Today in Cleantech

As if we needed any reminding, here’s a new report on China’s green technology dominance. According to a report just released from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, the United Nations Environment Program and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China accounted for $48.9 billion of the $211 billion in worldwide renewable energy investment in 2010. While China has been the top producer of solar and wind power technology for export for some time, these new figures confirm earlier reports that the country is also spending more for internal green power development. It looks as if driving down costs to compete in international markets makes it easier to justify domestic projects, particularly when the Chinese government is so closely connected with its greentech industries. Indeed, recent reports show that China’s cost of wind power installations continues to drop, even as Chinese solar panel manufacturers are driving down solar costs for projects abroad. At the same time, this most recent report indicates that China is leading a massive push by India and other developing nations to outpace the world’s richest countries in green power investment. In 2010, developing nations directed $72 billion toward green energy, compared with $70 billion in developed countries.

Today in Cleantech

Let’s take a trip back in time this Monday to mark down the important information of which U.S. utilities lead the nation in renewable energy — and they ain’t in California. According to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), as of 2010, Oregon’s Portland General Electric had the most customers signed up for renewable energy programs, with 78,000 residential and commercial customers, some 12.6 percent of all eligible customers. That’s much better than the national average of about 2 percent, and indicates Portland has a lot of green-conscious customers — as well as a lot of cost-competitive renewable power to sell, including wind and biomass. While California’s utilities are under mandate to add a much larger overall share of renewable power to their mix — one-third by 2020 — they’ve not been as fast in signing up customers to buy that power. As for total renewable energy sales, Texas’s Austin Energy’s 754.2 million kilowatt-hours beat PGE’s 735.7 million kWh, although just by a hair. Austin’s municipal utility has a lot of cool renewable energy-smart grid integration projects going on, like the DOE-funded Pecan Street Project — worth checking out.

Today in Cleantech

Can commodity biogas earn intermittent wind and solar power the title of a truly renewable AND baseload power source? That’s the contention that green technology analyst Dallas Kachan puts forward in a report released this morning. Kachan defines “bio natural gas” — also known as renewable natural gas and biomethane — as the gas that comes from cleaning up the methane captured from rotting organic material in landfills, dairy farms, food processing plants and other sources and injecting it into natural gas pipelines. That gas can then be contracted for use in gas-fired turbines, fuel cells or other generation sources that can use it to back up the intermittent power that comes from wind turbines and solar power plants. Wind farms already need backup power to cover dips in the wind, and those are usually natural gas-fired turbines. Burning biogas still creates CO2 emissions, but does prevent even more greenhouse gas-intensive methane from entering the atmosphere. Fuel cells that turn natural gas into power with even fewer emissions can get an even bigger carbon reduction. In face, fuel cell company Bloom Energy has been buying so-called “directed biogas” from sources far from its installations in California to be able to claim the state’s lucrative Self-Generation Incentive Program credit of up to $4,500 per kilowatt for fuel cells using biogas, compared to $2,500 per-kilowatt for those using natural gas. The big question, of course, is how big the bio natural gas business can grow to support the needs of all the would-be renewable, carbon-neutral power sources that want to use it to become always-on resources as well.

Today in Cleantech

Startups may have raked in cleantech venture capital in the first quarter, but big renewable energy projects struggled to raise cash. Global clean energy investment fell to $31.1 billion in the first three months of this year, its lowest quarterly total in two years, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported Friday. That’s down more than a third from a record $47.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 2010. While part of the big drop was due to a “hangover” from the record-high investments made in the last three months of 2010, it’s also based on some serious headwinds facing the industry. Solar power, for one, is being squeezed by an anticipated slowdown in feed-in tariffs and other government subsidies in big European markets such as Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, and U.S. wind power projects have been hit hard by falling prices for natural gas, which hit lows not seen since 2002, the report stated. What were the bright spots? The report identified Brazilian and Chinese wind power projects, with China spending $10 billion, or 25 percent more than the first quarter of 2010, and Brazil doubling its wind investment to $2.1 billion compared to the same quarter last year. China remains the leader in clean energy investment, with a 39 percent increase in to hit a record $54.4 billion last year. That was enough to give China the lead over the U.S. in installed renewable energy capacity, as well as retain its spot as the top manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels.

Today in Cleantech

Let’s put some facts and figures behind last night’s SOTU clean energy pitches. As you’ve all read by now, President Barack Obama called for America to get 80 percent of its energy from clean energy resources by 2035. What does that mean? Well, first of all, Obama included natural gas and “clean coal” in his list of clean energy, a rhetorical addition that actually makes 80 percent a more realistic target, even if clean coal technology is probably 25 years down the road. Still, given that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal will shrink from producing half of the country’s electricity today to a mere… 44 percent by 2035, we’d better find a way to make it cleaner. Second, Obama didn’t say how his administration or Congress might put us on that path during his remaining term. Will a national renewable energy mandate start us on the way, or will we have to rely on the 29 states and counting that have individual renewable portfolio standards? Third, Obama did say he would push Congress to strip the oil and gas industries of their federal subsidies and tax breaks, which according to some estimates have added up to $76 billion over the past decade, or 70 percent of all federal energy subsidies combined. Finally, Obama didn’t bring climate change into the argument — perhaps a good thing, since his hand-picked climate policy adviser is stepping down and carbon cap-and-trade legislation is all but dead for the next two years.

Today in Cleantech

Who needs international consensus on combating global warming when you’ve got resource scarcity to drive green investment? London-based banking giant HSBC released a report Monday predicting that global investment in low-carbon energy and efficiency technologies over the coming decade will at least double to $1.5 trillion from $740 billion now, but could more likely triple to $2.2 trillion. That growth will be “driven as much by resource scarcity and industrial innovation as by the raw realities of global warming.” China is set for the fastest growth and should outpace the United States by 2020, despite the Department of Energy’s massive stimulus boost. As for industry sectors, HSBC predicted more efficient transportation would lead, with $700 billion invested ($473 billion of that in the electric vehicle market), and renewable energy would grow to $500 billion by 2020.


HP: For Green Data Centers, Have a Cow

HP researchers this week put forth an intriguing idea for powering data centers: harvesting and processing cow waste. Under their setup, dairy farmers get an additional revenue stream and data center operators get a clean and cost-effective source of energy. Sounds like a solid win all around, but is it a practical green data center strategy or a distraction?

Today in Cleantech

Renewable energy is in the news. Yesterday, Google revealed that it invested $38.8 million in wind projects through its Google.org philanthropic arm. Also, San Diego-based Envision Solar, maker of the Solar Tree system that doubles as a carport, went public, but with a twist. And in Florida, 1,370 billboards will double as highly visible distributed renewable energy nodes thanks to a DoE grant. While the $12.5 million project from Lamar Advertising is only expected to produce 1 megawatt, the sheer exposure could make it worth every penny.

Ignore Greenpeace: The iPad Isn’t Bad News for Green IT

iPad, one of the most anticipated consumer electronics devices since Apple’s own iPhone, goes on sale this week. Demand is brisk, judging by shipping dates that now stretch into mid-April at Apple’s online store. This is leading some to wonder, will iPad’s success fuel a cloud computing boom to the detriment of the environment?