Thursday, July 28, 2011

Energy efficiency ad campaign launched

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Ad Council haved teamed to launch a national campaign designed to help consumers save money on utility bills.

This one is simply called "Cliff" and shows in a very stark way what consumers throw away when they don't take advantage of energy efficiency opportunities in their homes. Some of it is as simple as lighting retrofits and weatherization. Other fixes may cost more.

The second, "Oven," highlights the fact that incandescent bulb throw off a good amount of heat. They cook a chicken in a bulb oven. In Fairbanks, back in the early 1970s, my friend's dad heated a chicken coop with a single bulb, enabling those poor chickens to survive nights of 50 below.

The videos were created pro bono by Texas-based advertising agency GSD&M.

"Americans spend about $2,000 per household on energy every year — but many of them could save a few hundred of that without changing their lifestyle," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement. "Many American families can take simple steps to reduce their energy bill, while making their homes more comfortable, and use that money for something they really need or want."

When the going gets tough, the tough get green

Watching the politicians in D.C. chase their tails, point fingers and rant sure gets me down. A headline in today's Fresno Bee summed it up well: "Market burns, DC fiddles."

And then I saw this:
and this:

National lawmakers can't seem to agree on anything, so Corporate America and individual states are taking up the mantle on clean energy and sustainability. GM's announcement that it is investing in solar development is the latest example. The automaker has discovered that going green makes sense economically and socially. Below is a quote from a GM honcho.

"Our GM facilities currently house 30 megawatts of solar power, and we are committing today to double that capacity to 60 megawatts over the next few years, which is equivalent to powering 10,000 homes annually,” said Mike Robinson, GM vice president of Energy, Environment & Safety Policy. “Not only does renewable energy make good business sense, it helps us continue to reduce the impact our facilities have on the environment.”

GM isn't the only company to recognize that. Did you know that my favorite indulgence, Kit Kat, is now green - in a sustainability kind of way? Here's more. Want another heavy-hitting example: How about Walmart, the world's largest retailer. It is one of the leaders. Check out this story in Forbes.

Some states have caught on too. California, where I live, passed a tough 33% renewables law, and Gov. Brown is reportedly close to naming a clean energy czar. Residents appear to support the effort, according to recent surveys.

Add the military and ongoing research to that, and the infrastructure for real change is being built. A leading auditing and analysis firm compared what is happening to the Industrial Revolution. My colleague uses a Jules Verne analogy here.

With the space shuttle program done, maybe a NASA-style entity could work on energy. Those 7,000 or so engineers, scientists and others out of a job could get back to work.

Photo from Eolic Power

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From the Earth to the Moon with clean energy

American ingenuity has raged this the past century like Genghis Khan through technological obstacles.

What was science fiction just decades ago can now be held in the palm of a hand or the top of a pinhead. While perhaps the greatest leap for mankind took place at 3:17 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar module the Eagle landed on the moon, the next may be just aound the corner.

"Nothing can astound an American," wrote Jules Verne prophetically in "From the Earth to the Moon" in 1865. "In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. ... A thing with them (Yankees) is no sooner said than done."

Likewise, entrepreneurs in this country have scored success after success. Note iPad sales.

OK. How about figuring out a way to make clean energy the dominant form of electricity production?

It can't be too soon.

A study led by West Virginia University researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx found cancer rates twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining as compared with an unexposed town, said Jeff Biggers, a journalist and author, in a piece for Huffington Post. The study links the strip mining method to 60,000 additional cancer cases.

And the production of carbon and air pollution by burning fossil fuels appears destined to ignite a climate disaster that will flummox even the most jaded naysayer.

So we need a plan. Blogger Michael Graham Richard, like me, fixated on the space race of the 1960s, in which the United States pummeled the USSR's efforts, for a model to follow.

"Like in the 1960s, we'll need an inspiring vision to rally our efforts, we'll need to take existing technologies and rapidly push them to the next level, as well as invent new ones," writes Richard in a post on "But most importantly, we'll need focus; to keep doing the hard work and sacrifices until we reach our goals."

Verne wrote his novel about space travel before any real work on the practical mathematics of such trajectories had been formulated. Yet, his rough calculations and ideas proved remarkably accurate

I use the book in this analogy primarily because I just read the above passage and was impressed, proud even. "Heck yes, that's the spirit," I thought. Mind you, this is my fifth Verne book after plowing through "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "The Mysterious Island," and I'm starting to think like a long-dead translated French author.

Verne's hero in the novel is Impey Barbicane, an industrialist sidelined by the halt of the Civil War. Barbicane's comments at the start of the book made me realize I'm reading something akin to anti-war satire.

"My brave, colleagues, too long already a paralyzing peace has plunged the members of the Gun Club in deplorable inactivity," Barbicane says.

Let's apply that to current day geopolitics. Perhaps stopping all wars, official and unofficial, will give the nation's military industrial complex the incentive to pursue -- like the members of Barbicane's fictional Gun Club -- alternatives like clean energy.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his famous 1961 speech that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

But he also said its "total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government." That power, harnessed for clean energy profits, could be world-changing.

In the meantime, smaller businesses are doing quite well on their own.

Michael Kanellos of reports that First Solar has developed a cadmium telluride solar cell returning a record 17.3 percent efficiency. The breakthrough beats the old record of 16.7 percent set by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory a decade ago.

And Timon Singh of reports that start-up Semprius has unveiled a solar cell half the size of a pinhead, which when combined with powerful but inexpensive lenses can concentrate sunlight more than 11,000 times and convert it to electricity.

Other breakthroughs and cost reductions are happening throughout the solar industry, bringing us closer to the day when solar will compete head to head, without subsidies, with fossil fuels.

For now, we wait. And I'll be discovering just how protagonist Barbicane reaches the moon.

Photo: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes his steps for mankind.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Efforts increase to drive down solar costs

Add another voice to the call for cheap solar.

SunRun, a San Francisco-based solar installer, has released a report that says simplifying permitting would drop costs another notch.

"Our research identifies inconsistencies in local permitting as one of the most critical roadblocks to a sustainable, subsidy-free solar industry,” said SunRun CEO and co-founder Edward Fenster in a statement.

The report, "The Impact of Local Permitting on the Cost of Solar Power," said a federal effort to create consistency among the multiple regulatory levels could make getting solar power affordable for half U.S. homeowners.

The U.S. Department of Energy already launched its SunShot Initiative, a challenge meant to transform the marketplace. The agency wants applicants for the $12.5 million available to achieve "measurable improvements in market conditions for rooftop photovoltaic across the United States" through streamlined and standardized permitting and interconnection processes.

And in California, San Jose Mercury News reporter Dana Hull says the nickname Governor Sunbeam better suits Gov. Jerry Brown (as opposed to Governor Moonbeam during his last stint in office) after he announced his policy to get the state "to produce 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity -- enough to power 20 cities the size of San Francisco."

Commercial scale projects, meanwhile, are in the wings. In the sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley, about 94 projects spanning about 64,000 acres have received a clean bill of health from wildlife regulators.

And at the same time, manufacturing costs have fallen to about $1.50 per watt and are expected to continue that descent into the $1 range. The Snowmass, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Institute says costs could be further reduced to between 60 and 90 cents per watt if its recommendations are followed.

The institute also listed an uneven permitting landscape. Solar installers say that and interconnect fees, the requirement by utilities to hook up more remote solar sites to the grid, also can be expensive and variable.

Gov. Brown's intent is to generate 60 percent of his target through "localized electricity," Hull writes. Those would be systems like rooftop solar or others that don't require new power lines -- and thus no interconnect fees.

The SunRun report says Germany, France and Japan have eliminated permitting for basic residential installations with Germany's installed costs the lowest in the world and 40 percent lower than the United States.

The report estimates local governments can save $1 billion over the next five years. It says solar installers nationwide identify local permitting as the most stubborn cost they face and say it adds 50 cents per watt, or $2,516 per residential install. Reasons are due to wide variations in processes, excessive fees and slow submittal and inspection processes.

Rethinking urban design can save energy & reduce congestion

Director Robert Zemeckis chose for a quaint town square shadowed by a massive clock tower his iconic DeLorean-powered-by-lightning scene in "Back to the Future."

Such squares give residents the impression of community, allow them to mingle and experience common culture. For the past 70 years, however, that town center has been shoved aside and is experienced undamaged only in communities that have remained relatively intact and development free. Some in New England come to mind.

Now that's beginning to change as designers embrace concepts more familiar to those of the past.

Most cities, Fresno, Calif. especially, have seen their historic town centers marginalized by sprawl and pockets of massive outward-bound commercial construction. In Fresno, the city moved north. Some of its deserted streets in downtown would make great post-apocalyptic movie sets.

Seattle and San Francisco found ways to beat the trend, focusing inward while still experiencing an explosion of suburbia. But their successes are overshadowed by a majority of U.S. cities and towns, whose residents learned to accept longer commutes, parking battles and frustrations that come with congestion.

Michael Freedman, urban planner and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki, spoke of such sprawl and its beginnings at the Smart Valley Places kick-off convention at the Radisson Hotel in Fresno. Then he tore off the veil. Smart Valley Places is a partnership of cities, organizations and regional groups to promote sustainable development in the San Joaquin Valley.

"The market has shifted," Freedman says.

Young people increasingly are gravitating to urban environments, settings made popular on sit-coms like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother." They don't want the cookie-cutter neighborhood, which almost served as the evil villain in "Edward Scissorhands."

Somehow, Freedman says, developers missed this shift in demand that started in the 1990s, continuing to plunk subdivision after subdivision ever farther from city centers and work places, forcing commuters to endure longer drives, use more energy and spend more money.

Reversing that design mentality would save energy, reduce commutes and cost less. Energy savings alone would be a huge boon. Fewer vehicle miles traveled means huge reductions to greenhouse gas and emissions production.

Freedman gives a history lesson in community design in his presentation, explaining that our current system for designing cities arose from mechanization, industrialization and the assembly-line mentality of the early 20th Century, when Henry Ford pioneered profits by separating tasks and creating worker specialties.

The idea to separate housing, recreation, work and transport caught global fire after the appearance the Athens Charter, a treatise on urban planning by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It was based on ideas reached by the Fourth Congress of the International Congress of Modern Architects, which took place in 1932 "mostly aboard a passenger boat which steamed from Marseilles, France, to Athens, Greece, and back again," according to clio-online.

"We embraced this," Freedman says. "This was cool. This was modern."

Subdivisions were separated by incomes. "We had business parks," he says. "We had shopping centers, separated by function with miles and miles of pavement ... with miles and miles of utilities."

The current system has fallen apart. Freedman cites Emerging Trends in Real Estate by Price WaterhouseCoopers, which says, "Homeowners slowly will accept that they can live comfortably and more affordably in smaller houses or apartments and gain economies from driving less."

The annual report also says infill areas, or vacant lots, and cities with active neighborhoods and "urbanizing suburban nodes" will become more desirable among aging, baby boomers and their children. "At the same time, fringe suburban subdivisions — long car rides from work, shopping, and recreation amenities — lose some appeal."

Innovation, Freedman says, is the answer and new design must incorporate cluster and density, synergy and mix and public places. Of course, he says, that's exactly the opposite of most existing zoning regulations. "It's a time of tremendous opportunity but also tremendous anxiety," he says.

Photo: "Back to the Future" cake by snoboogie on Flickr.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Student competition seeks best clean energy businesses

Wanted: clean energy business ideas.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants the nation's universities to cough up its best and brightest green entrepreneurs. The agency has launched an initiative meant to create up to six regional "student-focused" business creation competitions.

The National University Clean Energy Business Challenge has been capitalized with $2 million to cover costs. Regional winners will compete for a grand prize in Washington, D.C. in early summer 2012.

"This investment will train a new generation of scientific and technical leaders," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement. He said the effort supports the Obama Administration's continued effort to ensure that America has the workforce "to secure our energy future, create jobs here at home and win the future."

The business ideas sought have to do with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Officials say that student teams in the competitions will work with experienced mentors from the energy industry along with university and national lab-based researchers. The intent is to develop creative business plans for "transforming ground-breaking energy technologies into high impact market solutions."

For more information, go to and plug in the funding opportunity reference number DE-FOA-0000570. This part is for institutions interested in staging the competitions. Applications are due on Aug. 22, 2011. Selections are expected to be made before the end of September 2011.

We'll keep you posted as we learn more specifics.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It's getting hot out there

SpongeBob Squarepants deals with global warming courtesy the Natural Resources Defense Council and

Reduce your carbon footprint, just $940

Cruising through Twitter, I stumbled on a tweet from Mark Grossi, a former coworker at the Fresno Bee who has the environmental beat.

Grossi's tweet asked, "How big is your carbon footprint?" Intrigued, I clicked on the site. Nature Conservancy.

So far, so good. I took the bait, entered the information for a four-person household, three-bedroom home in California. The brief survey asked questions about heat and home efficiency, lighting, use of Energy Star appliances and measures taken to reduce hot water use.

Not the most illuminating. But, I guess, not bad.

The survey also asked for a list of our cars, how fuel efficient they were and how many miles driven in a year. Other questions included how often an air filter on the furnace/AC was replaced and how often tire pressure is monitored.

The final question boosted my family's footprint. We took the equivalent of six short flights in the past year. Peg and I went to Vegas, she and I to Bellingham, Wash. to visit our latest grandchild and she and Calvin, our oldest son, went to check out two colleges in Seattle.

And I plan to fly back after dumping him off at Seattle University this fall.

In total, and perhaps a little short, our footprint amounted to 47 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Not bad when compared with the U.S. average of 110 tons, but it's more than twice the world average of 22 tons for a family of four.

And we do pretty decently. I insulated my floor last winter. I've installed double-pane windows with coatings to reduce the sun's rays during hot summer days. I have all Energy Star appliances, and I just cleaned the dust from the fridge's cooling coils. They get nasty by the way.

My electric bill was $200 in June. Not great but I know people who would kill for one so low in our super-heated San Joaquin Valley.

And I'm always on the lookout for more things I can do. This encouraged me to click on the "Offset your carbon footprint" link.

I expected tips on insulating, driving less, riding bikes, maybe purchasing pieces of the Rain Forest.

What you get is a pitch: "Offset your footprint with The Nature Conservancy, you'll help protect land, plant trees and sequester carbon over the next 70 years. Your tax-deductible gift will make a difference for our lives, our environment and future generations."

Cost: $940.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The Nature Conservancy is a worthy organization, deserving of donations.

But I envisioned a more mathematically precise calculation. I'll have to keep working on that.

Coalition seeks to boost Calif. green jobs through recycled manufacturing

California Assembly Bill 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 has within it a mandatory commercial recycling component that is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons.

To achieve that objective, an additional 2 million to 3 million tons will have to be recycled annually by 2020. A coalition supporting increased manufacturing in California using recycled material wants to divert that waste to in-state companies to increase jobs.

To do this, the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce and others have been working to focus the power of AB32 to not only recycle but create opportunity. The Recycling Build Infrastructure Now Coalition seeks to tie the jobs component to the measure's rollout similar to the highly effective "We can do it" campaign of World War II.

The BIN Coalition's summit is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 9 at the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel, 110 W. Fremont St. in Stockton, Calif. The formal rulemaking process for the Mandatory Commercial Recycling Regulation will begin in early September 2011.

The BIN team seeks to include language in the regulation that identifies domestic demand for material to reduce greenhouse gases as well as a number of other measures.

Others in the effort include the California Association of Recycling Market Development Zones, the California Product Stewardship Council Board, the California Resource Recovery Association, the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley and the California Association of Local Economic Development.

The Road to California's First Solar Highway?

California is a big state, and I've traveled most of it. I started my career at the extreme north, lived for a while near the south end and ended up in the middle. My sister is in the Bay area and my daughter attends University of Oregon, so I'm on Interstate 5 and Highway 101 quite a bit.

Those ribbons of roadway provide a wonderful service, transporting people and commerce. But I've often wondered: isn't there more we can do with them? Could they perform some sort of double duty?

Maybe they can. A proposed pilot project involving the state Department of Transportation would use solar panels along freeway interchanges to generate power. The sites are between Gilroy and San Jose on Highway 101.

Read more about them here, here and here.

The idea of solar roads isn't new. In fact, Oregon completed the nation's first one in 2008 at Interstates 5 and 205 (pictured above), and The Netherlands is paving bike paths with solar panels. Learn more here and here.

California seems like an ideal place to test the concept of solar roads. It has more sunny days than Oregon, and a mandate of 33 percent renewables. Gov. Brown, in his green jobs plan, endorsed the creation of a solar highway.

The pilot project would be in the Bay area, but I would love to see a test in the San Joaquin Valley, where temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and highways shoot through large stretches of undeveloped countryside.

The Valley has rich solar potential. Dozens of projects are on the drawing boards, and more farmers are using solar arrays to help run their dairies and packinghouses. We are hearing more about solar panels on rooftops and on parking garages. Solar panels are already over our vehicles; maybe soon they'll be under them as well.

Photo of Oregon solar road by

Monday, July 18, 2011

Solar in California and The Williamson Act

This Stockton Record story by Alex Breitler highlights an issue that could become more common in California as clean energy gains a higher profile: The Williamson Act, and the impact it has on solar and other projects.

As Breitler notes, The Williamson Act is a voluntary program in which farmers agree to keep their land undeveloped for 10 years in return for tax breaks. About one-third of all the private land in California is enrolled in the program, so odds are the two will sometimes clash - such as they have near Stockton.

The issue is complicated by the fact that The Williamson Act does not specifically address solar, thus the release of this primer by the state. It cites four ways in which solar could be permitted on such property, including declaring it compatible with agriculture.

Which, apparently, is the approach being used in Kings County, where solar proposals are coming in fast. Officials there have determined that solar is compatible where it is appropriate, and proposed legislation would cement that philosophy as state policy.

However, the same bill , according to this Hanford Sentinel story, also directs solar farms to only marginally productive and physically impaired lands. That worries Greg Gatzka, Kings County's community development director.

The Sentinel story by Eiji Yamashita quotes Gatzka as saying, "The draft language they have come out with ...goes far beyond where our policies have. This may even render most of our county possibly unable to house a lot of solar projects by the definitions they are putting in there."

Kings County offsets the potential loss of farmland by limiting solar projects to 25 to 30 years and requiring a soil-reclamation plan. In addition, the Sentinel story notes, the county requires the protection of farmland somewhere else as a trade off.

How this all shakes out is unknown, but the timing is interesting. It comes when state has passed a 33 percent renewables mandate, and when Gov. Brown, according to this report, is on the verge of appointing a green jobs czar in California.

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Maybe You Can Win: Battle Of The Bills

My power bill in June topped $400. It didn't really surprise me. My family likes it cool, and the air conditioner runs much of the summer. I've learned to budget around it after living more than two decades in Fresno.

While higher than I like (I've paid more; last year I nearly passed out at the mailbox after opening a bill for $600 +), I doubt it's the highest in the area. A friend of mine once asked if "power bills are supposed to contain a comma?"

Maybe he should participate in the "Battle of the Bills" contest organized by solar company SunRun. The company said it reward the California resident with the highest June power bill with free solar for 20 years.

Here is more from the San Jose Mercury News and from SunRun.

Good luck.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

San Antonio seeks to corner clean energy

The mayor of San Antonio has been working to make his Texas city a center of clean energy for the past decade.

In fact, he wants to make it the new energy capital of the world. He tells National Public Radio that Houston is the bona fide energy capital.

This despite San Antonio's location in the center of the nation's oil patch. Or maybe because of that. After all, oil companies are calling themselves energy companies. And what is clean energy but a new way of creating power, just without burning anything.

Mayor Juli├ín Castro announced on NPR's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday" show that he's lined up an impressive array of companies that plan to make his city their corporate home. "One of them makes electric delivery trucks. One of them, in fact from North Carolina, makes home area networks that work with smart meters. And the other makes LED lighting," he said.

Castro's intent is job creation, and so far he's doing it. His strategy of going green for jobs is supported by a number of reports that have identified clean energy as a great tool to deliver economic development. Already "the clean economy employs more workers than the fossil fuel industry," says the Brookings Institution's "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" report.

The Brookings report also says the clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.

So if San Antonio could do it, so could other regions, especially those with renewable resources.

In a past post, I mentioned Vegas as a prime spot to invest in clean energy. I figured, why not? The casinos spend huge amounts on attractions to elicit the wonder of their patrons. What's a little more for a cluster of solar panels?

Or better yet, why not cloak the towers with a new product from Israel startup SolarOr, which was shopping a newly designed photovoltaic panel, it calls BeeHive PV, at the Intersolar trade show in San Francisco recently.

The panels have a honeycomb design that lets in light and they are 14 percent efficient, said Ucilia Wang in a piece on, giving a building using them that totally custom look.

After listening to Castro, I thought: "Vegas is still a great showcase, but other cities likewise could make their mark." I live in Fresno, Calif., which ranks No. 5 on the list of U.S. cities with the clearest skies year-round with 194 days, according to a post by Liz Osborn at

With all that sun -- and yes it's hot and more like 320 days -- Fresno and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley is a great location for renewables. It's also got land, potential for biogas and other biofuels and wind up in the mountains near Tehachapi.

The economy in the Valley isn't the greatest. It's so bad in fact that it was one of six cities included in the Obama Administration's recent launch of Strong Cities, Strong Communities program designed to spark economic growth. Detroit and New Orleans also made the list.

Like Castro, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin considers job development high on her list of priorities. She's also savvy about going after results. "We are going to get to work,” she said in a story about the Strong Cities launch by Michael Kincheloe of the

Fresno, like many cities in the Valley, has embraced energy efficiency, and it's even adding solar to multiple city facilities.

But San Antonio's got a huge head start. Castro said the jobs brought to his city by the clean energy companies are a somewhat paltry 230 but are estimated to expand to between 800 and 1,000 jobs by 2015. And the utility serving San Antonio is looking to supply 400 megawatts of solar. It already has ties to 859 megawatts of wind in west Texas on the coast and in south Texas.

Not everybody thinks clean energy in San Antonio is the cat's meow. I stumbled across this post that said clean energy is still the new kid on the block. The piece, which appears on a site supported by the oil industry, explained that Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas deposit in south Texas "will prove to outweigh the hopes of any who wanted to brand the town as a renewable energy city."

The unnamed author does have a point. Existing industry is not to be overlooked or underestimated. It still packs a punch, and that's a good thing. As my friend from East Anchorage High who moved back to Texas to work in the oil industry always says, "Petroleum isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

I believe that. I also believe in the potential of clean energy. We're a society that will find innovative ways to consume all the available energy. And the cheaper it is, the more jobs we'll generate -- wherever we decide to do it.

Photo: The Alamo in San Antonio.

The Power Of Energy Efficiency

Our nonprofit sits in the sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley. It's not the hottest part of California, but it is close. It gets warm here, as in my hands-burn-when-I-touch-the-steering wheel warm.

Thus, power bills are high. My June bill topped $400, and was the second-highest monthly expense behind my mortgage. Most of it is my own fault: The air conditioner is 18 years old. We haven't added extra insulation or taken many efficiency measures. And my family likes the house cool. My daughter is home from college (Go Ducks!) for the summer and unemployed, so the a/c runs much of the time. It is an argument I can't win.

But, I still believe in energy efficiency. EnergySavvy claims 1.6 million homes could receive energy upgrades and 220,000 jobs could be created for half the cost of one nuke plant. The savings are remarkable, and they really aren't that costly to obtain. Take lighting for instance. Many people have told me that lighting retrofits aren't worth it. That's not true.

In this Clean Technica post, the Earth Policy Institute notes that lighting is responsible for 19 percent of the world's energy demand, and that its carbon emissions equal 70 percent of those released by vehicles globally. A concerted effort on that front could be powerful.

LED lights are taking center stage, and assuming a larger presence. Their prices are dropping, and places with lots of lights are seeing significant savings. The Clean Technica story notes that New York City cut its yearly maintenance and power bill some $6 million just by replacing traffic lights with LEDs.

By the way, our organization is working with cities through the San Joaquin Valley, helping them reduce costs by, among other things, retrofitting lights. Many of these communities have slashed staff and cut budgets in this horrible recession. Maybe they can preserve a few positions or reopen a library with money saved from lower power bills.

Efficiency is the easiest and most cost effective part of the clean energy movement, and the government supports it. Just today, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency listed a variety of products that are among the most energy efficient. More on that here.

Efficiency really is, as DOE chief Steven Chu says, more than low-hanging fruit: "It is fruit on the ground."

And ready to be picked.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fresno's Green Economy Is Growing

We've been on the fringes of the green movement in the San Joaquin Valley for awhile now, and we've seen firsthand its growth. Like most emerging economies, it is expanding at a stutter step rate - but it is growing.

More farmers are adding renewable energy to their operations, most commonly solar. Cities such as Tulare are embracing clean energy in big ways. Local property owners, schools and others are joining the movement, just as Big Business and the military are doing nationwide.

A just-released Brookings Institution study puts Fresno's green ranking at 57 out of 100 largest metro regions nationally, due in part to organic food and farming, and growth in biofuel and biomass. This is from the Fresno Business Journal.

Here's a link to the report itself. Stockton and Bakersfield also are included.

We believe that additional expansion is possible, even during a period of economic austerity. Dozens of solar projects are in various stages of development, and that industry could really pop if they come to fruition. University of California at Merced is so optimistic that it has unofficially labeled us as "Solar Valley."

Fresno's mid-state location, vast amount of land and minimal environmental issues work in our favor. Fresno also is home to Electronic Recyclers, one of the largest recycling companies in the nation - and which is planning a global expansion.

Coincidentally, the same Business Journal edition that highlights the Brookings report has a story on a possible expansion by Electronic Recyclers. Read it here.

Stay tuned.

A Salad Basket of Green News

The San Joaquin Valley is known as the world's salad bowl because we produce so many crops - about $20 billion annually.

With that theme in mind comes today salad basket of green news, along with links:

1/ I don't like heights, so changing careers to become a wind technician is out. But here's a video of a former cabinetmaker who did just that in Tehachapi. You would never catch me up there! This is courtesy of CNN and Solardude1:

2/ The DOE 2010 report on wind energy. Some headwinds possible:

3/ A 2010 recap of fuel cells, which are expanding rapidly ( Includes photo of Tulare fuel cell project. Pictured above):

4/ New Brookings report on Green jobs, with figures for Fresno, Bakersfield and other metropolitan areas:.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Innovation Pays Off, But Can We Afford It?

Another increase in college tuition in California. More courses cut. I wonder how that combination will affect our future down the road. Maybe that's why I've been thinking a lot about innovation, and whether we have the necessary infrastructure in place to encourage it.

Clean and renewable energy could be a growth sector in California and elsewhere. California recently passed the 33 percent renewables standard. More businesses, such as GM and Hyatt, are incorporating sustainability policies. The military is strongly promoting the virtues of going green. An increasing number of homeowners, property owners and agricultural entities are installing solar arrays, rooftop systems and wind turbines to help offset energy costs.

Lots of exciting research is going on in a variety of fields - from heat exchangers to solar to biofuel - but can it continue? As Devon Swezey says in Forbes , and as Martin LaMonica notes in a Green Tech piece that bounces off a Foreign Affairs article, there is a global austerity movement that threatens clean-energy subsidies.

The authors of the Foreign Affairs story say some niches, such as rooftop solar and biofuel from sugar cane, are likely to thrive, but they say investing in innovative technologies is the key to longtime viability. They call for the formation of a Clean Energy Deployment Administration, or something similar, with an initial capitalization of $10 billion.

Of course, coming up with $10 billion in this economic and political environment would be a challenge, but the importance of finding the money (could some come from NASA's budget?) can't be ignored.

Jane Long of Lawrence Livermore lab said the same thing in a presentation to the state EPA. Faced with a 33 percent renewable mandate and a governor's order for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, California needs to devote some major resources to innovation, she said in this report.

And why not? Going green is good for the environment and profit margins. Studies have shown that clean energy - and we include efficiency in that - can benefit the bottom line. As Swezey notes in this closing graph, "By repurposing existing clean energy policies and investing in clean energy innovation, the United States can be the first country to make clean energy cheap and reliable, a distinction that is sure to bring major economic benefits in a multi-trillion dollar energy market."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vegas ought to bet on clean energy

Spending time in Vegas gave me an opportunity, yet again, to experience the power of the almighty dollar.

But it's not the gambling I'm referring to. Although the din of the slots, cries of anguish at the craps games and cool stares from packed blackjack tables are something to behold.

No, it's the Vegas thirst for electrical power that gets me thinking. Massive voltage travels from the grid into the various mini cities on the Strip -- like the new Palazzo resort hotel, which with the Venetian has about 8,000 rooms. That energy flows into the MGM Grand, Caesar's Palace, the Flamingo and all the rest. Just the air conditioning bill would crush a third-world country. Toss in the rest of the operations, high-definition billboards and lighting that can be seen from the space shuttle, and it's enough to keep Nevada Power Co. one of the most stable and profitable investments of all time.

But imagine this: What if Vegas went big for alternative energy and energy efficiency? It's a risk, sure. But where else can you bet on a Wizard of Oz slot, get beer delivered and take a leak just 10 paces away? Vegas thrives on risk.

And while energy efficiency retrofits have proved their value, renewables still have a way to go. For instance, Forbes' Devon Swezey predicts a clean tech crash. "The reason is simple," Swezey writes. "Clean energy is still much more expensive and less reliable than coal or gas."

And the economy bites, subsidies are dying and public sector budgets look like a two-egg breakfast left overnight outside in the hall at the Paris. So what?

That's really not what's driving the industry right now. For instance, go outside on the Strip in Vegas and breathe the air. Accompanying the constant stale stench of fried food, ambiance of public urination, sweat and other gross stuff is a good dose of pollution. That isn't fresh air. And it isn't just Vegas.

The truth is the air is nasty in most big cities. Sure, beautiful Fresno has some of the worst. I was introduced to asthma here. Nothing like it, especially on a long run. Might as well get punched in the face. There's a cost to that. Coal and gas may be cheap per kilowatt, but that energy becomes very costly just multiplied by 100 million people trouping into pharmacies for treatment of allergy-related ailments.

And then there's the whole carbon debate. Fox News may try to sidestep the issue, but it's pretty clear we've got a serious problem.

"Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act," says Al Gore in a piece for Rolling Stone.

I tend to believe it. And I'm not the only one.

Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal writes about Fritz Kreiss and Catherine McQueen, whose 19-room Green Leaf Inn in rural Delavan, Wisc. uses a wind turbine, geothermal energy and solar power to produce a nonexistent carbon footprint.

And tax and audit company KPMG LLP has announced it leveraged a 22 percent carbon reduction in overall operations over three years. That's KPMG, hardly a tree-hugging hippy, and its pursuing a plan to improve the environmental performance of its business.

I collected a relatively long list, but I'll keep this rant somewhat short.

So where else but Vegas would clean energy be better showcased? A silly town in the desert nobody thought would be successful. Heck, if that were the case, it really would've dried up during this "recession." But no, the World Series of Poker was a huge success this year, and people flocked despite unreal dinner prices.

So dress that next casino hotel resort with solar panels, tap some geothermal and go LED crazy. Yeah, in Vegas baby.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Winds Of Change Propel Clean Energy

It was in the 1980s when I first became interested in renewable energy. I was just entering my 30s and working in the newsroom of the Palm Springs Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving the desert communities east of Riverside.

Palm Springs is a gateway to the San Gorgonio Pass, one of the windiest spots in California. I covered the attorneys in the county courthouse and the emerging wind industry (the hot air beat), which was taking advantage of the seemingly unrelenting breezes and tax breaks to grow the renewable-energy industry.

I was fascinated by the turbines beginning to pop up on the hilltops. I still get excited when they appear as backdrops in a movie or television show. (Did you see them on the first episode of last season's Amazing Race?) The whap-whap of the turbine blades was an interesting scenic diversion, even though they, in the 1980s, seemed to me like little more than a novelty.

Fast forward more than two decades, and wind energy is serious business. Today, windmills could power 829,000 households - nearly double since 2002- and projections call for wind to provide 5% of the state's electricity by 2013, according to calWEA, a nonprofit in California supported by the wind industry.

Much of that power comes from the Altamont Pass outside Tracy, the area near Palm Springs and the Tehachapi Wind Farm, just off the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, which has been my home for almost 25 years. I live near Fresno, which doesn't have many wind turbines but is I'm-burning-the-hair-off-my-head hot during the summer. Thus, solar energy is gaining a larger profile, as evidenced by dozens of projects proposed between Stockton and the base of the Grapevine.

Agriculture operations are among the expanding users of solar energy in the Valley. Check out the latest from a pistachio processor in Tulare County, who just hooked up to the sun to help run his business. California led the nation in 2009 with almost 2,000 growers and ranchers generating electricity from renewable power, according to this report.

Sure, wind and solar remain bit players in the overall energy arena, but they are clearly gaining stature. I can almost hear the renewables movement picking up speed as large and small businesses take up the mantle of clean energy.

Companies such as Whole Foods, Intel and Kohl's are among the world's largest purchasers of renewable energy, according to this new study. In fact, Intel and Whole Foods buy all of their energy from renewable sources (Whole Foods uses only wind energy).

Clearly, those two companies, and the others on the list, are sending a signal: Going green is good socially and economically. I'm sure they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't generate green to the bottom line as well. Check out this report from a pilot program in Wisconsin.

Big Business and the military, which has declared its dependence on fossil fuel a national security issue, are leading the clean energy (which includes efficiency) charge, and helping fuel some economic growth. This story out of Milwaukee notes that the military's solar program was responsible for a manufacturer adding a second shift.

This all comes despite legislators who want to slash programs. I can't help but think we are on the ground floor of a green revolution.