Monday, February 28, 2011

REXPO VII Gives Green Tint To Stockton

I lived in Stockton for a few years in the late 1980s. My wife and I were newly married, and she was a features reporter for The Stockton Record. I really like the community. It is ideally located, in my opinion. It's close to the San Francisco Bay area, a short drive from the state capital and relatively close to some big-time skiing.

It is in some ways a leader in the green movement, but we moved away before the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce created REXPO, an annual conference that highlights sustainability and environmental stewardship. This year's event, REXPO VII, is from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 9 at the Hilton Stockton, 2323 Grand Canal Blvd.

Panel discussions and exhibits are highlights. This year's panels are on clean energy collaboration for businesses, education and government; bottom line benefits of being a leader in climate change; and grant programs and financing.

Panelists include Paul Johnson, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization in Fresno; Sam Geil of Geil Enterprises; Joseph Oldham of the city of Fresno; and Seyed Sadredin of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Panama Bartholomy, deputy director of the California Energy Commission, is the luncheon speaker.

Here is more on the event from The Stockton Record.

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From Solar To Landfills, The Military Leads The Way To Energy Independence

As politicians in Washington do their partisan dance around clean energy, the military is moving full speed ahead. The Department of Defense recognizes that renewable energy reduces our dependency upon foreign oil, saves American lives and cuts costs.

As this item in Clean Technica states, the military is embracing all things renewable - even generating energy from landfills. At Fort Benning, GA, for example, two new power stations will convert landfill gas to electricity.

Even better, this technology is mobile. The so-called Powerstation can be redeployed on relatively short notice. Like solar backpacks, it is another example of the military's increasing energy independence.

Here, the Department of Defense outlines its platform on renewable energy, and its quest to reduce the role of oil. To further establish its point, the Department of Defense has aligned with the Department of Energy to "strengthen national security" through continued development of clean-energy technology.

Here is a quote from a press release announcing the partnership between the two federal agencies:

"Advances in innovation are helping to solve our military challenges, protect our troops, and enhance our national security. At the same time, these efforts have the potential to yield spin-off technologies with both military and civilian applications that will help create jobs in the U.S. and speed America's transition to a clean energy economy," said Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. "Our joint efforts in everything from advanced vehicles to energy storage to grid security are protecting our men and women in uniform, promoting America's economic prosperity, and improving our environment."

The military has installed solar panels to help power a base in Nevada, planted cool roofs in Texas, and is interested in portable wind power when possible. The military equates its efforts to national security, saying its reliance on fossil fuel leaves the nation vulnerable to hostile nations. There is more in this report from a military advisory board.

About $20 billion of its budget goes toward energy, and every $10 increase in the per-barrel price of oil costs the department an additional $1.3 billion. With incentive to change and a can-do innovative nature, the military is uniquely positioned to lead the charge toward a future of renewable energy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Utility To Operate Big Solar Farm Near Fresno

In the same week that Southern California Edison flipped the switch on its new 5 million watt solar project near Porterville, it was announced that a neighboring utility will build three solar plants near Fresno.

The three projects, which are part of Pacific Gas and Electric's commitment to increase solar power over the next five years, will generate a total of 50 megawatts of electricity - enough for thousands of houses.

Solon Corp will start constructing a 160-acre solar plant in April for PG&E somewhere "in the vicinity of Fresno," Solon officials said in this press release. At 15 megawatts, it could supply power for up to 15,000 homes when finished in October.

The system will be a cluster concept with fixed-tilt mounting, and will feature remote control and monitoring.

Not to be outdone, Cupertino Electric Inc. of San Francisco will build a 15 megawatt and a 20-megawatt plant for PG&E, also near Fresno, according to the Central Valley Business Times.

The proposed arrays are more examples of the San Joaquin Valley's emerging solar-energy industry. With vast expanses of open and flat land, easy access to the power grid and ample sun, the region from Stockton to the base of the Grapevine could be the new "Solar Valley," according to officials at University of California, Merced, which conducts solar research.

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the largest agriculture regions in the world. Many observers think think solar could be an additional cash crop on marginal or poor farmland.

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The Power Of Energy Efficiency

We here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization realize that, when it comes to energy efficiency, minimum investment can reap maximum returns. It has been proven time after time after time that plugging up holes, upgrading lights and making relatively simple and inexpensive changes can yield big-time savings.

U.S. energy officials have even altered their favorite line of "energy-efficiency is the low-hanging fruit" to this: "energy-efficiency is fruit on the ground."

Here's a story that chronicles the case of a Southern California homeowner who installed solar panels - but found that energy conservation and efficiency were the sweet parts.

Southern California Edison Turns On Solar In Porterville

A ground-mounted Southern California Edison solar project in the San Joaquin Valley - and one of the largest utility-owned sites in the state - is to be activated today. The impressive display of 29,400 panels is on 32 acres of city land adjacent to the Porterville Municipal Airport.

The panels will generate enough power for 4,300 houses, according to this Fresno Business Journal story from October. Talks of the project first arose as an inquiry more than a year ago and a lease was signed last summer. Here's an earlier story from the Porterville Recorder.

The installation is one of several owned by Edison in California. The panels are mounted and placed at a 25 degree tilt, optimum for this specific location. The utility paid the $18 million cost of the project, which is tied into a nearby distribution circuit.

Photo by

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Could Solar Parity Lead To Solar Valley?

One of the biggest complaints against solar power has been that it can't survive without subsidies. Critics may have to soon come up with a new argument, a noted futurist says, because costs are coming down quickly as technological advances accelerate.

Ray Kurzweil told grist, an environmental online magazine, "The costs are coming down rapidly - we are only a few years away from parity. And then it's going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don't care at all about the environment, because of the economics."

Not everyone agrees. Brian Merchant of Treehugger argues that the powerful lobbying and political forces behind so-called "dirty fuel" won't let solar take hold anytime soon. "Relying on technology alone isn't likely to get us there," he says.

All this talk raises possibilities in the minds of myself and Mike Nemeth, my colleague, at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which is dedicated to promoting energy-efficiency and renewable power in the resource-rich California interior.

Our office is in Fresno. Just a few miles away is some of the most productive farmland in the world. Agriculture here is a $20 billion industry, and it consumes a lot of power.

Plus, it gets hot here, as in I-can't-touch-the-steering wheel-of-my-car hot. Summer temperatures often are in triple digits, and residential and commercial power bills soar. A friend of mine once joked, "Is my power bill supposed to contain a comma?" As fuel prices climb, more people are thinking solar.

A solar boom could transform this region. The San Joaquin Valley could lead the nation in renewable energy, as well as agriculture. Farmers could, as this story in Agweek states, create a whole new cash crop.

The Valley has thousands of acres of former farmland sitting fallow. That land, which is laser flat and environmentally safe, is ideal for solar farms. A big transmission line extends down the west side of the Valley, and acres of warehouse rooftops in Fresno and Tulare counties are ideal candidates for rooftop solar systems.

There's a reason why University of California, Merced, which is conducting groundbreaking research in solar power, has dubbed the 240 or so miles from Stockton to the Grapevine "Solar Valley."

Job-order contracting may be what's for dinner

Job-order contracting was developed to give governments a simpler option to bidding out every routine repair, replacement and maintenance job.

The concept offers up a single contractor to provide services over a period of time. Costs on future jobs would be kept low because they're based on bid prices for similar work, almost like industry-accepted parameters an auto mechanic uses to charge for labor. If his book says seven hours to swap a transmission or truck bed, that's what he or she uses.

Same thing with the job-order contractor. And in this case, the argument goes, the JOC would be able to keep costs low on even small jobs because the larger scope of the job over time.

Job-order contracting was designed in the 1980s by the military "as a way to overcome problems with the traditional design bid build method," according to a fact sheet by Arizona State University and the Alliance for Construction Excellence.

Interesting. At least it appears so. California Courts has approved about a dozen JOC companies for services in the statewide court system, and other organizations across the state are doing the same. The California Court services were bid, as is the acceptable practice.

I'm working on a similar proposal for work at 26 jurisdictions. But mine is a little different. This is for one-time work, energy efficiency retrofits, and it's relatively small potatoes as these things go. In addition, my nonprofit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, is offering companies only the opportunity to be recommended to cities.

The jurisdictions I represent have money through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program for replacing lights, pump motors and air conditioning units. This money comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as federal stimulus.

But the money's not very stimulating until it can be spent. We've worked nearly a year on administrative duties meeting myriad government regulations specific to our unusual circumstances and are just now getting ready to start work. Most of the cities and counties in our partnership would like to have had this work completed already.

And time is running out. We are able to use this method of contracting because of that time crunch since it is advertised to speed things up. ARRA funds must be spent in the next 12 months or be lost.

It is up to each or our individual jurisdictions whether to use the job-order contracting option. Otherwise we bid out the work through conventional means. That's a time-consuming process and likely will be tough on small cities not expecting to have to go through the process.

I just gave an update to a city I'm working with, saying: "Every city will have to bid out the work. However, I'm trying my best to come with an alternative that has to do with job-order contracting and indefinite quantity construction contracts. It's a fancy way of saying a jurisdiction chooses to go with a pre-selected contractor using a 'price book' of already low bid pricing. We're bidding out the opportunity for the SJVCEO to recommend a company or process for this, and I'll keep you posted."

I'm no expert. I like to use the disclaimer that I spent 23 years working for newspapers, researching topics that were published daily. I've dug into this topic with my usual zeal and spoken with multiple people across the country. What I've discovered sounds like a promising prospect for time-strapped governments.

We'll see how it goes.

Friday, February 18, 2011

California's Central Valley is a Petri dish for clean energy

A Fresno patent attorney wanted to know the most pressing legal needs of clean energy companies in the San Joaquin Valley.

Her emailed question made me think. The industry remains in its infancy but likely won't dawdle in Huggies for long, especially if petroleum prices continue upward as analysts suggest. still lists $99 barrel on its one-year forecast, and pump prices continue to climb.

In my response to this attorney, I included concerns of solar, energy efficiency and biomass industries.

"Land use is a big deal," I wrote. "I have heard that because of increased difficulties getting federal land secured, solar companies are moving to get private land deals. So far those are with municipalities and small solar operations, teaming them with wastewater sites (big electrical users) in hinter-ish lands."

I also mentioned potential interest by Westlands farmers looking for a new source of revenue for farmland due to restrictions on irrigation water. Hundreds of acres of parched and dead grape fields and orchards greet passers by in this incredibly fertile sun-drenched valley.

My co-worker Sandy Nax, who was also my compatriot on the now mothballed Fresno Bee business desk, says the Central Valley is a veritable Petri dish for clean energy with its abundant sun, wind in the Sierra foothills, methane rich dairy waste and bio-plant-rich farmland.

Should a series of studies prove correct -- that clean energy will produce scads of jobs nationwide and in California -- I believe a large role will be played by those bitten by the powerful American entrepreneurial spirit. I told the patent attorney to keep an eye on start-ups, especially those related to water and biomass.

For instance, the more than $800,000 fine levied on two biomass plants in Merced and Madera counties by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently will likely worry folks in that industry. The Fresno Bee's Mark Grossi called it "one of the state's largest air-pollution fines in recent history."

Biomass defines the process of burning woody material and ag waste to generate electricity. Emissions are a part of that as they are for biogas from methane.

Another sector worth a look, perhaps from an attorney's perspective, is construction. Net-zero homes, the passive house movement and others will likely become dominant features of the new home market. A part of that is retrofits, something we're quite familiar with at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

The practice of auditing buildings and upgrading systems that show inefficiencies is gaining converts and consumer interest. Some big players are starting to do this elsewhere. For instance, the Empire State Building is now a model of efficiency after a massive overhaul.

I was talking about the status of the clean energy movement with Valley hydrogen power expert Gene Johnson, and he said the best bet for change is talking up the subject to our young people. "Education is the key to this whole thing," he said.

I convinced him to be one of the potential speakers in a program we're working on with Valley high schools and colleges to prepare students for clean energy and entrepreneurial opportunities. Gene is one of those amazing people who can inspire people after 5 minutes in his presence. For example, he decided he wanted a hydrogen powered car so converted a glossy yellow Chevy SSR to run on the clean burning fuel.

Gene's pretty optimistic about the future of clean energy. "Once people see food and gas prices going up ... they'll realize self-sufficiency is the best way to deal with it," he said. Gene's definition of self-sufficiency is pretty global and refers to the United States being able to produce all its own energy, from multiple sources.

Sandy and I keep up with news, and on the subject of clean energy and energy efficiency it looks pretty good. Our hope is that this industry takes off in the next couple of years. That may be optimistic, but things are definitely happening.

The jolt of federal stimulus money money didn't hurt. But it's limited. In fact, we're working on a couple of stimulus grants that sunset in the next 12 months. So we are biased -- a bit.

We were heartened by a post on by Bracken Hendricks and Jorge Madrid with the Center for American Progress in which they called "clean energy technology one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy and it is projected to grow to $2.3 trillion by 2020."

They also said American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the official name of stimulus money) sustained the nation's fledgling clean energy industry when it was struggling due to the economy and global competition.

Nice to hear. I put a comment on their post saying as much.

A Green Thumb On America's Rooftops

Have you ever looked closely at a map of California? Fresno and Tulare counties are almost dead center.

That is significant for one very good reason. A central location means companies that truck merchandise can reach the bulk of the state's 37 million or so residents in one day. That's why Best Buy, Gap, Walmart, Sears and other heavy hitters have massive distribution centers in the region.

And those warehouses have expansive roofs. Hundreds of thousands of square feet could generate power through rooftop solar, or they could cut energy costs and water runoff by going green - literally.

Borrowing a concept popular in Europe, green roofs - complete with sod and plants - are being planted in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Portland and other American cities, according to this fascinating story in environment 360 by Bruce Stutz. The vegetation requires little upkeep, and helps lower power bills and water runoff.

As evidence, Stutz cites a U.S. Postal Service distribution center in Manhattan that has cut storm water runoff into the city's municipal water system by up to 75% during the summer and 40% in the winter. The green roof has also has cut the building's energy use by $30,000 per year.

Chicago has really embraced the concept. That city added 600,000 square feet of green roof last year, and has 600 projects planned. However, Illinois was also the site of an interesting structural collapse when a portion of a green roof fell in. According to this New York Times story, ice could have prevented meltwater from draining.

Portland has a program for residential and commercial properties. “It was a cost/benefit evaluation,” city storm water specialist Tom Liptan told Stutz. “The issue here was storm water. We were trying to find a way to reduce the burden on the city. If we trap it on the roofs, we don’t have to build bigger pipes to carry it or cisterns to store it for treatment.”

Climate and environment help dictate the type of plants to be used, and their effectiveness. Researchers at Colorado State University tested a variety of species and came up with recommendations. Here is a link to their findings, and links here, here and here to studies of regions with Mediterranean and desert climates.

Energy and water conservation in California are becoming bigger issues, particularly in light of stories like this. Maybe making rooftops do double duty would help.

Photo of green roof of U.S. Postal Service building

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Web Site Provides Resources For Teachers Of Renewable Energy & Job Seekers

My outfit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization in Fresno, is dedicated to fostering the development of renewable power and energy-efficiency projects in a 240-mile resource-rich region in the heart of California.

The Valley has abundant sun, and thousands of acres of flat former farm land ideally suited for large-scale solar facilities. The Tehachapi wind farm is just off its southern tip, and energy companies here have ready access to the transmission grid and to the human and academic resources of nearby universities such as UC Merced, Fresno State University and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Dead center in California and sandwiched between three major metropolitan areas, the San Joaquin Valley is positioned to play a prominent role in the emerging green-energy movement. We are helping that along.

The SJVCEO has unveiled an online resource for teachers, students and job seekers as its part of a larger Employment Development Department grant. The Web site contains lesson plans for high school teachers, links to help-wanted sites and green employers, reports and white papers and other information.

The site is still a work in progress, and will expand as we find more stuff to post. If you have any suggestions or recommendations for the site, please pass them along.

Photo by

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Universities Find Green Funds Save Them Some Serious Green

Budget cuts. Furloughs. Higher fees. Universities and colleges across the country are facing uncertain financial futures. Increased energy efficiency would cut power bills and reduce costs, but finding a way to finance those improvements is difficult when budgets are in such disarray.

That's where Green Revolving Funds come into play. The funds pay for improvements and then the cost savings from those improvements are plowed back into the funds to pay for more energy-saving programs.

At least 52 colleges in the United States and Canada have a total of $66 million in Green Fund investments, according to a study by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. The average fund is $1.4 million, but range all over the map. College of Wooster in Ohio has the smallest fund at $5,000 and Harvard (of course) has the largest at $12 million.

At least three colleges in California have them: California Institute of Technology; Stanford University; and California State University, Monterey Bay.

The funds are used to finance upgrades that cut energy bills or their carbon footprint. Many of the retrofits are fairly basic - replacing shower heads and lights - but have yielded some impressive results. Once again, it has been shown that minimal investments can reap big rewards. Consider Iowa State University: It paid $3,039 to implement energy-savings devices on 500 computers and saved a projected $49,000. The payback period: 23 days.

Oberlin College replaced 30 shower heads and got a one-year payback. Converting a tractor to run on vegetable oil led to a payback of one to two years for Oberlin. Swarthmore College replaced T-12 light bulbs with more efficient ones - and garnered a two-year payback.

Western Michigan University funded 101 projects, reported an average payback of 2.1 years and a return on investment of 47%. "Since 1996, our total project costs are approximately $5.85 million per year and our annual cost savings are approximately $2.75 million...By focusing on overall operational cost reduction - as opposed to funding projects on a simple one-time basis - we have made great strides," the university reported.

Harvard reported a return on investment of 30%. It invested $16 million in upgrades and received an annual savings of $4.8 million. Not only is Harvard getting paid back in a little over three years, but it has reduced its its annual carbon footprint by some 14,100 metric tons.

Weber State University set a goal of $1 million in annual energy savings by 2015. In 2010, the university was already at $440,000. Even to non-math majors like myself, those kinds of investments make sense.

But how do you create a Green Revolving Fund? The colleges surveyed used a variety of methods; some dipped into the administration budget to provide seed money. Others used student fees, utility company rebates, foundations and donations and endowments.

As we know schools of all kinds face tight budget restrictions, but the study predicts more Green funds will be formed as a way to provide a secure investment with promising returns - while helping the environment at the same time.

Photo of Cal State Monterey Bay by

Monday, February 14, 2011

Support For PACE Programs, Consumer Study Shows

California and 15 other states were just starting to roll out Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to help homeowners finance energy-efficiency modifications and reduce power bills when concerns from a federal housing agency essentially stopped them in their tracks last year.

But a a new survey shows many homeowners support PACE-type programs, and would consider adding an assessment to their property taxes to make their houses more energy efficient.

About 42% of 1,000 people surveyed by Pike Research said they were "extremely" or "very" interested in using a PACE program. Of those, 63% said they would install a tankless water heater or solar panels. More than 50% said they would install a more efficient air conditioner or boost insulation.

Not surprisingly, the homeowners who supported PACE programs generally have power bills exceeding $200 per month. They also tended to adopt new technology early.

More than half of the homeowners who said they were "somewhat" or not interested in participating in a PACE program said they did not want any more financial liability. An additional 30% said they didn't understand the PACE concept.

PACE programs require little or no upfront costs and have repayment periods of 15 to 20 years. If the property is sold, the payments are transferred to the new owner. Such programs were gaining favor in 2010 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency, worried because the PACE assessment would be repaid before a mortgage loan in a default, expressed concerns about the program.

Those concerns froze many PACE programs because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are regulated by the FHFA, guarantee more than 50 percent of all home loans in the United States.

There is momentum to revive PACE programs. Some states and cities have filed lawsuits. Others have adopted PACE programs for commercial property only, or are tweaking the original PACE concept.

Officials at Pike Research, which analyzes clean-technology markets, said the findings "illustrate a clear market" for PACE programs. They suggested the programs could be a boon for makers of water heaters, air conditioners, solar companies and other manufacturers of green products.

Researchers also noted that more homeowners would likely be pick up the PACE when the economy shows signs of recovering. "As the global economy slowly recovers and the appeal of energy-efficiency improvements grow, availability of attractive financing will be a key component to the market's development," Pike researchers said.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Even the Sub-Mariner can't stop the rising sea

Back during the Golden Age of comics, Bill Everett in 1939 conceived of the under-sea superhero Namor, the Sub-Mariner, as a scourge against evil.

His target, initially, was the Nazis.

"He is a rare hybrid endowed with great strength, power over the undersea world, the ability to breathe both in and out of water, and the gift of flight," writes blogger and Sub-Mariner expert J. Chivian at "He fought valiantly with the Allies in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. He has been King of Atlantis."

Namor left the comic scene in 1955 but returned in the 1960s, or Silver Age as it's known to fans. But this time around, he was furious not with the Axis powers but with earth-dwellers in general for fouling his oceans with leaky barrels of nuclear waste and assorted garbage and for exterminating sea life with nets and pollution.

He's likely less pleased today (although I stopped buying the Marvel books in the early 1980s and know nothing of his present-day adventures). A two-page release issued this week by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research Program said that rising sea levels will have significant impacts, causing coastal flooding and erosion.

"Melting of the land-based ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the thermal expansion of warming seawater, has contributed to a rise of global sea level at an average rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year from 1993 to 2010," the release said.

The release describes a research project coordinated through the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The council is assembling a committee of experts that will seek answers to four goals: determining potential sea level rise in 2030, 2050 and 2100 "along with the uncertainty associated with these values"; providing local data for ocean winds, el niƱo effects, storm frequency and others; recommending planning guidelines for local governments; and conduct case studies to help governments plan ahead.

The project is to be the first California-specific assessment for sea-level rise and likely will be controversial. And why not? Nobody wants to hear that coastal land faces threats to erosion.

After the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, Kodiak Island sunk an estimated four feet. On tiny Raspberry Island where my family's processing plant was based, high tide subsequently washed over the top of the dock, rendering the whole operation useless. The Seldovia plant was destroyed as well.

Just the personal losses were immense, and that's just a single story. Imagine hundreds of thousands and millions of lives and businesses affected. The project undertaken by the council may be California specific, but the issue has world-wide implications.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Power recently that the threat of climate change (and thus stuff like melting polar caps) is real. She said the EPA found in 2009 that man-made greenhouse gas emissions threaten the health and welfare of the American people.

"EPA is not alone in reaching that conclusion," she said in an appearance meant to oppose legislation that would block a move by President Obama to beef up The Clean Air Act. "The National Academy of Sciences has stated that there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that the climate is changing and that the changes are caused in large part by human activities."

Jackson went on to say that 18 of the nation's "leading scientific societies have written that multiple lines of evidence show humans are changing the climate ... and that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and the environment."

Assertions to the contrary, she essentially said, are full of malarkey.

Sub-Mariner would not be pleased.

Janet Ritz, editor of, put some perspective on the coming changes in a piece for the Huffington Post. "The new climate reality will force everyone, no matter what their belief about climate change, to live in an unstable climate," she said.

Ritz outlined studies that foretell the disappearance of species, longer winters, harsher droughts and "where floods happen so fast they defy forecast and correctly earn what used to be the hyperbole of 'biblical.'"

She didn't say anything about Namor's wrath. I can imagine Smilin' Stan Lee crafting devastating drama with our undersea friend saving the day but not the war. Our hero, in one of Lee's episodes, would walk back into the ocean wondering, "What have they done?"

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sun, wind & geothermal get federal boost

The U.S. government has unleashed a relative torrent of measures -- but a relatively modest amount of cash -- to accelerate President Obama's clean energy objectives.

And because they involve wind, sun and geothermal, it's almost as if the god of thunder, also known as The Mighty Thor, son of Odin, played a role. The connection, I admit, is a little obscure, but Marvel just ran the first of the ads for its live-action movie on the wielder of the mystic Mjolnir during the Super Bowl.

The genesis of all this hubbub is the President's goal of generating 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to bring solar prices down to about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour with its "SunShot" initiative. It has a long way to go. reports that the high solar condition industrial industry index is 16.59 cents per kWh.

DOE's plan is to help reduce the cost for utility-scale installations by about 75 percent to about $1 a watt.

I can hear Thor say, "By the bristling beard of Odin," right about now. (Although I'm a closet comic buff, I got the phrase from Jared at

"America is in a world race to produce cost-effective, quality photovoltaics," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in a statement. "These efforts will boost our economic competitiveness, rebuild our manufacturing industry and help reach the President's goal of doubling our clean energy in the next 25 years."

U.S. outlay: $27 million for "projects to support the development, commercialization, and manufacturing of advanced solar energy technologies."

Offshore wind received the coordinated might of the U.S. Department of Interior and DOE to "support offshore wind energy deployment and several high priority wind energy areas in the mid-Atlantic that will spur rapid, responsible development of this abundant renewable resource."

Wind remains a big departure from the old-style turn-it-on-and-let-it-run practices of years past in electricity production. Wind turbines are getting bigger and have to be in often remote areas where the wind blows, generating sporadic energy. Transmission lines have to be upgraded or new ones built. And back-ups into the existing grid have to be built to accommodate power spikes as more wind power comes on line.

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

No easy task.

So Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Chu announced what they dubbed "major steps forward."

"This initiative will spur the type of innovation that will help us create new jobs, build a clean energy future, and compete and win in the technologies of the 21st century," Salazar said.

He also said the government is working to synchronize research and development initiatives with "more efficient, forward-thinking planning."

U.S. commitment: up to $50.5 million in project funding.

The final naturally occurring energy targeted (at least in this round) is geothermal.

The DOE wants to test the reliability and efficiency of geothermal power generation at oil and gas fields to determine the low-temperature technologies. Work will be done at the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center near Casper, Wyo. to reduce costs.

DOE's Geothermal Technologies Program is currently paying for 17 projects with a capacity of 3 gigawatts, or enough to power 2.4 million homes by 2020, officials say.

One of the sites, Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3 near Midwest, Wyo., produces oil and 45,000 barrels of 190-degree water per day from one formation and 28,000 barrels of 210-degree water per day from another. Initially discarded, heat is now extracted from the water and used to operate a 250-kilowatt generator.

Obama said we're going to have to go after and develop cost-efficient ways of extracting energy from all forms of alternative energy. And this pushes the needle forward.

I'd add that we'll have to do it more efficiently and with better regulation. And as my friend in the Texas oil patch says, "Don't forget oil." We will need the stuff and the assistance of the energy companies that produce it to improve our air and national security through domestic ingenuity.

And as for Thor? He'd be all for it. Just be careful of his brother the Evil Loki.

Photo: Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3 waste water discharge courtesy

Cal State Bakersfield Using More Sun Power

California State University, Bakersfield, is the latest campus in the state to use a parking structure to generate power. Officials fired up a 1.2 megawatt system Wednesday.

The $9.5 million system will produce enough electricity to power more than 3,100 houses, or about 30% of the college's annual needs, according to this story in The Bakersfield Californian. The solar-system is affixed to a parking canopy.

Increasingly, universities and other entities are having parking structures do double-duty as power generators. Fresno State partnered with Chevron Energy in 2007 to build covered parking with a solar roof to generate about 20% of its annual power supply.

California colleges, in particular, are embracing solar energy. Butte College in Northern California and West Hills Community College District in the San Joaquin Valley near Coalinga are among the first in the state to use renewable sources to cover all their power needs.

As this blog states, it makes sense for campuses to use renewable power in this era of cost cutting and tight budgets. If they are spending less money for energy, they have more left for textbooks, professors and can keep fees down.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tulare Project A Showcase For Renewable Energy

When it comes to on-site energy generation, the city of Tulare is in some pretty heady company.

The community of 60,000 people uses biogas and fuel cells, and is installing solar power to help power its wastewater treatment plant. The ambitious clean-energy program, described in this case-study analysis, netted the city a 16th-place ranking on the Environmental Protection Agency's national list of top 20 producers of on-site power. That follows an award from the California Sustainability Alliance last year.

With 9.5 million kilowatts of annual generation coming from green power, this city in the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley ranked ahead of supermarket chain Safeway and just behind Macy's stores in California and Hawaii. And those production figures are likely to increase when city officials finish installing the fourth fuel cell and grant-funded solar plant.

About 38% of the electricity used to power the wastewater treatment plant comes from on-site green sources. The completion of the solar system (partially financed with Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants) and additional fuel cell will boost on-site green power usage even more - probably enough to push it up to 13th on the list - just behind Kohl's Department Store, said Lewis Nelson, city public works director.

Nelson says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. In 2010, Tulare was expected to save about $570,000 with the system.

The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.

Tulare is the largest governmental user of electricity in Tulare County, much larger even than Visalia which has twice the population. "That is because we have seven large cheese plants in Tulare and a separate industrial wastewater treatment plant for that high-strength wastewater," Nelson says.

The city's new industrial treatment plant, with a capacity of 12 million gallons per day, is tied with one in South Carolina for the largest in the nation, he says. It is the fourth-largest in the world.

Tulare is the only San Joaquin Valley city on a list that includes San Diego (No. 2 with 69 million kilowatts of green power generated from biogas, small hydro and solar), San Jose (No. 6 and biogas), San Francisco (No. 9 with biogas and solar) and Portland (No. 10 with an impressive mixture of biogas, small hydro, solar and wind).

The largest on-site green-power generator is Kimberly-Clark, which produces a whopping 176.5 million kilowatts through biomass. The U.S. Air Force (biogas, solar and wind), Walmart in California and Texas and a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina round out the top five.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reedley College Plans Green Summit

Healthy living, new developments in construction and alternative energy are just some of the topics that will be covered at Reedley College's annual Green Summit. The event will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 14 in the student union and quad.

This will be Reedley College's third summit. The goal is an opportunity for the community to experience sustainable living through a variety of sources. Eco films, sustainable-living workshops and green exhibitors and demonstrations are planned.

Past events featured demonstrations from various departments on campus. The automotive department has run emissions tests on vehicles; chemistry students discussed alternative fuels; and the Green Club offered recycling solutions.

This year, organizers are looking for presenters, exhibitors and vendors. People and businesses interested in showcasing their products can reserve table space for a $25 refundable deposit. Information, reservations: Linda Launer, Reedley College, 995 N. Reed Ave., Reedley, Ca. 93654, 559-638-3641 ext, 3471, or

Monday, February 7, 2011

San Joaquin Valley Gets Nod In Proposed Legislation

The San Joaquin Valley gets a prominent mention in proposed legislation to expand the green-energy economy in California.

The four-pronged Clean Energy Jobs Initiative calls for a 33% renewable-energy portfolio standard, funding for a new version of the popular but ill-fated PACE program, enhanced grants for skills training and reduces red tape for clean-energy projects in the San Joaquin Valley.

The legislation introduced by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is another attempt to expand the state's renewable-energy platform, and responds to President Obama's national agenda, the authors said.

The act expands previous legislation that accelerates siting of renewable solar-energy plants to include wind and geothermal projects, but the San Joaquin Valley gets a shout-out in a component of the bill sponsored by Coachella Democrat V. Manuel Perez.

That component requires the California Department of Fish and Game to prepare a regional plan for renewable-energy development in the Valley, and makes $7 million available to Valley counties to facilitate alternative energy.

The Valley, because of robust amounts of sun, potential sources of biofuel, lots of fallow former farmland, access to the grid and its proximity to the state's major population centers, is considered a potential leader of green energy.

The proposed bill also would direct $8 million annually from the California Energy Commission to help finance 90 high school level green academies that target at-risk students. The schools would have to partner with a business or industry in the clean technology or renewable-energy sectors to provide matching funds for the grants.

In addition, the legislation proposes the creation of a Clean Energy Reserve as an alternative to Property Assessed Clean Energy program, which the Federal Housing Finance Agency opposes because of a perceived default risk.

The Reserve would use $50 million previously designated for PACE programs, and would be used to create a reserve or other credit opportunities for certain lenders. Unlike PACE, lenders, not borrowers, would apply for the credit enhancements, according to this Solar Industry Magazine story, and finance energy-efficiency improvements.

"I believe this is a strong package that will help California immeasurably," Assemblyman John A. Perez said. "Green manufacturing has the potential to create millions of jobs in the coming decades. Those jobs are going to be created somewhere and they must be created here in California."

Green power purchases trend upward

Last year I used no green power. Not a single kilowatt from a solar panel, biogas plant, wind turbine or hydropower operation.

So what, right?

That might be changing. No, I'm not putting solar on my roof. Too expensive. I've done the standard home efficiency upgrades -- insulation, windows, doors, new 95 percent efficient furnace. But that's another story.

Regular consumers like myself may soon be taking a cue from companies like Intel Corp., Kohl's Department Stores, Whole Foods Market and Starbucks and buying green power. The four companies are ranked as the best performers on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Top 50 list of green power purchasers.

No. 1 Intel, which retained its top spot from last year, has purchased a phenomenal 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of green power for 88 percent of its energy needs. The sources for this power were biomass, geothermal, small hydro, solar and wind.

No. 2 Kohl's has purchased 1.4 billion kWh of biomass, small hydro, solar and wind for all -- that's right, 100 percent -- of its energy needs.

Starbucks made a big jump over the past year to the No. 4 spot. Last year, it was No. 16. Whole Foods moved up a notch to No. 3, pushing out January 2010's third-place finisher PepsiCo. PepsiCo dropped off the list.

Usually green energy is purchased by paying extra for energy from wind power, hydro or solar. Those power purchases can be through utilities, brokers that specialize in green power or green power producers themselves. These purchases can be a little speculative as all energy is equal once it hits the grid, but the concept is sound.

Some green power users are self generators. The top three on the EPA list all include on-site generation.
"Generating our own green power in combination with purchased green power helps us to lessen our environmental footprint and become more sustainable," said Fisk Johnson, SC Johnson Chairman and CEO, in a statement. "As a fifth generation family company, it is part of our DNA. We are committed to doing what's right for our consumers, communities and our planet. Supporting clean sources of energy is a 'win-win' for everyone."

SC Johnson, the privately held maker of products like Windex and Glade, produced 25.5 million kWh of its own electricity, or 13 percent of its total, through biogas. The company built its first landfill-gas cogeneration turbine in Racine, Wis. to provide power for its largest factory, which is 2.2 million square feet.

EPA's on-site producers list is topped by Kimberly-Clark Corp., which produces 176.5 million kWh through biomass. No. 2 on the list is the City of San Diego, which produces 69 million kWh through solar, biogas and hydropower.

An interesting on-site listing is No. 18 Zotos International, which derived 60 percent of its power, the highest percentage among the Top 20, for 6.5 million kWh through two on-site wind turbines. Zotos, based in Darien, Conn., makes hair care products and wants to boost green power purchases to 100 percent of consumption by 2012.

Said Anthony Perdigao, Zotos chief sustainability officer, in a statement: "Generating green power helps our organization become more sustainable, while also sending a message to others across the U.S. that supporting clean sources of electricity is a sound business decision and an important choice in reducing climate risk."

Companies appear to be getting the message. Intel's purchases nearly doubled from two years ago, and the rest of the top purchasers increased their green power significantly from 2009.

California's Global Warming Solutions Act sets a rather lofty target of the state getting a third of its energy from renewables by 2020. The law has spurred growth in renewable power production and facilities construction. However, if the trend of corporate green power purchases continues, that goal may indeed be reachable.

With demand comes increased supply, lower prices for green power and opportunity for the sector in general.

Maybe we'll all be checking a box on our utility bill that says "green power" and pay a nominal fee. Or, better yet, no fee at all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Construction begins on Tehachapi wind project

Construction has started on a 120-megawatt wind turbine project near Tehachapi.

Developer Western Wind Energy Corp. selected Madison, Wis.-based RMT Inc. to build its Windstar project near Tehachapi, Calif., and its 10 megawatt Kingman project in Mohave County, Ariz.

"Once completed, these two facilities will have the capacity to power approximately 35,000 homes annually," said David Kutcher, RMT Chief Commercial Officer, in a statement.

RMT is responsible for engineering, procurement and construction of Gamesa 2.0-MW wind turbines at both sites, officials said.

The Kingman facility is expected to begin commercial operation by summer, while the Tehachapi operation is scheduled to come online late this year.

Wind energy projects around Tehachapi have been busy lately.

For instance, 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."

And Terra-Gen Power LLC this summer secured $1.2 billion in financing to build four wind-powered electrical generation projects near Tehachapi.

Officials estimated it will generate about 1,500 jobs.

The combined generating capacity is 570 megawatts, or enough electricity to supply 570,000 homes. The project would bolster the 3,000 megawatt Alta Wind Energy Center, which was started in the 1980s.

Terra-Gen officials said that combined with another project which received financing in March, this would put the New York-based company "well on its way to completing what is anticipated to be the largest wind energy farm in the nation."

Photo: RMT wind turbines in New Mexico.

Net zero construction gains a foothold

A net-zero building consumes no more energy than it produces.

Cool idea but until recently was about as practical as living off the grid in a yurt. OK for some but hardly a sales feature Joe Sixpack would embrace.

The mere mention was limited to science fiction stories like "Logan's Run," in which the hero escapes with his life from a closed net-zero society of limited resources that could support only a limited population. In 2116, residents in the story who turn 21 are killed.

Net zero, however, has eclipsed such apocalyptic visions. In fact, it's arrived.

Rick Daysog of the Sacramento Bee reported that Pacific Housing Inc. plans to break ground this spring on a 34-home project in Sacramento, Calif. that produces as much energy as it uses. Daysog said Stockton, Calif.-based Sunverge Energy will install the $300,000 homes' solar systems.

And on the opposite side of the country in Fort Lauderdale, a company that last year decided to build all its new locations to the exacting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, platinum standards decided to go a step further. TD Bank, which has more than 1,250 locations on the East Coast, is building a bank officials say will be the first registered in the U.S. Department of Energy's net-zero energy building, or NZEB, classification system.

The reason, said Jimmy Hernandez, a TD Bank spokesman based in New Jersey, is relatively simple.

"It just makes sense," he said.

Hernandez said bank officials learned that for a little more than what achieving LEED energy efficiency standards cost, they could add solar panels and actually produce more energy than they consume. And the solar panels will eventually pay for themselves, he said.

The bank will consume about 97,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year to operate but produce at least 100,000 kWh.

Buildings consume about 40 percent of the overall energy and 70 percent of the electricity in the United States, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Many efforts are under way to reduce that and in the process lower production of greenhouse gases.

Those measures include sustainability policies from some of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies, measures by states to increase efficiency through building codes (California's new rules took effect Jan. 1), efforts by the U.S. Department of Energy to fund energy efficiency retrofits in municipal government buildings across the country, the whole house and passive house movements to increase efficiency in residential and commercial buildings and a number of others.

An NREL report, "Zero Energy Buildings," says "energy consumption in the commercial building sector will continue to increase until buildings can be designed to produce enough energy to offset the growing energy demand of these buildings."

To address that trend, the U.S. Department of Energy is seeking to develop the technology and a knowledge base for cost-effective zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. NREL already has created a classification system for net-zero energy buildings to aid in the standardization process.

Buildings aren't the only target. A move is afoot in the San Joaquin Valley to bring solar to the region's farms and use untapped or marginal lands to produce energy. That effort remains in its infancy but could show big dividends and additional revenue streams to farmers, who are themselves big energy users.

Photo: TD Bank branch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

US builds energy efficient embassy in Addis Ababa

President Obama in his State of the Union address challenged America to get 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy by 2035.

Optimistic? Perhaps. But look at it this way: Many of the heavyweights in corporate America already have jumped on the energy efficiency and sustainability bandwagon. GM, GE and Procter & Gamble are among recent professed converts. And U.S. government agencies have been going all out with the concept, doing more with less energy as far away as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The site on the African continent is rather exotic and about 7,000 miles from the nation's capital. But a new building there -- that integrates green building techniques and was one of the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, registered facilities in Ethiopia -- provides a glimpse of evolving building trends regardless of location.

The facility, the $157 million U.S. Embassy, features high-efficiency mechanical chillers; variable frequency drives, or VFDs, for all pumps, fans and motors over 5 horsepower; instantaneous water heaters; and a building automation system, said Christine T. Foushee with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, in an email.

"The automation system allows the facility manager to view equipment consumption, schedule equipment run-times, and shut down systems when they are not required," Foushee said.

The embassy, which was completed last fall and dedicated this week, measures about 205,000 square feet and covers several buildings at the foot of Entoto Mountain, according to officials. The complex provides about 1,000 jobs. The builder was B.L. Harbert International of Birmingham, Ala., and the architect Page Southerland Page of Arlington, Va.

Other energy-saving features at the embassy include occupancy sensors that automatically turn off lights, automatic daylight dimming illumination for fixtures adjacent to windows, energy efficient compact fluorescents and light-emitting diode, or LED, lamps and electronic lighting ballasts. Energy saving is estimated to be 14 percent lower than the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers standard established in 2004.

And more State Department buildings like the embassy are coming. The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has seven projects in design or construction in Africa.

The energy efficiency movement and push to incorporate renewable energy and alternative fuels are well on their way. In the just released "State of Green Business 2011" report, Joel Makower and the editors of write that a dramatic shift is occurring in business despite the lingering effects of recession.

"Companies are thinking bigger and longer term about sustainability — a sea change from their otherwise notoriously incremental, short-term mindset," the report says. "And even during these challenging economic times, many have doubled down on their sustainability activities and commitments."

The Obama Administration directed $3.2 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, targeting inefficient lighting and electrical systems across the country for retrofits. Once completed, the program will enable local governments and others to reap huge saving on utility bills. And it will no doubt provide a further example to businesses and residents that they can do the same thing.

Likewise, domestic security efforts by the U.S. military to ween itself from imported fuel offer a high-profile example to consumers. Last month for instance, the Navy said at a symposium that is moving forward with aggressive targets, including reducing petroleum use in its commercial fleet by 50 percent by 2015 and getting half its energy from alternative sources by 2020.

Obama said: "Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all."

Just what technology will win out or if all alternatives will be embraced remains a question. The report says great transformation is taking place. But its authors ask whether the public take notice and whether political leaders will "position themselves at the front of this parade?"

That of course depends on many factors. Economics will play a big role. Renewable energy remains a premium, but parity is coming closer with technological advances. And there's the price of oil, which is trading in the $91 per barrel range and is forecast to climb to $105 in the next year by

For The Military, Going Green Is A Matter Of National Security

We've written about Corporate America seizing the reins of the green-energy movement, but Big Business is hardly alone. The military is moving full-speed ahead in an effort to rely less on costly foreign oil and more on renewables, while also saving money through energy conservation.

It really is fascinating to watch. The military no longer wants to be the biggest consumer of fossil fuel in the world. So, ships are heading to sea with hybrid technology that could save billions in fuel costs, soldiers in war zones are using solar energy, the Army has a goal of net-zero energy use and the U.S. Air Force has concluded that saving energy not only saves the environment, but could save lives and money.

The Department of Defense has even established a Web site that details its Green efforts.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said at a recent clean-energy conference (where he also criticized a RAND Corp. study that questioned the effectiveness of biofuels) that a green fleet makes sense considering the massive costs in dollars and lives of using and hauling oil, and the apparent disconnect of using foreign sources to power ships, planes and tanks that are made in the United States.

How strong the green-energy movement gets in this era of budget cuts and political bickering remains to be seen, but the support of Big Business and the Department of Defense helps keep up the momentum.