Thursday, March 31, 2011

Here comes fat algae; research unveils potential commercial fuel production

Every couple of weeks appears to bring an algae fuel technological breakthrough, study or news of a pilot venture to bring the process from the laboratory to your corner fuel station.

Granted, fueling up with algae products is likely many years away. But it's being taken seriously. Right here in the San Joaquin Valley, experts at the University of California, Merced have been awarded a grant to analyze emerging algae biofuels technologies.

And the U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced that it will be accepting applications for $12 million in grants over the next three to four years for about five "laboratory or small pilot-scale projects that support the development of advanced biofuels." Technologies like cellusic ethanol or fuel-tank-ready butanol may be first to the gate, but algae research has a strong shot.

For instance, John Sheehan, who coordinates research on biofuels at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, just produced a 34-page study about a algae-to-fuel breakthrough discovered by scientists researching cancer treatments. The study was developed on behalf of VG Energy, a subsidiary of San Marino, Calif.-based. Viral Genetics Inc.

Those researchers found that molecules which disrupt the burning of fats, or lipids, in tumor cells "also encourage microscopic plant cells like algae to accumulate and even secrete fats," Sheehan wrote.

And those fats can be used for fuel. The more the better. Separating them out is the challenge. But Sheehan stated prominently that "VG Energy’s technology show the promise to compete with crude oil in today’s market."

Sheehan said getting algae cells to secrete lipids (by a factor of three) makes it easier to separate the oils from the water and the green glop from which it originates. And he said it "opens up the possibility that oil can be separated and recovered from the algae in a non-destructive way."

Recycling that material back into the system at a rate of 75 percent enables producers to possibly extract biodiesel and jet fuel for $94 a barrel, comparable with today's crude prices, Sheehan said. Crude, according to, pushed past $106 per barrel the end of March and up to $123 on the one-year forecast.

John Platt, a reporter for Mother Nature Network, wrote in a story of Sheehan's study that "biofuel researchers have been seeking a technique to accomplish this switch, known as the 'lipid trigger,' since the 1990s." If VG can master the concept, algae may be developed into a competitive product.

Algae already grows quickly and consumes CO2, which makes it possible coal-burning power plants may be interested in developing a side business in pond scum.

And if, like me, this entire algae-fuel concept intrigues you, there is even the opportunity for home brew. offers the ebook, "How to Make Biodiesel." Reminds me of my beer-making days when I was in my late 20s and early 30s and still working at the Anchorage Times.

This would be different, but not much (just don't drink multiple bottles). It would be possible to bottle that brew. The site says algae is easy to grow, needing a nice mix of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

The authors did kind of lose me when they talked about the ease of setting up a home bioreactor, described as "a controlled environment where you can grow algae in a faster phase." The bioreactor keeps out contamination and other unwanted substances.

I applaud their moxie, however. Perhaps this is the era of the alternative, one in which the shade-tree mechanic or obscure researcher toiling away for a relative pittance figures out a way -- or combination of ways -- that gets this country back to energy self-sufficiency.

Lighting Up Cost Savings Through LED Retrofits

Red Robin is one of my favorite restaurants. I live only a few blocks from the one in Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis. That's probably why I noticed this item - which not only made me hungry for a burger, but illustrates something we at the non-profit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization routinely preach

Energy conservation pays. Big time. Minimal investment can reap maximum rewards as businesses, universities and consumers are discovering.

Red Robin is the latest to cut costs by incorporating energy-efficiency measures into its daily operations. The chain switched to LED lights, which are more expensive but use less electricity and last longer. When utility rebates are included, the payback can be "swift", as the GreenerBuildings story by Leslie Guevarra notes.

More cities and businesses are choosing to go with LED lighting. Our organization is working with several neighboring cities that are using stimulus funds to convert hundreds of street lights to more efficient LED and induction types.

Cutting energy cost and greenhouse gas emissions is a smart move in this economic recession. Budgets are in disarray, and local governments and schools are slashing jobs and payrolls. Reducing their power bills means more money for employees and services.

My power bill during the hot triple-digit San Joaquin Valley summers is the second-largest monthly expense behind my mortgage. Reducing that would give me more money to invest or to stimulate the economy.

Perhaps by going more often to Red Robin.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Little Space-Age Technology Could Boost Clean Energy Fortunes

It is hard to stay hopeful amidst budget deficits and cost cutting, but one recent announcement brightened my spirits. NASA plans to expand facilities at NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley to accelerate advancements in clean energy and other technology.

The goal is to share ideas and, in this era of austerity, provide an infrastructure for innovation in the emerging renewable-energy industry. Fascinating work is under way - from solar roads and sun-powered backpacks for the military to solar balls that create drinking water - but NASA's increased attention could spark even more.

Gov. Brown has an ambitious green jobs platform, and legislators have signed on with strong endorsement of a 33% renewables standard. The legislation, assuming Brown signs it, puts the standard in concrete and provides a foundation for investment. Much can be accomplished when research capability is combined with incentive.

Perhaps parity with other forms of energy could be achieved more quickly. Some experts predict that solar power in sunnier parts of the nation could be less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour by 2012 (the average retail price of electricity for businesses and consumers in the United States is 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt hour.)

More renewable energy is laudable, but it really makes sense when development is twinned with energy conservation and efficiency. Less consumption leads to lower power bills and more money in the pockets of consumers and coffers of local governments. If they reduce power bills, municipalities such as Fresno could possibly save jobs or avoid pay cuts.

All this could help expand a new emerging economy in the San Joaquin Valley, which is ideally suited for clean energy. We have robust population growth, high power bills, low incomes, lots of sun and vacant flat land, access to the transmission grid, a strategic mid-state location close to three major power-sucking metropolitan centers, and college campuses that are research leaders in solar, biofuel, agriculture and water.

Californians have embraced renewable energy. Big business and the military are on board. Maybe NASA will give a space-age boost to everything.


New Green Hall of Fame Inducts First Members

Six businesses and entities were the first inductees of the International Green Industry Hall of Fame at a recent conference at University of California, Merced.

They are: American Council on Renewable Energy; Duke Smart Home Program; Grundfos; Josh Dorfman, The Lazy Environmentalist; Drip Tech; and the city of Fresno's recycling program, according to the Merced Sun-Star, which covered the event.

About 250 people, including students in green programs, attended the conference last Friday. It was appropriate that UC Merced hosted the inaugural session.

The campus, which is the newest in the University of California system, is rapidly becoming a leader in the green movement. Seven of its buildings are either Silver or Gold LEED certified, and the campus conducts cutting-edge research into solar and biofuels. It is in the middle of the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley, which is attracting strong interest from developers of renewable energy, particularly solar.

In fact, UC Merced says its goal is to become "the hub of Solar Valley." The Valley has lots of sun, acres of flat land that can be used for solar facilities, is close to transmission lines, has windmills off its southern and northern tips, is sandwiched between major population centers , is ringed by universities that can use the Valley as a giant Petri dish and a population with high power bills that can benefit from energy efficiency and development programs.


Friday, March 25, 2011

State Department inks clean energy deal; fuel cells find believers

Maybe it's just me. But every time I turn around, it seems as if clean energy has cleared another hurdle.

The latest to catch my eye is an announcement from the stodgy U.S. State Department, which inked a clean energy deal that it says won't cost anything but curtail CO2 emissions by about a third.

Not bad.

The deal involves Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, a utility-turned-energy-marketing company that offers a clean-energy portfolio of about 1,000 megawatts of renewable power generation. This power is either owned or under contract from sources that include utility-scale solar, hydro, wind and biomass power plants.

Last year the company completed its Criterion Wind project, a first for Maryland in commercial-scale wind energy. Constellation plans to begin building a commercial-scale solar energy facility also in western Maryland.

"This innovative agreement serves as a model for federal agency energy management," said Mayo A. Shattuck III, Constellation chairman, president and CEO, in a statement.

Federal facilities covered under the contract include part of the White House campus. Under the deal, a long-term power purchase agreement, Constellation Energy provides about 120,000 megawatt hours of energy annually to the State Department and other federal government facilities. Officials say the agreement encourages the development of new renewable energy facilities.

President Obama announced during his State of the Union speech that he had a goal generating 80 percent of the nation's power from clean energy. This, officials say, takes it a step in the right direction.

And on a lesser scale, there's this news from Hillsboro, Ore.-based ClearEdge Power, manufacturer of a line of residential fuel cells. I find the technology fascinating. I'm on the company's email list and normally give the announcements no more than a cursory look.

This one, however, caught my eye. ClearEdge said Jackie Autry, the former owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and widow of singer and actor Gene Autry, bought one of its fuel cells to heat and power to her Coachella Valley home.

Autry is quoted as saying the new system reduces carbon emissions as if she’d planted 6 acres of trees in her backyard. "I’m reducing my impact on the environment," she said. "It’s a home run."

The fuel cells save about 50 percent on utility costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third, according to the company. Fuel cells work by stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons through a chemical reaction. 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.

Simple right? That's what she said.

ClearEdge also announced a deal to sell 12 of its ClearEdge5 units to the Irvine Unified School District. The fuel cells will power and heat the swimming pools at Woodbridge and University high schools and provide extra power as well. The company estimates each school will save about $18,000 a year.

So, let's keep this stuff coming. Clean energy should be more than an adventure. I'd like to see it become a viable sector of the economy. That provides jobs.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

UC Merced Shows Its True Colors (Green) By Hosting Event

It is no secret that we love UC Merced.

The newest campus in the University of California system is rapidly gaining cred for its heavy green tint. It already is a leader in cutting-edge solar and biofuel research, has six LEED Gold and one LEED Silver buildings and is not shy about its desire to become the greenest campus in the United States.

So, I guess it is natural for the university to host tomorrow's inaugural International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF) Induction Ceremony and Conference. The highlight of the daylong event is the announcement of the first six inductees into the new Hall of Fame, which is designed to recognize individuals and organizations for outstanding achievements in the green industry and to provide an educational forum.

The Hall of Fame is the brainchild of Sam Geil, president of Geil Enterprises Inc., a diversified employee-owned Fresno-based business that has several green initiatives.

Geil's involvement in the green industry began during his tenure at Grundfos Pumps and continued at Geil Enterprises Inc. with the acquisition of A-MAZ Cleaning Products. In 2007, he was invited by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to participate in the Pacific Economic Summit in Vancouver, British Columbia representing sustainable industries in California.

The Hall of Fame event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and includes speakers and tours of the campus. Speakers include Rod Diridon, Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a policy research center at San Jose State University. He will talk about high-speed rail.

Campus architect Thomas E. Lollini will talk about the design of UC Merced, and attorney Donald Simon, co-founder of Build It Green and the U.S. Green Building Council's Northern California chapter, will speak at a dinner reception about America's competitive edge in the new energy economy.

The San Joaquin Valley - with its rich agriculture base, a history of can-do entrepreneurial spirit, vast land and sun resources, access to the transmission grid, mid-state location and high energy bills - can be a leader in the emerging green economy.

And UC Merced, along with the new Hall of Fame, could play key roles in that transformation.

Business, Military and Professional Sports Become Leaders in Green Movement

There is no denying the influence of professional sports on consumers.

Professional football, basketball, hockey, soccer and other sports generate $19 billion in revenue annually. Star athletes earn multimillion-dollar paychecks, make millions more in endorsements and have throngs of admirers.

Stick their face on a cereal box, and it flies off the shelves. Footwear makers see sales soar if an athlete promotes their sneakers. So, it is nice to see that professional sports is starting to increase awareness of green living and sustainability.

Six teams - Seattle Mariners, Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Storm and Seattle Sounders FC - are founding members of the non-profit Green Sports Alliance. The mission, to quote from its Web site, is to, "reduce the environmental impact of professional sports and to inspire fans to join us in these efforts."

Here's a link to a story on the new sustainability league, which in turn links to the Green Sports Alliance.

One goal is to share best practices on water, energy and waste management. and to share them with other teams.

With big business, the military and now professional sports spurring the green movement, it is only a matter of time until it gains a foothold and takes off.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Algae fuel and solar could use a little entrepreneurial True Grit

Recent developments in solar and biofuels lead me to believe that the sunny San Joaquin Valley could indeed become a leader in the emerging clean energy industry.

My co-worker Sandy Nax has called the Valley a Petri dish for alternative energy development because it has so many of the necessary attributes: available land, scorching sun and/or clear days a majority of the year, wind in the mountains and scads of agricultural resources for biofuel or biogas.

This morning, Sandy leaned over from his computer and said, "Clean energy could be a game changer." He was referring to the economy.

Sandy and I discuss the attributes of the sorry state of economic affairs that have devastated the region's real estate, toppled government tax revenues and put many of our neighbors out of work.

We used to work in the newspaper business, which hasn't fared well these past several years. As part of our jobs writing and editing business stories, we spent years analyzing trends and making sense of them.

This clean energy trend has been fascinating to watch. I still have no idea where it's going and what particular component will be the first to fuel jobs, but indicators have been extremely positive.

Just in the small amount of time I've been affiliated with the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, great strides have been made in industrial solar, offshore wind and biofuel. And that's just on top of the energy efficiency measures being taken by government, business and consumers.

While power from pond scum, or algae, intrigues me beyond all measure, commercializing the extraction of usable fuel at a decent price could be years away. Fellow reporter Jeff St. John reminded me after one post of algae's shortcomings.

Concentrated solar is another realm of massive possibility. The trick with solar is to increase efficiency and lower cost to make it reach or surpass "parity" with fossil fuels. The advancements in concentrated solar now in use were hinted at when I covered a San Jose start-up back in the mid 1980s.

I remember thinking, "That would be cool."

My optimism is bolstered by statements like this from John Denniston, a partner at greentech investor Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, as reported by Andrew Nusca at "Some geographies are at (solar) grid parity: in Italy, in some parts of California."

Denniston made the comment at the 2011 Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. He said the industry is poised for a very big take-off, and he was talking about solar as a whole, not just the concentrated variety, which remains relatively rare.

A column by Christian Wolan on caught my eye when's aggregator service sent it my way. Here's good old stalwart Forbes, albeit the electronic version, writing about pond scum. That's got to be a development in credibility, right?

To close out his review of the state of the technology, Wolan uses a quote from Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that says it's "developing a breakthrough technology that will transform algae, the most promising source of renewable oil, into a true competitor to petroleum."

Wolan wrote that "referring to the algae biofuel programs of ExxonMobile, BP, Chevron and Valero, Eckelberry said, 'This final factor alone is driving the funding of algae projects.'"

I may as well quote myself here. Being raised in Interior Alaska, I'm very familiar with the power of oil companies. I watched when the first overland truck and cat train forged north up ice roads to Prudhoe Bay to develop the oil fields. Then grew to high-school age amongst the massive piles of pipe that either went overland or underground 800 miles to Valdez.

Many of us believed those companies could do anything. Perhaps it's that wildcatter streak that infuses much of the industry, the "Git Er Done" mentality, that turns a dream into job-creating reality.

I missed the pipeline boom of the mid 1970s, but I did get a job in Valdez in 1978 building foundations and basement and driveway slabs in a nicely designed subdivision -- Mineral Creek if I remember correctly. Huge mobile cranes dropped the manufactured homes onto the foundations when we finished. The boxy three-bedroom two-bath homes had been used to house the thousands of workers who built the terminal across the bay from the tiny city.

It would be nice to see a fraction of that kind of ingenuity, grit or tenacity -- from whatever source -- funneled into clean energy. Jobs would follow.

Timing, of course, is everything. I hope sooner than later. Right Sandy?

Photo courtesy

Greenhouse gas inventory seminar planned

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization will hold class on conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

The event is planned from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, in the SJVCEO Board Room, 4747 N. First St., suite 140, in Fresno. The program is geared to local government officials and regional planning agencies. There is no charge. Here is the link to register.

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA is conducting the training through the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative.

ICLEI was founded in 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The council was established when more than 200 local governments from 43 countries convened at an inaugural conference of the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future at the United Nations in New York.

Included in the training session will be:
  • Overview of the SEEC project and ICLEI
  • Overview of conducting a government operations inventory
  • Overview of conducting an inventory at the community scale
  • Defining the scope of study, boundaries and protocols
  • Overview of the Local Government Operations Protocol and Community Scale Protocol Framework
  • Timelines, staff and resources needed to effectively complete inventory
  • Gathering, organizing and working with data
  • Sector detail (overview of recommended and alternate methods and discussion of data sources)
  • Overview of tools that can be used to gather data and execute a comprehensive inventory
  • Reporting inventories

The Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative is a new alliance to help cities and counties reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy. It is a collaboration between three statewide nonprofit organizations and California’s four investor-owned utilities.

Members are ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA, The Institute for Local Government, The Local Government Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., San Diego Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and Southern California Gas Co.

The program is funded by California utility ratepayers.

Project seeks to inspire a new generation to seek green fortunes

This video highlights San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization's work in the Valley Legacy Grant.

The funds come from the Workforce Investment Act, and SJVCEO's role, although small, is to help teach people about clean energy. We're working with teachers, institutions and the private sector to help provide an educated work force ready for an emerging industry.

For a definition of the grant, I'll defer to this recently published report by our partners at the Office of Community and Economic Development at California State University, Fresno.

Mike Dozier, secretariat for the Office of Community and Economic Development, explained the reason why this effort is important in his introduction to the report: "As the San Joaquin Valley is facing difficult economic times, it has become more critical than ever before that we as a region continue our collaboration efforts. Through the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, the public and private sectors are driving toward improving the quality of life for our residents."

The San Joaquin Valley as a whole has an unemployment rate nearing 20 percent, and that figure just represents those still on the books looking for work. The reality is likely much worse.

Here at the SJVCEO, we believe the clean energy sector is a potential game changer and we're trying to do what we can to inspire folks to jump on the entrepreneurial band-wagon and figure out how to make the Valley a kingpin in an emerging industry.

"The purpose of Valley Legacy is to bring the San Joaquin Valley’s K-12 system, higher education and work force investment board systems into alignment to better prepare people for occupations in high-growth industry sectors in the San Joaquin Valley," the report says.

Those sectors include:
  • Agribusiness, including food processing and biotechnology
  • Water technology
  • Renewable energy
  • Manufacturing
  • Supply chain management
The report continues: "In the current K-12 system, young people receive an education that is designed to maximize success in passing standardized tests. That’s a worthy goal; but most students come out of high school with no preparation for careers in the Valley.

"Most of those who don’t go on to college end up at some low-paying, dead-end job. Some students then go to the County Workforce Investment Boards, which act as a 'second-chance' system to train people for jobs with career advancement; but the WIBs receive funding to assist only a small percentage of those who apply.

"What needs to be improved is the 'first-chance' system. High-school students need to graduate with options: the option to go to a four-year college; to go to a community college; enter directly into the Valley workforce; or even to start their own business."

We think it could work. Advances in biofuel technology, increasing demand for solar power, fossil fuel price boosts and overall escalating consumption of electrical power make clean energy a worthy pursuit. With advances, much of it may be on par price-wise with traditional energy sources or even less.

On The Way To The San Joaquin Valley's New Industry

Green jobs could be a game changer in the San Joaquin Valley, where joblessness exceeds Appalachia levels, and where high temperatures, low incomes, geography and bountiful resources combine to create a strong foundation for an emerging clean-energy industry.

Many people consider clean energy to be solar farms, wind turbines, biofuel facilities and methane digesters. That's all true. And we're seeing more of them in the Valley, particularly solar.

UC Merced is conducting ground-breaking research. More farmers are using the sun to power their operations. Fallow farmland on the west side of the Valley is attractive to developers of proposed large-scale solar projects, as this item in Sierra2thesea notes, because we have something many regions don't: few environmental issues and ample access to the transmission grid.

But, clean energy also is weatherization, upgraded air conditioners, more efficient lighting and smarter use of electricity. Such efficiency measures are key to the state's overall clean-energy plan. In fact, federal Department of Energy officials call efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of clean energy.

Relatively inexpensive fixes can reap maximum savings for businesses and homeowners who struggle to pay their energy bills. At my house, the summer power bill is exceeded only by my mortgage. Cutting my utility costs means more money in my pocket - and ultimately into the economy.

Developing a workforce capable of capitalizing on the growth of clean energy and conservation is key. More educational and training programs are being created, but not necessarily in a coordinated way, UC Berkeley points out in a new study that focuses heavily on the energy-efficiently part of the new economy.

Here is a news release on that report, plus the study itself.

In a nutshell, the comprehensive analysis concludes that energy efficiency goals provide career opportunities for Californians, but that training and education programs are fragmented.

The study forecasts about $11.2 billion worth of public and private investments in energy efficiency in California by 2020, up from $6.6 billion in 2010. The future jobs that are directly related to energy efficiency work — and thus in need of “green” training — are primarily in traditional construction trades, such electricians, carpenters and sheet metal workers, and the researchers said that very few are in new specialized “green” occupations such as energy auditors or solar installers.

However, researchers are worried about work quality. Poor quality installation and maintenance of energy-efficient equipment and materials is common in some sectors, prior research has shown, and the UC Berkeley team found a correlation between low wages wages and high worker turnover.

They found more than 1,000 training programs throughout the state already offering basic- to advanced training for the most in-demand occupations. These are in four-year universities, community colleges, state-certified apprenticeship programs, utility-training centers, private training organizations, community-based organizations and high school career technical programs.

Concerns about shortages of jobs for graduates from education and training programs are real, and likely to persist through 2020, particularly for those with less than four years of college, so emphasis should be placed on revamping and leveraging existing training programs, the researchers noted in their report.

Here are some recommendations:

•Set clear skill certification requirements for workers doing energy efficiency work and encourage businesses to adopt them, particularly as new technologies are introduced

•Support employers who invest in a stable, higher skill and higher wage workforce by enforcing building codes and other regulations, by setting standards on contractors who receive public and ratepayer funded incentives or contracts, and by requiring skill certifications for workers;

•Focus workforce education and training on “greening” the traditional trade occupations, rather than creating new narrow and short-term energy efficiency-specific training programs;

•Support state-certified apprenticeships and improve coordination between community colleges programs and apprenticeships.

If we do this right, clean energy can be to the San Joaquin Valley what high tech is to Silicon Valley and movie making is to Hollywood.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fuel Cells: Space-Age Technology Lands In California

Fuel cells, which have been used to power space craft, are now helping supply the energy needs of manufacturers and retailers here on Earth, including an Odwalla facility in Dinuba.

Bloom Energy, developer of the Bloom Box, recently finished installing five natural gas fuel cells at the Tulare County plant. The biogas-fed cells will supply about 30% of the annual power needs, according to this story in The Business Journal.

Odwalla, owned by Coca Cola, is marching toward a more sustainable future. “Reducing our environmental footprint and our dependence on non-renewable resources is just as important to Odwalla as making great tasting, nourishing beverages,” Alison Lewis, Odwalla's president said in The Business Journal story. “In addition to celebrating the completion of our fuel cell installation, we’re looking forward to rolling out our innovative PlantBottle packaging and kicking off our annual Plant a Tree program later this year.”

Fuel cells can convert a variety of fuel sources into electricity. Increasingly, they are being used throughout the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere. Bloom Energy counts Walmart, Staples, Kaiser Permanente and California Institute of Technology as customers.

Walmart has deployed two 400 kw systems at two stores in Southern California, and plans more. The world's largest retailer eventually wants to use renewable sources to fulfill all its power needs, A Walmart spokesman says in this this Bloom Energy press release.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells by

Monday, March 14, 2011

Clean Energy: The Pathway To A New Economy

Tim Sheehan's story in yesterday's Fresno Bee touches on a familiar theme here in the San Joaquin Valley: Diversifying the employment base.

The Valley is the nation's salad bowl. Its farmers produce $20 billion worth of food and fiber annually, most of which ends up on dinner tables worldwide or, in the case of cotton, is woven into shirts and other products sold in department stores.

But farm labor, which projections show could increase in demand, is not necessarily high paying. And the other projected growth industries in the Valley - retail and food service - also don't require much education and training - and pay low wages.

Thus, the need for creating new industries. The most obvious: renewable energy.

The resource-rich Valley is well positioned to be a leader in alternative energy. UC Merced recognizes that, and is conducting cutting-edge solar-energy research. Officials there see the Valley's sun resources as an attribute.

Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison recently announced or turned the switch on major solar projects. Farmers are increasingly embracing sun, methane and biofuels. The wind turbine-rich Tehachapi and Altamont passes are off our southern and northern tips respectively.

And there is something else: an increasing recognition that Valley officials are onto something. In October, the Valley was designated an Innovation Hub (iHub), which is designed to foster partnerships, economic development and job creation around specific research clusters.

UC Merced, California State University, Fresno, (which has innovative water and agriculture programs) and the Central Valley Business Incubator are key stakeholders in the iHub, which will focus on the interrelated issues of agriculture technology, water and energy.

"The iHub brings us together and gets us talking, " said Mike Dozier, interim director of the
Office of Community & Economic Development at Fresno State.

In addition, high schools and colleges are starting to expand green programs, studies are starting to reinforce the potential of green jobs here and elsewhere, and legislation is starting to include the Valley in proposed green programs.

Our non-profit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, has a Web site that provides lesson plans and other resources to high school teachers, and job links to students and job seekers, and a component in a proposed bill would provide millions to facilitate green energy projects in the Valley.

With low incomes, a robust population growth rate, high power bills and asthma rates and a jobless rate that exceeds Appalachia, the Valley needs clean energy more than most places. Some people contend the Valley could generate enough power to be self-sustaining - or even a power producer.

Look at a map: The San Joaquin Valley is dead center in the state, is ringed by research universities such as UC Merced, Fresno State, Cal Poly and UC Davis, and is sandwiched between major population centers of Southern California, The Bay area and Sacramento that consume gobs of electricity.

Of course, budget issues are a factor. Deficits abound, but Dozier says those shouldn't curtail efforts. "We need to do what we can within the limitations of what we have," he said. "We need to grow intelligently."

Renewable energy could be to the San Joaquin Valley what high tech is to Silicon Valley and Hollywood is to Los Angeles.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cool new fuel: Scientist leads innovation that could spur biofuel revolution

James Liao may be one of the most important people in the nation's energy sector.

And while his name may be unfamiliar to just about everybody not intimately involved with biofuel innovation, that could quickly change.

He leads a team that has developed a microbe capable of turning cellulosic material, or grassy and woody matter, into isobutanol, a fuel with huge potential. Just how huge, we'll likely find out in coming months. But suffice to say it's important, especially with gas prices pushing $4 per gallon.

This fuel is a far bigger deal than ethanol, which is made in this country from corn. Liao's team's feat is the first time isobutanol has been coaxed directly from cellulose.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline," Liao said in a statement from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification."

The last sentence is a big one. It certainly captured my attention.

Liao's statement implies that should this process reach commercialization at a cost consumers will accept, the United States has a shot at providing an alternative fuel at a reasonable price to compete with foreign oil. Don't expect panacea, or cure-all, but an alternative fuel that could substitute for refined petroleum would no doubt exert economic pressure on retail fuel prices.

The conflict in Libya between Gadhafi and separatist forces shut off the oil production spigot in that country and illustrates what eliminating a small percentage of the world's crude can mean to prices. At this writing, the price remained above $100 per barrel, according to, but showed a decline. And the one year forecast dropped by about $10.

Injecting an alternative source, cellulosic isobutanol for instance, likewise could push prices lower -- perhaps far lower.

But, as energy seer Paul Johnson just told me, it's hard to tell initially future junk bonds from the next Microsoft. And that may be the case here. But I hope not.

Paul is executive director of the nonprofit I work for, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization and just returned to Seattle after attending REXPO, the recycling exposition in Stockton, Calif. put on by Frank Ferral with the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

Paul said clean energy opportunities abounded at the event and noted "very positive energies given the fact of the economic gloom and doom."

Liao wasn't at REXPO, but he is one of clean energy's bright spots. He serves as chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California Los Angeles Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The isobutanol work was conducted at the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The team's findings were published online in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the advance "yet another sign of the rapid progress we are making in developing the next generation of biofuels that can help reduce our oil dependence."

Chu said the technology promises the potential of a new industry that can convert wheat and rice straw, corn stover, lumber wastes and specialty plants into fuel.

DOE has given extra attention to the biomass sector of late, offering a series of webinars on the subject that even included algae, another of my cool fuel picks. The agency is coordinating peer review meetings of advancements on various processes that will continue through June 2011. DOE plans to use the information as it considers future funding decisions.

Expect Liao to continue making news in the cellulose sector. Last year, he was awarded the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The award, according to a story for the UCLA Engineering Department by Wileen Wong Kromhout, promotes research on and development of less-hazardous alternative technologies that reduce or eliminate waste.

In the story, Liao sounds committed to providing an alternative to fossil fuels. "It is essential to develop a renewable source to replace petroleum as the major chemical and energy source," he says.

I know a bunch of guys on my street in Clovis, Calif. who would maybe turn their noses up at the concept of plant fuel. But if it enables them to keep their mondo lift Chevy trucks on the road, they'd be big supporters.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More Companies Discover The Economic Wisdom Of Energy Efficiency

Good investments are hard to find in this economy. Housing prices are falling. Spiking oil prices send shock waves through the stock market. Some experts worry about the safety of municipal bonds. It is tough all over.

But one investment is almost a sure bet. It's not a standard investment, such as a mutual fund. And you don't earn money as much as you save money. But the result is the same: more money in your bank account.

What is this sure-fire investment? It is energy efficiency.

Minimum investment can lead to maximum returns. According to this report, every $1 investment in energy efficiency leads to a savings of $4. The consulting firm of McKinsey & Company reports that energy-efficiency programs could save $600 billion by 2020.

Some companies are reaping large returns from energy-retrofit projects. AT&T saved $44 million in 2009, Dow Chemical is investing $100 million in efficiency measures and News Corp has saved a bundle.

More on those efforts is available here, here and here.

The owners of the Empire State Building and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also are believers . There is a reason why federal energy officials call efficiency the low-hanging fruit of clean energy.

But, like many investments, there are upfront costs and other barriers to entry.

It has been an uphill slog in many ways. Some politicians propose deep cuts to efficiency programs, PACE programs (which would provide a financing mechanism for property owners to finance energy upgrades) were all but curtailed and budgets are in disarray.

But a potential $600 billion in savings awaits. And a strong energy-efficiency program could have a significant impact in places such as the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. In Fresno, where I live, my summertime power bill can exceed $500, and is my second-largest expense behind my mortgage.

Incomes here are low. The unemployment rate exceeds Appalachia figures. We have some of
worst concentrated poverty in the nation. Lower power bills would enrich residents, provide jobs and potentially stimulate the economy.

Photo of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hidden costs of fossil fuels amplify case for clean energy

Hidden costs lurk everywhere.

Buy a car on credit and pay double the sticker price. Same with a house. For instance, adjustable mortgages and balloon payments contributed mightily to the real estate meltdown. And taxes take a big bite. Just ask any small businessperson.

Maybe that's why we Americans like our energy costs low, or at least relatively.

But there are hidden costs there, too. Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment released a study in February that pegged the estimated hidden yearly cost of coal-generated electricity at a high of $538 billion, or an additional 18 cents per kilowatt hour. listed the commercial cost of coal power at 4.8 to 5.5 cents per kWh.

For some perspective, solar costs between 15 to 30 cents per kWh and wind 4 to 6 cents.

"Coal carries a heavy burden," the "Mining Coal, Mounting Costs" report said. The Harvard study factored in health costs (11,000 deaths annually from lung cancer, heart, respiratory and kidney disease) and environmental impacts of fly ash spills (53 from 1974 to 2008) and mountaintop removal (500 removed and 1.4 million acres transformed).

The beauty of coal is that it's cheap, relatively simple to extract with today's technologies and domestic. There also is quite a lot of it. However, as the study points out, digging it up and burning it to create electricity does have drawbacks, at least with current practices. Addressing those would add to the price substantially and any increased regulations generally are opposed by the industry.

Natural gas performs better emissions wise and is easy on the pocketbook at 3.9 to 4.4 cents per kWh. Domestic reserves are expected to skyrocket as well with newly refined fracturing drilling techniques.

Oil on the other hand has its own troubles. As of this writing, oil per barrel prices had surpassed $105 and the one-year forecast had risen to $121, according to And as the growing conflict in Libya illustrates, crude oil brings with it a high political cost.

Conflict between Libyan strongman Moammar Qadhafi and eastern separatists have caused California gas prices at the pump to climb 50 cents per gallon in the past month, according to The development has politicians concerned it could derail the shaky economic recovery and consumers grumbling. Should commodities traders remain nervous and prices high, the cost of everything from food to services will climb.

For instance, I heard on National Public Radio that several airlines have already raised rates half a dozen times this year due to increasing fuel costs.

But this is a relatively transparent cost, outlined daily by major media outlets. The less visible but no less costly is what Gal Luft, executive director of Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, calls the "terrorist premium." In the report, "Oil and the New Economic Order," Luft says that premium costs the United States $65 billion to $85 billion a year.

Oil internationally receives a litany of subsidies from countries that shield consumers from up to three-quarters the cost of the fuel. As I wrote in a past post, the International Energy Agency in a report released this past summer says its analysis revealed that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 billion in 2008. This also elevates cost.

Green energy, by comparison, gets a pittance in subsidies. London-based research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance says, "governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy." This came by way of tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices known as feed-in tariffs and alternative energy credits. Germany is a leader in this groups with its solar feed-in tariff, but that may be decreased.

And making this debate continually interesting are advances improving the efficiency of solar power. Technologies concentrating the suns rays and various methods of creating power storage are elevating the ability of the renewable to compete.

I love the "battery" concept that uses a silo filled with water and a massive counter weight that pushes out the water to generate power when the sun sets or wind stops. The underground silo is filled with water by energy generated from the solar or wind system.

And more traditional battery technology is making massive strides. I tweeted recently about the lithium-water battery. No kidding. It may work.

So who knows how this will develop? Obviously, my nonprofit is biased. We'd like to see the San Joaquin Valley take off as a leader in all things renewable, generating spin-off businesses and inspiring entrepreneurs to make sense of all this harvestable energy surrounding us. And create some jobs in the process.

The Greening of California Farms

California farmers just keep getting greener.

Growers, packers and shippers - and dozens of those dot the bountiful San Joaquin Valley of Central California - are increasingly discovering advantages to renewable energy, predominately solar.

This Packer story notes that three more farming enterprises - Live Oak Farms of LeGrand, DeBenedetto Orchards of Chowchilla and Henry Mesple Farms of Fresno - are installing solar systems to help power packing and cold-storage operations, headquarters and water pumps.

These projects are more evidence that California farmers, who already lead the nation in renewable energy, are serious about cutting their carbon footprints and their energy bills.

Consider this quote to The Packer by Bob Giampaoli, managing partner of Live Oak Farms: "Sustainability has been a priority for Live Oak Farms since our first harvest."

It also makes sense economically. Water pumps and other farm-related uses accounted for 13% and 11% respectively of the energy consumed in Fresno and Kern counties in 2009, according to figures we've cited.

Renewable energy, particularly solar, makes sense in the San Joaquin Valley in other ways too. We have lots of sun, ample land for solar arrays, lots of flat roofs for rooftop systems, access to the transmission grid and sky high power bills.

Photo by visitsunworks.wordpress

Friday, March 4, 2011

Algae biofuel develops momentum; could we see $30 bbl fuel?

Algae keeps nosing around clean energy news.

It doesn't have the sunny cache of solar or the exotic qualities of wind, tidal and geothermal power. But the rapidity of algae fuel's reported advances are hard to ignore. At least for this former reporter.

In my backyard at the University of California, Merced, researchers received a grant to "perform a comprehensive life cycle analysis study of algae biofuels." The money, a modest $142,747, is part of about $3.5 million issued by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research program.

Algae takes a back seat in the grant to other projects that include improving grid reliability, energy efficiency and automobile fuel economy. But, hey, it's algae. Pond scum. This is the stuff that may be grown in wastewater settling ponds, harvested and turned into diesel fuel. Or food additives, you never know.

But the important thing is algae wasn't left out. It's not cold fusion. This stuff shows true promise as an alternative energy source.

CEC Commissioner Jeffrey Byron put it this way in a statement from the agency: "California's strength comes from the ability to invest in energy research across the board."

No kidding. And this pond scum just may keep oil prices from breaking the bank. Cambridge, Mass.-based Joule Unlimited announced that it has created a "cynobacterium" that secrete a product identical to ethanol or diesel fuel, according to Joule biologist Dan Robertson, quoted in

This breakthrough, the company says, could enable the production of 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually. The company says it can do it for $30 a barrel.

That has yet to be proved commercially, of course. But developments are coming hot and heavy across the globe. rattled off a handful of promising developments in Australia, topping off the list with serious production efforts by Aurora Algae and Algae.Tec.

And, an aggregator of stories, lists multiple posts daily. One that caught my eye highlighted a peer review of the draft report “Biofuels and the Environment: First Triennial Report to Congress,” scheduled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report will give Congress a taste of what's coming.

Expect pond scum to do more than lurk in a puddle on the floor with lobbyists during discussion.

I do like to include practical applications in these rants. Nothing epitomizes that more than the biofuel-powered Bentley Continental Supersports convertible, reportedly capable of more than 200 mph. The vehicle debuted this week at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland. Ami Cholia of writes: "an on-board fuel supply system monitors the content of the fuel tank to make sure that power and torque remain constant regardless of the ratio of petrol to biofuel."

Pretty cool. So it can handle anything you throw at it and still go fast. We put fuel oil in a bug once and it ran. Barely. We had to clean the plugs, but it got us out of a jam.

The Bentley, I assume, would be better.

Biofuels still must prove themselves. Ethanol, even as an additive, has gotten mixed reviews. For instance, the lawnmower mechanic in Old Town Clovis told me if I kept using that "cheap garbage gas" I'd continue to have problems with my mower's carburetor. Her gripe? Ethanol. It gets gummy and nasty if allowed to sit too long. (Hint: use stabilizer.)

UC Merced plans to analyze emerging algae biofuels technology and provide feedback on the rather interesting concept of extracting fuel that doesn't require much land, water or tending. And pond scum grows rapidly in any kind of water. The leftover material, after oil extraction, could be used for fertilizer.

"We will consider the efficient use of residual algae biomass as an energy rich waste stream and new harvesting techniques that could improve the sustainability of the overall process," wrote J. Elliott Campbell and Gerardo Diaz of UC Merced and Joseph M. Norbeck of University of California, Riverside.

As I read over their proposal, I determined that the process of extracting and refining sounds far above my paygrade. But as I was scanning through one of the many algae related websites, I found this do-it-yourself book: "Making Algae Biodiesel at Home" (, $99.99). It says it can, among other things, show the home brewer how to build an 80-gallon algae photobioreactor "for less than $215."

Somehow it doesn't sound as promising as my once prolific beer-brewing efforts in Anchorage before I was married. But who knows? The practice may catch on.

All you need is a biofuel Bentley.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

More California Farmers Embracing Renewable Energy

As major users of energy, America's farms are natural candidates for renewable-energy efforts. That is especially true here in the San Joaquin Valley, where farming is a $20 billion per- year enterprise, temperatures hit triple digits, power bills are sky high and air pollution ranks among the worst in the nation.

As it turns out, farmers, especially in California, have made substantial gains in the use of alternative-energy sources. With about 25% of all facilities, California led the nation in 2009 with 1,956 farms and ranches producing renewable energy, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Solar dominated, with 1,906 California farmers using photovoltaic and thermal solar panels. The majority of those - more than 64,000 panels - were installed since 2005. Wind energy was used on 134 farms in California, while methane digesters were installed and used on 14 properties.

Solar power also has blossomed on farms nationally over the last four years. Prior to 2000, only 18,881 solar panels were on farms and ranches. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 108,000 panels were installed.

"Farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting renewable-energy practices on their operations, and reaping the important economic and environmental benefits," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Farmers in nearly every state reported savings on their energy bill. The survey also noted that subsidies and other sources helped finance some of the installation cost. In California, about 41% of the average $79,000 cost of installing solar came from outside sources.

All this makes me wonder what the future holds. Technological advances, such as this small-scale biomass project with ultra-low emissions suitable for urban areas, are coming fast, and the price of solar continues to fall. Some people predict parity is just around the corner. Possibly in 2012.

And one has to wonder if increasing oil prices, and the increasing realization from military and Big Business that green is good, will spur more energy-saving and renewable efforts among California farmers and corporations.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have adopted some cool renewable projects - such as this grape grower in Delano - and I'm betting more are on the horizon.

photo by

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pacific Gas and Electric To Hook Up More Solar

Pacific Gas & Electric has released more information regarding three large solar farms that it plans to build in Solar Valley, oops, I mean the San Joaquin Valley. It turns out the solar arrays will be built near Five Points and Helm, according to this story in The Fresno Bee.

The projects will generated a combined 50 megawatts of electricity, which PG&E says is enough to power 15,000 homes, and is the first big push by the utility to own and operate facilities, according to Tim Sheehan's story in The Bee.

We here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization believe that the region from Stockton to the Grapevine is an ideal spot for solar energy. We have ample sun, access to the power grid and lots of former farmland that is no longer productive - and flat.

Mike Jones of PG&E agrees. Sheehan quotes the power-generation manager as saying this, "The Central Valley holds tremendous potential as a source of clean energy for California."

And it comes at an opportune time. The solar sites will provide about 500,000 hours of paid work when the unemployment rate in Fresno County is about 17%. It also comes when utility companies are encouraged to increase their amount of green power to 33% by 2020.

The PG&E plants follow a similar one by Southern California Edison in Porterville. Budgets are an issue of course, but California has shown its willingness to embrace solar and other renewables. Maybe this is just a precursor of what could come.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New State Program Could Help Families Become More Energy Efficient

I live in your basic suburban tract house near Fresno. Fourteen hundred square feet with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a backyard pool. It was built in 1993.

Two dogs. One cat. One wife. Kid in college. But our monthly electricity bill during the summer, when Fresno fries under triple-digit temps, has been known to exceed $600. We like it cool, but not that cool.

I'm thinking an 18-year-old air conditioner could be part of the problem. Experts say that every jump in SEER rating equates to 7.5% increase in savings. So, going from a SEER 10, for example, to a new SEER 15 could potentially cut my power bills 45% .

And that's where a new California state program could benefit me, and others in a similar situation. The Energy Upgrade California plan launched this week by the Energy Commission provides up to $4,000 in rebates to homeowners who make energy-efficiency upgrades.

Using the program's Web portal, property owners can enter their zip code or county name to learn about available upgrade programs, rebates, financing options and participating contractors available to them.

Initially, the program will be available for single-family homes and multi-family properties of up to four units. Later in 2011, the program will expand to multi-family properties of five or more units. In fall 2011, the program will be expanded to include commercial properties.

Upgrades are available in two rebate packages: the Basic Upgrade Package and the Advanced Upgrade Package. The Basic Package consists of seven required elements designed to improve energy efficiency by approximately 10%, and includes a fixed rebate of $1,000. The Advanced Package is customized for the property owner, with rebates based on the energy savings achieved between 15-40 percent, with rebates ranging from $1,250 to more than $4,000, depending upon the utility provider and energy savings.

Here is a San Jose Mercury News story on the program, plus links to the CEC press release and to the Energy Upgrade California Web site.

photo by