environmental policy and green jobs. The lead story in Friday’s Mercury was about the gubernatorial candidate;
Brown puts focus on green
was the five column headline above the fold. (The online headline was more boring.) The point of the story was that Jerry Brown wants Bay Area voters to know that unlike his GOP opponent, he supports California’s controversial anti-global warming policy:
Brown said the new law would create hundreds of thousands of clean-energy jobs, reclaiming from China leadership of the cleantech economy.
Also on Friday, the local ABC TV station ran a story about the party’s senate candidate touting green jobs:
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is talking up the benefits of stimulus spending. Friday, she was in San Jose at a job training center talking about green tech jobs, saying California is the hub of the clean energy economy for the entire country.

At the Center for Employment Training in San Jose, Boxer watched as students practiced mounting solar panels and solar power irrigation devices.

She told the students they are training for the jobs of the future.

"If we keep focused and we make sure that we don't go backwards we will see these workers here working all over the state putting those roofs on schools on office buildings and on homes," Boxer said.

The CET received $3 million from a stimulus grant. Students are confident their training will pay off.
The story was surprisingly intelligent and balanced for local television, perhaps because reporter Mark Matthews had 2:30 to make his point. The story quoted both blue collar workers hoping to get green jobs, those that have despaired, and Boxer’s GOP opponent as disagreeing with job training subsidies.

The argument for such training is straightforward. It would be nice to rely on the market to identify training needs and supply that that need, but perhaps there would be a lag in responding to that demand — or perhaps in times of tight budgets, firms and non-profits are underinvesting in worker training.

Still, by training workers for a specific industry, the federal government is either reducing the costs for companies in that industry, or shifting demand to the trained workers from whoever the firms were planning on hiring instead. (It’s also possible that by reducing the cost of acquiring new workers, that the government is slightly increasing the demand for such workers.)

However, as one of the TV interviews suggests, some of the workers may be trained for jobs that don’t exist. For example, last year California community colleges were training workers for solar installer jobs just as other installers were laying off workers. This is both a problem with the government picking job training based on environmental policy rather than proven demand, and — more generally — a problem of producing a supply of specialized workers in advance of demand. (In California in the 1960s and 1970s, there were some really bad times to start a 4-year degree in aerospace engineering.)

The linkage of Brown’s policy lever to local jobs was more tenuous than for the direct training model. Opponents of AB 32 say that the measure increases costs (and thus reduces money for workers), particularly with small firms.

The original argument for AB32 was that California needs to take the lead among Americans in reducing carbon emissions to do our part to reduce global warming. However, since the recession, AB32 proponents (like Brown) now say requiring more CO2-efficient technologies will lead to California jobs in creating and delivering such green technologies.

The problem is that the most aggressive and admired demand-side RE stimulation — the model for the global industry — has been Germany. Now, the general consensus is that manufacturing of solar panels is fleeing to China — just like everything else — and that both German buyers and sellers of panels will shift to panels made in China.

That’s the inherent problem with buyer subsidies: they cause people to buy things, but not necessarily things made locally. (Under WTO rules, subsidies for locally-made products are verboten.) So buyer subsidies — or mandates — will shift demand but not necessarily stimulate local employment.

This is not an argument to do nothing, but it is a reminder that the effects of government stimulus (or mandates) may be less than predicted and thus less cost-effective than proponents originally claimed.