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Easy Holiday Shopping for Positive Solar News

The end of 2013 is shaping up to be merry for the solar industry. It’s been a tough few years – as European governments cut back on incentives, inventories of solar panels, cells, and even raw materials started to pile up. But all that is getting sorted out, and a bunch more positive news is starting to point to a happy 2014 and beyond.

Japan solar plant

A 70MW solar installation in Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture.

Demand for solar in China, Japan, the U.S. and even Europe has been strong since the summer. The pull has been felt througout the supply chain, but is not likely to be so strong that solar will become more expensive for end-users.

One sad tale this year has been a trade war between the developed home countries of some solar makers (in Europe and the U.S.) and China. But it looks like the compromise that the EU and China reached in July will stick, says Bloomberg. Perhaps those discussions will serve as a model for U.S.-China relations.

Speaking of the U.S., In October, 12 new solar installations accounted for 504 MW or 72.1 percent of all new electricity capacity last month. For the year, solar’s share is more like 21%. The Earthtechling blog digs into numbers from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Solar companies are sending positive signals to investors – and company stock has been soaring, points out Dana Blankenhorn at The Street.

At Lux Research, analyst Ed Cahill is taking a longer view. He says that solar will become competitive with natural gas by 2025, or if gas prices are between $4.90 and $9.30 MMBtu, perhaps as early as 2020. Apparently natural gas is a helpmate to solar – because using both together “can accelerate adoption and increase intermittent renewable penetration without expensive infrastructure improvements.”

Cahill says solar will become broadly competitive across the globe and that solar system prices will fall to $1.20 per W, from $1.96 per W in 2030 as modules get more efficient. One trend from the past will continue to dog the solar industry – as countries (and in the U.S., states) change policies, the industry will continue to see ups and downs. [Here's a press release about the report, along with a map]

IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change

Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.

When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.

But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.

(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)

IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:

1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)

What the Election Means for Climate, Energy & Cleantech

Update: Here’s a link to C&EN’s election story – including new House & Senate leaders in energy-related roles.

It’s been a quiet time in cleantech news lately, what with Sandy and the election happening in back-to-back weeks. But the election – and the superstorm – are likely to have meaningful long-term impacts on energy policy. I took a tour around the internets to see what analysts and cleantech-ers are saying in their reaction to the election results.

Though it was past my usual bedtime, President Obama’s victory speech caught my ear when he remarked “We want our children to live in an America . . . that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

With Congress still divided, most policy wonks suggest that any energy and environmental policy changes will have to be led by the White House. Things to watch include any movement to block the Keystone Pipeline or push forward with EPA regulations on smog that were delayed due to cost concerns.

Environmentalists have signaled that they will be putting pressure on the President to use national policy to address climate change. Look for Bill McKibben, activist, author and co-founder of climate change group 350.org to be very vocal. He was quoted in three articles I read.

Energy and cleantech activists are pressing for a national renewable portfolio standard that would require power generators to obtain 30% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Nearly 30 states and D.C. have such a standard, the most well-known and successful is California’s, which is headed to 33% by 2020. Wind energy backers will work to return the production tax credit.

The Washington Post points out that Obama recently spoke about upgrading energy efficiency standards for buildings – codes are currently set by state and local governments.

And renewables businesses will be looking for government action that might help them gain financing for facilities or adjust subsidies on competing oil and gas producers. On the other hand, Obama has been pursuing an “all of the above” energy strategy that is likely result in further development of domestic oil and gas (including hydrofracking) resources.

Perhaps most fascinating to me, though also the most far-fetched, is discussion about whether the fiscal cliff, tax reform, and the deficit will drive Congress to think about introducing a carbon tax. Hmmmm…

My favorite takes so far on the election and energy policy:

From the Washington Post: Obama to continue efforts to curb greenhouse gases, push energy efficiency

Politico: Obama’s green cred on the line in second term

Marc Gunther: For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?

Huffington Post: Ron Pernick on Five Cleantech actions for President Obama

The Daily Climate: The “Flat Earth Five” – House Members and Climate Change

For an international take, check out Click Green, which compares the horizon for climate change action in the U.S. versus China. China will have new leadership in Xi Jinping

 

Energy Conversion Devices: the other story

For many years of its history, Energy Conversion Devices had more cleantech and related business going on than this blog has categories for. The 51 year-old company filed for bankruptcy on Valentine’s Day, after having failed to generate sufficient revenues from its main business, United Solar Ovonics.

Tech writers are focusing on the Solar part of the tale, which is understandable because it neatly fits into a pattern of high-cost solar makers taking a tumble in the face of low-cost Chinese competitors. But what I found fascinating about the firm is the part referred to as Ovonics.

The word Ovonics was coined by ECD’s founder, Stanford R. Ovshinsky. He took the first two letters of his name and added the end of electronics to create a sort-of blanket term describing the way a bit of energy can convert amorphous and disordered materials into structured crystalline materials. It also covers the reverse process. The various energy and information applications that Ovshinksy put his inventive mind to include nickel-metal hydride batteries, LCD screens, read-write CDs, amorphous silicon thin-film solar material (and a nifty machine to make it), hydrogen fuel cells, and phase change electronic memory. It would be hard to imagine American life without many of these technologies – and some are still to come.

He is considered a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. At 88 years old, he is still inventing at his new company Ovshinsky Innovations (he left ECD in 2007). The curious part of the tale is that Ovshinsky is self-taught – he didn’t go to college or graduate school. And his inventions began with research on energy and information that he pursued in the 1950s and 60s.

ECD started out as a laboratory – founded in 1960 – before it became a company. Even as a business, it ran more like a stand-alone research laboratory – think Bell Labs or Xerox labs without the rest of the corporation. The company brought in money by doing everything other than making and selling products - it had equity investors, research grants, and many collaborations along with a bit of licensing revenue.

It seemed to be always on the cusp of the big time, but it was ahead of its time. In some ways it was both ahead and behind at the same time. It had already licensed  the nickel-metal hydride rechargeable battery years before it powered the Toyota Prius. Now electric cars will have lithium-ion batteries. ECD made thin-film solar that would find a niche in building integrated photovoltaics, but that niche still is not large enough to save the solar business. Yet its cost structure still belongs to the solar industry of five years ago.

Ovshinsky was also ahead of his time when he focused his work on renewable energy to break the world’s dependence on petroleum.

I don’t know ECD intimately but as an outsider, it seems that the company likely lost its driving force when it lost Ovshinsky five years ago. The management wanted to concentrate on making the company profitable – so it focused on solar energy, which was experiencing a boom. That was a bet that did not pay off.

Avoid The Regrettable Substitution

“Avoid the regrettable substitution” almost sounds like advice you’d find in a fortune cookie (and is good advice to follow in many aspects of life), but it is actually the driving theme behind a new tool to help companies formulate or use less toxic products. Imagine a company that replaces a plasticizer in their package with something – anything – that’s not called bisphenol A, only to later discover that their chosen replacement is an endocrine disruptor. Woops.

The name on the container containing the plasticizer – the Brand – is not likely the entity that is formulating the stuff the container is made of. But it’s the Brand that stands to lose if there is a regrettable substitution. So a group of advocacy organizations and businesses called BizNGO have gotten together and designed a protocol to help companies work with material suppliers to make sure that better really is better.

The BizNGO Chemical Alternatives Assessment Protocol is a step by step guideline to help companies navigate information about competing alternatives. Until everyone has access to full data sets on toxicity, exposure, and health and environmental effects it may make its mark as a tool that helps companies realize how much information about their products is missing. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the same group publishes a Business Case for Federal Chemicals Reform.

News coverage about the effects on human health or the environment of things like BPA or flame retardants often have a “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of structure to them. On the one hand BPA can leach out of water bottles or food cans and be ingested by consumers. On the other hand, BPA helps make containers more safe than they may otherwise be. On the one hand, BPA may cause human heath effects, on the other, maybe not so much, and besides, there are few obvious replacements. And so on. Rather than go around in circles, the protocol suggests a particular order of operation for assessing alternatives that is written from the business point of view.

BizNGO launched the tool today – the group held a meeting for its members in Washington, DC. In addition, it has published a prelude to a new tool, called Principles for Sustainable Plastics that will help companies made decisions of what “green” attributes of plastics they should be aiming for – biobased? recycled?

Mark Rossi leads the group, and he says the businesses most active in BizNGO are a rather diverse lot – from retailer Staples to healthcare provider Catholic Healthcare West, to manufacturers of specialty construction materials. They started a few years ago with a first principle: know and disclose chemical products as well as any hazards. Since then, along with efforts by companies like Walmart and HP, companies far back in the supply chain have begun using tools (like Green Screen from Clean Production Action, which is also part of BizNGO) to disclose the chemical components of their products to their downstream customers. It’s a trend that is likely to pick up steam.

 

 

Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt

Dow Chemical, maker of the Solar Shingle, has been awarded a $12.8 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Energy to fund building integrated solar products program. The aim of the funding is clear in the name of the DOE program “Extreme Balance-of-System Hardware Cost Reductions.” [note: Maybe not quite clear enough - I added the hyphens to help you figure out what Extreme is supposed to refer to.]

Dow's Solar Shingles. Credit: Dow Chemical

In short, DOE wants to bring down the installed cost of solar power to $2 per watt – without subsidies. Currently, it’s the upfront cost of installing solar panels that puts the breaks on the amount of installed solar in the U.S. Most solar systems are designed to last upwards of 20 years (most experts say you can count on your panels to work for 25 years), but the costs can mean the payback period can stretch out to more than 15 years, depending on where you live.  

Sharp offers an awesome and slightly addicting solar cost/payback/savings calculator on its website. Drop whatever you are doing right now (it’s the Friday before Labor Day, people, no one expects you to do real work anyway) and go here: http://sharpusa.cleanpowerestimator.com/sharpusa.htm

All you need to do is put in your zip code and the amount of your electricity bill and then you can spend a while fiddling with the variables. The default cost per watt of solar power is $7 per watt (or $7,000 per kW as shown in the calculator).

With my particulars, a 3,000 kW system would trim my power bill enough to pay for itself in a bit over 16 years. I’d only pay about 1/3rd the full cost of the system (or over $7,000) due to state and Federal tax rebates. So that shows two things: government subsidies are required to make solar even sort of make sense at current prices, and that $2 per watt sounds like a reasonable price target. If you lived in Arizona your calculation would likely be different.

Give it a try!

Bayer MaterialScience, PPG Get Presidential Shout Out

Yesterday, President Obama was at Penn State to press for more federal support of green buildings. In his speech promoting the Better Buildings Initiative, he suggested that many in his audience might not consider green buildings to be “sexy.” But I suspect that chemists have many reasons to find green buildings to be pretty darned appealing.

Bayer makes spray insulation for commercial building roofs

Bayer makes spray insulation for commercial building roofs. Credit: Bayer MaterialScience

For one thing, green building materials research – like that conducted by a clean energy hub in Philadelphia headed by Penn State - can earn chemical firms a Presidential shout-out. The hub includes corporate partners Bayer Material Science, which is working on new materials for insulation and facades that save energy, and PPG Industries, whose researchers are creating walls that reflect sun and windows that reflect infrared, according to the President’s remarks.

He pointed out that making buildings (and homes) more energy efficient is a green upgrade that comes with no tradeoffs. The whole point of retrofitting (or building green from the start) is to save on energy costs. The roadblock, though, is the initial upfront cost, which is a cash expenditure. The President’s initiative - through tax credits and financing help – is supposed to minimize the up-front sticker shock. He’d like to pay for the cost of the program by rolling back “subsidies to the oil companies,” saying, “it’s time to stop subsidizing yesterday’s energy.”

The Walmart-ization of Thin Film Solar?

Walmart is a name synonymous with affordable, or perhaps even cheap. The same cannot be said today for thin-film CIGS solar modules. CIGS stands for copper indium gallium selenide, the ingredients of what promises to be the only thin film technology that can compete with crystalline silicon on solar efficiency.

In an interesting development, Walmart said yesterday that it would work with SolarCity to put CIGS (and thin-film cadmium telluride) on roofs of dozens of stores in California and Arizona. That means a very mainstream company will be getting renewable energy from a non-mainstream source of solar power. The announcement is also an opportunity to check in to see how CIGS is doing in general.

Continue reading →

Cleantech: Patent, Publications, and Money

Two cleantech start-ups recently covered by C&EN have milestones to report. And another is appearing at the ACS Spring National Meeting this week.

Cellulosic ethanol firm Qteros, with technology from the UMass lab of microbiologist Susan Leschine now has a patent on its Q microbe. The microbe can break down the polysaccharides in plant cellulose into simple sugars and then ferment the sugars into ethanol. The company says this is a money and time saver, as it reduces the number of processing steps and eliminates the need for separate enzymes. C&EN recently wrote about Qteros’ new CEO John McCarthy, and his efforts to scale-up the business (subscription required).

And the New York Times DealBook blog has reported that low-carbon cement start-up Calera will get $15 million in funding from Peabody Energy, a coal company. Calera claims to have the ability to bubble CO2 emissions from power plants into high-mineral content groundwater to create a cement-like product. According to the company, the process locks in the CO2 from the power plant and also saves on CO2 emissions that would normally be used to create the cement. You can read about Calera and three other low-CO2 cement firms in C&EN (subscription required).

Out in San Francisco, agricultural biotech firm Agrivida, which is developing specialized non-food crops that can be turned into chemicals and fuels, will be presenting research at the ACS meeting. Agrivida will explain how it has developed a “platform [that] allows for expression of cell wall-hydrolyzing enzymes within a plant’s growing cell wall without the occurrence of detrimental phenotypes that may impact yield.” Basically, like Qteros, the trick is to get a head start on conversion from cellulose by picking the right biological systems. My colleague Sue Morrissey mentioned Agrivida in her story about recent ARPA-E funding awardees.

If any ACS meeting attendees have a chance to see Agrivida’s presentation, I would love to hear from you.

As much as I love San Francisco, I am writing this post from Munich, Germany, where I am preparing to visit Wacker Chemie this week. You’ll hear more about this soon.