As reported By Christopher Martin Bloomberg News 3/21/12

NEW YORK – U.S. solar developers are luring cash at record rates from investors ranging from Warren Buffett to Google and KKR by offering returns on projects four times those available for Treasury securities.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., together with the biggest Internet search company, private equity companies, and insurers MetLife Inc. and John Hancock Life Insurance Co., poured more than $500 million into renewable energy in the last year. That’s the most ever for companies outside the club of banks and specialist lenders that traditionally back solar energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.

Once so risky that only government backing could draw private capital, solar projects now are making returns of about 15 percent, according to Stanford University’s Center for Energy Policy and Finance. That has attracted a wider community of investors eager to cash in on earnings stronger than those for infrastructure projects such as toll roads and pipelines. “A solar power project with a long-term sales agreement could be viewed as a machine that generates revenue,” said Marty Klepper, an attorney at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, which helped arrange a solar deal for Buffett. “It’s an attractive investment for any firm, not just those in energy.”

With 30-year Treasuries yielding about 3.4 percent, investors are seeking safe places to park their money for years at a higher return. Solar energy fits the bill, with predictable cash flows guaranteed by contract for two decades or more. Those deals may be even more lucrative because many were signed before the cost of solar panels plunged 50 percent last year.

Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. agreed to buy the Topaz Solar Farm in California from First Solar Inc. on Dec. 7. The project’s development budget is estimated at $2.4 billion and it may generate a 16.3 percent return on investment by selling power to PG&E Corp. at about $150 a megawatt-hour through a 25-year contract, according to New Energy Finance calculations. It will have 550 megawatts of capacity and is expected to go into operation in 2015, making it one of the world’s biggest photovoltaic plants.

“After tax, you’re looking at returns in the 10 percent to 15 percent range” for solar projects, said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Stanford center. “The beauty of solar is, once you make the capital investment, you’ve got free fuel and very low operating costs.”

The long-term nature of solar power purchase deals makes them similar to some bonds. And because a solar farm is a tangible asset, these investments also function much like those for infrastructure projects, with cash flows comparable to toll roads, bridges and pipelines, said Stefan Heck, a director at McKinsey & Co. in New York who leads the firm’s clean-tech work. Once a project starts producing power, investors can earn a return that’s “higher than most bonds,” he said. “There are a lot of pension funds with long-term horizons that are very interested in this space.”

Governments remain the biggest backers of the solar industry; President Obama’s administration suffered criticism for investing in Solyndra, a solar manufacturer that went bankrupt last year. Worldwide, the U.S. Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank was the biggest asset-finance lender for renewable energy companies in the past year, arranging 12 deals worth $11.2 billion, according to New Energy Finance. The Brazilian development bank BNDES, Bank of America, and Banco Santander followed.

In 2009, solar technology was so unfamiliar that few banks would back projects that required billions in upfront investment and wouldn’t begin producing revenue for years, Klepper said. The biggest financiers for the industry that year were Madrid- based Santander, HSH Nordbank of Hamburg and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria of Bilbao, Spain, New Energy Finance said.

That year, the Energy Department began funding a program to guarantee loans for solar farms and other renewable energy projects that supported almost $35 billion in financing before winding down in September. The government’s endorsement assuaged investors’ concerns and built up a bigger community of people who understand how to make money from solar deals, said Arno Harris, chief executive officer of Sharp Corp.’s renewable power development unit Recurrent Energy.

“Solar is now bankable,” Harris said. “When solar was perceived as more risky, it required a premium,” and now it’s “becoming part of a much broader capital market.”

Long-term power-purchase contracts are the key to making solar a reliable investment, Harris said. Utilities in sunny states such as California, Arizona, and Nevada have agreed to pay premiums for electricity generated by sunshine.

Read more: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/homepage/20120321_Solar_returns_beat_Treasuries__drawing_investors_from_Buffett_to_Google.html#ixzz1plWe9SD0
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As reported in Courier Post 8/19/11

 

New Jersey’s proposed energy policy calls for 22.5 percent  of the state’s power to come from renewable sources within 10 years  a goal that was the subject of heavy debate at a legislative hearing  attended by nearly 100 people Thursday.

Environmentalists said they want a 30 percent target, but business  leaders said that would drive their costs up.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, defended the goal proposed  in Gov. Chris Christie’s draft energy master plan, calling it fair  and an “aggressive standard.”

Only eight states have higher renewable portfolio standards  than 22.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.  The standards are state policies that require electricity providers  to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy  resources, including the sun and wind, by a certain date.

After Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club made a case for  the higher benchmark, Beck said: “I’ve been told on many occasions  that’s a stretch for us. We know solar and wind are great sources,  but they’re not particularly reliable, and that’s a challenge.  There’s also a responsibility for us to be realistic to set goals  that can be met.”

New Jersey currently obtains less than 10 percent of its electricity  supply from renewable energy sources.

But Tittel noted that New Jersey has ramped up, with more than  10,000 solar arrays installed. Only California has more.

“We’re No. 2 in solar installations. We shouldn’t go back,”  said Tittel, who added that he fears Christie’s policy could jeopardize  funding for renewable energy projects for homeowners and small  businesses and affect more than 200 solar companies in New Jersey.

Corporate executives who testified said the current relative  high costs of solar energy should not be discounted.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations  for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the poor economy underscores  the need for an energy policy that loosens restrictions. He praised  Christie’s plan.

“I think you have to look at everything in context,” said Egenton,  who said money spent on higher energy costs by companies would lead  to less money spent on operations and investments. “You have to  look at the bigger picture.”

The joint legislative hearing took place at the Toms River town  hall and was co-chaired by Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblyman John McKeon,  both Democrats.

State energy regulators also are holding hearings this month  and will vote to adopt a final energy policy later this year.

The lawmakers on the panel received an admonishment from Janet  Tauro, an environmentalist who is co-chairwoman of Grandmothers,  Mothers and More for Energy Safety.

With the topic turned to energy conservation, Tauro made a common  sense suggestion:

“We can turn down the air conditioning and turn off lights,”  said Tauro, also of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Most of the panel members were in jackets or sweaters.

There was little reaction from the panel after Tauro, a Brick  resident, made her comment. Later the room became colder, and more  lights were turned on.

The California-based solar leasing firm Sungevity announced a deal on Monday with home improvement giant Lowe’s that could make obtaining a personalized estimate for installing solar panels a push-button affair at Lowe’s outlets.

The deal gives Lowe’s just under a 20 percent stake in Sungevity, according to a solar industry source, though neither company would discuss specific dollar figures.

Under the agreement, scheduled to launch in 30 Lowe’s stores in California in July, customers will be able to access kiosks equipped with Sugevity’s iQuote system, a Web-based application that allows homeowners to simply enter their address and receive a firm installation estimate within 24 hours, eliminating the expense of an on-site visit.

The system combines aerial and satellite image analysis with research by Sungevity engineers at the company’s Oakland headquarters to assess the geometry of a home’s rooftop, its disposition to the sun at different times of day and year and any potential occlusions presented by nearby vegetation or built objects.

In addition to an installation estimate, customers can also get a visual rendering of their home with solar panels installed. And if interested parties provide information on typical power usage, such as an account number or past electric bills, the iQuote system can estimate potential savings expected from using the equipment.

The iQuote system can already be used online, and the company’s founder, Danny Kennedy, estimated that roughly 25,000 users had taken it for a test drive, though only about 1,500 of those had been converted to sales.

The deal with Lowe’s, Kennedy said, could help Sungevity — a petite player in the solar leasing market compared to bigger players like SolarCity of San Mateo, Calif., or San Francisco-based SunRun, which raised $200 million in financing earlier this month — significantly expand its reach.

“This will help us to get in front of thousands more customers, in front of middle America,” Kennedy told The Huffington Post. “We’ll be taking it to the ‘burbs, as it were.”

Despite tough economic times and often uncertain economic incentives, a number of analyses predict a boom year for solar power in 2011.

A report published in December by IDC Energy Insights, a market research firm based in Framingham, Mass., estimated following a healthy 2010, the solar market in North America could well see two gigawatts of solar power installations this year.

Jay Holman, the report’s lead analyst, told The Huffington Post that those numbers had been revised somewhat, but that 2011 was still expected to bring in 1.6 gigawatts of new solar installations, roughly double the 2010 total.

Part of the reason for America’s interest in solar energy may be a decline in the robust incentives the once drew a deluge of equipment and installations to the European market, particularly countries like Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy, Holman said. Those countries have begun to scale back their subsidies, forcing companies to look to other markets.

Meanwhile, federal tax incentives, including a 30 percent tax cash grant extended through the end of 2011, have helped keep solar alive. Several states have healthy incentives in place as well, including the eight states where the Sungevity/Lowes deal will eventually be rolled out: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Holman also said solar leasing companies like Sungevity, SunRun and Solar City, which retain ownership of the equipment while reducing or, in many cases, eliminating the up-front installation costs, also help drive the expansion of solar power.

“Obviously, we’re obsessed with being customer-focused,” said Kennedy. “We hope that this deal will make going solar as easy as shopping for light bulbs.”

As reported in NJ BIZ

The Garden State’s status as a solar-energy leader will get a major boost Wednesday, when officials break ground on what will be the largest solar energy farm in the Northeast.

Con Edison Development, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Inc., and Texas-based Panda Power Funds plan to build a 20-megawatt solar farm on a 100-acre site in Pilesgrove. The installation, expected to go online in May 2011, will feature 71,400 solar panels and cost between $85 million and $90 million.

solar

A rendering of the solar farm, which will be the largest in the Northeast.

Con Edison Development and Panda announced their intent to partner on solar projects in April.

Steve Tessum, vice president of east region management at Panda and manager of the Pilesgrove project, said South Jersey was chosen as the site in part because of the state’s support of solar energy.

“We did look at other states,” Tessum said. “Quite frankly, the regulatory climate in New Jersey is friendly to somebody who wants to own and develop a solar-power utility.”

The farm will be connected directly to the electrical grid via the Atlantic City Electric distribution system, said Mark Noyes, vice president of Con Edison Development.

Noyes said the arrangement with Panda is a 50-50 partnership: Panda is taking the lead in development, Con Edison will take the lead in operations and energy management, and construction will be split.

“The reason it makes sense to partner with Panda is, much like our background, they’re developers and they know how to develop projects, whether natural gas and oil, wind, solar,” Noyes said. “The development expertise is really what drives the development.”

Noyes said the property had originally been slated for the development of 67 homes, each with its own septic tank.

“The town opposed that type of taxing, from an environmental and economic standpoint,” Noyes said. “The construction of those homes never got through the planning board, so we were able to go in and acquire that land from the local player for this solar farm.”

Tessum said the solar farm doesn’t require any municipal infrastructure development, as the housing plot would have.

Con Edison Development said the installation is expected to generate enough electricity to power 5,100 homes.

E-mail Jared Kaltwasser at jkaltwasser@njbiz.com

Solar Battle Heats Up

September 21, 2010

New Jersey has set aggressive goals for its solar industry. The question now is can it afford to meet them.
By Tom Johnson, August 31 in Energy & Environment |6 Comments

By most accounts New Jersey’s solar industry has enjoyed a remarkable run in recent years, installing up to 180 megawatts of capacity, enough to vault it at one point to behind only California in the number of solar installations.

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Clean energy advocates credit the solar industry with creating more than 2,000 jobs, a number expected to climb to 3,500 by the end of the year. And the more than 200 firms involved in the industry boost their argument that a green economy can only bolster New Jersey’s prospects for growth.

Yet the industry is facing tough questions from the Christie administration. The concern is cost: How expensive will it be to meet aggressive goals to increase New Jersey’s reliance on solar energy, a situation some argue is driving up the price of electric power in a state that already has high energy expenditures.

The Solar Balancing Act

The focus on solar occurs as the state Board of Public Utilities is trying to pinpoint ways to reduce utility bills while complying with legislation that increases solar energy goals dramatically.

By 2026, a bill passed this past January directs the state to have solar capacity of 5,000 megawatts, roughly equivalent to the output of five nuclear power plants. At the same time, funding for clean energy programs is being sharply curtailed and the agency is rethinking the state’s energy master plan and its ambitious goals for renewable energy.

What is worrisome to skeptics is the cost of solar energy today is still much higher than conventional energy. They note that solar renewable energy certificates on the spot market sell for around $670, or the equivalent of 60 cents per kilowatt hour. (Solar certificates are the price owners of solar systems earn for electricity they generate.) In comparison, consumers pay about 11 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity generated by conventional power plants.

Supply and Demand

Many solar advocates are frustrated because the debate is losing sight of the benefits the sector has delivered to New Jersey. They concede the price for the solar certificates is too high, but argue it is a function of demand outstripping supply and insist prices will drop when supply and demand are more in balance.

“There’s been not enough credit to the local solar industry that has developed,’’ said Fred Zalcman, director of regulatory affairs in eastern states for SunEdison, a large solar firm. “It’s created a lot of local jobs.’’

Others are blunter. “We believe solar is falling out of favor with this administration,’’ said Dolores Phillips, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, noting only $3.2 million is allocated to the solar residential program in a straw budget proposal for next year. “Too many discussions are taking place behind closed doors.’’

Developing Solar Responsibly

To some, though, the debate is timely. If New Jersey is going to pursue aggressive solar targets, then it must do it responsibly and must do it recognizing what the impact will be on ratepayers, argued Steven Goldenberg, an attorney who represents manufacturers that use tremendous amounts of energy.

Terry Sobolewski, business development manager for SunPower, said the industry needs to make its case how the rapid development of the sector in New Jersey has created thousands of well-paying jobs here, and would continue to do so if the state stays on target to promote solar aggressively.

“Now, we’ve got 180 megawatts of installed solar and it’s created 3,500 jobs,’’ said Sobolewski, who suggested an even bigger bonanza of new jobs could be created if the state sticks with its target of 5,000 megawatts by 2026. “If you project forward, it’s a lot no matter how you slice it.’’

Lower Prices Expected

For those who argue solar is too expensive based on the spot prices being fetched by the solar certificates, Sobolewski said that argument assumes that is the price being paid for all certificates when it reflects about two-thirds of the market. Other solar certificates, which are earned under long-term contracts signed with suppliers, are averaging about $374, he said. “With more long-term contracts, the price will come down.’’

He and others argue the price of solar systems also will drop as technology improves. And as larger solar systems are built, economies of scale will drive the cost down further.

“Yes, solar is expensive right now, but we’re building an industry,’’ said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “It’s nothing new to subsidize a new energy source so long as the costs keep going down and the technology is improving.’’

Beyond the issue of the solar certificates, advocates argue when trying to assess the cost of various programs, the state ought to consider the benefits. For instance, solar power replaces electricity generated by peaking plants, which are the most expensive ways of producing power and increase the cost of electricity for everyone. Solar produces the most power on days when peak plants generally run, typically, the hottest summer days when the sun is shining.

Solar Impulse, piloted by André Borschberg, flew for 26 hours and reached a height of 28,543 feet, setting a record for the longest and highest flight ever made by a solar plane.
By ALAN COWELL
Published: July 8, 2010

PARIS — Slender as a stick insect, a solar-powered experimental airplane with a huge wingspan completed its first test flight of more than 24 hours on Thursday, powered overnight by energy collected from the sun during a day aloft over Switzerland.

The organizers said the flight was the longest and highest by a piloted solar-powered craft, reaching an altitude of just over 28,000 feet above sea level at an average speed of 23 knots, or about 26 miles per hour.

The plane, Solar Impulse, landed where it had taken off 26 hours and 9 minutes earlier, at Payerne, 30 miles southwest of the capital, Bern, after gliding and looping over the Jura Mountains, its 12,000 solar panels absorbing energy to keep its batteries charged when the sun went down.

The pilot, André Borschberg, 57, a former Swiss Air Force fighter pilot, flew the plane from a cramped, single-seat cockpit, buffeted by low-level turbulence after takeoff and chilled by low temperatures overnight.

“I’ve been a pilot for 40 years now, but this flight has been the most incredible one of my flying career,” Mr. Borschberg said as he landed, according to a statement from the organizers of the project. “Just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise, thanks to the sun.” He added that he had flown the entire trip without using any fuel or causing pollution. The project’s co-founder, Dr. Bertrand Piccard, who achieved fame by completing the first nonstop, round-the-world flight by hot air balloon in 1999, embraced the pilot after he landed the plane to the cheers of hundreds of supporters.

“When you took off, it was another era,” The Associated Press quoted Dr. Piccard as saying. “You land in a new era where people understand that with renewable energy you can do impossible things.”

The project’s designers had set out to prove that — theoretically at least — the plane, with its airliner-size, 208-foot wingspan, could stay aloft indefinitely, recharging batteries during the day and using the stored power overnight. “We are on the verge of the perpetual flight,” Dr. Piccard said.

The project’s founders say their ambition is for one of their craft to fly around the world using solar power. The propeller-driven Solar Impulse, made of carbon fiber, is powered by four small electric motors and weighs around 3,500 pounds. During its 26-hour flight, the plane reached a maximum speed of 68 knots, or 78 miles per hour, the organizers said.

The seven-year-old project is not intended to replace jet transportation — or its comforts.

Just 17 hours after takeoff, a blog on the project’s Web site reported, “André says he’s feeling great up there.”

It continued: “His only complaints involve little things like a slightly sore back as well as a 10-hour period during which it was minus 20 degrees Celsius in the cockpit.”

That made his drinking water system freeze, the post said and, worst of all, caused his iPod batteries to die.

by Julie Dengler 05.MAR.10
It’s a bird, it’s a plane — it’s a solar panel?
Residents of many local towns may have recently noticed panels being installed about 15 feet up on residential utility and street-light poles. The panels are five feet by two and half feet, and weigh about 60 pounds. By the end of 2013, 200,000 panels will have been installed throughout New Jersey.

PSE&G sources say that their “investment is the largest pole-attached solar installation in the world … New Jersey has more installed solar capacity than any state except California.” New Jersey estimates its solar power capacity at 40 megawatts of “pole-mounted solar.” Karen Johnson, media spokesperson for the company, estimates one megawatt as enough energy to power approximately 800 homes.
The work is part of a renewable energy program approved for PSE&G by federal regulators last July. It is called Solar 4 All, and is estimated to be a $515 million investment on the part of PSE&G in New Jersey over the next three years. The goal of the program is to move the state closer to meeting an energy master plan requirement of 4.4% (or 80 megawatts) of solar energy use in the electric grid by 2020.
PSE&G says, “The installations will be paid for by PSE&G electric customers. The first year bill impact for the average residential customer will be roughly 10 cents a month.”
Currently, panels are being placed on pre-selected PSE&G-owned utility and street light poles only. Negotiations to share space with Verizon-owned poles are planned.
According to the PSE&G fact sheet on the installation (available at http://www.PSEG.com), poles that qualify for the panel meet several criteria, besides being owned by the utility company. PSE&G is selecting poles that can support the units, face in a southerly direction and have no more than one transformer already on the pole.
The Retrospect caught up with two contracted installers from Riggs Distler and Company, Inc. this week, while they installed a new panel on a pole on Haddon Avenue. Derwin Booker said that the project is keeping his union, and the contractor he works for, busy. While he has been working on installs in Collingswood and Haddon Township, he also worked on the recent installs along Kings Highway in Cherry Hill.
All of the panels are equipped with GPS (Global Positioning Satellite receivers), and each faces exactly 193 degrees south-southwest in order to maximize solar power collection, explained Booker. He said that specific poles were selected from the millions of utility and street poles throughout New Jersey. The panels are equipped with what he called an aggregator, which communicates the collection rates of 10 to 15 panels at a time, back to a main data collection site, so that the rate of energy per cluster of panels can be measured and tracked.
All of the solar energy collected by the panels flows back into the electronic grid as power. Booker commented that the additional energy generated can help in heavy electrical use periods – like summertime, when air conditioners are running — when service is at risk of brown-outs.
Additionally, PSE&G explains, “The installations will generate Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). PSE&G will sell any SRECs it generates to offset program costs. PSE&G will sell the power into the PJM (Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland) wholesale grid and will receive federal tax credits – which will also be used to offset the cost to customers.”

– Copyright 2010 The Retrospect

By KEITH BRADSHER
Published: January 30, 2010

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Components of wind turbines at a factory in Tianjin, China. Shifting to sustainable energy could leave the West dependent on China, much as the developed world now depends on the Mideast.

TIANJIN, China — China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States last year to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year.

As China takes the lead on wind turbines, above, and solar panels, President Obama is calling for American industry to step up.

China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. And the country is pushing equally hard to build nuclear reactors and the most efficient types of coal power plants.

These efforts to dominate the global manufacture of renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China.

“Most of the energy equipment will carry a brass plate, ‘Made in China,’ ” said K. K. Chan, the chief executive of Nature Elements Capital, a private equity fund in Beijing that focuses on renewable energy.

President Obama, in his State of the Union speech last week, sounded an alarm that the United States was falling behind other countries, especially China, on energy. “I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders — and I know you don’t either,” he told Congress.

The United States and other countries are offering incentives to develop their own renewable energy industries, and Mr. Obama called for redoubling American efforts. Yet many Western and Chinese executives expect China to prevail in the energy-technology race.

Multinational corporations are responding to the rapid growth of China’s market by building big, state-of-the-art factories in China. Vestas of Denmark has just erected the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturing complex here in northeastern China, and transferred the technology to build the latest electronic controls and generators.

“You have to move fast with the market,” said Jens Tommerup, the president of Vestas China. “Nobody has ever seen such fast development in a wind market.”

Renewable energy industries here are adding jobs rapidly, reaching 1.12 million in 2008 and climbing by 100,000 a year, according to the government-backed Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association.

Yet renewable energy may be doing more for China’s economy than for the environment. Total power generation in China is on track to pass the United States in 2012 — and most of the added capacity will still be from coal.

China intends for wind, solar and biomass energy to represent 8 percent of its electricity generation capacity by 2020. That compares with less than 4 percent now in China and the United States. Coal will still represent two-thirds of China’s capacity in 2020, and nuclear and hydropower most of the rest.

As China seeks to dominate energy-equipment exports, it has the advantage of being the world’s largest market for power equipment. The government spends heavily to upgrade the electricity grid, committing $45 billion in 2009 alone. State-owned banks provide generous financing.

China’s top leaders are intensely focused on energy policy: on Wednesday, the government announced the creation of a National Energy Commission composed of cabinet ministers as a “superministry” led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao himself.

Regulators have set mandates for power generation companies to use more renewable energy. Generous subsidies for consumers to install their own solar panels or solar water heaters have produced flurries of activity on rooftops across China.

China’s biggest advantage may be its domestic demand for electricity, rising 15 percent a year. To meet demand in the coming decade, according to statistics from the International Energy Agency, China will need to add nearly nine times as much electricity generation capacity as the United States will.

So while Americans are used to thinking of themselves as having the world’s largest market in many industries, China’s market for power equipment dwarfs that of the United States, even though the American market is more mature. That means Chinese producers enjoy enormous efficiencies from large-scale production.

In the United States, power companies frequently face a choice between buying renewable energy equipment or continuing to operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants that have already been built and paid for. In China, power companies have to buy lots of new equipment anyway, and alternative energy, particularly wind and nuclear, is increasingly priced competitively.

Interest rates as low as 2 percent for bank loans — the result of a savings rate of 40 percent and a government policy of steering loans to renewable energy — have also made a big difference.

As in many other industries, China’s low labor costs are an advantage in energy. Although Chinese wages have risen sharply in the last five years, Vestas still pays assembly line workers here only $4,100 a year.

China’s commitment to renewable energy is expensive. Although costs are falling steeply through mass production, wind energy is still 20 to 40 percent more expensive than coal-fired power. Solar power is still at least twice as expensive as coal.

The Chinese government charges a renewable energy fee to all electricity users. The fee increases residential electricity bills by 0.25 percent to 0.4 percent. For industrial users of electricity, the fee doubled in November to roughly 0.8 percent of the electricity bill.

The fee revenue goes to companies that operate the electricity grid, to make up the cost difference between renewable energy and coal-fired power.

Renewable energy fees are not yet high enough to affect China’s competitiveness even in energy-intensive industries, said the chairman of a Chinese industrial company, who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of electricity rates in China.

Grid operators are unhappy. They are reimbursed for the extra cost of buying renewable energy instead of coal-fired power, but not for the formidable cost of building power lines to wind turbines and other renewable energy producers, many of them in remote, windswept areas. Transmission losses are high for sending power over long distances to cities, and nearly a third of China’s wind turbines are not yet connected to the national grid.

Most of these turbines were built only in the last year, however, and grid construction has not caught up. Under legislation passed by the Chinese legislature on Dec. 26, a grid operator that does not connect a renewable energy operation to the grid must pay that operation twice the value of the electricity that cannot be distributed.

With prices tumbling, China’s wind and solar industries are increasingly looking to sell equipment abroad — and facing complaints by Western companies that they have unfair advantages. When a Chinese company reached a deal in November to supply turbines for a big wind farm in Texas, there were calls in Congress to halt federal spending on imported equipment.

“Every country, including the United States and in Europe, wants a low cost of renewable energy,” said Ma Lingjuan, deputy managing director of China’s renewable energy association. “Now China has reached that level, but it gets criticized by the rest of the world.”

As reported in Courier Post

DURANGO, COLO. — The sun had just crested the distant ridge of the Rocky Mountains, but already it was producing enough power for the electric meter on the side of the Smiley Building to spin backward.

For the Shaw brothers, who converted the downtown arts building and community center into a miniature solar power plant two years ago, each reverse rotation subtracts from their monthly electric bill. It also means the building at that moment is producing more electricity from the sun than it needs.

 “Backward is good,” said John Shaw, who now runs Shaw Solar and Energy Conservation, a local solar installation company.

 Good for whom? 

As La Plata County in southwestern Colorado looks to shift to cleaner sources of energy, solar is becoming the power source of choice even though it still produces only a small fraction of the region’s electricity. It’s being nudged along by tax credits and rebates, a growing concern about the gases heating up the planet, and the region’s plentiful sunshine.

 The natural gas industry, which produces more gas here than nearly every other county in Colorado, has been relegated to the shadows.

 Tougher state environmental regulations and lower natural gas prices have slowed many new drilling permits. As a result, production — and the jobs that come with it — have leveled off.

With the county and city drawing up plans to reduce the emissions blamed for global warming and Congress weighing the first mandatory limits, the industry once again finds itself on the losing side of the debate.

 A recent greenhouse-gas inventory of La Plata County found that the thousands of natural gas pumps and processing plants dotting the landscape are the single largest source of heat-trapping pollution locally.

 That has the industry bracing for a hit on two fronts if federal legislation passes.

 First, it will have to reduce emissions from its production equipment to meet pollution limits, which will drive up costs. Second, as the county’s largest consumer of electricity, gas companies probably will see energy bills rise as the local power cooperative is forced to cut gases released from its coal-fired power plants or purchase credits from other companies that reduce emissions.

“Being able to put solar systems on homes is great, you take something off the grid, it is as good as conserving,” said Christi Zeller, the executive director of the La Plata Energy Council, a trade group representing about two dozen companies that produce the methane gas trapped within coal buried underground.

“But the reality is we still need natural gas, so embrace our industry like you are embracing wind, solar and the renewables,” she said.

It’s a refrain echoed on the national level, where the industry, displeased with the climate bill passed by the House this summer, is trying to raise its profile as the Senate works on its version of the legislation.

In March, about two dozen of the largest independent gas producers started America’s Natural Gas Alliance. In ads in major publications in 32 states, the group has pressed the case that natural gas is a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and can help bridge the transition from fossil fuels to pollution-free sources such as wind and solar.

 “Every industry thinks every other industry is getting all the breaks. All of us are concerned that we are not getting any consideration at all from people claiming they are trying to reduce the carbon footprint,” said Bob Zahradnik, the operating director for the Southern Ute tribe’s business arm, which includes the tribes’ gas and oil production companies. None is in the alliance.

 Politicians from energy-diverse states such as Colorado are trying to avoid getting caught in the middle. They’re working to make sure that the final bill doesn’t favor some types of energy produced back home over others.

 At a town hall meeting in Durango in late August, Sen. Mark Udall, who described himself as one of the biggest proponents of renewable energy, assured the crowd that natural gas wouldn’t be forgotten.

“Renewables are our future — but we also need to continue to invest in natural gas,” said Udall, D-Colo.

 Much more than energy is at stake. Local and state governments across the country also depend on taxes paid by natural gas companies to fund schools, repair roads and pay other bills.

In La Plata County alone, the industry is responsible for hundreds of jobs and pays for more than half of the property taxes. In addition, about 6,000 residents who own the mineral rights beneath their property get a monthly royalty check from the companies harvesting oil and gas.

 “Solar cannot do that. Wind cannot do that,” said Zeller, whose mother is one of the royalty recipients. In July, she received a check for $458.92, far less than the $1,787.30 she was paid the same month last year, when natural gas prices were much higher.

 Solar, by contrast, costs money.

Earlier this year, the city of Durango scaled back the amount of green power it was purchasing from the local electric cooperative because of the price. The additional $65,000 it was paying for power helped the cooperative, which is largely reliant on coal, to invest in solar power and other renewables.

 “It is a premium. It is an additional cost,” said Greg Caton, the assistant city manager.

Instead, the city decided to use the money to develop its own solar projects at its water treatment plant and public swimming pool. The effort will reduce the amount of power it gets from sources that contribute to global warming and make the city eligible for a $3,000 rebate from the La Plata Electric Association.

Yes, the power company will pay the city to use less of its power. That’s because the solar will count toward a state mandate to boost renewable energy production.

“In the typical business model, it doesn’t work,” said Greg Munro, the cooperative’s executive director. “Why would I give rebates to somebody buying someone else’s shoes?”

The same upfront costs have prevented homeowners from jumping on the solar bandwagon despite the tax credits, rebates and lower electricity bills.

 Most of Shaw’s customers can’t afford to install enough solar to cover 100 percent of their homes’ electricity needs, which is one reason why solar supplies just a fraction of the power the county needs.

 The higher fossil-fuel prices that could come with climate legislation would make it more competitive.

 “You can’t drive an industry on people doing the right thing. The best thing for this country is if gas were $10 a gallon,” said Shaw, as he watched two of his three full-time workers install the last solar panels on a barn outside town.

 The private residence, nestled in a remote canyon, probably will produce more power from the sun than it will use, causing its meter to spin in reverse like the Smiley Building’s. The cost, however, is steep: more than $500,000.

As reported in Green Inc.

The price of rooftop solar panels has fallen drastically, as I reported in The New York Times on Thursday. But for some homeowners, the upfront costs remain prohibitive.

Indeed, many readers have remarked on the article’s opening anecdote, about a homeowner in the Houston area who installed a 64-panel, $77,000 system (before the 30 percent federal tax credit) for his amply sized house and garage.

One way to bring the initial costs down would be to put smaller arrays on homes. After all, if financial constraints are a consideration, why put dozens of panels on your home when you could put just one or two?

One reason has long been the inverter — the piece of a solar-power system that converts the direct current voltage produced by the panels to accelerating alternating current, which runs through the home. Right now, according to Glenn Harris, the chief executive of the consulting firm SunCentric, it is hard to find an inverter small enough to handle just one solar panel.

But microinverters — which fit on a single panel — are on their way.

Enphase Energy, a company based in California, has shipped 50,000 microinverters since last August, according to Raghu Belur, one of the company’s founders. Each costs about $200, and can be paired with a single solar panel and popped on the roof.

(Single solar panels, producing on the order of 200 watts, can be had for less than $1,000 — though that won’t do much to augment most household power needs.)

 “It is the key to enabling what’s called do-it-yourself-ers,” said Mr. Belur, though he says that it is wise to hire a licensed electrician to make the final connection. (Enphase says that its microinverters do eliminate high-voltage direct current, so there is less danger of a nasty electric shock.)

 “We’re specifying Enphase microinverters in our residential designs more and more often,” said Ryan Hunter, of the Texas installer Meridian Solar, in an e-mail message. The Enphase systems allow for greater flexibility, he said, and are “more shade tolerant in limited spaces.”

 Enphase officials say that having an inverter on each panel increases the efficiency of the solar array. On traditional systems, lower output from one panel — because of dust or leaves accumulating, for example — can affect the performance of every panel in the set. But the microinverters preserve the independence of each panel, so that the panels do not revert to the lowest common denominator of output.

Right now, Enphase microinverters do not come attached to panels. But by the middle of next year, big-box stores, Mr. Harris of SuncCentric predicted, will be stocking solar panels with the microinverters strapped on.

“The real magic is you don’t have to spend $20,000 to $30,000 to get a solar system,” he said.

Should you like to know more about your investment in Solar leave  comment or email  george@hbsadvantage.com