30 June 2011

We Are a Culture in Recline, Not Decline: Cleantech vs. Social Media

“Ultimate Game Chair”
Katie Fehrenbacher had a disturbing post on GigaOm's Earth2Tech this morning:
"Companies that make online games, social networks, and web coupons seem to be able to raise a lot more money in IPOs right now than companies that make energy technology, greener transportation, and biofuels. Zynga’s reported potential $2 billion raise, could deliver Zynga five times Tesla’s combined IPO and follow-on offering.  If Groupon raises at least $750 million, it would bring in more than the IPOs of Amyris, KiOR, Gevo, Enphase Energy, Luca Technologies and Zipcar combined. It’s kind of sad, actually."
Sad?  I'd say it's kinda whacked.

No offenths to the good guys at Zynga and Groupon (and the good VCs who fund them); it's not their fault; they're just giving Americans what they want: distraction and plenty of it.

Some say we are a nation in decline -- I think recline is more like it.

We value distraction and leisure over production and productivity. 

We'd rather throw angry birds at pigs than throw our genius at building a productive new economy based on real, tangible solutions to our energy and environmental problems. 

Rather than produce real food for real people who really need it, we build virtual farms so our virtual friends can help us grow virtual food.

Our penchant for distraction goes back a long time -- and I'm no stranger to it, as those of you who follow my Boston-related sports tweets on Twitter -- but the fact that we value social media and social gaming technologies over potentially game-changing energy and environment technologies is a disturbing trend.

What would our economy look like if we put even half the energy into creating disruption in the energy space that we put into creating distraction for each other?

Okay, I'm off to watch the Red Sox play the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park...

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28 June 2011

What We Need: Moderation, Innovation, and Entrepreneurial Solutions

On a late September morning I walked into the FOX Business studio in New York to sit down with host Stuart Varney and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman. We were talking about why environmentalists seemed to be increasingly disgruntled as 2010 was coming to a close.

"The environmentalists were disappointed they didn't get all they wanted," I told Varney. "They thought they had a mandate with the president and Congress lined up."

"It's about over-reach and over-expectation," Governor Whitman agreed. "They want the perfect, and if they can't have the perfect they don't want to settle for anything."

Varney turned to me and asked, "Just for the record, you are an environmentalist?"

"Yes, but I'm a practical environmentalist," I answered.

Later in the segment, I expressed my concern that the environment had become a "left issue," pointing out that many of the strides made in protecting the environment had come from the Republican side, including the EPA, and the Clean Air and Water Acts.

"The environment is a universal issue. We all live in the environment. We all care about it," I offered. "But right now, the rhetoric is about panic, it's about crisis, and I don't think the American people are going to respond to that."

Governor Whitman and I share the opinion that we need a more moderate approach on the environment. One that understands what needs to be done and is practical and pragmatic, and doesn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I left the studio and went over to the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, where I was attending the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual gathering of leaders from government, business, and civil society around the world.

The day before, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group was in conversation with José María Figueres, former president of Costa Rica. He talked about the need for putting aside the issue of climate change and about investing in clean energy innovation and entrepreneurs.

"Put the idea of whether global warming is real aside," said Sir Richard. "Recognize that we are depleting resources. Demand for oil in 5 years will exceed supply. Even in the recession, the demand for oil hardly dropped. Energy is critical for society, so the demand for clean energy will be enormous. We must invest in alternative fuels."

Innovative alternative fuels like that being developed by one of the start-ups I'd been working with in Philadelphia, BlackGold Biofuels.

Emily Landsburg, BlackGold's CEO, is using a patent-pending technology that turns sewer grease from a municipal pain into a profitable biodiesel product.

Last summer, in an effort to demonstrate how the technology works, BlackGold and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned a hunk of solid fat into biodiesel.

They melted an 800-pound butter sculpture of Ben Franklin that would otherwise go to waste, strained off the water, and added methanol. The chemical bonded to the end of the chains of fatty acids in the lard, which could then be refined into fuel suitable for most diesel engines.

With their first installation in place at a water treatment facility in San Francisco, BlackGold will generate fuel for that city’s bus fleet not from butter, but from sewage fats that now plague municipal systems.

The innovation won accolades from San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, who said the project "will break new ground toward accessible, sustainable energy and serve as a model for the entire state and the country."

Moderation, innovation, efficiency, and entrepreneurial solutions. That's what we need more of if we want to turn our economy around.

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22 June 2011

Applied Materials' "Dr. Solar" Does "Ask Me Anything" Chat for Solstice

Dr. Charlie Gay, Applied Materials, on his computer.
To celebrate the Summer Solstice yesterday, Dr. Charlie Gay, a veteran of the solar energy space and currently Applied Materials' president of solar, participated in a "live" chat on Reddit.com.

"Dr. Solar," as he’s known in the industry, has been a proponent of solar energy since 1975 and fielded questions on a variety of topics, including China-US cooperation, solar and renewables as part of the energy mix, and even what you should do if you're considering a career in solar energy.

Gay has a 36-year career in the solar energy space, so his insights are worth searching for in the mix of questions and commentary by some of the participants:

Charlie Gay ‘Ask Me Anything’ LIVE on Reddit

 (Thanks for the head's up from Steve Place of StockTwits.  Disclosure: No position in AMAT. )

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21 June 2011

Time to Sell That Ocean Front Property? New Study on Sea Level Rise

Could Calvin Be Underwater?
The rate of sea level rise along the U.S. Atlantic coast is greater now than at any time in the past 2,000 years, according to a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study suggests a consistent link between changes in global mean surface temperature and sea level.

"Having a detailed picture of rates of sea level change over the past two millennia provides an important context for understanding current and potential future changes," says Paul Cutler, program director in NSF's Division of Earth Sciences.

"It's especially valuable for anticipating the evolution of coastal systems," he says, "in which more than half the world's population now lives."

The researchers developed the first continuous sea-level reconstruction for the past 2,000 years, and compared variations in global temperature to changes in sea level over that time period.  They then compared their reconstructions with tide-gauge measurements from North Carolina for the past 80 years, along with global tide-gauge records for the past 300 years.

North Carolina has been identified by NOAA as one of three states with significant vulnerability to sea level rise and has its own task force, the North Carolina Sea level Rise Risk Management Study, to examine the issue.

The NSF team found that sea levels have risen by more than 2 millimeters per year on average since the 19th century, the steepest rate for more than 2,100 years.  (That is, I must mention, .07874 of an inch each year, but it does add up over time.)

At the very least, some researchers suggest such a continued rise in sea level could add up to increased flooding, land loss, and the incursion of saltwater into rivers and marshes -- or it could be dramatically worse.

Another report, released in May by the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), suggested that coastal communities, cities, and planners may want to prepare for a sea level rise of between 3 to 5 feet (0.9 meters - 1.6 meters) by century's end.

That means the beachfront property you are enjoying this summer could be underwater.  Perhaps it's time to start looking at those "future beachfront lots" currently located on higher ground.

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20 June 2011

Wall Street's Irrational, Dangerous Hatred of Solar Stocks

Garvin Jabusch, cofounder of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC and manager of The Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio, has an intriguing, if disturbing post on AltEnergyStocks.com over the weekend. Disturbing for those of us who are investors in solar stocks and solar companies.

For most of 2011, the stocks of solar power companies of all kinds, from providers of raw polysilicon to developers of finished utility scale plants, have been taking a beating on world and U.S. stock markets, partly because solar has been the industry most singled out for attack by bearish short sellers. I can’t describe this phenomenon any better than did Roberto Pedone in a recent column for thestreet.com:
"Besides the banking sector post-2008 financial crisis, I can't think of a group that's as hated and despised as solar stocks…For whatever reason, this entire complex has become a favorite target of short-sellers. There are so many names in the solar sector that are heavily shorted that it's hard to find a name the bears aren't leaning all over. One famous and successful short-seller, Jim Chanos, has even made it publicly clear that he thinks the wind and solar stocks are a bunch of 'hot air.'"
"For whatever reason" indeed. Solar is hated in spite of being the fastest growing energy sector in the U.S. (67% 2010 growth; 66% growth just in the first quarter of 2011) and in the world (70% 2010 growth), and also despite its shares trading at very low valuations already.  Take for example Green Alpha ® Advisors' holding and China-based solar company LDK Solar (LDK).
The company's shares have fallen from US$14.49 per share in February to $6.94 as of this writing. I can find no good fundamental reason for the decline: LDK's latest quarterly earnings came in at $.95 per share where consensus analyst expectations were $.86; the company has year-on-year sales growth of 202%, has a price-to-earnings ratio of only 2.22, plenty of cash on the balance sheet, and a price-to-book ratio of just .91.
That's right, even if the company were closed and its assets liquidated, the cash generated at the yard sale would be greater than the current market cap, though the earnings should have value. LDK is the very definition of a "value" stock. Or, inversely, shorting any company this cheap, that's this fundamentally solid, and that's growing this fast is the very definition of "irrational." LDK happens to be one of our favorites, but it's easy to find similar valuation stories throughout the industry today. This trend would be odd enough on its own, but, simultaneously, other events in the story of global energy are unfolding.

Read the full post here: Wall Street's Irrational, Dangerous Hatred of Solar Stocks

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09 June 2011

China Leads in Cleantech, But Partnership Provides US Opportunties

Chris R. Brown
There are a number of credible voices on China and cleantech on Twitter.  One you may have overlooked is Chris R. Brown (@chrisrbrown).  He writes the China Solar Energy blog.  I recently interviewed Chris for The Green Skeptic.

Chris worked as a China policy analyst for US Naval Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency and, later, as an analyst and researcher with Gerson Lehrman and Ergo Advisors.  He is now an independent consultant and freelancer. He holds a Master's in China Studies from the University of Washington, where he focused on Xinjiang, Kyrgyz language, Uyghur culture, and China energy issues.

We both recognize there are opportunities for the US and China to cooperate and collaborate on cleantech innovation. What are some of the opportunities with the best potential in your view?

Two opportunities with the best potential are: 1) US-China joint cleantech research and 2) US companies selling manufacturing equipment to Chinese PV module, cell makers. 

There has been a surprising amount of money both governments have pledged to research.  They have set up the $150 million US-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) that will support cleantech research on both sides of the Pacific.   

The best example of a US company profiting from China's commitment to cleantech research is Applied Materials and its Solar Technology Center in Xi'an.  It's the largest non-government solar energy research facility in the world. Several of the top Chinese PV companies are gearing up for increased production and companies that sell equipment used in manufacturing will do well.

I am less optimistic about US companies getting involved in China's domestic solar projects.  The country's solar market is still extremely small and major projects have run into difficulties.  I had high hopes for the First Solar utility level solar PV project in Ordos, Inner Mongolia and the eSolar CSP project in Yulin, Shaanxi.  The First Solar project is still live though behind schedule.  The eSolar project, however, seems to be dead in the water.

What advice do you have for US companies that want to work in China?

First find a strong, reliable partner.  There are layers of relationships that need to be maintained from the provincial government, provincial party leadership, municipal government, municipal party, sometimes provincial NDRC office and, with higher profile cases, national level NDRC and the utility companies.  Having a Chinese partner who you can trust is huge for maneuvering this complex web of relationships.

Another thing to keep in mind is that China should be treated as a collection of smaller countries in terms of energy policy.  This is why "Is China ahead of the US in developing clean tech?" is such a tricky question.  In level of investment, yes; in actual implementation and having grid-connected solar wind electricity, no.    

What are some of the Chinese companies you are watching?  How about US companies with a big China upside?

I am very interested in successful US-China partnerships.  One of my favorites is the ENN and Duke connection.  They have agreed to jointly work on solar projects in North Carolina and there are rumors they will be working together in Nevada on utility-level solar projects.

I watch Suntech closely.  I am particularly interested in their setting up a manufacturing plant outside of Phoenix, Arizona.  Why would a Chinese company set up manufacturing facilities in North America rather than taking advantage of the cheaper labor, property cost in China?  Suntech says that they are positioning themselves for a greater share of the future North American solar market. 

Santa Clara-based Applied Materials is doing interesting things in China.  They are one of the companies that sell manufacturing equipment to the Chinese PV cell and module makers.

What are your thoughts on China's pollution problem? Do you think China can continue to build its new green economy on the "back" of dirty air, water, and resource exploitation?

First of all, I wouldn't say China is particularly 'green'.  The current Beijing government is concerned with one thing - regime survival.   Energy is a problem because the Party's legitimacy rests on maintaining their high rate of economic growth. 

Lack of energy will cripple the economy and possibly lead to unrest.  China's growth rates since the early 70's have been the main piece of evidence the CCP has to prove that its strategy is working.  A slump due to energy shortages could seriously erode the Party's power.  So, Beijing is looking for any type of energy.  Yes, they are investing in solar but they are also investing in coal, nuclear.

Beijing is concerned about pollution but only when it could cause instability.  In some parts of the country, pollution has become serious enough that the central government takes it seriously but only when it is a health issue.  Being 'green' as some sort of global, save-the-planet consciousness doesn't interest them.

Who wins the cleantech race, China or the US? Does it matter?

Several studies over the last year or so have shown that China is investing more money in cleantech than the US.  There doesn't seem to be much debate there.  The people who say China is not winning the cleantech race point to the non-existence of a domestic solar market.  Chinese PV companies are geared for export. 

So, some say China is just cleverly taking advantage of the subsidies the rest of the world is pumping into cleantech to artificially prop it up since nowhere has grid parity. 

These same critics say that projects like First Solar's utility-level PV plant in Ordos, Mongolia are Potemkin Villages meant to fool the world into thinking China is 'green'.

Critics say China will never be serious about developing a domestic solar market while coal is so cheap. 

I disagree.  China is serious about developing a domestic solar market but implementation is a problem.  Beijing is serious about developing a solar market, first and foremost, because it would prefer to consume its own PV products.  China recently released its 12th 5-year plan and developing a domestic solar market is an important part of the plan. 

What's next for Chris Brown?

I am working with US and Chinese companies to facilitate cooperation and exchange.  I spent years analyzing China as a potential threat in the US intelligence community.  Now my big goal is to work to help the two sides profit while strengthening the world solar market.

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04 June 2011

Lighting, Sensors and Lumens, Oh My | The Energy Collective

Let there be Light: Digital Lumens ILE-MB-3
From poor lighting in the Hilton's Trianon Room to the endless parade of LED products on display in the Exhibit Hall lighting was the word at Con Ed's Energy Efficiency Summit in New York on Wednesday.
I wrote about the changing nature of lighting and sensor technologies from this week's Con Ed Energy Efficiency Summit in New York.  Read my post on The Energy Collective blog.

Read more.

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03 June 2011

Energy Efficiency Needs to Be the "New Normal" | The Energy Collective

Energy Efficiency has long been touted as the "low hanging fruit," both in terms of energy savings and potential impact on mitigating climate change.  So why aren't energy efficiency measures being more rapidly adopted?

I explore this question and more from the floor of Con Ed's Energy Efficiency Summit on The Energy Collective blog.

Read more

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02 June 2011

Is Green Regulation Hampering the Economy? Green Skeptic on FOX Business

This morning I sat down with Stuart Varney on FOX Business to talk about whether environmental regulations are hampering the economy.  My argument for reasonable regulations and putting the "conserve" back in conservative did not fall on deaf ears.

Here is the video:

And here is a link if your browser doesn't support the video format: Green Skeptic on FOX Business

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