30 August 2011

Green Jobs, Gore's Gaff & Government Getting Out of the Way: The Green Skeptic on FOX

This morning I talked with Stuart Varney about green jobs, Al Gore's bizarre statement equating climate skeptics with racists, and getting the government out of the way of private sector job creation.

Here's the video:

And here's a link in case the player doesn't work in your browser: The Green Skeptic on FOX

Enhanced by Zemanta

29 August 2011

Pennsylvania Can Clean Up in Clean Tech

Kevin Brown, my co-founder of Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, says, "Pennsylvania can clean up in clean tech," in the Philadelphia Inquirer this weekend:

 Philadelphia identifies with underdogs: Rocky, the Eagles, and now energy.
When business people or policymakers think of Philly, they naturally jump to the Big Five: pharmaceuticals, higher education, legal, finance, and technology. Clean tech, or renewable energy, rarely makes the list. But that's about to change. We have the potential to be a full-fledged front-runner in one of the hottest growth industries.
Read the full story here.

Enhanced by Zemanta

23 August 2011

When Too Much (Solar) Success Is a Bad Thing

New Jersey is known as the "Garden State," but drive through it these days and you see a different kind of harvest: solar energy.

You'll find solar panels on large suburban homes and apartment complexes, solar panels on many of the light poles, solar panels on large warehouse facilities, and box stores.

There's even a 7,000-panel, 1.4-megawatt (MW) solar installation on the Livingston, NJ, Campus of Rutgers University. And last fall one of the largest solar developments in the country -- a 20 MW solar farm – sprouted up on former farmland in Pilesgrove.

In April, the state's Board of Public Utilities announced it had exceeded 300 MW of installed capacity and over 8,000 projects statewide.

New Jersey became a solar leader – second in the nation to California -- through an aggressive Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) program. To meet state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) utilities purchase SRECs -- tradable certificates equal to 1000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity -- from producers.

But after several years of high, stable SREC prices – the NJ SREC spot market price increased from September 2008 to March 2009 – those prices have plummeted over the past few months.

Chart by EnterSolar

According to EnterSolar, a leading provider of solar photovoltaic systems for corporate customers in the Northeast, the price dropped from over $600 in May to almost $200 currently.

"The New Jersey solar market is coming out of a short-term installation boom," Peyton Boswell, managing director of EnterSolar, wrote in an email to me. "That was unsustainable in the sense that the solar MW capacity developed and installed was far in excess of what is required under the state's RPS."

Boswell remains optimistic about the long-term prospects for New Jersey's solar market. "It will remain vibrant over the long-haul -- over the next 10 years, but we are very concerned that the next 1-2 years could be extremely tough going."

As New Jersey State Senator Bob Smith (D) told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, "We've done such a good job at stimulating solar that the market is now crashing."

Smith has sponsored a bill that will accelerate by one year requirements for how much renewable energy must be produced, which in turn will force power companies to buy more SRECs.

The question remains whether the government propping up the solar market further will have the desired effect when it is facing what is a fairly typical supply and demand problem.

"The basic SREC market structure in New Jersey is sound," says EnterSolar's Boswell. "Like many markets, there is a propensity for over-reaction and we think we are seeing that play out right now with SREC pricing."

What is needed, in Boswell's opinion, is for solar system owners to be able to sell long-term SREC contracts, exchanging lower SREC pricing for longer-term stability.

Another flaw in the New Jersey program, according to Boswell, is that all SRECs are treated equally, including those for both large-scale wholesale solar farms and distributed solar net-metered projects.

Boswell suggests it "would be better if these two types of solar installations were treated differently from an SREC standpoint as the project costs and related Internal Rates of Return (IRR) are dramatically different -- a 10-MW solar farm installed at $3/W can generate a far higher IRR given the same SREC price than a 1-MW rooftop net-metered system at same SREC price."

Sometimes too much success is too much of a good thing. For New Jersey's solar market, it sounds like some basic structural fixes may have more positive impact than accelerating an already flawed system.

Enhanced by Zemanta

22 August 2011

"Once More to the Lake": Unplugged and Recharged

Calvin on the dock at Sixth Lake.
Apparently, the Fulton Chain of Lakes region in the Adirondacks is "AVZ": an anti-Verizon zone.
Sure, wireless reception could be had if absolutely needed, but that required me to stand in one spot on the deck extending my arms out over Sixth Lake and performing all sorts of gymnastics that strained my abilities.   

There is also one spot in the town of Inlet, along the beach at Fourth Lake, where one can get reception.  A Verizon-user convention gathered there on Saturday night, attendees identifiable by the curious practice of holding phones aloft as torch-bearers entering a cave.

Surprisingly, I didn't mind the limited cell phone coverage and no access to the Internet; it didn't take long for me to realize that almost everything could wait until my return.

Kayaking, swimming, reading, eating, drinking, and hanging with my kids, my dog, and our friends proved more than enough to keep me occupied.  Several lasting memories sustain me: my teenage son's first experiences water-skiing; my younger son's intricate gnome house built of stones, bark, moss and sticks; my daughter's delight at receiving a pair of cowgirl boots for her birthday; and my dog Calvin's first ride in a kayak.

Now I'm back and the world is still here, emails await response, phone calls need to be returned, the garden needs tending -- and it's probably best I ignored the markets last week.  I am refreshed, recharged, rejuvenated, and I even grew back my beard.
I took along one of my favorite books, the ESSAYS of E. B. WHITE, a slim, elegant volume including some of his best essays from The New Yorker and elsewhere.  White is a great lakeside companion, for he understood the lure of a lake in summer, as he so eloquently articulated in "Once More to the Lake," from Harper's Magazine in 1941:
"Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottagers with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked."
Summer is not without end, and in its waning, I get one more trip away before the routines of life set anchor again.  The balance of the year, with its inevitable changes and schedules and business may be made easier by this brief respite to the fade-proof lake in the Adirondack woods.

At least, that's what I tell myself now that my phone keeps blinking and buzzing, calling me back.

Enhanced by Zemanta

16 August 2011

How a Cleantech Failure Can Be More Valuable Than Success | The Energy Collective

How a Cleantech Failure Can Be More Valuable Than Success

Failure is tough. Many businesses fail, including some very viable ones. They fail all the time. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), 50 percent of all new businesses fail during the first year and 95 percent during the first five years. Some fail fast, some die a slow, painful death.

The question is not whether failure is good or bad, it's what you learn from it that counts...

Read More

My latest post for The Energy Collective.

Enhanced by Zemanta

11 August 2011

Heavy Truck Fuel Efficiency: The Green Skeptic on FOX Business

I sat down with Charles Payne and the gang at Varney & Co on FOX Business yesterday to talk about Heavy Truck Fuel Efficiency Standards.  We had a lively conversation.

Here's the video:

And here's a link in case your browser doesn't support the viewer above: Green Skeptic on FOX Business
Enhanced by Zemanta

09 August 2011

Ray Anderson, Self-styled "Radical Industrialist," 1934-2011

You have to marvel at someone who styled himself a "radical industrialist."

That's what Ray Anderson called himself in title of his book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, which I reviewed here.  An entreprenuer, company builder, and visionary, Anderson founded Interface in 1973 to produce the first free-laying carpet tiles in America.

Ray Anderson lost his battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 77.

His company revolutionized the commercial floor-covering industry and became the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpet, which such brands as InterfaceFLOR, FLOR, Heuga, and Bentley Prince Street.

In 1994, Anderson had an epiphany that set his company on a new course, trying to prove -- some say successfully -- that an industrial manufacturing company can embrace sustainability and profitability. Their goal was to make Interface and its individual carpet brands use no new raw materials.

It all started with what he called, as he titled his 1998 book, a "Mid-Course Correction":

"In 1994, at age sixty and in my company’s twenty-second year, I steered Interface on a new course—one designed to reduce our environmental footprint while increasing our profits. I wanted Interface, a company so oil-intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry, to be the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable—to shut down the smokestacks, close off its effluent pipes, to do no harm to the environment and take nothing not easily renewed by the earth. Believe me when I say the goal is one enormous challenge."

Through his books, many talks, and his daily life, Anderson made the business case for sustainability.  His was a brand of environmentalism, as he put it, "with good old capitalist self-interest firmly in mind."

The one word that describes Ray Anderson best is authentic.

He was an inspiration -- a hero, really -- to those of us who believe that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, are necessary to the success of any business.

Here is Ray Anderson speaking at the TED conference in 2009:

05 August 2011

First Solar Slumps; Can it Rise Again?

Photo courtesy First Solar
It was hard to be optimistic listening to First Solar's earnings call yesterday. 

CEO Rob Gillette sounded like a guy putting on a brave face when he talked about how the company continued to execute despite a "challenging environment" and that things would improve in the latter half of 2011. 

"It was a challenging quarter for all the PV industry," he said, trying to sound optimistic about First Solar's positioning for the second half.

Profits were $61 million compared to $159 million in the same quarter last year.  Earnings per fully diluted share were down to $0.70 compared to $1.84 a year ago; for some perspective, analysts were expecting First Solar to meet $0.92 per share. 

Sales slid during the same period: $533 million from $588 million.  First Solar actually sold more panels than the same period last year, but weak pricing due to an oversupply of solar panels and uncertainty in the German and Italian markets hit them hard.

First Solar also cut its FY11 EPS guidance from $9.25-$9.75 to $9.00-$9.50. 


The company is hoping to rebound in the second half of the year on the backs of big projects such as Aqua Caliente, a 290 MW solar farm in Arizona, and the 230 MW Antelope Solar Valley Ranch project in California.  Project development will continue to help First Solar hedge lagging sales of its solar panels, according to Gillette, and may help bolster demand for its panels. 

Management is also hoping that sales in India will help lift First Solar in the second half of the year.  Gillette reported they are also looking at expanding in China, the Middle East, Australia and Japan.

Still, there's a long shadow over First Solar, as with other solar companies right now.  Tough to see how the future looks bright.

In trading today, shares of FSLR dipped below $100 for the first time since November 2008.

(Disclosure: I hold a long position in FSLR. This post is for informational purposes only and is neither intended to be investment advice nor an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities.)

Enhanced by Zemanta

04 August 2011

Energy Transition and America's Future: Interview with Gregor MacDonald

Gregor MacDonald
For those of you who follow Gregor MacDonald (@gregormacdonald) on Twitter or read his excellent blog, Gregor.us, or were fortunate enough to catch his subscription-only newsletter and weekly web-TV program while it lasted on StockTwits, you know Gregor represents a thoughtful, studied voice on energy transition and possesses a macroview of the global economy.   

Currently, he's turning his attention to long-form journalism and is working on a piece addressing the global transition back to coal, which should be an important work.

I interviewed Gregor to get his insights on energy (especially renewables, coal, and nuclear) and our future.

GS: You recently expressed the opinion that renewables are going to replace nuclear. How far down the path are we towards a real energy transition?

One has to hold two competing ideas at the same time, here in the midst of our difficult journey through energy transition.  First, the world is tipping back towards coal as oil supply peaks and the five billion people in the developing world reach for the fossil fuel still growing in supply: coal.  And yet, from an extremely low level, renewables like solar and wind are starting to grow at an astonishing annual rate. 

One has to be cognizant and sober about scale, here.  Yes, power supply from solar and wind globally are tiny compared to coal and natural gas generation, but it is no longer out of the question that the first threshold -- matching the power generated by nuclear -- will be achieved by wind and solar.

GS: And what about nuclear?  In the wake of Fukushima, what are its prospects?

GM:  Fukushima does not alter the course of nuclear so much as it merely perfects the trajectory already seen in the past few decades: the slow decline of the nuclear industry. 

Growth in nuclear the past few decades has slowed progressively, the industry no longer attracts young people, and most important of all: the complexity of the technology has only served to increase costs -- at prohibitive rate.  The result?  Private industry has little or no interest in building nuclear power.  The energy return on investment is low, and also in decline; the liabilities are too great and can only be covered by governments.

What we will see in this coming decade, therefore, is that the return on investment for both solar and wind -- both in capital and energy terms -- will not only accelerate but will also pull away from the comparative proposition in nuclear and possibly even natural gas or coal power generation.  The speed of construction, the lack of complexity especially in solar, and the much reduced community opposition both in the OECD and Non-OECD mean that new power generation from solar and wind will come on line quickly, blowing past the hurdles that plague fossil fuels. 

Again, this does not mean renewables will "replace" coal and natural gas.  Not this decade -- and not the next either.  But the growth rates will diverge in a massive way, and the career opportunities for young people will swing hard in this direction.

GS: You've long expressed the opinion (one that I share) that coal is going to be with us for a long time to come. What does that mean for the future of energy?  What do you think needs to be done to ameliorate some of the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels?

GM:  I hope to articulate the large trends, in both supply and demand terms, which dictate why coal will be humanity's primary energy source over the next 20+ years, in my pending essay on coal.  That said, starting in 2006 when I realized that a second coal age was likely, I was also struck by another, obvious realization: that coal would create problems requiring solutions.  At the ASPO meeting in Washington last year, I suggested that technologies which mitigated coal emissions and which also burned coal efficiently in-situ would see enormous growth -- and would be enormously profitable.  

If I recall, a number of these have started to sprout and while this will not assuage environmentalists (who are correct that "clean coal" is little more than a mirage) I do think that given the poor emissions level now seen in the developing world is a standard worth raising.  And, I do believe China and India will eventually reach hard for new emissions technology.

GS:  You recently wrote than "Energy, not financial capital, holds primacy for the economy’s future."  Are we heading into a new era of constrained supply? What does this mean for the US economy?

GM:  In my view, the reason that at least 15 if not 20 million Americans are either underemployed or simply unemployed is that the economic system can no longer access enough cheap energy to create profitable output.  Sadly, this is why labor has been shifting hard to the developing world, where very low wages offset high energy input costs, thus securing profits for corporations.  But all is not lost.  

Over the past few years I've studied the US capability in exports, and also the potential rebirth of local economies.  In short, the US, despite the problems, decent infrastructure and low electricity rates that can be utilized for niche manufacturing.  Port cities such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Boston, and Portland, OR, also offer easy direct routes to world markets.  

Indeed, I would encourage interested readers to look at economic data from the late 19th century and notice the thriving cities in America during that time.  While it's true that many of the "price" levels that the US enjoyed in the 1980-2005 period--whether in houses or wages--will not be seen again, it's also true that reorganizing the US economy to remove a lot of the discretionary waste will bring revival.

In other words, America is now on course to become "poorer" in materialistic terms and the terms we came to understand in the post-war era.  However, in terms of life quality, America may very well be on course to finally reach a better destination.  We are still very rich in natural resources in an otherwise resource constrained world.  And, we are still risk-taking innovators.  Once we drop the project of Empire, with its excessive military waste and reinvest in ourselves again, a lot of these nascent trends will start to unfold.

Enhanced by Zemanta

02 August 2011

First Solar Sets World Record and Hires an M&A Guy: Enough to Persuade the Street?

Heading into its 2Q 2011 earnings report this week, First Solar announced two pieces of news that may have an impact on its future, if not the past.

The company announced last week it set a new world record for cadmium-telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic (PV) solar cell efficiency at 17.3 percent.  The record was set using a test cell and was confirmed by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).  The previous record was 16.7 percent, set in 2001.

“This is a significant milestone that demonstrates the ongoing potential of our advanced thin-film technology,” said Dave Eaglesham, chief technology officer at First Solar in a press release. “This leap forward in R&D supports our efficiency roadmap for our production modules and will recalibrate industry expectations for the long-term efficiency potential of CdTe technology.”

The average efficiency of First Solar modules produced in the first quarter of 2011 was 11.7 percent, according to the company, up from 11.1 percent a year earlier.  First Solar has previously recorded full-module efficiencies over 13.5 percent, with a 13.4 percent module confirmed by NREL.

“First Solar’s innovation in both module technology and balance of systems engineering continues to drive us closer to grid parity,” said CEO Rob Gillette.
First Solar may lead in the CdTe thin film arena, but SunPower holds the title for silicon PV solar cells at 22.4 percent and Alta Devices' for gallium-arsenide (GaAs) thin film with efficiencies of 27.6 percent.
"The all-time winner," writes Jeanne Roberts in Energy Boom, "is likely Spire Semiconductor, which collaborated with NREL to produce a triple-junction solar cell with a 42.3-percent efficiency rating.   These ratings all represent how much sunlight (or the photons in sunlight) is converted to electricity."

It's also not the first record First Solar has set, according to Roberts, "In 2009, the company claimed it was manufacturing solar cells for $1 per watt, an industry milestone that represented the Holy Grail of solar cell costs, at least to fabricators."
Meanwhile, late last Friday came the news that First Solar hired Cory Steffek, a former investor at venture capital firm Altira Group, to help make strategic acquisitions and partnerships, a move that seems to hint at future M&A activity on the solar horizon.

FSLR will report earnings on Thursday after the close.  We'll see how the market reacts to their performance and whether these announcements of future potential will have any impact.

(Disclosure: I hold a long position in FSLR. This post is for informational purposes only and is neither intended to be investment advice nor an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities.)

Enhanced by Zemanta