Tuesday, August 30, 2011

If only ocean energy could power the world

The Seven Seas dominate the planet.

And they're full of energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the oceans are the world's largest solar energy collector and energy storage system.

For instance, "on an average day, 23 million square miles of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equal in heat content to about 250 billion barrels of oil," the lab says.

Add tidal and wave power, and that's perhaps why researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs are redoubling efforts to tap the resource and plug its clean energy into the grid.

Wave & tidal power get financing

Wave and tidal power have received most of the recent ocean power buzz. The U.S. Department of Energy in May 2011 handed out $4.7 million to companies involved in wave energy development off the coast of Oregon, according to the Portland Business Journal. Oregon Wave Energy Trust contributed another $496,000 in matching money.

Extracting the aforementioned solar energy via ocean thermal energy conversion also shows potential. Ocean thermal systems use warmer water at the surface and colder water from about a half mile down to generate energy. This works so long as the temperature difference is no less than 36 degrees F.

"An OTEC system can produce a significant amount of power," NREL says, estimating the overall potential to be about 10,000 gigawatts. A gigawatt is a billion watts.

Challenge issued

Like a lot of renewable energy concepts, this one has its technological hurdles. The greatest is of course financial viability. Can it be done cost-effectively?

Some companies have taken on the challenge.

The Ocean Energy Council, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, says new designs for ocean thermal energy conversion remain mostly experimental. The council reports those that have been built have been small -- one near Japan that can generate 100 kilowatts and another off the coast of Hawaii, producing 50 kilowatts.

"A full scale OTEC would cost many millions of dollars, and it would be very difficult to build," the council says.

Ocean thermal makes gains

Ted Johnson, who worked with Lockheed Corp.'s on development of the floating ocean thermal pilot plant off the coast of Hawaii, says rising oil prices and technological advances have made the systems "increasingly attractive" to some countries.

"The technology exists to make ocean thermal energy a reality," he says in a statement.

His company, Lancaster, Pa.-based OTE Corp., is currently peddling the technology, along with accompanying water desalination and sea-water cooling.

A system was successfully created in 1929, when French engineer George Claude designed and built a 22-kilowatt on the Cuban coast. "He took the warm surface water and put it into an evaporator," reports the Ocean Energy Council. "The pressure was lowered which caused the water to vaporize. It was forced through a turbine and it produced 22 kilowatts of electricity. Cold water was piped up from lower ocean depths to cool the vaporized water so the cycle could begin again."

But storms kept breaking the pipe used to collect cold water from deep water, and the project was abandoned.

Ocean power & Dr. Pepper

I'm fascinated with the prospect of realizing energy from the sea. I lived third grade and many summers before that with my grandmother, spending nearly all of my free time on the beach, in the water or trying to get onto it in a skiff. I don't recall that it mattered how cold it was.

The power of the ocean amazed me back then. I recall holing up with my little sister during a storm at the highest point of the black shale beach under some driftwood. I wanted to see how far the waves would crash. They cascaded 50 to 60 feet and just over us. Grandma found me after a good four hours. Her expression was a mixture of profound relief and barely concealed anger. Turned out the whole town of Port Lions, Alaska was looking for us, so we got hot Dr. Pepper at the cafe.

Not every storm delivers hot Dr. Pepper. Irene ravaged thousands of miles of coastline, expelling its massive energy. If just some of that was captured, bottled and reapplied, we'd be giving power away.

The search continues

But the search for clean energy isn't simple. The ultimate solution to cheap renewable power eludes us for the most part.

Yet, ingenuity and mankind's desire to find solutions may ferret out a solution.

In many ways we're just like Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," stuck on an uncharted island surrounded by blue seas with everything we need to survive. In Crusoe's case, it took many years for him to successfully figure out how to use all the resources he was given.

Maybe we just need a couple more years.

Art: Cover of the first edition "Robinson Crusoe."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Teachers: Please sample clean energy lesson plans

This past year, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization worked on a project to prepare students for jobs in clean energy.

The jobs are coming, or at least that's what studies appear to show. And I've got my fingers crossed.

We worked with a number of groups on the Valley Legacy Grant project to develop a series of programs meant to steer the region's residents toward high-growth sectors of industry. Four teams established by the grant worked to bring those programs into high school, college and adult education classrooms across the Valley's eight counties.

The effort, supported by a grant from Workforce Investment Act, has been challenging but a success, providing a model that can be built and expanded upon in subsequent years.

Clean energy for educators

I'm writing this post in part to shine some attention on the website we created as part of this project, www.wiasjvceo.com, and share it with teachers. My wife's an English teacher who tells me all the time how she appreciates good lesson plan ideas.

And that's what this has. Ideas. Lots of them. And they're all about clean energy, the environment, green work place trends and even climate change.

We at the SJVCEO, headed up the Green Economy & Workforce Team on this grant. The effort combined the talents of San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, West Hills Community College District, the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, The Maddy Institute and the International Center for Water Technology. SJVCEO served as team leader.

The clean energy industry promises to be one of the more robust growth engines of the next decade and could prove pivotal to California's San Joaquin Valley, and this project set groundwork between the business community and education.

Nurturing the next generation

The connections begun by the Valley Legacy Grant are expected to continue and could, with some nurturing, bear significant fruit in years to come. Not only can the region’s young people transition into jobs and positions of influence, but the Valley itself could emerge as a leader in research and green energy generation.

A recent study by the Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs Network says that in California, in addition to having the most green jobs in the country, those jobs, totaling 178,500 positions, are likely to more than double to 433,000 by 2040.

And a list we stumbled across lists more than 90 solar projects in our region that appear to have few regulatory hurdles ahead of them. They cover a projected 64,000 acres. Big stuff that undoubtedly leave a big economic footprint.

Our mission: Position the region to better take advantage of that trend by assisting educators to teach their students about it.

Clean energy outreach

Our team developed a list of classroom friendly experts specializing in clean energy, compiled a comprehensive list of private and higher education green energy-related training programs and collected thousands of pages of reports, studies and white papers. All of it is provided to students, teachers and job seekers electronically.

Our team also has collected a vast arsenal of green energy-related curriculum that can be used or sampled by teachers. This information can be found at www.wiasjvceo.

Staff of the SJVCEO continues to update the site with new reports and the latest cleantech information. We'd like to see it shared far and wide. One of my thoughts is that teachers who create clean energy related lesson plans can share them on the site. Others who modify them could likewise share their work.

Keeping it going

The idea is to continue and grow the website long after the sunset date of the grant and help students realize the extent of the opportunities in the clean energy sector. After all, one of them may provide the next big breakthrough that helps clean our air and provides cheap energy and economic development.

The model we created could be replicated in any region on any scale. The effort does require volunteer labor from those in industry and likely that of members. But with very little time, a web presence can be established and outreach made. The material collected on our site could be used and our formats copied.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gov. Brown seeks to continue energy efficiency programs

Gov. Jerry Brown plans to roll out a bill to save a longtime energy efficiency program due to expire in two weeks, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Marc Lifsher of the Times writes that a draft of the bill — dubbed the Clean Energy, Jobs and Investment Act of 2011 — "was presented at a private meeting late last week in the governor's office with utility executives, legislative staffers, environmentalists and power plant developers."

Lifsher quotes Brown staffer Nancy McFadden as saying that the measure is a "priority for Gov. Brown because of its proven job-creation potential and role in galvanizing California's innovative clean-tech economy."

The energy efficiency program is paid for by a "public goods surcharge" of $1 to $2 on a residential ratepayer's utility bills. In 1996, AB 1890 directed the state’s three major investor-owned utilities -- Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric -- to collect the funds.

The California Public Utilities Commission has approved energy efficiency funding of $3.1 billion for 2010 through 2012 through the program, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Lifsher says the program collects about $400 million a year.

Lifsher says the program is opposed by business groups such as the California Manufacturers & Technology Association and antitax groups like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Public goods funds pay for a series of energy efficiency programs, including:

  • The Savings by Design program, which is offered by PG&E, SCE, SDG&E, Southern California Gas and Sacramento Municipal Utility District. This program provides incentives for energy efficiency measures in new construction and major renovations.
  • The Statewide Customized Offering for Business, which is offered by PG&E, SCE and SDG&E. The utilities provide incentives for efficient lighting, air conditioning, refrigeration and natural gas equipment as well as for controls, building shell retrofits and demand reduction measures.
  • PG&E, SCE and SDG&E offer rebates for more efficient lighting, HVAC, water heaters, refrigeration, motors and other equipment.
Other services include energy audits, on-bill zero-interest financing of energy efficiency measures up to $250,000 and other programs.

Public goods funds also pay for local government partnerships that seek to aid jurisdictions in implementing energy savings measures in their communities to reduce energy use, greenhouse gas and utility costs.

For instance, SCE says it provides support to more than 100 cities and counties through its Energy Leader Partnership Program. The utility says partnership program helps local governments "identify and address energy efficiency opportunities in municipal facilities, take actions supporting the California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan and increase community awareness and participation."

One of those partnerships is Valley Innovative Energy Watch, which includes Tulare County, Kings County, Visalia, Hanford, Woodlake, Lindsay, Tulare and Porterville. The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization serves as implementer for the partnership.

Other California partnerships include the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, the San Gabriel Valley partnership, the Chula Vista partnership and many others.

Stockton electric truck company scores big with UPS

United Parcel Service plans to swap 100 of its delivery trucks for versions that never need to refuel with diesel.

They will, however, need to plug in.

Stockton, Calif.-based Electric Vehicles International finalized a deal with the package delivery company that will likely be viewed by many as a breakthrough for commercial electric vehicles.

"EVI's vehicle met our requirements in the test phase," said Mike Britt, UPS's director of vehicle engineering, in a statement. "Now we will operate these vehicles in the real world and help establish the future viability of this technology."

Trucks join electric market

The electric vehicle roll-out largely has been dominated, at least on the media front, by Nissan's Leaf and General Motors' Chevy Volt. But there are other players in the plug-in field, and the emerging commercial truck market appears to be one to watch.

David R. Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that other electric-vehicle companies are looking to get into the commercial truck market. He writes, "Frito-Lay last year agreed to buy 176 trucks from Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. Corp., based in Kansas City, Mo." Staples, he says, purchased 41 plug-in trucks from Smith and Ford, with Azure Dynamics, have sold 30 of their electric vans with more planned.

Segment shows promise

Smith advertises its trucks by promoting fuel savings of 75 percent over diesel-burning counterparts, zero emissions, "slashed" maintenance costs "because there is so much less to maintain," less noise and being "perfect for urban deliveries."

And it appears expansion is in the works. The Kansas City Business Journal reports that earlier in 2011, Smith raised $58 million, "which it planned to use to pay for the recent purchase of its British counterpart, Smith Electric Vehicles UK, and to build up its supply-chain and manufacturing capabilities."

California Energy Commission Vice Chairman James Boyd says the purchase by UPS of the EVI trucks benefits all involved and pumps up the state economy. Boyd says the deal "improves public health by reducing air pollution," adding that EVI's decision to establish a new manufacturing facility in Stockton provides much ­needed jobs and sales revenue to the San Joaquin Valley.

Future growth

The electric and hybrid market remain less than 2 percent of new vehicle sales, and commercial truck sales are a fraction of that. However, numbers in the segment are expected to increase steadily. Going-electric.org says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, will reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

The site did predict that sometime during the next decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent." For more on the topic, go to this previous post.

Engage 360 Energy Movement Reaches Valley

A smart-energy movement has arrived in the Valley with the opening of the Engage 360 Central California office.
The office, at 2380 W. Whitendale Ave., Visalia, opened in early June. A grand opening was held Tuesday.

For more information, read the rest of the story:

(Jackson Taylor, left, community manager at Engage 360, talks with Scott Smith of ServPro Visalia at Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.)
Photo by: Juan Villa, copyright Visalia Times-Delta. Used with permission

Farmers say measure helps generate renewable energy

A bill in the California Legislature would make it easier for farmers and others to cleanly convert agricultural waste like almond hulls into electricity and feed it into the energy grid, supporters contend.

The measure, SB 489, which has been dubbed the Renewable Energy Equity Act, would give bioenergy the same regulatory bragging rights now given to other forms of alternative energy.

Current regulations make bioenergy systems costly to connect to the state's energy grid and thus more difficult to economically justify, proponents of the bill say. State law allows solar, wind, biogas and fuel cell power generating systems of 1 megawatt or less to connect to the grid through a simpler process called net energy metering.

SB 489 would allow small bioenergy systems to do the same. In a similar measure, Gov. Schwarznegger in October 2009 signed AB 920 into law, requiring California utilities to compensate homeowners with solar systems for surplus energy produced.

Net energy metering

The net energy metering program allows utility customers who generate their own power to get paid for the power they feed back into the grid. Credit earned offsets a customer's utility bill.

Net energy metering is "an important element of the policy framework supporting direct customer investment in grid-tied distributed renewable energy generation," according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

A fact sheet produced by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Sacramento, says connecting other forms of clean energy to the grid now "requires going through the longer, more arduous, and very expensive feed-in-tariff process."

Wolk says that for smaller energy producers, costs incurred by the longer process often outweigh the benefits.

Dixon Ridge Farms

Katrina Schwartz writes in KQED's Climate Watch blog about Russ Lester, owner of Dixon Ridge Farms in Yolo County, and his efforts to get the rules changed. Lester has installed a 50-kilowatt biogasifier that burns walnut shells at high temperatures to create fuel to run his generator and heat to dry his walnuts, Schwartz says.

Lester, who grows organic walnuts, is among about 50 groups and individuals listed by the California Climate & Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, as supporting Wolk's measure. The bill has passed the Senate and its first two Assembly committees. It next heads to the Appropriations Committee and then to the full Assembly.

CalCAN says SB 489 will allow agricultural businesses to more easily and economically convert agricultural waste into clean renewable energy, help reduce the need for new power plants and transmission infrastructure and save money on their power bills. "Expanding the program will also help the state reach both its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and also its renewable energy goals," officials say.

A number of manufacturers of multiple technologies advertised as "clean and green" may benefit from SB 489.

Bioenergy lights up rural India

Kate Greene of earth2tech.com reports on a similar move by startup Husk Power Systems, based in the state of Bihar, India rolling out rice husk-using biomass power plants to rural areas of the populous Asian nation. The plants are small, about 40 megawatts -- but bring power to communities that often relied on kerosene for lighting.

The Husk Power website quotes Rambalak Yadav, a teacher the "remote and run-down village of Tamkuha, literally meaning Fog of Darkness," as saying, "After 60 independent years, we have found freedom from darkness."

While the effect in this country is much less pronounced, the results of local energy are the same. And for Husk, the concept is proving successful. The company has installed at least 30 of the plants and plans to increase that number a couple thousand in the next several years.

Bioenergy gets government support

The U.S. Department of Energy also believes in bioenergy, releasing the report, "U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry" in August 2011. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven says the study identifies resources "that can help grow America’s bioenergy industry and support new economic opportunities for rural America."

Chu says developing the next generation of American biofuels and bioenergy will help diversify the nation's energy portfolio, reduce dependence on foreign oil and produce new clean energy jobs.

I learned about a couple of bioenergy systems back in 2009 at a trade show. Both touted better-than-fossil-fuel emissions. One involved biomass gasification, the other pyrolytic thermal conversion of biomass. Both involved turning animal waste into gas and listed emissions that met strict air-quality standards.

I came away after talking with the representatives thinking American ingenuity is truly an amazing thing.

Photo: Courtesy McDougall Trading, a company that represents more than 40 almond hullers in California.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

UC Davis launches 'green' degree program

This fall the University of California, Davis, plans to launch an undergraduate major focused on agricultural sustainability.

The official title of the bachelor of science degree will be "Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems," and officials say it will "provide students with a thorough understanding of the many issues facing modern farming and food systems, including production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management."

The green component is the emphasis on social, economic and environmental aspects of agriculture and food.

“This is an exciting addition to the college that reflects a change in how we think about food and agriculture,” says Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in a statement. “Students will gain a broad perspective of what it takes to put dinner on the table in an era of greater demand and fewer resources.”

Nine faculty members from eight departments are affiliated with the new degree program.

The major is new, but UC Davis has been covering the subject at its student farm for more than 35 years, officials say.

Continuing students already have begun transferring into the major. Freshmen and transfer students will be able to apply starting in November.

Photo: Courtesy UC Davis.

Recharge stations coming for electric cars

Commercial recharging stations for electric vehicles will materialize, a new study says.

The view may sound like "the check's in the mail" response to many who purchased the first wave of electric only cars.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research projects that by 2017 "more than 1.5 million locations to charge vehicles will be available in the United States, with a total of nearly 7.7 million locations worldwide."

About a third will be home-charging units.

Pike Research President Clint Wheelock and senior analyst John Gartner say electric vehicles are coming. "It is only a question of how many plug-in electric vehicles that tap into the grid for power will be driving alongside their internal combustion engine counterparts," they write.

While the electric and hybrid market remain less than 2 percent of new vehicle sales, numbers are expected to increase steadily. Going-electric.org says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, will reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

The site did predict that sometime during the next decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent." For more on the topic, go to this previous post.

Pike says the Asia Pacific region will lead charging-equipment sales. It attributes the prediction to strong government incentives and directives in China, Japan and Korea followed by increasing private sector investment.

Configurations of for-profit stations weren't discussed in the study's free executive summary, but Pike says the business model will evolve and grow as operators create new services. It also says prices for charging systems will drop by more than a third in the next six years.

Photo: Courtesy Pike Research.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Solar jobs come to San Joaquin Valley

Clean energy is making an economic mark in the San Joaquin Valley.


The Green Report, issued by Proteus Inc., a nonprofit that provides community work force training and other services based in Visalia, Calif., lists a projected job forecast of 12,125 jobs related to construction of solar facilities.

"With the amount of new solar companies looking at the Central Valley to implement utility-sized photovoltaic installations in the double digits, the future looks bright for solar installation and employment," writes the report's author, Hector Uriarte Jr., who heads up the Proteus solar training program.

Solar projects planned

Solar is definitely coming. The California Public Utilities Commission lists 46 small to medium sized projects on its "on schedule" list for the state. More are sure to be added.

And there are, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, 93 proposed solar projects planned on 64,000 Valley acres that have no environmental conflicts and can proceed without opposition.

MID gives to UC Solar

Economic effects go beyond simple solar installations. The Merced Irrigation District has committed $10,000 to the University of California Merced's Advanced Solar Technologies Institute.

Also known as UC Solar, the institute involves other UC campuses and is "dedicated to designing and developing innovative solar energy generation technologies that are more efficient, more affordable."

MID General Manager John Sweigard tells the Merced Sun-Star that his utility is committed to the development of clean energy and that UC Solar "appears to be heading in the right direction."

Training program gears up

Proteus is one of the organizations gearing up to meet expected work force needs. The nonprofit operates a solar training program and has worked with many of the companies in the region to find its graduates jobs. Some of those include: Eurus Energy through subsidiary Avenal Solar Holdings LLC and its employment agency Aerotek, Sundowner Solar, Unlimited Energy,  Velocity Energy Partners and Altsys Solar.

The Green Report projects activity by the following companies:
  • Solar Project Solutions: Plans 130 megawatts of solar installations for about 650 jobs.
  • NorthLight Power: 60 mw, about 300 jobs.
  • Beacon Solar LLC: 250 mw, about 1,250 jobs.
  • SolarGen USA: 1,000 mw, about 5,000 jobs.
  • DTE Energy: 20 mw, about 100 jobs.
  • Recurrent Energy: 80 mw, about 400 jobs.
  • Canergy: 500 mw, about 2,500 jobs.
  • NRG Solar LLC: 105 mw, about 525 jobs.
  • Meridian Energy: 60 mw, about 300 jobs.
  • Westland Solar Farms LLC, 220 mw, about 1,100 jobs.
Uriarte's report says another driving force in solar growth has come from municipalities installing photovoltaics at their water or waste water operations. These installations are often 1 or 2 megawatts and offset the high electricity costs of running pumps.

For instance, a 45 megawatt plant just opened in Avenal in PG&E territory. And more are coming. The community of Corcoran plans to lease land for a 15 megawatt plant near its waste water treatment plant, for example.

2011 survey of solar work force trends by San Jose State University and SolarTech found that 56 percent of the 32 installers interviewed planned to add workers.

Solar installation is construction work

The work is relatively low tech. But development of any kind creates economic activity and other jobs.

David Castillo, director of Westside Institute of Technology, which is a part of West Hills Community College District in Coalinga, believes the basics will be in high demand as clean energy projects ramp up in the Valley. Castillo says solar installation jobs are temporary, lasting four months to a year at best and operations will need skilled people with a variety of certifiable talents, starting with forklift drivers, he says.

Materials will need to be delivered, stored and deployed for clean energy operations, just the same as any other construction project.

Yet, clean energy developments in the Valley go far beyond solar and include wind energy in the Sierra Mountains, especially around Tehachapi and to the east; biofuel development, using new source crops like camelina and algae and processes like cellulosic ethanol and isobutanol; methane digesters; and even growing distribution of fuel cells.

As Steve Geil, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County, says, “The Valley has the potential to be energy self-sufficient.”

Photo: Avenal solar facility courtesy Eurus Energy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NASA, NIKE Team Up For Energy Innovation

NASA is joining with a corporate partner, NIKE, and others to "LAUNCH" energy innovation.

NASA's scientists are proven problem solvers, and energy innovation is a huge opportunity for this nation to create jobs, reduce its carbon footprint, lower costs and gain efficiencies. Some analysts, in fact, are calling clean energy the new Industrial Revolution.

Here's more on the LAUNCH program from cleantech.org. Imagine the possibilities!

Photo by S. Braswell

Monday, August 22, 2011

EV, hybrid sales mediocre but sector expected to grow

Electric cars are coming to a lane near you, but nobody seems to know how quickly or what to what extent the U.S. consumer will switch from filling up to powering up.

While the latter term definitely sounds cool, few have adopted the concept. Edmunds Auto Observer reports that the two battery-powered vehicles and 29 hybrid models now on the market remain below 2 percent of U.S. auto sales.

"Were it not for Toyota, there'd barely have been a July hybrid market to track," writes John O'Dell for Edmonds.

Sales up in mid-summer

Sales crept up in July over the previous month but still remained below the same period a year earlier at about 18,000 hybrids and EVs. O'Dell says the high price for premium technology doesn't sell well in a soft economy, especially when small cars with conventional engines are getting such good mileage. Much of this may be due to availability of electrics, of course.

Sales forecasts show different scenarios. Two provided by going-electric.org indicate slow but steady growth over the next decade.

Going-electric says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

While the site said sales through 2020 largely depend on government incentives for consumers and car makers, it did predict that sometime during the new decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent."

Some goals fall short

A new report by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says that sales expectations by President Obama of 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on the streets by 2015 "appears to be well beyond what the actual vehicle market is likely to be."

Pike Research does say the annual market for plug-ins should grow to about 1.3 million vehicles by 2017, and that the overall market, with hybrids, should grow to 2.9 million. Not bad.

The U.S. Department of Energy hopes to make sure local governments are ready. DOE unveiled a couple of programs designed to help cities, counties and states design permits, provide inspectors with training and speed inspections

Standardize charging station regs

The idea is to create a standardized process and "create more favorable conditions for EV businesses, including infrastructure providers and installers, to thrive as more plug-in electric vehicles come to the market," officials said in a press release.

One of the serious downers for electric car drivers is range anxiety. Most of the cars get less than 100 miles. While no big deal for a set commute, throw in an extra trip, a wait in traffic and the driver starts worrying if he'll have to do the Fred Flintstone and push with his feet. No Yabba Dabba Do there.

However, there is some help in that department. Ariel Schwartz of fastcompany.com put together a piece on phone apps that highlight nearby charging stations. Of course those are few and far between, but more are promised.

Expect more EV sightings. I've seen Nissan Leafs when I'm least expecting it and passed a Chevy Volt down by Pixley on Highway 99.
Photo: Porsche 914 EV conversion on sale for $9,000.

California utility gears up for alternative energy

The Modesto Irrigation District is gearing up for clean energy in a big way and is closing in on its mandated California renewables requirement.

The small central California utility has built a modern power plant that has the flexibility to support the more sporadic energy generation supplied by the region's wind turbines and solar installations.

"Our projected 2012 green energy mix is 26 percent wind and 2 percent other green resources," says Melissa Williams, MID spokeswoman.

Williams says the "other" category includes Fiscalini Farms’ methane gas digester, which powers the specialty cheesemaker's operation and about 300 homes, and solar.

MID supplies power to an area dominated by Modesto, the largest of its communities with a population of about 201,000. Its service area includes smaller communities of Salida, Empire, Waterford, Mountain House and parts of LaGrange, Riverbank, Ripon, Escalon and Oakdale.

Williams says MID has "actively pursued and procured green energy" to comply with California’s mandated renewable energy portfolio standard of 33 percent renewables by 2020. Other utilities in California, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison and Sacramento Metropolitan Utilities District, also are vigorously pursuing the clean energy requirement.

The goal doesn't come easy. Renewable energy to a large degree energizes the electrical grid only when the sun shines or the wind blows. Only hydropower and geothermal can be regulated more like plants fired either by fossil fuels or nuclear fission.

MID built its Woodland 3 Reciprocating Engines Generation Plant with six 20-cylinder Wartsila 34SG units that operate on natural gas. Helsinki, Finland-based Wartsila Corp. says it specializes in technological innovation and efficiency.

Williams says the 49.6 megawatt power plant "provides us with flexible, economical, clean and fast-starting peaking generation to balance and back up our green energy resources like wind and solar." She says the Wartsila engines can run at 50 percent capacity with very little loss of fuel efficiency, and the plant can ramp up half an engine at a time to fill in any gaps in wind and solar generation.

The concept is to ensure adequate power for MID's customers. Williams also says the plant is quiet and that the facility has advanced emission controls and very low water use.

"The Wartsila units will be the backstop for MID, helping us maintain reliable, dependable service to our customers even with the substantial influx of non-traditional, intermittent resources like wind and solar," says Richard Smith, the utility's project manager for the Woodland 3 Project, in a statement.

Williams also notes that her utility's overall 2012 projected power mix includes 10 percent hydro, most of which comes from its Don Pedro powerhouse at Don Pedro Reservoir. The project is shared with the nearby Turlock Irrigation District.

The hydropower doesn’t count as green in California.

There's a big rush in California by solar operators. A recent look at a list supplied by the California Public Utilities Commission shows dozens of installations proposed.

Many come online with very little fanfare. For instance a 45-megawatt plant just opened in Avenal in PG&E territory. And more are coming. The community of Corcoran plans to lease land for a 15 megawatt plant near its waste water treatment plant, for example.

Williams says the economy is playing a role. 

"Some are making small energy efficiency home improvements, but with the depreciation of home values many are hesitant to move forward with more expensive energy efficiency measures," she says.

Yet, Williams says MID has seen steady interest in solar and strong commitments from its commercial and industrial customers to make energy efficiency retrofits and pursuing more sustainable policies similar to the model set by leaders like Wal-Mart.

Photo: Courtesy MID 2004 annual report.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Biofuels score big, but can they cut oil imports?

Biofuels have stormed forward with a series of advances that could give the sometimes maligned alternative energy sector a major boost.

On the federal side, President Obama has allocated $510 million to produce the fuel for military jets and ships and commercial vehicles. And the Army has established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force, which is charged with figuring out how to meet a 25 percent renewable energy goal by 2025.

A national security issue

Much of the task force's efforts could be directed to biofuels. Oil dependence has long been considered a national security issue. A 2006 report by the Council on Foreign Relations said the United States must manage the consequences of unavoidable dependence on foreign oil. “The longer the delay, the greater will be the subsequent trauma,” the report said.

This week, Obama emphasized the importance of biofuels to energy security, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said, "America's long-term national security depends upon a commercially viable domestic biofuels market."

But it won't be easy. Obama's plan is to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, with 20 billion gallons coming from advanced biofuels, 15 billion gallons from corn ethanol and one billion gallons from biodiesel.

Biofuel targets by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2012 are about 9 percent greater than the previous year and show a modest but increasing role for non-corn biofuels. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that a percentage of fuel sold in the country contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel.

What exactly is biofuel?

Biofuel is a pretty broad category that includes ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, gas-tank-ready isobutanol and, depending on how it's classified, algae fuel. But biofuel manufacture requires energy and, like petroleum products and coal, burning it creates greenhouse gases. Similar to natural gas, those emissions aren't as bad, but the distinction marks its green credentials with an asterisk.

Ethanol, which remains a widely used gasoline additive, may have lost some of the momentum it had five years ago, especially that derived from corn. However, research and development appear undeterred.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a team of researchers at believe they have "pinpointed the exact, single gene that controls ethanol production capacity in a microorganism." The discovery, officials say, could prove the missing link in developing biomass crops that produce higher concentrations of ethanol at lower costs.

“This discovery is an important step in developing biomass crops that could increase yield of ethanol, lower production costs and help reduce our reliance on imported oil,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.

New biofuel discoveries

Further underlining my premise for acceleration in biofuel development  is yet another announcement from the DOE, this time about two promising biofuel production methods. Both are referred to as "drop-in" biofuels technologies because they can directly replace or be used in lieu of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel without alteration to engines.

The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, which received $35 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate biofuel development, selected the "technology pathways" for extra attention.

The consortium plans to develop the technologies to a "pilot-ready" stage over the next two years. One of the two methods focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be biologically and chemically converted into a renewable diesel and is dubbed FLS, for fermentation of lignocellulosic sugars. The second, catalysis of lignocellulosic sugars, or CLS, focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be chemically and catalytically converted into gasoline and diesel fuel.

Speed is important, partners needed

"Biofuels are an important part of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home," Obama said, adding that the job requires partnering with the private sector to speed development.

Officials said that to accelerate the production of bio-based jet and diesel fuel for military purposes, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of the Navy Mabus have developed a plan to jointly construct or retrofit several drop-in biofuel plants and refineries.

Oil remains the dominant player

The United States relies on imported oil for 49 percent of its fuel supply, but about half of that comes from the Western Hemisphere with Canada at the top with 25 percent, followed by Venezuela's 10 percent and Mexico's 9 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Some 12 percent of the nation's imports come from Saudi Arabia.

And while U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined since peaking in 2005, the cause can be traced to the recession, improvements in efficiency and various changes in consumer behavior, the EIA says. "At the same time, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), and strong gains in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas plant liquids expanded domestic supplies and reduced the need for imports," officials say.

Undoubtedly that biofuel percentage will rise. The next decade will be the test.

At the Advanced Biofuels Markets exhibition and seminars Nov. 8 to Nov. 11, 2011 in San Francisco, the topic will be "How are we going to get from 6.6 million gallons in 2011 to 20 BILLION gallons in 2022?" It will be a good place to learn more than you wanted to know.

Photo: Courtesy greenenergyproject.tk

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Guest post: Three unique solar-powered buildings

By Lorna Li

When you think about switching to renewable energy, chances are you envision a typical rooftop home solar system or a complicated solar thermal array at a Silicon Valley business.

But homes and traditional businesses aren’t the only structures that can make use of the money and planet-saving qualities of clean energy technology.

All over the world, innovative designers and fearless city governments are finding new and exciting ways to utilize solar energy. Read on to learn about some of the some unexpected places where people are benefiting from the use of clean, reliable solar energy.

Kaiakea Fire Station

Hawaii is synonymous with constant sunshine, so it only makes sense that local governments would want to put this free, abundant resource to work powering an essential public service. The Kaiakea fire station will be the third municipal structure to be powered by solar.

“We are very excited about the start of another county PV project,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. in a statement. “Incorporating renewable energy into as many county facilities as possible is one of our top priorities and is on our list of Holo Holo 2020 projects.”

Scheduled to be completed in August 2011, the Kaiakea PV system is expected to produce over 40,000 kw of energy each year.

California Community College

I know this post is supposed to be about unique solar-powered buildings, but powering an entire college is even better, don’t you think?

Butte College, in a wildlife refuge just 75 miles from Sacramento, is officially the first “grid positive” college in the nation. This means that the college’s 25,000 solar panels generate far more energy than the small school can use — 6.5 million kilowatts to be exact.

Currently, this excess energy is fed back to the grid, which results in a tidy profit for the school.

FabLab House

There’s nothing unique about using a home solar system to offset your use of grid power. But building a house that’s intended to be a self-sufficient habitat?

That’s something new.

The FabLab house was built by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Madrid, Spain. The futuristic dwelling, which has been described by observers as a “peanut house,” “cinnamon submarine,” “forest zeppelin” or “whale belly” features some of the most advanced solar technology in the world and was recently awarded the People’s Choice award at Solar Decathlon Europe.

Photo: Kaiakea fire station courtesy buildingindustryhawaii.com.

-- Lorna Li is the editor in chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. She’s specializes in Internet marketing for socially responsible business and enjoys writing about green business, social enterprise, and solar leasing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Prof: Use solar to make hydrogen & power the world

On any given day, humans blow through millions of gallons of gas, untold tons of coal and scads of electricity from nuclear plants, hydropower dams and various other power-producing operations.

The cost is tremendous and its perpetuation a main driver of the global economy.

All that energy equates to about 15 terawatts, give or take, per year. A terawatt is a trillion watts. And demand, while stymied somewhat by recession-aided stagnation, is expected to grow.

The problem is that we humans are burning, churning and polluting our way through a finite fuel source. What if, on the other hand, we got handed to us a viable energy source that doesn't stink up the place?

We did. Or we do. It's the sun and an element six times lighter than air -- hydrogen.

Sure, the statement's old new to anybody on the clean energy front. "Solar, solar, solar," the mantra drives oil industry execs to distraction.

But tapping into the sun for all the world's energy is possible, we just have to figure out how to pull it off, says Derek Abbott, who looked at energy problem as an engineer would, calculating out a potential solution without letting minor details get in the way.

In a six-part lecture posted on YouTube and viewed in most cases just several hundred times, Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, spells out just what it would take to capture solar energy and provide enough to power the world's 15 terawatts. The sun, he says, produces enough energy to power about 10,000 of our planets, or 174,000 terawatts.

Imagine 500-by-500 square kilometers of parabolic mirrors used to capture the sun's rays and reflect it back to boil water used to create electricity. Abbott's concept is to limit "digging in the ground" for energy, thus going with mirrors rather than photovoltaic panels.

He says that is all it would take, should his figures prove correct, to crank up those 15 terawatts.

"That's the size of Victoria," says the Australian, referring to the southeastern state of his country that stares across the Bass Strait at Tasmania. "Would anybody miss Victorians?"

Possibly not New Zealanders, but that's incidental. (I'm hardly an expert in down-under razzes but a good example is the reference to Miss New Zealand in a couple of "Flight of the Conchords" episodes by Australians.)

Abbott proposes to solve the on-again, off-again nature of solar power by using it to produce hydrogen via electrolysis of water. The electricity created by solar energy would create the separation of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen could be exported as fuel.

Abbott's concept involves garnering government support for research and some initial subsidies and is focused on what Australia can do. His university has as a motto: "Our students make an impact on the world."

Abbott points out that his theories require vetting and further research. But he also mentions that Henry Ford started building his wildly successful Model T prior to construction of many sealed roads and service stations. So it's a Frisbee. What the heck? I'm always up for a game.

As for the safety of hydrogen, Abbott says he was encouraged by a University of Miami study that showed how a puncture of a hydrogen tank on a vehicle compares with one in a gas-powered vehicle. One explodes, one doesn't. Suffice to say hydrogen cars, which have been embraced by the likes of Jay Leno, won't necessarily work for a Michael Bay film.

BMW offers its hydrogen powered series 7 car with an internal combustion engine. And as Leno says, "It's a fuel just like any other fuel." The fuel is maintained cold enough to be in a liquid state.

Leno says he suspects hydrogen as a fuel will move rapidly. Of course with the BMW, the driver can switch without any trouble to gasoline.

As BMW says, "The future is closer than you think."

Photo: Courtesy bmwcoop.com.

Cutting Energy Use Could Pump Millions Into Fresno's Economy

What would happen if a new business came to city officials, saying their operations would pump $260 million into the local economy? Of course, the red carpet would be dusted off and rolled out. The mayor would call a press conference, and all five television stations would rush to plant their cameras for a good view.

It would be big news at 5 p.m.

Unfortunately, energy efficiency is a nebulous concept, and somewhat difficult to grasp. It consists of changing lights. Swapping out new motors for old. Adding insulation. Weatherizing windows. Individually, none is headline-grabbing stuff, and, frankly, is rather boring to many people.

But energy efficiency, it turns out, could be an economic savior in this time of austerity and budget cuts. For the first time, Fresno city officials, crunching data provided by PG&E, have determined the cost of energy consumption in the community - and what an energy-efficiency campaign could accomplish. The results are astounding.

That aforementioned $260 million is the amount of money that Fresno property owners would save if they slashed energy usage citywide by 30%. That would be direct savings, and would go straight to your pocket book. "It would be like getting a raise," says Joseph Oldham, Fresno's sustainability manager.

Oldham says Fresno businesses and households spent $866 million on electricity and gas in 2009. Reducing usage by less than a third would save millions - and could be accomplished relatively simply. "No moon shot required," Oldham said at an energy-efficiency workshop held at Fresno State. "It clearly could be an economic driver for our community."

I know what it would mean to me. My power bill last month was $561, which is higher than the average of $400 to $500 for an 1,800-square-foot house in Fresno. It was the second-highest monthly expense behind my mortgage. A 30% reduction would shave $168 off that bill. That is a significant savings, and a pretty good boost to the economy if a few thousand of my close friends did the same thing.

Is 30% a realistic savings goal? Absolutely. Data collected by PG&E in connection with the new Energy Upgrade California program showed an average reduction of 28% - and some individual decreases up to 45% in the Fresno region.

So, it's definitely possible.

The downside, and the part that keeps many from getting energy upgrades, is the upfront cost. The price of energy audits, parts and installation could be hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending upon the scope of the project. Utility rebates cut those upfront costs significantly, but financing the remaining costs could still prove problematic for some people.

In addition, utilities are finding resistance from homeowners who don't want to invest in properties that are declining in value. For those who are interested, financing and other programs are available. A good first step for residents of Fresno and Kern counties is to apply for a free home-energy survey through the Fresno Regional Comprehensive Residential Retrofit Program. Call 855-621-3733 or visit http://www.fresnohometuneup.com/ or http://www.kernhometuneup.com/.

Oldham is a big fan of a CHF residential retrofit plan that provides fixed-rate 3% loans over 15 years. There is no minimum or maximum loan amounts, but it does have income requirements: $31,200 to $87,500 per household. There also is a 15% upfront grant that reduces the amount to financed. The program is available in Fresno and Kern counties.

The funds come from the California Energy Commission, and will likely expire after March, Oldham said. Find out more here.

For a more powerful combination, the CHF program can be teamed with a new Energy Upgrade California plan that provides for an additional rebate of $4,000. "The rebate is cash in your pocket after the work is done," Oldham says. Plan on six to eight weeks to get the rebate.

Other loan programs are available through the Educational Employees Credit Union and Rabobank. Bank of America also may have a financing program, according to this announcement. Here is a link to a database with more options, and to an article with more thoughts.

Commercial property owners can participate in energy efficiency through CaliforniaPACE, which finances improvements over 20 years through property taxes. Find out more here.

Efficiency is catching on in a big way. More schools are doing it as a way to preserve their dwindling budgets. Just turning off the lights is a good start, according to this New York Times piece.

University of California at Santa Cruz is spending, after rebates, $104,000 to change out lights in its library. The project will pay off in three years, making it a worthy investment. It is the 15th energy-savings project on campus since 2009, and total savings are nearing $500,000 per year.

Walmart, which started on the path to sustainability in what can best be described as a halting manner, has embraced it. Company execs became believers when they saved more than $1 million simply by shrinking the package on a toy. They discovered, they could stuff more packages in their trucks, thus using fewer trucks and saving fuel., according to a fascinating new book, The Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution" by Edward Humes. Today, the world's largest retailer is studying ways to be more efficient throughout its supply chain.

Nationally, energy efficiency could be a game changer: A movement could produce $1.2 trillion in saved revenue, and create millions of jobs, according to the The US Green Building Council. Here is more on that.

Oldham says Fresno residents don't have to accept high power bills. "Improving the cost-effectiveness of energy use makes huge sense," he says. "It could the answer to our economic dilemma."

Talk about a stimulus program!

Photo of Fresno City Hall: Flickr.com

Energy efficiency: We must get more from less

This BASF-produced video offers a pretty broad overview of future energy consumption and challenges. It focuses heavily on energy efficiency, which is "the single most important source of energy."

This reflects a long-established policy of the state of California and is a mantra repeated by many who support alternative energy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Breathe deep, our polluted air could use a filter

Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley regularly registers in the unhealthy range.

I'm quite familiar with this because I run every day. When at about 2 or 3 miles it feels like somebody's punched me in the throat and chest (and I feel decent otherwise), I know it's a bad air day.

Air quality is just an indicator, a very noticeable one, that's saying, "Hey, chill on the pollution." We're topping off on bad ozone, the colorless gas that forms near the ground when the emissions of cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries and chemical plants react chemically in sunlight. There's also an increasing load of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution.

Runner's cough

At first, I thought I was just getting old. I'm 50. But then I started asking around. No, runners say, you feel bad probably because of the air. This is Fresno, they say, where the nearby majestic Sierra are often masked by haze of murky gray/white/brown.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Carrizo Plain Solar Projects Closer To Reality

Agreements have been reached to protect habitats in the Carrizo Plain west of the San Joaquin Valley, which moves two large-scale solar projects closer to the starting line.

Two solar companies have agreed to add thousands of acres to the amount of land they plan to set aside for wildlife protection, while also removing nearly 30 miles of fence to allow animals to move through.

Read more in this item in gigom and in the Telegram-Tribune.

Photo of San Joaquin Kit Fox by slocounty.ca.gov

Monday, August 8, 2011

Solar Power's Industrial Revolution

I was going to write about advancements in solar-energy technology, but Karl Burkart at Mother Nature Network saved me the trouble. Here are 5 cool things that MIT is working on as solar goes through its own Industrial Revolution


This type of research is vital to the future of solar and other types of clean energy. There is some concern that subsidies are the main thing keeping the industry going, and that a big crash is on the horizon when the supports are pulled.

In this post, an econmist says it's crazy that so little of the investment into clean energy (we include energy efficiency in that) is directed into innovation and new technology.

I'll quote the economist, Tapan Munroe: "It does not make any sense for us not to lead the world in clean energy. We have the people to do it. We have the world's best high-tech innovation regions. We can and must be a leader in this field. This is a wonderful opportunity for America but we must be willing to make substantive long-term private and public investments in the clean-energy industry to assure its success."

Great strides are being made in clean energy, as the MIT work shows, but more can be done. Some people have called for a Manhattan Project to boost clean energy, which would help create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and save money.

As Munroe says, clean energy "is a powerful tool capable of simultaneously addressing society's goals of economic growth, enhanced security, environmental health, and decarbonization."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Solar Energy – Is It Worth It?

By Julie Kinnear

When you’re on a quest to erase your ecologic footprint, the installation of solar panels may be a great step towards living greener. Or it may be a completely uneconomical solution with real efficiency closing toward zero.

Why? Well, nothing is as simple as it seems, and this topic cannot be reduced to a simple debate of using solar energy vs. not using it. That’s why we’re going to take a deeper look at the problem.

Basics First; What Is Solar Energy?

Solar Energy is electromagnetic radiation (including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light) emitted by thermonuclear reactions in the core of the sun. In a wider sense, solar energy is the source of all energy used by our civilization — with the exception of nuclear or geothermal energy, of course — as its indirect forms include hydroelectricity, ocean thermal energy, tidal energy and wind energy.

Solar radiation is also the key element of photosynthesis, which is the original source of the energy contained in biomass, peat, coal and petroleum. However, the term solar energy usually refers to the amount of the sun’s radiant energy harnessed by specific devices for a specific purpose, which is also the case of solar panels.

How Does It Work?
The purpose of solar panels is to collect solar radiation and actively convert its energy into electricity. Each panel is comprised of several individual solar cells, which work pretty similarly to large semiconductors and use a large-area p-n junction diode. When they’re exposed to sunlight, the solar energy is transformed by the diodes into usable electrical energy.

Photons striking the surface of the solar panels generate energy, which allows electrons to be pushed out of their orbits and released. Thereafter, electric fields in the solar cells pull these free electrons in a directional current, from which electricity can be generated with the use of metal contacts. The overall electrical output the solar panel can produce is directly proportional to both the quantity and quality of solar cells within the panel.

Are There Good Conditions For Using Solar Panels Up North?

That’s a good question. Contrary to popular myths (just like that of solar panels being inefficient in cold climates and so on), solar activity levels are quite high in Canada (also true for northern U.S., editor). In most of the populated regions of Canada, our sunshine radiation is no less than many other countries where solar products are very popular.

For example, Canada has 20 percent more sunlight strength than Germany, while Ontario is at the same latitude with Austria. In Germany, the usage of solar energy is more than 100 times higher in comparison to Canada, while one out of every seven Austrian homes has a solar panel system. Furthermore, experimental research shows that solar radiation in Toronto is comparable to levels measured in Miami!

Okay, Then — But Still, Is It Actually Worth It?

From the environmental point of view, going for renewable energy resource alternatives is always worth it. Unfortunately, there’s also the economic side of the coin that usually needs to be taken into consideration. So how can you make initial installation costs worth the investment?

Ideally, any solar products for your home should be installed by a reputable professional. You need to make sure that the installation and the quality of any home solar panel is high.

Being too careful with costs in the beginning is definitely not going to pay off in the long run: more expensive usually means more efficient, and the more efficient your panels are, the sooner your initial installation expenses will return. Plus, if you plan on selling your home someday, solar panels also provide additional value to your property.

In any case, doing the math is the key. The first step is determining your average daily usage. This value is expressed in kilowatt hours (kWh) and you can figure it out by simply looking back at your past electricity bills, which should show a total number of kilowatt hours used for the month.

Multiply the number by 1,000 to get the monthly watt/hours of electricity, then divide it by the number of days in a month to determine average daily usage. The next thing to do is to calculate how much electricity you’ll need.

How many hours of sunlight do you have available each day to power your solar panels? Use the lowest number of hours (on the shortest day of the year in your area) and divide your average daily kWh usage by the number of hours, and now you have the amount of electricity you need to power your home.

Next, calculate the installation costs. Different manufacturers charge different rates for their products. Take a look at their prices (usually $/watt) and multiply your kWh/hour of daylight to determine the total cost per watt.

ecoENERGY Home Retrofit Program
ecoACTION Logo

Does the price look too high? Don’t worry. The Canadian government still offers grants for private solar panels installations, and an extension of the popular ecoENERGY Home Retrofit program was announced on June 6, 2011.

To qualify for such grant, you will need a home energy audit before you start working on home improvements, as well a direct registration with the program before booking their evaluation.

An energy audit costs usually around $350+HST in Ontario. However, the Ontario government will send you a cash rebate of $150 as a part of the Ontario Home Energy Audit Program, which reduces the final expenses. During an audit, an energy advisor will look for your home’s energy leaks and show you how to fix them, and you will also be provided with your personalized Energy Efficiency Evaluation Report and a plan that can lower your energy bills.


The answer is definitely YES; solar panels usually represent a worthy investment. On the other hand, you need to meet two basic requirements: Don’t go for the cheap ones, as their efficiency is sometimes closing toward zero, and don’t waste energy unnecessarily.

No matter how green the technology you use, there is no need to spend more electricity than necessary. If anything, it saves your money!

-- Julie Kinnear is a Toronto real estate agent with about two decades experience and a green enthusiast. Her website is juliekinnear.com.

Microgrids, solar and achieving energy independence

Comedian George Wallace often starts a joke with the line, "I be thinking."

I use the reference for two reasons. First, I saw Wallace in Vegas recently (and I totally recommend his show) and second, because I'd been thinking about teaming solar with fuel cells to create power producers on a small scale via energy-independent homes, commercial buildings and industrial scale operations.

The conclusion? The merger is possible. But more importantly, the query introduced me to the concept of microgrids and the Galvin Electricity Initiative.

I'd posed the question of fuel cell-solar viability to Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California." Weinrub, coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Area Local Clean Energy Alliance, said quite a few people have been thinking in the direction of microgrids, which he defined as "islands of self-sufficient energy producers that are independent of the grid or possibly networked into the grid."

Galvin Electricity Initiative

And he said the group includes folks who want to create net-zero communities not dependent on the grid. He introduced me to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, founded by former Motorola Chairman and CEO Robert Galvin. The initiative addresses a revamped utility system incorporating microelectrity production. Galvin's proposal is meant to be a catalyst for transforming America’s electric grid to "ways that are profoundly beneficial to consumers, the environment and the economy."

"In these models, fuel cells can play a role, but there is little reason to go to fossil-based fuel cells," Weinrub said. "That would only prolong the use of fossil fuels."

He compared it to combined heat and power technology, "where ultimately it makes sense only if the source of heat is renewable fuel."

I believe Weinrub's response is perfect and gives me perspective on fuel cells, which can be fueled with natural gas.

Oil still in system

I'm a little awash in oil with my Alaska background so petroleum taints my world view.

It was big news up north when the cat train went up to Prudhoe Bay for the first time in the winter of 1968, followed by a collective "Holy (moly), there's work and they're paying $24 an hour" from the hundreds of un- or underemployed in the Alaska Interior. I was 10 in '71 but eventually worked in the oil patch one summer in Bismark, N.D. building concrete weights for a 48-inch diameter pipeline.

So I'm somewhat impressed by North Dakota's current performance in petroleum exports. Steve Everly of the Kansas City Star writes, "Perhaps within a year the state is expected to supply more oil for domestic use than the 1.1 million barrels a day that Saudi Arabia now exports to the United States."

Likewise, I'm intrigued by the Canada tar sands pipeline.

Bill McKibben would yell at me. I know, I know. But my perspective is a little old-fashioned. We used wood heat for six years back in very rural Fairbanks in the early 1970s during mom's Last Whole Earth Catalog phase. Eighteen cords a season is a lot to cut and split, believe me. I was disgusted by coal on a personal level as sub-bituminous sends dust everywhere and creates a haze in your house. But rich people had propane tanks. And I still marvel at running water. Melting snow is a pain and rainwater gets mosquito infested quick -- although the Aussies have perfected those systems.

Moving beyond fossil fuel

I ramble, but I guess I'm using this navel gazing to understand the feelings of my generation. It's tough to move on from burning whatever we could get our hands on.

At some point, solar panels on newly constructed homes will be commonplace. But I agree with multiple studies that call for added government support for renewables as right now, a 19.5-year return on investment is hard to justify by homeowners like myself. Although my co-worker just plunked down about $30,000 for a solar system on his home.

Growth is unsustainable

I was fascinated by Asher Miller's video "Who killed economic growth?" In it Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, says we've been seduced by cheap energy and the concept that constant growth fueled by industrialization is the way it should be. His contention is there are limits we've been ignoring and that change is coming to a screen near you quite soon.

People like Weinrub, Miller and McKibben are the visionaries who will prod at least a percentage of us in the right direction, and hopefully we'll be able to guide movement toward something that enables us to see the Sierra on a non-rainy day. Running in Valley air is really pretty nasty.

Right now I'm doing my best to help. I'm working on guiding the 39 cities and counties to install energy saving projects. I administer stimulus energy efficiency grants, and it's been a long haul from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009. The retrofit projects are lighting, pumps, ACs and other stuff, but all are big on energy savings. I'll be done on most of them by March.

Going net-zero

Many of these cities want to install solar, so in my free time I'm trying to find out ways to do that cheaply. Their big expenses (most of these communities are rather small) are pumping for water and waste water. For instance, Pump No. 8 in one Merced County town runs 24 hours a day during the hot season and costs upwards of $58,000 per month.

Such spiraling costs create incentive as does California's requirement that energy suppliers provide a third of their electricity through renewables by 2020.

Maybe a San Joaquin Valley city will go net-zero. Progressive Firebaugh, perhaps? Santa Monica is pushing in that direction. Cities in Norway and Germany reportedly have reached the threshold.

We'll see how it works out.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Putting A Bug In For Green Energy

As interest in biofuel heats up, so does research into various forms. Alternatives are being studied, including camelina,, which can be grown on marginal farmland, and algae, but there are other opportunities too.

In Michigan, researchers from Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center are studying whether genes from fungi that live near bark beetles can efficiently produce bio-ethanol from stalks, leaves, wood chips, sawdust and dead trees.

Allison Leahy has more in this fascinating report in CleanTechies and Earth & Industry.

The Michigan research is an example of the tremendous progress being made in alternative fuels and clean energy - a movement that some analysts have likened to America's industrial revolution.

Advancements are announced regularly. Just today, I read this: the use of molten salt to store solar power so it can be used when the sun is not shining. An MIT study also is under way.

Who knows where all this will lead. The recent federal debt agreement casts doubt on Washington D.C.'s ability to participate, but some states, such as California, are pushing ahead with green agendas.

Some heavy hitters in the corporate world are pursuing sustainability as core programs. UPS just announced that its alternative fuel fleet motored 200 million miles over the past decade. Walmart, General Electric, Google and others, have recognized that going green produces green for the bottom line.

Let's hope the message spreads.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fuel cells and solar, match made in heaven?

For years, candy maker Reese's TV commercials found scads of ways to strangely combine chocolate and peanut butter.

After yelling, "Who got peanut butter in my chocolate?" and the reverse, the protagonist and antagonist would agree after about 20 seconds that they've stumbled on something wonderful.

How about applying that same analogy to solar and fuel cells? Solar produces clean but intermittent energy. Fuel cells are constant, and they're considered clean tech and very low impact even though creation of and use of their fuels -- hydrogen and natural gas -- can create some greenhouse gases.

The combination -- fitted to business parks, warehouses and other large structures -- could provide miniature energy centers. The sites I envision would be be small but could generate a surplus of energy, especially during peak production times, and sell that energy on the grid.

Decentralized energy

The concept of decentralized energy production is relatively new, at least in its current form. Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California" put these thoughts in my head. In the report, he talks about putting solar on multiple buildings and about how the practice has the capacity to seriously clean the air as well as meet the 33 percent renewable requirement of the state of California.

DOE's 2010 Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report says sales of fuel cells continue to grow. In fact, fuel cell units shipped from North America quadrupled between 2008 and 2010. "Grocery stores and high-tech industries remain strong customers, with well-known companies like eBay, Google, Bank of America, Safeway, Walmart and FedEx using fuel cells. One customer saves $1 million annually," it says.

Fuel cells come in a variety of versions. The one I mention here is stationary, but others are used in cars and buses (remember the Winter Olympics?) and tiny ones may be used to power personal electronic devices.

Robert Trezone, technology director of London-based Carbon Trust, said in a post that fuel cells could give electric vehicles long range, enabling them to carry a much smaller battery to manage variable power requirements.

Yet, Trezone says, "Two roadblocks remain before hydrogen fuel cell cars can become mainstream however: a reduction in fuel cell system costs and clean, affordable hydrogen fuel distribution."

Would solar-fuel cell combo work?

Bloom Energy, among other manufacturers, has been selling a lot of its fuel cells recently. Bloom scored with sales to AT&T and NTT America. I happened to sit next to one of the company's sales reps at a strategic planning meeting for my nonprofit last month and it got me thinking about the fuel cell-solar union.

David Cesca, an account manager with the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, nodded his head thoughtfully when I mentioned my idea. "It could work," he said.

But I'm no futurist.

Deregulation possible byproduct

Would solar-fuel cell power centers potentially create multiple competitors to utilities if these remote producers generate a surplus of power and are able to sell it -- or demand payment -- on the open market? They certainly wouldn't need power from the utilities if their systems are big enough.

I tried tracking down an analyst with the appropriate world view, somebody who could pull a forecast from the murky future. But, so far, no such luck. I'll weigh in with another post should this concept generate feedback.

I did find quite a bit of activity regarding fuel cells. In addition to Bloom, ClearEdge Power, Ballard Power Systems, FuelCell Energy, IdaTech and Plug Power also are well capitalized and viable.

The thing is, we need all the clean energy diversification we can get. Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees, at least in principal.

"Every day in this country, we send about $1 billion abroad just to buy imported oil, money we’d be better off investing in good manufacturing jobs here at home," Lehner writes in a post on the proposed U.S. fuel mileage standards for cars and light trucks of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Lehner says presidents going back to Richard Nixon have tried to break U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He says it's even more important now.

Fuel cells and Congress

Certainly fuel cells are moving along technologically. And they're getting support in Congress.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has announced a plan to install a fuel cell backup power system at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base near Columbus, Ohio. The installation is part of a federal agency partnership to install fuel cells at eight military bases around the country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will monitor performance and collect data.

And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, has unveiled a measure that would expand fuel cell vehicle tax breaks to include forklifts. The current tax credit provides incentives for cars and trucks, and a separate credit for power generation.

Consultant Reportlinker just released a report in which it expects fuel cells to post unprecedented growth in near future and sustain that pace. Factors include "best efficiency amongst energy sources, related market potential, environment friendly operation, and support towards reducing dependence on oil."

DOE's market report says fuels cell companies in the United States have attracted $774.4 million in investment over the past decade. Yet, it says challenges remain despite the power sources being in homes, grocery stores, warehouses, commercial and industrial buildings, and "even the Golden Globe Awards." It says more widespread adoption requires a further reduction in costs and increase in reliability and performance.

The challenges sound very much the same as those facing the solar industry. But the market is adopting both technologies. We'll see how it turns out.