At Solar Skies, It’s Always Sunny

Randy Hagen, CEO of Solar Skies LLC (Alexandria, MN., in the heart of the Upper Midwest) is justly proud of his company’s newly purchased laser welder.

Not only is it the only one in North America, but it is one of only two on the North American Continent, which spans an area from Panama to the Arctic.

The other laser welder, in Guadalajara, Mexico, was formerly kept quite busy manufacturing the solar panels used to generate hot water. But that production capacity is now coming back home, where it belongs, proudly stamped “Made in America”.

Unlike the biggest ball of twine, another Minnesota highlight, the laser panel welder really is rocket science, and Hagen was only too happy to outline the company’s progress in this area while on his way to Solar Power International (in Chicago this year, from October 22-24).

Solar Skies – manufacturer of world-class solar thermal collectors and mounting hardware – will use the convention to showcase its ability to provide solar hot water collectors, stainless steel hot water storage tanks, and related items to homes, businesses and institutions not merely locally but across the nation, from the Twin Cities to Illinois and even Massachusetts.

Solar thermal, the neglected and often forgotten stepsister of the solar photovoltaic (PV) energy market, shared in the global solar energy nadir reached in the first decade of the 21st Century – before the Chinese blew out the market in 2011 with a glut of cheap solar panels. Fortunately, it didn’t suffer the same crash-and-burn as solar PV, largely because it has always been the most energy- and cost-efficient way to take advantage of the enormous power of sunlight.

As Clean Tech Blog editor Neal Dikeman pointed out back in August, while Canadian Solar remains strong, the U.S. is still working through the solar doldrums, where the backstory continues to be about project development and new financing vehicles in a leaner, meaner market where serious competition has shaken loose all the overripe fruit.

In spite of millions of dollars of stimulus money, solar PV continues to struggle with costs and the Shockley-Queisser limit (the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar cells) in an attempt to reach grid parity, loosely defined as the point at which renewable, alternative energy venues can compete with the price of electricity from traditional fuel sources (coal, natural gas and nuclear, for example).

This continues to be generally true in spite of announcements from Motley Fool that the U.S. is selling green energy below spot prices. Fortunately, solar thermal hot water – not to be confused with utility-scale or high-temperature solar thermal energy – doesn’t have to worry about theoretical efficiency limits (typically 18 percent and theoretically 33.7 percent). It operates at a predictable and praiseworthy 70-80 percent, and never more so than from the carefully designed and manufactured collector panels made at Solar Skies.

Hagen, who got his start in solar PV using thin film to operate a ventilating fan in an aviation application, started Solar Skies in 2006 and a year later launched commercial manufacturing capability.

“Solar thermal costs didn’t plummet with the solar PV glut in 2011; it was already cost efficient. In fact, there never has been much wiggle room.” Hagen noted.

And even though wind is the really big thing in the Upper Midwest, solar thermal hot water stands a good chance of catching up just because of prevailing weather conditions. For example, even in January, when it’s absolutely frigid outside, the skies are clear and the sun shines.

“This means that a couple of 4 by 8 or 4 by 10 panels producing about 40,000 Btu’s per day will deliver about 65 percent of a home’s hot water needs. In the summer, it will be 100 percent.”

At a cost of about 10 grand, with a federal tax credit of 30 percent (which can be built into a mortgage on new homes), the cost is very affordable. Add in any utility, city or state incentives available in some areas of the U.S., and you get an easy 6- to 10-year payback. Coincidentally, this is also about the lifetime of the average hot water heater.

And the best part? There is very little that a homeowner needs to do to maintain a well-made and properly installed solar thermal installation (properly being a 45-degree tilt). Hagen doesn’t even recommend clearing snow.

“I have never cleaned our collectors. I let Mother Nature take care of that. All it takes is a little bit of open space to start the process of melting.”

It’s the kind of carpe diem attitude Minnesotans are familiar with. Life is short; eat dessert first. For Hagen, who has two daughters in grade school and an architect wife who works out of Glenwood, it meant rescheduling an interview to synch up family life and work life, with family coming first.

Which is just the way it should be, right?

New Optimism For a Cleantech Future

If you’ve not been paying much attention to cleantech in the last little while, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Because post-Solyndra, cleantech has been quietly gaining momentum.

We had the chance to take a close look at the fundamentals of cleantech over the last two months in co-authoring a new (and free!) 38-page research report in conjunction with Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group As You Sow and the Responsible Endowments Coalition of Brooklyn, New York.

Titled Cleantech Redefined: Why the next wave of cleantech infrastructure, technology and services will thrive in the twenty first century, the paper analyzes the most recent investment research available across a number of industries and major impact areas. It identifies key drivers and market size projections for various cleantech categories. It looks at examples of products and technologies currently on the market. Finally, it highlights a handful of large, mid and small cap firms and funds as possible points of entry for investors within each industry.

The paper does a good job of introducing cleantech and its significance (e.g. even only being a relatively new investment theme, cleantech is still—even today after a downturn—attracting nearly a quarter of global venture capital available.) It re-emphasizes cleantech’s multi-trillion dollar individual addressable markets of power, water, agriculture, transportation and others. And it restates the significance of cleantech’s drivers, and that they’re not going away any time soon.

But to me, one of the most interesting sections of the report compares the cleantech wave to other technology booms of the last 50 years, like the dot com boom, the networking craze, biotech, the PC and the microprocessor. We found a number of parallels and a number of reasons for optimism when you compare the cycles. After 20 years in technology, personally, the more I looked at the data, the more it felt like I’d seen this movie before.

For instance, the downturn in venture capital: Venture capital often spikes early in emerging categories, later to be replaced with more traditional levels of investment and other sources of capital as industries develop. It happened in the Internet era, and this transition has begun in cleantech as shown below; venture capital is playing less of a leading role in driving cutting edge technology, as it’s being being augmented by corporate investors and other sources of funds. More detail in our report.

Venture capital spikes in Internet and cleantech

Actual and estimated venture capital spending in Internet and cleantech. Source: Matthew Nordan

There’s another relevant curve, below, that looks a lot like the one above. We hypothesized in an analysis this summer that cleantech had bottomed out on the Gartner hype cycle. We make the more detailed case in our report that cleantech, as in every one of the previous waves I just mentioned, had experienced the same initial enthusiasm, the same frothiness, the same “irrational exuberance” as Alan Greenspan put it, that these other technologies did as expectations initially exceeded reality.

As the Gartner model below illustrates, in every one of these previous waves, there was a correction, and a gradual equalization of expectations and execution. Our analysis, detailed in our report, is that cleantech is now starting to climb out of what Gartner calls the “trough of disillusionment” and up the “slope of enlightenment” (how very Zen!)

Gartner hype cycle

Hype cycle of expectations over time related to cleantech. Source: Gartner

And cleantech IS climbing out. If you look at broad-based cleantech funds as a proxy for the cleantech theme, there’s been solid growth the last few months. Yes, cleantech returns have been generally poor for investors the last few years. But there HAVE been bright spots in certain sub-sectors such as clean energy generation, solar services and transportation. The lift from high cleantech fliers like SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY) and Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSA) is pulling up the rest of the category, as shown in the performance of the PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio fund, a mix of public stocks from across the cleantech definition.

Powershares PZD fund performance

PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio fund (PZD) performance, 2007 to 2013. Source: Google Finance

Another reason our report finds optimism for the cleantech space is in looking at cleantech’s various industries through the lens of the technology adoption lifecycle model, a curve popularized by the marketing strategy firm Regis McKenna in Palo Alto, California, where I served as a senior consultant in the mid 90s. I wrote in 2011 about the significance of this model to cleantech, and our new report echoes and expands on this analysis. If the vast majority of clean technologies, services and infrastructure plays have yet to cross the chasm, it means risk and expense getting there, but it also means massively larger market adoption on the other side.

In the widely accepted technology adoption lifecycle model, a market gap exists between early adopters of new technologies and the majority of consumers. This gap is especially treacherous for companies that develop disruptive technologies, as they force a significant change to the markets they target. Only companies nimble enough to transition from the early adopter market (consumers motivated by purchasing the latest technologies for competitive benefit) to the early majority of the vastly larger mainstream market (which prefers to buy established technology) are successful.

Chasm model

The technology adoption lifecycle and chasm model, Regis McKenna. Source: Joe M. Bohlen, George M. Beal and Everett M. Rogers

Different clean technologies have faced their mainstream adoption chasms at different times. For example, wind and solar energy power generation have already bridged the gap. They are now widely understood and increasingly deployed by renewable energy decision makers at power companies, and by individual businesses and homeowners. Algae fuel, for example, is on the far left side of the chart—exciting but yet to scale.

The adoption chasm of new technologies can differ substantially in magnitude. Many cleantech products have been quietly moving the needle on efficiency and waste reduction without fundamentally altering their markets. Lighting is a good example. The transition from incandescent to fluorescents to light emitting diodes (LED) happened without dramatic market disruption. Consumers had a small technology curve to overcome, but the lighting market still requires the purchase of light bulbs. We expect a significant segment of the cleantech transition will happen in this way, with cost and efficiency driving marginal, but resource-significant product changes.

So, in all, our new report finds that cleantech is here, today, now. It observes that efficiency, one of the central tenets of cleantech, is now a theme of almost everything now made, and of how it’s designed and manufactured. Cleantech is becoming ubiquitous—from cheaper, more efficient lighting to advanced metering software. Cleantech in all of its forms is poised for even more rapid expansion, especially now that the largest companies in the world have discovered the opportunity and imperative of cost savings… and now that individual technologies are beginning to cross the chasm to mainstream adoption.

As our report concludes, we’re just at the beginning of this phenomenon called cleantech. The best and most exciting investment opportunities are yet to come.

This article was originally published here and is republished here by permission.

My LED Saga

For my birthday, I told my wife I want LED light bulbs.  I know, right?  You’re thinking how cool is that!  If you’re thinking anything else, just keep it to yourself.

A bit of history.  I like light.  I hate waiting for CFLs to warm up.  We need floodlight style for recessed lighting, and A bulbs for lots of chandeliers and ceiling fan fixtures.  When we moved in I added 30+ recessed lights in our living room, kitchen, and dining area.  One room on dimmers.    If my whole house was incandescent, I could probably get 5-6 kW of lighting in the sockets for a 2,200 sq ft house, which is an extremely high ratio.  We’ve had a range of incandescent and CFL bulbs, we’ve replaced every one multiple times.   We are getting nowhere near the target hours. Current brands in include EcoSmart.

Ergo, I want LEDs.  Lots of them.  Total price would be a couple of thousand dollars or more to outfit the whole house.  I would need about  50-75 bulbs of varying types.  She has been researching them for two weeks.

As usual, she is looking for the cheapest.  Best price she found was down south of $20/bulb, but the name brands, GE, Philips, Cree etc seem to be almost double the off brand.  I currently have 2 offbrand on test in the living area, both  from Feit Electric, one is 14 and the other 17 watts, a bit below and above 1000 lumens apiece, one with the broad cone footprint, the other the narrow.  So far the light is gorgeous, bright, good color, instant on.

Minor problem, all of the warranties we’ve found say 3 years.  Ok, not so much a big deal, until you get to the fine print.  Apparently while the manufacturer believes these are 3 hours/day, 22 year bulbs, ie 60,000+hours, the warranty is LIMITED to use for 3 hours day.  Mine will be on closer to 14.  That’s why I want the LEDs! Apparently that constitutes misuse.  More details to come as the project progresses.

Enerkem, the Canadian Oil and Waste Rewind

At the intersection of energy and environment, a number of firms are taking on the global challenge of converting various kinds of waste into biofuels and chemicals.

Montreal, Quebec-based Enerkem is not only an example, but an examplar. Operating with 10 years worth of technological validation under its belt in the area of proprietary thermochemical reclamation, Enerkem engages in depolymerization, or the conversion of polymers – usually plastics – back into their integral ingredients, carbon and hydrogen. Simplified, these processes essentially rewind the 20th century, back to the point where fossil fuels were abundant and there was little or no nonbiodegradable trash. (Who said there are no second chances!)

It’s a good place to be when facing the dual challenges of oil dependence and waste disposal, with the former getting harder to find and extract while the latter gets larger in inverse ratio to the former – leading doomsayers to predict that, by the next millennium, there will be no fossil fuels and earth will be buried in old McDonald’s French fry sleeves and plastic water bottles.

Unlike so many biofuel operations, Enerkem does not use “easy” biomass feedstocks like cane or corn stover, and it certainly doesn’t use food, as happened in the global biofuels industry in 2008, when Mexico’s poor saw the cost of corn tortillas tripling overnight.

Instead, and shunning the uncomplicated path to biofuels, Enerkem uses municipal solid waste, producing in four minutes a syngas which can be repurposed into ethanol and chemical intermediates like methanol (used in making acrylic acid, for example).

This, notes Enerkem’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications Marie-Hélène Labrie, helps reduce the levels of waste in the city of Edmonton’s landfills.

On its own, this city – located in the heart of Alberta Province due north of Calgary – already recycles a phenomenal 60 percent of waste. Enerkem, using its pilot plant, can recycle another 30 percent, leaving a mere 10 percent to which must be burned, buried or composted. However, once Enerkem completes its first full-scale waste-to-biofuels commercial plant – in mere days, according to Labrie – Edmonton will be well on its way to achieving near-zero waste status. This is like graduating Magna Cum Laude in sustainability terms, and puts Edmonton on track to challenge even ultra “green” San Francisco, which is well on its way to zero waste by 2020.

Enerkem also operates 2 other plants in Quebec, the first a commercial demonstration facility in Westbury, the second another pilot plant in Sherbrooke. Westbury recycles used utility poles into 5 million litres (1.3 million gallons) of biofuel per year. The Sherbrooke facility is a scaled-down version of the new Edmonton commercial plant, and has been used to “sample” the efficacy of 25 different types of feedstocks including recycled plastics, waste, sludge, wood chips, pet coke, and straw.

Working closely with the University of Sherbrooke, the pilot plant is designed to R&D depolymerization processes and chemicals with the aim of one day finding that elusive but highly desirable state where used anything can be reduced to its molecular base. In the interim, researchers work with solids, liquids and everything in between. It doesn’t sound like a very appetizing job, but for those who see waste reduction as the apotheosis of 21st century civilization, it is probably more than a job: it’s a calling.

It certainly is for Labrie. Enerkem, founded by Esteban Chornet, CTO, and Vincent Chornet, a father and son duo, is a private company. Labrie, who sees it as a lateral promotion from the aerospace industry and her position at CAE (a global leader in modeling, simulation and training for civil aviation and defense), says quite frankly that Enerkem is a “part of the future she sees for herself”. So the term “calling” may not be that farfetched after all.

With its facilities in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and Varennes, Quebec, Enerkem clearly feels that it is solidly grounded in its proprietary waste-to-fuels/chemicals process.

“It’s time to reach out.” Says Labrie, who likely has read (and agreed with) the words of English poet Robert Browning.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

On a final note, Enerkem has also conquered the high-temperature requirements of most depolymerization. The plants can, at relatively low temperatures and pressures, reduce greenhouse gases by more than 60 percent when compared to the production of gasoline. That by itself has to be a winner in the race to sustainability.

That the process also meets or exceeds stringent air emissions standards and minimizes water use by reusing it in a closed circuit is merely frosting on the cake when meeting Canada’s 2010 5 percent renewable content in the national gasoline pool. Not to mention the United States’ federal requirement for 16.55 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be blended into fuel supplies in 2014.

Correction: The Edmonton plant is a full-scale recycling plant, and the 10-percent waste that can’t be recycled is either burned or buried, per Enerken Director of Communications Annie Paré.

 

Philips Makes LEDs Affordable

In 2008, it was the Holy Grail of residential lighting, according to off-the-gridder Dan Fink. Fink’s parameters were simple; he wanted an LED that retained (or added to) its inherent efficiency while also delivering the kind of light that homeowners identify with incandescent lighting – and all at a price that could easily nudge both incandescent and compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs off the shelves.

The Grail can now be found at your nearest hardware store. Philips LED lamps are selling for an unbelievable $5 after utility rebates in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont. (BTW, the correct terminology for LEDs, according to Philips Director of LED Lamps Todd Manegold, is “lamp”, not bulb.)

For markets that don’t offer utility rebates, the company has lowered the price on its value- priced Philips 10.5-watt A19 from $14.97 to $10.97. Another lamp, the Philips 11-watt A19, the popular 60-watt LED equivalent, will go from $24.97 to $16.97 on Home Depot shelves as Philips works with that global home improvement retailer and utilities all over the nation to bring the price down to $10.

Thus, not only have Philips LED lamps achieved affordability, but they have escaped a somewhat tawdry past in which they were lumped with other manufacturer’s LEDs, all of which were purported to contain lead, arsenic and some other potentially dangerous substances.

Now, according to reports, only the low-intensity reds, used in signage and traffic regulation, contain unwanted chemicals. The rest, from Philips’ soft-white LEDs to “true white” or daylight lamps, easily pass (or exceed) government standards and have even obtained Energy Star certification – a claim that isn’t true for all LED manufacturers, or even for the top 10. In fact, some pricey lamps do not achieve noteworthy lifetimes or efficiencies because the method of manufacture doesn’t protect the lighting element from excessive heat, via a heat sink for example, and this can dramatically shorten a lamp’s lifetime.

Philips lamps, represented by the A19, which won best-in-show earlier this year (for its instant-on feature, crisp bright light, and no mercury), are clearly becoming price-competitive while offering both superb quality lighting and electricity savings. More importantly,  the A19 offers an 80-percent plus energy savings ratio, or 10 percent greater than the CFL, and a six-year warranty which comes standard. Other Philips LED lamps are equally cost-efficient and productive.

As readers may remember, Philips is the company that won the 2011 L Prize – the $10-million government prize to create the light bulb of the future, an LED which could replace the once-ubiquitous 60-watt incandescent bulb.

“The challenge,” says Manegold, “is to balance lumens versus cost.”

As Manegold explains, the psychology of shopping and value suggest a price of around $10 as being the criterion of affordability in the American consumer’s “clean energy” wallet. For example, if the price is $14.99 and a utility rebate pushes it down to $9.99 – or even better, $5.99 – the consumer is at a point where he or she feels comfortable investing in clean energy technology.

” I think that, at $10, most people are willing to try one lamp,” Manegold notes. “But what I’m focused on, what my business is focused on, is not that you buy one, but that you came back and buy 2, 3, 4, perhaps even 10. Because if you don’t like the first one, you never will come back. For example, while it’s important for our company to hit that all-important price point, people also need to view their purchase as a quality product in order to trigger mass conversion.”

And mass conversion, as Manegold acknowledges, is the name of the game. Silvie Casanova, head of Lighting Communications at Philips, points out additional features that homeowners tend to look for, many of them purely aesthetic.

“LEDs lend themselves to the kind of dim-ability and control that CFLs just can’t achieve. Equally as important, LEDs do not achieve the “catastrophic failure” mode common to incandescents. At the end of its very long life (22 years, based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s  2 hours per night at 11 cents per kilowatt hour), the LED will gradually lose its brightness.”

This fade-to-black gives homeowners time to anticipate the lamp’s demise and get a replacement. It also provides some peace of mind to individuals who have, too often, had an incandescent bulb blow at the absolutely worst moment in history.

Manufactured to meet or exceed the Energy Star program’s rigid requirements, Philips LEDs  cut energy use by 85 percent, last 25 times longer, and save about $134 in electricity costs over their lifespan when compared to incandescents. Moreover, LEDs, though slightly smaller than the Edison incandescent bulb, fit into existing fixtures and work with standard dimmers, which means you, the consumer, can find a simple but lasting solution for that porch light, hall light, nursery light, or wherever accurate and unfailing light is a must.

It isn’t just about selling a product, either. As Manegold stresses, “Phillips has been very cognizant of insuring that the experience the user receives from LEDs is less focused on replicating the exact shape of an incandescent lamp or bulb and almost exclusively focused on making the experience (of buying and using our LEDs) 100 percent recognizable. This means that when you put the lamp behind the shade, you don’t know if it’s an incandescent or an LED, you just know it is the light you expect to have.”

(Correction: per Casanova, the reduced price of the A19is $14.97, not $16.97 as stated).

Kleiner-Backed Choose Energy Acquires Power2Switch

On September 30, Plano, Texas-based Choose Energy acquired Power2Switch, a Chicago-based company designed to help energy consumers negotiate their way around deregulated electricity markets in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Illinois, where the company had its largest footprint.

Founded in 2008, Choose Energy offers a user-friendly website that matches deregulated energy suppliers with energy consumers in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas – the latter forming Choose Energy’s largest market.

Want a lower rate after the first 1,000 kilowatt hours per month? Choose Energy can help you with that, and you don’t even have to make a phone call. Want only renewable energy? Choose Energy’s site helps you locate it from a “shopping basket” of 28 energy suppliers including Green Mountain Energy (100-percent renewable) and Direct Energy, which offers 99-percent clean, renewable electricity programs.

In fact, according to Choose Energy, 40 percent of customers have elected to go green, frequently at neutral costs when compared to some traditional generation fuels. Equally noteworthy is the fact that, since its inception, Choose Energy has helped more than 150,000 homeowners and small businesses save millions on energy bills thanks to veteran energy industry gurus who are as comfortable in the information technology sector as they are in the electricity trading marketplace.

Power2Switch is right up Choose Energy’s alley. It provides Choose Energy with a synergy that reduces operating costs and financial obligations, and provides even more extensive financial and consumer reach, partly because Power2Switch had already created a very good user experience based on a great brand. And it is this superb customer service reputation, as well as the company’s similar venues, which provides Choose Energy with precisely the kind of business ‘muscle’ that will propel it into the newly deregulated electricity marketplaces of today and tomorrow.

Choose Energy, a private company, recently came away with $4 million in funding from private equity firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), which it used to enhance its operations. Now, with Power2Switch assets and expertise, Choose Energy may well achieve its next goal, of coverage across all 19 states where the selling of electricity is decoupled from its origin, and across slightly less than half the states in the continental U.S. where natural gas sales and pricing are disengaged from the supplier.

This separation, called deregulation, allows consumers to buy electricity from any energy company offering it under the auspices of the same RTO, or Regional Transmission Organization. These RTOs are usually comprised of ISOs, or Independent System Operators, commonly a group of states (with the exceptions of Texas and California, which are significantly larger than any other state).

Deregulation in effect decouples the source of electricity – the power plants – from sales of electricity, putting ubiquitous and increasingly expensive electricity into the basket of consumer goods whose prices are influenced by demand. This is good news for consumers, and even better news for Choose Energy, which capitalizes on choice to bring savings to electricity users and a larger, recognizable brand for itself – a brand which the company aims to augment using Power2Switch’s enviable reputation and its industry-leading user experience platform.

Choose Energy President Jay Webster does not see any more M&A’s near term, but sees deregulation as inevitable.

“The more people become aware that they have this choice, and the impact it can have on a consumer’s energy bill, the more eager they are to participate.

“I should think that the will of the people, translated through the legislative body of any one state, will cause more (deregulated) markets to open up.”

The impetus for this change, Webster notes, is the proliferation of experience that people and regulators have in currently deregulated markets – an experience that can run to about 200 choices and be completely overwhelming, which is another benefit for Choose Energy and a website that makes complicated energy options simple.

It’s still early days, and a rocky road in those states which have not refined their vision before passing laws. As Forbes notes, distributed generation, or plans that allow electricity consumers to buy energy from micro-generators, presents an existential threat to utilities similar to that which the U.S. Post Office currently faces.

It’s a threat which companies like Choose Energy, and its president, welcome. For the company, opening markets spell additional territory beyond the 14 states where low-cost solar is currently available. These are: California, Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Delaware, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Colorado. The company also has a commercial solar program.

For Webster, it’s the challenge of an enterprise “much more intriguing than anything I have done before.”

For consumers, struggling in a lackluster economy and facing the prospect of layoffs, lower energy bills might be just the impetus that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his “Fed printing press” have failed to produce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wonderful way to spend one’s life!

Making Green Mining Less Of An Oxymoron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Energy from a Solar Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaver was enthusiastic:

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

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

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

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

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

On a parting note, Weaver adds:

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

Plugin Electrics vs All Electric Battery EVs, Epic Throwdown?

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

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

The main arguments on each:

Plug in Hybrids

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

 

Electric Vehicles

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

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

Biosynthetic Technologies: A Future So Bright They Gotta Wear Shades

In the real world, change happens slowly. A nation, or a neighborhood, isn’t knee deep in fossil-fuel wastes one day and “green” the next. This gradual transition is something that Allen Barbieri, CEO of Irvine, California-based Biosynthetic Technologies LLC, understands very well.

Biosynthetic Technologies is one of a small but growing number of energy companies looking for ways to improve the environment without turning the current energy paradigm on its head and forcing the Western world back into the Neanderthal era.

For Barbieri, this means a synthetic lubricant that not only meets or exceeds today’s premium oils – scoring 8.5 on Piston Deposit ratings – but offers a non-petroleum-based fluid that is 76-percent biodegradable in 28 days as compared to popular motor oils, which require 40 days and leave traces in the environment for years.

The oil was originally a U.S. Department of Agriculture project. The USDA took the development as far as it could, then patented it six ways from Sunday and – via the development and technology transfer entity CaliforniaLifeScience.com – transferred it to Biosynthetic Technologies, which added another 50 patents to insure its business platform.

The oil is 100-percent natural, converting the fatty acids from plant feedstocks into an ecologically sound product that will mitigate some of the damage caused by car owners who change their own motor oil and dump the old stuff down storm drains.

Equally as important, the synthetic oil blends very well with petroleum-based products.  However, as Barbieri also points out, there is a distinction between “environmentally safe” and “environmentally friendly”. The former implies no harm; the latter acknowledges the (ongoing) presence of small amounts of petroleum-based oil as well as additives to reduce friction, corrosion and foaming.

The one downside (from an environmentalist’s point of view at least) might be the company’s alliance with such names as BP Oil and Monsanto – whom Barbieri jokingly refers to as “the two most hated companies in the world.”

“At one point, I thought of adding Halliburton to the mix,” he added, laughing. “So that I could call it the Axis of Evil!”

Instead of focusing on potential downsides, however, Barbieri notes that the affiliation may signal even greater efforts on the part of these two multinationals, one vested in energy, the other in agriculture, to brighten up their tarnished images and join the race to the green. According to Barbieri, these efforts have resulted in BP putting a lot more energy and money (that other “green”) into environmental ventures than some other equally large, international oil companies.

Moreover, the alliance enables Biosynthetic to tap into highly developed company marketing, sales, and distribution networks, which means that this very eco-friendly oil will reach consumers under recognizable, branded names much sooner than otherwise – a B to B relationship far superior to B to C marketing, which – as Barbieri points out:

“If I tried to do it on my own, it would be my label on the motor oil container, and when you have an expensive car, you are much less likely to put in Biosynthetic Technology oil – a company you have never heard of – than you are to use Mobil Oil, for example.”

BP is not the only energy company to invest in Biosynthetic Technologies. In fact, the move toward more earth-friendly motor oils has prompted energy companies as diverse as Exxon Mobil, Phillips 66 to venture into the biotech arena searching for a lubricant base that will allow them to attach an environmentally friendly label to their products.

For some, the dilution with biosynthetic oil will be as small as 30 percent (or less), which offers environmental bragging rights with little need for recalibrating or retooling factory settings and even less reason to worry that biotech motor oil might not stand up as well as advertised in today’s pricey, high-performance engines.

Other oil and gas companies will make the effort, however, and ratios potentially as high as 85 percent bio and 15 percent fossil fuel will not only allow them to fly the green flag but to feel sincere doing so.

And the oils themselves? Branded Lubrigreen, these high-oleic soybean oils are industry-transformative. Another product, Cocoestolide, containing 35 percent Biosynthetic base oil and applicable in the personal care and cosmetics marketplace, is further down the pipeline but shows just as much promise, given the $36.5 billion in revenues in 2010 in the U.S. alone. The motor oil industry represents approximately $296 million per year (in 2013 figures).

The feedstock is Vistive Gold soybeans, a Monsanto product. Vistive Gold uses RNA interference, and it is Roundup Ready (aka glyphosate-resistant). This herbicide has been charged with spurring the development of “superweeds”, though experts speculate that Roundup overuse is the root of the epidemic. In other words, as farmers discovered Roundups ease-of-use, they made a typical mistake:  if a little was good – more was better.

The RNAi technique, a relatively new way to genetically engineer plants, troubles bioscientists because it has not been around long enough to evaluate.

Why biotech? From a performance standpoint, notes Barbieri, bio-based oils are in many ways superior to petroleum-based products. From a financial standpoint, the message has finally reached not only American oil companies but American drivers; that petroleum-based motor oils and lubricants are death to the nation’s waterways. For those who delight in factoids, consider this:

  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, approximately 185 million gallons of used motor oil are illegally dumped into storm drains
  •  These disposals, when aggregated, represent fully 40 percent of the oil pollution in America’s streams, rivers and lakes.
  • One gallon of oil can create an eight-acre oil slick. Four quarts of oil can contaminate one million gallons of water, or a year’s supply for 50 thirsty people.
  • As the energy equation stands today, manufacturers need 42 gallons of crude oil to get 2.5 quarts of new motor oil.

It is no wonder that Barbieri expects big demand. According to The Scientist, biotech is in for a wild ride as companies come out of the forced dormancy of the recent recession and offer IPOs right and left. For Biosynthetic Technologies, operating out of its Baton Rouge, LA pilot plant and looking forward to full-scale production in its Jacob’s Engineering-built commercial plant, the future is bright thanks to investors like Monsanto, which is in for $7 million.

I for one will be glad to see the eco-friendly motor oil substitute hit the shelves, hopefully next year. I might even check out the Cocoestolide esters to be incorporated into personal care and cosmetic products. It’s got to be better than fossil fuels!

But food? Maybe not. A lot of us with sensitive tummies still haven’t forgotten Olestra, a cooking oil alternative never approved for use in Canada or the EU and dropped in the U.S. as megafood makers paid attention to complaints and quietly switched back to “real” oils, shelf life and “smoke” temperatures be damned.

Tesla Motors – I Love You, But What the Hell?

I do like the Model S.  I think Tesla is doing terrific things to the car industry, direct to consumer, aggressive EV range, great looking car.  My friends who have one love it.  The company is proving it has legs.  But, as to the recent market run-up, not to be catty, but are you SERIOUS?

Tesla $20 Bil market capitalization

Nissan $42 Bil market capitalization

GM $46 Bil market capitalization

2013 Electric Vehicle total unit sales
GM Volt 9,855
Nissan Leaf 9,839
Tesla Model S 10,650

June Sales
Volt 2,698
Leaf 2,225
Model S 1,800

GM non EV revenues $150+ Billion
Nissan non EV revenues $120+ Billion
Tesla non EV revenues $0

There is something very, very wrong here.  Unfortunately this looks like the best short since 2001.  It is outselling the Leaf and Volt in some months, but just barely.  Let alone the $100 Billion plus in other revenues for GM and and Nissan.  How does that warrant Tesla trading at almost half their market cap?  I could buy Nissan, sell everything but the Leaf, and have a car business the same size as Tesla and $40 Billion + in the bank.

Water Pricing is Not the Roadblock to Water Innovation

There is a commonly held view among industry observers that “water is undervalued” and “water is underpriced”. Gloomy venture capitalists frequently cite the fact that “water is underpriced” as having the effect of hindering innovation and adoption of new technologies in the water sector (… and, incidentally of course, the ability to make good returns on venture capital investment). If water were properly priced, so goes the logic, then investment would flourish.

It is worth remembering that the raison d’etre of the water industry is not to provide a vehicle for water technology companies and venture capital investors to make double-digit returns. It is to provide water services in the most efficient manner possible. When a new technology can do this, it has a commercial advantage with the potential to make double-digit returns.  But the technologies need to reflect market realities, not the other way around. There is no onus on the water industry to alter its value and pricing systems to facilitate water technology companies and investors.

Breakthrough innovation does not need to be subsidized by paying more than market rate. In fact, subsidies create a very rocky foundation on which to build a business, as we saw with solar feed-in tariffs. They appeared when the times were good and disappeared when the times were bad.

In my mind, when people speak about the “value of water”, there is an underlying assumption that we should assign some nominal monetary value to our water resources (e.g. rivers, lakes, rain, etc.) to reflect the value of the resource.  The issue of “water pricing” is slightly different. It relates to how much consumers pay for water services and how this relates to the actual cost of providing those services. I would like to discuss each of these concepts in turn.

 

Water is undervalued – The idea that naturally occurring water is a resource that should be assigned some monetary value.

I do not believe that water needs to be assigned a value, unless you wish to prolong the life of natural resource or the goal is to internalize external costs. When discussing naturally occurring water, it is important to note that there are two types of water: renewable and non-renewable. Renewable water is the type of water that flows through bodies of water, such as our rivers and lakes, and is replenished each year from sources such as rain and melting snow. On the other hand, non-renewable water or “fossil” groundwater has been built up over hundreds or thousands of years and will not be replenished at the same rate we are extracting it.

In the case of renewable freshwater flowing in a river, where the quantity available exceeds the rate of abstraction, there is no reason to assign a monetary value to a cubic meter of water unless you wish to internalize external costs (e.g. environmental and social impacts of low flow rates). An analogy for this is solar energy that is a renewable resource. Current solar PV technology is not terribly efficient in absolute terms (approx. 15%), but we don’t often hear complaints that we are “wasting the sunlight” or that “sunlight is underpriced”.

With respect to renewable water, there is a case to be made to adjust water pricing to internalize externalities. For example, if over-abstraction leads to an impact on fisheries, habitats or tourism downstream, should water pricing reflect this?  Who pays for this? The Polluter Pays Principle is often applied in environmental policy and economics. If an upstream city takes water out of a river, affecting cities downstream, there is a case to be made for adjusting the price of abstraction to act as a disincentive to over-abstraction or to reflect the real costs. This is the objective of a carbon tax, which tries to account for the cost of climate change and the petrol pump.

The situation in relation to non-renewable water is somewhat different. Assigning a value above actual costs to a non-renewable resource can help to prolong the life of a natural resource. Renewable water sources, even when transported over distances, can be economical when the renewable water does not have an associated cost; however, non-renewable water does have a cost to supplies.  So in the case of fossil groundwater in the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains of the United States, where the water dates back to the last ice age, there is a case for assigning a nominal value or price to this water because the costs of pumping it up do not factor in the scarcity and non-renewable nature of the resource.

There is also a tragedy of the commons taking place here. If you don’t pump water from the aquifer below your property, it may still be drained because your neighbor is pumping up the water and cashing in, so you might as well too!

In summary, naturally occurring water does not need to have a monetary value unless you wish to internalize external costs or prolong the life of fossil groundwater.

 

Water is too cheap – The idea that we are not paying the true cost for water.

In the water business, there are frequent complaints that “water is too cheap”. That is, the consumer does not pay enough for water.  It is worth considering two facts:

  1. For the most part, in the developed world we have access to clean safe drinking water and sanitation.
  2. The companies that provide the infrastructure, technology and services required to provide this water are not doing so on an altruistic basis, but rather to make profits.

If we have access to clean water and sanitation and the companies providing these services are not doing so on an altruistic basis, why then should we pay more for water than we currently do? To help create a market for innovative new technologies developed by inventors and entrepreneurs? Or to deliver better returns to investors? That in it itself is not a valid reason to pay more for water.

Any technological innovation, by definition, should be more efficient and cost effective than its predecessor or incumbent. Hence, innovation should reduce water costs, not increase them. There are two instances I can see where the argument that “water is too cheap” stacks up. Firstly, when discussing whether an end-user is paying their fair share for water services, and secondly, when you consider the costs over a 50-year time span.

Firstly, the fact that water technology and service providers are paid doesn’t mean that each end-user is paying their fair share of the costs of producing that water. While at a national level, someone is paying the private sector companies and highly skilled water utility operators to provide water services, these costs may be cross subsidized from other government funds and not captured directly in water charges. That is an issue of true cost accounting and revenue collection, not a matter of price.

Secondly, in terms of the economic models around water, we do not always factor in future infrastructure replacement costs and put money away for a “rainy day” fund.  An analogy would be a building management company who knows that the windows or the roof may need to be replaced over the lifetime of a building. To prepare, they start a fund into which rates are paid to ensure that funds are available when that “rainy day” comes. Much of our water infrastructure, including water reservoirs, networks and energy grids, is over one hundred years old and was essentially “gifted” to us by our great grandfathers at the start of the last century. There is a valid case to be made that the cost of water today does not include infrastructure replacement costs in 2050, and, in that sense, if you draw the box around future costs, water is too cheap.

In summary, I don’t believe that low water costs are what hinder innovation in the water sector. While we may not incorporate costs for environmental impact or a “rainy day” fund into the cost of water, this does not mean that water pricing impedes innovation. I think what drives innovation is need. Necessity is the mother of invention and creativity. Innovation is driven by factors such as water scarcity, urbanization, tightening regulatory limits, ageing infrastructure and bankrupt utilities. It is also driven by the need to recover and reuse resources and reduce energy costs.  Good innovation addresses these needs competitively, and, more importantly, cost effectively. We don’t need to pay more for water in order for innovation to occur. It should deliver its own value.

 

About BlueTech® Research

BlueTech® Research provides investors, water companies, researchers and regulators with the latest information at their finger tips, providing clarity and critical analysis on emerging water technology market areas. We map and analyze the area of water technology innovation. We are focused on what is changing and how new approaches, technologies and needs are re-shaping the water technology market.  To learn more, please visit www.bluetechresearch.com.

Electric Vehicles Are Outpacing Historical Hybrid Car Growth 3 to 1

For a project we are working on, we have been analyzing EV and HEV historical sales performance.  The numbers are striking.

In the US Hybrids took until their 6th year to achieve 100,000+/year in unit sales and 1% in market share of new vehicles sold.

Electrics and Plugins are currently on pace to do that in 2013 and 2014, 2-3 years ahead of Hybrids.

EVs are currently outpacing hybrid sales growth by a stunning amount in their first three years vs the first 3 years of hybrid cars, and the rate of outperformance has been accelerating each year:  EVs are 1.9x, 2.6x, and 3.4x the unit sales level of hybrids over the first 3 years.

Using US historical hybrid vehicle numbers as a benchmark that rate of outperformance would equal nearly 1 mm/year sales by 2018, and 4.2 mm EVs on the road by the end of the decade in 2020.

There are now 4 electric / plugin hybrid car platforms around the 20K+/year mark, which essentially marks the level of a “real” car:

It took hybrids nearly decade to achieve that.

  • Tesla
  • Ford Energi / Focus Electric (taken as a group)
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Chevy Volt

That means essentially 4 car companies are already at  the $500 mm to $1 Bil/year level in EV revenues.

There are 20+ vehicle platforms behind them, and 2 of those four are in just their first full year, with the Toyota Prius plugin just beginning to rollout broadly.

Virtually every major platform has seen 20-30% price cuts, and seen drastic and rapid sales improvement when they did.  The carmarkers have basically found the price level to scale.

The Nissan LEAF achieved it’s 100,000th car sold globally earlier this year.  That’s level where the Prius is generally acknowledged to have broken even according to Bill Moore editor of EVWorld.com.   To put in perspective, that’s somewhere over $3 Billion in Leaf revenues to date.

Our internal baseline numbers now have Hybrids at 7.4 mm fleet size in 10 years, and EVs/PHEVs at 4.1 mm.  That would represent barely 6-7% market share, an extremely moderate share growth rate, and assumes heavy cannibalization of future HEV growth by EVs.

EVs may have been underselling the hype, but they are outselling the reality.  Given all of this we would welcome discussion, predictions and inputs on what reasonable expectations on EV growth are.

 

Kior, Solar, and Storage

Kior, one of the farthest along cellulosic biofuels producers shipped its first drop in cellulosic biofuels from its pilot plant, but was way below its prior production targets.  And Biofuels Digest reports it is now considering a smaller scale expansion of its pilot before launching its long announced commercial plant in Natchez.  This sounds like more slide to the right and technical issues than the company would like to admit, especially given the sliding cash balances.

Rising RIN prices from the increases in the Renewable Fuels Standard can bail out a lot of cellulosic ills, but only if on can physically produce.

 

First Solar announced weaker revenues and earnings in 2Q vs both prior quarter and year, amid projects sliding to the right and revenue recognition changes.  Analysts have been voicing concern over whether the project pipeline is adequate to deliver growth, as competitors have caught up with First Solar’s vertical integration strategy.  Underneath that the production cost per watt continues to fall.

Canadian Solar announces strong growth, and continues to take market share and reaffirmed it’s prior estimates of c. 10% $/Wp unit cost reductions in 2013.

But overall, the story in solar in the US continues to be about increasingly project development and new financing vehicles.

 

 

FERC Order 784 saw it’s final rule in July, potentially a boon for batteries and other fast responding grid energy storage technologies.

“The final rule on this subject came out in late July as Order No. 784. It permits third parties to supply various ancillary services at negotiated rates to transmission utilities, without the third party having to prove it lacks market power for such services, if the third party passes existing market power screens for sales of energy and capacity, the rates are established in a competitive solicitation or they do not exceed the published
rates in the utility’s “OATT” or open-access transmission tariff for the services.”

“Order No. 784 also requires each transmission utility to add to its OATT schedule 3 a statement that it will take into account the speed and accuracy of regulation resources in its determination of reserve requirements for regulation and frequency response service, including as it reviews whether a self-supplying customer has made “alternative comparable arrangements” as required by the schedule” – Chadbourne & Park LLP.  Greentech Media had a great summary.

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Suburbs, Hello City Centers…

The signs of great movement back to the city center from suburbia can be found in most major cities of America.  New apartments, condos, townhouses seem to be sprouting up in the previously abandoned or dilapidated sites all across the US.  A recent issue of Fortune magazine talked about how majority of the new housing construction today is happening in the heart of the cities rather than the suburbs. I see evidence of this in our great city of Houston every time I drive to downtown.  The appeal of living in the city seems to be catching on with the younger generation  – who are willing to give up a big house and yard for the convenience of living close to work.  From an environmental perspective, if these trends were to continue, American urban areas have the potential to become far more sustainable rather than continuing 20th century trend of sprawling further and further away from the city with an ever-increasing footprint.

I think this is great and hope the trend continues.  But, I worry that public transportation or lack thereof may become the roadblock to making our cities more desirable and sustainable.  As more people move in closer and the population density rises, it will put an increasing burden on the cities’ infrastructures.  Most of these demands could be met by investments from the increasing tax base as the population increases, but the development of adequate public transportation may not be as easy.

It is true that having lifestyle amenities near the center allows residents to get around more by foot or bicycles.  This could reduce some reliance on automobiles for transportation needs versus the norm today.  But, can one really foresee a city with population density approaching that of major European and Asian metropolis without a reliable public transportation system?  Given the long lead-time and high investment needed to build an extensive and reliable public transportation system, are our city planners up to the task on this issue?  There does not seem to be a significant effort to build extensive people moving systems compared to how fast the condos and townhouses are being built and sold.  If the city streets become as clogged as our freeways are during rush hours and residents start spending a lot of the time sitting in their vehicles, I wonder how long the love affair with downtown areas will last.  Perhaps it is time for our city managers to get more aggressive in building public transportation before the perils of automobile traffic follow residents into the city centers from the suburbs, and we lose this opportunity to have more livable and sustainable urban areas in the US.

15 Tips For Clean/Green Tech Accelerator Success

I’ve been helping behind the scenes on a new cleantech incubator recently launched in Vancouver, Canada called the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator. And in the process, I’ve been getting the opportunity to learn what other accelerators and incubators are doing well, and not so well, around the world.

The first incubator launched in the U.S. in 1959, but since then the terms accelerator and incubator have become somewhat synonymous. Both are generally used interchangeably to describe organizations, typically with multitenant facilities, which exist to help foster new innovation—though some characterize accelerators as higher velocity and sometimes contributing cash, as in Y Combinator. Like Foresight in Vancouver, many provide educational programming (in Foresight’s case, a structured curriculum called the Venture Acceleration Program), as well as office space, mentoring, expert clinics and networking with strategic customers and investors. Some even offer capital directly. Still others offer pooled support services such as marketing and accounting.

Incubators are a global phenomenon. In efforts to foster job creation and local economies, they’ve blossomed around the planet. There are some 7,000 such programs around the world, according to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan. And—no surprise—some perform better than others.

Why?

Best incubator practices
What are some of the secrets of success of the best incubators? University of Michigan researchers collected and analyzed data to determine relationships between how an incubation program operates and how its client companies perform, as measured by a number of outcomes. (It even came up with a web-based tool to help incubation professionals measure their efforts against best practices—facility managers take note!)

Highest performing incubators were found to exhibit the following characteristics:

1) No one practice, policy, or service is guaranteed to produce incubation program success. Instead, it’s the synergy among multiple practices, policies, and services that produces optimal outcomes. There is no single “magic bullet” service an incubator could or should offer.

2) Top-performing incubation programs often share common management practices. High-achieving programs have a written mission statement, select clients based on cultural fit, select clients based on potential for success, review client needs at entry, showcase clients to the community and potential funders, and have a robust payment plan for rents and service fees. Incubation programs with lax or no exit policies typically had less-than-optimal performance.

3) Advisory board composition matters. Having an incubator graduate firm and a technology transfer specialist on an incubator’s advisory board correlates with many measures of success. Additionally, accounting, intellectual property (patent assistance), and general legal expertise on the incubator board often result in better-performing programs. Government and economic development agency representatives also play key roles in enhancing client firm performance, as their presence ensures that the incubator is embedded in the community, which is necessary for its success. Local government and economic development officials also help educate critical funding sources about the incubation program. Incubation advisory boards should include diverse expertise.

4) Neither the size of an incubator facility nor the age of a program is a strong predictor of client firm success. Many incubator funders and practitioners perceive that the size and age of an incubator are key success factors. But it is the incubator’s programming and management that matter most. For example, staff-to-client ratios are strongly correlated to client firm performance.

5) High-achieving incubators collect client outcome data more often and for longer periods of time than their peers. Overall, two-thirds of top-performing incubators (66.7%) collect outcome data. More than half collect this information for two or more years, while slightly over 30% collect data for five or more years. Collected data include client and graduate firm revenues and employment, firm graduation and survival rates and information on the success of specific program activities and services.

6) Most high-achieving incubators are not-for-profits. Incubation programs focused on earning profits were not strongly correlated to client success. The most important goals of top-performing incubation programs are creating jobs and fostering the entrepreneurial climate in the community, followed by diversifying the local economy, building or accelerating new industries and businesses, and attracting or retaining businesses to the host region.

7) Public sector support matters. Only three of the top- performing incubation programs studied operated without public sector support from local government agencies, economic development groups, colleges or universities, or other incubator sponsors. On average, nearly 60% of top incubator’s budgets are accounted for by client rent and service fees.

8) Incubation programs with larger budgets (both revenues and expenditures) typically outperform incubators with budget constraints. Programs with more resources have more capacity to deliver client services and are more stable. However, the sources of incubation program revenues and the ways the incubator uses these resources also are important. Incubators receiving a larger portion of revenues from rent and service fees perform better than other programs.

9) The growth or size of a host region’s economy are poor predictors of incubation program outcomes. Incubator management practices are better predictors of incubator performance than the size or growth of the region’s employment or GDP.

10) A region’s capacity to support entrepreneurship has limited effect on incubation program outcomes. Compared with incubator quality variables, regional capacity variables have less predictive power. Among regional capacity measures studied, only urbanization, work force skills, availability of locally controlled capital and higher educational attainment have moderate influence on incubator client outcomes.

Cleantech incubator-specific advice
In support of the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator I’ve been working with, I’ve recently spoken with a handful of others around the world involved with cleantech clusters, incubators and accelerators. Below are some top challenges I heard, and potential ways to mitigate them.

11) Sanity-check the services you offer. Incubator management should review the array of services provided through the incubation program and assess the effectiveness of those services periodically.

Services found by the University of Michigan (in the study previously referenced above) to be statistically significantly related to client firm performance include:

  • Providing entrepreneurial training (from business basics to comprehensive training in managing a new enterprise)
  • Offering increased access to investment capital
  • Securing strong supportive relationships with local area higher education institution(s)
  • Providing production assistance (from R&D and prototyping through to engineering production systems)
  • Developing strong mentor programs (e.g., shadow boards, loaned executives, periodic engagement with incubator managers, participation in program activities)
  • Shared administrative services and office equipment, and assistance with client presentation and business etiquette skills

But in cleantech, not all of these services may be necessary. Incubators shouldn’t feel bound to traditional concepts of what has been appropriate at other tech accelerators—even successful ones like Y Combinator. The requirements of clean and green tech companies can be different. In fact, the pivot earlier this year of high profile San Francisco green tech accelerator Greenstart to simply focus on design was apparently in direct response to client needs.

12) Don’t assume business training is business training. Some graduates of a certain energy software accelerator in Texas complain about the value of its programs, characterizing them as oil and gas executives trying to teach energy and water entrepreneurs about energy efficiency. Ensure you have relevant, credible domain experts teaching your companies.

13) Cultivate bench strength in your domain experts. Clean/green incubators lament that it’s hard for them to keep top coaches and entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs). The good ones apparently keep leaving to join the most promising companies they’re working with, or investment funds. Accelerators need to be constantly recruiting and developing new coaches and EIRs, interviewees cautioned.

14) Raise lots of money. An incubator needs financial support, and clients can’t be expected to contribute 100% of an organization’s requirements. Raise funds early and often. In terms of a best practice, the Research Triangle Region Cleantech Cluster (RTCC) has done a great job securing local commercial support, convincing 10 large companies with a significant local presence to each contribute $25k/year with a 3 year commitment (for a total of $75k each up front) for an advisory board seat. Supporting companies include ABB, Duke Energy, Field2Base, Power Analytics, PowerSecure International, RTI International, SAS, Schneider Electric, Sensus and Siemens.

15) Beware of incubator founders leaving, sometimes collapsing the operation. Founders of accelerators get lured away more often than one might think, one interviewee said, pointing to NREL’s CleanLaunch program. Launched with fanfare in 2011, its website is now down as of this writing after the founder left. Mitigate by ensuring the board has a succession plan for the organization’s leader, who, being human, isn’t beyond being lured to the next possible disruptive start-up him or herself.

This post was originally published here and is republished by permission.

Boeing 787 – A Cool Ride!

Last weekend, my family and I rode on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago.  Although it was a short flight and we probably were not able to fully appreciate this plane due to the short duration of our flight, I found the 787 to be a really cool plane on many different levels.  It is because of the “cool” factors of the plane that Boeing’s 787 capacity is sold out until 2019 despite all the well publicized early issues with the plane, especially the Li-ion battery issue that kept the plane grounded for several months.

From a passenger perspective, one immediately notices the larger windows and cool blue lighting when entering the plane.  Further, if you happen to have a window seat, you will notice that there are no shades, instead the windows can be adjusted from totally clear to nearly opaque or anywhere in-between by pressing a switch.  The climate in the plane has been improved with higher cabin pressure, better filtration and more humidity to make one feel better at the end of a long flight.  The plane seems much less noisy than other passenger jets – making the passenger cabin quieter, thus more soothing.

From an airline perspective, the Dreamliner meets the long-haul service need at 20% higher fuel efficiency than the current fleet.  The long-range capability of the plane allows direct service on more than 90% of commercial routes worldwide.   Boeing 787 achieving this, while enhancing customer experience, was something to take notice.  From a global perspective, given the expected growth in aviation and jet fuel consumption becoming a significant factor in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it is worth saving every liter of fuel to keep the planet cool.

Boeing designed this plane from scratch and has applied the latest technology in every aspect of the plane design – heavy use of composites in the plane structure, state-of-the-art avionics, efficient and quieter engines, no bulb lighting, HEPA filters for recycled air – the list goes on and on.   While Boeing had a lot of issues in integrating all the systems of the plane from a far-flung network of suppliers, the result is a plane that is setting the standard for the future.  A quick look at how Airbus Industries reacted to 787 shows why.

When 787 plans were finalized and Boeing started taking early orders for the plane, Airbus’ initial reaction was to revamp its A330/340 to compete against this new threat.   I also recall reading negative comments from Airbus officials about extensive use of composites in an airframe of this size and how the new technologies Boeing was pushing were untested.  But the revamped design of A330/340 was not well received by the airline officials when Airbus tried to get them to sign on with their version of a response to 787.  Eventually a totally new A350 was announced by Airbus to compete with the Dreamliner.  While A350 is not an exact copy of Dreamliner, a comparison of the specifications of the two planes would lead one to believe that Airbus had no choice but to offer the same amenities and service parameters as the 787 to stay relevant in the long-haul point-to-point service market.  To achieve the fuel efficiency targets, Airbus resorted to using similar materials of construction as the Dreamliner, including more than 50% composites.  Once the new design of the A350 was announced, Airbus started picking up orders for the plane to make it commercially viable.

So, if you want to experience what the future aviation is going to feel like, get on a Dreamliner flight when you have a chance.

My Cleantech Journey: From California to Texas and Beyond

I have been told that blogs somehow have more importance and greater connection when written in first person. I often tire of writing “analysis pieces” that seem cold, dry, and impersonal even though they are incredibly important. I somehow have been bottling up the need to write my personal perspective on where cleantech is today and why my opinions and actions in it are as well. It pretty much comes down to this…

I dedicated my entire career since business school to helping bring technologies to market and towards the birth and growth of the clean technology. I have been incredibly fortunate to have learned from the best at MIT in how to bring ideas from lab to market and got to work alongside some of the best technologies and companies while there in learning this trade. I then got to practice this in Silicon Valley with some of the best venture capitalists, best research universities and national labs, and was motivated by my experience being stuck in NYC on 9/11 to make my priority clean technology. I was fortunate to band together with like minds to form durable organizations, policy, and funding mechanisms that popularized and accelerated the growth of cleantech. I have led an enchanted life in being one of the early innovators and actors in this sector. But it was not enough.

I have long stated that technology innovation alone was not going to solve our shift to a clean energy infrastructure. My Silicon Valley compatriots, especially the ones that could risk their limited partner’s money into an arena they had no experience investing into, thought that if they built a cleantech company, it would be adopted as widely, quickly, and capital efficiently as their semi, software, and semi investments. Unfortunately this was a naïve assumption and I quickly harkened back to my Texas roots upon realizing this. The fact was that Texas is the energy expert and energy capital and that if the energy capabilities in Texas weren’t leveraged – project capital, project development, infrastructure deployment, industrial scalability, energy trading, and energy risk management – then we would not have sufficient expertise or capital to make this transition. So, I went back to Texas to see if I could bridge this divide. My tagline became “If Texas becomes a renewable energy state, then there’s hope for the planet.” So if we can show traditional energy companies and investors how to make money in new energy, they would move more of their money and expertise there.

I was well on my way to doing this when I took a side trip to Colorado with the invitation of Kleiner Perkins to be their Entrepreneur in Residence at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. What I found at KPCB were the excesses of the Silicon Valley that I was trying to shift away from. It was a portfolio that had limited prospects for success and an attitude that “Texas doesn’t matter” – that (before the economic downturn) there would be so much follow-on capital that the masters of Silicon Valley alone could re-make the energy marketplace. At NREL on the other hand, there was tremendous resistance to want to commercialize technologies. I found there that indeed there were a tremendous set of incremental innovations that could lower the cost of renewables, but these should be broadly licensed to industry (an quickly and freely) in order to bring down their costs. There was a limited set of “disruptive” innovations that were potential game-changers in the energy marketplace, but needed 5-15 years each to mature to a point of being competitive. There were no venture capital firms at that time, including my employer at the time, that were organized and capitalized to invest into the long haul for these applications.

What to do? To fill the gap, I intended to set up a firm that crossed the divide between innovation and deployment, between California and Texas, leveraging maturation centers like NREL, Pecan Street Project, and others to accelerate demonstration and deployment. Unfortunately, we hit the market window at the worst time possible and I faced a divorce in the process. Therefore, this fund never came into existence. The beauty in this is self-reflection. For those of you who have been given the opportunity to completely re-evaluate everything in life through a traumatic life event, I found clarity, beauty, focus, and realization…

My realization was this: Technology investing alone was not going to turn the corner on averting climate catastrophe. What was needed were more large scale economic demonstrations that renewables are more cost effective today than coal, gas, or nuclear energy. I was fortunately invited by a friend and one of the architects of the Pickens Renewable Energy Plan to form a new renewable energy development firm called Brightman Energy. We quickly modeled and demonstrated that a fully-depreciated coal plant in Texas could be replaced at a lower cost (and with greater long term price stability) with a well-designed, geographically dispersed renewable energy portfolio. This also led me to realize that renewables should be the baseload energy of choice in almost any geography in the US with natural gas providing the balancing or storage mechanism (at least until DSM, efficiency, and other storage solutions became cost effective with natural gas). I also realized that Texas is the deregulated market of choice to demonstrate and scale these solutions – with the most advanced nodal market, transmission infrastructure, system wide preference for generation efficiency, efficient renewable energy trading market, and its own grid, Texas had already created the ideal market for renewables and had already become the largest renewable market in the US.

So where do I go from here? With Brightman, we are building the case and project portfolio for integrated renewable deployment at a scale that can replace coal or natural gas plants (or could take advantage of the latter in order to balance increasing levels of renewables). At the same time, I continue to look at other scalable business models, financial models, and deployment models that will accelerate renewable energy and clean technology deployment – things that will take huge slugs out of our carbon emissions and hopefully avert climate catastrophe. And, yes, I still love disruptive technology – I continue to watch the ones that I think will make the greatest difference on the planet, because they will and they will replace the first generation of massive renewable deployment at an even lower cost more pervasively.