Week in Renewables: A Solar Google, Algae on the Road, Striking it Rich in China

Last Updated Sep 11, 2009 5:03 PM EDT

The most significant renewable energy news of this week starts with an odd new entrant to the solar market: Google wants to make mirrors for solar thermal installations. It decided to find its own way after becoming "disappointed" with the lack of great ideas showing up in renewable energy. Solar thermal, the Googlers believe, is the cheapest form of solar, but it's being held back by overly expensive mirrors.

During his talk, Google green energy czar Bill Weihl also threw out some numbers gave for the cost of solar thermal: 12 to 18 cents per kilowatt hour. The company has good reason to know, as it has invested in both Brightsource and eSolar, but the latter company has also suggested in the past that it can get significantly lower, so there seems to be a discrepancy. Brightsource is definitely within that range, and is also a bit ahead of eSolar, having just secured engineering giant Bechtel to build its plants.

One place where numbers are lacking entirely is the two gigawatt plant that First Solar this week announced it will build in China. Other big solar projects have also been slated for China, but given the lack of details on most, it's not clear whether they will ever be completed.

And another is the modified Toyota Prius powered by another sun-centric technology started a 10 day tour this week. It's fueled by "green crude" from Sapphire Energy, which grows algae in salt-water ponds in New Mexico. The "Algaeus" is the latest in a long line of publicity stunts by biofuel makers, but nobody has mentioned how much the fuel actually costs. Sapphire wants to start work on a demo plant that will produce three million gallons of fuel a year.

Algae has much in common with another transportation technology that has produced many promises, but few results: fuel cells. Not to be discouraged, a consortium including Daimler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota this week issued a joint statement that from 2015 onward, "hundreds of thousands" of fuel cell vehicles could be on the road.

Start comparing the revenues those auto companies are hoping to win to the $500 billion to $1 trillion that the China Greentech Report 2009 says Western companies could make in China, and it doesn't sound like so much. China is a large, fast-growing market, the report contends, and Western companies could soon be swimming in the cash that the country has saved up. Unfettered optimism is all well and good, but a commenter on the WSJ probably says it best: "The market in China may be large, but the number of local Chinese players is also huge." Western companies have already complained of preferential treatment and difficulty winning Chinese contracts.

At home, it's not necessarily any easier. Nordex, a wind turbine manufacturer that just broke ground on a plant in Arkansas, reiterates a familiar complaint that the Federal government has not provided a predictable future for the wind industry, stunting investment. Separately, Vestas is planning on breaking into Latin America and the Middle East to offset slowing wind development in the Mediterranean.

Finally, plans appear to be moving ahead to convert the old Ford Wixom auto manufacturing plant near Detroit to a renewable energy park; Oerlikon Solar has announced its intentions to become a third tenant. We first covered the plans of Clairvoyant Energy and Xtreme Power to buy the plant in late August.

Here's some of our other relevant coverage from this week:
Cap-and-Trade and Carbon Taxes: Equal Opportunity Boondoggles for Governments Nukes, Coal and the National Security Argument A Brief History of Nanosolar's Big Claims An Oil Company Finally Opts to Go Green OPEC: Risk Remains, Oil Production Unchanged and a Word About Climate Change