300 Smart Electric Cars in New San Diego Car Sharing

I am driving the new 2012 smart fortwo electric drive vehicle (smart ed) through the busy downtown streets of San Diego, America’s eighth largest city. San Diego presents itself as “America’s Finest City” with some justification. The temperature is in the sixties on this November day as ships sail in the vast harbor, towering office buildings offer dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean, and active people are in motion.

This little electric car is a weapon against the growing gridlock that grinds drivers to a halt for minutes or hours in morning and evening freeway traffic. I speak from the experience of driving I-15 and I-5 to conferences or when shuttling kids for family and friends. This new approach to electric car sharing now allows people to take express buses down HOV lanes and Coaster Rail from North Country to and from work, with car2go solving the problem of traveling the last one to 3 miles to work and popular destinations.

Walter Rosenkranz, a manager with car2go shows me how it works. Like any member, he displays the car2go app on his smartphone, sees the location of an available electric smart car a block away. Since this car is charging, he disconnects the Blink Level 2 charger then holds his car2go RFID card next to the car window. Walter kindly puts me behind the wheel then enters his pass code into the car2go navigation display on the dash of the car. I start the car and we take off in silence.

I drive us to Balboa Park, a popular destination with its vast acres, museums, and famous San Diego zoo. We park the car, sign-off and walk away. If we were paying members, this trip would have cost us only $3 or $4. We got there in minutes without the hassle of car rental or bus transfers. Car2go is a point-to-point car sharing service. You pay 35 cents a minute. If you use lots of minutes, you’re automatically lowered to $12.99 per hour. Keep the electric car overnight and pay $65.99 per day. No surprise fees are charged for being early or late, like some other car sharing services.

This point-to-point car sharing service has proven itself in Austin, Texas, with hundreds of the gasoline sipping smart fortwo. San Diego is an excellent choice for the electric car sharing, since a fast network of Blink and other level 2 chargers are being installed in public areas. SDG&E supplies the electricity using a generation mix that is 20 percent renewable, nuclear, and natural gas. There are zero coal power plants in California. San Diego already has over 1,000 drivers of Nissan LEAFs, Chevrolet Volts, Tesla Roadsters and other electric cars. San Diego Smart Grid / Electric Vehicle Report.

Additonal program and Smart Electric Drive Details in original post at Clean Fleet Report.

Daimler is the parent company of Car2go. In the U.S. we best know Daimler for its Mercedes cars. Daimler also owns smart. Although most individuals and fleets own cars, a growing number lease, rent, or simply use a car as an on-demand service. Car sharing has about one million members in the U.S. and the numbers are growing to include many who also own cars. Daimler is ahead of the curve to expand into car sharing.

Car2go started in Austin, Texas, with 200 smart fortwo gasoline cars in this useful point-to-point model. The car2go program is already very successful in the German cities of Ulm and Hamburg, and the Canadian city of Vancouver. More than 45,000 members have used the 1,100 car2go more than 900,000 times. The average duration of a car2go rental is between 15 and 60 minutes and the average range lies between 5 and 10 kilometers.

Its first two cities for electric car sharing are San Diego and Amsterdam, each opening in November 2011 with 300 electric cars each. Both cities currently have networks of hundreds of electric car charging points. By the end of 2012, each city will have over 1,000 charge points. Expansion to at least 40 additional European cities will include a joint venture between Europocar and car2go.

Car Rental and Car Sharing Competition Put 5,000 Electric Cars into Service

The innovative electric car share program gives car2go competitive advantage, but it does face formidable competition. The giant in car sharing is Zipcar that is testing a few electric cars from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

Rental car giant Enterprise has 150 electric cars now available for rental. Many customers will prefer the Nissan LEAFs and Chevrolet Volts that are offered. By the end of 2012, Enterprise expects to be renting at least 1,000 electric cars including business programs for fleets and large multi-tenant complexes. Enterprise has expanded into car sharing with WeCar. Enterprise has a vast fleet of cars that can be rented in one location and left at another.

There is a friendly competition between German headquartered Daimler and French headquartered Autolib. Paris is trying 66 electric city cars in a point-to-point Autolib Blue Cars in a point-to-point car share program. The goal is to have 3,000 of these electric city cars available in Paris by the end of 2012 expanding on 20,000 Velib shared bicycle program now successful in the City of Light.

The race is on to provide us with more convenient choices as we navigate our busy lives. With smart phones and smart apps we can make our best choices during the day of using transit, driving our own cars solo when necessary, and using electric car share to start at one point and finish at another.

 

A Fusion Reactor Hollywood Could Love

Some latest scuttlebutt from the world of nuclear fusion has all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller screenplay (and for those who remember Inside Greentech’s Greentech Avenger, you know I know scuttlebutt!)

There’ve been all kinds of cinematic ideas, and personalities, on the front lines of the crazy world of cleantech innovation. Wild claims from charismatic mad scientists abound.

So hearing word that a tiny company has potentially cracked the code of fusion energy and created a working megawatt-scale reactor that actually produces more power than it requires is something I’d normally dismiss as yet another tale from the lunatic fringe.

But, in this case, I trust the source. So, whether you believe nuclear energy is cleantech or not—and especially if you don’t—read on.

In researching a new Kachan report on new safer, cleaner nuclear technology, we interviewed dozens of scientists at nuclear research outfits like Flibe Energy, General Atomics, General Fusion, Helion Energy, Hyperion Power Generation, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), Invap, Lightbridge, NuScale, Ottawa Valley Research, QPower, Radix Power and Energy Corp, Rare Earth Extraction Co., Rhodia, Scandinavian Advanced Technology (SCATEC), Terra Power, Thor Energy, Thorium One International, Tri Alpha Energy and U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF).

Most fusion organizations are pursuing big, capital-intensive tokamaks and other reactors. But one interviewee, in a face-to-face conversation in an exotic location abroad, told us of a small company he’s involved with that he claims has built a working 1MW fusion reactor the size of a rice cooker (though it’s dubious that approximation includes the requisite shielding, cooling, turbines, etc.) The company is now apparently in the process of building a 10MW version that it plans to trial in 2012.

If true, it would turn a lot of heads, in particular at organizations like the international €15 billion ($20.4 billion) ITER project, the multi-billion dollar U.S. National Ignition Facility, and smaller fusion companies like General Fusion, Helion Energy and Tri Alpha Energy. And maybe, just maybe, represent a new energy production paradigm.

Tokamak

A generic tokamak-based design for a fusion reactor. NOT the design employed by our secretive fusion company. ITER’s tokamak is 98 feet tall and is taking years to build. Administrators expect ITER to require somewhere between €30 billion ($41 billion) and €50 billion ($68 billion) to hit its goals by 2040. Illustration source: Splung.com.

More on the company in a moment. First, a quick primer on fusion:

Why fusion matters
Nuclear fusion has represented a Holy Grail of power potential since the 1950s. Fusion reactors, in theory, mimic the internal processes of the sun and other stars by fusing atoms. Typically, this means combining a plasma of hydrogen atoms into helium. This is in contrast to today’s fission reactors, which typically split solid uranium atoms. The fusion process would emit heat that would ultimately drive electricity generators and could serve many other purposes, such as keeping buildings warm and firing up high-temperature industrial operations.

The potential advantages of fusion are enormous. Compared to conventional fission, a fusion reactor theoretically ticks several very important boxes in today’s safety-conscious nuclear energy world. Here’s an excerpt from the fusion benefits section of our report on nuclear innovations:

  • It cannot melt down, so the potential for a radioactive leak is miniscule. Fusion tends to run on very little fuel, and the fuel stops fusing as soon as conditions become imperfect. Thus, a loss of power to the reactor would shut down the reaction, with no threat of runaway, uncontrollable events. While this would carry financial consequences, it does not pose the safety risk associated with conventional fission reactors, in which large volumes of fuel can carry on fissioning in an outage. In fission, if cooling and/or control mechanisms fail, meltdown can ensue, as happened at Fukushima.
  • It produces relatively little radioactivity. The levels are extremely low and very short-lived compared to the long-lived, highly toxic radioactive waste of conventional fission reactors.
  • Its waste poses little weapons proliferation risk. The waste that fusion produces cannot be used to make bombs, although some believe that the tritium that it breeds does pose a proliferation risk.
  • There are potential uses for fusion’s helium waste. Helium is widely used in the medical industry for, among other things, cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners, and in welding.
  • Most components of a potential fusion fuel are plentiful. Most fusion projects aim to use deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is plentiful—it’s the stuff that Canadian CANDU “heavy water” reactors use as moderators in fission reactions. It occurs commonly in water. It’s so common in seawater that, according to fusion company Helion Energy, the potential energy in 1 barrel of seawater equals that of 700 barrels of oil. The other hydrogen isotope, tritium, does not occur naturally. Fusion fuel makers will have to obtain their first doses from either CANDU reactors, where it is a byproduct, or from other sources, like the weapons community. But the good news is that once fusion starts, it breeds its own new tritium.
  • It requires very little fuel. Most proposed fusion reactors rely on very small amounts of deuterium and tritium. ITER, the massive international fusion project in France, plans to deploy a mere 2 grams of deuterium and tritium at any one time in its 98-foot-tall reactor. By comparison, utilities typically load fission reactors with hundreds of rods of uranium at a time.
  • Fuel costs are low. If a year’s worth of coal carries a value of “1”, then the combined cost of the deuterium and tritium would be 0.0005. The uranium in fission would cost 0.1, significantly more than fusion fuel.
  • It does not emit CO2 or other greenhouse gases. While this is also true for fission reactions, it adds to the appeal of fusion as a baseload clean energy source.

If fusion sounds too good to be true, that’s because, so far, it has been. As of this writing, there’s been no independent verification that anyone has yet successfully built a working fusion reactor that can produce sustained energy greater than that put into it.

Enter our small fusion company. Our source, concerned he was telling us too much, initially wouldn’t even reveal its name.

The fission wonder down under?
As mentioned, this company and its story seem to have all the elements of a Hollywood thriller:

  • Harnessing the power of nature! The analogy most often applied to fusion is harnessing the reaction of the sun. But this company’s fusion reaction, fueled by deuterium and tritium, isn’t nearly as high temperature, our source claims, and is more “rooted in nature.” Specifically, the reaction is said not to require the high temperature, high pressure or accelerated particles of others’ approaches. “The key is not how many neutron hits you generate, but how you sustain them, how well you can control them.” For a 40-watt power input, the reactor is said to be able to generate a megawatt.
  • Exotic locales! The company is based in Australia. Why? “Everyone’s expecting big nuclear innovations to come out of China, or France,” said our source. But it’s replicated its intellectual property and technology “around the world in case they get infiltrated.”
  • Self-funded by mad scientist! The technology’s inventor has apparently tinkered with his design for 40 years, and self-funded the company’s early stages, reinvesting income from earlier lucrative inventions. Now, strategic investors are said to include family money, such as a Shanghai real estate baron and decedents of American industrialist John Pitcairn, Jr.
  • Culture of secrecy! The company’s secrecy about its actual progress makes Apple look sophomoric. In development since the 90s, it has sworn employees and investors not to let on how successful its research has been. It’s said to have retained the former head of Israel’s counter terrorism unit as its chief of security.
  • No to takeover offers! The company is said to have already fielded a buyout attempt by General Electric (NYSE:GE). The founder apparently didn’t want the invention owned by just one corporation, characterizing it an invention for mankind, apparently.
  • Requisite military involvement! The company is said to be secretly working with the Australian Air Force and Navy, and the U.S. Department of Defense, and aims to trial a 10MW version of its reactor in 2012 with an Australian utility.
  • Political and industrial upheaval! If fusion can be made to work at scale, it could indeed affect the world in profound ways. All the ingredients for drama!

More about this secretive company, and other companies working to radically improve nuclear power as we know it today, is available in Kachan’s new Emerging Nuclear Innovations report, just released. This 64-page report rounds up 6 months of looking carefully at the nuclear power industry for companies best placed to usurp big, conventional fission of the type that powers the 432 non-military nuclear reactors that exist worldwide today.

Beyond fusion, the report also looks at improvements in conventional light water reactors (LWRs), including boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs), use of thorium as a fuel in molten salt and solid fuel reactors, molten salt reactors (MSRs), fast neutron reactors (FNRs), pebble bed reactors (PBRs) and modular reactors.

So don’t write off the nuclear power industry after Fukushima. Despite last March’s meltdown in Japan, the World Nuclear Association believes that in the 33 countries that currently operate nuclear reactors, capacity will increase 52-200%, to between 559 and 1,087 gigawatts in 2030 (up from 367 gigawatts today). Among countries that don’t already use nuclear power, those with plans to do so could add another 30-123 gigawatts, and new potential entrants could increase that by yet another 13-140 gigawatts.

Expect that new, safer nuclear technologies—possibly even fusion—will be part of that growth.

This article was originally published here. Reposted by permission.

Bringing Security to the Grid in an Unsecure World

It’s long been on the short-list of things that keep utility planners and security experts awake at night:  hackers find a way to enter the control system of critical infrastructure and command it against the interests of users.

Well, it appears to have finally happened:  in early November, a small water utility in downstate Illinois reportedly experienced a cyberattack from a source in Russia, in which a pump was repeatedly turned on and off until it failed.  The event is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

In some ways, it’s surprising that this first incident took so long to occur.  Hackers and terrorists are determined and many have access to the latest in technologies, while the information systems and governing architecture of the U.S. utility grid is essentially decades old.  The SCADA systems typically in use to manage utility assets are generally antiquated, with proprietary code, and who-knows-how-many bugs and loopholes and vulnerabilities since they were programmed by people who are now mostly either retired or dead.

There’s a lot of hype about “smart-grid” technologies to manage the grid and its assets for better efficiencies.  Not much of the smart-grid discourse centers on security issues.  But, it would be pretty stupid for a newly refurbished smart-grid to remain so vulnerable. 

I’ve heard from reliable sources that blowing up just a few of the most critical substations in the U.S. would cause prolonged and wide-reaching blackouts until new equipment such as large transformers could be fabricated, as quantities of these things don’t just sit on the shelf. 

Let’s hope that the relative silence about grid security in the smart-grid space is more a function of desired stealthiness than of inattention or neglect.

Best of Both: Diesel and Plug-in Hybrid

Audi e-tron Spyder Diesel Plug-in Hybrid

Audi Etron LA2011 1269  mid 300x199 Audi e tron Spyder Diesel Plug in Hybrid AWDOriginal Post at Clean Fleet Report

Just looking at this hot sports car invites you to get behind the wheel and leave this LA Auto Show and not stop until navigating breathtaking hairpin turns along the coast of Big Sur. The Audi e-tron Spyder is a convertible sports coupe with dramatic styling. At the moment it is a concept. Yet when Audi shows these types of concepts they normally become production cars.

The Audi e-tron Spyder is likely to be the first diesel plug-in hybrid car to be sold in the United States. With two electric motors and a 3 liter turbodiesel engine, this car has the power to race past the popular Chevy Volt. This Audi e-tron goes zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds. It is electronically governed to 155 miles per hour so that you don’t get too carried away. The Audi performance and styling will provide serious competition to Fisker.

Two electric motors with a combined output of 64 kW (87 hp) and 352 Nm (259.62 lb-ft) of torque propel the front wheels. Behind the open, two-seat passenger cell is a 3.0 TDI with twin turbochargers. It generates 221 kW (300 hp) and 650 Nm (479.42 lb-ft) of torque, which is distributed by the seven-speed S tronic to the rear wheels. A 9.1 kWh lithium-ion battery is located in the front.

No current all-wheel drive (AWD) car comes close to the mileage and low-emissions of this Audi e-tron. It is speced for 107 mpg and only 95 grams of CO2 per mile.

All four wheels of the e-tron Spyder can be accelerated and braked individually, creating extremely precise, dynamic handling. The electric motors on the front wheels can be activated separately and a mechanical sport differential on the rear axle distributes the power. This form of “torque vectoring” marks a new advanced stage of the quattro principle – the e-tron Quattro with superior all-wheel drive handling on wet and icy roads.

The short wheelbase and low weight, achieved above all thanks to the aluminum body using the Audi Space Frame (ASF) construction principle, further hone its sporty character; the axle load distribution is 50:50.

The electric range is 50 km (31.07 miles) and the top speed in that mode is 60 km/h (37.28 mph). With its 50-liter (13.21 US gallons) fuel tank, the open-top two-seater has a range of more than 1,000 km (621.37 miles).

A World of Hurt

Seemingly generating nary a ripple here in the U.S., the International Energy Agency (IEA) just issued its 2011 World Energy Outlook — its annual synopsis on the future of the global energy sector. 

If ignorance is bliss, then we’re certainly blessed by generally not bothering to confront the pretty-alarming conclusions of the report. 

A pastiche of the highlighted snippets in the Executive Summary, when stitched together, provide a glimpse of the world we’re now choosing to invent for ourselves and future generations:

“There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway.”

“Global investment in energy supply infrastructure of $38 trillion (in year-2010 dollars) is required over the period 2011 to 2035.”

“The age of fossil fuels is far from over, but their dominance declines.”

“The cost of bringing oil to market rises as oil companies are forced to turn to more difficult and costly sources to replace lost capacity and meet rising demand.”

“Factors both on the supply and demand sides point to a bright future, even a golden age, for natural gas.”

“Coal has met almost half of the increase in global energy demand over the last decade.  Whether this trend alters and how quickly is among the most important questions for the future of the global energy economy.”

“The dynamics of energy markets are increasingly determined by countries outside the OECD.”

“All of the net increase in oil demand comes from the transport sector in emerging economies, as economic growth pushes up demand for personal mobility and freight.”

“China’s consumption of coal is almost half of global demand and its Five-Year Plan for 2011 to 2015, which aims to reduce the energy and carbon intensity of the economy, will be a determining factor for world coal markets.”

“Russia’s large energy resources underpin its continuing role as a cornerstone of the global energy economy of the coming decades.  Russia aims to create a more efficient economy, less dependent on oil and gas, but needs to pick up the pace of change.”

“International concern about the issue of energy access is growing.  Around $9 billion was invested globally to provide first access to modern energy, but more than five-times this amount, $48 billion, needs to be invested each year if universal access is to be achieved by 2030.”

“We cannot afford to delay further action to combat climate change.”

“New energy efficiency measures make a difference, but much more is required.”

“Widespread deployment of more efficient coal-fired power plants and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could boost the long-term prospects for coal, but there are still considerable hurdles.”

“Events at Fukushima Daiichi have raised questions about the future of nuclear power.”

“The wide difference in outcomes between [the scenarios analyzed in this report] underlies the critical role of governments to define the objectives and implement the policies necessary to shape our future.”

When observing the dysfunctional nature of the current political ecosystems in the U.S., in Europe, and in world affairs (e.g., the United Nations), and the increasing imperative for economic austerity to resolve the shortfalls in public coffers, it is hard to believe that governments (other than autocratic places like China and Russia) will be able to take any meaningful action to nudge the energy sector from its trajectory of “muddle-along.”  The chaos that IEA describes in the world energy scene will thus likely only intensify.

Lots of challenges in this world.  But, then again, lots of opportunities too.

“Off the Grid and Into People’s Homes”

In the November/December issue of EnergyBiz, you will find an unusual contributor to a magazine about the utility sector:  Bob McDonald, CEO of Proctor & Gamble (NYSE: PG).

Being one of the largest, most successful and savviest consumer marketing companies, P&G is often considered by utility companies as a model for how to develop and market new products or services. 

As more and more so-called “smart-grid” technologies go to market, enabling more active customer intelligence and management of energy consumption, the skill of rolling out innovative — and potentially lucrative — new offerings to households will be important both from a financial and an environmental standpoint.

For the utility industry, learning this skill is very challenging.  The utility sector grew through the 20th Century under a regulated monopoly structure, where customers didn’t have choices about providers, and often didn’t have choices about service levels either.  This codified innumerable business practices across all aspects of the utility business and shaped generations of utility employees to not know anything about individual customers — and frankly, to not much care about customers, other than the overarching mandate to provide reliable service levels.   To this day, many utilities still refer to customers as “meters” or “accounts” — hardly customer-centric terminology.

But it’s not just the fault of utilities.  As McDonald’s opinion piece “From Soap to Energy” notes accurately, “consumers are fairly passive about their energy needs — the only times they get involved are when costs go up or service goes out.”  With such customer indifference, it’s hard to break through the clutter and compel changes in behavior. 

And, this change in behavior is at the root of so many energy efficiency opportunities that — as a widely-cited McKinsey study points out — represent much of the “low-hanging fruit” in untapped emissions reductions.  Thus, unless utilities get stronger at marketing, much of the promise of energy efficiency will remain uncaptured.

McDonald’s brief essay is pithy — and not only highly relevant for utilities, but any cleantech innovator seeking to offer a new product/service. 

“We all occasionally fall into the trap of knowing more about the technologies we invent than about the people who use them.  This is usually a prescription for marketplace failure.  Successful innovation requires a deep understanding of consumers’ lives, dreams, frustrations and aspirations.  This level of understanding breeds insights that, in turn inspire innovation that improves lives.  It’s hard, time-consuming, hands-on work.”

Continuing:  “My advice to the electric utility industry is to get off the grid and into people’s homes.  Understand the role that energy plays in day-to-day lives.” 

For McDonald, this entails a degree of immersion into household behavior and sentiment that probably no utility has today.  For that matter, it’s a degree of immersion that few entrepreneurs developing energy-saving products/services have. 

Ultimately, the future of cleantech is not just, or even mainly, about the technology, or even its economics.  If smart-grid technologies, and cleantech in general, are going to transcend the entrenched customer indifference about energy, the future winners will have to somehow figure out a way to tap deeply buried dissatisfactions or unleash undiscovered sources of happiness regarding energy usage.

As the old adage says, “Nothing happens in business until someone sells something.”  And, as virtually anyone involved in cleantech ventures will tell you, there’s no more important validator of a technology or enabler of financial success than revenues.  This all starts with the essence of McDonald’s simple advice:  Know Thy Customer.  

Indeed, given the daunting challenges that utilities face in restructuring their century-old operations and grooming a new cohort of human capital to be more customer-centered, a whole segment of cleantech entrepreneurship may emerge to help bridge this utility-customer gap.

Armistice Day 2011: Our Pearl Harbor Moment for Solar is Coming

Ok.  Deep breath.  The first time I modeled solar costs and started reviewing the first PPA solar models, was nearly 8 years ago now.  And they were ugly then.  As in, fully loaded some $0.60-0.90 /kwh ugly, no matter how rosy the solar pollyannas were.  That’s why it took a German Feed in Tariff of near that level to drive the industry, or US subsidies covering 40%-50% of the capital costs on a net present value basis.  It could compete with battery powered lights and calculators, diesel gensets in the middle of nowhere, and that was about it.  No clear path to a non subsidized market of any size.  Fast forward 8 years, and dozens of major policy programs and $10s of Billions in investment later, the game has changed.  We’ll be 7-10 years off those first rosy solar forecasts, but it is working.

To those of you saying the photovoltaic sector can’t compete without subsidies, today you’re right.  But be very, very, very careful.  In today’s world you’re working with 2 year old data. Your competitors are forecasting 2 year forward data.  4 years in solar time is about like 4 years in dog years.  A lot can change.

At today’s lower end of installed cost $3-4/Wp, at utility scale, the direct amortized cost for PV is c. high single digits to mid double digits in cents/kwh.  Fully loaded costs would be in the mid to high teens, with roughly a third of that covered by subsidies.  But there’s a lag, we’re not really at $3-4/Wp anymore.  Module prices are crashing towards $1/Wp, and overhead, installation, etc is trending down to match it, meaning very shortly we’ll be <$2-2.50/Wp in utility scale, with still plenty of room to drop.  WITHOUT a major technology shift.  Imagine a world where we’re building solar in utility scale, in the sunny southwest, using the coming generation of trackers, monitoring, <$1/Wp panels, and procurement, finance, engineering and installation done at scale.  That world puts us in striking distance of new gas fired generation even at today’s low gas prices. That world is MAYBE 3 years off.

This is NOT a Moore’s law change.  The disruptive technology improvement the venture world has been searching for has only gotten us part way there.  Most of it is incremental basic manufacturing maturity and economies of scale.  And it’s working.

We are about to reach our Pearl Harbor moment.  You think solar PV will take longer to reach competitiveness because it always has, and the moment it disrupts the power business will be obvious.  Just like the US military’s “Orange Plan” in 1941 assumed the Japanese fleet would strike the Philippines and give us plenty of time to gather the battlefleet and steam across the Pacific and meet the Japanese fleet in a Mahan style decisive battle.  So we took a baby step, and moved the fleet to Pearl Harbor which we believed was out of range of first strike.  In fact, most of the Japanese thought the way we did.  But they didn’t do it that way.  They used aircraft carriers and dive bombers and torpedo planes which the rest of the world thought still weren’t yet competitive with battleships. They reached halfway across the Pacific and blasted the most powerful battlefleet in the world into oblivion.  Forced the US to rethink it’s entire strategic, technological, and tactical approach to war.  Forced us to shift like lightning to aircraft carriers and submarines.  And they did it with a TOTAL of less than 400 planes and one visionary leader.

Yes the solar sector’s still getting shellacked from supply overhangs.  And margin pressure everywhere.  And falling subsidies.  This is a good thing.  We’re growing up.  Stop whining about success and play ball.  SolarBuzz has the US nonresidential PV pipeline of announced projects at 24 GW, with 2.4 GW under construction according to SEIA, up from only 400 MW in the US today.  SolarBuzz has the Chinese development pipeline at 14 GW on the back of their recently announced Feed in Tariff.  That FiT is c. $0.15/kwh, maybe a quarter of the original German one.  This is not your father’s solar sector.

Bottom line, we’re not there yet.  The skeptics are still right.  But for the first time there is probably enough near term volume in the pipeline to drive enough additional economies of scale to reach our Pearl Harbor moment in solar.

That moment won’t be the end.  It will be the start of the war.  But a world war for control of the power sector it will be.  The first such real war in electric power in 100 years.  A war where after 20 years of building, some of the solar companies who survive this current cycle will be big enough, tough enough, and fast enough to go toe to toe with the largest energy and power companies on the planet.

It’s Armistice Day 2011.  World War I is over.  Pearl Harbor is now on the horizon.  The path to a competitive, unsubsidized solar industry is finally clear.

High-Speed Rail Expands from 14 to 24 Countries

By Worldwatch Institute (11/8/11)

The number of countries running high-speed rail is expected to double over the next few years, according to new research by the Worldwatch Institute. By 2014, high-speed trains will be operating in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States, up from only 14 countries today. The increase in HSR is due largely to its reliability and ability to cover vast geographic distances in a short time, to investments aimed at connecting once-isolated regions, and to the diminishing appeal of air travel, which is becoming more cumbersome because of security concerns.

In just three years, between January 2008 and January 2011, the operational fleet grew from 1,737 high-speed trainsets worldwide to 2,517. Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. By 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units.”

A 2006 comparison of greenhouse gas emissions by travel mode, released by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, found that HSR lines in Europe and Japan released 30-70 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometer, versus 150 grams for automobiles and 170 grams for airplanes.

Although there is no universal speed definition for HSR, the threshold is typically set at 250 kilometers per hour on new tracks and 200 kilometers per hour on existing, upgraded tracks. The length of HSR tracks worldwide is undergoing explosive growth in order to meet increasing demand. Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of operational track has grown from some 10,700 kilometers to nearly 17,000 kilometers. Another 8,000 kilometers is currently under construction, and some 17,700 kilometers more is planned, for a combined total of close to 43,000 kilometers.

By track length, the current high-speed leaders are China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany. Other countries are joining the high-speed league as well. Turkey has ambitious plans to reach 2,424 kilometers and surpass the length of Germany’s network. Italy, Portugal, and the United States all hope to reach track lengths of more than 1,000 kilometers. Another 15 countries have plans for shorter networks.

But in Europe, France continues to account for about half of all European high-speed rail travel. HSR reached an astounding 62 percent of the country’s passenger rail travel volume in 2008, up from just 23 percent in 1990, thanks to affordable ticket prices, an impressive network, and reliability. And in Japan, the Shinkansen trains are known for their exceedingly high degree of reliability. JR Central, the largest of the Japanese rail operating companies, reports that the average delay per high-speed train throughout a year is just half a minute. On all routes in Japan where both air and high-speed rail connections are available, rail has captured a 75 percent market share.

Investments for Expansion of HSR

A draft plan for French transportation infrastructure investments for the next two decades allocates 52 percent of a total of $236 billion to HSR.

In 2005, the Spanish government announced an ambitious plan for some 10,000 kilometers of high-speed track by 2020, which would allow 90 percent of Spaniards to live within 50 kilometers of an HSR station.

Currently, China is investing about $100 billion annually in railway construction. The share of the country’s railway infrastructure investment allocated to HSR has risen from less than 10 percent in 2005 to a stunning 60 percent in 2010.

Intercity rail in Japan accounts for 18 percent of total domestic passenger-kilometers by all travel modes—-compared with just 5 to 8 percent in major European countries and less than 1 percent in the United States.

In France, rail’s market share of the Paris-Marseille route rose from 22 percent in 2001 (before the introduction of high-speed service) to 69 percent in 2006. In Spain, the Madrid-Seville rail route’s share rose from 33 to 84 percent.

Reports and High-Speed Rail and Advanced Transportation

Worldwatch Institute High-Speed Rail Report

Spain HSR Traveler’s Experience

Scenario to Reduce California Emissions by 80 Percent

The Story of Ethylene… now starring natural gas

It’s a $160 billion a year market you’ve probably never heard of.

Ethylene, the intermediary chemical compound from which popular plastics and many other high value products are derived, has traditionally been made in the petroleum industry via steam cracking, an energy- and carbon-intensive process. It’s the most produced organic compound in the world; annual global production is in the hundreds of millions of tons. To meet ever-increasing demand, production facilities are being added globally, particularly in the Persian Gulf and China.

The problem is, it’s complicated and expensive to make ethylene. And, or course, petroleum reserves are waning.

For decades, chemical engineers have been pursuing cost effective ways to make this key industrial compound from other things. Now, a handful of companies think they’re honing in on ways to make ethylene from the methane in natural gas with commercially viable processes.

If making ethylene from methane turns out to be possible at scale, it could be a watershed for the chemical and petroleum industries. Ethylene from methane could potentially be much less expensive, given that natural gas is one-fifth the price of oil. And its supply could be more sustainable, given the massive and growing size of natural gas reserves.

The methane conversion space is more crowded than one might expect. Kachan & Co. recently performed a consulting project for a client that uncovered and profiled 24 announced and stealth mode startups in this space, along with 19 blue chip companies and 6 universities and government labs. The project involved interviews with company and research personnel, a review of venture investment data, interviews with investors and trade organizations, an intellectual property patent search and a literature review that included media and scientific sources.

Here are some of the more interesting of the 24 small organizations we found at the forefront of methane-to-ethylene commercialization today:

Co. Name HQ Website Type Dev. Stage Tech Description Partners or Alliances Investors
Carbon Sciences Santa Barbara, California www.carbonsciences.com Public Experimental phase Reforming methane to syngas to fuel using advanced catalysts. Emerging Fuels Technology (EFT) & University of Saskatchewan N.A.
Fertilizer Research Institute Pulawy, Poland www.ins.pulawy.pl  Polish national research lab Unknown Currently operating a pilot methane to ethylene facility based on oxidative coupling of methane (OCM). Governmental facility N.A.
LanzaTech Auckland, New Zealand www.lanzatech.co.nz Private Prototyping, commercialization in 2013 Gas fermentation process that produces both fuels and high-value chemicals from low-cost resources such as steam-reformed methane. N.A. Series A investment from an investor consortium led by Khosla Ventures; Series B financing led by Qiming Ventures.
Quantiam Technologies Alberta, Canada www.quantiam.com Private Research & development  Working on a feasibility study on a novel catalyst for methane conversion. BASF, IRAP BASF ($3M), Ursataur Capital Management ($3M), Small investors ($2.3M)
Siluria Technologies San Francisco, California www.siluria.com Private Research & development A “revolutionary approach combining the latest developments in nanomaterial science, biotechnology and chemical engineering.” New type of oxidative coupling of methane (OCM) process. None disclosed Wellcome Trust, Alloy Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Altitude Life Science Ventures, Lux Capital, Presidio Ventures. $13.3M Series A. $20M Series B.

Excerpt from private Kachan & Co. study of 24 methane to ethylene companies, October 2011

The companies we found worldwide pursing methane-to-ethylene arranged themselves into rough groupings by type:

  • IP Provider: Develops IP related to methane-to-ethylene, does not go beyond IP phase
  • Technology Provider: Developed a technology and a prototype, intend to license to other companies (e.g. Carbon Sciences)
  • Application Provider: Developed a technology, and sells engineering services to build facilities (e.g. BCCK) or manufacture technology (e.g. Rentech)
  • Technology Operator: Goes beyond the licensing and directly operates facilities (e.g. CompactGTL)

Global oil and gas majors have been working on the challenge of methane to ethylene for years themselves, with dozens of patents issued. But none have cracked the code of profitable commercial scale production.

Global oil majors and number of patents in converting methane to ethylene

Chevron 80
Exxon Mobil 72
Shell 54
BP 29
BASF 17
Nippon Oil 14
Innospec 10
Lubrizol 9
Celanese 7
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation 5
Total Raffinage 5
General Electric 5
Honeywell 3
Cosmo Oil 3
Eni S.p.A. 3

Source: IP Checkups, October 2011

High value chemicals like ethylene from natural gas would be even more compelling if the gas was derived from renewable, biological sources, and not from conventional reserves or fracking, as today. Small volumes of renewable methane are available today from anaerobic digestion and landfill gas. But large volumes are promised by a new wave of companies commercializing thermal gasification and other approaches to creating bio natural gas from wood waste and other widely available feedstocks (see the Kachan report The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity).

Complicated science aside, it won’t be easy for companies to bring methane to ethylene innovations to scale. Ethylene and other high value chemicals today are an oligopoly, a market hard to crack. Any new process will likely need to be championed by one of today’s 5 big suppliers as a partner to enter the market. Then there’s the culture clash between small, fast-moving venture backed companies seeking quick exists and the notoriously slow, conservative petroleum and chemical industries.

But those challenges are likely surmountable, according to the bets that are being made by name brand cleantech venture backers of the companies in this space.

Originally published here. Reproduced by permission.

Assaulting Batteries

A radical breakthrough in energy storage has long been considered the “holy grail” of cleantech.  With ubiquitous, scalable, reliable and (most importantly) low-cost energy storage, two main thrusts of cleantech adoption will be debottlenecked:  much deeper penetration of zero-emitting and limitless but intermittent solar and wind into the electricity generation mix, and significantly reduced needs for fueled internal combustion in vehicles.  Either of these is gargantuan in scope and implications.  As I like to say, whoever solves just one of them in a commercially-attractive way will make Bill Gates look like a pauper.

Of course, the primary energy storage technology in use now, and for the past century, is batteries.  The current state of battery technology has well-known performance characteristics that are generally satisfactory for present applications (e.g., starting automobiles, power quality management in uninterruptible power systems (UPS), portable consumer electronics), but not for the two above-noted game-changing applications.

And so the cleantech innovation and investment world has been searching near and far, high and low, for better energy storage solutions.

Some trailblazers are pushing entirely new technological platforms for energy storage.  About a decade ago, flywheels were especially in vogue.  As the name implies, this is a mechanical device that stores energy in a spinning mass.  However, several issues – notably frictional losses for stationary applications and weight and containment (you do NOT want a flywheel disintegrating into a hail of shrapnel in an accident) for mobile applications – have been difficult to overcome.  The two most well-known flywheel developers:  Active Power (NASDAQ: ACPW) continues to make a go of it, whereas Beacon Power (NASDAQ: BCON) just announced bankruptcy last week after a very long slog.

Supercapacitors and ultracapacitors also horn in on battery territory.  Like batteries, both supercaps and ultracaps are electrochemical devices.  However, unlike batteries, they typically charge/discharge more quickly, thereby allowing rapid surges and refills of power.  In truth, supercaps and ultracaps may be more of a complement than a threat to batteries:  batteries being generally pretty good in slow/long energy flows but not strong in fast/short energy flows (i.e., high energy density and low power density) and super/ultracaps being the opposite (i.e., high power density and low energy density).  Of course, if super/ultracaps can be matured to provide both high power and high energy density at attractive economics while meeting other key performance criteria (reliability, temperature tolerance, weight, etc.), then batteries will truly be under siege.  Indeed, as one recent article on GreenTech Media suggests, Ioxus claims to be developing an ultracap that really begins to intrude on the battery space for electric vehicles.

Even so, don’t underestimate the challenges these upstart technologies face in penetrating the energy storage market.  There’s a reason why batteries, as suboptimal as they may be, dominate the energy storage space:  nothing else has been able to do better, consistently, at low cost.

Accordingly, a lot of attention, effort and money still flows to the battery space – to make improvements to the reigning energy storage technology champion.  Of course, batteries can be improved on just about every possible dimension imaginable:  energy density, power density, weight, cost, depth of discharge, speed of recharge, number of lifecycles.

Battery technology innovations can generally be lumped into two categories.  One is better materials for the electrodes or electrolytes, to improve the performance of individual battery cells.  Second is battery management systems (BMS), which aim to improve the way multiple cells interact and affect overall battery performance. 

Both types of innovations were on display at last month’s unimaginatively-named The Battery Show in suburban Detroit.  It was a modest exhibition, as cleantech shows go. 

With few exceptions – LG comes most to mind, with a demo of its lithium-ion battery-based whole-home UPS that it will be unveiling in the next year or two – most of the booths showed the wares of small little-known companies seeking to get a toehold in the battery space, selling to battery manufacturers or gaining the enthusiasm of battery users who can then apply pressure on the battery manufacturers themselves.

Among manufacturers of batteries, most of the biggest companies such as C&D Technologies (OTC: CHP), East Penn Deka and Exide Technologies (NASDAQ:  XIDE) did not have visible presences.  Although disappointing, it’s not surprising:  the battery industry has consistently been characterized to me as sleepy and resistant to change, focused more on manufacturing and cost-minimization than technology advancement.  The one company probably most shaking up the battery sector – A123 Systems (NASDAQ:  AONE) – was in good force, although perhaps that should be discounted somewhat, since many of their employees are located just a few miles from the show venue.

While the battery sector may have largely been “fat, dumb and happy” for decades, I see that characteristic fading away in the coming years, perhaps quickly.  Many staid management and operating teams of the big guys are nearing retirement, and there’s so much at stake in the future of energy storage that highly-disruptive and well-capitalized global players will no doubt be increasingly entering the market and stirring the pot.  For instance, a recent article in The Economist mentioned the battery ambitions of Samsung (KSE: 005930), a formidable entrant-to-be.  

Increasing dynamism will be uncomfortable for the battery incumbents, but then again, no-one said the cleantech market was easy.

10,000 EVs for San Francisco in 2012

San Francisco Bay Area may be the nation’s first region with 10,000 electric cars. It could happen in 2012 for the region with 7 million people and 5.3 million vehicles. Electric utility PG&E reports that they are now charging 1,800 Nissan LEAFs and 250 Chevrolet Volt residential owners. Add to these numbers a growing number of electric car fleets that include Google, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the U.S. Navy; 4,000 freeway-speed electric vehicles in the SF Bay Area are forecast by the end of this year.

I’ve personally been to meetings where 50 of the attendees arrived in their Nissan LEAFs, Chevrolet Volts, Prius Plug-in Hybrids, and Tesla Roadsters. Also on the road in the Bay Area are test vehicles including Ford Focus Electric, Honda Fit Electric, Tesla Model S, Mitsubishi i, electric trucks and electric motor cycles. CityCar Share is ordering 15 battery-electric cars and 15 plug-in hybrids, giving these cars wide exposure to its thousands of members.

The Bay Area is the home of cities where one in five drive a Prius, Silicon Valley innovators aspire to be the next Steve Jobs, and Tesla opens a new plant with aspirations to make the U.S. the world leader in electric vehicles.

Over 1,000 electric car chargers now appear to be installed in the San Francisco Bay Area. More new EV owners are trickle-charging their cars as they wait for backlogged wall chargers to be installed by backlogged electricians dealing with backlogged utilities and city inspectors. During the next two years over 5,000 chargers, formally labeled electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE), will be installed in the Bay Area.  Although homes are the primary point of charging, electric car drivers like me are extending their range by using over 100 public charge points in the Bay Area installed by Coulomb Technologies and others. Major employers are installing chargers for their employees, fleets, and visitors. Google has 70 charge stations for its over 100 employees who drive Teslas, LEAFs, Volts, and other electric cars.

Damian Breen, Director at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, reports that over 1,000 public charging stations are being installed in the Bay Area. Most are Level 2; some are dual stations with one Level 2 and one Level 1 outlet. Also planned are 6 DC Fast Chargers to be installed in the next 12 months; 50 are scheduled to be operating by the end of 2013. These DC Fast Chargers, similar to the CHAdeMO chargers successfully used in Japan, can add 60 miles of range for a typical electric car in about 20 minutes.

In 2012, Nissan, GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda and others are offering ten different electric car models for less than $40,000. Leases start at $350. During the next two years, automakers are building new plants and expanding existing plants to keep-up with customer orders for electric cars.