The Sun Is Shining On Solar Power  

Posted by Big Gav

Tyler Hamilton reports that the Sun is set to shine on solar power in an interview with Vinod Khosla in the Toronto Star (Vinod is far too bearish about batteries and the potential of hybrid cars to ignite the smart grid / energy storage / V2G revolution if you ask me, but does understand the need to improve the transmission capacity of the grid).

The Cleantech Network released an insightful report last week that paints a rosy picture of the clean-technology sector, highlighting 2006 as a year of significant expansion.

"The year 2006 proved to be even more exciting than 2005," the report states. "Total venture investment rose; M&A (mergers and acquisitions) and IPO (initial public offerings) remained robust; public policies gained clarity and purpose; and innovators showed they were up to the task of developing and marketing new and better ways to conserve natural resources."

Among the highlights of the report is that investment in clean-tech companies rose 70 per cent, to $3.9 billion (U.S.) in 2006, with clean-energy-related investments such as solar and biofuels accounting for more than $3 billion of that.

Amid all the hype – and the hype, at this point, may be justified – it's fair to ask whether all clean-tech investments are created equal.

Some investors have strong views on this, including Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures and a long-time partner with venture capital titan Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (the firm that made early and successful bets on Google, Amazon.com and AOL).

Khosla more or less divides clean-technology investments into two camps: those that can make real but relatively small changes and those that can make huge changes to the world's environmental problems, most notably climate change.

"There's a difference between a good green investment and a climate solution," he told me last week in an interview. "I came into it from the point of view that asks what the large solutions are that actually matter to climate change.

"I love PV (solar photovoltaics), and we have investments in PV, but I don't think it will be relevant to climate change in the next 20 years."

Khosla is probably the closest you can get these days to a celebrity venture capitalist, and as a green investor with deep insight into emerging technologies and markets, he brings much-added balance to the debate – whether you agree with him or not.

He calls conservation a "nice habit." He refers to hybrid cars as "great" but incremental. Biodiesel he considers "completely irrelevant." Solar PV is "sexy" but immaterial, partly because it's an intermittent source of energy, similar to wind. And while he sees an important role for new battery technologies, "to call that a climate change solution is an environmental hallucination.

"I think we should stop playing with toys," says the self-described pragmatist, who never hesitates to engage in online debates with environmentalists and idealists who believe solar rooftops and wind power can wean us off coal. "If you're not solving 50 per cent of the problem it's not material."

So what is a material "climate solution" in Khosla's world? What's clean, cost-competitive, can be deployed on a large scale and is capable of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Khosla, in addition to his other green investments, is placing a big bet on solar-thermal technology – what he considers the best weapon in the "war on coal power generation." To a lesser extent, he's also increasingly drawn to the potential of enhanced geothermal power.

"Solar thermal has been ignored completely in favour of sexier photovoltaics," he says. "When I started looking at solar thermal early last year, I couldn't find anybody who was paying attention, which sort of surprised me. It's a great technology, and about one-fourth the cost of PV with the kind of reliability that utilities actually like."

Khosla says there are a number of utilities and investors pinning their hopes on clean-coal technology, which in one form is known as IGCC, or integrated gasification combined cycle. But IGCC, while cleaner than conventional coal, is expensive, unproven and risky. And that's ignoring the added cost of capturing the CO2 stream and sequestering it somewhere.

"We can be cheaper than IGCC coal, even for our first (solar thermal) plants," says Khosla. "I'll beat them any day of the week on price, and I'll build them more quickly. I'll challenge anybody with this."

I ask Khosla whether solar-thermal plants can be built anywhere. We know that just last week San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. signed a deal to purchase 553 megawatts of power from the Mojave Solar Park, a massive solar plant being built in the California desert.

Can such plants help Ontario kick its coal habit? Khosla says the economics will differ depending on the geography – Arizona, it's safe to assume, is likely to be a better environment than Ontario, but it could technically be done anywhere in Canada. It all comes down to the cost per kilowatt-hour.

This got Khosla talking about another important investment area: next-generation, ultra-high-voltage DC transmission technologies and infrastructure.

In his mind, getting off coal and other fossil fuels means playing to our clean-energy strengths and connecting our energy sweet spots to a large, trans-national grid that can efficiently carry power over long distances.

Many environmental groups committed to renewable power are opposed to transmission expansion, because they feel it perpetuates the idea of big central power plants. They rightly see decentralized power as the future – solar PV on rooftops, community windmills and local co-generation stations that produce heat and power from biomass. All good, all necessary, but should this be to the exclusion of transmission?

The thing about renewables is you take it where and when you can get it. The wind doesn't blow all the time, and it does so better in certain regions. The sun doesn't shine at night, and the days are longer the further south you go.

Ocean and tidal energy is plentiful on the coasts. Geothermal heat can only be economically tapped in certain states and provinces. Biomass is plentiful but outside of major cities. Hydroelectric generation and pumped storage has tremendous potential, but most projects worth considering are too far from the current transmission system to be economical.

If we truly want to tap the potential of renewables, we have to take a hard look at investing in transmission that allows a city like Toronto to benefit from wave power in Nova Scotia, solar thermal power in Florida, geothermal in British Columbia and hydropower flowing from Newfoundland.

If we want renewables to directly replace coal and nuclear, it will only happen on the necessary scale if we have adequate transmission. Residential- and community-level renewables help reduce our need for the grid, but the need itself will never go away.

"I think that (enhanced transmission) is absolutely key to all renewables," says Khosla....

USA Today also has a bullish report on solar power.
Solar power accounts for well under 1% of U.S. electricity generation. Other alternative energy sources, such as wind, biomass and geothermal, are far more widely deployed. The outlook for solar, though, is getting much brighter. A few dozen companies say advances in technology will let them halve the price of solar-panel installations in as little as three years. By 2014, solar-system prices will be competitive with conventional electricity when energy savings are figured in, Deutsche Bank (DB) says. And that's without government incentives.

If that happens, solar panels would become common home and business appliances, says Brandon Owens of Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Innovations — led by semiconductor firms and a new crop of "thin-film" solar makers — wring more power from sunlight, use less silicon to make panels and make factories more efficient. Venture-capital firms pumped $264 million into solar companies in 2006, up from $64 million in 2004, research firm Clean Edge says. The start-ups also have benefited from $159 million in U.S. research grants this year, largesse from efforts to reduce power plants' global-warming emissions.

Sharp price swings

High costs of solar panels have been due to volatile silicon prices, low production volumes and high setup costs. Solar panels generate electricity when photons in sunlight knock loose electrons in silicon — the same material used in PC chips. The silicon is sandwiched between two metal plates; electrons flow from one to the other.

Several years ago, SunPower, a unit of Cypress Semiconductor, (CY) realized the top metal plate was reflecting the sun's rays, cutting efficiency by reducing the percentage of sunlight converted to electricity. So the company decided to put both plates beneath the silicon. It now has an industry-high efficiency of 22% vs. an average of 16%, says analyst Dan Ries of Monness, Crespi Hardt & Co. That means fewer panels are needed to produce power, shaving installation costs and making systems more affordable for homes, which have smaller roofs than most commercial buildings.

SunPower, which says it will earn about $90 million on $740 million in sales this year, expects its prices to be competitive with grid power by 2012, says Vice President Julie Blunden.

Also poised to stir up the market is Applied Materials, (AMAT) the No. 1 producer of machines that make computer chips. It charged into the industry last year by paying $464 million for solar maker Applied Films. Now, it's transferring to solar the efficiencies it brought to flat-panel TV and laptop manufacturing. Its machines carve an ultra-thin solar cell into a giant, 55-square-foot sheet of glass to slash production and setup costs. "We want to get demand going," says Applied CEO Mike Splinter.

Like wind power, solar energy is spotty, working at full capacity an average 20% to 30% of the time. Solar's big advantage is that it supplies the most electricity midday, when demand peaks. And it can be located at homes and businesses, reducing the need to build pollution-belching power plants and unsightly transmission lines.

In states such as California, with high electricity prices and government incentives, solar is already a bargain for some customers. Wal-Mart recently said it's putting solar panels on more than 20 of its stores in California and Hawaii. Google (GOOG) is blanketing its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters with 9,212 solar panels, enough to light 1,000 homes.

Burning demand

The solar industry is expected to triple in the next three years, from about $13 billion to $40 billion in revenue, says analyst Jesse Pichel of Piper Jaffray. (PJC) Turbocharging sales are government incentives in countries such as Germany and Japan. In the USA, generous customer rebates in California and New Jersey — by far the largest U.S. solar markets — along with a federal tax credit have trimmed system prices by a third or more.

Most states don't offer solar rebates, but prices still have fallen about 90% since the mid-1980s — 40% annually the past five years — as surging sales have led to cost efficiencies, says Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Now, experts say it will take a quantum technological leap to quickly lower prices to utility levels. An armada of companies say they are poised to do just that ...

The Sietch Blog has a look at how many wind turbines the US could buy instead of fighting the Iraq oil war.
It so often seems that our government is not using its resources efficiently, everyone has heard of the thousand dollar toilet seats, and the wasteful government contracts. However the Iraq War has been one of the most colossal wastes of money this country has ever undertaken. Not to mention the horrific lose in life, both American and Iraqi, a loss more grave than any amount of money. But what if we could get that money back? What if we could use it for something that would benefit humanity.

Several groups have attempted to quantify exactly that. The National Priorities Project has done a great study of what exactly a half of a trillion dollars would buy for America and her people. They break it down by state for instance in Massachusetts they have the following.

Another person who has done an interesting calculation is Paul Gipe (if you are involved in wind power you will know that name, Gipe has written some of the best educational texts on wind power). Gipe has decided to see how much renewable energy that amount of money could have got the nation. The most shocking finding is that with half a trillion dollars you could build enough wind turbines to produce almost a third of all the energy used in the Untied States (!). Gipe uses some fairly conservative estimates, and the results are still pretty stunning.

With the current high cost of solar energy(estimated to become cheaper than carbon based energy by 2014), the “war panels” would only produce about 1-3%, which while small is still a lot of energy that would no longer require coal oil or gas to produce. He estimates that you could put a 2.5kw system on 18% of American homes with that kind of money.
More significantly, such a large-scale development program, reminiscent of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, would push America to the forefront of solar photovoltaics technology, enabling us to not only meet our own needs for clean, renewable electricity, but also enabling us to ship panels to distant–shall we say “foreign” lands–to help them meet their more modest needs.

Perhaps in the future we can ship wind turbines and solar panels to the Persian Gulf instead of our sons and daughters.

I really like the idea of fighting wars over oil with renewable energy. Paul Gipe is an amazing man, and you should pick up any of his books on wind power to quickly get up to speed on the science and technology behind wind power today.

The New York Times also did a piece on how much the money from the Iraq war could have gotten us.



(be aware this graphic was done in January)

They place the cost of the war at a staggering 1.2 trillion dollars. Paul Gipe’s estimates above were assuming a direct cost of half a trillion, if we combine the two we could estimate that as much as 60% of our energy could be produced from wind (a high estimate). So lets say that we get real conservative here and say that 10-30% of our nations energy supply could have been from renewable sources right now, had we invested all the money from the Iraq war into renewable energy. What would a nation like this look like?

Well for one we would have a lot more jobs. Someone is going to have to build, ship, install, and maintain all those turbines and panels. I know that in the part of the Midwest where I grew up there is a massive lack of manufacturing jobs. There is a large pool of skilled labor just waiting for a crack at working in a wind turbine factory, or a solar panel plant. This influx of new jobs would help drive more economic growth.

We would also have a lot smaller carbon footprint. Not only because we were using more renewable energy, but we would also have avoided the massive amount of carbon emitted by the war itself. War machines are not known for their fuel efficiency, a hummer started off as a Humvee, armor plate a hummer and see what kind of millage you get. Not to mention the massive amount of co2 released flying and shipping all the troops and equipment back and forth to the other side of the Atlantic ocean on a daily basis.

There would also be the issue of international diplomacy. The Iraq war was the turning point. After 9/11 almost the entire world was sympathetic to America. Willing to help us out in anyway we needed. When we decided to go to war we ruined all that. If instead we would have responded with a massive renewable energy campaign (perhaps also with a ratification of the Kyoto protocol) we could have capitalized on that good will to show the world the way forward.

Newsweek has a report on Honda's case of Prius envy.
Peter Kessner, a devout environmentalist, bought a Honda Civic hybrid four years ago to show everyone that he wants to save the planet. The only problem: no one noticed, since, other than the hybrid badge on the trunk, it looked like a regular Civic. So he traded it in for a Toyota Prius. Suddenly, strangers began stopping him on the street to ask about his hybrid, with its space-age styling and miserly mileage. "That's a big part of why I bought the Prius," says the Floral Park, N.Y., retiree. "It opens up conversations, and I push my theory that we've got to do our best to conserve." The Honda, on the other hand, didn't deliver what Kessner craved: green street cred. "If I'm driving a hybrid," he says, "I want people to know it."

Customers like Kessner have left Honda with a bad case of Prius envy. In the low-octane race for the environmental high ground, Honda is running a distant second to Toyota—despite the fact that Honda was first to sell a hybrid in America and remains a darling of the green movement. But to the average car buyer, Honda's hybrids are all but invisible. With 110,565 sold so far this year, the Toyota Prius is outselling Honda's entire lineup of gas-electric Civics and Accords by five to one. Honda is also pulling the plug on its hybrid Accord because it failed to attract buyers with its confusing formula of high horsepower, high price and so-so mileage. Honda execs now admit they weren't prepared for the power of the Prius. "The Prius has become synonymous with hybrid; it's the Kleenex of hybrids," says Honda senior VP John Mendel. "We feel Honda should be synonymous with the most fuel-efficient company in America."

That's why Honda is trying electroshock therapy on its hybrids. It's working on a new high-profile hybrid—a Prius fighter that analysts expect will have the highest mileage on the road when it arrives in 2009. Code-named the "Global Small Hybrid," Honda's new gas-electric model won't be a version of anything else in its lineup. Instead, Honda execs say it will be a five-passenger, small family car priced under $22,000. This time Honda won't make the mistake of wrapping its hybrid in the sheet metal of its everyday cars: instead, analysts expect the new Honda will have the larva styling the Prius pioneered—which now embodies the green-car look. ...



Things are getting weird out in the Pacific, with the coastline up at Yamba getting covered in a giant sea of froth after recent storms.
It was as if someone had poured tons of coffee and milk into the ocean, then switched on a giant blender. Suddenly the shoreline north of Sydney were transformed into the Cappuccino Coast. Foam swallowed an entire beach and half the nearby buildings, including the local lifeguards' centre, in a freak display of nature at Yamba in New South Wales.

One minute a group of teenage surfers were waiting to catch a wave, the next they were swallowed up in a giant bubble bath. The foam was so light that they could puff it out of their hands and watch it float away. It stretched for 30 miles out into the Pacific in a phenomenon not seen at the beach for more than three decades.

Scientists explain that the foam is created by impurities in the ocean, such as salts, chemicals, dead plants, decomposed fish and excretions from seaweed. All are churned up together by powerful currents which cause the water to form bubbles.



Crikey reports that the Rodent's uranium grab in the Northern Territory gets more and more outrageous by the day - now the land owners have to pay to use their own property - "Aboriginal assets to be seized, then rented back for profit". Big government neoconservatism, in action...
In moves seemingly impossible to reconcile with the protection of Aboriginal children on remote towns and communities in the Northern Territory, a document has come into the hands of Crikey that presages a federal government takeover of millions of dollars worth of assets owned by Aboriginal organisations.
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At least Ned Kelly stole from the rich. Mal Brough is taking from the poor to establish a government-controlled property trust, from which he will then rent back to the dispossessed.

Organisational assets above the value of $400,000 are to be compulsorily acquired by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and transferred to a new entity, the Indigenous Economic Development Trust (IEDT), and then rented back at commercial rates to the same organisations from which the asset has been taken from.

In some cases this will make those organisations commercially unviable, leading to financial collapse and loss of Aboriginal jobs. Every reason for Aboriginal organisations for acquiring property as part of engaging with capitalism has been thrown out in favour of a centrally controlled government bureaucracy.

This is not about Aboriginal land in places like Arnhem Land: assets will be compulsorily stripped from Aboriginal organisations owning land and property up and down the Stuart Highway—Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs—no matter how well run, no matter what the level of services provided, no matter what those assets are being used for.

The early targets appear to be urban-based Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP). In a letter to these CDEP projects in towns and cities up the Stuart Highway, IBA’s "national manager business funding", Kim McIlveen is keen to introduce "new products and services that your CDEP organisation might qualify for".

One of these "new products" is "establishing an Indigenous Economic Development Trust, through which assets will be leased to Aboriginal businesses".

And he is cheerfully offering a helping hand.

"IBA staff and contracted service providers will be visiting each CDEP over the next few months to provide more information and invite you to discuss your business needs."

The sheer effrontery of it is extraordinary. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), in at least one instance, will be "resuming" an asset from an Aboriginal business which is being offered back for commercial rental to the very Aboriginal business from which it was compulsorily taken.

In many cases the assets have been built up over many years—in some cases decades. Some are jointly-owned assets. Some are leased to groups such as health services; some provide low cost housing. Some are funded through a combination of commercial income, commercial bank loans, soft government loans and government grants.

The latter factor seems to be the key. Any Aboriginal organisation that directly or indirectly received federal government assistance to acquire or pay off an asset—even in small part—now faces compulsory seizure of the entire asset.

Potentially, property and other commercial assets that are earning an income, and employing Aboriginal people, will be summarily resumed by a federal bureaucracy. At least one CDEP seems destined to relinquish the property it purchased, then lease it back from the IEDT.

And the amount of this Stuart Highway robbery could run into many millions of dollars if this principle is extended. In Darwin assets owned by Larrakia Nation and its business arm, along with the Aboriginal Development Foundation and Danila Dilba Health Service, face compulsory asset removal.

In Katherine the Jawoyn Association faces property losses as well as potential loss of assets in the tourist industry in the millions. Tennant Creek’s Julalikari Council owns low cost housing valued at more than $2 million as well as other properties.

In Alice Springs properties potentially being seized are owned by the Institute for Aboriginal Development, Tangentyere Council, Arrernte Council and Health Congress. Assets in all of these towns owned by the Northern and Central land councils could also face resumption by the feds.

John Howard visited the Aboriginal town of Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Tuesday this week.

"We have a simple aim," he told the locals, "and that is whilst respecting a special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community.

"But unless they can get a share of the bounty of this great and prosperous country, their future will be bleak."

One can only assume the "special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country" is something to do with continuously re-enacting those bits where land and property are stolen from them. Hard to work out where the "share of the bounty" comes in.

A "Town Called Dobson" has a few thoughts about the Kucinich candidacy.
Most folks I know have a preferred candidate - Hillary, Obama, Edwards or Gore. But the crazy thing is, they will turn right around and say, “you know who I really want to vote for? Kucninch.”

I have those same feelings - I love Kucinich and think he would make the best President. His values most closely resemble my own. Why not vote for him?

Irrational fear. Total fear that the Republicans will lie about Kucinich and Fred Thompson will win the election. Wait, the GOP is gonna lie anyway, no matter what, so why the fear?

One thing I finally noticed about Kucinich during the AFL-CIO debate was how Kucinich always made more points during his alloted time than other candidates. I have been thinking about this and found the answer when I was reading the transcript. Kucinich doesn’t equivocate. He doesn’t dance around an issue - he goes straight for the explanation and since his past is not littered with idiotic support of bad bills, HE has nothing to fear, so why do I?

Yes, why do I fear? Do I think Hillary can win? No. I think she loses the election, the second she is nominated. Isn’t THAT something to fear? Do we think Fred Thompson, Gingrich or whatever other ass-wipe the GOP nominates will give a shit about universal healthcare, the environment or peace? Nope, it will be a straight continuation of 8 years of BushCo. Isn’t my fear displaced?

Who is the strongest Democrat in Congress? Kucinich.

What Congressman never LOST their spine in the politically crushing days after 9-11? Kucinich.

Who knows how to answer a direct question asked by We The People? Kucinich.

I think something changed for Kucinich during the AFL-CIO debate - I can’t put my finger on it, but something changed. Maybe it was his eagerness to address We The People with truth, honesty and integrity? Maybe it was just the other candidates equivocating on whatever nonsense answer their staff prepared for them months ago?

Maybe it was because the other candidates showed fear and Kucinich didn’t. He never flinched.

That is leadership as I see it. And from this point forward I will NOT fear to support Kucinich.

He is just like me. My values are the same as his. If I was in Congress, I would vote like he does. I no longer fear. I refuse to allow the GOP to manipulate me into supporting lesser candidates.

That just might be called courage.



Links :

* CNN Money - Big U.S. oil: Tepid on Libya. Not for much longer I suspect - Libya may well be second to Iraq in terms of undeveloped oil reserves.
* SMH - Australia's oil and gas production up
* Past Peak - Allawi Resurfaces. I bet he'll hand over the oil.
* WSJ Energy Roundup - In Today’s Journal: Tales from Kashagan
* WSJ Energy Roundup - No Shortages Here, Says OPEC
* Jeff Vail - EROEI Short #2: Lenin & Lohan
* Globe And Mail - Will oceans surge 59 centimetres this century - or 25 metres?. "If we follow 'business-as-usual' growth of greenhouse gas emissions, I think that we will lock in a guaranteed sea-level rise of several metres, which, frankly, means that all hell is going to break loose."
* Sharon Astyk - Diversify, Diversify, Diversify
* TreeHugger - Number of the Day: 300
* Reuters - Iran says ready to fill vacuum in Iraq left by US
* Bruce Schneier - Stupidest Terrorist Overreaction Yet?
* Free Market News Network - Ron Paul: Iran Attack in a Year?
* Lew Rockwell - A Political Theory of Geeks and Wonks

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