Friday, April 27, 2012

Turbine Cowboys: Keeping it real 30 stories up

The new Weather Channel show  "Turbine Cowboys" is pretty compelling TV. Turbine technicians 300 feet up (click here) battle the elements to maintain the blades on these huge energy-producing machines. The episode I saw featured technicians attempting to safely climb a huge ice-covered tower in Alaska.

The four-episode show is part of a larger Weather Channel series called "Braving the Elements," which also features crews restoring lights during bad weather and iron workers on skyscrapers, bridges and other towering structures.

I'm not a big fan of reality TV - Boy, do I dislike those screaming housewives and the Jersey Shore bunch - but I watch this one, in part because it helps showcase an emerging clean-energy technology that diversifies the nation's energy supply.

The United States will never give up oil - it is practically woven into the country's DNA - but we need to balance things out. Oil prices are too volatile and unpredictable, which wreak havoc on businesses' ability to budget. And the military deems our dependence upon oil a security risk.

Wind and solar energy are ways to decrease that footprint. Yes, turbines don't turn when the wind doesn't blow, and solar energy isn't produced when it's dark, but researchers are quickly perfecting energy storage. It won't be long before  intermittency isn't a problem. And, yes, solar is more costly, but prices are falling as the industry builds heft and as technology advances.

The "Turbine Cowboys" episode I watched featured a safety expert from Tehachapi, a Kern County city that is home to one of the largest wind farms in the nation. Thousands of turbines dot the hills around a mountain pass, and the industry helps boost the local economy. Read more in this article.

Some people may debate the cultural significance of reality TV, but this show raises the profile of a rather obscure profession, and casts a spotlight on a small piece of the energy infrastructure. Maybe it will give a shot in the arm to the wind industry.

 Video by The Weather Channel

Breathe deep: Beating greenhouse gases won't be easy

Contemporary cast of musical Hair, courtesy Joan Marcus.
Recession does have some positives.

The stalled economy reduced demand for gasoline and diesel and electric power. People drove less, bought fewer items and used less energy as a result. The production of greenhouse gas -- carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases -- peaked in 2007 at 2.752 billion metric tons, dipped to a low of 6.608 billion in 2009 before showing a little robust "recovery" by increasing to 6.821 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

These and other fascinating facts can be found in 2012 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While that may sound encouraging, a deeper look at the numbers shows that U.S. consumers, business and government continued to show a prodigious hunger for fossil fuels.

Bad air on the rise

Production of greenhouse gases just from fossil fuel combustion (that's vehicles and stuff like energy generation) rose to 5.388 billion metric tons in 2010, a 13.7 percent increase from 1990.

Using renewable energy to make good use of polluted land

Developers had a favorite saying  before the real estate crash. It was almost a daily refrain when I was a real estate reporter.

"Invest in land. They're not making any more of it."

Maybe not, but they are recycling it. If government leaders have their way, thousands of contaminated or otherwise unusable sites could become prime real estate for renewable energy. This Bloomberg story  refers to "good for nothing polluted land" becoming good again.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is so hot on the idea that it has published some cool tools and data that show Brownfields, landfills, contaminated sites, abandoned mines and other property suitable  for solar, wind and other types of clean energy. This spreadsheet highlights sites all across the country, including Central California. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control also is a big fan of such do-overs.

Thousands of acres from Lodi to Bakersfield and from Mariposa to Avila Beach are identified as potential  for solar and other renewables. EPA program analyst Lura Matthews, who heads up the EPA's Re-Powering America's Land program, says in a video here in the Phoenix Sun that developers can buy or lease contaminated sites without being liable for contamination they don't cause, or that was there previously.

These sites are  desirable because they frequently come with power lines, transmission capacity, rights of way in place, roads and permits - and without opposition from nearby property owners and environmentalists who also want the property reused.

Matthews said that renewable energy companies will team up with developers or other entitites to develop the sites, or entirely new business models are being created. Here's an EPA fact sheet on the program, and some case studies:

New Rifle mill site in Colorado, where solar energy powers wastewater reclamation at a former Uranium processing site, and Pemaco Superfund site in Maywood, CA, where solar PV powers a soil and groundwater treatment system at Superfund site and rooftop solar offsets power costs of water.

This seems to be an ideal marriage. Pairing bad land with good clean energy would help California meets its 33 percent renewables goal, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs. It would eliminate or at lessen conflicts over habitat and prime farm land.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

UC Merced sets the sustainable bar way, way up

The newest campus in the University of California system is quietly becoming a sustainable model and developing a reputation as a center for world-class research.

The University of California, Merced just had its seventh building certified gold by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.

Its long-range plan, which embraces economic, social and environmental sustainability in campus facilities, was named to the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment Top 10 Green Projects program.

And physics professor Sayantani Ghosh, along with Richard Inman, Georgiy Shcherbatyuk, Dmitri Medvedko and Ajay Gopinathan recently won recogntion of their research in renewable energy in the clean energy press.

Renewable research leader

Zachary Shahan of explains the research breakthrough as an effort "to redesign luminescent solar concentrators in order to make them more efficient at sending sunlight to solar cells."

Green businesses gain fame at Fresno event

Nine individuals or organizations with ties to the San Joaquin Valley are semifinalists for induction into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame during a ceremony and conference to be held May 10-11 at Fresno State University. Here's more in a press release from the university.

The VIP dinner will take place Thursday, May 10th from 5-9pm. Featuring live music by Tony Oliveira, wine pairing by Lange Twins Winery, gourmet Mediterranean dinner and dessert, special guest Alan Tratner, keynote speaker Shahram Javey, and a raffle/auction. Tickets available online through May 2nd – limited seating available, expected to sell out quickly!

The $75 Green Package ticket includes the Thursday, May 10th walking tour at CSU Fresno and the Friday, May 11th Ceremony and Conference;
o Walking tour 1-4pm, includes WET incubator, organic farm field and farm market, solar parking, and library. Tour begins and ends in front of the Satellite Student Union Center.
o Friday schedule:
 9:00AM–11:00AM: Registration/ Exhibitors open/ Continental Breakfast – Courtyard;
 11:00AM–1:00PM: Induction Ceremony  – Student Satellite Center;
 1:00PM–2:00PM: Mediterranean Style Lunch – Courtyard;
 1:00PM–3:00PM: Video Interviews with Inductees;
 2:00PM–5:00PM: Plenary Sessions – University Business Center

The Hall of Fame induction is the highlight of the conference. Eighteen semifinalists have been named, including these that have connections to the Valley. They are:

Electronic Recyclers International, a Fresno-based firm that is the nation's largest electronic waste recyclers

Glen Roberts of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Fresno and Bakersfield, who provides export business consulting in the clean energy field

GRID Alternatives, an Oakland nonprofit that installs solar panels on low-income households throughout California. The Fresno office has installed solar power systems on more than 300 homes in the Valley, all owned by low-income families

Kaiser Permanente Modesto, a health-maintenance organization that works to find environmentally friendly products, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and inform public policy to protect the health and safety of employees and members. Kaiser strives to build greener facilities, strives to purchases non-toxic materials and supports sustainable agriculture.

Real Goods Solar, which promotes adoption of renewable energy to reduce the human ecological footprint and has an office in Fresno

REC Solar, a San Luis Obispo-based company with an office in Fresno that specializes in grid-tied solar electric design and installation for commercial and residential customers

Taylor Teter, a Fresno architecture firm that incorporates sustainability into its designs

University of California Merced, where six buildings are LEED certified and students and faculty are leaders in solar-energy research

U.S. Green Building Council, which has a goal of making green buildings available to everyone within a generation.

                                            The remaining semifinalists are:

Alan Tratner, international director of FD3′s Green2Gold in Santa Barbara and president of the Inventors Workshop International and Entrepreneurs Workshop, director of the Small Business Entrepreneurship Center in California and former publisher of Lightbulb Journal and INVENT!.

Aquacue, a San Jose-based firm whose customers set a baseline, reduce waste and engage the community to reduce water bills and advance sustainability.

Climate Ride, a nonprofit based in Missoula, Mont. that organizes charitable bike rides to support sustainable solutions, bike advocacy and environmental causes

Coto Consulting, based in Orange County, provides environmental consulting services to private and public-sector clients

Ed Begley Jr.,an actor and environmental leader who is chair of the Environmental Media Association and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Green Apple Horse Network, based in Marin County, helps the horse industry go green, and manages a directory of green products and services

H2 Purepower of Chandler, Ariz., which makes hydrogen generators for gasoline and diesel powered engines

Monterey Institute of International Studies, which has a student body from all over the world that is committed to environmental issues

Sunrun, a San Francisco-based company sthat offers solar leasing and power purchase agreements.

Rice hull walls, algae oil & portable solar win at P3 competition

An artificial wetland to treat household gray water, structural wall panels made of rice hulls and algae biofuel systems number are the projects selected to receive grant money in a recent competition between university and college teams across the country.

A total of 15 teams participating in the People, Prosperity and the Planet competition, also known as P3, split $1 million in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The event was held at the 8th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The winners were selected from 45 teams. Their mission was to create innovative environmental solutions. Judging was provided by a panel of national experts who provided recommendations to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. EPA then selected the award-winning projects "from the most competitive pool of teams ever."

Raising nerdy energy efficiency to renewable's Joe Cool status

By Rick Phelps, guest blogger
The Green Sheet

If “Energy Efficiency” and “Renewable Energy” were personified as high school students, one would be pretty dull and the other really cool.

The cool one would wear the latest styles, have the biggest allowance, and get invited to all the best parties. The dull one would wear pretty scruffy clothes, never seem to be able to afford anything, and would not be welcome at much except nerd parties … but would always get the best grades. At the inevitable reunion, Cool is still looking for the next big deal, while Dull is still just plodding along, but does seem to live very well.

Obviously, Cool is Renewable Energy and Dull is Energy Efficiency. In reality, energy efficiency and renewable energy are complementary and are part of meeting our energy future, but communicating that message means changing perceptions — always a big challenge in any marketing campaign.

An example that puts this in perspective is last year’s Southern California Edison-sponsored Small Business Direct Install program that the High Sierra Energy Foundation helped market and promote in Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Inyo and Mono Counties. Over 400 small businesses were retrofitted with new lighting and other basic efficiency measures and the annual savings of those 400 businesses is about $225,000. That’s a lot of money to save each year, but since it only averages about $550 annually for each business, there were no great celebrations or major news stories.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stockton students looking for way to take winning design to state competition

A 3-foot tall wind turbine made of PVC pipe, balsa wood and duct tape earned four students from Stagg High School in Stockton top honors in a regional science and engineering competition, and now the "Wind Team" is seeking funding to attend state finals in May in Santa Barbara.

Students in Stagg's Math, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) program beat out 19 other teams in Northern California to get a chance to compete against four other regional winners at the MESA state finals May 11-12.

The group devoted hundreds of hours in class and after school and many prototypes to come up with a functioning wind turbine that wowed the judges. It wasn't easy, said Dr. Maria Garcia-Sheets, director of the Pacific MESA Center at University of the Pacific, who oversees MESA programs in San Joaquin County.

The team re-engineered designs from previous years to cut the turbine weight in half. "They re-engineered and cut pieces they thought were redundant, and changed the blade design," she said. The students tested about 25 blade configurations before selecting a final version.

  "And it wasn't just the design," she said. "They had to write a 15-page technical paper, present a speech and devise a technical board. They had to be very articulate about the physics and  mathematical equations."

 Needless to say, the students' Math and Engineering skills were tested. "They have gotten good at Math and Science," Garcia-Sheets said. "The MESA program brings together hands-on activities that makes Math and Science come alive."

The students and supporters would like to see them come alive in Santa Barbara, but a tight budget may keep them home. So, they are seeking financial support to pay for the $3,000 charter bus and lodging.

"This program keeps students excited, engaged and involved," Garcia-Sheets said, adding that a member of last year's team who now attends University of the Pacific in Stockton plans to work in the wind-energy industry.

Photo of members of the Wind Team by Andrew Walter, Stagg High School teacher

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Electric vehicles better watch out for flying pizza drones

Recent movies like "Transformers," "Inception" and even "District 9" have elevated public expectations of technological breakthroughs.

Science portrayed on film promises powerful new energy sources, morphing smart robots and mind-bending concepts. Tune in "Men In Black III" and watch Will Smith travel back in time to rescue his friend Young Agent K (Josh Brolin).

Alas, the real world is somewhat less fantastic, ushering in a limited-range electric vehicle for the dawn of the 21st Century. Call it the curse of George Jetson. The cartoon about a red-headed buffoon living in an idealized future premiered 50 years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, and while some of its computing predictions have hit the mark, others like personal space flight remain decades distant.

Robotics finds friends

On a side note, robot development does appear promising, especially with drone aircraft. The pursuit also has taken root amongst young people with events like the 2012 VEX Robotics High School World Championship over the Earth Day weekend in Anaheim, Calif. Tiny Riverdale High School's team under the tutelage of Roland Reyna placed in the top 40 of 396 teams. Reyna, who lives in Fresno, Calif. has inspired a team of mostly farmworker kids to tear apart old donated computers and electronics devices to make amazing stuff.

Solarthon, winery visit highlight Solar power in Valley

Solar energy is showing up in more places in the San Joaquin Valley, where homeowners and farming operations are harvesting the power of the sun in earnest.

 On Saturday, April 21, solar panels were affixed to homes owned by nine low-income families in the Parksdale neighborhood of Madera, courtesy of GRID Alternatives. The nonprofit's third "Solarthon" resulted in those nine families - 14 panels were installed on each house - saving a projected $263,000 over the lifetime of those solar systems, and the elimination of 888 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Sunpower, Yingli Solar, Wells Fargo, Pacific Gas and Electric, Schneider Electric, Proteus and Modesto Junior College helped sponsor the solar block party. GRID Alternatives, which focuses on delivering solar power and career training to the low income, has installed solar on 310 houses in the San Joaquin Valley since 2009.

"With the help of our generous supporters, GRID Alternatives continues to provide a triple bottom line: much needed cleaner air; energy-cost savings; and hands-on job training opportunities in the Central Valley," said Tom Esqueda, regional director.

GRID Alternative's presence is one why Fresno ranks fourth in the state in solar capacity. More on that ranking here.

"Really, rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the Valley," added Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, a nonprofit that promotes the use of solar power. "Think about it: our incomes are relatively low, our power bills are ridiculously high, and, as you can see, we have more days of sun. . . So why shouldn't we make use of our most abundant natural resource?"

And Fresno, as most people know, is the center of the farming universe. It is the No. 1 farm county in the nation, and agriculture is energy intensive. It takes a lot of juice to run packinghouses, wells, irrigation equipment and trucks. By some estimates, energy is among the top three most costly components of a farming enterprise.

But not for Joey Milla of Milla Vineyards in Fresno, who is reaping the rewards of installing a 66-panel solar system in 2005. "We went from a $7,000-$8,000 power bill per year to zero," Milla said one day before the Madera Solarthon.

The Milla family refinanced their house to pay for the $58,000 system. Solar energy powers the winery, domestic well and residence - everything but the ag well. Energy savings alone will pay off that initial investment in one more year.

It's all gravy after that.

The Milla family bought the system because power purchase programs that eliminate the up-front cost were not available in 2005. Despite that, it turned out to be a wise investment. "It definitely works for us," he said.

The installation is mounted on the ground, which makes maintenance pretty simple. The panels are simply hosed off in a daily 30-minute procedure, which keeps up their efficiency. It gets dusty at the winery at McKinley and Grantland avenues, and dust reduces the efficiency of the panels. So, cleaning them is crucial.

The system has been relatively trouble free. The solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years, although the inverters have sometimes had problems. Small price to pay, Milla says, for energy independence. "The panels are so sensitive that when we bought them and put them on-line you could put your hand over a panel and watch the numbers (on the meter) change."

Solar panel efficiency starts to lessen after 25 years, but Milla isn't too worried. Technological advances are so rapid that replacement panels will likely be more efficient and cheaper.

Photo of Madera Solarthon 2012 by GRID Alternatives

Friday, April 20, 2012

Zotos goes green using wind power, others take notice

Zotos International Inc. is a hair-care products manufacturer.

It's also an expert on green energy. The company ranks No. 18 on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Top 20 on-site green power generation list because it installed two massive wind turbines to provide energy to its 670,000-square-foot Geneva, N.Y. plant.

"This wind project has helped us transform Zotos into one of the fastest-growing and greenest manufacturers in the global beauty industry," Zotos President and CEO Ron Krassin said. "More and more consumers are demanding sustainable products and as a beauty company, we have a moral imperative to meet this demand. All of us want a healthier and more beautiful planet and we're proud to be doing our part."

Earth Day and green jobs

Zotos took the opportunity of Earth Day 2012 to laud its achievements. And why not? The company's efforts vaulted it into the national cleantech spotlight.

Others appear to be following suit. A report by employment search engine Green Job Bank says postings in the green sector more than doubled in the first quarter. The service says it indexed 36,500 green job postings in the first quarter of 2012, an increase of about 127 percent from the same period a year earlier.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

California breaks free from from fossil fuels, gradually

California is breaking free of its fossil-fuel addiction.

That's according to Next 10's "2012 California Green Innovation Index." The phrasing was "gradually transitioning."

The report, which looks at the previous year's data, says the Sunshine State surpassed 1,000 megawatts of solar energy capacity, attracted $3.5 billion in cleantech investment in 2011 and accrued 910 green technology patents for a first-in-the-nation performance.

Findings in the 75-page report sound positively radiant, especially in light of news that subsidies like those provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are disappearing, economic and international pressures continue and many renewable energy companies are struggling to survive.

California is unique

But F. Noel Perry, Next 10 founder, offers no apologies. In his prelude, he says, "California’s ability to foster and develop new ideas, markets and technology is unique." He says the purpose of the Index "is to document the impacts of California’s efforts to transition to a low carbon economy in order to understand what works and what doesn’t in driving innovation."

Badges? We don't need them to pursue clean energy

Mexican character actor Alfonso Bedoya delivered what may be one of the most frequently misquoted lines of all time.

The movie in which he delivered it is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and stars Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. Bedoya played an unnamed bandit, listed in the credits as Gold Hat.

But in my mind he stole the movie with the line, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."

To some degree, those of us toiling away to make clean energy a viable and stable industry share a lot of similarities with Fred Dobbs, Bogart's character in the 1948 film. Dobbs meets up with the grizzled prospector Howard, played by Huston, down in Tampico, Mexico about 1925.

Together they go off in search of gold.

Clean energy gold rush

Sounds familiar. The gold this time around is the free energy around us on a daily basis. There's enough gold in them thar hills, I mean solar energy emanating from the center of our system to provide more than enough energy the world could consume. We just have to find the means to harvest that energy without breaking the bank and do it cheaper than we can by either digging coal out of the ground or sucking and processing crude oil.

Energy efficiency: Corporate America's gold nugget

Lots of keystrokes are being devoted to the expected slowing of the clean-energy movement as subsidies wind down and an austerity ideology grabs hold. We talk about that in this blog, but "clean energy" is an expansive term, and there are portions that continue to be strongly embraced.

Energy efficiency is one.

That is a theme that Republicans and Democrats can share. Isn't saving money a bipartisan goal? Our nonprofit sees it every day through a partnership with local governments. Some of those cash-strapped cities are savings thousands of dollars through lighting retrofits and other energy-efficient upgrades that we help implement.

The same script can be applied to businesses. Corporations are increasingly waking up to the real attraction of conserving energy: Reduced power bills. A relatively small investment up front (some of which is often recovered through rebates) yields a much bigger return later.

This story in Finance & Commerce out of Minnesota gets to heart of the matter. Note these comments from Dan Thiede of Clean Energy Resource Team, a private/public partnership devoted to clean energy: "A lot of lighting projects can pay for themselves quickly, especially if you get rebates — sometimes two years or less.”

Energy efficiency doesn't carry the allure of solar or wind energy, but the energy and financial savings can be substantial, and businesses and homeowners that realize them might think they've stumbled upon some gold nuggets. I calculate a 9% return in this post.

My colleague, Mike Nemeth, writes about the gold (and one of my favorite old movies) of clean energy in this post, which is mostly about solar and energy independence. Corporations also find gold from their energy efficiency and sustainability efforts, or by opening new lines of business.

Panasonic thinks it can make money off the increasing interest in efficiency and solar, and launched a business unit to capitalize. Read more here. SuperValu finds, well, value in energy-efficiency (and sustainability). The company noted its sustainability program was a money maker. More on that here.

Profit. That's something any business supports. As Carl Nelson, program and policy manager at a Minnesota nonprofit put it in Finance & Commerce: “Business owners are always interested in saving money. That’s still the primary driver.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mr. Eco releases new green video

Mr. Eco, aka Brett Edwards, continues to fight the good fight, and he don't need no stinkin' badges.

The environmental rap superhero, who fights for clean energy while in tune and on key, debuts "Saves So Hard" at the 2012 Red Brick Dorm Energy Competition held by Cal Poly's Green Campus Program. Mr. Eco describes it this way: "Over a four-week period, the students from the six red brick residence halls saved over 25,000 pounds of CO2. That's equivalent to three t-rex skeletons worth of fossil fuels!! JK."

The world may never know.

The winning dorm, Trinity, was featured in this music video and also received a polar bear donation in their name to the World Wildlife Fund!

P.S. You don't have to be a resident in a dorm at Cal Poly to "Save So Hard." Do it wherever you are!! Deuces:)

The last two graphs are all Mr. Eco. So far, we've kept up with his video releases. It's all about getting hits, so please share this link.

Clean energy boom and bust: What can be done?

New research concludes clean energy is at a "crossroad" in the United States with federal support set to plunge, and recommends a shift from traditional subsidies to greater support of research and development.

The annual average of $4.7 billion spent on clean energy research since 2009 is roughly a half to a third the funding levels recommended by numerous business leaders, researchers, and national science advisers - and far lower than annual investments in space research and exploration ($19 billion), health research ($34 billion), and defense-related research ($81 billion).

So say authors of "Beyond Boom and Bust," a study by The Breakthrough and World Resources institutes, and Brookings Institution. (Here's a link to a Washington Post story)

With the projected cut in investment (although this blog suggests an increase in aspects of solar manufacturing) comes a required shift in philosophy, the authors state. This change from "policy-induced cycle of boom and bust" is essential to producing cost-competitive clean energy that is necessary for economic security, growth, technological exports and better health, the analysts state.

The report begs the question, Why doesn't the United States apply a Space Race attitude toward clean energy. My colleague, Mike Nemeth, elaborates on that thought in this blog:

ARRA stimulus

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 helped fuel growth of clean energy, but many of those programs and coinciding tax credits are expiring, and annual clean-tech spending, according to "Beyond Boom and Bust", is set to decline some $11 billion, or 75 percent, by 2014.

About one third of all federal spending since 2009 has been one-time ARRA money, the analysts concluded. The expectant dip comes despite declining prices of solar, wind and other forms of clean energy - and the addition of more than 70,000 related jobs during the height of the recession.

Wind energy is competitive in many places, but the number of those places is sharply reduced when unsubsidized rates are calculated, "making wind energy competitive with gas fired generation only in the best of wind regimes with ready access to existing transmission capacity," the report states.

Meanwhile, solar rates have dropped dramatically, and rooftop systems in Hawaii, California and other sun-kissed states with relatively high electricity rates are nearly competitive with more traditional forms of energy. Despite that, disappearing subsidies are hampering solar markets.

The end of this policy era provides an opportunity to overhaul or reform many of the 92 federal clean-tech programs, the authors contend, with "smart reforms that not only avoid a potential 'clean tech crash' but also accelerate technological progress and more effectively utilize taxpayer resources. Well-designed policies that successfully drive innovation and industry maturation could provide US clean energy sectors a more stable framework within which to advance towards both subsidy independence and long-term international competitiveness."

Shrinking subsidies is expected to lead to a consolidation of the solar industry, according to this report from Bloomberg, which cites a study by Jeffries Group Inc.

'Beyond Boom and Bust: says perpetual subsidies are not sustainable, and help cause the "boom and bust" cycle of clean energy. They also don't address the key issues: the higher cost of emerging clean technology relative to fossil fuels.

Costs are coming down, but political uncertainty will continue to drag down clean energy until subsidies are no longer needed. To achieve that, the authors recommend:

1/ Use subsidies and incentives to reward technology advances and cost declines until they are no longer needed;
2/ Increase investment in R&D to match other innovation priorities; for example, creating a test bed program that uses federal land;
3/ Harness advanced manufacturing; regional industry clusters; and invest in energy science, math, technology and engineering education.

what now?

Absent legislative action to extend subsidies, America's clean tech policy system will be largely dismantled by 2015, a victim of scheduled elimination of programs.

Those remaining would include the solar industry's 30 percent investment tax credit, which falls to 10% in 2016, and the "nation's underfunded and politically vulnerable energy RD&D programs and a handful of tax credits and grant programs for energy efficiency and conservation," the authors state.

In conclusion, they say:

"The time has come then to craft a new energy policy framework specifically designed to accelerate technology improvements and cost reductions in clean tech sectors, ensure scarce public resources are used wisely to drive technologies towards subsidy independence as soon as possible, and continue the growth and maturation of America’s clean tech industries."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Clean energy is not for the weak-spirited

Recently in the downtown Fresno Radisson Hotel, five of us who make our living in clean energy discussed the state of the industry, the economy and the latest happenings in California's sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley.

"We're on the brink," one of our group said. "About to sail down the other side."

Like a roller coaster? Maybe. While our mood was optimistic -- you have to have a glass-half-full attitude to be in this line of work -- the reality of clean energy is that despite whatever technological advances made and the cost reductions in getting the Earth-friendly energy into the grid, there's always another hurdle, or several.

Modern Times

The latest wrench in the machine (I always think of Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" when I conjure that cliche) happens to be geopolitical. Continued Middle East unrest is messing with gas prices. Rather than flock to alternatives, the American public collectively hunkers down like the only available car on the road is an H2 Hummer.

Three San Joaquin Valley colleges among nation's greenest

A college's commitment to sustainability is becoming more important to applicants, so to help them out The Princeton Review publishes an annual guide to 322 "green" schools. Here's a link to the 2012 version.

Thirty California campuses made the list, including three in the San Joaquin Valley: University of the Pacific; California State University, Stanislaus; and Fresno State, which is only three blocks from where I sit.

Academics, aesthetics, and extra-curricular activities still dominate the decision-making process, but 68 percent of students surveyed by Princeton Review in 2012 said environmental commitment was a contributing factor, according to this press release.

Here are some highlights about the three Valley schools, and some of the others:

University of the Pacific (Stockton)

1/ Sustainability is one of seven learning objectives for all students;
2/ All construction meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards;
3/ Home to the Natural Resources Institute, which is a forum for education and dialogue of natural resources

California State University, Stanislaus (Turlock)
1/ Green Campus Program pairs students with faculty and staff to develop energy plans and gain experience;
2/ Metal exterior of Naraghi Hall of Science is made from recycled material;
3/ Solar panels are due to be installed;
4/ New master's program in Ecology and Sustainability

Fresno State University (Fresno)
1/ Parking structure is the largest solar-covered parking structure on any U.S. college campus;
2/ New library has furniture made from recycled material;
3/ International Center for Water Technology is world renowned, and the college has slashed by a third the amount of water needed to irrigate the 380-acre campus core.

Other California campuses on the list include California State University, Monterey Bay (created a fund to pay for energy innovations on campus); Chico State University (Greeks Going Green, which promotes green programs in sororities and fraternities ); Humboldt State University (numerous green organizations); San Francisco State University (sustainability literacy course required for all students); University of California, Riverside (identified nine areas of campus sustainability)

Photo of University of The Pacific courtesy of university web site

Monday, April 16, 2012

California's disadvantaged could get powered up with solar

Proposed legislation would require the installation of small-scale rooftop solar systems in areas that really need it - low-income and underserved neighborhoods in California.

Assembly bill 1990 by Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, would prompt the installation of 375 megawatts of generating capacity from small-scale renewable generation facilities. The goal is to "benefit the communities where electrical utility customers live, especially in the most impacted and disadvantaged communities with high unemployment that bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution, disease, and other impacts from the generation of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels," the legislation says.

375 megawatts of clean energy equates to removing about 50 passenger vehicles from the road annually. California Watch has more here.

YERT clean energy documentary screening planned

Just in time for Earth Day, a screening is planned of the new "Your Environmental Road Trip" documentary, a tale of a group of friends going to every state in the Union to find the most interesting clean energy innovators.

The event is planned for 6 p.m. April 21, a Saturday, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave., between Chestnut and Willow avenues, in Clovis. The environmentally friendly and energy efficient church served as host to Fresno Earth Day 2012 where about 3,000 people were expected to attend.

The screening is co-sponsored by the Green Sanctuary Committee and Social Justice Committee. Organizers say YERT is an inspiring, entertaining and informative documentary (at times, a docu-comedy.) Called into action by the ever increasing threats of planetary catastrophe -- from climate change to toxic pollution, from water scarcity to habitat destruction -- three friends upend their lives, pool their life savings and set out on a year-long road trip through all 50 of the United States.

Traveling with hope, humor, and all their garbage, they search out the extraordinary innovators and citizens who are tackling humanity's greatest environmental challenge. Since the film's completion, the group has been sponsoring screenings across the country and winning awards and recognition at film festivals.

Organizers say they hope for a good turnout, "and please do bring your friends, neighbors and family along, too." The facility is wheelchair accessible. A $2 donation is suggested, but no one will be turned away. For more information: ; Liza Robinson; or Glenda Roberts 559-291-1590

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hughson Nut gets energy efficient, installs solar

Hughson Nut Inc. has installed a 586 kilowatt solar system at its 50,000-square-foot almond processing facility.

The Hughson, Calif.-based company processes almonds for the confectionery, bakery, cereal, health and snack food industries. It processes and markets its own almonds and those of select growers to worldwide customers.

Martin Pohl, a principal of the company, says the project made a lot of sense. In a statement, he says the project "helps us meet our dual goals of environmental sustainability while reducing energy costs for the benefit of our growers and partners."

Energy from the sun

Solar continues to make inroads on rooftops of industry, government and commercial sectors as well as private homes. Despite some hiccups, heated competition and manufacturers pulling the plug, installed solar continues to increase in California and nationwide.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. solar market grew to $6 billion in 2010, up 67 percent from $3.6 billion in 2009. And that trend is expected to continue, with solar photovoltaic installations projected to double again in 2011. The Association says at year end 2010, the United States had 2,593 megawatts of installed solar electric capacity.

Rooftops are considered the next frontier for solar. Before he left office, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about blanketing the many warehouses in the state with solar panels. Companies like Hughson Nut are trend setters in that respect.

Trend setter

Others will be watching. Pohl says he's more than willing to share his experience.

When the San Joaquin Valley agriculture industry hears of the results, growers, dairy operators and processors will weigh the information carefully. If they get a good report, expect to see more panels going up on other facilities throughout the region.

Pohl started with solar two years ago on his own house. "I wanted to learn more," he says.

Then Pohl's son installed solar on his seasonal almond hulling operation and found he was able to cover nearly all his power costs by banking energy throughout the year. "He built up credit to use when fall came," Pohl says.

Start with energy efficiency

Hughson Nut then enlisted the aid of the Turlock Irrigation District, which provides its power. The utility sent out engineers to perform a detailed energy audit to see where energy efficiency retrofits could be made to lighting and other electrical consuming devices. One big consumer they found was metal halide lighting in the company's cold storage facility that remained on almost all the time.

Those lights were swapped for energy efficient T5 high-bay fluorescent lighting that came on only when people entered the facility. Other retrofits included existing compressors, which were replaced with new units designed to work efficiently with variable frequency drives. Big energy savers.

"We've done everything we know to do to cut down our power usage," Pohl says. "It made a huge difference."

Cenergy Power installed Hughson Nut's system.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fresno Earth Day activities on Saturday

The 2012 version of Fresno Earth Day is Saturday, April 14, on the campus of Unitarian Universalist Church, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave., which is between Chestnut and Willow avenues.

Almost 1,000 people attended last year's event, and members of the Fresno Earth Day Coalition hope for three times that number this year, said Pete Moe, who is heading up a display of clean vehicles.

Visitors will be able to see the latest electric vehicles, along with hybrids and cars that run off biodiesel. "I'm excited about the choices available in the all-electric world," Moe said. "I started my alternative-transportation journey seven years ago when I decided I wanted to buy an electric car and there were none. Now, we have a selection, with American manufacturers finally attempting to field some all-electrics."

The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, is credited with helping launch the modern environmental movement. Passage of the landmark Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and many other groundbreaking environmental laws soon followed. Here's more on Earth Day.

Today, more than 1 billion people in 192 countries participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. This year's event in Fresno will feature exhibits, music and workshops on a variety of topics, including paper making, raw food, California high speed rail, biofuel, composting, organic gardening and Tai Chi, a form of exercise. Sponsors, vendors and exhibitors are still being accepted.

More information is available on the web site here. By the way, here is the lineup of alternative vehicles:
(a)Plug in Prius;
(b) solar power trailer to charge electric vehicles;
(c)2011 Nissan Leaf ;
(d)Veggy oil conversion VW Passat TDI;
(e) used Prius modified to Plug-in Prius;
(f), Tesla Roadster all electric;
(g) Vectrix all electric motorcycle;
(h)Electric assist bicycle;
(i)Chevy Volt;
(j)Mercedes Benz E320 CDI biodiesel car;
(k)VW Beetle biodiesel car;
(L)Biodiesel Processor display;
(m)Ford Transit Compressed Natural Gas delivery wagon;
(n) Zap! Xebra electric four door; 2012 Mitsubishi I Miev all electric.

Photo of 2011 Fresno Earth Day celebration by Howard Watkins

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

6 Trends in corporate sustainability

The chatter over whether renewable energy is worth it and if climate change is real is so loud that other parts of the emerging sustainability movement are muted. But corporations throughout the world, recognizing doing good for the environment also is good for their bottom lines, continue to quietly enhance their green team efforts.

Consider Lockheed Martin. It is one of the world's largest defense contractors, but also is a leader in sustainability, reaching its stated five-year environmental goals a year early.

The company met or exceeded its goals of reducing water use, waste-to-landfill and carbon emissions by 25 percent annually since 2007, while revenue climbed 12 percent in the same period. Lockheed Martin is an example of increasing awareness among Corporate America that going green can be profitable, rather than costly.

"Taking action to preserve resources is fundamental to securing against operational risks, extending the value of our business model, and expanding and enabling sustainable, profitable growth," Bob Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The company slashed water use 25 percent, saving more than 1.5 billion gallons, or equivalent to water consumed by 3.9 million average U.S. households every day. Lockheed Martin upgraded heating and cooling equipment, installed low-flow fixtures and designed projects with sustainability in mind, such as landscaping in Denver, Colo. that reduces or eliminates supplemental water from irrigation.

Lockheed Martin cut its waste-to-landfill amount 39 percent, or 35 million pounds, compared to 2007, its baseline year, through recycling programs at multiple U.S. facilities, efforts in Marietta, Ga., that cut the amount of packaging required for major parts, and reducing cafeteria food waste at several facilities.

Carbon emissions fell 30 percent through energy efficiency efforts with lighting and HVAC systems, the purchase of renewable solar and wind energy, and innovations such as using wood waste to power a 1.6 million square-foot plant in New York state. The total carbon reduction equals the annual greenhouse emissions from more than 85,000 passenger cars.

Learn more in this press release from Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed, which is developing a hybrid unmanned aerial vehicle for the military (more here) is hardly alone when it comes to sustainability gains. Brewmeister Heineken is starting down the same path, according to this post, announcing reductions in carbon emissions and water use.

Continuing the beverage trend is Bacaradi, which announced these results. Meanwhile, hospitals, which are huge consumers of energy, are getting into the act. And we can't forget one of the biggest dogs of all, the U.S. military. Oil consumption among Army troops is equal to 15 to 22 gallons per day per soldier, and the Department of Defense contends sustainability is a security and economic issue. Check out this national security report .

More is likely to come. In the video below, Case Western Associate Professor and author Chris Lazlo shares ways corporations can instill sustainability into their processes.

Sustainability will grow as awareness increases, even though the tools of the trade are still in their infancy, according to this report by Ernst & Young and GreenBiz:

"These trends suggest that sustainability efforts are now well-integrated into the corporate fabric of a growing number of large and midsized companies. But the effectiveness of such efforts may be limited by internal systems that don’t allow companies to effectively measure, track and optimize their sustainability impacts, or to understand and manage the risks of insufficient action."

The authors have identified six trends in corporate sustainability:

1. Sustainability reporting is growing, but the tools are still developing
2. The CFO’s role in sustainability is on the rise
3. Employees emerge as a key stakeholder group for sustainability
programs and reporting
4. Despite regulatory uncertainty, greenhouse gas reporting remains
strong, along with growing interest in water
5. Awareness is on the rise regarding the scarcity of business resources
6. Rankings and ratings matter to company executives.

More businesses say sustainability is as important to the operation as safety and employee satisfaction, which is evidenced by growth of green teams even during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

The biggest reasons given for the emphasis on sustainability: Cost cutting, particularly energy expense, and increased revenue from brand awareness, changing consumer demand and staying ahead of the competition. In addition, equity analysts calculate sustainability into their evaluations.

photo image by Sanja Gjenero
video of Case Western Associate Professor by SustainableBrands

Monday, April 9, 2012

EVI works to electrify U.S. commercial transport

Electric Vehicles International is busy and plans to hire additional workers.


The Stockton, Calif.-based zero-emission commercial truck builder has deals in the works with Frito-Lay North America and UPS. The orders and its development of a hybrid truck mean more jobs are on the way, adding 30 people to existing staff of 40.

Frank Jenkins, EVI vice president of sales and marketing, talks about his company's progress and why it's bullish on California and the future of electric vehicles.

The direction of the EV industry

The electrification of America's roadways has distinct components, at least from Jenkins' perspective. "When we talk about our industry, it's diverse," he says. "You have cars, light-duty trucks, then you have the heavy-duty" trucks that EVI builds.

Solar power and grid parity in California

Skeptics of clean energy often say it's too expensive, when, in reality, prices are falling so fast that they are close to more traditional forms of power.

This item in CleanTechnica suggests California has already achieved that milestone, thanks to the state's aggressive support of renewable fuels, such as solar energy. This post also says that solar parity has arrived, while this blog suggests parity is still a few years away.

Either way, prices have dropped to the point where solar and other renewables make better sense economically, especially in California, where sharp minds and incentives are adding fuel. I like this idea: using a solar carport to help run EV chargers at a Metrolink station. Farmers, winery owners and municipalities are turning to solar to run portions of their operations.

Photo of Yosemite by dereklink.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Making use of wasted space with solar and clean energy

Sometimes, what seems to be wasted space isn't.

Take road medians, rights-of-ways, military bases and airports for example. More studies are showing those regions, which are often off limits or seemingly unusable, could be sites for placing solar arrays, wind turbines or crops for biofuel.

This NPR story talks about the huge potential for solar arrays on the vast expanses of military bases. This suggests lining roadways with solar panels, and this USDA report, released in January, says locating alternative power at airports could be an ideal compromise to habitat and land conflicts that plague renewable energy projects.

From the report: "with careful planning, locating alternative energy projects at airports could help mitigate many of the challenges currently facing policy makers, developers, and conservationists. "

It makes sense. Wildlife isn't wanted at airports, and development of property in the flight path is discouraged. Officials at my hometown airport in Fresno, Calif., were way ahead of the game when they had solar panels installed in 2008.

The panels, placed on land near runways that was previous unusable, are shaving millions off the power bill. The USDA report showcases the Fresno installation and notes it supplies about 60% of the airport's power. Any surplus energy is resold.

Read more here. Meadows Field in Bakersfield and Denver International Airport also have solar arrays.

The USDA study says airports are "one of the few land holdings where reductions
in wildlife abundance and habitat quality are necessary and socially acceptable, and where regulations discourage traditional (crop) production." (Did you know economic losses from wildlife/aircraft collisions are estimated at $600 million annually in the United States?)

Authors of the USDA report, while citing the solar airport examples, note they are not aware of any biofuel production at airports. That could be because officials are afraid the crops would attract wildlife. However, several airports already lease land to farmers who grow such crops as corn. And opportunity exists, at least in terms of land size. The study found that only 10% of the 50 U.S. states had median farm sizes larger airport grasslands.

The authors also note that turf near runways sometimes attract geese and other birds. The report suggests that converting that land to switchgrass or other types of cellulosic feedstock could be an option. "Field research likely could identify productive biofuel crops that, from a wildlife perspective, are compatible with safe airport operations," the authors state, citing other studies.

For more, here is a CleanTechnica post that serves as a good overview.

We're starting to see much more in this area. Solar, for example, is showing up on farms, on roadway pilot projects, on parking garages, city wastewater treatment plants, and on county jails and state prisons. The military is going full speed ahead on renewables, while corporate America, professional sports (hello, baseball season) and others are moving ahead on sustainability programs.

Watch for solar and other types of renewable energy to show up in even more places. Wouldn't it be great if this nation took a space race approach, as my colleague put it so well in this blog, to clean energy and energy efficiency?

Fresno airport solar savings graphic provide by City of Fresno

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mr. Eco releases all original song/commuting video

Our friend Mr. Eco is making waves.

This time with his latest video, titled "When We Commute." The song is the first original Mr. Eco work by Brett Edwards, who hails from Fresno and attends California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. He says the video seeks to inspire people to rethink their commute and give alternative transportation a chance.

He teamed up with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District, Central Coast Clean Cities Coalition and SLO Car Free to produce the latest effort. The video also features the Air District mascots Percy the Penguin and Professor Ozone.

"When We Commute" won first place at the "Green Shorts Film Festival" in the San Luis Obispo region and will compete in the Santa Barbara region on April 6.

Here's another chance to see Mr. Eco on TV.

Here are some other Mr. Eco posts: Mr. Eco seeks to launch spring school tour Environmental rap superhero spreads clean energy message

Here are other Mr. Eco posts of interest:

Environmental rap superhero spreads clean energy message
Mr. Eco seeks to launch spring school tour

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Creating jobs while measuring energy consumption

These five words - "building energy rating and disclosure" - are enough to put people to sleep. What does that phrase mean? And why do I care, especially when the housewives are screaming again on reality TV? Now, they are really interesting.

Please, stay with me here. The housewives will be screaming again next week, but this is important. As it turns out, those five words are pretty significant in today's energy-saving environment, especially in California and Washington state, where they could lead to many new jobs.

Five cities and two states (New York City; San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; and California and Washington states) have passed laws requiring owners of large buildings to measure ("benchmarking" in industry-speak) and disclose how much energy their structures consume.

California calls its plan the "Nonresidential Building Energy Use Disclosure Program," which stems from AB 1103.The regulations require owners of nonresidential property to, before selling or leasing buildings, to benchmark their energy use, and to disclose that data to potential buyers, lessees and lenders.

The program is being phased in according to property size. Owners of structures with at least 50,000 square feet must benchmark this year. Owners of structures of 10,000 to 50,000 square feet must implement a program starting in January 2013. July 1, 2013, is the start date for owners of commercial buildings from 5,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet.

Formal policies are in place in the five cities and two states, but thousands of properties have been benchmarked voluntarily throughout the nation - and the practice is growing as the sustainability movement gains speed. Our nonprofit is a leader in benchmarking and works with local governments throughout Central California. See more here.

Jobs also are being created - such as at FS Energy in New York City, which has added seven positions, and at Sustaining Structures in Seattle, which expects to triple in size after experiencing a 30 percent boost in its number of clients, according to studies and this press release by the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), a nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency and produced two reports.

Another New York City business, Ecological, added more than 400 clients after the policy took effect there. "We anticipate this trend will continue with year of compliance reporting," Chief Operating Officer Lindsay Napor McLean stated in a media backgrounder released by IMT.

Spectacular things could happen if the policy became nationwide. IMT estimates 23,000 jobs could be created in 2015 and 59,000 jobs in 2020. A nationwide program would reduce energy costs by more than $18 billion through 2020, and would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 3 million vehicles.

The adage "you can't manage what you can't measure" holds true in benchmarking. Property owners can use the data to reduce energy costs, shrink their carbon footprint and score one for the environment .

IMT quotes Kevin Dingle. president of Sustaining Structures in Seattle as saying: "When an owner or manager sees a benchmarking score might be lower than expected, they're a little more receptive to improvements to bring the score up, which in turns lowers their utility costs. It makes it 'real world' for them when they see the numbers."

Andrew Burr, lead author of the IMT reports, says, "Better information means more competition for better buildings. . . And that means more work improving American buildings and more American jobs."