Commentary

The end of the year is a busy time for many people. For those of us who work on Electric Light & Power magazine and the Electric Light & Power Executive Conference, it is especially busy. In addition to our regular columns and sections, this last issue of the year contains some special content that requires a little more work on our part, but it adds some interest and excitement to our jobs.

This issue contains one of the most anticipated and important features of the year: the Industry Report on power plant operating performance. I enjoy interviewing Tom Hewson, who provides the tables and data for the article. He always has some interesting insight on the plants that make the top 20 lists, as well as on the issues the power generation industry faces. I hope you enjoy reading this year’s report, which begins on Page 24.

This issue also contains our Utility of the Year profile. Each year during the selection process, the editorial staff researches several utilities and uncovers impressive facts about some of North America’s best managed and operated utilities. Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) is this year’s Utility of the Year. When you read Senior Editor Kristen Wright’s interview with chairman and CEO Peter Delaney, you’ll learn why OG&E continues to stand out.

Our work isn’t limited to magazine duties. The editorial staff also is responsible for compiling content for the Electric Light & Power Executive Conference. We began working with our advisory committee months ago, selecting topics and inviting some of the best utility executives in the business to speak about those topics. In a few weeks, our hard work will pay off. Our third annual conference is Jan. 22 and 23 in San Antonio, leading into DistribuTECH.

We designed this year’s executive conference as a forum in which utility executives can discuss the technologies and trends their engineering and technical staff will see during DistribuTECH. Utility execs on our panel sessions will discuss how they’ve managed and leveraged technologies to get the best returns on investment. They’ll discuss best practices and lessons learned and provide insight on business issues, cost justification and regulatory considerations. Everyone attending will have plenty of opportunity to interact with panel members and discuss their particular issues and experiences. Our panel sessions include representatives from Public Service Electric & Gas, Kansas City Power & Light, Duke Energy, PHI Power Delivery, OG&E, CenterPoint Energy, Southern California Edison and City of Austin.

Last year, presentations by financial analyst Danielle DiMartino Booth and economist Stuart Varney prompted much audience participation, so we’ve lined up another economist this year. Todd Buchholz, who, among other things, is a frequent commentator on ABC News, PBS and CBS, will deliver a keynote address Sunday afternoon. He’ll talk about the global and U.S. economies and how they’ll affect executive and personal decision-making in 2012.

Buchholz will be followed by our famous networking reception and dinner, and we plan to make 2012’s even better. The dinner allows conference attendees time to network with old friends, new acquaintances, our magazine staff, and our CEOs and Utility of the Year, who will be formally recognized. Last year Stuart Varney even joined us.

And people are still talking about our final-day luncheon keynotes. During our first year, retired U.S. Gen. Russel Honoré captivated us with tales of how he helped New Orleans pull through after Hurricane Katrina. Our second year’s luncheon address left everyone a little teary-eyed when Maj. Dan Rooney emphasized that our freedom isn’t free and shared the history behind his Folds of Honor Foundation and Patriot Golf Day. Our 2012 luncheon keynote speaker, Bill Richardson, has some hard acts to follow, but I’m confident the former U.S. energy secretary, New Mexico governor, U.S. representative and U.N. ambassador will maintain the superior level for which the luncheon is known.

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to register for the 2012 Electric Light & Power Executive Conference. You can view the entire conference program and find the registration page at http://elpconference.com. For a nominal fee, you can register as a full-conference delegate to DistribuTECH and spend the entire week networking and learning about the latest trends and technologies in providing electricity to customers.

See you Sunday, Jan. 22 at the executive conference in San Antonio!

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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Commentary

Solyndra Bankruptcy Clouds Solar Industry

On the last day of August, a dark cloud formed above President Barack Obama’s stimulus funding and green jobs initiative.

Solyndra LLC, a U.S. manufacturer of cylindrical solar power generation systems for commercial rooftops, declared bankruptcy. The filing came with no warning and shocked many, including the company’s 1,100 full-time and temporary employees who were laid off immediately. The firm gave little explanation for the filing–only that it could not compete with larger rivals overseas.

People say bad things come in threes, and it’s true for the solar industry. Solyndra’s bankruptcy was the third such filing in three weeks. Evergreen Solar Inc. of Massachusetts and SpectraWatt of New York also filed for bankruptcy protection in August.

Could this mean the U.S. solar manufacturing industry is in trouble? Many experts, including Ken Zweibel, the director of The GW Solar Institute at The George Washington University, say it is.

A Sept. 6 article in The New York Times by Anne C. Mulkern of Greenwire quotes Zweibel as having said a solar manufacturing crisis exists worldwide. Three companies’ having declared bankruptcy within three weeks shows they are all under pressure, Zweibel is quoted.

During the past year, many press releases about solar energy’s growth in the U.S. and globally have crossed my desk. A lot of these releases said the growing demand for solar components was decreasing manufacturing costs and making solar energy more competitive with other forms of electricity generation. Even with lower manufacturing costs, most price comparisons estimate solar-generated electricity still costs two to three times more per kilowatt than electricity generated from coal; that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows much about electricity generation. The U.S. solar energy industry is highly dependent on government incentives and tax credits.

This brings up another headache for the Obama administration: Solyndra received $535 million in federal loan guarantees from the Department of Energy. It’s causing ire with lawmakers–Republicans and some Democrats–and many taxpayers. What’s more, Solyndra’s largest private investor is a billionaire who contributed to Obama’s presidential campaign. This could be part of the reason FBI agents searched the company’s Fremont, Calif., offices and the CEO’s home a few days after the bankruptcy filing. Specific reasons for the search warrant have not been disclosed as of press time. In addition, the Treasury Department’s inspector general recently opened an investigation of the government loan to Solyndra. Such action creates innuendoes, accusations and even more press coverage. The Solyndra story will make headlines for some time.

Not everyone is convinced the Solyndra bankruptcy is unique. A few political and financial analysts have said start-up companies often fail, and investing in new businesses and technologies is a risk. Solyndra, they said, is not that different from other companies that didn’t make it.

As Solyndra, its executives and investors, Obama and his green jobs initiative are questioned during the next few weeks, the entire U.S. solar energy industry will be examined. Investors, policymakers and others will try to determine whether Solyndra’s bankruptcy signals trouble in the entire sector or if it simply is one of many technology start-ups that didn’t make it.

Either way, the sun won’t shine on the U.S. solar industry until the Solyndra cloud burns off.

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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