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More Trouble For Suntech: Italian Courts Seize Solar Plants

September 23, 2013

Just when it appeared that Suntech Power Holdings (STP :NYSE) had developed a plan to satisfy its creditors and help it rise from its financial difficulties, the company suffered another blow today. Suntech announced that Italian courts have seized 37 solar parks constructed by Global Solar Fund (GSF), an investment fund of which the China-based solar manufacturer is an 88 percent owner.

The 30 megawatts of power seized accounts for 21 percent of the fund company’s power generation capabilities.

The Court of Brindisi seized the plants due to improper operation of the solar plants related to authorization issues for the solar parks and matters related to the improper collection of feed-in tariffs.

Suntech said they will try to work with GSF to continue operating the solar plants.

With Suntech hoping a newly appointed CEO and a credit restructuring plan will help the resuscitate the solar manufacturer from its previous investment missteps, another setback like this will not help renew investor confidence in the company.

Shares of Suntech were surprisingly unchanged in afternoon trading.

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FuzeBox Lands $26M Series B, Appoints New CEO

September 17, 2013

Seeking to expand globally, San Francisco’s FuzeBox has raised $26 million in its Series B round led by Hermes Growth Partners. Series A investors Index Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Insight Venture Partners also joined the round. Previously FuzeBox raised $20 million in its Series A last year.

FuzeBox is seeking to distinguish itself in the increasingly crowded field of communication and collaboration solutions. To help FuzeBox compete with the likes of Cisco (CSCO :NASDAQ) and Citrix (CTXS :NASDAQ), the company also announced they have hired Yammer’s former Chief Customer Officer and Salesforce.com (CRM :NYSE) executive, David Obrand as CEO.

Mr. Obrand is bringing a team with him as former Yammer executives Mary Pecka, Greg Ell, and Jonathan Grant will join the team. Ms. Pecka will assume the role as Chief Customer Officer, Mr. Ell will be the Vice President and General Manager, EMEA, and Mr. Grant will be the Vice President of Finance.

While Mr. Ell will be busy growing the company’s presence in Europe, Ms. Pecka will be active domestically as the company announced they will be offering a freemium service to expand its customer base. Both Yammer and Saleforce.com have successfully implemented the freemium strategy.

FuzeBox may not have the robust platform to compete with Citrix or Cisco’s varied product offering, but they do have the ability to be used on multiple devices including the iPhone, Android phones, and the latest iPad.

Over the next year it will be interesting to see if Mr. Obrand has more to offer from his background besides his experience with freemium services or is he truly a one-trick CEO. Can he position FuzeBox to successfully compete with the heavyweights or will the company be acquired like Yammer?

Investors in Cisco and Citrix weren’t phased by today’s announcement as shares of both companies were up .27 percent and .55 percent, respectively, in afternoon trading.

Wind Turbines Hurt Home Values According To Massachusetts Organization

September 16, 2013

In an attempt to discredit a study released in August saying that home values are not affected by wind turbines being built near them, grassroots organization group Wind Wise Massachusetts (WWMA) released a statement today saying that home values are crushed when wind turbines are built nearby.

This statement refutes the report’s main idea that there is no statistical evidence that home values are negatively impacted by the construction of wind turbines. The authors looked at preannouncement and post construction valuations.

But according to WWMA, homes within two miles of land-based wind turbines can plummet 15 to 40 percent according to Virginia Irvine, president of the WWMA.

Miss Irvine also brings in Michael McCann of McCann Appraisal Services in Chicago who believes wind turbines are devastating to home values. Mr. McCann wrote a letter to the town of Brewster, Massachusetts in September 2011 stating that when wind turbines affect vista views, home values are negatively impacted.

Anti wind turbine activity has increased ever since the Cape Wind project was approved, potentially affecting the views of homeowners who look out onto the Nantucket Sound.

But do wind turbines really affect property values? Even the original report admits that homes within two miles of land-based wind turbines drop in value, but most wind turbines are not built near homes, especially the Cape Wind project. Barnstable, the nearest town in Cape Cod to Cape Wind, will be approximately 5.6 miles away. Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard will be approximately 9 miles away while Nantucket will be almost 14 miles away.

While beautiful vistas and more clean energy for a state that is leading the country in renewables are at stake, neither side seems to boast overwhelming public support. 250 people attended a recent rally and concert on the Hyannis Green supporting Cape Wind while the WWMA blog has 55 followers (one of those can be attributed to The Alarm:Clock staff) and a friend in the Alliance To Protect Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind is also supported by Better Future Project.

The Chamath Palihapitiya Experience

September 12, 2013

Former Facebook exec, and now investor, Chamath Palihapitiya was interviewed in Marin County at a lunch that I joined. The questions were wide-open ranging from what makes you mad to whose better Zuckerberg or Sandberg?
One of his most interesting perspectives is that outside of his tech investments, he is investing in hospitality and entertainment. Why? Because his experience with Facebook has focussed his attention on what he sees as a rising value in photogenic experiences. Young people get more value out of showing their friends their trip pictures. They would rather spend money on those experiences than say a new car. So Palihapitiya has invested in the NBA Golden State Warriors as well as restaurants.

It was also interesting to hear that he has cashed out of Facebook stock and has put that money into Google stock. More conservative for sure. But then he says he’s a big backer of Bitcoin.

He is one of the few leaders in technology who stand by the NSA. He thinks their work is awesome. He comes at it from a point of realism.  I believe it’s fair to summarize his point that Russia, China and hackers are hacking.  As US citizens, our taxes are paying for the NSA to help us to make decisions, don’t we want them to be good and aggressive? Don’t delude yourself to think that you have privacy.
Palihapitiya has a strong personality but there were a couple of traits that stand-out as what seems like trends among technologists:
- Cussing. Palihapitiya swears a lot. I don’t know him but it feels affected. Other technologists like Dave McClure are fond of cursing. Why do they do it? Who knows but I expect it’s because it makes them come across as rebels and authoritative. “I don’t care what people think about me cause I think for myself and I’m right.” Personally, I don’t have an issue with cussing except that now that I am a father I know that my kids will search me on Youtube and I don’t want them to hear me cussing. I also know it offends people and if there’s no good reason to offend its better not to.

- Obsession with intelligence. Palihapitiya talks a lot about finding the smartest people on on the planet and how they will displace phonies from ivy league colleges. He obviously makes a good point that intelligence matters. What he doesn’t caveat is that luck, timing, and hard work are maybe more important than intelligence. Airbnb and Uber are billion dollar companies but did they require genius and the smartest people on the planet to develop? Of course not.

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China’s Solar Advantage? Manufacturing And Supply-Chain!

September 5, 2013

Many investors in the solar industry attribute China’s advantage in the solar industry to massive government subsidies and a large workforce consisting of inexpensive labor. But in a study released by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) journal, Energy & Environmental Science, large-scale manufacturing and supply-chain benefits also play a role.

Because solar manufacturers in China enjoy a density of production and the cost-benefit of using local suppliers, the RSC states that they enjoy a Minimum Sustainable Price (MSP) advantage of 23 percent per watt.  The MSP represents the lowest price solar manufactures can sell their product for and still achieve a profit.

According to the RSC, the 2012 estimated MSP for United States solar panels was $1.19 per Watt for US solar panels versus $0.91 per Watt for Chinese solar panels.

The RSC study refutes the notion of cheap labor helping China’s solar industry as regional influences negate this advantage. But the RSC believes that large scale solar panel manufacturing in the region, which is enabled by access to capital and a less restrictive business and regulatory environment, are the prime factors in the difference in MSP.

There is hope for manufacturers outside of China as the RSC believes China’s success could easily be replicated. But it’s not that simple according to Al Goodrich, Senior Analyst at NREL and lead author of the study.

Mr. Goodrich states, “for solar power, there’s a chicken and egg problem: consistent demand is needed to provide manufacturers with access to the capital required to achieve large scale production, but large-scale production will be necessary for solar power to compete as an energy source without subsidies.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the bottom-up cost model for MSP to examine the underlying causes for the shift in the global manufacturing base of photovoltaics from the US and Europe to China.

Despite the supposed difference in MSP, shares of First Solar (FSLR :NASDAQ) were up 4.8 percent in afternoon trading.

China Sunergy’s New Solar Cells Achieve Over 20% Conversion Efficiency

September 3, 2013

It may not be a record, but it’s still impressive as China Sunergy (CSUN :NASDAQ) announced today it has reached an energy conversion rate of 20.26 percent on its new generation of high-efficient, mono-crystalline solar cells as certified by the Franhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE.

Mass commercial production of the cells will commence by the end of this year.

These new cells surpass the 20 percent mono-crystalline cells conversion efficiency benchmark mandated by the eight development guidelines issued by the State Council for China’s photovoltaic industry in July 2013.

Exceeding 20 percent helps push China Sunergy towards one of the key components of the winning formula for the solar industry of higher efficiency cells at affordable prices. China Sunergy did not release any details on pricing.

Investors certainly understand the significance of this announcement as shares of China Sunergy were up 3.16 percent in early afternoon trading.

First Solar and AGL To Deliver Australia’s Largest Solar Project

July 31, 2013

AGL Energy Limited announced today that it will move forward with two utility-scale solar energy projects totaling 155 megawatts (MW) and First Solar (FSLR :NASDAQ) will be providing the photovoltaic modules and EPC services for the projects totaling approximately $450 million.

First Solar will be building a 102 MW solar plant at Nyngan and a 53 MW plant at Broken Hill.  The Nyngan plant, located in New South Wales, will not only be the country’s largest solar plant, but the biggest in the southern hemisphere. The projects are receiving $166.7 million in funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and $64.9 million from the NSW Government.

Both projects are scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and be completed by the end of 2015.

Nyngan and Broken Hill are part of the Australian government’s aggressive goal of obtaining 20 percent of its energy through renewable sources by the end of the decade.

With stellar business wins like today’s announcement, First Solar continues to be a darling in the solar industry despite being called out Aaron Chew, an analyst with Maxim Group LLC in New York back in April 2012. Back then Mr. Chew felt the company needed to make major changes to its business model and downgraded the company to “sell” with a target price of $9.

Shares of First Solar were up 2.17 percent to 49.55 in afternoon trading.

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