Thursday, 7 August 2014

Gevo CEO Sees Minnesota Biofuels Plant Breaking Even This Year

Gevo hopes to raise isobutanol output at the facility to 1 million gallons annually by year end, and to 3 million gallons in 2015, Chief Executive Officer Pat Gruber said today in a telephone interview. The Luverne plant also produces 18 million gallons of ethanol.

Mass production of biofuels from plant waste has proven technologically and economically challenging. Alan Shaw, former chief executive of Codexis Inc., the first advanced biofuel company to be publicly traded in the U.S., last year called the industry a “nightmare.” He gave up and moved on to search for a process that uses natural gas instead.

“We want to increase isobutanol gallons on that site,” Gruber said. “It’s relatively inexpensive to switch the ethanol production back to isobutanol.”

Among the biofuel producers Gevo, Codexis Inc, Amyris Inc., Solazyme Inc. and Kior Inc., only one — Codexis — has posted a profitable quarter when it reported earnings per share of less than 1 cent in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Gevo fell to an all-time low in New York, dropping 6.4 percent at the close to 47.8 cents. The shares have declined 76 percent in the past year.

Gruber hopes to change that. Englewood, Colorado-based Gevo yesterday said it raised $18 million to support operations into 2015. The company’s two largest investors are billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and the French oil company Total SA, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Mixed Bag

Khosla also backs Kior Inc., which may sell itself after missing a $1.88 million debt payment to Mississippi where the company opened the first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant in 2012. That facility was shuttered in January.

Khosla pledged another $25 million to Kior, according to an April 1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mojgan Kahlili, who oversees Kior investments for Khosla Ventures LLC, didn’t respond to phone messages or e-mails seeking comment on the company’s biofuels strategy.

Gevo originally sought to produce only higher-margin isobutanol, which is made from corn and plant waste and may be blended with gasoline or converted into fuels and chemicals.

Biofuel companies including Gevo and Solazyme may join a few closely held producers in separating themselves from the pack, Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in Houston, said today in a telephone interview.

“It’s been a mixed bag,” Molchanov said. “Gevo was originally supposed to start producing isobutanol in 2012 and here it is 2014 and they’ve barely started producing — but they’re making progress. Kior, sadly, is kind of a lost cause.”

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg

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A Requiem for Today’s Grid

Mahesh Bhave, Indian Institute of Management
August 05, 2014  | 

People speak reverentially about the electricity grid, and rightly so. The U.S.’ electricity grid is an awesome technical, operational, and public policy accomplishment. Who can deny the matchless service it delivers, occasional weather-related breakdowns notwithstanding? In fact, acts of Mother Nature — Hurricane Sandy, say — only highlight its otherwise stellar reliability. And rural electrification, like rural telephony, is a triumph of public policy with foresight.

The AT&T system and Bell Labs once evoked similar awe. The reliability was wondrous. From any phone in any corner of the U.S., one could reach any other corner of the U.S. Who could quarrel with the perfection that was the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)?

But then the industrial order changed. The Bell Labs of yesterday barely exists today, and the telephone network has metamorphosed in amazing ways during the last twenty years. In July 2014, the new incarnation of AT&T installed their U verse high-speed Internet service at our home, and upgraded the network to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The Class 5 switch, payphones, and pagers are history.

The electricity grid as we know it today, shall also pass, and a new one will take its place. How do we manage the transition to Electricity 2.0?

As Telephone So Electricity

NY State’s Public Services Commission, in their April 2014 Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) document proposes one new approach. It envisages a new mission for utilities, that of Distributed Services Platform Providers (DSPP). “The DSPP will identify, plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain the needed modifications to existing distribution facilities to allow wide deployment of distributed energy resources.”

From grid-based electricity we are moving toward personal electricity, or home-based electricity. From one-way flow, we are moving toward two-way, transactive electricity flows on mesh networks. Electricians are now service providers of personal solar power plants. The natural monopoly is giving way to numerous electricity providers. In economics terms, the barriers to entry in electricity production have fallen. 

Off-grid solar homeowners enter the electricity business and compete with the utility. Such market entry undermines the natural monopoly principle at the heart of the industry structure. The REV document notes, “The introduction of widespread distributed resources can be perceived as challenging the natural monopoly model of utilities.” With the end of natural monopoly, “rate of return” regulations and geographical franchises begin to crumble.

Ease of market entry notwithstanding, the REV proposal continues to value monopoly elements in the interest of reliability. To quote, “The REV vision does not eliminate the natural monopoly of the distribution system operator; rather the locus of the natural monopoly is shifted from sheer physical delivery to management of a complex system of inputs and outputs while maintaining reliability [emphasis added].”

The New Public Interest

With technological advance and easy market entry, what constitutes the new public interest? It doubtless includes:

affordable and equitable electricity access;sustainability – distributed and grid-tied renewable resources;reliability of the grid (see Microgrids – A Regulatory Perspective);resiliency of supply in the face of storms or cyber attacks; and therefore itfosters new market entry, thereby competition – in renewable generation, in value-added services, and in new business models.

The public interest, however, no longer lies in regulating monopoly investments to support low electricity prices; solar affordably price competes with grid power in many markets.

People want green electricity – renewables – in the generation mix. Reliability has to be a given, no matter what the technology, or the topology, or the size of an operation. Microgrids – between off grid homes and the macrogrid – are expected to be more resilient during hurricanes.

Daniel Esty, Connecticut’s Department of Environment and Energy Services states, “our microgrid strategy aims at providing a mechanism at facilities like hospitals, sewage treatment plants and prisons where the power must stay on” and  “… keep police and fire stations, a place to charge cellphones, perhaps a school as a warming center, a grocery store, a gas station, a bank and a pharmacy … supported by distributed generation … while the grid is down.”

Microgrids, however, are a work-in-progress. And microgrid-based services are constrained by archaic laws, such as not being able to offer service to customers across a public right of way. Such laws, inconsistent with technological possibilities, are no longer in the public interest.

Laws changed in telecom in response to new business realities. For instance, Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLEC) were hosted at telephone company facilities; they used the unbundled “loop,” hitherto exclusive to the Bell system operators, to offer competitive and new services. Could microgrid operators be similarly co-located at a utility’s sub-station, and offer competitive electricity services to a neighborhood?

Mahesh Bhave Mahesh Bhave is a Visiting Professor of Strategy at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India since Fall 2010. His home is San Diego. He has worked in product management, strategy, and business development positions at Hughes, Sprint,...

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Siemens $25 Billion Financing Arm Helps Promote Renewable Energy Technologies

Siemens Financial Services, which has grown from leasing Siemens’s trains and medical scanners to investing more heavily in infrastructure and energy projects, is now promoting the energy assets that Siemens bought for $1.3 billion from Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc in May. The technology has applications in solar and wind plants, an area where SFS helps clients fund investments, unit head Roland Chalons-Browne said.

“If it’s a renewables project that’s using new or relatively untested equipment, we participate in that with equity or debt,” Chalons-Browne said in an interview. “That’s seen as an incremental endorsement of the technology. It raises the level of comfort of third-party investors.”

Siemens, which has been described in the past as being a bank with a manufacturing subsidiary, is using its financial clout as a technology incubator as banks become more risk averse. Kaeser, who took over as CEO last year, has acknowledged that Siemens was slow to make the most of the boom in extracting shale gas from hydraulic fracturing. He wants to make sure that error isn’t repeated elsewhere in the company, which has invested heavily into renewable energy.

Hybrid Projects

The installation of the smaller fossil-fueled turbines acquired from Rolls-Royce in renewables plants is an example of technology whose application is promising but still relatively untested in the eyes of customers, necessitating extra financing support.

They can be deployed in so-called hybrid projects, providing a backup to wind or solar plants by supplying power to the grid when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing, Kirk Edelman, the head of energy financing at Siemens Financial Services, said in the same interview last week at the unit’s headquarters on the outskirts of Munich.

“We’re excited about that because the acquisition of Rolls-Royce gives us some fast-start aero-derivative technology which lends itself very nicely to these hybrid projects,” he said. An increasing number of U.S. developers are considering adding these fast-start combustion turbines to their renewable plants, according to Edelman.

Siemens shares rose 0.2 percent to 90.26 euros as of 11:51 a.m. in Frankfurt. That pared the decline this year to 9 percent, valuing the company at about 80 billion euros.

GE Rivalry

Kaeser, who was promoted from finance head, has streamlined the company’s structure and strategy to bolster the energy business as he seeks to catch up with the profitability of U.S. competitor General Electric Co.

Of Siemens’s closest competitors, only GE has a captive financing arm, which can provide an edge in sealing deals. For instance, Montreal-based Bombardier Inc lost out on a $2.5 billion contract to supply trains for London’s Thameslink Rail Ltd. last year because Siemens was able to offer a deal that would see the rail connection paying nothing up front and leasing the trains.

GE has been downsizing its financing division, spinning off the consumer-lending unit, Synchrony Financial, in what was the U.S.’s biggest initial offering this year. During the latest economic crisis, GE Capital Corp. put the parent company at risk, prompting Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt to divest assets within the unit. Siemens doesn’t provide consumer lending.

Wind Farm

SFS’s total assets have expanded to 18.6 billion euros last year from 12.5 billion euros in 2010.

SFS has already helped push Siemens into new business areas. While renewable energy generated just 7 percent of Siemens’s 76 billion-euro revenue last year, less than fossil fuel power generation, it is the greatest single asset class held by SFS, according to Chalons-Browne. The company has increased renewable-energy revenue 17-fold since 2005, with the financing arm helping that expansion.

Siemens secured a $2.1 billion wind farm order this year in a Dutch offshore wind project, helped by SFS’s decision to take a 20 percent stake in the group funding the facility. Canada’s Northland Power Inc. owns 60 percent of the group, with Dutch offshore engineering specialist Van Oord NV holding 10 percent and Dutch public authorities the remaining shares.

“Everyone’s chasing yield,” said Edelman. “You have a lot of new investor classes coming into energy that weren’t there traditionally, primarily institutional investors. In the energy space, the yield tends to hold up pretty well versus let’s say the leveraged finance market.”

Service Contracts

Kaeser said in July he’s prepared to make more acquisitions to supply gas and oil equipment and benefit from the fracking boom in the U.S. Supplying more equipment would also give the company a lock on lucrative, long-term service contracts, he said.

The U.S. added about 21 gigawatts of wind and about 9.9 gigawatts of solar capacity in the past three years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Local clean-energy generation that’s backed up by small fossil-fired turbines may also become more important in Europe, and particularly in Germany, where towns and villages are “taking destiny in their own hands” instead of relying on transmission of offshore wind capacity from across the country, Chalons-Browne said.

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg

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Renewable Heating and Cooling Now Mandated in Massachusetts

Jennifer Runyon, Chief Editor,
August 04, 2014  | 

New Hampshire -- In the Northeast United States, homeowners and businesses use a lot of energy to heat (and cool, but mostly heat) their buildings and a new bill, waiting for Massachusetts Governor Patrick’s signature, means that more renewable energy technologies will be used to do that heating and cooling.

The renewable thermal bill awards alternative energy credits (AECs) to heating and cooling that is created with renewable technologies such as solar heating, geothermal and air source heat pumps, biofuels and wood pellets, wood chips, renewable bio-oils or renewable natural gas.  AECs are needed for Massachusetts’s utilities to meet their Alternative Portfolio Standard (APS), which up until now, could only be met through combined heat and power, flywheel storage, coal gasification and efficient steam technologies (like harnessing waste heat).  In 2014, the APS required that 3.5 percent of the electric load be met with alternative energy. The number increases by 0.25 percent each year.

Despite the prevalence of natural gas availability, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts uses 800 million gallons of heating oil each year, according to Charlie Niebling, chair of the Massachusetts Renewable Thermal Coalition. Niebling explained that the legislature realized it would need to include thermal renewable energy if it is to reduce emissions enough to meet the levels required in the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.

In neighboring New Hampshire, which was the first state in the nation to pass a thermal renewable energy carve out, renewable heating and cooling output is metered, measured, verified and reported to the Public Utilities Commission, where it is certified and then turned into thermal renewable energy credits (RECs). “Once it is certified thermal RECS, then you have something that has value,” said Niebling.  In NH the specific value of thermal RECs have not yet been determined because rulemaking has just been completed and a market for them has not been established yet.  Just like SRECS, the value of thermal RECs is a function of supply and demand.

For Massachusetts, Niebling estimates that the total value of AEC’s will be between $12 and 30 million. He bases that figure on AECs being sold for between $20 and $28 per MWh. “[The Massachusetts] APS has been operating in a supply deficit so that value of credits is quite high,” said Niebling, adding that the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is “very supportive of thermal.”

The Beginning of a Trend?

Members of the Coalition for Renewable Heating and Cooling worked for more than 18 months to get the bill passed in Massachusetts and they hope that now that two states have a thermal renewable energy requirement on the books, others will fall quickly. “We are hoping this is the beginning of a trend of states recognizing parity [of heating and cooling with electricity] in their portfolio standards” said Niebling, who thinks New York could be another state take similar action. New York is the number one importer of heating oil, said Niebling and that state could pass an RPS through the public utilities commission. “It doesn’t take an act of legislature,” Niebling explained.

Once signed by the governor, the Massachusetts law will go into effect on January 2015 but Niebling thinks another year may be necessary to work out the logistics. In NH, the bill was passed in the summer of 2012 and rulemaking has only recently been finalized, according to Niebling.

Lead image: Wood Pellets and Calculator via Shutterstock 

Jennifer Runyon Jennifer Runyon is chief editor of and Renewable Energy World magazine, coordinating, writing and/or editing columns, features, news stories and blogs for the publications. She also serves as conference chair of...

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New China Solar Storm Brewing in the EU

The war of words against Chinese solar panel makers is heating up from both sides of the Atlantic, with growing signs that Europe may reconsider anti-dumping duties as the U.S. moves closer to imposing its own new duties on the beleaguered manufacturers. Meantime, two of the biggest Chinese victims of the sector’s recent turmoil have risen from the ashes, with LDK and Suntech both announcing new moves more than a year after each became insolvent. Among those 2 moves, LDK’s looks the most worrisome, potentially bringing major new volumes of polysilicon, the main ingredient in solar panel production, back into a market whose current recovery is still quite weak.

All of these separate developments show the solar industry has yet to reach a new state of stability, and that such a new equilibrium could still be years away as market and government forces intermingle to keep the sector in a state of uncertainty. The latest destabilizing forces began late last week in the U.S., as Washington moved one step closer to imposing new anti-dumping duties on Chinese panels. That move was largely expected and aimed at closing a loophole in an earlier ruling, and drew the usual howls of protest from Beijing and most of the country’s major solar panel makers.

In a new and similar development from Europe, a major local trade group is blasting a compromise agreement reached between China and the EU last year that averted a similar trade war. I’ll admit I don’t completely understand the logic in the new sounds of dissatisfaction coming from EUProSun, a group that represents about 40 percent of EU solar panel makers, including Germany’s outspoken SolarWorld (Frankfurt: SWVKk).

But the bottom line is that the European manufacturers believe that last year’s landmark compromise agreement isn’t working. These latest protests come just over a month after the European panel makers previously complained that their Chinese rivals were finding loopholes to evade terms of the same compromise agreement.

If there’s any truth to the European complaints, which seems likely, it could soon become difficult for the European Trade Commission to ignore the situation as more local companies struggle and even go bankrupt. Europe’s trade commissioner previously wanted to impose anti-dumping tariffs on the Chinese panel makers similar to those from the US, and was only prevented from doing so after several major EU leaders intervened to seek a compromise solution. Thus if the compromise really isn’t working, the EU could easily reopen its investigation into unfair state support for the Chinese panel makers and impose punitive tariffs as soon as by the end of this year.

Meantime, let’s look quickly at the latest news bits from LDK and Suntech, two former sector leaders that both went bankrupt and are just now starting to regroup and resume business after major reorganizations. The most worrisome of the news bits says that LDK is planning to restart a long-idled plant making polysilicon, the main ingredient used to make solar panels. The massive 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) plant had been idled for two years, and its return to the market will inevitably put pressure on global polysilicon and panel prices.

Suntech’s news looks a bit more benign, and will see the company open a subsidiary to serve South Africa. The move is one of the first major ones by Suntech since its primary assets were acquired last year by Hong Kong-listed Shunefeng (HKEx: 1165), which is now trying to move ahead with the well-known Suntech name. An aggressive new Suntech in the solar market could also undermine the sector’s recent stabilization, hinting at turbulent times ahead for the sector for the rest of this year and into 2015.

Bottom line: The EU is likely to reopen an anti-dumping probe into Chinese solar panel makers and impose punitive tariffs, while new moves by Suntech and LDK will further undermine the sector’s recovery.

This article was originally published on Young's China Business Blog and was republished with permission.

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Tesla Breaks Ground for Its Gigafactory in Nevada

The electric-car maker said it’s still reviewing sites in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, each of which is competing to snare the economic development plum, described as the single biggest new industrial project in the U.S.

“On the Nevada side, the ball is in the court of the governor and the state legislature,” Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said yesterday in a conference call.

For Nevada, with a 7.7 percent unemployment rate that’s the third-highest in the U.S., Tesla represents an opportunity to show that its economy can diversify beyond gambling and housing. The stakes are high for the other states as well. Putting the plant in California would help shake a reputation for high costs and tough regulations that stifle business. For Texas, where Governor Rick Perry is eyeing a comeback presidential bid, the plant could boost prospects on the national stage.

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, said it needs the sprawling factory in operation by 2017 to supply lower-cost lithium-ion cells for its cars and packs for home-power storage devices.

“We’ve essentially completed the creating of the construction pad for the gigafactory in Nevada,” Musk said. “We are going to be doing something similar in one or two other states.” Musk has said Tesla might start work on as many as three potential sites and decide by year-end which to build to completion, based on the speed of regulatory approval.

State Incentives

The billionaire entrepreneur said he expects the state selected for the plant to provide about 10 percent of the factory’s cost. That suggests Tesla is looking for incentives of $400 million to $500 million for the project.

“Before we actually go to the next stage of pouring a lot of concrete, we want to make sure we have things sorted out at the state level — the incentives are there that make sense and are fair to the state and Tesla,” Musk said. “We want to make sure it’s compelling for all parties.”

Jennifer Cooper, a spokeswoman for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s Office of Economic Development, said conversations with Tesla remain confidential.

The Nevada site is in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center in McCarran, nine miles east of Reno. The center, which covers 107,000 acres, has 30,000 developable acres pre-approved for industrial and manufacturing uses, according to its website.

‘Most Attractive’

Given the scale of the investment required for the battery plant, “this would rank as the most attractive industrial project out there,” Dennis Cuneo, president of DC Strategic Advisors LLC and a former Toyota executive who helped that carmaker select manufacturing sites, said in an interview earlier this year.

Jonathan Gemmen, a senior location consultant with Austin Consulting, a site-selection firm based in Cleveland, said Tesla’s gigafactory is the most-watched project in his industry, if only for the media attention it’s drawn.

“There’s a real panache and marketing piece because the technology itself is so interesting,” Gemmen said of Tesla’s electric cars. “Louisiana has announced a bunch of chemical projects this year that the mainstream media doesn’t care about. From a marketing perspective, this is the hottest thing going on.”

California, which has lost manufacturing jobs to states with lower taxes and less regulation, was initially ruled out by Musk in February. He cited the time needed for the state’s stringent environmental review. In May, Musk said California was back on the list.


“Tesla was born in California and currently employs over 6,000 people, making them the largest automotive company in the state,” Brook Taylor, a spokesman from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, said in a statement. “The administration is working every day to help companies expand in California and Tesla is certainly one of those companies.”

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in July that grants a tax incentive to companies making certain types of batteries eligible for a tax credit. State lawmakers also have promised to push for regulatory changes that would make it easier for Tesla to build the factory there.

California, home to more companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index than any other state, has seen dozens of employers depart for places such as Texas. That, executives say, points to California’s highest-in-the-nation income and sales tax rates, plus a cost of living that is sixth highest in the country, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

Apple, Toyota

In 2012, Apple Inc. chose Texas to build a new operations hub after the Lone Star State offered $21 million in tax incentives. Toyota Motor Corp. in April said it was moving 2,000 California jobs to a new North American headquarters outside Dallas. While the carmaker said it made the move to be closer to southern manufacturing facilities, Texas offered the company $40 million in incentives.

Perry appeared in Sacramento in June driving a Tesla, telling reporters he wished it had a “made in Texas” bumper sticker.

Texas, while farther from Tesla’s California headquarters, can pitch its lower costs of living and doing business, as well as looser regulations, said Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“We’ve had a lot of companies expand and move to Texas at the expense of California,” Weinstein said. “They’ve lost so many businesses to Texas that they will do anything needed to bring that plant to California.”

High Unemployment

Nevada’s unemployment rate peaked at 13.9 percent in August 2010 and remained higher than all but Rhode Island and Mississippi in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state has courted cleaner manufacturers through incentives such as sales and use tax reductions to companies that use solar, wind, biomass, fuel cell, geothermal and hydro power sources.

Economic development authorities, buoyed by Apple’s decision to build a solar-powered data center in Reno last year, are trying to lure Tesla with promises of abundant sunshine and other renewable energy sources, comparatively lax environmental rules and a workforce trained in robotics, Mike Kazmierski, president of the Reno-based Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said by telephone.

“The most important reason is that the cost of doing business in Nevada, and northern Nevada specifically, is about 30 percent to 40 percent less than in California,” Kazmierski said. “Manufacturing is a big part of our economy and continues to get bigger.”

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg

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BMW Offers Fast Battery Chargers to Help Electric Vehicle Sales

The units, developed in collaboration with component supplier Robert Bosch GmbH, can bring the battery up to 80 percent of power capacity in 30 minutes, Munich-based BMW said today in a statement. U.S. owners of the i3 can buy the charger, about half the size of a standard refrigerator, for $6,548. Customers in California will have the additional option of loading up their batteries using fast charging at no cost at NRG Energy Inc.’s eVgo charging stations through 2015.

BMW’s offer follows similar programs by electric-car producers Tesla Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. to overcome customers’ fears of being stranded by a dead battery. Tesla, the U.S. maker of the Model S sports car, established a network of free fast charging stations in Norway after covering California. Nissan offers customers of its Leaf hatchback two years of free charging at selected U.S. locations.

The BMW fast chargers are compatible with cabling setups provided by other carmakers, including Daimler AG, General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Co., the German company said.

Demand for the i3 compact, which was introduced in November, has exceeded production and the order book is stretching until the end of this year, Ian Robertson, BMW’s head of sales, said last month. Under current setups, the battery can reach an 80 percent charge in less than six hours, according to the i3 product website.

BMW added to the “i” alternative-power model lineup in June with the $135,700 i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, which can drive emission-free for 23 miles.

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