Environment Forum

California approves reverse auction renewable energy market

IMG_1349.JPGThe California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved a unique reverse auction market to let renewable energy developers bid on small-scale projects under a program that would generate up to 1,000 megawatts for the state’s three big investor-owned utilities and further spur the solar industry.

Think of it as the eBay approach to ramping up production of carbon-free electricity.

The idea is to avoid problems with so-called feed-in-tariffs that set rates artificially high for renewable energy production. In Spain, for example, high rates spurred a solar building boom that was followed by a crash when a cap on renewable energy production was reached and rates fell.

Under the plan approved by California regulators, the onus would be on developers to calculate the cost of their projects and then offer a bid high enough to generate a profit yet low enough to beat out competitors. The 1,000 megawatts to be developed would be split between Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

At peak output, 1,000 megawatts would power about 750,000 homes.

“This mechanism would also allow the state to pay developers a price that is sufficient to bring projects online but that does not provide surplus profits at ratepayers’ expense,” utilities commission staff wrote in their original proposal. “Providing a clear and steady long-term investment signal rather than providing a pre-determined price can create a competitive market.”

California solar installer raises $15 million to expand to the East Coast

RTR2BT3D.jpgDuring a withering recession, one would think the residential solar business would suffer. After all, five-figure photovoltaic panel arrays would seem to be one of those household improvements that would be first to fall off the to-do list.

Yet on Wednesday, Sungevity, an Oakland, Calif., solar installer, announced that it had raised a $15 million round of funding to further finance the three-year-old startup’s breakneck growth. Including the $15 million, the company has raised a total of $25 million from Greener Capital, Firelake Capital, BrightPath Capital Partners and individual investors such as the actress Cate Blanchett.

Sungevity says that in 2010 its share of the California residential solar market has grown from 0.4 percent to 2.9 percent. The company’s innovation has been to use imaging technology and proprietary software to remotely size and design rooftop arrays, allowing customers to order their solar systems online. That cuts out multiple visits to a home by salespeople and installers.

GE, VCs put $30 million in Silicon Valley startup’s “smart windows”

Soladigm_windows_12.10.10.jpgA $30 million investment in Soladigm, a Silicon Valley startup that makes “dynamic glass,” by General Electric and other investors offers a window into where venture capital may go in 2011.

Soladigm uses an electrochromic process to electronically darken or lighten windows to save on costs for heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC in industry parlance. The company’s dynamic glass darkens during the summer or hot times of day to cut air conditioning use and lightens when the weather is cold to capture and retain heat.

“We can save about 25 percent of the HVAC energy load,” Rao Mulpuri, Soladigm’s chief executive, said in an interview. “That has the capital benefit of resizing HVAC systems to handle a lower load than you would otherwise have.”

Electric trucks pick up speed

smith electric.JPGWhile the delivery of the first Nissan Leaf electric car to a California buyer over the weekend made headlines, there’s been relatively little attention paid to the small but growing electric truck and bus market.

As the workhorses of the economy, delivery trucks, city buses and other heavy-duty vehicles don’t carry the cachet of, say, a Tesla Roadster electric sports car. But electrifying urban fleets could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants as well as helping wean the United States off imported oil.

It’s a huge potential market, as overseas companies have recognized. For instance, on Sunday, China’s BYD acknowledged it was in talks to supply battery-powered buses to the city of Los Angeles.  And on Monday, the U.S. licensee of the United Kingdom’s Smith Electric Vehicles announced it had sold electric trucks to the U.S. Marines.

Deloitte acquires two carbon consultancies

RTR216LA.jpgThe Cancun climate talks may have ended inconclusively and chances that the United States Congress will enact a cap on greenhouse gas emissions over the next two years are slim to none, but business still sees money to be made in the carbon market.

On Monday, for instance, Deloitte, the tax and consulting giant, said it has acquired two greenhouse gas consultancies, ClearCarbon Consulting and DOMANI. Terms of the deals were not disclosed.

ClearCarbon, based in Arlington, Va., conducts audits of corporations’ greenhouse gas emissions to calculate their carbon footprints. The firm also performs lifecycle analysis of companies’ supply chains and does due diligence on products’ environmental attributes. ClearCarbon’s clients have included Walmart, NBC Universal and International Paper

California voters’ support for state climate change law rises

IMG_1322.JPGMemo to Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero: The return on your investment in California environmental politics is falling faster than the snow on the Sierra Nevada.

The petroleum refiners bankrolled Proposition 23, a measure on the November that would have suspended AB 32, California’s landmark global warming law. But they found themselves outspent and out-organized by a coalition of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, renewable energy companies, environmental justice activists and some high-profile Republicans like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the end, Prop 23 suffered a crushing defeat when 61.6 percent of voters cast ballots against the measure.

Now a new Field poll commissioned by Next 10, a non-profit San Francisco research firm, shows that California voters’ support for AB 32 has risen since the Nov. 2 election.

Renewable energy advocates fear a time bomb in the tax bill

RTR26FY6.jpgSolar and wind advocates hailed the United States Senate’s move Thursday night to extend for another year a key incentive program for big renewable energy projects. But they warned that another provision of the tax compromise under consideration could devastate the industry.

First the good news for green energy proponents: If the tax bill passes in its present form, developers will be able to receive through 2011 a federal cash grant to cover 30 percent of the cost of solar power plants, wind farms and other large renewable energy projects.

Enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus package, the Treasury cash grant “1603” program was offered as an alternative to a 30 percent investment tax credit that few developers had use for as they typically have no profits to offset. And so-called tax equity investors who would buy those credits from renewable energy developers in exchange for financing their projects largely disappeared as the recession took hold.

Iberdrola takes a shine to the U.S. solar power plant market

USA-MILITARY/GREENIberdrola Renewables, the Spanish green energy giant, has jumped into the United States solar power plant market, announcing a deal Thursday with Silicon Valley’s SunPower for a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built in Arizona.

Altogether, SunPower, based in San Jose, Calif., will construct 50 megawatts’ worth of solar power plants for Iberdrola, including a 30-megawatt project to be built in Colorado.

“We are excited to enter the U.S. solar business by building our first 50 megawatts with SunPower,” Martin Mugica, Iberdrola’s executive vice president, said in a statement Thursday.

Robots rule at Silicon Valley solar factory

Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar module maker, took some heat in November when it decided to close a factory, lay off workers and delay expansion of a new manufacturing plant that was built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee.

In making the move seven weeks after opening the new factory, called Fab 2, the company cited the need to rein in capital expenditures in the face of aggressive competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers.

Still, the $733 million plant is up and running and Solyndra this week released a video of the automated factory. It’s obviously a commercial for the company but the video also shows how in the long run U.S. companies may be able to compete against China in the global market.

North American photovoltaic market predicted to double in 2011

IMG_1348.JPGRenewable energy lobbyists on Wednesday held a press conference to warn that the failure of Congress to extend a key financial incentive would be disastrous for the solar and wind industries. At the same time, IDC, a research firm, released a report predicting that the North American photovoltaic market will double in 2011.

So what gives?

What has the renewable energy industry worried is the expiration at year’s end of a Treasury program that lets developers take a cash grant to cover 30 percent of the cost of big solar, wind and geothermal projects in lieu of taking an existing investment tax credit.

Since most green energy companies have no profits to offset with the tax credit, the cash grant has become crucial to obtain financing to build multibillion-dollar solar power plants and wind farms.