In green technology developments this week, just as rerun season is starting on U.S. television, the Congress also has begun rehashing some of its favorite themes: Department of Energy loan guarantees and the Renewable Fuel Standard Act.
As Irvine, California-based Fisker Automotive edged closer to insolvency last week—facing an April 22 deadline to repay some of the $193 million it received from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program—we had a nagging feeling that the name, Solyndra, soon would resurface. Solyndra was a Fresno, California-based solar manufacturer that received a $535-million Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee in March 2009, and was endorsed by President Barack Obama as an example of green job creation. Then it filed for bankruptcy in September 2011 and laid off 1,000 workers—becoming the focal point for Republican opposition to government investments in clean energy. Meanwhile, nearly in lockstep, in September 2009, Fisker Automotive received a $528.7-million loan guarantee from the DOE to produce its Karma plug-in sports sedan (although, to date, the firm has received less than 50 percent of the half-billion dollars allotted). But things began to go bad for Fisker as early as December 2011, when the automaker was forced to recall vehicles due to a battery defect. Then, in July 2012, A123 Systems—Fisker’s main supplier of lithium-ion batteries (and, itself, a DOE loan guarantee recipient)—sought bankruptcy protection. Immediately afterward, Fisker shuttered its assembly line and the company started searching in vain for suitors. On April 5, the cash-strapped automaker unceremoniously fired all but 53 of its employees. And now, the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for April 24 to look into the Fisker Automotive loan guarantee. Does anybody hear Solyndra?
Legislation proposed in the U.S. House last week would roll back requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Act, ostensibly, to keep the price of corn reasonable for consumers, ranchers, and poultry farmers. The act—implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) —ensures that transportation fuel sold in America contains a minimum volume of biofuels. In compliance with the act, in 2011, 5 billion bushels of corn were used for ethanol —equal to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop. A final EPA rule, set to take effect on May 5, provides other “pathways” to meeting the mandate—including biomass or biogas, crop residue, tree resident, annual cover crops; and cellulosic components of separated food waste and solid waste. However, some legislators don’t think it’s worth the wait: The Renewable Fuel Standard Reform Act, introduced on April 10 by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Steve Womack (R-Ark.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), would prohibit corn-based ethanol from being used to meet the RFS and reduce the total size of the RFS by 42 percent over the next nine years. The outcome is uncertain. Look for a major debate among environmentalists and detractors during this session.
While the equities market was decidedly more bullish during the first three months of the year, clean energy investors clearly were feeling butterflies. In fact, global investment in clean energy during the first quarter was lower than it had been during any quarter for the past four years, according to Bloomberg (News - Alert). The 1Q investment figure for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy-smart technologies was $40.6 billion—down 22 percent on the same period of 2012, and down 38 percent on the final quarter of last year. The analysts blame the decline on policy uncertainty in key clean energy markets such as the United States and Germany; as well as a lull in financing in some relatively buoyant markets, such as China and Brazil; and on sharp declines in technology costs— particularly those of solar photovoltaic panels. Michael Liebreich, CEO of London-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance, commented, “For investment in clean energy to play its role in stemming the growth in world emissions, we would need to see investment levels at least double by 2020, rather than fall. Having said that, as always, there are [still] some regions and technologies [that are] doing well. And previous history has shown that the first quarter of the year is generally the weakest, as banks and investors [catch] their breath from a rush of year-end deal-closing.”
On April 15, a judge on the High Court in Britain ruled that wind developers may site their turbines as little as one-quarter of a mile (or 350 meters) from residential areas. Judge John Howells’s verdict came as a disappointment to the local complainant, a borough in the County of Buckinghamshire—and will have consequences for national planning laws. The Milton Keynes Borough Council had gone to court in hopes of getting approval to impose a minimum distance of three-quarters of a mile (or 1.2 kilometers) between wind farms and private homes; and thereby preventing wind energy firm RWE Npower Renewable Ltd. of Swindon, England, from erecting its 410-foot-high (125-meter-high) turbines locally. According to The Telegraph, RWE successfully argued that the “emerging policy” of imposing a sliding scale of “buffer zones” based on the height of turbines contradicted its existing local development plan. Judge Howells stressed that he could not rule on the benefits of wind turbines; but he concluded that there was "no objective justification" for arbitrary proximity restrictions for new turbines, adding that the policy was "plainly in conflict" with established planning guidance. Maf Smith, deputy chief executive at London-based trade association RenewableUK, said the decision would provide the wind industry with "the certainty it needs to get on with the job of generating more clean electricity for British homes."
Finally, just in time for Earth Day on April 22, a company that manufactures protective cases for iPhones has come up with a new way to protect the planet, and repopulate and restore America’s forests. Rokform LLC, based in Santa Ana, California, designs and manufactures a line of mountable cases and accessories for the iPhone (News - Alert), iPad and other devices. The company promises to have one tree planted for every Rokbed and Roklock case sold now through July 31, 2013, through its commitment to American Forests. American Forests is a Washington, DC-based not-for-profit conservation organization that, since 1990, has planted more than 44 million trees in forests throughout the United States and in 39 countries abroad. Together, Rokform and the American Forests Global ReLeaf program have planted more than 50,000 trees nationwide in the United States to date. In addition to buying Rokform products, consumers can contribute to Global Releaf individually or through their employers.