This Week In Green Energy: Obama’s New Drill
Week of March 29 – to – April 2, 2010
Why did he do it? That was the question many people asked this week after President Obama endorsed offshore oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic Coast, from Delaware to central Florida, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s north coast. The announcement follows 14 months of aggressive pro-green policies by the Obama administration.
President Obama justified his decision as an extension of his ongoing “pan-energy” policy, in which renewable energy is one prong and the development of next-generation nuclear reactors and exploration for new oil reserves is the other.
Politically, after a bruising, yearlong fight in Congress over health care, the Obama administration sees offshore drilling as a bi-partisan issue that could get Republicans to support a comprehensive climate change and energy bill. Will it? That’s hard to predict, as Republicans, saying his move doesn’t go far enough, quickly criticized the president for maintaining the ban on much of the Pacific Coast. His decision, not surprisingly, also angered the environmental community.
“We’re very disappointed to see important areas like the Arctic coast and the Mid and South Atlantic stay open to oil drilling,” . “What we need is bold, decisive steps toward clean energy, like the new clean cars regulations announced this week—not more dirty, expensive offshore drilling.”
As a political play, the decision seems to have backfired. By trying to please everyone, Obama may have ended up pleasing no one.
As an energy policy, the president’s decision might make sense. It would diversify U.S. oil and gas production “beyond its current Gulf of Mexico heartlands,” . Although getting to that oil remains decades away.
Michael Levi, an energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the new exploration (and production) could generate $900 billion in new revenues, and their shareholders but with little impact at the pump for end consumers. How these potential revenues are split between the federal government, states and oil and gas companies also remains an open question.
“Depending on the details, [the drilling] could be a significant benefit for Americans,” Levi wrote in a commentary. “That said, the bulk of the revenues would likely go to the companies (and shareholders), and the sums would be spread over several decades, lessening the public benefit of the move.”
Investors, it appears, have an ongoing appetite for the green energy sector. Globally, cleantech start-ups received $1.9 billion the first three months of 2010, an 83 percent boost from the first quarter of 2009, according to a Deloitte report released this week. The biggest beneficiaries were electric carmakers and energy-efficiency companies. Underscoring investors’ cautious approach—and cleantech companies’ steep capital needs—most of the new investments flowed to existing companies instead of start-ups.
BP, the British oil and gas company and one of the sector’s largest investors, announced this week it is shutting down its Frederick, Md., solar power plant, and shifting production to joint ventures in China and India. Chief Executive Tony Hayward said that given the low price of photovoltaic cells, producing in the U.S. didn’t make economic sense. The company, which has been refocusing its investments on its core oil and gas company, said it was not walking away from its green commitments. Having invested $4 billion in the alternative energy space over the past four years, BP is “absolutely committed to solar,” Hayward told The Washington Post.
The Cape Wind saga continued this week, when the Boston company announced a new supply agreement with Siemens Energy Inc. for 130 wind turbines for its controversial proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The developer in 2003 inked a first deal with General Electric but was forced to look for a new supplier when GE left the offshore wind turbine business.
Is this just a press release or could the news foreshadow a positive decision by the Interior Department, which is expected to rule on a federal permit for Nantucket project in the next couple of weeks? A negative ruling by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would be surprising, given his strong commitment to develop the country’s offshore capacity. The announcement is a milestone for Cape Wind, opening the gate to another crucial requirement for the $1 billion offshore initiative: Securing financing.
Codexis, the developer of next-generation biofuels backed by Royal Dutch Shell, is prepping for a second try at an initial public offering. The flotation could raise as much as $100 million for the company, the latest cleantech venture to dip its toe into the public markets.
Suniva Inc., the Norcross, Ga.-based solar cell manufacturer backed by Goldman Sachs and New Enterprise Associates and H.I.G. Ventures, announced it’s being considered for a $141 million loan from the Energy Department to build a new 400-megawatt capacity manufacturing plant in Saginaw County, Mich.
Privately held Integrated Photovoltaics has raised $8.5 million in a first round of funding led by Peninsula Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based VC firm.
Glacier Bay Inc., a developer of DC power and thermal management technologies, has raised $15 million as part of a Series C funding led by City Light Capital.
Petaluma, Calif.-based Enphase Energy, maker of solar microinverter systems, has raised $40 million in a private financing, led by Bay Partners.
The price of photovoltaic cells over the past year has melted by as much as 50 percent, opening new markets and ensuring increased demand. The declining prices, however, generate other challenges. That was apparent this week with BP’s announcement to shutdown its U.S. PV plant. At PVs’ current prices, BP concluded that it’s better off producing its panels in China and India. Does this short-circuit Obama’s plan to create millions of “green collar” jobs? Possibly. But it’s hard to provide a clear answer. While BP packs up and goes east, several cleantech, mostly Chinese, companies are setting up shop in the U.S. And, they are not merely opening marketing offices but large manufacturing lines. What we’re seeing are two different strategies, both supporting a single goal: capturing market shares.