Behind solar's rise
You’d think the price of U.S. oil falling below $30 a barrel for the first time in more than a decade would be bad news for “green” energy. With oil and gas so cheap, why would anyone pay for more expensive, less efficient fuel sources?
If you thought that, you’d be wrong. And you be wrong for ignoring three factors: technology, politics, and emotion.
As Fortune’s Katie Fehrenbacher reported Tuesday, the U.S. solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015, bringing the total to more than 200,000. The counterintuitive bit here is that the same factor accounting for a decline in oil-industry jobs—falling prices—is accounting for the increase in solar employment. Falling oil prices make exploration and production of oil less profitable. Cheaper solar panels make that technology more attractive to consumers and the businesses serving them, thus driving adoption—and employment.
Solar-panel technology improvements have been on a Moore’s Law-like curve for years but only now are getting to the point where the technology is commercially viable. (Interesting fact: The Walton family of Walmart fame has been investing for eons in this cost-efficiency curve through publicly traded First Solar. I wrote about the family and the company in 2014.) State, local and federal governments have done plenty to subsidize solar over the years, which also has helped bring the cost down for consumers.
The cherry on the sundae for solar has been that using it makes people feel good. What could be more reassuring than harnessing the energy of the sun to power your electric toothbrush? No technology is perfect, but one that emits no greenhouse gases is close, especially at a competitive price.
Fehrenbacher wrote that oil and gas still employs millions in the U.S., making solar a blip in terms of employment as well electricity generation. But “clean” solar is on the rise, and efficiency generally is one of the factors for the plunging price of oil—with a giant assist from the slowing Chinese economy.
With apologies to those who work in the fossil-fuel business, cheaper, cleaner fuel feels like today’s win-win.
BITS AND BYTES
PC sales end 2015 with a whimper. Two separate market measures from researchers IDC and Gartner suggest that personal computer shipments were off up to 10% during the fourth quarter—reaching 72 million to 76 million units (depending on which data you believe). That is the lowest level since 2007. Lenovo was the leading vendor, and Apple bucked the trend with a modest increase in deliveries. (Fortune)
Google appoints virtual reality chief. Clay Bavor, the executive in charge of a group working on Gmail, Drive and Docs, was tapped to lead a dedicated division building applications for the company’s virtual reality technologies, reports Re/code. Bavor was in charge of Google’s experiments with the Cardboard viewer. Google Senior Vice President Diane Greene picks up responsibility for Google Apps, signaling the heightened priority of the business. (Re/code)
Fitbit faces investor suit over slumping shares. Last week, consumers filed a class-action lawsuit claiming heart data collected by the fitness technology company’s gadgets is inaccurate. Now, stockholders are piling on, seeking damages for anyone who purchased Fitbit stock before that revelation. Fitbit shares lost almost 6% of their value on the day the consumer class-action papers were filed. As of Tuesday’s close, the company was trading below its $20 IPO price. (Fortune)
Case over Shutterfly ‘face scans’ moves forward. A class-action lawsuit challenging the photo service’s facial recognition software—used to identify and organize different individuals within photo feeds—was greenlighted by a federal judge in Illinois. Facebook faces a similar complaint in California. (Fortune)
Why Michael Dell is eager for the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction. Since 2011, the tech billionaire has spent almost $80 million on local television stations through an investment fund, reports the Wall Street Journal. The airwaves they control could be worth up to $4 billion when the government starts buying back spectrum with the goal of freeing more up for wireless carriers. (Wall Street Journal)
IBM is patent king, again. The tech giant approved 7,355 patents last year, more than any other company—and a distinction it has held for more than two decades. For perspective, the No. 2 company Samsung logged 5,072. Google jumped higher on the Top 10 list, claiming the No. 5 spot. (Fortune)
Why Apple should buy Time Warner. Apple is one of several possible suitors for the entertainment company, which is under pressure by activist investors to boost its stock price, reports the New York Post. Given Apple’s TV aspirations and its hunger for more programming, its interest makes sense. (New York Post, Fortune)
Yahoo prevails in privacy case. The Internet company was sued in late 2013 for allegedly scanning incoming emails and using the information in the messages to deliver targeted advertising. That, plaintiffs argued, was an invasion of privacy for non-Yahoo users. Under the proposed class-action settlement, Yahoo will pay around $4 million in lawyers’ fees. It will also change when the scans occur but won’t stop the practice entirely. (Ars Technica)
Uber wants to make your ride more interesting. In many major cities, passenger taxis are outfitted with screens that display advertisements, games, and other customized programming. In the same vein, Uber is encouraging software developers to create apps that provide “trip experiences,” such as special music playlists or news briefings. (New York Times)
We want you 2.0? Talent war reshapes recruiting software. In 2014, it cost U.S. businesses an average of $4,000 per person to find and hire the right talent. As the unemployment rate declines, the market is becoming even more competitive. That’s why massive organizations like food giant Nestle Purina, technology services firm CDW, and engineering concern CH2M are using recruiting software that cultivates candidates before they become part of their workforce. All three rely on applications from nine-year-old cloud software company SmashFly—which just raised $22 million in its Series B round—to manage marketing campaigns that their recruiters run to attract applicants. (Fortune)
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Uber driver refuses to pick up woman in labor, charges her $13
by Jeff John Roberts
How Tesla and Nissan’s self-parking cars foreshadow a coming auto war by Katie Fehrenbacher
The surprising reason behind Google I/O’s new venue by Jason Cipriani
Internet Explorer’s slow agonizing death accelerates by Don Reisinger
Snapchat’s video traffic is catching Facebook by Robert Hackett
NetSuite adds employee data partner by Heather Clancy
Datadog fetches $94.5 million to monitor cloud servers, apps
by Barb Darrow
ONE MORE THING
Women aren’t buying smartwatches. Almost three-quarters of smartwatch owners are male, according to research by consumer tech tracker NPD. Why so few females? Much of the reluctance is attributed to most smartwatches’ “masculine,” clunky designs. (Racked)