Friday, June 29, 2012

The Great White North may be key to promoting energy efficiency

Bob and Doug McKenzie on the set of SCTV.
The War of 1812 is long forgotten.

Few other than history buffs and students know much of the series of bloody battles which pitted what is now Canada against its southern neighbor. Those included the slow slaughter of Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend by then-Col. Andrew Jackson or the Battle of Bladensburg during which British forces captured and torched Washington, D.C.

Now Canada is good buddies with the United States. The country mostly surfaces in the news as being the source of Justin Bieber or, energy-wise, for its rich oil sands in the Athabasca-Wabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake reserves in Alberta. Estimates vary but Oil Sands InfoMine puts the recoverable deposits at about 170 billion barrels, placing Canada just behind Saudi Arabia. That oil is being extracted at a rate of about 1 million barrels a day and is expected to grow to about 4 million barrels by 2020.

Canada's energy rep

Canada's hardly known for its energy efficiency or its embrace of renewables like solar, wind and geothermal. Just ask activist and author Bill McKibben, one of the chief opponents of the Keystone Pipeline, which would send all that "tar" sands oil to the Gulf Coast.

But that could change. On June 21, 2012, Environment Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy released the second part of an ambitious plan outlining how the two countries will jointly advance clean energy technologies. The effort has possibly the least sexy name in clean energy history, dubbed the "U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue Action Plan II," or CED for short.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bottlemaker, building owners embrace efficiencies & save big

Greg Rhames has been studying energy efficiency like Humphrey Bogart on the case of the Maltese Falcon.

Any clue, no matter how tiny, can yield a break in the case. And in Rhames' Madera manufacturing plant, it's the little things that add up big. Real big.

Rhames, energy manager for Verallia, a subsidiary of winemaker Saint Gobain, rattles off the upgrades and system refinements at his facility like only somebody intimately familiar with their complex industrial workings can. His fixes havve resulted in energy cost savings of about 20 percent.

Put another way: Utility bills have gone from $1 million a month some years back to about $800,000.

"A little savings can go a long way," Rhames says.

Less power, more cash

Energy efficiency continues to gain proponents across the corporate spectrum, especially as its value can be immedicately seen in reduced energy and operations costs. With recent federal encouragement through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, local governments have taken up the banner, installing myriad retrofits and sometimes preventing economic-related layoffs in the process.

Shell team proves driving smarter can save 30%

Mileage has been an obsession of mine since I started driving. Back then 50 cents a gallon was considered outrageous.

I lived out in the sticks, about 10 miles from the outskirts of town when I got my first (and only) motorcycle, a Yamaha 100. It sipped fuel. Good thing because the tank only held a little more than a half gallon.

But the bike was only good for summer months.

How not to save fuel

At 17, I purchased something winter-worthy and that I could afford -- a 1963 Ford Galaxie for $300. The dark blue four-door featured a 352 cubic-inch big block with a two-barrel carburator and a two-speed automatic transmission.

Efficiency wasn't in its repertoire. I could watch the needle drop during any kind of serious acceleration. This was unfortunate as I drove amongst a lot of Mopar and Chevy enthusiasts.

Shell demonstrates how it's done

I thought of this little anecdote while listening to Lindsey McAndrews of Shell Canada Ltd. explain the Shell Smarter Driver Challenge, which reportedly has set a Canadian record for fuel efficiency by driving across Canada from Halifax, N.S. to Vancouver, B.C. in a 2012 Volkswagen Passat.

"Canadians tend to buy the bigger vehicles," McAndrews says, explaining the ample leg and elbow room. "It's going to be a realistic demonstration of how far that car can go using the least amount of fuel."

According to, the team shaved its gasoline consumption (the team only used Shell New Nitrogen Enriched Bronze gas) by 30 percent. The coast-to-coast jaunt covered about 6,300 kilometers and consumed less than five tanks of fuel.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Channel that inner Bruce Lee to clean energy

Bruce Lee was more than a movie star to those of us who watched all his movies many, many times in the early 1970s and beyond.

He was THE movie star. The guy we all wanted to be. Somebody who didn't necessarily want to get involved (note the opening scenes in "Fist of Fury") but ended up spinning a couple of nunchucks ("Return of the Dragon") in a back alley with a grin on his face and kicking some serious, um, tail.

Enter Sir Richard

I thought of Lee while watching a video-taped interview of Richard Branson, the Virgin Group billionaire and knight of the United Kingdom, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, here's a guy who has his own island, is one of the world's richest men and wants to make the world a better place by enhancing sustainability and renewable energy.

Talking to Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz Group Inc., Branson says every business and individual can make a difference. "Every single decision they make can put the environment first," he says, adding "don't do it in a way that will bankrupt you."

Solar impulse completes flight in Ouarzazate, Morocco

Solar Impulse's new badge.
 The second time's the charm for the Solar Impulse.

The airplane, which is solely powered by electricity and backed by solar energy, took off early from Rabat, Morocco on June 21, 2012 and landed in Ouarzazate, Morocco about 17 hours later. It had failed in its first attempt last week.

Officials said the flight was Solar Impulse’s most difficult destination in its cross-continental journey due to high winds and turbulence over the arid desert.

"It was a beautiful flight," says pilot and project co-founder André Borschberg.

The Solar Impulse made a successful 19-hour 8-minute flight from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco earlier in June. The month previous, Borschberg, 59, began the journey from Payerne, Switzerland. He landed in Madrid on May 25.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rio Earth Summit: Welcome to the 'insidious conspiracy'

Twenty years ago, Pres. George H.W. Bush told those gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that he brought an action plan to combat climate change.

"It stresses energy efficiency, cleaner air, reforestation, new technology," he said.

The 41st president also started his speech with a Chinese proverb: "If a man cheats the Earth, the Earth will cheat man." He then followed with, "The idea of sustaining the planet so that it may sustain us is as old as life itself. We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it."

Blast from the past

That was then. The United Nations' Rio + 20 Earth Summit this week has ushered this debate back into the political scene.

Bush's words show how much he was ahead of his time. Now Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney skirts the entire issue, leaning as far from the entanglements of climate change as he can. According to Neela Banerjee at the New York Daily News, Romney "expresses doubts about climate science like the majority of his party."

Romney says if elected he would support expanded coal and oil production and work to "amend (the) Clean Air Act to exclude carbon dioxide from its purview," according to his official website. He also calls solar and wind failures.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., takes aim at such positions in a fiery speech on the Senate floor on the eve of Rio + 20. If he had looked like this during his failed presidential bid, things may have turned out much differently.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Heading to the skies flying all electric

Solar flight continues to make international waves.

The Solar Impulse aircraft that had made a successful 19-hour 8-minute flight from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco has again made a safe flight. However, in this case the airplane, which has a 207-foot wingspan, turned back after attempting to reach Ouarzazate, Morocco, its final destination on a two-continent flight.

The pilot, Andre Borschberg, decided to turn around about halfway between Casablanca and Marrakesh due to deteriorating weather. "This situation is a perfect reminder of how challenging and difficult the Solar Impulse missions are and how flexible and prepared the entire team and the host country must be," officials write in a post on their official website.

Regardless, the Solar Impulse has made its mark, showing just what can be done with innovative engineering and a team willing to push the envelope.

A bit to the north at Lake Hepari near Kirkkonummi, Finland, pilot Pekka Kauppinen made the first test flights of the FlyNano electric single-person float plane on June 12, 2012.

"Now we will continue to work on further development. Many thanks for your support and patience. We'll be back with more flights as soon as possible," officials from the Finnish start-up wrote on their website.

Ben Coxworth of writes that in April 2012 "some readers expressed skepticism, rightly pointing out that there was no video of the plane actually flying. That changed."

I guess seeing is believing. The FlyNano is tiny and amphibious, reminding me of a cross between a Grumman Widgeon and the more rare Grumman Duck. The Widgeon is phenomenally fun to fly and can go anywhere there's a beach.

Coxworth writes that the company has "apparently already presold 35 planes" and has moved the initial delivery date up to the end of 2013. Price is about $34,000.

Rio must bring out the best in clean energy

Protestors in Rio, courtesy
World leaders will debate the merits of sustainable development and a green economy at Rio + 20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to take place in Rio de Janeiro.

Protesters will use the event to highlight injustice.

And something substantive benefiting the environment may actually get done this week. This year's theme is after all "a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development."

However, listening to current U.S. political discourse makes me wonder if anybody in government seriously considers steering toward a green economy.

Wall street bankers, brokers and speculators remain so fixated on profits and bizarre anti-populist goals like killing Dodd-Frank (read Matt Taibbi's "How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform" on, the already weak-kneed consumer protection act, that real values get swept away like last quarter's balance sheet. The concepts of quality of life, a better place for children and continued proliferation of the American way -- where everyone has a chance to make it big -- get nothing but lip service.

A trillion reasons

Robert Redford put it succinctly in a piece on Huffington Post: "We can do better," he writes. His point is that with so much at stake, we need to shift some emphasis to clean energy and eliminate the near "one trillion dollars of subsidies ... handed out to help the fossil fuel industry" each year.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Want to make money? Enroll in Valley colleges' green training

"Out of work? Need money? Have I got a deal for you!"

That's how many of the pitches go. They arrive unbidden to cell phones and email addresses belonging to eager unemployed or underemployed people all over the country. Often the message is the best thing about the offer, which is usually some pyramid scheme or related dog of a deal.

There is something better. A whole lot better.

Clean and alternative energy may sound a little been there done that, but the sector is looking up. Way up. Projections show steady increases, and market indications point to substantial adoptions of policies in the private and public sectors that increase efficiencies, promote sustainability and bolster alternative energy projects.

Here's a sample of some entry-level wages:
  • Energy auditor - $42,000
  • HVAC installer - $41,600
  • Energy efficiency manager - $52,000
  • Retrofit specialist - $50,000
  • Construction project manager - $60,000
  • Building controls technician - $50,000

Employment isn't up to snuff yet, and companies focusing on energy efficiency, solar and other aspects of sustainability are just getting started here in the San Joaquin Valley. But soon companies will need trained workers who can immediately help them make money and expand their operations. This video by California Community Colleges Economic & Workforce Development gives an example of what  is out there.

Solar plane soars into Morocco, record books

The Solar Impulse glides in for a landing in Rabat.
The Solar Impulse soared over the Mediterranean Sea into Morocco to a hero's welcome.

"The flight over the Gibraltar Strait was a magical moment," said pilot Bertrand Piccard, Swiss psychiatrist, balloonist and adventurer, on the official website.

The Swiss airplane, which has four electric motors and looks a little like a dime-store balsa-wood model a child would assemble and throw, isn't meant to revolutionize the industry, its designers and backers say. Rather it is meant to draw attention to the potential of renewable energy.

“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message.” Piccard says.

Lightweight marvel

The plane itself is a marvel of lightweight engineering. Big as an Airbus A340 with a 207-foot wingspan, it features 12,000 solar cells in the wings and a carbon-fiber structure designed to resist the elements but weigh very little.

In fact, it weighs 3,527 pounds, or about 500 pounds less than the average U.S. car. Speed is hardly an attribute with an average of 43.5 mph and a takeoff speed of about 22 mph. Average maximum altitude is 27,900 feet. The Solar Impulse also is outfitted with lithium polymer batteries that account for about a quarter of its weight and enable it to fly in the dark.

Meeting to focus on generating jobs in energy, manufacturing & logistics

Jobs are a big deal in California's economically hard-hit San Joaquin Valley.

To one group in particular, getting people to work serves as a call to arms. The Regional Jobs Initiative, or RJI, is a public-private partnership begun in 2004 to build an economy better able to weather natural downturns and take advantage of opportunity and expansion.

The RJI has a dozen teams, or "clusters," that focus on various aspects of industry. One of the most exciting -- at least from our perspective at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization -- is the cluster involved in analyzing and improving the region's manufacturing, logistics and energy prospects.

That group meets from 2 to 5 p.m. June 11 at San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, 1990 E. Gettysburg Ave. in Fresno to dicuss the latest development plans and opportunities.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fellowship of the sun: Quest for solar power continues

Chronicling the progress of solar energy has at times been like trying to follow Legolas, Gimli and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring as they journey across Middle Earth.

Here's a possible dispatch from soon after their initial departure: They've gone through the Misty Mountains and successfully beat the odds in the mines of Moria. But Gandalf dies battling a balrog.

Likewise, solar continues to push forward despite tremendous odds: U.S. manufacturers have been buffeted by international market forces but battle through. Solyndra is killed by a beast known far and wide as bankruptcy.

It's not easy. Yet, in both cases, the quest continues. For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, the quest will never be over. My 15-year-old son currently carries a copy of "Return of the King."

For solar, the news on the whole is positive. Clint Wilder, senior editor at market analyst Clean Edge, says in a recent post that "U.S. solar installations grew 109 percent, adding 1,855 megawatts." He says that's thanks to "falling photovoltaic prices, favorable policies in key states, and the aggressive business strategies of installers/financiers like Solar City, SunRun, and SunEdison."

The battle for solar

That's not saying there's not a Battle of Hornberg at Helm's Deep still out there. (Recall in the Peter Jackson film "The Two Towers" where the fellowship whips up on bloodthirsty orcs in what has got to be one of the best fight screens in all moviedom.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Clean energy champion heads to Sacramento

Sanford Nax Esq.
Sandy Nax has left the building.

After more than two years championing the cause of clean and alternative energy at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, the veteran journalist and all-around nice guy has taken his talents to California's capital city where he'll be writing about everything real estate for the Sacramento Business Journal.

Sandy has a way with words, producing hundreds of posts on everything from the corporate clean energy buy-in to cow power and anything and everything solar. In fact, one of his last posts, Solar energy advances at rocket speed, is all about the advances of sun-produced energy and politicians missing the memo.

He spent the bulk of his 30-plus year career at the Fresno Bee, a senior reporter known and respected all over the Valley. When it looked as if the newspaper industry was heading for the trash bin of history at record speed, Sandy opted to diversify. He saw promise in the clean energy industry.

While it turns out the demise of the printed daily news story may be somewhat premature, Sandy was right about clean energy. It continues plugging along, winning friends and influencing people. As for newspapers, Warren Buffett seems to think they have a future. The world's third-richest man recently purchased 63 papers from Media General Inc. He's banking on mid-sized papers and a public that believes in quality content that won't be given away.

Tesla's Model S invades dreams and soon showrooms

The Tesla Model S beckons to me from a poster tacked to the wall behind my computer terminal.

It's a sleek silver with custom rims that look like blades of a jet turbine. I can imagine popping the door, climbing in after work and blasting quietly onto the freeway listening to AC/DC's Highway to Hell. 

That's the thought anyway.

Daydream nation

Many motorheads are likely tuning to a similar daydream. Cool car, custom and the latest technology. Great name too. Tesla, after Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest electrical engineers of the modern era, responsible for developing the alternating current electrical supply system. He even demonstrated wireless energy transfer back in 1891 and inspired a pretty decent rock and roll band.