Thursday, November 8, 2007

Greenbuild Fact & Folly

Greenbuild is a great idea. Too bad the organizers didn't have their act together. I was there at Chicago's sprawling McCormick Place West yesterday. Combined with the other convention facilities in the complex, McCormick Place comprises the largest exhibition area on the continent -- and one of the largest buildings in the world. There's four million square feet of space. With that huge area, you would have thought that convention planners and the city would have figured out some basic things like adequate registration booths, a bigger ballroom, simulcasts and foodservice.

I feel it necessary to rant about Greenbuild's awful organization because it's such an important show and tens of thousands wanted to be there to hear some truly leading-edge minds. Sponsored by the US Green Building Council, they had four -- yes four -- pre-registration booths, all of which operated at a snail's pace. When I got there at 9am, this line stretched the entire length of the main atrium. I estimate it was at least 500 feet long. Some 22,000 people waited for hours to get in, missing Bill Clinton's and a host of other presentations that were not to be missed (more on that later). At 3pm, there was still a queue. Even if there had been more registrars, attendees wouldn't have been able to get into the grand ballroom, which was at standing-room capacity and closed down. There were overflow rooms with video simulcasts, although someone managed the technical blunder -- and this takes talent -- of broadcasting the audio before the video, which was incredibly disconcerting. Silly me, I thought this was the 21st century. Wait, it gets worse. Some of the most popular sessions were also filled to capacity, but provided NO overflow simulcasts, so attendees who had paid to get into the show were literally shut out of the presentations.

Shame on the USGBC, which I hold in awe for its LEED program, for blowing the logistics of this show. That's the extent of my rant. Whoever managed the show and planned pathetically inadequate food service should be sweeping streets. The city of Chicago, which didn't run the show, can do much better with this world-class venue. If not, hello Las Vegas and Orlando, two repulsive towns vying -- and taking -- Chicago's convention business.

Here are the highlights:

* Bill Clinton announced a series of initiatives to "green" commercial buildings and schools. He had a passel of people on stage with him to launch the program for his foundation. "We can do this," said the charismatic former president, "and there's a tremendous economic opportunity here." Bravo for Bubba! Where was Al Gore? All he does is win an Oscar and Nobel Prize and he was nowhere in sight. What's he doing to actually stem global warming? Clinton got GE Real Estate, school boards, teacher's unions and a host of other groups on board to actually do something. It's a win-win situation for everyone and has almost nothing to do with his wife's presidential campaign. Well, maybe something, but that's a rant for another day.

* The Exhibition Floor. It was disappointing, dominated by mainstream flooring and fixture companies like Kohler and Armstrong. Kohler makes any number of fixtures to save water, although most of what they sell are designed to make you consume as much water as possible. Notable for their absence (except for Kyocera) were the major solar panel and heating companies, which are making major inroads into lowering their production costs. Why isn't our Congress doing what Japan, Germany and most of Europe have done by offering juicy incentives to put solar on every rooftop in America? There was no mention of the energy/climate change bills snaking through Congress at GreenBuild (write your Congressman now). But the news on solar is good and getting better.

Here's a piece that ran on Bloomberg News today:

By Christopher Martin Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- First Solar Inc., a Phoenix-basedpower-module maker, climbed as much as 38 percent afterreporting a 10-fold increase in third-quarter profit on highersales of its thin-film photovoltaic panels. First Solar rose as much as $62.88 to $230 and was up 37percent at 11:11 a.m. on the Nasdaq Stock Market, valuing thecompany at $17.8 billion. The earnings statement was releasedafter the close of regular U.S. trading yesterday. The companyfirst sold shares at $20 on Nov. 6, 2006.

``This is an amazing growth story that nobody reallyexpected would go this far,'' said John Hardy, an analyst atAmerican Technology Research in Greenwich, Connecticut, whoraised his price target on the stock today to $230 from $114.``The most positive signal was the cost reductions, which reallyimproved their gross margins in a way that looks sustainable forthe next couple years.''

Solar power demand, driven by government incentives in Germany, Spain and California, has increased 40 percent annuallyover the past four years. In the 25 states that requireincreased use of renewable energy, solar power has become thefirst major alternative to wind turbines. Third-quarter net income climbed to $46 million, or 58cents a share, from $4.29 million, or 7 cents, a year earlier,the company said. Sales more than tripled to $159 million. Thecompany was expected to earn 19 cents a share, the average ofnine analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Low-Cost Photovoltaics

``We believe low-cost PV represents an attractive solutionfor regulated utilities,'' Chief Executive Officer MichaelAhearn said on a conference call yesterday. ``First Solar isseeking opportunities to open new markets that are not dependenton the level of subsidies that traditionally have supported thePV industry.'' Second-generation technologies, like First Solar's thin-film process that uses less refined silicon, will reduce coststo where it may be cheaper than getting electricity fromutilities in the next four years, executives and analysts say. Gains made by First Solar, which sells its modules to 12suppliers of solar panels for rooftop and larger land-basedsystems, has helped raise the outlook for other solarmanufacturers.

SunPower Corp. the largest supplier of panels inCalifornia, rose $15.45, or 11 percent, to $160.45. EvergreenSolar Inc. jumped $3.40, or 25 percent, to $17.05. Suntech PowerHoldings Co. gained $7.98, or 12 percent, to $72.78.

Falling Costs

First Solar's average production cost dropped 17 percent to$1.15 per watt in the third quarter from $1.39 in the secondquarter as it increased output, Chief Financial Officer JensMeyerhoff said yesterday on the call with analysts andinvestors. The cost will be cut by up to 50 percent by 2012. The company plans to make panels that can generate as muchas 390 megawatts next year from about 200 megawatts this year,Meyerhoff said. Solar module efficiency, or the amount of sunlightconverted into electricity, rose to 10.5 percent in the thirdquarter, up from 9.7 percent in the previous quarter.

* Speakers. There were some great presentations on green homes and communities. Douglas Farr of Park Associates blew the roof off with his new approach to designing communities so that you don't need cars. Much of his philosophy is based on New Urbanism, but he takes it a step further by plotting pedestrian "cool spots" and re-orienting foot traffic to popular destinations. Check out his work. You're going to be hearing more from him and his group.

So what can I take away from Greenbuild? First, the planners need to be less anal about on-site registration and let attendees print badges on their own computers. Then ask them to recycle them. Second, either book bigger halls or offer multiple presentations of the same sessions. Some of the rooms were literally packed to the brim with every seat filled and people standing outside. There's no excuse for this.

There also should be some lobbying aspect to the event. Without a doubt, most of the speakers were preaching to the choir, a group that could be mobilized to get some important energy legislation passed. Those 20,000-plus people can make a huge difference in getting higher mileage standards, bigger solar incentives and new green building codes passed through that lumbering beast called Congress. Greenbuild's next venue is in Boston next November. The world can't wait that long for what needs to be done to "green" the world economy.

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