A friend of mine who is an economist looking at fuel efficiency recently asked for me to recommend for him some technology and news sources in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency, in light of the recent Solyndra bankruptcy and associated news coverage. I thought this might be of more general interest, so I’m posting here! But first, a big caveat – this is more or less what I have stumbled upon and is not necessarily the “best” list. Especially since I am a newcomer to the renewables field and am still trying to get the lay of the land. So if you find an interesting source that you think I should check out, please let me know!! But that said, here goes:
Technologies and Studies
- Renewable technologies and R&D and sometimes business model innovation you can learn about at NREL, the national renewable energy laboratory: http://www.nrel.gov/ (ooh the government has a new website design!!)
- More generally on energy is DOE’s EERE (energy efficiency and renewable energy); I have worked more specifically relating to their building technologies program, but they have everything: http://www.eere.energy.gov/, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/
- Similar transportation agency, through DOT: http://www.volpe.dot.gov/
- For energy efficiency I highly recommend ACEEE (http://aceee.org/, American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) and you can also check out the Alliance to Save Energy (http://ase.org/). You can also try Engage360, http://www.engage360.com/, but I think the website is poorly designed.
- There are a lot of technologies for all of the different energy-related sectors, so to learn about them all is rather time consuming and perhaps not quite as productive as getting a general sense and then just listening to the news. I find twitter to be a great news source, especially if I want a local perspective. I’m a fan of @votesolar (they also link to lots of webinars where you can learn about favorite subjects in more detail), for example.
- World Resources Institute (WRI) is a great resource for various sustainability-related studies and they also have a twitter account and I think a daily newsletter too, @worldresources. Definitely I’d check them out.
- For local transportation news, I love @streetsblogsf (they have other accounts for other parts of the country as well) and for urban issues SPUR (http://www.spur.org/) is a very cool organization promoting SF city life (should you want to shlep out to any of their talks).
- I follow @adamwerbach, who is involved in corporate sustainability and tweets about a wide range of topics, which can be interesting.
- Renewable Energy World (@REWorld) of course. Oh and I just found http://www.rechargenews.com/, which seems to be similar but more global in perspective – but I haven’t read any of their articles yet so who knows if they’re interesting.
- I do not recommend any books, unless you want philosophy, because the industry changes quickly and who has time for that anyway. But if you do have time you can read some old industry classics like Cradle to Cradle or Natural Capitalism or Factor 4 (now updated to Factor 5) or Adam Werbach’s new book (Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto). Of these I have only read 1/2 of Natural Capitalism. It is definitely a classic but for me by the time I read it the ideas and even a lot of the case studies were already familiar so it was just dense and boring. Probably most relevant to you, given your economics perspective, would be either Strategy for Sustainability or Natural Capitalism. But perhaps you could skim all of these in a bookstore and see if they interest you.
Regarding your Solyndra questions..
Yes, silicon is the main ingredient for the vast majority of panels installed (exception: some thin-film cells use other materials, such as cadmium telluride). A few years back there was a supply problem and prices were high and other technologies looked more attractive. Now, not so much. Also the US government (and VC industry a few years ago) has a strong focus on developing amazing breakthrough technology which will then be incredibly cheap – so, supporting startups working on wacky ideas. If these ideas pan out, then awesome, but if not, then we are not left with so much in the way of results. From what I observed when I was working in energy efficiency in SF, I didn’t get the sense that people in the US renewables industry put much faith in the wacky new ideas: if they come then great, and if not (more likely case), we still have our regular silicon panels and those are just fine – and that’s what our industry projections & decisions should be based on. The German government and solar industry, from what I’ve observed so far, are more consistently interested in producing lots of panels using technology available today and continually incrementally improving that technology.
Basically all of the major manufacturers at this point are trying to scale up big, because there are big economies of scale – it is same as semiconductor industry like you say. Also there is a feeling that the industry is approaching tipping point scale and only those companies that are big enough will survive a forthcoming M&A (and bankruptcy) shakeout. So, lots of manufacturers are producing at cost or even at a loss. Including many Chinese companies (who are on top of that receiving extra support from their government – see SolarWorld’s recent legal charges) – which makes it very hard to compete on cost.
But don’t forget my caveat – I’m still learning here, so please take all of this with a grain of salt 😉