China’s IPO Momentum and Drive for Alternative and Clean Energy

The success of Suntech Power Holdings Ltd and SunPower Corp’s IPO’s, suggests an increased investor interest in the renewable energy industry and bodes well for future Chinese public offerings in this sector. According to Julie Blunden, Vice President of External Affairs for SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR),”The drivers in China are a combination of how fast the demand is growing and their limited conventional energy resources. The demand is going up, and limited domestic supply cannot keep up with the demand, which is clearly the key driver of the move to renewable energy in China and around the world.”

As Michael Liebreich, Co-Founder and CEO of New Energy Finance, a London based informational clean-energy index explains, “The drivers for the acceptance by China of renewable energy technology are twofold; they have an almost insatiable requirement for energy and therefore they will need not only fossil fuels but also renewable and clean energy in order to avoid a bottleneck to their economic development. The other side to it is that China sees renewable energy as a growth industry with considerable potential, one that they want to have a very strong position in.”

As a growing world economy competes for the same oil and gas reserves, the benefits of investing in clean and self sustaining energy supplies has become evident to China. Tom Djokovich, CEO of XsunX, Inc. (OTCBB: XSNX) explains, “Investments in renewable technologies allows the Chinese to hedge energy costs and reduce dependency on fossil fuels in a competitive marketplace, while leveraging the growth potential of solar in the world marketplace. For XsunX, China’s mandates to increase the use of BIPV technologies as part of an effort to make all buildings “Green” represents a tremendous opportunity for our Power Glass(R) film technology in one of the largest and fastest growing commercial construction marketplaces.”

In addition, Wieland Koonstra, CEO of GiraSolar, Legend Investment Holding’s (OTC.PK: LVCP) solar division describes, “The main driver for solar growth in China in my opinion is not only environmental or energy concerns; but also their well strategized market entrée now that the market is ripe.” GiraSolar is a beneficiary of China’s activity in renewable energy as a recipient of Chinese exports in this area.

Big Oil is the Biggest User of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a multi-billion dollar business. 50 million metric tons of hydrogen is sold annually. World hydrogen production is doubling every decade. The biggest growth driver is oil refineries’ need to make lower-sulfur fuels. Other growth drivers are the use of hydrogen in making fertilizer, food processing, semiconductor manufacturing, and by other growth industries. You use hydrogen in your vehicle. Gasoline is a hydrocarbon. Hydrogen is used to make gasoline achieve high-octane efficiency. Hydrogen is also used to make modern gasoline burn with far-less damaging emissions. The food you eat was probably grown with fertilizers that were processed with hydrogen. Many food oils are processed with hydrogen.

Most hydrogen is reformed from natural gas and oil. The United States creates as much as one-third of the world’s total hydrogen. Most of the current U.S. production is from steam reformation of natural gas, where hydrogen is extracted from CH4 and H20.

About half of the United States hydrogen is used in the oil refining process. Praxair, a world leader in supplying industrial hydrogen explains, “By using hydrogen, heat and a catalyst, refineries can improve gasoline yields by cracking heavy oil molecules into lighter, more valuable fuels.” Praxair includes these benefits of hydrogen in oil refining:

  • Higher gasoline yield
  • Environmentally clean – no flue gas
  • Improved gasoline octane quality and sensitivity
  • Enhance feedstock
  • Helps meet Clean Air Act regulations
  • Lowers sulfur content of fuels
  • Improves production flexibility

Critics of the Hydrogen Economy tend to ignore its multi-billion dollar success. Instead they focus on a worst case scenario – use coal generated electricity to reform natural gas, and then put the hydrogen in a truck that must drive one thousand miles, and then put the hydrogen in a million-dollar demonstration fuel cell vehicle. Call this dumb hydrogen.

With this type of scenario planning, IBM would never have made a computer. The initial market was seven computers in the planet. Computers were too expensive, slow, and unreliable. Today, of course, over one billion people hold more computing power in the palm of their hands than the first vacuum-tube monsters.

In transportation, smart hydrogen will drive growth, not dumb hydrogen. Smart hydrogen starts by making gasoline and diesel increasingly clean. Volumes increase. Production cost of hydrogen decreases. Smart hydrogen then expands by going into increasingly cost-effective hydrogen vehicles at reasonable costs. In Torrance, California, hydrogen is being pipelined to the fueling pump. $500 per month Honda FCX cars will use the hydrogen. $59,000 modified Toyota Priuses will use the hydrogen in conventional engines. Fuel costs will be competitive with gasoline. From where does this smart hydrogen come? It comes from the same hydrogen pipeline being used by the oil refiners. There are 1,500 km of hydrogen pipelines in the USA.

Armory Lovins, in his paper Twenty Hydrogen Myths states that “Producing hydrogen is already a large and mature global industry…. Globally, about 50 million metric tons of hydrogen is made for industrial use each year. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that about 48% of global hydrogen production is reformed from natural gas, 30% from oil, and 18% from coal. Only 4% of the world’s hydrogen comes from electrolysis.”

Half of the California hydrogen fueling stations make hydrogen on-site, using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Most use photovoltaics to power the electrolysis. In Palm Springs, wind is used for one station. Solar and wind hydrogen is green. It is also more expensive than the hydrogen in Torrance. It will take volume and improved technology to make green hydrogen cost-effective.

The United States has the potential to replace its dependency on foreign oil with fuel that is created at home. Short term, biofuels promise to be a big part of the equation. Long term, hydrogen could be a major fuel.

John Addison is the author of the book Revenue Rocket (Executive Summary at http://www.optimarkworks.com/) and the upcoming book Cleantech Marketing. Since 2002, John has been a Board member of the California Hydrogen Business Council (www.californiahydrogen.org). John Addison is president of OPTIMARK Inc. a firm that helps with marketing strategy and partner development. He is a popular speaker in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

What is Bush Talking About?

President Bush made a well-publicized speech at Johnson Controls in Milwaukee on Feb. 20, in which he touted advanced technologies that will radically reshape the energy sector. “We’re on the edge of some amazing breakthroughs,” Bush claimed.

Bush Feb. 20 Speech

I guess the good news is that the President is increasing his efforts from the bully pulpit to be talking about the energy challenges we face. Nevertheless, I’m a bit perplexed.

In the speech, he talks about hybrids and plug-in hybrids, cellulosic ethanol, clean-coal, solar and wind energy, hydrogen and fuel cells, nuclear, and so on. As anyone working in advanced energy technologies for a while would know, there’s nothing really new here. All these technologies are theoretically viable, having been known about for years, and some work quite well today. However, it is simply that the economics for most of these don’t pass muster under current market and policy conditions.

If electricity were 50 cents/kwh and gasoline $10/gallon, many of these technologies would be rapidly penetrating the markets everywhere in the U.S. right now. But, I can’t imagine Bush is going to shift his stances and start proposing higher taxes on conventional energy sources to make the economics of these emerging energy technologies suddenly compelling.

Has he been informed about some technological, performance or cost breakthrough that’s just around the corner that I don’t know about? If not, then why he is so damned optimistic? And, will such boasting come back to haunt proponents of advanced energy as yet another case of overexuberant hype?

Wither Shell in renewables?

I received an email from a friend last week asking me what I thought Shell’s announcement meant about their intent in Solar. I did not reply directly, not wanting to give a reply that was not based on any more knowledge than he had himself. However there seems to have been a flurry of announcements since then so I decided I had to try to assimilate them and decide on where I think Shell is going on renewables, so here goes:

Solar – on February 2, Shell announced that it had sold it crystalline silicon solar business to Solarvalue, lock, stock and barrel. This includes more than 500 employees as well as the mononcrystalline silicon ingot plant in Washington state and the manufacturing assembly plant in Camarillo. This transfer will make Solarvalue the largest US manufacturer and remove Shell from the equation completely. One Shell spokesman cited the silicon shortage and the difficulty in supplying product this past year as a major factor: I find this a little surprising since the silicon ingot manufacturing capability should have provided at least a little insulation from the current silicon shortage. Shell assert that they are still intent on supplying solar to the developing world and have signed a letter of intent with Good Energies to do so. Fine words – but they could even keep their promise without manufacturing! Not included in this transaction was Shell’s CIS technology, which they declared they would “further explore … technology and consider joint development” with St Gobain the French glass manufacturer. This does not seem to commit Shell to anything but cooperation and I strongly believe that EE Times was misled when, on February 20 they stated ” (Shell) announced last week that it will be devoting all of its billion-dollar R&D budget to CIS-based thin-film panels”. I suspect the actual investment is much closer to zero!

Wind – “Shell’s share of wind energy capacity is currently greater than 350MW, and is expected to reach approximately 500MW in 2007″, far short of industry leaders Ibedrola and FPL who each own over 3.25GW now! However Shell is already involved in several new wind projects in Europe, China and the US. Moreover they have been linked (but not yet convincingly) to a possible takeover of the Danish wind giant Vestas. It looks like Shell clearly favor wind over solar!

Biofuels – “Shell has an established position as the world’s largest marketer of Biofuels, as well as a leading developer of advanced Biofuels technologies”. I have no doubt that they do intend to milk this avenue for all that it is worth! Despite its potential drawbacks (see Heather Rae’s blog) it is less oily than its mainstream business yet is relatively easy to integrate into its current operations. Moreover it is likely to play a huge part in the developing African and Asian economies – especially China! While we might bemoan that it is not green, but yellow – or even something else, at least it is a certain step in the right direction of introducing an increasing degree of sustainability to energy supply – and that has to be good.

I have not tried above to form any conclusions on Shell’s intent with hydrogen and fuel cells: like all of their competitors they are heavily involved with the developing technologies but, understandably, have yet to demonstrate any clear commercial intent. As their CEO has said “we aim to develop at least one alternative energy such as wind, hydrogen or advanced solar technology, into a substantial business … (and) … continue our efforts to further expand our position as the largest marketer of Biofuels”. I don’t think any of my conclusions are at variance with this!

All in One Hydrogen (H2) Generation and Flue Gas clean up (NOx, SOx, Hg)

I met with SRT Group recently, whose technology I find quite unique. They are under-resourced, and need some integration and scale up work done to prove out the concept for commercial use, but kept me captivated nonetheless. As advertised the technology has the potential to become a highly economic replacement for current coal fired power plant emissions systems.

The basic premise is using a closed loop hydrogen bromine electrolysis solution for flue gas clean-up (NOx, SOx, Hg), where one of the by products is hydrogen. A couple of fascinating claims:

  • The more sulphur in the flue gas, the more hydrogen you get.
  • The multi-pollutant removal system will basically pay for itself with production of hydrogen and other by products.

SRT’s technology is based on the Ispra Mark 13A process, which was developed by the European Research Centre and demonstrated successfully at the 30 MWt scale in Sardinia, Italy from 1989-91 to remediate SOx only. They have gotten hold of this process in the mid 1990s, and developed additional IP to expand it. Partial list of US patents includes: 5,443,804, 6,093,306, 5,219,671.

Process involves using a recycled hydrogen bromine electrolysis system

Stage 1: Flue gas is reacted in a bromine water solution, reducing the flue gas pollutants to a water solution of mercuric bromide precipitate, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid, and hydrogen bromide.

Stage 2: The hydrogen bromide is then electrolyzed to produce pure hydrogen, and bromine to be recycled.

Keys of note:

  • Removes all 3 major pollutants, NOx, SOx, Hg, in one step, reducing them to saleable product streams (H2, sulfuric and nitric acids)
  • All fluid recycled process, no consumable reagents, and no waste stream to dispose of, the bromine is not a fuel, but a recycled carrier
  • Small footprint
  • Produces significant H2 by volume as a byproduct of the clean-up. Note: electrolyzing Hydrogen bromide is a much less power intensive process than water electrolysis (about 40% of the electricity), a major factor in making this process attractive. Also quite interesting, hydrogen bromide electrolysis performance improves tremendously at slightly higher temperature (c. 100-150 C), and higher concentrations, meaning the process is very optimizable.
  • As sulfur is a reagent in this process, the higher the sulfur content of the flue gas, the more hydrogen is produced

Following the demonstration in Italy (for SOx remediation), EPRI promoted instead its limestone forced oxidation process for coal plants as a cheaper process, without including the advantages of NOx and mercury control (patented by SRT later), and hydrogen product value in the analysis. SRT believes that including these the process is highly economical. Data is available on this pilot. SRT has done additional work and patenting on expanding the process.
Conceivably would make hi sulfur eastern coal more valuable, perhaps even than western coal.

The next stage for SRT for which they are seeking funding is to develop a small scale prototype to confirm the multi-pollutant results, and inform the design of a scaled up system.

SRT Group is an R&D firm in Florida, operating predominantly under government grants with its work done with commercial partners and through university laboratories. The President is Robin Parker, a technology evangelist who has been working with this technology for some years, and courteously took the time to walk me through the details of his process. He can be reached at rzpsrt@compuserve.com.

American Superconductor’s SuperVAR Will Provide a Real Solution for Power Grid

American Superconductor (AMSC) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the largest public power provider in the U.S., have announced the start of production of two 12 megaVAR (MVAR) SuperVAR dynamic synchronous condensers.  When the first of these machines ships the first of the two machines in late 2006, the superconductor community will at last be able to point to a high temperature superconductor (HTS) device installed as part of a permanent electrical power system.

The SuperVAR is designed to stabilize grid voltages and increase service reliability, and can help maximize transmission capacity.  The device, which is effectively a superconducting electric motor designed to provide reactive power (VARs) to a power grid, is one of several tools in the toolbox of flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) technologies.  FACTS is seen by engineers as key to meeting electric power delivery, reliability, and quality requirements for the nation’s aging grid.  They are also seen as essential tools for integrating distributed and renewable energy generation into power systems.  

TVA’s decision to take on the 12MVAR machines follows extensive testing of the prototype DSC on a 13.8kilovolt circuit serving a 50MVA steel mill operated by the Hoeganaes Corporation.  Since it was first synchronized with the grid in January 2005, the device has reportedly operated successfully through over five million voltage sags and surges.

While propriety between partners can sometimes obscure a darker truth, it appears that Hoeganaes was a solid success, technically speaking, and that the additional devices were indeed not ordered as further proof technology and functionality.  Mike Ingram, Senior Manager of Transmission Technologies at TVA told Superconductor Week the devices on order “will solve a real problem on our system.”  

At 12MVAR, the two systems commissioned by TVA will each be rated 33% higher than the 8MVAR prototype, and will include a number of technology and engineering improvements.  With commercial applications typically calling for systems in the 50 to 150MVAR range, the 12MVAR DSCs will still be far smaller than the large-scale devices sought for most commercial applications.  

Scaling these machines to larger power ratings will likely involve real technical challenges, and whether the commercial rewards to such risks are worthwhile remains to be seen.  However, in addition to reaching a broader market, AMSC expects larger machines to cost less in terms of cost per kVAR, making them more competitive with other solutions such as STATCOM.  

With luck, the SuperVAR could provide AMSC with a real commercial (rather than R&D) driver for HTS wire demand, helping to generate the long-awaited economies of scale that could bring HTS wire costs closer to targets set by the DOE and others.  We covered some cost and technical details in Superconductor Week issue 2002, and provide an analysis in a forthcoming issue of how the SuperVAR fits in terms of functionality and economics within the FACTS market.  Regarding FACTS in general, one expert was unambiguous about the future: “The market will grow, and trends both in energy generation and in consumption will push that growth.”

Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor, Superconductor Week
http://www.superconductorweek.com

GM Goes Yellow


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

“Live Green, Go Yellow”
GM’s E85 Campaign

Between the SBX snowboard event and Evan Lysacek’s courageous come back in the Olympic free skate, you may have caught General Motor’s advertisement for E85, part of GM’s campaign to promote its “flex fuel” vehicles – cars and trucks that run on fuel comprising 85 percent ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and 15 percent petroleum.

“Let’s create a greener future with cleaner air, renewable energy. GM is harnessing the power of corn. Now you can too.” Young, active, multi-racial, urban and rural, the ad’s actors say, “What if an answer to our dependence on oil was growing right in front of us? What if we could lower greenhouse gas emissions with a fuel that grew back every year? What if a company had already built over 1.5 million cars and trucks that could run on this fuel? What if they were willing to build a whole lot more? What if we could live green by going yellow? Yellow is the E85 ethanol. And one car company will lead us there. Go to livegreengoyellow.com.”

Primarily an air quality and greenhouse gas reduction pitch, the campaign assumes we all know what “living green” is – and that whatever it is, we want it, and ethanol is it. GM presumes, or hopes, that the “ethanol=green” message is enough to win over consumers.

GM’s campaign steers clear of fuel efficiency, possibly because of the company’s position on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the internal combustion engine: “[GM’s] CAFE reflects which products its customers choose. In recent years, consumer trends for larger models, higher performance engines, and more features have offset much of the fuel economy increases from technologies we’ve implemented.” (Other American car manufacturers voiced similar sentiments at the Great Energy Efficiency Debate sponsored by the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, DC, May 2005 saying, “we’re just giving consumers what they want.” The representative from Toyota, the maker of the Prius hybrid, listened contentedly as Detroit sputtered in defense of its position on fuel efficiency.)

How efficient, then, is ethanol? E&E Publishing’s Greenwire reports “ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva pointed out that E85 gets only 75 percent fuel efficiency of traditional gasoline.” (“Oil companies question feasibility of E85 in national fuel strategy”)

The GM ad steers clear of messaging around domestic job creation – possibly because ethanol can just as likely come from Brazil as Iowa. The campaign steers clear of national security (reduced dependence on foreign oil). And the campaign doesn’t get into the problematic issue of competition between fuel and food crops (after all, it’s a marketing campaign).

As far as marketing “green” goes, it’s clever, youthful and provocative, particularly when compared with Detroit’s other media buys. The website, branded with integrated print and tv advertising, provides information about E85, a cornulator (a ‘corny’ twist on environmental offset calculations), ‘cobcasts’ (videos of Americans extolling corn), a ‘stalk car’ race (a game), and a schwag shop (t-shirts, screensavers) as well as links to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition and DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (among other) websites.

But I can’t help but wonder…what if GM gave consumers fuel efficiency and better air quality and reduced emissions? That would be downright chartreuse.

:: When you’re really good, you get the gold! Just in time for the winter Olympics, SmartPower received its own Gold Medal for Best Television Advertising Series in the Third Annual Services Industry Advertising Awards (SIAA) – joining the likes of Verizon, Marriott, MasterCard and Time Warner Cable. ::

On U.S. Greenhouse Gas Trading Markets

Earlier in my career, I was heavily involved in the establishment of the first wide-scale emissions trading program: the sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowances that were created as part of the acid rain mitigation provisions of the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990. By virtually all accounts, the SO2 allowance market has been highly successful in enabling significant SO2 reductions across the U.S. at much lower cost to society than would otherwise have been the case. This experience should serve as a useful model for how to deal with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to global climate change.

Unfortunately, at least for U.S. stakeholders, that really hasn’t happened yet. Leadership in emissions trading markets has now shifted to Europe, where the EU countries have adopted a GHG trading scheme similar in structure to the U.S. SO2 allowance program, except instead applied to GHG emissions.

Because of a lack of any federal initiative to date in the U.S., it has been the states that have taken the lead in developing trading markets for GHG emissions. For instance, several states have sought to impose GHG trading schemes, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S. But, these remain as yet concepts, still to be implemented in the future.

As of today, the only markets in the U.S. aiming to address global climate change are the so-called “REC” markets. Rather than markets on the GHG emissions themselves, several states have encouraged the penetration of cleaner power generation technologies by creating tradeable renewable energy credits (RECs) associated with each kilowatt-hour of electricity from a REC-eligible source.

In my view, the state-level REC markets have two fundamental flaws:

  1. Many states with RECs have implemented different definitions of what sources qualify for REC treatment. In turn, this means that, rather than one nationwide REC market, we instead have separate REC markets for each state that have created RECs. While a number of firms (such as Evolution Markets) offer brokerage services in these various REC markets to help counterparties find each other and facilitate transactions, inevitably such balkanization of the REC markets serves to reduce the ability to transact relative to what could be achieved with a national market. Without adequate market “liquidity”, commodity markets tend to wither away into idleness. If that happens to the REC markets (as it has to some already), then the program is effectively useless. To advocates who claim that their renewable source of energy has an additional monetary value that can be monetized through REC trading, I can only say: “Watch out.”
  2. More fundamentally, REC markets do not address the problem of emissions directly, but rather address them only indirectly by encouraging the adoption of new renewable energy sources. But, other than the significant difference in emissions, is wind or solar energy really “better” than coal-based energy? Is it better than reducing electricity consumption by an amount that offers the same environmental benefit? Why shouldn’t there be any incentive for owners of pre-existing coal-fired powerplants to reduce their GHG emissions by 99%, or even 9%? And, why should wind or solar energy qualify for RECs just by regulatory edict, but not some potential future zero-emission energy source (such as ocean or fusion)?

For these reasons, I believe REC markets are doomed to eventual failure, hopefully to be replaced by a true U.S. cap-and-trade GHG market. The good news is that most proposals for addressing climate change that have been increasingly emerging in the U.S. Congress include cap-and-trade mechanisms of one form or the other. It may take a few more years, but I am optimistic that a bill of this type will eventually be passed and signed into law. Once imposed, we can sweep the various state REC markets into the dustbin.

Energy Efficiency – California Dreamin’

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Energy efficiency, the red-headed stepchild of energy planning, is re-gaining recognition by utilities and their regulatory agencies – in some U.S. markets and in some states – for its cost-effective role in saving the farm.*

(Note: The term ‘energy efficiency’ could benefit from a visit with “Extreme Makeover.” It could use a new name, better brand image and improved positioning across the country – with an emphasis on non-energy benefits as well as bill-savings. “This season, expect more emotion, tears and joy as life long dreams and fairy tale fantasies come true.”)

Until that time, California has set the bar high for coordinating and organizing statewide education and outreach efforts – building a partnership of California’s utilities, residents, businesses, institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations working to save energy.

“Saving Energy. It’s a Way of Life.”

Initiated in 2001, Flex Your Power (“California’s Energy Efficiency Resource”) says it uses “a broad range of marketing and outreach strategies, including television, radio and newspaper ads, printed educational materials, events, a comprehensive website resource serving all parties statewide, a biweekly electronic newsletter, forums and workshops, and partnerships with businesses, local governments, water agencies, non-profits and others, including the state and federal government agencies responsible for energy and water efficiency.”

“The Flex Your Power statewide campaign [with approximately $20.5M in funding] will closely coordinate with the utilities, third-party implementers and other program providers to develop materials, events, the website and other outreach strategies that provide program information using consistent and compelling messages. Specific targeted campaigns for rural areas and to reach California’s Hispanic population are also funded under this program.”

The Flex Your Power electronic newsletter (sign up here) covers news, progress, case studies, design and building, technology and products, incentive programs, policy news and ideas. Anyone confused about the California Public Utility Commission’s judicial/regulatory decisions authorizing the 2006-2008 energy efficiency portfolio plans and funding levels ($2.7 billion!) for the state’s largest utilities might best start with Flex Your Power before trawling individual utility websites.

Not to be left behind in bleeding-edge communications technology, Flex Your Power provides an e-newswire audio and podcast (a “free online subscription-based radio shows for your computer or portable mp3 player. When you subscribe to a podcast your podcatching software will download shows as they become available. You can expect a new e-Newswire show every two weeks.”)

Unlike SmartPower, Flex Your Power does not explain its market research or strategy, nor provide examples of advertising on its website – all of which is insight for those of us living outside California who market energy efficiency and don’t get to see the fruits of California’s labor first hand.

* NREL layoffs. A week to the day that President Bush announced his so-called “Advanced Energy Initiative,” the National Renewable Energy Laboratory laid off Carol Tombari and a slew of other employees at the laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Tombari’s job was to promote energy-efficient cleantech through state and local initiatives…to create demand for cleantech coming out of R&D, an essential element in the push-me, pull-you of market transformation.

Cutbacks at NREL

Lost (to me) during the holiday season was the late December announcement by the Department of Energy of roughly a 10% budget and staff reduction at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

Rocky Mountain News Article on NREL Cutbacks

This announcement was accompanied by the expected indignant handwringing from local politicians worried about economic impacts, as well as from most renewable energy community advocates. Given all the hubhub about needing to wean America from its addiction to oil, how dare the Bush Administration simultaneously reduce funding at NREL?

While I concur with the prevailing sentiment that energy is a critical issue facing our society that requires much more technology research and development, I don’t necessarily take the next step in logic (or faith?) that others have in believing that NREL is the place to do it. In its 25+ year history, I would like to see a list of the commercially-viable technologies that have stemmed from NREL research. My guess is that it would be a pretty short and unimpressive list.

In my occasional interactions with current and former NREL staff, there is a recognition bordering on resignation, steeped in cynicism, of a deeply flawed organization with limited impact. NREL is filled with well-meaning people, but somehow, the lab just doesn’t seem to work. Is NREL really the type of place that should be further bloated with more funding? I say, “Not with my taxpayer dollars.” Far better to deploy the funding to other institutions with less dysfunctionalism, greater urgency and a better sense of the pulse of the energy marketplace.

Carbon Capture

Most of us reading these columns are concerned with the impact that man is having on his planet. Despite the relative few(?) who discard the possibility of an anthropogenic impact on climate change, there seems to be an increasing acceptance that the rise in global average temperatures over the past century is largely due to combustion generated carbon dioxide emissions. Given the indisputable fact that global energy demand is ever increasing and the cheapest source of energy for most developing countries is coal – not quite pure carbon, but close to it – the outlook seems bleak. There seems no way that developing nations can be denied access to the cheapest source of energy as we transition to clean renewable sources, so we should take some consolation from the effort being expended to address the issue. There are various programs that address cleaning up the products of combustion but traditionally most have ignored carbon dioxide emissions. Even considerations of bioenergy are often based on the assumption that it is carbon neutral. Irrespective of the balance, it would be better for us all if no carbon dioxide emissions resulted from man’s activities – here, I just want to remind you of a program which promises that – well almost!

The Carbon Dioxide Capture Project started in 2000 and has two underlying goals: reduce the cost of carbon dioxide capture from combustion sources; and develop methods for permanently storing the captured gas underground. Carbon Dioxide capture and geologic storage are seen as bridging technologies that will help move society towards cleaner fuels in the future. It is a project led by some of the world’s largest energy companies in collaboration with bodies such as
the EU and the US DOE. Phase 1 was completed in 2004 and the report has just been published by Elsevier. Phase 2 runs from 2005 till 2007 and most of he original participants are still contributing. It is nice to see some of our oil money being reinvested in a project which, if successful, could benefit so many in almost every industry.

What is even more satisfying is to see the announcement today that BP, one of the Project participants, has committed to building a 500MW power plant in California that will embody the technology developed so far. They are working with Edison Mission Group on the plans for the power plant and with Occidental to explore the options for using Occidental’s California oilfields to host the carbon dioxide. Like most clean (or cleaner than most) alternatives, there will
be an economic penalty to be overcome, but successful demonstration at this scale will be a powerful argument in convincing others to follow. And, of course, Occidental would get a little more oil out of their wells!

GE Abandons Superconducting Generator

The Department of Energy’s dream to build a superconducting power infrastructure in the U.S. has been dealt a symbolically serious, if not unexpected blow.  General Electric has quit its $27 million 100MVA high temperature superconducting (HTS) generator program.  The generator was envisioned as an opportunity to eventually introduce large generators (in the 100 to 500MVA range) that higher power densities and increased efficiency.  The heart of the DOE’s superconductivity program, HTS power cables, remains on track.

There were major problems, or at least challenges, with the program from the outset.  The first was that conventional generators, which use copper windings in both the stator and rotor, are extremely efficient, and the introduction of a HTS rotor meant only about a 0.35 to 0.55% increase in electrical efficiency.  While this does not sound like much, over the course of the machine’s life it meant considerable electricity savings that were anticipated to offset the technology cost of the superconducting rotor, and cryogenic refrigeration system.

GE says that another factor contributing to the decision to terminate the program was a shift in the energy market: “GE has observed that in the present energy marketplace, where the spot market price of natural gas has recently been greater than $10/MM BTU, operators of combustion turbines are shifting larger units to cyclic operation and supporting the base load with less expensive fuels such as coal and nuclear.  This shift in generation dispatch undercuts the economic benefit of the HTS generator.”  

GE has over 5,500 wind and 3,600 hydro turbines, for an installed capacity of renewable energy of 160,000MW, but this is a microscopic fraction of the capacity provided using fossil fuels, so its safe to say the drive for renewable energy is not negatively impacting R&D on large HTS generators.

The other major factors involved the technical and economic hurdles surrounding HTS.  The BSCCO-2223 HTS wire (currently produced primarily by Sumitomo Electric and American Superconductor) was too fragile, too expensive, and required too much cooling.  GE had repeatedly said it wanted the wire to cost well below $25 per kiloAmp-meter (this is the cost for an amount of HTS material sufficient to transport one 1000 Amps across a length of one meter).  At present, that target is a somewhat remote prospect.  (An OP-ED piece in the latest issue of Superconductor Week (v20 n02) provides an interesting analysis of these costs.)

Cooling the HTS rotor is another issue.  Today’s HTS wire does not work sufficiently well in the strong magnetic fields present with a device such as a motor without substantial refrigeration.  Whereas devices such as HTS cables may be able to operate in a liquid nitrogen environment at 77 degrees Kelvin, motors must run closer to 30K, or even cooler, using liquid neon or gaseous helium coolant.  

The cancellation of this program leaves the superconducting generator concept squarely in the hands of the military, which is effectively indifferent to costs, and is focused on increasing power density (the ability to cram a huge amount of generating capacity, or in the case of motors, horsepower and torque, inside a small, light-weight package) for applications where space/weight is restricted, such as ships and aircraft.  

It is likely that if these military programs are successful, the technology will eventually trickle back into the commercial sector.  For now, we will have to focus on the promise of HTS elsewhere.  

Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor, Superconductor Week
http://www.superconductorweek.com

Recent Energy News on Global Policy

Global warming action supported by evangelical Christians

A group of 85 evangelical Christian leaders in the US, including Rick Warren, have initiated a campaign to back legislation opposed by the Bush Administration to fight. They are helping to launch an advertising campaign to support legislation like the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.

Oil prices are a hot topic at upcoming G8 conference

High oil prices and what to do about them, specifically how to spur energy investment are a hot topic at the G8 conference in Moscow.

Exxon announces that energy independence is not feasible

Responding to Bush’s speech on energy and calls for energy independence from mid east oil, ExxonMobil executives have stated that they believe eliminating US dependence on foreign oil imports is not a practical solution. As I have stated in previous Cleantech blog posts, I believe it should be a core part of foreign policy, though I agree it is not easy.

Values and ‘tude in consumer marketing

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

When market research around sustainability asks what people value, so begins effective consumer messaging with emotional hooks. And, it begins the crossing of the chasm from eco-niche marketing to ‘dark greens’—to marketing to masses sporting sea-foam shades of green.

A common thread of values runs through the landscape of marketing sustainability, from transportation to clean energy to high performance building.

“Toyota > The Power to Move Forward”
Toyota nailed values-based consumer marketing in an ad for a 2007 hybrid Camry aired during the 2006 SuperBowl, an ad imbued with themes of sustainability, cost savings, bucolic peacefulness, health and safety – an ad that also appeals to progressive, bi-lingual consumer segments. (“Papa, why do we have a hybrid?” “For your future.” “Why?” “It’s better for the air, and we spend less because it runs on gas and electrical power. Mira. Mira aquí. It uses both.” “Like you with English and Spanish” “Sí!” “But why did you learn English?” “For your future.” Tum, tum, tum.)

“Can Do!” Clean Energy
Presentations at DOE’s Green Power Marketing Conferences provide market research and real-world marketing reports from multiple (pro-clean energy) viewpoints, like Natural Marketing Institute (research), Green Mountain Energy Company (a competitive electricity retailer with some stories to tell) and Utah Clean Energy (a community campaign for clean energy). The conference, now in its tenth year, unearths marketing gems-in-the-rough like a Research Into Action report from 2002 on self-efficacy (the confident “Can Do” attitude) that may be a predictor in market adoption and a basis for messaging. The Toyota ad is all about “Can Do.”

According to Gang & Gang research on Salt River Project’s EarthWise Energy program, the really important emotional issue areas in marketing clean energy center on self and environment, as well as program design. Some of SRP’s non-participating customers had weak but positive, passionate emotions about the program, and others had significant negative, inhibiting emotions.

:: That is, not everybody thinks everything “green” is great. A certain segment, the anti-greens (it’s an attitude), may come to appreciate the value and benefits of green in their own lives when the message is disassociated from ‘tree-hugging liberal lefties.’ The likes of Andrew Bernstein who calls environmentalists “socialists” and discounts anthropogenic contributions to climate change may never be won over. ::

An insightful 2003 Canadian report “Consumers and Green Electricity: Profiling Potential Purchasers” found that consumers’ attitudinal characteristics were especially significant, more so then demographics and socialization in purchasing clean energy. “First, there appears to be continuing message of warning to marketers who think that they should base their segmentation criteria (and hence, their marketing strategy) solely upon demographics. Indeed, the recent conclusions of Straughan and Roberts can be applied to our investigation, virtually verbatim: ‘From the results of both past studies and the present work, the use of either a psychographics-only model (incorporating perceived consumer effectiveness, altruism, and environmental concern) or a mixed model (incorporating a range of demographics and psychographics) should be preferred to traditional demographic profiling methods.’ (Straughan and Roberts, 1999, p. 567).” Per the report, liberalism (progressiveness) is a fourth significant attitudinal variable determining a consumer’s willingness to pay more for clean energy. (Rowlands, Scott, Parker, 2003, p. 45).

:: The “willingness to pay more” benchmark can detour from the values, attitudes and non-energy benefits that inform sustainability marketing strategy. Some people buy coffee infused with milk foam and a squeeze of caramel for $4.00…jeans beaten to look worn for over $100…highway ‘vehicles’ better suited for jungle warfare at nearly the price of real estate…because it makes them feel good. How much would someone pay for a hybrid car, clean energy, a high performance home if it made her feel good, if it spoke to values? ::

Co-op America, a non-profit dedicated to “creating a just and sustainable society by harnessing economic power for positive change” knows what makes people feel good. Executive Director, Alisa Gravitz wrote in their Spring 2005 Quarterly: “When you ask people [young kids in an inner-city school, activists, business people] to describe what they want the world to look like, the pictures come out so much the same…In almost every picture, you see a nice house—representing comfort, quality of life, and economic security. People draw their families and friends relaxing or playing outside of their homes, sometimes sitting together at a picnic, often in a green yard or garden. Indeed, there is usually lots of green—sometimes a meadow or forest—and lots of blue, clear sky and clean water—a lake or stream or the ocean. Family, friends, home, community, blue sky, clean water, good food.”

“Alternative fuel” manufacturers like Toyota and the clean energy crowd are well on their way to incorporating these values and attitudes into marketing strategy.

The high performance building crowd has begun to recognize the values and attitudes of its consumers, spurred by rising energy costs and concerns for quality building—and demands for better product.

The energy efficiency folks? They have a way to go, but have successful examples to emulate, and some valuable insights from the likes of E-Star which posed the question: “What brings people to energy efficiency? Is it the desire to ‘do the right thing,’ the desire to save money?” E-Star says the evidence is conflicting. In polling for Colorado’s renewable energy portfolio standard (a clean energy mandate), the results showed a wide enough margin for a win at the voting booths if the RPS included only renewables. But, when energy efficiency was added to the mix, the margins dropped by 5%. E-Star has found that in residential home construction people want comfort, health and safety, and quality. “There is no single driver that brings brings people to energy efficiency. In the near term, it will not be the price of energy alone. A successful campaign in regard to energy efficiency should probably encompass a broad spectrum of values (saving money, doing the right thing, patriotism, and higher quality products such as homes.)”

Sí!

Over 1,000 Hydrogen Riders in California

2005 finished with over 1,000 Californians taking daily rides on hydrogen vehicles. In addition to about 80 hydrogen cars, SUVs and trucks were eight high-capacity hydrogen buses. Scheduled deliveries will double the number of hydrogen vehicles in California in 2006. 1,000 daily riders is an important increase from a meager few hundred in 2004.

Santa Clara VTA has 3 buses covering standard routes in daily use. AC Transit is bringing its three hydrogen powered buses online now. SunLine Transit Agency received enthusiastic rider acceptance of its first hydrogen bus. It recently added a second. With many vehicles just now being put into commercial service, the daily ridership will jump to over 2,000 in the next few months.

In 2009, we will likely see over 10,000 daily riders of hydrogen vehicles. In 2012, we will likely see over 100,000 daily riders of hydrogen vehicles. Both forecasts assume that vehicle growth will slow to 70% per year in 2007.

Buses have been very helpful in moving hydrogen forward. A fleet of buses needs only one hydrogen fueling station. Hydrogen skeptics have predicted that we will wait forever as public station owners refuse to add hydrogen pumps without millions of hydrogen vehicles and vice-versa. The general public does not take the lead in technology like this. Fleet owners take the lead.

These fleets are like anchor tenants in a shopping center. SunLine started with one bus. Soon other hydrogen vehicles were using the same fueling station. CNG vehicles then started using hydrogen-CNG blends, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing damaging emissions. Stations are being expanded in capacity to support larger fleets. To be part of the California Hydrogen Highway, these fleet stations must provide limited public access. This encourages other organizations and individuals to use hydrogen vehicles.

Most public transit buses carry 200 to 2,000 riders per day. The number varies with routes and urban density. The buses often run 18 hours daily. Hydrogen buses are popular with riders. Jaimie Levin, Director of Marketing for AC Transit, reports rider enthusiasm and strong community support. Being new and somewhat limited in range, hydrogen buses may only average 10 hours of daily use. It is too early to have precise numbers of daily riders, but 250 people per bus per day is reasonable. This will bring us to 2,000 riders on the 8 hydrogen buses running in California.

A sage said that we tend to over estimate success in the short term and under estimate it in the long term. Disruptive technology has always shown this pattern. It took Alexander Graham Bell over 20 years to get a few hundred people to lease telephones. After all, who could they call? IBM’s initial forecast of the saturation of the global computer market was seven. Over time, they increased their forecast. The same growth will happen with hydrogen transportation. As fleets expand and as the hydrogen stations expand in capacity, costs will diminish and ridership will grow.

In his State of the Union Address, President Bush stated, “And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology…. tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative — a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research — and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.” Hydrogen is one of the technologies which will lead us to energy security.

Hydrogen promises to end our nation’s dependency on oil. Wall Street lives in fear of a disruption in the Mideast sending oil to over $100 per barrel and our nation into another Great Depression. Hydrogen is a ubiquitous energy carrier. In today’s modest quantities it is also a good deal more expensive than gasoline.

Early clean transportation riders are benefiting from fleet owners such as SunLine, AC Transit, Santa Clara VTA and South Coast Air Quality Management who are willing to invest in the future. They are leading with multi-million dollar fleets and their own hydrogen fueling stations. California is a role model for the world.

John Addison is the author of the book Revenue Rocket (Executive Summary at www.optimarkworks.com). John Addison’s articles have appeared in H2Nation Magazine. Since 2002, John has been a Board member of the California Hydrogen Business Council. John Addison is president of OPTIMARK Inc. a firm that helps with marketing strategy and partner development. He teaches extension courses for the University of California at Davis and at Santa Cruz. He is a popular speaker in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Japanese Fuel Cell Expo

To catch up on the state of the fuel cell sector, I traveled to Tokyo last week to attend the grandly titled “2nd International Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Exposition“.

Below are a few observations from my visiting the Japan fuel cell expo:

1. There’s a lot of fuel cell activity in Japan right now — much more than in North America. This is a very sizable show by any standard, and positively immense for an alternative energy field. At over 400 exhibitors, it’s several times times bigger than the biggest comparable event in North America, the annual Fuel Cell Seminar — and even bigger than AWEA’s trade shows that I’ve visited in the past couple years during boom times for the U.S. wind energy sector. According to show promoters, over 20,000 attended last year’s event, and I saw nothing to suggest that such an estimate for this year was off-base. Crowds and crowds of people clogged the aisles. Press and TV cameras were frequently sighted. No doubt, this intense interest is motivated by Japan’s more dire energy supply situation and the high energy prices that result.

2. The fuel cell activity in Japan appears primarily to be by Japan, for Japan. Though it probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given the venue, the vast majority (95%?) of attendees and exhibitors were Japanese. Although the conference was held bilingually, almost all of the booths were exclusively in the Japanese language — and since I don’t read or speak Japanese, most of the information presented was wholly inscrutable to me. From strolling the venue in somewhat of a daze of perplexion, I am led to speculate that there must be a huge tech transfer opportunity for those who can translate Japanese into English and mine the best nuggets from this show to bring to the U.S. and elsewhere.

3. Lots of small firms are involved in the fuel cell industry. It was modestly surprising that many of the most well-known North American fuel cell players — such as Ballard, Plug Power, FuelCell Energy — did not have booths. Even more suprisingly, among Japanese firms, most of the displays were from smaller companies. Several of the most recognizable Japanese megamonoliths — such as Kyocera, Hitachi, Mitsushita, Sharp, Toshiba — had no trade floor presence. I see good news and bad news from this. The bad news is that the lack of participation of bigger firms undermines perceived commercial credibility, which is already weak in the fuel cell sector. The good news is that smaller players are much more likely to be acting with urgency, absent the stifling bureaucracy so prevalent among large corporations, leading to more rapid advancement in the field.

4. Most of the displays were ancillaries and components, as opposed to integrated fuel cell products. To me, this was a good sign. Although there were the obligatory “visionary” displays of the future hydrogen economy and of fuel cell stacks and applications thereof (e.g., scooters, cars, etc.), there were probably five times as many booths focused on more mundane specialized components and supporting goods — pumps, valves, sensors, materials, and so on — that are truly essential to creating a vibrant and viable market-based fuel cell industry. If more attention can be focused narrowly on solving the many small but crucial technical challenges, rather than “shooting for the moon” for grand breakthrough solutions, only then can fuel cells achieve their large potential upside.

As a result of attending the show, what am I thinking about the fuel cell sector? Well, at least in Japan, things are trending in the right direction.

No doubt, it remains prudent to be sanguine and sober about fuel cells. It will be tough for fuel cells to overtake conventional energy technologies in mass-market applications — internal combustion engines for vehicles, batteries for mobile devices, central powerplants for electricity generation – simply because the incumbent approaches work pretty darn well and are pretty darn affordable.

However, a growing number of more finely-defined niche segments are being identified for plausible fuel cell application, where current power approaches are in some way unsatisfactory. And, it does appear that many technical advancement needs in the fuel cell realm are transitioning past the fundamental science stage towards application engineering as a precursor to commercial products. In sum, tough-minded optimism is warranted for the fuel cell sector.

SmartPower is smart marketing

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Hunter Lovins, President of Natural Capitalism (and former CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute), met recently with a small gathering of energy consultants in Boulder, Colorado. An advantage of living in Colorado, aside from sunshine (300 days a year) and great skiing, is access to talent like Hunter and her colleagues, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Western Resource Advocates and Interwest Energy Alliance, among many others.

In Colorado, we have leading marketers of renewable energy credits (Renewable Choice Energy, Clean & Green, NativeWind). We are home to WhiteWave Foods (Silk and Horizon Organic) one of the nation’s top 25 green power purchasers. New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins is on the forefront of sustainable industrial practices (and even has on staff a Sustainability Goddess). In 2004, Colorado voters made history by passing the only voter-mandated renewable energy portfolio standard, overcoming opposition from utilities and coal companies.

Yet, progress toward the next industrial revolution is molasses-slow in Colorado, even with all of our talent and significant milestones…despite rosy reports of clean energy’s dawning over Red Rocks in the Rocky Mountain News. At the gathering at D’Napoli Ristorante, Hunter asked how many of us had read the article by Briton James Lovelock, an independent environmental scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society. (“The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years; each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilisation for as long as they can.”) Hunter asked, what are you – you with expertise in energy – going to do about it?

Building public awareness is front and center for market transformation – a market in which, to quote from “Natural Capitalism,” “business and environmental interests increasingly overlap, in which businesses can better satisfy their customers’ needs, increase profits, and help solve environmental problems all at the same time.”

For cleantech products and services to gain traction, the public needs to know about them, to believe that they work, to know how and where to buy them – and how to finance them if necessary. Competitive pricing, favorable regulations and legislation matter, too, but public awareness, education and marketing are critical for the next industrial revolution to take hold.

“It’s here. It’s real. It’s working. Clean Energy. Let’s Make More.”

SmartPower based in Hartford, Connecticut, gets public awareness, education and marketing. It is a non-profit marketing campaign that promotes clean energy (their tagline: “leading the effort to market clean energy”). SmartPower used “innovative and traditional marketing techniques to identify and create effective messages that resonate with the general consumer, aiming to capture attention, create customers and cultivate a mainstream market for clean energy;” it conducted market research around messaging to find consistent nomenclature (such as “clean energy”), core messages, and branding with emotional hooks.

SmartPower collaborated with the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) on public education. “In 2003, as part of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), several state clean energy funds joined resources to develop a public education approach to clean energy. These states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) faced similar market issues: despite consistently reported research findings that showed consumer preference for clean energy over fossil fuels, even at higher prices, market activity failed to materialize. Clean energy has remained a low interest, low purchase commodity that has yet to penetrate at meaningful levels.”

Far from doom and gloom, SmartPower created insightful, uplifting material. Its advertising agency, Gardner Nelson & Partners out of New York City, first conducted focus groups with consumers, businesses and opinion leaders. Participants were asked to: 1) write an obituary for fossil fuels; 2) draw a picture of their clean energy world, name it and date it; 3) review concept ads that reflected a range of potential messaging themes; and 4) select those messages that most resonated.

Gardner Nelson’s findings can explain why people say they want clean energy, but don’t buy it: “Our focus group participants understood that clean energies such as solar and wind would possibly take [the place of fossil fuels], but these energies were described as ‘quirky’ and possibly not up to the task.”

To demonstrate clean energy’s viability, SmartPower produced dynamic tv, radio and outdoor advertising – as well as a streamlined website that provides resources for taking action (options, costs, suppliers). The organization also puts out a newsletter, “The Monthly Charge” to deliver news on clean energy adoption in the CESA. Businesses, faith-based institutions, governments, educational institutions and other organizations that purchase clean energy get their names listed on the website (that’s smart marketing to give recognition where it’s due).

SmartPower plans to expand its message nationwide….and we sure could use it in Colorado. Take a look, and spread the word.

Clean Energy in State of the Union

Today my wife commented that I should be thrilled because of support shown for renewables by the the President in his State of the Union address. She seldom takes an active interest in energy matters and was clearly influenced by the rhetoric surrounding the speech, so should I?

My first response is is of course! It is much better to be seen as part of the solution than part of the problem. However it still does not fill me with joy.

Consider:

  • The monies proposed for renewables in 2007 are not large: $148 million for photovoltaics, $44 million for wind, $150 million for biofuels (read ethanol), $30 million for hybrid batteries and $289 million for hydrogen and fuel cells.
  • The funding is for R&D and seems out of sync. with the previously announced 15% reduction in funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that will cause it to lose 40 researchers!
  • “another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025 ” and the only initiatives he announced that would address this were the biofuels, hydrogen and hybrid batteries. Even though I am an optimist in matters of clean energy this feels like wishful thinking.
  • One of the largest R&D initiatives ($281 million) is aimed at “zero-emission coal-fired plants” that sequester the produced carbon dioxide. This makes a kind of sense given that coal is the main source of power generation in the US and, since the President has shown himself unwilling to commit to the Kyoto Protocol, this shows that he will achieve pollution reduction by other means. Right?
  • Lastly, I am left a little uneasy by his mention of “clean, safe nuclear energy” as part of his plan.
  • Given that the US generating capacity is currently primarily driven by coal, natural gas, hydro and nuclear the latter two initiatives could be interpreted as a move to reduce US dependence on expensive natural gas, but otherwise continue as usual.

Don’t get me wrong! I have nothing against the funding proposals for renewable energy although I am less enamored of the other proposals in the package. However the fruits of research are unpredictable and seldom quick! I am not convinced these proposals will achieve the goals they are supposed to address and I suspect they will be no more successful than past initiatives. Still, I guess my wife was right in one sense – as they say, “any publicity is good publicity!”

Is Ethanol Good or Bad?

One of the most confusing aspects of the alternative energy industry has to be the story about ethanol. Simply put, is ethanol good or bad? Does it help or harm the environment?

The confusion and controversy stems from evaluating the net effect on CO2 emissions of ethanol production and use, relative to the production and use of the incumbent fuel, gasoline. Largely, this is driven by questions concerning the energy balance of ethanol — how much energy is really required to fertilize, grow, harvest and process the ethanol, and what are the CO2 emissions associated with these steps. The proper quantification of these factors has seemingly been a matter of dispute between those who favor ethanol and those who see ethanol promotion as merely a means of subsidizing the agricultural sector.

A Reuters summary of an article in the January 2006 issue of the journal Science, written by several researchers from UC Berkeley, indicates that the current corn-based means of producing ethanol is in fact a dubious environmental proposition. However, the use of emerging technologies to convert cellulosic matter — the tougher fibers as found in trees, bark, woody wastes, etc. — in ethanol should be net environmentally positive.

Not surprisingly, the downside is that cellulosic technologies are now on the costly side. But, perhaps with additional clarification of the type on the net environmental benefit (along with the energy supply benefit) that can be generated by cellulosic ethanol, this controversy can be put to bed. With the concerns more definitively allayed, more effort and capital might flow to this potentially important source of energy.

Can RE Pay its Way?

With renewable energy companies, particularly in the solar and wind sectors, growing at double digit pace, there is a clear need to attract new talent to the industries. Indeed this is the prime reason we created Greenjobs as a place where those interested in working in renewables could find out about the types of jobs and job prospects as well as the different industries and the organizations populating them.

However, in the solar industry, and I suspect the other renewable sectors as well, there is a pervasive attitude that only enthusiasts work in the industry and they are happy to forgo competitive wages. In his excellent course on “Finding your dream job in Solar”, Andy Black actually advises candidates to anticipate lower wages than they can get elsewhere. He rationalizes the inevitability of the situation by the continued entry of new, cut-price entrants in to the marketplace forcing down margins. While this may reflect fairly what has gone before I do not see how it can continue.

As the sectors grow in size they will be less able to rely on enthusiast to fuel their continued growth. In order to attract the best talent, they will increasingly have to compete with other, mainstream industries and this will force them to make packages more competitive. Indeed if renewables become mainstream this is not only a possibility but an inevitability! How we bridge the gap remains to be seen but one thing I do believe is that renewable businesses and organizations will become increasingly focused on remuneration packages in order to be competitive and this will drive a need for more reliable information on what being “competitive” means. Reliable, cross industry statistics for renewables are hard to find and we hope to address the issue this year with the first annual North American survey of employment and remuneration across all RE sectors.