Getting the renewable energy mix right

I was out at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal on Wednesday, talking with students in the school’s green tech career academy about what I do as an energy and green tech reporter — ask people a lot of questions about very technical things and try to turn it all into plain English.

Most of the students said they want to work in a green tech or engineering field, so I also spoke about the importance of good communication skills and the inestimable value of being able to write clear, grammatical sentences (old school, I know, but it’s something I’m actually rather passionate about).

One of the students asked me what I thought the best form of renewable energy is, and I stopped for a second. Being a reporter, one always stops when anyone asks you what you think the best of anything is, because one cannot appear to be biased or endorsing one thing over another.

Luckily in this case, it was not a problem. What I said, in essence, is that , with renewable energy it isn’t a matter of better or worse, but rather how the different forms fit together and complement each other.  We need them all.  The wind blows best at night — so we can have renewable energy on the grid ready to go in the wee hours and early morning.  Then photovoltaic, rooftop solar comes on in the morning and peaks in the afternoon for daytime use.

Geothermal can fill in the gaps, it is 24/7 baseline power. Solar thermal technology also has the potential to fill in the intermittent gaps created by wind and rooftop. While big solar thermal projects, such as BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah plant, have major environmental impacts and have been difficult to perimit, their technology — using solar energy to heat fluids and run a traditional generator — provides a more reliable power source than rooftop solar.

If you add storage to the picture — and it’s coming, in the foreseeable future — you have the possibility of a grid that can, at least in theory, run almost entirely on clean, renewable sources with the inevitable economies of scale and lower prices.

This is, at least in part, the argument that some advocates are now making as California develops a renewable energy portfolio that will provide 33 percent of the state’s power by 2020. The utilities have largely loaded up on cheaper photovoltaic projects that by their very nature mean we will need some kind of fossil fuel backup to balance the intermittency of solar.

More reliable forms of renewables, such as solar thermal, are more expensive, but cost alone should not be the only factor considered.

Which brings me to BrightSource. Even as the company’s Rio Mesa project looks shaky – possibly losing a power purchase agreement to sell half the power from the plant and facing millions in mitigation costs to offset environmental impacts — investors have given the company a vote of confidence in the form of $80 million in new equity funding.

In a press release issued today, company executives announced a list of new investors –

Alstom, a global leader in the world of power generation, and VantagePoint Capital Partners lead the round. Additional investors include DFJ, CalSTRS, DBL Investors, Goldman Sachs, Chevron Technology Ventures and BP Ventures among others.

The company now has $615 million in equity funding.

Alstom is a French energy multinational and VantagePoint is a major player in clean tech investments. That major fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and BP want in also speaks volumes.

The bottom line is, every form of energy, whether fossil fuel or renewable, has some kind of environmental impact; that is the unavoidable trade-off we make for the power.

Figuring out the best value and right balance of renewables going forward will be a complex process, involving careful thought and calibration of lots of competing and conflicting factors.  Hopefully, some of the students I spoke with today will help find the solutions.

And they’ll be able to write about it in clear, grammatical sentences.

Solar thermal fights back; FedEx expands its electric fleet

Every day, 5,000 times more energy shines down on the Earth from the sun than it takes to power the entire world.

That enlightening factoid comes to us today from the solar industry’s newest trade group, the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance. CSP, as it is called in the industry, is what most of us call solar thermal — where panels or troughs collect or concentrate heat from the sun, which is then used to heat a liquid, create steam and run a generator.

Large-scale solar thermal projects have had a tough time in the past year, what with the pressure from falling photovoltaic panel prices and permitting challenges related to how much water they use.

In the Riverside East solar zone, the public land east of the Coachella Valley, three of the first four fast-track projects were originally solar thermal — Solar Millennium’s Blythe and Palen projects and NextEra Energy’s Genesis project.  As most local readers are aware, both Blythe and Palen are now on hold, presumably being retooled as PV plants by their new owner, solarhybrid.

Only the 250-megawatt Genesis project, now under construction, has remained solar thermal, and NextEra’s next project planned for the region, the 750-megawatt McCoy plant, is PV.

BrightSource, one of the three solar thermal companies behind the new organization, also has a local solar thermal project in the works, the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa plant on private land near Blythe.

Making the world a little more welcoming to solar thermal is where the new group comes in, building on the efforts of a new international organization, the World Solar Thermal Electricity Association. Both groups are clearly aimed at promoting the benefits of solar thermal technology to energy markets. 

While more expensive upfront, the alliance says that solar thermal plants are much more reliable than PV projects and produce power that can be stored to match peak energy demands.  Another plus, they can keep operating even when the sun is not shining. 

Solar thermal also produces more construction and permanent jobs than PV plants.  A 2006 study commissioned by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab for the Department of Energy found that a 100 megawatt solar thermal plant creates more than $600 million in impact to gross state output, ten times that of a fossil fuel plant due to the local content and job creation.

With PV clearly the technology of choice right now, and panel prices continuing to move toward grid parity — it will be interesting to see  how CSPA will market itself and its projects.

In other breaking green tech news today, Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, Mo.,  unveiled a new all-electric truck that FedEx will be adding to its fleet throughout the rest of the year.

FedEx put its first all-electric vehicles on the road in Los Angeles in March 2010.

The new FedEx electric vehicles will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge.










The new trucks will have a range of about 100 miles on a single charge, which makes them ideal for urban delivery routes.  Don’t know if we’ll see any in the valley, but hats off to FedEx for its ongoing efforts.

Solar studies: The good, the bad, etc.

I’m not sure if it’s election year posturing – the renewable energy industry is lobbying Congress heavily to preserve key financial incentives such as the production tax credit – or a push back from the Solyndra bankruptcy, but it seems barely a day goes by without some solar study landing in my email box.

What’s clear is that advocates for solar and the green economy in general are positioning the sector as a job creator that, in California, is growing faster than other traditional industry sectors. How good or effective the studies are depends on how closely they reflect what’s really going on –- and provide useful information –- rather than trying to oversell the impact of green jobs or manipulate public perceptions.

In the latter category, we have a study released Thursday — with support from Vote Solar, a nonprofit promoting local policies that increase the number of solar installations — billed as a survey of public attitudes toward solar development.

What I found instead is a poll funded by a major solar corporation, BrightSource Energy, with softball questions designed to elicit desired answers.

Case in point, the first question in the poll asked participants if they  agree or disagree with the following statements:

“California’s deserts are a great resource. We should use parts of them to develop renewable energy projects. “

No surprise, 78.6 percent of respondents agreed, while only 15.6 percent disagreed and 5.8 percent were unsure or refused to answer.

Wonder what the answers would have been if the question had been phrased as follows:

“California’s deserts are a great resource, with incredible visual vistas and habitat for endangered and unique desert plants and animals. Should we put thousands of solar panels there or on previously disturbed land?”

Yes, that’s a loaded question looking for a specific answer, but serves the point.

The irony here is that of the major solar developers, BrightSource has been one of the few to place some of its projects on previously disturbed land – like the company’s 750-megawatt Rio Mesa project now in the works on private land near Blythe.

The study also tries to tip the balance of public opinion by linking solar development with the creation of “thousands of local construction jobs for two to three years, and . . . between 80 to 100 permanent operations and maintenance jobs.” Respondents were then asked if knowing that makes them more or less likely to support large-scale solar.

Once again, 73.4 percent came down on the more likely side, 10.5 percent less likely, 8.6 percent no difference and 7.5 percent unsure or refusing to answer.

Time for a reality check here — and another, more realistic study on solar industry jobs, from the Centers for Excellence, a research and analysis outfit that provides California’s community colleges with information aimed at aligning curriculum and programs with job market needs.

Also released Thursday, this study is based on surveys and interviews with large and small solar companies across the state, along with analysis of relevant community college programs.  The good news here is that solar jobs have been growing faster than the general job market.

The study found that the state’s 2,000 solar firms employ around 50,000 workers, with another 18,000 jobs expected by 2015 — a healthy 36 percent increase.  But, the study’s breakdown by region found Southern California growth rates lower, with 8 percent growth projected for 2012 and 19 percent by 2015.

Other sobering findings — for large-scale solar projects, contractors often bring in their own crews from out of state — as has happened at NextEra Energy’s Genesis project, a 250-megawatt solar thermal plant about half way between Desert Center and Blythe. 

When Desert Sun photographer Richard Lui and I visited the site last week, one of the first things we noticed was that almost all the pick-up trucks on site had Minnesota license plates, cause that’s where the general contractor is headquartered.  We were told about 50 people on the site were from Minnesota — though some had brought their families out and are now living here — and the balance of workers on the site came through union hiring halls in Riverside and Orange County. 

Another nifty factoid, solar installers tend to hire skilled trades people — electricians, roofers and plumbers – with solar skills, along with specifically trained solar installers.  No surprise then that many students in College of the Desert’s solar training programs have been unemployed construction workers, and that the class prepares them to pass the basic certification test of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners — aka NABCEP — a strong resume point for solar installers.

But along with installers, the job categories people will need training for in solar may be more in sales, system design and administration, the study found.

Moving to the green job market statewide, Next 10, another nonprofit, released its employment survey, called “Many Shades of Green” earlier this week.  What’s good about this study is that it looks not only at what the group calls the core green economy — such as jobs directly related to renewable energy, energy-efficiency and recycling — but also the secondary, adaptive green economy, which includes businesses that are going green, asking their vendors for greener products or coming up with more sustainable business practices.

The major drawback to this study is that its figures are about two years old — providing job stats only up to 2010. Like the rest of California’s economy, the green sector took its hits in 2009, but had fewer job losses. Overall, the study says, job figures for the state were down 7 percent in 2009, versus just 3 percent in the green economy.

The Inland Empire was one of only three areas in the state where the green economy did worse than other sectors. While overall, the green economy in San Bernardino and Riverside counties has grown 43 percent since 1995, in 2009, green jobs went down 7 percent versus 5 percent for the rest of the economy in the region.

Next 10 did not have breakout figures for Riverside County, but Tracy Gosse, who authored the study, said the region was one of the hardest hit in the recession. In 2009, the area saw drops in business at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, on top of the region’s moribund housing market.  Presumably, 2010-2011 figures, when available, will show some growth.

Still, what the study does show, without overselling or manipulating data, is that the green economy is growing as energy efficiency, renewable energy and recycling all go mainstream and are integrated into the supply chain and, that in many cases, its growth is bottom-line driven.

When Walmart places third on EPA’s list of the top 50 U.S. businesses buying renewable energy — with 75 percent of its California stores having some kind of renewable generation — then green jobs expand and other jobs become greener.

As Andrew Winston, a green business blogger at the Harvard Business Review website, noted in a recent post

“If the lords of low cost recognize the strategic value of green investments, so can the rest of us. ”


The real story on solar — growth, not Solyndra

The Solar Energy Industries Association and GreenTech Media released their quartery report on solar development in the U.S. today, and the one word notably absent from all 22 pages of the executive summary was — wait for it — Solyndra.

The failed solar panel manufacturer did get a few mentions during the press conference that SEIA and GreenTech held to discuss the report this morning — I listened in on the event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. — but mostly to point up how one failure in the industry has overshadowed its spectacular growth.

The photovoltaic side of the industry — solar panels or PV — had a recordbreaking third quarter, with 449.2 megawatts installed, a 39 percent increase over the second quarter and a whopping 140 percent increase over third quarter 2010. California accounted for 196.7 megawatts — or close to 44 percent — of the total.

Just for scale, the NextEra-GE Desert Sunlight project now under construction near Desert Center is 550 megawatts. When completed, it will provide enough power for 160,000 homes.

The third quarter figures put U.S. installations over 1 gigawatt for 2011, the first time the U.S. has passed the 1 gig milestone in a year — and growth is projected for the fourth quarter as well. The U.S. now has 3.1 gigs of PV solar connected to grids across the country, according to the report.

“It’s a good news story,” said Rhone Resch, president of SEIA. “(The U.S.) has  made a strategic investment in solar, and we are seeing it pay off, not only in solar installed but jobs created. We’re seeing it across all 50 states.”

What’s driving the growth, besides the 40 percent plunge in panel prices this year and the growth of third-party leasing agreements, has been a key government incentive, called the 1603 program, which allows solar and other renewable energy companies to take a cash grant instead of the 30 percent federal tax credit.  Passed as part of the federal stimulus, 1603 grants are only available for projects that are completed and connected to the grid, and as Resch and other solar officials said at the press conference, the program doesn’t represent extra money — it’s only a change in how the tax credit is taken.

The problem now is that 1603 is set to expire at the end of the year, and renewable companies and trade associations across the country are lobbying Congress hard to extend it for at least another year.

The main issue is that the tax credits in and of themselves don’t help solar companies finance their projects because they are hard to monetize — that is, companies that might invest in a project and use the credit, aren’t; banks still aren’t lending.

“Tax-based policy is not effective in a bad economy,” said Joe Desmond, a senior vice president for BrightSource Energy, the developer for the Ivanpah project and Rio Mesa, a solar tower project planned near Blythe. ”We have not fully recovered from the economic crisis. There’s an important role for 1603 to play. The program allows us to monetize tax equity, so the debt is lower-cost debt; the cost of construction is lower, the cost of energy to consumers is lower.”

Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar, a company in Maryland, said his firm has grown from three employees in 2007 to 100 today, thanks in large part to 1603. If the program is not continued, he said, the company will probably not hire the 25-30 new employees currently in its plans for 2012.

And Clifford and Resch said, most of the 5,000 solar companies in the U.S. are small businesses, so cutting 1603 will hurt them.  About 100,000 people are currently employed in the solar industry, and if 1603 is continued, SEIA projects, it could help create another 37,000 jobs.

Cutting the program could also hurt U.S. competitiveness on a global scale, said Shayle Kann of GreenTech Media. The U.S. generally comes in around third, fourth or fifth in solar installations worldwide, he said.

“The magnitude of growth (in 2012) depends  on whether we will see an extension of 1603,” he said. “It’s a pivotal juncture where the U.S. market stands in regard to global markets. We could be No. 1 but we need the environment to be supportive politically and financially. We need to ramp up.”  

“Solyndra is a convenient excuse for people who don’t want to support renewable energy,” Resch concluded. “Solyndra was one company; you cannot hold an entire industry or a series of industries hostage for the failure of one company.”

I’m working on an article on the local impact of the 1603 program and its potential expiration, so stay tuned.