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New light is dawning for Buffalo

If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan works out, Buffalo will be transformed from the City of Light to the City of LED Lights.

It will become a hub for sophisticated and technologically advanced clean energy products, ranging from the high-efficiency solar panels that one of its first companies, Silevo, makes, as well as the high-efficiency LED lights made by the complex’s second firm, Soraa.

But clean energy is far more than lights and solar panels. It is a fast-growing industry that ranges from renewable energy projects, such as wind and solar energy farms, to technologies that allow consumers to use less energy, thereby reducing the demand for electricity or fossil fuels.

Those technologies are attracting billions of dollars in investment, with the biggest money flowing into power generation projects that rely on renewable sources, such as wind, solar or biofuels. “It’s not going in any direction but up,” said Jackson Morris, the director of strategic engagement at the Pace Energy and Climate Center in White Plains, which last week released a report on New York’s renewable energy initiatives.

And it’s the investments for high-end products and technology that the Cuomo administration is hoping to capture by investing $225 million to build the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at Riverbend on the old Republic Steel site on South Park Avenue.

The concept, mirroring an approach used to build the nanotechnology industry in Albany, is to create a state-owned complex packed with cutting edge equipment and technology that clean energy companies will clamor to use because it is too costly to develop on their own.

“These facilities are state-of-the-art,” said Alain E. Kaloyeros, the senior vice president and CEO of the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and the driving force behind the Albany nanoscience center. “They’re expensive to maintain. They’re sexy facilities.”

Cuomo, in making the state’s biggest single investment in a Buffalo economic development project, sees clean energy as an industry of the future.

In the United States, power generation from solar energy panels is expected to jump by 87 percent over the next 10 years, according to forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Growth in geothermal power generation is expected to jump by 62 percent, while the growth of wind power is seen to be slowing to just 4 percent. The growth is global, too. The International Energy Agency projects that renewable power, from hydroelectricity to wind and solar, will grow by 40 percent over the next five years. Excluding hydropower, the percentage of electricity that is generated by renewable sources, such as wind, solar, bio-energy and geothermal, is forecast to double, reaching 8 percent in 2018, up from 4 percent in 2011 and just 2 percent in 2006.

The clean energy industry has been evolving rapidly as new technologies improve efficiency and the costs of many clean energy sources come down, said Warren Leon, the executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance. “Both old and new technologies are experiencing a period of rapid change,” he said. “It’s not just the direct technology, like wind and solar, that need continual investment. It’s the technology that supports them, too.”

So while analysts at clean energy consulting firm Clean Edge predict that global investments in solar energy will double between 2012 and 2022, that growth should create new opportunities for innovative companies that provide services and equipment for solar power generators, he said. One area that’s attracting a lot of attention is in the sophisticated battery technologies that would allow the electricity produced at solar energy farms to be stored until it is needed later, Leon said.

Other technologies that are in the spotlight would make the nation’s electrical grid more resilient and less vulnerable to power failures, while increasing its ability to handle power sources that generate electricity only intermittently, such as wind and solar, which only produce electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, he said.

The clean energy field includes companies that make smart thermostats that adjust temperatures based on factors such as weather forecasts, a homeowner’s usage patterns and even motion sensor data. It includes transportation products, like the start-stop batteries that now are coming into use on U.S.-made vehicles to boost fuel economy.

“One thing about clean energy is that you’re not talking about one technology or one application,” Leon said. “The technologies come in all kinds of sizes and shapes. Some require a large amount of investment. Others come together more easily.”

The Cuomo administration is focusing on the more capital-intensive technologies.

Silevo and Soraa are expected to move into the first two buildings of the 90-acre complex by early 2015, with upward of 850 jobs being created there as the companies gear up for full production during the following year to 18 months.

Analysts said the clean energy industry has gone through significant changes in the last few years, from tight financing as the economy remains weak and lenders and investors remain cautious, to low natural gas prices that make it harder for renewable power projects to compete against the falling cost of electricity from plants that run on the increasingly abundant natural gas.

At the same time, improving efficiencies in clean energy products are beginning to reduce the reliance on taxpayer incentives to make projects economically viable.

That change is especially apparent in the solar power industry, where a drop in the cost of solar panels has made those projects much less reliant on incentives as they once were.

Five years ago, solar energy projects produced electricity at an average cost of about $7 per watt. But because of today’s lower costs, solar projects now can generate electricity for around $2.33 per watt, on average, according to a study released earlier this year by Clean Edge.

In New York, where Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative aims to invest $150 million a year in solar energy projects through the next 10 years, the average incentive for solar projects has dropped by about 20 percent over the past two years, to 84 cents per watt, down from $1.03 per watt two years ago, according to the Pace report.

Some energy experts, including former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, have predicted that solar energy projects could be in position to stand on their own – without incentives – by the end of the decade.

“It’s reasonable to think that, by the end of this decade, you could reach that reality,” Morris said. “The actual cost of the equipment has gone down significantly, so that reduces the size of the subsidy needed.”


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