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Want a Plug-in Hybrid? The DOE Will Pay for Most of the Surgery

Michael Kanellos: March 19, 2009, 1:09 PM
President Barack Obama said today that $2.4 in stimulus funds allocated to popularizing electric and hybrid cars is now available for the asking. And if you want to buy a plug-in hybrid, the DOE will pay $7,500 of the cost. It was the highlight of a tour of the "Garage of the Future" set up by Southern California Edison. Obama toured the facility, was shown some hybrids from Ford, and announced that the purse strings are open. The Department of Energy will also announce more billion dollar-range grants next week, according to sources. Some of the highlights of today's $2.4 billion grant:
  • $500 million to component makers for producing parts for electric cars. (The Dept. of Treasury is putting up $5 billion in loans for auto part makers.)
  • $1.5 billion for battery makers.
  • A $7,500 tax credit for anyone that buys a plug-in hybrid. Turning a hybrid into a plug-in runs $10,000 to $15,000 so this covers at least half of it.

Enerkem Plans $250M Mississippi Waste-to-Ethanol Plant

Jeff St. John: March 19, 2009, 1:02 PM
Canadian trash-to-ethanol maker Enerkem is heading south of the border — Mississippi, that is. The Montreal-based startup said Thursday that it plans to build a $250 million, 20 million gallon-per-year facility in Pontotoc, Mississippi to open as early as 2012. The plant will turn about 190,000 tons of municipal waste per year from the Three Rivers Solid Waste Management Authority — a landfill, that is —  into a high-quality syngas that can then be turned into a variety of biofuels. It would be the third plant that Enerkem hopes to bring to commercial-scale production. The first, in Westbury, Ontario, started making test batches of syngas from used telephone poles in January. By year's end it could be producing methanol (which will then be turned into ethanol) at the rate of 1.3 million gallons per year, said Marie-Helene Labrie, vice president of government affairs and communications. The second, a $70 million plant being planned for Edmonton, Alberta as a joint project with Canada's largest ethanol producer, Greenfield Ethanol, is expected to start being built late this year. By 2011, it could and producing about 10 million gallons per year of ethanol from city municipal waste, Labrie said. Enerkem's waste-to-syngas, syngas-to-ethanol concept is shared by a number of biofuel startups, including Fulcrum BioEnergy, Range Fuels and Coskata. Other companies like Ze-genEnvironmental Power's Microgy subsidiary and Nexterra Energy plan to make syngas from waste for use in electricity generation or industrial uses (see Biofuels and Electricity Take Out the Trash and The Iron Man of Greentech Gets $20M).  Now the question is, how will Enerkem pay for it all? The company has raised about $30 million Canadian ($24.3 million) from investors including U.S.-based Rho Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures and Canadian investment fund BDR Capital, but will need a lot more than that to get its plants built and running. Enerkem is actively seeking to raise money right now, Labrie said. But this isn't the easiest time to get financing for biofuel plants (see Codexis Says No to IPO and Verenium Plans Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in Florida).  Still, "There is a significant level of interest, and we are very confident" in finding funding, Labrie said in a Thursday interview. "We truly believe in our capacity to be effective in this market." One benefit of shredding landfill waste to turn into biofuel is that you get paid for it. The "negative cost" of accepting payment for trash will make up a piece of Enerkem's projected revenues, though Labrie wouldn't say how much.  She also wouldn't say what Enerkem's projected costs per gallon were for the fuels it intends to make. But she did say that the company's technology could allow it to produce a variety of end products, from ethanol to specialty "green chemicals" for industrial uses, "so in terms of revenue stream our projects can be adapted."        

National Semi Buys Act Solar

Ucilia Wang: March 19, 2009, 12:51 PM

National Semiconductor has acquired Act Solar to expand its offerings of devices designed to minimize energy lost during solar electricity production.

National Semi, a long-time maker of power management chips for cell phones and other electronic equipment, has been eyeing the solar market for a while. It’s been developing a chipset that it says could improve the harvesting of the power produced by a system of solar panels, particularly in instances when some of the panels aren't able to perform well as a result of being in the shade or covered by debris. The company plans to launch the chipset, under the brand SolarMagic, at the Intersolar conference in Munich on May 27, said LuAnn Jenkins, a National Semi spokeswoman.

Buying Act Solar is a quick way for Santa Clara, Calif.-based National Semi to boost its product portfolio.  Act Solar, founded in 2006 and located in Santa Clara, has developed a device that sets out to maximize each solar energy system’s power production.

Both companies' technologies aim to solve the same problems. Called PowerString, Act Solar’s technology could help out panels that aren’t producing as well as they could because they are in the shade or covered by dust, the company said. The PowerString device re-circulates a tiny amount of energy throughout the solar panel array, so that the inverter responsible for converting the direct current from the panels to alternating current could easily make use the electricity produced by the underperforming panels.

Act Solar claimed that its technology could extract 40 percent to 80 percent more power over the lifetime of a solar energy system (The results were based on field tests and historical modeling).

National Semi declined to say how much it paid for Act Solar. Jenkins said it was an all-cash transaction.

Cal. Cleantech Open Goal: 100,000 Jobs Created by 2015

Michael Kanellos: March 19, 2009, 12:32 PM
It's not just about prize money, people, the California Clean Tech Open said on Thursday as it unfurled the 2009 contest. The organization, which gives cash, office space and publicity to green technology startups, has set a goal of creating 100,000 jobs by 2015 through the events and contests it holds to help incubate companies. While the contest so far has been focused on California, it is also spreading to Colorado and Washington. This 2009 contest will feature prizes totaling $1 million. The grand prize winner will get $250,000 in cash and other things that they'd have to pay cash for if they bought (i.e., office space.) Contests have an up-and-down history. Everyone likes them: the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the X Prize Foundation have drawn various entrepreneurs to contests to build robotic cars or space craft. On the other hand, it's hard to point your finger at a Google (or even Yahoo) caliber company emerging from one of these. Still, it's a start and it can take several years to take an energy start-up from incubation to full-fledged adulthood. The 125 alumni companies of the CCTO currently employ 501 people and have generated $5.7 million in revenue. Notable alumni include Nila, which created the LED spotlight gaining popularity in Hollywood. Judi Dench apparently loves it because it doesn't generate heat. Besides, VCs can fund everything. Scott Sandell at New Enterprise Associates noted that funding to VC firms dropped by 73 percent in the fourth quarter and will stay down in 2009. The VC industry has produced "middling returns" for the last five to ten years, Sandell added. So maybe contests are the way to go.

Q-Cells Says Business Is Picking Up in March

Ucilia Wang: March 19, 2009, 7:48 AM

Q-Cells is seeing a gradual improvement in the solar energy market and expects to update its 2009 forecast in May, when it discusses its first-quarter earnings.

The German company on Thursday released the financial results for 2008, numbers that corresponded with the preliminary figures it released last month. Q-Cells generated € 1.25 billion in revenue last year, up 46 percent from 2007. It posted € 190.6 million in net income in 2008, a 28 percent jump from 2007. The company, which said it was the largest solar cell maker in 2008, produced 574.2 megawatts worth of solar cells last year.

Q-Cells’ CFO Hartmut Schuning said during a press conference that business improved in March compared with February, reported Reuters.

Back in early December, Q-Cells had to cut its 2008 and 2009 sales and production forecast because some of its customers had delayed taking delivery of their orders. The announcement came only a month after it had given a fairly optimistic market outlook.

When it released its preliminary 2008 numbers last month, it lowered its 2009 sales projection again. Q-Cells said it expected to generate between €1.7 billion and €2.1 billion in sales for 2009. Last December, it was looking at generating €1.75 billion to €2.25 billion. The production forecast remained the same: The company expected to produce between 800 megawatts and 1 gigawatt of solar cells this year.

Shell Cuts Wind, Solar Spending

Jeff St. John: March 19, 2009, 7:03 AM
It looks like Royal Dutch Shell is backing away from its pledges to invest in a wide array of renewable energy projects. A Shell executive told the U.K. Guardian on Tuesday that it is cutting its spending on solar, wind and hydrogen power, and will concentrate instead on biofuels and cleaner ways to use the fossil fuels that make up its core business. That would include finding ways to capture and store the carbon emissions from Shell projects around the world.  "Wind and solar are interesting [but] we may continue to struggle with other investment opportunities in the portfolio even with big subsidies in many markets," Linda Cook, Shell's executive director of gas and power, was quoted as saying. "We do not expect material investment [in wind and solar] going forward."  Shell says it has spent $1.7 billion on "alternative energy" over the past five years, but that compared to a 2008 overall capital budget of about $32 billion, the Times of London reported.  The news marks a pretty big turnaround for a company that was saying as recently as October that it planned to quadruple its spending on renewable energy, though it didn't specify at that time how it would split that investment between solar and wind power and various biofuel and carbon capture projects (see Shell Boosts Renewable Energy Spending).  Some of the company's decisions over the past years appear to counter its green claims. The company sold the bulk of its solar business to Germany's Solar World in 2006 and in December 2007 sold off its rural India and Sri Lanka solar businesses (see Shell Sheds Solar). The company said it would instead concentrate on developing thin-film solar technologies. How that research will stand up in light of this week's announcement remains to be seen. Shell also backed out of its investment in the massive London Array wind power project in April (see Masdar Bets on Massive Offshore Wind Park). The company still retains ownership of about 1.1 gigawatts of wind power capacity around the world.  Shell's biofuel investments will continue, Cook told the Guardian. That includes a recent decision to expand its stake in biofuel catalyst company Codexis and link it in a research project with cellulosic ethanol maker Iogen Energy to shorten the time it will take to shift Iogen's demonstration-level production to commercial-scale production.