Deep Pu

The USA Today recently ran an uncommonly in-depth article about the massive efforts to clean-up the decommissioned and horribly contaminated Hanford nuclear site in rural Washington state.

A relic of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, Hanford was the primary site for the production and refinement of plutonium (atomic symbol Pu) for the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons.  It was plutonium processed at Hanford that went into the very first atomic bomb tested at Trinity in New Mexico in the summer of 1945, as well as the Nagasaki bomb that followed shortly thereafter.

At the center of what is claimed to be the world’s largest environmental remediation project is the construction of a ginormous vitrification facility:  to entomb huge volumes of highly-radioactive material inside glass capsules to render the wastes inert and thus safe for more conventional means of disposal.

It is an immense undertaking.  Over the nearly 50 years that the Hanford site operated from the early 1940s to the late 1980s — much of which without any considerations or standards for environmental protections — 56 million gallons of unimaginably toxic sludge was generated, accumulated and stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which are deteriorating. 

In 1989, after Hanford was finally closed, the relevant state and federal agencies reached an agreement on milestones for cleaning-up the mess, involving getting a treatment plant built and operational…within 12 years (by 2011).  Two years ago, seeing that even that deadline wouldn’t be met, an extension was granted…to 2019.

For those of you who want to be slapped in the face, think of how old you would be if you were lucky enough to live to the year 2049, as that’s when the current plan projects the clean-up will be complete, assuming the treatment plant will actually be operational seven years from now.  Given the delays so far, even that date so far in the future is likely to be overoptimistic.  So, cradle-to-grave, Hanford will have been a century-long plague on central Washington.  I guess that’s one of the costs of being forced to consider waging total war.

The other cost is economic:  $12.3 billion, and rising.  The global engineering giant Bechtel was selected to lead the effort to build the treatment facility, and it has been a tough slog.  (Bechtel is used to big projects with big overruns, having been the prime contractor for Boston’s decades-long “Big Dig” program.) 

The main focus of technical effort is ensuring that the toxic waste — which would fill a football field to a depth of 150 feet — doesn’t clog up as it flows through the treatment process.  As the USA Today article suggests, knowledgeable observers worry that clogs will in fact occur, with diastrous implications.  Because it will have become too radioactive to enter and repair, a clogged system will need to be abandoned, rendering the investment wasted.  In a worse case, hydrogen gases will accumulate, leading to an explosion akin to a dirty bomb.

In thinking about the engineers attempting to design and implement a solution, I have the mental image of a child with closed eyes and fingers-in-ears tiptoeing across a mine-field.

If you have any promising solutions to the technological nightmare at Hanford — and perhaps more importantly, if you have the courage to wade into this dangerous and bureaucratic challenge with gargantuan liabilities — your planet is calling you.

Electric Car and Hybrid Car Sales will Triple in Next Six Years

from original post at Clean Fleet Report

Pike Research’s John Gartner forecasts that global sales of hybrid and electric cars will grow from 995,000 in 2011 to 2,870,000 in 2017. Half the hybrid cars and all of the EVs will use lithium battery packs by 2017. In fact, the latest hybrid cars from Ford, Buick, Honda, Hyundai and Kai use lithium batteries not nickel-metal hydride (NiMH). In six years, cars with advanced batteries will triple and lithium automotive battery packs will grow over 100 fold. The forecast is only for light-duty passenger vehicles and does not include 16 million cars expected by 2015 to be start-stop vehicles (SSV).

Pike Research’s optimism was shared by others at Infocast’s 10X Advanced Battery meeting which I attended to hear presentations from Pike Research, other research groups, battery makers, auto makers, and venture capitalists.

John Gartner forecasts that automotive lithium battery revenue will grow from $2 billion in 2011 to $14.6 billion in 2017. Because battery-electric vehicles (BEV) use much larger packs than hybrid-electric (HEV), 2017 BEV revenue will be $10.8 billion, PHEV will be 3.2 billion, and HEV will be 0.6 billion.

Safety research continues. Much progress has been made in preventing lithium thermal runaways. In a crash test, the lithium battery in a Chevrolet Volt caught fire days after the crash. There have been no reported fires of actual owners including those involved in crashes. In contrast, there were over 180,000 fires in U.S. gasoline cars last year. The electric car alarmists continue to use their iPhones, Droids, iPads, and notebook computers that all use lithium batteries and do get dropped. We are not seeing a big demand for gasoline-powered smart phones.

Automotive lithium packs, including packaging, power electronics and thermal management, are forecast to drop from $752 per kilowatt hour (kWh) today to $523/kWh by 2017. At Clean Fleet Report, we speculate that automakers such as Tesla and Ford are already in that $500/kW ballpark today. Some are likely to reach $300/kW by 2020. Improved cell chemistry, hybrid car demand, and manufacturing volume will drive prices lower.

Will lithium batteries be a bubble like solar?

Solar cells are over 100 times cheaper than in the 1970s. We will not see such price drops for lithium, but prices will keep falling. Solar price drops in 2011 were great for homeowners and business that bought solar power, but the drops put several companies out of business. Solyndra met Darwin.

By 2017 it is possible that market share competition will lead to excess capacity and falling prices. Should that happen, packs would cost less than $500/kW. At the 10X meeting, patent attorney Matt Prater pointed out that Samsung, Panasonic, LG Chem, Toyota and Sony are leading in battery patents. The battle for market share is certain to be intense. Battery advancements for the automotive market will benefit stationary power and consumer electronics and vice versa.

Lithium is not the only game in town. Automakers continue to heavily use lead-acid batteries including improved chemistry for SSV. Many automakers, such as Toyota, continue to favor NiMH for hybrids for safety and cost reasons. Most electric cars use lithium batteries to supply the powertrain and lead-acid to support auxiliaries.

In this decade, lithium-ion is likely to dominate in electric and hybrid cars. The next decade is up in the air. Battery and automakers are actively researching solid-state batteries, magnesium, lithium-air and other metal air. General Motors is a stockholder in SAKTI3, which is making significant progress with solid-state technology that will lower battery size and cost. Toyota is actively researching magnesium, which is 24x cheaper than lithium and has better volumetric capacity. IBM and others are actively researching metal air batteries that could improve storage 10X with lithium-air. David Biello of Scientific American discusses alternatives such as flow batteries at Txchnologist.

The Top 10 Electric Cars all use lithium-ion batteries to free drivers from stopping at gas stations. As electric and hybrid car competition intensifies, Nissan, GM, Toyota, and Ford are in a race to sell the most vehicles with lithium batteries. In 2013, at least one of these automakers will sell over 100,000 cars with lithium battery packs. In the future, advancements in cell chemistry and manufacturing volume will allow more hybrids to achieve over 40 miles per gallon, extend the range of electric cars, and make these advanced cars affordable for millions.

Next week, I will be at the Cleantech Summit, where the future of energy will be discussed by Dr. Daniel Yergin, Dr. Daniel Kammen, Dr. Arun Majumdar and a number of other industry experts. Stay tuned.

Gartner Forecasts 100,000 Electric Car Sales for 2012

from original post at Clean Fleet Report

Gartner, the largest technology market research firm, is forecasting 100,000 electric car sales in 2012 in the United States. Yesterday, I took in the presentation at the SV Forum and then talked with Thilo Koslowski, Vice President of Gartner’s Automotive and Vehicle Practice. He acknowledged that 100,000 is quite a jump from the 18,000 sold in 2011 which included 9,674 Nissan LEAFs, 7,671 Chevrolet Volts, and 655 other plug-in cars.

In 2011, Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown affected everyone’s supply chain. The recession left most cautious about spending $30,000, $40,000, or more for unproven vehicles. Although some 280,000-gasoline cars catch fire in the U.S. annually, fires in some Volt test crashes lead to safety concerns. It was only mid-year that the Nissan Leaf received the top five-star safety rating from NHTSA.

I agree with Gartner that 100,000 is a good forecast for U.S. EV sales. Nissan is manufacturing 50,000 LEAFs this year, then greatly expanding production next year with a new Tennessee plant. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is betting billions on electric vehicles and lithium batteries. GM has expanded manufacturing for global sales of 65,000 electric cars including two plug-in hybrids in 2012 – the Chevrolet Volt and the Opel Ampera in Europe and GM 2012 sales of a pure battery-electric Chevrolet Spark. The new Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrid has also been on display at auto shows.

Electric Cars with Lowest Prices

Electric city cars will also fuel sales in 2012. The Mitsubishi i has a starting price of only $29,120 – $6,000 less than the LEAF. Toyota will enter the electric city car competition with the Scion IQ Electric. The Honda Fit Electric is no for sale. Car rental and car sharing providers are adding over 1,000 electric cars to their fleet. Car2Go already has 300 Smart Electric Drive Cars on the streets of San Diego in daily use.

Ford’s customer choice strategy will also attract more mainstream car buyers. The new Ford Fusion is available as an efficient EcoBoost engine or as a hybrid with better mileage than any midsized sedan or as a plug-in hybrid that allows many trips to use zero gasoline. The Ford Focus is also available as a pure battery-electric. The new crossover SUV Ford C-MAX is also available as a plug-in hybrid.

Toyota knows how to sell millions of hybrids. The new Prius Plug-in Hybrid looks and drives just like the best selling Prius. The new Toyota RAV4 EV is a pure battery-electric that looks like the popular RAV4 SUV. In 2012 and 2013, Toyota leverage its hybrid brand into plug-in cars.

One hundred thousand electric car sales in 2012 is less than one percent of the 13.4 million U.S. vehicle sales forecasted by Gartner.

In talking with Mr. Koslowski, we agreed that it is tough to forecast which will have greater sales, pure battery electric or plug-in hybrid. With early enthusiasts, the battery-electric LEAF is the winner. The SV Forum was hosted at SAP that has 16 charge points and at least 20 employees EV drivers at its Silicon Valley office. LEAFs outnumbered Volts in visitor parking for the forum. The typical U.S. household has two cars. My wife and I share a Nissan LEAF and a hybrid. In 8 months, range has never been an issue. If one of us is driving over 60 miles we take the hybrid. As we progress from early enthusiasts to early adopters, however, the plug-in hybrid may win by eliminating range anxiety. Most compacts and city cars may be electric; most larger cars, crossovers, and SUVs may be plug-in hybrid.

Challenges for 1,000,000 Electric Cars by 2015

Manufactures will certainly have the capacity to build a million electric cars by 2015. Renault-Nissan and GM are investing billions in plants in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Battery giants like LG Chem, Panasonic, and Samsung are also investing billions. The real question is will U.S. buyers have purchased or leased a million battery-electric and plug-in hybrids by the end of 2015.

Gartner’s Koslowski sees two big challenges. First, can the automakers create brands and marketing campaigns that make these vehicles compelling buys. Second, can automakers and battery giants continue to drive down the cost of lithium batteries or storage alternatives? Most buyers will not pay a premium for a hybrid or electric. Then again, millions each year buy premium cars, SUVs and trucks.  When drivers want a vehicle, millions convince themselves that one over $30K is right for them.

Thilo Koslowski sees 5 to 8 percent of all vehicles being battery-powered by 2020 and 20 to 30 percent by 2030. Urban markets are most promising, but many city dwellers do not have access to garages for charging. The political and media influence of oil giants could slow adoption in some countries. High oil prices could speed adoption. Since Europe and Asia have less appetite to subsidize gasoline prices, they could soon be bigger markets for EVs.

By the end of the decade, millions of electric cars are likely to be on the road. Exciting customer experiences, falling cost of ownership, and the price of alternatives will determine how many millions.

U.S. Water Infrastructure: FAIL (Almost)

The Water Innovations Alliance (WIA) recently completed an assessment of the state of the U.S. water infrastructure, which was given an overall grade of D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent infrastructure report card

Underlying that nearly failing grade, the WIA produced some startling statistics in a recent newsletter (not yet posted to their website):

  • More than 20% of water treatment systems in the U.S. — serving 49 million people — have violated provisions of the  Safe Drinking Water Act at some point in the past 5 years.
  • About 15% of municipal water is lost to leaks, representing 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water PER DAY. 
  • The U.S. water system represents more than 4% of total U.S. electricity usage.
  • Up to 20 years of significant investment are required to stabilize and modernize the U.S. water infrastructure, with around $300 billion capital required.

From this background, the WIA urges for the adoption of “smart water grid” technologies — much of which data-driven and IT-related — to upgrade the U.S. water system.  The WIA projects that a $20 billion investment in smart water grid technologies can generate $100 billion in annual savings through reduced losses and energy consumption — in addition to improving environmental performance (less chemical treatment required, fewer regulatory violations, better human health).

The question that WIA leaves unaddressed is how to motivate these smart water grid investments — especially when they appear to have such good financial returns. 

Alas, unlike some other countries, most of the U.S. water system is publicly-owned by government agencies:  Federal, state and municipal.  As everyone knows, governments are not exactly flush with spare cash, and even though the returns seem attractive, the up-front capital increment of $20 billion is daunting — and not likely to be supported by frustrated taxpayers and voters, who don’t want to spend an extra dime.

Even if this financing hurdle could somehow be overcome, there is still the problem that most publicly-owned water organizations are — how should I put this? — saddled with people and processes that make them lethargic, resistant to change, and risk-averse. 

Note that there are 53,000 water systems in the U.S., with 83% of them serving fewer than 3,300 people.  These are typically small-town, mom-and-pop operations, staffed with — well — not the best-and-brightest.  Many of the cost savings that can be achieved with investment in the water sector would reduce the need for someone to get in his truck and drive down to fix something, and in this economy, decision-makers in the public sector are not terribly keen to eliminate jobs.  In other words, smart technologies can and often do replace not-so-smart people — many of whom are friends, neighbors and relatives.

The WIA’s report is provocative, and hopefully will stimulate more effort to surmount the financing and institutional impediments to investing in a smart water grid.  Even so, it won’t be easy getting the U.S. water infrastructure to improve upon its nearly-failing grade.

Ford Expands Customer Choice – Lowers Manufacturing Cost

original post at Clean Fleet Report

The new Ford Fusion gives car owners unprecedented choice in powertrains and fuel economy. The Ford Fusion can be offered with an efficient EcoBoost engine or as a hybrid with better mileage than any midsized sedan or as a plug-in hybrid that allows many trips to use zero gasoline.

Classic styling, smooth driving, and excellent fuel economy come together in this new five-passenger midsized sedan. Market research revealed that 2 out of 3 U.S. shoppers, before buying, consider a midsized sedan, SUV, or liftback. One out of three buy a midsized sedan, according to Ford. The stakes are high. Safety and reliability perceptions are always a factor.

Ford saw Toyota Camry and Honda Accord sales decline starting when oil prices went over $100 per barrel, accelerate during the Great Recession, and take another hit during Japan’s earthquake and Thailand mudslide disasters. A shift from sedans to liftbacks and SUVs, both with more cargo flexibility, has been another factor. Fuel economy and car lifetime operating costs are important to many buyers.

The new Fusion Hybrid offers a breakthrough 47 miles per gallon (mpg) city and 44-mpg highway. The overall 46-mpg is 4 mpg better than the new Toyota Camry Hybrid. The Fusion has a plug-in hybrid option, the Camry currently does not, but Clean Fleet Report predicts that one will be announced this year. Long term, Ford threatens to leapfrog Toyota’s hybrid leadership with a broad offering of pure battery-electric cars, plug-in hybrids, and hybrids. Unlike Toyota, all 2013 Ford hybrids will use lithium batteries while Toyota primarily stays with nickel metal hydride batteries.

Ford is now in a race with the Renault-Nissan Alliance to be first to sell 100,000 cars in one year with lithium batteries and electric motors. Either or both will achieve this in 2013. In the process they are driving down the cost of lithium batteries, electric motors, and advanced power electronics, making hybrid and electric cars more affordable.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Plug-in Hybrid

Arriving this fall, Fusion Energi is anticipated to deliver more than 100 MPGe, a mile per gallon equivalency metric for electrified vehicles. This is 8 MPGe more than the Chevrolet Volt and 13 MPGe more than the projected efficiency of the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid model. Many Volt owners tell me that in real world driving their first 40 miles are electric mode before the gasoline engine engages.

The Fusion Energi is expected to deliver 20 to 30 miles in electric mode, provided the driver stays below 62 miles per hour. The average American drives 4 trips daily with 40-miles per total. City streets and stop-go freeway are much of that driving. The Energi will support Level One and Level Two charging. Go fast, or use most of the lithium battery storage and the Energi drives like a hybrid with its electric motor and 2 liter, 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine working together. An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) helps fuel economy.

We will learn more about electric range, motor and battery specs as Ford starts sales in Fall 2012. Sales will start shortly after sales of the Ford Focus Electric and the Ford C-Max Plug-in Hybrid crossover. Ford is expected to make battery packs but use different cell chemistry for pure-electrics, plug-in hybrids and hybrids. Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem, will supply the lithium-ion tri-metal cells and packs for the 2013 Ford Focus Electric.

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Ford Fusion Hybrid interior 37k Ford Fusion Hybrid and Plug in Hybrid for Best Sedan MPGThe Fusion Hybrid – 2010 North American Car of the Year – continues to innovate with new lithium-ion batteries that save 50 percent battery weight, 30 percent size, and generate more power than previous nickel-metal hydride batteries, while raising maximum speed under electric-only power from 47 mph to 62 mph. Even with a smaller battery-pack, however, the Hybrid and Energi only offer 12 cubic-feet of trunk space. The non-hybrid fusion is over 15 and the back seat can be lowered for much more cargo.

Fusion Hybrid also features an all-new 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine, significantly downsized from the previous 2.5-liter unit while maintaining performance standards. This innovative powertrain is anticipated to deliver best-in-class fuel economy of 47 mpg in city driving and 44 mpg on the highway.

Fusion Hybrid fuel economy stands to outperform the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid by 4 mpg city and 5 mpg highway and the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid by 12 mpg and 4 mpg, respectively. The Fusion Hybrid is one of the top 10 hybrid cars.

2012 Fusion Achieves 32 MPG and Optional AWD

Fusion brings the broadest selection of fuel-efficient powertrains in the midsize car segment. It offers hybrid and plug-in hybrid alternatives, a pair of EcoBoost™ four-cylinder engines, a normally aspirated four-cylinder engine, an automatic start stop system to shut off the engine at stationary idle, front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive (AWD) applications, and a choice between automatic and manually shifted six-speed transmissions.

The 1.6-liter EcoBoost outperforms many larger 6-cylinder engines with non-hybrid fuel efficiency of 26 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, 32 mpg combined. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine – paired with a paddle-shifted six-speed SelectShift Automatic™ transmission, available 19-inch wheels and tires, and all-wheel drive with the ability to send additional torque to the rear – is the Fusion performance option.

Safety Technology and Telematics

The all-new Fusion offers an unprecedented portfolio of driver assistance and convenience technologies based on sensors, cameras and radar that enable the car to see and respond. Fusion can help drivers maintain proper lane position, adjust vehicle speed to changing traffic conditions, identify suitable parking spaces and help park, even aiding drivers backing out of parking space where visibility is obstructed.

Ford Motor has taken customer choice to a new level by reinventing the popular midsized sedan with powertrain options including efficient EcoBoost engine or 46 mpg hybrid drive system or plug-in hybrid drive system. The Lincoln MKZ adds to customer choice with a premium hybrid with the same powertain as the Fusion Hybrid. With customer choice Ford also maximizes utilization of the same manufacturing line with most parts common to all versions. With its growing offering of electrified vehicles and volume manufacturing, Ford is lowering the cost of lithium battery packs, electric motors, and electric powertrains.

Is Sodium Sulfur (NaS) Battery a viable Grid Energy Storage Solution?

By David Anthony and Tao Zheng

On September 21st, 2011, sodium-sulfur (NAS) batteries installed at Mitsubishi Materials Corp’s Tsukuba Plant, Japan, caught on fire. It took firefighters more than 8 hours to control the blaze, and two weeks to extinguish the fire. NGK Insulators Ltd., the company that manufactured the energy storage system, said the fire authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire. NGK has suspended production of its NAS cells, and advised customers around the world refrain from using their batteries until it tracks down the cause of the fire and finds a solution. NGK began shipping NAS batteries in 2002, and has installed 305MW capacity in a total of 174 locations across six countries, including US and Europe. The largest NAS installation is a 34MW, 245MWh unit for wind stabilization in Rokkasho, Japan, as shown in Figure 1. From its press release, NGK expects to incur an extraordinary loss of around 60 billion Yen, approximately $750 million, for the fiscal year ending March 31st, 2012, based on the sum total of the cost of investigation, upgrades and other safety measures, as well as loss from valuation of assets.

Figure 1. NGK’s 34MW NaS Battery at Rokkasho, Japan.

A NaS battery is a molten-metal battery with molten sulfur as the positive electrode and molten sodium as the negative. The electrodes are separated by a solid ceramic, sodium alumina, served as the electrolyte. During the discharge, sodium ions converted from sodium in a negative electrode pass through solid electrolyte then reach to sulfur in positive electrode. The electrons finally flow to outside circuits, and the electric power is generated by such current flow. With the progress of the discharge, sodium polysulfide is formed in positive electrode. During the charge, the electric power supplied from outside form sodium in negative electrode and sulfur in positive electrode by following the reverse process of the discharge. Because of this, the energy is stored in the battery.
NaS battery has potential for two major applications in grid energy storage, including energy arbitrage and intermittence stabilization. Energy arbitrage is to use NaS battery to reduce power station fluctuation by load leveling and peak shaving. The battery is charged when electricity is abundant, and discharged into the grid when electricity is more valuable. As shown in Figure 2, NaS battery can be used to stabilize the intermittency from wind and solar renewable energy generation. The variable output of wind and solar generation causes voltage and frequency fluctuations on power network. NaS battery can smooth the output from these resources to meet electricity demand pattern.

Figure 2. Wind and Solar Energy Intermittency Stabilization by NaS Battery. (Courtesy of NGK Insulators, Ltd.)

NaS battery has advantages of high energy density, high efficiency of charge/discharge (89%) and long cycle life, and is fabricated from inexpensive materials. However, the primary disadvantage of NaS battery is its high operating temperature of 300 to 350 °C, and the requirement for thermal management to maintain the ceramic separator and cell seal integrity, which otherwise crack at lower temperature. In addition, the highly corrosive nature of the sodium polysulfides, presents another challenge for ceramic insulator protection. The cracked insulator can cause fire when sodium in contact with moisture.
The fire mentioned earlier is not the first fire happened to NGK’s NAS batteries. The two previous fires occurred in 2010 and 2005, respectively. NaS battery has inherent safety issues, due to its high operating temperature and highly active materials used. Pure sodium spontaneously burns or explodes in contact with water. Special sealing technologies must be used to protect NaS cells from moisture. The fire also becomes a major challenge for firefighters, since water cannot be used to extinguish the battery fire. Therefore, although NaS battery has many advantages, we do not recommend it as a grid energy storage solution. Beside the safety concerns, we also consider per-cycle cost when evaluating large-scale energy storage technologies, as illustrated by data from Electricity Storage Association (ESA) in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Per-cycle Cost Comparison of Grid Energy Storage Technologies. (Courtesy of Electricity Storage Association)

Per-cycle cost can be used to evaluate the cost of storing energy in a frequent charge/discharge application, such as load leveling. The per-cycle chart above shows the capital cost of energy output, taking into account the impact of cycle life and efficiency. NaS battery performs better than lithium iron and lead acid batteries, but not as good as some flow batteries and compressed air energy storage (CAES) technologies. Pumped hydro technology is even 10 times cheaper in per-cycle cost than NaS battery. Conventional pumped hydro uses two vertically-separated water reservoirs. During off peak hours water is pumped from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. When required, the water flow is reversed to generate electricity. Pumped hydro technology has advantages of high capacity, low cost, and safety as grid energy storage solution. The example of pumped hydro technology has been demonstrated by Gravity Power, a California Company developing a solution to provide clean, fast-responding peaking power and renewable energy dispatchability in one system. http://www.gravitypower.net Full disclosure: David Anthony, a co-author of this blog, is the lead investor in Gravity Power. Furthermore there is no venture capitalist who is not self-serving.

Regardless, the winner for grid energy storage technology competition will come from the technology with high energy capacity, low cost, and public safety assurance.

David Anthony is the Managing Director of 21Ventures, LLC, a VC management firm that has provided seed, growth, and bridge capital to over 40 technology ventures across the globe, mainly in the cleantech arena.. David received his MBA from The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 1989 and a BA in economics from George Washington University in 1982.david blogs at http://www.davidanthonyvc.com His email is danthony@21ventures.net

Tao Zheng is a material scientist in advanced materials and cleantech industry. He held 20+ patents and patent applications, and published many peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. Tao Zheng received his B.S. degree in polymer materials sciences from Tsinghua University in China, and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from University of Cincinnati. He obtained his MBA degree with distinction in finance and strategy from New York University, Stern School of Business, where he was designated as “Stern Scholar” and received “Harold Price Entrepreneurship Award”. Tao can be reached at zhengta(at)gmail(dot)com

Blue Is The New Green

I don’t know exactly when “green” became the de facto official color of environmentalism, but it dates back at least to the 1970s, when European political parties rooted in ardent environmental positions took the name “Green”.

But, as Paul Markille noted in The Economist‘s excellent annual round-up of speculations for the new year — “The World in 2012” — there seems to be a movement afoot to brand environmentally-friendly things with the color blue rather than green.

Green is about trees and plants, whereas blue is about oceans, rivers, lakes and the sky.  As environmentalism and cleantech increasingly move from protecting pristine wilderness areas towards ensuring adequate clean supplies of essential resources — air and water — perhaps a color change is warranted.

For sure, blue is more acceptable to right-of-center political interests than the term green has become since being appropriated by left-of-center parties in Europe.  Something for cleantechers to think about…

It does bring new meaning to the University of Michigan rally cry, “Go Blue!”

Kia Optima Hybrid – Car Review

from original post at Clean Fleet Report

It’s an ideal California day for this test drive of the Kia Optima Hybrid. As the day warms, we will be able to open the sunroof, even though it is January. The sky is so clear that we can see the Farallon Islands 26 miles from shore. The drive will combine city streets, freeway acceleration, hill climbing, and navigating curves over steep cliffs descending to the ocean. It will be interesting to compare this to my test drives of other midsized hybrids including the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.

My wife joins me on this drive. As we approach the car we admire the distinctive styling, the butterfly shaped grill, and the black roof contrasting with the satin metal body. I easily sit because the drivers seat has automatically slide back for added room. When I touch the start button the driver’s seat returns to the position of my previous drive – nice touch. My wife and I both enjoy the wide comfortable seats. The Optima Hybrid is a four-door, five-passenger, midsize sedan. Three can sit in the backseat, or the armrest can be lowered giving added comfort for two.

Test Driving the Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia Optima Display 41k Kia Optima Hybrid Car Test Drive and ReviewThe model I’m driving has the Premium Technology Package. The backup camera adds to the safety. The navigation system includes a bigger screen and voice controls. Dual 12-volt adaptors are handy for portable electronics. I use the special adapter for the Apple iPod/Pad/Phone and my playlist and album menus appear on the bigger screen. With a button push, the moonroof for front and backseats opened, letting the filter sunlight stream inside. I select a favorite playlist and away we go.

The car defaults into Eco mode, instead of making you select the mode like other hybrids. Going quite slowly, the Optima Hybrid stays in EV mode, but quickly leaves it. It’s easier to stay in EV mode in a Ford Fusion Hybrid and much easier in a Toyota Camry Hybrid. In city driving, the 2.4L gasoline engine and electric motor work together. The hybrid car battery is a 270V, 5.3Ah, LG Chem lithium polymer battery.

Kia Shift 43k Kia Optima Hybrid Car Test Drive and ReviewThe sedan easily accelerates on the freeway. On an 8 percent grade, the Optima Hybrid accelerated to 80 without working. Electronic steering is responsive as we reach windy curves overlooking dramatic cliffs to the ocean. I pull the shift to the left and power shift down to avoid breaking. For fun, you can shift manually or have the automatic take care of it for you. Our drive is rewarded with an invigorating hike.

Like other sedan hybrids, the trunk size is a bit small and the back seat does not lower if you want to load lots of cargo such as work projects, school sports, or luggage. There is a pass-thru slot when the backseat armrest is lowered.

The Kia Optima Hybrid has a suggested price of $26,500 plus $750 freight. The model that I drove had an extra $5,000 of options.

Midsized Hybrid Car Comparisons

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is quite similar to the Kia Optima Hybrid, although I think that the Kia’s styling is a bit more distinctive. The Sonata has a 5-star NHTSA rating; the Optima Hybrid is not yet rated. Both have roomy interiors. The Sonata has 11 cubic feet of trunk space to the Optima’s 10. It’s worth comparison-shopping the two cars.

Toyota Camry Hybrid LE achieved much better fuel economy in my test drive. It is rated 43 city mpg, 39 highway and 41 combined versus 37 combined for the Optima Hybrid. It has 13 cubic feet of trunk space to the Optima Hybrid’s 10.

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid is available as a conventional hybrid and as the Energi Plug-in Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid is rated at a record setting 47 mpg city, 44 highway and 46 combined 46 mpg – far better than the 26 mpg of my Optima Hybrid test drive or its 37 mpg rating and far better than the 2012 Fusion Hybrid’s 39 mpg combined. The new Fusion Hybrid will have more interior space than the Optima Hybrid and 15 cubic feet of trunk space. The downside is that you won’t be able to order the Fusion Hybrid until the fall, probably not get delivery until 2013, and pay more than the Optima Hybrid.

Toyota Prius Liftback offers as much interior room as a midsize sedan plus the ability to lower the backseat for much greater cargo. Many prefer the classic look of sedans; others like to proudly display their fuel economy with the Prius look. The Prius will save hundreds each year at the pump and can cost a bit less than midsized hybrid sedans.

Kia Takes Market Share

In 2011, Kia and its sister company Hyundai continued their strong growth, taking market share from Toyota, Honda, Ford and several others. This Kia hybrid is made in Korea and has benefitted from availability at a time when Japanese makers have suffered from the earthquake and nuclear meltdown problems in Japan and floods in Thailand.

The Kia’s 10-year / 100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty will appeal to many. It may well achieve the same top ratings as the similar Sonata Hybrid. Availability, reliability, and safety will appeal to drivers who have had problems with their last Toyota, Honda, Ford, etc.

The Kia Optima Hybrid is a beautifully designed midsized hybrid inside and out.  It has all the electronic goodies that most need. Although its fuel economy is not best in class, it is good. With a 10-year warranty, buyers get good value for their money. Take one for a spin. You’ll enjoy the drive.

Banking on a Low-Carbon Energy Future

One of the world’s largest banks, London-based HSBC (NYSE: HBC) issued last September a very interesting research report entitled “Sizing the Climate Economy”.

At less than 60 pages, it’s an excellent read for those interested in the future growth of the advanced energy economy.  There are really too many highlights to capture all of them in this blog post, but here are a few snippets.

HSBC pegs the global low-carbon energy market — comprising low-carbon energy supply (renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture/sequestration) and energy efficiency (vehicles, buildings, industrial, energy storage, and “smart-grid”) — at $740 billion in 2009.

The HSBC authors characterize four potential scenarios between now and 2020:  ranging from a “Backlash” scenario where most world economies retrench from commitments to reduce or limit carbon emissions, to a “Green Growth” scenario in which many nations commit (and actually follow through on those commitments) to clamp down on emissions to an even greater degree than in earlier headier days of 2009. 

Even in the most-pessimistic (in my view, most realistic) scenario, the global low-carbon energy market is projected by HSBC to more than double by 2020, to about $1.5 trillion, representing an annual growth of over 6%.  By any account, and even under this uninspiring scenario, the low-carbon energy market is a solid growth market of the next decade.  If the dominoes fall right and we get a result similar to HSBC’s most optimistic scenario, then the low-carbon energy market would nearly quadruple to $2.7 trillion by 2020, for a 12.5% compounded annual growth rate.

The numbers in the HSBC report need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Any system or market as complex and multi-faceted as the global energy sector cannot be modeled with any great degree of precision.  If HSBC’s forecasts for 2020 end up within +/- 50%, I’d say they would be doing well.  What’s more valuable, in my opinion, about studies of this type are the qualitative conclusions that can be drawn.

In general, the energy efficiency side of the ledger fares better in HSBC’s analysis than low-carbon energy supply.  No doubt, this is because many effiicency options are lower cost (certainly, lower cost per ton of emissions reduced) than new low-carbon supply options — and because the demand for new energy supply options will inevitably be depressed as more efficiency is implemented.  HSBC is particularly bullish on electric vehicles, especially in the second half of the decade — an optimism that I’d like to share, but can’t at present based on the decidedly mixed results of 2011 for electric vehicles (as discussed in my last post here).

For most of the report, HSBC uses their “Conviction” scenario as “the most likely pathway to 2020”, in which Europe meets their renewable energy targets but not their energy efficiency targets, China more than meets their clean energy targets and becomes the largest market for low-carbon energy in the world, and the U.S. (disappointingly, but predictably) experiences relatively limited clean energy growth.  So, for those of you in the clean energy marketplace, the place to be is….NOT the U.S.

This report was written by a team of HSBC analysts based in Europe — and it shows in many places. 

The text refers several times to human-driven climate change as a phenomenon that’s commonly-known and understood to be a real issue, and the need for public sector intervention to address the issue — if not cap-and-trade or carbon taxes (which seems unlikely for the foreseeable future), then command-and-control regulation.   Alas, much of corporate America and most of one of the two major political parties in the U.S. (lots of overlap here) contends that climate change is unproven at best or a hoax at worst — and therefore undeserving of any policy initiatives.   

This study could never have been issued by a U.S. bank, or even a U.S. based team of a global bank, or else they would be disavowed.  It certainly won’t help HSBC grow market share for U.S. corporate banking services.

Notwithstanding the lack of political will and leadership (especially in the U.S.), HSBC is more hopeful about progress in lowering carbon intensity, because other co-aligned forces will be powerful in the coming years.  In particular, austerity will squeeze out inefficiencies.  Furthermore, the authors note that many countries are pursuing low-carbon strategies because such an emphasis fosters industrial innovation or offers the prospect of creating many “green jobs”.

As HSBC notes, “a low-carbon economy will be a capital-intensive economy”.  This makes intuitive sense, as the use of carbon-based fuels implies an ongoing set of economic activities to continually extract and consume the resource.  Put another way, low-carbon energy will be more about capital expenditures and less about operating expenditures.  And, a LOT of capital will be required:  HSBC estimates about $10 trillion of capital cumulatively through 2020, tripling from 2009 levels to reach an annualized rate of $1.5 trillion per year — “a large but manageable sum in our view”. 

Where will this investment capital come from?  “It will be private capital from corporations and consumers that will finance the climate economy — with governments setting the framework and providing capital at the margin.”  In typical understatement, HSBC notes that “the challenge for investors, however, is the lack of certainty over both policy intentions and actual implementation.”

That’s a polite way of saying the world will likely muddle through, somehow.

Think Small – Electric City Cars

original post by John Addison at Clean Fleet Report

Volkswagen’s “Think Small” is ranked as the most successful campaign in advertising history according to AdAge.com. The ad campaign ranks ahead of iconic Nike’s “Just do it,” Clairol’s “Does she … or doesn’t she,” and Apple’s “1984.” VW’s agency DDB launched the “Think Small” campaign in 1959. The VW Beetle soared in popularity at the same time that GM, Ford and Chrysler cars were expanding, adding weight and growing fins.

Today, buyers looking for good value and fuel economy find subcompacts appealing and hatchback versions flexible in handling four passengers and cargo space. Popular models include Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Sonic. The new Prius “c” hybrid with an expected 60+ miles per gallon is likely to shake-up this entire category.

In cities where paid parking can cost $20, $30, or even $50 per day, microcompact city cars have loyal fans for maneuverability, fun driving, and squeezing in free parking spaces. Drivers love their MiniCoopers, Fiat 500s, Smart fortwos, and still love their VW Bugs.

Electric city cars are a great match for small car lovers. Most city drivers need far less than the range of smaller electric cars which may be limited to 50 miles on highways but double that cruising city streets and benefitting from regenerative braking. The new electric cars are fun, hip, and sized for crowded cities.

The electric city car sales leader is the Mitsubishi i. It can be purchased for $29,125, which is about $6,000 less than the larger Nissan Leaf. The Mitsubishi I only requires 16kW of lithium batteries; the LEAF, 24KW. Smaller lighter electric cars go farther with a kilowatt and therefore require less energy storage.

Even smaller than the Mitsubishi I is the Mercedes Smart fortwo electric drive. Car2go has 300 of these being used daily in its San Diego car sharing program.  This innovative program allows members to get in the two-seat EV at one location, park at a different location, and walk away. The Smart ED makes it easy for members to find parking places.

With most of our planet’s 7 billion people now living in urban density, automakers see a big future for city electric cars. I recently saw several at the LA Auto Show. Over 10 small electric cars will be on display at the upcoming North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Mitsubishi is taking electric city car orders and Smart is putting its electric fortwo in car sharing and fleet programs. They better move fast, because the competition is bringing many small electric cars to the U.S. in the next two years. Honda Fit EV will sales will soon start at a rather steep $36,200. GM will follow the success of its Chevrolet Volt with a less expensive, pure electric Spark EV. There is a Fiat 500 EV that may start sales next year.

Toyota Motor Corporation will go beyond its hybrid car leadership and bring us an exciting Scion IQ Electric. The automaker that started “Think Small” is developing several electric cars including the Volkswagen E-up.

For many that live in cities or university towns, an electric city car will be all that they want, especially with the availability of car sharing, transit and rail for other needs. Households with two and more cars will consider a small electric car as one of their cars to save money, have fun, and win the parking space battle.

New Year’s Resolution: Commercialize Free Energy Technology

by David Niebauer

In the tradition of starting off the New Year with a resolution, I have decided to go large this year.  I predict that 2012 will be the year that low energy nuclear reaction technology (LENR), also known as “cold fusion,” breaks out of the lab and into the commercial market. I hereby resolve to commit my energy and resources to advance the commercialization of any device that generates clean, inexpensive, safe, abundant energy.

I recently co-founded Fusion Catalyst, Inc., a public benefit 501(c)(3) corporation with Bastiaan Bergman for just that purpose.  While we wait for a working reactor, we intend to support cold fusion research in any way we can.  Our “Open Catalyst” project is one step in this direction.  As it states on our website (www.fusioncatalyst.org), Open Catalyst is

“a crowd science project where many scientists globally can contribute to the search for the catalyzing material that enables low energy nuclear reactions. We plan to design and build a simple calorimeter reactor vessel that is automated and connected to the web. Scientists all over the world are invited to use this calorimeter and scan through potentially LENR-active materials. In this process, data is uploaded and shared in a completely open database. Every scientist in the world can slice and dice the data anyway he wishes. We envision that the power of the crowd can speed up the daunting task of searching for the secret catalyst.”

As the New Year commences, I thought I would try to articulate my view of the future of LENR – the reason we formed Fusion Catalyst in the first place.

First, I believe there are a number of inventors in the world who are on the verge of commercializing LENR technology.  Granted, many of these inventors do not come from established universities or government research programs.  What they do offer, however, is the promise of commercially useful reactors.  Give us access to a working reactor and we will put it to use.

The likely path for commercial introduction of this technology is through industrial and utility applications.  The reason for this is primarily economic.  It is reasonable for inventors who are not primarily concerned with academic research to seek out the largest markets and customers with the deepest pockets.  In addition, safety and permitting issues will be more rapidly resolved in the industrial application environment.

However, it is important that this technology not be concentrated in too few hands.  Ultimately, we believe that cold fusion will be an ideal distributed energy generation technology.  The materials — hydrogen and nickel — are not scarce; in fact, they are some of the most abundant elements on the planet.  The only thing of value therefore, and the thing to be controlled and “made scarce”, is the technology and application know-how.  Our goal is to have the technology and know-how distributed and made available on the largest scale possible.  This requires many scientists and inventors working and sharing their research and experience openly.

I do not believe that anyone will emerge with a fundamental “uber-patent” in this field.  I believe there will be many different approaches using different catalysts and perhaps no catalysts at all.  Let those who have filed patents show the world how their device works.  We will be happy to pay a reasonable royalty for its use. We have considered a patent pool or some other open source approach, but this will depend upon the available intellectual property and contributors to the project.  At this stage, there is still much research to be done.

Assuming that a working device becomes available under a scenario where the “scarce technology” does not make it cost-prohibitive, the first thing a reasonable man will do is explore how much useful work he can get out of it.  Even if the first devices are unstable and/or unpredictable, if it is useful we will put it to work.

The first distributed applications will likely be “off-the-grid” heating and cooling, as well as irrigation and other farming applications.  There is a wide range of applications for steam at sufficient temperatures.  And if electricity can be generated, whole communities can be formed outside of the metropolitan power centers of the world.

Another obvious application is desalination of water.  A working, inexpensive device used to produce clean, potable water would not only aid the most poverty stricken areas of the world, it would end the so-called “water wars” in a single stroke.

Other distributed applications would directly address hunger and poverty.  With cheap irrigation, new crops can be successfully grown, manual labor can be reduced and, eventually, hunger can be eliminated on the planet.

I anticipate an objection that, if we eliminate poverty in the world, we will be faced with a global crisis of overpopulation.  Even ignoring the Hobbsian cynicism underlying this objection (i.e., that we need war, poverty and infant mortality to keep human population in check), I believe that overpopulation will resolve itself in a world of abundance.  For one thing, people will not need to crowd into metropolitan power centers.  People will be free to spread out and live in what are now inhospitable areas of the planet.  Some will choose to remain in cities, but it will be a choice and not an existential imperative, as it is for many today.

Conflict is conditioned upon scarcity.  We don’t know what an “economics of abundance” would even look like.  I’m not saying that this new technology won’t bring new problems of its own – it will not transform human nature overnight.  But I am saying that, before we scare ourselves with unfounded nightmares, we should be open to the positive impact that such a technology can have on the world.

If the devices can eventually generate electricity without noxious emissions, without dangerous radiation, and without significant capital expenditures, we are freed from toil for the sake of survival.  Farming is difficult in most parts of the world.  With unlimited, free power, even if only in the form of steam, most of the work can be done mechanically.  Work will take on a totally different meaning.  New ways of living and associating will be invented.  We may actually start to thrive as a species on this planet.

Is this all a utopian dream? I don’t think so.  I am talking about what is possible for the human being. No one knows how things will turn out in the future.  I am dedicated to the global propagation of clean, limitless, free energy.  Reactors that employ nickel and hydrogen appear to be close to achieving these difficult-to-imagine goals. Don’t let it be suppressed, demonized, denigrated or over-protected.  The best way to accomplish this is through many different approaches to fundamental technology and applications.

We don’t know what an economics of abundance looks like.  Give us a working reactor capable of generating useful heat and we will begin exploring that question.  We believe that when this device is finally manifested, it will advance the human spirit in beneficial ways.  Fusion Catalyst was formed for the purpose of forwarding the work necessary to realize this goal.  We seek others who are like-minded to join us.

David Niebauer is a corporate and transaction attorney, located in San Francisco, whose practice is focused on financing transactions, M&A and cleantech.  www.davidniebauer.com

2011 In The Rear-View Mirror: Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear

It’s that time again:  sifting through the detritus of a calendar year to sum up what’s happened over the past 12 months. 

Everybody’s doing it — for news, sports, movies, books, notable deaths…and now even for cleantech:  here’s the scoop from MIT’s Technology Review, and here’s a post on GigaOM.

So, my turn [drum roll, please], here’s my top 10 take-aways from 2011:

  1. Solyndra.  The utter failure of Solyndra, and the messy loan guarantee debacle, has been a huge black-eye to the cleantech sector.  It’s a political football that will be kicked around extensively during the 2012 election cycle, further widening the schism of support levels by the two major U.S. political parties for cleantech.  In other words, cleantech is becoming an ever-more polarizing issue — with Solyndra serving as the most visible tar-baby.
  2. Shale gas and fracking.   A chorus of ardent proponents of natural gas development, most vocally Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) — the largest player in the shale gas game — is repeatedly chanting the mantra that shale gas is so plentiful that it can very cheaply serve as the major U.S. energy source for the next several decades.  And, recovery of this resource will create a bazillion jobs for hard-working Americans in rural areas.  In this view, who needs renewables?  Interestingly, this view also poses increasing threats to coal interests as well.  On the flip side, of course, the concerns about the use of fracking techniques, and the implications on water supplies and quality, are constant fodder for headlines.  Clearly, shale and fracking will continue to be hot topics for 2012.
  3. Keystone XL.  The proposed pipeline to increase capacity for transporting oil from the Athabasca sands of Alberta to the U.S. is the current lightning rod for the American environmental community.  Never mind that denying the pipeline’s construction will do very little to inhibit the development of the oil sands resources — Canadian producers will assuredly build a planned pipeline across British Columbia to ship the stuff to Asia.  Never mind that blocking the pipeline will do nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption — which is, after all, the source of the greenhouse gas emissions that opponents are so concerned about.  This has become an issue of principle for NRDC and other environmental advocates:  “we must start taking concrete steps to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.”  Nice idea in theory, but this action won’t actually do anything to accomplish the goal, and will only further paint the environmental community in a damaging manner as being anti-business and anti-economics.  In my view, we have to work on reducing demand, not on curtailing supply; if we reduce demand, less development of fossil fuels will follow; the other way around doesn’t work.  The Obama Administration has punted approval for the pipeline past the 2012 election, but Keystone XL — like Solyndra — will be a major framing element in the political debates.
  4. Fukushima.  The terrible earthquake/tsunami in Japan in March killed over 20,000 people — and sent the Fukushima powerplant into meltdown mode in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.  As costly and devastating as Fukushima was to the local region, it pales compared to the damages caused by the natural disasters themselves.  Even so, the revival of the perceived possibility that radioactive clouds could spew from nuclear powerplants put a severe brake on the “nuclear renaissance” that many observers had been predicting.
  5. Chevy Volt.  Released after much anticipation in 2011, sales of the plug-in electric hybrid Volt have been well below expectations.  Furthermore, as I recently discussed here, a few well-publicized incidents of fires stemming from damaged batteries have been a huge PR blow to gaining widespread consumer acceptance of electric vehicles.  Clearly, Chevy and others in the EV space have their work cut out for them in the months and years ahead.
  6. Challenges for coal.  As I recently wrote about on this page, the EPA has been working on promulgating a whole host of tightened regulations about emissions from coal powerplants.  These continue to move back and forth through the agencies and the courts, and coal interests continue to wage their battles.  But, between this set of pressures and low natural gas prices (see #2 above), these are tough days for old King Coal.  Not that they couldn’t have seen these challenges coming for decades, mind you, and not that some of their advocacy organizations don’t continue to tell their pro-coal messages with some of the most heavy-handed and dubiously factual propaganda outside of the recently-deceased “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il
  7. Light bulbs.  One of the most absurd and petty dramas of 2011 unfolded over the planned U.S. phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, as provided for in one of the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) led a backlash against this ban, arguing that it was an example of too much government intrusion into consumer choice — and succeeded in having the ban lifted at least for a little while, tucked into one of the meager compromises achieved as part of the ongoing budgetary fights.  This was accomplished against the objections not of consumers, but the objections of light bulb manufacturers themselves, who had already committed themselves to transitioning to manufacturing capacity for the next-generation of light bulbs:  CFLs, LEDs and halogens.  Now, the proactive companies who invested in the future will be subject to being undercut by a possible influx of cheap imported incandescent bulbs.  Way to go, Congress!  No wonder your approval ratings are near 10%.  Is it possible for you guys to focus on the big important stuff rather than on small bad ideas? 
  8. PV market dynamics.  Solyndra (#1 above) failed in large part because the phovoltaics market has become much more intensely competitive over the past year.  Module prices have fallen dramatically — no doubt, in large part because the market is now saturated by supply from Chinese manufacturers, who are sometimes accused of “dumping” (i.e., subsidizing exports of) PV modules into the U.S. marketplace.  This is stressing the financials of many PV manufacturers, including some Chinese firms and other established players.  For instance, BP (NYSE: BP) announced a few weeks ago its exit from the solar business after 40 years.  However, the stresses are falling mainly on companies that employ PV technology that cannot be cost-competitive in a lower pricing regime, whereas some of the new PV entrants — not just Chinese players, but some U.S. venture-backed players like Stion (who just raised $130 million of new investment) — are aiming to be profitable at low price levels.  And, after all, the low prices are what is needed for solar energy to achieve grid-parity, which is what everyone is seeking for PV to be ubiquitous without subsidies. 
  9. Subsidies.  Ah, subsidies.  In an era of increasing fiscal tightness (see #10 below), pro-cleantech policies are under greater scrutiny.  In particular, renewable portfolio standards are being threatened by state legislators of a particular philosophy who are opposed to subsidies in all forms.  The philosophy is understandable, but the lack of understanding or hypocracy is less easy to defend:  the status quo is almost always subsidized too, especially during its early days of development and deployment — and often remains subsidized well after maturity and commercial profitability.  Fortunately, there’s an increasing body of high-quality work that assesses the energy subsidy landscape in a generally objective manner, such as this analysis released by DBL Investors in September.
  10. Europe.  Although not a cleantech issue per se, the vulnerability of the European economy, the European Union, and the Euro in the wake of the various debt crises unfolding across the Continent is a major negative factor for the cleantech sector.  Europe is the biggest cleantech market, and many of the leading cleantech investors and corporate acquirers are European, so a recession (or worse, depression)  in Europe will be a very big and very bad deal for cleantech companies.

In all, 2011 was not a great year for the cleantech sector, and I don’t see 2012 being much better.  But, that’s not to say that good things can’t happen, or won’t happen.  Indeed, there will always be rays of sunshine among the clouds…or, to use another metaphor, you’ll always be able to find a pony in there somewhere.

Happy New Year everyone!