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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about floating solar farms:

PETALUMA, Calif. — Solar panels have sprouted on countless rooftops, carports and fields in Northern California. Now, several start-up companies see potential for solar panels that float on water.

Already, 144 solar panels sit atop pontoons moored on a three-acre irrigation pond surrounded by vineyards in Petaluma in Sonoma County. Some 35 miles to the north, in the heart of the Napa Valley, another array of 994 solar panels covers the surface of a pond at the Far Niente Winery.

“Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 an acre,” said Larry Maguire, Far Niente’s chief executive. “We wanted to go solar but we didn’t want to pull out vines.”

The company that installed the two arrays, SPG Solar of Novato, Calif., as well as Sunengy of Australia and Solaris Synergy of Israel, are among the companies trying to develop a market for solar panels on agricultural and mining ponds, hydroelectric reservoirs and canals. While it is a niche market, it is potentially a large one globally. The solar panel aqua farms have drawn interest from municipal water agencies, farmers and mining companies enticed by the prospect of finding a new use for — and new revenue from — their liquid assets, solar executives said.

Sunengy, for example, is courting markets in developing countries that are plagued by electricity shortages but have abundant water resources and intense sunshine, according to Philip Connor, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Chris Robine, SPG Solar’s chief executive, said he had heard from potential customers as far away as India, Australia and the Middle East. When your land is precious, he said, “There’s a great benefit in that you have clean power coming from solar, and it doesn’t take up resources for farming or mining.”

Sunengy, based in Sydney, said it had signed a deal with Tata Power, India’s largest private utility, to build a small pilot project on a hydroelectric reservoir near Mumbai. Solaris Synergy, meanwhile, said it planned to float a solar array on a reservoir in the south of France in a trial with the French utility EDF.

MDU Resources Group, a $4.3 billion mining and energy infrastructure conglomerate based in Bismarck, N.D., has been in talks with SPG Solar about installing floating photovoltaic arrays on settling ponds at one of its California gravel mines, according to Bill Connors, MDU’s vice president of renewable resources.

“We don’t want to put a renewable resource project in the middle of our operations that would disrupt mining,” Mr. Connors said. “The settling ponds are land we’re not utilizing right now except for discharge and if we can put that unproductive land into productive use while reducing our electric costs and our carbon foot footprint, that’s something we’re interested in.”

Mr. Connors declined to discuss the cost of an SPG floating solar array. But he noted, “We wouldn’t be looking at systems that are not competitive.”

SPG Solar’s main business is installing conventional solar systems for homes and commercial operations. It built Far Niente’s 400-kilowatt floating array on a 1.3-acre pond in 2007 as a special project and has spent the last four years developing a commercial version called Floatovoltaics that executives say is competitive in cost with a conventional ground-mounted system.

The Floatovoltaics model now being brought to market by SPG Solar is the array that bobs on the surface of the Petaluma irrigation pond.

“We have been able to utilize a seemingly very simple system, minimizing the amount of steel,” said Phil Alwitt, project development manager for SPG Solar, standing on a walkway built into the 38-kilowatt array.

“With steel being so expensive, that’s our main cost,” Mr. Alwitt said.

Long rows of standard photovoltaic panels made by Suntech, the Chinese solar manufacturer, sit tilted at an eight-degree angle on a metal lattice fitted to pontoons and anchored by tie lines to buoys to withstand wind and waves.

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on April 12, I wrote about San Francisco International Airport’s new “green” terminal:

SAN FRANCISCO — If the prospect of flying holds all the appeal of a cross-country bus trip, the $6,500, lipstick-red leather Egg chairs at San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 2 are intended to return some long-lost glamour to air travel.
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More Standard Hotel than standard airport gateway, T2, as it is known here, is one of the few terminals renovated top to bottom since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and represents an ambitious attempt by the airport and airlines to take both stress and carbon out of air travel. The $383 million renovation gutted a drab 1950s-era building that last served as the international terminal before being shuttered more than a decade ago. Even compared with more contemporary terminals at San Francisco International, T2 represents a new approach to airport design. It opens on Thursday.

“It’s about the intersection between passenger delight and bringing back the joy of flying with the high-performance building aspects,” said Melissa Mizell, a senior associate with Gensler, the San Francisco firm that designed the renovation. “That really guided a lot of our decisions, even with sustainability.”

The words delight, joy and flying do not usually appear in the same sentence. But airport officials, airlines and architects said that they put as much emphasis on redefining the travel experience as on lessening its environmental impact.

“We wanted this to feel like a San Francisco terminal and not a terminal anywhere else in the world,” Raymond Quesada, an airport project manager, said as he stood in the soaring, light- and art-filled ticket lobby shared by Virgin America and American Airlines, the terminal’s two tenants.

Those San Francisco values include a city mandate to achieve at least LEED Silver status for the renovation. LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is a rating system administrated by the United States Green Building Council that ranks structures according to points earned for energy efficiency, water conservation and other environmentally beneficial attributes.

Airport officials intend to apply for LEED Gold certification, and if it is awarded, T2 will be the first airport terminal in the United States to achieve such a ranking, according to Ashley Katz, a spokeswoman for the building council.

Drivers of hybrid and electric cars get preferential parking in the nearby garage, and there are vehicle-charging stations for the electric cars. Cool air seeps from perforated white wall panels in the terminal rather than being forced down from the ceiling.  The system, called displacement ventilation, cuts energy use by 20 percent because the air does not need to be cooled as much since it displaces the rising warmer air,  Mr. Quesada said.

Reclaimed water is pumped into the restrooms, reducing water consumption by 40 percent. The abundant natural light through walls of windows makes most daytime artificial lighting unnecessary.

Passengers are encouraged to carry reusable bottles and fill them at blue “hydration stations” in the terminal rather than buy throwaway bottled water.

“Originally, we were considering banning the sale of bottled water, but we got a lot of pushback from the concessionaires,” Mr. Quesada said. “But they are required to sell more environmentally friendly plastic bottles. But again, we’re hoping they won’t have to do that and people will bring their own bottles to the airport.”

Under their leases, food sellers must use utensils and packaging that can be composted, and compost bins are prominently displayed in the terminal. The airport scores more LEED points for making the green experience educational through signs and even a mobile phone tour.

But passengers will probably pay most attention to the terminal’s food, fashion and flow, all of which reflect the esthetic of Virgin America, which has its headquarters in San Francisco.

The neon mood lighting found on Virgin planes is mirrored in the lobbylike ticketing area, where pods of those high-backed, Danish-designed Egg chairs are clustered around sculptures and paintings by local artists.

You can read the rest of the story here.

image: General Electric

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about General Electric’s bid to to become a major player in the U.S. solar industry:

SAN FRANCISCO — In a move that could shake up the American solar industry, General Electric plans to announce on Thursday that it will build the nation’s largest photovoltaic panel factory, with the goal of becoming a major player in the market.

“For the past five years, we’ve been investing extremely heavily in solar,” said Victor Abate, vice president for G.E.’s renewable energy business. “Going to scale is the next move.”

The plant, whose location has not been determined, will employ 400 workers and create 600 related jobs, according to G.E. The factory would annually produce solar panels that would generate 400 megawatts of energy, the company said, and would begin manufacturing thin-film photovoltaic panels made of a material called cadmium telluride in 2013. While less efficient than conventional solar panels, thin-film photovoltaics can be produced at a lower cost and have proven attractive to developers and utilities building large-scale power plants.

G.E. has signed agreements to supply solar panels to generate 100 megawatts of electric power to customers, including a deal for panels generating 60 megawatts with NextEra Energy Resources.

G.E., a manufacturing giant, operates in a range of energy businesses, from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. It has been aggressively expanding its energy portfolio, particularly through acquisitions.

Mr. Abate said G.E. had completed its purchase of PrimeStar Solar, the Arvada, Colo., company that made the thin-film photovoltaic panels. G.E. said the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently certified that a PrimeStar solar panels manufactured at its factory in Colorado had set a 12.8 percent efficiency record for cadmium telluride technology. Conventional solar panels typically are 16 to 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

“We believe we’ll be a cost leader, a technology leader and we’re excited about our position in a 75-gigawatt solar market over next five years,” said Mr. Abate.

The global conglomerate’s entry into the highly competitive photovoltaic market is likely to prove a significant challenge to First Solar, the thin-film market leader and the dominant manufacturer of cadmium telluride panels.

Also at risk are start-ups like Abound Solar, a Colorado company that in December obtained a $400 million federal loan guarantee to build factories to manufacture cadmium telluride panels.

G.E.’s initial panel manufacturing capacity will be a fraction of the more than 2,300 megawatts of capacity that First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to have online by the end of 2011.

But Mr. Abate said that G.E.’s solar effort would parallel the rise of its wind energy business.

“It’s a $6 billion platform and it was a couple of hundred million dollars in ’02,” he said of the company’s wind division. “When you look at G.E., we’re very good at scale. In ’05, we were building 10 turbines a week. By ’08, we were doing 13 a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: BrightSource Energy

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Some good news on the environmental front for a change: Global investment in green technology in the first quarter of the year spiked 52 percent compared to the previous quarter, to $2.57 billion. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm.

The increase represents a 13 percent jump over the first quarter of 2010, and indicates that investors’ appetite for renewable energy, electric cars, and other green technologies continues to rebound from the recession.

But the numbers aren’t exactly good news for entrepreneurs toiling away in their garages on the next new thing. The first quarter results show that investors are focusing on existing portfolios rather than financing a lot of new startups. In fact, 93 percent of that $2.57 billion represented so-called follow-on investments.

“In the first few months of the new year there have been a rash of large later-stage deals which have propelled 1Q11 to the second highest quarter ever for clean tech VC investment,” Sheeraz Haji, the Cleantech Group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see some big private equity firms entering the space.”

So who got the money?

Solar companies were the big winners, taking in $641 million in 26 deals, according to the Cleantech Group. About a third of that went to a single startup, BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., solar thermal power plant builder. And venture capitalists seem to have a renewed appetite for cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic technology, an area they poured a couple of billion dollars into back during the green tech boom. One such startup, MiaSolé, scored $106 million in the first quarter.

Electric cars also proved popular among investors as the new year got underway. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a super sleek plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, took in $150 million. At the other end of the electric spectrum, Coda Automotive, another SoCal startup, took in $76 million for its middle-of-the-road four-door.

Biofuels are back as well, taking in $148 million. The largest share, $75 million, went to a California company called Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is developing a process to turn municipal waste into ethanol.

North America still accounts for the lion’s share of investment — 85 percent in the first quarter, a 43 percent rise from the same period last year. And Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did the most deals — nine.

But in a sign that corporate America is increasingly seeing green tech as a good bet, GE Energy Financial Services took third place for the number of deals done.

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote a follow-up to my story on efforts to reinvent the internal combustion engine:

As I wrote in Thursday’s Times, several start-ups backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms are developing a new type of internal combustion engine that promises a striking boost in fuel economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It sounds a bit too good to be true, but the companies have had their claims verified by independent firms, and some of them have signed licensing deals with major engine manufacturers.

The start-ups that I profiled – Achates Power, EcoMotors and Pinnacle Engines – all are building variations on what is called an opposed piston engine. Such engines do away with heavy cylinder heads that serve as combustion chambers in conventional engines. Instead, the space between two opposing pistons forms the combustion chamber where fuel is ignited.

That makes opposed piston engines lighter and cheaper to make. And because opposed piston engines have a greater power density, they waste less energy as heat and thus operate more efficiently.

“The technology is viable,” said Dean Tomazic, vice president of FEV, an engineering company in Auburn, Mich., that has tested opposed piston engines to verify their developers’ claims. “It is obviously a completely different concept compared to conventional engines.”

Athough such engines were used in the mid-20th century as power plants for ships and World War II-era fighter planes, they were long considered too expensive and impractical for automotive use.

Pinnacle, based in San Carlos, Calif., is developing a four-stroke, gasoline opposed piston engine. One of Pinnacle’s key innovations is a sleeve valve invented by the company’s founder, Monty Cleeves, that helps ensure that energy is used for propulsion rather than wasted as heat.

Mr. Cleeves said that Pinnacle’s engine could run on a variety of fuels, including compressed natural gas and ethanol without a loss of performance experienced in conventional engines.

He has kept the start-up in stealth mode for nearly four years, operating from a small unmarked office and garage a few miles from where Tesla Motors developed its electric Roadster sports car.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cleeves gave me a peek at a prototype of the Cleeves Cycle engine being tested at engine factory in my hometown of Berkeley, Calif. (Who knew?)

Pinnacle has signed a deal to license its technology to a major Asian scooter maker that it declined to identify. The one-cylinder, 15-horsepower engine connected to a maze of wires and tubes dangling from the ceiling of Hasselgren Engineering is larger than the model planned for production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When it comes to the future of electric cars, as with other green technologies, the wild card is China.

The People’s Republic has invested billions in renewable energy and has become a solar superpower in photovoltaic manufacturing. It’s also poised to one day potentially blow away the competition in wind turbine production. China’s new five-year plan calls for dramatic increases in energy efficiency and designates electric cars as a strategic industry. (The government has set a goal of five million electric cars on the roads by 2020.)

The country already is the world’s largest automotive market — General Motors now sells more cars there than in the United States — and its support of electric car and battery makers has attracted investors like Warren Buffett, who has put his money into EV manufacturer BYD.

So far, domestic demand in China for electric cars is tiny, even compared to the nascent U.S. market. According to a report from GTM Research — yes, that report has been a gold mine of data for posts this week — there are but 295 electric cars on the road in China. That’s not a typo. Not that the U.S. is exactly racing down the electric highway, as there are only 2,000 electrics in service here, the report says.

But other numbers in the report foreshadow China’s potential to dominate the electric car market.

The Chinese government’s $17 billion investment in the electric car industry so far outstrips the $5 billion the U.S. government has put into EVs. China has 120 domestic automakers compared to 13 in the U.S. And most telling, some 33,200 people work in the Chinese lithium-ion battery industry, compared to 1,100 here. By 2020, GTM Research estimates that new car sales will reach 27.5 million annually in China compared to 17 million in the U.S.

“How aggressively China will mandate EVs is one of the more interesting considerations in looking at the global market potential, as this nation now has the means to affect not only global production, but also the global demand for electric vehicles,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author.

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups developing new kinds of internal combustion engines that are more fuel efficient and less polluting:

BERKELEY, CALIF. – In this city where Toyota Priuses clog the roads and battery-powered Tesla Roadsters and Chevrolet Volts can be spotted at the organic farmers market, the engine factory in a gritty industrial neighborhood near San Francisco Bay is a throwback to the automotive past.

Or a harbinger of the future. In the middle of a metal building, stacked with hulking racecar engines from the internal combustion engine’s golden age, sits a small contraption hooked to a forest of red, white and green wires and tubes that hang from the ceiling and snake around the floor.

In a control room at Hasselgren Engineering, a technician flips a switch and the device roars to life as a large computer screen displays the performance of this new type of engine, which its developer, Pinnacle Engines, says will be up to 50 percent more efficient than today’s power plants.

As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the streets, Pinnacle is just one of several start-ups backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists aiming to reinvent the century-old internal combustion engine. The big promise: vast improvements in fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.

“While the buzz is all about electrics, the people who will actually adopt electrics are not a majority of the market,” said Monty Cleeves, who has kept Pinnacle under wraps since he founded the company in 2007. “The impact we will have over the next 15 to 20 years will be much larger than the impact of the electrics.”

Not long ago, the idea that entrepreneurs could attract tens of millions of dollars in venture capital to develop a new kind of engine would have seemed ludicrous. The big automakers have kept engine development to themselves, steadily improving the performance of a profitable technology that has served them well for more than a 100 years.

“Our engines are built into the DNA of our vehicles,” said Brett Hinds, engine design manager for Ford in Dearborn, Mich. “We at Ford are still committed to thinking of engines as part of our fundamentals.”

But the upheaval in the global car industry, new fuel efficiency standards for commercial vehicles, climate change concerns and the rise of China and India as automotive markets have opened the door to start-ups like Pinnacle

“Many automotive houses don’t buy engines from outside, but in the truck market people do,” said Rohini Chakravarthy, a partner at NEA, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif., that has invested in Pinnacle. “In Asia, there’s tremendous demand, and you’re not going up against the same level of incumbents.”

Pinnacle executives, for instance, said they had signed a deal to license their engine technology to a major Asian scooter manufacturer, which they declined to identify, for production in early 2013.

EcoMotors, a Detroit area start-up backed by Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates, has signed a development agreement with Navistar, the heavy truck and engine manufacturer, and a Chinese company it would not name. Achates Power, a San Diego engine start-up, is in talks with automakers, according to its chief executive, David Johnson, who said he also had met with potential customers in China and India.

All three companies are developing variations on an opposed piston engine, a technology used in airplanes and ships in the mid-20th century, but long considered too expensive and unworkable for automobiles.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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