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.


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
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.

Is Oiltech Cleantech?

In leading the cleantech practice for the venture capital firm Early Stage Partners, I’m sometimes asked how I define “cleantech”.  I’ve given this question a fair amount of thought, and generally am publicly articulating my answer as “technologies that address the critical resource needs of the 21st Century, most prominently, energy supplies and clean water.”

It’s a broad definition, and one that probably doesn’t please the most ardent environmentalists, many of whom no doubt think that cleantech should only address energy efficiency and renewable energy (and any enabling technologies).  While EE and RE are topics to which I am personally committed, neither am I dogmatic and insist that they are the only worthy energy-related areas of cleantech.

For as much all of us would like to reduce emissions and fossil fuel use as much and as quickly as possible, there is no plausible scenario that suggests that fossil fuel use will cease in any time frame shorter than several decades.  Accordingly, encouraging the shift to lower-emitting fuels (i.e., gas in lieu of coal or oil) or reducing the environmental impact of the fuels that are produced and used is, in my view, a worthwhile area of focus for cleantech practicioners.

Oil technology (a.k.a. “oiltech”), in particular, is receiving  a lot of attention these days, reflecting the continuing growth in global demand for oil — which continues to be the dominant energy source for transportation, and will be for a long time unless/until biofuels, natural gas and/or electrification can make significant inroads — in the face of ongoing elevated oil prices and the corresponding market push to source petroleum from more expensive and difficult resources.  In short, this means deeper — both onshore and especially offshore — and “heavier” oil patches.

This represents an interesting nexus of connection between the oil companies, mostly the “supermajors”, and the entrepreneurial venture world.  As profiled in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, it is challenging to get these two types of enterprises to work together productively, so to help bridge this gap, the Oiltech Investment Network has been formed.  

As distasteful as it might be to some, I expect this oiltech area to be a major segment of the cleantech realm for quite awhile.  If it’s any consolation, to the extent that good venture returns can be earned by cleantech investors from the oiltech area, the future proceeds can be used in part to invest in innovation in the “more purely green” cleantech segments.

New Car Safety, Telematics and Infotainment

When you drive down the road getting navigation help to a restaurant that you just picked while listening to favorite music on Pandora you are internet connected. The internet technology in new cars will soon be a $10 billion business, as people want the best in entertainment, telematics, and infotainment. By the end of the decade, all new cars sold in the USA are likely to be internet enabled.

The competition to deliver the most advanced electric cars and user-friendly vehicles is certain to heat up on the L.A. Auto Show floor next month. All the latest advancements, plus a glimpse into the future, will be featured at the LA Show November 18-27.

Volkswagen has a system that allows a car to navigate itself through a parking structure, park, and then return to meet the owner at the entrance. Lexus is designing Driver Monitoring Systems to reduce accidents caused by distracted or drowsy drivers using tools such as infrared sensors to track eye movement. Ford is currently testing how its SYNC platform might integrate with services such as WellDoc, a cloud-based patient monitoring service, to do things like monitor a driver’s current health condition. And just this year, Nevada passed a law authorizing the use of driverless vehicles.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, overall sales of in-vehicle technology will reach a projected $9.3 billion in 2011, which is 12 percent higher than 2009. Three million Ford vehicles now include the SYNC connectivity platform and by 2014, Ford hopes to have it in every North American model. Volkswagen is investing $20 million annually into its California-based Electronics Research Laboratory devoted to technologies such as automated driver assistance. And new legislation, such as the hands-free Safe Drivers Act of 2011, continues to speed further advancements.

New Safety and Telematics for Cars, Trucks and SUVs

Located in the design and technology hotbed of Southern California, the L.A. Show will be the ultimate showcase for these breakthrough innovations. Technology to look for includes advanced applications of Bluetooth, radar sensors, embedded telephony and cloud computing. In use, they give drivers hands-free access to personal data, communications, and audio entertainment, social networking and advanced safety measures previously unimaginable.

Automotive safety is being defined by “intelligent” systems designed to avoid and prevent accidents. Radar sensors, GPS, Artificial Intelligence, cameras and other technologies mean features such as sophisticated lane departure warning systems are now available. Like many of these new technologies, the lane departure warning systems-which use cameras and sensors to alert a driver drifting from their lane-were first introduced by luxury brands. That has changed as more mainstream vehicles, such as the 2011 Ford Focus, feature the same advanced capabilities. Related systems, including active blind-spot detection, cross-traffic alerts and backup cameras are also now appearing in vehicles across multiple price categories. These technologies alert drivers to unsafe situations through a variety of methods, including automated notifications such as subtle vibration in the steering wheel and the use of LED warning lights.

Part of the Driver Assist Package, Audi will be showcasing its “pre sense plus” technology in several vehicles making their North American debut-the 2012 S6, S7, S8 and A8 models. The integrated system anticipates and reacts to incidents using a radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control sensor, lane assist, side assist and controlled, automated braking.

BMW offers the Assist Safety Plan, a comprehensive protection platform including the SOS Emergency Request, remote Door Unlock assistance, Stolen Vehicle Recovery (a remote vehicle locator), and a Critical Calling feature for making emergency calls through the vehicle’s embedded cellular technology.

Hyundai’s safety solution is the new Blue Link platform, which offers Automatic Collision Notification (ACN) and Assistance on new vehicles including the 2012 Veloster, which will also be on the show floor this year. ACN is triggered when an airbag deploys, while the SOS system alerts safety specialists and enhanced roadside assistance via a dedicated button that automatically transmits vehicle information and location for rapid dispatch.

Mercedes-Benz ATTENTION ASSIST uses an algorithm to produce an individual driver profile that recognizes typical patterns of behavior and then compares that profile with current data from sensors to detect if the driver is tired. For example, if unintentional lane departures are detected, or delayed reaction times coupled with over-corrective steering, ATTENTION ASSIST will sound an alarm and offer a visual warning in the vehicle’s instrument cluster.

Entertainment + Information = Infotainment

Cars are now an extension of the office and the living room thanks to advanced technologies that allow drivers to share, socialize, be informed and entertained, all while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For example, voice text messaging, found in vehicles equipped with connected systems such as Ford SYNC, enable drivers to safely send hands-free text messages, while Mercedes-Benz COMAND platform offers popular apps ranging from music services like Pandora, to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Cadillac will debut its new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system: iPod integration, app capability (e.g. Pandora and Stitchert), Bluetooth hands-free technology for phoning and audio for wireless music streaming and AM/FM/HD/XM radio. It also boasts a BluRay rear-seat entertainment system and delivers new user interface advancements that emulate many of the swipe, tap, scroll and even pinch-to-zoom features that consumers have come to expect from the touch-screen interfaces of smartphones and tablets. CUE is scheduled to be available on the Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans and SRX crossover sometime in late spring of 2012.

Kia’s Microsoft-powered UVO hands-free system is available on vehicles highlighted at the L.A. Show, including the Sportage LX, EX and Sorento, and gives drivers multiple voice commands and touch screen options that allow pairing with an MP3 player, ripping music from CDs and the ability to answer and place hands-free calls and text messages.

Your Personal Chauffer and Concierge

Premium cars now offer “always-on” services for users who can access plans such as BMW Assist, GM’s OnStar, Hyundai’s Blue Link and Infiniti’s Personal Assistant. These services are enabled by technologies including cloud computing, Bluetooth hands-free communication and GPS, to provide a whole new level of function and service, such as voice text messaging, automated dispatching of emergency roadside assistance and even connecting with a live concierge for restaurant recommendations. Now, these services can be added to a broad range of vehicles with OnStar’s FMV (For My Vehicle), an after-market solution integrated into a vehicle’s rearview mirror that delivers a similar level of safety, navigation and communication technology.

Infiniti’s Personal Assistant, featured in all-new Infiniti models such as the JX luxury crossover provides 24-hour anytime/anywhere concierge service for anything from restaurant reservations to gift ideas. Part of Blue Link, Hyundai’s Service Link manages maintenance schedules, offers an Eco-Coach to improve efficient driving and even delivers restaurant ratings.

The Entune-equipped 2012 Toyota Prius v offers a feature-set including integrated apps like Bing search, Pandora, OpenTable restaurant reservations, a search for movie times and even parental-oriented functions like a GeoFencing capability that sends text alerts if a vehicle strays from a predefined area.

Navigation With Realtime Traffic

One of the first auto technology platforms appearing in vehicles over a decade ago, navigation has now become the most ubiquitous. Advanced GPS systems that navigate to destinations and locate Points of Interest (POIs) now also create custom itineraries, receive live traffic updates and respond to voice commands. Navigation has also become more integrated with other technologies, including telematics and Google data services, allowing for automated location-based alerts and customized map searches. For example, BMW’s ConnectedDrive platform automatically recognizes a vehicle’s position and can send a driver results for a pre-defined POI category, say a hotel, allowing them to select one and have it loaded into the navigation system with the touch of a button.

Hyundai’s Blue Link connectivity platform provides agent-assisted POI searches and downloads, such as locating the best gas prices, while allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Blue Link packages are available on 2012 models on view at the Show including the Azera, Sonata and Veloster, and will be in the majority of Hyundai vehicles by 2013.

Mercedes-Benz’s mbrace system, available in several vehicles on display at this year’s Show, features an advanced navigation and destination-planning database along with a companion app allowing drivers to send addresses and POIs from their smartphones. Mbrace also features live operator route assistance and the Drive2Friend feature, allowing a friend’s location to be sent from their smartphone to a vehicle’s navigation system.

These advancements in safety, infotainment and hybrid cars can be experienced in many of the vehicles featured at this year’s L.A. Auto Show.

Get Yer Motors Running

Last week, I spoke with a few representatives from GE Motors and Services, one of the groupings under Industrial Solutions within the massive GE Energy business unit of General Electric (NYSE: GE).  In the course of the conversation, I received a brief tutorial on the state of affairs in the motor marketplace.

Although easy to overlook, motors add up to a very big deal:  according to the Department of Energy, motor-driven equipment accounts for an estimated 64% of U.S. industrial electricity demand, because motors are embedded in so many fans, pumps and processes — all of which are ubiquitous in the industrial sector, and particularly in the three largest end-user segments of power generation, oil/gas and mining. 

Because motors represent such a significant share of the nation’s electricity consumption and such a signficant outlay for U.S. manufacturers, the DOE has made motors a key area of its Industrial Technologies Program to improve the competitiveness of American industry.  There’s also a group of interested parties that has formed Motor Decisions Matter, a group that is hosting a website with information on motors to facilitate better decision-making on the subject.

Energy efficiency is arguably the primary factor in the motor market, because expenditures on energy consumption represent the vast majority of a motor’s total life-cycle costs.  For instance, a low-voltage motor might cost $4000, whereas its associated annual energy cost might be on the order of $40,o00 if it runs a large percentage of the time (not uncommon in industrial settings). 

Thus, each fractional gain of energy efficiency is huge, and paybacks on making an investment in a new motor might be as short as one year. For larger motors, it can be very economic to tear down and rebuild the windings to eke out a little more efficiency from the motor — that’s the Services part of GE Motors and Services.

As you might expect from such an industrial giant — one that was built upon electric energy — GE offers the full spectrum of electric motors from 1 to 100,000 horsepower.  Main targets for GE’s research agenda in motors centers on applications for electric vehicles, and also permanent-magnet motors to reduce the need for rare earth metals (as discussed in a prior posting of mine). 

Other desired improvements in motor technology center on relability — particularly since industrial users have reduced inventories of spare motors as capital budgets have been squeezed.  Two particular challenges stand in the way of improved reliability.  First, heat:  as a rule of thumb, each 10 degree increase in internal temperature reduces motor life by 50%, so considerable attention is being paid to materials and heat dissipation approaches.  Second, vibration:  bearing failures account for 52% of all motor failures, and vibration is at the source of most of this issue.

I didn’t hear anything from the GE Motors representatives suggesting that a major revolution is on the way in the motor sector — although GE is more known for continuous incremental improvements than in profound breakthroughs — but it’s clear that motors continue to be a fertile ground for innovation, so many decades after they became commonplace. 

It’s yet another a good reminder that all facets of the modern economy, even the most basic ones, are the subject of attention for innovation relevant to the cleantech sector.

California Self-Generation Incentive Program Expanded

by David Niebauer

A recent decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) has reinvigorated and expanded the Self-Generation Incentive Program (“SGIP”) by greatly expanding the technologies that are eligible for the program and creating up-front rebates plus performance-based incentives for developers and manufacturers working to install these technologies.

The impetus for the new expanded program was legislative action taken in October 2009 in Senate Bill 412.  That bill authorized the CPUC, in consultation with the California Air Resources Board, to expand eligible technologies based on greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, and extended the expiration of the program to January 1, 2016.  In addition, on September 10, 2011, Assembly Bill 1150 allowed SGIP money to be raised by the state’s electric utilities for an additional three years through 2014. The program collects $83 million annually from ratepayers through their electricity bills.

The SGIP was established in 2001 as a peak-load reduction program seeking to encourage the development and commercialization of new distributed generation (DG) – generation installed on the customer’s side of the utility meter.  In 2007, the solar portion of the SGIP was replaced with the California Solar Initiative, a much larger program that has met with considerable success.  Originally funded with $2.167 billion to cover a 10-year period, the program is nearly out of cash, but has been instrumental in California leading the country in solar installations. A recent report by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) shows all three of California’s investor owned utilities (IOUs) in the top ten utility solar rankings for 2010 – much of it DG.

From 2007 – 2010, the SGIP was only available for small wind turbines, fuel cells and advanced energy storage.  The expanded program now includes wind turbines, fuel cells, organic rankin cycle/waste heat capture, pressure reduction turbines, advanced energy storage, and combined heat and power gas turbines, micro-turbines, and internal combustion engines – provided they achieve reductions in GHG emissions.

The following chart shows each eligible technology with the incentive in dollars per watt:

Technology Type Incentive ($/W)

Renewable and Waste Heat Capture

Wind Turbine                                                                                                  $1.25                                               Waste Heat to Power                                                                                     $1.25                                            Pressure Reduction Turbine                                                                        $1.25

Conventional Fuel-Based CHP

Internal Combustion Engine – CHP                                                           $0.50                                   Microturbine – CHP                                                                                       $0.50                                                 Gas Turbine – CHP                                                                                         $0.50

Emerging Technologies

Advanced Energy Storage                                                                              $2.00                                            Biogas                                                                                                                 $2.00                                               Fuel Cell – CHP or Electric Only                                                                  $2.25

For projects under 30kW, the entire incentive will be paid up front.  For larger projects, the incentive will be paid 50% up front and the remainder over a five year period, based on capacity factors.

Size does matter, and the incentive will be tiered as follows:

0-1 MW = 100 %                                                                                                                                                            1-2 MW = 50 %                                                                                                                                                             2-3 MW = 25 %

Pointing to the CSI as its model, the CPUC has adopted a declining incentive structure to “gradually reduce the market’s reliance on a subsidy”.  The decline will apply a 10% annual reduction for emerging technologies and 5% annual reduction for all other technologies, with the first reduction starting on January 1, 2013.

The decision puts a 40% “concentration limit” on manufacturers (i.e., no one manufacturer can claim more than 40% of the incentive slated for any given year).  This concentration limit will not apply to project developers, however.

The funds collected each year will be allocated with 75% dedicated to the renewable and emerging technology bucket and 25% dedicated to the non-renewable bucket.

The new program will require a service warranty in addition to a parts warranty.  The CPUC has requested stakeholder input on the length of the warranty for the “reasonable expected useful life of a project”.

SB 412 also directed the CPUC to provide “an additional incentive of 20 percent from existing program funds for the installation of eligible distributed generation resources from a California supplier.” This additional incentive can be found in Section 3.5 of the 2009 SGIP Handbook.

At least one California manufacturer of natural gas fired microtrubines is touting the new CPUC decision as a boon to DG installations and energy efficiency.  Developers who deploy waste heat recovery systems should also be pleased by the decision.  More efficient use of on-site energy generation and storage will not only reduce GHG emissions, but also ease transmission and distribution infrastructure bottlenecks.

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

Environmental Regulation of Coal Power: Train Wreck or No?

Over the past several months — well, years, really — there’s been a lot of to-and-fro about various new environmental requirements that may or may not face coal-fired powerplants.

Some observers have called it a regulatory “train wreck”, arguing that some of the requirements run at cross-purposes to others, or are planned to be sequenced in a manner that are difficult to manage, so that it will be incredibly costly for owners of coal powerplants to comply, and will drive the retirement of a large portion of the U.S. generating capacity.  For this view, see this report from the American Legislative Exchange Council.

In August, the Congressional Research Service released a report largely refuting this view.  As noted in the Executive Summary, “supporters of the regulations assert that it is decades of regulatory delays and court decisions that have led to this point, resulting in part from special consideration given electric utilities by Congress under several statutes.”  Or, put another way, the fix that coal powerplant owners are in is substantially of their own doing.

As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post asks, “Who’s right?” 

Maybe the more interesting take is from Ken Silverstein of EnergyBiz, whose article headline says it all:  “Coal’s Woes Run Deeper than EPA Regs”.  In particular, mining in Central Appalachia is experiencing significant declines due simply to depletion of the lowest-cost reserves there.  Coal production is not only shifting west to larger and cheaper reserves, but is being threatened by low-cost natural gas due in large part to the boom in shale gas production.

Coal is an industry in retreat and on the defensive, ornery — notwithstanding the sector’s efforts to portray itself to the public in a positive light, such as at America’s Power.  The promise of advancements in so-called “clean coal” technologies involving carbon sequestration has largely failed to bear fruit.  The economic supremacy of coal over other fuels is under seige.  Mining safety incidents and mountaintop removal practices continue to give the industry a black eye.

Yes, coal is abundant, and many of the premises about coal’s enduring place in the energy economy put forth by the seminal MIT study “The Future of Coal” no doubt remain true.  But, as tough as it’s been for the nuclear and renewables sectors, it’s also going to be a rough ride for players in the coal industry.  I wouldn’t want to ride that train, whether or not a train wreck ensues.

What if every residential home in the U.S. had a solar rooftop?

By David Anthony and Tao Zheng

Whoever thought that every home in America would have a radio, a television, a phone, a computer, and now a solar rooftop? If it can be imagined, then it can be done.

As the crude oil price fluctuated between $70 and $110 a barrel in the past year and nuclear power plant expansion has been restricted after Japan’s disaster, renewable energies, such as photovoltaic (PV), have potential to fill the void left by the dwindling nuclear capacity. Let’s imagine that every residential home in the U.S. had a solar roof. We can estimate the maximum potential of rooftop PV capacity in America, assuming 100% market penetration.
Before the market size estimation, let’s review the current trend of the U.S. solar markets A recent report from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council shows the solar installed base of PV installation in 2010 doubled compared to the solar installed base in 2009, while installed capacity for other solar technologies, such as concentrating solar power (CSP) and solar thermal collector, also increased significantly. Based on a study by the Solar Energy Industries Association, cumulative grid-connected PV in the U.S. has now reached over 2.3 GW. The top seven states (such as California and New Jersey) installed 88% of all PV in Q1 2011. However, U.S. solar markets fell behind some European countries, most notably Germany. In 2010 alone, Germany installed 7.4 GW of PV systems and currently has an install base of 14.7 GW more than six times the U.S. cumulative solar installation. Germany’s solar market is traditionally driven by residential installation, supported by generous government incentives. The primary barrier stopping American homeowners from PV installation is cost.

Historically, the U.S. PV market has been driven by the non-residential sector with 42% of total installation in 2010, including the commercial, public, and non-profit sectors. However, residential and utility sectors have been gaining ground steadily with market share of 30% and 28%, respectively. Distributed rooftop represents the largest segment of the U.S. PV market. It is fueled by declining PV prices, government incentives, retail electricity rate earnings, and lack of transmission losses.

A simple estimation of rooftop PV market size starts with total roof space available. Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, total U.S. housing units were 127.7 million in 2009. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,700 square feet in 2009. If we assume the average number of floors per building is two, the total residential roof space available is 172.4 billion square feet. In a more detailed rooftop PV market penetration scenario analysis, Navigant Consulting Inc. (NCI) used a PV access factor and the PV power density to the estimate technical rooftop capacity for both residential and commercial buildings. The PV access factor takes into account, building orientation and roof structural soundness, as well as cooler and warmer climates in different states. The resulting PV access factors for residential and commercial buildings are 25% and 60%, respectively. The PV power density is calculated with a weight-averaged module efficiency using market share for the three prevalent PV technologies today: crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and CIGS. The resulting PV power density is 13.7 MW/million ft2, assuming an average module efficiency of 18.5% in 2015. The total rooftop PV technical potential can be calculated as:

Rooftop PV technical potential = Total roof space available * PV access factor * PV power density

Based on the NCI study, the combined U.S. rooftop PV technical potential, independent of economics, for both residential and commercial building will reach 712.2 GW in year 2015. The following chart represents the state-by-state results of the technical potential:

Figure 1. U.S. rooftop PV technical potential in 2015, estimated by Navigant Consulting Inc.

National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) applied a different approach, using the Solar Deployment System (SolarDS) model to estimate that the technical potential of the residential and commercial rooftop PV markets are approximately 300 GW each by year 2030. In the NREL model, shaded roofs and obstructed roof space were eliminated, and customer adoption rate was considered to cover economic factors, such as PV cost, policy incentive, and financing.

Based on the above potential market size analysis, the current cumulative grid-connected PV installation only represents 0.3% of total U.S. rooftop PV technical potential, which indicates a huge market potential. In addition, the rooftop PV system has to be replaced every 15 to 20 years, which represents another significant market opportunity. If we use the NCI estimated U.S. rooftop PV technical potential of 712.2 GW in 2015, assuming 100% market penetration, we can estimate how much electricity energy can be generated by such power. If we assume 10 hours/day and 200 days/year with sunshine, the total rooftop PV generated electricity energy will be 1,424 billion kWh, or 1,424 TWh, in U.S. by 2015. Compared to the total U.S. electricity generation of 3,953 TWh in 2009 with 1% annual growth projection in next 25 years, the technical potential of electricity generation from rooftop PV can take over 1/3 of U.S. electricity consumption. As indicated in the following chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), total solar generated electricity, from both solar thermal and PV, represents less than 0.1% of total electricity generation in 2009. Rooftop PV has a huge market growth capacity, and the dramatic installation cost drop will accelerate the rooftop PV market penetration. The current crystalline solar module price has dropped to $1.25/watt, compared to $2.80/watt two years ago.

Figure 2. U.S. electricity generation mix in 2009.
(Source: EIA Electric Power Monthly, October 2010)

There are two ways to assimilate PV arrays with rooftops: either integrated into them, or mounted on them. Mounting PV panels on rooftop requires more dangerous labor practices and is not aesthetically pleasing. Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are photovoltaic materials used to replace conventional building materials in roof, skylights, or facades. The advantage of BIPV over conventional roof-mounted PV panels is that the initial cost can be offset by reducing the amount spent on building materials and labor. BIPV also appears unobtrusive on a building structure. Current innovations have led to increasing diversity of BIPV products on the market, including rigid BIPV tiles and transparent BIPV glass. Advances in thin-film PV technologies have led to flexible solar tiles and shingles.
BIPV market competition has shifted from module provider to construction site. The fight for BIPV leadership in building and construction has begun. A recent article from Greentech Media points out the only way to realize BIPV is to be active in the architecture and early design of the building, consulting on matters as integral as the compass orientation of the building. For example, OneRoof Energy, a California-based residential BIPV provider, established a strategic alliance with a national network of roofing contractors. The exclusive integrator relationship, as well as its innovative financing program to reduce homeowner installation cost, provides strong competitive advantages for the company to gain market share nationwide. Please excuse our shameless self-promotion as David Anthony one of the authors of this article is an investor and board member of OneRoof Energy.

Figure 3. Residential BIPV Installation

Comparing residential and commercial markets for BIPV, the residential sector has more advantages using standard-sized BIPV materials. Many commercial buildings require custom sized panels, due to specs from the building designer. It is impossible for BIPV makers to prepare a variety of custom-sized modules in a mass production line. In addition, landlords of commercial buildings in many cities have no incentive to install BIPV. For example, in New York City, the electricity bill is paid by the tenant not the landlord. Therefore, the real BIPV opportunity stays with residential sector, not commercial sector. The residential rooftop PV market has a bright future with huge market potential, and already has shown strong growth in recent years. The BIPV market could reach $5.8 billion in 2016, based on a report from Pike Research.

Beside electricity generation, the rooftop PV market also has the potential to create millions of job opportunities for Americans. For a typical 0.5 MW solar installation, it will take 6 contractors for installation and another 3 full-timers for maintenance per year. We assume the rooftop PV market will take 20 years to reach 100% penetration. In the past 10 years, the average annual new home construction is 1.47 million units. Considering the recent housing market slow down, we can assume the new home construction will be 1 million units per year over the next 20 years, which is 0.78% growth of U.S. total housing units. Therefore, the total U.S. rooftop PV technical potential will reach 800 GW in 2030. For a simple estimation, we assume 40 GW/year for the next 20 years. Each year, we assume the rooftop PV market will create 480,000 installation jobs.. In addition, it will create 240,000 jobs per year for maintenance services, with a total of 4.8 million jobs for the next 20 years. Therefore, the rooftop PV market could generate more than 5 million jobs for U.S., if we assume 100% market penetration by 2030. This “back of the envelope” estimate excludes the re-roof market which could add to both employment and BIPV installation.

With the potential to create over 5 million jobs and one third of U.S. electricity energy, the rooftop PV system will become more lucrative for investors, government and US home owners. As PV electricity rates approach “grid parity”, there is no reason for U.S. to lag so far behind Germany, if government provides enough inventive and infrastructures for PV market development.

Given the upcoming 2012 election year we hope President Obama, Texas Governor Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Romney read this article.

David Anthony is the Managing Director of 21Ventures, LLC, a VC management firm that has provided seed, growth, and bridge capital to over 40 technology ventures across the globe, mainly in the cleantech arena. As mentioned above David is an investor and on the board of directors of OneRoof Energy, LLC. David received his MBA from The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 1989 and a BA in economics from George Washington University in 1982.

Tao Zheng is a material scientist in advanced materials and cleantech industry. He held 20+ patents and patent applications, and published many peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. Tao Zheng received his B.S. degree in polymer materials sciences from Tsinghua University in China, and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from University of Cincinnati. He obtained his MBA degree with distinction in finance and strategy from New York University, Stern School of Business, where he was designated as “Stern Scholar” and received “Harold Price Entrepreneurship Award”.

Top 5 Cleantech Prize Competitions

By Daniel Gerding

As the cleantech industry continues to grow, so too does the number of competitions geared to promote innovative ideas and companies in the industry. Academia is full of cleantech and renewable energy focused case competitions, which bring students together from a variety of disciplines to solve today’s most pressing problems. These provide students with real-world experience and also give companies access to a large talent pool at no cost. However, I believe the most valuable competitions are those which target individuals and companies who already have innovative ideas and products and reward them both monetarily and with “incubator-like” support. Here’s my short list . . . what other competitions do you think are making an impact on the industry?

1) The Cleantech Open
As the largest of all cleantech competitions, The Cleantech Open is unique in a number of ways:
• Cash prizes – $250,000 for the National Grand Prize winner (easily one of the largest awards among cleantech competitions). Also, according to www.cleantechopen.com, they have “awarded over $5 million in cash and services to support cleantech growth companies” in the past five years.
• Professional development – Cleantech Open provides its participants with significant training, mentorship, and access to potential investors.
Through its regional and national competitions, the Cleantech Open has amassed nearly 500 alumni who have collectively raised more than $300 million in external funding. Past winners include Adura Technologies, Lucid Design Group, Nila Inc., and Power Assure.

2) MIT Clean Energy Prize
Although sponsored by MIT and geared towards students, the MIT Clean Energy Prize is different from the large number of MBA case competitions. Per their mission statement, “The MIT Clean Energy Prize will catalyze a new generation of clean energy solutions to meet the world’s energy challenge through innovation and entrepreneurship.” Started in 2008, the competition is a year-long education-focused process. Teams compete in one of five separate tracks: energy efficiency, transportation, deployment, clean non-renewables, and renewables. The winning team in each track wins a $15,000 prize and competes against the winners of the other tracks for the grand prize MIT Clean Energy Prize of $200,000.

MIT has long been an entrepreneurial powerhouse – and thanks to the Clean Energy Prize and other initiatives, their intellectual capital is increasingly focused on cleantech! Past winners include C3NANO, Husk Insulation, FlowDesign Wind Turbine, and Covalent Solar.

3) Skipso Open Competition
The Skipso Open Competition is by far the most unique on this list. In fact, it’s actually not a competition at all, but instead a series of challenges that are crowd sourced from companies and cleantech professionals. By allowing companies to set up their own challenges using their platform, Skipso enables them to find solutions to their most pressing problems by leveraging their global community of experts, thought leaders, and innovators. Skipso allows companies to set up challenges in five categories: Ideas, R&D (Research and Development, RFPs (Requests for Proposals), HR (Human Resources), and Start-ups. Once the challenge is completed, the sponsoring company selects a winner and a cash award (amount varies) is usually awarded.

Past Challenges include:
• Innovative approaches to secure and expand the sourcing of carbon offsetting projects (sponsored by MyClimate)
• Innovative LED-based lighting products to expand functional application (sponsored by G.C.Illumination)

Although the awards for Skipso challenges are lower than the more large-scale competitions like the Cleantech Open, I believe the potential for them to really have a significant impact is great given that their crowd sourcing approach and open platform help companies, entrepreneurs, and experts to tap into the broader talent pool regardless of their physical location.

4) CleanTech Challenge (CTC)
Launched in 2009, the CleanTech Challenge (CTC) is similar to the MIT Clean Energy Prize in that it is focused on students. The CTC is jointly sponsored by London Business School and University College London. The competition is designed to enable students to take a clean technology from “concept” to venture funding and ultimately self-sustainability. All finalists attend a two day “boot camp” at London Business School where they receive direct guidance and support from people in the industry, and the first place winners receive a £5,000 award.

Past Winners include Silicon Solar Cells, from Technical University of Denmark/Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, Team Somba from IESE/University of Arizona, and GreenLease, a turnkey green energy solution provider.

5) Anaheim Center for New Energy Technologies Clean Tech Competition
The AC-NET Clean Tech Competition is designed to “advance the development and commercialization of energy and water technologies” by giving “early-stage” companies access to potential investors. Initially created in 2009, the competition made some significant changes this year by partnering with CleanTech OC and OCTANe . As a result of this partnership, finalists in the competition will now be evaluated using OCTANe’s LaunchPad process, which provides comprehensive feedback on participants’ business plans and investment presentations.

In addition to the rigorous OCTANe Launchpad process, the winner of the competition is awarded a $25,000 prize. Past winners include Ener-G-Rotors and Hadronex.

Chevrolet Spark EV with A123 Nanophosphate Lithium-ion Batteries

The 2013 Spark EV is Chevrolet’s new 100% battery-electric car. It is GM’s fourth electric car model that includes the Chevrolet Volt, the Opel Ampera, and the Cadillac ELR. GM needs a pure-electric offering; Nissan Leaf is dominating the early adopter market.

Reuters reports that Nissan LEAF’s U.S. sales through September were about 27,500 — seven times higher than the Volt. Electric utility PG&E confirms that ratio reporting 1,200 LEAFs and only 250 Volts delivered in its service area – 10,000 electric cars for SF Region in 2012. GM is expanding electric car production from 10,000 this year to 65,000 in 2012 as it plays catch-up with Nissan and prepares for market share battle with Ford, Toyota, Honda, and others.

Now GM fights back with the Spark EV. A gasoline powered Spark is currently offered in some foreign markets as a 2-door, 4-seat, subcompact. Small cars are now popular in American cities as drivers fight for expensive parking spaces. In 2012, the Mitsubishi i will lead the battle for electric city cars with a starting price of $29,195.

By the time that Chevrolet can start dealer deliveries of the 2013 Spark EV, it will face tough competition from at least 10 electric cars in the U.S. selling for under $40,000.  The field will include other impressive electric cars such as the Nissan LEAF, which I own, the Mitsubishi I, the Ford Focus Electric, the Honda Fit Electric, the Scion IQ EV and others. Chevrolet only plans on limited sales in California and other select U.S. and global markets in 2013. GM has yet to announce battery size, range, fast charge capability or lack thereof and vehicle price. Electric car ranges of 80 to 100 miles are common.

Both the Chevrolet Spark EV and the Chevrolet Volt will be successful. Many people prefer the plug-in hybrid range of the Volt; others want a zero gasoline pure electric like the Spark and will count on the 25,000-plus public charging stations that will be available when the Spark EV is delivered. I have interviewed dozens of Volt drivers from music stars like Jackson Brown to regular commuters. They uniformly love their cars performance, reliability, and electric range.

Lithium Battery Competition – A123 Wins this Time

The Chevy Spark is a major win for the nanophosphate lithium-ion battery pack supplier A123, an American innovator that has lost most automotive design-wins to giants like Korea’s LG Chem and Samsung and Japan’s Panasonic and NEC. (Disclosure: author holds modest stock ownership in A123.)

As electric and hybrid car competition intensifies, Nissan, GM, Toyota, and Ford are in a race to sell the most vehicles with lithium batteries. I have driven cars from each of these automakers that use lithium batteries. The cars performed beautifully and delivered great fuel economy.

By the end of 2012, Nissan will have delivered 100,000 LEAFs. Renault is trying to match that number in Europe and Israel. Both automakers use AESC lithium-nickel-manganese polymer batteries. AESC is a joint venture between NEC and Nissan.

Ford may be the first carmaker to sell 100,000 cars annually that includes lithium batteries. When I lasted interviewed Nancy Gioia, Director Ford Global Electrification, she said that Ford has a 2020 goal of 10 to 25 percent of its vehicle sales including lithium batteries. Her best guess is that 70% would be hybrids, 20 to 25% plug-in hybrids, and 5 to 10% battery-electric. Everything from technology innovation to oil prices will affect the future mix.

Toyota Motor Corp is bringing to market three vehicles with lithium batteries – the Prius PHV, the RAV4 EV, and the Scion IQ EV.

Frost and Sullivan forecasts that the lithium transportation market will expand from $1.2 billion in 2011 to $14 billion in 2016.  Automotive Lithium Battery Competition Report

Trash About Trash

For the past few years, the City of Cleveland has been exploring the development of a trash-to-energy facility at its Ridge Road waste transfer station

Currently, the City collects garbage via conventional trucks, brings it to Ridge Road for loading into 18-wheelers, and sends the garbage miles away to a landfill — pretty much the same approach to waste management that’s been used for decades.

Under the leadership of Commissioner Ivan Henderson of the City’s municipatl utility, Cleveland Public Power (CPP), the City has been investigating a different concept:  a materials recycling facility (MRF) at Ridge Road, with the non-recyclable wastes (e.g., organic matter) being loaded into a gasifier produced by the Japanese firm Kinsei Sangyo to produce a syngas that would fire a small power generation unit. 

The benefits to this proposed facility are several:  reduced expansion of landfills, reduced carbon footprint associated with trucking of wastes, reduced waste management costs for the City, reduced power costs for the City.

It all sounds pretty good, right?  Well, just as no good deed goes unpunished, so too does no good idea go unopposed.

Yesterday, the Plain-Dealer reported on emerging opposition to the proposed project from some community-based environmental activists, notably Ohio Citizen Action.  Their concern is that the plant will cause local air quality immediately surrounding the Ridge Road site to suffer, citing the amount of emissions that would be allowed under the emissions permit anticipated for the facility.

As noted in the article, Mayor Frank Jackson and several Cleveland officials recently visited Japan to meet with Kinsei Sangyo and witness several of their gasifiers in operation.  Two years ago, at the request of Commissioner Henderson, representing the Cleveland Foundation, I joined an earlier fact-finding delegation to Japan to ensure that such an operation would not be a blight or a liability for the Cleveland neighborhoods nearby the Ridge Road site.

We saw three operating Kinsei Sangyo gasifiers on my visit to Japan.  The only discernible emissions were small wisps of steam.  There was minimal odor and sound — certainly far less than what exists at Ridge Road today.  One of the facilities was actually in the middle of a residential section — and bear in mind that Japanese environmental standards are generally more stringent than those in the U.S.

From my perspective, based on actually seeing plants like the one proposed in operation, it is hard to claim that the waste-to-energy facility proposed for Ridge Road would represent a significant diminishment of the local environment.  Ohio Citizen Action is basing their opposition on the emission levels allowed in the permit, as opposed to the emissions that would likely occur if the plant were to be built.  Although Ohio Citizen Action is basing their position on facts, this is an instance of the facts being used in a particular way to achieve a particular outcome — an outcome that may in fact not be in the best public interests.

Those who are against the proposed waste-to-energy facility at Ridge Road should really see one of these plants in operation before making a rush to judgment.

I appreciate the concerns of environmentalists, I really do.  We have a precious planet, and it’s the only one we’ve got. 

However, if you’re going to oppose the development of a project that promises a lot of advantages, including many environmental benefits, you’d better have a pretty damn good alternative to suggest.

For instance, when environmentalists oppose fracking to produce natural gas from shale, they’re also blocking utilization of the lowest-carbon fuel for powerplants and vehicles.  Clearly, if fracking is to be done, it needs to be done responsibly.  But, by barring fracking entirely, would environmental advocates rather we continue to burn so much coal and oil? 

I know the retort:  “We need to move to renewables.”  I get it; look at what I’ve done with my life for the past 15 years if you think otherwise.  But the shift to renewables will take a long time, will be pretty gradual and won’t always be cheap.  Shouldn’t we take a low-cost, large and quick step right now in the environmental direction we want to go?  (And, one that will generate domestic economic benefits to boot?)

I traded emails last week with Steve Brick, Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a long-time consultant and advocate in the clean energy space.  He noted that the “apocalyptic narrative” of the most strident environmentalists is clearly not inspiring to most listeners.  I agreed and responded with the observation that the “game over” rhetoric is not only failing to lead to action on climate change and other environmental concerns, but is feeding fuel to those who want no action — or worse, to unwind the positive movements of the past forty years. 

In my opinion, by stiffening the opposition to environmentalism, the oppositional positions of the most strident environmentalists are not helping the planet.  We have trashy discourse in addition to our ever-growing landfills.

Top 5 Reasons Why Solyndra’s Failure is No Reason to Abandon Clean Energy

by Rory Cox

In the last weeks, Solyndra, a Fremont-based solar manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy. What made this event of special interest was the fact that Solyndra received about half a billion dollars in loan guarantees as part of the federal stimulus program, and became a “poster child” for the program after President Obama’s appearance at their factory last year. Needless to say, opponents of progress are using this event to attack Obama, solar energy, and government investment in clean energy. Here are five reasons why they’re wrong.

1. Solyndra is a rare instance of failure for the government Loan Guarantee Program (LPG). According to a piece in Forbes ,“…when judged by its entire diverse portfolio of investments, the LGP has performed remarkably well. Indeed, with a capitalization of just $4 billion, DOE has committed or closed $37.8 billion in loan guarantees for 36 innovative clean energy projects. The Solyndra case represents less than 2% of total loan commitments made by DOE… ” It’s bad political luck that the company that went belly up is the same one that Obama chose for a personal appearance, but in the big scheme of things, this is a mere bump in the road for a wildly successful program.

2. The US solar industry is a big job creator, and will continue to be. The solar industry now employs more people in the US than the steel industry, a barometer of US economic power. Many solar companies are expanding rapidly, fueled by state and federal incentive programs. The same week Solyndra went bankrupt, Solaria, another Bay Area manufacturer, announced it was expanding and looking for another facility. Meanwhile, retail installation companies like Sungevity, SunRun, Recurrent and many others continue their expansion. And California’s terrific clean energy mandates and incentives will continue to drive job creation in our state.

3. Dirty Energy is Heavily Subsidized. The US government subsidized dirty energy before they even knew it was dirty energy. Subsidies for the oil and coal industries go back over 100 years, and continue to dwarf subsidies for clean energy. According to a report from the Environmental Law Institute, from 2002 to 2008 fossil fuels received $70.2 billion in subsidies and tax breaks, while renewables received $12.2 billion.

4. Renewables are Good for the Bottom Line. Investing in clean energy is one way businesses can save money. According to the UK’s Carbon Trust Advisory, businesses in that country can count on average returns of 11 to 12 percent for investments made into onsite renewable energy systems. These savings are kept at home and can be reinvested back into the business, rather than sending money to an energy oligarchy.

5. Global Warming is Still a Problem. Maybe people who watch Fox News – like Rick Perry – might convince themselves otherwise, but recent extreme weather events ought to set off alarm bells that the climate is getting sicker. Parts of Texas are burning to a crisp, the East Coast is being battered by killer storms, crops are failing around the word, and remember all of those crazy tornadoes last spring? It seems every week new photos come out showing continued Arctic melting. Don’t be fooled by anyone who says it’s impolitic to raise the red flag about global warming—it’s happening, and the US should be taking an “all hands on deck” approach, promoting clean energy full bore.

It’s a shame an innovating solar company went bankrupt. But the real story continues to be California’s leadership in driving clean energy investment and creating jobs. That’s a win for Californians that the Federal government should replicate, not run away from.

Rory Cox is Senior Energy Consultant to Pacific Environment and a Together Green fellow.