Long Live Green Squared Suburbs

I’m watching a CNN special on reinventing Los Angeles, and calling on suburbs as dead, time to move on. 

But I LIKE suburbs.  I like grass.  I like trees.  I like quiet.  I like space – both in my house and between my neighbors.  I don’t like my neighbors waking me up with loud sex at freaking 4 am (which I’ve decided is just par for the course in city environments).

I like my own garage.    Walkable and mixed use can be great.  Done that.  I’m never giving up grass and quiet for walkable and mixed use again.  And well designed suburbs can give you both.

What I don’t understand is why the suburbs have to die – just because of commutes and smog.   Why does being green and sustainable mean I have to live in a hot urban hellhole or drive an hour and half each way?  Why can’t I have a green squared suburb – green with grass AND sustainability.  Why is density good in and of itself?  That’s a false choice.

A large chunk of the professionals I know telecommute and adjust work schedules around commutes, at least sometime.  And still get their jobs done.  Companies need to get this. If I ever got a real job (not that it’s going to happen), I guarantee you lack of flexible working hours and location would be a deal breaker.

Like with most things in economics, it doesn’t even matter if only a portion of the population can do flex and remote.  Just make it possible for 10-20% of the total workforce to adjust, even some of the time, and add that flexibility in.  We’ll likely find that we relieved pressure on house pricing, infrastructure, and everything else, benefiting all of us.  That’s the flip-side benefit of inelasticity in economics.  Small changes in volume can change price fast.

So I submit:

If we have electric vehicles and renewable energy to fight smog.  Especially the continued rise of what I call the one-two auto family – one big car and one small one (which is frankly all the first generation of EVs is good for).  Flex schedules and flex commutes letting the family adjust cars to the right purpose.

If we have the web and skype and mobile everything on our phones.  And cloud computing for all our office stuff.

If ecommerce and on demand continues to grow and change the shopping and entertainment experience.  Read flex travel and random amenities in the smallest town – this is what broadband is delivering us.

If we build flex time and telecommuting into the basic employer – employee contract, with employers paying a premium for the 9 to 5 at the office.  The employer gets more productivity for less money.  And the employee gets their life back and spends less on gas and food.

Then we can have our suburbs and walk them too, or live sustainably, more cheaply, and profitably in small and medium sized cities, and relieve pressure on price and annoyance in the large cities.  And not give up our quiet, space and grass.

These are not big ifs.  Long live the green squared suburb!

Japan’s Crisis Hurts Sales of Hybrid Cars and EVs

The people of Japan are courageously moving forward after the devastation of a 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami that ripped apart buildings and roads, and a nuclear crisis that now threatens their food and water. The Japanese economy depends in no small measure on the success of its automotive industry and its complex eco-system of component suppliers and service providers.

Just when gasoline prices are rising and hybrid cars are again hot sellers, the crisis is making hybrids and new electric cars tough to get. Let’s look at the impact on three big sellers of hybrids and electrics.

Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are hurt less than expected because they have diversified globally, including billion dollar plants and operations in the United States. The most advanced hybrids and electric cars, however, are first produced in Japan. Every supplier must be able to produce for new cars to be assembled in Japan. Once assembled, it will be challenging to move them across roads not ripped apart. It will take time to return shipping ports to normal after the recent tsunami tossed cars and railcars around like toys. Plants and operations require MW of electricity, now constrained by nuclear plant shutdowns.

Toyota

Toyota reports that all 13 North American vehicle and engine plants are running normally, although overtime has been curtailed to maintain adequate inventories of parts that come from Japan. Toyota now makes 12 different models in North America, including high-volume vehicles such as Camry, Corolla, RAV4, and Lexus RX 350, and nearly 70 percent of all Toyota and Lexus vehicles sold in the U.S. are made in North America.

Suppliers in North America provide most parts and materials for Toyota’s North American-built vehicles. Toyota has temporarily stopped all Japanese production of vehicles, but it is restarting production of replacement parts for cars already sold and parts necessary for overseas production. In general, Toyota is seeing adequate inventories at most dealers.

Prius vehicles are built in Japan, Steve Curtis with Toyota told me that the Tsutsumi plant where the Prius is made was not damaged by the earthquake. Production depends on more than the plant condition. It depends on a complex web of suppliers, supply of electricity, roads that can be crossed by employees and trucks deliveries parts. Toyota has delayed 12 Japan plant openings until March 26.

The tragedy in Japan has not delayed the U.S. launch of the new larger Prius V Crossover SUV and the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, not the new Toyota small electric city car. It has delayed the launch of the Prius wagon and minivan models in Japan from the original plan for the end of April. Reuters  Article

Since the production of current Toyota and Lexus hybrids, depends on a complex supply chain, and shipment to the UnitedToyota Prius 37k 150x102 Japan’s Crisis Hurts Sales of Hybrid Cars and Electric Cars States depends on roads and ports, Clean Fleet Report forecasts that shipments of Prius and other hybrids will be delayed and reduced for months.

Only one of three Toyota hybrid battery plants in Japan sustained limited damage from the earthquake. The other two plants are located in central Japan and were not affected. Panasonic and Sanyo are Toyota’s primary suppliers of nickel metal hydride and lithium batteries; their production status is uncertain.

Car dealers are betting that the supply of hot selling hybrids will be tight, especially with gasoline costing $4 per gallon in parts of the country. Auto News reports that dealers that were averaging $1,700 discounts on the Prius are now getting $800 premiums.

Honda

Honda is globally diversified in manufacturing and suppliers. With nine U.S. plants, Honda has invested more than $12.7 billion in its U.S. operations. The company employs nearly 25,000 associates and annually purchases $12 billion in parts and materials from more than 530 U.S. suppliers.

For hybrids such as the Civic Hybrid, Insight, CR-Z and Fit Hybrid, Honda also heavily depends on Japanese suppliers, including advanced battery suppliers such as Sanyo. At the heart of the 2012 Civic Hybrid and Honda’s new electric cars are the lithium-ion batteries built at its Blue Energy join venture (JV) with Japan’s GS Yuasa; the battery plant is in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto, Japan.

Last week, Honda had announced plans to resume production of major Japanese plants on March 20. Now these openings are delayed to March 27 or beyond. Like all major manufacturers, Honda depends on a complex eco-system of suppliers and joint ventures. Some plants have been damaged and roads to move parts have been ripped apart.

Nissan

Nissan has delayed March 21 plans to restart production of parts for overseas manufacturing and repair parts, based on parts availability from suppliers, at these plants Oppama, Tochigi, Kyushu, Yokohama, Nissan Shatai. Vehicle production will be constrained by inventory availability. The Iwaki engine plant remains closed.

LEAF battery 150x150 Japan’s Crisis Hurts Sales of Hybrid Cars and Electric CarsNissan recently shipped 600 Nissan LEAFs before earthquake and tsunami damage. At the Port of Hitachi, however, Nissan lost 1,300 U.S.-bound Infiniti and Nissan cars to the tsunami. Nissan had plans to soon have 10,000 LEAFs built at the Oppama plant. Now Nissan’s hopes of catching-up with U.S. deliveries of the Chevrolet Volt have faded in the near term.

Starting next year, Nissan’s Tennessee assembly plant will have the capacity to build 150,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars per year, and 200,000 lithium-ion battery packs per year. The lithium packs could also be used in future Nissan hybrid cars. The Tennessee battery production is by AESC, a joint venture of Nissan and NEC.

Once production returns to normal, U.S. shipments could still be delayed. Japan faces a fuel shortage. Fuel is needed to transport cars to ports, to run port drayage trucks and lifts, and to run ships. Even electric cars still depend on diesel to move them to market.

Rethinking the Power Pole

If there’s one segment of the energy sector that you’d think might be beyond significant technological innovation, it would be power transmission poles.

And you’d be wrong!

As profiled in a recent article in The Economist a novel transmission tower design called the Wintrack pylon has been co-developed by TenneT, the operator of the Dutch electricity grid, and KEMA, a consulting and engineering firm. 

Although beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, the Wintrack  is arguably much more attractive than the traditional lattice tower structures seen maligning the landscapes of the world. 

More important than cosmetics, by virtue of the architecture of its physical design, the Wintrack produces much smaller ambient magnetic fields than what emanate from conventional transmission towers.  These magnetic fields create the buzz and static that can often be heard from high-voltage lines — and form the basis for fears (founded or otherwise) about suspected human health effects due to electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation from power lines

Between its aesthetic and magnetic benefits, the Wintrack pylon might, just might, make it incrementally a bit easier to site new transmission lines, which in turn would help alleviate grid-constrained load centers and debottleneck access to areas of abundant solar and wind energy resources that tend to be far removed from populated areas.

Interview with Dr. Frank Ling on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Our longtime Cleantech.org portal manager, and editor of the weekly Cleantech.org newsletter is a researcher at one of the top climate change research institutes in the world, where among other projects he is editing a book on climate change. He was recently inteviewed by Green Japan on the subject of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Dr. Frank Ling on Climate Change

Frank Hiroshi Ling is a climate policy researcher. In this part of interview, he talks about what brought him to this area and analyzes the results and solutions of climate change. With the help of policy and technology, what can we and the government do to help solve climate change issue and other issues?

Frank’s bio, for those of you who haven’t met him.

Frank Hiroshi Ling is a climate policy researcher and entrepreneur. He has extensive experience in scientific research, environmental and energy policy, and media. Currently based in Japan, he is a researcher in climate adaptation at Institute for Global Change Adaptation Science (ICAS) at Ibaraki University. He also works with IGES as an editor of the forthcoming book “Transition to Low Carbon, Climate Resilient Asia: Opportunities and Challenges.”

Dr. Ling is also the host and co-creator of the Groks Science Show, a highly humorous and popular radio and podcast program, with Dr. Charles Lee. In addition, Frank oversees Cleantech.Org, a web portal for catalyzing investments in new technologies that promote environmental sustainability.

Dr. Ling received his Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Frank received his Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering from Caltech and his MS degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has received numerous awards for his research and contributions to science education. In 2006, he received the Mass Media Fellowship Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has also been a Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Cleantech Forum Snaps – Affirmative Action, Star Trek, and Starvation

Three comments I really liked from the premier conference on cleantech:

Art Rosenfeld, California Energy Commission – It’s all about cool white roofs to combat climate change.  Art is one of the deans of energy efficiency in California.  It’s been long known that white roofs can cool a building and help reduce the heat island effect in cities (cities are always hotter than the country, basically because they make more heat, and shifting from trees to concrete, asphalt and asphalt shingled roofs both reduces the cooling affects of aspiration and absorbs a larger portion of heat into the phyiscal environment).

So Art is now effectively calling for step by step, low cost and simple geoengineering through policy to combat both energy efficiency demons and climate change.  E.g, not only do cool white roofs reduce heat in the city, they reduce the cooling bill in the building, and reduce GHGs from energy use.  He posits that a shift from black roofs to white roofs and/or shifting roof design to flatter roofs that are more effective in white roofs would save literally billions upon billions of tons of CO2e over time, with no measurable cost difference.

So, call it the affirmative action program for cleantech, but color matters.

Sheeraz Haji, CEO Cleantech Group – It’s all about Data.  The idea is pretty simple – everything in cleantech from here on out – e.g. smart grid, energy efficiency, solar performance, water use, EVs, etc all depends on more, cheaper, faster, more granular, timely and better data and the analysis it can drive.  Sheeraz’s question to define future opportunities in cleantech is, “so what does data need?”

John Denniston, Kleiner Perkins – It’s all about food.  Think food security, food v fuel, water use, fertilizer source and ag run-off, crop yields, etc.  I love this topic.  For those of you who haven’t heard of him, go google Norman Borlaug, the recently passed away sage who made possible our ability to not starve and threw Malthus for a loop for the last few decades with dramatic crop yield improvements from his selective plant breeding and fertilizer intensive ag.  The favorite argument of the day, which John mentioned, is the “in the next x decades of years we’ll need more food than in the last x – thousands of years”.  Right or wrong, the scale is sure changing. 

So, whether your answer to John’s all about food is less people, more GMO, more technology, more water efficiency, or shifting diets, we’re going to need another Norman Borlaug or life is gonna suck.

The Landfill Wars

Guest blog by Don Willis

I have been to recycling conventions all across the country. It never fails that all of them have programs dedicated to landfill operators. Somehow recycling companies have not yet gotten the message. Landfill Operators are NOT recyclers. They may dabble around the edges of recycling so that the various levels of government give them a ‘feel good’ badge for attempting to be green, but the bottom line is that it is clearly becoming an us versus them scenario as we talk about ways of getting to zero waste.

I met with a landfill operator last year, at the request of a community that wanted us to build a recycling center in their city. The city had a seven year agreement with a waste collector. The waste collector also owned the landfill. It was not possible for me to build a facility in their city unless the waste company agreed to work with us on tonnage. I told the city it would never happen, but at their urging I agreed to meet with the Landfill Operator. He was pleasant and polite, but the meeting lasted only a few moments. He very politely stated that, “We’re in the landfill business. We get paid to bury trash, not recycle it.” He was absolutely correct. Landfill Operators are not in the business of recycling. If we ever needed to be hit over the head with that we just were in Florida. Landfill Operators from around the state lobbied tirelessly to get the yard waste ban overturned and they were successful. Yard waste, which prior could not be buried in landfills in Florida, could now be sent there under the guise of increasing methane production at bio-reactor landfills.

In case you don’t know bio-reactor landfills are landfills at which you see the pipes sticking up out of the surface. These pipes collect the methane that is created when organic matter in the landfill breaks down. This material creates methane because there is no oxygen in the landfill. If there were the decomposition process would yield carbon dioxide instead of methane. In the presence of oxygen decomposition yields many beneficial items. In the absence of oxygen, we get dangerous and deadly landfill gases that pollute our air and cause health problems for any nearby residents. The purpose of collecting this gas is an attempt to avoid these problems and make a few bucks selling the gas to a power company.

When a company owns a landfill they own a limited shelf life commodity. A landfill will only hold a certain amount of waste. If you can only hold a specific volume of waste, then the profit mechanism becomes a factor of time. A landfill that will hold X number of tons that takes 30 years to fill, is more profitable if the landfill operator can fill it in 20 years, instead of 30. This paradigm is the antithesis of the desires of the local community. In the example I used above the landfill at one time had belonged to the community. They sold it to the company that now operated it. They spoke to me of how many years of life the landfill had as if to get across the point that they had no concern at where the waste of the city would need to go for the next 50 years. They had no clue that the landfill operator had begun receiving waste from other communities. The landfill operator had reached out and had begun receiving waste from cities as far as 200 miles away. A landfill operator is sitting on a volume of space. The quicker the operator can fill that space the more profitable the space becomes.

As recycling rates continue to rise across the country landfill operators are fighting back. In state after state they are lobbying to remove landfill bans on items so that they can increase the tonnage they receive. They speak of how they are doing it so that they can make their ‘bio-reactors’ more productive but the bottom line is they are in the business of burying trash, not recycling. Landfills need to become a thing of the past. They no longer serve any useful purpose. Much like the buggy whip, they served a purpose in their day, but no longer. We have the ability to recycle 100% of our waste. Why do we still tolerate an industry that pollutes our air, soil, and ground water? It isn’t time to remove bans on items going to landfills. It is time to expand the bans on items going to landfills. It isn’t time to embrace bio-reactor landfills. It is time to see them for what they are, the best that can be made of a bad situation. Don’t let a landfill operator tell you that landfills are safe. They are not, cannot, never have been, and never will be safe. The manufacturers of the liners they use admit that the liners have a limited life and are subject to puncture. That means that every landfill using liners today will pollute our groundwater just as much as the estimated 50,000 closed landfills that dot our country. Every liner will leak, every liner has or will have punctures, and every liner will break down. When they do every drop of rain that falls on them will become contaminated with thousands of chemicals on its way to our ground water.

We are not in the same business. We need to understand that and take it to heart. We need to get as good at lobbying as they are. Recycling may be winning the battle for the hearts and minds, but the landfill operators are winning the lobbying war.

Don Willis CEO
Green USA Recycling, Inc.

New Hands-Free Inductive Charging at Google

Google makes innovative use of electric vehicles and charging stations. For employees, Google took an early lead in converting Toyota Prii (yep that’s the official plural of Prius) to be plug-in hybrids. Then Google installed beautiful solar covered parking including charge stations so that electric cars can be charged with sunlight.

At its headquarters, Google is now showing us how to charge hands-free.  No plug. No cord. Using Evatran Plugless Power’s inductive charging system, one of Google’s maintenance short-range EVs parks in close proximity of the charger and charging begins. The Evatran unit is Level 2 (7.7 kW, 240V at 32A). The light EV was converted to use the inductive charging.

Google is also conducting other important pilots including testing the new Toyota Prius Plug-in, not a conversion, but the 2012 model from Toyota. Soon, Google will be testing the Honda Fit Electric and other plug-in cars. Several Google founders drive Tesla Roadsters. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are Stanford University grad student “drop-outs” as is Telsa CEO and Founder, Elon Musk.  None regret the decision to change the world a priority over getting their PhDs.

Google is even approved by FERC to be an electric utility. Cloud services will be at the heart of the smart grid and smart charging.  Early electric car drivers use Google Maps to find the nearest charging station. Will Google charge your electric cars?

How Inductive Electric Car Charging Works

Historically, inductive charging has been too inefficient, wasting valuable electricity and charging hours. Evatran thinks that they can get to 90 percent efficient; they’re not there yet. How does it work? A Plugless Power vehicle adapter is permanently mounted onto the vehicle. A fixed Plugless Power station, including both a floor-mounted parking block and a separate control tower, is installed in the garage or parking space.

Evatran states that its technology is safe. When the equipped vehicle pulls up to the parking space, the parking block automatically positions itself to align with the vehicle adapter and begins charging. With their electromagnetic induction, no actual flow of electricity occurs between the vehicle adapter and the parking block.

Will inductive charging catch-on? In the late 1990s, inductive charging competed with conductive. Multiple incompatible systems helped kill major electric car success. GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and all the automakers have devoted years working with utilities to have a common Level 2 J1772 smart charging standard. Now they are going thru the pain of trying to get consumers to install wall-mounted chargers, only to be frustrated with obsolete building codes, over worked city inspectors, and electric utility frontline employees who find reasons to say “No to EV charging.” Adding inductive charging would compound the issues.

General Motors puts Inductive Charging Inside

Automakers are interested in proximity charging inside the car when we fill the cars with collegues or kids with their iPhones, Droids, iPads, games, and other mobile electronics. Powermat is not only receiving a $5 million investment from GM Ventures, Powermat will be offered in many 2012 GM cars to give customers proximity charging of mobile devices inside the car.

What about America’s 14 million fleet vehicles? Inductive charging could be a winner. Fleets can install their own systems without needing a universal standard. Think about taxis that wait in queues. Consider millions of delivery vehicles. Light utility vehicles are popular on university, government, and corporate campuses. These are also good candidates for inductive charging, as Google is demonstrating.

Fukushima: Where It Stops, Nobody Knows

The staggering trifecta of disasters in Japan created images of horror that will last for decades.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook buildings hundreds of miles away, sending office workers in Tokyo skyscrapers scrambling under desks while trembling video recorded the screams of terrified occupants and the freakish sight of rippling floors and walls.

A massive tsunami of proportions unimaginable without helicopter-based footage for documentation swept away seemingly endless numbers of buildings and vehicles as if they were toys, drowning untold thousands of people.

But, it was the accidents at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear powerplant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tokyo: T) that made for the most chilling legacy.  Although several spectacular explosions beset the plant – all for the lack of robust systems to keep supplying cooling water in the wake of the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami – it was what couldn’t be seen that bothered people the most:  the invisible radioactive emissions and the scary (if not fully-grounded) fears of torturous poisoning from clouds floating downwind thousands of miles that captured the world’s attention.

Although it seems as though the worst of the situation is finally behind us, it will be some time until some degree of stability returns to Fukushima.  “Normalcy” will not return to that area for many decades, perhaps centuries. 

With the crisis past now its most critical point, just about everyone on the planet is reassessing the future place of nuclear in the global energy equation.

Germany has ordered a shutdown and review of the older segment of its nuclear powerplant fleet, and China suspended for the time being the approval process for new nuclear plants.  In the U.S., President Obama has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reassess the safety of U.S. nuclear powerplants, especially those that are most exposed to the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis, most notably as San Onofre and Diablo Canyon along the coastline of Southern California.

General Electric (NYSE:  GE), the supplier of the nuclear technology at Fukushima, suffered significant declines in its stock price, as investors and traders worried that GE would be liable in some manner to some degree for the enormous costs and consequences that are likely to be borne for years to come in tending to Fukushima – which is almost certainly destined to become, like Chernobyl, an entombed monument never to operate again, surrounded by vast swaths of abandoned land.

Even with all this angst, no-one really knows what Fukushima means in the long-term for nuclear energy – whether it’s a knockout blow or merely an admittedly severe setback.  I’ve asked several friends active in various aspects of energy for their perspectives on the Fukushima disaster, and there’s a collective shrug and hand-wringing reflecting a general bewilderment.

Far be it from me to suggest I have a clearer view than my esteemed colleagues.  However, these are the questions that I think need to be asked and answered to develop a consensus by respected voices from the energy industry – both inside and outside nuclear – if the so-called “nuclear renaissance” promised over the past couple of years will in fact ever materialize post-Fukushima.

  • What can the nuclear industry do to convincingly assure the public’s trust that the authorities are really telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Apparently, many Japanese had historically been highly distrustful of their nuclear authorities — based on previous examples of real or perceived deceit, cover-ups, lies, etc. — before Fukushima.  Even the U.S. government indicated at times that they weren’t sure they were being fully informed about conditions at Fukushima.  As a friend of mine — who possesses a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering — commented to me at one point last week, “They’ve stopped communicating, which means they’re either too busy to communicate, or they don’t want us to know.  Either way, it’s bad.”   This distrust is not unique to Japan.  Any industry that has Homer Simpson (the Safety Inspector at the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant) as its most visible icon is going to struggle to maintain a confident public.
  • How can everyone be sure that the lack of sufficient cooling water in the wake of a disaster will never befall a nuclear plant again?  If there’s anything a nuclear reactor must have, it’s continued access to cooling water under any and all contingencies.  In the case of Fukushima, the power lines were swept away and the diesel backup generators were swamped by the tsunami, eliminating the capability to keep the reactors cool — hence, the cascading failures.  Every nuclear powerplant needs to be proven to have multiple levels of redundancy on cooling water supplies.   
  • How would evacuation plans really work?  As part of its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the operator of a nuclear plant must file an emergency preparedness plan.  A “full-scale exercise” is required every two years, but it’s far from clear that these “exercises” are indicative of how a sure-to-be-panicked public would respond.  For certain plants, such as Indian Point less than fifty miles north of Manhattan, a truly effective evacuation seems fanciful.
  • What is the next-best solution for baseload supply of electricity available today and for many decades to come?  With nuclear now clearly out of favor, general antipathy towards coal power due to its environmental impacts, and the widely-held desire for energy prices to be as cheap as absolutely possible, the only remaining option for 24/7 power generation at any meaningful scale would appear to be natural gas generation.  To be sure, with the recent boom in domestic production from shale gas reserves, it seems as though there’s an abundance of natural gas and low prices to last for years to come.  However, this was also the prevailing sentiment during the 1990s, spawning a slew of new natural gas powerplants that chewed up all of the seeming glut of natural gas, thus driving natural gas prices to historic levels before the economic collapse in 2008.  No reason in my mind it can’t happen again in the 2010s.
  • What are the true, full costs of nuclear energy?  If there’s anything obvious about Fukushima, it’s that the costs of building and operating a nuclear plant are now much, much higher than they were a few weeks ago.  Exactly how expensive remains unclear.  Even before the incident, the full costs of nuclear energy were obscured from the public in a variety of ways, such as the large R&D expenditures by the government on nuclear technologies.  Arguably, the costs associated with waste disposal, plant decommissioning, and emergency response have been underfunded over all of these years of nuclear operations; for certain, a definitive approach for the waste disposal issue has been continually deferred for decades.  Perhaps the most obvious subsidy is the DOE loan guarantee program, which makes the taxpayer the creditor of last resort in the event of default by a nuclear powerplant owner.  If a Fukushima-type situation were ever to occur in the U.S., it is virtually certain that the owner would be financially broken, leaving the U.S. citizen to pick up a bill that is truly incalculable.

Until there’s a much higher degree of comfort that there are good answers to these questions, it doesn’t seem likely to me that there will be significant public acceptance of nuclear energy as a viable option for new choices to be made in the future.  In which case, the previously-coalescing-but-fragile support for nuclear from across the political spectrum (see Time article from just six months ago) will have splintered, perhaps a Humpty-Dumpty never to be put back together again.

In concluding, I will restate my record as saying that I’m not necessarily opposed to nuclear energy, and support it under the right conditions:

  • The plant needs to be located at a sensible site
  • The operator needs to have an excellent operational record and processes for maximizing safety without concern for cutting-corners to maximize profits
  • A sound and scalable permanent waste disposal process must exist

We as a country are failing the third test, and in many cases, the first two aren’t in place either. 

Will a Fukushima happen here?  Probably not.  Can a Fukushima happen here?  Yes.

Should we get panicky?  No.  Should we be more concerned, and be willing to pay more attention (and money)?  Yes.

Safer than Nuclear – Renewable Energy, Natural Gas, Energy Efficiency

“In 88 minutes, the sun provides 470 exajoules of energy, as much energy as humanity consumes in a year.” In Scientific American, Ramez Naam adds, “In 112 hours – less than five days – it provides 36 zettajoules of energy – as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas on this planet.”

We have no shortage of energy. Fortunately, we are increasingly producing and delivering more renewable energy at lower cost. At the same time we are more efficient about using energy for everything from lighting, to buildings, to transportation. Most promising is the trend to make energy cheap when plentiful, more expensive at peak, and use intelligent energy management to level the use. The grid is starting to get smart.

With a smart grid and national network of high-voltage lines, solar and wind power that are intermittent in single locations become predictable sources of steady power with a smart super grid. Renewables such as hydro, bioenergy, geothermal are already used as base load. The most cost-effective way to meet most of our base load needs is with efficient combined-cycle natural gas power plants.

As nations around the world rethink their plans for nuclear energy, better alternatives are seen in energy efficiency, renewable energy, natural gas, smart grid, and intelligent energy management.

Workers in Japan are heroically risking their lives to prevent a Chernobyl-type disaster. Earthquake exposed cores are tenuously contained hour by hour. Onsite spent fuel rods are being prevented from melt down minute by minute. Most problematic are nuclear plants that are over 30 years old. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has called for a temporary shutdown of all nuclear plants built before 1980.

Such dangers should give us pause in the United States where over 100 plants were built pre-1977 with 40-year target lives. 59 of those plants have had their licenses extended to 60 years. The nuclear industry has campaigned to stretch these to 80-year licenses.  In almost all cases, like Japan, the spent rods are stored onsite in U.S. plants. Some U.S. reactors are located near major earthquake faults.

Fortunately, we have safer and more cost-effective energy solutions. The new Clean Energy Trends 2011 highlights strong growth in energy efficiency (including solar hot water), renewable energy, and innovative integration of natural gas and CSP. The report documents rapid progress: “The global market for solar photovoltaics (PV) has expanded from just $2.5 billion in 2000 to $71.2 billion in 2010, for example, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39.8 percent. The global market for wind power, which like solar PV we have tracked every year for the past decade, has similarly expanded from a global market worth $4.5 billion in 2000 to more than $60.5 billion today, for a CAGR of 29.7 percent.” Clean Edge research projects wind power to expand from $60.5 billion in 2010 to $122.9 billion by 2020, and solar to expand from $71.2 billion to $113.6 billion by 2020. Clean Trends 2011 also looks at innovative combination of cost-effect base load power and renewables:

The integration of natural gas and renewable energy offers an opportunity to transition smoothly away from dirty energy sources. One key trend in pairing natural gas with renewables has been the development of solar-gas hybrid systems, such as Florida Power & Light’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, which recently connected a 75 MW, concentrated solar power (CSP) plant to the largest natural gas plant in the U.S. (3.8 GW). Other hybrid plants in development include an NV Energy project in Nevada and two separate projects in California led by Inland Energy. Along with tackling renewables’ intermittency issues, hybrid plants are an enticing idea because the sharing of existing infrastructure, such as turbines and transmission lines, promises to reduce upfront capital costs. Integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC) plants, which increase steam generation by adding solar heat to gas-turbine waste heat, are another example of the mixing of solar and gas.

The best solution of all is to encourage people to save money by being more energy efficient. By making energy cheap off-peak and more pricey during peak hours, consumers know when to run their energy-efficient appliances, and industry knows how to optimize electricity demand.

Twenty-seven percent of all global electricity is consumed by lighting. I write this article sitting underneath new LED light bulbs that use one-tenth the energy of the old fashioned incandescent bulbs that came with the home when we bought it three years ago. As I finish the article, no lighting is needed. Sunlight streams in to welcome a bright day and a brighter future.

How to know when a venture capitalist may really be your friend

Live from the Cleantech Forum, the largest investor conference for energy and environmental technologies, our take on how to tell if the venture capital investor you are talking to really may be your friend. Only partly tongue in cheek.

1) when you ask how things are going, he moans about all of his portfolio companies who are suffering; and doesn’t tell how all of them are getting traction.

2) when you ask whether they’re actually investing this year, he tells you no, their fund is full but he refers you to an investor who has just raised a fund (and doesn’t tell you, “oh yes; we’ve still got one or two deals left to do and we’re exploring raising our next fund” – VC code for I’m out of money.

3) when you ask for advice, he actually tells you the terms of the last couple of deals they’ve done.

4) in your due diligence, he shows you the business plan of one of his portfolio companies who competes with you – instead of handing yours to them.

5) he starts offering to meet at YOUR office and then picks up the tab for lunch.

6) he gets your kid an internship at one of his companies.

And, the final way you know the VC you are talking to may really be your friend:

7) he hands you his resume.

To Boldly Go Where No-One Wants To Go

I am appalled at the state of the public discourse on oil and gasoline prices.

Between the newspapers and the talking heads, there is an increasing cacophony that the government should do something, just about anything, to halt the increase in oil and gasoline prices.

From the lefties:  Release stocks from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve!  Stop Big Oil from gouging customers!

From the wingnuts on the right:  Get the enviros out of the way and drill, baby, drill!  Cut gasoline taxes!

All of these steps are just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  The facts are simple, but they are discouraging, and they won’t be changed by wishful thinking or loudly-shouted populist mantras.  (It’s useful to remember, but often forgotten in today’s world, that just because the volume of your voice is higher doesn’t mean you’re more correct.)

In its territory, the U.S. possesses about 2% of the world’s proven oil reserves.  Yet, the U.S. economy consumes about 25% of the world’s annual oil production.  This blog post depicts the situation succinctly.

True, the U.S. share of global oil consumption will likely decline in the coming years — but that’s probably not because our demands for oil will decline.  Rather, it’s because China, India and the rest of the developing world are ravenously ramping up their demands for oil, with relatively little concern for the price.

With 727 million barrels according to the DOE, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is only big enough to support U.S. consumption for a little over a month, so releasing even all of it doesn’t chnage the fundamental dynamics. 

There are balderdash claims floating across the Internet that there are hundreds of billions of barrels of oil resources in the U.S. (referring primarily to the Bakken Formation in the Dakotas) waiting to be tapped, if the bloody environmentalists would simply get out of the way.  Alas, as this blogger does so nicely, just a little bit of fact-checking easily exposes these claims as wildly-exaggerated

While there are about a trillion barrels of hydrocarbons in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, this is not petroleum but rather oil shale  — which are not to be confused with the shale gas deposits that have yielded natural gas bonanzas in such places around the U.S. as the Barnett and the Marcellus.  Technologies in use today can’t produce the Green River oil shale resource, and while new technologies are being developed to pursue this compelling opportunity, they are being thwarted less by environmental constraints than by economic ones — more investment capital is required, and greater certainty of higher oil prices is required to attract that capital. 

Meanwhile, the biggest slug of known petroleum reserves on Earth lies in the Middle East.  Much of this is in Saudi Arabia — and as a set of cables released by Wikileaks a few weeks ago hints, it’s hardly certain that those reserves are as vast as have been widely-assumed.  If production starts to decline from Saudi Arabia — either because it’s become geologically over-tapped or due to internal political strife of the type we’ve seen of late in the Middle East — it’s hard to know where oil prices will crest.

Even so, at least currently, Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC continue to set the world price for oil — and while the privately-held oil majors profit handsomely when the price rises, it’s not like these guys have much of a say in the price of oil.  They’re the minority players in world oil production:  they merely go along for the ride, and take the money to the bank.

Moreover, the size of the planet’s endowment of fossil fuels is not increasing.  Old fossils aren’t being compressed into hydrocarbons at anywhere near the rate they’re being extracted from the ground.

Exploration and drilling technologies have improved dramatically over the past thirty years, and the oil industry has poked holes all over the planet — and in large swaths of the waters too.  We’ve explored most of the easy places, and we’ve sucked dry most of the cheap resources from the easy places.  What’s left is harder stuff to extract.  It’s more expensive.  Any as-yet-undiscovered reserves are generally going to be in harder places, or in smaller quantities.  There will be sizable finds here and there now and then — and they will be worth pursuing and utilizing in a responsible manner, but they won’t change the overall picture materially.

It’s damn-near impossible to consider this set of facts and conclude something other than oil prices — and therefore gasoline prices — are on an inexorable path upwards.  Perhaps with some downward blips along the way, but the upward trend seems inescapable.

And, yet, the vox populi is whining insistently that some miracle be performed by some mystical force to push the price trajectory downward!

Do something, anything!  These are the rants of a desperate society living paycheck-to-paycheck.  These are the cries of those who live in denial that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner with no clear escape. 

We Americans need to come to grips that we cannot continue to be held hostage to a damn-it-all mentality that continued economic well-being can only be achieved with permanently unfettered access to cheap oil and gasoline.  If we can’t ensure unlimited low-cost energy supplies — and I hope it’s becoming clearer to more people that we surely can’t — then the house of cards on which we’ve built our economy will fall.

Rather than turning the world on its head to keep alive a false promise that can scarcely any longer be extended, we need to turn our commitments towards building a more robust economic system that isn’t precariously dependent on one non-replenishable commodity.

This is not a popular line of thinking.  As the title of this post suggests, this is boldly going where no-one wants to go. 

I don’t want to argue whether or not it’s good for oil to be cheap or expensive.  I want a reasoned debate about what do we do when oil is expensive and we can’t do anything about it.

In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama offered the theme that, as Americans, “We do big things.”  Moving our economy off of oil is a very big thing.  Alas, I’m not as sanguine as the President that we relish the challenge and have the appetite to do it proactively.  However, I am more hopeful about our future after considering Winston Churchill’s (hopefully timeless) observation:  “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities.”

It’s NOT the Technologies, Stupid!

Cleantech junkies like myself get seduced by all sorts of neat-o new technological ideas.  But, we need to bear in mind that technology invention is only a part of commercial success — and in fact, arguably not even the most important part.

This perspective is brilliantly put forth in a brief essay called “A History Lesson for the Cleantech Revolution” by Andrew Hargadon, Senior Fellow of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Professor of Entrepreneurship and Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California Davis.

It’s a short but great read, with three major points:

  1. Business models are more important than inventions.
  2. Innovation is about connecting, not inventing.
  3. Innovation is action:  learning-by-doing, learning by using. 

Important for those of us in the cleantech community to keep reminding ourselves:  it’s not just the technologies, stupid!

“Harmonizing” California’s TRECs with AB 32 Cap-and-Trade

by David Niebauer

Now that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has lifted its moratorium on the use of renewable energy credits (RECs or TRECs) by investor owned electric utilities (IOUs) for compliance with the State’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), observers may ask themselves this logical question:  what is the future of RECs under Assembly Bill 32?

Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, authorizes the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to establish a cap-and-trade mechanism designed to reduce the State’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  How will RECs and GHG allowances and offsets relate to one another?  Will one mechanism obviate the other or is there a place for both in the State’s overarching environmental initiative?

To answer these questions, we need to review some history and understand the roles of the various State agencies that are tasked with implementing the sometimes-conflicting legislative and executive mandates.

California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) was established by the State legislature in 2002.  After various amendments, the law resulted in a requirement for the State’s IOUs to increase their sales of eligible renewable-energy resources so that 20% of their retail sales are derived from such resources by December 31, 2010.  According to the CPUC website, 2009 renewable energy procurement for the three IOUs in the state were as follows:  PG&E – 14.4%; So Cal Ed – 17.4%; SDG&E – 10.5%.

On September 15, 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-21-09, which directed an increased renewable energy standard (RES) to 33% by 2020, made the requirement apply to all electric utilities (not just the three IOUs) and shifted the responsibility for implementing and overseeing the RES to the CARB.

However, the 33% standard was mandated by executive order, not by the legislature, which failed to pass a 33% RPS bill at the end of 2010.  Influential voices within the legislature opposed the expansion of the RES and have argued that CARB lacks the authority to proceed with RES adoption.  A 33% RPS bill is still pending in the legislature (SB 23)  which, if adopted, could pre-empt and/or modify the current CARB regulatory framework.

CARB is required by the legislature under AB 32 to regulate sources of greenhouse gasses to meet the State’s goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and an 80% reduction of 1990 levels by 2050.

Renewable Energy Credits

The use of renewable energy credits to track RPS requirements has significant momentum.  The Western Renewable Energy Generation Information System (WREGIS) began operation in June 2007.  It is designed to track renewable energy generation in 14 western states and two Canadian provinces.  It is a system for authenticating WREGIS certificates for each REC, which are used to demonstrate compliance with RPS goals. One REC represents one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated from a renewable resource.

On January 13, 2011, the CPUC published its final rules on the use of TRECs, lifting a moratorium on its earlier decision.  In the final ruling, the State’s IOUs can procure TRECs to satisfy up to 25% percent of their RPS, with a $50/REC price cap. Both of these provisions expire at the end of 2013, when the CPUC “will consider modifying or removing those limitations all together.”

AB 32 to trump TRECs?

CARB’s resolution adopting the RES regulations directed the agency’s Executive Officer to monitor the ongoing CPUC proceeding on TRECs and to institute a rulemaking no later than 30 days after the CPUC issues a decision on the use of TRECs “to ensure the continued harmonization of the [RPS and RES] programs, specifically incorporating provisions related to [TRECs] for all regulated parties under the RES regulation.”

But what would this “harmonization” look like?  To answer this question we must look at the current framework of the State’s cap-and-trade mechanism.

Cap-and-Trade on the Way

On December 16, 2010, CARB adopted Resolution 10-42, approving the California cap-and-trade program.  The program takes effect January 1, 2012.  In the first phase, covered entities will include electricity generation, large industrial facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2e) of greenhouse gases (GHG) per year, such as petroleum refineries, cement production facilities and food processing plants.  Phase two will begin in 2015 and will expand to cover all commercial, residential and small sources.

CARB will begin the program by issuing allowances sufficient to meet the capped amount.  Allowances will be reduced during the course of the program with the goal of eventually auctioning 100% of the allowance.

A facility can meet up to 8 percent of its annual GHG compliance obligation through offsets. An offset is a reduction or removal of GHG emissions by an activity (or facility) not covered by the Cap and Trade Program that can be measured, quantified, verified and approved by CARB.

CARB has set a minimum reserve price of $10/MTCO2e for auctioned allowances, but ultimately expects market prices for allowances to increase to $15-$30 by 2020.

What Might “Harmonization” Look Like?

First, it is important to understand the differences between a REC and a GHG allowance or offset.  RECs are designed specifically to encourage an increase in the use of renewable energy by electric utilities.  As noted above, one REC represents one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated from a renewable resource.  A GHG allowance or offset represents one MTCO2e.  Generating electricity from burning fossil fuels emits CO2e.  When coal is burnt, approximately one MTCO2e is produced for every MWh of electricity produced.  A combined cycle natural gas power plant will generate less than one-half the amount of MTCO2e for every MWh of electricity produced.

“Harmonization” will likely be governed by “ratepayer pain”.  Assuming that the State’s IOUs hit the 20% renewables mark established under the RPS, Executive Order S-21-09 will likely provide the framework to move to 33% by 2020.  RECs will be valuable in assisting energy generators to hit this mark.

When the GHG caps for the electricity generation sector are put into place, they will most likely take into account the “early adopter” status of the State’s IOUs.  In this way, we should avoid ratepayers from bearing an undue share of the burden of the environmental initiatives.  RECs will be used to satisfy the utilities’ new RES requirements while GHG allowances and offsets will be used to meet the emissions cap for the industry.  After 2020, when we have achieved our renewable energy goals, new goals can be implemented – whether they relate to renewable energy generation, GHG emissions or another achievable sustainability goal.

David Niebauer is a corporate and transaction attorney, located in San Francisco, whose practice is focused on financing transactions, M&A and cleantech.  www.davidniebauer.com

Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy

Carbon Code 12k Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy Book Review by John Addison

Will oil prices rocket as unrest spreads from Egypt to Libya to Saudi Arabia? United States transportation is 95% fueled by gasoline, diesel and jet fuel refined from oil. We are vulnerable and in need of a roadmap to a low carbon economy.

In his new book, Terry Tamminen shows us how a sustainable future is being created.  He gives us an inside look based on his strategic meetings with President Obama, governors of red and blue states, and even the formation of the next five year plan for China. Tamminen removes the mystery of Cracking the Carbon Code in one fascinating story after another as we follow the actions of corporate, government, and NGO leaders from California to China and from the United States to the UK.

Arnold Schwarzenegger for whom Terry Tamminen served as the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency forewards the book.  During his service in government, Tamminen was responsible for environmental progress in including California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. This law was recently attacked by oil companies, then strongly supported by 61 percent of California voters last November, and is now creating market incentives that reward cleantech innovation, energy efficiency, and improved transportation.

I particularly enjoyed the book, because I know that Terry Tamminen walks the talk. I included him in my book, Save Gas, Save the Planet, as an earlier driver of one of our most advanced zero-emission vehicles, the Honda FCX Clarity. I would recommend this book to leaders of governments, corporations, NGOs, and all stakeholders in a sustainable future.

Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy (Palgrave Macmillan) by Terry Tamminen.