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February 15 News: U.S Solar Installations Rise 67% in Q4 2011 Due to Price Drops, Expiring Incentives

Other stories below: Texas farmer wins restraining order against TransCanada; Obama’s Wish List for Energy

U.S. Solar Projects Rise 67% in Quarter Amid Price Drop, SEIA Says

Installation of solar panels in the U.S. surged as much as 67 percent in the fourth quarter as developers raced to qualify for an expiring federal incentive program and panel prices fell 16 percent, a trade group said.

Developers installed 700 megawatts to 750 megawatts of rooftop and ground-mounted systems in the quarter, compared with 450 megawatts in the third quarter, according to preliminary estimates from the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association.

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Installations this year may grow by 3,000 megawatts to 4,000 megawatts, up from about 1,800 megawatts in 2011, if a U.S. Treasury Department incentive known as the 1603 program is renewed, said Rhone Resch, the trade group’s chief executive officer.

Last year “was an incredible year and 2012 could be even better if Congress extends the grant program,” Resch said in an interview today.

Keystone XL Pipeline: Texas Farmer Wins Temporary Restraining Order Against TransCanada

A coalition of environmentalists, conservative property rights activists and landowners are mounting a full court press against TransCanada in an attempt to derail the oil company’s attempts to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in Texas. On Monday, they won a small victory when a Lamar County judge issued a temporary restraining order against the company’s plans to do construction work on a farm near Paris, Texas.

The coalition’s efforts are reminiscent of another battle during the last decade over eminent domain in Texas, concerning a massive “superhighway,” known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, that Republican Gov. Rick Perry had sought to build with the help of a Spanish company. Perry lost that fight to a coalition of conservative ranchers and environmentalists, dealing him a serious political blow.

“We are involved because it’s starting to look a whole lot like the Trans-Texas Corridor battle,” said Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. “When push comes to shove, it’s clear to me that my party is more interested in oil and gas interests than property rights,” added Hall, a Republican.

TransCanada Considering Splitting Up Keystone XL Project

Canadian pipeline company TransCanada Corp. (TRP) said it has received more interest from oil shippers in splitting off the southernmost piece of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, which wouldn’t need the same cross-border approval that is stalling the full pipeline, envisioned to run from Alberta to Texas.

The 435-mile final leg of Keystone would help relieve a glut at the key U.S. oil storage hub in Cushing, Okla., by opening up another route to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. This month, the gap between the international seaborne oil price and the price in the U.S. midcontinent nearly doubled to $19 a barrel from below $10 a barrel at the beginning of the year.

“Over the last month we’ve seen a lot of inbound interest from potential shippers as to whether we could go forward with the Cushing-to-Gulf-Coast phase,” the president of TransCanada’s oil pipelines business, Alex Pourbaix, told investors on a conference call Tuesday. Pourbaix said there is “potentially a lot of merit” in the idea and that the Calgary pipeline company is reviewing the details of a potential split off.

Can America adjust to higher gas prices?

Normally, gas prices don’t spike until the summer, when driving picks up. Not this year. Gas prices are already surging to $3.50 per gallon nationally, in part because a number of refineries in the Northeast, Texas and Louisiana shut down early for maintenance (they usually do this each year around March to switch from winter to summer fuel blends). Many analysts are predicting $4-per-gallon gas or higher by May. Is this survivable?

Obama’s Wish List for Energy

The Energy Department’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 sounds a familiar theme. “The United States is competing in a global race for the clean energy jobs of the future,’’ a cover letter from the federal energy secretary, Steven Chu, says.

“Do we want the clean energy technologies of tomorrow to be invented in America by American innovators, made by American workers and sold around the world?” he writes. “Or do we want to concede those jobs to our competitors?”

Yet the $27.2 billion budget request itself is mostly about nuclear energy. It calls for $7.6 billion for a “safe, secure” stockpile of weapons, $2.5 billion for nonproliferation efforts and $5.7 billion for the continuing struggle to clean up the environmental effects of weapons manufacturing dating back to the Manhattan Project and the cold war.

Venture capitalists play key role in Obama’s Energy Department

Sanjay Wagle was a venture capitalist and Barack Obama fundraiser in 2008, rallying support through a group he headed known as Clean Tech for Obama.

Shortly after Obama’s election, he left his California firm to join the Energy Department, just as the administration embarked on a massive program to stimulate the economy with federal investments in clean-technology firms.

Following an enduring Washington tradition, Wagle shifted from the private sector, where his firm hoped to profit from federal investments, to an insider’s seat in the administration’s $80 billion clean-energy investment program.

He was one of several players in venture capital, which was providing financial backing to start-up clean-tech companies, who moved into the Energy Department at a time when the agency was seeking outside expertise in the field. At the same time, their industry had a huge stake in decisions about which companies would receive government loans, grants and support.

Solar: Analysts See Steeper German Subsidy Cuts

Solar shares are coming under pressure Tuesday morning as several analysts warn that the industry faces the prospect of steeper-than-expected cuts in Germany’s feed-in-tariff, in what could be a potential broad hit to demand in the one of world’s largest solar market.

Deustsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah reported in a research note this morning that checks find that “a worse than expected proposal to cut subsidies could get introduced” at Germany’s cabinet minister’s meeting tomorrow. He says there’s a possibility of a 15% April cut along with a 2% monthly reduction thereafter, as well as a subsidy cap. He notes that solar stocks are up better than 50% on average year to date, and that “a potentially negative Germany policy outcome could likely act as a near-term overhang for these stocks.”

Shah says he considers MEMC Electronic Materials as the “most defensive” choice in the solar group, and First Solar having the most downside risk. He says that Tier 1 China-based solar plays — Trina Solar, Yingli Green Energy and Suntech Power — also are vulnerable to near-term German policy shifts.