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California to Require Green Ratings on Cars

Michael Kanellos: December 31, 2008, 9:23 AM
There's a new sticker to look at when you buy a car in California. Starting tomorrow, new cars in the state will come with a sticker that provides information on the car's environmental impact. There is a smog score and a global warming score (all based on a one to ten scale) which rate how much methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, etc. will be emitted by the car. Per the scale, ten is the best, five is average. The California Air Resources Board also has a consumer Website with more information. The new sticker applies only to 2009 models and later, not to any year end closeouts you might be interested in buying. Some places go farther. Finland, for instance, charges much higher taxes on SUVs than economy cars. Policy makers in the U.S. have debated imposing these. It's not too big a stretch to imagine these kind of taxes will come to the states. The Air Resources Board also recently enacted a series of regulations that will require big-rig truckers to add filters to their trucks to reduce diesel emissions.

French Company Seeks Permit for Uranium Enrichment in U.S.

Michael Kanellos: December 31, 2008, 9:11 AM
Areva Enrichment Services has applied to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant in Idaho as interest in nuclear in the U.S. grows. The plant, expected to be open in 2014 if approved, will produce three separative work units (SWU) a year, according to Reuters. An SWU measures how much energy a reactor expends in enriching uranium. In all, the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. need about 13 to 14 SWUs a year. (There are 103 nuclear reactors in the military as well.) Two other enrichment plants in the U.S. are in the planning stages as well. Collectively, these three new plants could produce 15 SWUs a year by 2015. Right now, there is only one enrichment plant operating in the U.S. While these plants could conceivably cover the nuclear needs for the U.S., the interest in building more plants is growing. The NRC expects to get 34 applications for new plants by 2010. Global warming and fears about energy security have been reviving interest in nuclear technology in the U.S. for the past few years. Nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, which proponents say make them cleaner than coal plants. Nuclear can also provide baseline power and isn't subject to the vagaries of the weather. Nuclear plants are also cost effective and can create jobs, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. (I did an interview with the head of the NEI, retired Navy Admiral Frank Bowman last year. He's interesting. Check it out here. ) Environmentalists such as Patrick Morris have also become nuclear advocates. Some new companies such as Hyperion Power Generation and General Fusion are promoting nuclear facilities which they say curb some of the risks and dangers of nuclear. Problems with disposal, proliferation and accidents remain, so opposition remains high. Thus, this is a debate that will go on for some time, but it won't go away. Areva, by the way, is primarily owned by the French government. France, Europe's biggest backer of nuclear, actually exports power to some neighboring nations.

Television: The Innovator in Green Lighting

Michael Kanellos: December 31, 2008, 7:26 AM
Some of the biggest changes in store for green buildings are coming out of television. In the past couple of years, startups and others have begun to take technologies and ideas originally devised for the television market and port it to lighting. First, there was Luxim. The company makes a breathmint-sized bulb that puts out as much light as a conventional streetlight. The company has begun to sell its light to illuminate public spaces like cathedrals. The light was originally devised for projection TVs. Then there is Lumiette, which will make a flat, florescent bulb originally made for LCD TVs and sell it to contractors and architects as a svelte interior light. Meanwhile, Eden Park, a spin out from the University of Illinois, has created a light that pretty much works the same way as a plasma TV: an electronic charge excites phosphors contained in a thin panel and creates light. Seattle's Vu1, in a similar vein, has a bulb that functions like an old CRT set: an electron gun shoots electrons at phosphors attached to a curved piece of glass. The companies that tout OLEDs for TVs like Universal Display also want to market them as lights. And going the other direction, LED makers are selling an increasing number of their light-emitting chips to television makers and notebook manufacturers as energy efficient backlights. Dell is in the process of converting all of its notebooks to LEDs. That should help reduce the cost of manufacturing these things. Right now, the price of LEDs is still tough to swallow. What's driving this? Need. Lighting consumes 22 percent of the electrical power in the U.S. and many of the current bulbs are incredibly inefficient.Australia, Canada, California and others have passed or are contemplating restrictions on lighting in the next decade. However, those inefficient bulbs are also cheap. An incandescent bulb might only last 1000 hours, a fraction of the 50,000 hour lifetime of an LED, and use nine times as much power. But it only costs 75 cents. An equivalent LED might cost $90. Using parts from the TV world, or selling parts to TV makers to get to volume, reduces R&D and production costs.

SolarWorld CEO: Panel Prices to Drop 10% in 2009

Jeff St. John: December 30, 2008, 10:15 AM

To the list of solar companies that have projected lower prices for their products in the near future — think Q-Cells, Renesola, Solon, Suntech Power Holdings and SunPower — you can now add German solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld.

Frank Asbeck, CEO of SolarWorld, said in an interview that he expects photovoltaic solar panel prices to drop more than 10 percent in 2009 and 2010, Reuters reported Monday.

That will push down SolarWorld’s profit margins by about two percentage points, Asbeck said. Still, he predicted that his company’s sales would grow 25 percent to 30 percent next year.

Asbeck pointed to an increase in global capacity — that is, an excess of supply — and the potential future phase-out of government subsidies for his predicted drop in solar panel prices.

Other solar panel manufacturers have blamed the ongoing economic downturn for causing customers to delay orders of solar panels. This delay has lead to reduced sales forecasts for next year (see Q-Cells Cuts Sales Forecast After Customers Delay Deliveries).

The U.S. dollar’s surge against the Euro — the currency of the world’s largest solar market — has also played a part in reduced forecasts for American and Asian companies (see Weak Euro Prompts Suntech to Slash Sales Forecast and Stocks Stumble After SunPower Lowers Forecast). The CEO of China-based Suntech told Reuters earlier this month that the company expects 2009 panel prices to fall by 25 percent to 30 percent from the third quarter of 2008. 

Then there’s the expectation that prices for polysilicon, the main ingredient for most solar panels produced today, will fall dramatically next year (see Polysilicon Prices Head for Steep Fall), leading to a possible oversupply of panels and cutting into profits for some companies. Makers of silicon wafers, which are used to make silicon solar panels, also have reported seeing weaker demand (see ReneSola's Profit Up 153.5%, Stock Tumbles on Weak Outlook).

Add to those concerns the reports of problems in the Spanish solar market (see Solar Fraud Could Eliminate Spanish Market), and you’ve got a whole host of headwinds for the solar industry next year.

Top 21 Greentech Deals of 2008

Eric Wesoff: December 29, 2008, 7:43 AM
It’s a journalistic cliché to pile on the top 10 lists at the end of the year and we’re not above year-end clichés. But here’s the problem -- if we were to list the top 10 greentech investments of the year for 2008 we’d end up with nine solar deals and a biofuels deal which is kind of repetitive and not at all representative of the greentech sector. So we’ll indulge ourselves, enlarge the list, and make room to include a water deal, a lighting deal, an automotive deal and a smart grid investment. And allow us to announce… The Top 21 Greentech Deals of 2008 As in 2007, solar was the dominant investment driver in greentech with more than a dozen solar firms winning funding rounds greater than $100 million. These large funding rounds occurred in the first three quarters of the year and for obvious reasons -- we are probably not going to see that kind of flurry for a while. Enormous funding rounds are not the typical M.O. for VCs -– building proprietary semiconductor factories is not what VCs consider “capital efficient.??? But this size investment is required to work out the not trivial technical risks as well as scale to the production capacity needed to compete in this market. Large capital requirements loomed regardless of PV material system being funded whether it was CIGS (Nanoslar, Miasolé, SoloPower, Solyndra, etc.), CadTel (AVA Solar), or amorphous silicon (Optisolar). These terms applied for solar thermal as well (eSolar, Brightsource, Solar Reserve, Solel). This same capital intensity and scale was seen in the liquid fuels investments of Range Fuels and Amyris. VC investment in cleantech in 2009 won’t be as dramatic as 2008 but will remain a brightspot in the VC universe. We expect a drop in the dollar amount but the number of deals should hold steady with a focus on storage, smart grid and energy efficiency. Click here to view the full list.

The Next Big Thing in Green Electronics

Michael Kanellos: December 24, 2008, 6:53 AM
Is there a killer app on the horizon for electronics makers? Maybe, says Stephen Baker: high-definition videoconferencing. Baker, an analyst at NPD Group and one of the most accurate in the business when it comes to identifying TV trends, says that the prices are coming down rapidly on high-end videoconferencing systems. These aren't the choppy, slow systems that make everyone look like they are calling from a space station. He's talking about the ones that provide clear, crisp streams of video of people on the other side of the planet. I've seen demos of these types of systems at Accenture and NHK and they are pretty cool. A few years ago, Hewlett-Packard released systems that cost $500,000. Now, companies can put together a high-definition, high-bandwidth system for $50,000 to $75,000 thanks to Moore's Law and economies of scale. That price includes the large screen TV, the networking equipment and other stuff. Consumers already have big screen TVs: The prices on the rest of the equipment would have to come down of course bu the fact that they own a TV already helps adoption. Cheaper systems that could spark first phase of mass market adoption might be ready by 2011, he speculated. "It is the only thing I see out there" that seems like a next big opportunity, he said. How is this green? Well, it means there's less travel. Rather than spend two days out of the office (and several hours at the airport flipping through a lot of magazines you didn't even know existed) you can just do that 90 minute meeting by videoconference. Granted, you won't be able to make faces or flip off the phone receiver anymore like you do during conference calls today, but it beats taking another short business trip. Baker himself racked up 200,000 miles in the air this year, he admitted. "It would be nice to have a teleprescence in my office," he said.

Sony’s Got a Solar Lamp—Will More Solar Annoucements Follow?

Michael Kanellos: December 23, 2008, 11:43 AM
Sony is showing off a lamp with photovoltaic dyes that can harvest energy from interior light, a somewhat rare bit of solar technology from the electronics giant. But chances are more solar news could follow. The lamp, shown off last week at an eco products convention in Tokyo, contains the dye-powered solar cells in transparent side panels, according to a report on TechOn. The solar cells harvest power, store it in a small battery and the battery then is used to illuminate a decorative pattern in the panels. (See pictures at TechOn here.) The module containing the dye-powered solar cells are only 4 percent efficient. One minute of battery power takes 15 minutes of exposure to light. Right now, Sony has no plans for selling the lamp. Still, Sony has achieved cell efficiencies of over 10 percent and module efficiencies of 8.2 percent in the laboratory. Although Sony remains one of the largest consumer electronics makers in the world, you don't hear the name much in solar. In some ways, that puts Sony in the minority when it comes to large Asian electronics makers. Samsung, LG, Kyocera Sharp and Panasonic are already large players in solar or have announced wide-ranging solar plans. Rival Panasonic just bought Sanyo, the world's seventh-largest solar maker, this week. Solar prices are supposed to dip by 20 percent or so in 2009 as more production lines go live. There's also a global recession. But the solar business will be around a long time. The PC industry didn't get killed in the economic downturn of 1981 and 1982. And Sony doesn't like being left out of markets their close rivals are doing well in. If they started talking a bit more about solar at CES next month, it wouldn't surprise me.