Honda rolls out hydrogen car

Honda Motor started production yesterday on the first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car aimed at consumers, in a tentative step away from petroleum-based driving. Honda will make about 200 of the zero-emission FCX Clarity sedans over the next three years, and will lease them for about $600 a month to select customers in Japan and California, where there are already hydrogen filling stations in place. (The New York Times) “It’s so smooth,” said TV star Laura Harris, who, along with fellow actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest, is one of the first in line to lease a Clarity. “It’s like a future machine, but it’s not.” (The Detroit News)

Societe Generale buys U.S. wealth manager

No. 2 French bank Societe Generale agreed to buy a 37 percent stake in U.S. wealth manager Rockefeller Financial Services. Rockefeller oversees $29 billion worth of assets, Societe Generale’s SG Private Banking unit manages $109 billion. (Bloomberg) Private banking for wealthy clients has held up well during the recent financial troubles, and SocGen said it wants to expand into the U.S. market. SocGen is still struggling to recover from a $7.5 billion January loss that it blames on one of its bankers. “The deal with Rockefeller is a small, positive announcement but it doesn’t change the fundamentals,” said Stratege Finance fund manager Valerie Cazaban. (Reuters)

Intel spins off new solar business

Chipmaker Intel Corp. said that it was spinning off an in-house project that has been developing silicon-based solar power cells. Intel and several other investors will pour $50 million into the start-up, called SpectraWatt and located in Oregon. Other investors include Goldman Sachs’ Congentrix Energy unit, PCG Clean Energy and Technology Fund, and German solar firm Solon AG. (San Francisco Chronicle) SpectraWatt’s first solar cells should ship by mid-2009. Intel said it expects the solar industry to grow 30-40 percent a year. (MarketWatch) Despite that growth potential, “they’re going into a market that’s increasingly crowded and competitive,” said In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor. (The Portland Oregonian)

Commercial aviation’s business problem

Airlines depend on “premium” passengers for much of their revenue, but they are losing them to business jets. In 2000, commercial airlines flew 79 million premium passengers—first and business class and full-fare coach—one-way in the U.S.; in 2007, that fell to 42 million, even as overall passenger traffic was up. In contrast, 17 million people flew one-way on private business jets last year. This growing defection is a problem for commercial aviation. “You are not comparing the business aviation traveler with the backpacker,” said Gerald Bernstein of the Stanford Transportation Group. “You’re comparing them with the premium airline traveler, who typically pays twice as much.” (The New York Times)