Feb 26, 2009

Economic Recession hits Solar Power, but there's hope...

Following up on my article on Sharp Corp. and it's solar power focus, I was reading a few articles in the NY Times about solar power. The recession has taken quite a toll on solar companies, which were growing very rapidly over the past few years - according to this article on the Green Inc. NY Times blog, Cleantech investments jumped from $270 million to over $4 billion from 2003 to 2008.

A lot of it is due to the credit freeze, which is drying up the necessary capital that wind and solar power companies relied on in the past to keep going. While Obama's plans for a green America are in the works, and while he's dedicated $83 billion in tax credits and cleantech spending in his stimulus bill, the effects of those actions won't be felt until much later. At present, these companies are starting to cut back and layoff workers in order to stay afloat.

Some solar companies like Ausra, had big plans like creating thousands of solar power plants that would supply the United States with clean power, but now they're turning more towards steam generation to supply existing power plants and industries with steam.

Luckily, there is still some progress being made. I was reading this article about how another solar company called FirstSolar made a breakthrough in their development process of its solar modules from $3 per watt to $1 per watt, which could be huge once this recession blows over and people start getting back on track in finding ways to more efficiently use solar power.

There has also been speculation that Obama is considering using solar panels in the White House.

By the way, I had no idea that the Carter installed solar panels when he was president, or that the panels were later taken down by Reagan - which makes sense...Reagan was no friend to alternative energy or the environment. But what was most surprising was that there were additional solar panels added in 2003 under George W. Bush.

Sharp Corporation is awesome

I realized that my last two posts were about cars. I have to admit that I really know nothing about them, though I do find alternative energy vehicles fascinating. So, I've decided to step away from cars and turn to solar power.

During one of my phases when I started investing some of my savings in the stock market, I started looking for companies that were researching and developing innovative alternative energy sources, particularly solar power. After all the sun puts out so much energy, so if we find a way to efficiently harness and capture that energy, it would mean nearly limitless power that has minimal impact on the environment.

One of my research binges led me to Sharp Corp. Sharp has been involved with photovoltaic cell production for years, and their corporate vision for a green future is amazing - they are essentially trying to balance out their emissions through the carbon reduction through the development and sales of their photovoltaic cells by 2010. Not only that, but the long-term objectives they've set for themselves in order to become a greener company are extremely impressive, especially their target of making green devices account for 90% of their sales by 2010, converting all their production sites to be grade B green factories or higher, and using 1,400 tons of recycled plastic in their products by 2010.

I'm not sure how far they can expect to go given the state of the economy around the world, but the very fact that they have set such goals is amazing. The cool thing is, they publish lots of data on their progress towards achieving their goals: CO2 emissions, number of green products, amount of water used, amount of waste created, etc.

What's more, Sharp has started outfitting production facilities with solar cells and other clean technologies (molten-carbonate fuel cells and co-generation systems that use city gas to generate electricity and waste heat, which is used to power the air conditioning and hot water), and they've started recycling programs for used electrical products in a lot of countries.

You can check out the entire eco section of their website here

Feb 23, 2009

Ford Motor Company

The major American automobile manufacturers are not doing to well...Wikipedia has a pretty decent summary of what happened with the "Big Three" automakers.

If you don't want to read that summary, essentially the "Big Three" suffered from a multitude of problems that their Japanese and Asian competitors don't have to deal with and they were hit hard with the credit crisis in 2008:

1) Unionized Workers - union workers come with higher labor costs, and it is much harder to deal with unions and fire workers who don't perform to the standards of the company. Moreover, the companies also made a lot of pension and health-care commitments for its retirees, which it is finding harder and harder to satisfy (the New York Times had a pretty good article about this).

2) Declining image - the "Big Three" more than other automobile manufacturers have had to tackle with the issue of declining image. Since the Japanese automakers started producing high quality cars at cheap costs, the "Big Three" have found it harder and harder to keep pace, resulting in a decline in consumer confidence in their vehicles. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that declining consumer confidence leads to lower sales, which makes it even harder for the American automakers to be able to produce high quality cars that are able to compete in the market.

3) SUV Craze - back in late 1990's, SUVs became a huge hit and started becoming the backbone of the automotive industry. The price of gas was low enough to sustain the craze, so naturally all the automakers got into the SUV craze sweeping America. However, once gas prices began to spike SUV sales plummeted, and the automakers took a big hit. To be fair to the "Big Three," while they could have been more eco-conscious, as this Time article points out, while SUVs were more dangerous and more expensive to fuel, Americans loved them and there was high demand for them. Even up until the summer of 2007, SUV sales were pretty strong. . And it isn't until recently that Americans have become more eco-conscious and more concerned with fuel economy. In the early 2000's, hybrid cars and alternative-energy cars were a small percentage of the market, and came with such a high price premium, that they were impractical for the average consumer.

4) The 2008 Oil and Credit Crisis - the crisis was essentially the straw that broke the camel's back. High gas prices hit the sales of the "Big Three" automakers pretty hard, and since they relied on SUVs so heavily, it forced them to start massive promotional incentives, which didn't do nearly enough to alleviate the damage. The credit crisis also had the added effect of tightening loans, which reduced the ability of people to buy cars, further hurting automotive sales.

But my main point with this article is that of the "Big Three," Ford stands to be in the best position to make a comeback. They started venturing into hybrid vehicles with the Ford Escape and the Mariner. They've received Michigan tax credits for their research in electric vehicles and their plan to bring 4 electric vehicles by 2012.

From their latest 4th Quarter financial results, they are planning to create 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids, and are planning to continue to produce hybrid vehicles over the next 4 years. They have also formed plans with the U.S. Department of Energy to invest $14 billion over the next 7 years to create more fuel efficient vehicles

And while their latest vehicle, the Ford Fiesta won't be available in its more eco-friendly form in the U.S., the car is still a compact car, which is much more friendly to the environment. If Ford keeps up this pace of release more eco-friendly, smaller, and more compact cars, I'm sure they will be able to turn their business around, especially since the market for compact cars is continuing to grow (also here).

Feb 22, 2009

Vegetable Oil Powered Cars

When I was in high school, I didn't really have a car. I relied mainly on the school bus as my mode of transportation - even in my senior year. In fact, I didn't even get a learner's permit or a license when I turned 16. Why get a license or learn to drive when there is a perfectly good way to get to and from school? Besides, it was more efficient and cleaner for the environment. And even throughout college, I didn't own a car. It was easy enough to walk around Northwestern, and Evanston, IL isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis.

That said, there was one thing that really made me want to get a car, just so I could try it. It was this simple modification that you can perform on your car to turn it into a vegetable oil powered "greasecar": http://www.greasecar.com/
The one catch, though, is that your vehicle needs to be a diesel powered car or truck.

Through the website, you can essentially purchase a conversion kit, which essentially comes with a heated oil tank and all the necessary hoses and wires to make your car stop running from your normal diesel tank and start running using vegetable oil in your heated oil tank.  From what I understand, once you install the kit on your car, you'll only need regular diesel to turn on the car. Once the car is on, the heat from engine gets transferred to the heated oil tank, so that the vegetable oil gets heated up enough to have a similar consistency to diesel. The vegetable oil is then injected into the engine similar to diesel and the car runs using the vegetable oil.

The major benefits from using this vegetable oil system are that it is carbon neutral, it doesn't wear away the engine very much, has similar fuel economy to traditional diesel engines (diesel engines have better fuel economy than gasoline engines anyway, so it is certainly a benefit over traditional gasoline powered cars), and you can probably get vegetable oil for free from restaurants which would have to throw away their oil normally - just make sure that there is no water or potential bacterial contamination in the oil, which could mean bad news for the emissions and the vegetable oil system.

You can find out more about the Greasecar Fuel System here: http://www.greasecar.com/faq.cfm, and if you're interested in converting your car into a Vegetable-Oil powered car, you can purchase kits here: http://www.greasecar.com/product_list.cfm?cat=Greasecar%20Kits

First Post

I was fairly environmentally aware through high school and college. I tried to recycle, I tried to use environmentally sustainable products. But ever since I worked on a project involving consumer water filtration systems at my job as a strategy consultant this past year, I have become obsessed with environmental sustainability. My research for that project involved researching the environmental impacts of the plastic in water bottles, the troubles of water conservation (especially in cities in the Western United States), and the problems of greenhouse gases. It got to a point where I decided to stop drinking bottled water at work and switched to drinking filtered water from a glass, so that I wouldn't contribute to the thousands of plastic bottles that are wasted each year due to the production of bottled water.

After the project was over, my interest turned to environmental technology, and I started looking into different types of cleantech. I'm already a big tech geek, so I was really excited to learn more about companies that were involved with cleantech, particularly with solar power. I think solar power has such tremendous potential. The sun puts out nearly a thousand watts of power per square meter, but there just isn't a very efficient way of harnessing that power. 

I soon discovered that I eventually want to merge my interest in green technology and environmental sustainability with my professional career, particularly with assisting and providing funding to companies who research and develop new clean technology. I'm hoping that through this blog, I can learn more about the greentech and cleantech industry and find emerging startups and companies that come up with innovative, efficient, and practical ways to implement green technology, so that one day we can achieve a world that is completely carbon neutral and emission free.

My Shared Articles