The Real “Sweet Spot”: Sugar from Post-Consumer Food Waste

Over the past few months, various print and media sources have had a ball describing various food additives with a huge “ick” factor. From pink slime to fetal human kidney cells and beaver anal glands – not to mention beetle secretions that make food shine, or crushed bugs, or even fertilizer in bread to help the yeast grow – these additives run the gamut from substances as benign as silicon dioxide (sand) or as lethal as hexane, an explosive chemical solvent used to process GM soybeans into “veggie burgers”.

There’s a new stomach-churner in the works, and it is sugar. High-quality sugar, which inventor Dr. Brian Baynes, Founder and Chairman of Midori Renewables and partner at Flagship VentureLabs L, describes as coming from post-consumer food waste (among other things) via a breakthrough catalyst technology which revolutionizes the “entire value chain for converting cellulosic biomass via an extensively reusable solid.”

Not surprisingly, the explanation is a mouthful, and reflects Dr. Baynes – “call me Brian” – level of education (a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT). When questioned about his schooling, Dr. Baynes explains:

“You spend enough time in school and they give you some letters to put after your name.”

So why is this exceedingly bright and notably unpretentious individual tinkering with garbage?

Because, regardless how it might seem, or sound, Midori isn’t in the business of gratifying the “sweet tooth” of Americans – a fondness that leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Instead, Midori is about harvesting the sugars in cellulosic biomass and converting them to such a “clean” product that they can stand alone as biofuel. These are not sugar esters, but pure carbohydrates, which Midori sources from a number of biomass residues, including corn stover (stalks, leaves and harvested cobs), sugar cane bagasse (also from post-harvest leftovers), grasses, wheat straw, rice straw, trees, wood chips, tree bark, oil palm waste, the roots of cassava, leaves, food waste, and even textiles. Old t-shirts, for example, are almost entirely sugars.

In fact, Midori’s process is “feedstock agnostic”, working well with many forms of biomass. Food waste is an excellent resource, but suffers from a lack of accessibility. That is, even though one-third of the world’s food supply is wasted, it isn’t collected at a few known and accessible sites, which would simplify sourcing at the producer level, but at a myriad of locations ranging from landfills to food shelves.

“We would love to be able to collect all that stuff and turn it into sugars or reuse it another way,” Brian says. “What inspires us at Midori is trying to figure out how to get every bit of value from everything we create. And when we see waste, we immediately begin to think how to use it.”

Whether dealing with leftover bread or bagasse (or stover, or oil palm waste, the four best substances for extracting sugars), Midori’s catalyst and process delivers a high-quality sugar that looks somewhat like honey with a mild if distinct fragrance. It is also sufficiently refined enough to use in food – another “ick” factor that consumers would prefer not to contemplate. But Brian doesn’t see that use in food as an immediate opportunity. For one thing, there is no shortage of real sugar. For another, the safety concerns surrounding edible substances make for a great deal of regulatory pressure, which means that Midori is unlikely to pursue that as its first option.

So what is this remarkable discovery, this highly transformative catalyst? Unlike Flagship VentureLabs company Joule, which is experimenting with getting organisms like algae, plankton or cyanobacteria to consume carbon dioxide and sunlight instead of sugar, this technology does not focus on living elements.

“It’s not a bacteria or a biological. In fact, it is not derived from life in any way. Nor is it particularly esoteric, being made from bulk chemicals that one could find in the average petrochemical refinery, and made in approximately the same fashion as plastics to produce a substance that looks like little beads.

“We coat these beads with our ‘secret sauce’, and it is this aspect of our chemistry that makes it more than a plastic.”

Brian’s responses suggest he’s not only ‘getting into’ my lame food comparisons, but that he might also be a very savvy poker player. One has only to hear his story to understand that his relationship with Flagship Ventures and his willingness to explore new possibilities has been the hallmark of his career. In fact, if not for Venture Labs, where Flagship Ventures’ partners get a head start inventing new companies, Brian would have invented his own entity, unable to resist the thrill of starting a company based on knowledge, skills and a hunch that he and his partners could do it better. And at one point that is precisely what he did.

For example: “We thought we could make DNA faster and cheaper. We wondered if we could make plants grow faster, or make fuel molecules. Biotech was like being in a library; you could read any book you wanted, but you didn’t have a pen (to write down your discoveries).

Along the way, I had every job but CFO. At one point I was even the janitor. Then, in 2009, I learned that I was passionate about starting these businesses. I came back to Flagship and said, “Okay, let’s look at some new products.”

And that, notes Brian, was the genesis of Midori Renewables, whose management team – President and CEO Daniel Trunfio, Dr. Sadesh Sookraj, CBO, and Brian himself – constitutes the best mix of management skills, scientific know-how, and immersion in both old and new energy technologies.

Flagship Ventures had already invested in Midori’s sustainability practices, notably in a company called Mascoma, which converted wood chips to ethanol. The progression, from Mascoma to LS9 (converting sugars to biodiesel) to Midori (biomass to sugars) and, finally, Joule (converting CO2 to liquid fuels), was an essential evolution.

How will Midori spread this particular technological wealth around? Its superbly imaginative description of the technology – as a “bolt-on” enterprise – suggests that anyone who has given up on corn-to-biofuels, for example, can put a Midori plant at the front end of its current facility for a fast, inexpensive and painless upgrade.

Alternatively, Midori might identify a good source of biomass – one that, unlike corn, won’t drive the price of tortillas in Mexico so high that poor people can no longer afford to eat even this dietary staple, as happened in 2008. Then it would only be a matter of building a plant and operating it.

Having scaled the process up from small experimental models, working in an area of chemistry that no one else was exploring, Midori was finally able to process a ton of biomass with an equal measure of the catalyst. The result, which looks somewhat like honey and has a mild fragrance, can deliver one-quarter ton of fuel in a maximum of two hours.

At one point in the past, ethanol reportedly cost five times more to produce than ‘straight-run’ gasoline. This, notes Brian, is no longer true – if it ever was. In fact, the current cost of a barrel of oil – $110 as compared to about $12 in 1998 – makes the two sources quite comparable. Brian, a former employee of both Mobil and Exxon, keeps his finger on the energy pulse and I simply take his word for it.

“The difference,” he adds. “Is that ethanol doesn’t have as much energy as gasoline. In fact, it only has about two-thirds as much. But at least Midori will be able to make ethanol 2 or even 2.5 times less expensive than the same fuel from corn.”

Moreover, no one will have to go hungry as food crops are withdrawn for biofuels, which is eminently fair when one considers the fact that the truly poor people of the world do not drive.

My last question was how Brian got from there to here – a question I never fail to ask, even though some individuals are reluctant to answer.

Not so Brian, who admits that his teenage self didn’t have that much maturity or vision.

“Frankly, I still don’t. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five or ten years. I’m one of these guys who reads science books at the beach. My wife and my family look at me like I’m crazy, but I love it!”

Raised by parents who were both engineers, Brian’s love of math and science set him on a course that seems so natural he may not always think of it as a career. In other words, he may be the epitome of the old saying: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

What a wonderful way to spend one’s life!

Making Green Mining Less Of An Oxymoron

New breakthrough science and cost reductions from the world of cleantech hold promise for making mining—one of the dirtiest, most inefficient industries in the world—more profitable, safer and cleaner. But which cleantech innovations aimed at reducing toxicity in mining, as well as the need for power and water, are best positioned to succeed? Which companies will win and which will lose? How can existing players manage risk in the face of new innovation?

Big questions. We try to address them in a new research report on green mining technologies, just published this week.

As important as mining is to society, techniques and equipment that were first developed in the early 1900s are still standard in many modern mining facilities today. Mining is one of the last holdouts of dirty, inefficient industry that’s just waiting to be revolutionized by new breakthrough clean technology. Latest innovations and cost reductions in cleantech hold promise for making mining more profitable, safer and better for the planet.

While there are clear benefits to mining companies implementing new technologies, there is risk involved with new technology. New technology—like bioremediation of mine tailings (the often toxic output from mining processes) or electrochemical water treatment—has historically struggled to find footholds in mining because companies generally don’t like taking the risk of adopting new, unproven technology until others have. That attitude is now changing, as companies are increasingly motivated by dramatic new economic benefits promised by new green mining breakthroughs.

Propositions for green mining across the mine life cycle
The permitting process for opening new mines in most areas of the world is long and costly. Some companies are poised to reinvigorate the process with cleantech innovations aimed at making permitting faster and less expensive by reducing toxicity, power and water requirements. Mine closure costs, at the other end of the mine lifecycle, are being minimized by new remediation technologies. Other technologies promise other economic benefits.

In our research, we found important new innovation taking place in the following areas related to both hard rock (e.g. gold, silver) and soft rock (e.g. coal) mining:

  • Power reduction
    • Comminution efficiency (i.e. breaking large rocks into smaller ones)
    • Low power separation (i.e. separating minerals/metals from ore)
    • Hydrometallurgical processes (processes for separating minerals/metals from ore that don’t require large inputs of natural gas or electricity)
    • Other alternative processes
  • Fuel and maintenance reduction
    • Equipment route optimization (i.e. software helping mining companies plan the most efficient routes for their mining vehicles)
    • Fuel additives/filters
    • Natural gas conversion
    • Electric conversion
    • Improved lubricants
    • Polymers and coatings
    • Training simulators (i.e. reducing fuel and maintenance expenses by training operators using immersive flight simulator-like equipment)
    • Other fuel reduction approaches
  • Toxicity reduction
    • Bioleaching
    • Bioremediation/phytoremediation
    • Non-cyanide separation (i.e. not using cyanide, but biology to extract minerals/metals from ore)
  • Emissions reduction
    • Dust management
    • Particulate sequestration
    • Carbon sequestration
  • Water reduction
    • AMD/ARD remediation (i.e. addressing acid mine, or acid rock drainage, the acid created when large amounts of exposed iron-rich rock comes in contact with water… creating an orange slurry that kills vegitation and animal life)
    • Water filtration/reuse
    • Wastewater processing
    • Tailings remediation
    • Desalination

The state of mining innovation today – drivers for cleantech
Continuous advancements have allowed a growing number of cleantech technologies to surpass a tipping point. For the first time, many of these technologies are both environmentally sound and capable of competing against conventional methods in terms of operations, productivity and efficiency.

In our report, we found several drivers have propelled the mining industry’s growing use of clean technologies.

  • Market volatility – The outlook for the future is uncertain as the mining landscape undergoes significant changes. Globalization, industrialization and industry consolidation are some of the contributing factors driving the changes. In addition, conflicting trends are indicating mixed signals about what lies ahead. Countries such as China are showing signs of slowing economic growth, yet forecasts of long-term global demand are bullish. Given the extensive planning required prior to commissioning, miners and investors are hesitant to move forward with projects without a confident outlook for the market. Companies are reacting to the changing industry dynamics by finding ways to bolster operations to become more flexible, cost effective and efficient.
  • Rising operational costs and falling commodity prices – The growing cost of doing business is threatening margins and making it more expensive for companies to bring supply to the market. Records show production costs for commodities such as copper, aluminum and nickel have already reached or exceeded London Metal Exchange (LME) prices for some operations. These escalating costs and waning returns translate to impacts on companies’ bottom lines. In 2012, the Top 40 mining companies measured by market capitalization experienced a decrease in net profit of 49% to 68 billion and the lowest returns on capital employed of a decade at only 8%.
  • Decreasing productivity and efficiency – Issues relating to permitting have become a growing concern among mining companies and potential investors. For example, studies by mining advisory firm Behr Dolbear find that the U.S. permitting process has jumped from an average of 5-7 years to 7-10 years, an increase of 40 percent in just 4 years. The lengthened process is delaying operations, dissuading potential investors and hindering innovation and development across the economy. Some governments are offering economic incentives for cleaner mining companies, reducing permitting times for companies that incorporate clean technologies into operations. Mining technologies have only progressed minimally by comparison. During the last 50 years, the global mining industry lost 30% of its productivity, requiring greater efforts to produce each unit of output.
  • Abrupt policy changes – Expectations are continuously increasing for the mining industry to operate more responsibly after centuries of irresponsible mining processes. As a result of newly imposed policies and stringent regulations, companies are being held more accountable for their actions. Compliance with new standards is necessary in order for companies to retain their licenses to operate.
  • Resource nationalism – Governments are seeking a larger stake from mining operations by extracting more value through taxes, royalties, and levies. Many countries such as South Africa have followed the footsteps of Australia’s recent Minerals Resource Rent Tax and 67% of mining executives in a recent survey are concerned about the potential impacts of the additional tax burdens. These costs are undermining the confidence of mining companies’ abilities to undertake operations in exchange for attractive returns.
  • Societal scrutiny – In the face of growing environmental and social justice awareness, corporate social responsibility is a new and high priority for many mining executives. Delays from community discontent mean unnecessary downtimes, and reduce the productivity of the operations. Companies must uphold expectations and act responsibly in order to retain licenses to continuing operating on the property.

Some mining companies are experimenting with clean technologies. But the majority remain reluctant. In 2012, investment in innovation by the mining industry was a mere 0.2% of revenue. The mining industry’s research and development expenditures pale greatly in comparison to the efforts of 20% to 30% by other industries. Ultimately, mining companies’ bottom lines are at risk, and volatile markets and worsening problems have compelled the industry to embrace new technologies.

Leading companies have recognized the need for innovation and are taking great strides towards clean mining by shifting focus from maximizing short-term production to sustaining operations for the long haul. Here’s a summary of three mining companies’ experiments with new green technology:

Company  Initiative Results Next steps
Barrick Gold Implemented 30 new energy efficiency projects including solar power pilot project in a mine in Argentina in 2012.Innovation in water recycling and zero discharge programs. Currently has over 140 energy efficiency projects across its operations.In 2012, 19.4% of electrical power was sourced with renewables.36% of water used in 2012 was from saline or brackish sources.

70% of its sites operate under zero discharge programs and reuse recycled water.

Continuing efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency.
Rio Tinto World-first $7 million pilot in NSW mine testing methane capturing technologies and $6 million project testing carbon dioxide storage in Victoria, Australia. Australian site has since stored over 60,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide since 2008. Trial new technologies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and testing ways to capture and store fugitive carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
Vale A $140 million partnership with ABB to convert the world’s largest iron ore mine, located in Brazil, to be automated and completely truckless. Eliminating 100 trucks and reducing diesel consumption by 77%.Goal to increase production by 90 million tonnes per year. Seek other opportunities to incorporate autonomous technologies in mining operations.

Selected examples of clean technology adoption by three of the largest mining companies worldwide. Source: Kachan analysis

Our new report profiles 47 companies that have brought, or are bringing, innovative new green mining technologies to market. Out of hundreds of companies in this space, we’ve found ones we believe are best poised for success.

As a result of continuous improvements and innovation, many green mining technologies are now able to effectively compete with conventional products. While the majority of companies have yet to adopt newer processes, leading companies have recognized the need to invest in new technologies as a response to the shifting industry. And with increasing operational costs and environmental expectations, the demand from the mining industry for cleaner technologies is expected to grow at an accelerated pace.

This article was originally published here. It is reproduced here by permission.

Deltec Net Zero Homes: They’re Not Just a Pretty Face

Deltec Homes of Asheville, North Carolina has a new line of net zero homes, and Deltec President Steve Linton – a LEED-accredited professional – is convinced that these highly energy-efficient structures will set the cost and energy footprint standard for years to come.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a benchmark for “green” home building designed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), provides certification for truly environmentally friendly homes (and commercial buildings, too) in four categories: Platinum, Gold, Silver and LEED Certified.

Linton’s confidence is well placed. The Renew Collection introduces six models in a range of styles to suit every taste, whether you are Saks Fifth Avenue or Venice Beach, California. Beyond that, these homes not only cut energy an amazing two-thirds compared to standard new homes, but they do so at prices that beat out most of the competition – including energy-efficient models – by a stunning 30 percent.

Nor are the savings a sales pitch. Deltech Homes, in business for over 45 years providing the paradigm in hurricane-resistant, sustainable panelized homes, has melded the two most costly components of home-building, materials and square footage, and come up with what Linton describes as “…an incredibly sustainable home”, and all without sacrificing on comfort and livability.

But that’s just for starters. As Linton goes on to explain, building a home right the first time (which is the secret behind panelized, or prefabricated, homes) based on hours of intensive energy-efficiency research allows Deltech customers to turn the residential home energy paradigm on its head. In effect, a net zero home with inclusive “green” energy from solar photovoltaic and solar thermal hot water heat, “buys all its energy upfront!”

This results in future cost savings that can’t even be fully appreciated as the globe warms and fossil-fuel energy is inextricably linked with pollution and climate change.  In fact, the nation’s current energy mix is almost 70 percent fossil fuels, a profile that is not likely to change significantly as cleaner-burning natural gas replaces coal.

Because Linton and his team have already done the heavy lifting in terms of energy efficiency, by identifying advanced materials and technological fixes that improve on what was already a well-insulated model, those considering the Renew Collection will find air-tight, highly insulated standard and “round” homes which rely on such innovations as passive solar, passive lighting and “climate modeling”, which fits a home into its environment rather than vice versa, as has been the practice until now.

When Deltech says highly insulated, what it really means is R-values more than twice as efficient as today’s code requirements. And if that isn’t enough, in very cold climates models also offer 10-inch thick double-stud walls, one inch of exterior foam insulation, an AirBlock gasket system – essentially a layer of insulative foam used to seal the exterior wall sheathing to the frame, insulated double headers over doors and windows, and triple-pane thermally efficient windows. The total package adds a mere $8,000 in cold climates – less than the cost of a decent bath remodel.

So what happens to square footage when a home builder aims for the top in energy efficiency?

Nothing. As Linton notes, the U.S. has gone through more than a decade of larger and larger single-family homes. The trend, and the sizes, diminished during the recent recession but immediately began growing again when it was technically over.

“I think this is an unsustainable path,” Linton says, stressing the need to find the “sweet spot” between square footage and creature comforts.

In other words, owners want at least two baths, but these utilitarian spaces don’t always have to accommodate the entire Carolina Panther’s lineup. In fact, given a potential future water crisis in the U.S., a second bath with only a shower stall instead of a tub makes perfect sense. A bath with a combination commode and sink makes even more, particularly if the two share a common wall so that user’s don’t have to lean over the bowl to get to the basin.

For those who like eclectic design, Deltec’s flagship model round home makes the most sense in terms of energy efficiency, cost and (perhaps most important, at least to the building contractor) manufacturing accuracy.

Round homes, according to Linton, have at least 15-percent less surface area exposed to the outdoors, which reduces the need for insulation and provides a design that flows from one area to another. More important, the rounded shape – the historic model for Native American tribes as well as the nomads of Central Asia (i.e., Mongolia, where they are called yurts) – is inherently more environmentally friendly, as opposed to the sharp edges in modern homes, which reflect the Western tendency to put everything inside boxes, virtually speaking.

“A well designed home reduces both size and energy use,” Linton concludes, voicing an almost self-evident truth that will hopefully short-circuit the trend toward ever larger single-family homes.

As for panelized homes, which have for decades operated under a dark cloud of “pre-fab” (a category that includes manufactured homes, or “trailers”), environmentalists can only hope that this stigma is also put to bed sooner rather than later. The most energy- and cost-efficient home building paradigm is in a factory, where AutoCAD design insures accuracy down to the centimeter.

Cool Energy from a Solar Heart

The title isn’t confusing once you realize that the ‘cool’ aspect stems from a technological giant step forward in Stirling engine design.

Stirling engines, unlike vehicle combustion engines (which burn a fuel), work by expanding and contracting a working fluid at different temperatures. Most Stirling engines work most efficiently at about 1000 degrees Fahrenheit (1000 °F), the typical temperature of exhaust when it leaves a large turbine like a GE LM6000.

These very high exhaust temperatures, typical of heat engines burning fossil fuels to create electricity, are the byproduct of 80 percent of electricity generation methodologies.

Smaller applications, as used in manufacturing, or for electricity generation at remote (military) outposts, or even aboard ships for both motive power and electrical support for electronic communications equipment, etc., produce cooler exhaust which until recently was not seen as worth capturing.

But all that is changing as the environment does some number crunching of its own, and Samuel P. Weaver, president, CEO and co-founder of Cool Energy, Inc. is the brains behind the 21stcentury Stirling engine adaptation that will make low-temp engine exhaust recovery both feasible and affordable.

This new kid on the block is the SolarHeart® Stirling engine, an impressive ‘mighty mite’ which captures temperature differentials in the 100 to 300-degree (Celsius) range, significantly below exhaust temperatures that have traditionally been considered optimum for waste heat capture. In fact, the SolarHeart® is so ‘cool’, it can trap enough waste heat from industrial processes and large-scale HVAC systems to offset almost a fifth of the energy needed, particularly at remote locations where bringing fuel in is difficult and these difficulties drive the cost of said fuel to $15 per gallon or more.

Weaver is also on the board of directors of Proton Power, Inc., another high tech energy firm also located in Boulder, Colorado. In addition, he is responsible for the Colorado-based startup, Colorado Photonics.

When not working on one enterprise or another, he invests time and brainpower in Colorado’s technology and business marketplaces, using his B.S. degree in engineering and applied sciences from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, to generate inventions (17 of which have been patented).

During vanishingly small amounts of free time, he also sits on the boards of Clean Energy Action, and the Colorado Clean Energy Development Authority (Alternative Fuels Data Center, or AFCD, a working arm of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) agency.

Weaver is also a member of the City of Boulder Planning Board – and if you aren’t as tired as I am just thinking about all this activity, you’ve likely been skimming instead of reading. But back to the subject: the intense effort to capture waste heat, which one energy site referred to as the “sleeping giant” of all energy – an extrapolation that does the math, and it’s not fuzzy logic either.

There is at least 8.4 million megawatts (MW) of free energy, based on a thermal efficiency of 40 percent of the 14 terawatts (TW) of global energy consumption in 2003, rising to an estimated 24 TW of consumption and 9.6 million MW of potential savings by 2013, according to Nobel Prize winner Dr. Richard Smalley of Rice University.

Still not convinced that waste heat capture is the next big thing? As Bloomberg financial points out, more than 50 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. in 2011 went to waste up smokestacks and out exhaust flues. This includes not only the excess heat from industrial operations, but also that which results from generating electricity – not to mention the smaller amounts of boiler heat exhaust from large apartment buildings and offices, small factories and even the local Panera bakery.

The amount of waste was calibrated by the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), another one of the 17 laboratories operating under the DOE’s Office of Science. But the real heavy lifting was done in 2006, when the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, another of the DOE’s 17 labs, studied the problem of waste heat from industrial emissions.

“Realistically,” Notes author Gary Beck, “most locations are probably just too remote or too distributed to justify heat recovery.”

He uses the example of heat recovery from rural cooking fires to make his point. But it is only very recently that the SolarHeart® Stirling engine has been able to maximize that potential, recapturing over 22 percent of wasted heat. The next generation of SolarHeart® Stirling engines should be at even better, at 25 percent efficiency conversion.

For those baffled by engines in general, the Stirling is an engine that works off the difference between exhaust heat and outside air. That is, instead of using fuel to move pistons to generate energy, the Stirling engine uses the differential between heated exhaust gas and cool air to play tennis with itself. When the piston goes up, energy goes to a generator; when it goes down, the gas has been cooled, and because it is cooler it is easier to compress for the next iteration. The difference (between tennis and Stirling engines) is that the engine always wins!

Using the SolarHeart® engine, U.S. military ops working from a remote station can reduce the amount of fuel needed by 5 to 10 percent. When fuel costs $15 a gallon, this is a huge chunk of change. Next, says Weaver, the company plans to deploy the engine, or engines, to ships, which use one engine to move forward and another for auxiliary operations (lighting, heating, cooking, heated water, etc.)

Where does Weaver’s lifelong fascination with energy come from? As one might expect, from his father, who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he acquired a Ph.D. Oak Ridge is another one of the DOE’s 17 labs focusing on energy and advanced materials.

“He is Sam C. Weaver; I am Sam P. Weaver,” the younger Weaver notes, “and his profession meant I grew up talking and thinking about energy.”

His residence in Boulder is a bit of serendipity. As an energy guru, he was able to advise city fathers and concerned residents about the proposed takeover of energy generation and distribution from Xcel Energy, Inc., a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based public electricity and gas utility. The issue has been a thorn in the side of Xcel since 2011, when in Feb. of 2011 the utility cut incentives to homeowners and small businesses that install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate electricity.

The incentive program had been on the books since 2006. The rate, which was before February of 2011 a hefty $2.35 per watt, fell to $2.01. Residential rates were similarly reduced – an across-the-board decentivization that failed to acknowledge the 4,800 jobs created by the program. Xcel also asked the state to cut its incentives and rebates.

Thanks to Homer Energy, also in Boulder, Weaver and a team of similarly educated and public-spirited individuals helped craft a virtual model of Boulder’s takeover and what residents might expect when Xcel’s 20 percent profit margin has been invested in renewables, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has arrived at a figure to pay Xcel for its stranded assets (think distribution lines, for example, which are largely depreciated but would cost the buyer much more if they had to be replaced).

Weaver was enthusiastic:

“Yes, I think it is possible, and it would be a very good idea. In view of that, I think all the utilities need to rethink their business model.”

A remark which foreshadows a future in which more and more local entities bid to take over their electrical generation and transmission systems and transform the whole into a distributed energy platform; that is, power from many small sources as opposed to power from a single large generating plant which, in Boulder’s case, would be the Valmont Station.

Is the nation as a whole ready for distributed generation? Perhaps not, but Cool Energy, Inc. is, and so is Boulder.

“There will be a lot more distributed generation going forward,” Weaver says. “And it isn’t just utilities. Manufacturers can save between 3 and 8 percent of fuel costs by recapturing waste heat. On a global scale, we have estimated a full 300 gigawatts (GW) of energy which could potentially be collected from waste heat!”

A goal which moves closer as the SolarHeart® Stirling engine begins to strut its stuff on the commercial landscape of 21st Century energy paradigms, moving pistons and creating electricity at 80 °C (176 °Fahrenheit) as opposed to the 537 °C (1000 °F) flue gas temperature required by most standard Stirling engine designs.

On a parting note, Weaver adds:

“This is one of the biggest economic opportunities in human history!”

Plugin Electrics vs All Electric Battery EVs, Epic Throwdown?

I get this every time I discuss EVs.  Something along the lines of oh, you shouldn’t be including PHEVs in with EVs, they don’t count, or are not real EVs, just a stopgap etc.

I tend to think PHEVs may be better product.  At least for now.  And I follow the GM’s Chevy Volt vs the Nissan Leaf with interest.

The main arguments on each:

Plug in Hybrids

  • No range anxiety
  • Still need gasoline
  • Can fuel up at either electric charging station, your home or gas station
  • Depending on driving patterns, may not need MUCH gasoline at all
  • Expensive because:  need both gasoline and electric systems, and batteries are still pretty expensive, even with a fraction of the amount that’s in an EV
  • Get all the torque and quiet and acceleration punch of an EV without the short range hassle
  • But not really an EV, after a few miles it’s “just a hybrid”
  • Future is just a stop gap until EV batteries get cheap? Or just a better car with all the benes and no cons?


Electric Vehicles

  • No gasoline at all (fueled by a mix of 50% coal,20% gas, and the rest nuke and hydro with a little wind 🙂 )
  • Amazing torque and acceleration
  • Dead quiet no emissions
  • Fairly slow to charge compared to gas
  • Lack of charging stations is getting solved, but still somewhat an issue
  • Switching one fuel for another, no extra flexibility on fuel
  • Expensive because lithium ion batteries are still pricey and way a lot
  • Future is cheaper better batteries?  Or they never get there and the future never arrives?

I tend to think the combination of plugins and EVs has actually worked together solved range anxiety.  As a consumer, I get to pick from a full basket when I buy, Leaf, Volt, Prius, Model S, lots of pricey batteries to deal with range anxiety, a plug in that gets me almost there with zero range issues, or a Leaf in between.  Whatever range anxiety I had disappears into consumer choice, just like it should.  I don’t think pure EV is any better or worse than a plugin, just a different choice.  They work together in the fleet, too, plug ins help drive demand for EV charging stations that are critical to electric car success, and EVs drive the cost down on the batteries that brings the plugin costs into line.  Unlike with the Prius over a decade ago, it’s not a single car changing the world, it’s the combination that’s working well for us.