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Is Solar Sitting Pretty?

One would have thought it would be absurd to try to find a silver lining in the week-long tragedy still unfolding in Japan. But the world’s investors have strong imaginations, apparently. Earlier this week while searching for cleantech news, I came across a number of articles describing a huge run up in share prices of solar firms.

Bloomberg now reports, “The Bloomberg Global Leaders Solar Index has risen about 9.1 percent since March 11, when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out cooling systems at a Tokyo Electric Power Co. reactor, releasing radioactive pollution.” But the piece quickly lets the air out of the balloon, saying “While the incident triggered speculation governments will scale back nuclear power in favor of renewable, solar panel demand is stagnating.”

Basically, after a doubling of solar installions last year – led by Germany – governments have ratcheted back the incentives that are the primary driver of demand for companies like U.S.-based First Solar. First Solar was one of the leading firms to receive positive fall-out from the nuclear disaster this week.

Because solar is not now the main focus of government interventions, any turning away from nuclear energy plans is more likely to benefit energy efficiency and natural gas projects, Bloomberg reports.

Germany Unwinds Solar Gravy Train

The German government will begin to pare back its generous subsidies for solar-generated power with an up to 15% cut in feed-in tariffs. The trimming won’t start until July, and will be dependent on how much solar input is actually being generated by the scores of rooftop panels that have been installed in the most solarific of European countries.

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New York Times: Solyndra to close plant

Solyndra's CIGS solar inside glass tubes cast shadows on a rooftop. Credit: Solyndra

The New York Times reports that tubular thin-film solar maker Solyndra is shutting its first fabrication plant, now that it’s second plant is on-line. Solyndra was a high flyer in the cleantech space, raising oodles of private funding and a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

The Times reports the closure of the older plant means the loss of 40 permanent and 150 temporary jobs. Additionally, it takes a big bite out of the company’s planned capacity, more than halving it from 610 MW to 285-300 MW by 2013.

In the summer, Solyndra revealed some details about its cost structure when it filed for a possible IPO (the firm decided not to go public). At the time, many analysts pointed out that the firm, which makes modules from glass tubes containing a layer of  thin-film CIGs cells, would have a hard time competing with low cost polysilicon-based solar modules from China.

Cleantech VC’s will be watching CA election results

UPDATE Nov 3: Proposition 23 was defeated 61.3% to 38.7% with 96.9% of precincts counted.

This evening, backers of large renewable energy projects will be looking to California election results to see how friendly that state will be to large projects in the near future. The issue is Proposition 23, an effort to get voters to roll back one of the strong legal measures the state has put in place to transition energy production from fossil to renewable sources. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Prop23 has backing from oil companies Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., two companies that would suffer from tighter emissions restrictions under a state law called AB32.

Interestingly, opponents of Prop23, including cleantech venture investors, have raised $29.8 million, about triple the amount raised by the oil companies supporting it, according to the Chronicle.

The law that Prop23 challenges is part of a state effort to require 33% renewable power by 2020. If the proposition passes, a longer standing law requiring utilities to get 20% of their energy from renewable sources would still be in place.

New Cleantech Jobs Report

BP Solar shut its Frederick, MD plant last year, eliminating 320 jobs. Worldwide, solar leads in cleantech job creation.

Research and advisory firm CleanEdge has released the 2010 edition of its report Cleantech Job Trends. The company tallies up 3 million jobs in the green sector, including more than 500,000 in wind power (direct and indirect employment) and over 300,000 in solar photovoltaics worldwide.

Overall, the report ranks the leading industries for cleantech employment starting with solar power, followed by biofuels and biomaterials; smart grid and energy efficiency; wind power; and advanced transportation/vehicles.

In the U.S., the biggest metropolitan areas for green jobs are San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Denver, and Washington, DC. But worldwide, the bad news for the U.S. is that of the 10 largest “pure play” cleantech employers in the world, six are in China (one in Hong Kong), two are in the U.S., and there is one each in Denmark and Spain. Denmark is home to Vestas Wind Energy, the largest cleantech employer with 20,730 employees.

The authors also include their assessment of the impact government spending in China and the US has had on creating cleantech jobs, as well as some policy recommendations for domestic job creation (including feed-in tariffs and a carbon tax). Check it out.

The Walmart-ization of Thin Film Solar?

Walmart is a name synonymous with affordable, or perhaps even cheap. The same cannot be said today for thin-film CIGS solar modules. CIGS stands for copper indium gallium selenide, the ingredients of what promises to be the only thin film technology that can compete with crystalline silicon on solar efficiency.

In an interesting development, Walmart said yesterday that it would work with SolarCity to put CIGS (and thin-film cadmium telluride) on roofs of dozens of stores in California and Arizona. That means a very mainstream company will be getting renewable energy from a non-mainstream source of solar power. The announcement is also an opportunity to check in to see how CIGS is doing in general.

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Sunlight to Fuels with Joule

Is it possible to take sunlight and CO2 and make liquid fuel from it? The folks at Joule Unlimited think so. Today the firm announced that it has been awarded a patent for technology that purports to convert the ubiquitous inputs into diesel fuel. The firm uses photobioreactors to supply sunlight and CO2 to engineered cyanobacteria that produce n-alkanes.

It’s different than most biofuel start-ups that we read about in that there is no food for the bacteria (often called bluegreen algae, though not technically an algae) other than sunlight and CO2. So, no sugar, either from corn, cellulose or other source. Also there’s no harvesting because the process is designed to be continuous.

Having learned about some of the ins and outs of various biofuel technologies, what sounds nifty about Joule’s technology is the directness of it. As any engineer will tell you, the problems with any process come at the interfaces. Getting cheap cellulosic material to the front door is a problem for a cellulosic ethanol producer. Separating algae from water and squeezing oil out of the humble creatures is a problem for algal oil firms. Doing away with the feeding and the squeezing might be a good idea.

But just because this week’s technology avoids the pitfalls of last week’s doesn’t at all mean it will be successful. If you want to put your own odds on Joule’s prospects, take a look at their shiny new patent (or their almost-as-shiny patent on “Hyperphotosynthetic Organisms.”

And you can read today’s New York Times story on the company, which says the bacteria actually “sweat” n-alkanes. Nice visual, there.

Solar Industry Could Use More Transparency

The non-profit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has released a report analyzing the sustainability of solar module manufacturing, and the results are quite interesting. Unfortunately, the coalition did not hear from many companies that it surveyed – it estimates that respondents to the survey (14 out of 60) represent about 24% of the 2008 module market share. Still, as it’s the first time the report has been issued, it’s a useful start.

Based on the responses, the STVC graded module makers on four broad sustainability metrics: extended producer responsibility and takeback, supply chain monitoring and green jobs, chemical use and life-cycle analysis, and disclosure. You can read more about the criteria on the coalition website.

Two important sustainability snags that the report exposed was the need for companies to plan to take back, recycle and otherwise handle end-of-life issues for their solar modules. Six companies reported setting aside financing for this. Another issue is the use of hazardous materials in the modules – the most common bad actors are lead and cadmium.

The largest producer to respond to the survey was First Solar, which received a fairly positive score of 67 points out of 100. But many solar firms we’ve heard a lot about recently did not respond to the survey including Nanosolar, Solyndra, SunPower, Suntech and Trina.

Is it time for solar module makers to begin to benchmark and disclose their sustainability efforts? Perhaps SVTC’s report will reach consumers and businesses who are trying to choose among the leading module producers. Or possibly this is a role that solar industry trade groups can take on, similar to the work the American Chemistry Council does with its Responsible Care program.

U.S. Green Manufacturing Jobs: Win some, lose more?

It must feel like running in quicksand.

This past Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis traveled to Hopewell Junction, New York (in the southeast part of the state) to bask in the glow of 37 new jobs at a new 60 MW SpectraWatt solar plant. SpectraWatt is a venture-backed start-up that makes high performance silicon solar cells. Over the next year and a half the firm plans to expand capacity to 200 MW and employ 150 workers. (See story from the Times Herald-Record)

BP Solar facility in Frederick, MD

But four days earlier, a much older and more venerable solar operation, BP Solar, announced that has ceased production of solar silicon wafers and cells at its facility in Frederick, MD. Jobs lost – 320. Almost exactly a year ago, BP Solar had stopped module assembly at the plant, costing the region 140 jobs. In Friday’s press release, BP blamed the shut-down on the up to 50% drop in prices for solar modules, and said it would shift all production to joint ventures and outsourcers in China and India.

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