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Posts Tagged ‘SunPower’

UCILLA WANG, The Greentech Innovations Report, June 9, 2009

sunpowerWhen Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced a deal to buy solar power from a proposed 230-megawatt project last Friday, it shone a spotlight on a two-year-old company with a different business model than many startups who have inked similar deals with the utility.

The deal also raised the question: Who is NextLight?

NextLight Renewable Power, based in San Francisco, wants to be purely a power plant developer and owner. The deal with PG&E is the first power purchase agreement for the startup, which is funded by private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, said Jim Woodruff, vice president of regulatory and government affairs, in an interview Monday.

“We think the tech agnostic approach is a winning business model,” Woodruff said. “All the core skills that are necessary to develop power projects are the same” for solar or other types of power plants.

The company boasts managers who have experience developing power plants and transmission projects as well as negotiating renewable power purchases.

NextLight’s CEO, Frank De Rosa, worked for PG&E for 23 years and held various roles at the utility, including the director of renewable energy supply, before founding NextLight in 2007. Woodruff worked for Southern California Edison for more than 10 years, first as an in-house counsel and later as the manager of regulatory and legislative issues for the utility’s alternative power business.

NextLight has been developing other solar power projects on public and private land in western states, including a plan to install up to 150 megawatts of generation capacity in Boulder City, Nevada.

The Boulder City Council is slated to vote on whether to lease 1,100 acres of city land to NextLight tonight. The company would sell 3,000-megawatt hours of energy per year to the city if the project is built, Woodruff said.

PG&E signed the deal with NextLight after it had inked many power purchase agreements in recent years to buy solar power from startup companies with the ambition to both develop their own technologies as well as owning and operating solar farms.

Some of the projects seem to be moving along. A few have hit snags. The deal to buy power from Finavera, an ocean power developer in Canada, fell apart last year when the California Public Utilities Commission decided that the contract would be too costly to ratepayers (see California Rejects PG&E Contract for Wave Energy).

OptiSolar, which was supposed to build a 550-megawatt solar farm to sell power to PG&E, couldn’t raise enough money to operate its solar panel factory and develop solar farms.

First Solar, another solar panel maker based in Tempe, Ariz., bought OptiSolar’s project development business for $400 million in April this year. First Solar would use its own, cadmium-telluride solar panels, instead of the amorphous silicon solar panels OptiSolar was developing. PG&E has said that the power contract would remain in place.

NextLight, on the other hand, would pick different solar technologies instead of developing its own. The approach isn’t new – SunEdison was doing this before others joined the party.

But there is no guarantee that this approach would enable NextLight to deliver energy more cheaply, and neither NextLight nor PG&E would discuss the financial terms of their contract.

“Our priority is about diversification of the resources we use and the companies we work with,” said PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Zerwer. “Contracting for renewable via [power purchase agreements] is beneficial because it helps grow that ecosystem of renewable development, and there is no risk to our customers.”

Rumors have been circulating about whether NextLight would use SunPower’s equipment for the 230-megawatt project, which is called AV Solar Ranch 1, particularly since the project’s website features a photo of SunPower panels.

Woodruff said NextLight hasn’t selected a panel supplier. The company and PG&E have agreed to use solar panels, but the utility wouldn’t have a final say on the supplier, Woodruff added.

Gordon Johnson, head of alternative energy research at Hapoalim Securities, also cast doubt on the SunPower rumor.  “Based on our checks, we do not believe [SunPower] won the PPA with NextLight,” Johnson wrote in a research note.

NextLight plans to start construction of the AV Solar Ranch project in the third quarter of 2010 and complete it by 2013. The company said it would start delivering power in 2011.

The project would be located on 2,100 acres in Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County, Woodruff said. The company bought the property last year for an undisclosed sum.

The company would need approval from the Los Angeles County to construct the solar farm. The California Public Utilities Commission would need to approve the power purchase contract between PG&E and NextLight.

NextLight also is developing a power project with up to 425 megawatts in generation capacity in southern Arizona.  The company is negotiating to a farmland for the Agua Caliente Solar Project, Woodruff said. The 3,800 acres are located east of the city of Yuma.

The company is negotiating with a utility to buy power from Agua Caliente, said Woodruff, who declined to name the utility.

NextLight hasn’t decided whether to install solar panels or build a solar thermal power plant for the Agua Caliente project. Solar thermal power plants use mirrors to concentrate the sunlight for heating water or mineral oils to generate steam. The steam is then piped to run electricity-generating turbines.

But solar panels appear to be a more attractive option than solar thermal for now, Woodruff said.

“We’ve concluded that, in the near term, PV is more cost effective,” he said.

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SCOTT DUKE HARRIS and MATT NAUMAN, San Jose Mercury News, January 27, 2009

obama-hope2As President Barack Obama and Congress hammer out an economic stimulus package expected to be in the $825 billion range, Silicon Valley clean tech leaders are heartened by an energy agenda that starts with an emphasis on “smart grid” technologies that encourage energy conservation.That agenda will add jobs and bring dollars to several Silicon Valley companies, they say, especially those making smart grid components, solar panels, electric cars and green building materials.

It’s “a good start,” said venture capitalist Pascal Levensohn, whose portfolio includes clean tech investments. “There is a lot of optimism.”

Details of the new stimulus package are still being worked out, but talks suggest that about $60 billion will be applied toward promoting clean, efficient “energy independence” and creating jobs in the process.

Billions of dollars are expected to be applied to weatherizing government buildings, schools and homes. Billions more would go to loans and grants to promote renewable energy such as solar and wind. And still more billions would be spent upgrading the infrastructure of America’s power grids.

Bringing the power grid into the Internet age is a priority. The bill presented by House Democrats includes $11 billion to boost the IQ of electrical grids by employing sensors to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. An alternative bill introduced in the Senate would raise that sum to $16 billion.

“We’ve been swimming upstream,” said Peter Sharer, chief executive of Agilewaves, a Menlo Park maker of a product that monitors electricity, gas and water use in homes and businesses. “We’re finally swimming with the current. That’s what federal support means to us.” 

While initiatives like solar power have cosmic cachet, upgrading the power infrastructure is the logical place to start, some clean tech investors say. “We know that efficiency is the low-hanging fruit,” explained Levensohn, of Levensohn Venture Partners in San Francisco. 

America’s aging power grids now waste 10 to 30 percent of electricity from the generator to the plug, industry experts say. Foundation Capital partner Steve Vassallo likened the grid to a leaky bucket. Instead of simply putting more energy into the system, “the first thing you should do is fix the bucket,” he said.

The weaknesses in California’s energy grid and marketplace were starkly exposed in 2000 and 2001. Then, as Californians were hit by brownouts and ballooning electricity bills, President George W. Bush refused to support temporary price caps and blamed the energy crisis on environmental rules and a shortage of power plants. Only later was it discovered that energy dealers including Enron, a major supporter of Bush and adviser on Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force, were gaming California’s dysfunctional energy market, profiteering with schemes nicknamed “Death Star” and “Get Shorty.” Enron would later implode from its own culture of corruption.

The energy crisis inspired Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to seek solutions. Menlo Park’s Foundation started investing in clean tech in 2002, including smart grid companies Silver Spring Networks, based in Redwood City; eMeter, based in San Mateo; and EnerNOC, based in Boston.

The “smart grid” approach employs real-time monitoring and sensors to minimize waste and help identify parts of the grid that are leaking energy and need repairs. In an age of Internet connectivity, utilities typically remain unaware of outages until consumers call with problems, Vassallo said, and still rely on human meter readers walking door-to-door to check energy use “30 days in arrears.”

Pacific Gas & Electric plans to spend more than $2 billion to install 10.3 million smart electric and gas meters. Installations started in Bakersfield in late 2006, and are scheduled to reach the Bay Area by the end of this year.

This digital, wireless device will allow PG&E to get quicker notification of power outages, and also allow it to cut or reduce power during periods of high demand, if a customer agrees. Eventually, PG&E says, smart meters will allow it to better tap into energy that is put into the grid from solar panels installed on homes and businesses.

While California’s grid is “getting smarter,” Vassallo said, most states are served by power grids without the benefit of any information technology and, unlike California, have pricing structures that do not encourage conservation.

Valley companies are keenly scrutinizing the potentially devilish details. SunPower, the San Jose maker of solar modules, is pleased with the “wide, broad, deep effort” to promote cleaner energy as part of the stimulus, said Julie Blunden, a vice president. But she doesn’t think the effort will generate jobs until the second half of 2009.

SunPower, Blunden said, is ready to ramp up work in areas where it has expertise, such as putting solar systems on government buildings, as well as “beefing up areas where we don’t have strong, established channels.”

Weatherizing buildings and promoting new “green” development might benefit companies such as Serious Materials, a Sunnyvale maker of energy-saving building materials, such as heavily insulated windows and greener drywall.

Kevin Surace, the company’s chief executive, sees a lucrative market — 1 million to 2 million homes a year plus tens of thousands of government buildings. His company just bought two window factories, and Surace expects to grow his head count from 150 to 250 or 300 by year’s end.

Project Frog, a San Francisco company that builds green school buildings, is also encouraged. “We’re ready to help schools make use of these funds,” said Adam Tibbs, the company’s president.

Government support may help stimulate more private-sector investments in energy, says Agilewaves’ Sharer and other clean tech executives. But Lyndon Rive, chief executive of Solar City, which was expanding rapidly until the credit crunch hit, said the most important thing for clean tech is for financing to flow again.

“We want to get banks back into buying solar, wind and other renewable” energy assets, Rive said.

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