The “Green New Deal”
Whether it is Alan Salzman special host at last week World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, or Paul Holland accompanying President Obama to present the new Energy and Technology Research budget for FY2010, Silicon Valley cleantech community and leading venture capitalists are front and center of the debate over clean and renewable energy. And it’s not by chance that Steven Chu, the new Energy Secretary appointed by Obama, comes from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the oldest of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Laboratories. Washington is turning its attention and consequent financing to green technologies and by all means Silicon Valley cleantech ecosystem is well placed to reap benefits from the new federal and state incentives in an attempt to find a way out of the financial crisis, curb energy consumption, decrease energy dependency and ultimately fight global warming.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed last February 2009, pours over $65 billion into renewable energy, energy efficiency and greentech financing of which 6.5 billion for R&D. It is a real “Green New Deal”: The most significant effort in public spending in science and technology after the launch of the Apollo Program. And «it only costs the equivalent of a couple of months in Irak» as a blogger commented on the New York Times website. A big part of these dollars is already profiting Silicon Valley start-ups and research centers, which are leading the way through future technological development. So, if Washington is looking towards Silicon Valley, it is also true that, surprisingly enough, for the first time Silicon Valley is looking East, towards Washington money. Lately, law firms have been organizing seminars around the Bay Area to explain to cleantech start-ups and the venture capital community the Recovery Act. The economic crisis has hit many Bay Area start ups and renewable energy companies that are now suffering from the loss of tax equity buyers (including AIG, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, JP Morgan, Wells Fargo) and vc are becoming more selective due to a decrease in the amount of funding they can raise per financing round.
The most important incentives deployed by the Stimulus Package are the following:
- A large sum for energy efficiency, including $5 billion for low-income weatherization programs; over $6 billion in grants for state and local governments; and several billion to modernize federal buildings, with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency.
- $11 billion for “smart grid” investments.
- $3.4 billion for carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects (also known as “clean coal”).
- $2 billion for research into batteries for electric cars.
- $500 million to help workers train for “green jobs.”
- A three-year extension of the “production tax credit” for wind energy (as well as a tax credit extension for biomass, geothermal, landfill gas and some hydropower projects).
- The option, available to many developers, of turning their tax credits into direct cash, with the government underwriting 30 percent of a project’s cost.
For more details, I found the DSIRE database very useful to navigate the complex space of federal and state incentives for renewables and efficiency. You can also visit the many websites of US law firms with a cleantech practice. For instance Cooley Godward Kronish in Palo Alto has recently launched a new cleantech stimulus portal.
What’s In For Italian Companies?
It is worth looking into the details of the plan for Italian cleantech companies willing to invest in the US market. Even if many of the provisions are accessible only to American companies for the « Buy American » clause, this is true only if the spending relates to public works or public procurements, seeking to ensure that only U.S. iron, steel, and manufactured goods are used in infrastructure projects. In addition, waivers can be issued to U.S. federal departments should the department head believe the Buy American provisions are not in the "public interest." Some waivers have already been issued for instance by the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreover, the Buy American restrictions can be avoided by opening a subsidiary or a production plants in the US. Some European front-runner green energy companies have already made the strategic decision to invest in the US and in Silicon Valley. This gives them a competitive advantage in the rush to cash in on stimulus money. For instance, with an investment in Noventi Ventures - a Silicon Valley-based cleantech venture capital fund - Sorgenia has opened a window on the US market and on the most promising clean technologies developed in Silicon Valley. Not only the stimulus funds are benefiting Noventi portfolio companies, but Sorgenia is already exploring further direct investment opportunities in renewable energy projects, such as wind and solar power.
What Are the Silicon Valley Based Companies Tapping Into The Stimulus Package?
Renewable Power Generation : Thin Film Solar photovoltaic
Solyndra is the first company to receive an offer for a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee within the Stimulus Package. Solyndra, a Fremont, California-based manufacturer of innovative cylindrical photovoltaic systems using thin film technology, will use the proceeds of a $535 million loan from the U.S. Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank to expand its solar panel manufacturing capacity in California. Also in the thin-film sector, Heliovolt is looking into the Stimulus Package for the development of its technology and production capacity. It is a CIGS thin-film PV panel manufacturer that uses a fraction of semiconductor material used in traditional silicon cells, significantly slicing costs while at the same time achieving performances comparable to traditional silicon cells.
Transportation: Electric Cars and Biofuels
Tesla Motors, Inc. is awaiting word on a $350 million loan application to the Department of Energy that would allow the electric carmaker to build the Model S sedan, which is expected to cost $57,400. Tesla is a Silicon Valley automobile startup company focusing on the production of high performance, consumer-oriented battery electric vehicles. In the biodiesel space, Aurora Biofuels uses proprietary technology developed at the University of California at Berkeley, to produce biodiesel feedstock from microalgae. Based in Alameda, California, Aurora’s technology achieves yields that are 100 times higher and at significant lower costs than traditional bioethanol production methods.
Serious Materials, a leading sustainable building materials company based in Sunnyvale, CA, announced that it fully supports the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act energy efficiency provisions. “We are already opening plants to meet the Recovery Act demand and hiring what may be hundreds of workers this year.” The company’s products such as SeriousWindows and SeriousGlass can reduce heating and cooling energy costs by up to 50%. Under the Recovery Act, homeowners can receive federal tax credits for “qualified energy-efficient improvements,” which include windows, doors and skylights. The new tax credits are for 30% of the cost of eligible products up to a limit of $1,500.
Efficiency of Infrastructures: Smart Grid Management Systems
Lumenergi, Inc., a Newark, CA based start-up is emerging rapidly in a space populated by large corporations. Lumenergi manufactures advanced and price-competitive dimming electronic ballast for fluorescent lighting that, combined with a proprietary lighting control system, is able to achieve energy savings in the order of 70%. In addition, Lumenergi’s system is Demend Response ready, allowing utilities to save energy at peak loads. This provides a huge opportunity as lighting accounts for 23 percent of all electricity consumption in the U.S. and 50 percent of electricity used in high-rise buildings. Coupled with rebates and grants that are increasingly being offered by utilities or state energy offices, Lumenergi estimates that a customer could get a return on their investment in only two years.
With billions of dollars from the Recovery Act flowing into smart grid investments, pushing utilities towards efficiency, and funding energy efficiency retrofits of commercial and governmental building, Lumenergi and other technology start-ups in Silicon Valley are getting organized to make the most out of federal and state funding.