Monday, January 31, 2011

Big Business Takes Lead On Clean Energy Movement

Corporate America is taking up the mantle for the green-energy movement, realizing that renewable fuels and energy conservation are good for the environment and make sense economically.

The latest evidence of this came forth today, when General Electric and General Motors announced they are teaming up on an energy-efficiency program with a payback period of only six months. GE says in this story that the annual energy savings to the automaker's production process will be significantly more than the cost of implementing the program.

The new system is surprisingly simple and, according to this CleanTechnica story, involves, among other things, GE synchronizing the conveyors in GM factories with lights and other equipment. This is just another example of energy-efficiency measures producing a robust return on investment - and of Big Business taking up a leadership role in Big Green.

Consider what Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart - which is greening its supply chain and installing solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells - said in a recent statement that we noted in a blog: "Business should not see a conflict between doing what is right for business and what is right for the world."

As if on cue, Diageo, the world’s leading premium distilled spirits, beer and wine company, followed up by announcing today that it achieved carbon neutral status for its North American corporate fleet in 2010.

Want more evidence? On Friday, the United Nations implemented a program encouraging businesses to share best practices on sustainability - and immediately signed up 54 companies, including heavy-hitters such as Nestle, Shell and Coca Cola.

With business leading the charge, the green movement could pick up speed.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Political call for clean energy grows louder

President Obama told the nation to get a lot more self-reliant fast, naming clean and alternative energy as a means to get there.

"With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," he said in his State of the Union address.

Obama isn't the only one on the international political A List looking for answers in green innovation. In fact, it proved to be a busy week for world leaders going all out for sustainability and global stewardship.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for sustainable economic growth that can protect the environment and raise living standards.

“We need revolutionary change, revolutionary action," Ban said in his address. "We need a free market revolution for global sustainability.”

Others at Davos joined the conversation.

Finland President Tarja Halonen called for "a modern trinity" that includes combining growth with social justice and environmental sustainability.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonosia said his government is committed to balancing growth and environmental protection. And Mexican President Felipe Calderón said producing more with less energy "will be good for the planet."

Adding a corporate spin was Mike Duke, Wal-Mart president and CEO, who said, "Business should not see a conflict between doing what is right for business and what is right for the world."

Pretty powerful words. So how do we get there?

Start with energy efficiency. Dubbed "the low-hanging fruit" of the green energy movement, the practice of swapping out less efficient lights, AC units, electrical motors and other products has a near immediate savings for the consumer, building owner or municipal government. Retrofits often pay for themselves in a matter of a few years.

A study led by Julian M. Allwood, University of Cambridge in London director of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance with Tsinghua and MIT, found that savings of up to 73 percent in global energy use could be achieved by using best available energy efficiency techniques, according to a story by Helen Knight in

That's huge. But Allwood's team used Passive House and superinsulation techniques like triple-pane and glazed windows and 12-inch cavity filled walls. They eliminated hot-water tanks and reduced the set temperature of washing machines and dishwashers. And his calculations include limiting cars to 660 pounds.

Fat chance on the last measure. But revamped building codes and savings-minded businesses, entrepreneurs and consumers could transform the standard by which buyers measure homes and commercial buildings. Buildings that cost almost nothing to heat and cool could set a new market standard, forcing retrofits on conventional structures.

Obama didn't stop with energy efficiency, however. He wants a mix of measures to break the back of dependence on foreign-sourced energy. "We’re issuing a challenge," he said in his national address. "We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time."

Some of the coolest new research is in turning pond scum into energy. Time magazine recently listed algae biofuel and algae food as two of its top green tech ideas.

The fuel side of algae research has turned into a race as companies work to cut production costs to compete with fossil fuels. Texas company Photon8 Inc. received a $1 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to boost its ability to extract fuel from algae.

Photon8 believes its model could produce biodiesel at $1.25 per gallon.

The company uses a closed photobioreactor systems and is shooting for a production rate of 1.5 gallons per square meter annually. "They expect to produce 22,000 gal per 2.5 acre/yr then to best economic units of 5 acres," according to a report by

Technology in many arenas is coming along. Obama said it will take of mix of all of it to return the country to the driver's seat in the energy realm.

I'm intrigued. More could change in the next several years than just a million electric vehicles on the road.

Farmers Get Help Reducing Power Bills

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are among the most productive in the world, producing $20 billion worth of food and fiber annually. They use a lot of energy - as this blog pointed out - and could benefit in a big way from programs that cut power consumption.

Some have already taken steps to curb energy use by installing solar panels, cutting water use and taking other measures. But others may want to consider participating in this United States Department of Agriculture program that helps them get energy audits, and possibly help cut costs even more.

We at the non-profit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization in Fresno believe energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to join the green-energy movement. It's been proven time after time that minimal investments result in maximum returns.

In fact, Steven Chu, head of the U.S. Department of Energy, has altered a favorite line of energy conservationists. He's gone from saying energy efficiency is the "low-hanging fruit" of the green-energy movement to saying it is "fruit on the ground."

So, let's get picking.

photo from

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Energy Efficiency: The Low-Hanging Fruit That is Sometimes Hard To Pick

U.S. Department of Energy chief Steven Chu and others are fond of calling conservation and efficiency the "low-hanging" fruit of the clean-energy movement. But, as this international report points out, fruit that is ripe for the picking often remains on the tree.

And that's a problem. Energy demand worldwide is expected to increase 40% by 2050, and the projected cost of meeting that increase is $26 trillion. But the incentives for business and consumers to invest in the necessary efficiency measures aren't always in place.

People and businesses invest in assets they can see, feel and touch. As a result, energy-efficiency measures get lost in a myriad of more tangible priorities. "Today, the polices and market structures in place are currently not robust enough to support energy-efficiency scale-up," the 40-page report concludes.

Some of the barriers have been mentioned before: Investing in new products and buildings is often easier than retrofitting existing ones; the entity paying for the upgrades is sometimes not the same one benefiting from the investment; and combining a bunch of little projects is challenging.

Add to those such things as regulatory issues, a lack of international standards and the complexity of consumer behavior and you have a brake on the ability to make the needed changes.

Thus, some recommendations are put forth in the study: create innovative financing mechanisms, increase access to capital, ease regulations and focus attention on the benefits of efficiency are just some of them.

However, it should not be assumed that all energy-efficiency programs are not working. In fact, the European Union lowered consumption 40% between 1990 and 2006, and Japan has slashed use 37% since the 1970s.

The report also shines a spotlight on successful efficiency programs. Japan has the lowest energy consumption per GDP, a decrease sparked by the effects of two oil shocks. Japan, which was importing large amounts of energy, was persuaded to pursue efficiency measures.

The star in Japan's energy policy is its Top Runner Program, which selects certain suppliers and manufacturers as "Top Runners" and then challenges others to exceed those standards. Japan also is testing four "smart cities" that integrate efficiency and renewable energy throughout the entire power chain - from generation to appliances.

And then there is London's RE:FIT program. It uses preselected energy service companies to retrofit government buildings. The public sector finances the improvements and the servicers take on construction and performance risk and guarantee expected savings.

The pilot program retrofitted 42 public buildings and cut power consumption an average of 28%. At that rate, the return on investment is seven years. The program has been spread nationwide, with a $100 million Green Fund spurring investment.

Across the pond, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Environmental Energy Technologies Division in California studied new standards for appliances and calculated consumers would save $240 billion by 2030.

The evidence is clear: energy efficiency pays in the long run. How we get there is the issue.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'Passive' house saves 90% on energy bills

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History plans to build a house on its grounds that will be so well insulated, so weather tight and so efficient that it will need no furnace.

That's right, no furnace. And Cleveland can have some nasty, bone-chilling weather.

The house is of the "passive" variety, a movement gaining major steam in Europe and apparently here too. The superinsulated home boasts 18-inch walls, triple-pane and glazed windows and overall efficiency that should make it one of the museum's biggest attractions when the house opens for three months in June 2011.

"You can walk around barefoot in the middle of winter where there are no drafts, no cold spots," said David Beach, director of GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which is the center for sustainability at the museum, in a video on the official site. "And it's a wonderful place to live."

No doubt. But it's hardly the norm.

Buildings account for about half of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. There's a big push nationally and worldwide to address that with retrofits, upgrades and better building practices through efforts like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED building certification system, which was designed to improve energy savings, water efficiency and CO2 emissions reduction.

Adoption of more stringent building practices would make a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

But for consumers adding energy efficiency means lower energy bills. Way lower with a super-insulated house. For instance, my house was built in 1961 with 2-by-4 walls, single-pane windows and no insulation in the floors. I blew in a bunch more insulation in the ceiling, replaced the windows and upgraded the heating system to a 95 percent efficient furnace. My bills dropped like a rock.

My co-worker Sandy Nax lives in a 1990s vintage home with 2-by-six walls and stock double-pane windows. He's got a better design. Even so, his cooling costs in the summer sometimes exceed $500 a month. Mine's smaller, and it's cheaper.

Both of us would love to lower our bills. Like many who chose the newspaper profession, we got used to low pay and being frugal. We lived in pretty dicey places at the start of our careers.

Many others trod the same road, learning along the way that saving money is practical.

The Cleveland Museum believes people will appreciate the benefits of the passive design once they tour the exhibit. Beach, the museum official, said he hopes the concept will catch on, certainly in his own city where it adoption by builders and architects could "bring industry to Cleveland." The Passive House Institute U.S. says, the design technique "provides a solution that puts true carbon-neutrality within reach. Today."

And why not. U.S. Green Building Council Central California Chapter official Loren Aiton has said that adding energy efficiency and other measures to buildings add relatively little to the overall cost.

Still, upgrades come at a premium. LEED standards are graduated, starting with little or no difference in cost to tacking on 4 percent to 10 percent or more. The higher gold and platinum standards cost more to implement. But the savings are greater.

Chuck Miller of Doty & Miller Architects, who designed the Cleveland project, said the passive house was crafted to look conventional inside and out. While materials cost more initially, he said, "it will be a more affordable house over time. It will use 10 percent of the energy of other homes."

Back to that furnace or lack of one. Miller said the house will boast "very sophisticated ventilation and heat recovery equipment."

My friend lives in a small town just south of Tacoma, Wash. and has ducted electric heat. The system is very inefficient. He weatherproofed his home and added a plug-in heater -- an EdenPure, pitched by Bob Vila -- that uses light bulbs to generate heat. He dropped his winter electric bill 40 percent. And the mobile heater keeps his house just as warm.

It just goes to show that the efficiency concept is sound and can be done in different ways.

At summer's end, the Cleveland house will be moved to a permanent site a few blocks from the museum where it will be sold to a family. There it will continue to save its owners money, even in winter. And that's saying something. For instance, Cleveland has an average January temperature of 30.7 degrees. When I looked on Weather Underground, it was 21.3 degrees with a wind chill of 13 degrees.

That passive family will be toasty.

And others could be too. I've written in the past about Ed McGrath of who began pushing many of these ideas decades ago. I can't help but think he'd be impressed.

Photo: Passive house is the one in the center. Courtesy of Doty & Miller Architects in Cleveland

High School Students Can Compete In Climate Program

The deadline for the first Climate Generations program, a
competition that challenges high school students to connect environmental school work with their daily lives, is fast approaching.

February 1 is the deadline for participation. The Climate Generations competition is a chance for students to gain real-world experience in project-management and leadership by requiring them to design and set in place programs that reduce their school’s carbon footprint.

“The name ’Climate Generation’ says it all,” said California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols. “This is an opportunity for young people who will be living with the effects of climate change to focus their passion and enthusiasm on real-world projects and solutions in their school today. It will also help us identify our new Climate Champions, the leaders who will express the concerns of California’s youth about climate change.”

The Climate Generation Program, an outgrowth of the British Council’s Climate Champions program, is underway in a network of 60 countries. Its goal is to encourage young people to engage climate issues at local, national and international levels.

The program is being launched in California and Minnesota. ARB, the lead agency for implementing AB 32, California’s landmark climate change law, is overseeing the state’s competition.

The California Education and the Environment Initiative, a new curriculum comprised of 85 units teaching select Science and History-Social Science academic standards will be promoted as an important element of the new Climate Generation program.

The new curriculum, the result of a multi-agency education and environmental partnership, was developed to help students discover how science, history and social science relate to individual lives and connect to the world around them, focusing on their relationship to the environment. It was designed to engage students in a way that makes learning relevant and fun.

High schools in California and Minnesota are eligible to participate in the 2010-2011 Climate Generation Program. The classroom projects must benefit the school and relate to one or more of the following topic areas:

* Energy Conservation;
* Renewable Energy;
* Water Conservation;
* Transportation;
* Purchasing;
* Facilities; and/or,
* Awareness/Communication (Outreach).

For more information on the Climate Generation Program go to:


It's A Short Hop From Agriculture To Biofuel

The San Joaquin Valley is the leading agriculture region in California and among the top in the nation, producing $20 billion worth of farm products per year.

Most of the world's raisins come from the Valley. Processing tomatoes, almonds, table grapes and milk are among the leading commodities in Fresno County. Maybe someday a new "crop" will grow in California and the Valley: biofuel.

University of California scientists and others are conducting ongoing research into potential biofuel crops, according to this Western Farm Press article by Jeannette E. Warnert, who works in the university's farm research facility in Parlier - in the heart of the Valley's agriculture belt.

Sorghum, switchgrass, canola and the hearty jatropha plant are among the crops being tested. This story talks about the strong potential of jatropha on marginal farmland, thus preserving prime farmland. Resistant to drought and pests, it also has a robust yield.

And here is more on sorghum, plus two links to an ambitious collaborative research project in the San Joaquin Valley: here, and here. Finally, here is a link to fascinating work going on along the California coast.

When the biofuel research is added to increasing interest in solar energy, the San Joaquin Valley could be center stage in California's emerging green economy.

image from

Friday, January 21, 2011

Green energy, jobs could flourish with a little nurturing

The studies are clear.

Clean energy development creates jobs. But so does offshore oil drilling and building mega dairies, and both -- although decidedly smellier in various aspects -- have proven track records.

Now a new report explains how federal, state and local governments on a relatively minimal scale can make clean energy more cost effective and drive its growth. So far, relying solely on the argument that pollution is expensive and clean energy costs less in the long run has failed to drive wholesale change.

The report, "CLEAN Contracts: Making Clean Local Energy Accessible Now," says government should to step up.

"Getting clean energy projects built rapidly on a large scale ... will require clear signals from federal, state, and local energy policy," wrote study authors Richard W. Caperton and Bracken Hendricks with Center for American Progress; John Lauer of Groundswell; and Courtney Hight of the Energy Action Coalition.

The report said the effort must include a "sustained national commitment to overcome the barriers facing the adoption of these advanced technologies in today’s electricity markets."

As if on cue, the U.S. Department of Energy reported this week a couple of massive loan guarantees. Diamond Green Diesel LLC, a proposed joint venture between refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Irving, Texas-based rendering company Darling International Inc., has been offered a $241 million loan guarantee, supporting construction of a 137-million gallon per year renewable diesel facility in Norco, La., about 20 miles west of New Orleans.

And Agua Caliente Solar LLC received a $967 million loan guarantee for construction of a 290-megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility on 2,400 acres in Arizona's Yuma County.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who made the announcements, put it simply: "Solar projects like this are helping the U.S. to compete globally for the clean energy jobs of today and the future."

Green jobs are a bright spot in an otherwise grim economic forecast for California. Next10, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan think tank, said in its just released study "Many Shades of Green" that since 1995, jobs in California's green economy have expanded by 56 percent while the total economy grew by 18 percent over the same period. The report said that between January 2008 and January 2009 green jobs grew by 3 percent "while the total economy inched forward by less than 1 percent."

Next10 said the state's core green economy accounts for 174,000 jobs in California, with a rate of growth similar to that of software jobs since 2005.

“These jobs are growing in every region across the state, outpacing other vital sectors, and generating business across the supply chain,” said F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10, in a statement on his web site. He attributed the vibrancy to California’s history of innovation and "forward-looking energy and energy efficiency policies.”

The private sector is largely in the driver's seat. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 dumped $3.2 billion into the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program for energy efficiency retrofits to states, counties and local governments. But the effort, although well meaning, has been burdened by bureaucracy, slowing its potential job creation.

The CLEAN Contracts report says government can best help by clearing regulatory hurdles. "At every turn renewable energy is held back by the absence of national policies to guarantee equal standing with traditional sources of power," it said. "As a result, the growth of clean energy technology has not kept pace with the potential of these exciting technologies to meet our nation’s pressing energy needs."

The report focuses on establishing feed-in tariffs, which allow electricity produced by renewable energy projects to be sold to utilities at a fixed price for an extended period. CLEAN is an acronym for Clean Local Energy Accessible Now. The report calls for institution of CLEAN contracts, or feed-in tariffs, calling them "far and away the most important market creator for renewable energy in the world."

It cites DOE's National Renewable Energy Lab statistics that show 45 percent of wind energy and 75 percent of solar installed before 2008 as being directly linked to such tariffs.

Yet, feed-in tariffs remain controversial despite their success. Many view them as subsidies, which in this economic environment don't get a lot of love. Other industries also benefit from a greater share of entrenched subsidies, but that argument encounters tough political opposition fast.

A path possibly more palatable is one that Steve Forbes, editor in chief of the magazine that bears his name, regularly talks about: less regulation. Easing the rules and/or fast-tracking clean energy projects may work wonders. Providing incentives -- even meastures that cost nothing -- to companies, businesses and even home owners who install energy efficiency retrofits may also help.

Corporate America appears to be buying into the sustainability movement, but the companies going that route cite the economic benefits of saving energy and even public good will. Wal-Mart is an early adopter, gently strong arming its suppliers to do the same.

PepsiCo has its own strategy, hoping to be fossil-fuel free by 2023.

Will Nichols of reported that the company last week updated its progress on its 2-year-old Path to Zero program. He said PepsiCo published an update on its progress, mentioning commitments to unplugging factories from water mains, eliminating waste sent to landfills within 10 years and becoming a fossil fuel free.

The company also plans to make all its product packaging renewable, recyclable or bio-degradable, a process it started last year with Walkers crisps packets, Nichols wrote.

Corporate enthusiasm aside, many companies are locked in legal tangles trying to get solar projects started on federal land in the West, while others work to bring innovations from the laboratory to market. None of the challenges is expected to be simple.

We have our own opinions in the San Joaquin Valley, where my outfit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, is working with local governments, regional jobs training programs and schools and colleges to position the region as a leader in the emerging green economy. We've got a small Workforce Investment Act grant to assist high schools and colleges train the next generation of workers to either find green jobs or become entrepreneurs who capitalize on the opportunities the green sector provides.

Our valley, which the folks at University of California Merced have dubbed Solar Valley, doesn't have a lot of capital, but the region does have the desire, a very willing work force and more sun than most and wind in the foothills. I'll keep you posted on our progress.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

West Hills College Leading The Way To A Green Path

Colleges and universities are quietly and quickly becoming leaders in the green-energy movement in California.

In Central California, for example, West Hills Community College District plans an ambitious solar farm that would provide all the power needs for its three campuses.

West Hills would become the second community college in California to be grid positive. The other is Butte College in Oroville, which will use 25,000 solar panels on roofs and ground to produce all its power. That project is expected to finish in May.

The West Hills array will cover 39 acres, according to the Sierra2thesea news blog. When finished, it should provide all the power needs for campuses in Coalinga, Lemoore and Mendota.

As this item on Top Colleges notes, California schools, including some in the San Joaquin Valley, are sunny side up when it comes to solar power. And University of California, Merced, is gaining cred for its research into solar energy.

It makes sense to use the sun's resources to cut energy costs during this time of restrictive budgets and cost cutting. The projects also provide the schools with research and training sites for students in green construction and energy programs.

At West Hills, for example, students were trained to work on a solar site near Mendota, and could fill jobs at the proposed solar farm. Learn by doing; it's the best way to educate.

(Photo of West Hills Community College by

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fuel cells gain some traction

Last week, Southern California Gas reported that it invested $1 million into an Oregon fuel cell manufacturer.

The development is one of a couple recent high profile announcements putting the spotlight on a technology that has the potential to add another potent clean energy dynamic to the diversification of the world's energy sources. The industry is expected to expand tenfold in the next decade.

Hal Snyder, a SoCalGas vice president, said fuel cells, which produce power with a third less carbon than conventional means, provide customers with an offgrid energy option. And these units use natural gas. "SoCalGas is a leader in the push for new innovative green technologies," he said in a statement.

Toyota also said it was on track to market hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobiles by 2015 in California, Japan and Germany, according to Alan Ohnsman in a story on last week. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice president for research and product development, told Ohnsman at the Detroit Auto Show that Toyota aims to cut the cost of producing hydrogen cars to about half the $100,000 now required.

“I have high expectations for fuel-cell vehicles,” Uchiyamada is quoted as saying. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen many of the outstanding technical issues solved.”

Certainly, the business is expected to grow. Surrey, United Kingdom-based IntertechPira said in its report, "The Future of Clean Technologies," this summer that "the fuel cell and distributed hydrogen market are anticipated to grow from an estimated $2 billion industry in 2009 (primarily for research contracts and demonstration and test units) to more than $20 billion by 2019."

The technology developed for cars requires straight hydrogen. SoCalGas is going with a fuel cell that can tie right into existing gas lines that supply businesses and homes. Hillsboro, Ore.-based ClearEdge Power says its ClearEdge5 units are smaller than a refrigerator and can provide electricity to an entire house and heat for a pool.

So far, cost has been a major factor keeping hydrogen out of the consumer market. While, the concept is not altogether complex, the execution, at a reasonable cost, is.

Here's an edited version of how the Smithsonian Institution explains it: Hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell where a chemical reaction strips them of their electrons. The ionized hydrogen atoms carry a positive electrical charge while negatively charged electrons provide the current through wires to do work. Oxygen entering the fuel cell combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and creates water.

ClearEdge Power uses what it calls a "fuel reformer" on the front end of its fuel cell to extract hydrogen from natural gas.

Other projects also are moving forward. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. projected it would complete installation of two 1.4 megawatt fuel cell power plants on the campuses of California State University East Bay – Hayward Hills and San Francisco State University. The universities are expected to incorporate fuel cell technology into their respective curriculum, according to a statement by the Danbury, Conn.-based manufacturer Fuel Cell Energy.

Graphic: Smithsonian Institution

Concentrated solar goes commercial

Concentrated photovoltaic technology appears to be emerging as a serious contender in the solar energy field.

French semiconductor manufacturer Soitec reported today that the company's concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV, system in Jordan reached daily peaks of 25 percent efficiency, "two to three times higher than standard photovoltaic installations" over the summer and fall. Soitec acquired 80 percent of Concentrix Solar, a CPV supplier, about a year ago.

In October, Mountain View, Calif.-based SolFocus Inc. announced plans it was teaming with Vision Electro Mechanical Co. to build a 300-megawatt CPV installation in Saudi Arabia's Bahra region.

Concentrated solar squeezes more electricity out of the sun's rays than conventional panels, using advanced optics to concentrate the sun's rays onto solar cells. It's come a long way since I wrote about a San Jose start-up attempting the same thing on an Alaska project back in the late 1980s.

Conventional solar panels without optics come in three varieties: thin film, polycrystalline and monocrystalline, with the latter generally the most efficient and thin film on the tail end. However, the efficiency rating of the best doesn't quite reach 15 percent, according a comparison by

Efficiencies in the lab report big gains in various technologies but lag in commercial application. And that's what makes the implications of Soitec and SolFocus projects so interesting.

The big divide between renewable energy and that derived from fossil fuels is cost per kilowatt. Until recently, solar, wind and other renewable sources came with a premium that only government rebates, subsidies or feed-in tariffs made palatable to developers. However, efficiencies, technological changes and fossil fuel price increases are bringing parity within reach.

Should solar become competitive on a cost-per-kilowat basis, more people will be interested in adding the technology.

Hansjorg Lerchenmuller, a senior vice president at Soitec, said his company's CPV technology has proven itself with "very high performance even under very high temperatures. ... We are ready for high-volume deployment."

SolFocus CEO Mark Crowley dubbed CPV "the world's most efficient and resource-friendly solar technology," while in the same statement Hassan Chahine, Vision Electro general manager, said he believes the Bahra plant "will serve as a model for the further research and study of clean water and power solutions that diversify the region's energy mix."

No dollar figures were disclosed, but investment will be substantial. Many others will be watching and evaluating, eager to learn if either gamble pays off.

Photo: SolFocus concentrated solar panels.

Friday, January 14, 2011

High electric rates could sink the Volt

That electric car may look good in theory, but in California it could cost more than feeding a big block Chevy.

That's the implication of a study released this week by Purdue University economist Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics. And it comes on the heels of the release in the state of Nissan's all-electric Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which can go 35 to 40 miles on a charge before the gas engine fires up.

Tyner said California's tiered electricity pricing system is the culprit. The rates, which were created to reduce energy consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions, mean consumers who crank up their demand beyond a certain point get booted into the highest bracket and pay more.

"Almost everyone in California reaches the third pricing tier each month," Tyner said in a Purdue news release. "If they add a plug-in hybrid, they are charged the highest rate."

Adding a plug-in hybrid would increase the average use of electricity nearly 60 percent per household, according to the study, which was published in the online version of the journal Energy Policy. In California, most of that increase would be charged at the highest rate.

And Californians, according to Tyner, "pay some of the highest electricity rates -- an average of 14.42 cents per kilowatt hour, which is about 35 percent higher than the national average."

Tyner said states like Indiana, which charges a flat rate of about 8 cents per kilowatt hour, would be more economical to run an electric car.

Of course, there are a lot of variables. California could issue sweeping changes to utilities' pricing system. And gas prices, which have been rumored to reach as high as $5 per gallon this summer, could make those charging rates appear less lethal.

The price per barrel continues to hover in the $90 per barrel range, closing at $91.67 on Friday, according to The L.A. Times said: "Oil prices would need to rise to between $171 and $254 per barrel to offset the price premium on the Volt, for both the car itself and the electricity needed to charge it."

Tyner said rates would have to drop for plug-in hybrids to compete. "People who view the Volt as green will pay $10,000 more over the lifetime of the car because it's green," he said. "Most consumers will look at the numbers and won't pay that."

UCLA Report: Environment, Energy Focus Can Spur Economic Recovery

Budget cuts and slashing payrolls dominate the headlines but officials at UCLA School of Law are focusing on what they say is Gov. Jerry Brown's "tremendous opportunity" to build on California's environmental infrastructure.

"Environmental protection and fiscal prudence can be synergistic goals," says a just released report. "California's historic leadership in environmental protection has brought with it enormous benefits to our economy and public health. Only by continuing will the state continue to reap these benefits."

The report, jointly published by the Evan Frankel Environmental Law & Policy Program and Emmett Center on Climate Change and The Environment, is billed as an environmental blueprint for the governor. It urges Brown to strengthen programs in renewable energy and energy efficiency, environmental modeling, energy storage and livable communities.

The election of Brown, who has a strong green jobs platform, and the rejection of Prop. 23 in the November election, send a clear signal that Californians favor a future of clean energy, the authors said. Thus, California can lead the way in using clean energy to stimulate the economy and to improve public health.

The 22-page report has a host of recommendations. Here are just a few:

  • Establish an independent agency or council to compile, model and predict environmental data. That would allow for assessment of programs and promote efficient use of funding;

  • Streamline the environmental review process;

  • Support the Air Resources Board's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;

  • Promote and expand renewable energy options;

  • Support renewable power payment programs, also known as feed-in tariffs;

  • Keep supporting Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, which use property tax assessments to fund energy-efficiency projects;

  • Develop energy-storage projects;

  • Recognize that energy efficiency is the "free lunch" of the energy world, and encourage those types of programs;

  • Improve and upgrade energy-transmission systems.

If Brown focuses on Green, the rapidly growing San Joaquin Valley is perfectly positioned to benefit from and to play a key role in the development of clean-energy programs.

The Valley has ample solar, biofuel, biomass, wind and other resources; a large supply of flat vacant land accessible to transmission lines; the proximity of universities such as UCs Davis and Merced, Fresno State, Cal Poly and Cal State, Stanislaus; and high power bills and low incomes that would directly benefit from energy-conservation programs.

Photo by

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rain Bird Offers Grants For Water-Conservation Projects

Rain Bird is giving away grants for water conservation projects to individuals, homeowners, companies, organizations, or others who wants to fund a project that helps promote conservation, sustainability and green spaces.

This grant program is unique in that the general public will be able to vote for the project they like. The proposal with the most votes (in three funding categories $1,500, $5,000, and $10,000) will receive the money.

Non-profits, homeowners, educators, landscapers, facility managers, retailers, or anyone with a water-conservation project that supports sustainability and green spaces can submit a project for funding.

No matter where in the world you live, Rain Bird, which makes irrigation products, wants to make a difference in the community, and demonstrate an intelligent use of water. People can submit multiple water conservation projects to the site at, and then vote on projects as well.

Votes are anonymous, and people can vote for as many projects they want per day (but they can only vote once per project per day). The email for questions etc. is, or

(image by

Green energy rules rhetoric, but will it stick?

Everybody's going green or says so.

Green light bulbs, CFL or LED, take up shelf space in the corner store, companies talk sustainability, even grandma buys the green brand of tissue paper.

This is all well and good, but it's substance that changes behavior on a grand scale. And perhaps that's happening. Here's an example of the little clues I keep seeing.

At the start of a briefing this week with U.S. Embassy officials in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought up green energy. It was expected somewhat as she was there to recognize an international institution set up to promote development of renewable energy.

But that the Secretary of State of the world's greatest power is focusing attention on alternative energy at all during this time of unrest and economic instability says a lot to the level of attention green has attained.

"I’m delighted that we’re here in this beautiful embassy compound for us to celebrate the greening of our Embassy and to recognize what a leader the UAE is in renewable energy," Clinton said Tuesday.

Can anybody imagine Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under President Carter, doing that while on a trip to the Middle East back in the 1970s? He may as well have said he supports cold fusion. (Maybe he did, but I think not.)

Yet, Clinton's embrace of green activities isn't all that unusual anymore. The rhetoric appears just about everywhere, a stark contrast to just a few years ago when energy efficiency, renewables and sustainability circulated mainly in conversations by true believers. But this transformation raises questions, at least in my head.

Will renewables go beyond talk? Will solar and wind energy reach parity with that fueled by fossil fuels? Can going sustainable simply be considered simply another method of extracting power and achieving energy independence?

Check back in another year. At the rate this business is experiencing metamorphosis, we could be awash in electric cars and putting photovoltaics on every California rooftop. Then again, Massey Energy Co. may succeed in getting coal named as the U.S. No. 1 priority fuel.

I hope not. Statements like Clinton's and others encourage optimism for the former.

Just last month at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, clean energy frequently dominated discussion. In fact, at least one high-placed comment singled out the San Joaquin Valley's green credentials, according to a post by Gabe Dillard of

Dillard wrote that a Siemens executive said California is attracting green investment "and that Fresno, California is at the epicenter of this movement as a vocal proponent of clean energy and the high speed rail." Dillard pointed out that Siemens had some insight as it was the title sponsor of an Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County's event in October focusing on high-speed rail.

The same day she made her comments at the embassy, Clinton commended the activities of the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, which was formed two years ago, has 149 member countries and has established its headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

"We must develop sustainable energy sources to address the main challenges of our planet," she said at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. "The status quo today is unsustainable."

IRENA has an ambitious charter. Its mission is to promote "the rapid development and deployment of renewable energy worldwide." Officials say that energy demand will skyrocket with continued development and a global population projected to reach 10 billion in 2050. With vast renewable energy resources largely untapped, they say, recognizing that huge potential will make a "significant contribution to the world’s growing demand for energy."

One can hope. We also would like to foster renewable energy growth here in the San Joaquin Valley, which is a veritable Petri dish for the development of clean energy with its access to biogas, biomass, solar and wind. At least that's what my co-worker Sandy Nax says, and he never lies.

Photo: Clinton with Interim Director General of IRENA Adnan Amin.

Could We Become California's Great Solar Valley?

UC Merced's development director was in Fresno this week, outlining the university's innovative research into solar power. The campus is already a leader in that field, despite being only six years old.

As Ron Durbin spoke, he uttered a phrase that prompted me to underline it in my notes: He said University of California, Merced, could be "the hub of Solar Valley."

Solar Valley! The 240 or so miles from Stockton to south of Bakersfield, the world's most productive farmland could sprout an entirely new industry.

With the leverage of UC Merced, the San Joaquin Valley could become a world leader in solar development, research and, dare we say it, manufacturing. There are obstacles and challenges to overcome, but we have lots of sun, higher power bills, ample land for solar facilities, ready access to the grid and, as this Sierra2TheSea item notes, are "sandwiched" between two major metropolitan areas.

We have a history of can-do spirit, and Buchanan, Edison and other Valley high schools and community colleges are developing green curriculum to train a future workforce. Bolstered by the prospect of high speed rail, the region is starting to get noticed internationally.

The Fresno Bee recently had a story about China (which also is a leader in green energy) wanting a piece of the high-speed rail pie, and The Fresno Business Journal quoted a visitor at the Cancun climate talks who reported on a Fresno connection at a panel discussion there:

"They were talking about the infrastructure investment all over the world to reduce greenhouse gasses and the issue of the high speed rail was raised. During the discussion, the subject of America and it lagging behind the rest of the world in both of these areas came up. The President of Siemens said that California has taken the lead on these issues, and is attracting investment, and that Fresno, California, is at the epicenter of this movement as a vocal proponent of clean energy and the high speed rail."

Steve Geil, president of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County, says the region is "perfectly aligned" to become a leader in clean energy, and noted the significance of the comments in Cancun.

"We need to capitalize on it and take it to the next level," he said "We need to show a unified voice and connectivity."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

10 ways to nab clean energy incentives

Getting efficient lost a little of its incentive luster this year, but consumers may still save money and enterprising homeowners will still be able to reap tax breaks.

The tax package signed recently by President Obama sets aside energy efficiency incentives for everything from washing machines to lighting in commercial buildings. While some declined or saw increased standards, many soldiered on.

Here's a look at what's available to appliance manufacturers (and indirectly to consumers):
  • Dishwashers that meet energy efficiency and water saving standards can receive tax incentives of between $25 and $75.
  • Washing machines that meet energy efficiency and water saving standards can receive tax incentives of up to $225.
  • Refrigerators that use 30 percent to 35 percent less energy than federal standards can receive tax incentives of up to $200.
Home owners interested in upgrades also can see breaks should they be willing to apply.
  • Those who purchase air conditioning or heat pump units that meet the highest efficiency standards can receive an incentive of 30 percent of the cost of installation, up to $300. In most cases, that requires purchase of a SEER 16 air conditioner. Those cost more than units of a lesser rating, which are still efficient.
  • Those who purchase gas, electric or oil water heaters that rate a thermal efficiency of at least 90 percent can receive an incentive of up to $300.
  • Those who purchase gas and oil furnaces and boilers that meet energy efficiency standards can receive an incentive of up to $150.
  • Those who purchase biomass, or pellet, stoves that rate a thermal efficiency of at least 75 percent can receive an incentive of up to $300.
  • Those who make energy efficiency improvements to their homes adding insulation, sealing ducts and adding cool roofs that meet specifications can receive incentives of up to 30 percent the cost of installation, including materials and labor.
  • Those who add doors and windows that meet Energy Star ratings can receive incentives of up to $200.
New homes that save 50 percent more energy than existing federal standards can receive incentives of up to $2,000. Commercial buildings that have undergone upgrades to the entire structure and save 50 percent on energy costs can receive an incentive of up to $1.80 per square foot. Commercial lighting and air conditioning and heating upgrades can receive smaller incentives.

More information can be found at the Tax Incentives Assistance Project web site or a fact sheet provided by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Jersey Town Shows Energy Efficiency Pays

Anyone who believes that energy-efficiency projects don't pay need look no further than New Jersey.

We've written on the "power" of energy efficiency many times - here , here and here, for instance - but the New Jersey case hits close to home because the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is involved in a similar project.

According to this item in NJ Spotlight, 494 local governments are participating in a program that uses federal money funneled through Energy Efficiency Conservation Block grants to improve heating and air conditioning systems, upgrading lights and other improvements.

The average savings has been about $18,000 annually on power bills without much or any monetary expenditures from the local governments. Federal grants and other incentives have paid for most of the efficiency work.

The Township of Millburn, for example, upgraded lighting and heating and air conditioning systems in a municipal building at a net cost, after incentives and grants, to the city of $1,027. The return: $63,000 annually off its power bill.

Even without the incentives, the city would have recouped its cost in less than a year. That is Math that makes sense, especially when local governments are laying off employees, slashing budgets and facing uncertain futures.

We hope for similar results in the San Joaquin Valley, where the SJVCEO is working with 39 cities and counties on energy-efficiency upgrades financed through federal stimulus and EECGB funds.

Energy-efficiency has been billed the "low-hanging fruit" of the green movement. Let's hope that 2011 is the year the movement takes off.

(Photo of Millburn, N.J. by

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tehachapi wind batteries get stimulus money

A San Joaquin Valley project that banks wind energy in batteries and could change the course and perception of renewable power appears on track to receive some federal stimulus funds.

The concept is a big one. Should storage batteries prove successful even in a limited sense, renewable energy based on whims of Mother Nature would increase substantially in value and stature on Wall Street. This would mean even when the wind dies or the sun drops below the horizon, stored energy could be released to make up for the slack in production.

The Tehachapi Wind Energy Storage Project was recommended by the California Energy Commission just before the new year for $1 million in Public Interest Energy Research Program funds. The amount is a fraction of about $25 million applied for by Southern California Edison but likely enough to get the project rolling. Its overall cost is a about $55 million, according to

The application to the National Energy Technology Laboratory says the project's "is to evaluate the performance of utility scale lithium-ion battery technology."

Southern California Edison says big battery systems would improve grid performance by better integrating wind energy generation in improving grid performance with the results helping to "accelerate the advancement of reliable, clean, secure, renewable energy resources and technologies."

Study into the project began in 2008 between SCE, Quanta Technology and wind power developer Oak Creek Energy. The site resides in the windy Tehachapi Mountains and would tap into the 66 kilovolt Antelope-Bailey wind turbine system.

Also involved in the project is A123Systems, which opened the largest lithium-ion automotive battery plant this past fall in Livonia, Mich. In a past interview with my former co-worker Jeff St. John, Paul De Martini, SCE vice president of advanced technologies, said his employer wanted A123 to develop "a 32-megawatt-hour battery out of racks of smaller batteries."

The concept fits nicely with California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 1990s levels by 2020. Part of that effort includes requiring utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources.

Already, SCE says it can deliver 2,700 megawatts of clean electricity for about 17 percent of its total portfolio.

Last year was a big for wind energy news, with offshore getting a lot of attention and its first approved project near Nantucket. And solar projects continue to make news.

In California, a variety of projects continue to make news. The Mount Diablo Unified School District in San Jose plans a solar system that covers 51 schools and generates 11.2 megawatts. In the San Joaquin Valley's Westlands Water District, a solar project covering 30,000 acres of privately owned farmland retired because of high soil salinity has been proposed.

Should more of these projects move into the construction phase -- like the 400-megawatt solar thermal Ivanpah project in eastern San Bernardino County, only a few miles from Nevada, which broke ground late last year -- storage systems will continue to gain interest.

And oil prices continue to climb. This week the fossil fuel hovered around the $90 per barrel mark and indicated a one-year forecast of $103. Of course, the media's been playing up $5 a gallon gas arriving in the United States by summer.

Gas prices can be a big motivator and may spur sales of electric cars, which could increase demand for electricity and potentially make more expensive renewables more appealing. But that's if planets align. And the public has proven fickle in its support for clean energy.

Such things just increase the stakes of the storage game. Success of the Tehachapi project could scale back or end the need for backup by fossil-fuel fired generating plants.

And that is a big deal.

New Solar Projects For The San Joaquin Valley

Agriculture is a $20 billion per year industry in the San Joaquin Valley, and farmers here are the most efficient in the world. But that kind of production comes with a power price tag.

Water pumps, refrigeration and other farm-related uses accounted for 13% and 11% of the total electricity consumed in Fresno and Kern counties respectively in 2009, according to the California Energy Commission. So, it makes sense that growers would be interested in reducing their power bills.

In Delano, grape grower Castle Rock Vineyards recently installed a solar-energy system to power its 280,000-square-foot cold-storage facility - shaving at least $233,000 from its power bills annually.

The system was installed by REC Solar, which featured a profile of the project from Renewable Energy World on its Web site. Castle Rock Vineyards received a federal tax credit, state rebate and bank financing to pay for the 1.1 megawatt system - and is additional proof that clean energy has a place down on the farm.

The system is projected to offset more than 63 million pounds of CO2 emissions, equivalent to removing 6,112 cars from the road, over the next 20 years.

Castle Rock has vineyards in central and southern San Joaquin Valley and in Coachella, near Palm Springs.

With abundant sun, ample land and easy access to the grid, the San Joaquin Valley is considered ripe for solar projects. In fact, Southern California Edison announced today that it inked power-purchase contracts for more than 800 megawatts of power with SunPower Corp. of San Jose and Fotowatio Renewable Ventures of San Francisco that will be created, in part, from projects in Los Banos in Merced County and Arvin and Lamont, both in Kern County.

That is enough power for more than 460,000 average-sized California homes.

A Southern California Edison spokesman said solar is coming of age, making it more economical for utilities committed to increasing their clean-energy portfolio. "This is an important turning point...," said utility vice president Marc Ulrich in a statement. "The advances in photovoltaic technology, couple with economies of scale, enable SCE to provide Californians with a large-scale power plant's worth of emission-free energy at a competitive price."

The contracts include 110 megawatts in Los Banos, scheduled to be operational by year-end 2014; 60 megawatts in Lamont, scheduled to go on-line by Dec. 31, 2013; and 20 megawatts in Arvin, slated to be operational by Sept. 30, 2013.

(photo of Castle Rock Vineyards by

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brown Talks Green In His Inaugural Address

Gov. Jerry Brown posted his green-jobs initiative months ago, but he reinforced his commitment to clean energy during his inaugural speech yesterday. In his relatively brief (16 minutes) address, Brown, who is getting a do-over as the state's chief executive, noted that clean energy can help lead California out of this recession, according to this story.

He wants to generate enough renewable energy to power 15 million homes. We here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization believe this region from San Joaquin through Kern counties - the most productive farming area in the nation - can play a key role in that plan.

As we've said before, we are ideally situated. We have raw material for biogas and biofuel projects, sun and land for solar farms, wind turbines off our southern tip, access to transmission lines, and are ringed by top-notch universities that can conduct research and development.

And we have the incentive. Clean energy, rooftop solar and energy-efficiency programs could greatly benefit a region that has high power bills, low incomes, a stubborn double-digit unemployment rate and concerns over air pollution and water stability.

Just as Hollywood is the filmaking capital of the world and Silicon Valley leads in technology, the San Joaquin Valley could lead in clean energy.

Annual Las Vegas Electronics Show Getting A Bit More Green

This year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which runs Jan. 6-9, has a definite green tint.

Electric vehicles get their own space - about 3,500 square feet - and major car makers will be showcasing their latest EV products.

Eco friendly and energy-efficiency/storage innovations also will have a strong presence among the 2,500 companies attending, according to the show's Web site. In fact, this is a particularly smart show - as in Smart Grid, Smart appliances and Smart phones.

Here's a Green guide to the program from Earth2Tech, and a flip through the conference program finds workshops on everything from Smart Grid homes to Smart phones and laptops that remotely control thermostats and other systems in your house. Such programs allow homeowners to better control their energy use while away.

Of course, many of the cool gadgets on display at the show consume more electricity. Thus, this year's event will feature a workshop on green technology that helps measure and control power use.

The green advancements don't stop with the exhibits and workshops. The organizers of the annual event are taking steps to become more environmentally friendly. Among them:

  • Last year, 68% of the total solid waste generated by show attendees was recycled;

  • Diverts all light bulbs used by the show from landfills, as well as batteries and other electronics products;

  • New this year, all TechZone pods, hardwall and turnkey booth packages will include recyclable carpet and recyclable backwall and counter panels;

  • Printed all attendee flyers and literature on recycled paper using soy ink;

  • Last year at the 2010 International show, the California Electronics Association donated $50,000 to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department to purchase seven Vetrix electric motorcycles which are on the streets of the tourist corridor every day helping to keeping Las Vegas both safe and green.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Learn More About New CALGreen Regulations At Fresno State Event

California's building code is tighter and more environmentally friendly in 2011 thanks to mandatory requirements effective Jan. 1 under the state's new CALGreen program.

The new code includes rules for, among other things, water conservation, indoor air pollution, and construction waste, and will apply to residential and commercial properties. The Center for Sustainable Energy has more information here, state officials have a recap here, and this is a 181-page guide.

The new provisions are intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 3 million metric tons by 2020, and to cut energy and water use. To help prepare industry officials, Dave Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission, will headline an all-day forum on CALGreen on Jan. 28 at California State University, Fresno.

The event will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in room 2206 in Henry Madden Library. The forum will be limited to 60 people balanced between building officials, design and construction professionals. The event is free, however firms are encouraged to donate $250 to help co-sponsor the program. Checks should be made out to "Fresno State Construction Management."

RSVP is required. Register at by Jan. 14.

E-mail for information.

photo image by