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Green Energy Sector Weekly Update: Obama’s Ambitious Green Energy Goals

On Tuesday last week President Barack Obama called this point in history “Our generation’s Sputnik moment.” The president was referring to the growing green energy gap between the United States and its competitors in Europe and Asia. While U.S. labs have been largely responsible for developing some of the world’s most successful green technologies, the U.S has fallen behind in deploying these technologies. The president laid out some ambitious goals designed to catch up with America’s global green energy competitors.

In his speech the president called for the U.S. to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable and carbon-light resources by 2025. The State of the Union has long been a forum for leaders to outline grand ambitions, and Obama’s address was no different. However, a closer look at how the president will likely meet his “80 by 25? target reveals a plan that may anger some of the president’s core supporters.

A light-green renewable electricity portfolio, bolstered by uranium (nuclear power) and carbon (clean coal), is necessary if the president is serious about meeting his goal. Obama, ever the pragmatist, will lean on energy sources that will likely ruffle feathers in the environmental community. However, the reality is that solar and wind can never meet the country’s vast electricity demand.

While the nuclear and clean coal lobbies may be hopeful following the president’s address, there are some skeptics that question whether Obama can make 80 by 25 a reality even with the help of nuclear and clean coal. Including nuclear power and clean coal in the president’s plan may be unavoidable, but the real hurdle is getting the nuclear power plants built and the coal decarbonized.

Regarding the president’s “Sputnik moment,” Chu soberly conceded that the U.S. is “no longer the leader” in the global green energy race.

While China is busy rolling out dozens of nuclear power plants, the U.S. remains paralyzed by the memory of Three-mile Island. In fact, the country has not built a new nuclear power plant in more than three decades. Recent U.S. Energy Information Administration data shows, nuclear generates 106,000 megawatts of electricity, with coal accounting for a little more than338, 000 megawatts.

There has been a lot of talk about boosting nuclear capacity in the past four years, but so far America’s much-awaited nuclear renaissance is at a standstill. Red tape, historical cost overruns, and very low natural gas prices have all conspired against nuclear.

In 2007 New Jersey power developer NRG Energy submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build at least two dozen new nuclear power plants. Three years and hundreds of million of dollars later NRG has all but shelved its nuclear aspirations, discouraged by tepid financial support from the federal government and steep competition from gas-fired power generation. Nuclear might have made sense in a cap-and-trade environment, where all carbon emissions are priced, but that market-friendly option remains in limbo, at least for the next two years. Without cap and trade, nuclear energy remains an unpopular option.

As for clean coal, it is more myth than reality. The major issue is that no one knows what will happen over the long-run when you bury large quantities of CO2 deep inside the earth’s crust. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Department of Energy from committing $1 billion to support the FutureGen Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project in southern Illinois.

The Obama administration is no doubt aware of these realities, but is still pushing ahead with this ambitious energy policy goals. In a conference call with reporters on Friday Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he was confident the country would meet the 80 percent target. “We’re halfway there,” he said, pointing out that nuclear, wind, solar generates 40 percent of the country’s current power capacity.

Regarding the president’s “Sputnik moment,” Chu soberly conceded that the U.S. is “no longer the leader” in the global green energy race. Echoing the president’s talking points, he claimed that the country’s deep reservoir of innovation would give the U.S. the tools necessary to compete in the global green race. “This is a race we want to play to win,” he said.

How will the administration convince the republican-controlled House to pay for the president’s “investments” in green energy? Chu did not provide details, only vowing that he will “work with Congress to figure out how to reach these goals.”

VC and PE Watch

Solar Junction, a developer of high-efficiency solar cells for the Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) market, is out raising a fourth round of venture funding, an industry source told G.E.R.
GE, NRG Energy, and ConocoPhillips, the oil and gas major, committed $300 million in U.S. green energy and cleantech startups.

Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected venture funds, secured more than $1.3 billion for its Sequoia Capital 2010 fund.

Livermore, California-based Solar Universe, an installer of solar panels for residential and small businesses, raised $7 million in a Series B round of venture funding.


Sulfurcell, the German maker of CIS thin-film photovoltaic modules, has secured €18.8 million ($25 million) in equity funding from long-time backers, including Intel Capital, the chip-maker’s VC arm.

Ramblings and Musings

This week oil and gas major Exxon Mobil released a global energy outlook predicting that overall global energy demand through 2030 will rise 35 per cent from 2005 levels, largely pushed up by rising demand in developing countries. “China will lead a dramatic climb in energy demand as the rising prosperity of its large population is reflected in trends such as increased vehicle ownership and higher electricity consumption,” Exxon said.  Does this mean CO2 emissions are set for a steep climb? Yes, global carbon emissions will increase — by about 25 percent until 2030 – which is actually not as much as expected. The difference is ever increasing reserves of natural gas. These reserves, “will be vital in meeting (global energy) demand,” said Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.  It’s obvious that Obama’s ambitious goals for cleaner energy depend on U.S. innovation… and perhaps lots of natural gas.

By. Green Energy Reporter

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