Marketing into the Void

by Heather Rae

A chunk of my responsibilities in managing a home performance project is marketing the concept of home performance to homeowners, contractors, affiliates, trade allies, funding partners and…just about everyone. The challenge is to create awareness (and undying desire for the service) by homeowners, and awareness (and unwavering desire for providing the service…according to a set of standards and certifications) by would-be contractors. Delivering measured results to funding partners in Washington is the albatross hovering at my stern, but that’s another matter.

In a smartass mood, I called home performance a living room recital, since without brand or any other kind of recognition, it might as well be a kid playing the flute in a parlor. The name, home performance, like ‘energy efficiency’ is a mouthful of uncertain definition. The nebulous nature of marketing into a void is on some days welcomed, on others days reviled.

The mission of the program in this State is to create a sustainable market for the diagnosis and treatment of homes to make them healthy, comfortable and energy efficient. Homeowners would first have to recognize that calls to HVAC outfits, utilities, plumbers, oil delivery companies, mold and radon remediators (etc.) will get them the solution that fits that industry’s bailiwick. Call the electric utility and don’t be surprised if they try to sell an electric water heater, for example. Solar thermal will not be on the tips of their tongues. Joe Kuonen, a home performance contractor out of Arkansas, calls it the ‘one tool toolkit solution.’

Homeowners would, second, have to call on a contractor who sees the whole picture — what we call the whole-house, house-as-a-system picture. Think Bob Vila Goes Green.

There’s an old man in Maine who had his entire heating system replaced. The house was still drafty and the utility bills high. He then paid for replacement of all the windows in his house. The house was still drafty and the utility bills high. Eventually, heaven knows why or how (a good question for a marketer to answer) he called in a home performance contractor who found that the house was uninsulated. It ought to be a crime for one-tool industries to sell old men band-aid solutions, but it isn’t, and there are many stories like these from home performance contractors.

I’ve been fortunate to have The Balsam Group working on my old house. We had another walk-through this past Monday. They came over to measure for replacing the copper in the basement with PEX, but the conversation was long and complex. We decided the wisest next move in the context of a small budget would be to replace the front roof overhang and air seal the uninsulated area communicating with the space between the floors. The space between the floors has been acting as a refrigerator coil all these years. (Hey, it’s an old house, one that was built to have several wood stoves going full bore throughout the heating season — which is extensive here, like from September to June.)

I had arranged for a local roofer to fix the overhang but would have needed to coordinate his work with that of an insulation contractor who understands air sealant. (And I did not want to be arguing with anyone about air sealant versus blown-in cellulose. The latter for this particular application is O-U-T, out because there’s some knob and tube in there and because my anal tendencies around cleanliness and neatness react badly to the mess of blown-in cellulose. But that’s just me.)

Here’s the rub. The Balsam Group would be ideal for this home performance program. Not only do these design/build and renovation contractors get the green, whole-house picture, but they can actually do the work. Their carpentry is exquisite. The foundation supports they installed under the ‘ell’ are plumb and clean. Their recommendations for a new heating system account for my ‘green’ sensibilities — biofuels if we stay with oil, for example and a recognition that propane/gas is not the best idea for a leaky house. They can replace a roof membrane and air seal. Aesthetically and technically, they are right on target. And, they have no interest in plugging into the system of certifications and measuring and reporting required by government-initiated programs like mine. That’s my challenge. What’s the incentive (is there an incentive of any kind) that would get contractors like The Balsam Group to come on board? Is the best solution to create a stable of home performance consultants who tap into a network of like-minded tradespeople — leaving the testing and measuring and reporting to the consultants with energy on the brain?

It’s questions like these that make sanding and finishing floors somewhat appealing. It’s straightforward hard work with visible results. I have pretty pine floors, blisters and a good night’s sleep to prove it.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Building a green future – Light-weight high strength concrete

by Nick Bruse

When one begins to look at the built environment – examining its lifecycle, the resources and materials used in its construction and stakeholders from suppliers to developers to regulators to occupiers – a very complicated and fragmented picture arises.

This presents challenges for the property industry when trying to reduce emissions throughout the lifetime of the building. Design is important in understanding how the building will be used for its internal space, but also its load externally on the surrounding environment. Materials must be chosen to reduce embodied emissions. Construction must be achieved in a sustainable and energy efficient manor.

When i hear about technologies in the construction industry which provide benefits across a range of aspects of the industry, my interest certainly piques. One such technology is a revolutionary new light weight high stength concrete technology being produced by the Australian company HySSIL Pty Ltd in collaboration with CSIRO. I blogged briefly about this technology last year, but the more I hear about the company the more I think they have real potential.

In a recent interview I spoke with Gary Bertuch, the Managing Director of HySSIL Pty Ltd, In the interview we learn from Gary about the massive market applications of the product and of new concrete technologies they are helping the CSIRO to commercialise.

Hyssil’s technology allows the production of concrete panels that have and unique combination of lower weight, higher strength, lower embodied energy and lower construction costs due to their lightweight nature. At the same time they have excellent thermal properties than existing concrete products which minimises heat loss / absorption. Fabricated into panels, these have a strength allows them to be used in building up to 20 storeys high. The low load on foundations and hence reduced foundation requirements, means that buildings constructed of them are perfect for markets like Asia and the Middle east where alluvial or sandy soils in coastal regions normally require bedrock braced foundations.

With over 30% of emissions worldwide associated with the built environment, this technology is surely going to be a significant player in the coming years to help reduce both embodied and operating emissions from buildings and reduce the energy requirements in construction and heating.

You can listen to the full interview with Gary first posted on The Cleantech Show here

Nick Bruse runs Strike Consulting, a cleantech venture consultancy; hosts the cleantech show, a weekly podcast of interviews with leaders involved in clean technology research, entrepreneurship, commentary and investment; and advises Clean Technology Australasia Pty Ltd and the leading advocate of Cleantech in Australia.

Reflections on Illumination

by Richard T. Stuebi

While grocery shopping yesterday, I found that our local store has finally started stocking GE (NYSE: GE) compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs).

Candidly, my experience to date with CFLs has not been positive. Last year, I went to Home Depot (NYSE: HD), where I tend to buy household gadgets, thinking they would have the best selection of CFLs. At least back then, Home Depot didn’t carry GE CFLs (some say this was because of ex-CEO Bob Nardelli’s lingering resentment of having been passed over for Jeff Immelt when Jack Welch stepped down as CEO of GE), so I bought what Home Depot had in stock: a carton of private-label CFLs, for about $10 for a 5-pack.

I wish I could say that I was blown away by the CFLs, but regrettably, I wasn’t. In my assessment, the light quality provided by the CFLs was too pale, and it took far too long (10-20 seconds) to reach even a minimally acceptable “warm” color. Furthermore, the CFLs were not usable in many of the applications in my home: they don’t fit into lamps with tight covers/shades, and when installed to a fixture with dimmers, they emit an annoying loud buzzing sound — and an awful Snap-Crackle-Pop (and I don’t mean Rice Krispies) when the dimmer is turned down.

My initial foray into CFLs thus resulted in considerable disappointment. Although I don’t feel good about it at all, so far I’ve generally stuck with the old horribly inefficient incandescents — they at least produce a quality of light that I’ve come to expect.

I’ve been told that CFL quality varies, and that GE’s CFL products are quite a bit better — albeit more expensive — than the generic brands of the kind I had bought. I didn’t search all over town for GE CFLs, but I never saw them anywhere I happened to be shopping. Until this weekend.

Now, here in front of me finally were individually-packaged GE CFLs, the 15 watt (60 watt incandescent equivalent) priced at $4.49. Two shelves below were the standard GE incandescent 60 watt soft white lightbulbs, priced at $1.59 for a 4-pack, or about $0.40 per bulb. The CFL is thus 11 times more expensive, on a first-cost basis, than the incandescent. For the average customer, who is typically very conscious of the initial cost and pretty clueless about life-cycle economics, this is a really big spread.

In small print on the CFL packaging, GE claims that the 15 watt CFL bulb will save over its 3000-hour lifetime $13 worth of electricity (at $0.10/kwh) relative to 60 watt incandescents offering the same lumination.

$13 worth of electricity savings for an extra $4 up-front sounds like a pretty good deal. However, of course, it all depends on how many years it will take the user to generate the $13 of electricity savings — which in turn depends on how much the user uses the lightbulb.

A year is comprised of 8760 hours, so if the CFL operates 24/7, it will only take a few months to generate $13 in savings. Perhaps more importantly, it will only take a few weeks to pay back the extra $4 for the CFL instead of the incandescent. But, few of us use any lights anywhere near that much.

For a lamp used an hour a day, or about 300 hours a year, it will take 10 years to achieve the $13 in savings — or about 3 years to recover the $4 extra premium for buying the CFL instead of incandescents. A 3-year payback represents a good internal rate of return, on the order of 20%, which is far better than the long-term returns historically offered by the stock market.

So why don’t I pursue a 20% financial return? On further consideration, I am put off for two reasons.

First, I can see for sure the $4 extra leaving my hands today to buy the CFL — but I don’t have anywhere near the same degree of confidence that I’ll actually generate the economic savings at the desired pace. Will I really use the CFL about an hour a day? It might be more like 15 minutes a day, leading instead to a 12 year payback period — an outright unattractive financial return.

Second, I am strongly influenced my past negative experience with CFLs. If I buy this expensive lightbulb today, will I like its light? Will I be annoyed every time I turn it on and wait for it to have a color I can barely tolerate? Will I swap it out for a regular incandescent after a few weeks?

When I reflect upon it further, it’s the second set of considerations that put me off from buying that GE CFL. I bought CFLs in the past that I disliked, and don’t use. They were a bad investment. Even though it’s relatively small dollars involved, I don’t like making mistakes — and I really hate making the same mistake twice.

I speculate that I might not be alone in having a poor first impression of CFLs. Such a bias will probably need to be overcome by a no-cost favorable experience with a good CFL. If they really want to build the market, players like GE might consider an investment in a mass-scale public free trial — a mailbox stuffer? — of CFLs. I know that if I got a GE CFL for free, I’d give it a go — and assuming I liked the product, maybe then I’d consider buying some at $4.49 per.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

A Head-Knocker

by Heather Rae

Consider a basement, a typical basement in rural Maine. Call is what it is — a cellah — a five foot high, dirt-floored head-knocker, with a boulder emerging from beneath its easternmost foundation wall. Add some radon, as radon is pervasive in these parts. Throw down some plastic sheathing; ‘affix’ this sheathing to the craggy foundation ledge with bricks and rocks. Tromp all over it in muddy boots. Add to this spider den a new 275 gallon oil tank and an older horizontal Thermapride forced air furnace. Connect the furnace to a badly built, unlined, chimney and a labyrinth of ductwork that heats only the first floor. Note the flexi-duct added as an afterthought to route warm air to the upstairs bathroom. Bring in a metered town water pipe with a spigot that does not entirely turn off the main water supply. Watch the copper plumbing waver unsecured from the floor beams. (See the plumbing break at random joints when James and John go to reconnect the copper pipes to the clothes washer. See the undulating plumbing trickle water, preventing James and John from soldering joints for hours on a Friday afternoon. Hear John ask his wife to take a taxi to a meeting; he won’t be home too soon.) Rejoice that the electrical box and wires appear to be new, functioning and properly installed (although the remnants of knob and tube wiring remain.) Consider that this homeowner would prefer the furnace and the decrepit chimney go away altogether, along with the $1800 cost to line the chimney with steel…steel because the emissions from burning oil are so corrosive. Know that I would also like a tighter, more comfortable, healthier and more energy-efficient house, whether or not this basement, this crawlspace, is included in the thermal envelope…most preferably, not. Can the house be made energy efficient enough to warrant a propane-based heating system? Rephrasing that, can it be done without huge costs for landscaping and water and radon remediation prior to air sealing and insulating? I have been jonesing for PEX (cross-linked high-density polyethylene) that won’t bust in freezing temperatures. It’s easier to install and move and repair. (I’m hoping it’s greener than copper, but that’s another matter entirely.) By replacing the copper with an insulated chase of PEX and foaming the underside of ceiling of the basement can I consider ridding the basement of the furnace and its leaky ducts and removing the chimney? Can I then phase in an on-demand hydronic heating system — the one that will heat hot water, too? It’s all so easy in theory to make a house energy efficient, but these conundrums are as painful as knocking a head on a cellah beam.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Fuel Cell 2007 Conference Highlights

By John Addison (6/19/07). Several hundred engineers, researchers, and managers shared fuel cell technology, trends, and market success at the Fuel Cell 2007 Conference. In some areas, fuel cells generate millions in revenues from commercial deployment; in other areas, fuel cells are early in research and development. A number of commercial products involve hydrogen PEM fuel cells. Business is steady for molten carbonate and phosphoric acid fuel cells. There was optimism about solid oxide fuel cells using a variety of fuels including landfill methane, natural gas, diesel, JP-8, and biomass.

In 2006, Ballard (BLDP) shipped 147 PEM fuel cells to replace lead-acid batteries in fork lifts. In large distribution and manufacturing environments, every minute counts. Fuel cells are cost justified in improving the productivity of moving goods. Fuel cells are more heat and cold tolerant, providing competitive advantage in many distribution centers.

Plug Power (PLUG) is aggressively pursuing the fork lift business. Plug recently acquired General Hydrogen, an early leader in Class 1 and 2 forklifts. Plug also acquired Celex, a leader in Class 3 forklifts. Contrary to concerns of some investors, it appears that Plug’s acquisitions may help Ballard who supplies fuel cell stacks to the acquired companies. Plug Power’s business model appears to be migrating towards integrated products and services for specific markets and applications. Ballard is a leader, in supplying fuel cell stacks; a field of growing and intensifying competition.

Toyota is also active in the hydrogen PEM forklift business since its acquisition of Raymond, a long-time provider of forklifts and material handling systems. Hydrogenics (HYGS) continues to see traction in fork lifts. Fuel cell forklift solutions are hybrid, also involving batteries for regenerative braking. Presentations forecasted 5,000 fuel cell sales in 2009 for forklifts and 20,000 in 2010.

Thanks to the sponsorship of Intelligent Energy, I was at the conference presenting One Million Hydrogen Riders in California by 2020 – An Optimistic Scenario. Free Report.

Hydrogen fuel cells are making progress in cars and heavy-vehicles. Several auto makers will be adding more vehicles in demonstration fleets this year. Several have ranges of 250-miles and more. General Motors recently demonstrated a 300-mile range with its Sequel. GM is rumored to also start demonstrating vehicles running hydrogen in internal combustion machines (HICE). GM was to speak at the conference, but cancelled at the last minute. The reason, perhaps, was a GM reorganization.

General Motors thinks its hydrogen fuel cell is ready to move out of the research lab. GM is shifting responsibility for the work from its research labs to engineering groups that develop engines and vehicles for commercial production. 500 people are being reassigned.

The shift is a sign of GM’s increasing determination to have a fuel cell vehicle on the market by around 2011. “We’re transitioning from science and research to developing real propulsion systems,” Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and strategic planning, said in an interview.

Another area of hydrogen fuel cell success is providing remote stand-by power for the telecommunications industry. Batteries in temperature-sensitive areas have failed to often. The financial stakes are too high in telecommunications to continue depending on unreliable batteries. Telecoms such as Verizon and Sprint are buying from PlugPower and ReliOn. The Western States Alliance is buying from Altergy and Hydrogenics for stand-by back-up.

Big and hot fuel cells have a growing pipeline in the 250kW to multi-MW space. FuelCell Energy (FCEL) and Fuji offer molten carbonate energy solutions with by-product heat. Projects are using natural gas, propane, biogas, and anaerobic digester (AD) gas. POSCO, a Korean steel manufacturer, ordered a 7.5MW from FCEL to reduce their heavy use of 28 cents/kWh grid electricity. Linde will distribute FuelCell Energy for water treatment.

Long-term, molten carbonate growth may be threatened by solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFC). Keenly aware of this, FuelCell Energy finalized terms with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a $36.2 million Phase I award to develop a coal-based, multi-megawatt solid oxide fuel cell-based hybrid system.

Six industry teams have successfully completed tests of the first solid oxide fuel cell prototypes that can be manufactured at costs approaching those of conventional stationary power-generation technology. Part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) program, these results reflect progress towards commercially-viable solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems.

The six industry teams, led by Acumentrics, Cummins Power Generation, Delphi Automotive Systems, FuelCell Energy, General Electric, and Siemens Power Generation, designed and manufactured SOFC electrical power generators in the 3-10 kilowatt range. The industry teams’ prototypes surpassed the Department of Energy (DOE) Phase I targets. The prototypes demonstrated:

  • Average efficiency of 38.5 percent and a high of 41 percent, exceeding the DOE target of 35 percent.
  • Average steady-stage power degradation of 2 percent per 1,000 hours, besting the DOE target of 4 percent per 1,000 hours.
  • System availabilities averaging 97 percent, topping the 90 percent DOE target across the board.
  • Projected system costs ranging from $724 to $775 per kilowatt, which eclipsed the DOE intermediate target for an annual production of 250 megawatts and positions the teams to meet the 2010 target of $400 per kilowatt target.

For home stationary power applications, it will require combined heat and power (CHP) to financially justify fuel cell installations. Adaptation is predicted in markets where utility-delivered costs are high for heat and electricity, such as in Japan and Korea. Ballard will be delivering a higher temperature PEM to address the CHP market.

In the long-run, conference attendees showed more enthusiasm for SOFCs which can use existing fuels, such as kerosene in Japan and natural gas in other markets. For example, Ceres Power (CWR.L) is developing low cost and robust fuel cells that will be combined into stacks capable of generating between 1kWe and 25kWe. EDF Energy Networks, the UK’s largest electricity distributor, will be offering Ceres for home CHP.

SOFC may be the fuel cell of choice for auxiliary power on trucks and military vehicles. Delphi Automotive Systems has SOFCs in development for on vehicle use of diesel and JP-8. Cost effective removal of sulfur is a major issue, especially for the DOD’s JP-8.

Surprisingly, there was little discussion of micro fuel cells. Major Japanese consumer electronic companies were at the conference, but no products were presented. Continued reduction in power demand plus advancements in batteries and ultracapacitors may obviate micro fuel cell adoption.

The Fuel Cell 2008 Conference is planned to be in Long Beach, California, in June 2008.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report which tracks clean transportation in California. His articles have appeared in print and electronic magazines with over one million readers: Yahoo Finance, The Auto Blog, The Auto Channel, EV World, Cleantech, Green Post, Seeking Alpha, Hydrogen Nation and others. Mr. Addison is a popular speaker, conducting over 1,000 workshops in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The Real Price of Gasoline

by Richard T. Stuebi

A couple of weeks ago, 17 Democratic governors, including Governor Strickland of my state of Ohio, sent a letter to President Bush urging that something be done to lower gasoline prices. (News release and letter text on Governor Strickland web site)

I was contacted by an Ohio AP wire reporter to comment on this letter. In responding, I said such a letter was at best naive — just what can the President really do to lower gasoline prices? — but more importantly ill-advised. Higher energy prices help us reduce our “addiction” to oil from sources of increasing concern, as well as reduce emissions and encourage the development and adoption of new energy alternatives. In other words, I had the gall to claim that higher gasoline prices were actually good, not bad.

Of course, this was not exactly a popular position to take, and my quotes generated a bit of buzz across the state. (See example from the Coshocton Tribune) A key element of my argument was that customers are prevented from facing the true cost of gasoline, as the expenditures on military protection of oil production, refining and transportation in and around the increasingly dangerous Middle East are not recovered through gasoline taxes, but rather through income taxes.

I recalled a presentation I had heard from last summer, suggesting that these subsidies were on the order of $10/gallon. The problem was: my memory was vague, I had never seen the actual study, I wasn’t sure that I fully believed the results and couldn’t confirm its validity, but I knew that the conclusions were at least directionally correct. So, I weaseled in my interview, saying something like “Some observers have calculated the subsidy at $10/gallon.” Naturally, the reportage indicated that the $10/gallon figure was mine. I assure you: it wasn’t. I have told many people that my instinct (without any substantiating analysis) suggests that the subsidy is probably in the $3-5/gallon range. Mind you, still a meaningful number, any way you slice it.

So, after the interviews and articles, I went back to find the study that was at the root of my recollection of a $10/gallon subsidy figure. The analysis belongs to Milton Copulos, the President of the National Defense Council Foundation. Mr. Copulos apparently updated his work this past January, and he now suggests a subsidy of $8.35/gallon of gasoline refined from Persian Gulf oil. Since the Persian Gulf reflects roughly 40% of world oil production, this implies a $3.35/gallon subsidy when spread across all gallons of gasoline. That’s more in line with my expectations.

Again, a meaningful number. It means that gasoline prices should be, not $3/gallon, but on the order of $6/gallon, about what gasoline prices actually are in Europe. Moreover, this price level doesn’t include the environmental costs associated with burning gasoline. How much additional might this represent?

All told, my idea of a phased-in gasoline tax increase still seems sensible to me, so that the price signals to customers would begin to more closely match the true full cost of oil exports out of the Middle East. I was pleased to note a Cincinnati Enquirer editorial that was generally very supportive of my arguments, though less ambitious than my yearly 50 cent/gallon increase.

I don’t expect to win any votes with this position — not even in Cincinnati. Thank goodness I have no political aspirations.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Micro Fuel Cell Killer – What’s Next?

About 4 or 5 years ago micro fuel cells were quite a hot topic in cleantech. They were going to power our laptops, cell phones, PDAs, blackberries, hand held multimedia devices, etc.

The story ran like this:

The digital age and increasing customer demand for more power hungry features like bandwidth, multimedia, et al on mobile devices like laptops, PDAs and cellphones mean the increase in power requirements are outstripping the pace of technology of lithium ion battery – therefore the only solutions will be micro fuel cells. And since battery manufacturers are a plodding, unimaginative lot, silicon valley and smart scientists can build a company to leapfrog them.

We saw major players like Motorola, Toshiba, Intel, and others taking a look, and startups like Smart Fuel Cells, Medis and MTI Micro seeking to make their name on a fuel cell the size of a credit card (or thereabouts) .

Today, still no micro fuel cell powered devices are on the market, many of the larger players have gone quiet, and all the startups are talking up battery charger (not device power pack) products – especially for the military and first responders.

What happened? What killed the micro fuel cells? Can they come back? And is something similar lurking around the corner for solar, electric vehicles, biofuels, next generation batteries or one of today’s other darlings of the cleantech sector that we can learn from?

Well . . . let’s see:

The technology is actually hard – Micro fuel cell technology proved a harder nut to crack than everyone thought (at least at anywhere near the same cost point) – and the product development issues given the state of the technology proved to be a real challenge.

Rational expectations – Market reaction to the underlying drivers has been aggressive. We’ve got global warming and high energy prices making people like Sun, Dell, and others hell bent on designing power saving devices – which the consumer is now interested in buying as a premium product. Once the electronic product companies actually put their minds to reducing power usage – well, it turned out that you actually CAN optimize a device to save power, and still pack enough features in to sell product.

The incumbent technology – Despite high profile thermal issues, the incumbent lithium ion technology turned out not to be so bad, and has continued to keep pace (as far as us lowly consumers can tell) – Bottom line: I now carry 2 very small 4 hour battery packs for my laptop – I can last a transocean plane flight without needing to plug in.

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure – And yes, having to make infrastructure changes is very costly in anything energy-esque, whether its in fuel, entrenched distribution, or tooling. As usual, winning technologies in energy tend to be owned by businesses that find a way to work with existing infrastructure, not to try and replace it.

And in the end, the batteries (and the big battery makers) still rule the roost, for now.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.

Blogroll Review: Bottles, Biobutanol, Bagasse

by Frank Ling

DIY Solar Water Heater

The Chinese have done it again. In a country that puts waste to good use, they have found another use for beer bottles: solar water heating.

Matt James writes about a Chinese farmer who made his own solar heater in the EcoGeek blog:

“…we get the story of a man who made his family a solar hot water heater from 66 recycled beer bottles. He should have called, I could have helped him empty the bottles.”

In this setup, 66 bottles were linked by hose to collect solar energy from the sun to heat up water. The farmer says this is enough to provide water for all 3 members of his family.

Bottoms up or as the Chinese say “ganpei.”

Biobutanol Bust?

While ethanol received more attention than any other alcohol out there, it’s time to rectify situation. Methanol, which causes blindness, has a bad rap. Propanol is best known as a disinfectant.

But butanol with four carbons could be the next alcohol rock star. Scientists say it is superior fuel to ethanol.

However, it may be years until we see biobutanol pumps along the highways. Robert Rapier at R-squared Energy Blog argues that biobutanol’s time has not come yet. He says:

“Sad to say, but I believe biobutanol is dead. While research will (and should) continue, the process is currently at least 10 years from any sort of commercial feasibility. And I would point out that ‘never’ falls under the umbrella of ‘at least 10 years.'”

One of the problems with biobutanol is the energy intensive process needed to remove water from the product. Nevertheless, companies like DuPont and BP are investing heavily to develop butanol from biological processes.

Bagasse Hope

At the end of the day, ethanol still holds the spotlight. Brazil has now shown how to make ethanol even more competitive. Toward realizing energy returns from the cellulosic components from sugar cane, Dedini SA has developed a process to convert bagasse or leftover can stalk into ethanol.

Jim Fraser at the Energy Blog explains:

“The technology uses two pretreatment steps to convert bagasse, the lignocellulose-rich byproduct from cane processing, into ethanol: (1) pretreatment of the biomass with organic solvents, and (2) dilute acid hydrolysis. The innovation consists of adding a first stage pretreatment step which allows the diluted acids to do their work much faster and more efficiently. The liquid hydrolyzates are then easily fermented and distilled into ethanol.”

Now if there was only a way to convert Spam into fuel. 🙂

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

Carbon Taxes…Sorry, I Meant, "Fees"

by Richard T. Stuebi

For a long time, I have been assuming that U.S. regulations to reduce carbon emissions, when they come, will be in the form of a cap-and-trade program, similar to what is in place in the U.S. for limiting sulfur dioxide emissions.

Even though a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions is probably workable, it is still (in my opinion) a less direct mechanism for reducing carbon emisisons than the more obvious: a carbon tax, priced on a $/ton emitted basis.

Carbon taxes have not found much favor because…well, they’re a tax, and no politician wants to implement a tax, as it’s deadly to one’s career ambitions. (Remember “Read my lips”?) More substantively, some have argued that a carbon tax would be harder to administer, though I would think that a cap-and-trade system would be much more cumbersome (all those allowances to track!).

For certain, a tax is a better structure dealing with emissions from all sources, large and small, whereas a cap-and-trade system is only manageable for large point source emitters — such as utility powerplants. Not surprisingly, therefore, oil and auto interests generally favor cap-and-trade as the carbon mitigation approach of choice. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, those utilities that have gone on record in support of climate legislation are OK with a cap-and-trade approach, probably because of accumulate utility experience with cap-and-trade for sulfur dioxide.

However, FPL Group (NYSE: FPL) has cast their lot in arguing for a carbon “fee” — a tax by any other name, but a much more acceptable term. (Policy statement here) This is the first big company that I’m aware of that has gone this far out on the carbon tax limb.

True, FPL is not among the leading carbon emitters: with a large emphasis on gas, nuclear and wind for their electricity generation, they can better afford to adopt a bolder climate stance than other utilities.

But I wonder if other utilities — Exelon (NYSE: EXC) comes to mind, maybe Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) — can be far behind? And, if so, will the pendulum swing away from cap-and-trade to carbon taxes…er, fees?

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Cleantech Media Juggernaut is NOT Slowing Down

There is still lots of talk about a bubble in cleantech, in part because the media juggernaut that cleantech has become is NOT slowing down. You can always track the substance by watching what happens in the media and networking, so . . .

New things launched from some of my favorite media in cleantech:

Yahoo! has launched Yahoo! Green. The cleantech website for the mass market., my favorite stock site in this sector, has launched a Cleantech News section.

The Wall Street Journal has launched Energy Roundup of the best of the blogosphere.

Major conference operator Terrapinn has entered the cleantech sector with GreenVest 2007 coming up locally in San Francisco on June 25-27. (I’m chairing it, so I promise it will be good!). But the real draw to this one are the point and counterpoint keynotes of Khosla Ventures and Cleantech Capital Group.

And my friends at Cleantech Capital, who started it all, have launched, which since I have three of our startups actively out looking for execs, I can attest is in serious demand.

Just for grins, let us know in our comments section of any new product or website launches in cleantech and clean energy that you find of note, and whether you think they represent bubble, or substance.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.

Not What You Want to Hear

by Heather Rae

James Prentice and John Whitworth showed up a few weeks ago upon a recommendation from a trusted source. They are the Balsam Group: Integrated Alternative Building Solutions for the Environmentally Aware Homeowner. They call their design process, Function Form, and it starts with an examination of a clients’ needs. I have called them in to replace the rotten sill under the ‘ell’ and when they arrive, I first take them to the second floor to give them a feel of the house, along with a lighthearted narrative of my plans.

Later, James asks me to tell them what I want — all of it. I tell him it makes me sad to acknowledge what I can’t afford. I tell him I want ‘simple,’ but mean ‘minimalist.’ What I mean, really, is, this is shoestring. I am a pain in the ass. They hang with me.

We look at the bedroom wall I’d taken down (wrong wall). John says, *this* is the wall that should go away, putting a hand on the wall cutting across the upstairs landing at the foot of the stairs to the attic. We climb the steep stairs to the attic and ooh and awe at possibilities not likely to come to fruition in my lifetime. This is my favorite space in the house, because it smells of old wood and it’s peaceful and warm and nobody has buggered it but for a sprinkling of cellulose insulation under the floorboards. We look at the sad chimney and talk about the new roof and the tiny leak it still has around the chimney flashing and their method for fixing it. We talk insulation materials and drywall and painted floors. John and I joust in our frankness, and I sense that these two people are here for a reason, however painful their assessment of my reality. We look at the old wood windows and their drafty hollows that contain the window weights. Then I show them the ‘ell’ and merrily wax on: this is going to be the new kitchen!

John and James ask, what would make you most happy? Happy? I have had several energy-oriented contractors come through this house, a by-product of what I do for a living. None has asked what would make me happy; they are looking at the structure through building science and diagnostic measurements, not emotion. One even questions why, after living in the place a month, I am working on a bedroom when, from an energy perspective, it needs so much else.

Back to happy. I’m a Yankee WASP willing to forgo comfort for a buck and manage to come up with: a comfortable bedroom that doesn’t have loose plaster walls or ugly wallpaper…a kitchen that doesn’t reek of mouse piss and a faucet that doesn’t leak and actually extends over the divide in the kitchen sink…a warm place so I don’t huddle around a wood stove this winter to thaw my toes…biofuel in the oil-fired forced air furnace, now that the new energy-efficient hydronic heating system is out of the question and this 78% AFUE furnace is sticking around…an on-demand water heater to replace the water tank in the kitchen and its funky electrical components. And more.

Through my engagement with James and John, certainty erodes; my overly-turned plans take a spin into an abyss of confusion. I seek clarity and consistency in building science and do not find it; everybody has their own take. All that I have plotted in my head, all the neato energy-efficient cleantech retrofitting and remodelling I have schemed — and the information I have gathered on building science and green building — they want to see on paper. They sense, and comment on, my palpable stress. I assure them it’s not about their work. They want priorities. I contemplate this stress en route to Home Depot. I eventually type up a table of everything, including a one-car garage, putting bold Ps next to the few priorities.

Weeks later, I have taken down the wall that John has tagged. John and James have rebuilt a new wall and doorways. The new wall replaces the old plaster/lathe wall with its air leaks that flowed up through the top plates to the attic. The new drywall ceiling also stops the flow of air that was going up to the attic. Now there is an upstairs landing with ‘seasonal views’ to the Kennebec River, more light and far better feng shui than the old. The early morning fears of hemorrhaging dough, the source of my stress, give way to acceptance. I look forward to the daily arrivals of the Balsam Group.

The plans for a kitchen in the ‘ell’ have bitten the dust. James had suggested removing all the clapboard that I had scraped bare. I am crestallen. The dirt ‘slab’ under the ‘ell’ is too wet for proper insulation, for now, without signicant landscaping to control drainage. The sills will be expensive to replace. (A respected home performance contractor, looking sadly at the rotten sills, had suggested that tearing down the structure and starting over would be a less expensive alternative.) I hear from John, too, what I don’t want to hear. He says that old homes, to be properly remodelled, should be stripped and rebuilt — the clapboard should come off and be replaced with structurally insulated panels (SIPS) and an air passage, for example. In other words, a true remodel would look something like this zero energy home remodel that I found on the web: It’s an expensive proposition, to rebuild an old house, and as John says, the real estate values in these parts don’t warrant these kinds of makeovers.

While James and John work on the second floor, I scrape the grey oil paint off the floors of the bedrooms with a heat gun and sand them down with 36 grit to the original wood. Back to their bare selves, they are beautiful. This second floor project is costing far more than I had ever imagined, and if I had been presented with an estimate, after I had changed course and taken down the second wall, I would likely not have pursued it. Yet, this new space is clean, the craftsmanship beautiful — and it does have some energy upsides. It makes me happy, and like a credit card ad, that’s priceless.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Building a Company: 0 to 60 in 4 Seconds

By John Addison (6/5/07). Hundreds of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds and most successful venture capitalists joined with many of California’s political leaders on Friday night to celebrate California’s Cleantech Revolution and to raise money for the California League of Conservation Voters.

Many arrived in fuel efficient hybrids. Martin Eberhard, CEO Tesla Motors, arrived in a zero-emission vehicle that can accelerate from zero to 60 in 4 seconds. At the moment, his Tesla Roadster must be shared with the firm’s engineers who are working overtime to finish the vehicle. In October, Martin Eberhard will be driving his own Tesla. As I talked with him, it was easy to see why he was smiling.

Globally, over 40 million people now drive electric vehicles. Most are e-bikes and light electric vehicles. Most are in Asia with ranges of less than 40 miles before battery recharging becomes necessary. Few of these vehicles reach freeway speeds.

400 people have placed orders for Tesla Roadsters with 100% deposits of about $100,000 per auto. Soon they will turning heads when they drive this ultimate sports car. With the body designed and built by Lotus, the car is beautiful and aerodynamic. With the average American household having two or more cars, the Tesla with its 200-mile range is perfect for over 90% of the trips taken by Americans daily.

At the moment each Tesla has a minimum purchase price of $92,000. You will need to get in line behind Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney and other luminaries who eagerly await their ordered vehicles.

Tesla is just getting started. The founders, including Martin Eberhard, have ambitions to make Tesla a major car manufacturer. On May 1, Mr. Eberhard gave the following testimony at a U.S. Senate Finance hearing:

“Tesla’s second model will be a roomy four door family car starting at $50,000, to be manufactured in our own plant in New Mexico beginning in 2009. Our third model will follow as quickly as we can, and will be more affordable still.
“Tesla intends to become a major car company with a full line of highly efficient – but also highly desirable – electric cars. Our strategy is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then move down-market as quickly as possible to higher production levels and lower prices with each successive model. This strategy also allows us to change radically the public perception of electric cars, opening the market for a full spectrum of electric car models.”

A secret to making a five-seat sedan electric vehicle for $50,000 is lowering the cost of the battery stack. While major auto OEMs are betting on new lithium chemistry in larger form factors, Tesla integrates 6,831 commodity 18650-sized lithium-ion cells into the 56 kWh Energy Storage System (ESS) pack. The 18650 size is somewhat larger than an AA battery. The size is popular in a range of consumer electronics. Millions are made in high-volume, low cost manufacturing. Amp hours keep increasing; prices keep falling. Tesla will buy the batteries from one, or more, Japanese suppliers. The Japanese market share leaders are Sanyo, Sony, Matsushita, NEC, and Hitachi.

Tesla has devoted thousands of hours to designing and building these packs. State of charge, recharging, and heat must be managed for safety and long battery life. Cell failures must not lead to thermal runaway. Tesla’s expertise lead to a recent $43 million sale of battery packs to Th!nk, the resurrected Norwegian manufacturer of light electric vehicles. Tesla Energy Group has been established to support this and other OEM energy storage opportunities.

The energy density of lithium-ion batteries has improved 500% in 15 years. With new energy storage chemistry, future electric vehicles could go much further at even lower cost. Japan’s METI has published a roadmap to reduce battery power cost 40X by 2030. METI Roadmap

Some very bright individuals and venture capitalists continue to bet of Tesla. Early investors included PayPal founder Elon Musk, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Tesla Motors recently completed a $45 million Series D investment round. The round was co-led by Technology Partners, a venture capital firm with a focus on Cleantech and Life Sciences, and by Elon Musk, entrepreneur and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies. A significant investment was made by Capricorn Investment Group.

All major investors from prior rounds of financing fully participated in this round, including Vantage Point Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, JP Morgan Bay Area Equity Fund, Valor Equity Partners and Compass Venture Partners.

With $45 million of new venture capital, Tesla Motors will build its new 150,000 square foot automobile assembly facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to produce the WhiteStar, This four-door, five-passenger all-electric sports sedan will utilize an aluminum chassis and body to reduce weight and extend range.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has directed the state’s General Services Division, and other appropriate agencies, to investigate the purchase of 100 WhiteStar vehicles for the state fleet over a two year period as a demonstration of the state’s commitment to clean energy.

As gas prices push $4.00 per gallon, public outcry has launched a Congressional investigation of oil companies. There are growing demands for more competition. Good news. Competition is here. You need look no further than the electric outlet in your garage.

This article is copyright John Addison with permission to excerpt, reproduce and publish. This article appears in full at the Clean Fleet Report.

3rd Generation Solar Cells – Dyesol Interview

Nick Bruse runs Strike Consulting, a cleantech venture consultancy; hosts the cleantech show, a weekly podcast of interviews with leaders involved in clean technology research, entrepreneurship, commentary and investment; and advises Clean Technology Australasia Pty Ltd and the leading advocate of Cleantech in Australia.

It seems we cant go a day at the moment without hearing about a new commissioning of a energy plant, or new technology development, or fund raising in the solar energy space at the moment.

Last week on The Cleantech Show I interviewed Sylvia Tulloch (podcast), the Managing director and founding team member for 3rd Generation solar cell technology company Dyesol (ASX: DYE). 3rd generation solar cell technology utilises biomimicry of the chlorophyll dye in plants to produce energy from the sun.

You can access the interview here

Many of you may be aware of Dyesol which has been a pioneer in the field of Dye Sensitised Cells (DSC) over the last 10 years, now providing the key dyes and Titania pastes to some of the 800 research and commercial organisations around the world developing DSC applications.

Don’t miss this interview, as Sylvia goes into detail about how DSC technology will have a large roll in the coming decade. Dyesol has also recently signed a number of large partnership agreements and supply contracts to for new DSC applications.

We discuss the technology and the applications where its lower cost high volume potential for energy generation in building materials, consumer devices and a host of other applications means it will have a signifcant roll in the future.

Plugging Along

by Richard T. Stuebi

It has long been axiomatic that fuel cells are years away from being commercially available: a technology that is not yet a product. For a brief shining moment in 2000, fuel cells were almost as hot as dot-coms, and several fuel cell companies went public and soared to extraordinary heights, before the market came to the realization that revenues — much less profitability — were many years away. The crash was not pretty, as it never is.

Perhaps no company experienced this boom/bust roller-coaster as vividly as Plug Power (NASDAQ: PLUG). PLUG was touting a vision of a fuel cell system in every basement of every building, generating emission-free power on-site for sale back into the grid. Not long after its IPO in late 1999, PLUG stock rose from about $20 to the $150 range, with a market cap of untold billions.

Then, someone came to realize that mass-distribution of hydrogen to fuel PLUG’s PEM fuel cells would be an issue. And, the required price point for PLUG’s system to be economic relative to grid power was very challenging. As with the dot-coms, retail investors discovered that a business model that would generate prompt/growing profitability — always the basis for stock valuations — was not going to be easy for PLUG, and began unloading the stock.

Since the peak, PLUG promptly fell below its IPO price by late 2001 (helped, no doubt, by the combination of 9/11, Enron, etc.), and has trickled down into the low single digits — currently roughly $3. Those who shorted the stock must have done well.

It’s easy to think that PLUG has been circling the drain. The Motley Fool continues to highlight PLUG (and other fuel cell companies) as bad investments. However, I was present last month at the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition‘s annual symposium in Columbus, and was intrigued to learn that PLUG appears to be on the move.

In the past two months, PLUG has acquired not one but two companies, General Hydrogen and Cellex, both of whom are located in Vancouver BC, and both of whom were developing competing fuel cell applications to serve the industrial handling (read: fork-lift) markets.

True, fork-lifts may not be as big a deal as the potential offered by home power systems. But, no-one can deny it’s a real market with customers needing better solutions than can be offered by rechargeable batteries (propane in indoor environments is being phased out, due to indoor air quality and safety concerns). As is well-known, batteries are not an ideal solution for fork-lifts: the fork-lift loses performance as the battery discharges, battery recharge takes hours, and battery change-out is bulky and time-consuming. In contrast, the fuel cell pack can be quickly refilled with hydrogen in a few minutes, and the fork-lift is able to maintain its full performance until the fuel cell needs to be refilled. Hydrogen storage and refilling infrastructure on a site with many fork-lifts is relatively simple and cost-effective to implement.

With the new acquisitions, PLUG now is in a dominant position to serve a near-term market in which fuel cells can create demonstrable value for customers.

According to the presentation I heard at the symposium, initial trial runs of the Cellex technology at a Wal-Mart distribution center have been very promising, and could lead to an expansion of the testing program in short order. If a high-profile and enormous client like Wal-Mart were to want to roll-out fuel cell technology at all of its locations, it would be an affirming accomplishment for the fuel cell industry, and could perhaps begin to repair the sector’s battered reputation.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.