/* Google Analytics */

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What counts as renewable energy?

While working on a paper, I was looking through my notes about eligibility for California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

The California PUC has an interesting and comprehensive taxonomy of what counts as renewable energy:
  • Biomass - any organic material not derived from fossil fuels, including agricultural crops, agricultural wastes and residues, waste pallets, crates, dunnage, manufacturing, and construction wood wastes, landscape and right-of-way tree trimmings, mill residues that result from milling lumber, rangeland maintenance residues, sludge derived from organic matter, and wood and wood waste from timbering operations.
  • Biodiesel - Biodiesel is a type of biofuel made by combining animal fat or vegetable oil (such as soybean oil or recycled restaurant grease) with alcohol and can be directly substituted for diesel. (Source: MTC/link)
  • Fuel cells using renewable fuels – electricity produced from the creation and breakdown of hydrogen. If the hydrogen source is a renewable fuel, this technology is RPS eligible.
  • Digester gas - gas from the anaerobic digestion of organic wastes.
  • Geothermal - natural heat from within the earth, captured for production of electric power, space heating, or industrial steam.
  • Landfill gas - gas produced by the breakdown of organic matter in a landfill (composed primarily of methane and carbon dioxide), or the technology that uses this gas to produce power.
  • Municipal solid waste - solid waste as defined in Public Resources Code Section 40191.
  • Ocean wave - an experimental technology that uses ocean waves to produce electricity.
  • Ocean thermal – an experimental technology that uses the temperature differences between deep and surface ocean water to produce electricity.
  • Tidal current - energy obtained by using the motion of the tides to run water turbines that drive electric generators.
  • Solar Photovoltaic - a technology that uses a semiconductor to convert sunlight directly into electricity.
  • Small hydroelectric (30 megawatts or less) - a facility employing one or more hydroelectric turbine generators, the sum capacity of which does not exceed 30 megawatts.
  • Solar thermal – Use of concentrated sunlight to produce heat that powers an electric generator.
  • Wind - energy from wind converted into mechanical energy and then electricity.
Does anyone notice what’s missing? (Hint: it’s only the largest source of renewable energy in California, the US and the world.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

BFD: Biofuels boom or bubble?

The next few weeks will bring two more IPOs by California biofuels companies: Solazyme (of South San Francisco) and Ceres (Thousand Oaks.)

Francis Gaskins of Seeking Alpha analyzes the Solazyme IPO (SZYM, due Friday) while Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest (BFD) analyzes that of Ceres. By my count, this will mark five IPOs by US biofuels companies in 15 months, following Codexis (CDXS, April 2010) Amyris (AMRS, Sept. 2010) and Gevo (GEVO, Feb. 2011). All but Gevo are based in California.

Gaskins is bullish on Solazyme while Lane has a healthy skepticism about the industry, especially the pre-revenue companies. In fact, Lane’s treatment of the Ceres S-1 is the funniest (or at least snarkiest) S-1 analysis I’ve seen in years. (Lane was equally through but a little less cynical when he analyzed the Solazyme S-1.)

The best part of Lane’s analysis of Ceres is when he reads between the lines on the discussion of risks:
In IPOspeak: We have a history of net losses; we expect to continue to incur net losses and we may not achieve or maintain profitability.
In English: Our investors are tired of losing their money, and may wish to lose some of yours before reaching profitability.

In IPOspeak: The markets for some of our dedicated energy crops are not well established and may take years to develop or may never develop and our growth depends on customer adoption of our dedicated energy crops.
In English: If biofuels and biopower do not scale globally, we are toast.

In IPOspeak: We are at the beginning stages of developing our Blade brand and we have limited experience in marketing and selling our products.
In English: Sir Richard Branson doesn’t work here.

In IPOspeak: Our principal competitors may include major international agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporations, such as Advanta, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, all of which have substantially greater resources to dedicate to research and development, production, and marketing than we have.
In English: Big Ag may swoop in and take away all our toys.

In IPOspeak: A significant portion of our revenue to date is generated from government grants and
continued availability of government grant funding is uncertain.
In English: Uncle Sam is out of money.
Profits are scarce among this crop of young companies:
  • Ceres is in the business of developing seeds for sweet sorghum that are optimized for making biofuels; it is essentially pre-revenue.
  • Gevo was also pre-revenue.
  • Amyris IPO’d after it had significant revenues.
  • Codexis had revenues but with $150+ million in accumulated losses, about 3x that of Solazyme.
As it is, at the close of business Wednesday, Amyris was up 80% from the IPO price, Gevo up 20% and Codexis down 30%. Three is not a large enough N to generalize, but it does suggest the risks of the segment.

Solazyme has a better story to tell than Ceres. In 2010, it had losses of $16.2 million on revenues of $37.9 million. So the “history of net losses” comment from Ceres (and Lane’s translation) might also apply to Solazyme, but their revenue growth certainly provides more of a track record for investors. Solazyme is also #2 on the Biofuels Digest top 100 list of 2010, or #4 in the expert’s list — after Amyris, LS9, POET and ahead of Gevo. (Ceres is #13 on both.)

While biofuel IPOs are happening now without profitability, for most of the past 30 years, a new company had to be at least cash flow positive (or positive EBITDA) to IPO. A firm that’s coming out pre-revenue (or at least pre-profitability) suggests it believes that it’s more urgent to get the cash sooner from newer investors rather than waiting to solve its profitability problems and thus command a higher multiple. That also suggests that the current owners think there is a chance that the company won’t make it to sustained profitability, or (as Lane put it) “we are toast.”

The only time I remember that tech company IPOs were dominated by money-losing (or pre-revenue) companies was the late 1990s. And we all know how that turned out: there were a few winners and lots of losers. A case can be made for any of these companies being the survivor, but the odds are most will be gone (or merged away) in 5 years.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A call for government inaction

A recent S&P report suggests that the US electric utility industry would be better off if the US government picked consistent inaction over inconsistent intervention in the energy sector.

The report, “U.S. Electric Utilities Seek Clear Direction From Washington On Energy Policy,” suggests major uncertainty for US utilities until more coherence is achieved. (I haven’t seen the report because it seems to be only for RatingsDirect subscribers unless you want to pay $500.)

Energy policy is of course one of the messiest examples of government intervention in the entire country, with national, state and municipal policies that include direct regulation, taxation, subsidies and land use. A consistent policy is essential for industry to make long-term capital investments, whether it’s a 10 year search for oil or gas, a 20 year lifespan for solar panels or a 30-40 year lifespan for a power plant.

A posting by Mimi Barker on RiskCenter summarizes the problem:
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services believes that U.S. electric utilities and their bondholders would benefit from a clearly articulated, comprehensive, and consistent U.S. energy policy.

Any energy policy evolves from a complex and intertwined system of legislative bodies, executive departments, and courts, not all of which are federal, that influences how the private sector develops energy resources and allocates capital. So when we say energy policy, perhaps what we mean is political leadership that coalesces and shapes public opinion in a way that supports long-term investment in energy assets.

"In some ways, overall regulatory risk in the sector has moved slightly from the states to the national stage as big-picture issues--with big price tags--like climate change, economic stimulus, and the reliability of the transmission grid threaten to overtake the mundane matters of rate cases and earned returns as the key factors supporting credit ratings," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Todd Shipman.
Sheila McNulty on the FT offers another quote from the report:
Making resource decisions and committing a utility’s balance sheet to support those decisions has never been more complicated or littered with more potential pitfalls, and diminishing credit quality is a result.
And, as she notes, industry is starting to feel the confusion.
John Rowe, chairman and chief executive of Exelon, the power producer, spoke about this issue in a recent speech when he said US energy policy has been driven by a mess of mandates and power subsidies for nuclear, cleaner coal, gas, wind solar and other renewables – a constant urge to pick winners and losers. In his words: “Congress needs to slow down. We are already doing enough to give all of these things a chance.”
We have a fundamental collision between the political world — where the goal is a 15 second soundbite on tonight’s new and long term is an election 2 years away — and the long-term time horizons of all companies in the energy sector.

In the US, we’ve come to take a steady reliable supply of electricity as a given, something that distinguishes us from, say, rural India. The mismanagement of California’s electricity deregulation shows us that policy that can make the system less reliable and more expensive. And the recent contraction of Japanese industrial production due to electricity shortages shows us the broader economic impact of an unreliable energy infrastructure.

It would be nice if that would be enough to make the politicians pick stable rules and then butt out, but of course that’s not going to happen. This is one of those rare cases where I wish we had a Lee Kuan Yew.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A testament to the power of bureaucracy

While many Californians seek to promote green power, there’s an even strong and more renewable form of power: government bureaucracy.

On behalf of SolarTech, the PV trade association, our SJSU business honors students have completed one study on overcoming permitting obstacles for residential solar in the state, and are about to finish another.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee shifts the problem from an insider’s concern to a broader political audience in an article entitled “Permit Process Clouds Solar Energy Project.” It notes that politicians have talked about streamlining permitting for utility-scale solar, but not residential solar. This oversight calls into question the goal of a “Million Solar Roofs” by 2018.

A few paragraphs capture the heart of the problem:
Solar providers often complain about having to wait hours in line to submit permits and weeks to get final approval.

The result: Installing rooftop solar panels often takes two to three months from start to finish. In contrast, installing a central air conditioning system, which requires about the same amount of work, can take two weeks, Hahner said.
PV may have some safety issues. The industry clearly needs a technical solution — say UL certification of computer-controlled panel/inverters — that would make connecting a solar panel as foolproof as plugging in a refrigerator or room-sized air conditioner.

Even more crazy is when these regulations apply to solar hot water, which as my colleague Jim Mokri pointed out, is not high technology but 19th century plumbing.

The Bee offers this vignette:
Ed Murray, president of Rancho Cordova-based Aztec Solar Inc., said he ran into a number of hassles trying to get a permit from San Joaquin County for a simple $5,000 solar water heater.

Usually these kinds of permit applications are handled over the counter, but this one turned into a drawn-out process. Murray said he and his employees had to drive to the unincorporated Stockton area three times as part of the review.

"The customer was about to pull out of the project because he was so frustrated that it was taking so long," said Murray, who noted that the permit was approved Thursday.
This is one of the main reasons that I see California’s RE policy as mereley Grand Kabuki by publicity-seeking politicians, rather than a serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions or the use of fossil fuels.

Politicians can’t change the cost of silicon, the efficiency of CIGS, the cost of capital or the scale efficiencies of the big five Chinese manufacturers. They can, however, change regulations — if they really want to. But obviously they don’t want to.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The one and only century of fossil fuels

In doing research for a paper, I came across a really helpful review paper by Vaclav Smil, published in 2000, that summarizes the trends of mankind’s energy consumption in the 20th century.

The abstract (accurately) promises a broad overview:
Civilization’s advances during the twentieth century are closely bound with an unprecedented rise of energy consumption in general, and of hydrocarbons and electricity in particular. Substantial improvements of all key nineteenth-century energy techniques and introduction of new extraction and transportation means and new prime movers resulted in widespread diffusion of labor-saving and comfort-providing conversions and in substantially declining energy prices.
The paper was published at a time when concerns about depleting natural resources and polluting the environment were long established, but before the recent emphasis on renewable energy sources and reducing carbon emissions.

Smil offers a particularly vivid illustration about how changes in our lifestyle have changed per capita energy consumption
In 1900 even a well-off Great Plains farmer holding the reins of six large horses while plowing his wheat field controlled—with considerable physical- exertion while perched on a steel seat and often enveloped in dust—sustained delivery of no more than 5 kW of animate power. A century later his counterpart driving a large tractor effortlessly controls more than 250 kW while sitting in the air-conditioned and stereo-enlivened comfort of his elevated cabin.

In 1900 an engineer operating a powerful locomotive pulling a transcontinental train at a speed close to 100 km/h commanded about 1 MW of steam power, the maximum rating of main-line machines permitted by manual stoking of coal. In 2000 a pilot of a Boeing 747-400 retracing the same route 11 km above the Earth’s surface merely supervises computerized discharge of up about 120 MW at a cruising speed of 900 km/h.
He notes that the shift to fossil fuels actually only happened late in the 19th century, and supplanted biomass only in the 1890s: “The twentieth century was thus the first era dominated by fossil fuels, and the 16-fold rise of their use since 1900 created the first high-energy global civilization in human history.”

No matter what happens on RE policy, global warming and related issues, it’s clear that the relative (if not absolute) contribution of fossil fuels to the operation of society will be considerably diminished at the end of the 21th century. Since I won’t be around to see it, I can only speculate on what Smil’s successor will write in 2100.

Worst case, we’ll run out of energy (or it will become so expensive) that our standard of living crashes to 19th century levels or below. Best case, we both reduce per capita consumption (through insulation, online meetings, transportation improvements) and increase our supply of renewable electricity and fuels that a larger fraction of mankind enjoys a high standard of living while the total consumption of fossil fuels falls dramatically.

Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy DebateDr. Smil is a prolific author on energy and the environment, with 22 books to his name. I’ve already purchased one book from Barnes & Noble (for my NookColor) and will look into others.

Vaclav Smil (2000) “Energy in the Twentieth Century: Resources, Conversions, Costs, Uses, and Consequences,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Vol. 25 (2000) pp. 21–51. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.energy.25.1.21

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A new class of carpool cheaters

The Merc reports that the Prius and other California hybrid owners are finally losing their carpool cheating stickers. Come July 1, the 85,000 privileged owners of a yellow sticker will no longer be allowed in the carpool lane.

Instead, the $1,500 subsidy to affluent buyers of expensive high-mileage cars will pass to those who buy an EV such as the Nissan Leaf. (Chevy Volt owners need not apply). We are repeating the mistake again, just with another class of privileged few.

Transportation writer Gary Richards found at least one honest Prius owner who recognizes the mistake:
“I am happy to see the carpool access experiment come to a much-deserved end,” said Ted Coopman of Santa Cruz, who never applied for stickers for his 2005 Prius. “While I support inducements for buying hybrids, granting carpool access was a major mistake. Hybrids don't get people off the road, and reducing traffic is the primary reason for carpool lanes.”
If gasoline prices remain high, California is going to need the lanes for actual carpoolers. So lets hope that the state doesn’t fill those lanes with 85,000 single-occupant EV owners.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

RE: viable niche vs. subsidized mass market?

In Wednesday’s WSJ, engineering consultant Josh Prueher argues that the way to promote renewable energy is to encourage adoption in self-funding niches rather than proffering government subsidies to help spur adoption in mass markets.

Prueher points to the inherent problem with any subsidies:
In the renewable energy industry, subsidies typically involve federal and state governments imposing a small tax or an electricity rate hike on each one of us. The government then awards the proceeds to a few winners that, in the best case, have demonstrated the technical and business potential to grow into competitive companies. In the worst case, they've demonstrated little more than superior lobbying capability. In all cases, subsidies deny the market its proper role of directing capital. It's important to note that the traditional energy industry also receives billions of dollars in government subsidies each year; perhaps it's more effectively hidden from public scrutiny.
The PV entrepreneurs and managers say that subsidies are a necessary evil in the short term but they look forward to when they are no longer necessary. Some seem more sincere than others.

Instead of these subsidies, Prueher notes that we already have a fully functioning unsubsidized market where RE has a cost advantage: the off-grid market. This market — whether rural US or military outposts — is typically served by diesel generators.

The logistics cost of supplying fuel to these generators — whether on an offshore platform or the military front lines — are “staggering”:
For instance, unlike you and me, who pay on average from 3 cents to 16 cents for a kilowatt hour of electricity from the grid, these large consumers pay between 50 cents and $2.
From this, we already know what an unsubsidized RE market looks like:
Those high costs are sending a strong, clear price signal to the energy market to provide cheaper and more reliable sources of electricity and fuel. Namely, we need to develop renewables, energy storage and energy-efficient technologies that do not require expensive logistical support. While the off-grid market is small relative to the on-grid energy behemoth, it is of sufficient size and depth to justify strong competition, private investment and product development—without subsidy.
While he’s right in principle, in practice I don’t see how we get from here to there. The venture-funded SV PV companies and the Chinese-funded Big Five are addicted to purchase subsidies, whether as taxpayer rebates or (as in feed-in tariffs or RPS standards) mandated wealth transfers from electricity users.

If I were doing a bootstrap startup, I’d make a self-funded startup that targeted a cost-effective niche. But the nature of venture-funded startups that their founders/owners have to bet it all on double-zero — to swing for the fences — because it’s better (at least for venture investors) to have a small chance of huge success rather than a good chance of a modest success.