This Week in Clean Economy: Chu Warns Solyndra Critics of China’s Solar Rise

Chu sounds alarm that U.S. is falling behind on clean energy. The E.V. sector picks up momentum, solar flounders, while offshore wind gets a fresh push.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu/Credit: Center for American Progress

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With Republicans still gunning for the alternative energy loan program that backed Solyndra, the energy secretary went on the offensive on Thursday, sounding an alarm that America would fall behind other countries—especially China—without more incentives to develop renewable energy industries.

“We are in a fierce global race to capture this market,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the House committee investigating the $535 million loan to failed solar firm Solyndra.

China, which has vaulted past the West to become the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, is spending heavily to prevail in the energy-technology race. In the past year and a half it poured $34 billion in solar manufacturing alone and now dominates about half the sector’s supply chain, Chu said. (DOE dished out $1.3 billion in loan guarantees to solar panel makers.)

“Countries like China are playing to win in the solar industry,” Chu, a physicist and Nobel laureate, said. The administration’s green energy efforts, he suggested, at least keep the U.S. in the global race to make clean energy.

The 38 other loan guarantee recipients in the program are expected to add 60,000 jobs and provide clean electricity to 3 million U.S. households, according to his testimony.

House Republicans were unswayed. In their grilling of Chu they charged that the program bets on unproven technologies with taxpayer dollars. The Solyndra loan, they said, reeks of political favoritism and incompetence—and they’re hell-bent on keeping the “Solyndra affair burning,” Politico reported.

Chu insisted the firm fell apart from unforeseen “deteriorating market conditions.” Cheap Chinese panels and shrinking demand from some governments’ subsidy cutbacks made it impossible for Solyndra to compete, he said, echoing the belief of some industry analysts.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) called for the ouster of Chu for his handling of the loan. “I just think he has failed the test,” he told reporters.

Global Investment in Renewables to Soar, China to Lead

There at least two claims made in Chu’s testimony that even Stearns can’t dispute, however—that money flowing into clean energy is poised to rise by “by hundreds of billions of dollars” and that China will be investing “aggressively.”

Figures released Wednesday from Bloomberg New Energy Finance show that global investment in renewable power generation is expected to reach nearly $400 billion a year by 2020. That’s double last year’s investments and equal to the GDP of some wealthy countries.

Offshore wind projects and solar energy development are predicted to snag the most cash. China is forecast to spend $50 billion each year on projects by 2014—the most of any nation, including all of Europe combined.

The U.S. and Canada aren’t expected to catch up to Chinese spending until 2020.

E.V. Maker Fisker Tries to Quell Critics; Better Place Lands Hundreds of Millions More

America’s electric vehicles sector picked up some momentum this week, after being overshadowed by claims in recent weeks that the industry’s less-competitive players are on the verge of getting squeezed out.

Fisker Automotive, the DOE-backed electric carmaker flagged by some as the next Solyndra, said Tuesday it’s on track to meet its goal to build 15,000 Karma plug-in luxury sports cars in 2012. This despite the fact that it’s only making 1,500 cars this year due to major setbacks on the production line—faulty electrical harnesses, headlights and damaged leather interiors due to a flood. (The firm also secured $58 million in V.C. investment, on top of the more than $700 million in private equity, plus federal loans and grants it has already obtained, Greentech Media reported.)

But not everyone is buying its production pledge, including A123 Systems, the firm that makes Fisker’s batteries, according to a Reuters report. The company expects 7,000 Karmas in 2012—at most.

A123’s caution makes sense, given recent events. After a drastic drop in 2011 orders from Fisker, A123 was forced to cut its fourth quarter and end-of-year revenues by $45 million last week.

Fisker’s announcement this week was meant to bolster confidence in the California automaker. In the wake of Solyndra, it was smeared for taking $529 million in federal loans and then building its first car in a Finland factory. Both DOE and Fisker said no taxpayer money was spent overseas, and the scandal has more or less fizzled.

But Fisker’s problems are not behind it.

In addition to its production woes, late last month the U.S. EPA rated the Karma’s fuel economy at only 20 miles per gallon when its backup gasoline engine is engaged. That makes it even less fuel efficient than a full-size pickup like the Ford F-150. (The Obama administration on Wednesday formally proposed doubling auto fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.)

Many are now asking, is Karma even a clean vehicle?

Another E.V. company, however, appears to be having a much easier time selling itself.

Silicon Valley startup Better Place raised another $200 million in venture capital money on Tuesday, bringing its total to $750 million and making it one of the most well-funded E.V. startups in the world.

The company has a unique proposal: Consumers buy an electric car from select manufacturers and Better Place supplies the lithium-ion battery that powers it. Drivers can save big, says the startup. (At around $16,000 a pop, the battery pack used in most E.V.s makes up nearly half the cost of the car.) Better Place users pay a monthly fee for use of the battery and car-charging infrastructure, which the startup will install at home and on the road. Customers can swap depleted batteries for fully charged ones at specialty drive-thru stations.

Hugh McDermott, the firm’s global vice president, told InsideClimate News at an industry conference in New York this week that the company will launch pilots in Denmark, Israel and Australia in 2012. Better Place also has deals to build charging networks in the San Francisco Bay Area, Canada and Hawaii within the next few years.

Meanwhile, China, the largest auto market in the world, pushed ahead with plans for a 25-city pilot aimed at boosting sales of electric cars and deploying charging networks. The news sent shares soaring on Monday for Chinese automakers, including BYD, which is backed by billionaire Warren Buffett.

Solar’s Big Players Continue to Nose Dive

Chinese solar panel makers, by contrast, fared far worse this week.

LDK Solar and JinkoSolar Holding, two of the world’s biggest solar panel makers cut their third quarter and end-of-year revenue forecasts, as declining demand and rapidly falling panel prices continue to make it hard for them to sell off bloated inventories of solar cells.

Germany’s SolarWorld, whose U.S. headquarters is in Oregon, also saw its shares plummet Monday after reporting its first quarterly net loss in two years. “We did not remain unscathed by the price declines caused by the strong surplus supply mainly from state-subsidized low-price providers,” CEO Frank Asbeck said in a clear swipe at China.

The company is leading a group of seven U.S. solar firms that filed a trade complaint against China for illegally subsidizing Chinese companies, allowing them to “dump” underpriced panels in the American market.

And now, SolarWorld is trying to bring its European counterparts on board to launch a formal complaint to the EU Commission, Renewable Energy World reported Wednesday.

U.S. Takes Baby Step Toward Getting First Offshore Wind Farm Built; Ontario Makes a Play

The same publication reported on Monday the launch of a new DOE study aimed at removing barriers to building transmission lines that channel electricity from turbines at sea to grids on land.

Swiss manufacturing giant ABB is leading the “National Offshore Wind Energy Grid Interconnection Study,” which includes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the utility Duke Energy, the University of Pittsburgh and AWS Truepower, a clean energy consulting firm.

The Obama administration’s goal is to deploy 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in the next decade and 54,000 megawatts by 2030. For now, the U.S. doesn’t have a single turbine in its waters—compared to the 1,250 turbines spinning at nearly 50 offshore wind farms in Europe—due in part to uncertain permitting process in Washington has left projects in regulatory limbo for as much as a decade.

In Canada, meanwhile, a group of Ontario companies and developers formed a consortium that aims to get the provincial government to end its moratorium on offshore development in the Great Lakes, the Spectator reported.

Their motivation is jobs. The group says it wants to beat out Ohio and New York in building North America’s first freshwater wind project. They reason that the first to get turbines spinning will also lure the supply chain manufacturers.

“Whoever is first wins,” said a spokesperson for Windstream, an Ontario-based wind developer. “Ontario desperately needs jobs.”