Tuesday, June 10, 2008

US Senate can't capitalize on momentum from House

Senate Democrats today could not find the support they needed to overcome a Republican filibuster of HR 6049, the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008. In a vote split almost perfectly along party lines (50 Yay-44 Nay) the motion for cloture failed to pass, effectively killing the bill, at least for the present time. The Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act would have, among other things, extended a number of tax credits and exemptions on purchases and installations of renewable energy technologies. It would have also included hydrokinetic electricity generation under the category of technologies eligible for these tax incentives, a move I have wanted to see happen for a while now. The bill also sought to roll back a number of corporate tax cuts from 2005 on companies with more than $1 billion of annual revenue. These companies could end up paying an additional 37.5% in taxes starting in 2013. It was most likely this provision that caused Senate republicans to balk. In the House, where the Democrats have a more commanding position, the measure managed to pass easily. A section-by-section summary of the bill can be found here. (See how your senators and representatives voted on the issue)

In the same day, Senate Republicans also successfully blocked debate on S 3044 a bill that would have followed through on the Democrats' promise to impose a 25% windfall profits tax on the major US oil companies. The vote fell 9 short of the 60 needed for cloture. (Interesting Article in the International Herald Tribune) I will discuss this bill and the issue of windfall taxes on oil in more detail tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Companies get creative in bringing solar cells to the residential market

So apparently I'm a little behind on this story. Until now, I was under the impression that the residential market for solar panels was dominated by a modular sales model like the one employed by GE. In such a business model, photovoltaic cell manufacturers package their products into modular units that can be sold to homeowners. Depending on the size of the panel array and amount of regional sun exposure, homeowners can decrease or eliminate their dependence on the power companies and even sell the excess electricity generated by their solar panels back to the grid. All of this sounds wonderful, but then why isn't everyone going out and buying solar panels?

The simple answer is up-front cost.

Though GE does not list the price per unit on their website, a quick web search led me to a third-party site charging nearly $11,500 for a 1.8 Kilowatt (kW) GE system and $28,000 for the 4.8 kW setup. To put this all in perspective, GE estimates on their website that a 1 kW system located in the Midwest will generate between 105 and 125 Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) of electricity per month. The US Department of Energy estimated that the average American household used 920 kWh of electricity per month in 2006. Pulling this all together, it is reasonable to assume that a system fully powering the average American home would cost well over $30,000. Putting aside the length of time required to recoup those costs in utility bill savings, that's a lot of money to shell out at one time for anything.

I was thinking about this business model recently and it struck me that it excludes a large portion of the population that can't shell out 30+ grand at the drop of the hat. But for those of more moderate means who still want to go solar, isn't there a way to spread out the cost by leasing these solar cell units or selling the power they generate to homeowners at below-traditional market prices? My dreams of revolutionizing the residential solar industry were quickly dashed, however, by the Google-fueled realization that there are already scores of companies doing just that.

In the next few days, I will profile some of those companies, looking at their strategies as well as the doubts that some have voiced about this new approach to solar cell distribution.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Biofuel debate reaches the UN food summit

This week the United Nations has convened a summit in Rome to address the topic of world-wide food security. Much of the discussion at the conference thus far has centered around the crucial issue of skyrocketing food prices. In a recent study, the USDA found that these prices have increased by nearly 60% in only 2 years, a jump that has left much of the developing world in crisis. Many attribute the spike in prices to sustained demand growth across much of the world and the inability of global food supply to keep pace.

In this time of scarcity, biofuel companies have come under intense scrutiny as potential contributors to the problem. The simple economic argument goes something like this: ethanol companies convert millions of bushels of food crops (like corn) into fuel each year and this consumption is growing significantly every year. Without corresponding increases in food production, this increasing demand drives prices up, out of reach for most people in the developing world. Additionally, many claim that increased cultivation of biofuel crops is diminishing the amount of land available for food cultivation. Supply goes down; prices go up even more.

But is ethanol completely to blame for the global food crisis?

The answer from many quarters is still "No."

In an address to the summit today, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva blasted allegations that its highly-developed ethanol industry has had an adverse effect on food production. Quoted in a Bloomberg news article this morning, de Sylva said "Biofuels are not the villain menacing food security in poor countries." He went on, noting that the cultivation of sugar cane--Brazil's primary ethanol crop--used for biofuel production accounted for only 1 percent of the nation's total arable land.

de Sylva, however, did not go so far as to condone ethanol production from food crops such as corn--the largest source of ethanol in the United States. That task fell to US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who claimed that only 2 to 3 percent of global food inflation could be attributed to ethanol production. Bloomberg news reports that in 2008 upwards of 1/3 of all US corn production will be devoted to biofuel production (though it also notes that most of the US corn crop goes to feed livestock anyway.) Schafer's message was seconded in a letter to conference leaders from top executives in the biofuel industry. The letter blames rising food prices on a combination of factors from rising oil prices and the subsequent increase in transportation costs, commodities speculation, and climate change, and claims that these factors have a much more direct impact on the global food market. The authors of the letter call on the international community to refrain from "demonizing" biofuel development in its search for solutions to the problem.

For more information on the industry execs' letter see this entry in AutoBlogGreen.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Welcome to the inaugural post of The Alternative Energy Amateur, the blog devoted to the Alternative Energy industry and the political, economic, and technological forces that shape it. In the coming months and years, expect to find posts on a broad range of topics, from recent news and events in the Alt. Energy world to economic analysis of energy trends to profiles of promising companies and technologies in the field.

We live in a singularly momentous era, one which promises to reshape our traditional notions of energy conversion and utilization. For the first time in a generation, our society is realizing that fossil fuels will not be a viable option to meet the energy needs of the Twenty-First century and beyond. It is up to us, then, to find sustainable answers to these needs to ensure the continued prosperity of our descendants and of the world they inherit.

I am starting this blog to add my voice to those pushing for even greater public awareness on this issue. My mission to you, my readers, is to present you with information that underscores both the urgency of our situation and the incredible opportunity that is being realized daily by scientists and companies around the world. Whether this blog prompts you to take direct action or simply encourages you to become better informed on the subject of Alternative Energy, we will all be one step closer to addressing the energy challenges that confront us and realizing the great potential for human advancement that this field presents.

Note: Please be patient through these first few weeks as I work to find the proper formatting and configuration settings for this page. The blog's look may change slightly over that period, but its aim and content will remain consistent. Thanks!

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