Thursday, December 30, 2010

Clean energy is bigger than birthdays

I turned 50 today.

It's memorable for a number of reasons. For one, it means I'm the age Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon made fun of as Sally O'Malley in quite a few high-kicking bits.

But the achievement, the coming new year and the birth of my second grandchild five days ago has gotten me to think even more about the big picture, the grand scheme. And not so much my role in it but how everything shakes out. 

Real existential, almost Kierkegaardian?

Not really. My thoughts are more practical, running to subjects like the economy and jobs. Here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, my coworker Sandy Nax and I were just discussing a recent article about how the Valley's technological advances in water-saving irrigation methods could draw the interest of venture capitalists.

Our conclusion: Why not? We've got the know-how, the farmers who don't know how to say, "I can't," and research and development resources at the International Center for Water Technology at California State University Fresno and at the University of California campuses of Merced and Davis.

And irrigation is just a piece of this new potential frontier. For months, Sandy's been talking up how the San Joaquin Valley is poised perfectly to be a leader or even center of the emerging clean energy industry. We've got the land, the know how and the sun. We've got electrical transmission lines crisscrossing the region, big enough to take on any biogas, biofuel, solar or wind (in Tehachapi's case). We've got a growing cadre of academics chomping at the bit to create the next big thing and a work force hungry for decent jobs.

Sure, other places have that too. Hard-bitten Detroit would likely challenge Fresno to a slugfest to land a prime project. But after working with Valley leaders from Arvin to Riverbank, I believe we've got an edge when it comes to government leaders who can work together to get things done.

The Valley has been on its own for generations. Its people know how to do more with less. Unfortunately, innovators often have had to go elsewhere to pursue their dreams.

The beauty of this clean energy business is that the resource is right here. All that sun could grow energy rather than electricity bills from overtaxed air conditioning units. The land could prove a testing ground for irrigation systems that can produce crops despite water shortages and arid conditions.

So I'm 50 (as in "Book 'em Dano.") My best friend says we're now almost as old as dirt, and my body hurts way more after a long run than it used to. I figure I have at least another 20 years before my wife parks me in the used husband lot, and in that time I believe this Valley could do big things. Like clean up the air while it shows the world how it's done.

Why not?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Energize the new year with green resolutions

The first of any new year offers new horizons, new choices and unlimited potential. Right? Well, maybe not.
Reality sets in usually after the first month. For instance, look at any health club. The first week of January, it'll be packed with sweating new members dutifully pounding out the miles on the stationary bike, treadmill or eliptical machine. But by mid February that influx often dries up and by the first of March, those newcomers are history.

Energy efficiency isn't nearly as tough to maintain. Buy a compact fluorescent light, screw it in and watch the savings. Upgrade your furnace and enjoy the reduced utility bills. Add solar panels and watch energy consumption drop into negative territory during the hot summer days.

This holds true for business owners as well as individuals. City governments also can benefit. It's equal opportunity. So look this year to clean energy. You never know what you'll find.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Automotive future: Silent running or Hello Kitty?

Electric cars offer buyers a badge of immediate environmental friendliness.

Buy one and you can say to heck with Abu Dhabi’s $90 per barrel light Murban crude. But short of rigging some sort of electronic replacement, electric automobiles will never have one thing.

Decent sound.

The entire lineup -- no matter the manufacturer -- will never offer the throaty response of a Mopar, the finessed rumble of a GM Corvette V8 or even the riotous recoil of a hopped-up tuner. The really fast electrics do let out a kind of whine at the command of a floored accelerator, but I prefer the dual-carbed Super Beetle in my backyard. That meat-and-potatoes air-cooled roar alerts my dogs of my arrival a block from home.

This concept crosses my mind as the electric automobile finally crosses the threshold in the arms of Joe Consumer. Let the wedding begin. Whether the marriage will be a happy one or fall apart after a rough weekend in Vegas is anybody's guess.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research said that union will be far from blissful with consumers having to accept the bad times with the good if they expect it to work. The 14-page study published this week said most people who drive electrics won't own them but be driving a fleet car and predicted that the media is likely to overreact when someone somewhere has a bad EV experience.

The rest of Pike's 10 predictions were push-back developing over charging times, arrival of start-stop technology (at stop lights to save power), charging stations going idle, emergence of fuel-cell vehicles, advanced battery development, range anxiety becoming more myth than fact, two-wheel EVs outselling cars and a drop in electric component pricing.

"Electric two-wheeled vehicles, including bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, comprise a huge global market that will continue to overshadow electric passenger vehicles for the foreseeable future," wrote senior analyst John Gartner and Pike President Clint Wheelock.

After going over their conclusions, I tried to imagine what the roads will look like by 2015 when Gartner and Wheelock say annual EV sales will surpass 300,000 units. Certainly more diverse.

But the highways may have some hydrogen-powered cars and other alternative fuel vehicles. Natural gas may wind up a decent competitor when domestic drillers find a measurable way to avoid disturbing underground aquifers with new fractal extraction techniques.

Hopefully automotive designers will stop making cars for Hello Kitty and produce something noteworthy. Although I must admit the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger meet coolness requirements. But they're supposed to.

The majority of the models from U.S. and Japanese manufacturers (I'm talking gas-burners) look pretty vanilla in a weirdly rounded way. I just hope they take a lesson from Tesla and kit-car Sigma when producing the next generation of electrics.

Go for just a smidgen of cool. Then along with the eco-badge, EV owners can retain just a bit of respect from the fossil fuel folks.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Huge IKEA Warehouse To Get Rooftop Solar

Every six months or so, my family heads south from Fresno on Interstate 5. We summit the Grapevine and drop down into the massiveness that is Southern California as we make our way to my sister-in-law's home in Fontana.

Each trip takes us past the 1.8 million-square-foot IKEA warehouse at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley. That's usually where, if it's summer, I turn off the air conditioner to avoid overheating as we slog up the hill.

It gets hot in the Valley, and the sun bears down relentlessly in the summer. IKEA plans to harness some of that sun power by installing rooftop solar on that huge warehouse - and seven stores in California.

When finished, the 7,980 panels on the Tejon distribution center will generate 2.8 million kilowatt hours annually, enough to power 251 houses. It also is equivalent to eliminating 2,278 tons of carbon dioxide or removing 395 cars from the road, IKEA said in this press release.

The retailer also plans to install solar energy systems at stores in Burbank, Costa Mesa, Covina, East Palo Alto, Emeryville, West Sacramento and San Diego.

Collectively, the eight buildings comprise nearly 90% of the IKEA presence in California, and will total 4.5 megawatts of solar-generating capacity, nearly 20,000 panels, and an annual output of 6.65 million kilowatt hours of electricity. That equates to reducing 5,268 tons of carbon dioxide in California – equaling the emissions of 914 cars or providing 580 homes electricity yearly.

Rooftop solar is a key part of the green-jobs initiative of incoming governor Jerry Brown, but it also makes sense in other ways. Warehouses cover vast amounts of the Inland Empire portion of Southern California - and more of those rooftops are doing double duty as solar generators.

The San Joaquin Valley has some rooftop systems, but the opportunity exists for much more. Fresno and Tulare counties, because they are in the middle of the state, are a magnet for companies looking to site a central distribution center.

Gap Inc. installed a solar-energy system on its warehouse in Fresno in 2008, but there are many other large distribution centers that could follow its lead and help make the Valley a leader in rooftop solar.

Photo of IKEA warehouse by

Electric cars, Portugal and grandsons

As predicted, electric cars have debuted on streets across the globe.

I've been looking to make my first personal sighting of an electric car, but I've seen nothing so far by a major manufacturer despite a quick trip to see my latest grandkid in the eco-friendly Seattle/Puget Sound area.

The first delivery in the United States popped up earlier this month in California going to Olivier Chalouhi of Redwood City, reported John Voelcker, senior editor of It was a black 2011 Nissan Leaf SL from a dealership in Petaluma.

Now Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates has received one of 10 Leafs delivered to his government, the first, according to officials, in Europe. The Nissan electric procurement is meant to publicize Portugal's MOBI.E Program, which offers a charging network for the vehicles and is working with other automobile manufacturers to develop a system that will promote greater use of the cars.

Portugal's Prime Minister José Socrates is one of 10 recipients and will reportedly now travel exclusively by Electric Car for his official travels around Lisbon.

Socrates said he's proud of the distinction and called his fledgling charging network "a leading example to the world of how to roll out electric cars." He said in a statement that "Portugal is the first country in the world to have a nation-wide smart grid for electric vehicles."

Portugal gives the rest of us at least two things in the EV roll out to watch. The first is whether consumers will accept the Portuguese government's efforts to provide recharging stations. And the second is whether electric cars can overcome concerns and prejudices of multiple generations used to the freedom and security of internal combustion.

Portugal's not taking chances by sweetening the pot. Private customers buying one of the first 5,000 electric cars will be entitled to a 5,000-euro incentive and don't have to pay registration or a "single circulation" tax. Another 1,500 euro rebate is available to those who replace cars ready to croak.

Americans have incentives as well, but generally electric cars come with a premium. I noted in a past post how Honda was working to get its Insight hybrid priced for the masses to boost sales, pushing the base cost to about $18,200.

But electrics have a way to go with a cost of between $30,000 and $40,000. I went online over the holidays looking at the VW TDI Golf, which I priced well appointed for about $23,600. The diesel gets phenomenal mileage (reportedly 42 mpg highway) and is another option for the eco-minded.

So there's stiff competition. Maybe by the time I travel again to Bellingham, Wash. to see little Cyrus in six months, we'll see a Leaf or Volt or something else electric cruising the tree-studded streets.

I did see a glorified street legal golf cart-looking rig in Seattle's U District on Thursday. I wonder what the automotive landscape will look like when Cyrus turns 5?

Photo: Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates and his Leaf.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Could Fuel Cells Power The Green Movement In California?

Fuel cells aren't new - electricity aboard the Gemini 5 spacecraft in 1965 came from one - but they aren't so space age anymore.

More businesses and local governments are relying on them to help reduce their carbon footprint, capitalize on renewable fuels and to generate power. At least four systems are in the San Joaquin Valley and, as this Los Angeles Times story notes, they are "popping up" throughout the state.

Bloom Energy, a young Bay area company, has received lots of press lately for its fuel cells. Coca Cola announced this year that it would test fuel Bloom Energy cells powered by biogas at an Odwalla plant in Dinuba, in Tulare County. The five cells could produce almost one-third of the plant's power, and cut its carbon footprint 35%.

Fuel cells also generate power at a 400,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse in Stockton; use methane gas created from a wastewater treatment facility to provide power to the Turlock Irrigation District; and use biogas as an onsite renewable energy source at a regional wastewater plant in Tulare.

The California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative, administered by the Air Resources Board, has information on more projects throughout the state.

It remains to be seen how popular fuel cells become - they can be the size of a vehicle and cost a bundle to install - but, if they work as intended, could make a substantial dent in an entity's carbon footprint and power bills.

The federal government has an ambitious agenda for fuel cell research, appropriating $74 million over three years. "The investments we're making today will help advance fuel cell technology in the United States," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday. "This is part of a broad effort to create American jobs, reduce carbon pollution, and help ensure the U.S. stays competitive in the growing clean energy economy."

Fuel cells use the chemical energy of hydrogen or other fuels to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity or heat with minimal byproducts, primarily water. They can produce power in large stationary systems such as buildings or for vehicles such as commercial forklifts, buses and automobiles.

Lewis Nelson, public works director in Tulare, says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. They take biogas from anaerobic treatment of wastewater solids or animal manure and generate electricity. In 2010, Tulare is expected to save about $570,000 with the system.

"A treatment plant uses a lot of electricity, and can generally use all the electricity a fuel cell generates internally, saving the cost of purchasing electricity from a utility," Nelson says. "I think that biogas fuel cells are an excellent renewable electricity technology for wastewater treatment plants."

Tulare is currently installing its fourth fuel cell. The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.

(Photo of Tulare fuel cell by

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tulare Wins Award For Sustainability Program

Tulare's commitment to preserving the environment earned the central San Joaquin Valley city an honorable mention at a recent sustainability showcase.

Tulare, with a population of 51,400, was one of six entities to be honored. Judges cited the city's extensive building retrofit and residential solar programs, the development of a 900-kilowatt fuel cell system, its 1 megawatt of solar power at the wastewater treatment plant and plans for a citywide climate action plan.

The California Sustainability Alliance, a program managed by Navigant Consulting, established the Sustainability Showcase awards in 2008 to recognize organizations and local governments that are leaders in clean energy and desire a low carbon future.

EAH Housing, which develops apartments for senior citizens and other low-income groups, also received an honorable mention for installing the largest multifamily solar project in the nation.

The winners were Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, which developed social and environmental metrics and programs at 26 cultural institutions around San Diego; Eden Housing of Hayward, which is committed to exceeding Title 24 energy-efficiency standards and to securing grants for retrofits at its properties; the city of Chula Vista, which imposed a comprehensive climate change protection program and reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which has an award-winning water-use efficiency and and conservation program.

Tulare image from

Monday, December 20, 2010

UC Merced Study: Higher Greenhouse Gases Could Alter Oceans

UC Merced, the newest University of California campus, is rapidly gaining cred for its research in, among other things, energy and the environment. As evidence, note a just-released study that concludes increased greenhouse gases could make oceans more acidic, and could profoundly affect marine life.

The study concludes that rising greenhouse gases, caused in part by the burning of fossil fuels and human activities, could alter nitrogen cycles in the ocean. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for organisms, so the impact could be substantial. The result could be an altered food chain - and unknown consequences.

"There is growing concern about this issue because human activities are modifying ocean pH so rapidly," said UC Merced biologist and researcher Michael Beman. "While we do not know what the full effects of changing the nitrogen cycle will be, we performed experiments all over the world and believe that these changes will be global in extent."

The report stems from the latest research at UC Merced, which has recorded more than 50 breakthroughs and discoveries, including 16 inventions related to solar energy and 12 related to health research.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tiny homes move to mainstream's fringe

The tiny house movement has gained steam since the late 1960s and early 1970s when counter-culture types with no money made due with what they could and built homes out of whatever they could find.

In fact, it's almost mainstream. For instance, students at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. have come up with a home design not much larger than an extended cab-over camper mounted to the old Ford F-250 pickup. Their "tiny house" measures 8 feet wide and 12 feet long and cost a paltry $1,927, school officials said.

"The $20 per square foot cost is pretty low compared to the $80-$200 per square foot cost of new construction," said senior Todd Sirak of Poultney, in a statement.


Although still not on every block, this small home trend is getting increased interest as energy efficiency and living with less gain mainstream attention. Elaborate micro homes have even become chic in Japan where even postage-stamp parcels of land cost a premium.

In Japan, it's referred to as kyosho jutaku, or ultra-small homes. In a recent piece, NPR reporter Lucy Craft said the homes "conserve space by dumping conventional elements like entranceways, hallways, inner walls and closets."

She said furniture can be folded into the wall, while a bathroom could be separated by a simple curtain. Windows, she said, are often small and "scattered" across a wall.

The practice has gone on for years in this country, too. Look at all the folks who live in travel trailers or recreational vehicles, traveling from one national park to another and following the seasons -- or wind. Beyond the RV crowd, there are many other examples, websites, groups and organizations, espousing the wonders of a small house.

In Sebastopol, Calif., Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. has received quite a bit of exposure for his designs. He offers plans, kits and completed homes, some on wheels some stationary. His homes range from 65 to 356 square feet. "Every inch counts," he said.

The concept intrigues me because in 1968 my mother sent me to live with my grandmother in Port Lions, Alaska. I was in third grade and one of two or three white kids in the village of 210 people. At first, I was a pariah. I had red hair and was the grandson of Lowell Wakefield who employed or bought king crab from most of the community. My grandparents lived in a relatively small but comfortable home. I had my uncles' old bedroom. After the Russian/Alaska Native locals accepted me, it was great but didn't last.

That summer mom decided she needed to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks' anthropology program and moved us to a deserted trail off Happy Road in the middle of nowhere. We lived in a tent until it got too cold. Then we upgraded to a garage for the winter. It wasn't much better.
This experience taught me that people could live with almost nothing. It also taught me that tents don't repel bears and that bears like to rummage through your food. Not a good way to wake up.

We upgraded the next winter to a 18- by 36-foot log cabin built by Denny Mehner and Bobo. It was great. No wasted space. They built me a barn down from the house with my room in the loft. I loved it but smelled like goat since that's what we kept on the first floor.

Small houses don't let you have much furniture. We had one traditional stuffed chair in the cabin next to the wood stove. I spent many hours reading Heinlein and Tolkien in that chair. The only other things to sit on were benches and fat 2-foot logs on end.

Small homes also use less electricity, they cost less to heat and you don't end up buying so much junk because you have nowhere to put it. I'm amazed by all the folks on A&E's "Hoarders." What's the point? I know, I know. They have issues, but that endless consumerism is a reflection of our society.

We had extra impetus for frugality because mom never held a job and we didn't have a car. Everything we had, we had to carry hitchhiking. We even hauled water that way as our cabin had no well or indoor plumbing of any sort.

Many of the others in our band of Fairbanks long-hairs also had tiny homes. Denny's brother built a multi-level tree house. John Hartle built a small geodesic dome on our 10 acres. I believe he paid us rent at some point. Michael lived just down from him in a three-story plywood-sided box. It was very unfinished. He eventually bought the lower 5 acres.

Michael and John took care of me after I caught myself on fire in blazing Human Torch style at 14. I was determined to get a pile of brush to burn and decided to pour gas on it from the 5-gallon can I used to supply my chainsaw. A spark from a previous attempt turned the gas into a ball of flame. Mom was gone that week in Juneau.

Small homes are part of Alaska and U.S. history. Before modern cookie-cutter mini mansions became popular, people lived in a couple rooms. They didn't spend hours at a time in the bathroom.

My best friend Eric Storms lived in Anchorage for years in an 8-foot wide trailer with a wanigan. Everything had its place. No waste. He's maintained that philosophy and taken quite a few extended road trips on his Harley and camps quite comfortably, carrying all he needs.

Perhaps the current economic climate -- all the foreclosures, layoffs and reduced circulating wealth -- will make many reconsider how they spend their precious resources. Bigger homes have bigger bills and debt payments. Cut that and more of your cash stays out of the banks' pockets.

And coupled with energy efficiency, super-insulation and other green enhancements, small homes could become completely sustainable, gobbling zero fossil fuels.

The 19 Green Mountain College students and assistant environmental studies professor Lucas Brown plan to recoup their investment by selling their tiny house this spring -- but not before equipping it with a solar-powered electrical system.

Intriguing. Maybe we'll see more of these pop up on under-sized urban lots and on the outskirts of town.

Photo: Miner's cabin in Mariposa, Calif. by Neil Sturrock.

California Adopts Ambitious Cap And Trade Program

California regulators have approved an ambitious carbon-trading program in a move that some businesses fear will increase their costs, but also could be a potential revenue boon to the financially struggling state.

The 9-1 vote by the California Air Resources Board - at a packed meeting that featured climate skeptics with signs reading, "Global Warming: Science by Homer Simpson," according to Huffington Post - creates a complicated market for carbon credits effective in 2012. It allows big emitters, such as power plants, refiners and other industries, to buy carbon credits as a way to comply with mandatory emission cuts.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the regulations come on the heels of the Cancun climate talks and six weeks after voters in California kept AB 32, the state's landmark climate law - of which cap and trade was a portion. Attempts to create a national cap and trade program have not been successful.

Supporters hope the California program will be a model for other states to follow.
There also is talk of linking it to cap and trade programs in New Mexico and Canada.

Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols said the state will create mechanisms to prevent manipulation of the carbon market, and wants a fund that uses carbon auction funds for energy-savings programs for low-income families.

The state plans to give away most of the carbon allowances in the first few years, but, by some estimates, $7 billion of revenue could eventually be created through a market. Here is a Los Angeles Times story that gives a good analysis of the program.

Meanwhile, manufacturers weren't necessarily keen on the whole thing, this San Diego Union-Tribune story notes. Here's a quote: "It will hurt manufacturers hard — raising costs on all types of energy,” warned Dorothy Rothrock, their lead negotiator on the issue for a business organization. “Manufacturers can’t pass along the costs of cap and trade when prices are set in global markets.”

There also is some speculation that the program could lead to rate increases.
Good or bad, the new regulation is an indication that California is serious about climate change.

"Billions of dollars are being poured into California in clean technology venture capital investment," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the Wall Street Journal story. "Of course, we have to be sensitive because it's an economic downturn, and this Air Resources Board knows they have to be sensitive. But we have to reach our goals by 2020."

Photo by

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Saving Money Is Easy When You Cut Energy Use

There are only two ways to make money: earn more or spend less. The latter is a much easier goal to obtain than the former. Which is why we at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization are so keen on improving energy efficiency.

The San Joaquin Valley, with triple-digit temperatures in the summer, has incredibly high energy bills. Mine is the second-highest expense behind my mortgage. If I cut that, I can pay down debt, buy that flat-screen TV my wife wants, invest in my daughter's college education or otherwise stimulate the economy.

Upgrading lighting and performing other energy-efficiency upgrades reap maximum benefit at minimum cost, and are effective. University of Chapel Hill and the owners of the Empire State Building realized robust savings from upgrades, and, as this recent blog item says, studies show that commercial retrofits can cut energy costs in the U.S. by billions of dollars.

With savings like these, companies could hire employees, become more productive or grow business. It is, as corporate America is fond of saying, a "win win."

But how do we pay for these programs? The tax bill signed by President Obama on Friday extends some energy-efficiency incentives, including a tax credit for installing more efficient windows and doors, but much more is needed.

The recession has shattered budgets of households and municipal governments. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, which use property taxes as a financing mechanism, were stalled after federal officials argued against them, saying they increased the risk of homeonwer defaults.

Never mind that the upgrades would decrease power bills, reduce household expenses and actually lessen the default risk - and potentially increase property values.

Common sense and logic sometimes get lost in partisan politics, but efficiency appears to be gaining momentum in some circles. It already is a major plank in Jerry Brown's energy platform in California, and green tech researcher Pike Research is optimistic.

I'm hopeful that energy efficiency will become so important in 2011 and beyond that more innovative financing mechanisms develop. The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency is ripe for picking.

Illustration by

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Report: Cap- And -Trade Could Create Jobs In California

A new report suggests a cap-and-trade program in California could be good for the state. Here's the story in The Sacramento Bee, along with a link to the study and related press release.

California voters signaled their support for green energy in the recent election, supporting AB 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act adopted in 2006, and sweeping Jerry Brown back into office. Brown, who faces a daunting deficit, has a strong green-jobs platform.
Graphic by

Businesses lend support to Clean Air Act

Traditionally, the relationship between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and American business has been turbulent, marked more often by conflict than collaboration.

That may be changing.

The emergence of green energy into the mainstream and efforts by business to embrace sustainability appears to have led to a thawing in relations between the two camps. This is reflected by today's news that organizations representing more than 60,000 U.S. businesses are planning to pledge support for the Clean Air Act, which turns 40 this year.

The groups have expressed concern that the EPA's half-year delay of pending ozone, or smog, rules will be costly to U.S. companies. They have cited the delay of an ozone pollution rule "will result in sick workers and family members, resulting in lost workdays, lower productivity and other adverse bottom-line impacts for companies," according to a statement.

A press conference is planned Wednesday. Streaming audio will be available at 1 p.m. at

Green energy may make big strides in 2011

Extracting energy from waste and significant moves by BP, Shell and Chevron into renewables will be among the big green stories for 2011, says a Seattle-based investment bank.

Cascadia Capital LLC also said in its annual clean-tech forecast that Congress will discard a cap-and-trade proposal on pollutants and that high oil prices will generate increased investment in natural gas, which has seen resurgence from new techniques unleashing major reserves.

“Energy policy and sustainable technologies continue to draw significant debate from consumers, pundits, politicians and investors around the world,” said Michael Butler, Cascadia chairman and CEO, in a statement. “In 2011, the energy landscape will be marked by significant investment activity from oil companies, M&A (mergers and acquisitions) of renewable energy companies, and the introduction of new technologies for transforming waste to energy. These markets will continue to draw a great deal of attention as oil prices continue to rise and the formation of a national energy policy is thrust back into the spotlight.”

In the newspaper business, where I spent 24 years of my life before this assignment, we'd all be rushing around about this time of year to get two things together.

One would be a summary of the year's top stories. The other would be a story that focused on what was expected to happen in the new year, much like what Cascadia has done here.

Every reporter was expected to collect and report on everything on his or her beat, or subjects covered. Most of us hated the task, grumbling the entire time. Our point? We'd already been covered those topics. "It's old news," we'd say. And the forecasts? We believed they were usually too general and be of little use, much like picking the Superbowl lineup a year in advance.

Our wrap stories would run on A1 during the holidays -- traditionally a time when news slows to a near stop. We'd recycle the best photos and frequently get the photogs to work up photo pages inside.

Of course, now I look upon it all fondly. And to an editor, tying up loose ends and looking ahead make sense. Back when I worked at the now deceased Anchorage Times in the early 1990s, I'd come up with the big fisheries story that would include a forecast of the salmon runs and the crab catch in the Bering Sea. Those were the big money stories and of interest to me since my grandfather, Lowell Wakefield, was one of the industry's pioneers.

At the Skagit Valley Herald, overlooking the tree-studded Puget Sound, my big stories would be farming, timber and the environment's battle with sprawl. When I went into editing full time and overseeing reporters, my subjects expanded to include crime, health care and in the Tri-Cities, the lovable Hanford nuclear site.

Now my scope has narrowed again, and I write mostly about green energy, tossing in somewhat relevant personal observations every now and then. And the traditions of my past encourage me again to cite my big stories and issue a forecast.

For the San Joaquin Valley, the top green news, at least from my perspective, has got to be energy efficiency. The Valley received a bundle from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, and while much of it remains unspent, the allocations will prove invaluable in reducing energy costs to jurisdictions.

Here at the SJVCEO, we've had significant delay getting Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant money spent for the 39 cities and counties our nonprofit represents. Most of the hurdles are bureaucratic and require seemingly endless administrative solutions and reports.

However, looking into my crystal ball I see our fortunes changing early next year. I see work getting done and that money getting spent.

In other green Valley news, 2010 was big in getting wind and solar projects moving forward. The golden eagle has slowed wind projects and tortoises messed with some solar efforts, but we expect some to soldier on and connect with the grid. Perhaps waste-to-energy projects at dairies and other biomass efforts will get the green light.

I'd like to say I had a clue about green jobs, but I don't. Like many across the country, I experienced an economy-related layoff. I watch as my beloved newspaper industry continues to contract. I would like to see green energy innovation provide a bright spot.

Will it happen in 2011? One can hope.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Schwarzenegger receives another green award

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nailed his second environmental honor in as many weeks as the Beautiful Earth Group him with its 2010 Green Governor of the Year Award.

"Governor Schwarzenegger has worked tirelessly to protect the environment and to create sustainable solutions in California," said Lex Heslin, the group's president and CEO, in a statement. "He has advanced the research and generation of clean energy light years ahead of other states."

On Dec. 2, Schwarzenegger got a big vote of confidence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when the agency gave him its Climate Change Champion Award. Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, lauded Schwarzenegger, for his "extraordinary vision and leadership as an early, ardent and articulate champion in the defense of our planet against global climate change."

Beautiful Earth was founded in 2008 and is currently developing a 38-megawatt solar energy project in the Mojave Desert, scheduled to be finished in 2012.

Heslin said Schwarzenegger was the first governor named.

The California governor didn't appear to mind.

"California is showing the world that you can protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time," Schwarzenegger said. "We are creating a new economic foundation for the 21st Century built on clean fuel, clean energy and clean cars that is turning California into the green capital of the nation and the world, and I couldn't be more proud of these accomplishments."

Cancun Talks End With Modest Resolutions

The final hours of the 12-day Cancun climate talks ended with what many media outlets, including The New York Times, describe as "modest" results.

"The agreement sets up a new fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, creates new mechanisms for transfer of clean energy technology, provides compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and strengthens the emissions reductions pledges that came out of the last United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen last year," The Times said.

The fate of Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012, was delayed until next year. But, as this Time article makes clear, there is now a formal commitment by big and emerging nations to make climate action transparent.

Not everyone approved. Bolivia's chief climate guy objected, saying the emissions reductions weren't enough, and actually pave the way for global temperatures to increase to the point where the most vulnerable nations are threatened.

Gretchen Weber of ClimateWatch was a little more upbeat, saying the pact sets the table for more discussions, and quotes Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, as saying the talks were "the most tangible progress in the UN climate talks in years."

It "wasn't enough to save the climate," noted Alden Meyer of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists in this CBC News piece. "But it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made."

Photo: in

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cancun Climate Talks Ebb, Flow In Final Hours

There are hints in the final hours of the Cancun climate conference that modest resolutions could result, but as of 5 p.m. no sweeping changes were in store. Even the issue that seemed to have the best shot at succeeding - protecting forests - appeared to be lagging.

A draft text over REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has been prepared, but CNN is reporting a lackluster response to it, in part because some nations fear the specter of land grabs to capitalize on a proposed carbon market.

There is hope that feverish negotiations through the night will lead to accords on a proposed Green fund to help developing nations fight global warming, extension of the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 and emissions monitoring. Deadlocks had stalled progress, but late Friday afternoon there were hints of possible compromises on Kyoto and other aspects.

It could be that the 2010 conference will be best remembered for the rising profile of big business. Corporate America is flexing its muscles and taking a leadership role in climate change.

That could be good or bad, as this New Republic story points out. As the story suggests, if world leaders can't agree on how to cut carbon emissions, maybe business will.

The next few hours will tell the story of climate talks 2010.

(photo by climatechangesocialchange)

North provides laboratory for energy efficiency

Thule Air Force Base sits on the west coast of Greenland overlooking an iceberg-studded Baffin Bay.

It gets cold there, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. So cold in fact that the U.S. Air Force decided it could save money by upgrading the facility's heating system.

The Arctic has been used to test new construction methods for many years. For instance, oil field construction in Alaska proved a laboratory for coming up with creative engineering techniques and procedures as companies worked to limit their footprint during exploration and construction. Often, those practices resulted in improved, money-saving techniques. That concept of energy efficiency is now catching on all over the globe.

At Thule, the duties fell to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District, which manages construction-related activities ranging from dormitories to runways. The base has a 10,000-foot runway, gets about 3,000 international flights a year and supports the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Air Force Space Command.

According to Corps officials, installing a new, more energy-efficient heating system for the base could save about $3 million a year in fuel costs. The Corps said it recently completely two new boilers at the installation and both are now being monitored.

"Three more boilers will be built this coming summer when the weather is more suited to construction," officials said in a post on the agency's website. "The boilers are replacing a boiler system that was originally installed in the 1980s."

The post includes a photo of a crew investigating the underside of the one of the base buildings. The building is elevated, sitting on fat posts. The intent is common in the Arctic where the ground is permanently frozen. Standard construction methods there don't work. An in-ground foundation would melt the permafrost, eventually causing the building to settle, crack and possibly fall apart.

The Arctic is hardly perfect and there has been a vast learning curve and crews and companies have figured out what worked and what didn't. The North offers a harsh unforgiving environment that's very difficult to navigate. Much of the installations now up on the North Slope for instance are made up of modules and buildings fabricated in the Lower 48 states and barged up to the Arctic Ocean in the ice-free months of summer.

Many of the structures are huge. As a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce in the 1980s, I got to see the off-loading of some of these self-contained facilities slowly tractored to their final resting places. They also were installed onto posts.

In my relatively short tenure as a 49th state reporter (a decade if you count my part-timing in college), I was able to gauge the improvement of construction methods as time passed. Mostly what I saw were thicker walls walls and better insulation practices that developed over time. No doubt many of those facilities I watched get installed are now undergoing either energy efficiency upgrades or being mothballed for new and improved versions.

All in all, the Great White North (Bob and Doug McKenzie reference) is a great place to test net-zero construction methods. If it works there, it'll work anywhere.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Molecule may take counter-culture solar mainstream

When I was a kid in Fairbanks, I spent a lot of time at Denny Mehner's cabin.

Denny was a former professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who had purchased a bit of remote land studded with old miners' cabins. A renaissance man and informal leader of our rather large counter-culture group, he painstakingly restored one of the buildings using wood he reclaimed from either the tumbledown facilities near the underground mine site nearby or from the many outbuildings slowly being reclaimed by boreal forest.

But his house had no electricity. Nor did it have running water. The outhouse was just off the front porch and behind a stand of trees. I once declined its use when I saw a somewhat angry 2-year-old brown bear in one of those trees one summer. Most of our homes were like his, small and easy to heat with wood stoves but without modern conveniences.  

To power his tiny turntable and play his Dylan, folk rock and Stones records, Denny used a number of automobile batteries that he rotated, charging them with jumper cables affixed to the old International pickup he'd purchased surplus from the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The system wasn't fancy, but it worked.

Remote power has gotten a lot more sophisticated since 1969-70. Should Denny have the cash, he could now purchase several solar panels for about $850 each and wire them up to his bank of batteries. Of course, there's the problem of Fairbanks winters when light dwindles to a trickle during the deep sub-zero winters.

Researchers at MIT have come up with a technological breakthrough that could make renewable-powered energy systems like Denny's self-supporting. In other words, a solar-powered home could be converted to supply electricity 24 hours a day without being hooked up to the grid.

Total independence. The hippies I grew up amongst would have loved it. Heck, I would have loved it. Kerosene lamps and candles, no TV and no electric pump to provide running water go only so far.

The breakthrough concept has to do with a molecule discovered in 1996 called fulvalene diruthenium. It absorbs sunlight then releases the energy as heat when combined with a catalyst.

According to an MIT press release, the process by which the molecule releases this energy while remaining stable indefinitely "could form the basis of a rechargeable battery to store heat rather than electricity."

One drawback. Fulvalene diruthenium is rare and expensive to the tune of about $650 per 100 grams of bulk product, according to The pure stuff is more than twice the cost. MIT officials said the team led by Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg associate professor of power engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will continue its research to find to "find similar chemicals based on more abundant, less expensive materials."

Should the team's search for a replacement chemical prove successful, solar power could enter an entirely new and more versatile phase. No longer would homes and businesses have to rely on the grid after sunset.

"It takes many of the advantages of solar-thermal energy, but stores the heat in the form of a fuel," Grossman said in the MIT release. "It’s reversible, and it’s stable over a long term. You can use it where you want, on demand. You could put the fuel in the sun, charge it up, then use the heat, and place the same fuel back in the sun to recharge."

Denny's still around though I haven't spoken with him for more than three decades. His son is an artist and works at the same university where his father once taught. My family got running water when we moved from our 18-by-32-foot log cabin to Anchorage in 1976. (Showers!)

I heard Denny built himself a massive round-log home down Goldstream Road from our cabin. You can bet it had bathrooms and electric lights.

The philosophy of his band of merry pranksters back then was self sufficiency and doing more with less. They wanted to live with nature, not in competition with it. The Last Whole Earth Catalog and Diet For a Small Planet were amongst the best read and followed books. So was the concept of super-insulated homes as many of the counter-culture group were highly educated and part of UAF's engineering programs. Denny built many homes with huge R values before anybody really knew what that was.

Here's a link to with the latest book from Ed McGrath. I inherited the first book of his, published in 1978, from some of mom's friends after they stayed on our floor after hitchhiking from Fairbanks. I read and reread it and still believe it to be one of the standard-bearers of the superinsulated movement.

As I grow older -- I'm hitting 50 this month -- I realize that many of the goals they pursued have gone from the fringe to mainstream. Energy efficiency, green energy, net-zero energy buildings and the like continue to win greater popularity with each passing year.

I wonder what Denny would say.

Photo: Ruthenium courtesy Tomihahndorf.

Corporate America Learns That Being Green Brings Pays

Does international supplier Ingersoll Rand know something that others don't?

It plans to hire 1,400 heating, ventilating and air conditioning specialists worldwide to cash in on what it sees as an emerging market for more energy-efficient buildings. "Climate solutions" is apparently the company's fastest-growing business segment.

Ingersoll Rand understands that energy efficiency makes sense, both economically and environmentally. Minimal investment can yield maximum returns as these examples show. Cutting power bills and redirecting that money into the pocketbooks of consumers and local governments is a big part of what we do here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

Ingersoll Rand, which sells everything from dead bolts to boilers, has made a major commitment toward conservation, cutting power costs $4 million through a federal program that uses employee volunteers to look for ways to decrease utility bills, according to this report.

It sent representatives to the United Nations 2010 climate talks in Cancun to spread the word of energy efficiency, telling participants that conservation is the biggest bang for the buck.

The talks were characterized, in part, by the emerging infuence of corporate America in clean energy and efficiency. Jeff Moe, director of global policy and advocacy for Ingersoll Rand's Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability, attended the conference and put it this way:

"Climate change in the form of rising sea levels, shifts in growing seasons and increase of extreme weather can impact the health and economic well-being...Understanding how today's technology can help offset energy usage, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, is paramount in managing the issue."

Ingersoll Rand gets it. Increasingly, other businesses are getting, and spreading, the message too. Walmart, Target, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, General Motors and General Electric are among businesses that have in recent months announced climate initiatives.

Google and other technology companies are making large investments in green energy. In fact, technology firms are well represented on Newsweek's 2010 list of greenest companies. If corporate America is on board, maybe the government will be next.

Cancun Talks Continue Behind-The-Scenes In Final Hours

The closed-door and behind-the-scenes negotiations that mark any summit such as the Cancun climate talks are reaching the urgency stage as the final hours near. The event ends Friday, and participants are eager to reach some sort of consensus - on anything.

It is ironic that talks on global warming are occurring when Cancun is suffering through temperatures that are at 100-year lows. In other irony, officials from the United States are anxious for some movement in climate control while back home in Washington D.C. legislators are waffling over whether to pull the plug on a Treasury grant program vital to producers of solar and wind energy.

The grant, which expires this month unless it is renewed, is responsible for about 1,100 solar and 200 wind-power projects, according to the Los Angeles Times. It was not included in the newly announced tentative tax deal, but new efforts to keep it are apparently making progress in the Senate, according to The Hill.

Still, efforts to formulate an international plan on climate change forge ahead in this Mexican resort. This Vancouver Sun story notes the current "delicate" phase of the talks involving representatives of some 200 nations, including China and the U.S., the world's two biggest emitters of emissions.

While negotiators - or Negotiators, with a capital "N," as this Washington Post story calls them - stay behind closed doors through the night, demonstrators are adding some spice to the event. Some of them represent local groups from Mexico that resent the international intrusion and don't want any resolutions from the talks. Others, as this KQED Climate Watch report says, are protesting inaction.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Green Building Picks Up Speed

Green building is accelerating in the United States, even in this down economy. According to the Las Vegas Business Press and McGraw-Hill Construction, one-fourth of all construction in 2010 will fall into the "green" category - an increase of 50% over the last two years.

"It's an amazing area of opportunity at time when the construction market is extremely challenged," McGraw-Hill Vice President Harvey Bernstein said in the story.

Going green can increase returns almost 10%, which is an incentive, McGraw-Hill said. The green mandate is increasingly being seen on commercial construction, particularly health care and government.

That's certainly good news and could foreshadow what could come when construction picks up as the economy improves.

Business To Government: "Go Big Green"

One thing the Cancun climate talks is making clear is that big business and the military may have to take the lead in the fight against global warming.

Even the lure of a Mexican resort wasn't enough to entice as many government representatives as last year's event in Copenhagen. Jonathan Wootliff, in this account in Huffington Post, notes the "diminished" number of politicos and the beefed-up business contingent. The conference ends Friday.

Insurance companies and corporate leaders are sounding a common mantra: "Climate change is bad for business," Wootliff says in his article.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón emphasized the importance of the business community in developing climate change solutions, according to this report in Reuters. Business titans Richard Branson, Ted Turner, Walmart honcho Robson Walton and financier George Soros are at the climate confab, and Google Earth, which recently announced a $5 billion investment in a 350-mile undersea cable in the Atlantic Ocean, is also represented.

The business leaders are supporting a pact to decrease deforestation, while one of the reports released at the summit is entitled "Innovating for Green Growth: Drivers of Private Sector RE&D." It was released by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development."

The green growth report says businesses understand that an "unsustainable world is not a good place for doing business," and that "business is the main source of innovation, financing and solutions for the growth required. It must continue to play a strong role in the future climate regime."

The study talks about a "green race" between countries and companies, and suggests governments leverage research, development and demonstration to drive private-sector investments.

The report does not reference the military, but its influence can't be ignored. The U.S. Department of Defense recognizes the the need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and to conserve energy. It is bad foreign policy and leaves us vulnerable, according to this report.

Thus, the military is using its formidable resources to really go Big Green. If big business and the military recognize the importance of controlling climate change, then government ultimately has to fall in beside them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bigger Names Show Up at Cancun Climate Talks

Much of the most promising talk at the Cancun climate talks has focused on REDD instead of Green.

It's hard to tell from reports - this one says an accord is near but this one highlights some remaining issues - what the outcome will be, but it's clear that REDD, or "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation," is an important piece of the International climate conference in Mexico.

In fact, Chris Huhne, the UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, is quoted in The Telegraph of London as saying REDD is a Green necessity.

“Success in cutting carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation will not just be a vital part of the fight against climate change; it will also be an important marker of success for the UN process itself,” he says in the article.

About 50,000 square miles of forest are cut down each year – the equivalent of the size of England – for timber or grazing land. It is estimated that deforestation accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse emissions.
Brazil is a leading advocate for preserving rain forests, but there are representatives of more than 190 nations in Cancun to frame an international plan for tackling global warming. The talks have been going slow, but were expected to gain urgency with the arrival this week of more high-powered officials. Those include Japan Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto, Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Time magazine notes that this session, which is the 16th annual, attracted fewer participants and lower expectations. Some draft resolutions are on the table, but there hasn't been any resolution of the big issue - the extension of the Kyoto emissions Protocol, which expires in 2012. On the other hand, agreements at these kinds of conventions come toward the end, which is Friday.

Meanwhile, the two big dogs, China and the United States, are dancing around a plan to monitor emissions. China says it has ambitious volunteer goals to slash emissions, but, considering the amount of poverty in the nation, can't be held to legally binding standards. The United States has said it wants a commitment from China before it agrees to conditions.

photo by

Monday, December 6, 2010

Air so thick you can slice it

The Associated Press ran a photo recently of Tehran that showed a skyline clogged with brown, air so thick you expect Porky Pig to saw a hole in it and say, "Tha-tha-that's all folks."

I pulled it up on Huffington Post.

The scene is reminiscent of Beijing and many other heavily populated cities across the world on days without rain or wind to push the bad air out. It offers an indication of what awaits should we continue current energy practices. In fact, here in the San Joaquin Valley we have our own bad air days. Some worse than others.

Last month, Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi posted an item saying Fresno ranked No. 2 in the country for ozone violations. Not bad but certainly not good.

Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley don't get a lot wind. The Valley's a basin bordered by mountains. Bad air travels from the Bay Area and even China and vacations here.

Tehran's got similar physical issues: towering mountains that trap stagnant air, more than 12 million people and "seemingly round-the-clock traffic jams of more than 3 million cars and buses," according to the AP story accompanying the photo.

Iran's leaders don't like the problem and are reportedly trying to do something about it. Good luck.

Mexico City used to have the same problems but has done a decent job of clearing the haze, chalking up some of the cleanest air in the past 20 years. The birds no longer fall dead from the sky. I got that last bit from a story by McClatchy Newspapers' Tim Johnson.

The point here is that there is an alternative. Legislative changes work to a degree, but the average consumer has a huge potential role. Energy efficiency is a movement that's been around since my hero Art Rosenfeld, California Energy Commission commissioner, started moving the state in that direction decades ago. Efforts to use better lighting and upgrade electricity gobbling devices to more efficient versions can easily carve a third off energy bills.

Less spent used means less power generated. More efficient gasoline engines also save big. Who knows, electric cars may just catch on. Then again, Congress may start paying attention to the concept of buying local and encourage development of policies that encourage domestic natural gas production via fracking and we'll start converting gas burners to compressed natural gas.

There's also algae fuel and a long list of other interesting possibilities. But a little leadership goes a long way. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change Champion Award for his work creating the state's Global Warming Solutions Act.

By itself, the Act, which also goes by the name AB 32, won't clear the air. But it's a start and is encouraging renewable energy projects. And groups like are encouraging projects and awareness, helping lift the veil on a problem we can all see but would rather not face.

The other day driving east toward my home in Clovis, I saw the Sierra Mountains covered in snow. Clear as a good day in Anchorage looking up at the Chugach Range. No haze.

It'd be nice to have more of those. I'll be residents of Tehran, Beijing and Los Angeles would enjoy the same.

Photo: AP

Wiring up green energy ain't easy

Europe and the United States see quite a bit of potential in green energy.

Yet, problems arise immediately. Renewables are expensive and often in remote spots far from existing power lines.

Take offshore wind power generation.

The North Sea, East Coast and other sites offer phenomenally blustery conditions but huge challenges. Those difficulties raise the question of how to get that power safely and efficiently to market without putting the price per kilowatt out of reach?

The same holds true for wave-generating devices, Mojave solar panels or geothermal sites. They're out in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking. Reminds me of the random efforts over the past 50 years to build a dam on the Yukon River up in Alaska. Not only is that crazy from an environmental perspective, but who the heck would use the power? Bears? Yet, there were some proponents who continually brought it up.

In the Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research report "Electricity Transmission Infrastructure," out earlier this year, officials wrote: "In order to reap the full benefits of renewable energy and smart grid technologies, the capacity and information-carrying ability of transmission systems must be increased substantially."

Not a simple task.

Stringing cable across any sea floor is difficult and expensive but not prohibitive. Google plans to spend billions on the Atlantic Wind Connection, which will rest 15 to 20 miles offshore and run from New Jersey to Virginia, and just reported that ministers from 10 European nations have agreed on construction of a new offshore electricity grid.

Meanwhile, companies are increasing their purchase of "green" energy. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized Starbucks for doubling its green power purchase, increasing its ranking to No. 4 on EPA’s National Top 50 list of the largest green power purchasers.

Starbucks green power purchases amount to more than 573 million kilowatt-hours annually, or about 55 percent of the organization's electricity use, EPA said. The EPA's top 50 is headed up by Intel at No. 1, Kohl's at No. 2 and Whole Foods at No. 3.

The desire is there. What it means and the debate over where it's going gives my colleague Sanford Nax and I something to contemplate. We don't really have much of an idea, but work to keep our outlook positive as we discuss the future of green energy.

Pike predicts the domestic power transmission market will grow by 3.5 percent over the next five years and by a compound annual growth rate of 1.5 percent internationally over the next decade. Renewables and capacity and reliability enhancements are among the drivers of the move, researchers said.

As evidenced by the deal by Europe, much depends on government involvement. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden and signed a memorandum of understanding for the new offshore grid that would connect a 140 gigawatt offshore wind farm planned for the North Sea to grids on land.

In this country, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched a big push to help jump start the effort of offshore power. I wrote this fall that DOE's embrace is a big step for a neglected resource many believe has the potential to supply a serious percentage of this nation's electricity demand.

Perhaps the role of government is to ease the regulatory process somewhat and let the private sector see what floats, or doesn't. At the SJVCEO, we believe the San Joaquin Valley perfectly positioned to capitalize on clean energy in its many guises, and we'd certainly love to see rapid development in all green sectors.

Renewable Standard Put On The Table At Climate Talks

A measure to set a global renewable energy standard of 25% was introduced at the Cancun climate talks at the same time progress appears to be inching forward on other objectives: establishing a $100 billion a year fund to help poorer countries adapt to climate change and emissions monitoring.

Forbes has the energy standard story , Associated Press issued the update on the climate fund and Huffington Post has some stuff. The 12-day 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference wraps up Friday, and it is too early to determine probable outcomes. However, negotiations may pick up this week as countries send in more high-powered officials.

But the New York Times said this year's event is notably calm, possibly because expectations are low, although some Greenpeace members stuck their heads in the sand to mock climate skeptics.

"No mob of activists dressed as polar bears has blocked the entrance to the negotiating hall. No country has brought a plenary session to a standstill over a pitched procedural battle. And at least one hyperventilated rumor of a 'secret text' (an apparent reference to an accord reached in secret last year) was batted down almost as quickly as it began," The Times story states.

The United States has pledged $300 million to invest in renewable-energy projects in developing countries (but will it live up to that pledge?), and Canada has said it will dedicate $400 million to help emerging nations. India has emerged as a broker to bridge a narrowing gap between China and the U.S. when it comes to measuring emissions, while cities and some regions are taking it upon themselves to set serious emission standards.

Many people deny or question the evidence around climate change, but that hasn't slowed down the release of some rather dire reports.

Those include this one that predicts more violent wildfires; fears that small island countries will disappear under rising seas ("Even when we're underwater, when the bubbles pop, you'll hear us yelling," said one representative of an island nation who was peeved at slow progress toward consensus); and this from scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Scripps scientists say more CO2 in the atmosphere is making oceans more acidic - and threatens sea urchins and sea animals with shells.
(photo by

Friday, December 3, 2010

Honda tempts new market with cheap Insight

Honda recently released a new value model of its hybrid Insight.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $18,200 plus a delivery fee of about $750. It's a base model designed to appeal to buyers possibly on the fence about purchasing a hybrid. That's a significant difference from Toyota's Prius, priced at $22,800, and Ford's Fusion hybrid, priced at $28,990.

Hybrid sales are expected to decline for the third year in a row, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and this may be an effort by Honda America to inject some energy and a new demographic into the gas/electric sector.

That theory got me thinking about my own brush with a hybrid purchase. At the Central California Auto Show in Fresno in 2008, my wife and I spent a little time sitting in a nice dark blue Civic hybrid debating its merits: fuel economy versus a higher price tag.

We were still thinking about it last year when she and I walked into the Clawson Honda showroom in Fresno intent on leaving with a vehicle.

We'd done quite a bit of research and wanted a fuel-saving, bullet-proof commuter that could put up with Peggy's daily commute to Riverdale, a quiet hamlet surrounded by dairies about 30 minutes south of our house in Clovis. The hybrid wasn't off the menu, but we had settled on the price not exceeding $21,000.

She just wanted a Honda.

I didn't argue. She was driving a 1986 Accord LX fastback when we met. My impression was typical: nice car, gorgeous girl.

We had the transmission rebuilt and gave it to our daughter at 186,000 miles. It lived through Anchorage, Alaska salt-infused winters, blown over Douglas fir trees on Camano Island's Sunset Beach in Washington and the desert winter wind in Kennewick, Wash. with nary a scratch and an almost immaculate interior. It's still alive in Bellingham, Wash. My daughter sold it to a college student. It has almost 400,000 miles on the odometer.

That Accord was a billboard for the Honda nameplate. However, I talked my wife into replacing it with a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. My reasoning was simple. Honda didn't have a station wagon, and we needed something more economical for trips than the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and its 10 mpg.

That day in the Clawson Honda showroom went pretty much as expected. We told the salesman our terms, saw what they had in stock and wound up settling on a gray Civic very similar to hundreds of thousands of others on U.S. streets.

While my wife negotiated details, which were pretty straightforward since we paid cash, I went and sat in the Honda Insight. "You could be driving this for a few thousand more," I told her.

She made a face, saying there was no way under any circumstances she would be seen in "that car." She considers it and the Prius some of the ugliest hunks of metal on the road.

Clawson didn't have a Civic hybrid or if the dealer did, it was white and too boring to consider. This, I should mention, was my wife's decision, but I think white is boring too. Maybe not with six coats of pearl.

If the dealer had an Insight with $18,200 on the window sticker, it may have made a little difference. At least to me. If the hybrid Civic was cheaper, we'd be driving one.

Last year's cost differential between gas and hybrid just didn't make financial sense. The gas version gets superior mileage without a battery pack that could cost big bucks in the later years of ownership. Both Honda hybrids are rated at 40 city and 43 highway and No. 3 on EPA's fuel sipper list. The gas Civic is something like 28/33.

Maybe others think like we did. And maybe they'll change their minds as prices for hybrids decline as I believe they will with Honda's move.

Maybe automakers will push for the second-car market. Katie Fehrenbacher of reported that some of electric car builders appear to be pushing in that direction.

After we bought the Civic, I got the Passat. I love that car. Turbo, black, German engineering thing. Two weeks after parking the 1974 Bug, which I had driven exclusively for about seven years after selling the Jeep, the 2000 Passat died. I had failed to replace the timing belt at 90,000 miles.

The mechanic at Clovis Garage said, "Mike, sorry to tell you this, but it needs a new engine." I pushed the Passat into the back yard where it sat gathering a nice layer of dirt for about eight months and drove the Bug.

That new engine cost $6,600.

CA guv wins EPA award, but what's next for clean energy?

The Governator may be going the way of the "Expendables," but down the road he's likely to be remembered for his progressive clean energy policies.

From my perch on the nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization porch, his efforts, highlighted by his move to create California's Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring the state to develop regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, look pretty remarkable.

We call the governor's measure AB 32. While controversial, many in industry have accepted its consequences. Utilities are increasing their purchase of green-sourced power, and solar and wind farms are getting the green light with increasing rapidity.

Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger received a huge slap on the back from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when the agency gave him its Climate Change Champion Award.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, lauded Schwarzenegger, for his "extraordinary vision and leadership as an early, ardent and articulate champion in the defense of our planet against global climate change."

The governor's progressive vision is matched by many -- from the ranks of bureaucracy to homes and businesses on Main Street. The desire to pay less every month for electricity or breathe cleaner air is not really a partisan issue. Perspectives may be flavored by blue or red leanings, but the average family tends to maintain common ground on quality of life and what leaves the bank account.

Blumenfeld acknowledged that. "The environment does not know political boundaries. It was created in a presidency of the Republican Party. And we need to encourage that bipartisan support." (Forty years ago by President Richard M. Nixon, by the way. I still have my "Nixon Now More Than Ever" button.)

Blumenthal did say that comes with "huge political risk," but underlined the importance of forging political common ground to solve the increasingly complex and costly environmental issues associated with our current love affair with fossil fuels.

I'm as much of the problem as anyone. I enjoy a comfortable temperature in my office and at home and drive a car, but then I live in California which has a one-person, one-car requirement. I love the gasoline engine. There's nothing like the sound of my 1974 Superbeetle wasting some kid's tuner.

Schwarzenegger took up the challenge of encouraging clean energy when many leaders let the issue slip down their list of priorities. Arguably, it's a sure-fire winner with jobs, reduced reliance on smog-creating technologies and energy Independence as just some of the incentives.

But change is not easy. Corporations rely on energy delivery systems based on refined oil. It's cheap, it works and it's still available, despite resources everyone knows to be finite. And fracking for natural gas has unearthed massive potential domestic reserves. (An aside: I tend to believe natural gas to be a clean fuel, but then I'm from Alaska.)

Future leaders will have to take up the cause. Consumers also can do their parts by embracing the recent wave of energy efficiency products on store shelves and realizing that smart meters can be used for good, not evil.

In his speech accepting the EPA award, Schwarzenegger talked about blanketing the many warehouses in the state with solar panels, being annoyed with China about bragging about its wind-power efforts and California's clean-tech accomplishments.

On the subject of China, he won a round of applause when he said, "So now we broke ground on the biggest in the world and it's bigger, much bigger than theirs, so I'm very happy about that."

The governor said California has out-sized pull. "We are this little, tiny spot but the power of influence that we have is an equivalent of a whole continent," he said.

We should keep that in mind. Here at SJVCEO offices, we recently experienced an example of the increasing interest in energy efficiency. Co-workers Courtney Kalashian and Maureen Hoff were so successful with a program exchanging old incandescent Christmas lights for strings using light-emitting diodes, which use 70 percent less electricity, that people snapped them all up way faster than expected and keep calling for more.

How the movement to embrace energy efficiency and clean energy will unfold is anybody's guess. My compatriot and fellow ex-newsman Sanford Nax and I talk about this subject continually.

Our topics often concern the future of the industry at large and when it will reach mainstream. Some say it has the potential of an economic gold, or green, rush. Big opportunities. Big jobs.

Yeah, right. Where are they?

So while we ponder such topics, we'll think about people like the outgoing governor of this sunny state of California and wonder what's to come and who will head up the charge to wean this nation from the incredibly costly overseas crude.