Thursday, December 29, 2011

Camping Renewable Energy Style

(Courtesy of Enviergy)

Clean Energy's Industrial Revolution

Some analysts liken the technological advancements in clean energy to an Industrial Revolution. It is hard to argue when fascinating research is under way. Here are just a few things that caught my eye in recent weeks:

1/ Cool research by CoolPlanet Biofuels of Camarillo, CA., into the possible conversion of raw biomass such as algae and crop waste into high-grade fuel. Read more at this Green Car Congress post;

2/Continued studies into wave power, such as this Australian project that would produce both energy and fresh water;

3/University of Notre Dame research into solar paint that could transform homes into electricity generators. Current designs aren't very efficient, but the paint is inexpensive to make in large quantities. Who knows where this leads, but it is fascinating. More here.;

4/ The lessons learned from this showcase village in Germany that produces more energy than it consumes;

5/ Possible construction of an entire town in New Mexico devoted to test sustainability concepts;

6/ Continued efforts to increase efficiency and reduce costs of solar power so that it reaches grid parity. More on that here and here;

7/Scientists at Tulane run a car on newspapers.

(Photo of wheat field by Macin Smolinski)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

10 Clean Energy Predictions for 2012

Year-end forecasts are a common staple at newspapers. I don't think there was one year in my three decades as a reporter that I wasn't involved in a story that either looked at the current year in the rear view or predicted what was to come.

So, I continue in that vein, except this time I have help from Michael Kanellos of Here are his top 10 predictions for 2012. I don't think he is too far off, especially when it comes to No. 2 (jobs in renewable energy) and No. 5 (energy efficiency).

Sure, 2011 brought us the implosion of Solyndra, but it also ushered in the first stages of a solar boom in California. Try telling these 700 workers in Southern California's desert that renewable energy jobs are a myth.

And there are more to come. Dozens of solar projects are proposed for Central and Southern California, including where I sit in the farm-rich sun-kissed San Joaquin Valley. Many of the solar projects won't employ large numbers of people when they are operational, but construction workers ought to be kept busy for the next five years.

But I'm more excited about the prospects of a sincere advancement in energy-efficiency programs. Businesses, local governments and individuals are realizing that a modest investment in energy upgrades can yield impressive cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint. And those savings, unlike a tax refund or one-time windfall, continue after the initial payback. Want more evidence: check out this post, which contends "significant" savings occur.

Those savings can be reinvested into business operations, stimulate the economy or go into additional energy-saving programs that cut power bills even more. Efficiency really is the gift that keeps on giving - at least for this scientist who slashed his monthly power bill from $400 to $50.

The Christian Science Monitor has another take on energy efficiency here.

Government mandates are sparking some of the interest in energy efficiency. California, adhering to the the old adage "you can't manage what you can't manage," now requires through AB 1103 that "benchmark" - energy use data - for commercial structures over 50,000 square feet in size be available by July 2012. Here's more.

Critics complain that it is just more government meddling, but benchmarking is already pretty common, with Seattle and other cities mandating it, and thousands of buildings across the U.S. already marked. Energy is a landlord's largest controllable cost, and many property owners who complete benchmarking can qualify for Energy Star certification, which studies show increase the value and sales price of property. It also is used in LEED certification.

Let's see: Higher property values. Lower energy bills. Smaller carbon footprint. What's not to like?

(Photo of Seattle Skyline by Dave Gostisha)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Minnesota Shows That Energy Savings Pay

Minnesota businesses spend $4 million to shave $3 million PER YEAR off their power bills. Now that is math even I understand!

Read more here.

(Photo of Minneapolis skyline)

Solar Workers Find Green Jobs Aren't A Myth

Think Industrial Revolution

The drumbeat over whether green jobs really exist has been steady throughout 2011. Much of the debate stems from the definition of "green," but a front page story in the Riverside Press Enterprise on Christmas Day is worth noting.

The headline reads, "Solar Projects Bring Precious Jobs." Here's a link to the online version of the story.

The article by Leslie Berkman quotes a handful of formerly unemployed truckers, construction workers and others who are among some 700 people building the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating site in the Mojave Desert - one of several large-scale solar projects under way or proposed in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

"This is a godsend for a lot of people," said Tim West, a carpenter quoted by Berkman.

The plants will help California reach its 33 percent renewables mandate, but also provide badly needed jobs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Construction jobs in the Inland Empire portion of California have fallen 57 percent since the height of the building boom, Berkman writes.

The solar construction boom is expected to last in that region for at least five years. Those plants won't require as many employees when they are operating, but at least people such as West and Lee Russell, a former trucker driver-turned-apprentice who now earns $24 per hour at the solar plant and who also was quoted in the Press Enterprise article, are working now.

The Mojave Desert isn't the only place in California where solar jobs are likely to soar. Dozens of solar projects are making their way through the planning process in San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties as well, where planners are being cautious to avoid avoid conflicts with prime farm land. Read more here.

Meanwhile, the solar and wind industries are attracting some savvy investors, such as Warren Buffett, Google and KKR & Co.. They are investing in select projects in California and elsewhere. Buffett, who also has interests in oil companies, invested in two solar projects that have power purchase agreements in place, noted The Motley Fool.

Critics contend solar energy is too expensive and can't last without subsidies, but installation costs are falling (43 percent decline since 1998, according to this study by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab), panels are becoming more efficient and it won't be long before solar electricity reaches grid parity. In fact, some experts say it's already there. Check out this recent blog post by my colleague, Mike Nemeth.

Solar energy isn't the only green industry headed for prime time. Corporate America has discovered that going green adds more green to its bottom line. Major companies are beefing up their sustainability departments (dubbed "green teams) and are seeking out ways to cut energy consumption. And let's not forget energy benchmarking, which is gaining a higher profile, especially in California where a law requires data before certain property can be sold.

Find out more here, here, here and here.

Or listen to Cal Poly's Mr Eco rap.

Sure, green companies will come and go. There will be some high-profile implosions like Solyndra, and others will just kind of slip away into the night. Big companies will acquire smaller ones and consolidations will occur. Startups will carve out a niche, and established businesses will expand to take advantage of green opportunities.

This is a young dynamic industry - and it's on the move.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

EPA takes aim at airborne mercury

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued limits on the amount of mercury and other toxics substances pouring from the stacks of mostly coal-fired power plants.

Dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, they're the first national regulations to be put in place and were vigorously opposed by the coal industry. The standards are meant to protect people from mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide, the EPA says.

Officials say the "standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants."

However, they didn't list specifics. The standards enacted match those proposed.

Big mercury reduction

The nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. A report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, officials say.

"These standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. The "health benefits ... far outweigh the costs of compliance."

Compliance costly

Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

Long time coming

The regulations are 20 in the making. Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury.

More than half of all coal-fired power plants already use pollution control technologies. EPA officials say that once final, these standards "will level the playing field by ensuring the remaining plants – about 40 percent of all coal fired power plants - take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

What others are saying

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: "Today, the President has done the right thing by ignoring the false claims of a narrow special interest and siding with the public health and the public good."

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Consumers Union: Regulating mercury emissions is just a common sense way to protect consumers."

President and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Steve Miller: "The EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses. This latest rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable."

Bugs Bunny & corporate climate change favor clean energy

American corporate culture has stumbled upon energy efficiency and sustainability -- a lot like Bugs Bunny and Daffy did in the "Abominable Snow Rabbit."

In the classic cartoon, the Looney Tunes heroes are bound for Palm Springs but take a wrong turn. As Daffy says, "I told you we should have turned west at East St. Louis!"

Likewise, corporations on their endless search for savings and cost reductions have found a more people friendly method than simply cutting jobs. And they're finding sustainability not only lucrative but image enhancing.

Wall Street goes green

Recent green-minded announcements by iconic brands McDonalds and PepsiCo and many other lesser known but equally significant companies illustrate the trend. Yet they stand in stark contrast to the cold shoulder offered the topic by self-described business friendly GOP leaders.

PepsiCo's Frito-Lay North America division announces it will roll out eight new electric trucks in the Boston area, while McDonald's says customers (64 million per day) will see greener changes in the year ahead.

Statements like these provide insight to a movement gaining quiet but steady momentum with each fiscal quarter.

"We have set a goal of becoming the most fuel efficient fleet in the country," says Mike O'Connell, Frito-Lay's senior director of fleet, in prepared remarks. His company's fleet, he says, is the nation's seventh largest privately owned.

And Bob Langert, McDonald's vice president for sustainability, tells Marc Gunther of "We're on a path to mainstream sustainability. This is transformational for us. We want to be bolder, and we want to make a bigger impact."

Renewables in stealth mode

Less visible companies are also making moves into the green zone. For instance, London-based Greycon Ltd., which provides optimization software worldwide, is offering limited free consulting services to its customers that have solar systems. The idea, officials say, is to "support manufacturers that are progressively driving sustainability efforts within their industry."

In a 2007 study, Shelly Fust and Lisa Walker of Los Angeles-based management consultant Korn/Ferry International say companies began to embrace sustainability to gain competitive advantage. They liken the payoff to the total quality management approach that has served companies like Toyota and Motorola so well, acceleration problems aside. "Companies that embrace a high-quality, holistic approach to corporate sustainability are more likely to address short-term needs while positioning themselves for long-term success," Fust and Walker write.

So, while it appears many politicians ignore or refute climate change, their corporate base of support may be headed in a different direction.

The electorate goes green

And if this California survey is any indication, the rank and file may not be too far behind. Commissioned by the California League of Conservation Voters, the survey finds that 63 percent of independent voters believe in climate change and see it as a major problem that needs to be addressed, according to KQED's Climate Watch blog.

As McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner says: "We will continue to use our size, scope and influence to make a positive difference for children, families and communities around the world."

Some believe talking about global warming is the problem. A petition opposing cap and trade of carbon dioxide emissions championed by has generated 183,999 letters and emails sent to Congress, the site says.

Apparent fraud?

The petition in part says: "I do hereby petition Congress to immediately cease all climate change legislation and instead conduct a formal investigation into the apparent fraud that has been perpetrated upon the American people."

I prefer the Abomidable Snowman's take. In the 1961 episode, he grabs Daffy, squeezes him and says he wants to name him George. Eventually, Bugs and Daffy befriend Abomidable and convince him to head to Palm Springs with them, where he melts.

If is wrong and we are headed for massive environmental change due to global warming, the snowman wouldn't be safe in the Himalayas either.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Six Ways The 99 Percent Can Get More Energy Bang For The Buck

As legislators squabble over whether to extend a payroll tax cut that affects millions of middle income households, nary a word is uttered over another way to financially benefit those same families.

Slashing energy bills.

President Obama's $4 billion retrofit plan helps, but more is needed. Families that earn $32,500 to $72,500 per year account for about one-third of total energy use in the United States, but rallying those households to take steps to cut that consumption - and thus their bills - is tough. It is difficult, in part, because those improvements have to be paid for, and families have other financial priorities.

"It's really difficult to motivate them to invest in improving the efficiency of their homes, and to overcome the up-front cost barrier once they are motivated," said Mark Zimring, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has identified ways to deliver savings on those same utility bills.

Buildings make up 70 percent of all energy use and 40 percent of all carbon emissions, so reducing power consumption eases demand on the power grid and benefits the environment, as well as the pocketbook. In fact, the savings may be greater than some estimates. Some ambitious retrofits are achieving energy savings of up to 80 percent. What a cost reduction that would achieve! Read more here.

An energy audit of my 1,400 square-foot house near Fresno, CA., led to a low estimate of $1,700 (after rebates) worth of retrofits that would shave $50 per month off my bill. The Berkeley researchers note that $5,000 is a more common starting point in more comprehensive home-energy upgrades, and that is too much for many people to rationalize in this economy.

"...Higher income households are simply better positioned financially to take advantage of these programs," researcher Merrian Borgeson said. "Persuading middle-income households to undertake these whole-home improvements has proven challenging, and with declines in median income and home equity - coupled with rising energy costs - that challenge has become more acute."

So, what to do? The folks at the Berkeley lab have some ideas for utilities, governments and other agencies that promote efficiency:

  • Solve a problem that households recognize. Messaging matters, so frame energy efficiency as an investment in the home, as an opportunity to replace aging equipment or to address safety issues;

  • Offer options, from low-cost ones that seal leaks, add insulation and repairs ducts to more expensive replacement of air conditioners, furnaces and others;

  • Middle-income families need programs that pay for themselves. Consider tiered packages and financial incentives based on income;

  • Offer innovative financing methods, such as loan repayments tied to utility bills, property tax and paychecks;

  • Leverage other public programs and funding, such as neighborhood revitalization, housing rehab and others;

  • Governments can adopt energy labeling, and make energy efficiency more visible and valuable in the home real estate market.

    Energy efficiency has been called the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement because a relatively minimal investment can reap huge rewards. Paybacks are often quick - often only a few years - and the savings don't stop when costs are recouped. I estimated that my savings would equate to an investment that yields a 9 percent return, while a scientist cited in this blog post reduced his monthly power bill from $400 to $50.

    The city of Fresno crunched utility data and determined that a 30 percent across-the-board reduction in energy use would pump $260 million into the local economy. (More in this blog post.)

    That's just one city. Imagine the financial boost if that was nationwide.

    Photo by Jaycy Castaneda
  • Kiss off Keystone, oil ought to give clean energy a shot

    For the past couple of years, I've been imagining this scenario: What if an oil company ventured big time into solar, wind, biofuels, hydrogen and wave energy?

    Imagine the public goodwill such a move would engender. It also offers strategic investment diversity. Communications teams could play up the green angle, talk up the environmental benefits and start referring to their employer as a full-spectrum energy company.

    The ex-journalists in the press office could start firing off straight-forward missives. Something like: "We support clean energy but realize we must pursue a balanced approach. Oil will be with us for generations, but we must use it wisely, taking advantage of energy efficiency and renewables whenever possible."

    Is it far-fetched? Certainly. But who better? BP had 2011 third quarter earnings of $5.33 billion, a decline of 3.7 percent from the previous year. Royal Dutch Shell earned $7 billion in the same period, double from a year earlier. And Chevron topped them both with $7.8 billion, more than double from a year earlier.

    A Chevron allocation of half its earnings to solar and wind would rock Wall Street.

    Oil for renewables

    Clean energy won't happen by itself. Like many of the up-and-coming energy sources that came before, it needs favorable government policy, investment and dedicated research and development.

    The oil industry can relate. Heck, listen to any politician talk about curtailing regulation and opening up opportunity for exploratory drilling or shale oil extraction. "Everybody needs a little help," or so says the grime-encrusted sign the homeless guy holds up near the mall.

    The oil industry could easily reframe the good science/bad science debate regarding climate change now raging in political circles. Major investment into solar like the deal by Google and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts to buy four photovoltaic power plants near Sacramento from Recurrent Energy could make a substantive dent.

    It's unlikely. Probably too risky. Oil industry types like to stick to a business model with a certain payoff.

    Soviet-era parable

    Big Oil's unwillingness to bend reminds me of a parable I heard in the former Soviet Union a couple years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    In June 1991 while working for the now-defunct Anchorage Times, photographer Doug Van Reeth and I hire an older woman in Khabarovsk, Russia as a translator. Our editor wanted a story on entrepreneurs to reflect the region's emergence from decades under the repressive centrally controlled regime.

    Our translator, who I'll call Olga and was one of the very few in her once-closed city to speak English, explains that yes, indeed, her city did have some entrepreneurs but they would be difficult to find.

    We ask why. Olga sighs and looks at Doug and I like we are a little slow.

    "This is Russia," she says. "For years, everybody earned the same salary. Nothing. A doctor was paid the same as a janitor. We all had small apartments. We stood in the same lines to get fresh meat."

    Ugly American journalists

    OK, Doug and I say, still not getting it. We have just two days to pull together interviews chronicling the new capitalists, and we feel a little desperate. Our Alaska Airlines flight is the first on a new international route, and my stories and Doug's photos would unveil to our state the once mysterious Cold War foe.

    But we come up with nothing. We had just gone through a bustling open-air market, where people sold everything from pirated compact discs, electronics, produce and baked goods. Nobody would talk to us. One grizzled character even raised his arms and shouted what I believe were expletives at Olga while pointing in our direction. Even the shoppers gave us the evil eye after that.

    We sit on a park bench nearby and Olga says, "This is a communist country. If one man has more than his neighbor, it is considered wrong."

    Then Olga tells us this little story. I'm a little foggy on the details but here's the gist: A man works hard on a little garden he maintains in the country, earning enough to buy a goat. This goat produces milk that feeds his family, making his children strong. Food is rationed then and hard to come by. People stand in long lines for hours just to get a chunk of cheese or loaf of bread. He sells the extra milk to supplement his salary at the factory.

    Soviet entrepreneur

    The man lives in a tiny apartment but keeps the goat on his dacha, a postage stamp of land just outside the city. He must visit the goat in the morning and night. She soon gives him two kids. In a couple years, he has four goats and is making good money off milk and vegetables. His children are healthy, and his wife is happy.

    However, his neighbors don't like his changing fortunes. They want what he has. But rather than starting their own gardens and getting their own goats, the solve it Soviet style.

    They beat the guy up, burn his garden and kill his goats. "You're no better than we are," they say.

    The parable is roughly the same as Nickolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," which I devoured as a grade-schooler. I mention this to Olga and she smiles and nods.

    Sticking with the status quo

    The neighbors in the story remind me of the oil industry. They're secure with the status quo and wary of change. Rather than encourage the pursuit of other sources of industry, they'd prefer to stick with the familiar.

    That short-sightedness didn't do much for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When President Reagan said, "Tear down that wall," he knew it was already full of cracks.

    Lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industry aren't looking too far beyond the next election. That short-term view may hamstring Big Oil and Big Coal at some point, especially as the international cry for curbs on carbon dioxide production increases and weather patterns continue to change.

    Cracks are forming in our fossil-fuel economy, too. Added costs of extraction for oil, natural gas and coal boost viability of renewable energy. And people generally are getting sick of polluted air and the illness it brings.

    Rather than kill the goat, the oil industry could buy a flock of them and maybe convince its friends in Congress that favorable policy for his new green ventures would be beneficial economically and -- heaven forbid -- environmentally.

    Two decades to clean air

    In fact, a new study by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California, Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi says the world can be fully powered by alternative energy in 20 to 40 years with existing technology and at about the same cost as conventional energy.

    "We're really looking at trying to power the entire world, eliminating the 2.5 million to 3 million air pollution deaths every year and all global warming," Jacobson says.

    The researchers acknowledge it will be a massive undertaking, requiring "the societal and political will to make it happen."

    Others also say it can be done. So let's tear down that wall between new and conventional energy sources.

    Loren Steffy, a business columnist at the Houston Chronicle, puts it this way: "We need to actively conserve and boost energy efficiency, develop renewables and promote domestic production of conventional fuels." He says if the United States enacts policies to encourage that, we wouldn’t become energy independent, but "might prevent ourselves from being held hostage by rising prices and dwindling available supply."

    Back in the USSR

    Doug and I finally find our entrepreneurs the day before we were to leave. We meet them quietly and promise nobody in the city would learn their names. Olga introduces us to an attorney who sets up joint ventures. He meets us at his small apartment, introduces us to his wife and young son and talks with us for about an hour after making sure we are OK. He serves vodka flavored with some sort of super-hot pepper.

    The attorney gives us the name of a "businessman," who we meet the next day. "Be careful," he says. Olga translates, frowning.

    Our businessman turns out to be a great guy, personable and self-deprecating. I hit it off with him immediately. Olga declines our offer to translate. We find another who couldn't speak English as well. The businessman introduces us to artists, craftsmen, restaurateurs and small-time manufacturers. With his introduction, they treat us like long-lost relatives.

    Doug shoots pictures. I collect interviews for a half dozen stories that would run for a week in the paper.

    "An offer he can't refuse"

    Our businessman then gives us an intricately carved piece of ivory about 18 inches long of a native man and sled dog team. We figure it is walrus tusk and respectfully decline. It was about then we deduce that our friend runs the rather large contingent of hookers at the Intourist Hotel and travels in a three-car caravan. His Mercedes stand out in a city where the other nice cars are shiny Ladas, a Russian staple based on an old Fiat platform.

    We figure he's the Don Corleone of Khabarovsk. Twice his representatives bring the ivory back, trying in Russian to convince us to take it, the last time right after we clear customs and are about to board the plane.

    We ask an ivory dealer in Anchorage the next week how much the piece would be worth. She says about $12,000.

    Merry Christmas From Google: Big Investment Into Solar Power Near Sacramento

    Google, enticed in part by Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District (SMUD)'s new feed-in-tariff, just announced a big investment into solar power near California's capital. Here's more from the search engine's blog.

    The $94 million infusion into Recurrent Energy's (Recurrent also has a big solar project planned near Fresno) four plants near Sacramento brings Google's renewable energy portfolio to nearly $1 billion. Here is more on its clean energy investments, but they include utility-scale solar, financing programs for residential rooftop solar, and wind power.

    Google recently said it will stop internal solar research programs, but would continue to invest in individual projects.

    Google's announcement follows one yesterday by a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's company, which announced a minority investment into a huge solar project in Arizona. That, in turn, followed his purchase of a large solar project just west of the San Joaquin Valley. More on those here.

    It remains to be seen how solar power fares in 2012, especially if certain subsidies expire, but investors with deep pockets still continue to pursue it, especially in California where the state passed an ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate. The industry is emerging in fits and starts, but clearly some people think there is power in the sun.

    Illustration by Kiril Havezov

    Monday, December 19, 2011

    Clean Energy Could Be The NEXT BIG THING!

    First, Ernst & Young referred to clean technology as the next industrial revolution. Now, Seattle investment firm Cascadia Capital likens sustainable industries to the early years of the Internet, saying in a new report:

    "The clean energy sector is going through the same re-birth process. . . We are seeing better companies, better technology, better business models and better executives in this industry every day. We strongly believe that a lot of the companies we see and work with will be well known companies in the 2013-2014 timeframe. Green companies are rising from the ashes."

    This shows once again that the clean-energy industry isn't dying as many claim. It is emerging, staggering forward unevenly like a toddler growing up. The implosion of government guarantee-recipient Solyndra wasn't a failure as much as it was a sign of maturation. It couldn't compete and, in business as in nature, the weak are early casualties.

    As former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said at current Gov. Jerry Brown's climate conference last week: "All kinds of businesses failed at the same time as Solyndra, but no one hears about that. You make mistakes and you fail. That is the way business is."

    Here is more on the conference.

    Cascadia notes, as we have many times, that investors, entrepreneurs and researchers have been joined by the big bucks of Corporate America. Companies such as Boeing and Walmart see profit in sustainability. You can bet these large corporations wouldn't be investing in it if they didn't expect rosy returns at the end.

    They are saving millions from efficiency measures, such as lighting retrofits that really do pay off (How about $300,000 per year for Canon!). They are boosting their sustainability departments and are joining governments, professional sports and schools in pledging to use more renewable energy. (more here, here and here.)

    One of the world's richest men just announced plans to buy into his second gigantic solar farm - this one in Arizona - to complement one in California, a state with the most ambitious renewables mandate in the nation, an equally ambitious cap-and-trade plan and a robust green chemistry program.

    Companies are even joining forces with state governments to build new cities dedicated to testing clean energy. Check out this fascinating proposal out of New Mexico, where a whole new kind of company town is in the offing.

    Clearly, the green movement is gaining, even if the GOP slate of presidential candidates ignores it. Tom Engelhardt in a post entitled, "Restless Planet" calls it the "Fifth Occupation," and claims its already bubbling to the surface, much as the methane is bubbling up from formerly frozen terrain. See this New York Times piece.

    "When they stand their ground and chant 'We exist!' in anger, strength, and wonder, maybe then we can really tackle climate change and hope it isn’t too late," he writes. "Maybe the fifth occupation is the one we’re waiting for -- and don't for a second doubt that it will come. It’s already on its way. "

    Video: California Gov. Jerry Brown at CODA plant

    Friday, December 16, 2011

    Coal may be the most expensive fuel on the planet

    Studies show coal to be one of the cheapest electricity-producing fuels.

    At 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour, who can argue? Solar is dropping from reports of 12 cents (and up) per kWh to an estimated parity with fossil fuels, according to a study by Queen's University. And wind power is getting cheaper. There's also something I just discovered called atmospheric cold megawatts technology, but I digress.

    However, coal and its fellow fossil fuel compatriot natural gas and nuclear still have the edge since they're not dependent on weather or the Earth's rotation.

    Boiled shoe theory

    Coal accounts for more than half U.S. energy production. It's easy to transport, ignite and burns hot. Great stuff if you're a shivering Charlie Chaplin in his classic silent film "The Gold Rush." Key scene is where he eats his boiled shoe.

    But coal extraction has become controversial. Mountaintop removal is not pretty. In addition, the nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. And dealing with the leftover toxic ash has proved dangerous. Just look at what happened at the Emory River in Tennessee on Dec. 22, 2008 when 1.1 billion gallons of fly-ash slurry burst a containment levy surrounding an 84-acre pond.

    Merry Christmas. It was the biggest such spill in the nation's history. And there's potentially more where that came from. Wait for a good 100-year rain.

    Cost accounting

    Few corporate supporters of fossil fuels ever mention the environmental cost of their preferred energy sources. Most prefer to shuffle that concept to the background. Until recently it's been limited to the fringe -- a rallying cry for only the most hard-core greenies.

    Little by little, other groups and individuals are realizing we can't keep burning stuff and get away scott free. The representatives at the Durban Climate Change Conference didn't pass any binding agreements, but most didn't mince words either.

    Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations general-secretary, in a speech at the event says governments and the private sector are working together on sustainable energy and extolled it as a way to cut greenhouse gases while reducing poverty and creating economic growth. "Let us prove that we not only know where we are going – and how to get there – but that we are prepared to take collective action that will move us down that road," he says.

    Point of no return

    Apisai Ielemia takes it even further. As the minister of foreign affairs, trade, tourism, environment and labor for the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu, he's well aware of the potential threat behind climate change. "We have no time to wait, and we are only a few inches from the point of no return," he says. Listen to his speech on Democracy Now.

    As much as I love's recent TV advertising campaign, coal does have serious drawbacks. Nothing about untold millions of particles of mercury billowing into the atmosphere each year from coal-fired power plants is cost-effec­tive. The dust settles across the country and U.S. waters and works its way into the food chain. Should user groups begin to sue coal producers and utilities for damage compensation, I imagine the cost of electricit­y via the fossil fuel will rise significan­tly.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year has proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The move is meant, officials say, to "cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year."

    Health effects from coal

    The proposed standards are meant to prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, the EPA says. In addition, the rules are expected to prevent more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 days of work missed due to illness.

    The 1990 Clean Air Act was supposed to deal with coal emissions. The delay took more than two decades. President Obama is expected to rule on the issue Monday.

    "This is not an issue of jobs versus the environment. It's an issue of the American people's public health versus a narrow special interest," writes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a piece on Huffington Post. Bloomberg does say, however, that more than half coal plants already have installed measures to control their mercury emissions.

    Mercury the neurotoxin

    An October 2003 report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants says mercury is a "potent neurotoxin particularly damaging to the development of the fetus, infant and young child." And while coal-fired plants, according to the EPA, are the largest producer of mercury in the environment, they are not the only airborne mercury source.

    EPA's December 1997 "Mercury Study Report to Congress" estimates the amount of mercury sent up into U.S. airspace to be 158 tons. That's from trash burning, boilers and natural emissions but most from "combustion sources." Quite a pile, and the majority heads out over the ocean where it comes back in fish.

    The Northern States report says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

    Solutions exist but they cost

    Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

    According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

    The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

    Health costs bigger

    Somebody pays for health effects. Unfortunately when it comes to mercury poisoning, U.S. taxpayers likely will have to pick up the tab.

    It's only a matter of time before these not-so-hidden costs begin to be felt and publicized. There will be fallout.

    And there will be an accounting of fossil fuels.

    Questions will be asked. Just how much does accumulated pollution cost? How much does climate change cost? How much does a fouled Gulf of Mexico cost? How much does that inevitable Arctic Ocean spill cost after an idiot Congress opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to massive drilling?

    "Climate policy is based on cost-benefit analysis," says Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine." "Now it appears we are waiting until the last possible minute to deal with it."

    Photo: San Juan Generating Plant, Farmington, N.M. University of California, Berkeley Geo-Images Project.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    Setting A Unified Course For Solar Energy In California

    The cost of solar energy is falling rapidly as researchers such as this former UC Santa Cruz student discover more efficient technology, and as its use becomes more widespread. But there is another way to help cut costs, and the federal government is spending money to help it along.

    Estimates vary, but studies show that planning, siting and the permit process at the local levels could add significantly - as much as 50 percent - to the cost of installing solar. Reducing those expenses would decrease the price of solar even more, and possibly spur its use. Read more here in Environmental Leader.

    The government's Rooftop Solar Challenge is looking into ways to do that, and a team led by Washington State Department of Commerce received a grant to find ways to streamline and cut red tape in its region. Read more in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer story.

    Varying regulations and cost structures are having an effect on companies eager to cash in on California's ambitious 33 percent renewables standard, which, according to this story by AP reporter Tracie Cone, would require about 100,000 acres of solar arrays. That is why the California County Planning Directors' Association (CCPDA) has a task force of various stakeholders attempting to develop a model "streamline" ordinance that all counties could use. Here's more on those efforts.

    A guidance document that is a companion to a draft of the model ordinance notes that, on average, 1 megawatt of solar energy requires approximately six acres of land. (1 MW provides electricity for around 750 homes.) In California, many of the permit applications for development of solar energy facilities are in rural areas and potentially involve agricultural lands and wildlife habitat.

    "It was clear that there were a variety of strategies being used by counties that were creating confusion across county lines for the solar industry about the process, Agricultural land conversion/Williamson Act compatibility issues, general requirements and fees involved when applying for permits for the installation of Solar Energy Facilities," the CCPDA says on its web site.

    Here's an example: This story notes that the impact fee in Kern County, where solar panel sizes determine the fee, is less than a $640 per acre fee proposed for large-scale projects in Riverside County.

    Counties are treading carefully as they prepare individual planning ordinances for solar energy because of the potential conflict with farmers. Maybe a unified planning document would help resolve some of those issues.

    Photo by Johan Bolhuis

    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Solar Energy Scientists Descend On UC Merced

    Blake Ringeisen stood out at a conference where much of the discussion centered around chemistry and physics. The tall, lanky and bearded graduate student researcher at University of California, Davis, provided the real-world perspective of concentrated solar energy when he showed that a simple solar fruit dryer can change the fortunes of farmers in east Africa.

    In a region without electricity and refrigeration, Ringeisen's master's thesis, drawings of which were displayed at a solar research symposium at UC Merced, means that farmers who barely scratch out a living in Tanzania can preserve more of their harvest.

    Without the dryer, up to 80 percent of their crop goes bad before it can be sold. With it, more tomatoes are dried faster and sold at higher prices, even during the off season, which means more money for farmers in underdeveloped nations.

    Ringeisen tested two prototypes. He kept the designs simple - few moving parts, wood frame and polished aluminum surface - so that one or two people could build and move them using materials found in that region. One dryer had a concave design; the other was W-shaped. Both were built for $40 or less.

    Both were effective, but the concave design was a little cheaper to build and dried tomatoes faster. The research showed once again that solar power can be a game changer in many places of the world, especially where electricity is unavailable or unreliable.

    Solar power can help solve world problems, as noted in this Merced Sun-Star recap of the UC Merced symposium, and its use is likely to become more widespread as solar cells become cheaper and more efficient. There are some pretty impressive minds attempting to accomplish that, including some at Merced, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research.

    Students and researchers from UC campuses in Merced, Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego, and other universities, are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells. Costs are dropping "spectacularly," said Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Meanwhile, the industry is expanding at a robust rate. Photovoltaic shipments are doubling every two years, and costs are falling.

    Today, researchers are developing solar cells that are at least 40 percent efficient. Kurtz said 50 percent is possible as economies of scale, new approaches and advancements take hold. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," she said.

    Many researchers are focusing on making thinner cells that concentrate light in smaller spaces and have the potential to change the market. Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission is boosting research through its Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program, which helps finance projects related to research in clean energy and energy efficiency. The agency estimates 2,128 Californians were working in early 2011 in jobs directly related to active PIER-funded research, and more than 3,000 other jobs are indirectly related.

    PIER funds have aided efforts at UC Merced, where a grant for $75,000 led to the creation of a business in San Jose that has 180 employees and $100 million in investment. Another research grant from PIER for solar thermal technology was the catalyst for two start-up companies.

    "We are looking for breakthrough technology," said Prab Sethi, senior project manager at the California Energy Commission.

    Breakthrough technology or industrial revolution? Technology is advancing so fast, it's hard to decide.

    (Photo of UC Merced solar symposium by Veronica Adrover of university communication)

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Solar joins the right-price energy club

    Solar parity is here.

    Honest. That's what a new study from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario says.

    "Given the state of the art in the technology and favourable financing terms it is clear that PV has already obtained grid parity in specific locations," say K. Brawker, M.J.M. Pathak and J.M. Pearce in the report, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity."

    That and technological innovation, which is driving up solar system efficiencies, could open new markets and spur significant development of projects focused on harvesting the sun's energy. In California's San Joaquin Valley, we're already seeing the results with about 40 projects in the works in Fresno County and at least as many in nearby counties.

    Ferocious cost reductions

    Sami Grover, from, put it this way: "With the solar industry delivering ferocious cost reductions, falling as much as 11 percent in just six months, it's little wonder that some predict that solar will be cheaper than coal in the very near future."

    A editor says the findings by Queen's University don't even take into account health, energy security and environmental costs of fossil fuels "and it STILL finds that solar has reached grid parity in many places."

    The recent Durban Climate Summit clarified the dangers of allowing pollution to continue without restraint. The cost and potential damage of unparalleled production of greenhouse gases is impossible to determine. But one thing's for certain, it will be huge.

    The rapid innovation of solar technology offers a way to cut into reliance on fossil fuels. Whether it will make a difference is anybody's guess.

    Solar interest high

    A solar research symposium at the University of California, Merced, Dec. 9, 2011, draws students and researchers from UC Merced's program, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research, and University of California campuses of Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego as well as other universities. All report that their programs are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells.

    At the symposium, Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells my co-worker Sandy Nax that costs are dropping "spectacularly."

    Nax also reports in a recent post that the industry is expanding at a robust rate with photovoltaic shipments doubling every two years.

    Gaining efficiency

    While many photovoltaic cells on the market range between 12 and 20 percent efficient, moves are being made to increase that number significantly. However, those technologies also cost more. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," Kurtz says.

    Some in our sun-drenched valley are concerned about seeing solar panels everywhere, especially on prime farmland. Nax tells me that efficiencies reduce solar's footprint and likely will improve its image, especially amongst concerned farmers.

    That and estimated $1 per watt equipment costs will go a long way toward influencing standards that include photovoltaic panels as part of nearly every newly constructed building or major retrofit and remodel. Toss in escalating electricity rates, and solar may become as common as flat-screen television sets in American households.

    But rather than offering entertainment, this electronic device will create a new era of distributed energy.

    Nothing's easy

    There will be challenges. For instance, what happens when the sun falls below the horizon? Cheap solar provides options that weren't otherwise available. Perhaps production of hydrogen will become more widespread that either can be used in fuel cells or in other applications.

    Political leaders also will have to knuckle under and institute more laws like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the requirement that utilities get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Otherwise, the incentive by the private sector to start figuring out cleaner alternatives might not great enough to foster widespread change.

    It can be done. Even at Durban, which drew representatives from 190 countries, leaders in the final hours of the Climate Summit put together what some media sources call a road map to a legally binding climate treaty by 2020.

    We'll see.

    Climate change? Imagine what a penguin thinks

    I sent a penguin to Durban, South Africa. Not a real one, just a cartoon.

    It's part of an effort launched by four Belgians to drum up international interest in the largely ignored Climate Summit.

    Why? Here's what the site says, "Penguins are very peaceful animals. They want to be in Durban in a peaceful way. That’s why the penguins organize parties, parties against global warming."

    Grassroots pollution control

    The penguins are the latest of a barrage of efforts to rein in pollution. And since little materialized from the 190 nation summit, expect more like it by increasingly disillusioned groups and individuals.

    Of course, many are already quite active. There's the sophisticated activism of groups like and Bill McKibben targeting efforts to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. There are authors like Naomi Klein electrifying audiences with her talks on reckless risk taking with the future of the planet. But possibly the most important development is the evolution (think of the transformation in "Altered States") of American corporate thinking -- that going green might not be so bad.

    More on that in a bit.

    Durban deadlock

    Little was expected of the Durban talks. World leaders talked but took little action. Analysts weren't impressed and believed talks will achieve far less than the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which set targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.

    Global warming got lip service. China's not into setting limits while in expansionist mode, and the United States doesn't want to jeopardize whatever economic recovery this may be.

    Durban did show some progress. Negotiators tackled the concept of forming a Green Climate Fund, which Reuters reporters Nina Chestney and Barbara Lewis say is "designed to help poor nations tackle global warming and nudge them towards a new global effort to fight climate change." Rich countries would capitalize the fund with up to $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries deal with the effects.

    Sinking under rising waters

    Just imagine island nations with very little elevation, disappearing under water like the final scene of "Son of Kong." In the movie, an earthquake causes Skull Island to sink. Kiko, the ape, dies saving filmmaker Carl Denham, an image etched into my brain when I watched it as a kid.

    The situation is so overwhelmingly dire, that most of us would rather not think of it. That fits with U.S. policy, which is all about kicking payment down the road.

    But events have a way of making themselves known. Call it massive foreshadowing for the epic movie of all time.

    Political sea change?

    My coworker Sandy Nax points out that even though anything environmental or climate-related has become a dirty word in the nation's capital, a groundswell is moving under their planted feet. Sandy, a veteran reporter with a great sense of forecasting trends, says this movement, which is coming from corporate America no less, could force a renewed focus on clean energy and the environment.

    Honest. It's happening. Companies have seen the light when it comes to energy efficiency and are jumping on the renewable band wagon in increasing numbers. The fact that solar's gone down to near parity with fossil fuels is a big deal that will play out in the next few years.

    But author and environmental activist McKibben believes we have maybe five years before the earth hits the point of no return and carbon dioxide levels push the climate change button. It's hard to believe Wall Street will go green that fast and shove projects like the Keystone XL pipeline into the dust bin.

    Many say we should try. What would Montgomery Scott do? Seriously? He'd pull a miracle from somewhere. It won't be easy, "The star drive is junk, Captain."

    Taking a big dirty risk

    In a speech for the nonprofit idea-generator TED (for Talks, Entertainment, Design), Naomi Klein paints a clear picture of where we're headed environmentally. She says the push for dirty fuel isn't diminishing a bit. Big oil is "slamming its foot on the accelerator at the exact moment they should put on the brakes." She says we need a new narrative one that isn't about growth for growth's sake but one that says what goes around comes around.

    Klein says we simply have our priorities reversed, that many nations' climate policies are based on a cost-benefit analysis and that politicians are waiting until the last possible minute to deal with the issues. "Why do we take these crazy risks?" she asks.

    Klein calls our foray for fossil fuels today a quest for extreme energy, mentioning mountain-top removal for coal mining, fracking and deep-water drilling as increasing the stakes. She says the worst appears to be the tar sands, which requires a tremendous amount of water to unlock the crude oil. That leftover slurry is stored in massive contaminated ponds that Klein calls the "biggest black hole in the planet."

    Solar friends in corporate places

    But the news from corporations isn't all bad. Sure, Keystone XL developer TransCanada doesn't plan to install solar panels along its proposed pipeline. But plenty of other companies have seen the benefits to installing a clean energy source that some say is already as cheap as fossil-fuel generated power.

    New Jersey-based Royal Wine Corp., which operates Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, Calif., has installed a 1.15-megawatt solar system at its headquarters to provide 65 percent of the company's electrical power needs. The roof-top solar adds to the company's sustainability practices and energy efficiency efforts -- much like those of fellow New Jersey companies Fed Ex, McGraw Hill, M&M Mars and Johnson & Johnson, Royal says in a statement.

    Other companies are also seeing the light. Sure, some of the motivation is image related. But many companies that launch sustainability efforts realize the dollar-for-dollar cost savings and expand the programs. Beats continual layoffs to trim costs.

    Recycling less CO2

    A move is afoot by one of my favorite Stockton, Calif. energy efficiency activists to keep the majority of recycled content in the state of California, thereby avoiding all the greenhouse gas production that goes into shipping it over seas to Asia and back again as product. He's working with politicians and entrepreneurs to create incentives to boost domestic manufacturing. "Anything can be made of recycled content," he says.

    As I write this, I realize all my examples of progress to a green future hardly scratch the surface of the realities of climate change. I can see the smog in Fresno, but I can hardly imagine the impact of a rising Pacific Ocean on some of the most beautiful island beaches in the world.

    My solution? Do what you can, even if it is simply sending a penguin.
    Penguin economics

    The idea engages your social media muscle. Those interested sign up and send a social media message to as many people as you can via facebook, twitter or whatever else. The penguins are cute and can be customized to taste. Currently, most participation on Pissed Off Penguins is coming from Germany.

    The site keeps the statistics: Little flags on an Olympic style podium down in the corner on the home page show first, second and third place. The United States isn't in the top three. By the end of the Climate Summit, about 4,200 sent a penguin.

    Clearly that won't clear the air or drop CO2 levels. Still, every little bit helps. And when Wall Street thinks green is viable, watch out.

    Corporate America and the Sustainability Tipping Point

    Anything environmental or climate related has become a dirty word in the nation's capital, where in the last few days Jon Huntsman, the one Republican presidential candidate who openly acknowledged climate change, suddenly reversed course.

    But a groundswell is moving under their planted feet, which ultimately could force a renewed focus on clean energy and the environment. And that groundswell is caused in large part by the big stick of Corporate America.

    Climate Counts, a nonprofit that ranks businesses according to their climate policies, says major brands are taking the whole climate thing much more seriously, according to this blog by Marc Gunther.

    A tipping point?

    In fact, Gunther quotes Climate Counts Project Director Mike Bellamente as saying: "There's evidence to suggest we have reached a remarkable tipping point. Global corporations are increasingly acknowledging climate change as reality and are adopting measures to reduce their emissions and environmental impact.”

    Tipping point. Gee, those are words we don't hear used in this context very often in this campaign year.

    Corporations such as Unilever, Nike, Southwest Airlines, Hasbro, AstraZeneca, UPS and Bank of America get the best scores from Climate Counts. Many of these businesses are voluntarily launching deeper into sustainability, but Gunther and Bellamente, noting that greenhouses gases increased record levels last year, suggest that voluntary efforts only go so far.

    In this Washington Post piece, clean-energy consultant Sunil Sharan says America needs to put the pedal to the metal because it is lagging in the clean energy race, despite the best efforts of corporations. Sharan says, "Congress refuses to budge even as America continues to lose ground, and its intransigence could continue for years."

    Call for national RPS

    Sharan and Bellamente make the case for a national climate policy, with Sharan recommending that President Obama pass an executive order mandating a nationwide renewable portfolio standard.

    California's 33 percent renewable standard is one the most ambitious in the nation - and is one of the reasons why the San Joaquin Valley and the deserts of Southern California are swamped with proposals for solar energy and why Warren Buffett bought a mammoth under-construction solar plant in California. Here is the third quarter RPS report from the state Public Utilities Commission.

    An energy and climate policy may be lost in the political chatter now, but with Big Business picking up the mantle, it may not be long before it becomes a bigger part of the national conversation.

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    Energy efficiency and the Enterprise: I'm giving it all she's got captain

    In about three months, most of the energy efficiency work I've been trying to get done the past two years must be complete.

    So far, only a fraction has been put in place.

    It's making me a little frantic to say the least. I feel like Montgomery Scott in the engine room of the Enterprise in an early episode of the original "Star Trek." Captain Kirk is on the bridge sweating buckets. The ship is surrounded by five Klingon warrior-class vessels pummeling its shields with everything in their arsenals.

    Kirk: "Scotty, get us out of here."

    Scott: (Without brogue) "I can't change the laws of physics. I've got to have 30 minutes."

    Montgomery Scott: Mentor

    I'm imagining the scene. Purists would point out how I sloppily combined several events. But Scotty somehow figured to pull a miracle every time even while saying, "I've given her all she's got captain, an' I canna give her no more." Or "The shape the thing's in, it's hard to keep it from blowin'."

    He's my mentor when I feel overwhelmed. (Others of my generation likely can relate. I grew up in the 1960s in front of a black-and-white console TV.) And, at least in this case, his coaching via mental reruns appears to have helped.

    The project started two years ago with great fanfare. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was meant to immediately inject cash into the economy and put people to work.

    Slow, government crossing

    Many know it by another name: stimulus money. I work with Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. They're very specific, targeting retrofits that generate immediate energy savings and instant payback in reduced utility bills.

    On my list for the 34 cities and three counties I work with are mostly lights, air conditioning units and pump motors. All told, the savings will amount to 5.4 million kilowatt hours, or, depending on how you calculate it, about the same amount in pounds of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases.

    No slouch there.

    Retrofits save $

    But turning grant money into pretty new T8 fluorescent and LED or induction lighting, SEER 13 ACs and premium efficiency custom motors has not been easy. After many regulatory hurdles, I finally got the go-ahead only to discover contracting the work out brought on its own hurdles.

    Turns out that what the government will pay for the job didn't cover most contractors' costs. And my projects needed revisions and extra legwork. Two years is a long time and some projects that look good in 2009 don't work in 2012.

    Now I've collected a crew of capable contractors willing to take on razor-thin margins to make the projects work. I'm going through each project and dealing with dozens of questions, problems and hassles.

    "It's ... uh ... it's green!"

    But now on the eve of the holidays, I believe we can make a go of it. Or at least a sporting fight. My contact at the California Energy Commission, who is working overtime to assist me, sometimes wonders whether we can pull it off and get all the measures installed before the money disappears.

    After all, the clock on the project is ticking.

    But I've got Scott's TV voice echoing in my mind. It's pointing out the stark reality (something like "This jury-rigging won't last for long" and "The warp drive is a hopeless pile of junk") while giving me the confidence to figure a solution before the end of the episode.

    Warren Buffett Shows Support For Solar Power In California

    Warren Buffett's energy holdings company is buying a mammoth solar plant being built in the Carrizo Plain, just west of the San Joaquin Valley.

    MidAmerican Energy Holdings said it is acquiring the $2 billion Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County from First Solar because it expands the company's renewable energy portfolio and because it, "...demonstrates that solar energy is a commercially viable technology without the support of governmental loan guarantees..."

    The purchase occurred after First Solar failed to get a federal loan guarantee to secure construction of the plant, according to this Reuters story.

    Buffett, known as the "Oracle of Omaha," already invests in wind energy and in China's BYD Co. Ltd., which makes electric cars and batteries, and has other green technologies, including solar. This purchase of a 550-megawatt photovoltaic power plant - enough to power 160,000 homes when it is finished in early 2015 - is a sign of support for the emerging solar industry. It also follows the high-profile implosion of Solyndra, a solar company that failed after receiving a $535 million government loan guarantee.

    First Solar will build and operate the plant for MidAmerican. Construction began in November and will create about 400 construction jobs and 15 permanent operations and maintenance jobs. The expected economic impact on the region during construction is expected to be abut $417 million over 25 years.

    The Carrizo Plain, along with Kern, Kings and Fresno counties, is part of a region in Central California that is a potential hotbed for solar projects. Kern and Fresno counties alone are fielding more than 60 applications, according to this recent blog post. Those include a proposal for a huge solar farm in Westlands Water District that would cover 3,600 acres of retired farmland. Find out more here.

    Meanwhile, officials in various counties and in the state are trying to balance the interests of farmers with those of this potentially new industry. Much of that conflict revolves around the Williamson Act, which protects farm land from development. A law signed in November, SB 618, attempts to help ease those conflicts. (Here is more on that bill)

    Buffett wouldn't have invested in this solar plant if he didn't expect rosy returns, including some impressive government incentives, according to this blog post. And it remains to be seen how large the solar industry will become in Central California, but this investment by one of the nation's richest men shows that solar is becoming more viable, particularly in California.

    Photo of Carrizo Plain National Monument from Bureau of Land Mangement

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011

    Clean energy competition offers 200k top prize

    A national competition is offering a prize of $200,000 to the student entrepreneurs who can come up with a winning clean energy business plan.

    The First Look West, or FLoW, contest invites student teams to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s first-ever business plan competition for clean energy.

    In addition to the prize money, organizers say, FLoW offers mentoring programs, legal start-up packages and the opportunity for students to pitch the idea to investors.

    Students must attend accredited universities and submit an application by Feb. 15, 2012. The competition -- one of six awarded regionally as part of a three-year, $2 million DOE program -- focuses on California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa. Top teams proceed to final judging, which will be held at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena on April 30 and May 1, 2012.

    Panels of experts will select a winning team from each region to compete for a National Grand Prize at a competition in Washington, D.C. in June 2012.

    Organizers say the goal is to "shine a spotlight on the best young innovators in the country and attract the follow-on support the competitors will need to bring game-changing new ideas to the market quickly."

    For more information and to apply, go to

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Demise of Green Energy Greatly Exaggerated

    For an industry that supposedly is on the brink of collapse, clean energy sure is holding up well. We've seen it at the local level, where our nonprofit, which is involved in energy efficiency, benchmarking and other energy-saving programs, is gaining a higher profile.

    And we're seeing it nationally, too. Three items - the restart of a billion-dollar military solar program; President Obama's $4 billion commitment to cutting energy costs; and Kachan & Co's predictions for Clean energy technology in 2012 (more here) - are indicative of the growing interest.

    The big news is that Bank of America Merrill Lynch and SolarCity are combining to revive a plan to install solar panels on up to 120,000 military housing units across the nation, creating 300 megawatts of solar power. This is further evidence the military, which contends the nation's dependence on foreign oil is a security risk, is taking a leading role in the green movement. Want more evidence? The military has turned up the heat on energy technology by selecting 27 test sites for various proposals.

    In addition, a just-announced Obama public/private partnership could lead to $2 billion worth energy-saving improvements on federal buildings across the nation, and $2 billion more on 1.6 billion square feet of commercial and industrial property. Some heavy hitters have signed up.

    Energy efficiency has long been called the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement because a relatively modest investment can yield significant results.

    Then there is Dallas Kachan's 2012 clean tech forecast. The forecast is mixed - expect declines in venture capital and for election-year rhetoric to muddy the waters - but is bolstered by his predictions that oil prices will rise, making renewables more economically viable; that innovation in solar energy will surge; and that Corporate America will "buy their way into clean technology markets in 2012, supplementing the role of traditional private equity and evidencing a maturation of the cleantech sector. "

    Some states are moving faster in clean energy's various segments than others. Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown is a big proponent, embracing a multi pronged effort that features a greater emphasis on efficiency. The state seeks to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent annually through 2020, and the Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, passed in 2006, sets a goal of 33 percent renewable energy generation by 2020.

    No wonder Ernst & Young likens the momentum of clean energy to the industrial revolution.

    Reminds me of the Mark Twain quote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

    White House photo of Presidents Obama and Clinton.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    Water And Energy = Sustainability

    Water has been a source of conflict, and likely will again. Like energy, so-called "blue gold" should be conserved and used efficiently.

    This study by the Natural Resources Defense Council showcases 14 communities - some with a legacy of pollution - that use green roofs, permeable pavement, green space and other methods to preserve water supplies, while also cutting energy consumption, cleaning the air and reducing asthma.

    Sadly, none is in California. Still, what the NRDC labels as "Emerald Cities" are doing some pretty innovative stuff, such as developing long-term plans to green the infrastructure.

    Consider Portland: Its Grey to Green Initiative supports investment in green infrastructure, which the city complemented with $50 million in stormwater runoff fees to add ecoroofs, plant thousands of trees and to buy natural areas.

    Local laws require green roofs on at least 70 percent of new or reroofed city-owned buildings, and Energy star -qualified material on the remainder. Meanwhile, some private developers, responding to incentives, have added 200,000 square feet of ecoroofs to the inventory. Read more here.

    In Wisconsin, Milwaukee leaders implemented a plan to promote rain barrels, green roofs and rain gardens, while also creating a green corridor in the city's south side. The corridor features LED lights and solar-powered bus stops that slash energy consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Here's more on Milwaukee's project.

    At the other end of the country, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 started a sustainability plan known as “PlaNYC 2030,” which encompassed housing, open space, transportion, energy, climate change and water quality. Here's more.

    Water and energy are closely aligned, and, as we see from these examples, they can share the same stage in a sustainability campaign.

    Video of Milwaukee from Rooftops to Rivers