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Archive for the ‘energy efficiency’ Category

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a Google-backed startup that unveiled a new power conversion technology it claims will dramatically cut the energy consumption of motors, electronic gadgets and other devices:

A Southern California start-up backed by Google and prominent venture capital firms announced on Wednesday a technology it claimed could slash the electricity consumption of a wide range of devices like industrial motors, hybrid cars, computers and cellphones.

The result could be electric cars that drive farther without recharging, the disappearance of bricklike device chargers and solar panels that generate more electricity, according to the founders of Transphorm.

The company, based in Goleta, Calif., has developed a power conversion module that it says cuts energy waste by 90 percent. Currently, about 10 percent of the energy generated in the United States is lost as electricity because it is converted from alternating current to direct current and back, according to Umesh Mishra, Transphorm’s chief executive.

“That converts to hundreds of terawatts of energy loss,” said Mr. Mishra, a professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during Transphorm’s unveiling at the Mountain View, Calif., offices of Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment arm. “We will save hundreds of terawatt hours when Transphorm’s technology is fully implemented, the equivalent of taking the West Coast off the grid.”

The four-year-old start-up has raised $38 million in funding from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital to develop a new type of power conversion module based on gallium nitride, a compound used in LEDs. Google has yet to test Transphorm’s power module as the product hasn’t been available.

“The opportunity is to take 300 coal plants off grid effectively, said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Mr. Mishra said Transphorm had signed up customers like Yaskawa Electric Corporation, a Japanese maker of motors and industrial robots, and would introduce its first products in March.

Current conversion modules are based on silicon, a material that Mr. Mishra said was “running out of steam” in its ability to more efficiently convert power at high voltages.

He compared silicon-based power conversion modules to a dimmer switch that stayed warm even as it lowered the lights. A gallium nitride power conversion module is akin to a standard light switch that completely cuts the flow of electricity when turned off.

“Gallium nitride allows you to do that conversion without wasting energy,” said Mr. Mishra. “It can hold maximize voltage when off and minimizes loss.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 29, 2010.

Upping the ante in the greener-than-thou sweepstakes, San Francisco is building what would be the nation’s first LEED Gold-certified airport terminal.

LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a program run by the United States Green Building Council that awards certification to buildings that meet criteria for sustainability, energy efficiency, water use and other factors.

The revamped Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, which will be home to Virgin America when it opens next spring, is designed to cut energy use by 20 percent and will feature a reclaimed water system.

Ninety percent of the debris from the demolition of the old terminal is being recycled, according to the airport.

Hybrid car drivers will get preferential parking (though passengers can take the train to and from the airport) and the terminal will offer “hydration stations” so people can refill their reusable water bottles once they make it through security.

And fittingly for the birthplace of California cuisine, the terminal’s restaurants will sell locally grown organic food.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Sonoma County

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about the latest nail in the coffin of Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, programs:

Many homeowners who participated in a program that let them repay the cost of solar panels and other energy improvements through an annual surcharge on their property taxes must pay off the loans before they can refinance their mortgages, two government-chartered mortgage companies said Tuesday.

The guidance came from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as efforts to resolve a dispute over the program — called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE — have failed.

Approved by 22 states, the programs let municipalities sell bonds to finance improvements in energy efficiency. Homeowners typically pay back the loans over 20 years through an annual property tax assessment. As is the case with other property tax assessments, a lien is placed on the home that has priority over the mortgage if the homeowner defaults.

In July, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie, effectively derailed the program when it issued guidance to lenders stating that the liens violated the agency’s underwriting standards. Fannie and Freddie buy and sell most of the nation’s home mortgages.

That guidance led to the halt of most PACE programs and left in limbo those homeowners who had already taken out energy improvement loans.

On Tuesday, Fannie and Freddie issued guidance to lenders stating that borrowers with sufficient equity in their homes must pay off the loans before refinancing. Those homeowners without enough equity to take cash out of their home to pay off the lien can refinance with the loan in place.

“Fannie Mae will not purchase mortgage loans secured by properties with an outstanding PACE obligation unless the terms of the PACE program do not permit priority over first mortgage liens,” according to the guidance.

The program’s proponents have argued that it overcomes obstacles to installing expensive solar panels and making other energy efficiency improvements that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while creating jobs.

In response to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s actions, the California attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit in July against Fannie and Freddie, as did the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, legislation has been introduced in Congress to allow the program to go forward.

“It’s absolutely clear now that the F.H.F.A. is not at all interested in working out a solution that would allow PACE to proceed — the agency appears intent only on obstructing the program,” Janill L. Richards, a California supervising deputy attorney general, wrote in an e-mail.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

The Gulf oil spill disaster is usually tied to Americans’ insatiable appetite for gasoline to fuel an unsustainable lifestyle.

And while transportation accounts for most of the United States’ petroleum consumption, there are still more than 14 million homes that rely on some type of oil for heating. Retrofitting those houses to run on cleaner fuel and increase their energy efficiency could save as much oil as would be spilled in two Deepwater Horizon disasters a month, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, a non-profit focused on green building.

“Retrofitting our oil-heated homes and commercial buildings to 50 percent savings would save 2 billion barrels of oil by 2030, practically offsetting the amount of oil we could get by drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf,”  the report states. “In addition, home retrofits could save more than double the amount of natural gas that we could produce by drilling the Outer Continental Shelf.”

NRDC points out that the $20 billion BP has set aside for the Gulf cleanup could finance energy efficiency retrofits for every home in Louisiana and Mississippi, cutting homeowners utility bills by 25 percent. The nearly $4 billion BP has spent so far on the cleanup could pay for retrofitting 650,000 homes.

“That could have been spent on U.S.-made insulation, air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, and other products, as well as the labor to install them,” the report states. “Of course, oil savings from building efficiency pale in comparison to the savings potential of more efficient vehicles, better urban planning, and increasing transportation options, but the magnitude of the savings potential of the building sector illustrates just how short-sighted our focus on drilling has become.”

And while building energy efficiency improvements aren’t cheap, those investments will continue to pay dividends for decades in the form of lower energy bills and reduced demand for fossil fuels.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

The anemic economic recovery may have hit the dog days of summer with consumer spending and factory orders slowing, but the new energy economy continues to surge, according to a report released Tuesday by Ernst & Young.

Venture capital (VC) investment in renewable energy, electric cars, energy efficiency, and other green technology jumped to $1.5 billion in the United States in the second quarter of 2010, a nearly 64 percent spike over the second quarter of last year. Green tech investment now has returned to the record levels of the third quarter of 2008, before the global economic collapse shut down the VC’s ATM.

So where’s the money going? Between March and June, at least, investors hitched a ride with startups developing electric cars and the infrastructure to support them. Better Place, the Palo Alto company building electric vehicle charging networks around the world, snagged $350 million. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a sexy and pricy plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, scored $35 million, according to the report.

Solar remains a hot opportunity for venture capitalists, with nearly $439 million invested in the second quarter, a 183 percent increase from the year-ago quarter.

It’s no coincidence that the beneficiaries of investors’ largesse are also those startups that received federal loan guarantees to build big solar power plants. (Raising additional capital usually is a requirement for obtaining such federal loan guarantees.)

BrightSource Energy, for instance, secured a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its first solar power plant, now undergoing licensing in California. It then quickly raised $180 million from investors.

VCs also continue to pour cash — nearly $200 million in the second quarter — into energy efficiency startups, which tend to be far less capital-intensive than renewable energy companies.

So it’s a good time to go pitch that great green tech idea you’ve been kicking around, right?

Not necessarily. Ernst & Young notes that nearly 59 percent of investment in the second quarter went to so-called later-stage startups that are well on their way to rolling out products.

In other words, venture capitalists seem to be more interested in priming the pipeline for initial public offerings or acquisitions that will produce a big pay day than in financing what green tech investor Vinod Khosla calls “science experiments.”

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photo: Solyndra

In The New York Times on Friday, I follow up my story in Thursday’s paper on mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paralyzing PACE programs that allow homeowners to install solar arrays and make energy efficiency upgrades through an annual assessment on their property taxes:

In an article in The Times on Thursday, I explained how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-chartered mortgage giants, have derailed an innovate financing program that lets homeowners pay for expensive solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades over time through an annual surcharge on their property tax bills.

The program is called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, and it has been authorized by 22 states since 2008. The energy improvement assessments are secured by a lien on the home, but the agencies, which hold more than half of mortgages in the United States, recently sent letters to lenders warning them that such liens could not take priority over a mortgage. Fannie and Freddie worry that if a homeowner defaults, taxpayers will be left in the lurch, as property taxes generally are paid before mortgages are.

Putting aside whether such liens are any different from the property tax assessments commonly used to finance municipal improvements, how big a potential liability would Fannie and Freddie face?

Not very big, according to an analysis by the California attorney general’s office.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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This post first appeared on Grist.

I usually don’t write about companies’ funding announcements, unless the amount of money raised is particularly eye-popping. But when Recurve announced Wednesday that it had scored $8 million in its latest round of fund-raising, what caught my attention was who decided to invest in the San Francisco energy retrofit startup.

Along with the venture capital firms re-upping their investments — RockPort Capital Partners and Shasta Ventures — was a new investor, Lowe’s.

That the home improvement giant — $47 billion in sales, 1,700 stores — would invest in a relatively small “green energy remodeling” outfit is a sign that it sees potential in energy efficiency, at least enough to dip its corporate toe in the market.

The investment comes as companies like Recurve push Congress to pass legislation that would establish a $6 billion energy retrofit program called Home Star.

“Lowe’s 60-year history in the home improvement industry will be valuable in shaping Recurve’s growth,” said Pratap Mukherjee, Recurve’s chief executive.

Formerly called Sustainable Spaces, Recurve takes a Silicon Valley approach to energy retrofits. While the startup performs energy audits and dispatches crews to upgrade homes’ systems, it has also has developed software to automate the whole retrofit process for other green building companies in an industry dominated by mom-and-pop shops.

The software, delivered over the Internet, lets retrofitters enter data on a home’s energy profile in a laptop or handheld device during an audit, run electricity consumption simulations, calculate estimates and equipment needed for a retrofit, and generate reports for customers on the spot.

Contractors, of course, then can head down to their neighborhood Lowe’s to buy ducts, insulation, and other materials needed for a retrofit job. Which, in the end, may be one return on Lowe’s investment in Recurve.

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