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GreenTech Week in Review
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April 27, 2013

GreenTech Week in Review

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

In green technology news this week, the U.S. government “repossessed” part of a loan to gonzo electric automaker Fisker and held a hearing to question whether the original Department of Energy financing had been ill-advised; and a thin-film solar PV startup (and doppelganger for Solyndra) called SoloPower also may be down for the count.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has confiscated $21 million from electric vehicle manufacturer Fisker Automotive. The agency made the aggressive move in order to collect on what’s left of the $192 million that the Anaheim, Calif. company received of its original half-billion-dollar federal loan. The DoE said it took back the money from a reserve account funded by car sales and investors earlier in April. The first repayment of the loan was due on Monday, the DoE said. Fisker has not rolled an EV off the assembly line since last July, following the bankruptcy of its battery provider, A123 Systems of Waltham, Mass. (another DoE loan recipient).  In a statement, the DoE stressed that Fisker is facing “obvious difficulties.” The DoE also assured that it is “taking strong and appropriate action on behalf of taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, DoE officials and Fisker Automotive executives took the hot seat on April 24 at a hearing called by the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that was geared to reassess whether the loan guarantee program had been mishandled by the Obama Administration. The name of the hearing — “Green Energy Oversight: Examining the Department of Energy’s Bad Bet on Fisker Automotive”— suggested that a decision already had been made; and the conversation confirmed it. "There were mistakes made that [Republican candidate for president in 2012] Mitt Romney wouldn't have made the day he left grad school," said Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.). He was backed up by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who said, “They had a triple C rating, they're under-collateralized, they can't meet payroll, and now we're surprised?" Jordan asserted. "All the evidence points to that they should never have gotten the loan in the first place." For their part, Democrats countered by giving credit to both the administration and the successful entrepreneurship of such loan guarantee recipients as Tesla, an electric car manufacturer that received $465 million under the same auspices as Fisker.

In related news, San Jose, Calif.-based SoloPower, which had hoped to produce flexible, thin-film solar panels that would be rolled out on commercial rooftops worldwide, received last rites from industry and financial analysts this week. But its new chief executive is saying, “Not so fast.” Earlier this month, the beleaguered solar manufacturer sent a required notice to the Oregon Dislocated Worker Unit, acknowledging that it planned to permanently terminate 29 workers on June 17 at its new factory in Oregon. Asked for comment, Rob Campbell, who joined the company as CEO several weeks ago, said that SoloPower may be on life support, but he expects it to recover. He is hopeful that the company only will have to suspend operations in Portland, instead of shuttering the plant completely, as it continues searching for new capital.

To date, SoloPower has raised over $200 million from investors, including Hudson Clean Energy (News - Alert) Partners and Crosslink Capital. What’s more, the startup company has received about $10 million in loans from the Oregon Department of Energy and a $20 million Business Energy Tax Credit from the state, from which it generated $13.45 million in cash in December. The total cost of the Portland plant was anticipated to be $350 million. Campbell declined to say how much SoloPower needed to raise to keep its doors open, but admitted that the company is struggling to “get … through the noise of the industry in general and hav[e] people listen to our specific and differentiated story.”

Late last October, former CEO Tim Harris intimated that he had more orders than the company would be able to fill in the short term—and he was expecting to start shipping between two MW and five MW of solar panels during the fourth quarter, with a ramp-up to full production in 2013.  That hasn’t happened—and as a result, the company has not been able to access any of the $197 million U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee made under the Section 1705 Program. Specifically, Campbell explained, the loans were contingent on “meeting certain production thresholds,” but the company has only achieved “modest sales” to undisclosed customers.  

Meanwhile, car dealerships and auto parts stores are helping to drive solar installations on the island of Hawai’i in America’s 50th state. This week, Kyocera (News - Alert) Solar Inc., a division of the Kyoto, Japan-based Kyocera Corporation, announced that it has supplied modules to Hilo, Hawai’i-based ProVision Solar that will, in turn, be used to power a total of eight auto businesses on the Big Island. The PV systems atop Kama’aina Motors; Kama’aina Nissan; Parts Center Hawai’i, Captain Cook; and Parts Center Hawai’i, Kamuela are fully operational, with the remaining four installations—at Hilo Used Cars; Parts Center Hawai’i, Hilo; Kona Nissan; and Kona Chrysler— scheduled for installation during 2013.

Along with its beautiful beaches and lush rainforests, Hawai’i also has some of the highest electricity rates nationwide in the United States. Depending on a business’ size and power consumption, current rates are between $0.37 and $0.47 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). With such high rates and the availability of federal and state tax credits to offset the purchase of photovoltaic systems, solar has become the smart choice for local businesses and homeowners. While the cost of grid electricity will likely continue to rise, a solar photovoltaic (PV) system guarantees greater stability in fixed cost structures.

Although most consumers have yet to make the switch to electric cars, one of the most famous cities in the world is conducting a test that will turn its famous yellow taxis a shade of green. The New York City government hopes to determine whether cab drivers can spare enough time to charge electric taxis—specifically, 2013 Nissan Leafs— without losing money. This experiment comes shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg (News - Alert) released a statement calling for one-third of the taxis in the Big Apple to become electric by 2020.

And finally, an answer to the “age-old” question: which generation is greener—Millennials or Baby Boomers? According to the New York City-based ad agency, Tribal DDB Worldwide, both groups seem to want to make a positive impact on the environment, but would rather save a few bucks than save the planet. Baby Boomers, in their late fifties to early- and mid-sixties by now, are actually more environmentally responsible in some ways than their kids and grandkids, DDB's data reveals. Boomers are more likely than Millennials to recycle (66 percent vs. 53 percent).  However, Millennials are more likely than Boomers to drive energy-efficient cars such as hybrids (8 percent vs. 4 percent) or electric cars (7 percent vs. 1 percent).

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