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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

GE Investing in Wind, Wastewater Segments

The Wall Street Journal

General Electric Co. (GE) plans to double its research and development spending to $10 billion for its Ecoimagination program over the next five years, with an eye on growth in wind turbines and wastewater treatment, an executive from the industrial conglomerate told a Wall Street audience.

With Ecoimagination drawing $5 billion in research and development funding since 2005, General Electric now is setting 2010-2015 goals for the program, a corporate initiative aimed at so-called clean technology to help reduce the carbon footprint of a wide swath of industrial activities.

Steve Fludder, vice president, Ecoimagination for GE, said the Dow Industrials component sees a "huge opportunity" for offshore wind development in Europe, but he was vague on its deployment here.

"It's odd that it's not a big market in the U.S. yet," he told institutional investors Tuesday at the Jefferies Global Clean Technology Conference at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The conference featured several dozen companies ranging from giants like General Electric and Duke Energy Corp. (DUK) to smaller firms such as solar panel installation specialist, SolarCity.

GE announced plans last August to buy SanWind Group as a way to put its muscle behind offshore wind, Fludder said.

While several offshore wind projects have been proposed in the U.S., no construction has begun yet. A project off the coast of Cape Cod called Cape Wind has drawn a prolonged legal battle that could be resolved this year.

Meanwhile, GE said it sees an opportunity to use its technology in the energy business both for reduced emission coal plants and for treatment of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to boost oil and gas production.

Asked about opposition to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from residents in upstate New York, Fludder said the wider use of the practice will take time.

"This isn't going to happen overnight," Fludder said.

Fludder said GE plans to ship turbines this spring to Duke Energy's Edwardsport Station in Knox County, Indiana. The plant will deploy coal integrated gasification combined cycle technology to reduce emissions.

He also said GE is working on a model home with geothermal technology and other innovations to reduce its energy use from the power grid to zero.

GE is also making venture investments in smaller companies, such as its equity stake in lithium ion battery maker A123 Systems Inc..

While conglomerates such as GE figure prominently in the clean technology movement, plenty of start-up companies are touting their wares.

David Arfin, vice president of strategy for SolarCity, said the company has been winning new customers in Texas and Colorado, on top of its presence in Arizona, Oregon and California.

The company has also drawn a high-profile investor, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and chief executive of SpaceX, a space launch vehicle company.

A large chunk of SolarCity's customers use power-purchase agreements to get solar panels installed, Arfin said. Instead of customers paying for solar panels, SolarCity installs them and then charges customers for the electricity.

The arrangement eliminates the big upfront costs and maintenance responsibilities of owning solar panels, he said. Federal tax credits, state and local government rebates, and utility purchases of the power help reduce costs as well, he said.

SolarCity installed a 700-kilowatt system at the EBay Inc. (EBAY) office in San Jose, as well as a six-megawatt system for Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.

Arfin said the appeal of solar energy goes beyond its roots as an alternative energy touted in the 1970s by anti-establishment types. Now, conservative groups such as the U.S. military and the Goldwater Institute support solar power as a way to improve America's energy independence, he said.

He said the company could benefit from wider use of the Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, programs, which allow private property owners to finance energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects through their property taxes.

"It would be great for our business," said Arfin. "Lots of states are talking about it."

SolarCity plans to expand its footprint to as many as 10 states in 2010.