Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Get a glimpse of domestic clean energy innovation, screen the YERT film

The folks at yert.com spent about a year on the road gathering material for their documentary on clean energy.

Now that the production and editing is complete, their mission is to get their movie seen by as many people as possible. It's no easy task as any documentary filmmaker will say. Even the duo who put together this year's Oscar winner, "Undefeated," tells National Public Radio how thrilled they were to get the radio interview just for the exposure. And they like NPR.

The crew who put together "Your Environmental Road Trip" isn't in the Oscar running yet. The team nailed a series of interviews with some of clean energy's pioneers and most interesting innovators. A guy who's devised a solar road was the first to capture my interest.

The YERT people describe the film this way:
About the courageous and creative individuals, groups, businesses and leaders of this country who are tackling the greatest environmental threats in history. Called into action by the ever increasing threats of planetary catastrophe (from climate change to toxic pollution, from water scarcity to habitat destruction), the three of us - Mark Dixon, Ben Evans, and Julie Dingman Evans - upended our lives, pooled our collective life-savings, and set off on a first-of-its-kind, 50-state, year-long journey of discovery to personalize sustainability and to answer a critical question: ARE WE DOOMED?

Mark Dixon says YERT is now on its West Coast Screening Tour. He mentions a screening coming up at 7 p.m. in Seattle on March 2. Here's a link: https://www.facebook.com/events/273796256023191/. Location is Keystone Congregational Church, 5019 Keystone Place N, Seattle, WA 98103-6229.

That same day there's another in Gainsville, Florida at the Cinema Verde Enviro Film & Arts Festival. On March 3, they head to Portland, Ore., and at 6 p.m. March 9, they start a two-day showing a the San Luis Obispo Film Festival at the The Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St. Dixon will be there to talk about the film.

If looks at all doable, go to yert.com and put in a request under "Screenings." Look at the trailer while you're at the site. The screening dates of March 12 and 13 are available.
The San Joaquin Valley is a place ripe for clean energy development and the jobs it could generate. The staff at University of California Merced has dubbed the region the Solar Valley for its potential. And developers are in the midst of a record number of commercial, industrial and residential projects.

Anything that jump starts the imagination of Valley residents could be a game changer. Here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, we talk often about what small event could push all these projects forward like dominoes.

Maybe somebody will agree to screen Dixon's movie in Fresno, and the event's synergy will start more dialogue. After all author and activist Bill McKibben says: "Here's a trip you'll wish you'd taken, and you'll be glad you get to watch! And Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post writes: "A deeply absorbing ... hilarious ... important film. Audiences will not only cheer, but feel compelled to spring to their feet to join an inspiring movement for change."

Photo: YERT interview with owner of Rufus the solar bus in Hawaii.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Will renewables continue their global push in 2012?

Use of renewable energy climbed in United States and across the globe last year, producing about 16% of the world's power, while clean-energy manufacturing centers are shifting from Europe to Asia, according to a new report.

Expansion of clean energy was strong in the United States. The latest REN 21 renewables global status report estimated "renewable energy accounted for about 10.9% of domestic primary energy production (compared with nuclear’s 11.3%), an increase of 5.6% from 2009. "

But even that robust gain didn't come close to some other nations. China added an estimated 29 gigawatts of grid-connected renewable capacity, for a total of 263 - a boost of 12% in one year. Renewables accounted for about 26% of China’s total installed electric capacity and 18% of generation.

The report notes that renewables such as biomass, wind and solar accounted for 11% of Germany's total energy consumption. Meanwhile, wind power made strong advances everywhere, accounting for 22% of electricity demand in Denmark, 21% in Portugal, 15.4% in Spain and 10.1% in Ireland.

Wind turbines proliferated worldwide in 2010, tripling in capacity from five years earlier. At least 52 nations increased wind production, and 83 countries use it on a commercial basis.

China led the world in new installations with an estimated 29 gigawatts, up 12% in one year. The U.S. ramped up 5 gigawatts, or 15%, with total wind capacity at year-end able to power 10 million houses. Wind energy played prominent roles in Iowa and Texas, where it supplied 15% and 7.8% of electrical needs respectively, but wind energy has a presence in 38 states, including California.

The report contains way too much information for one blog. It breaks down capacity and production figures for most types of renewable energy (Did you know the U.S. leads the world in biomass generation and that ocean energy is gaining interest?); tracks policy and investment trends; and notes opportunities in rural and developing nations.

The study, however, does not give forecasts or predict trends. Whether the expansion continues in 2012 and beyond remains to be seen. Germany is taking steps to slow things down, Spain is considering modifications in its solar program and China's economy might be built on sand, but this story in the Vancouver Sun suggests green-power systems could become the world's primary energy source within two decades.

And then there is the influence of election-time politics in the United States, the high-profile implosion of Solyndra and the effects of increased competition. The two GOP front-runners can't be described as strong environmentalists, however it is hard to justify being against energy efficiency. Saving money, cutting costs and prudent stewardship are pretty hard to campaign against.

It will be an interesting year.

Young people battle for a cleaner planet, their future

Much depends on the younger generation.

Their habits, priorities and motivations largely will define the directions of development, technological advancement and political leanings. And while this always has been true to some degree, it may matter more now as society ponders the potential crushing cost of climate change, pollution and the cumulative effects of humankind's unprecedented industrialized push forward these past 150 years.

Millennials, or Generation Y, and those born after them will have to seriously consider the environmental impact of everything they do. Mental Klaxons may as well sound a crisis alert every time they consider driving a car, purchasing a house or otherwise taking part in potential carbon-creation.

Passing the Boomers

Growing up, I didn't have to do that. To me, pollution, contamination and too much garbage was the big scare. I remember walking above an abandoned missile site in the middle of nowhere Alaska and thinking about irradiated dirt in 1971. (I was 10, hitchhiking with mom.)

Nukes are bad, certainly. But their impact proves relatively minor as long as they remain in their silos.
Now the passive threat of rising sea level threatens thousands of island nations and low-lying real estate worldwide, and we've blown past the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say is safe for humanity -- 350 parts per million. Current level is 392 ppm. Yet, we keep pushing it. The stakes are off the charts.

"Danger, Will Robinson!" Or so says voice actor Dick Tufeld in his guise as the Robot in the the 1960s TV show "Lost in Space." But that's Boomer speak. (Another that comes to mind is Rita Moreno bellowing "Hey you guys!" on Electric Company.)

New catchphrases

This generation has its own references, its own icons and its own messages and means of popular delivery. Who over 30 knows of Strong Bad? This phrase is apt: "When all the land is in ruins; And burnination has forsaken the countryside. Only one guy will remain. My money's on Trogdor!"


Many Millennials take their air and water quality seriously. They want to limit commuting, live close to work, walk to restaurants. Potentially, they're creating an entirely different approach to community design, energy use and how resources should be exploited.

And they're hardly shy about expressing their opinions. They're tearing up the Internet via YouTube and social media pathways. But they aren't stopping there.

Democracy & climate change

Take Zaheena Rasheed, a former 350.org intern and a resident of the Maldives, a scattered island nation with an average ground level about 4 feet above the sea about 250 miles southwest of India. In an email, she expresses thanks to 350.org, which seeks to build a global movement to solve the climate crisis.

"In under a week, an incredible 35,553 of you signed our petition to world leaders," she says. Her words appear on the group's website in a post by Kelly Blynn. The Maldives have reportedly scheduled democratic elections after President Mohamed Nasheed's troubles that culminated with Canarygate, which involved allegations of corruption.

Rasheed continues. Her words ooze power and conviction: "There is much in common in the battle against climate change and for democracy -- the right to a healthy and dignified life -- and this can happen when people are free to speak their minds, make decisions over their own resources, and have the power to act against injustice."

Eloquent, yet not too unapproachably activist.

Others offer a more laid-back delivery. But the underlying message -- be good to Mother Earth -- remains.

So Fresh, So Green

Sarah Laskow of grist.org stumbled across a video created by a group of seniors from Atlanta’s Marist School. "So Fresh, So Green" was written and performed by Butta Biscuit, Mikey-B, Confucius Rodge and Clive Sensation with the filming and editing handled by Eric Eichelberger.

Laskow says the motivation was Marist's participation in the Green School Alliance’s Green Cup Challenge. She says schools that took part tried to reduce their energy use over four weeks, and some did so by more than 20 percent.

"This stuff isn’t rocket science: They just turned off more lights, readjusted the thermostats and, in some cases, replaced old equipment," she writes.

The video is based on Outkast's "So Fresh, So Clean." The student rappers stick to the basics, encouraging people to recycle, save energy by turning off lights and not just "talk the talk, but walk the walk."

Mr. Eco spreads the word

Another would-be Al Yankovic is Mr. Eco from Cal Poly (known offically as California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo), who has a number of videos devoted to the green cause. Mr. Eco calls himself an environmental rap superhero who incorporates sustainable living tips into parodies and represents the Alliance to Save Energy's Cal Poly Green Campus Program.

In one of his videos, dubbed "Turn Em Out," Mr. Eco parodies rapper T.I.'s "Bring Em Out." That latter video has more than 4.5 million views, while our Mr. Eco at this writing had 3,127. But when we first wrote about him in early November 2011, he had yet to break 1,000.

And Mr. Eco, the outspoken superhero that he is, also has taken his schtick on the road, visiting Ahwahnee Middle School in the scenic confines of our own Fresno, Calif. Mr. Eco, also known as Brett Edwards, is from Fresno. So that helps.

He's making an impact. Ahwahnee Principal Tim Liles even did a plug for Mr. Eco in the video.

One year, zero garbage

The crew at yert.com is tirelessly going from city to city to screen its powerful documentary. The next is March 2 in a Seattle church.

Dubbed "Your Environmental Road Trip" -- thus the acronym YERT -- the film covers all 50 states in a search "for innovators and citizens solving humanity's greatest environmental crises."

The trio of filmmakers says they were "called to action by a planet in peril." Producer Mark Dixon tells me he's up for more screenings. So if anybody's interested ...

I'm psyched.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Keep on trucking with natural gas

Electric cars and hybrids get all the media coverage.

Lots of people have taken the hybrid plunge, purchasing a Prius, Ford Escape or a number of other models that couple battery power with a small gas engine to maximize gas mileage. And electric cars have captured the imagination of a nation interested in cleaner air despite the fact that their permanence in the consumer pantheon remains to be seen.

But what's the potential of a natural gas-powered car? America would seem to answer with a collective yawn.

There is an alternative

Does it matter that this country likely has enough natural gas to fill every single commuter's tank for decades? It should. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists some 35.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Alaska's North Slope. And analysts at the Potential Gas Committee say that when they combine their findings with that of the EIA, they believe U.S. natural gas reserves to be a future supply of 2,174 trillion cubic feet.

That's an estimated 100-year supply.

And why should we care? There are a number of reasons. President Ronald Reagan put it this way: "Energy independence is the best preparation America can make for the future."

Another is air quality.

Cutting emissions

Exhaust emissions from natural gas vehicles are cleaner than their gasoline- or diesel-burning compatriots.

Natural Gas Vehicles for America says the only production natural gas-powered passenger car, the Honda Civic CNG, produces 95 percent fewer emissions of non-methane hydrocarbons, and 75 percent less emissions of nitrogen oxides than its gasoline counterpart. The EPA rates it as the cleanest internal-combustion car on the market.

Imagine this contrast: Stand behind a city bus that blows by burning diesel. The fumes can be noxious. Natural gas buses on the other hand have none of the soot and are much less likely to cause riders to hold their breath until they turn blue.

Finding opportunity

Companies are beginning to see opportunity, especially since the EIA says natural gas, on average, costs 42 percent less than diesel fuel on an energy equivalent basis and is expected to cost 50 percent less by 2035.

EcoDual LLC has developed a duel fuel system for heavy-duty diesel trucks that allows them burn up to 80 percent natural gas.

"Because heavy trucks use so much diesel and there is such a dramatic price differential between diesel and natural gas, the systems will pay for themselves in only about 12 months of typical use," says Doug Thomson, vice president, government relations and marketing of EcoDual LLC, in an email.

Thomson says the main hurdle is that his company has to certify the emissions for each family of engines. He says the company is working its way through the process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. He says the emissions are "definitely better with natural gas, but for now we are focused on just showing off the operating cost savings."

Range is not a problem

And for the popular misconception that compressed natural gas trucks have limited range? Thomson says with new large tanks and his company's technology, "that’s no longer a problem."

Ngvglobal.com reports that EcoDual has won authorization from the EPA to begin installing its systems on 2004 to 2009 Cummins ISX engines.

Natural gas won't end the dangerous climate warming build-up of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, but it does provide an inexpensive and cleaner alternative while innovators work the kinks out of other energy delivery systems. It's obviously not the most popular on Wall Street, but it's got a shot and should have a place in the mix.

Fleets going natural

Municipalities, small governments and public entities are certainly paying attention.

Fresno, Calif., which is my neck of the woods, is on board. The city has 66 buses that run on compressed natural gas, four trollies, nine light duty trucks, eight street sweepers and a bunch more.

City officials adopted "Operation Clean Air" in 2003 with other counties, cities, businesses and nonprofits in the region. Fresno continues to update its fleets. The initiative is committed to improving air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, which ranks near the top for worst air pollution in the United States.

Perhaps the highest profile West Coast move to clean trucking has been at the Port of Los Angeles, which estimates it has reduced emissions 80 percent compared with 2007 average air emissions data. Port officials say that as of January 2012, 100 percent of the "cargo gate moves" at port terminals are made with trucks meeting EPA clean truck standards. Many of those trucks use liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.

Sharing the highways

Natural Gas Vehicles for America reports that there are about 112,000 natural-gas vehicles on U.S. roads and more than 13 million worldwide. However, there are only about 1,000 domestic fueling stations with about half open to the public.

About 30 different manufacturers in this country produce 100 models of light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles and engines, according to Natural Gas Vehicles. The organization says industry data shows that natural gas consumed by vehicles "nearly doubled between 2003 and 2009."

And demand is growing, especially from bus fleets, at airports and in private fleets.

The EIA shows relatively stable natural gas prices despite recent inventory draw downs that spiked prices. "Natural gas working inventories continue to set new record seasonal highs and ended January 2012 at an estimated 2.86 trillion cubic feet, about 24 percent above the same time last year," EIA analysts write.

Carving out a consumer market

Despite inroads, acceptance of the fuel by the average consumer faces an uphill battle.

For instance, Greencarreports.com offers on its home page a menu that says "car types."

The photo-heavy drop-down offers the latest news on hybrids, electrics, clean diesels and fuel cells with a more specific cluster off to the right drilling down into posts about Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and Toyota's Prius.

Nothing on natural gas. Of course, I'm just referring to the menu listings and not the coverage. Writer John Voelcker offers some of the best green car coverage on the web, and his piece on the Honda CNG is a great backgrounder on the only production natural gas vehicle offered in the country. The page design reflects interest.

Honda enters the fray

Yet, the Civic CNG, which just received its nationwide rollout in late 2011, may change some minds. James R. Healey of USA Today gave one a test drive and debates its the pros and cons. He says the main downside is price (at $26,925 still cheaper than a Volt, Leaf or average hybrid) and finding a fueling station.

"Heroic cuts in emissions and fuel costs, but too expensive and too many compromises for most people," Healey writes.

Maybe that will change. Gas prices are expected to climb and possibly break some records this summer.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Alaska's largest city buys big into LED street lights

Anchorage winters are long.

While not as oppressive as those of Point Barrow on the Arctic Ocean, the long nights require decent man-made lighting to illuminate the often snow-packed and ice-frosted roads. And that makes street lights important.

The project is similar to one by the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Partnership, which is working with 19 cities and one county and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to install energy saving LED street lights from Wasco to Selma and San Joaquin to Madera County and Gustine.

The effort by the Municipality of Anchorage, however, is massive with more than 16,000 street lights. The partnership's program is comparatively small with 2,136 lights.

The Anchorage Assembly approved phase one, and 4,000 LED fixtures have been installed, city officials say.

"At an initial investment of $2.2 million and an annual savings of $360,000, these fixtures will pay for themselves in less than seven years," they say.

Here's Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, discussing the projet at a a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in June 2010.

Begich, a former Anchorage mayor and long-time staffer, says he made sure to involve the community in the decision to swap the lights. He says the directive was to save money, but "let's make sure the end user appreciates the light." He also encourages other cities to follow with their own projects.

The Valley project, paid for with Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant funds, is nearly complete. The lighting saves cash-strapped Valley communities money and offers gives a whole new perspective on street lighting.

Expect to see more street lights with the distinctive bright LED light. PG&E is complementing the partnership's program with a separate on-bill financing opportunity, and many cities are taking the utility up on the work.

The end result is a smaller energy bill and better solvency in a tough economic time.

Alaska's largest city is making a big deal of the installation, at least on its website. City officials boast: "Anchorage is blazing the trail in streetlight improvement policies, and communities across the state, the country, and around the world are watching closely to follow our lead."

Anchorage often goes all out to boast of its accomplishments. If it doesn't, nobody pays attention. But the message is sound. Energy efficiency works.

Photo: PG&E replacing street lights with LED fixtures in Napa.

The DeLorean is back, and this time it's electric

Translogic's Bradley Hasemeyer talks with the chief executive of the revived DeLorean Motor Co. about its new electric version of the iconic car made famous in the "Back to the Future" movie trilogy.

Stephen Wynne, DeLorean CEO, explains how he bought the company and its technology after restoring and repairing existing models. He's now using the inventory and plans to make new cars, and after being inspired by Tesla's Roadster decided to build an electric version.

This electric DeLorean puts out an impressive 260 horsepower. The original offered less than half that. And it sports a number of upgrades. But it won't come cheap. The price for the car is in the $95,000 to $100,000 range but will have a significant number of options, Wynne says.

Expect more from the Texas-based company, however. "We've got to move to the next level of technology," Wynne says.

At the DMC website, there's more information. Not everybody wants an electric car, obviously. The company sells used vehicles that look immaculate. For instance, a 5-speed with 4,357 miles runs just $54,900.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Electric car sales ramp up; is change coming?

Electric automobile sales have yet to disrupt the dominance of internal combustion.

Electrics at this point would appear bound for a niche market, hardly living up to President Obama's pledge to encourage their proliferation to about 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015.

That prospect had gop.com's research division saying: "Another day, another broken promise from President Obama."

Fisker flounders

And Fisker, the manufacturer of the much-ballyhooed Karma and recipient of a half billion-dollar U.S. Department of Energy loan, has announced layoffs after issuing recalls in prior weeks of its more than 200 cars sold. John Voelcker of greencarreports.com says Fisker and fellow electric car builder Tesla are vulnerable to the same type of criticism surrounding failed photovoltaic panel manufacturer Solyndra, which also was on the DOE's loan llist.

None of that taint appears to have landed on Tesla, which is coming off a raft of positive press with increased sales, a deal with Daimler for an electric Mercedes-Benz and the debut of its electric SUV, the "Falcon Wing" Model X. If this latest round of news is any indication, the appetite for electric cars may prove more robust as consumer options and infrastructure to keep the cars charged increase.

Tesla shines

The sector remains unproved. Tesla, despite its evolution, continues to lose money. But revenue is increasing. Chairman Elon Musk says in the company's 8K report to shareholders that "net losses will continue as planned until we reach volume sales of Model S in 2013."

The Model S is a high-end family sedan built in Tesla's Fremont, Calif. factory. The price is expected to be somewhere north of $60,000. Musk says about 8,000 orders for the car have been placed so far. It accelerates from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, which is faster than my friend Al's built-up 1977 Trans Am.

The Model X is a media darling, getting coverage all over the Web and in the automotive press. Huffingtonpost.com's Sharon Silke Carty says it "has struck a chord with wealthy, environmentally conscious customers" who snapped up about 500 reservations after its recent debut.

Production is expected to begin in late 2013 with customer deliveries starting in early 2014, Musk says. Volume is targeted at 10,000 to 15,000 units per year.

EV sales lackluster

EV sales currently are dominated by General Motors and Nissan. The Volt closed out 2011 with a minor sales flurry. It sold 7,671 units for the year, with more than 1,500 of those in December, according to figures compiled by Martin LaMonica of cnet.com.

Nissan sold 9,674 units of its all-electric Leaf, with 954 of those in the final month of 2011, according to goodcarbadcar.net.

Other nameplates sold fewer cars.

Electrics find a place

But battery power is making headway on the highway. At least in California, the cars have become more commonplace. The other morning as rain pelted me in the health club parking lot, a Leaf quietly rolled past. The thing moved like an oddly shaped ninja. And all lit up in the darkness, it even looked graceful.

Soundless electrics certainly would reduce road noise, until a Harley with straight pipes pulls up alongside.

Gas prices make a difference

Gas prices, which could push $5 per gallon this summer, may influence some buyers. Oil-price.net reports oil per barrel prices above $100 for West Texas Intermediate and its one-year forecast price climbing $20. That's not a big deal. Crude prices have hovered around the centennial mark for a couple years now.

But it's the rapid rise nationally in gas prices in the first months of the year that has some worried about what the summer holds. Summer is usually when more people are on the road and prices increase at the pump.

Ronald D. White of the LA Times quotes analyst Brian L. Milne as saying the early increase may point to higher prices later in the year. "There's a chance that the U.S. average tops $4 a gallon by June, with some parts of the country approaching $5 a gallon," Milne says.

Nothing inspires change like price increases. Of course, electric cars remain very expensive.

Hydro Gene makes a prediction

Automotive enthusiast and hydrogen energy activist Gene Johnson says as long as the price point for electric cars sits so far above the average consumer's means, the segment will remain somewhat exclusive. Johnson, a big clean energy proponent in California's San Joaquin Valley, offers a better method -- retrofits.

He and some friends took a Toyota RAV4, removed its gas-burning stock engine and replaced it with an electric drive train. They sold it on eBay for more than $20,000, easily covering the retrofit cost with a tidy profit.

He says that's the way to go. Johnson predicts more companies will enter the conversion business. He even goes so far as saying Fresno would be a great place to start.

Solar shoulders in

At some point, on-board solar may play a role in recharging electric cars.

The solar-powered SolarWorld GT started the U.S. leg of its round-the-world trek at the University of California, Santa Barbara and plans to drive across the country, according to gizmag.com. The car, a collaboration between solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld, and Bochum University of Applied Sciences in Germany, is hardly a production vehicle.

But its sojourn may be the start of something. The car and its team are to head to Florida, where the GT will be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to continue driving across Europe, Asia and Africa and back to Darwin, Australia. Assuming the car returns, "it will set the Guinness Record for the longest distance covered by a solar car -- approximately 34,000 kilometers, or 21,080 miles," Ben Coxworth writes.

Such accomplishments are but interesting footnotes. However, should solar panels some day be incorporated cheaply into a car's surface and still be efficient enough to provide a continuous charge, there's no stopping the electric car.

We'll see.

Photo: SolarWorld GT race team.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heading into a sustainable future - or else

Rising gas prices are again in the news - as they usually are when summer approaches - but this time, according to this story, the increase does not stem from demand. Oil is a commodity, and this spike appears to be linked to speculators.

Oil is a huge cost of business, and an increasingly unpredictable one. And it's only going to get worse, a new study suggests, so corporations better get wise and design sustainability into their business plans.

"Fossil fuel markets are set to become more volatile and unpredictable because of higher global energy demand; changes in where fossil fuels are consumed; supply and production uncertainties; and increasing regulatory interventions related to climate change. All companies – regardless of sector, size, or location – will find it difficult to plan for and manage energy costs, especially those related to fossil fuel," consulting firm KPMG International says in this report.

Thus, businesses should become more energy efficient and strategic. KPMG recommends companies use more alternative or renewable fuel sources to reduce their exposure. In addition, airlines and shipping companies, plus plastic and chemical producers that use petroleum as an input, need strategies to address potential shortages and price volatility.

KPMG calls the report a "starting point" for discussion. The company also has a message for those who urge the end of oil consumption: It ain't going to happen.

The energy mix might change, but use of fossil fuels will dominate for years and, in fact, could expand with an increasing world population - at a price. KPMG cites an International Energy Agency study that estimates crude oil prices in the United States will reach $120 per barrel (from $101.85 today) by 2035.

As it turns out, energy unpredictability is just part of the issue facing businesses. KPMG cites 10 "megaforces" that will shape businesses and their actions: climate change; shortage of materials; water scarcity; population growth; urbanization; increased world wealth; food supply and security; ecosystem decline; and deforestation.

Nimble corporations, however, will be able to use this tidal wave of change to their advantage. What creates problem one place often breeds opportunity elsewhere. Money can be made from sustainability. Innovative businesses could reap rewards for addressing needs of growing populations for agriculture, sanitation, education, technology, finance and health care, the report contends:

"Sustainability is increasingly being seen as a source of innovation and growth rather than simply cost reduction and risk management." Here's another report from KPMG on that topic.

As such, more businesses, landlords, schools and communities already are installing sustainable processes into their core operations. The Corporate Responsibility Newsletter has this story on NIKE and other corporate heavy hitters asking Congress to preserve a wind-power tax credit.

Here's one on property owners discovering that going green pays, and another on Steamboat Springs' desire to go waste free. And let's not forget students, who are helping lead the charge to a sustainable tomorrow.

Sustainability: it's here to stay

Monday, February 13, 2012

Living Green on the Ocean Blue!

This guest blog is brought to you by Bud and Leslie Dougherty and their 42-foot Schooner, "Play Actor."
Here's a link to their blog.

If your spouse woke up one morning and greeted you by saying, "It's nice to wake up with full batteries," what would you think?

Living on an anchored sailboat is living about as far off the grid as you can get. There are no public utilities at sea. In recent years, innovations in cellular and satellite telephony, computers, and the plethora of online services have changed things a bit, but not at a basic level. At a basic level, we are on our own as far as water and electricity are concerned. Fresh water is precious where we live, but with care and ingenuity, collecting rain meets our needs. As for electricity, we've tried an number of different ways to cope.

As with water, our first step is to minimize use. We use almost no energy to heat or cool our living space; we depend on shade awnings, breeze, and choosing a location with a benign climate for those things. We cook with bottled gas, and it's surprising how long a 20 pound tank of propane lasts. We normally use one tank for about four months. Our water for bathing is heated by the sun. Our lighting is almost all from highly efficient LEDs; we got rid of incandescent lights years ago. Even when LEDs were expensive, it didn't take long to recoup the investment.

So, what's our biggest consumer of electricity? Would you believe the refrigerator? Right on the heels of the refrigerator comes…the computer and all of those related gizmos. Our total electrical consumption is about 50 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. In 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 958 kWh per month. The corresponding average monthly electric bill was $110.55.

We aboard Play Actor already look pretty green; we use about 5% as much electrical energy as an average U. S. household uses. But what does it cost us for our 50 kWh per month? All of our electrical energy is stored in a battery bank, and the bank holds enough electrical energy to last us for a day and a half, so in a typical month, we have to recharge those batteries about 20 times.

If we used the most basic approach and ran our auxilliary engine to charge our batteries, we would have to run the engine for 133 hours per month. That's $150 per month in diesel fuel, at $5 per gallon, not to mention the wear and tear on the engine, maintenance, etc, which will easily double that cost over the life of the engine, so we're looking at about $300 per month, and that only buys us 5% as much energy as the average residential user consumes. That average U.S. household would pay about $6 for the amount of electrical energy that we use.

There are a number of ways to make burning fossil fuel to recharge our batteries more efficient, including bigger alternators, highly efficient generators, etc. Those options require a sizable capital outlay, but none even comes close to getting our cost down to what the average U.S. residential customer would pay for our paltry 50 kWh.

We could turn off the refrigerator and unplug the computer, and some do. Or, we could invest in alternative sources of energy. Most long-term cruising boats choose this approach. Aboard Play Actor, we have a wind turbine, which works well enough in the tradewind belt where we spend most of our time, but it still only provides part of our requirement. We also have solar panels. For most of the years we've cruised, we've had a small photovoltaic array. The wind turbine and the solar panels met about 90% of our requirements, but still required us to run that diesel for a few hours a couple of times a month.

When we replaced the engine last year, our high-output alternator wouldn't fit the new engine, and our engine run time to charge the batteries doubled. We looked into a new high-output alternator that would fit, and realized that for less money, we could double the size of our solar panel array. That's what we did. We don't run the engine to charge the batteries, ever, now. We rarely run it to move the boat, except in close quarters where it's just not practical to sail, and Leslie wakes up happy because we have full batteries.

It's great to be green!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Sun Shines on California's Grape Industry

Kern County is one of California's primary oil centers, but the sun-kissed region in the San Joaquin Valley is rapidly gaining cred for solar power as well. The latest example: this 516-kilowatt system at Giumarra Vineyard, a major player in the county's $4.7 billion farming industry. (See ag report here.)

Almost 2,300 solar panels will help power the main production and cold storage plant. Giumarra is the latest in a long string of farming enterprises in the Valley to discover the power of the sun, and is the latest solar project in a region of proposed solar projects.

Many farmers are embracing solar and renewable energy in the Valley even as some agriculture groups and local governments are drafting new land-use policies to avoid conflicts with solar and prime farmland.

But solar makes sense down on the farm. Growers have ample land, use large amounts of power and can save money - and possibly create another cash crop - by using solar and other sources of clean energy. Some creative measures, such as mixing "solar trees" with real trees, are being proposed to ease potential land conflicts.

Increasingly, farmers are harvesting clean energy in Solar Valley.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Electric school bus charges up Reedley district

The nation's first electric school bus has been delivered to a district in Reedley, but officials there are so busy displaying the green-tinged vehicle that it hasn't hauled any kids.

"It just keeps buzzing around," said John Clements, director of transportation for Kings Canyon Unified School District.

The "eTrans" bus visited the state Capitol, and will soon play a starring role at events in Kansas City and San Diego. Representatives of the California Energy Commission, California Air Resources Board and other organizations have climbed aboard for rides, but it hasn't stopped moving long enough for the California Highway Patrol to certify it to haul students. Clements hopes the distinctive bus, which has the words "The Power to Change the World" emblazoned on its side, will carry its first students in March.

That first ride will culminate an effort that started two years ago, when Clements shared his vision with representatives of a school bus company who were vising the district. A design was prepared and the bus was built using five different funding sources. The district's contribution was only $15,000.

For that, the district received a bus that accommodates 24 students and, at today's oil prices, save $5,400 in fuel costs annually. It has zero emissions and will never need an oil change.

The bus can travel about 100 miles on each charge. The charging process takes six to eight hours.

Sixty-seven buses transport 4,400 students each day in the sprawling 600 square-mile district. This is the first electric bus, but it probably won't be the only fuel-efficient one. Almost $500,000 from the AB 118 Advanced Technology Demonstration Project fund will fund hybrid models that, through a demonstration project, will be loaned to other districts, Clements said.

The distinction of having the first electric school bus is pretty exciting for Clements. He told a Reedley Exponent reporter that it "ranks up there with getting married, having babies and completing my master's degree at age 53..." Read the Exponent story here.

Even more amazing, though, is the noise - or rather the lack of it. The rattling clap-clap of a standard diesel engine is history. "There is just a little hum to it," Clements said.

And Clements is humming a lot more these days, knowing that he has the only electric school bus in the country - although he doubts that will last forever. He suspects they will become more common when the buses get a little larger and can travel further on a charge.

"I think this is just the start," he said.

That could indeed be true. Electric vehicles are becoming more common as oil prices rise, government agencies encourage them and as auto dealers market them. Commercially, fleet managers are being drawn to their lower operating costs.

This MIT-Staples study found that electric-powered delivery trucks cost 9 percent to 12 percent less to operate, although they can cost three times more to buy. However, purchase prices are expected to drop as batteries fall in cost. Surprisingly, the study found that drivers preferred the electrical models.

And more businesses, such as IKEA in the Bay area, are installing chargers to accommodate the projected growth of electric vehicles.

Photo: John Clements with the electric school bus in front of California's Capitol

California's Expanding Green Economy

An emerging green economy not only increases demand for skilled electricians and other workers in California, but also is expanding those skills to new tasks and is creating entirely new occupations, according to a just-released study.

The green economy gas generally outpaced total economic growth in all but one of California's 11 regions. The Sierra region was the lone exception, according to the "Many Shades of Green" report by NEXT 10, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.

“During the great recession, certain sectors of the overall economy suffered huge losses. The core green economy fared better when it came to retaining jobs and businesses in California,” said Tracey Grose, Vice President and Director of Research at Collaborative Economics, which authored the report for Next 10. “Growing the diverse sectors within the state’s clean economy improves California’s overall economic resilience.”

Here are some other highlights from the NEXT 10 study, which is available on the organization's web site. Here is the link.

1/Between 1995 and 2010, green economy employment expanded 113% in Sacramento, 76% in the Bay area, 65% in San Diego, 62% in Orange County and 22% in the San Joaquin Valley.

2/ Manufacturing represents a strong sector, accounting for 27% of jobs in the core green economy compared with just 10% in the total economy. Manufacturing in the state’s core green economy expanded 1% in 1009-10 and 53 % from 1995 to Jan. 2010.

3/Employment and business growth varies across 15 green industry segments, but energy infrastructure (+14%), advanced materials (+4%), clean transportation (+1%), and energy generation (+1%) bucked recessionary trends, exhibiting growth during the recession from

4/ Some jobs are being expanded to include new tasks such as supply chain managers. New titles, such as chief sustainability officer and energy auditor, are being created, and entirely new occupations - such as solar photovoltaic installers, processing technicians for biofuels and fuel cell technicians - are appearing specific to installation and application of new technology.

5/Households and businesses that increase efficiencies are reaping financial benefits and helping the state’s overall economy achieve greater energy and resource productivity. Products and services developed in the state’s green economy are accelerating and supporting this needed transition

The report notes the recession hit California hard, and that even green employers faced challenges in the last year. It suggests the state's progressive attitude and can-do spirit is a boost, but that incentives and government efficiency would help grow the green economy even more.

"California’s forward thinking public policy record has served to support the growth of markets related to clean energy and related products," the report says. "Further, the state benefits from its population of early adopters of new technology. These combined forces drive the innovation process and place the state at the forefront of the growing global green economy."

How big the green economy becomes in California remains to be seen, but the potential is strong. We just wrote about some serious new jobs at solar facilities (here), which are coming fast and furious in Central and Southern California. And businesses and residents are discovering the power of energy efficiency. Heck, there is even talk of getting power from ocean waves.

The NEXT 10 report has more. "As consumer habits change, they stimulate new markets and new business activity. As new technologies emerge, they can create greater positive impacts for the environment as well as the economy. By raising efficiency standards, streamlining permitting, offering incentives, and providing creative forms of financing, smartly crafted public policy can reinforce and even speed these vital dynamics."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hopeful Signs On The Green Jobs Front!

Two recent news items - one an announcement by a manufacturing plant in Fresno and the other a story in the San Luis Obispo newspaper - underline the impact of the emerging solar energy industry in Central California and the western United States. They also help fulfill the promise of green jobs.

First was this: PPG Industries said it will make components for the solar power industry at its Fresno plant. The company said it is the only maker of Solarphire PV glass on the West Coast, which will enhance its ability to serve an industry that is expected to surge in the Southwest and Asia - two regions that have strong potential for new solar projects.

Then there was this: About 400 workers are employed at two solar-power construction sites just west of the San Joaquin Valley. The construction is expected to take about three years.

Read more here and here.

While PPG officials say the current expansion of capacity won't add any jobs to the Fresno plant, who is to say that won't change if solar gains in popularity? PPG is smart to carve out a niche.

Meanwhile, the solar construction jobs in the Carrizo Plain of San Luis Obispo County could be the first of many more in the area. Dozens of other proposals - some of them pretty substantial (check this out) have been approved or are awaiting approval - in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, in addition to those under way in San Luis Obispo County.

Those proposals combined with projects earmarked for the Southern California desert (think industrial revolution!) could provide construction jobs for the next several years. They also help California meet or exceed its ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate.

Of course, it is unlikely that all of the proposed projects will be approved. Financing issues, conflicts with farming groups and habitat/environmental concerns will probably knock some out, but I wonder if green energy could become a new industry in the Valley and beyond.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

California On Way To Becoming Solar State?

One of my former newspaper colleagues referred in this post to "The great Central Valley solar rush," but it turns out that might be too regional. California could well become the great Solar State.

The number of proposed solar projects exceeds what is required to meet California's ambitious 33 percent renewables by 2020 mandate, according to this Reuters story. It's unlikely that all the proposals will be approved, but it is encouraging to the solar energy movement. I wonder if California will exceed the 33 percent mandate and, if so, by how much?

Solar makes sense in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California deserts where the sun shines brightly and land is abundant. There are challenges, however: Some farmers in the Valley fear conflicts with prime ag land, while habitat and other environmental concerns plague some desert projects.

The solar vs farmland issue will be discussed Feb. 6 by planning commissioners in Kings County, where an advisory agency is recommending that solar projects not be placed on land protected under The Williamson Act or on property that is designated "medium priority" or higher. Here is a study document that commissioners will review.

Still, solar is making inroads. Fresno property owners are discovering the power in rooftop solar, and the Valley's farmers are fast adding renewable sources to their operations. Agriculture and water pumping consume about 3.15% of the total power used in PG&E and SCE territories, according to the California Energy Commission, so participation from the farming community is welcome.

I lack the mental bandwidth to understand all the physics involved, but technological advances in solar energy are coming at a breath-taking rate. Costs are decreasing, and it won't be long until solar power reaches parity. Read here about what our friends at UC Merced's fast-emerging solar-energy research center are doing.

With costs falling and Gov. Brown's support, solar could expand in earnest in California, and we'll have more proposals such as this large one for thousands of solar panels in the west side of Fresno County.

Photo of Kerman solar substation courtesy of California Energy Commission