Worlds of Differences

I’ve always known that Americans hold a pretty different view about the state of the energy sector than elsewhere in the world, but never really knew how to characterize those variances.

Today, I write in gratitude, thanking the efforts of Sonal Patel, senior writer at Power magazine.  Patel developed this helpful visual framework summarizing the recent issuance of the World Energy Issues Monitor, a a global survey undertaken annually by the World Energy Council posing the question “what keeps energy leaders awake at night?”

For each of three regions — North America, Europe and Asia — Patel has drawn circles for each major issue area of potential concern to the energy sector and placed them on a two-dimensional chart, where higher indicates more impact and right represents more certainty.   The size of the circles is proportional to the urgency of an issue.

Perusing Patel’s graphic is an illuminating exercise.  Of note:

Only in North America is the topic of “unconventionals” — meaning producing oil and gas from unconventional sources such as shale and oil sands — viewed as a particularly big deal.  In Europe, unconventionals are somewhat lower on the radar screen, and in Asia barely on the screen at all.

Conversely, energy prices are a critical topic in Europe and Asia, but deemed only of modest importance in North America.

Similarly, energy efficiency is high on the agenda in Europe and Asia, not so much in North America.  Even more starkly, renewables are seen as only a low-impact issue in North America, and a more significant issue elsewhere.

Perhaps because of the high penetration of renewables there, energy storage is of most interest in Europe, but of less interest in North America, and of hardly any interest in Asia.

Nuclear energy is viewed as a high-impact issue in North America, moderate impact in Europe, and (perhaps surprisingly) low-impact in Asia.  So, for that matter, are electric vehicles.

The so-called “hydrogen economy” — involving the use of fuel cells for power generation and transportation — retains a bit of interest in North America (though with low urgency), but has fallen off the map elsewhere.  Carbon capture and storage (CCS) follows somewhat of the same pattern, although Europe does hold it in higher esteem than hydrogen.

True, there are some commonalities to acknowledge:  the smart grid and policies to deal with climate change and energy subsidies are seen in approximately the same light globally.

However,  more than anything else, Patel’s framework shows that leaders in the energy industry live in very different worlds, depending upon which part of the world they live and work in.

Why is it So Hard to Make Money in New Battery Technology?

Energy storage is still the rage in cleantech.  But after the collapse of A123 and Beacon, and the spectacular failure on the Fisker Karma in its Consumer Reports tests, fire  in Hawaii with Xtreme Power’s lead acid grid storage system and with NGK’s sodium sulphur system, and now battery problems grounding the Boeing Dreamliners, investors in batteries are again divided into the jaded camp, and the koolaid drinker camp.   Not a perjorative, just reality.  New batteries and energy storage is still one of the juiciest promised lands in energy.  And still undeniably hard.  Basically, investors are relearning lessons we learned a decade ago.

Batteries are just hard.  Investing in them is hard.  Commercialization of batteries is hard. So why is it so difficult to make money in new battery technology?

Above and beyond the numbers, there are a number of commonalities related to the commercialization and venture financing life cycle of battery technologies that seem to differ to some degree from other venture investments in IT or even other energy technologies.  Having looked at probably 100+ deals over the years, and on the back of an deep study we did a couple of years ago on benchmarking valuations in energy storage, here’s our take on the why.

Timing – Battery technology commercializations have historically tended to be one of the slower commercialization cycles from lab stage to market.  Startups and investors in batteries have a long history of underestimating both the development cycle, capital required, and the commercialization cycle, as well as underestimating the competitiveness of the market.

Special chemistry risk – There is significant risk in launching a technology in newer battery chemistry.  There have been only a limited number of new chemistries succeed, and when they do, as in the case of NiMH and Energy Conversion Devices, they are typically either co-opted by larger competitors obviating a first mover advantage (that advantage is typically much weaker in this field than others) or requiring expensive patent suits.  Also as in the case of NiMH, there is no guarantee the chemistry will have legs (just when it is hitting its stride, NiMH is already becoming eclipsed by Li-On.  This risk has proven to be especially high for new chemistries (like Zn type) that are not as widely researched, as the supply chain development does not keep pace.  In addition, the battery field is highly crowded, and research is old enough that and despite new chemistry in most cases truly defensible patent positions are extremely hard to come by, or provide only discrete advantages (ability to supply a range of quality product cheaply in high volumes (or with value add to the product) seems to be the primary competitive advantage).  Few battery technologies of any chemistry end up their commercialization cycle with anywhere near as sustained an advantage as their inventors expected.

High capital costs – In any case, almost all battery startups will require extremely large amounts of capital (on the order of US$50 to 100 mm+) to achieve commercialization (much higher for real manufacturing scale), and the end product margins tend not to be particularly high.  Even with stage gate, a very large portion of this investment (US$10-50 mm+), is generally required to be spent while the risk of technical and economic failure is still high.  In addition, during the manufacturing scale up phase post R&D, capital investment required per $1 of revenue growth tends to be linear, making these technologies capital intensive to grow.

Degradation of initial technical advantage – In many technology areas one can expect the performance of the final manufactured product to improve over the performance in initial lab results, In part because of the low cost target, high reliability, high volume requirements of this product type however, promising battery technologies, are often forced to make compromises in the scale up, manufacturing, and commercialization stages that mean the performance of actual product might be expected to fall from levels or rates seen in lab scale experiments (though cost may go the other way).    At the same time, battery performance of standard technologies, while mature, is a moving target, and during the time frame for commercialization, will often improve enough to obviate the need for the remaining technical advantages.

Size matters – Most battery products (whether batteries or components like anode or cathode materials or electrolyte), are sold to large customers with very large volume requirements, and highly competitive quality and performance requirements.  As a result, breaking into new markets generally is extremely hard to do in niche markets, and means a battery startup must prove itself and its technology farther and for a longer period of time than other technology areas (see capital costs, timing and down rounds).  Many battery components technology developers as a result will be relegated for early adopters to emerging customers with high risks in their own commercialization path.

Lack of superior economics from licensing – As a result of these size, capital cost, timing, and commercialization risk issues most battery technologies will command much lower and more short-lived economics than anticipated from licensing (or require expensive patent lawsuits to achieve), and will require almost as late a stage of development (ie manufacturing operating at scale with proof of volume customers) and commensurate capital requirements, as taking the product to market directly.

Propensity for down rounds – In addition, battery technology companies tend to have down rounds in much larger numbers in the post A rounds (Series B through D+) than other venture investment areas, as these challenges catch-up to investors and management teams who overestimated the scope of work, capital and timing required in the seed, A and B rounds.  In particular, battery investors have tended to invest in seed, A and B stage battery technologies (pre-scaled up manufacturing process or even lab and prototype scale) with expectations of typical venture style timing and economics.  Quite often instead, it is the B, C, or D investor group that post cram-down rounds achieve the Series A economics (even when the technology IS successful), and the seed, A and B investors suffer losses or subpar IRRs.

How To Fail In Cleantech

The transition to cleantech – some would call it a revolution – inevitably entails change, which implies risk.  In turn, this implies that some things will fail.

We’ve already seen more than a few failures, and we’ll no doubt see many more.

As long as the successes outweigh the failures, that’s all that ultimately matters.  Indeed, sometimes failure actually enables later successes.

As Thomas Edison has been quoted, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  And, then finally — ta-da! — he discovered an approach that worked for the incandescent lightbulb, thereby changing the world forever.

But, sometimes failures can get in the way of success – particularly, if they’re the wrong kind of failures.

Edison failed quickly, cheaply and – perhaps most importantly – invisibly.  Some of cleantech’s most painful failures have been anything but.

Consider two prominent examples:  Solyndra and A123.  The technologies being developed by the two companies actually work well enough, but couldn’t compete effectively in the marketplace.

The management teams and the backers of these companies promised great things with premature hype in innumerable press releases.  The companies blew through lots of capital – including substantial government funding.

Then, they fly off the cliff and go bust, and the media and blogosphere — much of which is adverse to cleantech — report their demises with barely-hidden Schadenfreude.

OK, so it’s not like a mass shooting spree:  no-one got killed in these failures.  But equity holders lost every dollar, creditors took a deep haircut, taxpayer money was wasted, and pretty much everyone active in the cleantech sector gets tainted by extension.

As bad as economic failures, worse is when technologies fail because they simply don’t work.

The earliest windfarms of the mid-1980s in California became an eyesore of inoperative machinery, because the turbines were deployed in mass quantity before many engineering and manufacturing problems had been fully resolved.  In the wake of this debacle, the U.S. wind industry took more than a decade to recover.  By the time wind energy had regained credibility in America, European wind turbine manufacturers dominated the market.

These visions returned to me during a recent trip to Oahu, where my lodging provided me an ongoing view of the Kahuku windfarm standing idle in the face of a week of strong trade-winds.  My first thought was a serial failure of the turbines – a relatively new 2.5 megawatt design from Clipper, a manufacturer with known technical issues.

However, as this report indicates, the root cause of the shutdown was unrelated to the wind turbines, but rather some problem with a set of grid-scale batteries being developed by Xtreme Power, and being piloted at the site to test the ability of such batteries to buffer the variable output of a windfarm.  The pilot deployment had caused not one but three fires somehow involving the interconnection between the windfarm and the Hawaiian Electric grid, thus causing the windfarm to be idled while sorting out the battery issues.

Why weren’t these batteries tested in smaller scale and in a less obvious setting?  Not only is the image of Xtreme Power (and grid-scale energy storage) being adversely affected, the long shutdown of Kahuku is dampening enthusiasm for wind energy in Hawaii.

It is these kinds of visible economic or technical failures that give the cleantech sector a black eye.   The bad reputation diminishes civic goodwill, support for favorable public policies, and appetite for private capital to be allocated to the sector.

Unlike Edison’s failures, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world while he returned again and again to the drawing board, visible cleantech failures are distinctly unhelpful.

Such episodes are very painful for those of us on the sidelines working humbly to maintain forward progress in spite of the setbacks that inevitably occur in this long and challenging cleantech transition.

In the venture capital world, it is axiomatic to fail fast, so as to minimize capital at risk.  For cleantech, this adage should be modified:  fail fast, and stealthy.

The implication:  cleantech ventures — and their investors — are well-advised to maintain a low profile for a long time, until their success is reasonably assured.  It’s far better to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa.  Humility is essential.  Premature bragging is very easy to eviscerate by the pundits hungry for a tussle when things later go bad.

The more that cleantech entrepreneurs can avoid shooting themselves in the foot when the spotlight is on them — first and foremost, by not encouraging the spotlight to be shined upon them — the better.

A Crystal Ball for 2013

Happy new year everyone.  As we reflect upon the year now past us, it’s also that time of year to look ahead.

For the cleantech sector, Dallas Kachan from Kachan & Co. recently put his neck on the line with his “Predictions for Cleantech in 2013”.  It’s a good read, well-reasoned.  The sound-bite version:

  • Cleantech venture capital may never again reach the heights (at least in terms of dollars invested) of 2011.  As Kachan notes, and I concur, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It just means that capital-inefficient deals that used to attract VC dollars won’t so much in the future.  And, it means that a lot of ineffective cleantech VCs will be washed out of the sector.  Moreover, other sources of private finance – especially corporates, but also family offices and sovereign wealth funds – will step in.
  • The solar and wind sectors face increasing challenges because grid-scale energy storage technologies aren’t coming to the fore as expected.  Dispatchable power sources with lower emissions will gain ground.  This is especially the case for natural gas, but Kachan controversially also sees a growing role for new nuclear technologies.
  • Clean-coal technologies become less oxymoronic.  Great quote here:  “No, clean coal doesn’t exist today.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.”  Kachan claims to have visibility on some promising new technologies in this realm.  Personally, I’m a little skeptical – I’ve heard such things many times before – but I’d be glad to be wrong.
  • Significant improvements are afoot for internal combustion engines, further stifling the advent of electric vehicles (EVs).  I agree with Kachan that a lot is being undertaken to improve the old piston engine.  Those innovations being pursued by tier one auto suppliers have a fair chance of quick adoption.  However, a lot of the potential breakthroughs I’ve heard about are being explored by venture-backed start-ups or garage-tinkerers, and I am less optimistic than Kachan appears to be that these companies can make large inroads into the incredibly demanding automotive supply chains within a year.
  • Mining and agriculture will become more important segments of the cleantech sector.  Especially with respect to agriculture, I agree with Kachan wholeheartedly, as increased corporate venture activity is beginning to burble in such stalwarts as Monsanto (NYSE: MON), Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), and Cargill.

Though I haven’t gone back to review his track record, Kachan claims a good history of prognostication from recent years.  I think many of his views for the near-future are justified and hence likely (if not for 2013 then more generally for the next couple of years), but he’s thrown in enough unconventional wisdom to make things interesting.

Let’s make 2013 a good one, shall we?

A Dose of Lithium

For those who want an overview of the current state of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery sector, the fall 2012 issue of Batteries International is just the thing.

It’s not a pretty picture that’s painted.  Beyond the well-publicized bankruptcies of A123 and Ener1, the general sentiment espoused is that players in the Li-ion sector face tough days ahead.  The technology is not improving rapidly enough, its costs are not coming down fast enough, and markets for its adoption are not growing as robustly as expected.  Meanwhile, too much capital has been invested in too much manufacturing capacity.  Inevitably, one must conclude that further shakeout is ahead.

The most data-laden article in the issue concerns the prospects for Li-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs).  In “The Battery Revolution That Stalled”, author Lynnda Greene summarizes four recent research reports – from McKinsey & Company, Pike Research, Lux Research, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance – that all provide projections for a long and slow (rather than short and steep) glide path of cost declines.  For EVs to make good economic sense, it is generally held that batteries need to be in the $150/kWh range.  It had been hoped that Li-ion would reach those levels by 2020, fed in part by the considerable funding frenzy the Li-ion sector received from private investors and government subsidies in recent years.  Alas, the shared perspective of the four research reports is that those cost levels won’t be achieved for well more than a decade, and perhaps two.

The near-term prospects for Li-ion in grid-scale power storage are not much more promising.  This is partly also because of costs, but also because of reliability – some of the Li-ion grid-scale test programs have resulted in fires, and risk-averse utilities are not keen on adopting a technology until it’s been thoroughly proven to work well under almost every conceivable set of conditions.

The challenges facing Li-ion cause some observers to wonder whether too much attention is being paid to Li-ion and not enough on other battery chemistries – including the old-fashioned lead-acid battery extensively used over the past century.  Some of the commentators that Battery International quoted are more subdued in their criticisms, offering modest glimmers of optimism here and there.  But, the inescapable sense from the issue in its totality is that li-ion won’t see happy days for quite awhile – if ever.

In a lengthy profile of his views, battery blogger John Petersen compares lithium-ion batteries to centerfold models:  “They’re glamorous, sleek, sexy and hot; the building blocks of pubescent dreams and mid-life crises.  But they’re expensive, temperamental, potentially dangerous and scarce.”  As several pages more of his analysis and quips indicate, Petersen is very pessimistic about li-ion – and about EVs in general, for that matter.  He thinks that the case for EVs based on li-ion technology has consistently been oversold, and never had the chance of achieving the naïve promises that were made.

MIT Professor Donald Sadoway may sum up the long-term fate of li-ion best:  ”It shocks me that 99% of the active battery community is working on lithium-ion improvements.  We’re not getting there though.  It’s like looking for your car keys underneath the street lamp because that where the light is shining.  But you didn’t drop your car keys there!  What’s next is beyond lithium; in fact, it’s a lithium-free chemistry, which has to date received almost no attention.”

It used to be that “lithium” was known primarily as a treatment for depression.  For those in the cleantech sector, lithium may be coming to be known better as a cause of depression.

Chicago: Battery Central

At the end of November, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it had selected Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago to host the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), and bestowed upon it a $120 million grant over 5 years, alongside a $35 million commitment for a new 45,000 square foot facility from the State of Illinois.

As noted in this article in the Chicago Tribune, the goal for the JCESR is to improve battery technologies by a factor of five — five times cheaper, with five times higher performance — within five years.

One of the nation’s Energy Innovation Hubs just being launched, the JCESR has an impressive list of collaborators.  In addition to Argonne, four other national laboratories – Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, Sandia and SLAC National Accelerator – will also conduct research under the JCESR umbrella.  University research partners include Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Michigan.  A long list of the leading venture capital firms active in the cleantech arena – including ARCH Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Technology Partners and Venrock – will serve on an advisory panel to help focus the research on commercially-interesting opportunities.  Corporate titans Applied Materials (NASDAQ: AMAT), Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) and Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) have loaned their names to the effort.

Whether it was because the team didn’t want their influence or because they didn’t want to be involved, no corporate representatives from the automotive or electricity industries are part of the JCESR constellation.

Especially when paired with the Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation just 30 miles away at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where smart-grid research is a primary focus, the JCESR announcement arguably leapfrogs the Windy City into the top echelon of cleantech technology research clusters, particularly as it relates to electricity management.

The Advent of SPS Policy?

In the cleantech sector, pretty much everyone knows the acronym RPS, for Renewable Portfolio Standards.  Since the first RPS policy in the U.S., implemented in Iowa in the late 1990s, 30 states have passed similar policies to promote the installation of renewable energy projects and expedite penetration (overcoming the ambivalence or outright opposition of utilities) of renewable energy in electric power supply.

Now, as reported in this article, California is considering the adoption of what looks to be the first Storage Portfolio Standard:  requirements for utilities to install grid-scale energy storage.  Specifically, in early August, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously to adopt a framework for analyzing the energy storage needs of each utility.  This builds upon a previous bill, AB 2514, which included a mandate for the CPUC to “determine appropriate targets, if any, for each load-serving entity to procure viable and cost-effective energy storage systems to be achieved by” the end of 2015 and 2020.

Not surprisingly, the three major electric “load-serving entities” (i.e., electric utilities) in California — PG&E, SCE and SDG&E — all opposed this movement.  As did the Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA), the consumer watchdog organization, which argued that “picking arbitrary procurement levels…would most likely result in sub-optimal market solutions and increase costs to ratepayers without yielding commensurate benefits”.

As one of my former McKinsey colleagues noted on a number of occasions, quoting an executive who worked his entire career at a large electric utility, “No technology has ever been widely adopted by the electric utility industry without having it mandated by the regulators.”

The storage analogue of RPS policy — let’s call it SPS — faces some hurdles, no doubt.  But so did RPS policies.

Given that GE (NYSE: GE) is now working on a grid-scale battery technology, given how much GE’s wind business has benefited from the expansion of RPS policies over the last decade, and given how active GE tends to be in energy policy circles, it’s not a stretch to think that there will be a push for SPS-like policies across the U.S.

It will take time to fully implement, but perhaps grid-scale energy storage will soon be following the path blazed by renewables over the past 15 years, with a domino-effect of SPS requirements spreading across the country.



Bettering Batteries

I recently got an email entitled “Trojan Tips”.  Hmmmm, wonder what that could be about?  Alas, upon scrolling down from the subject line, I found the message provided advice from the battery manufacturer Trojan about proper battery management practices.

The more you get into cleantech, the more you realize how central a role is played by battery technology

Really, more broadly, energy storage technology is the central player in the cleantech drama.  Energy storage is not technically synonymous with batteries:  there are other non-battery storage technologies such as flywheels that exist.  Sandia National Laboratories has recently developed a modeling tool, called ES-Select, to help in determining which energy storage technology is most well-suited to a particular application need.

However, most of the major technology and commercial issues associated with energy storage are battery-related.  In other words, for the most part, talking about energy storage means talking about batteries, and vice versa.

Of course, everyone has used batteries for decades in portable electronics — beginning with transistor radios (remember them?) and flashlights, and now to smartphones and computers. 

Less obviously, batteries are making an increased push for stationary applications.  

Though generally invisible, banks of batteries have been in use for decades in telecommunications systems — ever notice how you get a dial tone on your landline when there’s a power outage? — and also in large computer and data centers in uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, such as those from the APC division of Schneider Electric (Euronext:  SU).  Since computers have become a consumer item in the past twenty years, UPS systems have gotten substantially smaller, to the point where many households now have them to prevent brief disruptions in power from the grid from affecting sensitive electronics. 

Imagine a UPS system so large it can power a whole neighborhood, situated at the local utility substation.  This would not only improve power quality for all the customers in the area, but it would also enable more utilization of intermittent renewable energy resources like wind and solar energy.  As this article discusses, the independent power producer AES (NASDAQ: AES) has established a new business unit to implement battery-based grid storage facilities at grid-scale.

As important as batteries may be in the future for the electricity grid, the really big future opportunity for batteries is in transportation.  For performance and economic reasons, this is also the most challenging application for batteries.

Improvements in batteries are the key enabler for wider market penetration of electric vehicles (EVs) to reduce petroleum consumption and associated emissions.  As noted by David Bello in “What Do We Need From the Battery of the Future?”, “the battery the future requires is cheap, more energy dense and less fragile”, while Joe Fargione of The Nature Conservancy is quoted as saying that EVs “need batteries that last longer, charge quickly and are inexpensive.”

Lower cost, more reliable, higher energy density, faster recharge times, longer lifetimes – all at the same time?  That’s a tall order, indeed.

Well, you can probably build a battery that simultaneously improves all of the above criteria…except the first one.  Alas, a high-performance small and lightweight battery that costs a fortune is of interest only for space and military applications.  Hardly anyone will buy a car where the batteries will cost more than a few thousand dollars.  A recent article by Vince Biancomano in Energy Efficiency & Technology says it all in the title:  “Industry Grapples with EV Battery Economics”.

One of the ways that EV players are “grappling” with battery economics is by considering leasing models, involving “hot-swapping” of discharged batteries with fully-charged batteries at service stations, as Better Place is aiming to offer (about which I’ve blogged in the past).  Alas, it will be difficult for the industry to come up with standards as uniform and widespread as the fueling infrastructure of gasoline pumps, nozzles and tanks that is ubiquitous in today’s developed economies.

Ultimately, however, an expensive battery being leased is insufficient to largely debottleneck the EV marketplace; the cost of higher-performing batteries must also come down significantly. 

According to McKinsey in its recent article entitled “Battery Technology Charges Ahead”, batteries must cost less than $250/kWh to be competitive with automobiles running on $3.50/gallon gasoline.  Alas, batteries currently cost about $500-600/kWh today, but the McKinsey analysis suggest a 60+% cost decline in the next decade, to $200/kWh by 2020.  This is hoped to be achieved by attaining greater manufacturing scale economies, reducing component prices via competitive pressures, and advancing technologies to increase the performance of batteries.

Our venture capital firm, Early Stage Partners, continues to see a robust deal flow of investment opportunities in early-stage companies that are working to develop innovative battery-related technologies – mainly for EVs, but also for other applications. 

Though discovered over 200 years ago by Alessandro Volta (hence, “volt” as the key unit of measurement), batteries remain an active field of invention, though the capital-intensity associated with maturing a physical technology through proof of concept all the way to achieving scale economies of mass production can be daunting.

David Anthony’s Last Question – Can We Power the US Solely off of Solar?

By Tao Zheng, with David Anthony, an active cleantech venture capitalist, who passed away in April 2012.

 The sun is the champion of all energy sources, in terms of capacity and environmental impact. The sun provides earth with 120,000 terawatt (TW) energy, compared to technical potential energy capacity of single digit TWs from other renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric. More energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on our planet in entire year. In the last blog, we estimated that the technical potential of electricity generation from rooftop photovoltaics (PV) can take over 1/3 of U.S. electricity consumption demand. The next question is: can we power the U.S. solely by solar energy, technically? The answer will rely on development of utility-scale solar farms and energy storage solutions.

Assuming the rest 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand can be fulfilled by utility-scale PV solar farms, we can estimate how much land required to install such solar farm systems. The total U.S. electricity demand in 2009 was 3,953 TWh with 1% annual growth projection in next 25 years. Two third of U.S. electricity demand is about 2,635 TWh. The PV power density is calculated with a weight-averaged module efficiency using market share for the three most prevalent PV technologies today: crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and CIGS. The resulting PV power density is 13.7 MW/million ft2, assuming an average module efficiency of 18.5% in 2015. If we assume 10 hours/day and 200 days/year with sunshine, the annual available sunshine time is 2,000 hours. The total land required for solar farms to generate 2,635 TWh, can be calculated as:

Total Land Required = Total Energy Generated / PV power density / Annual available sunshine time

                                 = 2,635,000/13.7/2000 = 96.2 ×109 ft2 = 8,937 km2 @ 100 × 100 km

Therefore, to generate energy equivalent to 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand, we need to install solar panels in a tract of land with size of 100 by 100 km, the area about 0.1% of U.S. land. Technically, to provide electricity for entire U.S. demand, we only need to cover PV-accessible residential and commercial rooftop with solar panels and install solar farms in desert area equivalent to 0.1% U.S land. In addition to rooftop and desert, there are many opportunities for installing PV on underused real estate, such as parking structure, airports, and freeway margins. PV can virtually eliminate carbon emissions from the electric power sector.

In comparison, Nathan Lewis, professor at Caltech, predicted a solar farm with land size of 400 by 400 km to generate 3 TW energy to power entire America. The represented area is about 1.7% of U.S. land size, comparable to the land devoted to the nation’s numbered highways. As shown in Figure 1, the red square represents the amount of land need for a solar farm to match the 3 TW of power demand in the U.S. Of the 3 TW energy, only 10% represents electricity demand, and the rest represents other energy needs, such as heating and automobile. Thus, Lewis’ calculation is consistent with our estimation: 10,000 km2 solar farms can generate enough electricity to fulfill 2/3 U.S. demand.

Figure 1. Solar Land Area Requirement for 3 TW Solar Energy Capacity to Power Entire U.S. Energy Demand. (Source: Prof. Nathan Lewis group at Caltech).

One of big challenges using solar to power U.S. grid is intermittency of sunlight. Solar energy is not available at night, and the variable output of solar generation causes voltage and frequency fluctuations on power network. Energy storage technology can smooth the output to meet electricity demand pattern. There are many grid energy storage technologies, from stationary battery to mechanical storage methods. Pumped hydro technology is clearly a better choice for solar energy storage, due to its high energy capacity, low cost, and public safety assurance.

For solar to have a dominant role in the electric power generation mix, in addition to power storage infrastructure, upgrading America’s transmission grid is required. In contrast to traditional electricity generation, solar power collections are distributed across numerous rooftops or centralized in utility-scale farms. Distributed solar requires grid operators to install smart grid technology to monitor power supply and demand and balance thousands of individual generators with central power plants. The current century-old transmission grid needs to be upgraded with high-voltage lines to carry electricity from remote solar farms to consumers. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law by President Obama in 2009, has directed $40 billion to accelerate the grid infrastructure transformation.

The U.S. photovoltaic market has been growing quickly in recent years. In 2010, the U.S. installed 887 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV, representing 104% growth over the 435 MW installed in 2009. Current trends indicate that a large number of utility-scale PV power plants are in the south and southwest areas, such as in the sunny deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona. For example, the Copper Mountain Solar Facility in Boulder City, Nevada, is one of the U.S. largest solar PV plants with 48 MW capacity, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. One of the U.S. Largest Solar Plants, the Copper Mountain Solar Project with 48 MW photovoltaic in Boulder City, Nevada.

Historically, solar PV deployment has been limited by economic factors, since solar energy is too expensive to compete with traditional fossil fuels, due to lack of economies of scale. However, the cheapest solar cells are now being produced for as little as 70¢ per watt. They are selling for about $1.26 per watt, with prices expected to drop to $1.17 next year. Most anticipate the price of solar module, such as thin film, will hit 50¢ per watt within four or five years. First Solar, the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, has told investors that production costs will range between 52¢ and 63¢ per watt by 2014. When companies can produce solar photovoltaic modules for less than 50¢ per watt, solar energy will reach grid parity. Grid parity refers to the point at which the cost of solar electricity rivals that of traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil, or nuclear. The solar module price drop is driven by cheaper manufacturing costs, lower costs for such crucial raw materials as silicon, and rapidly improving technology. A recent study even claims solar grid parity is already here today, based on a legitimate levelized cost of energy (LCOE), calculated the cost in $/kwh. The value of LCOE is determined by the choice of discount rate, average system price, financing method, average system lifetime and degradation of energy generation over the lifetime. Figure 3 illustrates the effect of initial installed cost and energy output on the LCOE value. For a PV system with production cost at $0.5/W, the initial installed system cost will be $1.5-$2/W, after considering labor cost and module margin. If we assume energy output is 1500 kWh/kW/yr, which is reasonable in south west area in the U.S., the LCOE value in Figure 3 will fall in the range between $0.06/kWh and $0.08/kWh, the lower side of grid parity value for the U.S. residential electricity rates range.

Figure 3. LCOE contours in $/kWh for solar PV systems for energy output versus initial cost of the system for a zero interest loan, discount rate of 4.5%, degradation rate of 0.5%/yr and 30 year lifetime (Courtesy of Prof. Joshua Pearce at Queen’s University)

Based on the analysis above, it is reasonable to believe we can power the U.S. electric grid solely by solar PV, technically and economically. Thomas Edison had a great quote on solar energy: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”


David Anthony was 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 passed away in April 2012. 

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”. 

California Gains 10,000 EV Charge Points in NRG Agreement

from original post at Clean Fleet Report

California already has over 10,000 of the new electric vehicles on the road and 2,000 public charge points. Over 10,000 new electric charge points will be added to give EV drivers added range. The charge stations will be built by NRG with private money, not public funds.

This will be the world’s largest electric car charging network and include smart grid technological advancements to level grid load, and energy storage and vehicle-to-grid (V2G).

California needs electric cars. Compared to nations, only two countries use more petroleum than California – the United States and China. The Los Angeles Basin and Central Valley historically had such severe health problems that Governor Ronald Reagan established the California Air Resources Board, which continues to encourage cleaner cars and fuel-efficiency.

California Public Utilities Commission and NRG Energy

The California Public Utilities Commission and NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG) have entered into an agreement where NRG will build a comprehensive electric vehicle (EV) charging network in California, investing approximately $100 million over the next four years.

This fee-based charging network will consist of at least 200 publicly available fast –charging stations—installed in the San Francisco Bay area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Los Angeles Basin and San Diego County—which can add 50 miles of range in less than 15 minutes of charging.

The DC-Fast Charging will especially be helpful for drivers of pure battery-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i, many which were purchased with DC-Fast Charge Ports. Currently many of these electric car drivers are limited to ranges of 60 to 120 miles without access to fast charging.

Additionally, NRG’s EV infrastructure commitment will include the wiring for at least 10,000 individual charging stations located at homes, offices, multifamily communities, schools and hospitals located across the State. The charging locations will be easy for drivers to find with Google Maps, smartphone apps, and electric car navigation systems.

NRG California EV Charging includes Smart Grid and V2G

  • A minimum of 200 direct current (DC) fast chargers to the state.
  • A minimum of 10,000 parking spaces retrofitted with wiring necessary to charge EVs at multifamily buildings, large worksites and civic sites such as universities and hospitals.
  • Training and jobs for the installation and maintenance of these charging stations in
  • California.
  • Smart grid and grid storage services that increase the speed and power of DC fast charging, store electricity to minimize peak-period demand, and enable EV drivers to support electrical grid reliability with needed energy services through vehicle to grid (V2G).
  • Significant additional investment in California’s clean technology economy and hundreds of jobs in construction and EV infrastructure manufacturing, maintenance and management.
  • Approximately $100 million in infrastructure investment over four years, and $20 million in cash to go to the California Public Utility Commission.

Dynegy and Enron were famously accused of manipulating California’s energy markets leading to a crisis 12 years ago. The agreement, pending approvals and finalization, resolves outstanding litigation arising out of a long-term electricity contract entered into over a decade ago by a subsidiary of Dynegy, then a co-owner with NRG of the portfolio of power generating plants currently owned by NRG in California. NRG assumed full responsibility for resolving this matter in 2006 when NRG acquired Dynegy’s 50% interest in the assets.

“California already leads the way in the development of an alternative energy transportation sector and, with the price of gasoline above $4 per gallon and rising, all Americans need to be giving serious consideration to the increasingly attractive electric vehicle alternative to what former President Bush called ‘our national addiction to foreign oil’,” stated NRG CEO Crane. “This network will be built with private funds on a sustainable business model that will allow NRG to maintain and grow the network as EV adoption grows.”

NRG has been making major investments in utility-scale solar and wind. AeroVironment has been one of its charge station suppliers in Texas.

Over 7 Million Charge Points by 2017

California is often the first point of sale for new electric cars, which are then offered in other states, then all 50 states. Other states gaining momentum in electric car sales and public charge points include Oregon, Washington, Florida, Michigan, and Texas where NRG is also developing a charge point network for subscribers.

Clean Fleet Report forecasts 60,000 to 100,000 electric car sales and leases in the United States in 2012 and 200,000 in 2013. Pike Research forecasts 7.7 million charge points installed globally by 2017.

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.

Predictions For Cleantech In 2012

It’s December again (how did that happen!?) and our annual time for reflection here at Kachan & Co. So as we close out 2011, let’s look towards what the new year may have in store for cleantech.

There are eggshells across the sector for 2012. Global economic uncertainty in particular is leaving some skeptical about the chances for emerging clean technologies. And those who watch quarterly investment data, or who look only in a single geography (e.g. North America) may have seen troubling trends brewing this past year. But the true story, and the global outlook for the year ahead, is—as it always is—more complicated.

As you’ll read below, we predict a decline in worldwide cleantech venture capital investing in 2012. But as you’ll also read below, we believe the gap will be more than made up by infusions of corporate capital. And the exit environment, depending on who you are and where you list, still looks robust in 2012 for cleantech (it may not have felt so, but it was actually surprisingly robust in 2011, according to the data. See below.) All in all, if you’re a cleantech entrepreneur seeking capital, our advice is brush up that PowerPoint and work the system now… while there’s still a system to work.

Because, as we detail below, the largest risk, to cleantech and every sector in 2012 we believe, is the specter of precipitous global economic decline and the systemic changes it might bring. Details below.

Here are our predictions for cleantech in 2012:

Cleantech venture investment to decline
In the face of naysayers then forecasting a cleantech collapse, in our predictions this time last year, we called an increase in global cleantech venture investment in 2011. We were right. At this writing, total investment for the first three quarters of 2011 is already $6.876 billion, with the fourth quarter to report early in 2012. Given historical patterns (fourth quarters are almost always down from third quarters), we expect 2011 to close out at a total of ~$8.8 billion in venture capital invested into cleantech globally. That’d be the highest total in three years, and second only to the highest year on record: 2008.

cleantech 2012 predictions venture investment
Total 2011 investment is expected to show growth from 2009’s figures once the fourth quarter (dashed lines, estimated) is added. However Kachan predicts total venture investment in 2012 to decline from 2011’s total. Data: Cleantech Group

Yet in 2012, we expect global venture and investment into cleantech to fall. Not dramatically. But we expect cleantech venture in 2012 as measured by the data providers (i.e. companies like Dow Jones VentureSourceBloomberg New Energy Finance,PwC/NVCA MoneyTree, and Cleantech Group) to show its first decline in 2012 following the recovery from the financial crash of 2008. Our reasoning? There are factors we expect will continue to contribute to the health of the cleantech sector, but they feel outweighed by factors that concern us. Both sets below:

On one hand: What we expect to contribute to growth in cleantech investment in 2012

  • China gets a hold on its economic turbulence – For five years now in our annual predictions, both here at Kachan and when I was a managing director of the Cleantech Group, we foretold the rise of China as cleantech juggernaut. Yet, now with China having become the largest market for and leading vendor of cleantech products and services by all metrics that matter, and now receiving a larger percentage of global cleantech venture capital than at any point in history, there have been recent warning signs. New data just in (for instance, falling Chinese property prices and sluggish export growth because of faltering first world economies, not to mention the first decline in clean energy project financing in China since 2010 as wind project financing declined 14% in the third quarter of 2011 on fears of over-expansion) suggests the Chinese economic engine is slowing. On the face of it, that might look bad for cleantech. But we put a lot of faith in China’s central government and the seriousness with which it views this sector as strategic. Even now, the country has just gone on the record forecasting creating 9 million new green jobs in the next 5 years. Nine million! And China has a good track record in executing its 5-year plans.
  • Rise in oil prices – Cleantech is a much wider category than energy. But for many, renewable energy is its cornerstone. And while there’s no question about the long-term markets for renewables, the biggest factor affecting their short-term commercial viability is the price of fossil-based energy. The good news: indications are that oil prices are headed upwards in 2012, which should be expected to help make renewables more economic. Naysayers maintain that a poor global economy will destroy demand for energy, keeping the price of oil artificially low. For much of 2011, the price of oil was relatively low. But we argue the price per barrel will continue its inexorable rise in 2012 given continued growth in the size of the global market for oil, driven by market expansion in the developing world. Further adding to the expected oil price increase is a little-known fact: there’s been a decline in the quality of oil the world is seeing on average. And the poorer the quality of the oil, the more it costs to refine it into the products we require. Oil prices are headed up.
  • Corporations’ even stronger leadership role – Corporate venturing was up in 2011, possibly setting new record highs, according to the data providers (4Q data not in yet.) Cleantech corporate mergers and acquisitions globally were up in 2011, again possibly setting new record highs, according to the data. The world’s largest companies assumed the leadership we and others predicted they would last year at this time—and indications are they will continue to do so in 2012, with balance sheets still strong.
  • Solar innovation as a perennial driver – Investment into good old solar innovation and projects is still strong, and has remained so for years, while other clean technologies have risen and fallen in and out of investment fashion. And that’s despitemost solar companies being in the red and having billions of dollars in market capitalization disappear over the last year. As some solar companies will continue to close up shop in 2012, look for investment into solar innovation to remain strong in 2012 as the quest for lower costs and higher efficiencies continues.
  • Persistence of the fundamental drivers of cleantech – The sheer sizes of the addressable markets many cleantech companies target, and the possibilities for massive associated returns, will continue to draw investors to the sector. Why? The world is still running out of the raw materials it needs. Some countries value their energy independence. More than ever, economies need to do more with less. Oh, and there’s that climate thing.

On the other hand: What worries us about the prospects for growth in cleantech investment in 2012

  • Investor fundraising climate tightening – Today, limited partners (i.e. “LPs” – the organizations and/or wealthy individuals that fund venture capital companies) are still bankrolling cleantech worldwide; in its 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor for clients, the Cleantech Group details 34 dedicated cleantech and sustainability-focused funds receiving billions in capital commitments internationally in the third quarter of 2011 alone. But we expect a slowdown in venture fundraising in 2012. Blame Solyndra for negative American LP sentiment. Or blame the lack of rock star returns in cleantech of late. But there are more indications than ever that some LPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to fund cleantech. They’ve been grousing about cleantech for years. But the politicizing of the Solyndra bankruptcy has amped the rhetoric higher than ever, and will foster a self-fulfilling prophesy in 2012, particularly in America, we believe.
  • Waning policy support in the developed world – Expected conflicting government policy signals to continue in 2012. Don’t expect cleantech-friendly U.S. policy leadership in 2012, an election year. We wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Solyndra and other U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grants and loan guarantees continued to haunt American cleantech through the whole of 2012, making any overt U.S. government support of clean or green industry unlikely. While cleantech is far from solely an American phenomenon, there’s no mistaking that the (now expired) American national loan guarantee program helped loosen private cleantech capital in an immediately post-2008 shell-shocked economy. However, continued uncertainty over the future of the U.S. Treasury grants program and production tax credits is holding the U.S. back. Policy support suffers elsewhere in the developed world. For instance, in the UK, investor confidence was recently dealt a blow by a dramatic drop in solar feed-in-tariff (FIT) rates, and the erosion of renewable policy support in Germany and Spain is well known.
  • Lag time of negative sentiment – Even if the sky indeed started falling in cleantech (and we don’t believe it yet has), it would take a few quarters to show in venture or project investment numbers. Remember, deals can take quarters to consummate. Transactions being counted now may have been initiated a year ago. Fear takes several quarters to manifest. Which is why we believe today’s uncertainty will start to show in 2012’s performance.
  • VCs still circling their wagons – In 2007, before the financial crash, the percentage of early stage venture investments into new cleantech companies was roughly the same as later-stage venture investments into established companies. Since the crash of 2008, deals have remained skewed—both by number and size of deals—towards later stage companies, illustrating investors’ preference to keep existing investments alive than take risks on new companies. While the exact ratio varies quarter to quarter, and from data provider to data provider, there have been generally fewer early stage companies getting funded. That’s hampering cleantech innovation. We expect the trend to continue into 2012.
  • Perennial concern about exits and IRR – Despite the size of its massive addressable markets and near-record amounts of capital entering the space today, on the whole, cleantech investors are still seeking the returns that many of their web and social media tech brethren enjoy. Even now, 10 years into this theme that we started calling cleantech in 2002. That’s not for lack of exits; 2010 saw the largest number of cleantech IPOs on record (93 companies raised a combined $16.3 billion) and 2011 has already had 35 without the last quarter reporting. And cleantech M&A activity in 2011 was strong and significantly higher than last year. No, the concern is for lack of multiples. For instance, 8 of the 14 IPOs of the third quarter of 2011 were trading below their offering price as of the publication of the Cleantech Group’s 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor. Don’t let anyone tell you exits aren’t happening in cleantech. They’re just underwhelming. And/or they’re happening in China.
  • Macro-economic turbulence, collapse, or at least, reform – They’re the elephants in the room: The Occupy movement. Arab Spring. Peak Oil. The continued and growing mismatch between overall global energy supply and demand and food supply and demand. Ever-increasing debt and trade deficits. Currency revaluation or political/military developments. Any or all of these could spur another massive global economic “stair-step” downwards of the scale we saw in 2008, or worse. Concern about all of these points and the impact they’d have on the cleantech sector weighs heavy on us here.

Venture dip made up for by rise in corporate involvement
The world’s largest corporations woke up to opportunities in cleantech in 2011, making for record levels of M&A, corporate venturing and strategic investments. General Electric bought lighting and smart grid companies. Schneider Electric bought some 10 companies across the cleantech spectrum. Corporate venturing activity was high, as were minority-stake investments. In just the third quarter alone, ZF Friedrichshafen invested $187 million in wind turbine gearbox and component maker Hansen Transmissions of Belgium, Stemcor invested $137 million into waste company CMA in Australia, and BP invested $71 million into biofuel company Tropical BioEnergia in Brazil. And there were dozens more minority stake transactions like these throughout the year.

Look for even more cash-laden companies to continue to buy their way into clean technology markets in 2012, supplementing the role of traditional private equity and evidencing a maturation of the cleantech sector.

Storage investment to retreat
Significant capital has gone into energy storage in recent quarters. In 3Q11, storage received $514 million in 19 venture deals worldwide, more than any other cleantech category. Will storage remain a leading cleantech investment theme in 2012? We’re betting no. Here’s why.

Storage recently made headlines as the subsector that received the most global cleantech venture investment in the third quarter of 2011, the last quarter for which numbers are available. An analysis of the numbers, however, shows the quarter was artificially inflated by large investments into stationary fuel cell makers Bloom Energy and ClearEdge Power. Do we at Kachan expect more investments of that magnitude into competing companies? No. Why? Even if you believe analysts that assert that stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power are actually ramping up to serious volumes (oldtimers have seen this market perpetually five years away for 15 years, now), just look how crowded the space currently is. Bloom and ClearEdge are competing with UTC Power, FuelCell Energy, Altergy, Relion, Idatech, Panasonic, Ceramic Fuel Cells and Ceres Power … just some of the better-known 60 or so companies vying for this tiny market today. And many are still selling at zero or negative gross margins.

But the main reason we’re not bullish on storage: Smoothing the intermittency of renewable solar and wind power might turn out to be less important soon. Sure, nary a week goes by without announcements of promising new storage tech breakthroughs or new public support for grid storage (e.g. see these three latest grid storage projects just announced in the U.S., detailed halfway down the page.) But we believe that utility-scale renewable power storage might be obviated if utilities embrace other ways to generate clean baseload power.

In 2012 or soon thereafter, we expect those clean baseload options will start to include new safer forms of nuclear power (don’t believe us? Read Kachan’s report Emerging Nuclear Innovations—U.S. readers, don’t worry: nuclear innovation won’t apply to you.) Or NCSS/IGCC turbines powered by renewable natural gas delivered through today’s gas distribution pipelines (see The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity). Or even geothermal (gasp!) or marine power (see below). All of these promise to be less expensive than solar and wind when you factor in the expense of storage systems required—incl. electrochemical, compressed air, hydrogen, flywheel, pumped water, thermal, vehicle-to-grid or other—if solar and wind are to be relied on 24/7.

Marine energy to begin coming of age
I’m a closet fan of marine energy, despite today’s extraordinarily high cost per kilowatt hour. We started covering wave, tidal and ocean thermal energy conversion equipment makers in 2006. Anyone who’s heard me talk publicly on the subject has had to suffer through hearing how I’d much prefer invisible kit beneath the waves than have to gaze upon solar and wind farms taking land out of commission.

In 2006, the lifetime of equipment from then-noteworthy companies like Verdant Power and Finavera (which since exited marine power after a failed test with California’s PG&E) in the harsh marine environment could sometimes be measured in days. The designs just didn’t hold up. Even Ocean Power Delivery, now Pelamis Wave Power, with its huge, snakelike Pelamis device, had hiccups in early onshore grid testing. Back then, the industry clearly had a long way to go.

Today, six years later, we think it’s time to start taking marine energy seriously. A high profile tidal project is now underway in Eastern Canada’s Bay of Fundy. Several weeks ago, Siemens raised its stake in UK-based tidal energy developer Marine Current Turbines from less than 10% to 45%, because it liked the predictability of ocean energy, and Voith Hydro Wavegen handed over its first commercial wave project to Spain. And last week, Dutch company Bluewater Energy became the latest vendor to secure a demo berth at the European Marine Energy Centre at Orkney, Scotland—the most important global R&D center for marine energy. Things are going on in marine power. Still, its major hurdle is the large variation in designs and absence of consensus on what prevailing technologies will look like.

2012 won’t be the year marine power becomes cost-competitive with coal, or even nearly. But you’ll hear more about marine power in 2012, and see more private and corporate funding, we predict.

Increased water and agricultural sector activity
Look for increased venture investment, M&A and public exits in water and agriculture in 2012.

At one point, only cleantech industry insiders championed water tech as an investment category (and, frankly, at only a few hundred million dollars per year on average, it still remains only a small percentage of the overall average $7B annual cleantech venture investment.) Industrial wastewater is driving growth in today’s water investment, with two of the top three VC deals of the last quarter for which data is available promoting solutions for produced water from the oil and gas industry, and the largest M&A deal also focused on an oil and gas water solution. Regulations aimed at making hydraulic fracturing less environmentally disruptive to will spur continued innovation and related water investments in 2012.

Where water was a few years ago, agriculture investment appears to be today. There was more chatter on agricultural investment than ever before at cleantech conferences I attended around the world this past year. Expect it to reach a higher pitch in 2012, because of:

Investing in farmland is even resurfacing, in these uncertain times, as a private equity theme.

Remember the food crisis three years ago, when sharply rising food prices in 2006 and 2007, because of rising oil prices, led to panics and stockpiling in early 2008? Brazil and India stopped exporting rice. Riots broke out from Burkina Faso to Somalia. U.S. President George W. Bush asked the American Congress to approve $770 million for international food aid. Those days could return, and they represent opportunity for micro-irrigation, sustainable fertilizer and other water and agriculture innovation.

And so concludes our predictions for 2012. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Leave a comment on the original post of these predictions on our site.

This article was originally published here. Reposted by permission.

Assaulting Batteries

A radical breakthrough in energy storage has long been considered the “holy grail” of cleantech.  With ubiquitous, scalable, reliable and (most importantly) low-cost energy storage, two main thrusts of cleantech adoption will be debottlenecked:  much deeper penetration of zero-emitting and limitless but intermittent solar and wind into the electricity generation mix, and significantly reduced needs for fueled internal combustion in vehicles.  Either of these is gargantuan in scope and implications.  As I like to say, whoever solves just one of them in a commercially-attractive way will make Bill Gates look like a pauper.

Of course, the primary energy storage technology in use now, and for the past century, is batteries.  The current state of battery technology has well-known performance characteristics that are generally satisfactory for present applications (e.g., starting automobiles, power quality management in uninterruptible power systems (UPS), portable consumer electronics), but not for the two above-noted game-changing applications.

And so the cleantech innovation and investment world has been searching near and far, high and low, for better energy storage solutions.

Some trailblazers are pushing entirely new technological platforms for energy storage.  About a decade ago, flywheels were especially in vogue.  As the name implies, this is a mechanical device that stores energy in a spinning mass.  However, several issues – notably frictional losses for stationary applications and weight and containment (you do NOT want a flywheel disintegrating into a hail of shrapnel in an accident) for mobile applications – have been difficult to overcome.  The two most well-known flywheel developers:  Active Power (NASDAQ: ACPW) continues to make a go of it, whereas Beacon Power (NASDAQ: BCON) just announced bankruptcy last week after a very long slog.

Supercapacitors and ultracapacitors also horn in on battery territory.  Like batteries, both supercaps and ultracaps are electrochemical devices.  However, unlike batteries, they typically charge/discharge more quickly, thereby allowing rapid surges and refills of power.  In truth, supercaps and ultracaps may be more of a complement than a threat to batteries:  batteries being generally pretty good in slow/long energy flows but not strong in fast/short energy flows (i.e., high energy density and low power density) and super/ultracaps being the opposite (i.e., high power density and low energy density).  Of course, if super/ultracaps can be matured to provide both high power and high energy density at attractive economics while meeting other key performance criteria (reliability, temperature tolerance, weight, etc.), then batteries will truly be under siege.  Indeed, as one recent article on GreenTech Media suggests, Ioxus claims to be developing an ultracap that really begins to intrude on the battery space for electric vehicles.

Even so, don’t underestimate the challenges these upstart technologies face in penetrating the energy storage market.  There’s a reason why batteries, as suboptimal as they may be, dominate the energy storage space:  nothing else has been able to do better, consistently, at low cost.

Accordingly, a lot of attention, effort and money still flows to the battery space – to make improvements to the reigning energy storage technology champion.  Of course, batteries can be improved on just about every possible dimension imaginable:  energy density, power density, weight, cost, depth of discharge, speed of recharge, number of lifecycles.

Battery technology innovations can generally be lumped into two categories.  One is better materials for the electrodes or electrolytes, to improve the performance of individual battery cells.  Second is battery management systems (BMS), which aim to improve the way multiple cells interact and affect overall battery performance. 

Both types of innovations were on display at last month’s unimaginatively-named The Battery Show in suburban Detroit.  It was a modest exhibition, as cleantech shows go. 

With few exceptions – LG comes most to mind, with a demo of its lithium-ion battery-based whole-home UPS that it will be unveiling in the next year or two – most of the booths showed the wares of small little-known companies seeking to get a toehold in the battery space, selling to battery manufacturers or gaining the enthusiasm of battery users who can then apply pressure on the battery manufacturers themselves.

Among manufacturers of batteries, most of the biggest companies such as C&D Technologies (OTC: CHP), East Penn Deka and Exide Technologies (NASDAQ:  XIDE) did not have visible presences.  Although disappointing, it’s not surprising:  the battery industry has consistently been characterized to me as sleepy and resistant to change, focused more on manufacturing and cost-minimization than technology advancement.  The one company probably most shaking up the battery sector – A123 Systems (NASDAQ:  AONE) – was in good force, although perhaps that should be discounted somewhat, since many of their employees are located just a few miles from the show venue.

While the battery sector may have largely been “fat, dumb and happy” for decades, I see that characteristic fading away in the coming years, perhaps quickly.  Many staid management and operating teams of the big guys are nearing retirement, and there’s so much at stake in the future of energy storage that highly-disruptive and well-capitalized global players will no doubt be increasingly entering the market and stirring the pot.  For instance, a recent article in The Economist mentioned the battery ambitions of Samsung (KSE: 005930), a formidable entrant-to-be.  

Increasing dynamism will be uncomfortable for the battery incumbents, but then again, no-one said the cleantech market was easy.

The Elusive Energy Storage Yeti

Large scale energy has proven almost as elusive a Yeti, and perhaps almost as all world saving juicy as the silver bullet for the werewolf or the Holy Grail itself (and not the Monty Python kind).

Energy storage for nearly 15 years has been the energy tech and cleantech version of the ultimate “but-if”.  I.E., but if we had that, life would be grand.  And untold billions have been expended globally on searching for it, here in the US in the distributed generation and fuel cell boom created in large part by Enron and , and through today’s ARPA-E.  Let alone in corporate and national research centers and universities around the globe, and venture capital backed startups galore.  Flywheels, superconducting energy storage, solid oxide fuel cells with internal batteries, hydrogen in metal hydrides, high pressure tanks, and activated carbon, super capacitors, regenerative PEM fuel cells, and those running on methanol and ethanol, new battery chemistries with lithium, zinc, sodium, etc, new battery topologies – bipolar this and left twisted plate that, varying chemistries and systems for flow batteries which look like fuel cells and act like batteries, new materials for old electrodes with nanomaterials, graphite, silicon, carbon nanotubes, and let’s not forget better power electronics to mimic the results, as well as compressed air, plain old ice and massive thermal sinks.   New and reworked energy storage ideas have proved a dime a dozen. Making them work, let alone scaling them up, costing them down and changing the world?  Well, that’s still Yeti-land.

So far we can’t beat the simple cost and expediency of building more power plants, more lines, and burning more natural gas. Let alone beat simply dialing back the usage.  Gravity and liquids and energy efficiency are still the ultimate crown jewel of energy storage.

The Problem basically boils down to this.  Yes, a myriad of technologies work.  Some work well.  Some look cheap on the surface.  Some even scale up. BUT they don’t get widely deployed.  Why?

Probably because at the spear point – at the application that each is best suited for, the costs are higher, the scale up is trickier, the directly applicable market is smaller, and the substitutes relatively better or cheaper or easier than we thought they were.

I’ve taken an only partially tongue in cheek attempt to describe the problem here, in the hope that a firm description of the problem will find us NOT waxing eloquent about the issue 15 years hence,  but find it solved by sharp minds.  Assuming of course that this is a problem that a better mousetrap can solve.  Better mousetrap of course, defined as better and cheaper than the alternatives, and better and cheaper than the value provided, by enough margin to make us get off the dime.

Energy Storage Adoption Problem

Direct Technology Cost x (1.5 to 2 yielding acceptable manufacturing and distribution margins)


Installed Cost x (1 + Service Margin)

= Total Installed Cost

Then where Cost is F(Depr of TIC, O&M Cost, Fuel Cost)

Then TIC / Number of Hours Used Per Unit of Time (Max of Rated Life (Max of Rate Life per Unit of Time)

+ (O&M Cost / Unit of Time) / Number of Hours Used Per Unit of Time

= O&M Cost Per Hour Used

+ Fuel Cost Where Applicable (F of cost of “storing the energy”, e.g. the device literally needs to “buy” and “sell” its energy stored for the time used.

And where Cost /Per Energy Hour Must Be:

Greater than Value of an Energy Hour Used in that Application


Less than the Cost /Per Energy Hour of the Substitutes

On both an LCOE and NPV basis, with adequately large differentials to justify the switching costs

Provided that:

Where DTC is a F(Technology type, Scale of systems, Unit Vol Sold/Unit Time)

Where UVS/Unit Time if F(time and construction and regulatory annoyance for Installed Cost, TC, Rated Life, Actual Field Performance, Availability/performance/cost of substitutes)

And where IC is a F(Scale of systems, Unit Vol Sold/Unit Time) – but a viciously different F than DTC

And where Substitutes can Comprise (Direct energy storage alternatives for that application, Indirect energy storage alternatives at system level that alter the need at that application, downstream energy efficiency projects, downstream demand response projects, downstream production alternatives, infrastructure or capacity expansion and adjustment both at that application and system wide that alters the need at that application, expenditure delays or adjustments in acceptable reliability or reserve margin requirements, and additional energy production both marginal in short term and base load in long term).

And that no subsidies or quotas are factored in.

And if we’ve provided got an articulation and a theoretical formula describing the problem – then it’s time for some to crack it. Peer review requested, fire away.  Provided that, no commentary will be read by the author if it does not either contain reference to one of my acronyms, or introduce a new one.

What If…?

…someone invents an economically-competitive energy storage technology that could be deployed at any electricity substation at megawatt-hour scale?

…the power grid were brought up to 21st Century standards to match the true power quality needs of our increasingly digital society?

…high-speed rail was not the exclusive province of Europe and Asia?

…customers had real choice about electricity supplies, via ubiquitously cost-effective on-site generation options?

…cities and industries pursued viable cogeneration options with real vigor, and companies like Echogen revolutionize the capture of waste heat?

…the use of fracking was reliably paired with other technologies and solid oversight to assure that local water quality is not harmed when shale gas is produced?

…recovering coal and tar sands was undertaken only via mining approaches that don’t leave huge gouges in the earth’s crust?

…all companies involved in the mining and burning of coal would honestly acknowledge and deal responsibly with the environmental challenges associated with coal?

carbon sequestration technologies are more than just a pipe dream and can be widely applied with confidence that no leakage will occur?

…environmentally-responsible technologies were commercialized to produce oil from shale in the Piceance Basin, making the U.S. self-sufficient for years to come?

Joule is really onto something and can produce liquid fuels for transportation directly from the sun?

…fuel cells expand beyond niche markets via continuing improvements in technology and economics to penetrate mass-market applications?

nuclear fusion could ever become viable as a technology for generating electricity?

…new technologies for the production and use of energy in a more environmentally-sustainable matter were responsible for a major share of new jobs and economic growth in the U.S.?

…we stopped sending hundreds of billions of dollars overseas every year to fight both sides of the war on terrorism?

…we stopped subsidizing mature and profitable forms of energy?

…we determined that climate change was simply too big of a risk to keep ignoring and decided to tackle the issue out of concern for the future?

…Americans were willing to pay at least a little bit more for energy to help defray the costs of pursuing much — and achieving at least some — of the above?

…we later found out that we didn’t spend that much more money and also found ourselves living on a healthier planet and in a more fiscally-solvent country with a viable industrial future?

…certain fossil fuel and other corporate interests would cease misinforming the public on many economic and environmental issues related to energy consumption?

…Democrats and Republicans could come together and do what’s best for the country rather than what’s best to strengthen or preserve their party’s political power?

…more Americans cared about the above than who wins American Idol, Survivor or Dancing With the Stars?

Hola, Tres Amigas!

by Richard T. Stuebi

Something grand is emerging on the vast dusty plains of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.

Tres Amigas is an ambitious scheme to interconnect the three primary power grids in the U.S. — the Western grid known as WECC, the Eastern grid known as the Eastern Interconnection, and the Texas grid known as ERCOT.

As profiled in an article called “A Highway for the 21st Century” in the recent edition of Energy Biz magazine, Tres Amigas aims to incorporate high-voltage direct current (HVDC) and grid-scale energy storage technologies to enable synchronization and massive power transfer capability across the three grids — which are almost completely separated today.

Although it might seem straightforward to tie together three power grids, this is actually a very challenging technological problem.  AC to DC to AC converter stations are required at the interfaces, relying upon HVDC technologies that, while beginning to be more commonly employed, have never been deployed at the scale — 5 gigawatts initially, up to 30 gigawatts eventually — contemplated by Tres Amigas.  And, to absorb the large swings in generation provided by wind and solar projects in the Great Plains, Texas and the Desert Southwest, Tres Amigas aims to install utility-scale batteries, a still-developing area of technology.

Not surprisingly for a large and first-of-a-kind project, it’s not cheap.  Tres Amigas is forecasted to require up to $1 billion in capital.  The question will be whether the investors in Tres Amigas can make good returns. 

Presumably, the business model is based on a combination of wheeling charges (revenues from renewable energy project developers seeking to move power from source to load centers) and ancillary service fees (charges to the three grid operators to keep each of them more stable in the face of shifting supply and demand conditions).  A “merchant project” of this type and magnitude has never been tried.  No doubt, it’s a very risky bet. 

Not surprisingly, American Superconductor (NASDAQ:  AMSC), whose technologies are at the core of Tres Amigas and who would stand to benefit big-time from its success, is an investor sponsoring the development team.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see the battery supplier, when chosen, also joining the mix.

The upside of Tres Amigas to renewable energy interests is big.  If the project is completed, works well, and remains financially solvent, it will debottleneck many limits to adding further wind and solar projects in the Southwestern U.S.  There’s plenty of sun and wind out there, but the constraining factor in tapping it has been the ability of the power grid to cope with the inherent fluctuations in power output. 

With its energy storage capability and linkage across three grids, Tres Amigas would be big and bold enough to enable many heretofore thwarted renewable project developers West of the Mississippi to effectively reach a broader spectrum of potential customers from L.A. to Dallas to St. Louis, while mitigating the operational problems — such as those at the infamous congestion point near McCamey TX — that grid operators and other skeptics use as a basis for criticizing or objecting to renewable energy development.

More Charge for Grid Storage

by Richard T. Stuebi

While battery technology has been the subject of intensive focus for vehicular applications since the emergence of hybrid electric vehicles over the past few years, much less attention has been paid to batteries for the electric grid.

Although energy storage for the power grid offers great promise to augment the smart grid, facilitate more application of intermittent solar and wind generation and improve power quality, the costs of such technologies have generally been prohibitive relative to the economic benefits that they enable. Accordingly, grid storage has been relegated to a relatively small niche in the cleantech community.

That may be about to change.

In July’s issue of Intelligent Utility, Kate Rowland wrote an article entitled “No More Foot Dragging for Energy Storage?”, which begins with the following grabber: “Grid storage. You’re going to be hearing those words with increasing frequence in the weeks and months to come.”

In part, this is because Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in mid-July introduced the Storage Technology of Renewable and Green Energy Act of 2010 (S.3617), or more pithily known as the STORAGE Act.

The gist of the STORAGE Act is to make available $1.5 billion in tax credits to storage projects connected to the U.S. power grid, with each utility-based project eligible for a 20% investment tax credit (capped at $30 million) and each customer-sited project (with minimum 80% “round-trip” efficiency, “energy out” vs. “energy in”) eligible for a 30% ITC (capped at $1 million).

In her article, Rowland interviews David Nemtzow of Ice Energy, a developer of thermal energy storage units. Nemtzow was optimistic about the effectiveness of this policy approach, noting that “tax credits are a time-honored and pretty successful way to stimulate investment,” using the wind, solar and energy efficiency industries as examples.

It will be interesting to see if the STORAGE Act passes in something like its current form. If it does, it could well signal the breakout of a new frontier in the cleantech space. If not, like so many things in the cleantech realm, grid storage may be an idea whose time has not yet quite come.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.