Wood pellets a Canadian success story

Catherine Lacoursiere over at EcoLog has an insightful post about the demand for wood pellets in Europe — and increasingly the United States — and how Canada is among the handful of benefactors.

“Canada, with its vast forestry resources, is shipping upwards of 500,000 tons of wood pellets to Europe,” she writes, adding:

The Forestry Products Association of Canada says that once Canadian companies become more focused on meeting CO2 reduction targets it will need to keep the bulk of its shipments of carbon neutral wood pellets at home. In the U.S., wood pellet demand has taken off over the last year. New England states are now negotiating with Canadian wood pellet suppliers in an effort to divert some of the European supply their way.

Interesting is that if you visit the Web site for the Wood Pellet Association of Canada you’ll be told they are “revamping” their Web site, brand and name, as well as changing their mission, reach and focus. Perhaps with oil reaching new highs, as EcoLog points out, the industry is repositioning itself to take advantage of even greater growth and opportunity at home and abroad.

Holographic concentrators could cut solar PV costs

MIT’s Technology Review writes about a company called Prism Solar Technologies of Stone Ridge, N.Y., which has developed a slim panel laminated with holograms that concentrate sunlight onto rows of silicon solar cells. The system apparently needs 25 to 85 per cent less silicon than a traditional polycrystalline silicon panel of comparable wattage, and has the potential to cut the cost of solar modules by 75 per cent.

“In their ability to concentrate light, holograms are not as powerful as conventional concentrators,” the magazine writes. “They can multiply the amount of light falling on the cells only by as much as a factor of 10, whereas lens-based systems can increase light by a factor of 100, and some even up to 1,000.”

But, as the magazine points out, traditional concentrators using lenses and mirrors are bulky, complicated and need to track the sun. They also require cooling because they heat up the solar cells. This means for smaller applications such as homes and businesses, the prism-based system is a more practical compromise.

The company’s CEO hopes to have the price-per-watt down to $1.50 (U.S.) with its second-generation product, making it more competitive with fossil-fuel-based energy generation. For now, however, the focus is on raising $6 million (U.S.) so manufacturing can start before the end of the year on first-generation modules, which promise $2.40 per watt.

Another fine invention to watch…

Small wind: It’s not the size that counts

Red Herring has a great little piece on Southwest Windpower, which I had a post on earlier this month. To recap, the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based company is the largest producer of small wind generators in North America, the company has been around for 20 years, and it recently snagged $8-million (U.S.) in a series-B round of financing led by Rockport Capital Partners of Boston.

Rockport is apparently excited because Southwest Windpower is trying to crack the market for grid-connected small wind generators, which it estimates could be as large as 13 million homes. The key to doing this is bundling all necessary inverters, controllers and other parts within the body of the generator itself, making the whole system much easier to install. It also lowers production costs, so the company can sell the system at a retail price of $5,500 (U.S.).

Frank Greco, CEO of Southwest Windpower, told Red Herring that the system would be able to produce electricity at an average cost per kilowatt hour of 8 cents, and this would exclude any subsidies that may be offered in some U.S. states. This would mean that in many jurisdictions it would beat the average cost per kilowatt hour coming off the grid.

The company does sell through distributors in Ontario. The question is whether Ontario’s new Standard Offer Program, which offers to pay 11 cents (Canadian) per kilowatt hour for wind power, would be open to small wind systems. All indication is that only large turbine projects would qualify, but perhaps we’ll be surprised when we see the details this fall. Either way, if the company’s claims hold true, this product — and others like it — could prove an affordable way for a homeowner or business to generate some of their own electricity either off-grid or through a grid-tie system. So long as they’ve got the wind resources and property to make it worthwhile.

Small wind: It’s not the size that counts

Red Herring has a great little piece on Southwest Windpower, which I had a post on earlier this month. To recap, the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based company is the largest producer of small wind generators in North America, the company has been around for 20 years, and it recently snagged $8-million (U.S.) in a series-B round of financing led by Rockport Capital Partners of Boston.

Rockport is apparently excited because Southwest Windpower is trying to crack the market for grid-connected small wind generators, which it estimates could be as large as 13 million homes. The key to doing this is bundling all necessary inverters, controllers and other parts within the body of the generator itself, making the whole system much easier to install. It also lowers production costs, so the company can sell the system at a retail price of $5,500 (U.S.).

Frank Greco, CEO of Southwest Windpower, told Red Herring that the system would be able to produce electricity at an average cost per kilowatt hour of 8 cents, and this would exclude any subsidies that may be offered in some U.S. states. This would mean that in many jurisdictions it would beat the average cost per kilowatt hour coming off the grid.

The company does sell through distributors in Ontario. The question is whether Ontario’s new Standard Offer Program, which offers to pay 11 cents (Canadian) per kilowatt hour for wind power, would be open to small wind systems. All indication is that only large turbine projects would qualify, but perhaps we’ll be surprised when we see the details this fall. Either way, if the company’s claims hold true, this product — and others like it — could prove an affordable way for a homeowner or business to generate some of their own electricity either off-grid or through a grid-tie system. So long as they’ve got the wind resources and property to make it worthwhile.

The Ballard insanity

Shares in Ballard Power Systems soared 22 per cent yesterday. Why? Because George W. Bush, a man who doesn’t know squat about hydrogen fuel cells and the challenges of a hydrogen economy, makes a speech that — once again — says hydrogen-powered vehicles are an attainable goal. “I strongly believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future,” he said during his weekend Earth Day speech.

Ballard shares have roughly doubled over the past months on this re-emerging belief, this newfound confidence, in the hydrogen economy. I think hydrogen and fuel cells are going to play an important role over the coming decades, but I’m not convinced they will transform the transportation world and that we’ll all be driving fuel-cell cars — at least not within the next 20 or 30 years. There are too many other great, cheaper alternatives coming onstream, and there are too many barriers — cost, infrastructure, storage — that continue to hold back the potential of fuel cells. These barriers will be overcome over time, but investors don’t tend to be the patient type. Which leads me to believe it’s retail, not institutional investors, that are driving this Ballard share frenzy.

Remember, this is a company with a market cap of $1.4 billion that had revenues of $54 million last year and isn’t expected to be profitable until after 2010.

What’s more mindboggling is Ballard’s skyrocketing stock seems to be happening in isolation, despite the fact that rising fossil fuel prices and global warming fears should be driving the entire sector. We’re not seeing the same degree of lift with Hydrogenics Inc., which is arguably better positioned to take advantage of near- and medium-term hydrogen opportunities. After Bush’s speech, we’re also not seeing the same kind of enthusiasm for other alternative energy or technology companies, from Xantrex to VRB Power to Carmanah Technologies. (Though you could argue the last two, like Ballard, are already overvalued)

Today, institutional investors struck back — issuing downgrades that pulled Ballard’s shares back by 13 per cent. At least someone hasn’t lost their marbles.