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As the Price of Oil Soars, Many Turn to Renewables

Thomas Rainwater of SunEdison, with solar panels for Kohl's in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Rainwater spent 25 years in traditional energy work before moving to SunEdison.
Thomas Rainwater of SunEdison, with solar panels for Kohl's in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Rainwater spent 25 years in traditional energy work before moving to SunEdison. (Sunedison)

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

Thomas M. Rainwater spent 25 years in what people today call the traditional, old-fashioned energy business. An engineer by training, he worked at nuclear and coal-fired power stations, was a marketing executive for a natural gas producer and pipeline, and finally a top strategist for a Canadian power-generation company with a market capitalization of $5.5 billion.

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Then in July Rainwater moved to the Washington area to become chief executive of SunEdison, a Beltsville company that is building and servicing solar panels on the rooftops of warehouses, supermarkets and other commercial buildings around the country. SunEdison is a tiny fraction of the size of his former employer, but Rainwater said "there is growing recognition across the land, across the globe, that we need to do something different to fire the economy."

More and more people like Rainwater are joining the emerging green economy -- and many of them are doing it in the Washington area. While many companies in this region are doing small things to burnish their environmental credentials, a few companies like SunEdison are inventing new business models, coming up with new technology or arranging new financing on a large scale.

Doing that is not easy. Green businesses face many hurdles -- regulatory obstacles, technology limitations, high costs or simply old habits that prevent firms from thinking in new ways. But with the price of crude oil above $95 a barrel and worries about climate change mounting, there is more interest than ever in the field.

At its core, the business of climate change -- at least the really big business of climate change -- is an energy business. The United States in 2006 produced 5.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by burning oil, natural gas and coal for energy. Finding ways to use those sources more efficiently or to replace them with energy generated by solar, wind or other renewables is the key to bringing greenhouse-gas emissions down to a level that will slow global warming.

Many of these businesses are substantial already. Perhaps the biggest in the Washington area is AES, a traditional, largely coal-based power-generation company that is pouring money into renewable energy. It has 1,000 megawatts of wind generation in operation and 4,000 megawatts under construction, and it is teaming with General Electric to develop large-scale greenhouse-gas-reduction projects in the United States.

At the other end of the spectrum is GridPoint, a small company that makes and monitors devices that can let consumers and utilities control residential electricity use without anyone being in the home. The four-year old firm, which has 75 employees, has attracted high-powered people to its board, including executives from Goldman Sachs, Duke Energy and private capital firms. Goldman Sachs led a group that last month committed $48.5 million in financing for GridPoint.

GridPoint's goal is to create systems that make energy use more efficient and allow utilities to lower demand at times of peak usage. That way the utilities might not need to build or run backup power plants burning natural gas or oil.

At the firm's K Street offices, it has demonstration equipment. One device resembles a fuse box; the other is a box the size of a small refrigerator. The former can identify and control individual appliances, and consumers and utilities can see exactly how much energy each appliance is using.

The big box is used to control solar panels and store excess energy from the panels in batteries. It retails for $12,500. As solar use spreads among big retailers and homeowners, the box will enable utilities to draw on solar energy stored in scattered arrays of batteries the way they would draw on a peak generating plant.

Currently, said Karl Lewis, the firm's chief operating officer, on a hot summer afternoon when air conditioners are running full blast and straining the capacity of power plants, utilities telephone the managers of commercial buildings and ask them to adjust thermostats or slow down elevators, which are big energy users. But with GridPoint's equipment, the utility would also be able to tap power from batteries in different office buildings or homes and turn down energy-gobbling devices all over the power grid, rather than crossing its fingers and hoping that building managers cooperate.

Lewis said the need for such control equipment will become even greater if electric cars catch on. General Motors has said it would start selling plug-in hybrid cars in three years. Imagine, Lewis said, if people come home at dinnertime and plug in the car when electricity demand is already high on a hot afternoon. The car will double or triple a home's peak energy use. That could overwhelm the utility's capacity and lead to blackouts.


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