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Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Bob Metcalfe is a friendly, handsome, easy-going sort, and he sported a bit of Saturday stubble when we spoke over a Thai lunch in Boston a few weeks back. Bob, an MIT grad who wears the school ring, is also the founder of 3-Com and the interim CEO of a biofuel startup, GreenFuel. Over lunch I did not learn much more about GreenFuel than is available on the company’s website, nor more than is available on xconomy.com. Xconomy.com has been goading the company, and back in July 2007 published Bob’s five-point plan to rejuvenate it and the technology.

Which is fascinating: high yield algae farms recycle carbon dioxide from flue gases to produce biofuels and feed. Algae’s ’bout as green as it gets, and the GreenFuel process has biomimicry going for it: “Why expensively sequester CO2 when it can be profitably recycled?” However, growing algae, the kind needed for GreenFuel, isn’t as easy as it would seem, thus the five-point fix-it plan.

I wanted to ask Bob, “you’re a wealthy guy; you don’t need the money; so why do you invest in this greentech stuff?” … but instead peeled back a suggestion of an answer from the table banter. He invests in non-cleantech ventures as well as cleantech, would love to get into nuclear…and he is impressed with McCain and Romney, presidential candidates with same-old-oil-and-coal-box energy ideas that nod to cap-and-trade. What I surmised chatting with Bob is that his world view is one of business and technology and finance; solutions to problems aren’t found in government, and GreenFuel is a business venture.

It’s a world view with its own language, and it reminds me of heady days in 1980s-New York, dating investment bankers whose European and Asian compatriots oriented to the oppulence of Hotel Plaza Athenee — an airy space floating out of touch with the masses, delivered by private car with driver. I heard the language and the world view again on E&E TV as Monica Trauzzi interviewed Michael Liebreich, CEO and founder of New Energy Finance, a London-based company that specializes in research of clean energy and carbon markets. He was talking about game theory in negotiations around climate change: nice, retaliating, forgiving, clear. The Liebreich interview is a fun, intellectual ride, but within it, like conversations I have with engineers and financiers, some critical link to success is missing…people and their own motivations to buy what engineers and financiers are selling.

Bob Metcalfe and I first met on the plaza outside of the Christian Science Mother Church, so it was curious when a September 2006 issue of the Church’s publication, Sentinel, Exploring the World of Spirituality and Healing, recently crossed my desk. In an article, “Love Enough to Change the Climate,” the editors wrote:

“[There isn’t] much doubt that the primary cause of climate change is rooted in human behavior, and especially in the world’s accelerating deforestation and the consumption of fossil fuels.” Asking how to respond and adjust, the editors wrote, “We don’t know how to ‘engineer’ attitudinal and social change. But we do know something about change at the level of individual experience–at the mental, moral, and spiritual levels. The one thing we are sure of is that lasting and universally beneficial change comes through spiritual transformation. We know, too, the importance of understanding what it is that actually needs changing, what produces the alterative effect, and how change for the better can come about in a systematic and dependable way. All of these steps are essentials in healing spiritually. And ultimately, the solution to every challenge is spiritual–it lies in the human mentality yielding to divine intelligence and thereby being reborn, or re-formed…Transformation of human character and behavior does not happen solely by national leaders signing treaties, by legislatures passing laws, by government agencies making policy or regulatory enforcement changes. Public attitudes change one heart at a time…Just as our bodily health mirrors the quality and tendencies of our thoughts, our states of collective social well-being and environmental health reflect humanity’s mental state.”

The article delves really deep into CS-speak which I find hard to comprehend, and ends: “Cannot we, as a global family, love enough to change the mental climate for the better? Can’t we love Earth and those living on it it enough to commit to a Year of Thinking Differently. God’s gift is the space to do just that.”

This past week, I heard Elton John on the radio for the hundredth time, but the words of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” meant something for the first time. With the launch of Focus the Nation, a national student teach-in on global warming solutions for America, I reflected on the need to heal the planet, but in the context of markets and the global financiers, the venturers and the angels, the rounds and flights, as money in Silicon Valley and New York rushes to cleantech:

Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light

I can’t help but wonder, can Focus the Nation transform the consciousness of the sons of bankers and the sons of lawyers? Will global financiers respond to a transformed and healing world view or are these world views forever disconnected?

One day, I’ll ask Bob a clearer question: for you, as an individual, what is the connection between markets, your companies and healing the planet?

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, is a consultant in cleantech market management and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she began renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Blogroll Review: Dam, Leadership, and Lime

by Frank Ling

Red Sea Power

A recent study shows that damming the Red Sea could provide 50 GW of emissions free hydroelectric power. This would be the largest power plant in the world. However, tens of thousands of people would have to be displaced, not to mention untold ecological damage.

Hank Green at EcoGeek writes about how this would politically impact the Middle East:

“The project would provide enough power to switch off oil-burning power plants throughout the Middle East. Political scientists are already estimating the stability such a project would bring to the region.”

Sustainable Leadership

Sustainability is now becoming a buzzword just like eco and environmental. But what does it take at the corporate level to promote sustainable practices?

A recent report from Avastone Consulting examined what types of leadership and organization structure was needed to carry out such changes.

Joel Makower says:

“Their study found that it isn’t a lack of systems and activities that limit a company’s success, but rather the scarcity of what it calls “higher capacity leaders” and the direct relationship between leader mindset development and the realization of complex sustainability outcomes.”

Baking Soda Solution

Jim Fraser at the Energy Blog writes about this simple but promising process:

“Sodium hydroxide, which is produced on site as a part of the SkyMine™ process is used to react with the CO2 to produce the sodium carbonate. The heat to drive the process is captured from the heat in the flue gas.”

For a 500 MW power plant, that amounts to 642,000 tons of emissions reduced each year.

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

Blogroll Review: Sustainable Snobbery, Curry, Wind Tower

by Frank Ling

My Sustainability is Greener Than Your Sustainability

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says that people are motivated by a sense of importance. For many people that means gaining status.

Now that green is entering the mainstream, it is also a status symbol among a growing segment of the population. Should we be concerned with what Helen Priest from Meridian Energy calls “conspicuous sustainability”?

On CNET’s Green Tech Blog, Neal Dikeman observes that the notion of sustainability is being driven by the need to be cool.

“Nouveau riche tech execs out here in Silicon Valley put ultraclean, and even more, ultraexpensive, solar power on their roofs. Buckingham Palace offsets the carbon footprint of the Queen’s recent trip to the United States. Dell has Plant a Tree for Me Program, which I used when I bought a new Dell last month. There is an exponentially increasing number of examples of consumerism driving green.”

But is this good or bad? Back in the 20th Century and even before that, economist Thorstein Veblen described the rush to accumulate wealth as “conspicuous consumption”, which he thought to be evil.

Mr. Dikeman cautions “for green tech and the environmental movement, is conspicuous sustainability a good one?”

So, did anyone hear about the fake solar panels in Japan?

Keep it real. 🙂

Chew on This

Who could have thought that food chemistry could play such an appetizing role for plastics? The Japanese have found a way to incorporate one of the main ingredients of curry into biodegradable plastic.

Japan for Sustainability notes that

“curcumin, a plant-based yellow colorant, is highly compatible with biodegradable plastic and has appropriate colorfastness and mechanical strength properties. It has also been proved that curcumin does not harm human health even when it comes in contact with the mouth, making it applicable to food packages, processing equipment and toys. Curcumin can color biodegradable plastics not only yellow, but also bright red, blue, etc.”

Now if only we could eat the plastic… 🙂

Castle House

Putting wind turbines on the top of skyscrapers may be becoming reality.

In this week’s EcoGeek, Hank Green writes about a proposed high-rise that will get its power from wind.

“Take up residence in the Castle House, a proposed London Skyscraper, and you’ll find yourself paying as much as 40% less on power, as the building will be generating most of it for you. The building is designed to aerodynamically channel wind through the three nine meter turbines that sit on top of the 43 story building. “

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

3rd Generation Solar Cells – Dyesol Interview

Nick Bruse runs Strike Consulting, a cleantech venture consultancy; hosts the cleantech show, a weekly podcast of interviews with leaders involved in clean technology research, entrepreneurship, commentary and investment; and advises Clean Technology Australasia Pty Ltd and the leading advocate of Cleantech in Australia.


It seems we cant go a day at the moment without hearing about a new commissioning of a energy plant, or new technology development, or fund raising in the solar energy space at the moment.

Last week on The Cleantech Show I interviewed Sylvia Tulloch (podcast), the Managing director and founding team member for 3rd Generation solar cell technology company Dyesol (ASX: DYE). 3rd generation solar cell technology utilises biomimicry of the chlorophyll dye in plants to produce energy from the sun.

You can access the interview here

Many of you may be aware of Dyesol which has been a pioneer in the field of Dye Sensitised Cells (DSC) over the last 10 years, now providing the key dyes and Titania pastes to some of the 800 research and commercial organisations around the world developing DSC applications.

Don’t miss this interview, as Sylvia goes into detail about how DSC technology will have a large roll in the coming decade. Dyesol has also recently signed a number of large partnership agreements and supply contracts to for new DSC applications.

We discuss the technology and the applications where its lower cost high volume potential for energy generation in building materials, consumer devices and a host of other applications means it will have a signifcant roll in the future.

The Party’s Over

by Heather Rae

This past Friday, I put down the crowbar and power-downed the computer and drove to Portland to speak about home performance at a workshop, “Global Warming, Cool Solutions.” The workshop was part of a one-day conference called “Achieving Global Energy Security.”

Held in a LEED Gold-designated building, it was a provocative day sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Council of Churches, Sierra Club, Peace Action Maine and others. Unlike “silo” meetings, conventions where the choir convenes to sing to itself, this conference painted the big picture that is often missed in silos — the connections among climate change, environment, economy, energy and foreign policy, peaking oil, nuclear proliferation, the health effects and hideousness of war, and morality. Somehow, the conference planners spun the negative messages positively into workshops around solutions. Those solutions are clean energy: renewables and energy efficiency. And conservation. The conference presentations are being posted on the website: www.peaceactionme.org/.

Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times magazine (The Power of Green): “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are – including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way.”

A photograph of an Iraqi man holding a fainting or dead young girl in his arms, her leg blown to bits, flesh and bones dangling, was still with me at 2am the night of the conference. So was Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford’s reference to Richard Heinberg’s, The Party’s Over. Dr. Ashford paused, breaking from her presentation as the audience chuckled at the image of a businessman holding a gun to his head to say, it was a fun party wasn’t it? But now the guests have gone home, and we’re left with our house in disarray. After the fossil fuel party, what will the response be of this industrialized nation addicted to oil: Will we go the way of Cuba that adapts by adopting distributed micro-solutions, or will we go the way of totalitarian North Korea and enter into dark stagnation?

The message I heard at the conference was that everyone can do his and her part, everyone can take action to find solutions to these pressing global energy-related issues. (I also heard from Efficiency Maine that it has established the first program in the country to reclaim used CFLs at the point of purchase.) This past week, seven contractors came to my house to take their field exams for the Building Performance Institute certification. In the vernacular of building science, all seven found that various parts of this old house “communicate” with one another. That is, air flows freely every which way in her balloon frame.

This old house, she’s a talker, and I’ll shut her up as best I can. Tightening up a house is not radical change. Nor is buying a hybrid car. Or screwing in an energy-efficient light bulb. But I doubt it’s enough. A while back, I sat down with an aide to Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) and suggested that monies be taken from the war chest and allocated to solar R&D and market penetration. Apparently, that’s radical; the aide nodded at the suggestion, politely. It should be a lot harder to be polite in the face of the blown flesh of an innocent little girl.

Other Goings On This Week
Another party that’s over…
Pete McCloskey, a one time candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, explained his reasons for leaving the Republican party and included this: “Earth Day, that bi-partisan concept of Gaylord Nelson in 1970, has become the focus of almost hatred by today’s Republican leadership. Many still argue that global warming is a hoax, and that Bush has been right to demean and suppress the arguments of scientists at the E.P.A., Fish & Wildlife and U.S.Geological Survey. I say a pox on them and their values.”

Me too.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Global Warming Solutions – Dell Style

Dell (Nasdaq:DELL), not known as a cleantech company, but long known for being a supply chain expert and direct marketing leader in PCs and electronic devices, is turning its attention to global warming – or at least working to provide consumers some greener product options and more consumer information.

Earlier this year, Dell announced its Plant a Tree For Me program. www.dell.com/plantatree

“LAS VEGAS, Jan. 9, 2007 — Michael Dell today announced a global carbon-neutral initiative that plants trees for customers to offset the carbon impact of electricity required to power their systems. The first of its kind program, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show here, underscores Dell’s commitment to continued broad environmental stewardship.”

I had a chance to speak to one of their public relations specialists and get a little color.

The program is rolling out in stages (global roll-out is next). It launched in January to provide customers the option to buy offsets of kwh required to power computer systems. Dell is passing through all the payments a customer makes to its partners – Conservation Fund and CarbonFund.org. [Note: There are an increasing number of for profit and non profit entities like these two that will buy carbon offsets made in a variety of ways to sell to companies like Dell to “green up” products.] They are not yet attempting to calculate the emissions required to make a Dell product, just use.

I asked about assumptions in program. Basically they are offsetting 3 years of average power usage. “The donation amounts for ‘Plant a Tree for Me’ are based on expected average CO2 emissions from the production of electricity needed to power the systems over three years – for example, a notebook emits .42 tons and a desktop 1.26 tons. The cost of the carbon offset is $4.75 per ton. It costs approximately $6.31 per tree planted. On average a new tree will sequester 1.33 tons of CO2 over 70 years through the program.

The specific energy values are based on EPA estimates provided by the EPA and Lawrence Berkely Labs. Conversion of energy consumption values to CO2 equivalents is done per WRI/WBCSD standard protocol (world resources institute/world business council for sustainable development). The cost for the carbon offset is set by our partners at $4.75 per ton.”

I asked why sinks? Why not energy efficiency credits or some other way of reducing carbon? Planting trees to create a carbon sink sometimes gets dinged for not being “permanent” enough of a reduction, e.g. if the forest burns down, all that carbon goes straight back into the air. But they tend to be the cheapest credits available. They didn’t have especially insightful answers, but low cost and ease of availability probably play into it.

The reason for doing this?

Apparently Dell feels its customers are interested in greener products. However, while Dell says it is “encouraged by the response”, they would not quote me any numbers of the level of uptake achieved or the targets they were hoping for.

In another area of note, Dell is rolling out an Energy Smart Program. through a wide range of product areas.

“Dell made significant progress during 2006 against its goal to deliver customers the most energy-efficient products in the industry. Since announcing the strategy and customer energy resource calculators at www.dell.com/energy in September 2006, we have rolled Energy Smart settings across the latest models of our OptiPlexTM desktop line to enable up to 70 percent system power savings for the OptiPlex 7451. We also recently introduced two PowerEdge products with Energy Smart settings with energy savings of up to 25% accompanied by performance enhancements that afford up to 3X increase in performance per watt over previous generations.

The desktop figures are based on an average unit cost of energy of $0.10/KWh and assume an Annual Usage Profiles of 1 hour max performance, 7 hours office productivity, 1 hour idle and 15 hours sleep state for 264 days a year; 24 hours sleep state for 101 days. The server values assume a 24/7 duty cycle.”

At the same time, Dell is making available on their website a series of online calculators for energy efficiency, along with making the “energy consumption spec” for a wide range of products.

While the devil is always in the details on the assumptions used, I find it refreshing that Dell is putting this level of effort into providing consumer information on the green and energy impacts of its products – kind of like a restaurant providing us information. I am also refreshed to see Dell say that they are passing all the cost through, and are not taking a margin. While I am very excited about the potential to profitably market carbon credits to consumers, Dell’s move tells me they view greening their products as a requirement to be in the business and a benchmark for product quality that they intend to meet, not just an extra option to add more margin to existing products.

I will be even more intrigued if Dell starts to publish or commit to customer uptake numbers on its carbon credit roll-out (like it would if I were an analyst asking for targets and uptake on units sold of a new product line).

And I will be elated if Dell starts to use its strenght in supply chain management to force the carbon credit suppliers into more transparency and standarization (a chronic problem in the market today).

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.

Proposed: National Center for Sustainable Technologies

by Heather Rae

The Brunswick Naval Air Station on the midcoast of Maine is on the Pentagon’s list: the base realignment and closure process, a recurring cost-cutting procedure, also known by the acronym BRAC, has targeted the Brunswick station for closure in 2011.

In April 2005, The Times Record ran an editorial by Walt Rosen, a retiree from the Commission on Life Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences. Rosen proposed turning the base into a national center for sustainable technologies, including residential and industrial uses.

Walt Rosen died last year. His idea is worth repeating, as developers and government begin the wrangle over what to do with the Brunswick land. The Brunswick Sustainability Group is gathering ideas from around the globe to put some fire under Rosen’s proposal, from Freiburg-Vauban in Germany to Dongtan in China. The Sustainability Group and Walt Rosen’s proposal should be at the table with developers and government.

Summary
This is a plan for use of a portion of the 3,000-acre site if and when the Brunswick Naval Air Station is decommissioned. Existing structures on the site are mostly hangars and housing units, easily adaptable to the proposed project.

This proposal would create a National Center for Sustainable Technologies that will promote research, education, training and demonstration of what have been termed “sustainable” or “appropriate” technologies — that is, procedures and practices that utilize alternatives to fossil fuels and minimize or eliminate the production of heat-trapping combustion products that can cause global climate change, and some of which are toxic to humans and other organisms. These alternatives utilize renewable energy sources such as solar radiation, biomass, wind and tides.

The heart of the project, and of the center, will be a planned residential community and industrial park showcasing state-of-the-art sustainable technologies.

Background
Conversion from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to renewable alternatives would free our society from dependence on these finite energy sources and from the toxic byproducts of their use. Because the supply of these alternative energy sources is essentially unlimited, and because their use is nonpolluting, they are termed “sustainable,” a term that distinguishes them from energy sources such as petroleum, of which the earth has limited stores, and the extraction and use of which creates pollution and causes global warming.

Rising fuel costs, global warming (caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gasses), and concerns about the security of overseas sources of petroleum have combined to reawaken recognition of the desirability of moving to renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

It is proposed to make part of the BNAS site a national center for such efforts. Properly implemented, such a center will provide jobs, training and revenue to replace what will be lost to the state and the community by the base closing. Demonstration projects and other training opportunities will draw people from throughout the country and beyond for education and training in the development and use of renewable and sustainable technologies. Just as agriculture colleges and the National Institutes of Health play host to graduate students and senior investigators, so will the proposed Sustainability Institute.

A model sustainable community
Successful large-scale planned communities are those of James Rouse in Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va. Another is the Disney Corp.’s Celebration, Fla. Design of these communities focused on motor traffic and pedestrian flow and on distribution of residential and commercial areas and civic amenities. Energy generation, consumption, conservation and recovery was left to local practice.

At the heart of this proposed development will be a planned residential community in which the objective in design and function will be maximization of the use of renewable energy — largely solar energy captured on site. Systems for the recovery of energy from biomass will be deployed wherever and whenever feasible. Homes — and where possible public facilities and businesses — will be furnished with biomass recovery systems (such as dry composting toilets), solar space and water heating, fuel cell technologies and photvoltaics.

Manufacturers of the required hardware will be given incentives for locating in a community industrial park, thereby providing employment and training opportunities for residents of the community.

Much planning will be required to establish policies concerning management of the community and eligibility for admission to residence there. Among the strategies and policies to be considered are low-interest or interest-free mortgages, leases, co-op governance, individual or community gardens, preferential placement in on-site jobs and internships.

Potential development and demonstration programs: glass-house food production; heating with biogas generated on-site from municipal sludge and cultivated biiomass; a wind farm (if wind velocities are sufficient to generate the electricity required by a small community); sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry; ecological restoration; photovoltaic hardware production and research; hydrogen fuel cell research and demonstration; and electricity generation from tidal flow.

Resources
Our community is richly endowed with people and programs that can provide the relevant expertise. These include the Bowdoin College Environmental Studies Program; USM’s Muskie Institute; the Chewonki Institute’s biodiesel and hydrogen research and development programs; Morris Farm; Wolf’s Neck Farm; the Maine Center for Economic Policy; the Maine State Planning Office and its director of Energy Independence.

The SPO’s “2003 Directory of State Energy Programs and Reources” reveals a wealth of relevant businesses and programs already active in Maine, providing a highly supportive environment for this project.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has a Web site that provides a wealth of information on relevant programs, demonstrations and literature.

Implementation
At least a year of intensive research and planning will be required for the preparation of detailed proposals for the funding and implementation of this concept. A planning grant will be essential for proposal preparation.

A 50-acre to 100-acre Peace Park in, or bordering the residential area, can include a solar-heated swimming pool and community center, bike paths, playing fields and demonstration organic gardens. Indeed, it was Hersch Sternlieb’s idea for a Peace Park on the BNAS site that triggered this proposal.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.