Month: March 2012

Clean Energy and Dirty Laundry

Clean Energy and Dirty Laundry

An installation of Abound Solar's cadmium-telluride solar panels (via Abound Solar)

After solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011, critics were quick to point out the company’s fat government loan guarantee and question its political connections to the Obama administration. But just because a solar company, with a federal loan, makes cutbacks, does that mean the business is inept or corrupt?

My March 23, 2012 column for the Northern Colorado Business Report examines the recent case of Abound Solar, based in Loveland, which laid off hundreds of workers earlier this year in order to retool its production line. Also a recipient of a federal loan guarantee, Abound has faced allegations that it’s no different than Solyndra. I reported on how Abound’s setbacks may just be part of the shakeout in the emerging renewable technology industry, which still deserves some assistance to gain footing.

An excerpt from the column:

The company’s assertions that it needs to focus on developing new panels with higher efficiency certainly ring true. Industry observers project that technological advances may eventually enable cadmium-telluride panels to achieve between 16 and 20 percent efficiency (a measure of the energy that a solar panel converts into electricity). Arizona-based FirstSolar, the world’s second-largest photovoltaic manufacturer tested a cadmium-telluride module last summer that peaked at over 17 percent efficiency, though it averaged 11.7 percent over time. Abound officials have said their new “AB2” 85-watt module runs at 12.5 percent efficiency, a result verified at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

“Current market conditions are challenging for all U.S. solar manufacturers, but the long-term winners will be manufacturers of the lowest cost per watt, most reliable systems,” Abound CEO Craig Witsoe said in a press release.

Low costs are indeed helping to sort winners and losers in the solar manufacturing field.

With massive investment and subsidies for clean-energy technology in China, the prices of solar photovoltaic panels have dropped steeply in recent years. The market has tilted so sharply toward cheap Chinese solar modules that seven solar companies with U.S. offices filed a complaint last year with the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission. The case alleges that Chinese companies are unloading products below fair market value to beat down the American industry. Government trade officials are expected to issue a decision soon, which could result in 100-percent tariffs on the Chinese products and a leveled playing field for U.S. solar businesses.

Of course, low (and fair) prices are a good thing – especially as renewables help shift energy production away from fossil fuels that contribute to air and water pollution and climate change. That’s why the renewable industry has been booming, but that means there will be some busts, too.

Abound has said it plans to relaunch production by the end of the year, so its progress will serve as a major indicator of the company’s intentions. In the meantime, the government’s renewable-energy loans will likely be debated during the upcoming election season.

Of Cowboys and Indians

Of Cowboys and Indians

Malhotra speaking at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado (via iCAST)

Ravi Malhotra travels Colorado and the West helping rural businesses, bringing an internationally inspired approach to a conservatively local landscape.

I dropped in on Malhotra’s work several times over the past year, reporting for High Country News.

My story, “Of cowboys and Indians,” appears in the March 5, 2012 issue.

Here’s an excerpt:

But this is a typical day for Malhotra. He and his colleague Christopher Jedd are on a 72-hour journey around the state’s Western Slope on behalf of Malhotra’s Denver-based nonprofit iCAST — the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology. The group’s name and mission — “to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity” — make it sound like an aid group at work in the developing world.

And in a way, that’s what iCAST is. The economic hardships in small Western communities are a far cry from the persistent poverty in developing nations. But even so, unemployment in Delta County reached over 11 percent during the recession, surpassing the statewide average. And average per capita income ranks near the bottom for Colorado counties. As in many rural areas, families scramble to get by, shuttered storefronts punctuate the streets, and wireless Internet remains a novelty. It doesn’t help that educated young people tend to flee depressed rural areas for jobs in cities, leaving locals without much access to technical expertise. That makes it harder to tackle small engineering projects, develop ambitious business or marketing plans, or gain access to much-needed capital or credit. And many locals don’t want help directly from the government.

ICAST tries to bridge those gaps, helping rural residents learn how to maintain or expand their businesses in ways that also benefit the environment. Malhotra is quick to say that he and his staff are not experts on sanitation or forestry, ranching or horticulture, although iCAST projects have addressed all those fields.



Second Life

Second Life

A new Colorado corrections program, launched in 2011,  is helping older inmates — including lifers and convicted murderers — who have done their time to get a chance on the outside.

My feature story, “Second Life,” from the March/April 2012 issue of Miller-McCune profiles the program and participants and those inmates who aren’t yet deemed worthy.