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Alternative fuel firms to accelerate sales this year

By   /   Friday, January 2nd, 2009  /   Comments Off on Alternative fuel firms to accelerate sales this year

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Renewable energy companies in the Tri-Counties are counting on two things to pull them through 2009 – the deals they executed in 2008, and President-elect Barack Obama.

“We’re seeing that even in light of reduced oil prices, the Obama team is looking to a green energy economy as well as green energy for its own sake,” said Charles Vinick, director of business development and government relations at Carpinteria-based Aquantis, which uses bladed turbines to derive energy from ocean currents. “I think that bodes well for all of us in the industry.”

At Thousand Oaks-based Ceres, a biotech company that designs and sells energy crops, the first shipments of seeds went out the door in late 2008. The company is forging ahead with the next round of its energy crops, which include switchgrass and sorghum that grow where food crops can’t.

“From both an operational and technological perspective, we are optimistic about 2009,” said Ceres spokesman Gary Koppenjan, adding that it “appears that the Obama administration is going to take an aggressive approach to supporting renewable energy as an economic stimulus as well as an environmental policy, which could have a substantial impact on the demand for dedicated energy crops.”

But for all the boons an Obama administration could bring to the renewable energy sector, the best strategy for surviving 2009 is to have cash in the bank. While the credit squeeze doesn’t seem to have choked off investments in renewable energy, companies are playing careful with the cash they have raised, hoping to stretch it through 2009.

Goleta-based LaunchPoint Technologies is developing a flywheel that can store electrical power as mechanical energy, helping smooth out electrical grid bumps associated with renewable energy sources. The firm raised about $3 million in two rounds ending last year.

“So far, we haven’t had any trouble raising funds for energy-related projects,” said Jim Fiske, vice president of advanced systems at LaunchPoint. “We have enough money now to last us for a while. We’re expecting to go out for another, larger round sometime next year. I’m hopeful that the conditions then will allow us to get that round.”

Ceres, for its part, is still riding on the $75 million it raised in late 2007, before capital markets went kaput. And at San Luis Obispo-based REC Solar, one of the largest installers of solar power systems in the state, the company’s parent firm, Mainstream Energy Corp., inked a $40 million deal in April to sell a 20 percent stake to Norwegian Renewable Energy Corp. ASA, a massive solar panel manufacturer.

“That relationship has essentially secured us of supply a solar modules going into the future,” said Ryan Work, Central Coast sales manager for REC Solar. “Our partnership with them is a very integral part of our growth. We work with every manufacturer of solar panels on the market, but with REC group it’s a very secure supply going into the future so that we have the equipment that we need.”

Even though many firms already have sealed deals, those that are still searching remain optimistic.

“Prior to the financial melt-down in 2008, the wind-energy market was a bit overheated,” said Jim Winsayer, president of Continental Wind Power, a Santa Barbara-based firm that is searching for subcontractors to build its mid-sized wind turbines. “Although the funding of all types of projects across all industries will be down in 2009, I believe renewable energy projects, and specifically wind farm projects, will continue to find investors.”

Private deals aside, the role of the federal government still looms large for renewable energy companies. Ocean energy firm Aquantis is caught in the crossfire of a territorial fight in the federal government – both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and part of the Department of Interior say they have the power to regulate the industry.

“It’s a bit unclear as to whether we need permits from both or from only one,” Aquantis’ Vinick said. “Both agencies say we need it from them,” he said, adding that he his hopeful an Obama administration will expedite the process.

With little fanfare, Uncle Sam gave the solar industry a major boost when it slipped into the $700 billion bailout bill a provision to extend and expand the tax credit for solar energy installations.

The old credit – which was slated to expire at the end of 2008 – provided up a tax break of up to $2,000. Under the new system, a homeowner or business gets a break for 30 percent of the cost after any rebates, such as the ones offered by the state of California and utility companies.

“If your post-rebate cost was $20,000, you’d get a $2,000 tax credit” under the old system, said REC’s Work. “Now that tax credit is $6,000.”

REC is also hoping to lure reluctant customers in 2009 with a new partnership with a San Francisco company called SunRun, one of a number of firms that’s stepping in to help finance the upfront costs of solar power systems. A homeowner signs an 18-year contract to lock in a fixed cost of their solar power, and SunRun fronts some of the money for the installation.

With the cost of energy expected to rise 14 percent under new greenhouse gas regulations in California, that could help sway fence-sitting customers.

“A 4-kilowatt system could be as little as $4,000 to $4,500 cash out of pocket,” REC’s Work said. “A solar system is expensive. It does pay for itself, and the new package can help people get over that upfront cost.”

But even with help from a new tax credit and new financing partners, REC is tightening down to less with more.

“As every company needs to right now, REC is absolutely working on becoming more efficient,” Work said. “We’re organically grown, and we’ve turned a profit every single year. We wouldn’t have accomplished some of those goals if we didn’t have a very efficient business practice.”

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