Thursday, November 29, 2007

Google's "RE less than C" Initiative

Google has launched a new initiative to make renewable energy cheaper than energy derived from coal. The internet giant will invest "hundreds of millions" into solar thermal, wind and geothermal technologies and businesses, and hire its own engineers and researches for its own R&D team. Wall Street analysts who just don't know any better have quizzically scratched their heads and called into question this is a diversion at the expense of shareholder value. From a New York Times story on the initiative:

“My first reaction when I read about this was, ‘Is this a joke?’” said Jordan Rohan of RBC Capital Markets. “I’ve written off Google’s competition as a threat to Google’s long-term market share gains. But I haven’t written off Google’s own ability to stretch too far and try to do too much. Ultimately, that is the biggest risk in the Google story.”

Robert Peck of Bear Sterns agreed that “the headlines were a little scary at first” and said investors were initially worried that this was another example of Google “trying to bite off more than they can chew.”

Those of us who have followed Google's green ways know better. The company has had a fine tradition of green:

  • Founder's Sergey Brin and Larry Page were early investors in Nanosolar, one of the hottest Silicon Valley solar startups, and in Tesla Motors (which incidentally was named by Greentechmedia as one of the Top 10 clean tech startups of the year)
  • Google has developed cutting-edge energy efficiency technology to power and cool its data centers in the U.S. and around the world and joined other industry leaders to form the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a consortium that advocates the design and use of more energy-efficient computers and servers.
  • Generating electricity for its Mountain View campus from a 1.6 Megawatt corporate solar panel installation, at the time the largest, and still one of the largest in the U.S.
  • Accelerating development and adoption of plug-in vehicles through the RechargeIT initiative. (See also previous post)
  • Working on policies that encourage renewable energy development and deployment, such as a U.S. Renewable Energy Standard, through, its philanthropic arm.
Bottom line, renewable energy, while admittedly not Google's core business, is a tune that the Company and its founders have been singing consistently for some time. And to those who think the internet and renewable energy have tenuous links at best, try telling that to Tom Friedman or Fat Spaniel (which also incidentally made Greentechmedia's list)

Let's cut the justifications and get down to what this blog is about--Solar. One of Google's flagship partnerships under this initiative is with eSolar, California-based company developing solar thermal technology for utility-scale deployment, which boasts ease of transportation and installment, modularity, scalability, redundancy, and resilience against wind tear.

An eSolar windfarm (source: eSolar)

Monday, November 26, 2007

India Starts to Shine

China has received much attention for its emergence as a leading player in the solar industry, but its important to start paying attention to India, and specifically, the high-tech cluster of Hyderabad. The world's most famous venture capital fund, Kleiner Perkins, is targeting India for its next green tech opportunities (including solar). And 50% of the commercial space available in the new "Fab City" in Hyderabad has been taken up by solar companies (at the expense of semiconductor companies, the article explains).

Indeed, the authors of Clean Tech Revolution, a book I've highlighted previously, list Hyderabad as one of the ten emerging clean tech hubs of the world, noting that it is home to the likes of solar-power lantern maker, NEST, and seller of solar hot-water systems known as solar geysers, Photon Energy Systems.

Finally, it should be mentioned that India is also a destination for several notable rural electrification projects, as this one by the German energy company, Conergy, the Solar Electrific Light Fund (SELF), and the UNEP India Solar Loan Programme, demonstrating the usel of microfinance to achieve sustainable development.
Nov 30, 2007 follow up:
A German company thinks India has the chance to become one of the top four generators of solar energy after Germany, Japan and China.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Arup to Build Solar City

Arup, the global design and engineering firm which has garnered headlines in the sustainability world in recent years for its ambitious and ground-breaking eco-city project in Dongtan (东滩)near Shanghai, China, has announced plans to build the world's first solar city in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. The solar city will consist of a 33,000-acre mixed-use development of housing for 300,000 people as well as high-tech and commercial schemes. As the article points out, it will be interesting to see how Arup deals with the efficiency limitation that the PV panels will run into with the high ambient temperatures in Arizona. This is really the paradox of PV--while conventional wisdom would suggest that the sunniest regions are ideal for the utilization of PV, there exists a trade-off as PV efficiencies decline when ambient temperatures,which are high in sunny regions, exceed a certain point.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saving on Silicon

IBM is tapping on solar's door again (see previous story about IBM's flirtations with entering the solar industry). This time, IBM has devised a way to recycle slicon from discarded semiconductor wafers for ultimate utilization in solar cells. From IBM's website:
The new wafer reclamation process produces monitor wafers from scrap product wafers - generating an overall energy savings of up to 90% because repurposing scrap means that IBM no longer has to procure the usual volume of net new wafers to meet manufacturing needs. When monitors wafers reach end of life they are sold to the solar industry. Depending on how a specific solar cell manufacturer chooses to process a batch of reclaimed wafers - they could save between 30 - 90% of the energy that they would have needed if they'd used a new silicon material source. These estimated energy savings translate into an overall reduction of the carbon footprint -- the measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service -- for both the Semiconductor and Solar industries.
Separately, MIT Technology Review reports that Clean Venture 21, a Kyoto, Japan-based has developed a novel way of making solar cells that cuts production costs by as much as 50 percent by reducing the amount of silicon needed. The photovoltaic (PV) cells are made up of arrays of thousands of tiny silicon spheres surrounded by hexagonal reflectors. These spheres work like car headlights but in reverse, ensuring that any light hitting the reflector is directed toward the sphere--essentially acting as mini-concentrators. The hexagonal shape of the reflectors allows them to be slotted together without dead space between them.

Of course, the whole basis of the thin-film solar boom is the avoidance of silicon as a raw material. This piece by Popular Science (it has a cool slide show and animation too!) talks about Silicon Valley-based Nanosolar's silicon-free thin film technology.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Singapore's Green Ambitions

We were waiting for this to happen...or at least I was. Finally, an announcement that signifies that the island-state is ready to leverage its strengths as an international business center, source of highly educated and skilled labor, and perhaps a little more symbolically, a place with abundant sunshine...the Singapore government has successfully court Renewable Energy Corporation of Norway to build the world's largest solar wafer manufacturing facility with a production capacity of 1.5 gigawatts a year, or three-quarters of the world's total output last year. Singapore was reportedly chosen from over 200 possible global locations.

The announcement is part of Singapore's larger ambitions of becoming a clean tech leader, as it enacts a slew of energy efficiency initiatives described in this article. Also take a look at this government website (the Economic Development Board) outlines the country's clean tech plans. Finally, this other article in IHT discusses Singapore's joining of the second generation biofuels race.