Fashion and Solar Trade Shows

We all know that dressing the part is important. The idea that clothes can greatly affect our perception of a person or company was on my mind at last week’s Solar Power International in Los Angeles, the largest solar energy trade show in the country.

It started with Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, as the guest speaker to kickoff the show (here is my Earth2tech story about his talk). He was the last-minute replacement for Peter Darbee, CEO of PG&E Corp., who had to deal with a pending announcement of a federal investigation into a fatal accident involving PG&E’s ruptured gas pipeline. As soon as Stone walked on stage, in a black hoodie and blue jeans, people began to file out off the auditorium.

His outfit wasn’t unusual for a guy who runs a social media site – how many times have we seen Mark Zuckerberg showing up in public events in sweats? But it turned out, some solar conference attendees were put off by his fashion choice. Not only did they think he was not appropriately dressed, they also were puzzled by his top billing at the solar energy trade show. It was ironic, then, that Stone provided an anecdote about the importance of making a good impression with the right clothes:

“A couple of months ago, our general counsel told me, ‘Look, everyone in Washington thinks Twitter has 30,000 employees who are jerks. So buy a suit and we’ll parade around (in front of) all the senators and you will say hello and how can we help you.’”

Some solar companies thought the right attire for women at SPI were skimpy outfits. Yes, that was AUO Solar, which stationed ladies with some Jetsons-inspired clothes at SPI (see photo). Very classy. Trina Solar also featured women in form-fitting, faux car racing outfits. The same marketing idea showed up at Intersolar in San Francisco this year as well.

Did buyers stop by to check out the company’s offerings because of these women? Maybe the point was to attract not just buyers but other attendees in order to make the booth seem busy. I saw women in similar clothing (and who played similar role) as AUO’s eye candy at a consumer electronics show in Seoul several years ago. Maybe the electronics and solar industries want to follow the strategy of the auto industry, which hires plenty of babes for its trade shows, said my fellow greentech journalist Jenn Kho. The women at auto shows are meant to impart a sexy image for the cars, as in “if you drive this car you’ll look hot and attract women.” For solar, um, right, if you buy these solar panels, you, too, will attract … something.

Speaking of unwanted attention, here’s what a (male) freelance writer I met for the first time while at SPI asked me on the last day of the show:

Was there a meeting in a women’s bathroom about wearing black dresses, because I’ve never seen so many women wearing black dresses at an event. I study the female appearance in great detail. That’s sad. But I do.”

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Energy Storage and Baseball

Dodgers v. Rockies

I’ve been studying up on energy storage technologies and issues this week, preparing to write a story about the intersection of storage and solar for PV Magazine.

Energy storage is so interesting partly because so many technologies are moving out of the labs and into demonstration projects and so many in the renewable energy field have something to say about storage. Mostly, they wonder which technologies will generate the most profit (or most affordable for consumers, depending on your point of view). It’s not a simple question and, as I’ve discovered, involves diving into the world of independent grid operators and energy regulations. I suppose I don’t have to learn about this part of the equation and can just stick with explaining various technologies and say something general like oh yeah storage is so important because solar is intermittent and blah blah blah. But I’d miss out on a big piece of puzzle.

I also am beginning to learn about solar electric system sellers looking for ways to add storage to their offerings. You can sell storage devices and charge fees to monitor their performances (in addition to monitoring the performance of solar panels). Storage will allow large businesses and maybe even homeowners to store power when rates are low and feed it to the grid when the rates are high. If this line of thinking proves to be true – and you stretch the concept a bit – then one day we can all be our own power producers, trading electricity on an open market.

I’m still learning about this subject. I took the opportunity to apply what I know so far in this story for Earth2tech.

There isn’t a connection between storage and baseball, as my headline suggests. I just want to write about baseball because I saw the Dodgers v. the Rockies last night in Los Angeles and I cheered until my throat hurt. Dodgers lost. It was an end-of-a-busy-week treat for myself. I loaded up on nachos and beer because eating fatty food is part of the tradition of watching baseball.

Posted in Renewable Energy Policy, Solar, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Biofuel Station and Hummer H2

Propel Fuels' new E85 station in Oakland

I decided to spend a few hours at a gas station near my place in Oakland today. It was for work, of course. The occasion was the grand opening of a biofuel station by Propel Fuels, a startup that has gotten $10.9 million from the federal and state governments to build 75 stations in California by the end of 2011. You can see my story, with a photo slide, in Earth2tech here.

I have never stopped by a flex fuel station before, partly because I hardly ever drive by one. That’s a problem for policy makers and companies promoting biofuels – consumers aren’t going to invest in flex-fuel cars if they don’t think they can have easy access to fuel. I spent some time talking to Matt Horton, Propel’s CEO. Matt said by 2012, half of the models built by American auto makers will be able to run on flex fuel (a blend of ethanol and gasoline). I was surprised to hear that.  Here is a list of carmakers currently making flex fuel cars.

I’ve learned that the term “flex fuel” refers to gasoline blended with ethanol. But biodiesel, which also often comes as a blend, isn’t called flex fuel. I thought that was confusing. I’ve heard complaints about a lack of consumer awareness about flex fuel cars and stations. Well, sticking with “biofuel” or another easy term to describe various gasoline blends would be helpful.

Before the ceremony began, I spied a man with a Hummer H2 fueling up at the Chevron station where Propel’s fuel pump is located (Propel rents the space from the Chevron station owner). There was something funny about seeing a gas guzzler showing up before a series of speakers were set to talk about the importance of cutting gasoline consumption. You can see the Hummer and the biofuel pump in the photo above you.

I chatted with the Hummer’s owner. Fueling up the Hummer costs $120, he told me. He likes to take his wife and kids in the 7-seat Hummer to a cabin in the Sierra foothills. The car is like a tank, and driving it must be fun. But I can’t afford it, nor do I want it if I could afford it. Seeing the car reminded me of a story about an environmental organization in San Francisco that got a Hummer by mistake from the rental car agency. Members of the organization were going on a retreat.

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Dear Diary: It’s Been A While …

It’s been a busy month for me, having started to write for Earth2tech and the fab editor Katie Fehrenbacher, and working on new freelance gigs, including my first story for MIT Technology Review.  So the start of this post sounds somewhat like those personal entries that begin with, “Dear Diary, it’s been a while. Let me tell you what’s been happening in my life.”

But I won’t give you a laundry list. Instead, I’ll tell you two little stories.

Writing greentech stories daily forces me to closely track tech and policy developments, which then prompts me to be more critical about the incredible amount of information that spills all over the Internet. Earlier this week, the White House issued a report touting what it believes will be the impact of the stimulus money. In it, it talks about how the funding will make it possible to half the solar electric rates by 2015. The rates now are generally higher than prices for electricity from fossil fuel power plants. Katie looked at the claim and asked me to do a reality check – will the stimulus money really accomplish that?

I looked at the wording and the numbers and charts several times. There was no explanation how the government crunched the numbers to arrive at the conclusion. But then, the report was meant to be a quick snapshot of a variety of stimulus money-funded programs (and there are many). I then did some research and found a June 2008 government report, also from the U.S. Department of Energy, that predicted the same level of pricing drop by 2015. Except, the government issued this report before the Lehman Brothers fell apart in the fall of 2008 and before the stimulus package materialized in February 2009. Hmm.  So here is my story discussing the two reports and the funny business of making predictions.

Speaking of funny business, I witnessed some kind of power struggle or miscommunication between two solar companies over how to generate publicity this week. I was part of it only because Company A, a maker of copper-indium-gallium-selenide solar panels in Silicon Valley, approached me to write about its sales contracts with Company B, a project developer in Germany. I was set to write about the two deals when the woman who handled public relations for Company A told me at the last minute that there was a problem with the press release wording about the larger of the two deals and that the two companies needed to sort it out before the deal could be made public. Let me pause here to point out, for those who are not in journalism, that companies often approach reporters to write about their announcements and ask them to hold the stories until a particular time and day. This arrangement gives reporters the opportunity to do interviews and research ahead of the time. But it also means the media outlets don’t typically get to be the first to publish the news. There was something sketchy about this last-minute scramble to withhold the news about the larger deal, and I wondered whether it could lead to some confusion and some media outlets publishing about both deals at the same time anyway. The PR woman said the second deal would go public in about a week.

Guess what happened? One media outlet ran the story about the first deal hours ahead of others. Another media outlet ran a story about the second deal that same day, and Company B posted a press release about the second deal on its website around the same time. I found out about this second round of news hours later and only did an update to the previous story about the first deal. Then the media outlet that broke the embargo for the first deal contacted me to find out when and why the embargo for the second deal was broken. Then I heard that the PR firm was no longer working for Company A, which decided it would still run the press release about the second deal via Business Wire. So Company A was late to posting its own news.

Glad to be back doing daily stories.Edit

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Coulomb’s Lowenthal: On Electric Car Charging and Looking Like the Devil

Richard Lowenthal. Image from

It’s been an electric car week for me, having to cover the pricing and marketing plans for the Chevy Volt. I also wrote a story about the lack of fuel economy label for the Volt. I had to learn quickly the regulatory issues for labeling plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars and what it all means for consumers. You can read more about it in today’s AOL DailyFinance.

I stopped by the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose earlier this week and caught a panel on electric car charging. The most interesting speaker was Richard Lowenthal, CEO of the 3-year-old Coulomb Technologies, which seems to have fared well by winning customers and snagging a $15M Department of Energy grant to give away 4,600 charging equipment in nine regions.

The company has customers in Europe, which Richard said is ahead of the United States in popularizing electric cars. Amsterdam is Coulomb’s biggest customer. In Ireland, the utilities are setting up charging stations with Coulomb’s equipment. In contrast, American utilities are still running trials. While they figure out whether and when they want to jump into the electric car charging business, other companies are getting into the electricity retail market.

“What’s been challenging for the utilities to accept is for the first time the consumers and ratepayers are two different people,” Lowenthal said during the panel discussion.

Just yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission decided that charging service providers wont’ be regulated as utilities.

Richard offered some personal anecdotes about his own charging habit – he drives a Mini E. He also talked about some lessons Coulomb has learned. Here are some of his quotes:

  • There was a time when I was the nut in the room because no one was interested in smart charging. No one understood why you would want to network charging.
  • When we open our network in 2009 in San Francisco, one car that was poorly designed shorted our circuit breaker. We had to get the city to flip it back. Since then we have added a feature that will turn the circuit off if (overloaded).
  • I’m a daytime charger. People think I have horns growing out of my head.  I do all my charging at work. I plug it in and it’s done by 9 a.m. every day. Peak charging is never a problem. I think this idea that daytime charging is the root of all evil comes from people who only have home chargers.
  • We can’t do a membership program. We tried and it was rejected by consumers.  Anybody can charge at our stations. In Germany, because of the EU law, we can’t have names of consumers. So they can pay cash for it at the tobacco stores.

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GM: We Are Unique, Special and Very Different

Joel Ewanick, a Volt evangelist

I joined a group of reporters for a dinner with some General Motors executives last night in Silicon Valley to talk about the Chevy Volt. The execs wanted to talk about the Volt’s pricing and how they will market it, something they acknowledge will likely be more difficult than what they’ve done for any other GM vehicle. I laid out the pricing and some marketing plans in my story in the AOL DailyFinance.

You tend to get more details when you get to interview sources in person. Especially over dinner, which provides more time to ask questions and lets you watch them behave and react to inquiries. The headliner of the night was Joel Ewanick, vice president of marketing for North America, who announced the $41K suggested retail price and rattled off reasons why the Volt is, like, the best invention since the internal combustion engine.

It was easy to see why GM poached him from Nissan after Nissan had just lured him from Hyundai. In fact, he spent only about six weeks at Nissan. Dressed more casually than some other GM officials at the dinner – no jacket or tie – Joel seemed personable and spoke with a lot of swagger. He reminded me of the cowboys in the movies and in real life — I met a few when I was living in the California Central Valley.  Here are a few of his comments:

“This is the car of tomorrow. This is the future of the cars. General Motors is leading the charge.”

“Competitors? In our minds, no one.”

“You get two cars in one.”

Joel said GM designed the Volt “for 75 percent of the Americans.” I don’t think $41K is the right price for the masses, even after you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit. You can get upgrades such as leather seats, nicer wheels and cool paint – the premium version of the Volt will start at $44,600.

He is getting a Volt and planning a road trip from Michigan to Los Angeles, where he once lived. He got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cal State Northridge in Southern California (here is his LinkedIn profile).

Given that the Volt is a hot commodity – GM only plans to produce 10,000 units for the first year — GM employees won’t get a discount for getting one.

The marketing people at GM still don’t like to call the Volt a plug-in hybrid. They call it “the industry’s first electric vehicle with extended-range capability.” Ok.

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3M, Invisibility Cloak and the Gold Shoe

Landing in Minnesota. It's very green.

I visited 3M earlier this week. The company wanted to showcase its work in the renewable energy field. I wanted to be wowed. Material science is so interesting, and researchers and engineers who get to manipulate materials and create interesting products are like magicians to me.

I wish I were more interested in chemistry when I was in high school because just about everything I write has something to do with it. But the only thing that stood out in my memory of high school chemistry was the teacher who told us to call him Dr. Shannon because he had a Ph.D. I thought he was real pompous. And the class was just boring.

The visit to 3M wasn’t boring. Before the day tour, 3M gave each of us a press packet. Here were a few things on the “fact sheet” about the headquarters near St. Paul, Minnesota that stood out:

  • Acreage: 417
  • Buildings: 413
  • M has its own ZIP code

We were mostly confined to this large, airy building with massive glass windows covered with – what else? – 3M films for reflecting UV and infrared light and keeping the interior cool. The company built this center four years ago to showcase some of its R&D efforts and accomplishments. There is an Exploratorium with several dozen stations for demonstrating different technologies, and you get to play with some interesting inventions. 3M is the kingpin of optical films and adhesives. With our hands, we tried to tear a sticky, thin strip of foam, which is used to bind giant glass windows to the exterior of skyscrapers. That stuff was tough – I couldn’t break it.

It was during a demonstration about how 3M folks are expert manipulators of light that I thought about the research on creating an invisibility cloak. So I asked about it. I mentioned a U.K. study on the subject. I mentioned Harry Potter.

“Mmmm … interesting,” said the guy giving the demo.

“We wouldn’t talk about it even if we are working on it,” interjected the second 3M exec.

On the way back to a conference room to hear more presentations about renewable energy, we stopped by a glass case containing a gold shoe. The shoe was made with a light-weight material embedded with 24-karat gold. It belonged to a pair made for sprinter Michael Johnson to wear in the 2000 Olympics. Johnson wanted to run barefoot. His sponsor, Nike, didn’t like the idea. So Johnson asked for gold shoes. 3M developed the material, and Nike made 10 pairs for the athlete.

Our tour guide said a 3M material was used for making boots worn by Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon in 1969. The company wanted one boot for its display. But NASA couldn’t find the boots anymore.

It was all fun to learn about 3M, but I didn’t forget why I was there. 3M ran a poster session to show us some of its research and product development. Like many corporate giants such as GE, 3M wants a nice slice of the solar market. The company has lots of resources, but of course, that doesn’t mean its products will do well. I’m working on a story about a reflective film for concentrating solar thermal. The company is revisiting this material after the market for it fizzled about 2 decades ago.

Meanwhile, Renewable Energy World today published my article looking at whether copper-indium-gallium-selenide thin film makers are finally a force to be reckon with.

UPDATE: More reading for you! Here is my story on replacing glass mirrors with the metal variety for solar thermal power plants.

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Is Solexant Hitting 10% Efficiency?

Solexant is the latest thin film solar startup to line up some nice government subsidies for building a new factory. I wrote about its basic plan for a 100-megawatt plant near Portland, Ore., in today’s DailyFinance.

Before I wrote the story, I asked Solexant’s CEO Damoder Reddy for more information about the company, particularly since I saw his presentation at a Dow Jones conference last December. At the time, Damoder said his startup had just completed a 2-megawatt pilot line and raised two rounds totaling $22.5 million. The company had 34 employees plus six contractors.

The company, which has since raised a new round of $41.5 million, is using a rather novel technology first developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The process involves printing cadmium-telluride nanocrystals on rolls of flexible metal foil. This method is different from the cadmium-telluride solar panels made by First Solar, which deposits cadmium-telluride on sheets of glass. The roll-to-roll process is supposed to be faster – and presumably cheaper – than putting materials on pieces of glass in a conveyor belt-kind of process.

I asked Damoder by email about the size of the panels rolling out of the pilot line and their efficiencies. A pilot line is where you test your manufacturing process to make sure it’s sound enough for you to start mass production. It’s also where you assess whether the solar panels could hit the efficiencies you were expecting when you were in the research and development stages.

Damoder was coy. Well, he was willing to divulge that the pilot line is producing 1.2 square-meter panels. But he wouldn’t tell me the power rating of the panels or any efficiency numbers. He wrote that the factory in Oregon would roll out 2-square-meter panels with over 200-watt of power ratings after it starts mass production (a factory takes time, usually about 6-9 months, to go from initial production to mass production).

At the Dow Jones conference, Damoder said he was expecting the pilot line to produce panels with more than 10 percent efficiencies. He also showed a chart projecting some sort of savings if a project developer decided to pick Solexant’s panels over First Solar’s. The chart showed that a 10-megawatt power project would require 106,000 First Solar panels but only 33,660 Solexant panels. The cost would be $1.5 million versus $900,000.

During the first quarter of this year, First Solar was churning out panels with 11.1 efficiency, at a manufacturing cost of $0.81 per watt.

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