Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reports Bolster Support For Clean Energy

Two new reports on clean energy - an emerging industry that is being knocked around like a tennis ball in this economic environment - are out.

The first, produced by a venture capital firm, takes aim at some of the arguments against alternative power sources. The other, generated by Pike Research, reports on 10 trends in clean energy for this year and beyond.

We link to them here and here.

In a study entitled, "Making the case for clean energy," officials with the private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy Partners attack central tenets among skeptics, including the belief that renewable energy is too expensive.

Hudson's study notes that the cost of producing renewable-energy technology is falling rapidly; that power from wind, solar and geothermal does not require feedstock and thus is not subject to commodity price fluctuations; and that the technologies are close to parity with conventional sources even without accounting for the cost in carbon emissions.

(That contention, by the way, was bolstered by General Electric last week when its global research director said that solar power may be cheaper than fossil fuels in five years.)

The Hudson report puts it this way: "It is apparent the... key arguments put forth by clean-energy technology skeptics are flawed or unfounded."

Pike Research, which studies clean energy, made some noteworthy observations about the future of the industry, including:

  • The growth of utility-owned solar projects, particularly in California;
  • More off-shore wind farms;
  • An increase in water-borne solar arrays;
  • Advancement of solar and wind technologies;
  • Growth in waste-to-energy market in Europe and China;
  • More geothermal development in the U.S., especially in California and Nevada;
  • Direct current electricity may become more prevalent.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Can China hijack green energy?

Rare earth may determine the future of clean energy.

I'm not talking about Gil Bridges and Ray Monette of the rock band Rare Earth, noted for such hits as "Get Ready" and "I Just Want to Celebrate," although that does make a sort of poetic sense. The band is back together and touring, after all.

No, I'm talking about world domination by China of an industry so important, it's success or failure may mean the difference between survival and mass evacuation in low-lying countries like Bangladesh.

Much of the clean energy industry depends upon extremely obscure elements that have come to be known as rare earth. They have names like lanthanum, cerium, yttrium and neodymium and are used in the manufacture of electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. China has spent the past several years locking up supply of these elements, planning ahead and banking on their value escalating.

And the stakes are high. The recent study, "Energy Policy," by Stanford University professors Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson says wind, water and solar could supply all of our energy needs in 20 to 40 years. While that may be unlikely given today's energy mix, the sector is sure to increase despite the domination of increasingly costly and damaging fossil fuels.

Rare earth elements, while relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, are hard to find in "minable concentrations," as the U.S. Geological Survey explains in its 2010 rare earth report. Thus the problem -- and the name.

China, according to USGS, has reserves of 55 million metric tons, while the United States has 19 million metric tons. Both countries dominate known reserves. However, China is better positioned to take advantage of its mines.

"China accounts for 97 percent of the worldwide rare earth metal production and the country's new export quotas have caused prices to skyrocket," write Euan Sadden and Kerry-Ann Adamson of Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research in the May 2011 report "Rare Earth Metals in the Cleantech Industry."

That means if a company wants to build batteries, wind turbines or solar panels, it likely must get its materials from China. However, the Chinese are hardly slouches at trade and their manufacturers have already begun to dominate production of solar panels. Analysts say they intend to the same with the rest of the cleantech industry.

U.S. and European companies looking to build the massive collector sites for wind may find themselves with no other competitive alternative other than purchasing from Chinese suppliers. And for an emerging industry dependent upon falling prices for more universal adoption reliance on a single source could be bad. Real bad.

Ian Fletcher, author of "Free Trade Doesn't Work" and Huffington Post blogger, frames the debate in simple terms.

"Why are they important? For example, the so-called rare earths among these materials are needed to make the super-strong magnets that are needed whenever you want to mechanically generate (or consume) electricity efficiently," Fletcher writes in a recent post. And he says that according to estimates in the recent book "Red Alert," by Stephen Leeb, a 3-megawatt wind turbine contains about 2 tons of rare earth metals.

"Even a humble Toyota Prius contains 22 pounds of lanthanum in its battery," he says. "No lanthanum, no electric cars."

But the news isn't all bad.

Fletcher noted that Congress in 2010 passed the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act, which states that it is meant to "to assure the long-term, secure, and sustainable supply of rare earth materials sufficient to satisfy the national security, economic well-being, and industrial production needs of the United States."

This apparently kept the Mountain Pass mine in California's Mohave desert in domestic hands. Fletcher said Australia similarly checked a Chinese buyout in 2009.

Activity at the Mountain Pass mine, according to USGS, resumed operation in 2007, producing refined rare earth products. The federal agency's report also detailed efforts to develop other commercial-grade mine sites, saying that investment and exploration "surged" in 2010. Sites included Bear Lodge in Wyoming; Diamond Creek in Idaho; Elk Creek in Nebraska; Hoidas Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada; Lemhi Pass in Idaho-Montana; and Nechalacho (Thor Lake) in Northwest Territories, Canada.

Other sites included Dubbo Zirconia in New South Wales, Australia; Kangankunde in Malawi; Mount Weld in Western Australia, Australia; and Nolans Project in Northern Territory, Australia.

The jury's still out. China's in serious production mode as only a state-controlled economy can dictate. But U.S. capitalism has a way of overcoming challenges. The clean energy industry, at least from a purely job creation perspective, offers some very good opportunities worldwide.

It would be nice for the home team to win this one or at least become a World Cup scale competitor.

In the meantime, the band Rare Earth offers this bit of wisdom I'd like to see implemented: "Fe Fi Fo Fo Fum, Look out baby now here I come."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Banking On Energy Retrofits

One of the largest banks in California says it will finance $55 million worth of energy-conservation improvements in older buildings.

Bank of America will provide low-interest loans and grants to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) that specialize in financing energy-efficiency improvements. The bank will select 12 community development lenders throughout the nation.

Bank officials said the program is a way to address climate change.

"Residential and commercial buildings account for approximately 40 percent of all primary energy consumption in the United States. That's why, if we really want to address climate change, we have to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings, particularly older ones that tend to be the least efficient," said Anne Finucane, the bank's Global Strategy and Marketing officer.

More information is available in this press release. And here is a list of certified Community Development Financial Institutions by state.

How much of that $55 million winds up in the San Joaquin Valley remains to be seen, but we are happy that BofA is targeting energy conservation. The SJVCEO is heavily involved in efficiency, and is helping budget-strapped and staff-decimated cities in the Valley with energy and cost-saving retrofits.

Changing lights, replacing air conditioners and installing new motors are less glamorous than solar farms, wind turbines and the renewables part of the clean-energy movement, but is the most cost effective and easiest to accomplish. In fact, Federal Department of Energy head Steven Chu called it "low-hanging fruit" until deciding even that wasn't an accurate characterization. He now says energy efficiency is "fruit on the ground" and ripe for picking.

As this blog states, minimal investment in energy efficiency can reap maximum benefits. Studies show that commercial retrofits can cut power bills in the United States by billions of dollars. That is money that can be reinvested or stimulate the economy.

How to reduce your office’s carbon footprint

By Kieron Casey

For many a green minded individual the time they spend at work and the time they spend at home could not be more different.

Whilst this can, of course, refer to the level of relaxation and comfort available it can also refer to their implementation of green practices and policies. At home many an eco-conscious individual will spend a far amount of time making sure all their waste is recycled in the proper fashion and that all unneeded electrical equipment is redeployed or given to a new home.

At work, however, many individuals find themselves in an environment where green measures take low priority. Recycling and sustainability are not often seen by business decision makers as high priority or a general mood of ambivalence surrounds this issue at the workplace. However, it is possible, with just a few small actions, to implement widespread changes.

Like most strategies the best area to begin trying to implement change is right at the top of this business in the hope good practices will become standards throughout the company and will trickle down.

Although management at companies are often busy and green issues may not be the number one item on their agenda it is certainly worth highlighting this area to them particularly if you can highlight ways in which green policy can save a company’s money.

A prime example is via the use of printers; many older printers take longer and use up more energy than their newer counterparts – replacing them with streamlined models can see an increase in productivity, better time management and a lower carbon emission.

Something as simple as switching all printers to utilizing both sides of paper as a default setting will similarly half waste paper which of course is as great for a person in a finance department to hear as it is for a green minded individual.

Another way in which printers can be made more environmentally suitable would be to check their cartridges; whilst some can be recycled others can not. Also it is worth noting that it takes the same raw materials to create a larger cartridge as it does a small one.

If it is possible to convince management of these measures perhaps try and suggest co-ordinating meetings to discuss environmental measures with other members of staff. Small suggestions such as a car pool scheme or cutting down on use of paper cups in favour of bringing water bottles to work can go a long way in cutting a carbon footprint substantially.

Also one of the many reasons a company may not be aware of the many ways it impacts upon the environment is due to an uncertainty; many businesses are not aware of how much they waste let alone how to improve their records.

One of the best ways to combat this is to put into practise a chart, similar to a financial one tracking a company’s fiscal losses and growths, which measures the companies green performances and their recycling strengths and weaknesses.

Once green practices are observed in such a fashion it is possible then for a company to see where they are going wrong, what areas need change and how plans can be set up to implement these.

Once a company has monitored what can and cannot be recycled, what constitutes waste that should be disposed of in the usual fashion and what should not, it can go about looking at ways to actually getting on with putting a proper recycling plan into action.

Based on a town’s local recycling habits and pick up times it is possible for a business to make plans around these. Yet, perhaps, the most important action a business can take is to ensure that appropriate waste bins are put in place; there should be appropriate and separate disposal units set up for plastic, glass, paper and other materials, which accumulate on a work premises. The bins should be clearly labelled and the staff should be made aware of which materials should be placed into which container.

Author Bio
Guest blogger Kieron Casey is a green minded, vegetarian, BA (Hons) Journalism graduate who lives in Bradford, United Kingdom and blogs regularly on subjects including IT equipment, the environment and green living. He is writing on behalf of Equanet.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Google Edges Closer To California's Clean Energy Heartland

Most people know Google as the leading Internet search engine, but the high-tech company is investing heavily in renewable energy in California and other places. Just weeks after announcing a big investment in a Mojave Desert solar farm, Google now has placed a $55 million bet on a wind farm in Tehachapi - just off our southern tip.

The company is teaming up with Citibank to buy a part of the Alta Wind Energy Center, one of the largest wind installations in the world, according to the Los Angeles Times. In a press release, Google says its latest outlay - which ups its total investment in renewable energy to $400 million - could help usher in a new energy future.

Google says its experience with solar energy shows that renewable power makes good business sense. Read more about that here.

Google consumes a ton of power through data centers, and says it wants to develop energy from renewable sources that is cheaper than electricity produced from coal. The Tehachapi project had other attributes as well.

"As part of the new 4,500 MW Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, AWEC uses some of the first transmission lines developed specifically to transport renewable energy from remote, resource-rich areas (like the Mojave) to major population centers."

Google also was drawn to the innovative leverage lease financing structure. "...Google and Citi are purchasing the Alta IV project and will lease it back to Terra-Gen, who will manage and operate the wind projects under long-term agreements. We hope this structure encourages more investment by enabling other types of investors who might not typically consider wind projects."

Here is a breakdown of Google's other green investments (minus the Tehachapi project).

The Tehachapi deal brings Google tantalizingly close to the resource-rich and geographically-blessed San Joaquin Valley, which we believe could be a center of renewable energy.

We have the sun (which we'll probably start to notice in earnest in a few weeks), thousands of acres of flat land reasonably free of environmental issues, access to the transmission grid, and a rich agricultural heritage that lays the foundation for the possible development of biofuels.

The Valley's farmers already are leaders in renewable energy - check out this story of a Hanford dairy that is using solar to cut its power use 75% - and will likely boost those efforts as the sustainability movement grabs hold.

Is it unrealistic to think that Google could someday invest in the Valley - and provide an economic spark to a region that is primed for better days?

Image of Alta Wind Energy Center by gazettenet.com

Monday, May 23, 2011

19 tips to save energy and keep cool this summer

Summer's here in the San Joaquin Valley that means one thing.

It's hot. And it definitely means people will be looking to cool off by turning up their air conditioning systems. That costs money. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers this little fact: The average home spends almost 20 percent of its utility bill on cooling.

We've collected some tips on how to keep cool without paying a fortune in increased energy bills.

Here is the EPA's annual list of ideas to cut energy and cooling costs:

1) Change out incandescent light bulbs. Energy Star lighting uses less energy and produces about 75 percent less heat than incandescent, reducing cooling bills, too.

2) Install a programmable thermostat and set it to work around your family’s summer schedule -- a few degrees higher, say 78 or 80 degrees, when no one is home, so your cooling system isn’t cooling an empty house.

3) Run your ceiling fan to create a cool breeze. If you raise your thermostat by only two degrees and use your ceiling fan, you can lower cooling costs by up to 14 percent. But don't run them if you're not in the room.

4) Pull the curtains and shades closed or move container trees and plants in front of sun-exposed windows to serve as shade.

5) Use a microwave instead of an oven to cook. Ovens take longer to cook food and can make your house warmer, requiring your AC system to work harder.

6) Check your cooling system’s air filter every month.

7) Get duct work fixed so it doesn't leak. For more information, go to http://www.energystar.gov/cooltips.

Here are some additional tips from the California Energy Commission:

1) Turn your thermostat to 78 degrees when at home and 85 degrees when away.

2) Cut your cooling costs by opening windows when it's cooler outside than inside. In the morning, close up the house to trap the coolness inside.

3) Eliminate wasted energy. Turn off lights in unoccupied rooms and unplug or recycle that spare refrigerator in the garage if you don't truly need it.

4) Use appliances efficiently. Do only full loads when using your dishwasher and clothes washer. Run your appliances during off peak hours or after the sun goes down. When replacing these appliances, buy Energy Star products. They save up to 30 percent over standard models.

5) Stop vampire power. Many new TVs, DVD players, chargers, computer peripherals and other electronics use electricity even when they are switched off. They add up to over 50 watts in a typical home that are consumed all the time. Unplug or install switchable eco-strips.

6) Operate pool filters and cleaning sweeps efficiently. Look at the operating hours for your swimming pool filter and automatic cleaning sweep if your pool has one. Shorten the operating time if possible and switch pool filter and sweeper operations to off-peak hours.

7) Keep air conditioner outside unit clear so air can circulate freely. And tune it up regularly.

8) Install low flow shower heads to cut hot water costs.

9) Install a whole house fan. These are used after sundown when the outside temperature drops below 80 degrees and in the early morning.

10) Increase ceiling insulation. Consider increasing insulation to up to R-38 to reduce heating costs by 5 percent to 25 percent.

11) Consider replacing your old air conditioner with an more efficient unit, SEER 13 or greater. New units can save up to 40 percent compared with older models.

12) Add high efficiency windows to reduce cooling costs by up to 15 percent.

US consumers still skeptical of green cars

Consumers in the United Kingdom like cars that get great mileage.

In fact, according to a recent study by Motoring.co.uk, Toyota Prius sales in Great Britain are up 51.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and Nissan's Leaf looks like another big hit.

Meanwhile, across the pond, U.S. consumers are less excited by green automobiles, a category that includes hybrids and electric. Sure, small car sales are up and Chevy's done great business with its revamped automotive lineup that includes the electric/gas Volt.

But automotive consultant JD Power and Associates in its inaugural 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study says, "Automakers will be fighting over the relatively few consumers who are willing to drive green."

It could be the price of fuel. Petroprices.com reported an average UK cost to the equivalent of about $8.33 per gallon. That compares with a California average of about $4.12 as of May 23, according to AAA.

Big motivator. Americans are used to towing, hauling and packing in the number of passengers we want. Need help with that horse trailer? How about grabbing a tow bar and dragging that piece of junk Oldsmobile to the nonprofit junk car fundraiser?

Sure, we say. No problem. That's what that 460-cubic-inch monster in the pickup out back is for. Step on the gas pedal and watch the little red needle on the fuel gauge drop. It's a matter of pride with a lot of us.

Westlake Village, Calif.-based JD Power says that cultural phenomenon may stick with us awhile. I certainly haven't seen a decrease in the number of massive SUVs on the road. I find it reassuring to be sandwiched between a couple of them in a parking lot. Backing-out roulette is always an invigorating experience.

The study says consumers cite purchase price as a stumbling block to get into the new line of green cars. Remember, this is for electric and hybrid automobiles.

Other problems mentioned by consumers were driving range, or lack of it (a Leaf, according to a source, gets about 84 miles to a charge), increased maintenance costs and performance. The study says consumers are more likely to "switch into a more fuel-efficient vehicle powered by a traditional internal combustion engine than an alternative powertrain vehicle."

Yet, I've written about how Honda has positioned its hybrid Insight base price very close to that of the Civic. The statistics for performance aren't much different, although, and I've mentioned this before, my wife said there was no way anybody would catch her behind the wheel of "that thing," as she referred to the Insight. She purchased a Civic.

Peggy's issue was more cosmetic. She didn't care for the design, but like other consumers in the JD Power study she also worried about battery replacement costs.

My family tends to keep our cars and drive them a lot. Our daughter sold the 1986 Accord LX at 360,000 miles and it was still going somewhat strong. My 1981 Toyota pickup was cut up for scrap at about 260,000 miles but by that time was so tired and rotted out rust-wise that it had few usable parts.

And I'm still bound and determined to keep my 1974 Super Beetle functioning.

Drivers in the UK are a bit more adventurous, and perhaps a bit more insightful. Chris Green, co-founder and sales director of Motoring.co.uk, said increased demand can be traced to increased reliability and performance.

"In the future, we will see more and more people opting for cars that are cheap to maintain rather than splashing out on models to impress the neighbours," Green said in a statement. He estimated demand will increase in the island nation dramatically over the next 18 months.

And in this country, expectations are that consumers will buy into the alternative concept. Nissan has said it will install 30 solar-assisted charging stations at its Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in Franklin, Tenn.

And they will have a lot to choose from. JD Power says that by the end of 2016, it expects manufacturers to offer 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models in the U.S. market. In 2009, there were 31.

Photo: Along the Oodnadatta Track, Australia, by mancity.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Clean energy may provide college graduates with jobs in 4 years

Watching my oldest son and his classmates get ready to head off to college has given me some insight into the next generation's dreams and desires.

Their views of the future haven't yet been clouded with the jaded, cynical perspectives of their parents.

Of course there was the exception of my son Calvin. When his goals were read during a presentation honoring the top graduates of his high school, he said he hopes machines don't take over the world.

Most of his classmates in the top tier scholastically and athletically painted a more idealistic and optimistic view of their futures. They wanted to be doctors, lawyers, CIA agents. And they wanted to change the world.

But what exactly will they face once they get out? The economic picture is not pretty, even for college graduates with top scores and vivid intentions of success.

Personally, I'd like to see the clean energy industry expand exponentially in the region and offer opportunity within its various sectors. That would jump start the rest of the economy.

It may happen. Clean energy costs will decline and jobs could break loose over the next couple of years, says the report "Putting America Back to Work with Clean Energy" by the progressive Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress. The report says the "crossover point" at which development costs of fossil fuels and renewables meet "is coming quickly."

The current job situation is grim. The unemployment rate between April 2010 and March of this year for college graduates averaged 9.7 percent, according to a briefing paper, the Class of 2011, by the Economic Policy Institute.

The paper's authors, Heidi Sheirholz and Kathryn Anne Edwards, write that graduates face an "extremely difficult job market. In fact, it is likely that the class of 2011 will face the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates since the Great Recession began."

And Arianna Huffington points out in a recent column that college graduates also will be burdened by a debt load averaging $27,000. "Economically at least, this is an especially rough time to be graduating from college," she writes.

Maybe I'm drawing all the wrong conclusions. My son Calvin is heading to Seattle University to study film. He wants to be a director.

To me it means paying about $31,000 in board and tuition. I have about $45,000 saved. He's debt bound.

He interprets the concept differently, perhaps that college will be like a non-Kafkaesque metamorphosis. As a graduate of an elite Jesuit college, he'll possibly be able to navigate all the pitfalls of those who came before him and forge a successful, profitable career.

Maybe. But along the way, he'll learn how the economy can beat hopes into mush and how technological change can pummel entire professions. (At least that was my experience, and I let a little of the embittered ex-journalist diatribe through.)

Over the past couple of weeks, I've listened as Calvin and other seniors from Clovis High School received honors for their scholastic, athletic and community service enterprise. These are the school's best and brightest. How a son of mine got there I don't know.

School administrators read the students' pre-scripted dreams and goals as well as their accomplishments. Some of their plans amazed me. One is heading off to college in India. Another is going to Africa to help foment change one farm at a time. Other careers included CIA, equine vet, cop, anesthesiologist, attorney, bioengineer, NASA.

I guess all parents go through this. Wondering. Worrying.

For some reason, I didn't much worry about my daughter, who's now 26 with a couple of kids, a house and a husband who races to do her bidding. She was driven, an overachiever like her brother.

My directive to her was less existential. I said, "Just finish college." She did, graduating with a degree in sociology/criminology from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

She gave up a promising job in the Washington state juvenile justice division and is now working as a paralegal and loving it.

Jennifer didn't head into the CSI-influenced career she thought she would love. Life has a way of doing that.

Perhaps some of these Clovis High grads will find themselves drawn to clean energy if the industry in the San Joaquin Valley does indeed develop like I think it should. Should that happen, these college graduates may need to beef up their training.

And I know exactly where they can do it. Right here in the Valley. The infrastructure is already in place.

Photo: Seniors Calvin Nemeth and Georgia Petersen before prom.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Firebaugh could be ground zero for clean energy

California's San Joaquin Valley is courting the renewable energy industry with all the finesse of hillbilly Lil Abner trying to entice a partner at an upscale waltz.

He's got the chops, but those combat boots.

Firebaugh may prove to be the Valley's Love Potion No. 9. The tiny west-side community of 7,000 hasn't let its rural character and farm field sentiments get in its way as it seeks to attract its share of perhaps the biggest potential energy development prize of the coming decade.

So far, it's got two sectors -- solar and biofuel -- in the wings and is pursuing sustainability and a regional clean energy leadership with vigor and, more importantly, real finesse.

Littleton, Colo.-based SolarGenUSA has leased a 52-acre parcel from the city for a 5 megawatt solar installation. The company's web site says the project has been permitted.

In addition, there's talk of a Seattle-based company looking to contract for 40,000 to 60,000 acres so it can plant an obscure but desert-loving plant that's part of the mustard family. The crop, camelina, may be emerging as a front-runner in the effort to develop a viable source of biofuel, writes Harry Cline of Western Farm Press.

This and enterprise on the part of its leaders makes Firebaugh potential ground zero for clean energy.

And the drive for clean energy is on its way. Make no mistake. While it appears to be taking its time, the push for more diverse sources of energy -- that don't add to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere -- has begun. And the San Joaquin Valley is attracting attention from solar, wind, biofuel and even geothermal.

Conventional wisdom would argue that those who establish successful operations at the outset of a trend have a strong chance of reaping profit. Kings County to the south also is flexing its sun-soaking muscles with nine solar projects on the books. And the towns of Tulare and Madera also jumped into the mix with solar arrays of their own.

Jobs in clean energy are expected. Their impact is outlined in multiple reports. Scarce now, they could break loose over the next couple of years as initial developers prove project viability. A new report offers a relatively rosy outlook, giving opponents of clean energy the argument that fossil fuels won't be considered "cheap" much longer.

"Costs of clean energy will rapidly decline because renewable energy standards, public investments, and environmental incentives will all spur new production," wrote authors Richard W. Caperton and Adam Hersh of the progressive Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress.

Caperton is senior policy analyst on the center's energy opportunity team and Hersh is an economist on the center's economic policy team. They say in the report "Putting America Back to Work with Clean Energy" that the "crossover point" at which the two types of energy -- fossil and clean -- reach cost parity will be different depending on location and type, "but it is coming quickly."

Caperton and Hersh say investing in green energy will immediately create jobs, lower unemployment and improve the nation's energy system. Opponents argue that approach is simplistic and provide data that shows how costly clean energy can be.

That may be. However, other costs, including foreign policy and climate-related issues, if factored in, could create an altogether different cost-effectiveness ratio.

Separate from that is California's policy requiring utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020. That also will drive development.

And there's the federal SunShot Initiative, announced on Feb. 4 by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The initiative's goal is to reduce the cost of installed solar to about 6 cents per installed kilowatt, about a third of today's price.

The result? DOE says without subsidies this 6-cent statistic "will result in rapid, large-scale adoption of solar electricity across the United States."

Firebaugh intends to be first to the finish line. The city has in its corner City Manager Jose Ramirez, who said sustainability for the farming community is his goal. He has been working with me for the past year and a half to implement an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant that will pay for about $40,000 in LED street light retrofits.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal stimulus allocation is just an element of Ramirez's multi-pronged strategy to lower the greenhouse gas footprint of his community and improve its quality of life. Firebaugh also is working with the U.S. Department of  Housing and Urban Development through its Sustainable Communities Initiative. The goal of the program is to provide equitable development, planning and development approaches for achieving shared prosperity.

Sustainability can be measured many ways. In terms of energy, the city's moving forward quickly, urging on the solar project and energy efficiency measures. But Ramirez explained that Firebaugh's got greater ambitions. The city's launched an effort to better connect with the free-flowing San Joaquin River. The community began as a ferry crossing when most traffic into the Valley traveled via a much more robust waterway.

Firebaugh also has a significant community garden and is engaged in other projects.

Many other regions of the country are also trying to corner a niche in the clean energy era, if indeed it develops into one.

I'd personally prefer it were sooner than later, just to prove to my wife that it can happen. This comment fits with the Lil Abner reference. I identified with him growing up in rural Alaska. My wife was a princess in my estimation as her father was head of Alaska oil exploration for Arco at the time. She was and still is gorgeous and knows how to act in social situations, whereas I was raised by wolves.

Still, when Lil Abner had a feeling, he was usually right.

State of Sustainablity event planned in Stockton on June 8

Green Team San Joaquin plans a forum on the state of recycling, energy and air quality in California's agriculturally rich Central Valley.

The event, dubbed the State of Sustainability in the San Joaquin Valley, is planned from 8 a.m. to noon June 8 at the Hilton Stockton, 2323 Grand Canal Blvd. in Stockton.

Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston provides the welcome. Johnston will be followed by Rosalie Mule, director of government affairs with Waste Management/West Group, who will give the "State of Recycling Address." California Energy Commission Commissioner Carla Peterman provides a "State of Energy Address," while Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, adds the "State of Air Quality Address."

The second half of the program explores opportunities to develop jobs in the renewable energy sector. The Green Team has partnered with economic development organizations and workforce investment boards in the region to identify growth and emerging green markets and to expand clean energy businesses and jobs.

Closing out the event, John Melville, president of consulting firm Collaborative Economics, will lead a renewable energy business focus group.

For more information, go to http://www.greenteamsanjoaquin.com/ or www.facebook.com/greenteamsj.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Energy And Water: A Call For An Integrated Policy

The twin pillars of water and power have caught the attention of two non-profit industry groups. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Alliance for Water Efficiency teamed up to study and present recommendations for addressing the "nexus" of water and energy.

"...Every drop of water saved in the United States saves energy, and every unit of energy saved saves water," the report starts out.

Calling itself a "blueprint" for action, the white paper - produced with the help of financing from the Turner Foundation - makes the case for a collaborative policy of water and energy conservation. "The two communities have not historically worked together," the report states..."and instead generally created separate but parallel efforts."

A concerted effort could reap major benefits. The report cites a 2009 study by the River Network that estimated water-related energy accounted for 13% of the nation's total electricity consumption.

A separate 2005 report by the California Energy Commission found that "sourcing, moving, re-treating, heating, collecting and disposing of water" accounted for 19% of the state's electricity, 30% of its natural gas and 88 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually.

The report uses the words "energy" and "electricity" interchangeably, and notes "water" refers to wastewater and treated water. It is no coincidence that more cities, including some in the San Joaquin Valley, are using solar, fuel cells and other renewable power sources in their water-treatment facilities. check out our recent blog post on that topic.

The study presents eight broad themes as recommendations:

1/ Increase cooperation between water and energy communities in planning solutions;

2/ Achieve a deeper understanding of the water embedded in energy and energy embedded in water;

3/ Learn from and replicate the best practices integrated water-energy programs;

4/ Integrate water into energy research and vice versa;

5/ Consider regulatory structures that provide an incentive for investing in integrated programs;

6/ Build upon existing programs that address water and energy as a package;

7/ Implement codes that mandate combined improvements;

8/ Pursue training, awareness and educational campaigns.

Those recommendations sound simple on the surface, but actually require some major policy shifts. "The two communities frequently operate under different regulatory business models and existing structures that do not recognize the benefits of both energy and water savings," the authors stated.

One of the most interesting challenges involves what the study calls antiquated methods of collecting water-utility revenue. It contends that common pricing methods discourage conservation and urges a revamp.

The authors say the report is a good first step, but suggests the process will be long. "This blueprint is...direction setting, and we hope that the energy and water conservation communities will learn from it and be motivated to act."

Photo of fuel cell at city of Tulare's water-treatment plant

Friday, May 13, 2011

Electric car bulletin: Tesla posts losses, Ford & Fisker prepare EV debut

Electric cars have been on the road a measly few months and they're already dominating automotive news.

Tesla posted first-quarter losses nearly double those of a year earlier. Ford plans to begin production of its electric Focus late this year. And Fisker stands to be the second major independent automaker to launch commercial production and sales of an electric car.

Expect more to come. The sector once was only a partially forgotten memory relived by people who had seen the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

But now it promises to get increasingly active as the year rolls on and buyers appear. Utilities are talking about recharging centers and retailers are planning to stock home-charging devices as more and more of the vehicles enter the commuting landscape.

Detroit automaker Ford plans to join Nissan, Chevy and sports car builder Tesla with commercial-scale production of electric vehicles in the United States. But it looks to be beaten to the punch by Fisker Automotive, which intends to deliver its long-delayed 403-horsepower Karma to showrooms in June or July, according to a story by Katie Fehrenbacher at earth2tech.com.

Ford advertises the EV Focus as guilt-free.

The car offers a 6.6 kilowatt on-board charger that enables it to be recharged in half the time it takes for the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, says Nick Chambers of plugincars.com. Of course, with the Volt's smaller battery, that difference works out to about the same amount of recharging time.

"The Focus Electric looks like a true competitor and will likely make Leaf fence sitters think twice — and may even cause some current Leaf orders to give up their place in line," Chambers writes.

Like the Leaf, the Focus Electric has a 100-mile range. Ford says the car will come with "electric-vehicle-specific features," specifically a custom Ford MyTouch instrument cluster, which allows the driver to keep tabs on the battery charge status, the distance to the next charging point and expected "range surplus" as well as mess with other information. The car also has a Microsoft feature that tells the owner when to get the cheapest utility rates for recharging.

Fisker is flush, having raised more than $1 billion in equity, loans and grants, says Fehrenbacher, citing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The latest is $100 million from Chicago-based Advanced Equities Inc. That should help the automaker ride out the bumpy road Tesla's taken as the pioneer in the market. The Karma sedan is expected to sell for a princely $96,000 but go 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds.

Tesla posted losses in the quarter that ended March 31, 2011 of $48.9 million, up 66 percent from the same period a year earlier. The Palo Alto automaker's stock closed at $27.55 per share, down 12 cents, on May 13. (A Friday by the way.)

In its SEC 10-Q form, the company said it remains dependent on revenue generated from the sale of its Tesla Roadster, "in the near term, and our future success will be dependent upon our ability to design and achieve market acceptance of new vehicle models, and specifically the Model S."

Tesla officials said the company will stop making the Roadster in December but will continue selling the model until all units are gone. Production on the Roadster began in 2008.

Tesla's planned sedan, the Model S, is expected to begin production sometime in the middle of 2012. However, officials say it "requires significant investment prior to commercial introduction, and may never be successfully developed or commercially successful."

The company appeared to be issuing a reality check in its filing, explaining that there can be no assurances that the Model S, which will have a $50,000 price tag, will prove to be a viable car as it is based on unproven components, will be built in a Fremont plant that may cost to much to equip and may have different styling and design than that of the concept vehicle and turn off consumers.

All of it just goes to show that any venture is a risk. Tesla's taking a big one, and its executives made note of that in very frank language. Still, the company had received about 4,300 reservations for the Model S as of March 31, 2011.

And gas prices likely won't go down too much.

So you say you want solar? Here's how it could work

Cities and counties in California's San Joaquin Valley want relief from crippling energy bills.

Like the rest of the nation, they’ve been hit hard by a sinking economy and increasing electric rates. At least the tornadoes, flooding and general havoc from winter storms left them alone.

An option looking increasingly bright is solar. But it’s a complex decision and not one that should be made without learning as much as possible.

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization has a draft plan to explain solar options to cities, counties and school districts and help them save the most energy and money. The concept is one I've been thinking about for several months.

Of course, it's something on the drawing board. We're a small nonprofit without the ability to launch such ambitious project without funding. Tracking down some money will be my next step.

My thought is the utilities may like the idea since they need to draw a third of their energy from renewable resources by 2020. And solar companies may also like the idea. Perhaps we could put a consortium together and offer discounts for packaged projects.

Who knows?

It's working title is the Valley Solar Solutions Project, and it would involve creating an inventory of sites, assessing needs and determining what size solar facility would offset power costs based on a 12-month analysis of energy usage.

In my dealings with officials administering American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grants, most just want the facts on solar: How much does it cost? Where would an array go? And how much does it save?

During a visit to a small city near Modesto, officials said just one of their water pumps consumes about $56,000 worth of electricity in a peak month. During the summer, the pump runs 24 hours a day to supply thirsty residents. A solar array at that pump could put a big dent into that electrical draw.

Under this proposal, staff would provide answers to dilemmas like that, whether the question is about how much power is generated by 40 acres of solar panels at a waste water treatment plant or eight solar cells at a remote well.

In recent months, and I don't know why, perhaps it's oil prices, cities and counties increasingly have been asking SJVCEO staff about solar. What would it take to install? What about financing? What subsidies are available? Can we put it on the jail?

Sometimes answers can be a little murky. Big projects are tough and often require navigating a lot of government red tape. Smaller projects, such as those on a building, are easier.

Were we able to get this Valley Solar Solutions Project off the ground, staff would:

1) Provide a detailed list of the steps involved in getting regulatory approval and estimate the time and effort required for a project to be completed.
2) Identify sites – such as buildings, plants and energy-hungry pumps – that could benefit from solar installations.
3) Calculate the number of solar panels needed for each site and estimate installation costs.
4) Provide estimated energy savings in kilowatt hours and dollars of purchase, lease or power-purchase agreements.
5) Provide case studies of how other jurisdictions have adopted solar into their power mix.
5) Issue a detailed report of options.

This model also could be applied to agriculture. Staff could inventory farms, assess energy needs and provide available options.

Does the idea have merit? Leave a comment or contact me at mnemeth@pesc.com.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Solar and Water: A Powerful Combination

Many people equate solar power with rooftops, and that's true. More property owners - commercial and residential - are installing solar panels on their roofs to cut power bills and carbon footprint. Check out what Toys 'R' Us is doing in New Jersey, and what officials in Los Angeles want to do.

But solar energy is popping up all over the place. In backpacks. With the military in Afghanistan. On parking structures and as window coverings. And, increasingly, on or around water.

Solar is appearing at wastewater treatment plants, vineyard irrigation ponds and in settling ponds at gravel mines. There is even the possibility of solar panels on oceans. This New York Times piece, which I read in the San Jose Mercury-News, features wineries in Northern California that moored solar panels in ponds to help produce power.

Vineyard real estate is pricey, and this is a way to conserve precious land. Larry Maguire, chief executive of Far Niente Winery, put it this way in the story: "Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 per acre. . . We wanted to go solar, but we didn't want to pull out any vines."

Solar-energy systems also are gaining a stronger following here in the San Joaquin Valley, where power bills run high in the summer, and agriculture-related companies use lots of power and water.

The cities of Tulare and Madera use solar at their wastewater plants, which helps reduce energy costs. Learn more about those projects here and here. This Sign on San Diego story has more on how solar works at such plants.

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the most resourceful and efficient farmers in the World. Look for more water-related solar projects; it is a powerful combination.

Photo of solar array at Far Niente Winery by winebusiness.com.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grants Available For Farmers, Rural Businesses To Test Clean Energy

Farmers and small rural businesses who gain at least half of their income from agriculture operations can apply for federal grants to test renewable power.

The Rural Energy for America Program will provide funds for feasibility studies on certain types of renewable-energy systems. Projects based on solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydro and hydrogen are among those eligible for consideration. The applicant must own the project, and operate it in a rural region.

The Rural Energy for America Program is designed to help agricultural producers and rural small businesses reduce energy costs and consumption. The 75 grants are awarded on a competitive basis and can be up to 25% of total eligible project costs. Grants are limited to $50,000 for renewable-energy feasibility studies.

Applications are due June 30. Learn more at this link.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Clean Energy: At The Precipice

Clean power (which to us consists of renewables and energy efficiency) is an industry on the cusp. Announcements of advancements and new gee whiz technology come seemingly each week, and keeping current is almost a full-time gig.

The use of fuel cells and solar energy is surging as technology improves. This Pike Research report notes that fuel cells have jumped from the research and development stage to commercialization. Shipments of fuel cells - most of them stationary systems - increased an annual average of 27% between 2008 and 2010.

Japanese homeowners have embraced them - about 5,000 houses there are powered by fuel cells - and they are becoming increasingly common in hospitals and hotels. As an aside, it should be noted that fuel cells are gaining a higher profile here in the San Joaquin Valley, where Odwalla and the city of Tulare, among others, are using them.

Check out this Webinar from the Department of Energy for more on how local businesses are using fuel cells.

Solar also has advanced, as greentechsolar notes here, but 2011 and 2012 are likely to be more challenging as austerity becomes a key watchword. Oversupply is possible, greentechsolar states in the article, as funds pull back.

Whether renewables gain a stronger foothold in the next few years remains to be seen - fits and starts are to be expected in the early stages of an emerging industry - but we are encouraged by the involvement of Big Business and the military.

The other component - efficiency and conservation - clearly has gone beyond the fringe stage. Stories of minimal economic investment reaping maximum energy and cost savings are everywhere. Companies, cities and schools are discovering that weatherization, upgraded air conditioners, more efficient lighting and smarter use of electricity add to the bottom line.

Even a Journalism major like me understands that investment in energy efficiency makes sense. There are only two ways to create cash flow: get more money or spend less - conservation falls into the latter category. Businesses, landlords and homeowners who cut their power bills have more money to spend, invest or otherwise stimulate the economy.

That's why federal Department of Energy officials call energy efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of clean energy. And low-hanging fruit is something that residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the world, know something about.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells

Friday, May 6, 2011

Clean cookstoves movement gets hand from Julia Roberts

Actress Julie Roberts is teaming with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to bring inexpensive solar or propane cookstoves to ill-equipped kitchens in the developing world.

The campaign is meant to help reduce the near 2 million deaths a year attributed to cooking over unsafe or inefficient stoves that burn charcoal, wood or other material and send toxic smoke into the lungs of whomever is near. According to cookingshouldntkill.org, indoor air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in the developing world.

“I am proud to stand with Secretary Clinton to work to reduce the senseless and preventable deaths," Roberts said in a statement. Most of those killed are women and children, she said.

Solar cookstoves were one of the main attractions at the at Fresno Earth Day celebration April 30 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno. Demonstrators baked cookies (I ate one) and cooked other dishes. Thermometers showed temperatures as hot as any gas or electric oven. Very interesting.

Roberts said she first learned of the issue while interviewing Clinton for a program, “Extraordinary Moms,” to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Roberts joins the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as Global Ambassador.

The alliance says it is technology and fuel neutral and promotes "solutions that are as clean and efficient as possible." Some of those stoves are simple solar cookers that capture the sun to cook food. Others use propane, kerosene or other fuels but don't vent the CO2 and smoke into the home.

In her new role, Roberts will join with Clinton, the United Nations Foundation and other partners to try and meet the Alliance’s goal of getting clean and efficient cookstoves into 100 million homes by 2020.

Clinton announced the Alliance on Sept. 21, 2010.

The Alliance is a public-private partnership of more than 60 national governments, UN agencies, private companies and nongovernmental organizations working to overcome "market barriers that currently impede the production, deployment, and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world."

To learn more, go to http://cleancookstoves.org/.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Green schools competition worth $5,000

How green is your school and what's it worth?

About $5,000 in this case.

The Lunera-Recyclebank Green Schools Energy Challenge is offering a shot at the award to schools that submit a short video by May 20. Lunera Lighting is offering energy efficiency lighting retrofits worth $5,000 to five winners. Prizes for each student in the winning classrooms are also offered.

Applicants must create a video that tells their green classroom story and send it in with an application. Semi-finalist's videos will be uploaded to Recyclebank.com for voting. The video with the most votes will be the fan favorite and win an Energy Retrofit.

Length of the video should be between 30 seconds and 1 minute 30 seconds. A copy of an U.S. Internal Revenue Service determination letter and verification of tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)3 of the IRS Code, or equivalent federal tax exempt status. Entries that make it to the semi-finalist round also must have permission slips or video release for everyone appearing in video.

Here's the link: http://www.recyclebank.com/GreenSchoolsEnergyChallenge

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Agriculture Has A Leading Role In Energy, Water Efficiency

A short drive from my desk in Fresno will lead me to an almond orchard, a vineyard, a dairy farm or in the middle of a field of strawberries. Agriculture is a $20 billion per year enteprise in the San Joaquin Valley, and proof of that spreads in all directions.

This is the nation's salad bowl, but feeding the masses comes with a price: Farming consumes large amounts of energy and water.

Pumps, refrigeration and other farm-related uses accounted for 13% and 11% of the total electricity consumed in Fresno and Kern counties respectively in 2009, according to the California Energy Commission.

And water is so precious and vital that at least 160 water-related businesses have a presence in the Valley. It is no coincidence that Fresno State University has an internationally known water and energy research facility, and that Clovis just hosted a major water conference.

So, it makes sense that growers would be leaders in water and energy conservation. Farmers in California lead the nation in the use of renewable energy, and Clean Technica writes in this report about a farmer's inexpensive hydro-powered invention that replaces the diesel engine that powered his irrigation system. The story also notes that conservation within the agriculture industry has helped reduce water use in the United States even though the population increased.

The alfalfa farmer, Roger Barton , estimates the device saves him about $3,500 annually. "The consumer sector has a few things to learn from agriculture when it comes to conservation," writes Tina Casey, the Clean Technica reporter.

Clean energy is more than solar arrays and wind farms. Conservation and efficiency are big components, and the San Joaquin Valley, with the involvement of its cutting-edge farmers, could become a showcase of water and energy efficiency and technology.

Top 7 earth friendly cars, plus a Tesla

I saw my first Tesla.

Up close, and personal. My first impression: This car is teeny. Would I be able to fold in my 6-foot 2-inch frame? Heck yes!

Tesla Roadster
With 3.7 seconds to 60 mph, this baby would fly. The possibility of me expanding my horizons with speeding tickets would increase exponentially if I were allowed access.

The Tesla Roadster was one of the key attractions at Fresno Earth Day celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno. Accompanying the little black electric powered ball of fury were a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt, a solar-powered Toyota Prius, a hybrid Honda Insight and several other vehicles of interest.

The festivities included other attractions. Those included 75 participants for a crowd-pleasing variety that included live music, food, workshops, tours, exhibits, free e-waste recycling, solar cooking & bio-fuel making demonstrations, xeriscaping and more. The church itself is worth checking out as it is LEED certified and makes use of energy efficient materials, low-flow plumbing and landscaping that needs very little water.

But I was there to see the cars. For me, the experience proved valuable even if it was self-indulgent. My wife, Peggy, tagged along for the experience. I promised her it would be brief and that I would avoid engaging in any long-winded discussions about cars.

I succeeded. We left after about 20 minutes and still got a chance to look at the solar oven display. Very cool concept. Great for reducing deforestation in third world countries.

Zap Car
But the wheeled objects really captured my interest. There was a Zap car, one of the three-wheeled creations of the Santa Rosa-based manufacturer of electric vehicles that until recently served as a niche product. Zap recently purchased controlling interest in Chinese automaker Zhejiang Jonway Automobile Co. Ltd. and hopes to tap into the growing Chinese market with a new lineup of vehicles. I suspect it's a company to watch.

Peggy snapped several pictures of the Zap mobile, figuring it would be a favorite of her students. She teaches ninth-grade English at rural Riverdale High School (which by the way has its own solar installation.)

Nissan Leaf
I checked out the Nissan Leaf. The owner explained details of power consumption and some of the variables for getting the most miles out of a charge. One thing I noticed about the rig was that it looked a lot beefier in person. The photos of the Leaf online make it look dainty somehow.

Up close, the Leaf looks quite solid. The aluminum wheels are rather large and sporty and the interior is spacious and not too Jetsons. Here's a shout-out to Phil T, who's been blogging about his experiences as a SoCal Leaf owner for the past several months. "Phil, you're right. Photos don't do the car justice."

Smart Car
We also got to get up close and personal with Smart car. I've been repulsed by the things since I first saw one skittering down the freeway. All I can think of is the short wheel base and how the thing would spin like a top on ice.

But looking at it from a different angle gave me greater appreciation. Just the engineering of the car is amazing. All sorts of stuff crammed in without looking crammed. The engine fits in back like a Bug. (Obviously not in in a Beetle's league, but still interesting.)

There's an electric version of the rig available this year at dealerships across the country. Dubbed Smart Fortwo Electric, the tiny vehicle was anticipated by Daimler designers two decades to be powered by an electric drive train, according to officials. They apparently left room in the design so there appears no change in outward appearance in the two vehicles.

Two vehicles that stood out at the Earth Day event, at least to me, were a couple of Volkswagen Jetta TDI series, one older and another brand new. TDI, for turbo direct injection diesel, is the designation VW bestowed upon its latest generation of diesel vehicles. The older Jetta was tuned to run on biodiesel, while the new one sported VW's latest "clean diesel" technology. Mileage in the latter is listed at 34 mpg combined city/highway.

Fred Voglmaier, who writes on tdiclub.com, says demand for the diesel rigs is high. Could be.

The Prius owner at the Earth Day event gave a serious rundown on what kind of mileage he gets under multiple conditions. The data was fascinating and he can get up to 56 mpg under certain conditions. The model even was equipped with a solar panel in the glass roof.

Toyota is set to introduce its Prius PHV, for plug-in hybrid, next year. Here's how Steve Siler of caranddriver.com described the differences with the conventional hybrid: "The Prius PHV is essentially just a Prius whose nickel-metal hydride battery pack has been swapped for a far pricier, far heavier, and far more potent lithium-ion pack."

Range is supposed to be far less than the Volt or Leaf.

The Chevy Volt looked the most conventional of the electric cars at the Unitarian church that day. In fact, it looked rather large, hardly a compact car. Interior space was ample, and the design, inside and out, was very un-Chevy. By that, I mean Chevy's had a reputation for short-shrifting its cars on style. The SUVs look cool. The cars, on the other hand, and I personally believe since the Camaro was redesigned in the 1970s, just looked lame.

The Volt, and the redesigned Camaro, return Chevy to a contender among car buyers.

Biodiesel Mercedes
There was also a beat up old Mercedes at the show that looked as if the owner brewed the biodiesel in the trunk. It's an original, late 70s or early 80s vintage. Cool but definitely somebody else's project.

Honda Insight
The Honda Insight is a great vehicle and reasonably priced. Great entry for the hybrid/electric market. My wife despises the design as she does that of the Prius.

All in all great show. I saw the Tesla driving around Fresno. I pointed it out to some young people at the athletic club, but they just stared blankly until I said, "0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds."

Monday, May 2, 2011

245 buildings vie for title of nation's most energy efficient

This year's national competition to extract the most energy savings from a building pits middle schools and car dealerships vs. Wall Street and Park Avenue high-rises.

May the best building win.

The competition, dubbed Battle of the Buildings, is staged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Teams from 245 buildings will install energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling; adopt intensive building management systems that closely monitor and adjust energy use according to occupancy and other factors; and modify behaviors and practices that could unnecessarily cost kilowatt hours.

Of course, there are other measures such as cool roofs, insulation, windows and weatherization upgrades that can result in big savings, too.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said, “We’re harnessing our nation's innovative capacity to save money on electric bills, create a cleaner environment and protect the health of American families.”

A winner will be named in November.

This year's competition is far greater than the inaugural event last year, in which teams from 14 buildings saved $950,000 and reduced greenhouse gas emissions amounting to the yearly electricity use of about 600 homes.

Last year's winner was Morrison Residence Hall on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C. The 10-story, 200,000-square-foot dormitory was built in 1965 and achieved a 35.7 percent reduction on its annual energy bill for a $250,000 savings.

The EPA says educating the public to the benefits of reducing energy use in the 5 million buildings in which people in this country "work, play and learn" is important because the sector consumes about 20 percent of the nation’s energy use. It also produces a similar percentage of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and forces Americans to fork over more than $100 billion a year.

Those interested can follow along with the contestants to see what their strategies are and what they end up doing to reduce energy loads. The variety of the buildings this year is pretty interesting. Buildings range from the Experience Music Project Science Fiction Museum in Seattle with perhaps the highest energy use intensity rating, or EUI, in the group with 536.9 to the offices of Norandex, a building supplier, in Rochester, N.Y. with a rating of 47.5. The rating is derived by taking energy use and dividing by square footage. The higher the number, the higher the energy use.

Other buildings I found interesting were the Marriott Fullerton Hotel with an EUI of 153.6, the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Ave. in N.Y. with an EUI of 228.2, the Caterpillar AC Building in Mossville, Ill. with an EUI of 282.2 and the 450 Sutter Building in San Francisco with an EUI of 178.9.

Here's to extreme energy savings.

Photo: Experience Music Project building in Seattle under Space Needle.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Washington embraces clean energy; vows to break its coal addiction

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire has inked a deal to get her state off coal.

The connection has long roots and the dependency remains strong, so breaking the hold and getting the Evergreen state off the stuff will take years. About 14 when all is said and done, officials said.

That's a long time to break an addiction. But sometimes treatment programs -- to be effective -- must be lengthy to avoid backsliding. I can just see the state sneaking off for a smoke in the boy's room, listening to some Motley Crue.

The idea is to phase out coal generated energy at the TransAlta power plant in Centralia, near Kurt Cobain's early pre-Seattle grunge stomping grounds. The plant has two boilers. Under the agreement, Senate Bill 5769, one would close in 2020, the other in 2025.

"The result is a cleaner energy future," said Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, in a statement.

Rockefeller and others pointed out the reason for the long recovery period: jobs. Big deal in a down economy. TransAlta will work to shift the load to cleaner options, or not.

But the writing's on the wall. Washington follows a lead set by California. On April 11, 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that would require utilities to supply 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick McGreevy quoted Brown at the signing as saying, "Its about California leading the country. It's America potentially leading the world."

Yeah, that's it. Now Washington. Can Oregon be far behind?

Actually, the Beaver State is already there. Portland, Ore.-based research firm Clean Edge did list the state No. 2 behind California on its most recent U.S. Clean Energy Leadership Index and then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed Senate Bill 838 into law in June 2007. It requires the state’s largest utilities to generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

"Today ... we are protecting our quality of life," Kulongowski said at the signing, according to a post by causetinnitus.net.

Other states are doing the same. The coal lobby likely isn't too pleased. The nation still gets about 47 percent of its energy from coal, but the amount of energy produced dropped by about 1.3 percent in January 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

However, coal is cheap and it drives jobs. And as americaspower.org points out: "New coal plants built today using state-of-the-art technology offer improved environmental performance."

The site, operated by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, says coal-fueled power plants are capable of reducing up to 98 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 90 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 90 percent of mercury emissions.

So don't count it out. Growing up, we used sub-bituminous coal for heat up in Fairbanks. The Usibellis gave us cheap fuel to battle the chill when nights dropped to 50 degrees below zero (and sometimes colder). Likely, a lot of other families feel the same way about coal, which this country has more of than the Middle East has oil.

I was just talking to my in-laws, who are dedicated Fox News watchers, about how the future will likely be a mix of multiple forms of energy. I lean in the renewable direction. They made their fortune in Alaska's oil industry, so they said "obviously" oil.

But ocean acidification, higher mean temperatures, receding glaciers and snow pack and a whole host of other issues are making the argument for doing a better job with our energy use.