Environment Forum

Dark days for renewable energy

We knew things were going badly in the renewable energy industry, but this week we got a grim view of just how ugly it looks out there.

Today, research group New Energy Finance said first-quarter investment in so-called clean energy fell 44 percent from the fourth quarter of last year, which in the immediate aftermath of the credit crisis wasn’t exactly stellar itself.

The $13.3 billion of investment in the most recent quarter was 53 percent below the same quarter of last year, the group said.

Things are particularly bad in the United States, where financing of new renewable energy projects was only $500 million in the first quarter compared with $2 billion in the fourth quarter of last year and $5 billion in the first quarter of 2008, according to New Energy Finance.

That report came a day after several other groups, including Deloitte and the Cleantech Group, gave their own views of first-quarter activity in clean tech. Though they had different authors, all the studies sent the same message: green investment is way down, and it’s unlikely to bounce back any time soon.

From Suds to Sunshine in Brooklyn

A green contracting outfit based in a former Brooklyn brewery says it’s the first business in a major U.S. city that can sell power back to the grid that it generates from the sun.

New York state gave Big Sue, LLC, which has about 3,500 square feet of solar panels on its roof, the OK to sell any extra power it generates from the panels back to the grid.

For years, homeowners who have put solar panels on their roofs have been able to sell a bit of solar power back to the grid, which has helped them deal with the big costs of buying and installing the panels. For homeowners it can take 8 to 12 years to break even on the initial investment.

In Antarctic base, solar energy and 10 cm commute

On a British Antarctic research station, engineer Andy Binney (pictured above at work) and plumber Adam Gerrard have what must be one of the shortest commutes in the world – 10 cm.

Here is a picture of Andy at work — installing boilers that will be partly powered by solar energy at the Rothera research station in Antarctica — and pointing to the wall behind which he sleeps. For a story about Antarctica shifting to renewable energies, click here.

Andy and Adam share the bedroom behind the 10 cm thick wall. If the boilers play up in the middle of the night, they will even be woken up by the noise.

Green jobs really on the way? New U.S. solar plants announced this week

Are those green jobs Obama has been promising already on their way? Really?

Despite a weak global economy and all the gloom that has brought to the solar industry of late, two solar companies this week quietly bucked the trend by announcing new manufacturing plants here in the United States.

On Monday, Hemlock Semiconductor said it would invest up to $3 billion to expand U.S. production of polysilicon, the key raw material used to make solar cells and semiconductors.  That will include $1.2 billion to build a new facility in Clarksville, Tennesee, and up to $1 billion to expand its current operations in Hemlock, Michigan. The company said the investment will create 800 permanent positions at the plants (and a few hundred more once Clarksville is expanded) and 1,800 construction jobs.

A day later, Signet Solar said it will build a solar panel manufacturing plant in Belen, New Mexico. The first phase of the plant will create 200 jobs, though ultimately it will employ about 600 people, the Menlo Park, California-based company said.

T. Boone Pickens working on solar

boonepickens.jpgT. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil investor who is building the largest wind farm in the United States, is also setting his sights on solar power.

Pickens last month launched a campaign aimed at weaning the United States off its dependence on foreign oil and is in the midst of a nation-wide tour to promote it. Following a speech in Los Angeles, Pickens told me he is looking beyond his wind investments to solar energy and is eager to share his “Pickens Plan” with both of the U.S. presidential candidates. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Do you think your plan to meet with  Obama and McCain will happen any time soon?

Coal growth forecast to reign for decades

eia.jpgRenewable power sources like wind and solar are some of the fastest growing sectors in the energy business.

But this graph forecasts that coal, the dirtiest power source in terms of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, will still dominate global power generation growth for decades into the future.

The forecast, released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistics branch of the Department of Energy, shows that global power generated from coal will grow 115 percent to 15.36 trillion kilowatt hours from 2005 to 2030.  It assumes no changes in emissions laws or policy.

Solar power for less than your cable bill

solarpanels.jpgSolar power companies have been working around the clock to drive down the price of clean electricity from the sun so it can one day be as cheap as the energy we get from dirtier sources, like coal plants.

Until we get there, however, some solar panel installers have come up with a solution that they say will give more people access to solar energy. How are they doing it? By allowing customers to lease, rather than buy, the photovoltaic solar panels for their roofs.

It’s the same idea, really, that has enabled some people to get behind the wheel of a luxury car they could otherwise not afford — low or no upfront costs followed by a monthly bill.