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Silicon Insider: Solar Companies Glow Despite Economic Slump

Michael S. Malone, ABC News (USA)
Here’s a toast to the superiority of pragmatists over idealists. Of entrepreneurs over bureaucrats. And most of all to those buzz-cut, buttoned-down engineers and scientists of a half-century ago who thought they were just making cheaper transistors – and now may help save the world.

Amidst all of the gloomy – or, at best, hesitant – corporate financial news of the last few weeks, one industry sector literally seems aglow: solar. And therein lies an interesting morality – or more accurately, amorality – tale.

Just this week, First Solar Inc., a Phoenix-based solar module manufacturer with a design center in Ohio and a big manufacturing plant in Germany, announced spectacular quarterly numbers. For the fourth quarter, company earnings were $63 million, up nearly 800 percent from the same quarter a year ago. Meanwhile, revenues only quadrupled to $201 million. Not surprisingly, company stock jumped 30 percent, to nearly $230, on the news.

These are the kinds of numbers you see in small electronics start-ups, and usually during booms – not an infrastructure equipment company at the beginning of an economic downturn.

And First Solar wasn’t alone. The company’s announcement set off a surge in most other solar power stocks as well. My favorite (for reasons I’ll soon explain), SunPower Corp., currently has a market cap of $3.2 billion, but recently reached a peak valuation of $10.4 billion – and seems to be headed in that direction again.

SunPower is majority owned by Cypress Semiconductor. And, of course, Cypress is run by one of my favorite people, T.J. Rodgers. Even if you know nothing about Silicon Valley or the semiconductor industry, you’ve probably heard of T.J.

He is easily one of the most controversial figures in American business and a lightning rod for everything people who hate business hate about business. Needless to say, we reporters love T.J., because he’s always good for an outrageous and inflammatory quote.

T.J. is an unapologetic capitalist and an absolutely ferocious competitor. … So, it goes without saying that when the word “green” comes to mind, T.J. Rodgers, the ultimate free market libertarian, is probably the last person you’d ever think of. And yet, here he is, at the absolute epicenter of the Green Revolution, helping lead the charge that will likely very soon make solar power as inexpensive as other sources of electricity.

And SunPower is rapidly becoming a more important business to Cypress than semiconductors themselves.

The story of how T.J. got to this point is one of the great untold business stories of the new century. And it should serve as an object lesson to those who wish to change the world by fiat, rather than by market forces. A column is too short a space to tell it all, but I can give you a quick summary.

…You may not like their politics, or their attitude, or their style. But if we really do have an energy revolution in this country and free ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels, it will be because of hard-charging, take-no-prisoners entrepreneurs like T.J. Rodgers – not UN committees, environmental groups, or government officials.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation’s best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. …
(15 February 2008)
Recommended by Lisa Wright of Rep. Bartlett’s staff who writes:
This commentary summarizes how T.J. Rogers in 2001 identified that Moore’s Law concerning accelerated innovation in semi-conductors and computers is applicable to solar power, and in his specific case, SunPower Corp.

With Oil Prices Rising, Wood Makes a Comeback

Katie Zezima, New York Times
NEWPORT, Vt. – As a child, Brian Cook remembers hurling wood into the big orange boiler his father bought during the oil crisis of the late 1970s, helping feed the fire that provided heat and hot water to his family.

Thirty years later, Mr. Cook dragged the boiler out of his childhood home and hooked it up in the house that he and his wife, Jennifer, own to cut their oil bills.

“I did not want to pay $3,000 to heat this house,” Mr. Cook said in his garage here in Vermont’s heavily wooded Northeast Kingdom. “I see a lot more people burning wood this year.”

After years of steep decline, wood heat is back, with people flocking to dealers to buy new wood stoves, wood boilers and stoves that burn pellets made of wood byproducts. Others like Mr. Cook, to the dismay of environmentalists, are dusting off old wood-burning devices that are less efficient and more polluting.
(19 February 2008)

Scientists Would Turn Greenhouse Gas Into Gasoline

Kenneth Chang, New York Times
If two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are correct, people will still be driving gasoline-powered cars 50 years from now, churning out heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – and yet that carbon dioxide will not contribute to global warming.

The scientists, F. Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr., are proposing a concept, which they have patriotically named Green Freedom, for removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into gasoline.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle – equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed – would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.
(19 February 2008)

Mike Huckabee on Biofuels

Mike Huckabee, National Academy of Engineering
If engineers could design and build a prototype of a universal bio-fuel conversion machine that was affordable, capable of mass production, and space-efficient enough to be on every farm, and perhaps in every home, it would truly be an invaluable wonder. If a farmer could collect the waste of his livestock and remains of his crops and deposit them into a machine that would convert them to a concentrated bio-fuel which he could use to power vehicles and generators, not to mention sell to energy companies that would pass it on to other consumers, it would be an incredible way to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels and toward bio-fuel. It is likely that such a machine could be used by more than just farmers to generate fuel. Many production processes generate waste that could possibly be converted in this way as well.

If it also was possible to design a machine so efficient that the average household could use it to convert their waste into bio-fuel for personal use or to sell to an energy supplier, the impact on our economy and natural environment would be even greater. Such an invention would revolutionize not just the energy industry and how we power our machines, but also the recycling and waste disposal industries, environmental conservation, and the design and production of future products that would benefit society.

If engineers meet such a challenge, it would have an almost immediate, beneficial impact on the energy security of every country now totally dependent on fossil fuels, on the prospects for economic growth now hampered by the high price of oil, and on the health and future of our planet and the other species that share it. I know that the most worthy endeavors are rarely easy, but the rewards are worth the effort. I humbly commend this challenge to our engineers in hopes of achieving a cleaner, more prosperous world in this century.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a current Republican candidate for U.S. President.
(15? February 2008)
Contributor CP writes:
compare the above rather revealing item with the comments by Ed Catmull, at the same site