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Japan Follows U.S. in Greentech Strategies

Michael Kanellos: May 11, 2009, 12:56 AM

In green technology, the U.S. usually follows Japan. But right now, the U.S. seems to have the edge in some ways, and Japan is taking notice.

That's the word from Hayashi Sakawa, one of the founders of Agile Media, a blog network based in Tokyo. Japan has been one of the largest markets in the world for solar panels and energy efficient cars. Still, the whole concept of a green industry was typically viewed as something of a fringe movement until recently. But now that the market for big screen TVs and digital cameras is booming, two product lines that Japan profited enormously from in the middle part of the decade, green is getting another look.

"Almost all of the industrial giants like Toyota, Nissan, Panasonic, Sharp, etc. are eyeing greentech as the seemingly sole 'promised land' for their recovery as well as the seed of their future core businesses," he wrote in an email.

Again, Sharp and Toyota have made, respectively, solar panels and energy efficient cars for year. But expect greater emphasis on these lines, as well as emphasis from Panasonic on things like low-power TVs. Research is already underway to link consumer electronics into demand response programs and smart grids. (A Panasonic exec also told me last year they will put a greater emphasis on building green homes and condominiums.)

The government is also crafting a number of policies to drive the market, including a feed-in tariff. "The current minister of METI (the government agency in charge of industrial policy), a guy named Toshihiro Nikai, met with Steven Chu in Washington," he wrote. The two nations agreed to collaborate on R&D into nuclear technology, smart grid and other subjects.

And the current minister of METI, a guy named Nikai, met with Steven Chu (the chief of DOE) in Washington, D.C. on last Monday.

"The national government looks ready to dole out subsidies," Sakawa wrote.


DOE Eliminates Vehicle Fuel Cell Research

Jeff St. John: May 8, 2009, 7:00 PM

So much for federal support for the hydrogen highway.

The Department of Energy is cutting its support for vehicle fuel cell research next year, according to its $26.4 billion 2010 budget request released Thursday.

That’s because the technology isn’t likely be practical for decades, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said (via the New York Times).

The move is a reversal of policies under the administration of President George W. Bush, which devoted $1.2 billion on the technology over five years, according to The Detroit News.

Chu said the challenges involved in developing fuel cells for vehicles and in transporting and dispensing hydrogen to fuel them makes the research impractical.

Fuel cell research as a whole, which received $169 million in DOE’s 2009 budget, isn’t being entirely eliminated. The budget request still includes $68 million for research into stationary fuel cells for purposes such as electricity grid backup power.

And DOE in April awarded $41.9 million in grants for developing fuel cell technologies (see Green Light post).

The National Hydrogen Association, a fuel cell industry group, decried the proposed cut, saying it threatened “to disrupt commercialization of a family of technologies that are showing exceptional promise.”

But despite research programs underway by major automakers and some high-profile political endorsements, only 71 hydrogen fueling stations are operational in the United States and Canada today, according to the association’s Web site.

Fuel cells are being developed for military applications and are in use in some duty vehicles like forklifts, which offer some advantages over batteries or fossil fueled versions (see Uncle Sam Wants Portable Fuel Cells and Plug Power Puts Fuel Cells in Forklifts). 


Enphase Gets $22.57M New Funding?

Ucilia Wang: May 8, 2009, 5:01 PM

Enphase Energy reportedly has raised $22.57 million, according to Private Equity Hub, which cited Enphase's filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Petaluma, Calif.-based Enphase develops micro-inverters for converting direct current produced by solar panels into alternating current for feeding the grid. Each micro-inverter is attached to a solar panel, a different approach than the more common use of a centralized inverter for the entire system.

The startup, founded in 2006, said its micro-inverters could do a better job of harvesting power from poor-performing solar panels, such as those covered by debris or in the shade. There are competing technologies that also claim to improve energy output, such as National Semiconductor's Solar Magic device.

Enphase announced last September that it had raised $15 million from the then new investor RockPort Capital and existing investors Third Point Ventures and Applied Ventures (the investment arm of chip and solar factory equipment maker Applied Materials). In January last year, Enphase announced a $6.5 million investment from Third Point Ventures.

Enphase declined to discuss the reported new financing.

The startup began shipping its products last summer. Its customers include distributors and installers such as AEE Solar and Akeena Solar. Enphase also has a deal with solar panel maker Suntech Power, which helps to market the micro-inverters to its network of dealers in the United States. 

What Fisker Wants: EnerDel’s Li-Ion Batteries

Ucilia Wang: May 8, 2009, 1:25 PM

EnerDel has caught the interest of fancy electric carmaker Fisker Automotive. The two have signed a letter of intent for EnerDel to supply batteries to the startup car company, which plans to launch its first model in June next year.

The letter of intent gives EnerDel a chance to show that its batteries are a good fit for Fisker's cars. If the batteries test well, then EnerDel could get a long-term contract.

The deal is a good scoop for EnerDel compared with the deal it has with Norway-based Think. Think has struggled to roll out and sell its electric cars. Think temporary shut down production last winter and faced bankruptcy. EnerDel's parent company, Ener1, is an investor. Ener1 and other Think investors pumped $5.7 million into Think to keep it alive.

Think is now applying for federal loans to open up a factory and tech center in the United States.

Irvine, Calif.-based Fisker is rolling out the Karma, a souped-up plug-in hybrid electric vehicle priced at $87,900. Fisker recently raised $85 million from Eco-Drive Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to fund its manufacturing operations.

Fisker is contracting with Finland-based Valmet Automotive, which also makes Porsche Boxster and Porsche Cayman, to assemble the Karma. Last month, Fisker's spokesman Russell Datz said the company the first Karma would roll off the assembly line in late 2009. Production would begin initially with about 7,500 cars per year, and increase to 15,000 per year in 2011, Datz said.

EnerDel also is holding a ceremony to inaugurate a lithium-ion battery production line in Indiana. The company calls the manufacturing facility the first commercial-scale line in the country for making lithium-ion batteries for cars. 

Sunny News for Duke: $50M Solar Project Moves Forward

Ucilia Wang: May 8, 2009, 1:32 AM

Duke Energy said it won a concession from the North Carolina Utilities Commission Wednesday and would now go forward with the $50 million project to install 10 megawatts worth of solar energy systems on the rooftops and grounds homes, malls, warehouse, schools, etc.

"We finally have a solar program!" said Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based utility has good reason to be pleased. The project caused Duke a serious headache when the utilities commission approved the project last December but added conditions that would limit the utility's ability to recover the project's costs. The commission said it imposed the conditions because the proposed cost by the utility was higher than what could be achieved by an independent power project developer.

Duke said the decision would force it to violate federal accounting rules governing how it could take advantage of federal tax incentives.

That wasn't the only setback. The project actually began as a $100 million, 20-megawatt proposal announced in June last year. Duke had to cut it in half after some of its commercial customers and consumer advocates criticized the project for being too expensive and unnecessary to meet the state's renewable energy mandate

The project is unusual because up until now, utilities have typically signed power purchase agreements with companies who then bear the responsibility of constructing, owning and operating the systems. Duke plans to own and operate the systems. Southern California Edison also has started a similar project.

On Wednesday, the commission agreed to eliminate a language in its December decision that questioned whether Duke was prudent in deciding to build the project itself when the project could be done at a lesser cost, the commission said. That language could've penalized Duke later when it seeks to recover costs and comply with federal tax rules.

Duke will spend the next several months scouting out locations for installing the solar energy systems, Scanzoni said. The utility hasn't decided whether to hire one or multiple companies to carry out the project, but it's more likely to get more than one vendor in order to experiment with different types of solar technologies, Scanzoni said.  

Installation would start before the end of the year and be completed by the end of 2010, Scanzoni said. 



Solyndra Lines Up Distributor in Europe’s Pot Capital

Ucilia Wang: May 7, 2009, 8:46 PM

Solyndra has inked a $189 million deal to sell its usually shaped solar panels to SunConnex in the Netherlands.  

The Fremont, Calif.-based startup didn't say when it would start delivering the panels, but disclosed that the contract is good through 2013. Amsterdam-based SunConnex is a distributor who also offers solar project engineering services, and lists on its website Schott Solar, Sharp and SunPower as some of its suppliers.

With this deal, Solyndra has announced nearly $1.7 billion worth of contracts. That's good news for a startup company, especially one pursuing a type of technology that is new to the market. But all these agreements also are putting pressure on the company to increase production.

Speaking of production, the company hasn't disclosed publicly the production rate and shipment volumes at its first and only manufacturing complex. Last fall, Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said the company began shipping panels last July, and the company was speeding up production at the factory, which could produce 110 megawatts of panels per year.

The company wants to build a second, 500-megawatt factory next year, and is set to receive a federal loan of $535 million to do just that. The loan would cover 73 percent of the project's costs, and Solyndra hasn't said whether it's raised money for the rest.

Solyndra's panels are lined with tubes containing solar cells that are made with copper, indium, gallium and selenium. Most of the solar panels on the market today use crystalline silicon as the ingredient for converting sunlight into electricity.

Coal: It Was a Very Good Year

Michael Kanellos: May 7, 2009, 8:31 PM

National and state governments around the world are pumping money into clean technology projects, but, guess what. Coal is still doing well.

Peabody, the world's largest coal company, highlighted some of the achievements for 2008. The company pulled a record 256 million tons out of the ground and garnered $6.6 billion in revenue. Net income came to $985 million. It was also a record year low for accidents. Not bad for a company that's 125 years old. It ranks fifth in the Fortune 500 for the most profits over the last five years. (Coal still accounts for 49 percent of the electrical power in the U.S. Unless you or your neighbor want to be plunged into darkness, it will be around for a while.)

Growth will continue:

"Coal has been the fastest-growing fuel for each of the past five years, and coal use is expected to grow 61 percent by 2030. In the next quarter century, the world's population is expected to grow 25 percent to more than 8 billion people, and world energy needs are projected to grow 45 percent. The International Energy Agency forecasts that growth in coal demand will exceed natural gas, nuclear, hydro and wind power combined through 2025," the company stated.

Peabody, however, is also working on the major clean coal initiatives in the U.S., Australia and Asia as well as various carbon capture experiments.

I actually met CEO Greg Boyce once. Quite a character. Here's the interview.