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Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt

Dow Chemical, maker of the Solar Shingle, has been awarded a $12.8 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Energy to fund building integrated solar products program. The aim of the funding is clear in the name of the DOE program “Extreme Balance-of-System Hardware Cost Reductions.” [note: Maybe not quite clear enough - I added the hyphens to help you figure out what Extreme is supposed to refer to.]

Dow's Solar Shingles. Credit: Dow Chemical

In short, DOE wants to bring down the installed cost of solar power to $2 per watt – without subsidies. Currently, it’s the upfront cost of installing solar panels that puts the breaks on the amount of installed solar in the U.S. Most solar systems are designed to last upwards of 20 years (most experts say you can count on your panels to work for 25 years), but the costs can mean the payback period can stretch out to more than 15 years, depending on where you live.  

Sharp offers an awesome and slightly addicting solar cost/payback/savings calculator on its website. Drop whatever you are doing right now (it’s the Friday before Labor Day, people, no one expects you to do real work anyway) and go here: http://sharpusa.cleanpowerestimator.com/sharpusa.htm

All you need to do is put in your zip code and the amount of your electricity bill and then you can spend a while fiddling with the variables. The default cost per watt of solar power is $7 per watt (or $7,000 per kW as shown in the calculator).

With my particulars, a 3,000 kW system would trim my power bill enough to pay for itself in a bit over 16 years. I’d only pay about 1/3rd the full cost of the system (or over $7,000) due to state and Federal tax rebates. So that shows two things: government subsidies are required to make solar even sort of make sense at current prices, and that $2 per watt sounds like a reasonable price target. If you lived in Arizona your calculation would likely be different.

Give it a try!

Renewable Energy On and Off the Grid

A couple of items in today’s scan of cleantech news invite us to compare and contrast the differences in providing renewable power for large, grid-connected energy versus local, off-grid projects.

In China, where the government has a goal to get 170GW of electricity from wind power by 2020, wind power providers are trying to figure out how to cost-effectively connect – and stay connected – to the electric grid. Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, a maker of nanophosphate lithium-ion energy storage systems will supply batteries to a Chinese  manufacturer of wind turbines called Dongfang Electric Corporation. The batteries will be capable of storing 500kW. According to the A123 press release, only about 72% of China’s wind power capacity is connected to the grid.

Energy providers in rural India do not face the grid problem. In fact, winning technologies there are designed specifically for communities that do not have access to the grid. A Bloomberg article highlights two renewables  firms that  received early funding and support from tech firm Cisco Systems and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Both have moved on from the blackboard stage and are now supplying systems to rural villagers.

Husk Power Systems builds small, 40kW biomass gasifier power plants that run on rice husks. The husks, a waste produce from rice processing is one of the few types of biomass that does not already have another use by villagers. Currently, rice millers use some of their supply, along with diesel, to power their operations. HPS’s plants can light up to 500 households and cost just under $40,000 to install. The company and its partner Shell, have installed 60 mini power plants in the Indian state of Behar.

Meanwhile, Cisco and Draper have also supported D.Light Design, a solar lamp maker that is leasing 120,000 lighting kits in homes in the southwest state of Karnataka. The price per family is the equivalent of $5-$8 a month. The lighting replaces light provided by kerosene.

More than half a billion people in India live off the grid or are connected to unreliable service. Right now, they depend mainly on fossil fuel-powered devices. Both China and India are increasing government spending for clean energy. Though technologies like A123 Systems, and creating a reliable and effective electric grid that can handle solar and wind energy have gotten a lot of attention, it’s important to realize the immense size of the market for technologies that serve off-grid populations. The technology – and social – needs for village-scale power are very different.

What Does Groupon have to do with Cleantech?

Over at Earth2Tech, blogger Katie Fehrenbacher gives some reasons why the recent excitement powering Internet IPOs might be a boon for cleantech firms. As she points out, the venture capital game is about making money on an entire portfolio of investments, and if individual investors want to pay big for a piece of a coupon business, then VCs can cash out and cover their exposure to slow-to-grow renewables companies.

In examining the numbers, she looks at New Enterprise Associates, which is backing the Groupon IPO - likely to bring in lots of cash – and is also invested in e-car maker Fisker Automotive, fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy and thin-film solar firm Konarka, among others. A Groupon windfall might come close to the size of the diversified fund in its entirety. This could take the pressure off of those long R&D timelines, she suggests.

It’s no accident that so many Cleantech VCs are headquartered in San Francisco, and have portfolios in tech (of the computer and internet variety) as well as cleantech. It’s because most started up during the software and internet booms and then grew to take on green start-ups. But the latter type of investment is much more industrial, slow to develop, and capital intensive. That’s why some IPO watchers (and Fehrenbacher actually made this point last month) have suggested VCs may retreat from cleantech and flow back into the faster, cleaner world of silicon. 

It is probably too early in the days of Internet boom part II to tell what, if any, impact we’ll see on the fundraising abilities of cleantech firms. But it’s good to remember that cleantech firms compete not just with each other, but with other industries for investment dollars.

One small rule of thumb to remember is that a successful IPO for a venture capital fund brings in ten times the amount invested. They are supposed to be high-risk, high-reward bets where one good launch makes up for many failures. That is the yardstick that VCs will use to measure the success of a cleantech company IPO.

Hidden Chemistry at Solar Biggie BrightSource

We don’t have too many rules here in C&EN blogville, but we do try to maintain a chemistry connection.  I was worried that would be at risk if I were to post about BrightSource Energy, a mega solar tech firm that has filed for a $250 million IPO.

BrightSource Energy's solar mirrors. Credit: BrightSource

To generate energy from the sun, BrightSource puts thousands of big mirrors in the desert that track the sun and focus light on a tower with a boiler full of water. The steam generated cranks a turbine to create electricity. It sounds like what a technology firm would think up if someone forgot to invite a chemist or chemical engineer to the concept meeting.  [Note that in contrast, other solar thermal companies use nifty heat-transfer fluids like biphenyl and diphenyl oxide, as described by my colleague Alex Tullo.]

But there are at least two innovative uses of chemistry in the BrightSource system, one is basic CRC handbook stuff and one is rather mysterious. To extend the hours during which the water can be turned into steam, BrightSource is working to store some of the sun’s heat  in a blend of molten nitrate salts (sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate). To save you the Googling, the melting point of sodium nitrate is 308 C and potassium nitrate is 334 C. For some reason this nice detail is in the firm’s S1 filing but I did not see it on the website.

The more mysterious chemistry is alluded to on the company’s website. As you can imagine, the boiler tower has to withstand some unusual conditions. But worry not, because, “The boiler is designed to withstand the rigors of the daily cycling required in a solar power plant over the course of its lifetime, and is treated with a proprietary solar-absorptive coating

to ensure that maximum solar energy is absorbed in the steam. [emphasis mine]. Hmmmmm…. I wonder what is in that coating? Tell me what you think.

Enerkem: Raking in Garbage and Venture Bucks

Even after we’ve reduced, re-used, recycled, and composted everything we can, we are still faced with some odd items that are just trash. But on an elemental level, there is nothing that can’t be recycled if one is willing to put in a little extra effort and capital.

Enerkem plant in Westbury, Quebec. Credit: Enerkem

Canadian waste-to-fuels start-up Enerkem is willing, and this week it has been helped along with $59 million in venture funds from current investors including Waste Management and new investor Valero Energy. Enerkem has three plants in the works  where, as the company is fond of saying, carbon can be recycled into fuels and chemicals.

Enerkem takes municipal solid waste (and other end-of-life wastes) and gasifies it at about 700 C. It then cleans up the resulting syngas and uses catalysts to convert the gas into products such as methanol. The products can be used to make ethanol, synthetic diesel, dimethyl ether, and even synthetic gasoline, says the firm.

It’s a bit more sophisticated than just burning trash for energy, but it similarly keeps materials out of  landfills. The technology helped the company secure $130 million from USDA and DOE for a plant in Pontotoc, Miss. expected to break ground later this year. Meanwhile, Enerkem is building a plant in Edmonton, Alberta. The firm also has two plants in Quebec, including a demonstration facility.

According to a recent report from Pike Research (or at least a summary of the report that happened to appear as I was reading about Enerkem’s haul), both mainstream incineration for energy and new fangled gasification and biological technologies are on a growth trajectory. Why? Because the world produces a lot of trash, that’s why. Here’s some numbers on current operations from the summary:

“Today, more than 900 thermal [waste-to-energy] plants operate around the world and treat an estimated 0.2 billion tons of [municipal solid waste] with an output of approximately 130 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity.”

But In the Meantime, More CO2

While the  U.S. reviews its nuclear energy policy, countries that turn away from nuclear will have to deal with an uptick in CO2 emissions.

Japanese  Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier this month that the country will promote renewable energy rather than bring more nuclear reactors online. And Germany has placed a moratorium on nuclear power generation. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a useful summary of an International Energy Agency report that has quantified the increase in CO2 emissions that will result in Germany.

The story explains that “the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants will take out about 50 terawatt hours of low-carbon electricity a year” and says that the country will likely replace it with fossil fuel-derived power that will produce 25 million metric tons a year of CO2 emissions. Germany is subject to the EU’s emissions trading scheme, so it will have to offset those emissions. One way to do so, says the report, is for the country to substitute electricity from natural gas plants for those that use coal (or trade for permits with another country that does so).

But it’ll take a lot of swapping, the Journal finds. “An extra 90 terawatt hours of gas-fired power would be needed, replacing 40 terawatt hours of power from coal plants to offset the entire 25 million tons of CO2.”

Of course countries that want to replace nuclear power – either a little or a lot – will be looking to renewables. It’s not clear yet whether – and how much – governments will spend on incentives to increase the renewables infrastructure if nuclear is less a part of the portfolio. In January, for example, Germany started to cut back on feed-in tariffs for solar power.

Metabolix to get $6M From DOE for Denser Switchgrass

Metabolix is one of 8 firms and research organizations named in a Department of Energy grant program that will put $47 million to work making biomass more productive for fuels and chemicals. All in an effort, of course, to unhitch our economy from fossil fuels.

Switchgrass Credit: Steven Ausmus/USDA

Metabolix already has a way to make bio-based plastics (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA resins) from sugars, and has been doing it at commercial scale with agro partner Archer Daniels Midland. But it has also been spending a great deal of its resources upstream on the biomass end, and can grow switchgrass with PHA inside it.

 The DOE award will give the firm $6 million (actually, it’s $6,000,001. not sure what the extra buck is for) to, in their words “use high temperature conversion to produce denser biomass and other products that can be further processed to make fuels such as butanol, chemicals such as propylene and other materials to improve the economic competitiveness of future biorefineries.”

I will admit to not fully grasping the meaning of “to produce denser biomass” yet, but I’ll be looking out for more details. Still, this announcement hit 7 of my cleantech topic categories (see above!) so it’s well worth mentioning now.

Metabolix was one of the earlier cleantech firms to IPO (helpful to do so before  worldwide recession, is the lesson here). Laurence Alexander of Jeffries & Co. is a fan of the stock, rating the firm a “buy.” He had this to say in a note to clients about the DOE/Metabolix grant: “ We view the announcement as incrementally positive. It should help Metabolix strengthen its technology platform while reducing concerns that the early-stage research into the switchgrass PHA platform could represent a cash drain that detracts from the more timely PHA plastic and PHA-based chemicals platforms.”  Sounds like Metabolix will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, thanks to this announcement.

On a related note, the news value around the word “switchgrass” has been rather low of late. In this Google Trends chart, you can see little activity in last few years.

Google Trends for "Switchgrass" in search and news

A great deal of attention in the biofuels segment has focused on cellulosic waste materials (wood chips, corn cobs etc) or gassification of biomass. Switchgrass was hot when the nation was going to grow dedicated crops for bio-based energy. We’ll have to see if a new research push will bring it back into the public eye.

Solix Biofuels Raises Money, Changes Name

Algae-growing firm Solix Biofuels has raised $16 million in a second round of venture capital funding. It has also changed its name to Solix BioSystems “to better reflect its role as a leading provider of algae production systems.”

Solix photobioreactor

Solix BioSystems' Lumian AGS4000, an algae grower. Credit: Solix BioSystems

There are many, many firms working hard right this moment trying to make money by growing algae for biofuel. Solix joins at least one other firm – OriginOil – in looking to make money from firms looking to make money with algae.

The first two most difficult things about using algae as a feedstock for biofuels is 1) growing algae and 2) growing a lot of algae.

Continue reading →

Codexis Puts Enzyme to Work for Clean(er) Coal

This week in Washington, DC, energy luminaries associated with the ARPA-E program are gathering to talk about clean energy technologies and present a progress report on what the program’s grants have made possible.

coal-fired power plant

Enzymes to clean coal? Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Biocatalyst firm Codexis has helpfully offered a preview of its update on a research project aiming to cut down on the downsides of carbon capture technologies for coal-fired power plants. The so-called “clean coal” technologies can nearly double costs and lower the amount of electricity produced by power plans, the company points out.

Codexis will present data from its ARPA-E sponsored research project that uses modified carbonic anhydrase enzymes to capture carbon dioxide from power plant emissions.  

Carbonic anhydrase enzymes are highly reactive – they exchange carbon dioxide into our lungs when we exhale. The Codexis version functions in the high temperatures and industrial conditions of the flue gas environment. The project has demonstrated enzyme stability in solvents in temperatures up to 75 degrees C. The use of these enzyme-powered solvents could reduce the energy needed for capturing carbon by 30%, says the firm.

Codexis, which went public in April, is best known for its long-term biofuels partnership with Shell. In May, it received a $4.7 million grant from ARPA-E  for development of innovative technology to remove carbon dioxide  from coal-fired power plant emissions.

Big Biomass Coming to the Big Island

There is a price to pay for living in paradise. The people of Hawaii put up with an uncomfortable reliance on imported oil to fuel their electric plants and their cars.

The islands’ power supply is 90% dependent on imported oil.  As a result, the population pays some of the highest rates in the U.S. for power and gas. Late last week, the Hawaiian Electric Company awarded a biomass contract to a renewable energy development company called ‘Āina Koa Pono, which means “for the good of the land” in Hawaiian. The company is planning to invest $320 million in a 13,000 acre “energy farm” in the Ka‘ū District of Hawai‘i Island (the southernmost district on the Big Island) on farm land that has been fallow for 14 years.

Ka'u is on the southern coast of the Big Island. Credit: www.thewidewideworld.com /Flickr

The farm would grow sweet sorghum and eucalyptus trees which would feed an energy plant with “the latest biomass conversion technology to transform plant matter – including unwanted invasive plant species – into usable energy products including biofuel, electricity and gasoline,” according to a company statement. No word yet on which of a host of cellulose to energy technologies would be used, or how much energy and fuel would be produced.

Over the last few years I’ve been reading about vague plans the state has for unhooking its fragile energy lifeline. There are wind farms (also in Kau, for that matter), plans for geothermal, solar, you name it. But added up they still don’t make much of a dent, because the scale has not been large enough. In fact, the most widespread cleantech innovations on the islands appear to be clotheslines and biodiesel from used vegetable oil.

But, as the Hawaii Dept. of Business, Economic Development and Tourism puts it, ”Unlike the Mainland, Hawai‘i can’t turn to neighboring states to make up for any temporary or permanent energy shortages. Unlike any other state, imported oil is the single thread that can completely unravel Hawai‘i’s future.” Yikes. The state has clearly outlined it’s ideas for renewable power sources, but it’s hard not to get the sense that they’ve been a little slow to act.