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Cleantech Revolves Around the Sun 

fall sun revolves

By David Hodes

Solar energy-related activities are the darling of the cleantech industry.

The sustainable energy picture took a bit of a beating last year, foundering within the bubble of uncertainty about incentives and other tax credits.

There is good news, however. Solar installations climbed more than 40 percent year-over-year in the United States, while registrations of all-electric vehicles more than doubled from 2013, to nearly 220,000 nationwide.

“The biggest news right now is in solar,” says Clint Wilder, senior editor of the 2014 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index created with and for Clean Edge, Inc., a research and advisory firm for the cleantech sector. “Costs have come way down, installations are way up.” Wilder cites recent news about SolarCity acquiring the Silicon Valley solar panel manufacturer, Silevo. “Now they have manufacturing as well, so they are positioned for vertical development.”

SolarCity is going to build part of a new solar factory in Buffalo, N.Y., and bring in 1,000 jobs or so, Wilder says. “And, because of cleantech, that economically challenged Rust Belt place will be transitioning from a thriving place that had fallen on hard times to an economic comeback.”
There are now 11 states that have generated more than 10 percent of their electricity from the clean energy sources of wind, solar and geothermal, according to the 2014 leadership index. Two — Iowa and South Dakota — generated more than 25 percent.

Other top utility-scale clean electricity generator states include Kansas, Idaho and North Dakota. “When you get that much power from a green source, that is not a trivial matter,” Wilder says. “These are not tree huggers anymore. This is a large scale industrial power coming mainly from wind in those states.”

One of the hotter topics in solar technology is battery technology. Due to some technological advances and larger scale manufacturing prices, Wilder says, battery storage prices are coming down. “Elon Musk, the maker of the all-electric Tesla auto and rockets to the space station and beyond, is saying that his company is going to build a gigafactory, which will be a huge battery factory facility,” Wilder says. “And there are a lot of states battling it out to be the host of this place because of all the jobs it will create.”

One of the hotter topics in solar technology is battery technology. Due to some technological advances and larger scale manufacturing prices, Wilder says, battery storage prices are coming down.

The $5 billion gigafactory, to be powered by adjacent wind and solar farms, is expected to be built sometime this year in the Southwest U.S., and cranking out enough lithium-ion batteries to power a half million electric vehicles by 2020. SolarCity is partly owned by Musk.

The downside of electric vehicles is more about adjustments needed in old economic models that are just not working anymore, such as using the gas tax to fund infrastructure development. The U.S. Treasury has had to add $41 billion to the Highway Trust Fund for infrastructure money since 2008. “When you design your system based on fossil fuels and are collecting taxes based on that, that has to be looked at and tweaked at some point because more and more people are trying to reduce their use of fossil fuels in many ways,” Wilder says.

In California, San Francisco has the most number of registered electric vehicles, at nearly 27,000, the cleantech index reports. San Diego is third, with just more than 7,000.
Jason Anderson, president of CleanTECH San Diego, says that smart grid, microgrid and energy storage are the focus for their region.

Their utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), continues to rank as the nation’s smartest utility and is looking at enhancing the deployment of their smart grid. “The military is really looking at the microgrid to provide power within installations around the world,” Anderson says. “And a lot of that research and development is happening locally from the naval base here and the Marines at Camp Pendleton.”

There is a shifting perception now as solar users are being noticed because solar manufacturers are providing solutions that are more affordable and becoming more visible in residential areas. “I think there are new mechanisms that are making it a little bit more accessible for the homeowner,” Anderson says. “Residential consumers are really looking now at state and local incentives and rebates that have been provided to them, like switching out light bulbs or adjusting HVACs, for example.”

In Colorado, the cleantech revolution is old hat, where, over the last five years, cleantech start-ups like Gevo, Abound Solar, Sundrop Fuels and PrimeStar Solar have emerged. In fact, the principal research lab for the Department of Energy (DOE), the 327-acre National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is in Golden.

Another Colorado cleantech startup is Boulder-based Albeo Technologies, started in 2004 manufacturing LED lighting and growing rapidly. By the time the company got acquired by GE Lighting in 2012, they were doing $10 million in sales.

Novinda Corp. in Denver, specializing in non-carbon mercury removal technologies within coal-fired plants, is into their third level of investor funding with a lot of strategic partners, says Chris Shapard, the director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association. “We like those stories,” she says.

Colorado, traditionally economically strong in the oil and gas industry, is also seeing a lot of companies with environmental solutions in oil and gas getting new investors. Other sectors Shapard sees moving are water technology and air quality technology companies. “We are also going to see more of that technology, plus cleantech companies that can harness what the IT industry is already doing.”

One of the successful cleantech water treatment companies in Colorado is the Silver Bullet Water Treatment Co., no relation to Coors but “just a fortunate coincidence,” says Murray Smith, chief sales and marketing officer at Silver Bullet.

Their product is actually a system for water treatment without the use of toxic chemicals. When their patented nontoxic biocide is injected into water, it kills bacteria, minimizes scaling (calcium buildup) in water systems and minimizes corrosion in water systems with applications across a wide number of industries, Smith says.

“It helps a business create a safer work environment by eliminating those toxic chemicals that they typically use to kill bacteria, like chlorine, chlorine dioxide and chlorine gas, bromine and a variety of other chemicals like hydrogen peroxide in concentrated forms,” he says.

Cleantech proponents know that individual states can be more nimble without waiting on legislation at the federal level, and have helped states work on advancing cleantech for years.

A cleantech water treatment process like this represents a disruptive technology, Smith says. “It bumps up against the very large and well-entrenched chemical industry. And just like any disruptive technology that you bring to the table, it takes a while for people to grasp it and embrace it.”

And that is where the issue of the federal government comes in, slow to embrace innovative change and sometimes seen as pandering to the bigger industrial groups and their lobbyists — for example, those in the chemical industry and the gas and oil industry — that make those cleantech companies working on innovations scramble to keep track of the ups and downs of legislation.

Cleantech proponents know that individual states can be more nimble without waiting on legislation at the federal level, and have helped states work on advancing cleantech for years. Still, the Fed roller coaster has been a real problem, Wilder says. “The wind power industry has been an example of the up and down of production tax credits. You look at the history of what is being renewed and expiring and renewed again. And the fortunes of the industry follow that pretty closely up and down. And now it’s not in place. It expired at the end of the last year.”
Wilder says that is why Clean Edge started tracking state and metro indexes because that is where the action is. “President Obama has taken some aggressive steps on carbon emissions, which will drive cleantech,” Wilder says.

In fact, President Obama announced in June new Environmental Protection Agency regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 through 2030, with adjustments of levels for different states. “But Congress is more or less a disaster,” Wilder says. “And I think that is true in many areas.”

He says that he thinks solar energy will continue to be front and center of cleantech energy considerations. “In some ways it’s the most versatile clean technology because you can put it right up on your own rooftop to generate your own electricity, unlike wind turbines that are larger and likely be a problem with city ordinances.”

Wilder says utility scale wind farms will grow, and the United States will begin to see offshore wind energy developments. From 2006 to 2014, DOE’s Wind Program announced awards totaling more than $300 million for 72 projects focused on offshore wind. “We are way behind Europe in that,” Wilder says. There is a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts — this country’s first, expected to be built beginning late this year — with 54 turbines expected to eventually create 468 megawatts.

The software side of the cleantech sector, focused on data collection and data management, is emerging. “There is the integrating of certain smart technologies into the home and commercial building,” Wilder says. “And I think that investors are really looking at it from that perspective and not necessarily from a cleantech perspective.

“When you look at going into buildings and implementing really large energy efficiency measures, someone from a behavioral standpoint has to be willing to shift the way they do things,” Wilder says. “We really have to understand that and it can be a big hurdle.”

For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Clean Edge Inc.

CleanTECH San Diego

Colorado Cleantech Industries Association

Illustration by Dan at Free Digital Photos.net

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About the author: David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dhodes11@gmail.com.

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