Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The greening of America push-button style

Three items caught my attention in the last few days. The first was this story out of the Inland Empire that noted more home builders are touting green features such as energy efficiency, although traditional factors such as location and lot size still influence buyers more.

The second was this blog by K. Kaufmann of my old employer, The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, who correctly opined that creating nifty green technology is one thing, but persuading people to change their behavior enough to use it is entirely different. Hence the Green Button campaign, designed to forge a more personal connection with power bills.

The third was this post about businesses having trouble keeping up with the demand for green products.

It is apparent that a green tint is spreading, albeit unevenly. Businesses, universities, governments and more individuals are heeding the message of clean energy and efficiency. This blog links to statistics confirming the increasing awareness that stems from a desire to either save money or to do the right thing environmentally.

But the transformation won't occur overnight. The benefits of new lights, air conditioners and weatherization are tough to sell, especially when there is an upfront cost.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Solar energy advances at rocket speed

Politicians are fond of cliches, especially this one: "I didn't get that memo."

Memos are just one thing that politicians don't get, but it could be true in the case of solar energy. Technology has advanced so fast and so far that policy makers and even utilities have been left behind. Many experts are working off outdated information and don't realize renewable energy is now cost competitive in many circumstances, according to this report from Bloomberg New Energy.

"...awareness of the current economics of solar power lags among many commentators, policy makers, energy users and even utilities," the report stated.

Authors attributed the lag to rapidly dropping prices of solar panels, ambiguous metrics used in the solar industry and persistent dissemination of outdated data - "occasionally by those with an interest in clouding the discussion," they say.

The authors also take issue with traditional metrics and messaging, such as "grid parity," which is used to describe the point where the cost of renewable energy matches other more traditional power sources. But the method is so yesterday, according to the authors, because, in part, it often compares a "retail technology to a wholesale price."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saving lives: The real power of renewable energy

Renewable energy can change lives in many parts of the world - places that aren't connected to the grid. It can power homes, help farmers become more productive and prevent death.

Solar, wind and other forms of clean energy enable parts of the non-electrified world to skip the grid the same way many Africans leapfrogged over landlines straight to cell phones (which in this case are being charged by solar power). It is costly to connect remote areas to the grid, and renewable energy can be a game changer.

This item talks about a big solar project in Tibet, where terrain is rugged and population centers are distant. In this story, the author talks about using solar power to bring water to an orphanage in Kenya. Kerosene pollutes and flashlights are often inadequate, so a California doctor working in Nigeria asked her husband to develop a "solar suitcase" that can be set up in a rural clinic. PBS has a story here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Evolution or revolution? Clean energy movement is expanding

The Great Recession left the economy in shambles and turned lives upside down, but it forced more people to  cut spending and energy and, in some ways, was a good thing, according to a survey of more than 2,800 consumers and business people by Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions.

The 2012 survey revealed people and businesses are more aware of the cost-cutting potential of energy efficiency, that younger adults have strong appetites for clean technology and that businesses are setting more aggressive energy goals - in large part because their customers demand it.

"Customers care, so companies do too," the report states.

Authors noted that near two-thirds of businesses surveyed said their customers want more environmentally considerate solutions, up from 49 percent only a year ago. Meanwhile, more than 75 percent of those businesses actively promote their green campaigns.

The surveys found that businesses continue to invest in energy efficiency even as finding capital becomes more challenging, and as a majority of them acknowledge it is hard to track available financial and tax incentives. The companies are motivated by the strong cost savings and competitive edge associated with energy efficiency, but public good - "it's the right thing to do" - also is a catalyst.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Heat and time take toll on solar panel performance

Solar arrays at NREL.
The widely held belief of solar systems is that once the initial cost is paid off, the rest is gravy.

Or more specifically, that the power harvested from the sun is free for those who own their systems. And that's true.

However, there's an important detail to consider, especially if the cost of materials and labor are financed over a long period.

"Numerous studies have shown that degradation rates for silicon modules are typically less than 1 percent per year," says analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

That means power output diminishes minutely each year and could be significantly less for a system once the up-front costs are paid off after financing. That could mean a photovoltaic solar array produces 40 percent less power than the day it was installed once a 40-year loan is paid. A highly technical NREL study says declines could actually be less, ranging from .5 percent to .7 percent.

Monday, May 21, 2012

EPA honors highly efficient building designs

Efforts to save energy by designing more efficient buildings continue to gain steam.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized about 100 commercial building design projects estimated to be nearly 40 percent more energy efficient than typical buildings. The agency made the announcement at the American Institute of Architects National Convention in Washington, D.C. The projects were submitted by 43 architecture firms and achieved Designed to Earn the Energy Star certification.

Projects that receive Designed to Earn the Energy Star certification are In total, the projects recognized at the convention are estimated to prevent nearly 175,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and save more than $23 million in annual energy costs across 10 million square feet of commercial space.

"These new building design projects are helping to save energy and money from the ground up for American families and businesses," says Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in a statement. She says they range from skyscrapers to rural elementary schools.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Energy efficiency: Some states perform better than others

The top states for encouraging energy efficiency are Massachusetts at No. 1 and California at No. 2, according to a clean energy research organization.

Both have strategies and programs in place to enhance the clean energy mix of their energy production and encourage a shift to cost-saving measures and clean energy. Their efforts have been followed, mimicked and analyzed many times.

But the bottom performers? Not so much.

"There is plenty of room for improvement," say Michael Sciortino, Rachel Young and Steven Nadel in "Opportunity Knocks: Examining Low-Ranking States in the State Energy Efficiency Scorecard." They work for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research and policy analyst.

The worst 10 states in promoting energy efficiency in descending order, with the last being the worst, are: South Dakota, Alabama, Missouri, West Virginia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Wyoming and North Dakota. ACEEE ranks the states according to policies and programs that advance efficiencies in buildings, transportation and industry.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The best way to use California's carbon windfall

New studies show that using revenue from California's landmark carbon-trading system for energy efficiency and residential renewable energy programs would yield the biggest bang for the buck, and have the strongest chance of surviving a legal challenge.

Nonprofit group Next 10 commissioned studies to determine the best use of proceeds from the cap-and-trade program effective 2013. Most of the models end up generating new revenue for the state through economic growth and new jobs, with programs that improve residential lighting and make other energy-slashing upgrades generating the most. Here is a link to the report that sums up the findings.

University of California, Berkeley, and Resources for the Future examined ways state officials could spend money - the group used the sum of $100 million although the real figure could be higher - raised by the sale of emissions allowances to non-utililty entitites.
The teams modeled scenarios ranging from giving the money to taxpayers in the form of rebates to creating green lending programs to using it on portions of the high-speed rail project. A rebate program would be the most risky legally because it doesn't directly support the greenhouse gas reduction goals of AB 32, the researchers determined.

Energy-efficiency projects, however, could create many more jobs and pump more money into state coffers, depending upon the program. The strongest potential and least legal risk appear to be with programs that fund energy upgrades in lower to middle-income households.

Funding components of high speed rail with carbon-trading revenue would create fewer jobs and less money for the state. It also would be more risky legally, the analysts discovered.

Cows soak up solar power as farmers embrace renewables

The 250-mile  San Joaquin Valley is the nation's salad bowl.

Farmers in the eight counties from Lodi to the Grapevine produced almost $26 billion worth of food and fiber in 2010. Agriculture is big business - and consumes gobs of power.

Which is why farmers here are embracing renewable energy to help power their enterprises. Solar is the energy of choice, which makes sense in a region with my-shoes-are-melting-into-the-pavement summer temperatures. Solar arrays are being installed on rooftops, carports and other places throughout the Valley.

This dairy was the first in Kings County to get solar, but more dairies and feedlots will likely install alternative energy. This item notes that a Coachella company installed solar energy at a feedlot to provide energy and shade.

The San Joaquin Valley has about 1.8 million cows and 1,700 dairy farms, according to Neil Black, president of California Bioenergy who spoke at a recent California Public Utilities Commission meeting in Fresno, (Here's our blog post from the meeting), so maybe we'll see more cows mixing with solar projects.

The Valley's vast expanses of land are attractive to developers of larger-scale solar projects as well, so planning officials in the region are formulating land-use policies to avoid conflicts with prime farm land. Those projects garner the big headlines, but individual growers and farming operations, such as those mentioned above and Fowler Packing  (with its new 8,256 solar panels), are really helping harvest the sun.

Fowler Packing plans to use solar energy to help power its packing and cold storage facilities. It won't be the last San Joaquin Valley - or should we say, "Solar Valley" - farming enterprise to reach for the sun.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hitting the hydrogen highway is the ultimate video game

Hydrogen is not yet a viable, cheap and easy-to-use fuel.

But the quest to solve that clean energy puzzle continues. reports that scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a nickel-molybdenum-nitride catalyst to more cheaply crack hydrogen from water. Chemist Kotaro Sasaki is quoted as saying his team wanted to find a high-activity low-cost method of extracting hydrogen.

He says the catalyst "actually outperformed our expectations."

And according to, Lynne Macaskie, professor of applied microbiology at the University of Birmingham in England, reports a method of creating hydrogen from food waste. "The bacteria can produce hydrogen," says Macaskie at a bioenergy workshop in São Paulo, Brazil. "At the moment manufacturers pay to dispose of waste, but with our technique they could convert it to clean electricity instead.”

Not ready for prime time

Impressive. So what's the hold-up? Why can't entrepreneurial ingenuity figure out a way to get a clean fuel on the market that could transform our skies and reduce the competitive pressures forcing up the price of gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuel?

Sustainability: America's emerging green movement

That sound you hear is the sustainability movement accelerating.  America is becoming a deeper shade of green.

 Businesses are expanding their sustainability efforts from board rooms to supply chains and now to energy providers. More companies are flexing their corporate muscle, and pressuring legislators to support efforts to boost use of clean energy and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their so-called "green teams" are moving outside corporate walls.

Mindy Lubber of the advocacy group Ceres writes in this Sustainable Business Blog of a new "business voice", which is also being transferred to employees. She quotes organic yogurt- maker Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirschberg as saying, "We reject the notion that climate and energy legislation is going to be costly. . . Climate action offers economic opportunity rather than economic penalty."

The same blog notes that Nike and 14 other heavy hitters asked Congress to extend the Production Tax Credit that has helped propel wind energy (more here).

More businesses are setting sustainability goals, and in some cases (Hello, Sony) exceeding them. They are raising their sustainability profiles in concert with the military, professional sports and the public, which, according to latest polls, is increasingly linking climate change to the recent wild weather, and is willing to pay more for clean energy.

Climate change: Water woes haunt Californians

California would sidestep most of the effects of climate change.

The state already is hot and dry, and its coastal areas, with some exceptions, are blessed with some elevation, enabling them to avoid disaster should the seas rise significantly. But one region, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, faces distinct peril, says climate risk analyst Richard Snyder.

"You'll have a problem," says Snyder who spoke at the 2012 International Green Industry Hall of Fame event in Fresno. "Water and climate change are big issues, especially in California."

The Delta is a complex network of levees and channels and the source of water for two of three people in the state. Fresh water from the Sierra Mountains is sent by way of a massive aqueduct and a sophisticated and energy-intensive network of pumps down through the San Joaquin Valley and up over the Grapevine pass to Los Angeles.

When the levee breaks

Should that aging network of levees fail, disaster would strike. Years of farming the roughly half million acres caused large swaths of the peat-rich soil to drop, so that now much if it is below sea level. Some more than 20 feet below. Salt water intrusion would poison the Delta fresh water source, causing extreme economic cost on a scale hard to imagine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Valley businesses and UC Merced are inducted into the Green Hall of Fame

Five businesses and organizations and four individuals were inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Fresno State University.

SunRun, UC Merced, Green Apple Horse Network, Electronic Recyclers International and Grid Alternatives were the inducted businesses and organizations. The individuals were Ed Begley Jr., Christina Schwerdtfeger, John Shegerian (CEO of Electronic Recyclers) and Alan Tratner, who received Lifetime Achievement awards.

  • SunRun is a San Francisco-based company that offers solar leasing and power purchase agreements.;
  • University of California Merced has six buildings that are LEED certified, and students and faculty are leaders in solar-energy research
  • Geen Apple Horse Network, based in Marin County, helps the horse industry go green, and manages a directory of green products and services;
  • Electronic Recyclers International, a Fresno-based firm that is the nation's largest electronic waste recyclers;
  • 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
  • Ed Begley Jr., an actor and environmental leader who is chair of the Environmental Media Association and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy
  • Christina Schwerdtfeger founded Coto Consulting in 2009 as a woman-owned, small business enterprise to provide environmental consulting services to private and public sector clients throughout the United States. She specializes in multi-media compliance for air, water and hazardous waste, with particular emphasis on greenhouse gases and sustainability.
  • John Shegerian, a serial entrepreneur, is chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers. Prior to his work at ERI, Shegerian co-founded, one of the most successful student loan companies in the country, and founded, a comprehensive, interactive website dedicated to helping those struggling with the disease of addiction, that has become the leading online space for the recovering community.
  • 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!.
 Also honored were Climate Ride, a nonprofit in Missoula, Mont., that organizes charitable bike rides to support sustainable solutions, bike advocacy and environmental causes, and Aquacue, a San Jose firm whose customers set a baseline, reduce waste and engage the community to reduce water bills and advance sustainability.

Fresno businessman Sam Geil founded the International Green Industry Hall of Fame to recognize  pioneers, leaders, and visionaries who have contributed to the Green movement.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Biogas industry seeks to clear the regulatory air

Fresno, Calif. and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley share some of the worst air in the United States.

A bootstrap industry, still trying to gain a toehold in the state, can remove tons of those pollutants and produce renewable energy at the same time. The concept would appear to meet the goal of the state's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which seeks to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

So what's the holdup?

Part economics, part regulatory. Five of the top people in the state's biogas industry met recently in Fresno with members of the California Public Utility Commission to explain the difficulties in getting bio-digesters up and running. The meetings were in Fresno City Hall. Each commissioner and his or her staff listened and gave feedback to various groups.

Making the case for biogas

The small but friendly renewables group spelled out all the potential a viable biogas industry could bring. But the group, who represented five companies, also explained the turmoil their operations face breaking into the market in a substantial way. And by and large, the commissioners, who met them one by one, appeared to see the merits of their cause.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'Gas is Your Choice' campaign launched in Fresno

Matt Falcon, the avowed Fresno ebike rider, is at it again.

This time, he's interested in expanding the ranks of those who minimize their dependence upon fossil fuels. He wants people to try something new, even if it means changing their lifestyles somewhat.

He sums it up in four words: "Gas is your choice."

"Yep... I like changing the conversation," Falcon tells Pete Moe, an organizer of Fresno Earth Day 2012. "Had a 'divine spark of inspiration' for a great and catchy one-liner and a design for a Facebook graphic, and found it was really a great flyer/poster as well, so I designed this."

Moe responds: "I love the sentiment! Has a campaign feel kind of like the 'Stop Kony' campaign of recent."

Falcon says: "Realized I had a black toner cartridge in my color laser printer that needed to be replaced (damaged, bad quality), so instead of wasting the toner, I figured I'd print a bunch of these to post on light poles around town."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turbine industry grows, but faces stiff wind

Turbine installations in the United States set a record last quarter, but the pending elimination of a popular tax credit could buffet the wind-energy industry next year, officials say.

Fueled in part by concerns over the Production Tax Credit, a total of 788 wind turbines totaling 1,695 megawatts of power - enough to supply  about 1.6 million homes for at least an hour - were erected between January and April in 17 states. That was the strongest first-quarter showing in U.S. wind-energy history, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. Read the press release here.

California led the nation with 370 megawatts of new wind power. Two of the state's top three wind regimes are near the north and south ends of the San Joaquin Valley. The third area is near Palm Springs. In 2011, about 5% of California's power came from wind. More here.

The 52% increase over the same period last year set a record for first-quarter installations, and continued a five-year surge. "The last five years have been marked by unprecedented policy stability, and in response, wind power has delivered," said AWEA CEO Denise Bode.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Central California is becoming Solar Central

Summer is coming, and that means the Valley's famous triple-digit temperatures aren't far away. Utility bills will surge and Facebook status reports will be akin to: "Holy cow, I got my power bill today!" That's the G rated version anyway.

Solar really makes sense in Central California, where nature's most abundant resource blazes away up to 300 days per year. These solar projects have made news in recent days:  This appeared on The Fresno Bee web site. The police station is just a few miles from my house, and will be the largest public solar project in Clovis. That follows on the heels of this announcement of a packinghouse in Fowler adding 12 acres of solar panels and this one  of the massive 550-megawatt Topaz project breaking ground in San Luis Obispo County just west of us in Fresno.

But those aren't all. Analysts count about 70 proposals before county planners from Merced to Kern counties, with about 30 in Fresno County. Just the Fresno County proposals total about 10,600 acres.Those don't include smaller rooftop, municipal or some farming projects.

It remains to be seen how many are approved or become operational, but there is not denying Central California is a hot spot for solar power.

Photo: California Energy Commission photo of solar plant near Kerman in Fresno County

Donut-shaped EV goes back to the future, hovering in Beijing

This two-person transporter appears straight out of "Back to the Future II."

But it's not. Volkswagen AG, the folks who brought you the people's car, brings this prototype to light with the help of its People's Car Project, a contest that generated 119,000 ideas, most notably a two-seat, electric Hover Car, that looks like the metallic version of a massive heavy equipment tire.

The project was launched in 2011 and resulted in three top picks. The Hover Car, which travels above ground on an electro-mechanical roadway, is joined by the Smart Key and Music Car. All were on display at the Beijing Motor Show.

"The creative ideas from the People’s Car Project give us a valuable insight into the wishes of Chinese drivers", says Simon Loasby, head of design at Volkswagen Group China, in a statement. "The trend is towards safe cars that can easily navigate overcrowded roads and have a personal, emotional and exciting design."

The video is entirely in Chinese but gives an excellent idea of how the hover car operates.
According to the Volkswagen website, the Music Car is equipped with organic light emitting diodes, and the exterior color of the vehicle changes with the driver’s choice of music. "The car thus becomes a means of self-expression and a fashion statement for young drivers," officials say.

The Smart Key is a slim 9-millimeter key with "a high-resolution touchscreen which keeps the driver up to date on the fuel situation, climate conditions and the car’s security via the 3G network. The driver can also monitor the vehicle from a bird’s eye perspective through real-time satellite transmission."

Volkswagen Group's Luca de Meo, director of marketing, says that in "a long-term context" the project will influence the company's product strategy. However, "the design of our models will, however, continue to reflect the tradition of the Volkswagen brand."

So don't expect to see the Hover Car in the commercial market anytime soon. But it is cool.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Can clean energy avert doomsday?

Apocalyptic novels dominate Amazon's popular sci-fi electronic listings -- and my recent reading history.

The books in question generally a doomsday theme, but each author often takes a wildly different approach. The new genre has three main elements that warrant analysis: How society collapses, how people react and the tenacity of the main characters.

The heroes have got to be tough. When society collapses, death waits in many guises. Especially nasty is the rampant cannibalism of those who can't hack it and eat people.

This end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it fascination extends far beyond novels. Jim Guy, a reporter at the Fresno Bee, touches on the sentiment in a recent story about surging gun sales. "Blame it on the upcoming election, fear of crime or even the Mayan calendar, but Fresno gun dealers say business is booming," Guy writes.

It could be better

The economy staged a anemic recovery about two years ago, but few in the trenches give that much credence.

Give Guy's story an extra shove and the real culprit behind this paranoia and gun buying emerges. It's the economy. But it's more than just lost jobs. The situation is bleak for many people. A friend of mine in the service sector says he's working an extra shift today, but it doesn't mean much.

Net-zero construction gains ground in U.S.

Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility with the world watching.

The date was July 20, 1969.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," the spacecraft announced. Some hours later Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took man's first steps on the Moon followed closely by fellow spaceman Buzz Aldrin.

Their footprints at Tranquility Base likely remain, a small sign of a massive accomplishment.

NASA's back in the historic footprint game again but in an entirely different way. The space agency, now somewhat redirected and fiscally leaner with the closure of the Space Shuttle program, has been constructing a facility that takes inspiration for its name from Tranquility Base and seeks to be a landmark in another sense, leaving as little footprint as possible.

Here on Earth

Sustainability Base, at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., has been dubbed NASA's latest mission on Earth. The facility has received LEED platinum certification, the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. Its design incorporates natural lighting, shading and fresh air. The interior boasts non-toxic materials and is, according to NASA, "a living prototype for buildings of the future."

Clean energy marches toward maturity using traditional path

It's tempting to believe the political rhetoric over renewable energy and assume the industry is dying without ever grabbing a foothold. In reality, it is following a well-worn path traveled by emerging technologies for dozens of years.

 A new report from the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at University of Tennessee compares the stutter-step progress of clean energy with that of the automobile and other industries. The report cites the Chief Strategist of Shell Oil as saying, "It takes about 30 years for any new energy source to attain 1% market share."

From the report: "Only in retrospect is technology change smooth. Within its own historical context, it is rough and uncertain with many false starts and byways. The social history of technology change is replete with stories of early technology adoption in unexpected niches. Often the early innovators are not the ones who profit from the process."

Friday, May 4, 2012

University teams square off for national clean energy finals

Northwestern University's team also won Rice competition.
The best and brightest minds at U.S. colleges squared off recently, gathering their collective intelligence, imagination and ideas in a competition to come up with the most formidable and commercially promising clean energy innovations.

The preliminary results have just been unveiled. Regional winners of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition have been named. Northwestern University, University of Utah, University of Central Florida, MIT, Stanford University and Columbia University will go on to compete in the first national competition in Washington, D.C. in June.

"The winning teams have developed effective strategies for bringing innovative technologies into the market that will help keep America competitive in the global race for clean energy technologies," Energy Secretary Steven Chu says in a statement.

Each regional winner receives $100,000 in prizes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

PlanetSolar, solar catamaran, finishes round-the-world trip

Raphael Domjan, left, and M. Immo Stroher
Raphael Domjan is a modern-day Phileas Fogg.

Rather than circumnavigate the globe in 80 days like the unstoppable Jules Verne character, Domjan opted for a more leisurely pace -- about 6 knots at last look. But Domjan's trip is no less historic.

Domjan, a Swiss national trained as an electronics engineer and Jules Verne fan, joined with German businessman M. Immo Ströher to accomplish the feat in a solar-powered boat.

Their photovoltaic sheathed catamaran, PlanetSolar, plans to conclude its voyage after 584 days upon the high seas, cruising into the high-society port of Monaco on May 4, 2012. Aboard the PlanetSolar, most activity likely focused on journey's end, wrapping up the adventure with shore-based activities before letting the public get a look at the historic vessel.

10 cool advancements in clean energy

The Space Race showed nations can accomplish great things when everyone is committed to a common goal. Increasingly, people are suggesting that same we-can-do-anything attitude be applied to clean energy. In many ways, it's occurring.

Here are 10 things that grabbed my attention in recent days:

1/Solar windows: Much is being written about solar shingles and even solar clothing, but researchers are also studying if windows - think skyscrapers - could double as energy generators. Challenges abound, as this post in environment 360 points out because they have to be clear, but a Maryland company claims to have a way to spray on a see-through solar coating. Researchers and students at UC Merced also are working on something similar here;

2/The smart minds up the road from us at UC Merced designed an innovative low-cost, non-tracking solar thermal collector system that is able to operate with a solar thermal efficiency of 50% at extreme temperatures. Previously, only more complex tracking solar thermal collector systems could achieve this temperature. The system has practical applications in solar heating, cooling, desalination, oil extraction, electricity generation, and food processing, says Ron Durbin, executive director of University of California Advanced Solar Technologies Institute. Here's an ABC 30 story on it;

3/ Speaking of universities and solar cells, the equally smart minds at USC are developing nanocells that could fit on plastic. Think of the possibilities! More here;

4/ Isn't nature great! The humpback whale is influencing windmill blade design. Click here.

5/ Iceland wants to lay an undersea cable to export geothermal to Europe;

6/ A New York company uses on-site wind turbines to meet 60 percent of the power needs of a mammoth manufacturing plant. Gigaom has it - and more here;

7/ Sidewalks that use kinetic energy from footsteps to generate power for nearby appliances. Crazy, but read about it here. Similarly, these trains in Philly can store kinetic energy from braking for further use.

8/  Superman may not be able to change in these booths, but folks will be able to power up their electric vehicle and monitor pollution. Oh, and they can also make a call;

9/ Making good clean power out of bad bad land. Our blog;

10/  The U.S. and U.K. joining forces to develop floating wind power. More here.

These are just a few things that I noted in recent days, but certainly isn't complete. These solar powered bins that text when they're full are pretty cool too. Maybe it's true when people say clean energy is the next industrial revolution.

Video by UC Merced
Photo of people walking by Graham Kingsley


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May 5: Connect the Dots Climate Impacts Day

On Saturday May 5, is coordinating a "global day of action."

Climate Impacts Day is not location specific and being coordinated through the web. There are a number of locations at which people are getting together to talk about climate change and the effect it's having.

"On that day, we will issue a wake-up call, and connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather," organizers say. "We will educate, protest, create, document, and volunteer along with thousands of people around the world."

At this point there are no events scheduled in the San Joaquin Valley. But there's still time. Think about starting a new event in your community.

Here's a list of nearby events:

Swiss teacher drives around globe in solar car

Swiss school teacher Louis Palmer takes his homemade solar powered car on a trip around the world just because he could.

He's Swiss so why not? And he calls it a solar taxi because so many people want to ride along.

This video from The Associated Press has been around a couple of years but it still offers a look at zero fossil-fuel travel and the possibility of not having to plug in. "Technology is here today," Palmer says.

Solar technology is improving each year with panels getting increasingly efficient. Perhaps at some point electric cars or plug-in hybrids will offer integrated solar to enable greater range.

Finding a solution to clean energy is one man's quest

Andrew West has nothing against clean energy.

"But they don't have the capacity to make a measurable difference in the near term," he says.

West says he has spent the past decade and about $7 million searching for solutions to big problems. One of those is clean energy. He and I began an email conversation after West commented on a colleague's blog post about the study "Beyond Boom & Bust," which said clean energy has reached a crossroad because federal support is expected to plunge. The study was put together by the Breakthrough and World Resources institutes and Brookings Institution.

West's focus is on concepts that can make an immediate difference. "We have been held hostage by oil imports, and the availability of energy is necessary for our continued growth," he says.

More than clean energy

West didn't limit his quest to energy. On his site,, he also outlines concepts to tackle and develop sustainable agriculture, assist education, create affordable urban living and enable more effective and job creating charitable giving.

A new day dawns for solar energy

Declining subsidies and oversupply are seen by many as death stars to solar energy, but the industry in the U.S. is just pausing, and expansion is projected for the next two decades, according to a new study. Entitled, "Solar Power: Darkest before dawn," the report by McKinsey and Co. suggests a bright future ahead for nature's most abundant natural power source.

From the McKinsey web site: "McKinsey research indicates that the industry is suffering from growing pains rather than undergoing death throes. Solar is entering a period of maturation that, in just a few years, will probably lead to more stable and expansive growth for companies that can manage costs and innovate to tap rising demand from multiple customer segments."

Here's a link to the write-up, and also to an earlier blog that discusses the boom-and-bust cycle of clean energy and notes the industry is at a crossroad.

The report finds that falling prices will spur demand, even without subsidies, for five key markets: "off-grid, residential and commercial in areas with good and moderate sun conditions, isolated grids, peak capacity in growth markets, and new large-scale power plants."

Critics point to the implosion of Solyndra, companies downsizing, fights between solar developers and environmentalists, and other issues as an industry in disarray. But is it? Various reports say solar power will reach grid parity with traditional sources of power within a few years. GE says here that dropping solar prices combined with rising fuel prices will make solar energy cheaper than fossil fuels within five years.

Bloomberg here projects solar to be investment worthy in the U.S. by 2020.  Banks could become moret than bit players, according to this post.

This post in Triple Pundit by sustainability consultant Leon Kaye suggests the industry "shakeout" will continue for at least a year, and shouldn't be viewed as a "meltdown," but rather as laying the foundation for expansion.

Think about it. Increasingly, volatile energy prices are playing havoc on budgets, and businesses are looking for some balance. Delta Air Lines is so desperate it is spending $150 million for its own oil refinery. The Washington Post has more here.

Closer to home, we in Fresno, CA., are seeing solar panels installed at wineries,schools, farms and on rooftops. Fresno is ranked 4th in the state in rooftop solar capacity, and dozens of solar arrays are proposed throughout the San Joaquin Valley, according to local planning officials.

Solar really makes sense here. The Valley is the nation's salad bowl, and the $25 billion agriculture industry consumes lots of power. So, it makes sense farmers want to reduce their bills and carbon footprints. Temperatures are high, power bills skyrocket during the I'm-going-to-spontaneously-combust-walking-to-my-car summers, the sun shines much of the year and the air quality is among the worst in the nation.

 There are other uses for solar too. Did you know that oil and solar can mix?. Check out this about a California-based start-up, and this about Chevron and Bright Source Energy teaming up in an oil field in Fresno County. And I wonder if a nifty new mapping tool like this will spark a solar rooftop revolution.

"Revolution." That may not be too strong a word.

Image by Gabriella Fabbri

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Trend to slash high-rise electric bills sweeps industry

King Kong immortalized the Empire State Building -- more than once.

And while its status as the biggest and tallest has been eclipsed a number of times since Pres. Herbert Hoover turned on the lights May 1, 1931, the iconic skyscraper continues to lead the nation. However, now it's gaining fame as perhaps the best known energy efficient high-rise.

Others have followed, drawn by the prospect of saving money in a turbulent economy through relatively simple and cost-effective upgrades that can pay off in a matter of years. The U.S. Green Building Council says green commercial building retrofits actually exceeded new construction some months in 2011.

"Deep energy savings (30 percent to 40 percent) can be mined from existing buildings," says a July 2011 study by Vancouver, Wash.-based New Buildings Institute.

Energy Star fast tracks

A barometer of the trend has been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of cities with the most buildings qualifying for Energy Star status. Energy Star certified buildings use an average of 35 percent less energy and are responsible for 35 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than typical buildings. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, while commercial buildings make up half that.