Monday, May 14, 2012

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Nearly $1 Billion in Vogtle Nuclear Reactor Overruns (So Far) — Who’s Surprised?

Posted: 14 May 2012 08:03 AM PDT

 
“Even though the Vogtle reactor project got its federal license just three months ago, the controversial nuclear reactors are already in trouble” That’s the first line of a recent news release, and right it is. The nuclear reactor project, the first to be approved in over 30 years, is already reporting about $1 billion in cost overruns.

I’m sorry, but you have to be a little intellectually challenged to be surprised by this.

If nuclear power is known for one thing at this point in time, it is not for being “too cheap to meter” — it is for its considerable cost overruns.

This latest overrun is likely to hurt ratepayers in the region, and it could also cost the U.S. as a whole, since the two reactors are supported by a federal loan guarantee. (The project received a $8.33-billion loan guarantee.)

Here’s more information on the cost overruns:

Southern Co. publicly acknowledged its share of the cost overrun in a filing this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at http://investor.southerncompany.com/secfiling.cfm?filingID=92122-12-76&CIK=092122. The new admission about problems at Vogtle follow recent reports about grading issues under the reactor’s foundation, improperly installed rebar that has slowed the project, and dozens of amendments requested to the federal license for the two new Vogtle reactors.

Given all of the partners involved in Vogtle project, the cost overrun would break down as follows: Georgia Power ($400 million); Oglethorpe ($263 million); MEAG Power ($199 million); and the City of Dalton ($14 million).  The $875 million in 2008 dollarswould be worth $913 million in 2011 dollars.

And, if that weren’t enough, word is that we can expect more of this as the project develops.

Southern Co.’s SEC filing warns that more cost overruns could be in the works. In its SEC filing, Southern Co. notes on page 139:  “Additional claims by the Consortium and [Georgia Power] (on behalf of the owners) are expected to arise throughout the construction of Vogtle 3 and 4.”  However, no details are provided on how far losses could mount over and above the current nearly $1 billion cost overrun total.

Nice, eh?

Organizations concerned about the true costs of this project have been saying for months that “Southern Company is deliberately keeping U.S. taxpayers in the dark by covering up the details of 12 sizeable construction ‘change order’ requests that are expected to add major delays and cost overruns to the controversial reactor project.”

Going on, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy writes: “The secret cost overruns are discussed in a censored report from late 2011 by the independent Vogtle construction monitor, Dr. William Jacobs, who is a veteran nuclear industry engineer. (See details below.) Much of Jacob's testimony was redacted by the utility in the attempt to keep the troubling information from the public, including the U.S. taxpayers who will be left holding the bag if Southern Company defaults on the federal loan guarantee….

“The groups maintain that the NRC is violating federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without considering important public safety and environmental implications in the wake of the catastrophic Fukushima accident in Japan….

“NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissented against the Vogtle license, expressing concerns about significant changes that will be required based on the crippling Fukushima accident.”

Nine organizations got together to file a lawsuit about the reactor in February — Friends of the Earth, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Georgia Women's Action for New Directions, North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Nuclear Watch South.

Here are some of the statements from these organizations from that time:

From Jim Warren, executive director, NC WARN:

U.S. taxpayers need to brace themselves for some bad news if they are put on the hook for any ill-considered 'investment' in the Vogtle reactors. Taxpayers and Southern Company's customers are sitting ducks for serial cost overruns and soaring power bills unless industry-captive federal and state regulators borrow some independence and make these giant corporations bear the costs of their mistakes with Westinghouse's unproven, untested and unready AP1000 reactor design. DOE owes it to Americans to get all the cost overrun and delay secrets out in the open about Vogtle so that taxpayer and ratepayers know what they are in for.

From Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research:

Not only are the costs of retrofits likely to be lower if they are imposed at the start of construction rather than later in the process, but an up-front accounting of the costs allows a comparison with other alternative energy sources.  Electricity from natural gas combined cycle power plant is much cheaper than nuclear, for instance. This is a very important consideration in the case of Vogtle.

From Mindy Goldstein, acting director of Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory Law School:

The NRC decided to issue a license for Vogtle Units 3 and 4 before it could consider the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident. This is the exact approach the National Environmental Policy Act was designed to prevent. Allowing construction of the new units to continue, without first assessing the implications of the Fukushima accident, could have significant and irreparable environmental and economic consequences.

Ah, forethought, what an unappreciated gift!

Source: PR Newswire
Image: Vogtle nuclear reactor project rendering via NRC

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Precious Metals from Nautilus Minerals: a New Frontier

Posted: 14 May 2012 04:16 AM PDT

 
Notwithstanding many recent articles about mining asteroids, I uncharacteristically avoided the subject, at least initially. Instead, I thought back to something that was said at the recent Boston Wind Power Conference: that offshore wind would test the environment and regulations in a largely unexplored undersea frontier. One of those operations, deepwater mining operations is set to begin in just over a year.

Is Mining Important? Interesting??

Mining operations can conjure images of people risking their lives in man-made caves or stripping the skin from the living planet in a plume of pollution and disregard for the environment. But mining, like farming and gathering energy, is a basic operation upon which our material existence is based. It is so fundamental that writers like John Peterson (of Seeking Alpha) and to a lessor extent Tom Murphy (in his blog called “Do the Math") have started some well-considered logic based upon assumptions about the limited minerals we are pulling from the Earth today.

Any important metal in limited supply is “precious.” But stop. Those assumptions are based upon the 3/10 of the Earth's surface that is "on land." What if, with a new technology, or an adaptation of an existing technology, we can not only explore but begin to gather the resources from 70% of the Earth covered by water. Could such an operation compete with mining asteroids?

The race is on and building the specialized equipment for undersea mining has already begun. Nautilus Mining (Nus.To OTCQX: NUSMF; TSX: NUS) is adapting equipment and techniques developed in the oil and gas industry to mining operations more than 1600 meters beneath the waves in Papa New Guinea (PNG). These pieces of equipment will operate where ocean pressure will be more than one and a half tons per square inch. It is an immense task to build the machine for these depths, even before considering what is happening with the human operator.

The Digging Machines

There are three primary types of electric-powered seafloor production tools that will be used in the operations. These “tools” are a bit more than a hand-held hammer, with the largest weighing over 275 tons. (Look for the person in the illustrations.) Similar machinery has been used in the oil and gas industry, but here there are adaptations with specialized cutting heads. Think of the dentist who keeps switching drills depending upon the nature of the work:

It is the operators's control which needs to be on site, not the person. Putting a driver in these machines is not a matter of personal risk but electronics. They will sit comfortably in air-conditioned offices on the support ship and run the equipment remotely.

The Mother Ship

The Production Support Vessel (PSV) can hover over the site, providing control and power for long periods of time. 30 MW of conventionally generated power is anticipated. The ship is presently being constructed and will be delivered in the first quarter of 2013.

Nautilus Minerals has tenancy over many sites in the area. Once mining operations are no longer practical in one place, the machinery can be recovered and the ship will move the entire operation to another site. This lowers the capital expenditures and allows much smaller sites to be mined than would be economical on land.

The Minerals

Deposits of metalliferous mud and sulfides are formed at, or adjacent to, the vent site when the rising hot hydrothermal fluids mix with the cold ambient seawater on the sea floor. …Volcanic-hosted massive sulfide (VHMS) deposits form a major part of the world's reserves of copper, lead and zinc, as well as being producers of gold and silver… …The first active 'black smoker' chimneys (and associated SMS deposits) were discovered in 1977 around the Galápagos Islands by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. … In 1997, the PNG Government granted Nautilus Minerals the first two exploration licences for SMS deposits, covering the Solwara 1, 2, 3 and 4 areas, in the Bismarck Sea.

VHMS deposits on land commonly form in clusters. This is likely to be similar for SMS deposits; however, many small (.5 Mt) SMS deposits could be mined by moving floating infrastructure, whereas on land VHMS deposits of this size may individually be too small to justify development.

The Environment

While essentially an undersea, strip-mining operation is anticipated, Duke University’s Cindy Lee Van Dover, a marine biologist who has explored life around hydrothermal vents, has visited sites with Nautilus Minerals where she has been an advisor on conservation techniques. She speaks of the undersea world as the new “Wild West,” a new area of discovery. It is presently anticipated that the tiny forms of life found on the sea floor at this depth will repopulate an area within 2 to 3 years. Nautilus seems to be taking a conservative and careful approach. They will be watching the results of their operations and making the needed adjustments.

A History of Research and New Regulations

Undersea mining has been researched and studied for many years. Previously, "… Activities stopped due to a combination of low metal prices, critical gaps in technology, and the lack of a secure mining tenure system." The discovery of hydrothermal vents and the associated mineral deposits provides a rich source of minerals that are economical to recover. Adaptation of new equipment from the oil and gas industry has filled the technology gap. The International Seabed Authority “…became fully operational as an autonomous international organization in June 1996.” An exclusive claim to mine resources found on the bottom of international waters is now possible.

The Future Is Within Our Grasp

Presently, the power for the operations will be provided by conventional means, but we can anticipate a time when floating wind turbines or OTEC may be moved to a site and provide power for the operation. This may cut power costs and be another adaptation to independent sea-based solutions. Pre-processing the ore will presently take place on land, but the operation will eventually be moved to another specialized ship. The same concentration and refining technology used to process the minerals may someday be applied to geothermal power plants to recover minerals that would concurrently reduce the mineral buildup in associated wells. Licensing the technology may give an extra revenue stream.

We look to the skies and are inspired to consider the free and easy. Mining asteroids captures our imagination, but reports tell us that it may be more than 10 years before the "how" might be more fully considered. Undersea mining is a practical plan that should be a reality in a little more than a year. With competition from undersea mining, it may be even longer before mining minerals from heaven gets off the ground. My bet would be on Nautilus minerals. It is a down-to-Earth solution.

Photo Credit: All illustrations are the copyright of Nautilus Minerals and are reproduced with permission.

Full Disclosure: The author holds no present position in Nautilus Minerals.

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Capacity of Planned and Operating Microgrids Continues to Grow

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:47 AM PDT

 
A new report shows that, as of the second quarter of 2012, the number of microgrids either planned, proposed or currently operating has continued to increase, representing a 54 percent increase over planned and operating capacity identified in the fourth quarter of 2011.

"Microgrids are rapidly moving beyond pilot projects and into commercial applications and developments," says senior analyst Peter Asmus. "With more than 85 new projects added since the fourth quarter of 2011, and total planned, proposed, and operating capacity now exceeding 2.5 gigawatts, it is clear that momentum in this segment of the smart grid landscape is accelerating."

microgrid diagram

The report by Pike Research shows that, as of the second quarter of 2012, there are 87 new microgrids either planned, proposed or in current operation, totaling over 2,575 megawatts in capacity.

Since the last tracker report conducted by Pike Research, North America has seen more than 50 new projects come to light, which will boost the overall planned capacity in the region to 1,500 megawatts in the second quarter of 2012, up 51 percent from the 1,026 megawatts identified in Pike Research’s fourth quarter 2011 update.

But depending on the definition of ‘microgrid’, remote systems could lead the global microgrid market in terms of revenue by 2018. And with the global rise of diesel fuel and the drop in solar photovoltaic prices, these remote systems have become very popular throughout the developing world.

Source: Pike Research
Image: microgrid diagram courtesy Distributed Energy

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First Study Linking Geothermal Gas to Asthma

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:41 AM PDT

 
A three-year study in Iceland has found a linkage between geothermal gases and respiratory illnesses like asthma.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study compared respiratory illness in adults to daily air pollution levels in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant

The researchers measured respiratory illnesses by counting how many adults filled prescriptions for asthma-related medication each day between March 2006 and December 2009, as registered in the national health database limited to adults living near the capital city.

They then measured levels of air pollutants at a busy intersection in Reykjavik, including hydrogen sulfide produced by geothermal facilities outside the city.

The results showed that a one-hour peak in traffic pollutants would eventually lead to an increase in the number of adults filling prescriptions for asthma medications. On top of that, gradual increases in the daily average for hydrogen sulfide were also found to be linked to the number of adults filling out asthma-related prescriptions.

For both traffic and geothermal pollutants, increases in the number of adults filling prescriptions generally took place 3 to 5 days after increased exposure — given that such exposure levels do not necessarily result in immediate asthma attacks, that seems natural.

This is one of the first studies to directly link increases in asthma-related troubles with hydrogen sulfide, and will result in more research being undertaken in an effort to further understand the implications. Additionally, the study showed that short peaks in air pollutants may cause more harm to the human respiratory system than longer-term averages.

Source: Environmental Health News
Image Source: martin_vmorris

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Duke Likes 48-Turbine Wind Farm

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:38 AM PDT

 
berwickontweed

Guy David Innes-Ker, the 10th Duke of Roxburghe, may have a 48-turbine wind power farm constructed on his property between Edinburg and Berwick-upon-Tweed. (If you don’t know where this site is, no one will fault you.) Berwick is a small town of about 11,000 located just 2.5 miles south of Scotland. It has been inhabited for many centuries and was sacked over ten times before 1482. You might say it is one of those peaceful, bucolic settings tourists enjoy very much for getaways.

Because it is appreciated for its simple, quiet life, plans to build a large onshore wind farm in such a place have generated controversy and opposition. It has been said the Duke’s wind farm could have turbines 400 feet high, and that he might earn between $720,000  to $1.5 million per year once the project is finished and generating electricity. Reportedly, a road has been built in once pristine land in order to facilitate the installation. The wind farm’s turbines will not be visible from his ancestral home at Floors Castle, 25 miles away. The Duke may be worth $70 million already, so such a venture might appear questionable to some, but if it his land, why should there be any fuss?

The Earl of Spencer, Duke of Gloucester, and Sir Reginald Sheffield have all engaged in similar wind ventures, and profitably. A national incentive has helped facilitate such projects, but it has been questioned by critics who say it misguided. “It is shoveling money towards people who have been lucky enough to get planning permission and it encourages the construction of wind farms in remote places where it is very expensive to connect to the national grid,” said Professor David Newbery, director of Cambridge University's electricity policy research group.

The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Northumberland have spoken out against wind turbines as blights upon the countryside, so not all the nobility are for the new ventures.

Image Credit: Shermozle, Wiki Commons
Source: The Telegraph

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Toyota Prius Sales Earn Best April Yet

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:33 AM PDT

 
Toyota Motor Sales reported at the beginning of the month that April had been the best ever April for the Toyota Prius.

In a month where Toyota sales across the line increased 11.6 percent over the year-ago month on a raw volume basis, the Toyota Prius recorded its best ever April with a total of 25,168 units sold, increasing 126.9 percent compared to the same period last year.

In addition, Camry and Camry Hybrid led passenger cars with combined monthly sales of 36,820 units, an increase of 36.1 percent year-over-year.

Overall, Toyota Motor Sales recorded sales of 32,593 hybrid vehicles, an increase of 124.6 percent compared to the same period last year, which was split as such — 30,126 hybrids for the month for the Toyota Division, up 142.7 percent over the year-ago month, and 2,467 hybrid sales for the Lexus Division, increasing 17.6 percent year-over-year.

Source: Toyota

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Federal Loans & Loan Guarantees — Huge Benefit, Low & Predictable Cost (New Analysis)

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:00 AM PDT

 
Check out this great post by John Griffith and Richard Caperton of the Center for American Progress (via Climate Progress):

The U.S. government is arguably the largest and most influential financial institution in the world, with about $2.7 trillion outstanding in loans and loan guarantees. Among other things, these federal credit programs help college students afford tuition, first-time homebuyers access affordable mortgages, and budding small businesses get the capital they need to expand.

In these and many other cases, the private sector will simply not lend to certain borrowers or will lend only under unaffordable or unmanageable conditions. That's why we rely on federal credit programs: The U.S. government can bear certain risks that the private sector cannot to achieve certain public goals such as increasing the global competitiveness of our workforce, returning stability to the U.S. housing market, and adding jobs through business expansion.

These programs typically run at very low cost to taxpayers. On average, every $1 allocated to loan and guarantee programs generates more than $99 of economic activity from individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments, according to our analysis.

But in the wake of certain widely publicized credit blunders, most notably this past summer's bankruptcy announcement from solar company Solyndra LLC, some have called into question Washington's ability to manage financial risk. Conservative critics contend that the government is incapable of accurately pricing risk, and that political pressure encourages government agencies to routinely underestimate the risk to taxpayers when extending credit.

Government underpricing of risk is a convenient theory for free-market ideologues but it runs contrary to the overwhelming evidence.

Our review of federal government credit programs back to 1992 shows that on average the government is quite accurate in its risk pricing. In fact, the majority of government credit programs cost less than originally estimated, not more. Specifically, we found that:

  • Based on initial estimates over the past 20 years, the government expected its credit programs to cost taxpayers 79 cents for every $100 loaned or guaranteed. Based on recently updated data, those cost predictions were reasonably accurate but slightly underestimated. The current budgetary impact of these programs is about 94 cents per $100 loaned or guaranteed.
  • There's little evidence that credit programs are biased toward underpricing risk. In fact, a little more than half of all nonemergency federal credit programs will cost the government less than what they are expected to over the life of the program.
  • The remainder is accounted for by the losses suffered by the Federal Housing Administration on loans made in 2008 during the peak of the housing crisis. Excluding that book of loans, all nonemergency federal credit programs cost slightly less than expected.

Conservative critics often portray a world in which government bureaucrats haphazardly issue loans and loan guarantees without considering taxpayer exposure to risk. That's simply not the case. This issue brief explains how the government prices credit risk in the federal budget, how well those cost estimates have reflected reality over the years, and why the government is in a particularly good position to assume certain types of risk.

Budgeting for credit risk

Federal government agencies adhere to strict budget and accounting standards to carefully assess the risks and potential losses associated with credit programs. Here's how it works.

Before an agency can issue any loans or loan guarantees, Congress must first authorize and allocate funding for the program. In most cases Congress starts by determining how much money the program will be authorized to guarantee or loan and then appropriates a certain percentage of that amount to cover the program's expected cost to the government. That cost estimate—assessed by both the agency administering the program and the president's Office of Management and Budget—takes into account expected repayments, defaults, recoveries, and any interest or fees collected over the life of the loan, adjusted to current dollars.

The net cost to the federal government as a percentage of total dollars loaned or guaranteed is known as the subsidy rate. As an example, say Congress approves a $100 million loan guarantee program within the Department of Agriculture. The department models expected market conditions and loan activity and then estimates a subsidy rate, which the Office of Management and Budget independently estimates as a check on the agency's methodology. Let's say the estimated subsidy rate is 0.75 percent. That means the government expects to take a net loss of 75 cents for every $100 it guarantees over the life of those loans. To cover expected losses on the $100 million in loan guarantees, the government sets aside $750,000 in a special account at the Treasury Department. This is similar to a loan loss reserve at a private bank.

Each subsequent year, the Office of Management and Budget and the agencies recalculate the subsidy rate to reflect actual loan performance, current economic conditions, and anything else administrators may have learned about a program. These revised numbers are reported in the president's budget each year, which gives us a pretty good idea of each program's "actual" costs and the government's ability to assess financial risk.

If conservative claims were accurate in saying that the federal government cannot accurately price for risk, then one would expect the initial cost estimates to be significantly lower than the more recent re-estimates. Using the Department of Agriculture example above, if the critics were right, the re-estimated subsidy rate would presumably be much higher than 0.75 percent, and actual outlays would be higher than estimated. Let's see how the government's risk estimates actually stack up.

Government risk estimates are quite accurate

To test this theory, we analyzed credit data published in the president's 2013 budget. We compared initial and updated cost estimates, also known as subsidy re-estimates, for each book of nonemergency loans and loan guarantees for each federal credit program since 1992, the first year for which comprehensive data are available.

We limit our analysis to nonemergency credit programs, omitting programs created in response to the recent financial crisis. This includes programs created through the Troubled Asset Relief Program—the so-called Wall Street rescue package passed by Congress at the height of the housing and financial crises—and the U.S. Department of the Treasury's purchase of securities issued by the two troubled housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both of these programs are temporary, atypically large, and are accounted for in the federal budget using different standards than all other credit programs.

If we had included these "emergency" programs, it would drastically skew the overall results—but skew them in favor of our basic argument. Based on our analysis of data published in the 2013 budget, these programs will cost the government about $130 billion less than initially expected. So their inclusion would make it seem as though the government significantly overestimated the cost of all credit programs over the past 20 years, which is not the case.

We also exclude any federal credit program that is not listed in the federal credit supplement of president's budget, and any program that did not publish a subsidy re-estimate in the 2013 budget. We do this both because complete data are unavailable for these programs and because their costs are not recorded in the federal budget. Notably, this includes insurance programs through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, mortgage guarantees offered by the two housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (both now under government conservatorship), and guarantees on mortgage-backed securities offered by the government corporation Ginnie Mae.

Here's what we found out about nonemergency federal credit programs. Federal agencies have issued $5.7 trillion worth of these loans or loan guarantees since 1992. Based on our analysis of initial estimates, the government expected these programs to cost taxpayers about 79 cents for every $100 loaned or guaranteed, or a 0.79 percent subsidy rate overall.

Of course, no one expects those estimates to be perfect. Many of these loans such as home mortgages or funding for large infrastructure projects take decades to pay back. Government financial analysts are charged with the difficult task of modeling payments, defaults, recoveries, and market conditions for the entire life of the loan, so some error has to be expected.

But as it turns out, the initial estimates weren't very far off. The current budgetary impact of these credit programs is about 94 cents per $100 loaned or guaranteed, or a 0.94 percent subsidy rate, according to our analysis of updated subsidy estimates. To put that in a budgetary context, while issuing nearly $6 trillion in loans and guarantees over the past 20 years, the government initially predicted about $45 billion in total costs to taxpayers, but the actual costs were slightly higher—about $53 billion.

That difference—$8 billion over two decades or $400 million per year—might seem high at first. But it amounts to just 0.15 percent of the total dollars loaned or guaranteed by the government and 0.02 percent of all government spending over that period.(see Figure 1)

Of course, the federal government's performance on individual programs varied substantially. Some programs overestimate risks, while others underestimate. But as mentioned above, some conservatives argue that political pressures cause the government to systemically underprice costs to taxpayers when issuing loans or guarantees.

 

The data show this to be untrue. Of the 104 nonemergency credit programs administered since 1992, our analysis shows that most have actually overestimated total subsidy costs. Fifty-six programs overpriced risk over their lifetimes, while 48 programs underpriced risk. (see Figure 2)

Our analysis only takes into account lifetime costs for each program, not the federal government's ability to estimate costs on an individual year's portfolio of loans. Indeed, critics often point to individual data points such as the Solyndra bankruptcy as evidence of the government's inability to price financial risk. But what matters most is actually the net budgetary impact over time of these inaccuracies, which is what is measured in Figure 1.

Overall these overestimates and underestimates—whether across programs or in individual books of business—tend to roughly balance out in the long run, give or take a reasonable margin of error. As we show in the following section, however, all of these underestimated losses can actually be attributed to a single year of mortgage guarantees made at the height of the housing crisis.

The recent housing crisis skews the results

By far the largest nonemergency credit program is the Federal Housing Administration's single-family mortgage insurance program, which has guaranteed about $2.4 trillion in mortgage debt since 1992. That's more than 40 percent of the total nonemergency government lending and credit enhancement over that period.

The Federal Housing Administration's flagship insurance program deals exclusively in residential mortgages. That's good news for taxpayers when the U.S. housing market is booming but bad news when it's struggling. So in the thick of what is arguably the worst foreclosure crisis in our country's history—a time when home prices have dropped more than 30 percent nationwide from their peak five years ago, leading to millions of people losing their homes—the agency is facing unprecedented losses far beyond what its actuarial models predicted, severely depleting its capital reserves.

Those losses are especially bad for mortgage loans originated in 2008, the year the housing crash sparked a widespread financial crisis. The agency initially expected its singlefamily insurance program to save taxpayers about $400 million on loans originated that year, mostly from fees collected from lenders. After adjusting for recent losses and current market conditions, these 2008 guarantees are now expected to cost taxpayers $10.9 billion—by far the worst performance of any single book of business in the agency's 78-year history. (see Figure 3)

As bad as those numbers are, it's important to put them into perspective. The recent collapse in home prices and subsequent wave of foreclosures was not something any actuarial analysis would have predicted, though it's clear that the Federal Housing Administration did not adequately adjust to the crisis in its early days. Despite enormous losses, the Federal Housing Administration actually weathered the housing crisis better than many of its counterparts in the private sector.

Indeed, many private mortgage insurers either went out of business since the crisis began or significantly scaled back their insurance business. Meanwhile, as private capital left the mortgage market in recent years, the Federal Housing Administration meaningfully increased its insurance activity to keep the market afloat, backing 40 percent of home-purchase mortgages in 2011. It's also worth noting that the Federal Housing Administration has taken steps since the onset of the crisis to improve its risk management. Starting in 2009, the agency:

  • Repeatedly increased fees and tightened underwriting standards to improve the quality of its new books of business
  • Created a new risk office and hired a consultant to recommend best practices for its operation
  • Cracked down on faulty lender practices
  • Adopted a more robust model for projecting home price appreciation

As a result, the Federal Housing Administration's 2010 and 2011 books of business are expected to save the agency $13.7 billion over the life of those loans, which is significantly more than initial subsidy estimates. (see Figure 3)

Due to the sheer size of the single- family insurance program, the Federal Housing Administration's losses from loans made in 2008 weigh heavily on our overall findings. In fact, when you take away that single book of mortgage guarantees, nonemergency credit programs actually overestimated total costs to government by $3 billion over the past 20 years. (see Figure 4)

Seeing the big picture

Largely lost in this discussion of federal government cash flows and subsidy rates is an understanding of why the government extends credit in the first place. In 2011 tens of thousands of American small businesses expanded operations thanks to loans and credit enhancement from the federal government. Millions of undergraduate students paid their college tuition with money borrowed at affordable rates from the government. And hundreds of thousands of homebuyers took out a manageable 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, which likely wouldn't exist without government support.

The federal government is in a unique position to issue these loans and guarantees for several reasons. First, the government can borrow money at a much lower rate than any private firm, meaning they can usually charge lower rates when lending for public purposes. Second, the government can spread risk unlike any private financial institution, both across long time periods and a diverse credit portfolio that spans housing, education, agriculture, infrastructure, international development, and several other industries. This diversification limits taxpayer exposure to drastic swings from year to year or booms and busts in any individual market. Third, the government has the unmatched ability to limit risks by regulating markets and ensuring compliance from lenders and borrowers.

For these and other reasons, responsible risk management has long been essential to sound policymaking. Harvard economist David A. Moss wrote in 2002 that risk management is "one of the fundamental ways in which policymakers solve problems." He added that "the historical record reveals a remarkable degree of economic sophistication in the way leading policymakers thought about risk and about the government's role in managing it."

To be sure, the government's risk management is far from perfect, and some federal credit programs are subject to poor modeling, excessive risk-taking, and avoidable losses to taxpayers. But we mustn't mistake these anomalies for the norm. Instead we should continuously seek smart reforms to the way the government issues loans and loan guarantees, learning from what has worked in the past and what hasn't. Analysts and policymakers are right to scrutinize the efficacy and efficiency of individual credit programs, but that debate should focus on simple facts, not on heated and unsubstantiated rhetoric.

When you look at all loans issued or guaranteed by the government over the past 20 years, one fact is clear: Uncle Sam has proven to be a safe and responsible lender.

John Griffith is a Policy Analyst with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Richard Caperton is the Director of Clean Energy Investment at the Center. This piece was originally published at the Center for American Progress.

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$100 Million for Electric Car Charging in California from NRG Energy

Posted: 14 May 2012 02:30 AM PDT

 
Enjoy this interesting article on a fun electric vehicle story by Herman Trabish, reposted with permission from Greentech Media:

This is what the $100 million that NRG Energy is obligated by a legal settlement to invest in battery electric vehicle (BEV) charging infrastructure in California will buy for plug-in car owners:

  • A $50.5 million investment in 200 eVgo Freedom Station sites installed at carefully chosen commercial and retail locations, each with a level-three DC fast charger as well as a level-two medium-speed charger;
  • A $40 million investment in 10,000 make-ready electrical installations, upgraded to 30 amp-capable and prepared for either a level-one or level-two charger installation to be completed within 24 hours to 48 hours
  • A $9 million investment in advanced BEV charging technology and BEV car sharing programs.

Plug In America, a key electric vehicle advocacy group, described the infrastructure build out as an ‘electric expressway’ for the state.

The eVgo Freedom Stations' level-three DC fast chargers, each capable of putting a 50 percent charge on a fully electric vehicle in fifteen minutes, will constitute the U.S.' biggest fast-charger network. The focus of the effort will be in the areas of Los Angeles (110 stations), San Francisco (55), San Joaquin Valley (15) and San Diego County (20), where BEV interest is expected to be highest. NRG Energy will locate at least 20 percent of them in urban areas where they will be more accessible to low- and moderate income groups.

Leaders in the electric vehicle advocacy community expressed satisfaction along with concern at the initial settlement. "Basically, we see that this settlement could be a good deal for California and get a lot of charging in the ground," said Plug In America President Jay Friedland, "but the devil is in the details, especially when it comes to access and business models."

Many noted that a widespread and readily available network of chargers could significantly ease the range anxiety that is a barrier to greater electric vehicle adoption.

With the announcement of these details, which include many concerns outlined by advocates such as like Friedland such as open access, interoperability and transparency, plug-in drivers will have the opportunity to judge the truth in eVgo President Arun Banskota's asserting that "we are in the business of providing range confidence."

 

The stations will be owned and operated by NRG Energy and be much like the AeroVironment-built stations in NRG's Houston charger network. They will be credit- and debit-card accessible. Plug-in vehicle drivers will have both pay-as-you-go and subscription access. Pay-as-you-go prices will be no more than $15 per charge during peak demand periods and $10 per charge during off-peak hours.

The make-ready sites will be owned by the property owner and distributed in the same proportion as the eVgo Freedom Stations. Each must be in an investor-owned utility's service territory; 35 percent must be at multi-family locations, 15 percent at workplaces, 10 percent at public interest sites like a school, a university or a hospital.

Preparing these sites' electrical panels, transformers and wiring for charging infrastructure, said NRG Energy's Arun Banskota, will pave the way for the 60 percent of the public that does not live in single-family homes that are readily amenable to the addition of charging infrastructure.

Eighteen months after installation, all charger infrastructure providers will have complete access to the make-readies. This is one of the more controversial elements of the plan, because it limits competition early on.

Banskota noted that the $9 million investment in BEV development programs will move the technology forward and expose more people to it. A total of $5 million will go to develop battery storage for peak demand periods, very high power charging capability, or for vehicle-to-grid pilot programs. The other $4 million will go to EV car sharing programs and job training programs in the charger infrastructure field.

 

According to NRG Energy, these investments resolve "all outstanding claims and disputes" pertaining to litigation between Dynegy, bought by NRG Energy in 2006, and the state, represented by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), over unsatisfactorily fulfilled electricity contracts during the 2000-01 energy crisis.

For the entire undertaking, NRG Energy has agreed to hire local workers for the construction and for operations and maintenance. It has also agreed to comply with California programs that emphasize attention and preference to women-owned, disabled veteran-owned and minority-owned businesses.

The first year of the undertaking, Banskota said, is likely see slow progress due to issues like permitting and distribution system interconnections. By year two, he said, there will be a ramp-up. The company expects to complete 20 percent of the Freedom Stations in year one, 30 percent in each of the next two years, and the final 20 percent in the last year.

There will be an application process for the selection of the sites, Banskota said. It has not yet been determined.

Vendors will be selected through a competitive bidding process, following an NRG request for proposals. All vendors will be required to build to CHAdeMo and SAE standards.

Banskota noted that the final settlement arrangement between NRG and the CPUC must still be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Likely to be little more than a formality, that approval is expected by late summer.

Related posts:

  1. Siemens Gets $1.6-Million DoE Grant for EV Charging Infrastructure Research
  2. Mitsubishi Unveils Solar-Powered Vehicle Charging Station
  3. Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Coming to a City Near You?


5 New Cleantech Startups Getting Support from Greenstart

Posted: 14 May 2012 02:00 AM PDT

 
I’m a bit late on reposting this one, but these look like 5 good cleantech startups going through Greenstart’s startup accelerator for Digital Cleantech companies — check them out:



Greenstart’s Newest Cleantech Entrepreneurs Unveil New Products to Investors (via Ecopreneurist)

The five startups span sectors ranging from smart grid to collaborative transportation to energy data apps.  They announced new products, new strategic partnerships, and gave live demos of their technologies during 10-minute pitches in front of an audience of 200 silicon valley investors. Scoot Networks…


Related posts:

  1. Cleantech Startups Have New Opportunity to Win $115,000
  2. GE to Cleantech Startups: We Can Help
  3. Cleantech Group: Solar Startups See Venture Capital Fall in 2Q


Hybrid SUV Unveiled by Great Wall Motors (Could Be Sold Beyond China)

Posted: 14 May 2012 01:00 AM PDT

 
China’s got a booming car industry, and it’s increasingly looking to export its companies’ cleantech products, so it seems viable that Great Wall Motors’ new Hybrid SUV could cross borders. We’ll see. For now, here’s more on the topic from Jo Borras:



China vs. the World: Great Wall Unveils Global SUV (via Gas 2.0)

Among certain circles in America, there is a growing fear of the Chinese. The people in line ahead of me at a Wisconsin Wal-Mart this weekend (I was in a Wisconsin Wal-Mart this weekend) said "the Chinese is gonna take over", and a sharp cat from a well-known Chicago publishing house told me earlier…


Related posts:

  1. CODA & Great Wall Motors Working Together on Affordable EV
  2. Great Lakes: The Next Great Offshore Wind Power Source
  3. Island Pilot Hybrid Luxury Yacht Unveiled


Solar Investing Goes Mainstream

Posted: 14 May 2012 12:00 AM PDT

 
Here’s a great article from the Rocky Mountain Institute to start your week:

by Jesse Morris

Thousands of Americans log in to online trading accounts every day to manage personal stock portfolios. Now, there's a new option for individual investors. I recently took advantage of this option by creating an account with Solar Mosaic and investing a small amount of money, along with about 85 other individuals, in a 26-kilowatt rooftop solar system in Oakland.

Right now my $25 investment is really an interest-free loan, since historically companies like Solar Mosaic haven't been able to offer financial returns on their products. However, thanks to passage of the JOBS Act last month, Solar Mosaic and similar companies will be able to offer returns on investments for "crowdfunded" projects. So in addition to buying pure stock in a publicly traded company, I'll soon be able to use websites like Solar Mosaic's to build a portfolio of solar investments that provide a return on investment with every kilowatt-hour of solar energy produced.

Much has been written about the JOBS Act and its impending effect on crowdfundingentrepreneurs seeking capital, and emerging growth companies like Kickstarter. But for me, crowdfunding's new legal status and ability to raise capital for renewable energy projects is indicative of a broader theme: retail investors—that's you and me, as opposed to institutional investors like banks and funds—now h

When I say "invest," I mean it. Generally speaking, when folks think about investing in solar energy, they think about spending a bunch of money for a system on a home or business that will offset some electricity costs and pay for itself in savings at some point twenty years down the road. But solar costs have come down, and the industry is rapidly maturing. So now, when we invest in solar, we are no longer just doing the right thing and paying a solar premium. In many cases we can attach a required return to every dollar spent.

Let's look at these five kinds of solar-focused investments that we can currently make as retail investors (if I've left any big categories off, please start a discussion in the comment section below!):

1. Crowdfunded Solar

  • As outlined above, companies like Solar Mosaic will soon be able to offer modest returns on stable, low-risk investments in solar PV systems across the U.S. This is as simple as selecting a project, investing $25, and having cash payments flow into your account with interest over time.
  • Crowdfunding isn't just restricted to solar. In the UK, several companies are encouraging crowdfunded investment in community wind projects.

2. Direct Ownership

  • In some states and local jurisdictions, a combination of plummeting solar photovoltaic costs, local and federal incentives, and escalating utility electricity rates have made flat-out ownership of a solar system a good investment with returns as high as 5 percent, depending on location.

3. Third-Party Finance

  • In many places in the U.S., power purchase agreements and solar lease providers like SolarCity, SunRun, and Sungevity can offer zero- down solar leases that save you 15 percent from your old electricity bill from day one.
  • While more of an immediate payback contract than an "investment," the lease option opens up your bank account to put saved money to work elsewhere. Since retail electricity rates historically increase every year, financial returns can expand over the term of the lease.

4. Community Solar Gardens

  • Hailing from RMI's backyard in Colorado, Clean Energy Collective offers customers a way to invest in renewable generation to for up to 100 percent of their electricity use. This investment in solar energy and other renewables can provide a return on investment and is open to individuals without rooftop space of their own.

5. Direct Stock Purchase

  • Perhaps the most obvious way for individuals to invest in solar, anyone can buy stock in publicly traded upstream solar companies like the NASDAQ-listed SunPower (SPWR), First Solar (FSLR), and Enphase (ENPH).
  • Where one invests in the solar value chain can make a big difference on the success of the investment. Stock purchases of downstream participants (like installers and developers) whose value is aligned with the project-focused investing listed in the four cases above, may soon be an option as companies like SolarCity go public. One can already invest in developer SunEdison through its parent company MEMC (NYSE: WFR) as well as utilities and other larger companies that develop solar. But in these cases the investment will rest on all of the activities of the company, including those not solar-related.
  • Additionally, several mutual funds and business development companies channel capital to solar projects and companies, but I'm not currently aware of any with a singular solar focus—although this could change in the future.

With these investment channels open to individual investors of all shapes and sizes, there's a lot of moneymaking potential—especially over the next decade. A recent report by McKinsey & Company predicts that global installed capacity could increase to anywhere between 400 and 600 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, up from 65 GW globally today (Five GW of solar panels roughly match the electrical generation of a large nuclear power plant).

For market growth to occur on this scale and for RMI's long-term vision of a U.S. electricity system based on efficiency and renewables to become reality, several things must happen in the renewable energy space—including more open access to additional capital markets capable of supporting a ten-fold expansion in installed solar capacity between now and 2020.

But even with these challenges in mind, the current and emerging diversity of investment options available to retail investors are promising signs for the renewable energy industry as a whole.

Contact the writer: jmorris@rmi.org

Related posts:

  1. Insurance Firms Increasingly Investing in Wind Energy in Europe
  2. Comfort Inn Partners with Pursol Solar Systems to Push Green Energy into the Mainstream
  3. Google Investing $94 Million More in Solar Power


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