Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Energy efficient construction gains ground and saves money

My Uncle Dave Wakefield lives in Anchorage, Alaska in a tiny house built when efficiency meant minimal construction cost and square footage.

The house, which he's lived in the past two decades, has changed little since its construction sometime before or during World War II. It has 2-by-4 walls, low ceilings, tiny rooms and a draftiness consistent with old homes built by homeowners who used whatever was lying around. In this case it probably meant surplus wood from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

When I called Dave recently, he expressed happiness that the winter temperature had finally risen. "The high was 4 degrees today, and it feels almost tropical," he said.

Turning up the heat

Tropical is relative. Dave said deep cold slammed them hard the week before.

Dave keeps the furnace cranked. But because so much of the heat leaks through the attic, walls and windows, massive icicles form, looking like clear, pristine stalactites. Hardly energy efficient.

Ironically, his house is green.

Building goes green

Construction methods certainly have changed since Dave's house was built. In fact, better windows and thicker walls are the norm. The move to energy efficiency can be seen in the latest from the U.S. Green Building Council, which released its 2011 list of top 10 states for LEED-certified commercial and institutional green buildings per capita. The list is based on the U.S. 2010 Census.

Alaska didn't make the cut, and Dave's house certainly didn't help.

However, the little house on Third Avenue across from the site of the old Native Hospital does provide an example of the importance of using techniques to improve efficiency in the nation's homes, commercial structures and institutional buildings.

Efforts grow to improve construction

Buildings consume about 40 percent of the overall energy and 70 percent of the electricity in the United States, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Many efforts, including the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system, are under way to reduce that and in the process lower production of greenhouse gases.

At the top USGBC's list is Washington, D.C., which completed about 19 million square feet of LEED-certified space for a whopping 31 square feet per person in 2011. Colorado takes the No. 2 spot with 2.74 square feet per person, followed by Illinois, Virginia and Washington state.

California stands at No. 8 in the per capita ranking but scored first with total square footage at about 71.6 million. New York was second in overall square footage with 36.5 million.

People matter most

"Looking past the bricks and mortar, people are at the heart of what buildings are all about," said Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of USGBC, in a statement. "Examining the per capita value of LEED square footage in these states allows us to focus on what matters most -- the human element of green buildings."

LEED certification, one of a number of ratings systems, measures site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality."

LEED and other efforts -- such as the net-zero, whole house and passive house movements -- promote construction and retrofit practices that save long-term operational costs. Frequently, the measures can be paid off quickly and even then only add marginally to the overall cost of construction or remodel.

Reducing energy consumption

An NREL report, "Zero Energy Buildings," says "energy consumption in the commercial building sector will continue to increase until buildings can be designed to produce enough energy to offset the growing energy demand of these buildings."

Awareness of the value of energy and other efficiencies is gaining recognition. Corporations are embracing sustainability, consumers have begun to recognize the importance of using technology to manage their electricity use and utilities across the country are finding ways to help stakeholders use less so they can delay adding generating capacity.

Passive house

In northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History recently completed a passive house for its Climate Change exhibit. The 2,500-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath home "assembles some of the world’s greenest technological advancements and packages it in a super-insulated shell," writes Marc Lefkowitz for GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which is the center for sustainability at the museum.

The house, one of the first in the region, is so well insulated, so weather tight and so efficient that it will need no furnace.

Going net zero

Although few buildings can claim net-zero energy consumption status, more are on the horizon. A study from Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says the net-zero world market, currently measured at a relatively small $225 million, is "set to explode," growing to $1.3 trillion by 2035.

The chief cause cited is the European Union's introduction of net-zero building codes at the end of the decade. Pike says the EU's commercial and residential construction will account for about 90 percent of the total.

The North American market, meanwhile, would grow incrementally, researchers predict.

Home batteries

Of course, everything depends on energy prices, political climate and consumer mood. Katie Fehrenbacher of gigaom.com writes that Japanese consumer electronics giant Kyocera is working to package its solar collectors and energy management systems with lithium ion home battery systems from developer Nichicon Corp.

Fehrenbacher writes: "Kyocera says there’s been a growing demand for Japanese homes to be able to generate and store their own power following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters last year."

Who knew that smart phones would take as much computing capability as they have? Who seriously predicted clean energy getting as far technologically as it has and preparing to challenge fossil fuels on their own terms. So why should we not allow the possibility for energy independent homes?

Solar Decathlon housing

In fall 2013, 20 teams that know all about the subject will unleash their creativity. They hail from colleges and universities across the country and will unveil the next generation of technological advancements, building and design techniques and energy efficiencies for home building in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

The site for the biennial event will be on the West Coast this time around, at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Since 2002, it's been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Teams have two years to build solar-powered, energy-efficient homes that are supposed to "combine affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the Solar Decathlon will "unleash the ingenuity, creativity, and drive from these talented students to demonstrate new ideas for how families and businesses can reduce energy use and save money with clean energy products and efficient building design."

WaterShed winner

In 2011, the the University of Maryland won with its WaterShed entry. The home had a "split butterfly roofline" that managed storm water, filtered pollutants from greywater and minimized water use. Solar, tight construction and efficient mechanical systems reduced energy use.

I'd love to unleash such a team on my Uncle Dave's house. Actually, the best idea would involve an excavator and a dump truck and building fresh. Dave lives on a fixed income and pinches pennies to get by. Reduce his heating costs by 90 percent and he'd feel rich.

And he'd no longer have icicles that could kill a wandering moose.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Emissions boost the case for clean energy

Two facts make clean energy unbeatable: air pollution and its friend climate change.

Sure there are naysayers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was quoted as saying, "Scientists are 'coming forward daily' to disavow a 'theory that remains unproven,'" in a tweet by New Hampshire Public Radio.

And James Delingpole on globalclimatescam.com sarcastically says, "It now seems that Mother Gaia may have a deadly new weapon up her sleeve: KILLER MUTANT SHARKS!!!"

Whatever. Delingpole takes issue with a news item that indicates sharks may be adapting to climate change. Good for the sharks.

Acknowledgment dawns

Here's the situation -- continued and accelerated burning of fossil fuels not only taps the supply of easy-to-extract oil but the proof of its effects mounts. And sure, domestic coal is plentiful. But blacken the skies so that even those who live in the countryside can't see more than a mile or two, and supporters -- even those who hail jobs, jobs, jobs -- start to go the way of passenger pigeons.

Corporations are beginning to pay attention, and not just with lip service. Sustainability has taken root in boardrooms across the globe, and investment in practices and technology that prevents destruction of the environment is rocketing upward faster than anybody thought possible.

Cheap oil is great. Canada's oil sands are amazing. And that Bakken oil shale formation under Parshall, N.D. could be a game changer -- if we could somehow export it off-planet and use its rich extracts on recently terra-formed and pristine Earth-like worlds.

But here we've got to deal with an environment that's had more than enough of our rapid technological ascent. If mankind continues to push the devastation thing, not only will the economy collapse, but most of us will get sick and die long before we get old.

Political avoidance

GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sidestep the issue of clean energy on the campaign trail. This, however, contrasts mightily with the mood of many in the private sector, which Newt and Mitt say they support hands-down. Corporations and small businesses are publicly embracing the concept of sustainability, energy efficiency, waste reduction and even green chemistry. It would appear corporate boards and business owners see value in going green.

Romney pokes fun at President Obama's support of green jobs, saying on his website that the president's administration "seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation." Romney says, "'Green' technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace, and studies have shown that for every 'green' job created there are actually more jobs destroyed."

Gingrich says he would "finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties," but then goes on to promote oil shale development and the destruction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly clean or green.

So yeah, lop off another mountain to extract coal, fire up the power plant and dust the neighborhood. "Fire in the hole," as Boyd Crowder would say on FX's "Justified."

Green sneaks in

Sentiment toward clean energy and sustainable practices is maturing. True believers come from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum. Economic practicality will do that. Not only is solar at or near parity with fossil fuels but wind's getting closer and innovation is increasingly resulting in more sophisticated smart products that can navigate the new reality of variable power sources, maximize energy and reduce waste in every possible metric.

In fact, technological innovation in clean energy is moving forward so rapidly that by the time industry masters one form of energy capture, another is baked up in the test kitchen and ready for a taste test. For instance, solar's efficiency is pushing 50 percent, while battery technology is getting so versatile that some companies expect batteries to complement home solar systems. And backyard mechanics are figuring out how to extract hydrogen using solar power and operating their cars off the stuff.

End product? Vapor.

Energy independence gains momentum

There's value to clean air. It makes a good slogan, true. But more than that it's an awesome goal. To think that in a relatively short time, the United States could become energy independent with clean skies and wealthier boggles the mind. But it's possible.

Consumers would have to adapt to electric cars, natural gas-powered fleet vehicles and even hydrogen hot rods. The military would lead the world in production of biodiesel, algae fuel and isobutanol. Markets would spend less time worry about crude oil prices and more about increasing international sales in third world countries now able to produce their own clean energy.

Sounds a little crazy, and maybe it is.

Green in strange places

On the other hand, evidence that a cleaner world is not far-fetched is mounting. Corporate Knights, a self-described company for clean capitalism, has unveiled its eighth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world. No. 1 is Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, which had sales of $10.5 billion in 2010.

Also on the list are South African mining giant Anglo American, Japan's Hitachi, Intel, United Kingdom's AstraZeneca, Brazil's Petrobras and Norway's Statoil ASA. The ratings were based on ratios of sales to energy production, carbon creation, water use and waste. Also included is leadership diversity and CEO-to-average-worker pay.

Says Toby Heaps, chief executive of Corporate Knights: "In a year in which Wall Street was occupied and capitalism became a bad word, the Global 100 companies serve as ambassadors for a better, cleaner kind of capitalism which, it also turns out, is more profitable."

Something is indeed going on. Anglo American's website's main page features this directive: "We recognise the challenge posed by climate change and we are taking action to address its causes and to protect our employees and assets, as well as our communities, against its potential impacts."

Wall Street embraces sustainability

I must be making this up. I still remember the mining companies in Fairbanks, Alaska dredging anything and everything and the John Birch Society guys in the Golden Days Parade driving their Rocket to Russia truck tossing candy to us kids. My recollection of society is decidedly conservative and resource-driven. So what's going on?

Evidently the mood is greening. More than two-thirds of companies say sustainability has invaded the boardrooms and a third say the practice is contributing to their profits, according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group.

The study, "Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point," found about 67 percent of companies see sustainability as necessary to being competitive, up from 55 percent the previous year. The survey involved more than 2,800 corporate leaders "representing every major industry and region of the world."

"The attention and investment we see indicate the here-to-stay nature of sustainability for organizations everywhere," said David Kiron, executive editor at MIT SMR and a coauthor of the report, in a statement.

Investment up in energy efficiency

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy provides some detail. "The 2010 U.S. Lighting Market Characterization" shows that investment in more efficient technologies, higher efficiency standards and public awareness campaigns "helped shift the market toward more energy-efficient lighting technologies across all sectors."

That means energy savings and more cash in consumers' pockets. Lighting is the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, and upgrades pay for themselves in a matter of a few years. Changing out lights, however, is like a gateway drug to sustainability.

After making lighting retrofits, the next question always is: "What more can we do?" People like saving money. I would love to put an end to my PG&E power bills with solar panels and a household battery. Of course, I'm nowhere near close to that. But daydreams are an important part of this going-green exercise.

Battlefield Earth

Yet, this shift has surpassed idle thought. It's based on the cold hard reality that our planet faces something akin to an alien assault by the Covenant from the Halo video-game series.

Marc Gunther of greenbiz.com writes that many in industry see climate change as inevitable and are preparing plans to adapt. "Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what's being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness," Gunther says.

Longer dry spells, wetter rainy season and more powerful storms are forcing the issue. Industries that don't plan for the worst may end up suffering. Businesses that don't plan might not be around to post year-end earnings.

Extreme weather forces change

Christian Parenti, author of "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence," writes that extreme weather cost agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion in 2011, while Hurricane Irene slapped New York City with $7 billion in estimated damages. He quotes the World Bank's estimate of damages in Thailand from flooding there at $45 billion.

The solution is straightforward. Basically, we've got to clean up the air and stabilize the climate warming trend or prepare for more upheaval. Parenti says government is best equipped to deal with both scenarios, either with the massive task of clean up or through more nuanced approaches related to support of technological advancement through subsidy, research and development.

"Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy," Parenti writes in a post for tomdispatch.com. So there's precedent.

If we pick clean energy as a proactive response, we're going to need a little bit of help from our friend Uncle Sam, or Big Brother, depending on where you lean. Not bad thing. But it will take a some political willpower, consensus building and a thaw in the red-blue divide.

Solar: Finally, Fresno reaches the top of a positive list

Fresno ranks fourth in solar capacity in California, according to a survey released this week.

"California Solar Cities 2012," a report compiled by Environment California. Taking the No. 1 spot in capacity is San Diego with 37 megawatts, followed by Los Angeles with 36 megawatts and San Jose with 31 megawatts. Fresno has 22 megawatts and San Francisco 17 megawatts.

The ranking remains the same for the top three in terms of number of installations with Fresno and San Francisco swapping places and Fresno landing in the No. 5 spot with 2,146.

"California has just begun to tap into the vast potential of solar energy," the report's authors write. "Governments, utilities and the public should continue to work together toward a clean energy future."

Many believe the cost of solar power will reach parity with fossil fuels in the next few years. Some studies say that point already has been reached because of declining materials costs.

In a interview with Bloomberg TV, the chief executive of Suntech Power Holdings Co., considered the world's largest photovoltaic panel maker, says the cost of generating electricity from the sun will compete with conventional power by 2015.

“Solar is getting so cheap,” Zhengrong Shi, Suntech CEO, says. “We believe by 2015, there will be around 50 percent of countries that reach grid-parity.”

The San Joaquin Valley is uniquely positioned to be a solar powerhouse with its available land, existing electrical grid and ready work force. Its potential has led researchers at University of California Merced to call it Solar Valley.

Fresno usually graces the upper tiers of lists it would prefer not to be associated with. Perhaps the most notorious is that produced by the Brookings Institution, showing Fresno atop the list of cities with concentrated poverty. A more recent ranking showed some decline but it wasn't enough to drop Fresno from the top.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Could the San Joaquin Valley grow solar trees?

San Joaquin Valley farmers are among the most productive and efficient in the world, so it doesn't come as a shock to learn they are embracing solar power, which can reduce their costs, decrease their carbon footprints and potentially be a new cash crop.

This edition of sierra2thesea - produced by a former Valley resident who now lives on the Central Coast - has a couple stories on the subject. One covers the overall growth of solar down on the farm and the other notes three proposed solar projects in Fresno County, including one that combines solar "trees" with regular fruit trees as a way to possibly ease the conflict between prime farm land and renewable energy.

Solar power makes sense in a region with up to 300 days of sun per year, high power bills and vast expanses of land, but farm officials worry about possible conflicts with the $6 billion agriculture industry in Fresno County. More on those conflicts here.

If those conflicts can be managed, the San Joaquin Valley could see more solar energy. The Fresno metropolitan region already ranks fourth in the state in its use of rooftop solar (more on that here) and the robust potential of solar arrays at farms and other sites in the 27,000 square miles that encompass the Valley could make us a showcase for renewable energy.

Maybe we could become known as Solar Valley.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

President Obama and his pledge to clean energy

Following is a video of the president's 2012 State of the Union speech, and transcripts of the portion devoted to clean energy and energy efficiency.

"In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled, and thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.

When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance. But he found work at Energetx, a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts. Today, it’s hiring workers like Bryan, who said, “I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.”

Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas, shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. (Applause.) I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.

We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. (Applause.) It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits. Create these jobs. (Applause.)

We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives. The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well, tonight, I will. I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power 3 million homes. And I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense, working with us, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history -– with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year. (Applause.)

Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s a proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs. (Applause.) "

Video and transcripts courtesy of The White House

Fresno unleashes its solar power!

More property owners in Fresno are using the sun to power their homes, according to a new study.

The number of rooftop solar installations has doubled in the past two years, ranking Fresno fourth in the state in the amount of solar-generated electricity and fifth in the number of installations on residential, commercial and government buildings, an advocacy group, Environment California Research & Policy Center, reported Wednesday.

Fresno's 2,146 rooftop solar arrays produce 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 22,000 houses. Each megawatt prevents the emission of an estimated 700 pounds of smog-forming pollution annually.

"Competing with the state's biggest cities, Fresno has emerged as a real solar-power leader," said Stephanie Droste-Packham of Environment California. "The Central Valley is growing its solar-power market one roof at a time."

Rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the San Joaquin Valley, especially considering how sunny and hot it is here, said Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the Fresno-based nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

"Incomes are low and power bills are high," she said. "Why not utilize the region's most plentiful resource to bring down those power costs and put more money in people's wallets. We could easily become a solar valley!"

Environment California and city officials announced the study results at Ivan Lopez's home in the Little Long Cheng housing community in southeast Fresno, where 25 of 41 houses, including Lopez's, are solar powered. It is estimated that Lopez and the other homeowners there will save a combined $390,000 in energy costs over 30 years.

Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that installs solar panels in low-income regions, installed the solar systems at Little Long Cheng. KMJ has more here.

San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose rank higher than Fresno in solar capacity. San Francisco, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Oakland and Chico round out the top 10. Clovis is ranked 11th.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin reaffirmed her commitment to solar power in Fresno on Wednesday, and capacity could continue to expand. Other regions also are gaining solar power. Capacity in Sacramento, for example, tripled over two years to 16 megawatts. Read more here in The Sacramento Bee.

Photo of Grid Alternatives "Solarthon" in Fresno

EPA honors Clovis plating company for 'extreme makeover'

A Clovis, Calif. chrome plating company has won recognition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for efforts to clean up and change the way it does business.

Valley Chrome Plating substituted lead anodes and hexavalent chromium with the less harmful alternative of graphite and trivalent chromium. EPA officials say the switch reduced "harmful chemicals by 9,000 pounds — significantly protecting the environment and worker exposure."

It's "kind of an extreme makeover plating edition," says James Galvan, Valley Chrome's plating supervisor. "We get a lot of 'wows.'"

The company also was recognized by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which says Valley Chrome is on its way to becoming a national leader for its chemistry substitution.

While Valley Chrome didn't institute energy efficiency savings or install renewable energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, it did pull off something at least as significant by making environmentally responsible changes that also benefit the company's bottom line.

"We're actually saving money being greener," says Ray Lucas, owner. "It makes perfect sense environmentally and financially."

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, put it this way: "This is a great example of how a company can protect its employees and the environment while growing its business and providing important local jobs."

Blumenfeld visited the San Joaquin Valley, making Valley Chrome one of his stops on a two-day “Whistle Stop Tour." He also also visited California State University, Fresno to tour the Center for Irrigation Technology's state-of-the-art hydraulics lab. His mission was to discuss efforts within the industry to create jobs and talk with students about the campus organic farm. The agenda included a forum on drinking water issues in rural communities.

Green chemistry is intertwined with clean energy, water conservation and sustainability. The movement by U.S. businesses adopting such measures is gaining momentum on a monthly basis. Net-zero impact, which had near-zero proponents among the Wall Street set just five or 10 years ago, is getting a closer and tangible look by companies across the nation, especially because many of the measures simply make sense and save money.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Waving Hello To The Power of California's Coast

There's the Big Picture, and then there is the REALLY BIG picture. The Big Picture is California exceeding Gov. Brown's 33 percent renewables mandate. The REALLY BIG picture is California reaching 100 percent.

We get lots of sun (my late relatives from the freezing East practically weeped when they turned on their TVs and saw the Rose Parade under sunny skies). Wind turbines dot mountain passes in Alameda, Kern and Riverside counties. Geothermal bubbles up in Lake and Imperial counties. And there is the Coast. Wave power, baby!

Dozens of solar projects proposed for Central and Southern California will likely push the state beyond the 33 percent mandate. But why stop there? As my colleague Mike Nemeth noted in this great post, why not apply a Space Race mentality to energy, especially in this state, which is already a leader in renewables? Nemeth is especially fascinated by the prospect of wave power, as he notes in this blog.

As far fetched as it seems, wave power gets a boost in a new report (here's a link) that cites the astounding opportunities presented by the rolling waves off the coast of Central California, where I grew up. Wave power alone, if fully utilized, could supply energy needs of one-third of the nation. Read more here and here.

The Electric Power Research Institute report is pretty technical. It is full of fancy graphs and mind-numbing data, but suggests that California's waves are great for creating energy. Maybe this device, which works like a bicycle pump, could be an assist.

Population growth, the effects of climate change and dwindling supply of fossil fuel and the increased cost of extracting it, will only increase the demand for energy. Wave power could go a long way toward satisfying the demand. Over in Europe, officials have announced plans for a "marine energy park" off the coast of England, but who knows if it will come to fruition.

Closer to home, the U.S. Department of Energy is testing designs off the coast of Washington, Oregon and Maine, and tidal currents in the East River of New York are the subject of this research. But this proposal in Southern California isn't likely to get under way anytime soon.

President Obama is expected to call for action on clean energy in his State of the Union speech. Wave power is ambitious, but so was the Space Race. Harnessing the power of the ocean would be expensive and a technological challenge, but is it any tougher than going to the moon?

Photo by Roger Kirby

Sanger sees LED street lights installed

The LED street lights are finally being installed.

ABC30 did this story on Sanger's project, which is using its $145,896 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant allocation for a portion of its LED street lights.

Sanger is one of 19 cities in the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Partnership to spend either all or part of its EECBG money on street light retrofits. The projects are finally being installed by more than two years of work to implement the project by the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Pretty exciting stuff.

Expect to see changes in Coalinga, Chowchilla, Corcoran, Dos Palos, Firebaugh, Fowler, Gustine, Kerman, Kingsburg, Mendota, Newman, Oakdale, Parlier, Reedley, San Joaquin, Selma, Shafter and Wasco.

Avenal's also got a project as does Madera County. But there's more. Much more.

The Partnership cities and three counties are also installing energy efficient lights, AC units and pump motors and regulators. When all is said and done this spring, our project should save about 5.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

That's big bucks for cities and counties hit hard by the economic downturn. The money saved goes right back into the general fund, and it's the gift that keeps on giving.

Homeowners can do the same thing. Compact fluorescent lights, SEER 13 or better AC units and insulation can do wonders for energy bills. In addition, there's programmable thermostats and reducing vampire power sucked up by appliances and various electronic products.

Clovis is also installing LED street lights, but the city isn't part of our group.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Biodiesel industry keeps rolling

Rich Gillis is selling his biodiesel plant.

But Gillis, president and chief executive of Watsonville, Calif.-based Energy Alternative Solutions Inc., intends to stay in the business. Once the sale is complete, he plans to focus on development of marketable biofuel crops like camelina, which requires very little water and has been grown successfully in the San Joaquin Valley.

"Biodiesel is taking off," he says. And camelina, which is harvested for its seeds, has a bright part in that future, he adds.
The biodiesel business certainly isn't putting the petroleum companies out of business. In fact, the market remains relatively limited with most sales going to fleets or established customers. However, its niche is extensive with more than 600 fleets using biodiesel blends in their vehicles and the military testing it as a 50 percent additive to jet fuel.

Gillis says he sees the fuel as an intermediary that will serve to ease dependence on petroleum until a substitute can be found. And that may take awhile.

The EPA has forecast through its Renewable Fuel Standard program a target of about 1 billion gallons of biomass-produced biodiesel this year. In 2006, 250 million gallons were sold, with more than 900 million projected to sell in 2011.

The EPA says biodiesel can help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and provide greenhouse gas emission reductions: "It reduces emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and sulfates, as well as hydrocarbon and air toxics emissions."

Derek Mead of greentechmedia.com calls biodiesel the workhorse of the biofuel sector. He writes that the "market is projected to continue to increase production and is still a stable sector."

Gillis' plant, which sits near the central coast in Gonzales, Calif. just south of Salinas on Highway 101, recycled 150,000 pounds of waste vegetable oil into biodiesel each week and has been on line since 2007. Over its history, the plant has produced more than 1 million gallons.

Biodiesel can be produced from vegetable oils, animal fats and used restaurant grease.

Gillis says the plant was built by Pacific Biodiesel, headquartered on Maui, Hawaii. "They are one of the oldest producers of biodiesel fuel and production plant builders in the country," he says.

Gillis says he'd like to see the plant bought and relocated to the nearby San Joaquin Valley where it would be close potential fields. He says "parties interested in relocating the plant to the San Joaquin Valley will be given a credit with a cap for the cost of disassembly and transport of the plant."

Gillis says that although a $1 per gallon tax credit wasn't renewed by Congress, renewable fuel credits are available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "and remain an excellent source of support for producers of biodiesel. Cap and trade will also have a positive effect on the industry."

The tax incentive was enacted in 2004 as part of the American Jobs Creation Act and expired at the close of 2009.

The National Biodiesel Board says the industry generates substantial economic benefits. In 2008, the U.S. biodiesel industry supported 51,893 jobs, added $4.287 billion to the economy, and generated $866.2 million in tax revenue, it says.

Gillis says the elimination of the tax credit either eliminated or temporarily shuttered about half the jobs in biodiesel.

Gillis believes in biofuels and would like to see more jobs developed. He'd also like to find a buyer for his plant -- although he may have a line on it with a couple interested parties. He's got a list of the equipment for those who would like to know more. Price is negotiable, the list says.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

U.S. should apply space race mentality to clean energy

When the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gregarin into space on April 12, 1961, the U.S. government and the public felt sucker-punched.

President John F. Kennedy, however, punched back, sinking tremendous resources into the budding space program and taking the Soviets' accomplishment as a challenge. Kennedy upped the ante, vowing to send a man to the moon.

While he didn't live to see Neil Armstrong take that first giant step, Kennedy launched what is considered one of the most aggressive drives to overcome huge technological hurdles in the nation's history. The United States sought to prove convincingly that American know-how can get the job done, whatever it is.

Give clean energy a shot

Give a similar push to clean energy, and the ramifications would prove spectacular. Imagine cheap solar five times more efficient than existing technology or algae fuel easily harvested and refined from simple CO2-fueled stagnant ponds. Perhaps tidal energy devices could harvest the 2,640 terawatts available on U.S. coasts.

Already the country's national laboratories have come up with amazing results in energy efficiency, biofuels and other renewables. But far more could be done on a regulatory level to encourage research, development and implementation of domestic energy self-reliance. Incentives could be provided through state and local government to implement existing technology, making even the average residential home a net-zero energy user.

After all, energy has become a security issue, and cost on that regard can no longer simply be measured in price per gallon. Yet, fossil fuels and their corporate cheerleaders have powerful lobbies and strong ties to the existing ways of doing business and will likely fight to maintain their part of the status quo. So let them have it. Offer a work-around.

Give oil its due

Sustainability is a big word that can encompass diversified fuel sources. Give oil its due. Petroleum made this country a world leader and rich beyond measure. And coal fuels many regional economies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made history with its recent ruling to curb emissions of coal-fired electricity plants, making even the sub-bituminous variety vastly less irritating to the environment.

Surging renewables could decrease upward pressure on oil prices. The full effect on energy markets is something analysts would have to ponder. But they may stabilize gas prices, let's say at $2.50 per gallon, giving old-world gearheads like me continued access to fuel for our internal combustion engines and leaving the electric hotrods to the younger set.

Another positive development could be declining importance of the Middle East. How about this headline? "Iran abandons nuclear program, cites cash crunch." Healthy competition from alternative energy sources is unlikely to put many in the oil patch out of business, but it would certainly shift the balance of power.

International competition

The funny thing is that other counties appear to be seizing the green opportunity. Germany, for instance, has sidelined its nuclear program and embraced clean energy. No politician there says it's easy, but the payoff could be amazing. Norway's also making a push, and China's not messing around either. Of course, the sleeping dragon of the East is going at every sector like it wants to dominate them all.

The key, at least in this country, is keeping government involvement to a minimum. Most in the clean energy sector would prefer to compete on their own terms, without subsidy. And that means innovation.

To a growing extent, that is already happening. In 2011, international spending in clean energy hit $260 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year and about five times what was spent in 2004, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables already play a role

Solar has reached parity or near parity with fossil fuels, and wind is on the cusp. However, both are intermittent: wind dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and solar on the rotation of the Earth. Only geothermal could be argued a constant source, and its capacity to shoulder the energy burden is limited.

In all cases, and this includes biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen, advances in production that simplify and reduce costs prove invaluable to the green energy movement. That's why we need some of the best minds focused on solutions. The nation's universities are primed for the challenge. Many already have taken up the charge. Their fledgling programs just need minimal funding to turn out the next big thing.

Bring on energy efficiency

This can't be done without efficiency. As Trevor Winnie, senior research analyst for consultant Clean Edge, so succinctly points out "the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion" in energy efficiency and cut national energy use by more than a fifth by 2020 or 60 percent by 2050. Winnie cites multiple studies.

"Energy efficiency continues to be the cheapest way to get electricity," he says.

Pair the pursuit of energy efficiency with renewables and a smart grid attuned to a new generation of power sources, and not only would the nation have clean (and hopefully cheap) energy but it would have all the building blocks to fuel its rise to the top of the economic heap once again.

Falter and get dusted

We will have to get moving. In the initial space race, the Russians sent the first man into space, spurring American political leaders to respond. The USSR conquered a previously unimaginable frontier and winning the admiration and acclaim of the world community. Of course, the Nikita Khrushchev-led nation was an arch enemy and Cold War nemesis.

U.S. leaders then feared that control of space could lead to greater geopolitical control. But I tend to believe honor may have had more to do with the space race. The thought of the United States ceding something as monumental as manned flight beyond earth's atmosphere inspired then Kennedy to funnel resources, manpower and the hopes and dreams of the American people behind the Apollo project and getting man to the moon.

Consensus is needed

Kennedy didn't do it alone. His predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lit the space-race fuse with the signing of the signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and support came flooding in from both sides of the aisle.

"We choose to go to the moon ... not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win," Kennedy said in a speech to Rice University in Houston.

Kennedy said the United States was not built by those who rested and those who waited. He said the nation rode the first waves of the industrial revolution and modern invention. "This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash," he said, in a speech that sounds as relevent today as it did June 10, 1963.

Clean energy should be given treatment similar to that received by the space race. The stakes are high, perhaps higher. The nation's security is compromised by its dependence on foreign oil and national debt. Its skies are darkened by smog. Its children suffer from toxins in the air and environment. Our way of life is threatened.

No thanks Dr. Strangelove

Taking action is a heck of a lot better than the depressing scenario painted by TomDispatch blogger and author Michael T. Klare, who writes that pursuing no alternative course will result in potential serious conflict over the scant remaining resources. He identifies several hot spots "where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond."

Klare warns to watch the Strait of Hormuz, the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin and the Arctic.

Wouldn't it be better to look the enemy square in the eye and yell like Slim Pickens' Major Kong?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Unlocking The Solar Power Of Military Bases

Military bases are huge. And they have lots of open space. So much open space, in fact, that bases in Southern California could become solar power generators - contributing up to $100 million per year in revenue to the federal government, according to a new study commissioned at the request of Congress.

The Department of Defense has a huge power bill, some $4 billion per year, according to this story in CleanTechnica that sums up the findings of a year-long study for the military by Virginia-based analytical firm ICF International. Even though 96% of the open space would be considered off limits, the remaining 4 percent is enough to generate 7,000 megawatts, which, CleanTechnica states, is 30 times more power than the bases consume.

The government could receive $100 million in rent payments, reduced cost power, in-kind contributions or some combination thereof, the study states. The military solar could generate enough power to supply 1.75 million homes, according to industry estimates.

However, it's unlikely that all of that 4 percent would be claimed. Much of the land is remote and access to the transmission grid poses significant challenges. That said, about 25,000 acres at military bases in Southern California are "suitable" for development, and about 100,000 acres are "likely" or "questionably" suited for solar development. The researchers assumed 100 percent of the 25,000 "suitable" acres and 25 percent of the "likely" and "questionable" land could be turned over to private solar developers.

Most of the installations already contain one to two megawatts of solar power - and large chunks of property that can't be used for solar. Modern weapons systems and other issues - flash flood hazards, steep slopes and conflicts with native habitat - prevent development of the overwhelming majority of the land.

But covering just 6 percent of the potentially available land would generate enough power to meet the military's 2005 renewable-energy goals, the report states.

Five types of solar projects were considered: rooftops, shaded parking lots; shading structures over unpaved parking lots; and ground arrays.

As CleanTechnica notes, "military bases occupy more than 30 million acres of land, much of it in areas with lots of sun, and they need a secure supply of electricity as a matter of security..."

So, why not use solar? The clean energy would help California reach or exceed its ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and, when combined with other innovative programs (such as using rights-of way under transmission lines; More on that here,), would put otherwise waste land to productive use.

To unlock that potential, the authors put forth the following recommendations for the Department of Defense:

Work with stakeholders to accelerate construction of transmission lines; develop microgrid technology on the military bases (like this project) and further refine its energy-security goals; provide incentives for military installations that invest in energy technology; and work with the federal Bureau of Land Management (which also leases land to solar companies) to ensure the government is getting fair rents.

Here is a New York Times story on the report.

Photo: Solar array at Fort Hunter by http://www.army.mil/

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hydrogen highway: Demonstrating a fill-up in LA

Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times shows off the new Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle. He gives some details about the fuel and shows how this particular vehicle would be refueled. Warning: It takes some time.

This second video explains how the various hydrogen fuel technologies work. Both videos are short.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Bang of Energy Efficiency

I interviewed many financial planners in a newspaper career that spanned three decades, and they all said the same thing: Cutting spending is easier than finding new sources of revenue.

Property owners know this. Power bills are among their biggest expenditures, but also are relatively easy to control. And homeowners want efficient energy and lower bills, according to this survey. So, why isn't more effort put forth in that arena? Presidential candidates are all atwitter about the economy, but I haven't heard one mention the need for energy efficiency. Isn't saving money a bipartisan goal?

This report (log-in required, but here also is a link to a press release) from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests that energy consumption could be slashed up to 60 percent by 2050, saving an average of $400 billion nationwide - the equivalent of $2,600 per household.

The first sentence in the press release reads: "America is thinking too small when it comes to energy efficiency."

Is it ever. If thinking big could net U.S. consumers $400 billion in annual savings, here is an even more mind-blowing number: $16 trillion!. That is the estimated cumulative savings from 2012 through 2050 after paying for energy-efficiency upgrades, which admittedly would require up-front investment in most cases. After all, equipment has to be purchased and workers paid to install it.

Still, it would lead to an economic boost, giving families more money to spend and businesses more cash to invest - leading to at least 1.3 million new jobs by 2050. Wouldn't a Manhattan Project devoted to energy efficiency and clean energy make sense?

Energy efficiency is a gift that keeps on giving: The savings continue after the initial costs are recouped, often in as little as two years. the authors cite evidence that equates energy-efficiency upgrades to a return of 17 percent to 25 percent on investment. What other (legal) investment reaps those kinds of gains?

Deutsche Bank reaffirms that here, concluding after exhaustive research that energy-efficiency upgrades are a safe investment. A bank executive said in a study cited by CleanTechnica that, "...Savings alone were sufficient to fully support loans for energy efficiency capital improvements." As a follow-up, this piece in Forbes says loans that fund energy-efficiency retrofits could make money for banks.

Those kinds of benefits are often ignored when assessing the power of energy efficiency, experts say. "Unfortunately, these non-energy benefits from energy efficiency measures are often omitted from conventional performance metrics," the authors of the ACEEE study contend.

And let's not forget the environmental and other benefits. "There is a strong historical record that energy efficiency can provide perhaps the largest single wedge of GHG emissions reductions," the study notes. The report also cites lower maintenance costs after the upgrades.

Both studies reinforce our belief that energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit of the clean-energy movement. Our nonprofit works with local governments to reduce energy consumption, and has helped Valley communities realize energy savings of more than 16 million kWh.

That's a big deal in this era of shredded budgets and staff cuts. Maybe we can help preserve someone's job by shaving thousands off a power bill.

That's not to say that progress isn't being made. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton tag-teamed on this $4 billion plan, more businesses and organizations (check out this link) are discovering the power of energy efficiency, and California is considering instituting the nation's first energy-efficiency standards for battery chargers, which waste enough electricity to power a city the size of Bakersfield, according to this story in the San Jose Mercury News.

California is the nation leader in energy-efficiency, but other states are nipping at its heels. In Tennessee, officials are using some money from a $24 million settlement with the TVA to fund energy-efficiency programs. Minnesota also is getting in on the act. More on that here and here.

Individual states, businesses and groups are focusing on energy efficiency because they recognize the benefits to their entities. But a unified campaign is lacking, although this gives me hope. Saving energy saves money, creates financially stronger households and businesses and is good for the environment. It's time to get serious about it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Solar-friendly designs could aid renewable energy efforts

A new report contends that designing solar-friendly homes would help spur the installation of alternative-energy systems.

The study entitled, "Solar Ready: An Overview Of Implementation Practices," by the respected National Renewable Energy Laboratory, argues that solar-ready design features, if they are implemented early in the design process, are typically "low or no cost," thus making it easier and cheaper to install solar-energy systems later on.

Authors Andrea Watson, Linda Giudice, Lars Lisell, Liz Doris and Sarah Busche estimate that some 7.8 million privately owned houses were finished in 2010. "These homes, if not compatible with solar technology, represent a large barrier to widespread solar deployment," they write. "Once a structure is built, structural and other solar access issues can prevent a solar project from being cost effective, and, in some cases, can make it entirely unfeasible."

In particular, the authors note that rooftop integrity and obstructions (such as vents), along with improper placement of shade trees, can restrict opportunities for adding solar power later. The researchers say solar-ready design is crucial if photovoltaic (PV) or solar hot water (SHW) technologies are to be installed during the building’s lifespan.

"Solar ready also allows owners to take advantage of a changing energy market," they write. "The economics for installing solar on a new building are not always compelling, but, in the future, that picture could change with rising electricity prices and/or falling solar technology costs. . . Building a home or commercial building that is not solar ready exposes owners to the risk of not being able to take full advantage of future economic scenarios for solar electricity and hot water. "

Rooftops should be strong enough to accommodate solar panels, the authors suggest, and vents and other obstructions should be grouped in one spot. In addition, architects and builders should consider landscaping that won't reduce the effectiveness of solar.

Positioning is key in solar installations, so preparing beforehand is important. This is from the report: "A 10-kilowatt (kW) PV array in Golden, Colorado, facing south and tilted 25° can be expected to produce 14,304 kW hours (AC) per year with an annual energy value of $1,201.00. . . A west-facing system will produce 10,999 kW hours (AC) per year with an annual energy value of $923.92. This represents a 16% to 23% reduction in PV production and cost savings when oriented 90° away from south."

Likewise, designing for solar water heating saves money later. The study calculates that mounting pipes, vents and panels to accommodate solar water heating during construction is 66 percent cheaper than installing them afterward.

So, how do local governments encourage solar-ready development? The authors analyze three methods: legislation, certification programs and stakeholder education. Let's look at them individually:

1/ Legislation

Several local jurisdictions have policies in place, but their effectiveness is hard to gauge. Policies can include mandating builders offer solar to their customers, adding it to green building codes, offering roof warranties that allow for new solar systems, and providing incentives to developers.

2/ Certification

Certifications could be incorporated into green-building programs or offered individually. Certification guarantees a certain level of quality, helps the property stand out from the competition and is a measurable metric. However, it doesn't guarantee installation of the solar system, and could end up rewarding property owners anyway.

3/ Stakeholder education

Education programs must reach a diversity of people, and the authors say a combo of solar-ready legislation and an educational campaign could be effective. They cite a Boston program as evidence. The city offers developers an integrated design and solar training in conjunction with a solar-ready requirement.

Whichever approach is used, the authors write that they hope it promotes more solar development in the United States. “With millions of new buildings constructed each year in the United States, solar ready can remove installation barriers and increase the potential for widespread solar adoption."

Building a sustainable-car market with 8 horses

Jim Kor could design great heavy machinery and standard automobiles.

But he wanted something more, something sustainable.

What he came up with is an 8 horsepower car he calls the Urbee. His crew designed it by taking what he calls the "long view," looking for ways to reduce impact while providing people a way to continue their car-centric pursuits. He said that now there are about 1 billion vehicles on the road.

"By mid-century, there could be almost 2 billion," Kor said in a presentation at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago early in 2011. "This could lead to global ecological catastrophe."

Reducing smog

Perhaps. Two times the number of internal-combustion engines burning fossil fuels could smoke the skies, adding dangerously to the already high carbon content of the atmosphere. But many besides Kor are engineering concerted efforts to subvert that scenario. A number of those projects found their way to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Sturgis (for you biker fans) of U.S. car shows.

As never before, designers and innovators are looking to engineer the automobile to run on something more than a gallon of fuel every 10 to 12 miles. Not that there's anything wrong with awful mileage, within reason. There are quite a few cars far beyond my reach that I'd love to have in my stable.

Mercedes joins the game

Mercedes-Benz, which is hardly known for its fuel-sipping ways, came out with several models of interest. The most obvious and different looking is the Smart pickup, which runs on a 55 kilowatt magneto-electric motor, powered by a 17.6 kWh-capacity lithium-ion battery pack, according to Ben Coxworth, a reporter for gizmag.com.

"The Subaru Brat-like mini rear cargo bed definitely gave it a unique car-truck-combo appeal ... or repulsion, depending on the observer," Coxworth writes.

Mercedes also debuted its E300 diesel hybrid, which writes Sebastian Blanco of autoblog.com, is expected to get 45 miles per gallon, while the gas-electric E400 Hybrid is expected to get 27 mpg.

Sailing the autobahn

Blanco says the E-Class hybrids use a combination of lithium-ion batteries, regenerative brakes and the ability to "sail" to save fuel. "Sailing here means that, at speeds of up to 100 mph, the combustion engine can switch off while the electric motor keeps the car moving," he says.

Mercedes maintains its traditional horsepower with 231 for the E300 and 333 for the E400.

That's not super green but far better than most luxury performance sedans I occasionally dream of owning. Here's a post I wrote while still business editor of the Fresno Bee about perhaps my ultimate ride, the Audi A8, driven by Jason Statham in "Transporter 3." Fuel economy: 16 mpg, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov. The car is amazing, and I can just imagine shortening the ride from my sister's house in Hermosa Beach from four hours to two plus, screaming down 99 in the pitch black sharing the road with nobody but truckers.

Building a better Urbee

Kor's venture is not yet ready for prime time. His base is in a Winnipeg, Manitoba shop, and he could use some investors. The Urbee is a hybrid that's engineered to slip through the wind with the least amount of resistance and expended power. He says he wants to make it simple and patterned it after the easy-to-build-and-repair Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle.

Kor says the majority of what's produced today is unsustainable, and he'd like to help change that. "The solution resides within all of us," he says.

Cars are an obvious entry point to sustainability. They're full of fantasy and style, as Kor says. Make the next Aston Martin DB5 ("Goldfinger" version) in green and watch the industry evolve overnight, or something like that.

Ford electrifies Fusion

Even Ford is getting into the alternative transportation game. Globalenergywatch.com reports that the automaker's Fusion is the first sedan to offer gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions this year.

"Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president of global product development tells the site: "We brought our global teams together around a blank slate with the charge to develop a mid-size car with ground-breaking design and jaw-dropping fuel economy."

Ford's entry continues to crowd the field, adding to Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and upcoming Model S and various other makes.

EVs stalk commercial market

It's hard to say how the segment will fare with consumers, who fret about range and recharge speeds. But energy costs, especially with continued uncertainty of supply from the Middle East, drive development of electric and hybrid vehicles. And don't expect any sustained declines in fuel prices.

Ulicia Wang of earth2tech.com reports another trend that could sneak up and grab a bunch of market share: commercial trucks. VIA Motors, headed by former General Motors Chairman Bob Lutz, retrofits new trucks with electric/gas drive-train capable of 402 horsepower. The first 40 miles is electric with a range of 400 miles using the gas engine.

Wang says the company plans target corporate clients and later consumers.

Green car rental

And there's the Venice Beach, Calif.-based outfit MPG Car Rental, which rents a fleet of high-mpg vehicles like the Honda Insight and Chevy Volt to people in Los Angeles. "MPG is helping reduce our carbon footprint and bring an affordable green alternative to car rental," the company says.

More like-minded companies will spring up. Their success or failure will help chart the course of the electric-vehicle segment. I'm betting such entrepreneurship, high gas prices and an expanded EV and hybrid lineup will pull in significantly more believers.

And that's not even counting the electric motorcycle market.

Photo: gizmowatch.com

Reducing business costs through environmental stewardship

Businesses can save green by going green. Find out how from 9-11 a.m. Jan. 19 at the Small Business Administration district office in Fresno. The address is 801 R St. Suite 201, Fresno, CA. 93721.

There, business owners can learn more about REACON (Recycling Energy Air Conservation), a program administered through the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce's Green Team. The workshop is free, but space is limited. RSVP at fferral@stocktonchamber.org.

Here is a link to the REACON web site.

REACON has as goals recycling, energy conservation, reduction of air pollution and water conservation. Members of the Stockton chamber's Green Team help businesses throughout the Valley implement green practices, and help them them get certified as "green."

Businesses can become green through a whole host of measures: from simple ones such as affixing signs encouraging water conservation and changing irrigation schedules to implementing "no idle" policies 0n vehicles to more ambitious plans such as installing solar energy systems.

Here is more on REACON.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Taking a carbon-reduction cue from Europe's greenest city

Hamburg is the world's most beautiful city.

Or at least that's what my friend and former co-worker Alex Schwenkenberg would say followed by, "Take a look." And he'd pull up several shots of the Germanic cityscape.

Whatever its standings in the looks department, Hamburg, which has a population of about 1.8 million, does have an attribute few question. It stands as one of the world's greenest cities and offers an example of how other cities could improve their carbon footprint and livability.

Many U.S. cities have taken up the green challenge -- from California to Texas and up in Maine. It involves embracing arcane concepts like sustainability, energy efficiency and benchmarking greenhouse gas production. But solutions are relatively simple and noncontroversial.

Urban centers draw young people

Young people are the key. They're the next generation of real estate buyers and leaders, and they're increasingly looking to settle in urban centers rather than the suburbia preferred by their parents, says Michael Freedman, urban planner, futurist and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki. They want work close to home and socialize. They don't want to spend 10 percent to 20 percent of their waking hours stuck in traffic.

And they want greener vistas, cleaner air and a better overall environment.

Hamburg's leaders caught the sustainable bug sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The city aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It's just wrapping up a year as Europe's greenest city, a designation that passes to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. The European Green Capital award is issued by the European Commission as a means to get cities to inspire each other and share best practices, "while at the same time engaging in friendly competition."

Hamburg's CO2 savings

Energy-saving measures by 810 Hamburg businesses keep about 219,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually and the amount of energy expended on heating facilities "has dropped by 40 percent compared with 1990, causing a 45 percent reduction in CO2 emissions," according to city officials.

The city also is encouraging sustainable practices and development. Its HafenCity project, which has taken docks and old industrial land in the heart of Hamburg, epitomizes the trend. The massive redevelopment project is being engineered to transform 387 acres on the Elbe River into the most energy efficient residential, business and arts sector in the city. Design is compact yet has open space, encouraging living, working and entertainment.

Hamburg is hardly the Lone Ranger in green-minded redevelopment. Yet, others struggle. Oakland's been trying to jump start the project to revamp the 330-acre old Oakland Army Base for the past decade. Other cities, including Fresno, have been trying to redevelop their urban centers for decades. Some have been successful. Some haven't.

Sustainable makes cents

As the American Society of Landscape Architects says: "Urban development should be guided by a sustainable planning and management vision that promotes interconnected green space, a multi-modal transportation system, and mixed-use development."

In other words, people have to like it, and they'll like it better if it's sustainable.

Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute says going sustainable and green actually saves money and provides economic benefits. He calls it "synergistic bundling."

San Antonio's Mission Verde

San Antonio has embraced the concept, launching it's Mission Verde Sustainability Plan  to create jobs through green technology and infrastructure. "Saving energy saves money," the plan says. "Renewable energy creates economic self‐reliance."

It will be interesting to see how San Antonio does in the heart of Texas oil country. The city says it wants to set an example for others to follow.

In the next several months, my organization will be working with a handful of San Joaquin Valley cities to create energy action plans with realistic goals that actually save energy and money and reduce green house gases. The scale will be nowhere near Hamburg's or San Antonio's, but it may save some jobs just by replacing inefficient lighting and doing other more inventive stuff like adding solar and fuel cells to city buildings.

Guiding sustainable projects

A friend of mine at a small Valley community who has been working with me implementing energy efficiency stimulus grants for the past year or so just landed a job in the Bay Area. She'll be guiding a city's climate plan and making a difference.

A little here and there. Like European Commission says, Europe is an urban community and must make changes to become more sustainable. California and 49 other states must do the same.

And I believe it will happen. A little at a time.

Photo: Hamburg's Alster Lake

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jail Facilities Lock Up Solar Power

My friend half jokingly refers to the inland portion of Central California as "Valley of the Cons" because prisons employ so many people here. The state Department of Corrections is listed as major employers in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Coalinga, Corcoran and Chowchilla are home to some pretty large correctional facilities. Then there are the smaller county jails. Both kinds of lockups face the same dilemma: shrinking budgets. Maybe Solar Valley can meet Valley of the Cons. Sixty miles to my north is Merced County, where officials thought up a way to slash power bills, contribute to the state's ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and make a few bucks. They signed a deal with Siemens to put solar panels at a county jail. More on that here.

The idea of using solar energy at prisons isn't new. In 2001, GreenBiz.com wrote about this project in Alameda County, and state officials are planning solar panels at prisons in Delano and Tehachapi, both in Kern County (also Blythe and Lancaster, according to this story ).

The solar array in Merced County will cover 4.5 acres, offset 75 percent of the power usage at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility and Iris Garrett Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex, will lead to an estimated $14 million in energy savings over 25 years and could create $9 million of positive cash flow over the same 25 years. It also will eliminate about 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions when combined with lighting upgrades implemented by Siemens.

The county will receive solar incentives totalling $1.5 million over five years, and is eligible for PG&E's capital improvement rebate.

Powering jails with solar energy is only one way that local governments can slash utility costs. Increasingly, cities and counties are using solar energy to save money at their biggest energy hogs: water treatment plants.

SunPower Corp. has finished deals at water operations in Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento counties, according to this article in pv Magazine, but they are hardly isolated cases. Similar connections are in place in Parlier, Tulare and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. Learn more here.

The San Joaquin Valley, where I sit, is blessed with lots of sun. But that sun also creates triple-digit temperatures in the summer, which leads to high power bills and high energy use. Utilizing the rich solar resource to attack the high power bills makes sense here. That's why officials at UC Merced, which has a top-notch solar research program, unofficially dubbed this region "Solar Valley."

That certainly sounds better than "Valley of the Cons."

Photo: Aerial view of Tulare wastewater treatment plant

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Researchers Invoke Thomas Jefferson In Energy Study

Subsidies for clean energy have been getting a bad rap lately, but the government has used taxpayer money to boost energy since the early years. In fact, subsidies fueled the innovation that drove this nation's growth, two authors note in a report entitled, "What Would Jefferson Do: The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America's Energy Future."

Venture capitalist Nancy Pfund and Yale graduate student Ben Healey say federal subsidies on fossil and nuclear fuels dwarf the comparative pittance spent on renewables, which should receive more attention: "Overall, what we find, in contrast to much of today’s headline-grabbing rhetoric, is that today’s government incentives for renewable energy pale in comparison to the kind of support afforded emerging fuels during previous energy transitions," they write.

The authors embark on a historic journey, citing the roles of energy subsidies in the early days, through the Westward Expansion and Industrial Revolution, to the Great Depression and on to post World War II. And they note the current stutter-step advancement of renewable energy from "the margins to mainstream."

They said land grants - which have to be classified as a subsidy - helped spur timber as an early fuel source, and that later legislation benefited the coal industry. The authors write, "As the railroads grew, 'The high price of coal and iron … created a furor … amounting almost to a mania, and the files of both houses [in Pennsylvania were] filled with bills for chartering new Coal and Iron Companies."

Then came oil and gas - and this from their study: "...from a 1990 report of the General Accounting Office: … The marginal effective federal corporate tax rates—i.e., the tax rates on genuinely incremental investments—for domestic petroleum production are already among the lowest for a major industry, due to the effects of existing tax incentives. "

Federal oil and gas subsidies alone have averaged $4.9 billion annually in 2010 dollars from 1918 to 2009, the authors suggest. By contrast, nuclear averaged $3.5 billion in subsidies yearly from 1947 to 1999, biofuel averaged $1 billion in subsidies each year from 1980 to 2009 and solar averaged only $0.37 billion in subsidies annually between 1994 and 2009.

The really big cost

(The oil subsidy figure does not include the cost of energy security. To quantify that, the researchers quote Roger Stern, an economic geographer from Princeton University who calculated the cost of keeping aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from 1997 to 2007 at $7.3 trillion.

"Because carriers patrol the gulf for the explicit mission of securing oil shipments, Stern was on solid ground in attributing that cost to oil," Pfund and Healey state. )

Not surprisingly, the authors suggest that "a strong case can be made" that the federal government needs to continue supporting subsidies to help drive the next generation of energy technology.

"Such incentives were instrumental in overcoming the risk factor and establishing the current petroleum industry, and they are as necessary now for the alternative fuel businesses as they
were 100 years ago to overcome high initial startup costs, minimize the risk associated with new
industries, and signal to taxpayers support for these industries."

The researchers point out that combustion turbines were once uneconomic, and government support helped make them mainstream: "That kind of innovation was surely a subsidy to the natural gas industry," they wrote, "But we can also agree that America as a whole is better off having access to the resulting technology. . . Why should current renewable technologies face different standards?"

The authors end their study by offering an answer to their cover question: WWJD? What would Jefferson (who inspired the Bill of Rights and was the nation's third president) do? Here's more on Jefferson's role.

The authors contend that Jefferson would "support emerging technologies to drive innovation, create jobs, protect our environment, enhance our national security in a time of rapid change, and to further a distinctly American way of life in which resources once thought to be endless are replaced by ones that actually are."

(Photo by Matthew Maaskant)