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Silicon supply could limit solar energy boom

Christopher Scinta, MarketWatch
It seems as if now would be the time to shine for solar panel makers, but a lack of a key raw material will cloud the picture for many over the next couple of years.

With concerns about high fossil fuel prices and greenhouse emissions driving demand for renewable, cleaner energy sources, solar stocks have been, well, hot. But while solar companies are sold out of current capacity, efforts to try to expand to meet rising demand are being thwarted by a shortage of silicon.

“The polysilicon supply to solar (photovoltaic) manufacturers has been tight for the better part of two years and is anticipated to be a growing issue as the PV industry pushes forward on its aggressive expansion plans,” Merriman Curhan Ford & Co. analyst Brion Tanous said. Supply constraints have limited production by some manufacturers, and high prices are hurting profit margins.

Solar manufacturers must compete with computer-chip companies for highly pure silicon, which sells for $42 to $60 per kilogram via long-term contracts and which a tight supply has driven up to more than $150 per kg on short-term contracts.

Added supply is still about two years away, though, and the bottleneck already manifested itself in March, when Evergreen shares tumbled after MEMC said it wouldn’t supply 52 metric tons of granular silicon as expected.

“We believe 2007 is shaping up to be a potentially disruptive year, as many companies have not secured enough silicon supply to meet 2007 capacity expansion plans,” Thomas Weisel’s Monroe said.
(30 May 2006)
The article also mentions technologies which use less silicon, and thin film technologies which use none (however the latter technologies may face their own resource limitations). -AF

The nuclear wisdom of young Blair

Jonathan Leake, New Statesman
When it comes to nuclear power, Dave “Chameleon” Cameron may be a few colours short of a rainbow when compared with Tony Blair. Even in the Labour Party few remember it, but one of Blair’s first big jobs was as Neil Kinnock’s shadow energy secretary, and his demolition of the muddled finances and environmental hazards of nuclear power played a large part in establishing him as a potential party leader.

“What is unbelievably depressing about the [Conservative] government’s response is that they see, in the evidence about greenhouse gases, not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power,” he thundered, back then.

Blair had the job in 1988-89, just as the Tories were pushing electricity privatisation through the Commons, a step that forced them to publish the first detailed analyses of the nuclear industry’s finances. When the City saw the huge liabilities for dealing with nuclear waste it was horrified. Blair took the opportunity to demonstrate his rhetorical and analytical powers.

“It will be the consumer who will pay, along with the taxpayer, as we shall see later,” he warned the Commons. “The irony . . . is that, whereas the profit from the electricity industry moves to the private sector, much of the risk and liability stays in the public sector.”

In those days, the cost of cleaning up after half a century of nuclear power and weapons research was estimated at less than £10bn. Since then, Blair has overseen the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has a budget of £70bn and rising. Most of this will fall to the taxpayer to pay.

Blair also warned, back then: “Radioactive waste is a major environmental problem and one for which we have no easy answer at present . . . When people learned that nuclear reactors must be left for 100 years before final decommissioning takes place, it provided them with a considerable education in the environmental implications of nuclear power.”

Blair anticipated by 14 years the findings of an energy report published by his own policy research unit in 2002 and an energy white paper in 2003, both of which concluded that the best way to cut carbon emissions was energy efficiency.
(29 May 2006)

China bets big on coal-to-oil projects

Wu Zhong, Asia Times
To ease its increasing thirst for oil, China is throwing tens of billions of yuan into so-called coal-to-liquid (CTL) projects, which permit the conversion of coal into a liquid fuel that can substitute for crude-oil derivatives in many applications. If successful, this move has the potential to shake up the current energy markets greatly at home and abroad.

This facility is just a small part of Shenhua’s ambitious CTL plans. According to earlier reports, Shenhua intends to build a number of CTL plants, including joint ventures with South Africa’s Sasol and Shell, to produce the equivalent of 10 million tons of crude oil by 2010, and 30 million tons by 2020. If a 1.08-million-ton CTL plant needs 10 billion yuan in investment, 30 million tons of capacity will need 300 billion yuan in investment.
(23 May 2006)
30 million tons per year would be the equivalent of roughly 0.6 million barrels per day. China used 6.7 million barrels a day in April (up 10% from same time last year) -AF

Oil shortages hit Iraq with onset of summer heat

AFP, Yahoo! News
s Iraq’s brutal summer heat sends temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), a dire shortage of petroleum products is damaging the economy and cutting electricity supplies in Baghdad to new lows.

The shortage is due to a host of reasons, including rivalries among political parties in the south, but an interior ministry spokesman said the security situation was a major cause.

“In addition to attacks on pipelines, trucks carrying petroleum products are in the sights of the rebels. Some gas stations had to close after their drivers refused to go pick up gasoline and other products stored in the dangerous areas around Baghdad,” said Assem Jihad.

The capital has some 160 gas stations, of which half are privately run, and long lines of motorists stretch in front of those still selling gasoline.
(28 May 2006)