Top News Stories in Clean Energy and Sustainability

Car Makers Go…Solar?

This week saw not just one pairing of car and solar companies, but two. First came the announcement of an unusual partnership between SolarCity and Honda. The two companies announced they will invest as equal partners in a $65-million tax equity fund to pay for the installations of thousands of solar arrays at the homes of Honda and Acura customers.

Under the initiative, Honda and Acura customers can get $400 towards the lease of a SolarCity solar array. The car company is giving a rather broad definition to the word “customer,” including visitors to its websites, The New York Times reports. A few dealerships may also participate. The deal will be offered in 14 states: New York, New Jersey, Texas, California, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maryland, Hawaii, Delaware and Connecticut, plus the District of Columbia.

For SolarCity, the deal has many upsides. It could be a major boost for its race to grab market share, or at least publicity, against competitors including Sunrun, Vivint and Clean Power Finance. In addition to approximately 3,000 residential systems, SolarCity could gain access to Honda’s large database of present and past owners, the Times reported.

Two days later, Volkswagen turned on the power at its 33-acre, 9.5-megawatt solar plant near its factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. The solar array was built by Phoenix Solar Inc. and will be owned and operated by Silicon Ranch, which will sell the electricity to Volkswagen under a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement.

The solar array is enough to power 1,200 homes, according to a company press release, or about 12.5 percent of the plant’s electricity at peak production. It is one factor in Volkswagen plant’s designation as a LEED Platinum building, the only car factory in the world to win such certification, according to VW.

Still More Tariffs Possible for Chinese Solar Panels

American regulators cleared the path for another round of import tariffs on Chinese solar panels this week as the International Trade Commission ruled that Chinese manufacturers dumped the panels at prices far below the cost of production. The commission agreed with U.S. firms which argued that the dumping injured the American wind tower industry, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The new levies could come on top of tariffs of between 45 percent and 71 percent levied last year by the Federal Trade Commission.

Meanwhile, European companies that buy Chinese solar panels made their argument this week that imposing tariffs in the European Union would put 242,000 people out of work, according to The New York Times.

Chinese panels cost up to 45 percent less than panels made in Europe. Thorsten Preugschas, CEO of the German company Soventix, which builds and operates solar plants worldwide, said at a press conference that the big price difference didn’t necessarily prove that China cheated, since “big manufacturers have a price advantage, and it doesn’t matter where in the world they are located.”

His opponents returned fire immediately, saying that the study of job loss estimates “applies mathematical trickery” to reach such high numbers, said Milan Nitzschke, president of EU ProSun, a trade association of European solar manufacturers.

Top Energy Nominees in the Wings (Plus One Wingnut)

President Barack Obama may tap two Washington insiders with scientific expertise to lead the federal agencies most involved with clean energy policy, according to news reports by Reuters, Bloomberg and others. The moves could portend an effort by the administration to soften its stance on renewable energy to try and mollify Republican opponents in Congress.

The likely nominees have experience working both sides of the aisle. Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who served as a science advisor and energy department undersecretary under President Bill Clinton, will probably be nominated to become the next director of the Department of Energy.

Moniz is now the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, a research group funded largely by petroleum companies, including a $25 million gift last year from BP. He has come under fire from environmental groups for a study he led in 2010 which argued that natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing should be seen as a short-term replacement for coal burning power plants.

The initiative’s advisor committee is led by George Shultz, former secretary of state under President Reagan, who praises Moniz for “boundless enthusiasm that’s infectious.”

The president’s likely nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is Gina McCarthy, who is now an assistant administrator at the agency. McCarthy previously served under both Republican and Democratic governors in her home state of Massachusetts, including then-governor Mitt Romney.

She later worked as director of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection under Governor M. Jodi Rell, also a Republican. During her tenure, McCarthy took a lead role in organizing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade system for Northeastern states.

Despite her bipartisan experience, McCarthy already is drawing criticism from Republicans as being too extreme on environmental issues.

“Gina’s a true-blue environmentalist,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani LLP who represents Southern Company and other energy companies. “But I have to say she is at least willing to sit down and listen and understand the issues people have with [the] EPA’s regulations.”

All this talk about the frontrunners hasn’t stopped hedge fund billionaire Thomas Steyer from his own, very public lobbying campaign for the job of energy director. Steyer let Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin follow him around as he downed mochas and lobbied loudly for the job, including giving a speech in front of 35,000 people gathered on the National Mall on Sunday to advocate stronger policies on climate change.

“For the last 30 years I’ve been a professional investor,” Steyer told the crowd, “and I’ve been looking at billion-dollar investments for decades and I’m here to tell you one thing: The Keystone pipeline is not a good investment.”

Big Investors Challenge IBM, Others on Sustainability

Major institutional investors including the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the New York City Comptroller filed shareholder resolutions this week with 13 companies, trying to push the corporations to use more renewable energy and promote energy efficiency.

The investors’ stated goal is to improve shareholder value by making the companies more resistant to risks posed by climate change, according to a press release.

“As investors, we ask that companies set clear, quantifiable goals and report on progress in order to boost efficiency, reduce emissions and limit other environmental impacts,” said Leslie Samuelrich of Green Century Capital Management, which was the lead filer of a resolution with IBM.

The other investors included Calvert Investments and Presbyterian Church USA. They filed with 13 companies: CF Industries, Citrix Systems, Dun & Bradstreet, Electronic Arts, Equity Residential, Fiserv, Kimco Realty Corporation, IBM, Public Storage, Rockwood Holdings, Roper Industries, SL Green Realty and Walter Energy.

“The world’s largest companies recognize that clean, efficient energy use makes good business sense,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a business advocacy group on environmental issues, which helped to coordinate the filings. “Shareholders are encouraging these companies to adopt clean energy strategies so that they can capture short-term benefits and mitigate long-term risks.”

The filings resulted in at least a few quick changes. First was an agreement by IBM to provide more information on its renewable energy and efficiency polices. Green Century Capital Management withdrew its filing after the announcement. Calvert Investments withdrew its own filing with Public Storage, the world’s largest operator of self-storage sites, after the company agreed to share more information about its energy use.

The filings by such large investors could set the stage for another big season of shareholder resolutions. Last year was “highly active” for such resolutions, with over 1,000 filed and almost 500 brought to a vote, according to a report by Alliance Investors.

Those included 174 “environmental and social proposals.” Of those, nine called for sustainability reports by the companies, and those nine received support from 33.4 percent of shareholders, on average.



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