A Californian in Wales: Bob Hertzberg, G24i Chairman, Finds Green Pastures for Commercializing Flexible Thin-Film Solar
Few green business leaders offer the mix of public policy and private entrepreneurial experience exhibited by the career of Bob Hertzberg. As Speaker of the California State Assembly, Mr. Hertzberg led California through the energy crisis of the early 2000s. Now, as chairman of G24i, Mr. Hertzberg has launched a renewable energy company based in Cardiff, Wales, manufacturing and commercializing flexible, thin-film solar as a renewable alternative to batteries for powering electronics. VerdeXchange News is pleased to present the following excerpts from a recent KGIL AM 1260 (Los Angeles) program hosted by Michael Jackson, which detailed the global span of Mr. Hertzberg’s public and private experience.
Michael Jackson: Where are you located now, Bob?
Bob Hertzberg: I went into the solar energy business—solar energy that doesn’t need sunlight. It works in the rain. So, what better place to prove my technology and this new kind of solar cell than Cardiff, Wales?
Jackson: How does your solar technology work?
Hertzberg: All the traditional solar cells that you see today, those big square panels you see on roofs and the like, are made of silicon. There’s a lot of silicon on the Earth, but it’s pulled out of sand, which takes a tremendous amount of energy. These silicon cells have a long energy-payback time. And the thing about silicon is that it works well, but only in very bright sunlight, when it is perfectly angled towards the sun, and it only works for a few hours a day.
There’s this wonderful professor, Prof. Michael Graetzel, who invented this new chemical process that basically mimics photosynthesis in plants. We bought the technology and worked with Prof. Graetzel to bring it to a commercial scale in a massive factory that we purchased and renovated in Cardiff, Wales. We’re the first in the world to commercialize this. What’s so brilliant is that the technology works in ambient light and even in the rain. Because of this, it works for mobile power.
What’s mobile power? It’s batteries. How much energy does it take to make a battery? How much do batteries weigh? What do batteries cost? How much waste are they responsible for? If you have a source of power that replaces batteries which is lightweight and renewable, it’s a fantastic solution.
The thing that I like most about it is that one of the great weaknesses of the renewable energy/green revolution is that much of the technology is not affordable for ordinary folks. You’ve got to be rich to be able to have a house with solar panels, a wind turbine, or whatever else you’re going to use to get renewable energy. Today, you can go to the grocery store and get a reusable bag and recycle. But how do you really green up your life? Now, all of a sudden, there’s this lightweight, small, thin, flexible film that I make so my kid can use renewable energy to operate his Game Boy. We actually have produced this film. We’re manufacturing it. We’re selling initially in India, Africa, and China—areas that don’t have access to the grid to charge their mobile phones.
Jackson: Explain more about how it works.
Hertzberg: It is the closest mankind has come to replicating photosynthesis, the process that plants use to produce energy from light. Basically, it starts with a very active type of dye that you put on top of a semi-conductor. A semiconductor that is found in common ingredients like toothpaste. The light energy that comes through activates the dye and is converted into electrical energy that we then pick up.
Caller: Is California, which appears to be the frontline of renewable energy in the country, doing as good a job as other places around the globe?
Hertzberg: Good question. When I left the Legislature, I went to South Los Angeles on Martin Luther King Boulevard, east of Alameda, to open a solar energy factory. I found that so many of the laws that I’d passed and worked on were mostly a joke. There was a huge divide between the political rhetoric of trying to start a business in California and actually being able to do so.It took me nine months to get power from the Department of Water and Power to operate my machines. The day that I had 14 containers come in from out of town carrying our high-tech machinery into South Los Angeles — an area that was starved for jobs — the city of Los Angeles discontinued their job creation subsidy program.
So, I just made the decision not to come back here in the near-term, although I’ve got to tell you that Schwarzenegger has done some good stuff. There’s been a great deal of investment in California now. It’s starting to happen, but I left before that. Arnold really has brought a lot of energy to the process. I would do a number of additional things to help incentivize businesses to come here and supplant oil. But he is moving in the right direction, so it is a lot better. But it wasn’t very good a few years ago. A lot of these people have talked about the greenest this and the greenest that, but it’s just a lot of puffery.
Caller: What’s going on in Great Britain or Europe that we ought to model ourselves after?
Hertzberg: A couple of things. First of all, they’re signatories to the Kyoto Protocols, which means that if they don’t meet certain standards, they get fined through the EU—these are pretty significant consequences. That’s point number one. Point number two is an economic issue; it isn’t about global politics. It’s just the cost of energy. Here in Los Angeles, it’s 11 cents per kilowatt-hour of power. In Germany, they’ll pay you up to 67 cents for a kilowatt-hour for electricity produced from solar panels on your roof in what’s called a feed-in tariff. If you put solar panels on your house, the utilities are forced to buy the power your house generates at a profit. So they have policies like these feed-in tariffs—Spain has them, Italy, Greece, a number of European countries. Thirdly is, of course, the issue of the Russians. The whole Russian oil issue is so much more prevalent to those in Europe. Gasoline is $8 or $9 a gallon. So it’s economic, it’s partly political, and then people like Ken Livingstone, who’s the mayor of London, has a process that requires 20 percent onsite generation for new construction—not efficiency—onsite generation.
Jackson: Mayor Livingstone was considered wildly radical when he ran for office.
Hertzberg: And he’s got some pretty good ideas now. I actually own a piece of an electric car company in London, a 20 percent interest in G-Wiz. They’re all electric and they’re the most popular electric car in the city. In London, they have a congestion charge. It’s pretty expensive if you’re driving a big car, a big Mercedes or an SUV. If you drive an electric car, there’s no congestion fee. There are also no parking charges if you drive an electric car in London. Basically, you can pay for the cost of the car in less than a year. That’s been our market. Bottom line, it’s a combination of markets and policy that’s made it so much better.
Lastly, the markets and the financial people, not just the PR people, have a much deeper understanding of renewability in Europe than they do here. You can talk to all sorts of folks and really get it. Here, it’s the PR person who wants to put solar panels on the roof because they want to make their CEO look good. It’s changing, but that’s what it was like a few years ago...
Jackson: There are, I am led to believe, close to 2 billion people in this world who have no access to electricity. Can you help them?
Hertzberg: Absolutely. I think that this is about economic opportunity for folks. How do you make that happen, how do you do it without building a big infrastructure like we have or delivering grid-based electricity? Renewable energy provides that opportunity. In Rwanda, four percent of the population has access to the grid. In Uganda, it’s five percent. Now, all of a sudden, if you need power—whether it’s for a stove, or for a light so your kids can do their homework, or to power your cell phone—there is this lightweight solar material available. This is where I’m focusing my business initially—in China and in South America.
Caller: How does thin film fit in with the rest of the solar technology out there? Is this a silver bullet that will wean us completely off of coal? There’s been a lot of talk about a solar market bubble. Is that something you see and are planning for with your company?
Hertzberg: There are two kinds of thin film in the market. There’s thin film that’s on glass that has been able to replace a lot of the traditional silicon, and it’s much less expensive. There’s a company in Arizona and Ohio called First Solar that was incorporated at the end of 2006 as a market cap north of $15 billion. It’s done staggeringly well. It’s thin film, but they put it on glass. It’s not flexible.
When you talk about thin film, I think you have to distinguish between the kind of thin film that is glass-based, which is rigid and still competing with the grid, and flexible thin film. The flexible material in my world and my business model doesn’t compete with the grid.
I compete with batteries. So, what does it cost for batteries in terms of money? I’m here in Los Angeles in the studio, and it’s 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity that’s powering lights in the studio. The same amount of power stored in batteries costs about $500. My whole business model is to compete with batteries, number one.
Number two is to never deal with subsidies. I had a subsidy business before. In government, I helped write a lot of subsidy laws. Unless they’re short-term to jump-start businesses or to bring businesses to a town, forget about it. I’m not into the subsidy stuff. I think it’s a mistake. I don’t think it reels in real businesses.
I’m not out there making power in terawatts. But I think what our technology does is equally important as large scale electricity generation, because it takes 30 times more energy to make a battery compared to what you get out of it. That is a real impact, even if it isn’t huge.
I don’t think there’s a solar bubble in the near term. The prices are coming down for the grid-based solar, and I think the space that I’m going into for flexible is just touching the market. There could be 10,000 factories like mine and they won’t even touch the market. Think about it. Think about having—instead of a battery—a little piece of material that’s four inches by four inches, and ultimately, it’s going to be on the back of your Blackberry or cell phone. It’s going to provide power. What is that going to do?
Jackson: How far ahead are we looking?
Hertzberg: I think it’s just a matter of a few years. The rate of change is dramatic. The standby power, the phantom power in your home—eight percent in the U.K., nine percent in America—is the amount of power used by either chargers when they’re left plugged in or devices in standby mode like the little flashing lights on your DVD player. You can power that all by solar and reduce the drag on the grid...
Jackson: You could have gone anywhere in the world with your new technology. Why Wales?
Hertzberg: I wanted to be close to London. I wanted to be in Europe. Quite frankly, in Europe, for those who study this stuff, there are a lot of places that are way ahead of the game, and there’s a lot of political will in the U.K., but they’re way behind. We’ve become the biggest factory in all of the U.K.
Can I tell you something? This is so cool. The big issue in renewables is having the smallest carbon footprint possible. The actual material that I use takes very little energy to make. But listen to this: I’ve got approval in less than four months from the Cardiff City Council to put up a 440-foot-tall wind turbine on my factory property. I’m going to use wind to create the power to operate my machines to make solar. How do you like them apples?
Jackson: So what’s the next level?
Hertzberg: I think it has to do with policies like feed-in tariffs where you can put solar on your roof and get paid for it. I think it is financing mechanisms through revenue bonds to be able to pay to have businesses come here. I think it’s government buying at a much bigger level than procurement for this technology so that we green up. Bill Lockyer has a fantastic program to green up all of California’s buildings, which would set the bar way past what anybody else has done.
In October, we’re going to have the GreenXchange Xpo here in California, a huge event at the Convention Center that David Abel is doing to bring thousands and thousands of technologies here, the biggest such event around the world on renewables to really draw our attention to renewable energy.
So, I think there’s wonderful opportunity. Certainly the world sees us as a great leader; we just have to continue to do what it takes to be on the cutting edge.
Jackson: The “Green Industrial Revolution” is really hitting its stride?
Hertzberg: No, I think it’s just in its infancy. Think about this for a minute. The Silicon Valley revolution sold you something new you didn’t otherwise know. Today, every human being on the planet has an energy budget. Everybody uses fossil fuels of some sort. All you have to do is come up with an alternative and everybody will use it.
I see three objectives in the green revolution: one, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical; two, local job creation and an opportunity to put local folks to work at high-wage jobs; three, getting off our dependency on foreign oil. You’re sending $1 billion a day to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t good for our national interest. To me, there’s a lot of value in energy independence and what we’re doing. •••