Saturday, September 19, 2009

SEH making solar silicon in Vancouver

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire visited SEH America's Vancouver campus yesterday to talk about the expansion of the company's silicon wafer production facilities. The Japanese company's $55 million purchase in June of Hewlett-Packard's campus doubles its land in Washington and gives it five times more free space for expansion.

It seems likely that a large portion of the expansion will be in solar silicon production. The company, which holds the largest global share of the semiconductor market, has already begun producing its silicon wafers for use in solar panel manufacturing, said executive vice president Tatsuo Ito at his visit with the governor. The conversion was "easy", he said.

If SEH does dramatically expand its solar silicon production in coming years, it would help bring Washington back into the running as a major solar manufacturing state. As I reported earlier this week in The Columbian, Washington ranked No. 4 among the top 10 most favorable states for silicon-based solar panel manufacturing, according to a report by GTM Research, yet it's the only state among them that doesn't have any major constructed or planned facilities.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Carrotmob funds efficiency in Portland

Portland is starting its pilot Clean Energy Fund project soon to provide on-bill financing for energy efficiency retrofits in certain neighborhoods. But a new, slightly more chaotic version of financing sustainable upgrades will come to Portland in June -- Carrotmob. The movement, which started in San Francisco, is essentially a flash mob or "reverse boycott" that floods chosen businesses with a crowd of customers in support of their sustainability efforts. Carrotmob Portland will have its first event June 21st, at Hotlips Pizza on Hawthorne. All the store's revenue that day will go toward energy efficiency upgrades at Hotlips.

It's more of a social movement to draw attention to sustainable businesses than a doable funding mechanism for the city. But it seems like a model that could work for some businesses, with or without the flash mob. Artichoke Music on Hawthorne, for example, was able to raise enough money through some folk music shows for a full heating, ventilation and air-conditioning upgrade this year. I had the pleasure of attending their first air-conditioned show a few weeks ago. Not all businesses have such a devoted following, however.

Pacific Ethanol files for bankruptcy

Back in April, I pointed out that Pacific Ethanol (PEIX), which owns a 40-million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant in Boardman, could follow the fate of Cascade Grain Products, the other giant ethanol producer to build in Oregon in response to the state renewable fuel standard. Pacific Ethanol had defaulted on its construction loans and had 30 days to renegotiate them. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week, joining 10 other ethanol producers in bankruptcy according to Marketwatch.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Federal money for electric car charging stations

The Oregonian reported yesterday that Oregon applied for $15 million in stimulus money for electric vehicle charging stations. The state already has some of the most advanced charging station infrastructure in the country with just a handful of charging stations installed. The grant is aimed at expanding the network to help ensure car owners have a place to charge when they use their proposed $5,000 state tax credit to buy the new plug-in hybrid Nissans coming to Oregon in 2010.

The Daily Journal of Commerce also had a similar article two weeks ago, announcing the state's request for charging station proposals. They reported the state is seeking $12.5 million in federal stimulus money, which the state would match to create a total funding pool of $25 million to build about 1,200 charging stations.

Shorepower Technologies, which designed PGE's new charging station, installed last July at its Portland headquarters, seems like a good candidate for developing the Oregon charging network. I know that Coulomb Technologies, which operates subscription-based charging networks in the Bay Area is also interested in bringing their service to Oregon.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Piling on Support to Equalize Biomass and Wind Subsidies

The biomass industry has become a rising star in Congress in its push to bring renewable energy tax credits for biomass in line with those provided for wind, Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, told attendees at the International Biomass Conference yesterday in Portland. The industry lobby in the past didn't have enough clout to win subsidies for biomass producers, he said.

"All of a sudden, we have traction to get parity with wind energy," said Cleaves.

The Association has adopted Ron Wyden's catchy term for biomass - the "half-credit technology" - to illustrate that biomass receives only half of the 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour credit that wind and other renewable projects receive for green electricity production. They're pushing for reform in the energy tax code to provide a subsidy per ton of CO2 reduced for each technology. Cleaves claims that biomass provides "the biggest bang for taxpayers' buck in carbon replacement" with four times the environmental benefits of wind.

In testimony to the Senate finance committee last week, Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf demonstrated how even renewable technologies that receive equal subsidies, geothermal and wind, are actually subsidized very differently when compared on a subsidy-per-ton of CO2 basis. Given that an average wind turbine produces energy about 27% of the year (its capacity factor) compared to geothermal's 73%, the subsidy ends up being $7.74/ton of avoided emissions for geothermal and $12.28/ ton of wind, according to Metcalf's calculations. In other words, taxpayers are paying wind producers 60 percent more to reduce CO2 emissions than they're paying geothermal producers.

The Senate finance committee meeting last week on "technology neutral" energy tax policy provides an interesting glimpse into the debate.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Smart grid opportunities for software developers

Smart grid technology may have many hurdles to overcome before it's widely adopted by consumers and utilities, but that just means the opportunities for making money (and losing it) in the space are huge for today's software developers and IT professionals, agreed panelists at yesterday's InnoTech smart grid presentation in Portland. The panel steered away from hype, however, challenging the notion that the smart grid is the next Internet revolution because the benefits haven't yet been proven.

Here are the list of top business opportunities and challenges for smart grid technology I pulled from the panel:

- Software companies should work with utilities to use existing technologies, or a combination of technologies, to create new tools for managing the grid, said Patrick Mazza from Climate Solutions. This is also the best way for software companies to tap into the smart grid stimulus funding, since the U.S. Department of Energy will distribute most of it through utilities, he said.

- Smart meters only scratch the surface of the smart grid, said Steve Jennings from BPL Global, who said the best approach is to develop a platform that addresses applications across the grid, from the power plant to the home. Interoperability is the key to developing technologies that work across the spectrum of the smart grid.

- Smart grid developers have yet to find the killer app, the feature that fuels adoption. Jeff Hammarlund, who teaches the smart grid graduate seminar at Portland State University, thinks that killer app will be smart appliances but utilities must adopt variable rate schedules based on time-of-day electricity use before any consumer application can be successful.

- Steve Blaine from CH2M Hill was the lone dissenter in the group, arguing that paying billions to upgrade the grid with digital communications may not have any real benefit for consumers. He thinks the real opportunity lies in energy storage. Why build a smart grid to manage renewable power production, for example, when all you need is the ability to store energy that's generated off-peak?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cisco builds an EcoMap in San Francisco

Cisco announced today that it's building an interactive map of carbon emissions in San Francisco, similar to the solar map the city launched in 2007.

Residents can already log on and see the solar energy potential of their roof. The new Urban EcoMap, developed by the same contractor CH2M Hill, will use the Google maps interface to show the carbon footprint of any given zipcode, as well as carbon savings (or emissions) that result from the everyday choices residents make, from waste disposal to transportation to home energy use. The site will operate on an open platform to allow user-generated updates and integrate with social networking sites to allow collaboration and discussion.

The city of San Francisco is partnering with Cisco to provide data from waste management, public transportation and other agencies. A resident could log on and map out their route to work, for example, to see the carbon savings that would result if they choose to walk or bike instead of drive or bus it.

I've also heard that the map will use data from an infrared thermography fly-over of the city that determines heat loss from individual buildings to measure the potential for energy efficiency upgrades for any address.

The idea is to raise awareness of how individual choices affect a neighborhood's carbon emissions and to provide an easy way for citizens to take actions that lower their carbon footprint.

It's still unclear just how they're measuring carbon emissions and the carbon reductions that result from behavioral changes, however. There isn't really an adopted standard yet for measuring carbon emissions in the U.S., though the E.P.A. is working on rules for reporting greenhouse gas emissions and building a national greenhouse gas registry. It seems that any calculation from the EcoMap would provide a ballpark range of emissions with the potential to show just how small a dent you actually make with one individual action.

The map goes live to the public on May 21 when Cisco will unveil a similar map it's developing for Seoul, South Korea.