Week in Renewables: Neglected Nuclear, Falling Winds, Solar Redemption

Last Updated Sep 28, 2009 9:30 AM EDT

Should, or should not nuclear energy be considered a renewable?

That's more of a long-running question than a news item from this week, but Department of Energy head Steven Chu did take the opportunity last Friday to again throw his weight behind nukes, saying that the government should double its loan program for nuclear plants, helping to create another four to five over the next few years.

That leaves Chu as one of the few top Democratic politicians (albeit an appointed one) to give nuclear energy more than lukewarm support. While all eyes are on nuclear terrorism in the United States, the gentle art of electricity production is still being ignored; as the head of a panel appointed to investigate fuel recycling noted, "Anything nuclear is just very difficult, it seems."

A few dedicated agitators aren't letting up, though. Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, a staunch nuclear supporter, turned to attacking General Electric for not focusing strongly enough on its nuclear business. "They don't seem very enthusiastic about nuclear insofar as I can tell," he said in a Chamber of Commerce speech, suggesting that GE put far more emphasis on its wind business.

If he's right about his initial suspicions, Alexander may be in for more disappointment: GE also chose this week to tout not nuclear, but solar power as its "next wind," saying that it would start producing panels similar to those made by First Solar. That puts GE in good company with a dozen others, mostly startups like Nanosolar but also some other industry giants like IBM.

GE needs the good press, because details are still emerging on how hard the wind industry was hit by the economic downturn. Where a number of experts had predicted that growth in the industry would be flat this year, the actual numbers now look significantly worse. Wind actually fell about 30 percent this year in the domestic market, with only 6,000 megawatts being installed.

Solar, though a smaller market, has come out looking more robust by comparison, especially in the world of utility contracts. The big news there is that BrightSource Energy, which just gave up on a contested installation site in the Mojave Desert, has recouped its losses by striking a deal with a Nevada developer to build a huge solar plant where a golfing community had been planned (until the recession).

Incidentally, BrightSource comes out a bit ahead overall, because it will build on private land -- mostly exempting it from a torturous process of government approvals. If other companies feel they can strike similar deals, they will likely try to do so.

In a potentially much more significant agreement, Duke Energy said that it would work in multiple cleantech fields with the Chinese utility ENN, including solar, biofuels and coal efficiency and carbon capture. Duke already had a similar deal with China Huaneng Group. Despite their large potential, though, neither deal appears to lock any of the companies involved into any specific financial agreement.

Across the Pacific, a new electric car charging network was announced by three companies: SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and Rabobank. Now, there's nothing odd about the first two, which are respectively a solar power installer and an electric car manufacturer. But Rabobank, the third, has an unexpected role; it's not just a financier, but the actual site of the car charging stations.

With a grand total of four stations at Rabobank branches, the network falls short of being impressive, but it may offer the first instance of a business installing multiple charging stations to lure business. Assuming electric cars become at all common in the coming years, such stations could soon be common sights.

Finally, the really big (but also thoroughly covered) news item of the week was the IPO of A123 Systems, which makes batteries for power tools, electric cars and utilities. After raising its price range to $10-11.50 the day before going public, A123 shot up to $19.60 by the end of trading on Friday.

As I already pointed out, A123's debut probably means that the IPO market will be re-opened to cleantech companies. I'll double down on that sentiment, but also make an early-bird call for the next bubble: A123's stock price two days into trading values it at almost double the $11 the company said it was worth in January. Welcome to the land of eternal optimism.