Choo, choo… The little hybrid train that could

Here’s an insightful little profile of Railpower Technologies Corp. at Forbes.com. It gives the uninitiated reader a good sense of how and why Railpower got its start, why the company’s Green Goat concept is so attractive, and where the Canadian company is going as rail operators look for ways to lower fuel and maintenance costs. For an update on how the company is doing financially and with its growth strategy, click here. (Sorry, free sign-in required for both)

U.S. to gain market lead in solar race: Sharp

Here’s a Reuters story citing comments from Ron Kenedi, vice-president for Sharp’s solar energy solutions group, which is the world’s largest maker of solar panels. He talks about how the conditions are right for the United States to jump ahead of Germany and Japan as the market leader in solar, thanks largely to supportive federal and state policies and programs. His most interesting comment was that the most attractive and highest growth opportunity for Sharp is the use of solar in new home construction.

“We’re in touch with all the major home builders and a lot of them have (solar) projects in the works,” he told Reuters, pointing out that Sharp is working on a 400-home project in Naples, Florida, with home builder Centex Corp., which wants to equip all those homes with solar PV systems. Another interesting tidbit: he says homes rigged with systems sell faster and have higher resale value than those without.

That’s why relationships like the one ATS Automation (Spheral Solar and Photowatt) has with Elk Roofing is so important, because down the road it could lead to huge sales directly to new home projects looking for building intregrated PV technologies. Fact is, whether it’s solar PV or geothermal/solar heating, the key to widespread use of these renewable technologies is to get the home builders on board in a big way.

FYI: On a related solar note, ARISE Technologies must have pitched itself well at the Cleantech Venture Forum. The company — which has its fair share of critics — announced this week it has raised $3.84 million in a brokered private placement, which will no doubt help the struggling solar company get its balance sheet in order. Not sure if the funding is a direct result of the Cleantech conference participation or whether this bun was already in the oven, but whatever the case it puts ARISE past the first of several hurdles towards its goal of tranforming from a solar distributor to a lower-cost producer of high-efficiency solar cells and PV-grade silicon. On the silicon front, the company also announced it has signed a non-binding letter of intent to establish its PV-silicon “research pilot” plant at a University of Waterloo technology park. So far we’ve seen lots of “intent” and “memorandums of understanding,” but investors can’t live on promises alone. This company will have to move fast to show it’s more than just words.

Solar, it’s in the bag

Okay, how do you know solar has become trendy? When some dinky online company called Backup-Power.ca starts selling backpacks and camera/computer bags touted as “solar bags” — a design by a company called Eclipse Solar Gear. Basically, they’re bags with a little transparent pocket containing PV cells. You can apparently plug your cellphones and laptops into a connector in the bag, as long as you’ve got your own cigarette lighter adapter. What you get out of that effort is a solar trickle charge that, well, might give you a little juice over a long time.

Cool, I guess. Great novelty gift for the environmentalist at heart. But beyond that, I think products such as these — as borderline useless as they might be — are great for building awareness of these technologies. Personally, my fav is the purse that’s lined inside with LEDs and powered by a battery that, of course, is charged by the solar PV shell on the purse. It’s dark in those damn purses. Gotta get my wife one so she can find the keys at night. 

Solar, it’s in the bag

Okay, how do you know solar has become trendy? When some dinky online company called Backup-Power.ca starts selling backpacks and camera/computer bags touted as “solar bags” — a design by a company called Eclipse Solar Gear. Basically, they’re bags with a little transparent pocket containing PV cells. You can apparently plug your cellphones and laptops into a connector in the bag, as long as you’ve got your own cigarette lighter adapter. What you get out of that effort is a solar trickle charge that, well, might give you a little juice over a long time.

Cool, I guess. Great novelty gift for the environmentalist at heart. But beyond that, I think products such as these — as borderline useless as they might be — are great for building awareness of these technologies. Personally, my fav is the purse that’s lined inside with LEDs and powered by a battery that, of course, is charged by the solar PV shell on the purse. It’s dark in those damn purses. Gotta get my wife one so she can find the keys at night. 

The overlooked renewable: small wind

There’s so much talk these days about solar and big wind farms that small wind technology is often overlooked as a viable alternative in certain situations. I’m no pro in this area, and some of the small-wind designs that have been pitched to me look downright silly and seem to lack enough information to make an educated decision about the product. That said, there are some serious players in the market, and one in particular managed to attract some venture capital yesterday.

Southwest Windpower of Flagstaff, Ariz., the largest producer of small wind generators (400 watts to 3,000 watts) in North America, has been around for 20 years, but the booming interest in renewable power helped it attract $8 million (U.S.) series-B equity investment led by Rockport Capital Partners of Boston. The VC arm of Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the financing.

“The capital will support… efforts to launch a new, lower cost, residential wind technology later this year,” the company said in a press release. “It is anticipated that this new technology will make it significantly cheaper — by up to 60 per cent — to produce wind energy on a residential scale.”

The company, which says it has produced more than 90,000 generators in two decades, says sales have increased by 50 per cent a year over the past two years. Obviously, there’s a huge market out there looking for this technology as an alternative to solar. In fact, the last time I wrote about small wind — in that case it was a vertical axis wind turbine being tested at McMaster University in Hamilton for urban use — the posting received quite a few hits. I think there are consumers and businesses out there craving more information about the technology.

BTW: If you go to Southwest Windpower’s site you’ll be able to pull up a list of distributors in Ontario. The site also provides some great information that will help you determine whether small wind is right for your situation.