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Archive for the ‘biofuels’ Category

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.

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

Recession-wracked California is truly going down the toilet.

For green energy, that is. In a gift to headline writers everywhere, the California Energy Commission on Wednesday handed out nearly $1 million to fund an experimental project to convert what it politely refers to as “biosolids” into electricity. In other words, sh*t.

Okay, we’ll suppress our inner 12-year-old boy now. This is serious sh*t. No, really, we’ll stop.

Biosolids are a nasty pollution problem; beyond human waste, they can also include a sludge of heavy metals and other toxins left over from wastewater treatment. While in some cases biosolids can be used as fertilizer for crops, they most often have to be disposed of in landfills.

“Existing options for using biosolids are limited (mainly land application and alternative daily cover in landfills) and face increasing environmental challenges that could eliminate those options,” the energy commission noted. “Current disposal practices often involve hauling biosolids long distances, which consumes transportation fuels, increases greenhouse gas emissions, and increases ratepayers’ costs for wastewater treatment.”

California produced 661,000 dry metric tons of biosolids in 2009, according to the energy commission. Ick.

Thus this new move to see if renewable energy can be spun from dross. The $999,924 (guess the state couldn’t cough up another $76 to make it an even million) allocated to the Delta Diablo Sanitation District in Northern California will help pay for a $4.7 million research project.

A Bay Area company called Intellergy will use “steam/carbon dioxide reforming” technology to vaporize liquid residues and gasify the organic solid portion of biosolids in an airlock chamber. The company will pump in steam and carbon dioxide to create a hydrogen-rich gas that could be used in fuel cells to generate electricity.

The process remains unproven, but if it works it could supply the growing number of Bloom Energy fuel cells being installed by Fortune 500 companies, particularly on the campuses of Silicon Valley tech giants like Google and Adobe.

“California continues to make significant strides in bioenergy research,” James Boyd, vice chair of the energy commission, said in a statement. “By studying how to use biosolids more effectively, California will generate energy from previously untapped waste streams and reduce the volume going into our state’s growing landfills.”

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photo: CoolPlanetBiofuels

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about Google Ventures funding a Southern California startup that is developing mobile biofuel refineries that will travel to the fuel source to process agricultural waste and other biomass:

Google Ventures has led a $20 million financing round in CoolPlanetBiofuels, a Southern California start-up that is developing mobile refineries to turn wood chips, agriculture waste and other biomass into biofuels.

CoolPlanetBiofuels, an 18-month-old company, has also attracted the attention of ConocoPhillips, GE Capital and NRG Energy, which participated in the financing round along with North Bridge Venture Partners.

CoolPlanetBiofuels declined to disclose the total capital that it had raised, but it noted that Google Ventures was a major participant in the series B round announced Thursday.

“We take biomass such as corncobs, yard clippings wood chips and fractionate that biomass into discrete gas streams,” said Mike Cheiky, CoolPlanetBiofuels’ chief executive and a longtime technology executive. “Those individual gas streams aren’t really useful by themselves, so we run them through catalytic conversion columns that convert them to useful fuels.”

One limitation of using biomass as a feedstock for biofuels has been the expense of trucking low-value waste long distances to a refinery. So CoolPlanetBiofuels plans to take the refineries to the fuel source by packaging its machines in tractor-trailers.

“Biomass cannot be transported very far because in raw form it has a very low energy content,” Mr. Cheiky said.

He said a typical refinery would consist of a cluster of tractor-trailers that can process 10 million gallons of fuel a year.

“There’s a very large market opportunity here with a lot of headroom for innovation,” said Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing director. “These are early days and this space won’t end up with a single winner but any progress Mike and CoolPlanet can make will have a profoundly positive impact on consumers, the industry and the world.”

So far CoolPlanetBiofuels has built a small pilot plant that is producing biofuel for evaluation by oil companies, Mr. Cheiky said. He declined to identify the companies, citing a confidentiality agreement. The company expects to have its first one-million gallon mobile refinery operating within a year.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: U.S. Navy

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ plans to green the Navy and Marine Corps and help build a market for new technologies:

Want to stimulate demand for renewable energy? Send in the Marines.

That was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s message on Monday when he outlined plans to slash the Navy and Marine Corps’ dependence on fossil fuels during an appearance on Monday evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

“We use in the Navy and Marine Corps almost 1 percent of the energy that America uses,” Mr. Mabus said. “If we can get energy from different places and from different sources, you can flip the line from ‘Field of Dreams’ — If the Navy comes, they will build it. If we provide the market, then I think you’ll begin to see the infrastructure being built.”

“Within 10 years, the United States Navy will get one half of all its energy needs, both afloat and onshore, from non-fossil fuel sources,” he added. “America and the Navy rely too much on fossil fuels. It makes the military, in this case our Navy and Marine Corps, far too vulnerable to some sort of disruption.”

Reaching those renewable energy goals will be a gargantuan challenge. The Navy operates 290 ships, 3,700 aircraft, 50,000 non-combat vehicles and owns 75,200 buildings on 3.3 million acres of land.

Last year the Navy launched its first electric hybrid ship, the Makin Island, an amphibious assault vessel that some have dubbed the Prius of the seas. On its maiden voyage from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to its home base in San Diego, the Makin Island saved $2 million in fuel costs, Mr. Mabus said.

“In terms of our fleet, we have most of ships we’re going to have in 2020 so we know what we have to do to change that,” he said in a conversation with Greg Dalton, a Commonwealth Club executive. “We can do things like retrofit ships with hybrid drives. Mainly it’s changing the fuels.”

Two days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, a Navy pilot flew an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet powered by a biofuel blend made from the seeds of camelina sativa, an inedible plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Aurora Biofuels

As I write in The New York Times on Friday, it’s spring cleaning at three renewable energy firms as top executives depart SolarReserve, Clipper Windpower and Aurora Biofuels:

The past week has brought a spate of executive departures at renewable energy startups, with the president of SolarReserve, a power plant builder, and the chief executives of Clipper Windpower and Aurora Biofuels stepping down.

Terry Murphy, a rocket scientist who co-founded SolarReserve after a career at United Technologies’ Rocketdyne division, has started a new venture called Advanced Rocket Technologies in Commercial Applications, or ARTiCA. The firm will evaluate green technologies for entrepreneurs and investors, according to Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy and SolarReserve both said the departure was voluntary. “With the company solidly executing on its business strategies, Mr. Murphy has transitioned to an external role in providing developmental expertise to other early stage clean energy companies,” wrote Debra Hotaling, a spokeswoman for SolarReserve, in an e-mail message.

When Mr. Murphy left Rocketdyne to start SolarReserve, the startup licensed Rocketdyne’s molten salt technology so that its solar power plants could store solar energy for use after the sun sets or on cloudy days.

“SolarReserve, in my opinion, is up and running on all four cylinders,” said Mr. Murphy.

“What I did at Rocketdyne and what I did at SolarReserve and what I’m looking at doing in the future is to sift through technologies to find those that can be commercialized.”

Mr. Murphy’s new firm will focus on technologies involving renewable energy, desalinization and sustainability, he said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Aurora Biofuels

In the Los Angeles Times on Friday, I write about the Obama administration’s move to issue $600 million in grants for biofuel refinery pilot projects. California startups grabbed a fair share of the money:

The federal government this morning announced it will hand out $600 million for next-generation biofuels projects, including those being developed by several California companies.

“Advanced biofuels are critical to building a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system in the U.S.,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a statement. “These projects will help establish a domestic industry that will create jobs here at home and open new markets across rural America.”

Second-generation biofuels produce ethanol, diesel and jet fuel from wood waste, nonfood crops, algae and other feedstocks. San Diego in particular has become a hotbed for companies developing biofuel from algae.

Sapphire Energy, based in San Diego, will receive $50 million from the Department of Energy for the construction of a pilot biofuel facility in Columbus, N.M. Algae grown in ponds will be transformed into jet fuel and diesel. The company also scored a $54.5-million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture to build the New Mexico project.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

Can a state that gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants go green? The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks so. In a report released this week, the environmental group lays out how Indiana can become the California of the Midwest when it comes to renewable energy. As I write in The New York Times on Friday:

Coal-dependent Indiana could become one of the nation’s greenest states by tapping rural resources to generate renewable energy, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Hoosier State now obtains 95 percent of its electricity from plants running on coal — largely imported from Wyoming and elsewhere — but it could profit as an exporter of wind energy and machinery, the report said.

“Indiana has some of the best wind potential in the eastern U.S. and has a competitive advantage as a wind producer over most other states because of its location,” said the report’s author, Martin R. Cohen, said during a conference call on Wednesday.

Mr. Cohen noted that while the wind blows stronger in states like North Dakota and Nebraska, Indiana already has the transmission system in place to bring wind-generated electricity to eastern cities.

If Indiana increased wind energy production to 4,500 megawatts from its current 530 megawatts, it would create thousands of jobs and attract turbine manufacturers, according to the report. An owner of a 500-acre farm could earn $30,000 a year from leasing land for wind turbines, Mr. Cohen estimated.

Farmers also could profit, the report said, if Indiana starts harvesting corn stalks, wheat stalks and soybean residue and uses the biomass either for power production or to make ethanol.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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