What’s Best Buy doing at a utility conference?

(Midwest Energy News, November 14, 2011)—The national association for utility regulators is holding its annual meeting this week in St. Louis, where members are hearing sessions on everything from fuel hedges and pipeline safety to smart grids and cyber security.

Perhaps the most surprising speaker: Kris Bowring, a senior business team leader for Best Buy.

What is someone from an electronics retailer doing addressing a gathering of public utility commissioners?

Bowring spoke Sunday on a panel billed: “Empowering the Consumer: What Does It Mean? How Do You Achieve It?” Those are questions Best Buy has put a lot of thought and research into as it prepares to enter the home energy market.

Best Buy rolled out new home energy departments this month in three test stores in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. They feature gadgets and systems to help customers monitor and fine tune their home energy use, such as smart thermostats or apps that can control lights, locks and appliances.

“We’ve asked a lot of questions about energy efficiency and what consumers want, how they want it, and what’s confusing about it,” Bowring said in an interview last week. Continue reading “What’s Best Buy doing at a utility conference?”

How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP

(Midwest Energy News, November 7, 2011)—I’m attending the Institute on the Environment’s E3 (Energy, Economy and Environment) conference today at the University of Minnesota (disclosure: as a freelancer I’ve written for the institute’s magazine).

This morning we heard from the German Embassy’s energy and environment counselor, Friedo Sielemann, who talked about how his country became one of the world’s clean-energy success stories.

Germany has reduced greenhouse emissions 24 percent compared to 1990 levels and it now generates more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewables. And it’s achieved that without disrupting its economy, Sieleman said.

“We often hear that if you do this or that for the environment, your economy will suffer,” Sieleman said. Germany, however, has grown its GDP even as energy use and emissions have decreased. “These three are not automatically connected.”

How did it do it? The key was effective policies, particularly its system of feed-in tariffs, Sieleman said. Continue reading “How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP”

Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—On their way to becoming solar-electric panels, more than half of the world’s silicon solar cells produced today reportedly pass through a furnace made by a century-old Lakeville manufacturer.

What’s more, the company only started supplying the solar industry four years ago. Despatch Industries now owns more than 60 percent of the global market for firing furnaces used in solar cell production, according to John Farrell, managing director of Despatch’s solar business group — its largest segment last year.

Despatch has shipped hundreds of solar cell furnaces to China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, where most solar cell manufacturing occurs. Yet its role in the solar industry is mostly unknown in Minnesota.

More than 100 years ago, the company began making heaters for Minneapolis streetcars. Today, Despatch is part of what Lynn Hinkle, policy development director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, calls the state’s “invisible” solar supply chain, a cluster of companies quietly producing parts and equipment for the global solar industry.

A new push is under way to shine more light on these solar suppliers in hopes of further building up the industry in Minnesota. Continue reading “Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun”

How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—Silicon Energy became Minnesota’s second solar-electric panel manufacturer when it started shipping rooftop units from its Iron Range factory in mid-September. It joins Bloomington-based TenKsolar, which began selling its commercial systems in 2010.

The companies are getting a boost from a made-in-Minnesota solar rebate program for Xcel Energy customers. And given the state of the industry, they’ll need all the help they can get.

“New startup companies are going to have a very, very difficult time competing with established companies,” said Junko Movellan, an analyst with Solarbuzz, a market research group in San Francisco. There’s a worldwide oversupply of solar modules now, and she predicts the industry faces a big shakeout in the months ahead.

On top of that, Minnesota isn’t the easiest place to sell solar-electric systems, but not for the reason you might think. Our weather is actually an asset; solar-electric systems perform better in the cold. Rather, it’s the state’s comparatively cheap electricity rates that make it harder for customers to recoup investment costs.

The industry has been called the “solar-coaster” because of all its ups and downs. How do these Minnesota startups plan to hang on? Continue reading “How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?”

Read my story on water scarcity in Twin Cities Business

I spent a few months this spring looking into the potential risks and opportunities for Minnesota companies as development, pollution, population growth and climate conspire to strain our planet’s fresh water supply. The risk may seem distant here in the land of 10,000 lakes, but in an age when global supply chains span the globe, few industries will be unaffected. Some are already feeling the effects. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities is home to a promising cluster of companies and technologies that could play a role in addressing the coming global crisis. Read more in the July issue of Twin Cities Business magazine.

Minnesota wind farm drama may be entering final act

June 28, 2011, Midwest Energy News —  Two fronts have collided before Minnesota utility regulators, and now, observers on both sides are waiting to see which way the wind will blow in what’s been the state’s highest-profile and hardest-fought battle over wind turbine placement.

The proposed $179 million, 78-megawatt Goodhue Wind project would consist of 50 turbines spanning about 32,000 acres of farm land an hour drive southeast of the Twin Cities. The developer is a subsidiary of Mesa Power Group, which is owned by Texas oil-and-gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

Last October, about a year after the developer applied for site permits, Goodhue County adopted a setback ordinance that bans wind turbines within 10 rotor diameters, or about half a mile in this case, of any non-participating neighboring home. That’s in stark contrast with state law in Minnesota, which generally requires setbacks between 750 and 1,500 feet based on noise and other factors.

The local ordinance grew out of grassroots opposition from a group of county residents who fear the turbines will upset their quality of life. The developer, which has partnered with about 200 other local property owners, says the project can’t go through under the local setback rules.

Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission is likely to give its final say on the matter Thursday after months of testimony and discussion. Its decision will be the first major test of a 2007 amendment that gave counties limited authority to adopt more stringent wind setbacks than those spelled out in state law.

“It’s certainly something every wind developer is paying close attention to, because one way or another it affects how they’re going to propose their next project,” said Sarah Johnson Phillips, a renewable energy attorney with Stoel Rives in Minneapolis. Continue reading “Minnesota wind farm drama may be entering final act”