The Immutable Principles of Energy

by Richard T. Stuebi

Jim Halloran, a financial analyst of the oil/gas industry now with Russell Energy Advisors at Financial America Securities, recently sent along to his various contacts something he came up with called “The Immutable Principles of Energy”. I liked it, and thought it was worth passing on verbatim to readers of my blog:

1. Never confuse reserves with production.

2. The biggest, best fields are discovered first.

3. Commodities are priced at the margin – the last 1% dictates the price.

4. E&P companies are serial destroyers of capital. Any appearance to the contrary is a temporary aberration, usually due to hoped-for, unsustainable pricing gains.

5. More than any other sector, time is money with respect to Energy.

6. The more efficient we become in our use of energy, the more we will use (Jevons’ Paradox).

7. The more society expands and demands greater access to energy, the more it will create roadblocks to its delivery.

8. We desire six qualities in our energy sources: 1) Affordability (cheap); 2) Abundance; 3) Reliability; 4) Purity; 5) Universal access; 6) Environmentally friendly. There is no set of circumstances under which all of these can exist simultaneously.

9. There exists at least a “$2 differential” between crude oil and competing sources of energy, regardless of the price of crude oil.

10. In dealing with OPEC, pay attention to what its members do, and give little heed to what they say.

11. Governments look at energy fields as sources of revenue, not as sources of energy:
· Governments have a disincentive to promote efficiency/conservation
· Income streams will be protected as to magnitude
· Long-term energy planning is incompatible with political realities

12. Once a field goes into decline, it will not increase production beyond this peak in the future without capex infusions that will prove to be uneconomic.

13. Crude oil is universal. The price you pay for gasoline is determined more by the small producer in Colombia than by the Wal*Mart on the corner

14. Natural gas is local. The price will continue to be set by continental production even after the lawyers have given up fighting the LNG terminals.

15. The media know nothing about the oil business. The more strident the published predictions of a price extension above (below) extreme levels, the closer the oil market is to a temporary top (bottom)

16. “It’s always something” – Roseanne Roseannadanna

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Electric Cars Facilitate Smart Grid 2.0

By John Addison (original post Clean Fleet Report)

The electric car will facilitate the smart grid and a renewable energy charging infrastructure. The electric car will help make the smart grid relevant to consumers. Right now most cars use inefficient engines fueled with gasoline or diesel. In the coming decades, many cars will use electricity. With a smart grid, renewable energy will do much of the charging.

New electric cars from Nissan, Toyota, GM, Ford and others will use a charging standard J1772. The new charging units at home and work will include a smart meter chip. When a driver plugs-in, charging will follow preferences pre-established by the car owner. Many will prefer to save money and charge at night when rates are cheaper.

States with the earliest adopters of electric cars are also states where utilities face big renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The lowest cost renewable per megawatt is wind, but much of the wind turbine power is delivered at night when winds are most constant. With a smart grid and price incentives, electric cars will be charged off-peak using renewables.

The promise of smart grid electric vehicle charging was discussed at the GreenBeat 2009 conference last week by technology leaders such as Google and Cisco, and utility leaders such as Duke Energy and Southern California Edison. Al Gore presented smart grid and super grid findings from his comprehensive new book about climate solutions – Our Choice.

The current Smart Grid 1.0 is frankly boring. Smart Grid 2.0 promises to make our life better with less use of damaging coal power emissions.

With Smart Grid 1.0, new electric meters are being installed. Utilities save because they no longer need to send people out to read meters. Services can start and stop without rolling trucks to make manual connects and disconnects. Utilities are saving while the consumers pay for the new meters with rate hikes.

Electric utility industry has shifted from years of falling costs to rising costs. Utilities need to shift energy use and vehicle charging off-peak to avoid unnecessary investments in expensive peaking power plants. A smart grid is needed to fully utilize renewable energy and moderate fossil fuel emissions.

Smart Grid 2.0 could help some people over $1,000 per year by automating their preferences in heating, cooling, running smart appliances, and even doing jobs like running the dishwasher when excess renewable energy is available. Energy efficiency and demand management is already saving some enterprises millions per year. Most state public utility commissions (PUC) are afraid of implementing consumer time-of-use (TOU) pricing to give people the incentive to use energy when it is plentiful not scarce. The latest class action lawsuit hardly encourages PUCs to act more boldly.

Public utility commissions are more willing to allow pricing incentives for vehicle charging. Electric cars will help move us to Smart Grid 2.0. Through web browsers, smartphones, and vehicle displays, drivers will select smart charging preferences and get feedback on how to use less electricity and save money. Early electric cars will cost more than their gasoline counterparts, but their electric charging will cost a fraction of the cost of gasoline fill-ups.

Currently, there are only 40,000 electric cars running in the United States. As exciting new offerings are being tested and sold, 1.5 million electric cars are expected in the U.S. by 2015 presented Sharon Allan, the Senior Executive, North American Smart Grid Practice, for Accenture.

Charging these electric cars will help transform the promise of a smart grid into a convenient cost-saving reality.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.

Mercury Rising

by Richard T. Stuebi

Unlike some other environmental issues, there is virtually no controversy or skepticism about the perils of mercury in the environment. Not only has mercury been known for centuries to be highly poisonous, it’s also increasingly linked to other physiological ills, including some speculation in recent years that mercury is related to certain neurological disorders.

Despite the breadth of constituencies concerned about mercury pollution, it’s evident that we have a long way to go. A report just issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that mercury concentrations exceeded safe levels at 49% of U.S. lakes and reservoirs sampled during 2000-2003.

Where does all this mercury in our water come from? Sources can be classified into two groups. One is legacy industrial facilities from days of yore, in which mercury was either used in or generated as a by-product of the core production process. Although many of these facilities are now shut down, the mercury often lingers at these sites, even after remediation approaches and efforts have been pursued. Over time, the mercury finds its way into aquifers underground or nearby rivers and streams.

The other group of sources is related to coal use. Mercury is a trace element in most hydrocarbons, but especially in coal. Thus, where it is mined or stored in a pile, rainfall leaches mercury from the coal on the ground. And, when it is burned – mainly, at powerplants – mercury emissions come out the smokestack into the air, only to fall somewhere else downwind in a future rainstorm. Inevitably, the mercury ends up in the water – somewhere, someway, somehow.

Related to coal burning, the EPA is cracking down, via its upcoming Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), which aims to drive a 70% reduction in mercury air emissions from large point sources. Several mercury emission control technologies are under development, including those by companies such as Albemarle and Amended Silicates.

But, there’s a problem: much of the rest of the world won’t be subject to strict mercury emissions limits, so U.S. water supplies will still be fed new sources of mercury from elsewhere (such as China, which is adding new coal powerplants weekly absent any mercury control technologies), since mercury emissions can stay airborne for a long time. In any event, we’re still exposed to mercury run-off from coal mines and coal piles – plus all of those legacy industrial sites.

Historically, the main approach for dealing with mercury in water streams has not actually involved taking mercury out of the water, but rather introducing large volumes of clean water to reduce overall concentration levels. To employ an old adage from the water industry: “the solution to pollution is dilution”.

In mathematical terms, instead of reducing the numerator, dilution involves massively increasing the denominator. But that approach can only go so far. For example, current EPA limits stipulate that all natural or manmade water streams feeding into the Great Lakes can have mercury concentration levels no higher than 1.3 parts per trillion (ppt). Given some of the nasty sources in the old industrial heartland, enormous volumes of clean water would need to be introduced to reduce concentrations of some of the polluted sources to permitted levels. So, let’s just say that something less than 100% of the water streams flowing into the Great Lakes are in mercury compliance.

Why not just extract the mercury from water? Until recently, only activated carbon has been known to be effective as an agent for removing mercury – but it leeches too, so once the carbon has adsorbed the mercury, it must be dealt with as a hazardous waste, implying expensive disposal procedures. And, carbon quickly saturates with mercury, so lots of carbon is required. All told, a very expensive process.

Because mercury remediation in water has generally been unsatisfactory from an economic (and sometimes also from an environmental) perspective, regulators have often been rather lenient in addressing water streams where mercury levels are above desirable (or even required) levels. Regulators rarely seek to be “bad guys”, so they tend to refrain from forcing corporations to undertake compliance actions that risk putting industrial facilities out of business, thereby eliminating major employers and tax bases – often in poor rural areas. Instead, variances and waivers are often issued, allowing non-compliance to continue.

A good solution for cost-effective removal of mercury from water may now finally be at hand. A Cleveland-area company named MAR Systems has developed a proprietary material of abundant and low-cost supply to use in lieu of activated carbon that almost instantaneously achieves very high (95+%) mercury capture and binds the mercury so that it can be disposed as ordinary waste. The fundamental intellectual property of MAR Systems is based on research undertaken by the EPA itself.

(Full disclosure: Early Stage Partners, the venture capital firm that I work with, was sufficiently impressed with the MAR Systems technology that it recently made an equity investment in the company, and I represent ESP on the Board of MAR Systems.)

Perhaps now the rising concern about mercury can be matched by a corresponding increase of remedial action, driving towards full compliance with the rules and regulations that are already on the books.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Why Can’t Tom Friedman Find Cleantech?

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite authors, had an editorial this week entitled, “America must lead in energy technology“. As with most of his recent writings and speeches, it’s targeted around the thesis of his Hot, Flat and Crowded book, which basically argues that a combination of climate change, globalization, and population growth are creating a crisis point in energy and resource use that must be dealt with by utilizing a shift of technologies to cleaner and more sustainable economic practices (some of us call that cleantech). Not a new idea, but as usual Tom Friedman articulates it well.

So for those of us who work in the trenches of cleantech, I found the language he used quite delightfully flighty.

Number one, when it comes to actually doing something about climate change, Friedman can’t seem to get beyond the idealists idea of a carbon tax.

In his article he mentions

cap-and-trade/carbon tax
tax on carbon
long term price on carbon

But not one mention of carbon trading or Kyoto, or CDM, ETS or any of the carbon trading work ($125 Billion in 2008) that makes up the vast majority of the current global response to climate change in process now.

The basic idea here is that the theoretically most efficient way to “put a price on carbon” is to tax carbon. Of course this ignores the reality on the ground that we are really, really bad at making efficient taxes, and the best real world that we absolutely have to have involved to succeed (read India and China) is even worse. So carbon tax basically means carbon trade war if you’re not careful. In the real world, a global response of cap and trade ends up being more efficient as it allows the melding of international trade schemes better, lets industry find the least cost path to comply, and also actually means compliance can be assured. And carbon tax ignores that fact that any economist worth their salt knows full well that a tax ensures some level of revenues to the taxing goverment, but does not necessarily mean you hit your abatement targets (some people just pay the tax). And didn’t we say it’s all about hitting the abatement targets? In the real world we’d actually like to do that with as LOW a carbon price as possible, as long as we hit the critical abatement levels. Unless you don’t like your current standard of living, in which case the fastest way to fight climate change is just take it out of GDP.

We as a globe entered into cap and trade and carbon trading as the best alternative that would 1) ensure we actually reduced GHG emissions enough (a tax doesn’t even pretend to do that) and 2) do it in the least cost path with the least economic collateral damage.

I heard him speak, so I’m pretty sure he knows how this works. But Friedman seems blissfully uninterested in diving down into the details on “how”, prefering to stay only in the “why” realm. Maybe because the how is actually hard. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change action, the devil is ALL in the details of the how.

Number two, Friedman must really, really hate the term cleantech. He uses everything else he can think of.

clean power 2 mentions
clean-energy hawk 1 mention
green hawk 1 mention
E.T. 3 mentions
energy technology 3 mentions
green-tech 1 mention
clean energy 3 mention

but not a single mention of the word cleantech or clean tech. Now do a google search and see how those terms compare. It’s not like cleantech is one of the top segments of the venture capital world. And it’s not like cleantech investment isn’t anchoring billions upon billions of market and policy dollars. Oh wait, yes it is.

I guess my only request is this, Tom, please come back to the real world, and give the guys in the cleantech and carbon trading trenches their due. They’ve been working hard for years on the topics you are just now discovering. And yes, I have a vested interest. That’s because I’m actually working in the trenches.

Neal Dikeman is the founder of Cleantech Blog, and the Chairman of Cleantech.org, and Carbonflow, and a partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC.

PG&E to Smart Charge 219,000 Electric Vehicles

By John Addison (originally published in the Clean Fleet Report)

By 2020, 219,000 customers of PG&E (NYSE: PCG) may say goodbye to those trips to the gas station. No more spinning dials at the pump – $20.00, $40.00, $80.00, etc. Instead drivers will conveniently plug-in their electric cars at home or work. The fill-up will be electrons, not gasoline.

Across the country, electric utilities are preparing to offer smart charging boxes for the garage and charging stations for work and downtown locations. For a fraction of gasoline cost, you will be able to charge plug-in vehicles.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), for example, is a utility that is planning to service between 219,000 and 845,000 battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids by 2020, under three different planning scenarios presented at Greentech’s The Networked Grid Conference. PG&E currently provides electricity to 5 million customers, including a few thousand that currently drive electric cars. Currently, most of these electric cars are 25-mile per hour neighborhood vehicles that are popular in college and university towns. A few hundred can zoom past you on a freeway, such as the Tesla Roadster.

This year, Newsweek ranked PG&E as the greenest utility in the country due to its strong commitment to customer energy efficiency programs and renewable energy (RE) programs. PG&E serves 15 million people in northern and central California with 123,054 miles electric distribution lines needed to cover 70,000 square miles of its service area. Natural gas is 46 percent of PG&E’s source for electricity, nuclear 20 percent, hydro 16 percent, and out-of-state coal only 2 percent.

Renewable Energy > Coal + Natural Gas by 2020

Renewable energy is 14 percent of PG&E’s total delivered electricity today. It will miss its legal requirement to be at 20 percent by the end of 2010 due to NIMBY roadblocks to large solar thermal plants in the desert. PG&E needs approvals to install the high-voltage lines necessary to bring utility-scale RE to PG&E customers, thereby adding to its current 18,610 circuit miles of interconnected transmission lines.

Hal LaFlash, PG&E Director of Emerging Clean Technologies, outlined how the utility will have 34.8 TWh of RE in 2010 and 77.6TWh of RE in 2020, the year when California utilities must generate 33 percent of their electricity from RE. By 2020, renewable energy may be the utility’s #1 source of energy. The RE mix will be (1) solar thermal, (2) photovoltaics, (3) wind, (4) geothermal, with bioenergy and ocean adding to the total.

With terawatts of nighttime wind power, PG&E may have more electricity at night than it needs. One million electric vehicles could easily be supported provided that they charge off-peak, preferably at night. Smart charging allows customers to plug-in; yet not have charging begin until a preferred time, such as when excess electricity is available to the grid. PG&E hopes to secure regulatory approval for time-of-use pricing so that customers have an incentive to charge at night.

Utility executives worry that people will charge whenever they feel like it. Since charging an electric car is like powering an entire home, the concern is valid. People are still buying gas guzzlers as pump prices rise, so they many may ignore price incentives to charge at night. So far, early customers of plug-in vehicles have been environmentally concerned, and have shown a preference for charging with renewables including their own solar rooftops. Automakers, utilities, and regulators are working to make it easy for new electric car customers to select night time and even renewable energy charging through web browsers, smart phones, and even vehicle dash displays.

Smart Charging and Renewable Energy

Between the electric cars and renewable energy will be a smart grid. Every vehicle charging device will include a smart meter. PG&E is leading the nation with 1.6 million smart meters now installed. It is installing an average of 13,000 per day, and will have 10 million smart meters installed by 2012.

Andrew Tang, PG&E Senior Director of the Smart Energy Web, expects 35 different models of plug-in vehicles to be available within the next two years. PG&E actively meets with auto makers to make sure that smart charging networking is compatible and in place. Only some homes and communities are now ready with dedicated 240V/30A circuits for the 4-hour charging that electric car leaders, such as Nissan recommend.

Although smart charging provides for two-way communication, electricity will only be delivered one-way from the grid to the vehicle. Mr. Tang expressed skepticism about vehicle-to-grid (V2G) being cost-effective and acceptable to customers and automakers, even though PG&E has done V2G demonstrations within its own fleet, with Tesla, with Google, and elsewhere. PG&E is looking at MW grid storage alternatives such as pumped hydro and compressed air, such as the 300MW compressed air storage in Kern Country that PG&E has applied for a federal grant. Sulfur Sodium batteries that could scale to hundreds of MW were also presented at the conference.

Infrastructure issues may be greatest in communities that are now adopting hybrid cars at fast rates. For example, in Berkeley, 18 percent of new car sales are hybrids. As electric cars sell briskly in some communities, PG&E will likely need to upgrade substations to handle the increased distribution of electricity.

With the advanced planning outlined in PG&E’s presentations and with regulatory support for time-of-use pricing, renewable energy, and high-voltage lines, PG&E will be ready to power a new generation of vehicles for a fraction of the cost of gasoline. Increasingly, these electric cars will be powered by solar, wind, and other renewables.

By John Addison who publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.

Reinventing Desalination

by Richard T. Stuebi

Many informed observers consider the inadequacy of clean drinking water to be one of the world’s most serious problems. By some estimates, 20% of the human population lacks access to good water supplies.

That’s not to say that these people live nowhere near water: indeed, most of humankind lives fairly close to an ocean. However, seawater is saline, and desalination is required to render it usable as drinking water.

Desalination is no theoretical pipe-dream: two desalination approaches have long existed to remove salt from water, distillation and reverse-osmosis. Regrettably, both are rather energy-intensive. No problem for the wealthy, but the world’s ultra-poor populations typically cannot afford either the construction or the operation of such desalination technology. And, so they go without good drinking water.

As reported in an article entitled “Current Thinking” in the October 31 issue of The Economist, a pair of entrepreneur/inventors (Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi) from Vancouver BC has launched a company called Saltworks Technologies that to commercialize a completely novel “thermo-ionic” approach for desalination, based on evaporation and ionic conduction, powered mainly by sunlight.

There are three beauties of this new approach concocted by Saltworks:

1. It is based primarily on solar thermal energy sources – and sunlight is often plentiful in some of the world’s poorest and most remote corners.
2. It theoretically requires only about 30% of the electricity requirement of the most efficient reverse-osmosis approaches now available for desalination.
3. It should be upward- and downward-scalable, making it a plausible solution for megacities and tiny villages alike.

All three of these factors imply that the Saltworks technology could dramatically reduce the cost of desalination and bring it into economic reach for the untold billions of the world’s thirsty poor.

This is yet another shining example of how high-tech innovators are solving the world’s biggest problems. The future health of our planet and success of our species demands more people like Mssrs. Sparrow and Zoshi. And, political, corporate, financial, academic and civic leaders around the globe would be well-advised to keep improving the environments within which those like Sparrow and Zoshi come up with and pursue unconventional and sometimes brilliant ideas.


Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at
NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

2010 Hybrid Cars with Best MPG

By John Addison (11/10/09, original post Clean Fleet Report)

The new 2010 model hybrid cars offered in the U.S. are destined to sell with gasoline prices rising. Toyota (TM) dominates the list including new models from Lexus. There are also impressive offerings from Honda (HMC), Ford (F), Nissan (NSANY), and Chevrolet (GMGMQ.PK). Your top 10 choices include hatchbacks that start at under $20,000 and stretch to roomy premium SUVs that cost over $40,000.

Toyota Prius continues to lead the field in fuel economy and lowest lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. This perennial favorite midsize 4-door hatchback delivers 50 miles per gallon (mpg) and is lowest on the list with 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for the EPA annual driving cycle. Yes, 3.7 tons of CO2e is a lot; but many cars, light trucks, and SUVs create three times that emission; to get lower emissions you would need a plug-in car. The hatchback design allows for more cargo, especially if you drop part or all of the 60/40 back bench seat. This year, Toyota is also putting 500 plug-in hybrid Priuses into fleet tests. 2010 Toyota Prius Review

Honda Civic Hybrid is a good alternative for those who want a traditional looking sedan that seats 5. This compact rates saves fuel at 42 mpg. At 4.4 annual tons of CO2e, this hybrid emits actually emits less greenhouse gases than its CNG cousin.

Honda Insight is a sporty four-door hatchback with an Ecological Drive Assist System. Although the Insight looks like the Prius, it is a bit smaller, lighter, and often $2,000 less than the Prius. The Insight will deliver 41 mpg combined, with annual emissions of about 4.5 tons of CO2e. Clean Fleet Report Test Drive

Ford Fusion Hybrid is appealing to those who want a made in America midsized sedan. This roomy 5-seater delivers 39 mpg and 4.7 tons of CO2e per year. The Fusion Hybrid and its first cousin the Mercury Milan Hybrid may travel up to 47 miles per hour in pure electric mode. The Advanced Intake Variable Cam Timing allows for more seamlessly transition between gas and electric modes, making for a smooth and quiet ride. Clean Fleet Report Test Drive The Mercury Milan Hybrid offers the same drive system and body, with upscale interior.

Lexus HS 250h is a stylish compact 4-seat sedan that delivers 35 mpg and 5.3 tons of CO2e per year. The Lexus brand lets your friends know that are using less petroleum by choice; you can afford a bit of luxury.

2010 Top 10 Hybrids for Best Fuel Economy:

1. Toyota Prius
2. Honda Civic Hybrid
3. Honda Insight
4. Ford Fusion Hybrid
5. Lexus HS 250h
6. Nissan Altima Hybrid
7. Toyota Camry Hybrid
8. Ford Escape Hybrid SUV
9. Lexus RX 450h SUV
10. Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Get more details about the Clean Fleet Report 2010 Top 10 Hybrids. Major auto shows are coming, so check back as we update the list in the months ahead.

By John Addison who publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He has no positions in any of the stocks mentioned. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.

Biofuel Beatdown

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “U.S. Biofuel Boom Running on Empty”, which presented a blistering across-the-board slam on biofuels. Perhaps more interesting than the WSJ article itself was an email reaction I received from a prominent energy tech venture capitalist with keen visibility into the transportation fuel space (whom I will keep anonymous), who said:

“The article makes the common mistake of using the broad term ‘biofuel’ when they should be focusing down to ‘biodiesel’ and ‘corn-based ethanol’….Renewable diesel and ‘green’ gasoline are still alive and attracting big VC dollars. Engineered microbes, bacteria and algae work to produce drop-in fuels are still going.”

Notwithstanding the bad recent press — a virtually-forecastable reaction to the excessive biofuels hype of the 2005-2007 era — reasonable potential for biofuels still remains. To wit, a new report from the United Nations entitled “Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Biofuels” makes clear that certain biofuel feedstocks and production approaches are much more environmentally-friendly than others. And, as more of these biofuel production schemes turn away from inputs subject to the vagaries of food market dynamics, the financial volatility facing producers should substantially decline (though price fluctuations in the output fuel markets will always remain).

Biofuels have fallen prone to oversimplification. Because corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel are both environmentally marginally beneficial and economically unattractive at current prices for feedstocks and fuels, many immediately leap to the conclusion that all biofuel technologies are inherently and forever unattractive. Don’t fall prey to that mistake. It’s just not true.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Low Cost Desalination – Saltworks Breakthrough

Canadian firm, Saltworks Technologies, just came out of stealth in relation to their desalination technology, which they claim reduce the electrical energy required for desalination by over 70%. They report they can produce 1m3 of water with 1kW hour of electrical energy, compared to the 3.7kWhr per m3, which is what is currently achievable using reverse osmosis with the use of energy recovery devices.
So how to they do it? Well its novel. It appears to be a new approach. And novel and new are two things scarce as hens teeth in relation to desalination technologies.
They use solar heat (or waste heat) to evaporate water and concentrate salt water. They are converting solar energy into osmotic energy by doing this. They then use this osmotic energy to desalinate water.
They then expose the concentrated salt water to two separate solutions of regular salt water via two different ‘bridges’, one which is porous to chloride ions, the second which is porous to sodium ions.

The sodium and chloride ions migrate across the respective bridges into the salt water solutions to equalise the difference in ion concentration between the solutions.
This creates two charged solutions, one enriched with sodium ions (positively charged), the second enriched with chloride ions (negatively charged).
These two solutions are then exposed across two similar bridges to the water to be desalinated. This draws sodium ions into the chloride enriched solution and draws chloride ions into the sodium enriched solution: Net result desalination. Doing this they reckon they can produce 1m3 of water using 1kWh of electrical energy, which is used to pump fluids around the pipework.
Because the system is not under pressure, they can use plastic pipes instead of steel pipes, potentially reducing capital costs also.

I met with Saltworks about six months ago in Vancouver and I was impressed by the methodical way they have been going about technology commercialisation. Despite winning a technology innovation award in British Columbia in May 2009, they have kept this remarkably quiet. An article in the Economist provides a good review of this.

Paul O’Callaghan is CEO of Technology Assessment Group, O2 Environmental Inc and author of Water Technology Markets.

Plugging Electric Vehicles

by Richard T. Stuebi

Much has been written about the planned release by General Motors (NYSE: GM) of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. When GM launches the vehicle, now slated for late 2010, it plans to sell tens of thousands of them.

As profiled in an article in the August 24 issue of Forbes, the bigger mover in the electric drive vehicles game looks to be Nissan (NASD: NSANY), which is investing several billion dollars to ramp up for producing 300,000-400,000 electric vehicles within a few years. Its entry model is the Leaf, a five-passenger hatchback that it aims to sell in the U.S. by late 2010, at a price point of about $30,000.

A key aspect of Nissan’s surge into electric vehicles is its joint venture with NEC, for their lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. The NEC battery design employs a laminated structure that improves cooling performance, which has been a major stumbling point for the use of Li-ion batteries. Indeed, Nissan plans to sell these batteries to other automakers.

Nissan’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, is by his own words “extremely bullish on zero-emission vehicles.” He is bold enough to predict that 10% of world auto sales will be all-electric within 10 years.

An excellent overview of the electric vehicle realm, entitled “The Electric-Fuel-Trade Acid Test”, was published in the September 5 issue of The Economist. In this article, not only were several of the new electric vehicle makers (e.g., Tesla Motors, Venturi, BYD Auto, SAIC Motors) and battery developers (A123 Systems, Boston Power) put into context, but some all-new technologies and business models enabled by vehicle electrification were highlighted.

For instance, consider the case of Better Place. This California-based firm is launching a business to serve local auto markets with a network of stations that will swap out depleted batteries with fully-charged ones within seconds, and charge the spent batteries for reuse in other vehicles, thereby offering customers a quick recharge akin to a refill at a gas station. Pricing will be akin to “rental” on the battery, until it is returned to a station to be replaced by a fresh one, which will also be “rented”. Each stop at a station thus implies a customer outlay on the same order of magnitude as a tank of gasoline or diesel.

Then there is the case of Michelin, which is developing something called the Active Wheel. Beyond just the tire, Michelin is aiming to embed motors, brakes, suspension and associated systems into wheels, thereby distributing physical control to each wheel and allowing heavy items such as springs and transmissions to be entirely eliminated from the vehicle. Not only will this (theoretically, at least) improve auto performance, but it will reduce weight to increase energy efficiency and possibly lower capital and operating costs of vehicles.

The possibilities for an entirely new industry to emerge in providing and supporting electric vehicle markets are becoming clearer. Earlier this year, a study (accessible here) commissioned by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) – funded by The Cleveland Foundation, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and First Energy (NYSE: FE) – assessed the potential for Northeast Ohio to become a major player in the electric drive vehicle industry. The study makes indicates that many thousands of jobs are at stake for the Cleveland region – but only if (1) the U.S. takes actions to accelerate the penetration of electric vehicles in the transportation sector, and at least as importantly (2) Northeast Ohio organizes itself to more earnestly pursue the business and technology opportunities associated with electric drive vehicles.

This economic potential is not just for Northeast Ohio. Clearly in response to the downturn of the American auto industry, the Obama Administration has made the state of Michigan a major recipient of its largesse, allocating half of a recent $2.4 billion in grants to stimulate electric vehicle and battery production. As reported in the Forbes article, Nissan’s U.S. battery manufacturing will occur in Tennessee, supported by a $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. A123 and Boston Power are both based in Massachusetts. Along with Tesla, Fisker Automotive – both supported by the Silicon Valley mega venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins – are based in California.

Of course, not everyone is enamored with electric vehicles. In the same issue in which it profiles Nissan’s electric vehicle strategy, Forbes’ editor William Baldwin writes a skeptical opinion about the cost-effectiveness of electric vehicles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

When considered solely as an approach for reducing emissions, perhaps electric vehicles aren’t the absolute best solution. However, when one also considers the economic revitalization possibilities, as well as the imperative for reducing reliance on oil (from unstable and unfriendly sources around the globe), electric vehicles seem far more worthy of plugging.

As the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at the Cleveland Foundation, Richard T. Stuebi is on loan to NorTech as a founding Principal in its advanced energy initiative. He is also a Managing Director at Early Stage Partners, and is the founder of NextWave Energy.