Rachel Barron: November 9, 2007

IN BRIEF: Conergy's CEO Steps Down, California Sues EPA and Ethanol-Purification Startup Snags C

In other news, Wacker and Yingli beat the Street and McBee Strategic's CEO claims the U.S. will get an energy bill after some fierce haggling from both sides of the political aisle.

Conergy's Fallen CEO

It was a darling of the solar industry. But Germany's largest solar-power company has lost some of its luster.

Conergy announced in late October it was lowering its outlook, which plunged company shares down 30 percent to €37.19 (about $59.43) per share (see Solar Companies Take Stock).

And on Wednesday, Conergy CEO Hans-Martin Rüter announced his resignation, effective Nov. 15.

Conergy also said it raised €100 million ($146 million) to increase the company's capital in reaction to a "shortfall in liquidity."

Investors didn't take well to the company's latest moves, sending Conergy's shares down €7.21 (about $10.60) to €27.40(about $40.25) on the Xetra.

Three brokers also advised clients to sell the stock, according to the business-news service Bloomberg.

Share prices have fallen about 43 percent so far this year.

Travis Bradford, president of Prometheus Institute and a Greentech Media partner, said Conergy's situation could indicate that distributors are headed for harder times.

"It could be that most of the modules are now going into large installations, and large customers are going directly to manufacturers to get the best possible pricing," he said.

Increased bulk purchases can be traced back to countries such as Spain. Analysts say solar companies operating in Spain are rushing to get their projects online before the government subsidy drops next year (see Is Spain Shining Too Brightly?).

But there may be other reasons for Conergy's ailments, Bradford said, including the possibility that "they just screwed up."

"They bought from the wrong people and didn't have enough assurance that the panels would be delivered," he said.

As the company works to get back on track, Dieter Ammer, Conergy's supervisory board chairman, will take over as interim CEO. Ammer, along with Rüter, founded Conergy nine years ago.

Vaperma Gets $21.5M to Filter Ethanol

Canadian startup Vaperma said Thursday it raised $21.5 million for membrane technology that helps ethanol producers use less energy when removing water to make fuel-grade ethanol.

Making ethanol requires fermenting a feedstock such as corn. The process also leaves producers with a mix of about 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent water. To refine ethanol into the fuel grade of 99 percent purity, producers often resort to boiling off the water.

"That's very energy-intensive," said Vaperma CEO Claude Létourneau.

Vaperma has developed a membrane of sorts that aids the distillation process by removing a portion of the water.

Létourneau claims the membrane system saves 40 percent of the cost of energy normally used during the distillation process of corn-based ethanol -- a savings of about 7 cents per gallon.

The funding brings the company's total to about $40 million.

Investment company Low Carbon Accelerator Limited led Vaperma's funding. Volvo Technology Transfer Corporation, Emerald Technology Ventures, BDC Capital and Fonds d’investissement en développement durable also contributed.

Vaperma will use the money for the "mass commercialization" of its technology by next year.

California Sues EPA for Greener Vehicles

California's governor and attorney general on Thursday sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for taking too long to respond to the state's request to reduce emissions from vehicles.

The state, which passed a law in 2002 to reduce vehicle emissions by 30 percent by 2016, in 2005 asked the EPA for a waiver that would allow it to adopt the standards, which are stricter than the federal standards.

The law is significant for the Golden State's goal -- set by the Global Warming Solutions Act passed last year -- of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, as it would take care of 17 percent of the needed reductions, according to a statement from Attorney General Jerry Brown's office.

Sixteen other states also have adopted or are considering adopting California's emission standards, according to the release. Fourteen of them -- Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Pennsylvania -- are joining California in the lawsuit, according to a statement by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office.

The lawsuit could be good news for companies with greener vehicle technologies, including new catalytic converters that could make diesel vehicles cleaner. It also could help developers of electric and plug-in hybrid technologies (see Transportation stories).

But it's sure to meet with disapproval from car manufacturers.

Automakers oppose the law and sued California, along with other states trying to tighten transportation emissions laws, in 2004. The state then sued six automakers after passing the Global Warming Solutions Act last year, but the lawsuit was dismissed in September.

Whatever happens with the California v. EPA lawsuit, it's not likely to be the end of the agency's troubles.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform began a hearing today into the EPA's approval of a coal-fired plant without pollution controls in Utah. The committee previously wrote a letter opposing the approval (see Coal Under Fire).

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that the EPA can regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, countering the agency's stance that it doesn't have the authority to regulate those emissions.

Wacker, Yingli Beat Street

Wacker Chemie beat Wall Street expectations, posting a third-quarter net income of €120.6 million, or €2.43 per share, up from an income of €95.1 million, or €1.91 per share, in the same quarter last year.

Analysts had expected €106 million in income from the Munich-based chemical group.

The strong earnings shouldn't come as a surprise in a worldwide shortage of silicon wafers that has boosted prices -- and margins for companies that make it.

Wacker said its polysilicon segment made up the strongest earnings growth in the quarter.

The group also raised its forecast for sales for the full year to 14 percent, up from previous guidance of 10 percent.

On the Frankfurt exchange, Wacker shares (WCH) rose 9.6 percent on the news to €191.62 per share.

Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. shares (NYSE: YGE) also rose 2.4 percent Thursday after the company posted a net income of RMB179 million (about $23.9 million), or RMB1.38 per share (about 18 cents), almost double the income of RMB63.2 million, or RMB38 cents, in the second quarter.

Energy Bill Debates

In late June, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the energy bill, and in August, the House of Representatives passed its version. But Congress is yet to create a unifying legislation that could pass in both houses and be sent on to the president.

As folks debate the legislation's future, Steve McBee, CEO of consulting firm McBee Strategic, said Congress will pass some form of the bill before the November 2008 election -- and it will have items sure to put some smiles on greentech investors' faces.

McBee made his case during a keynote address at the Pacific Growth Equities' Clean Technology and Industrial Conference in San Francisco this week.

"When you got $95-and-heading-north oil, and $3 gas prices heading north, those are some pretty heavy-duty political drivers," he said. "I think nobody, Democrats or Republicans, want to face the voters in November without looking like they are doing something meaningful to address those issues."

But it won't be easy. McBee said the debate on the energy bill's major provisions – such as increasing vehicles' fuel economy or renewable-fuel standards -- are going to be fiercely contested by both sides.

"Not just because there is a lot of stake in the short term, in terms of creating winners and losers," he said. "But I think all sides very much view the energy debate as proxy battle for climate change, which is sort of where all the stakes are."

And presidential hopefuls already have started outlining how the country's energy policy will look should he or she be elected (see Hillary Seeks Green Vote and Government VC).

For a snapshot of where presidential candidates sit on energy policy, check out the League of Conservation Voters' list.

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