Recent Posts:

Another Huge Worry: Methane Seeping From Sea Beds

Michael Kanellos: September 2, 2009, 1:47 PM

The melting of vast stretches of permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere is expected to release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Now, a study from MIT published in Geophysical Research indicates that trapped methane may begin to bubble up from the ocean floor as global temperatures rise. 

The ocean floor right now traps large quantities of methane in what is called the hydrate stability zone, where temperatures are low and ambient pressure is high. Methane molecules are actually trapped in a crystalline cage of frozen water. Warming could reduce the stability of the zone and release the gas.

Methane is 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in retaining heat in the atmosphere and methane concentrations now are higher than any other time period in the last 400,000 years. Approximately 60 percent of atmospheric methane comes from human activities – mining, cattle ranching, etc. – with 40 percent coming from natural sources. The danger, of course, is that humans are now accelerating the natural release.

"The sediment conditions under which this mechanism for gas migration dominates, such as when you have a very fine-grained mud, are pervasive in much of the ocean as well as in some permafrost regions,” said lead author Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Assistant Professor in Energy Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in a prepared statement."

SunPower Cells to Power Catamaran for Trip Around the World

Ucilia Wang: September 2, 2009, 1:24 PM

A showcase project called PlanetSolar plans to build a solar-powered catamaran and sail it around the world, and it has chosen SunPower's cells to do the job.

San Jose, Calif.-based SunPower said Wednesday that it plans to provide 38,000 solar cells with 124 kilowatts of generation capacity. The cells, which can convert 22 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity, will be embedded into the skin of the catamaran.

The selection of SunPower is not so surprising. The boat will have to rely on solar power only. That calls for highly efficient solar cells, and SunPower is known for producing the most efficient silicon cells on the market today.

The boat is supposed to come with a lithium-ion battery pack as well.

PlanetSolar wants the catamaran to be the first boat powered exclusively by solar power to circumnavigate the world along the equator at a speed of 8 knots. The project is meant to demonstrate how the shipping industry could reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. We did a story about the project back in March.

The boat will carry two crew members and make many stops including Hamburg, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.

The Knierim Yacht Club in Kiel, Germany, is building the boat. Construction is set for completion in early 2010, and the boat will cruse around Europe next summer. Then, the 140-day worldwide voyage is set to take place in 2011, according to the project website.

PlanetSolar doesn't appear to have disclosed the cost of this project, which is relying on a host of sponsors.

SunPower declined to disclose the financial terms of this deal. A project like this would offer tremendous publicity value, so the solar company could well be providing the cells at a good discount.

SunPower has participated in similar showcase projects before. In an interview last year, the company's co-founder Dick Swanson fondly recalled the company's involvement in Honda's efforts to build a solar-powered racecar back in the 1990s. The car, which could go 90 miles per hour, went on to win a race in Australia.

Direct Grid: Another PV Microinverter Company

Eric Wesoff: September 2, 2009, 11:47 AM

Yikes. Another microinverter company.  It's getting crowded in here.

Direct Grid Technologies of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., a subsidiary of Island Technology has introduced a microinverter for the photovoltaic market. The mother company, Island Technology, has a heritage of working with utilities in the Northeast such as Con Edison in monitoring and control equipment.

I spoke with Louis Squeo, the Director of Sales of Marketing.

"We saw some shortcomings in the microinverter arena," said Squeo. "Some of the microinverters out there are low wattage – 170 to 190 watts. Our offerings are in excess in 200 watts, one 200 watts and one 300 watts version with room for more."

This high wattage target raises the question of what solar panels they're going after. And the answer according to Squeo is "thin film." The company is going after the large format amorphous silicon thin-film panels from Signet Solar, one of which is rated at 340 watts.  According to Squeo: "We have been engaged with Signet Solar for a few months and one of the officers of the company is in Dresden as we speak." (The Signet Solar factory is in Dresden.)

Microinverters, as we've covered many times, convey a number of advantages to solar installations. By individuating the panels – maximum power point tracking is optimized for each panel, losses to to shading, soiling, and panel mismatch are reduced and overall system voltages are lowered. Depending on who you ask – there are potential reliability advantages.

Direct Grid uses a closed loop planar MOSFET – allowing sophisticated digital control, and claims that the sine wave created by their inverter better matches the utility AC line. 

Squeo foresees a future of do-it-yourself solar – where the consumer can buy an AC solar panel and install and connect that unit by themselves.

According to an optimistic note in their press release, shipments are "expected in the fourth quarter 2009."

Direct Grid joins the growing list of microinverter companies. Only EnPhase is shipping in commercial volumes – it has shipped over 50,000 units since last August. And Petra Solar which recently publicized a large contract with New Jersey's largest utility, PSE&G, is alleged to start shipments any day now.
Here's an updated list of microinverter firms:

  • Accurate Solar
  • Azuray
  • Direct Grid
  • Enecsys
  • EnPhase Energy
  • GreenRay Solar
  • Larankelo
  • Petra Solar
  • SolarBridge (formerly SmartSpark)

The question is: How many microinverter companies can the market bear?

More details in the GTI Report: The Coming Disruption in the PV Inverter Market.

VC Funding in Greentech Rocks On

Eric Wesoff: September 2, 2009, 12:38 AM

We carefully monitor and parse every greentech VC investment and we've done that for the last five years. Greentech Media provides those totals to our readers and the market every quarter.  Subscibers to the Greentech Innovations Report receive the gory details of that information – every deal, every investor. We also strive to log every greentech VC or PE fundraise. 

Here's a partial list of the VC and PE firms that have closed or are in the process of closing a fund over the last six quarters. The total is in the neighborhood of $5 billion for venture capital alone.

There are a lot of voices of late sounding the death knell for venture capital. The New York Times dusts this meme off every few years. One just has to have a good memory and ignore the nattering nabobs of negativity. They’re usually wrong.

Here, Michael Kanellos writes about Why VC Funding is Right for Green.

Ira Ehrenpreis, General Partner at Technology Partners had this to say: "The diversity and breadth of cleantech funds which have raised capital in this environment highlights the sustained interest by the Limited Partners to invest in the sector ... even more notable, given the difficulty of the fundraising environment in general."

On the other hand, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures has crunched some numbers and claims that “VC doesn’t scale.”  He has determined that: “You cannot invest $25 billion per year and generate the kinds of returns investors seek from the asset class,” and that, “The number that the asset class can take on each year is around $15 billion to $17 billion. It's interesting to note that the industry raised $4.3 billion in the first quarter of 2009. That's a good thing. If we can keep it to that level, or less for a while, then we may be able to downsize and get returns back on track.”

Bill Gurley of Benchmark capital discusses the coming shrinkage of VC and gives some background on asset allocation.

There seems to be a consensus from VCs and the NVCA that $500 million IT funds are going to be feeling some pain, that the number of VC firms will dwindle, and that GP salaries might even take a hit.

But we're talking greentech here, not VC in general – and all signs point to a continued optimism in greentech VC investing. Greentech VC funds need to be bigger than an IT practice.  And while we might not see $8 billion per year invested as in 2008, a healthy percentage of the total VC asset class will continue to go green. Factor in an economy on the mend and a few successful VC-backed greentech IPOs (A123? Silver Spring Networks? Tesla? EEStor? just kidding about EEstor) and we are off to the races.


A New Low in Buy American: Oil Labelling

Michael Kanellos: September 1, 2009, 8:21 PM

Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group, is promoting legislation that would force oil makers to inform them about the country of origin of their fuel.

"Most Americans don't want their paychecks going to Venezuela and other regimes that don't agree with and support the U.S," said retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, according to Reuters. Clark, who co-chairs the group, has been looking for a day job since the break up of Yugoslavia. From the sound of it, it doesn't sound like a label stating, "Two-thirds of this fluid comes from overseas. Oh, and it's flammable," would do it.

There are a lot of reasons for this legislation. One, it would force oil companies to engage in a pointless documentation scheme that would drive up the price of oil and make electric cars more competitive. Two, the Pew Foundation might come out with a subsequent poll that says that 57 percent of Americans previously thought that Qatar was the capital of Kentucky, and thus prompting a call for more education in geography.

Three, it might cause a backlash against corn ethanol growers when the public sees how much "Buy American" fuel costs and that corn subsidies go to many of the same people behind high-calorie cereals.

But most importantly, it would force some country/western composers to find more adequate rhymes for Canada, which is the largest exporter of fuel to the U.S. at the moment with 2.5 million barrels a day.

"We ain't gonna be doomed/By some guys in suits from Saskatoon" etc.

Don't forget: It's a flag, not a windshield wiping rag.

Electricity From Space

Ucilia Wang: September 1, 2009, 7:05 PM

Japan is eyeing outer space as a great piece of real estate for building solar power plants.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp., IHI Corp. and 14 other companies plan to spend 2 trillion yen ($21 billion) to explore the idea of building a 1-gigawatt solar power farm in space. The power plant would turn electricity into microwave radiation and beam it down to Earth.

The concept has been around for decades. Other companies and government research institutions have been researching the idea for some time. As you can imagine, costs and technical challenges are the stumbling blocks (here is a website by the Georgia Institute of Technology on space solar).

Pacific Gas and Electric in California has gone as far as to sign an agreement to buy space solar power. The deal, announced in April this year, would entitle the utility to get electricity from a 200-megawatt project by 2016. Solaren Corp. in Manhattan Beach, Calif., is the developer.

Satellites outfitted with solar power generating equipment would be launched, Solaren executives have said. The electricity would be turned into microwave and beamed to a station in Fresno County, where the radiation would be converted back to electricity.

The Japanese consortium plans to spend four years on developing the technical knowhow to make space solar power possible. The plan is to build a 1-gigawatt station that comes with four square kilometers of solar panels, reported Bloomberg.

Building a solar power farm in space has one key advantage: it won't be subjected to weather conditions that affect the performance of terrestrial solar power plants.

There already are satellites outfitted with and powered by solar panels. The International Space Station has them. SpectroLab, a subsidiary of Boeing, has been making solar cells for satellites.

But to launch a large-scale project into space and to send the electricity to a receiving station on Earth will prove to be very tricky.

EV’s Make Sense for the Postal Service, But They’re Hard to Pay For

Jeff St. John: September 1, 2009, 12:08 PM

It would make sense for the U.S. Postal Service to switch to electric vehicles to deliver the mail, since the average postal truck drives about 18 miles a day. The problem will be how to make it pay off, either with government incentives or through so-called vehicle-to-grid revenues.

That's the word from a study from the Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General released last week, that took a look at the operational and financial viability of replacing some or all of USPS's 146,000 vehicles with electric vehicles.

About 96 percent of the Postal Service's trucks drive less than 40 miles a day, and all are parked from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day. That makes the USPS a natural testbed for testing electric vehicles with limited range, the study found.

What will be difficult is paying for them, the report found. The USPS is facing a big drop in revenue as fewer people use it to send mail, a long-term trend that the ongoing recession has accelerated. It could lose more than $7 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and last week asked as many as 30,000 workers to retire early in an attempt to save about $500 million, Bloomberg reports.

That means that the USPS is looking for quick returns on its capital investments - at least 30 percent over three years, the report found. That's a lot faster payback than it has previously demanded for energy efficiency projects (see The ABC's of Energy Efficiency, Postal Style).

Even getting just 3,000 EVs into the fleet under that strict payback scheme will take some clever maneuvering, the report found.

One way to do it could be to offer the vehicles for so-called "vehicle to grid" applications, the report noted. That's the idea of letting electric vehicle batteries provide power for storing energy when it's cheap to produce and, potentially, feeding it back to the grid when it's facing peak demand times.

Projects to test the viability of such V2G networks are underway across the world, and experts say it will be critical to supporting the widespread rollout of electric vehicles (see Electric Vehicles Could Surpass Grid or Support It).

Just availing itself of government incentives would allow it to pay back the cost of a 3,000-EV deployment in about 5.5 years, but adding V2G revenue to that could cut the payback to about two years, the report found.

To do that, the USPS should concentrate any EV deployment in areas that are building charging infrastructure, the report found. That could include parts of Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington state that charging company eTec and automaker Nissan are planning, with the help of $99.8 million in Department of Energy stimulus funding (see Feds Dole Out $300M to Local Gov'ts for Alt Cars, Fuel Stations).