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Reality tempers innovation at Future Energy Conference

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Linda Baker
Thursday, April 26, 2012


SolarPanelThere was plenty of innovation on display at the Future Energy Conference, which opened its two-day run at the Oregon Convention Center yesterday.  But I’ll save a discussion of thermal energy storage, next generation cellulosic ethanol, and behavior-based energy efficiency models for another day--and a more in-depth article.

For now, let me note, briefly, that while innovation and enthusiasm did abound, so did angst about green energy markets and policy.  In fact, as speaker after speaker outlined the (decades-old) challenges facing the business of renewable energy,  the future of energy started to sound suspiciously like the same old energy.

Or, as Governor Kitzhaber noted in his lunchtime keynote, the question facing the renewable energy industry today is the same question he posed at last year’s conference: “Will we shape our energy future or will it shape us?

He then devoted much of his speech to grim topics such as the “troubling narrative (that) is beginning to re-emerge pitting jobs against the environment,” and the “nation’s rush to become a coal exporter to Asia.”   

Just that morning, the governor added, he sent a letter asking federal agencies to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the environmental, community, economic, transportation and energy security impacts of Oregon’s proposed coal exports before proceeding with further permitting and leasing decisions.

Then there was Solar World public affairs director Ben Santarris (standing in for scheduled morning keynoter, Solar World president Gordon Brinser), who channeled Clint Eastwood’s stark Super Bowl commercial to talk about the dire impact of China’s subsidy programs and dumping of products on the U.S. solar industry.

“Since 2010 employees of 12 manufacturing companies in the U.S. have become road kill along China’s five year solar manufacturing highway,” said Santerris.  “It’s halftime in America.”

In a breakout session, Chris Heiler, CEO of SiC Processing USA, offered up a graph showing China’s  PV production market share in 2001 was only one percent—“they are not really present. " Today, China controls 45 percent of the global PV market.

The trajectory is reversed in the United States. ”We started this whole thing at 27 percent market share," Heiler said. "Now we’re at about five percent.”

“That’s pretty depressing, isn’t it?”

Heiler said SiC’s Swan Island plant, which produces a slurry used to cut silicon wafers, is currently operating at only 65 percent of capacity, and that the company has temporarily shelved plans announced last year to build a second plant in Hillsboro. The way things are going, suggested Heiler post-session, energy options in the U.S. will be limited to two choices: Arab oil or Chinese solar panels.

In the Exhibit Hall, I spoke with energy consultant Mark Pengilly, who said the dismantling of the Business Energy Tax Credit is one reason there is no stable way to pay for electricity from renewable resources in this state.   “Oregon is at a crisis,"  Pengilly said. 

And so on. You get the picture. And yet, uncertainty and downright pessimism were only part of the Future Energy picture.  As Heiler noted, even though U.S. PV market share is down to five percent, “the pie is growing so fast” that opportunities for local manufacturers to tap the market still abound.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy also anchor Kitzhaber’s 10-year energy plan, currently under development.  Renewable energy advocates hope the plan will include a Feed-in-Tariff, a financing mechanism that was responsible for Germany’s boom in solar installations and brought the price of solar down by 50 percent in five years.

The second day of the conference will spotlight more technology and policy innovations aimed at growing Oregon’s clean energy economy.  Stay tuned to a future issue of OB for that story.

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.


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