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California Declares Water Crisis; Has Time Come for Water Grid?

Michael Kanellos: February 28, 2009, 5:43 AM
Here's a flashback from the 1970s: California has declared a water crisis that may extend several years into the future because of a combination of drought, population increases and inefficient water use. The Sierra Nevada snow pack is 57 percent of normal, according to the Department of Water Resources. Shasta Lake, one of the big reservoirs with a capacity of 4.5 million acre/feet, is at 42 percent capacity, a decline from 57 percent last year. Urban areas will be asked to curb consumption by 20 percent. For years experts have warned that the water crisis will sneak up fast on the public and here it is. So what can be done? While desalination and other water reclamation technologies might help alleviate the problem over the long term, they won't be of much use over the next few years. They take years to build and plan. (This isn't New Deal-era America, or modern day Dubai, where bridges and other large structures can be built in 24 months.) The cheaper and quicker alternative is going to come from things like the water management systems from companies like Hydropoint Data Systems, which control lawn watering systems by dynamically tracking environmental conditions. Fifty percent of urban water use goes to landscaping -- count the trees in the Target parking lot next time. Nineteen percent of the energy in California is consumed in pumping water uphill for watering. Thus, cut water, cut greenhouse gases too. Companies that sell purification equipment that can help curb consumption at industrial plants -- Halosource, Miox, 212 Resources -- should also do well. And another cool thing about these companies: They mostly sell to private industry, not public agencies. The sales cycle is shorter.

Nichia and Seoul to End Global LED Patent Wars

Eric Lane: February 27, 2009, 10:07 AM
Earlier this month Nichia and Seoul Semiconductor (Seoul), whose bitter LED patent battles spanned courts and administrative bodies across three continents, announced that they have resolved almost all of their litigation.  The parties will enter a cross-licensing agreement covering their LED and laser diode technology. The disputes included patent infringement claims involving utility and design patents, false advertising and defamation claims, as well as claims of anti-competitive conduct.  The suits raged in Europe, Japan, Korea and Germany, as well as multiple U.S. jurisdictions, including Texas, California, Michigan and the International Trade Commission. Some of the highlights (or lowlights, as it were) included:
A Nichia “victory??? in an LED design patent case where Seoul made only two sales of infringing products amounting to $62 in damages; the court awarded a judgment of the $250 statutory minimum. (See my posts on this case here and here.) A Nichia suit accusing Seoul of false advertising and unfair competition in connection with Seoul press releases claiming the company’s accused products were “actually non-infringing??? and it had “substantially prevailed??? in litigation when in fact a jury had found Seoul willfully infringed all four Nichia design patents. (See my post on this case here.) A Seoul suit accusing Nichia of monopolization and attempted monopolization by pursuing baseless lawsuits to preserve its monopoly power in the white side-view LED market, including allegedly contriving a fake purchase of Seoul LEDs just to create a U.S. sale and establish jurisdiction for an infringement suit. (See my post on this case here.)
One interesting epilogue is that Nichia put out a follow-up press release taking pains to deny any cooperative arrangements between Nichia and Seoul that might suggest collusion or other anti-competitive behavior.   The press release noted some media reports of cooperation between the two competitors, which may have included Communist media because Nichia made clear that it is “by no means a ‘comrade’ of [Seoul].??? The LED wars between Nichia and Seoul involved so many lawsuits and so much bad blood, that it reached the point where a new complaint filed was no longer news.  But the bitter rivals finally making peace is definitely news. Eric Lane is a patent attorney and intellectual property lawyer at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego, where he is in the Intellectual Property and Climate Change & Clean Technology practices.  Eric is the founder and author of Green Patent Blog, which provides discussion and analysis of intellectual property law issues in clean technology.

San Francisco Files Wave Power Application

Michael Kanellos: February 27, 2009, 8:33 AM
The City of San Francisco has filed an application for a wave power farm that could produce up to 30 megawatts of power. Details, however, are vague to nonexistent. What sort of wave machines would be built? Who would own and maintain them, etc. All that is TBA. Nonetheless it's a start. Wave and tidal power are in the embryonic stages but proponents say the business could take off in the 2010s. Pelamis Wave Power launched the first commercial wave power device off the coast of Portugal last Fall and a couple of companies, such as Ireland's Open Hydro (tidal power), have launched large-scale prototypes. The big challenges? Building something that can survive Neptune's fury. Tidal turbines tested in New York's East River have come up mangled. Finavera Renewables launched a demo wave bobber off the coast of Oregon last year. It sank. Then there is the problem of economics. SF Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to see tidal turbines go into the water as well but the city's Public Utility Commission concluded that the devices would require $750,000 a year in maintenance and would not provide enough power to be cost-effective. And if those two work out, you have to figure out how to deliver power to large urban centers. Still, progress continues and several nations are dumping money into R&D. Oil services companies, who will put these things out there, also are warming up to the waves. It's like the wind industry was in the 80s, everyone tells me. Six years from now, there could be 1 gigawatt of marine power worldwide. Startup Aquamarine says it will build 1 gigawatt of wave and tidal power in the U.K. by 2020 alone.

Sempra Wants DOE Loan Guarantees to Expand Low-Cost Solar Plant

Jeff St. John: February 27, 2009, 8:32 AM
Sempra Energy, owner and operator of what some have called the cheapest solar photovoltaic power plant in the world, wants to expand the project from 10 megawatts to 50 megawatts starting this year — but the utility holding company will need federal loan guarantees to do it. So the timeline for a $200 million expansion of Sempra's El Dorado solar plant will depend on how fast the Department of Energy can start disbursing loan guarantees called for in the massive stimulus package signed into law last week, Sempra CEO Michael Allman said Friday. "If we're able to get the loan subsidy, we could be breaking ground in the second quarter on the world's largest PV plant," Allman said at the Pacific Crest Clean Technology Conference in San Francisco. Without it, "It's still a question mark."  Energy Secretary Steven Chu has pledged to speed DOE's process for getting billions of dollars of grants and loan guarantees in the stimulus bill out to the companies that need them to boost renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.  But the $6 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy, energy efficiency and electricity transmission projects will come through a DOE program that has failed to give out a single loan guarantee since it launched in 2005. The El Dorado project gained attention in December when Pacific Crest analyst Mark Bachman said it was producing electricity at below the price of conventional power in the United States (see First Solar Reached Grid-Parity Milestone, Says Report). The project uses solar panels from First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR) and its power is sold to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.  Allman wouldn't reveal the cost of power from El Dorado, saying only that it was the "lowest cost electricity ever produced anywhere in the world from solar power." First Solar, which makes cadmium-telluride thin-film solar panels at what is generally acknowledged to be the lowest price in the industry, made a splash this week by reporting that it had cut its costs below the magic $1-per-watt level (see FIrst Solar Cuts Production Costs to $0.98 Per Watt).  "I don't know of anyone in the silicon space is coming close to that," Allman said. Still, he wouldn't say whether Sempra had committed to using First Solar panels for its El Dorado expansion, noting that silicon solar panels could see a steep drop in price that makes them worth considering. Sempra is also seeking federal loan guarantees for an even larger PV project it wants to build in Arizona, Allman said. The Mesquite Solar project outside Phoenix is envisioned to grow as large as 400 megawatts and could cost $1 billion when complete, he said.    

White House Budget: More Research, Carbon Capture; Less Yucca Mountain

Michael Kanellos: February 26, 2009, 2:51 PM
The White House revealed its budget proposals for fiscal 2010 and it pretty much sticks with the plans already laid out by the President. The White House has proposed a $26.8 billion budget for the Department of Energy. That's lower than the $33.9 budget for 2009. The difference comes because the 2010 budget does not include the $7.5 billion in emergency loans or the $250 weatherization programs. It is higher than the budgets for 2006 ($23.6 billion), 207 ($23.7 billion) or 2008 ($24.1 billion.). The 2010 totals, however, don't include the $39 billion that will go to the smart grid and solar industries (among others) through the Recovery Act so the total going to energy is a lot higher. but more importantly, the priorities have been shifted around. The President reaffirmed the commitment to double research in basic sciences. Smart grid and energy efficiency was listed as the first priority beneath that and right below that was carbon capture. ($3.4 billion has already been dedicated to carbon capture in the Recovery Act.) The nuclear depository at Yucca Mountain, however, will be "scaled back." That may not be a blow to the nuclear industry. The political hot water surrounding Yucca Mountain, along with increasing support for recycling fuel has even made staunch nuclear advocates see this as a non-starter. Meanwhile, over in the Department of Transportation, there's a five-year, $5 billion request for high speed rail. The 2010 budget rises to $72.5 billion from $70.6 billion in 2008, but the 2010 figure doesn't include $48 billion tucked into the Recovery Act. Interestingly, the Department of the Interior stays nearly flat at $12 million but there's additional funding for national parks and water conservation.

Silver Spring Names Exegin Technologies as Its ZigBee Partner

Jeff St. John: February 26, 2009, 2:47 PM

Silver Spring Networks on Thursday revealed the company behind its ZigBee-enabled smart meter communications — Vancouver-based Exegin Technologies Ltd.

Silver Spring, the high-profile startup that’s providing the communications and networking equipment for hundreds of thousands of smart meters being deployed by Pacific Gas & Electric, Florida Power & Light, American Electric Power and other utilities, has been on the ZigBee bandwagon for months.

That makes sense, since the protocol based on the 802.15.4 standard is emerging as a favorite for bringing communications from smart meters to in-home power monitoring and control equipment.

Being part of Silver Spring’s system puts Exegin in the smart grid spotlight. The companies have been working together since September, but on Thursday announced that Silver Spring was licensing Exegin’s ZigBee PRO protocol stack software for the ZigBee radios that are a part of Silver Spring’s network interface cards.

Those ZigBee radios are now going into the “vast majority??? of the communications cards Silver Spring is putting in other vendors’ smart meters, James Pace, Silver Spring senior director of business development, said Thursday.

As of this week, PG&E had deployed more than 150,000 Silver Spring-enabled electric meters out of the million it plans to have in place by 2011, and Silver Spring hopes to see up to 2 million meters deployed by the end of this year, he said.

Other companies in Exegin’s line of business include Alektrona and Digi International. All three are members of the ZigBee Alliance, the industry group that has developed the “smart energy profile??? version of the protocol for use in so-called “home area networks??? — the hoped-for future realm of home energy displays, smart thermostats and appliances that can monitor power use and curtail it on the command of homeowners or utilities.

One reason Silver Spring chose Exegin, Pace said, was for its experience in “bridging and gateway technologies.??? That’s important, because ZigBee is competing — or perhaps collaborating — with an alternative form of in-home communication that uses existing electrical wiring to carry data.

Companies working on power line communication include Echelon Corp. with its power line signaling technology, and a host of companies that are working on an alternative technology under the umbrella of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance.

In September, the ZigBee and HomePlug groups agreed to work together with a number of utilities to create a common application layer for both technologies.

Carrying data over power lines could make more sense for apartment buildings and other larger multi-family residences, where electric meters may be in the basement, too far away for ZigBee to carry. Then a gateway device could bridge that to ZigBee radios in individual apartments.

And Exegin’s experience in making devices like its ZigBee-to-Ethernet gateways could easily translate to making a ZigBee-to-HomePlug gateway, Pace said.

“There are a number of people playing with that technology,??? he said.

‘Cash for Solar’ Doesn’t Apply to Residential Projects

Ucilia Wang: February 26, 2009, 1:52 PM

When we listed the incentives in the $787 billion federal stimulus package two weeks ago, we reported that a provision that would convert the 30 percent investment tax credit into a cash payment for commercial solar projects would also apply to residential solar installations. It turned out the information we received from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) was incorrect. A rep for the SEIA now tells us there was “some miscommunication down the chain.???

We'd like to thank Kirstin Hoefer, chief marketing officer for Sungevity, a solar installer in Berkeley, Calif., for explaining that residential installations won’t benefit from the cash-payment provision. But they will still get the 30 percent tax credit.

The idea behind turning the tax credit into a grant is to make the money available sooner for large-scale projects. Because of the credit crunch, bankers and other investors have been reluctant to loan money to developers looking to raise millions of dollars to build and operate each solar power plant.