Tag Archives: clean energy

Clean energy technologies? No bubble bursting there. Future is growth, growth, growth

There was a clever headline in the satirical newspaper The Onionearlier this week that wouldn’t be so humorous if it wasn’t true.

“300 Million Without Electricity In India After Restoration Of Power Grid,” the headline read.

The article was referring to the massive power outage across India Tuesday that cut electricity to 670 million citizens, the equivalent of two Americas going dark. Without question, it was the largest blackout in world history.

What was so witty about the headline was how it drew attention to another problem too often overlooked in India. Even when the existing power grid is working fine, there are still 300 million people in that country lacking access to electricity, meaning no basic necessities like refrigeration, lighting, or the appliances we westerners take for granted.

Considering India has the world’s worst air pollution, as researchers at Yale and Columbia universities concluded earlier this year, The Onion’s blackout story carries two important messages: One, the third of India without electricity could benefit tremendously from community-level investments in solar, wind and other non-polluting energy sources; second, the two-thirds who are connected to the grid will now be urging their local and national governments to modernize India’s electricity system.

That usually means cleaning it up, making it smarter and more reliable, and investing in clean technologies — from Canada, perhaps — that make it more robust and efficient.

There are some commentators out there who like to point to very specific events as evidence that the clean energy and technology boom has gone bust. They point to the exaggerated Solyndra “scandal,” which saw the bankruptcy of the solar manufacturing start-up after it received — and had already burned through — funding that was secured via a $535 million (U.S.) loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.

It makes for great politics, but the reality is that companies do sometimes fail and the public does often have flesh in the game. It’s not unique to clean energy. The loan guarantee program, after all, was designed for high-risk bets. Looked at objectively, the program has actually outperformed expectations. Solyndra and a handful of others are falling stars in a galaxy of promise.

But Solyndra is just the start. Clean energy skeptics point to company closures and the collapse of many solar, wind and other cleantech-themed stocks. They cite how U.S. government stimulus spending for clean energy projects is coming to an end. They flag how several jurisdictions in Europe, which is dealing with unrelated economic problems, are reducing subsidies for renewable energy projects.

The green dream is dead — or dying. It’s the message you get when listening to those, mostly living in a North American bubble, who doubted the vision in the first place.

This cacophony ignores the incredible needs of countries like India, which is already among the top spenders in the world on clean-energy projects, having spent $10.2 billion on renewable energy in 2011. As the blackout suggests, the need to accelerate that spending has grown more urgent.

Japan, meanwhile, is embracing renewable energy in a big way in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. It just launched its own feed-in-tariff program —similar to the one in Ontario —aimed at aggressively spurring solar, wind and geothermal development to help reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear power.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported this month that global investment in clean energy surged to $57 billion in the second quarter of 2012, up 24 per cent from the first quarter and carried largely by a stunning 92 per cent spending increase out of China. Investment is still down year-over- year —2011 wasn’t a great year generally, right? —but it’s on the upswing in 2012, hardly the sign of collapse.

That boost from China is expected to continue, particularly in solar. As part of its 12th five-year economic plan, released in 2011, China originally expected to increase solar installations 20-fold by 2020. Last month it decided to draw forward that target to 2015, when it hopes to have 21 gigawatts of solar power capacity in place —enough to supply all of Ontario on a sunny spring day.

Why is China moving in this direction? Economically, it carries long-term strategic importance. But China’s citizens are also growing fed up with unbearable air, water and soil pollution, so much so that there is a rise in violent protests breaking out across the country.

The reason why clean energy isn’t a fad or a bursting bubble is that global problems such as climate change, pollution, poverty, food scarcity, crumbling legacy infrastructure, and access to clean water aren’t going away anytime soon. Renewable energy and other clean technologies may not be the only solution, but they are a big and growing part of it.

Will nuclear help out? Maybe, but don’t count on it. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, a big supplier of nuclear technology, told the Financial Times this week that it’s “really hard” these days to justify the cost of nuclear. “I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar … that’s where we see most countries around the world going.”

Ontario may want to reconsider plans for new nukes at Darlington.

Fact is, renewable energy costs are falling fast, and that’s part of the reason there are layoffs, profit warnings, bankruptcies and falling share prices in the industry. Subsidies are supposed to gradually fade away, something the fossil fuel industry hasn’t learned after 100 years of handouts.

There was oversupply in clean energy equipment. Weak companies are struggling and some are failing. Those intent on surviving figure out how to innovate, adjust, enter new geographic markets and come out stronger – the cycle is not unique to clean energy.

“Any emerging market will experience growth problems and will have winners and losers. And the losers’ problems do not necessarily indicate the absence of a long-term market,” says Craig Tighe, a partner with global law firm DLA Piper. “Were that the case, the loss of Palm and Handspring would mean that the smart phone market is not sustainable, which is manifestly not the case.”

Growth in clean energy is happening. What’s changing is the pace of that growth and the players who get to benefit.

There’s no bubble bursting here.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Obama to throw full weight of presidency behind clean energy policy in 2011: Rolling Stone interview

I highly encourage you to read this insightful Rolling Stone interview with President Obama, who covers off a range of topics including energy policy. The interviewer asked two questions related to energy. In a nutshell, Obama says he’s disappointed things haven’t moved faster but plans to throw the full weight of his presidency behind energy policy in 2011. Questions excerpted below:

Question: James Hansen, the NASA scientist who is perhaps the most respected authority on global warming, says that climate change is the predominant moral issue of the 21st century, comparable to slavery faced by Lincoln and the response to Nazism faced by Churchill. Do you agree with that statement?

Obama:  What I would agree with is that climate change has the potential to have devastating effects on people around the globe, and we’ve got to do something about it. In order to do something about it, we’re going to have to mobilize domestically, and we’re going to have to mobilize internationally.

During the past two years, we’ve not made as much progress as I wanted to make when I was sworn into office. It is very hard to make progress on these issues in the midst of a huge economic crisis, because the natural inclination around the world is to say, “You know what? That may be a huge problem, but right now what’s a really big problem is 10 percent unemployment,” or “What’s a really big problem is that our businesses can’t get loans.” That diverted attention from what I consider to be an urgent priority. The House of Representatives made an attempt to deal with the issue in a serious way. It wasn’t perfect, but it was serious. We could not get 60 votes for a comparable approach in the Senate.

One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels. We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation. But we’re going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it’s good for our national security, and, ultimately, it’s good for our environment.

Understand, though, that even in the absence of legislation, we took steps over the past two years that have made a significant difference. I will give you one example, and this is an example where sometimes I think the progressive community just pockets whatever we do, takes it for granted, and then asks, “Well, why didn’t you get this done?”

We instituted the first increase in fuel-efficiency standards in this country in 30 years. It used to be that California would have some very rigorous rule, and then other states would have much weaker ones. Now we’ve got one rule. Not only that, it used to be that trucks weren’t covered, and there were all kinds of loopholes — that’s how SUVs were out there getting eight miles a gallon. Now everybody’s regulated — not only cars, but trucks. We did this with the agreement of the auto industry, which had never agreed to it before, we did it with the auto workers, who had never agreed to it before. We are taking the equivalent of millions of cars off the road, when it comes to the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced.

Is it enough? Absolutely not. The progress that we’re making on renewable energy, the progress that we’re making on retrofitting buildings and making sure that we are reducing electricity use — all those things, cumulatively, if we stay on it over the next several years, will allow us to meet the target that I set, which would be around a 17 percent reduction in our greenhouse gases.

But we’re going to have to do a lot more than that. When I talk to [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu, who, by the way, was an unsung hero in the Gulf oil spill — this guy went down and helped design the way to plug that hole with BP engineers — nobody’s a bigger champion for the cause of reducing climate change than he is. When I ask him how we are going to solve this problem internationally, what he’ll tell you is that we can get about a third of this done through efficiencies and existing technologies, we can get an additional chunk through some sort of pricing in carbon, but ultimately we’re going to need some technological breakthroughs. So the investments we’re making in research and development around clean energy are also going to be important if we’re going to be able to get all the way there. Am I satisfied with what we’ve gotten done? Absolutely not.

Question: Do you see a point at which you’re going to throw the whole weight of the presidency behind this, like you did on health care or financial reform?

Obama: Yes. Not only can I foresee it, but I am committed to making sure that we get an energy policy that makes sense for the country and that helps us grow at the same time as it deals with climate change in a serious way. I am just as committed to getting immigration reform done.

I’ve been here two years, guys. And one of the things that I just try to remember is that if we have accomplished 70 percent of what we committed to in the campaign, historic legislation, and we’ve got 30 percent of it undone — well, that’s what the next two years is for, or maybe the next six.