Category Archives: Green Business

GeoStellar Gives Solar Adoption A Boost

solar_panels_american_direct
Image via AmericaSolarDirect

Bringing Big Data down to earth isn’t just a figure of speech for Geostellar, a Washington, D.C.-based startup using social media to drive solar adoption. A big part of the $16 million it’s raised is being spent on crunching data and getting it into the hands of homeowners who want to generate their own clean energy.

“We’re all about the home owner,” CEO David Levine said in an interview at SXSW. “The energy industry hasn’t done them any favors. What people need is an advocate, something that works for them.” What works is a transparent ROI, some marketplace effects and a sliver of competition, which Geostellar describes as the “Glory” piece in its marketing campaign. For the past three years, Levine’s team has been building out its 3-D models, based on data that’s gathered by the same planes that Google, Apple and Microsoft use to snap pictures of the earth.

By combining its satellite imagery with the latest utility and energy rates, Geostellar uses your ZIP code to render three different snapshots of your home’s energy potential. Playing to different motivations, it displays the results under the categories, “Money,” ”Power” and “Glory,” which show electricity savings, electricity output and CO2 emissions, respectively.

Guessing that most of us aren’t experts in the last two — kilowatt-hours and carbon-dioxide tonnage — it breaks those benefits into something more digestible, like how many flights or loads of laundry you avoided. That’s where the social media part kicks in. They’re betting peer pressure will drive much of the adoption as neighbors try to one-up each other. Recent developments from companies like Opower — which uses social media to encourage energy efficiency in the home and works with with more than 70 utilities — show the approach is catching on. By liberating customer data around energy usage, behaviors and costs are amplified. In Geostellar’s case, current users can share their information within the application or externally on Facebook and Twitter.

Driving down costs

When homeowners are interested enough to get bids, it collects estimates from a large pool of installers and provides a detailed comparison of the proposals. According to Levine, part of the difficulty in assessing a homeowner’s options is the lack of standardized vendor processes and the variance around Solar Renewable Energy Credits.

Some vendors, for example, could have a pricing advantage because its models are based on a different set of assumptions than its competitor: The lower-priced proposal might assume utility rates would rise an average of 7 percent over the 25-year life of the panel, while the other vendor, with worse savings, only assumed a 4 percent rate increase.

By functioning as the broker, Geostellar meshes all the rates and best practices from vendors and delivers an “apple-to-apples” comparison, as Levine describes it.

That helps both parties. Confusion is removed from the bidding process and installers can focus on scaling installation, instead of spending on soft costs associated with things like marketing and customer churn.

In a March research brief, financial services firm Raymond James Financial cited data from the Rocky Mountain Institute that estimated soft costs represent more than 60 percent of total U.S. system costs, and are roughly four times higher than in Germany, despite higher labor prices. That’s a key metric because Geostellar charges installers a transaction fee, one it says is less than a solar installer’s cost to acquire a customer.

“With solar, now that the technology is proven, the industry’s biggest challenge is driving down costs,” Raj Prabhu, managing partner at Mercom Capital Group in Austin, Texas, said in a recent Bloomberg article. “The new money is going downstream to help build markets. The industry is now mainstream.”

First published at GreenBiz.com

The Importance Of The Production Tax Credit For Wind, In One Chart

The main point is that subsidies like the PTC are in place to help the industry continue to innovate. Eventually, they’ll phase out and the sector can stand on its own legs.

 

The Future Of Wind At RETECH2012

Dropped off wind power poster at son's 1st gra...

With an industry tax credit in jeopardy and new projects at a virtual standstill in the U.S., you might have expected the wind industry to come limping into RETECH2012. Instead, the audience heard from a sector that’s honing in on what it can control — namely cost reductions and innovation.

“We haven’t placed any orders for turbines for 2013,” said First Wind’s Julia Bovey in the opening remarks. That’s been the norm in 2012 for wind developers and turbine manufacturers as utilities and power purchasers have adopted a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the Production Tax Credit (PTC).

As a result, she added, three primary drivers have taken hold: reducing costs, improving turbine technology, and accessing capital in different ways.

Life Beyond The PTC

While the PTC has taken up much of the industry’s focus, wind proponents like Bovey and other green advocates are pushing for other ways to access capital. Two that have captured the discussion recently are master limited partnerships (MLPs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs). Both are used by oil and gas companies and have driven more than $300 billion in private investment. Here’s the way it was described in a NYT Op-Ed piece.

“Some economists and green tech entrepreneurs have advocated a change in federal tax law to allow renewable energy companies to use a tax-advantaged investment device known as a master limited partnership, which has attracted $350 billion in private investment but is limited to oil and gas extraction and pipeline projects. Another proposal is to allow real estate investment trusts, which are like mutual funds for real estate, to cover energy transmission networks and renewable energy generation.”

The wind industry says the subsidy discussion is really about equal footing. An LA Times report showed how lopsided it can seem depending on the data being analyzed.

“Fossil-fuel producers reap tax accounting breaks such as the depletion allowance, which is worth an estimated $1 billion a year, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington think tank created to advise Congress on energy policy. Tax-expensing options for drillers bring them $1.9 billion a year. Relief on royalty payments due to drillers on government property: $53 billion over the lifetime of the leases.”

However the subsidies play out, panelists agreed something similar to the current renewable portfolio standard should be a goal. As much of a hot potato that it might be politically, more than thirty states are already enrolled to spark renewable growth. As one of the speakers mentioned, RPS is the closest thing we have to a national clean energy standard.

Innovation Brings Multiple Benefits  

The pace of innovation in the wind business was certainly one of the bright spots. Taylor Geer, with energy consultancy Garrad Hassan, said turbine efficiency and reliability have improved dramatically over the last five years, something he attributes to better manufacturing processes and more R&D earmarked for things like forecasting and storage.

“We definitely have a better idea of what we need to look like within three-to-five years,” said Geer. “Not to mention we’re getting a better sense of what our cost of energy will be, and that’s a big lift.” Like other panelists, Greer emphasized the impact that energy storage would have on levelizing electricity costs. As the storage infrastructure improves, most agreed wind farms would likely resemble a generation model closer to conventional power plants.

To get a sense of how fast turbine technology is evolving, you can look at “repowering” efforts, which replace older turbines with new ones. According to Jeff Schlichting at wind developer Sustainable Legacy, one turbine can now replace up to five others as wind farms are upgraded.

Taking Costs Out Of The System

Cost reduction was another area where technology improvements are having an impact. But it’s not just better rotor technology or lighter materials that are helping, it’s supply chain efficiencies and the way wind farms are commissioned. “As the industry has matured, we’ve gotten better at everything from construction to logistics,” said Schlichting. “

And perhaps a sign of that maturity was the fact that IBM was on hand to address the operations and management (O&M) market for wind. According to Biren Gandhi of IBM Global Business Services, O&M costs can approach one-third of the total capital expenditures for a wind farm.
The company was pitching its IT-driven approach to managing large-scale wind operations, experience that it’s gained from running big servers and cloud applications for customers in the automotive industry and other manufacturing-intensive operations. IBM projects the O&M market could grow by as much as $6 billion over the next decade.

Big Opportunity, Big Risk For U.S. Cleantech Companies In Mexico

At last week’s RETECH 2012 session on Renewable Energy in Mexico, Miguel Vazquez from the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico City presented a detailed look at the challenges and opportunities for U.S. businesses wanting to market renewable solutions in Mexico. With its own presidential election looming, Vazquez says that Mexico’s renewable energy policies would likely get a boost, but warned its regulatory framework would continue to be a challenge as American businesses expand across the border.

He said things will likely be compounded by the fact that Mexico ‘s largest utility, CFE, has a mandate to buy the cheapest energy available. That’s a policy decision that helps zero out solar all the way into the year 2026. U.S. companies are also limited in terms of how they can work with CFE, said Vazquez. Today, only power generation projects are considered, not distribution or transmission.

But all that aside, the market for exports to Mexico can’t be ignored, especially in wind and biofuels, where Mexico ranks in the top three globally, according to Dept. of Commerce data. And from a U.S. perspective, Mexico ranks ninth for potential renewable energy exports.

gdmex

 

Vazquez also touched on some of the current renewable incentives in Mexico . One is aimed at taxpayers, and provides a 100% deduction incentive for investing in renewable energy equipment as long as the equipment is operational for at least five years. And in 2009, the Fund for Energy Transition and Sustainable Exploit of Energy was established. In less than two years, it had a capitalization of $260 million that could be spent on sustainability projects.

Mexico is also bringing its educational institutions into the mix, making funds available for renewable R&D from the Ministry of Energy and CFE. Lastly, U.S. business could also get some help from Mexico ‘s “Green Mortgage” program, which provides a lower APR if homeowners purchase renewable energy equipment.

Even with all the incentives, Mexico ‘s renewable portfolio will still only approach 25% by 2026. Because of that, Vazquez said U.S. companies really need to do their “homework” and streamline the way they approach the market. Legal challenges, permitting and land ownership were cited as some of the biggest obstacles. He mentioned it can still take a few years for permits related to power generation projects.

Clean Energy Growth And The Renewable Fuel Standard Hot Topics At Thursday’s RETECH Keynote

Do Sustainability Investments Lead To Stronger Financials?

Gerrit Heyns at Harvard Business Review points us to some interesting data showing linkages between resource efficiency and financial performance. The comment thread brings up some good points too, especially as it relates to causality.

“What these findings suggest is that an investment strategy based on resource efficiency not only produces returns in excess of global benchmarks, it also identifies management teams that are forward thinking, aware of the economic imperatives brought about by resource constraint.”

Sun Ovens Can Be Mobile Too

I met with one of the more interesting early-stage startups I’ve ran across this morning in East Austin. They’re nestled in a heavily wooded lot that’s a maker’s paradise.  More to come on that, but here’s one of the more creative schematics: a sun oven mounted on a bicycle.