Monday, October 31, 2011

New Initiatives Bring Even More Green To California

California's already green tint is spreading.

Today's release of draft regulations to protect consumers from toxic chemicals in products on store shelves is part of an overall Green Chemistry Initiative indicative of increasing environmental awareness in California.

Debbie Raphael, director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which issued the draft regulations, summed up the program this way: “More and more, there’s an understanding that some of the health and environmental problems we see in the world today may, in fact, stem from toxic chemicals in consumer products," she said in a press release. "A number of other countries are already taking action, but our Green Chemistry Initiative puts California at the forefront.”

California is at the forefront of the sustainability movement in other ways too. Its 33 percent renewables mandate is one of the most ambitious in the nation. The state recently resumed a green tax credit, passed a cap-and-trade program and starting next year sellers of commercial property have to benchmark energy consumption.

Benchmarking is something my employer, the nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization in Fresno, understands. The SJVCEO, as implementing partner of the Valley Innovative Energy Watch (VIEW), is helping six cities and two counties benchmark all of their facilities into the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager so they can better track energy usage.

(Our organization has created ‘Benchmarking Made Easy’, a ten-page training manual on how to use the online energy management system and how to create a benchmarking policy using data from benchmarking. The nonprofit also helps lead webinars and training sessions on the benchmarking.)

Critics say that going green is cost-prohibitive and unwise in this economic climate, but there is strong evidence of just the opposite. Many businesses have found that implementing sustainability programs, especially energy-efficiency measures, saves them much money with relatively minimal investment. Often, they can recoup the cost within a few years.

AT&T, for example, saved $44 million through energy conservation in 2010. Math whizzes at IBM thought their company could shave energy use 3.5 percent through efficiency, but wound up slashing 5.7 percent, or $30 million. Read more here.

The city of Fresno crunched data from PG&E and forecast a $260 million economic boost if residential and commercial property owners reduced energy consumption 30 percent. Learn more here.

Raphael expects the green chemistry program to benefit businesses as well. "Companies are finding new revenue opportunities as shoppers look for products they don't have to worry about," she said. "Early adopters, such as Apple, Green Toys, California Baby, Method and others...are proving it is a profitable business strategy."

And growing. A trip to Orchard Supply Hardware last week led me to an aisle filled with cleaning products. Nearly one half of it was products described as eco friendly. If that is a niche category, it is a much larger niche.

We are in the early stages of a transformation. Who knows if it will reach the industrial revolution status that some experts project, but clearly momentum is building. The younger generation will likely push it, as evidenced by UC Davis' recent announcement that student interest is leading to a new major in sustainable agriculture.

Photo of San Francisco

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Could "Occupy Clean Energy" Be Next?

I was a cop reporter in Palm Springs for a period in the mid-1980s. The community was a spring break mecca for college students and, as luck would have it, I decided one spring day to make a last run through town.

It was about 4 p.m. when I came upon a park in north Palm Springs filled with students. They were just milling around, but electricity filled the air. I just knew something was about to happen.

I called my boss at the newspaper and told him I was going to hang out for awhile. "Something is about to pop," I said.

Boy, did it. The riot started when a motorcyclist with a case of beer strapped on the back rode past the park. The beer was hijacked and the rumble was on. Hundreds of students trampled through downtown as cops in riot gear and firing tear gas tried to stop them. The crowd finally dispersed several hours later, and I had the lead story the next day.

I mention this because I'm feeling the same tingle that I did that April day so many years ago. I sense that something big is about to pop with clean energy and energy efficiency. (And I wouldn't be surprised if young people are involved; they are demanding progress on the energy front.)

Out-of-touch Legislators may not realize yet, but the undercurrent is strong. Big Business, the military, local governments, schools and average citizens are waking up and recognizing that creating cleaner and cheaper energy is good for the environment, and is smart economically.

We've written about Walmart and other businesses discovering green is good - especially when it comes to energy efficiency. A relatively minor investment can yield huge results when it comes to conserving energy at houses, businesses, government facilities and hotels.

Clean-energy followers are getting restless. We see with Occupy Wall Street what can happen when the restless are moved to action. Will Occupy Clean Energy be next?

Photo of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LED goes Halloween in Riverside (video)

This Riverside, Calif. house takes LED lighting to another level.

Already pushing 1.4 million hits, this 2011 Halloween Light Show, featuring "Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO has four singing pumpkin faces, tombstones, hand carved pumpkins, strobes, floods and thousands of lights, according to the YouTube post.

The published information via KJ92508 says, "Most all lights have been changed from incandescent to RGB LED so power consumption is a lot less than previous years. Also DMX added to show. All lights, faces and props are custom made (DIY) by me except for the roof line which are CCRs."

Controlling channels have gone up eight times from the previous year, with 1,144 channels, he says.

California pushed from top energy efficiency spot

It had to happen.

California, the land of energy efficiency pioneer Art Rosenfeld, has lost its title as the most miserly power consumer to East Coast upstart Massachusetts.

It's the first time in the five-year history of the annual Energy Efficiency Scorecard by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, that Massachusetts has displaced the high-performing Golden State. The group says "a sour U.S. economy, tight state budgets and a failure by Congress to adopt a comprehensive energy strategy have not slowed the growing momentum among U.S. states toward increased energy efficiency."

Energy efficiency budgets increase

The report says that overall budgets for energy efficiency increased to $4.5 billion in 2010, up about a third over the previous year. Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Tennessee, Alabama and Maryland rated the most improved, and about half the nation's states have established energy efficiency standards and improved building codes.

"Energy efficiency is America's abundant, untapped energy resource and the states continue to press forward to reap its economic and environmental benefits," says ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel, in a statement.

Nadel calls energy efficiency "a pragmatic, bipartisan solution that political leaders from both sides of the aisle can support."

Rounding out the top 10 are New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington State, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut and Maryland.

Poll says people want efficiency

The news comes on the heels of a poll released by the University of Texas at Austin, which found that less than 14 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction on energy.

University officials say that of more than 3,400 consumers surveyed, 84 percent were worried about U.S. consumption of oil from foreign sources and 76 percent about a lack of progress in developing better ways to use energy efficiently and develop renewable sources.

Bill Powers, president of UT Austin, put it this way: "This survey shows that the public craves leadership on energy issues."

Embracing the submeter

The public isn't the only place where concern over energy sources and energy efficiency are fostering change. Corporations, building managers and others that pay big utility bills for operations of major square footage or spread over multiple buildings are looking to trim costs through efficiencies.

Paul Baier of reports that the next big expansion in energy efficiency will be "submetering," or installing sensors and meters in buildings to monitor and tweak energy usage. "As more and more companies find energy savings opportunities based on submetering their facilities, interest in the technology continues to grow," he writes.

Baier says much of the savings comes through behavior changes, such as turning off unneeded equipment. The University of Texas poll likewise finds that many U.S. consumers would be willing to employ similar strategies on their own turf with 68 percent concerned about the energy efficiency of their homes.

Could politics be far behind?

Judging by this widespread potential adoption of efficiency, politicians won't be far behind including it in their platforms and bragging about measures they've taken in their own homes. Although I just can't imagine Texas Gov. Rick Perry going Al Gore and saying his house is net zero.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick says his state set aggressive goals and laid the foundation for greater investment in energy efficiency through its Green Communities Act, "and now we are proud to be a model for the nation and world."

Expect more of the same after this year's numbers are tallied. Maryland and Illinois, which showed big gains, are taking energy efficiency seriously.

Malcolm Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, says Illinois Gov. Martin O'Malley also set aggressive energy efficiency goals, saving residents more than 700,000 megawatt hours of electricity and more than $91 million since 2009.

Warren Ribley, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity director, says the investment of more than $600 million in energy efficiency projects over the last four years has meant putting people to work. "We are creating jobs, building more sustainable communities and securing our place in the new energy economy," he says in a statement.

The bottom performing 10 states from last to No. 42 are: North Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, Alabama and South Dakota.

Photo: Boston Harbor at night.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tech companies move up list of green power purchasers

Tech companies Google and Ingram Micro have scurried onto a list of the nation's top green energy users.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its list of top 50 green power purchasers, and Mountain View, Calif.-based Google and Santa Ana, Calif.-based Ingram, a maker of information technology products, edged their way onto the charts.

The companies join others like Walmart and Intel that have embraced sustainability and are setting an example to others of balancing saving money with environmental stewardship.

"By making the switch to renewable power, these forward thinking companies are reducing greenhouse gasses and other harmful air pollution so that Americans can breathe easier.” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, in a statement.

No. 1 on the list is Intel Corp. with 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of green energy purchased amounting to 88 percent of its consumption. The rest of the top five include No. 2 Kohl's Department Stores with 1.4 billion kWh and 100 percent of its consumption, No. 3 Whole Foods Market with 752 million kWh and 100 percent, No. 4 City of Houston with 438 million kWh and 34 percent and No. 5 Starbucks with 422 million kWh and 52 percent.

PepsiCo left the top five this year, dropping off the list entirely.

EPA officials say the top 50 purchasers use more than 14 billion kWh of green power annually, "equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity use of more than 1.2 million average American homes." Green power is generated from renewable resources such as solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and low-impact hydropower.

EPA says Google purchases green power from NextEra Energy Resources, Renewable Choice Energy and Puget Sound Energy and has helped create the largest residential solar fund in the country. It also has invested in the world's largest wind farm, the Alta Wind Energy Center near Tehachapi, Calif., and the Ivanpah Power Tower solar project in California’s Mojave Desert.

Ingram Micro's purchases of more than 3 million kWh of green power annually puts it low on the volume list, but it's enough green power to meet 107 percent of the company's electricity use.

Zero emissions? Hydrogen highway is possible but unrealistic, for now

In a 2008 video, Bob Lazar calmly explains how the fuel system he developed works.

What he doesn't say is that if proved to be commercially viable it would give oil companies a serious competitor and turn highways from pillars of pollution to clean, moisture-laden vapor trails.

Lazar proposes converting everyday internal-combustion automobiles to operate on hydrogen. The fuel, he says, can be produced from a solar-powered system that costs about $10,000. It uses electrolysis to separate hydrogen gas from water.

He's among a growing group of backyard mechanics, university research teams and even automotive manufacturers looking to shift into burning one of the cleanest and most plentiful elements in the universe. The trouble appears to be cost and infrastructure and, perhaps, getting a deep-pocketed or politically influential sponsor.

“If we had the budget of only one day in Iraq, this entire system would be available to everybody,” Lazar says.

Who's killing the hydrogen car

Lazar's system is the subject of the video short “Who’s Killing the Hydrogen Car?” by Jon Farhat, one of the film industry’s top visual effects guys. Farhat asks straightforward questions, sounding more like a guy who went over to Lazar's garage and stumbled upon a really awesome custom car.

Certainly, Lazar, whose company is United Nuclear Corp., has a cool car. It's a 1994 dark red Corvette that runs on hydrogen.

After separating out the hydrogen molecules, Lazar stores the gas in tanks similar to the oxygen bottles carried around by the old smoker down the street or the nitrous tanks in the dentist's office. And this appears to be Lazar's lock on the process.

As he explains to Farhat, transporting gaseous hydrogen by standard means would require huge tanks while liquid hydrogen requires keeping the gas extremely cold, about 423 degrees below zero or hanging around the surface of Jupiter. Instead, Lazar uses four tanks containing a hydride compound, which stores the hydrogen until heat is applied to release it.

Going the distance

“That’s the volume it takes to propel this car close to 400 miles, just about what it gets running on a full tank of gas," Lazar says. "And it’s a lot safer than gasoline. They can be shot at with incendiary bullets, cut in half with a chain saw. You can throw a match on them and they just smolder. … Only the hydrogen you need is released when you heat it so there’s never much gaseous hydrogen in the system.”

Kevin Kantola of, who has been writing on the subject for about six years, says most, but not all, of the industry has settled on compressed hydrogen gas as the standard.

"There are some others working on developing cars that use a chemical carrier for hydrogen such as magnesium + hydrogen, different hydrides, ammonia, slurries, etc.," Kantola says via email.

Hydrogen production & distribution

Kantola says how to produce and distribute hydrogen is still up in the air, with manufacturing it from natural gas being the most popular method. He adds that there are some solar-electrolysis stations and even a wind-electrolysis station making hydrogen. "So, as an emerging technology there is a lot of flux right now."

One of the biggest problems is that of infrastructure. The transportation systems in our global economy are geared now to run our cars, buses and trucks on fossil fuels. The corner gas station from Deadhorse, Alaska to Hoboken, N.J. is part of the landscape.
"It's not so much an issue of cost, as the economics of producing and distributing hydrogen are understood," says James Warner, director of policy, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, via email. "The issue is, how to build sufficient stations for a vehicle rollout, and how to keep them in the black as the population of vehicles increase."

How important is clean air?

It's really a matter of values. How important is clean air? Can a price tag be applied to stopping the flow of carbon into the air, acidity into the oceans and pollutants into the food chain?

To me, that's rhetorical. To others, the whole climate debate is considered misguided. Our economy is based on coal and oil. Separating such a major component is like slicing out a conjoined twin. One will surely die.

But do we have a choice? More rhetoric. But I'd certainly like to keep driving, and this hydrogen option sounds like a good one.

This could take awhile

Scouting around the web, I found quite a bit on the subject. An older piece in Popular Mechanics describes the contentiousness surrounding the technology and details the pullback by the Obama Administration after President Bush's endorsement.

Erik Sofge of Popular Mechanics writes in his piece, "Why the Hydrogen Feud Needs to End: Analysis," that hydrogen fuel cell research, which appears to be the method of choice for automotive propulsion, is mired in "tumultuous debate."

Sofge says while proponents sink money into research and marketing, opponents refute their claims with their own numbers, "asking that researchers shift time and money to more promising technologies, like batteries."

The answer may be grassroots

Endless debate won't shift even a small percentage of automobiles or fleets onto a hydrogen highway.

I stumbled (seriously, on across a video from Juan Pablo Girardi, engineer and a founder of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Brain Optimization Institute. He says while electric cars don't burn fossil fuel, they require creation of toxic materials via construction of their lithium-ion batteries. He also touts hydrogen.

Girardi says health-wise the evidence against gasoline is overwhelming. As for hydrogen, he says its development is not a technological issue but a political one. He urges a grassroots movement for getting U.S. government support of the production of hydrogen cars and the conversion of existing cars.

Maybe that will happen. But collateralized debt obligations, which in part led to the housing crisis masking toxic mortgages to investors, still exist despite heated opposition to the practice. So maybe not. This may need a big corporate supporter.

"You can move a 747 with hydrogen," Girardi says. "The technology is there. Let us stop procrastinating."

Hydrogen gets YouTube hits

There is interest. On YouTube, Girardi's video has just 3,660 hits. However, a test drive in a hydrogen BMW has 232,000 and an instructional piece with about the Formula Hydrogen racing car project, a collaborative exercise between RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and the University of Applied Sciences, Ingolstadt, Germany has about 72,000.

Geoff Pearson from RMIT's School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering heads the team and explains very simply how it works. "A lot of the technologies are very similar to what you'd find in your standard vehicle," he says.

Using standard technology is exactly how Steve up in Davis, Calif. attracted a collective 356,700 hits on his YouTube channel. His most popular is a 1:31 minute video of a raggedy old Ford running off a standard welder's tank in which he says is hydrogen. "The truck runs better on hydrogen than gas," he writes.

Steve, who goes by powerzap69, also peddles several books he's written on converting anything to run on the gas.

The tiger in your tank will cost

Gene "Hydrogene" Johnson, an energy consultant and managing editor of H2 Nation who lives in Fresno area, puts it in perspective. He told me awhile ago, "Let's help get the OPEC monkey off our back."

Hydrogene sent me a picture of his H2 HHR SSR, an acronym for Hydrogen Hot Rod Super Sport Roadster, taken at Sunline Transit H2 Refueling Station in Palms Springs, Calif. back in 2007. He says hydrogen is possible. “The challenge with anything new is the cost. The tank alone (on the SSR) cost us $10,000. Total install cost around $20,000.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Green jobs: Valley Legacy Project releases video on achievements

The Valley Legacy Project is meant to get the San Joaquin Valley's K-12 system, higher education and workforce investment boards working together to better prepare people for occupations with high-growth potential.

Those include agribusiness, biotech, water technology, renewable energy, manufacturing and supply-chain management.

Of course, at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, we care most about clean energy. We created a website,, that is meant to be a one-stop shop for those looking for jobs or just to find out more about green energy.

The Valley Legacy video was presented at the annual California Partnership for the San Joaquin annual summit Oct. 7 in Bakersfield. It is short but has impact.

The project came about through a coalition of groups and great work from participating students, teachers, WIBs, the private sector and others.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Solar industry brushes off setbacks & powers ahead

The nation's solar industry is expected to grow 24 percent next year.

That's the conclusion of the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, produced by the nonprofit Solar Foundation and Cornell University. The 68-page report says that as of August 2011, the U.S. solar industry employed an estimated 100,237 workers, up 6.8 from a year earlier. That compares with .3 percent growth over the same period in the U.S. employment rate.

About a quarter of those employed by the solar industry, 25,575 -- by far the most for any state, worked in California. Colorado with 6,186 workers came in second and Arizona with 4,786 came in third.

It's good news for an industry pounded by the political fallout brought on by the bankruptcy of solar equipment maker Solyndra, which had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Additional bankruptcies by SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar didn't help the perception.

Ulicia Wang of says even First Solar, known for low-cost production, "posted a big drop in earnings during the first half of this year."

Adding to the positive tone, General Electric has announced a $600 million investment in its solar manufacturing sector by adding a plant in Aurora, Colo. The move means 355 jobs and panels commercially available from the facility by 2013.

GE officials say material produced at the factory will be more efficient, lighter weight and larger than conventional thin film panels, reducing costs and speeding payback.

Some of this has to do with falling costs industry wide. Power purchase agreements offered by installers are influencing more commercial businesses, municipalities and and homeowners to chose solar. These offset high installation costs and enable building owners to benefit right away with reduced energy bills.

"The unprecedented growth of the industry is providing much needed job creation despite an historic economic and workforce downturn," the report says. "The optimism of solar employers in the midst of these conditions suggests that job growth will continue for years to come."

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hydrogen power integration as fast as a Zeppelin

Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel and perhaps the most plentiful element in the universe.

Its atomic number is one. The sun, which has a mass about 333,000 times that of earth, is about three quarters hydrogen.

So why can't I convert my car to burn it? Jay Leno drove the BMW Hydrogen 7, which runs on hydrogen or gasoline with the flip of a dashboard switch. (I am so jealous.) But he doesn't own one, at least as far as I know.

Ask the best friend

I ask my friend Eric Storms what's going on. "Why can't I have a hydrogen-powered car?"

He says (and I'm making this up since I haven't really asked, but we've done this back and forth so often my guess is usually pretty close), "Because you're not Jay Leno."

Me: "So what?"

Eric: "You don't pull down an annual salary of $30 million, you're worth far less than $150 million and you don't employ a massive garage filled with expert mechanics who do nothing but maintain and restore your amazing automotive toys."

Me: "Yeah, I get that. But I'm talking daily driver. A car for the masses."

Eric: "You already have a VW Bug."

We have the technology

Me: I look at him sideways. "It needs a paint job and a new wiring harness. That's not the point. I believe we have the technology to extract hydrogen from whatever source be it natural gas or electrolysis of water and run our cars on it. We'd use internal combustion engines because we've already mastered that technology. We'd continue to research fuel cells but we'd develop infrastructure to support our existing transportation network of two cars for every adult in the United States."

Eric: "Sheep."

Me: I ignore the comment.

Eric: "We love oil. It's in our blood. You grew up in Alaska. You get it. Oil is our way of life. It pays your Permanent Fund Dividend check. It is the nectar of gods."

Me: "Nectar of gods? And I haven't lived in Alaska since 1992 when the evil McClatchy empire bought and shut down the Anchorage Times."

Eric: "You know what I mean."

Me: "Yeah. I do."

Hydrogen fuel may be close

This particular conversation between Eric, who lives outside Seattle, Wash., and I can continue for hours and sometimes does, especially these days via cell phone. However, in this case I believe we may be closer to using hydrogen than I first believed.

BMW says it's already developed the first production-ready hydrogen vehicle and boasts, "It's already proving itself in the real world too: we're putting 100 of them to the test as loan cars for leading figures from the worlds of culture, politics, business and the media."

There's that Leno reference.

Delving deep into automotive hydrogen

I recently stumbled across a site devoted to hydrogen-powered automobiles, and read through quite a bit of the reference information and blog posts. The site also features online conversations about insider topics that required me to do research just to get an inkling of what the writers are talking about.

But the information is fascinating and gives insight into what may be around the corner. Yeah, I know. Dumb reference with zero time element. OK, maybe down the road is a better idiom. I just hope Cormac McCarthy won't write the script.

According to, Nissan is scaling up the heights of hydrogen fuel cell development and are ready for commercialization. Even better, "the cost of the 2011 fuel cell stack is near what the U.S. DOE has been asking for in regard to commercializing fuel cell vehicles," the post says.

Technology advances rapidly

And there's a bunch more information out there. The Department of Energy commissioned an exhaustive report that chronicles much of the nation's hydrogen research, patents and developments. Dubbed "Pathways to Commercial Success," the 240-page report features a mass of data about such things as the advances made by DuPont Fuel Cells (with DOE aid) in creating more chemically stable fuel cell polymer technology eight times more stable than than existing technologies.

The problem with fuel cells is their inner workings break down, meaning cost goes up.

Other advances in the DOE report include developments in advanced coolants for fuel cells, thinner and cheaper fuel cell "stacks" and new generation methods.

New players emerge

Up in Modesto, Calif., Hydrogen Technologies Inc. continues to work on bringing its energy-generation systems to market. It has partnered with the Plumbers and Pipefitters UA Local 442.

Boulder, Colo.-based analyst Pike Research released a report saying fuel cell vehicles will reach the market by 2015, and, according to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, the market could reach $16.9 billion by 2020. Pike says the problem with the cars is cost.

So what's it all mean? Heck if I know. Like most consumers I wonder about variables like: How much will it cost? Where can I find it? Will my wife allow me to spend more money?

The basics.

What's the hold up?

I pose the question of what's keeping hydrogen from automotive tanks to James Warner, director of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, and he says, "Industrial hydrogen production is well-developed and has been for years. The issue is getting hydrogen infrastructure installed — what comes first, cars or infrastructure?"

It's "not so much an issue of cost, as the economics of producing and distributing hydrogen are understood. The issue is, how to build sufficient stations for a vehicle rollout, and how to keep them in the black as the population of vehicles increase?"

Kevin Kantola of Hydrogen Cars Now says he test drove a BMW Hydrogen 7 dual fuel car a couple of years ago. "It was a nice ride, but it could only go 60 miles on hydrogen before it ran out and had to switch over to gasoline," he says.

Kantola explains that the BMW used liquid hydrogen. He says the automaker has since backed off on the concept perhaps because it is comparatively expensive to cool, store and build the equipment to do it. He says other major automakers have opted to run their cars on gaseous hydrogen, which is supported by most of the vendors building fueling stations.

Going mainstream

If I start seeing hydrogen at the corner gas station, I'll believe hydrogen has gone mainstream. Otherwise it's just one of those "good for the Space Shuttle" fuels. Still, I remain ready to jump on the band wagon. I love the concept: clean, green and plentiful.

I can imagine what Eric's thinking.

Eric: "Buy a Ford. Then order the chicken-fried steak at the Country Cousin in Centralia."

Me: "And forgo my peanut butter sandwich?"

Eric: "Loser."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street rouses reform, why not clean energy?

The Occupy Wall Street protest has made an impression.

A Time poll says it rates a better impression than the tea party and that 54 percent of respondents "harbor a positive view of the burgeoning protest movement."

Ragtag but well-behaved protesters tapped into a surging vein of nationwide resentment. The economy has not only tanked, but the prospects appear so grim that nobody's talking seriously about a rebound.

Economic disaster strikes

Housing prices have cratered. Foreclosures are increasing. Banks need to start charging user fees for debit cards because they aren't making loans. Businesses aren't hiring. And technology is teaming with the downturn to hasten the demise of entire industries.

Fancy new SUVs purchased on raided pre-crash home equity are now starting to lose their luster and break down on roadsides. Their owners defer maintenance because they have either lost their homes, jobs or just their optimism in the future.

Check out the next 2004 Escalade alongside you on the 405 to see what I mean.

Jobs just aren't there

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones puts it aptly in a post. "It’s as if Hurricane Irene had swept through the American economy. Consider this statistic: between 1999 and 2009, the net jobs gain in the American workforce was zero. In the six previous decades, the number of jobs added rose by at least 20 percent per decade."

That's left a lot of older folks without jobs and younger ones with no prospects. College graduates fighting over fast-food jobs is an indicator that things are not like they once were.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone journalist and financial muckraker, has been chronicling the monetary misdealings of stock traders, bankers and Wall Street gamblers, being one of the few to lay bare the practices that put the entire globe on the brink of insolvency.

Financial elite get Bronx cheer

Taibbi applauds the occupy crowd. "The protests building at Liberty Square and spreading over Lower Manhattan are a great thing, the logical answer to the Tea Party and a long-overdue middle finger to the financial elite," he says in a post on

He says protesters' strategy of no strategy works for now, but he suggests that occupiers eventually offer solutions. In his post he offered five potential Wall Street fixes: 1. Break up the "Too Big to Fail" monopolies. 2. Levy a tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and derivatives to pay taxpayers back for the bailouts. 3. Allow no public money for private lobbying. 4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. 5. And enact new laws that prevent Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up later.

Maybe such reforms would put a dent in the nation's financial gambling sector. But the desire to extract value by way of financial tools is phenomenally powerful, and the mechanisms used are so complex that even regulators have a hard time tracing all but the most careless.

Many who have pitched tents and have decided their best investment lies in exposing bad practices already know this and that likely stiffens their resolve.

New generation post Woodstock

This battle is nothing new. The players are just younger than they have been since the last round of U.S. protests that spawned sayings like "Make War No More" and "Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out." And this time they're listening to Jay Z, Lady Gaga and Vampire Weekend rather than the Dead.

George Carlin, one of the voices of that past era, spells out how the financial game is played in one of his last concerts. A piece on Huffington Post provides a prophetic excerpt in which he says, "You know something? [Wall Street] will get it. They'll get it all from you sooner or later, 'cause they own this ... place. It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the big club. ... The table is tilted, folks. The game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good, honest hard working people ... continue to elect these rich ... who don't give a ... about them."

Carlin didn't mince words. But he also had a wonderful optimistic streak. His comedy records contain volumes of his ability to find light-hearted ways of looking at calamity and difficult topics.

Give clean energy a chance

In that spirit, I'll offer another solution, not so much aimed at Wall Street but the economy. I'd like the occupiers of Wall Street to venture into the realm of clean energy with the zeal of the Solar Decathlon contestants. The University of Maryland team won the 2011 challenge for the best solar-powered energy efficient home.

Cheap, sustainable energy could drive a massive economic resurgence and spawn many new industries. Already, solar power is nearing fossil-fuel parity, and Kees van der Leun of Netherlands consultant Ecofys went so far as to predict in a post on that "PV is set to go beyond grid parity and become the cheapest way to generate electricity."

So, hey, let the sun shine and have fun on Wall Street.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Marketing: Clean energy ought to take a cue from coal

Recession hit America hard. The housing crisis, banking collapse and automotive industry meltdown led the charge.

Rising energy prices added to the pain.

Pundits and various economists have predicted recovery, but few of those who have lost their jobs, homes or self respect have seen it.

Despite the gloomy mood, even somebody who's been sucker punched by a layoff appreciates a little levity, especially in a TV commercial. The right advertising campaign in a down economy could position a concept for broad public acceptance. Many businesses got their start that way, starting a whole new idea. The list includes MTV, FedEx and Microsoft. And Apple launched its iPod in 2001 just a month after 9/11.

The visual power of coal, a pro-coal group in Alexandria, Va., produced a commercial running currently on network television that makes a strong connection. It speaks to the downtrodden and forgotten by flashing from images of a business man, professional woman, graduate, blue collar worker and a couple others. Each is shown sprawled on the canvas as the narrator says, "Our economy. Our work force. We've all taken some big hit."

Who can argue with that?

The narrator continues: "But this is America." The footage cuts between the workers all staggering up, looking determined and beating the count.

"Jobs in America. Together we will power the next big comeback."

The medium is the message

The crowd is initially silent, then with scattered cries of "Get up!" members of the audience stand and cheer as the workers prepare to fight.

"Clean coal. That's America's power."

Not exactly what climate-watching scientists say, but it's a great message. Coal. Good old hot-burning, full-of-energy coal just happened to get it right. The jury remains out, but the campaign registers significant chutzpah.

A lesson for clean energy

Clean energy ought to do something similar. Make it simple and to the point, following the format established by America's Power.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a commercial of a person in a space suit wandered an empty radioactive city. The message was Cold War era danger. It still haunts me.

Imagery is powerful. Coal has deep pockets, and America's Power is unapologetic and aggressive in its push for the public eye. Right there on the site's home page, it says coal is green power.

They got it half right. Power, yes. Green? Not so much.

Coal extracts momentum

Coal's coming off a big legal win. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a decision against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying it overstepped its authority regulating mining companies.

Essentially the EPA teamed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "to coordinate reviews of backlogged permit applications for waste disposal at Appalachia mountaintop mining operations that raise serious environmental concerns," wrote John Raby on

He quotes U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as saying, "This is a significant step in our efforts to rein in the EPA."

Clean coal wins support

The coal industry wants to make sure it remains in the game. Coal has a lot going for it. The fuel is domestic and cheap and it fuels about half the nation's energy needs. Yet, questions about its clean future remain despite industry efforts to scrub emissions and contain CO2.

Clean coal has believers. The U.S. Department of Energy is kicking in $450 million from its Clean Coal Power Initiative to help build a 400 megawatt plant in Texas "that combines an integrated gasification combined-cycle system with urea production and carbon capture and storage technology," according to

For at least the time being, there's room for multiple energy sources. But clean and renewable energy has to elevate its visibility. Government subsidies would help, but they may not last and could be used as leverage by opponents.

Getting a leg up

The argument against subsidizing clean energy by the fossil fuel lobby is somewhat disingenuous. For instance, coal has had them too, according to a recent study.

Coal has received tax breaks totalling $1.3 billion over the past decade from a capital gain treatment on royalties, says the study "What Would Jefferson Do?" by Nancy Pfund of San Francisco-based venture capital firm DBL Investors and Ben Healey.

The study underlines how energy doesn't develop in a vacuum. Clean energy is dropping in price. Combined with energy efficiency and smart grid technology, much of it is making economic sense.

And that's the message. The fight's not begun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Energy Partnerships: Coming To A Project Near You

Oil and water don't mix, but maybe oil and solar power do. A marriage between the two at Chevron well in Coalinga, just down the road from my office in Fresno, started me thinking about other possible energy partnerships.

My colleague, Mike Nemeth, explored the potential relationship between solar and fuel cells in this post and here - especially how they could work in decentralizing energy.

The city of Tulare, which is about 45 minutes from Fresno, has established a showcase partnership to slash costs at the energy-hogging wastewater treatment plant. The combo includes methane digester gas, fuel cells, solar power and, soon, a 1.2 megawatt, 6-hour battery. The battery will store part of the solar energy during the day and discharge it at night for peak shaving, says Public Works Director Lew Nelson.

Nelson said he's not aware of any similar combination in use at a water treatment facility.

But there are other types of energy partnerships. For example, a Walmart distribution center in Canada opened in 2010 with wind turbines and solar panels on its roof, and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Read more here and here.

The possibilities are almost endless. Steve Leone of RenewableEnergyWorld has some ideas Here . I'm especially intrigued by the prospects of combing solar and geothermal: a true marriage of heaven and earth.

Photo of City of Tulare fuel cell project

Monday, October 3, 2011

Could Walmart Lead The Way To A Green Future?

Edward Humes' new book about Walmart's efforts to be more environmentally responsible - an effort, by the way, the company started begrudgingly - is both hopeful and terrifying.

The book, "Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution," details the ongoing evolution of the world's largest retailer into a leader of sustainability. After initial doubts, the company discovered that going green actually boosted profits - and now is urging its 100,000 suppliers - and competitors - to join in.

Humes writes, "Wal-Mart has made it impossible for any corporation to claim plausibly that sustainability is a risky choice." That bodes well for the green movement. Walmart's clout is without question, and can only be a catalyst.

The terrifying part rears its head about half way through, when Humes, a Pulitzer Prize winner, updates calculations of an earlier study by a professor of ecological economics who put a value on nature's assets: "(By 2010), Ecosystems were being used up or destroyed at a rate of $2 to $5 trillion a year. At that rate, factoring in current growth in population and manufacturing set against nature's innate ability to replenish itself, the world's natural capital - fresh air, fresh water, all the things we depend upon - will be depleted by the year 2046," Humes writes.

That is only 35 years away. My daughter will be 54 years old. I hope those calculations are off for the sake our our future - and for my daughter and grandchildren. Tom Miller, an environmental analyst that Humes quotes extensively, predicts an increase in worldwide pressure and a demand for stronger regulations as the deteriorating environment becomes more obvious to ordinary citizens.

The idea that Walmart is helping lead the change is remarkable. After all, this is a company that people love to hate - and by 2004 it was swimming in hate. It was being hammered for an employee health-care program that many claimed was a joke, and for poor wages and other issues - which are duly noted in the book. Walmart's reputation was so bad that, as Humes notes, it was "the poster child for global warming, mass extinction, smog and urban sprawl."

The negative news was taking a toll; an internal Walmart study showed that up to 8 percent of its customer base had stopped shopping there.

So, then-CEO H. Lee Scott started looking for something positive, a program that Walmart could tout. The idea came from board chairman S. Robson "Rob" Walton, the eldest son of the late Sam Walton, who founded the company. Rob Walton, who was interested in environmental causes, hooked Scott up with environmental consultant Jib Ellison.

In the book, Scott sounds like someone who really didn't believe "green" was profitable, but Walmart needed to do something, and carving out a small sustainability niche might help. The first focus: waste.

What it discovered would fundamentally change the company - at least when it came to sustainability.

Walmart is one of the leading sellers of toys on the planet. Shrinking the package on one toy allowed the retailer to stuff more packages in a truck, which, reduced the number of truck trips and cut its fuel bill by a whopping $2.4 million per year. It was so simple, yet no one in Walmart had ever considered it.

As Humes notes, "That was significant for a low-margin retailer...The company would have had to sell $60 million worth of that toy to earn the same $2.4 million in profits."

Walmart had become a believer.

That led to an expanded effort - and to solar panels, windmill turbines and fuel cells on buildings; a drive toward sustainable agriculture (Walmart says it can save money by purchasing food closer to its stores); and, as of now, an 80 percent landfill diversion rate. The company is even working on an ambitious landmark sustainability index for suppliers to follow.

With more than $14 billion in profit last year, Walmart can pretty much set the agenda. Today, it has set three main objectives: using renewable power to supply all of its operations, to create zero waste and to sell products that are environmentally safe. For example, phosphates in dish and laundry soaps on Walmart shelves in Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America were cut almost 30 percent last year. - and have been removed entirely from its stores in the U.S., Humes notes.

Who knows how far Walmart will go. It certainly has the financial resources to create a major green footprint. Many people remain skeptical, calling it greenwashing. But, as Humes says, the younger generation is concerned about the environment, and Walmart knows it has to find a way to capture them.

Humes cites John Fleming, a former chief of merchandising for Walmart: "This is our opportunity to connect with the next generation..."

As the world's largest retailer, Walmart can help drive the green agenda. Here is a link to a video on Walmart's sustainability plan.

Company photo of windmills at Walmart store in Palmdale