Friday, December 01, 2006

Let's talk energy

Lots of good info to share in this post, thought I'd roll it all up in one place, so here goes.

(1) Solar power. If you're keeping an eye on the energy space, you may have heard a lot about the polysilicon shortage that's recently hit makers of solar panel equipment. If not, this passage from the FT article sums it up nicely:

Polysilicon, used to make silicon chips and photovoltaic (solar) cells, is in short supply because of the voracious demand of the booming semi-conductor industry and the rapidly expanding solar sector.

The latter has grown rapidly through large-scale government-backed solar programmes in Germany and Japan, and solar equipment now consumes about half the polysilicon produced.

Having limited knowledge of the solar world, I had to wonder if there was a ready to launch alternative to the conventional, polysilicon-dependant photovoltaic equipment. I also had to ask myself if maybe it was the subsidized, "large-scale government-backed solar programmes" that had aggravated the shortage in the first place.

This reliance on energy subsidies is a subject we touched on back in November, and it's an area in which I'm still seeking answers.

But back to the issue at hand: how will the industry keep up with demand for solar equipment in the face of this material shortage? I had heard a bit lately about another process taking off, with manufacturers producing thin-film solar equipment with copper and CIGS, rather than silicon.

Energy Conversion Devices, another maker of solar equipment, churns out rolls of photovoltaic ("PV") material, but does so in a process that uses relatively little silicon. The company and its founder, Stanford Ovshinsky were recently featured in a Wall St. Journal article.

Will these methods become economical enough to compete and adapt to the current generation of solar equipment in all its applications? So far the new processes seem to be geared for smaller consumer devices, but let's hope they get a leg up in the market for home electricity and drive solar forward.

(2) Lovins Q&A. Amory Lovins was recently interviewed in the Toronto Star. I'll have to read up on what he calls "micropower", which he sees as an acceptable alternative to nuclear power. Here's an excerpt from that interview:

THE STAR: And the other less risky competitors to nuclear?

LOVINS: The two competing sources that are easy to measure are collectively called micropower — not central plants, but more distributed capacity that's at or near the customers, or at least comes in more decentralized, diversified form. Micropower is providing now between one-sixth and over half of all electricity in 13 industrial countries. Denmark is the leader with about 53 per cent last year. You'll notice this does not count big hydro. If we don't count any hydro above 10 megawatts, then the added micropower capacity last year in the world was 41 gigawatts, compared to 3.7 gigawatts for all kinds of nuclear — none of which was a CANDU (technology)."

Lovins was also a recent guest on the Charlie Rose Show.

(3) Peak oil and natural gas. I will be reading Andrew McKillop's latest article, "Peak Oil to Peak Gas is a Short Ride" and looking for new information, as well as some points that might relate back to last summer's interview with Bill Powers.

(4) Sprott climate & energy report. Finally, I wanted to include a link to Sprott Asset Management's report on energy & climate change. I have yet to read past the executive summary, so this is something I'll be looking at over the weekend.

See: "Investment Implications of Abrupt Climactic Changes". (Opens as a PDF file.)

This should be an interesting read; I like a lot of what I've heard from the Sprott team in the past. They do a lot of work in resource and metals investing, and you can see their people on RobTV from time to time.

Also, I have to put some weight behind their findings. They are a clever bunch and are putting a lot of money to work based on their research. Be sure to check out as much of the report as you can, if you haven't already.