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Chinese Solar Boom a Boon for American Polysilicon Producers

China's solar manufacturing boom could turn into a bonanza for U.S. suppliers of polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar panels

Sep 8, 2011

When Robert Bushman sold his California polysilicon recycling company in 2006, China controlled just 10 percent of global solar panel production. Four years later—after he'd bought the business back from a German firm—China's share had leaped to more than 50 percent, and it is still growing fast. "Most of our sales are in China today," he says.

Bushman's SolarSilicon Recycling Services is one of several U.S. suppliers of polysilicon—a key ingredient in solar photovoltaic panels—that is thriving off the Chinese solar manufacturing boom. Sales are "through the roof," reveals Bushman, who says he repurchased his company in part to cash in on surging demand for American-made solar silicon.

It's an increasingly unusual situation for U.S. solar firms. In other stages of the supply chain—wafers, cells and modules—China has lured American companies with its scores of low-wage workers and bevy of government subsidies.

But cheap business costs have limits in high-tech sectors like polysilicon production, where quality and innovation are coveted. And it's one area where the United States enjoys a trade surplus, amounting to $2.3 billion last year for the crucial material, according to new figures released by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research.

Over the past few decades, the United States has built a skilled labor force in making polysilicon—initially to create semiconductor wafers for computers and electronic products and now almost entirely for the solar industry. The country has also gained an edge in advanced equipment for making solar panel components. 

"In polysilicon and capital equipment, the U.S. has still done quite well," says Shayle Kann, managing director of solar research at GTM Research. "Those parts of the value chain are more capital intensive. They're more IP [intellectual property]-intensive, and they're more difficult to do. They are also less labor intensive, meaning that the advantage gained through lower labor costs has less of an impact."

Is the Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline in America's Best 'National Interest'?

The decision now rests with Sec. of State Clinton—and the pipeline's proponents and opponents are gearing up for their final arguments.

Sep 7, 2011
Secretary of State HIllary Clinton

WASHINGTON—Proponents and opponents of the fiercely debated Keystone XL pipeline agree on at least one point. The next three months will be crucial in bolstering their respective arguments about a proposal to pump Canadian oil sands via a 36-inch pipeline through America's heartland to Gulf Coast refineries.

Barely two weeks ago, pro-pipeline contingents were claiming victory and anti-pipeline forces were fuming after the State Department declared that the project would cause minimal environmental harm.

But now both sides are girding for the federal government's next step. It requires the State Department to take the lead in determining if Keystone XL is in the national interest. The $7 billion pipeline, a project of Alberta-based TransCanada, would travel 1,702 miles through six states. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised to say yes or no to the company's application for a presidential permit by the end of the year.

Pipeline advocates are still confident they will prevail. However, opponents are increasingly optimistic that expanding their case beyond environmental concerns could give them an edge. This broader 90-day review—known by the cumbersome name of "national interest determination"—will focus on economic, political, energy security and foreign policy considerations, as well as environmental repercussions.

The State Department has scheduled a series of eight September and October public meetings in the half-dozen states along Keystone XL's proposed route—Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas—plus a final one Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C. The department also will accept written comments through Oct. 9.

Environmental justice and conservation organizations seem re-energized by this opportunity to expand their side of the pipeline story.

Susan White to Lead InsideClimate News as Executive Editor

Concurrently, the news organization is changing its name to InsideClimate News

By InsideClimate News

Sep 6, 2011
Susan White

New York, N.Y.—September 6, 2011—SolveClimate News announced today that Susan White, formerly a senior editor at the investigative nonprofit ProPublica, will lead its newsroom in the newly created position of Executive Editor. Concurrent with her appointment, the news organization is changing its name to InsideClimate News, to better reflect the investigative mission it will pursue under her leadership.

White was the first senior editor hired by ProPublica when it started operating in 2008, and she helped edit the project that brought ProPublica its first Pulitzer Prize in 2010, about a New Orleans hospital stranded by flooding during Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, when she was working for The San Diego Union-Tribune, she was an editor on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reports that sent former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison for bribery. She also edited a project on immigration that was a 2004 Pulitzer finalist.

"We're thrilled that Susan is bringing her much-admired talent, experience and humanity here," said David Sassoon, founder and publisher of InsideClimate News. "In conversations spanning many months, we found a strong fit, and we're looking forward to making important contributions to the public understanding of energy and climate change, two of the defining issues of our time."

White edited ProPublica's coverage of natural gas drilling, which won a George Polk Award and other national honors. Two of the projects she edited for ProPublica are being honored with first place awards this year from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Prior to her three years at ProPublica, White was the Union-Tribune's writing coach, U.S.-Mexico border editor and enterprise editor.

See Also

Keystone XL Primer: Why Nebraska Is Ground Zero in the Pipeline Fight

The Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline to run through the Nebraska sandhills, a fragile area with few pipelines of any kind

Sep 2, 2011
Oil pipelines in the field

The ecologically sensitive Nebraska sandhills have become a flashpoint in the debate over whether the 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline should be built to transport tar sands crude oil in Canada across five Midwestern states to Texas. Ninety-two miles of the pipeline would pass through the sandhills, where an oil spill could be devastating.

TransCanada, the Canadian company that hopes to build the pipeline, says its sophisticated safety systems will protect the sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer that lies beneath them from contamination. TransCanada often points out, as spokesman Terry Cunha did in a recent email to SolveClimate News, that there are already "21,000 miles of pipelines crossing Nebraska, including 3,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Many miles of these pipelines co-exist within the Ogallala aquifer."

We decided to check out those figures and dig a little deeper into how Nebraska regulates its pipelines. We found that while Cunha's numbers are accurate, there is more to the story. Here's a guide to help you sort it all out.

How Many Oil Pipelines Currently Run Through the Sandhills?

None.

Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline in the Nebraska sandhills. It would cross through three counties within the sandhills—Boone, Holt and Rock. The only pipelines in those counties are 234 miles of natural gas pipelines.

California Moves to Avoid Europe's Perils in Encouraging Green Power

The state has become one of few governments worldwide—and the first in the U.S.—to finalize a unique auction program to ramp-up renewables

Sep 1, 2011
Solar power panels on the Palm Desert, Calif. Walmart

Trying to avoid the potential perils of European-style feed-in tariffs, California regulators are moving forward with a new financing technique to stimulate immediate development of small-scale renewable energy projects. 

This month the state became one of few governments worldwide—and the first in the United States—to finalize a bidding program for clean energy projects. The so-called renewable auction mechanism, or RAM, will bring 1,000 megawatts of green electricity online over two years—enough to power roughly 800,000 homes. Put simply, the idea is for developers to submit bids to utilities for 1.5- to 20-megawatt projects. The proposals must be able to be completed within 18 months at the lowest cost possible.

Auction models exist in India, France and South Africa, but RAM is the "trailblazer" in terms of its scope, said Adam Browning, executive director of the San Francisco-based advocacy group Vote Solar.

Four auctions—two a year—will be held in California starting this fall. At each sale, utility giants Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison will be required to divvy up and auction off a collective 250 megawatts.

Proponents say the pilot RAM program will cut costs and time spent on bringing solar and other renewables online. But not everyone is cheering. Two of the three utilities have derided RAM for being too restrictive due largely to its 18-month deadline—which they say ignores longer-term needs—and for forcing them to take part even after they've met the state's aggressive clean energy targets.

"RAM isn't going to do all things for everybody. But the one thing that it is really designed to do, it is going to do really well," Browning said, referring to the price and time savings RAM aims to achieve. 

The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved the program last December after also considering use of feed-in tariffs, which helped make Germany one of the world's largest markets for solar power but also set off boom-bust cycles in other countries, namely in Spain and the Czech Republic. There, overly generous tariff regimes led to a rush to connect solar to the grid and mounting subsidy bills, which couldn't be paid.

Amid EV Hype, Backers of Natural Gas Cars Vie for Federal Support

Natural gas companies and other proponents are calling for a level playing field in terms of government subsidies for alternative vehicles

By Kari Lydersen, Midwest Energy News

Sep 1, 2011
Fueling a CNG-powered Honda Civic in Los Angeles

Electric vehicles are on a roll, with charging stations popping up in cities nationwide, federal subsidies for car buyers and much anticipation around the rollout of new cars.

But proponents of another type of vehicle say they are quietly laying the groundwork for an alternative to the electric car, and they wish they were getting more attention and federal support.

Vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel emit about a quarter less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines and very low levels of compounds harmful to public health. Filling up on natural gas currently costs about one fourth to one half as much as traditional gasoline per mile driven. Fueling a natural gas vehicle can take only five to 10 minutes, compared to up to eight hours to recharge an electric car, and vehicles can go much farther on a tank of CNG than an electric battery.

So natural gas companies and other proponents—including energy mogul T. Boone Pickens—are calling for a "level playing field" in terms of government subsidies and urging consumers and automakers to consider natural gas vehicles.

But while the fuel for CNG vehicles may be cheap, the infrastructure is not. It can cost more than $1 million to install a commercial natural gas fueling station, whereas an electric car can plug into a standard household outlet. Even a 480-volt fast-charging station, which can charge a Nissan Leaf's battery in under an hour, costs about $20,000.

Republican Nebraska Governor Asks Obama to Nix Keystone Pipeline

The State Department should deny the permit on the grounds that the pipeline could put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk, the governor says

Aug 31, 2011

Nebraska's governor urged U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday to block TransCanada's planned Keystone oil pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, saying it could hurt a regional water source.

The State Department could issue a presidential permit for the $7 billion project, which would boost U.S. dependence on Canada's controversial oil sands. Momentum for Keystone picked up last week after the department said the project would have only limited impact on the environment.

The State Department should deny the permit on the grounds that the line could put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk, the Midwestern state's governor, Dave Heineman, said in a letter to the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The aquifer in Nebraska is a main source of water for farmlands in the Midwest.

The State Department said in last week's environmental review that an oil spill from the line would affect a limited area in Nebraska's Sand Hills region, which is part of the High Plains aquifer.

Heineman said he does not oppose pipelines in general, but disagreed about the risks.

"This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska's agriculture industry," he said in the letter. "I am concerned that the proposed pipeline will potentially have detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska's economy."

Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns echoed Heineman's request. "The proposed route is the wrong route. It's clear to me, after traveling throughout the state, that most Nebraskans agree a better route is needed," Johanns said in a release.

Amid Cheers, NASA Chief Is Arrested at Oil Sands Pipeline Protests

James Hansen, the 70-year-old renowned climate scientist, was the 112th of 140 arrested on day 10 of the Keystone XL pipeline sit-ins

Aug 30, 2011
James Hansen

WASHINGTON—A few minutes after 11 a.m. Monday, climate scientist James Hansen sits down on a patch of sidewalk in front of a green banner proclaiming "Witness for Climate and Creation." The White House looms in the background.

The head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City pulls his tan fedora snug around his ears to block the sun and hugs his knees to his chest. Then he opens his mouth to harmonize with a chorus of 160-plus voices blending on chants that included "Heal the Planet," "Stand Together," "Not in Our Name" and "Keep Your Promises."

Hansen is the center of attention on day 10 of a two-week peaceful sit-in to protest a Canadian company’s proposal to construct a $7 billion, 1,702-mile pipeline to pump diluted bitumen—a particularly dirty type of heavy crude—from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
 
At 1:20 p.m., a U.S. Park Police officer beckons to the suit-clad Hansen with his index finger. The 70-year-old grandfather arises to cheers and applause from the fellow 30 or so demonstrators still left on the sidewalk and the hundred-plus still singing, hollering and strumming a guitar across the street in Lafayette Park.

Hansen—the 112th of the 140 arrested Monday, many from the faith community—extends his hands behind his back so the police officer can cinch the black plastic handcuffs around his wrists. Then, he stands with his brown dress shoes spread several feet apart while another officer frisks him. At least a dozen photographers document the scene.

Five minutes later, Hansen emerges from a white tarpaulin where his mug shot was snapped. Somebody yelled "Thank you, Jim." As Hansen holds his fedora aloft and cracks a smile, protesters in the park break into a verse of "We love Jim Hansen" and "Don't want no pipeline" to the tune of the traditional gospel song "Down by the Riverside." Then he ducks, climbs into the awaiting paddy wagon and disappears.

Virginia Quake May Have Exceeded Nuke Plant Design, NRC Says

The U.S. nuclear regulator said that last week's 5.8 magnitude quake mave have caused shaking in excess of what two Va. reactors were built to handle

Ayesha Roscoe, Reuters

Aug 29, 2011
North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Louisa County, Va.

The historic earthquake that shut down Dominion Resources Inc's North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia last week may have shaken the plant more than it was designed to withstand, the U.S. nuclear regulator said on Monday.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has dispatched a special team of inspectors to the Virginia plant that was rocked by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake last week, after initial reviews from Dominion indicated the ground motion may have exceeded the plant's design parameters.

The North Anna plant cannot be restarted until the operator can show that no "functional damage" occurred to equipment needed for the safe operation, the NRC said.

"The company and the NRC will continue to carefully evaluate information to determine if additional actions may be necessary," the regulator said in a statement.

After the earthquake last week, Dominion said the North Anna reactors, which entered service in 1978 and 1980, were designed for an earthquake of up to 6.2 magnitude, but the NRC does not use that scale to measure seismic design specifications. Instead, the commission looks at ground motion measurements.

Dominion spokesman Rick Zuercher said on Monday that more will be known about whether the quake exceeded the station's design by midweek as further analysis is done on seismic plates from the station's containment building.