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Archive for the ‘energy efficiency’ Category

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about environmentalists’ less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the Obama administration’s proposed efficiency standards for water heaters, one of a home’s biggest energy hogs:

Environmentalists have had a lukewarm reaction to the Obama administration’s proposed energy efficiency standards for home water heaters.

The standards, which would take effect in 2015, could save consumers as much as $15.6 billion over 30 years, cut energy consumption and avoid emitting 154 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to the United States Department of Energy.

That’s good but not nearly good enough, said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a Boston-based group backed by energy efficiency advocates and environmental organizations.

“They fall short because they fail to take advantage of the advanced technology where the big savings are,” said Mr. deLaski. “The question is, do you just tweak existing technology or push the market to technologies that get you enormous savings?”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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A Silicon Valley  startup called EcoFactor aims to cut consumers’ electricity bills and help utilities manage peak demand by controlling homes’ heating and air conditioning systems over the Internet. As I write on Tuesday in The New York Times:

As utilities install more smart meters in homes, more companies are offering services that tap the devices’ ability to give consumers information about their electricity use.

But EcoFactor, a startup in the Silicon Valley suburb of Redwood City, aims to take things even further by gathering data about the weather, as well as consumers’ individual climate-control habits, to adjust a home’s air-conditioning and heating systems.

Call it a smart thermostat.

Besides learning when homeowners tend to turn on their heat or air-conditioning, EcoFactor also monitors weather down to the zip code level. Every 60 seconds, its algorithms take that data and calculate how much electricity use can be reduced while keeping the occupants comfortable.

“After three days of energy data collection, we’re able to create a thermodynamic model for a home and use that for running energy efficiency programs,” said Scott Hublou, a co-founder of EcoFactor and its senior vice president for products. “We understand how much outside weather impacts temperatures inside and how a home’s systems have to overcome that outside temperature.”
On Tuesday, EcoFactor announced a three-year agreement to run a program for the Texas utility Oncor to reduce peak electricity demand by three megawatts. That’s a relatively small amount, and the program will initially involve only a handful of households.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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2009 CC Fellow Group Shot

photo: EDF

In my new Green State column on Grist, I catch up with the Climate Corps, a group of green MBA students sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund. The Climate Corps recently finished 10-week internships with Fortune 500 companies, saving them an estimated $54 million through energy efficiency measures the students identified:

Back in May I wrote about the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Climate Corps, a cadre of 26 MBA students who were then prepping for summer internships at Fortune 500 companies. Their mission was to green up corporate operations to save money and cut carbon emissions.

With winter on the way and school back in session, I checked in to see how successful the Climate Corps was at combining the students’ financial smarts, technological know-how—half are engineers by training—and environmental ethic.

Pretty successful, it turns out. According to EDF, the interns identified energy efficiency measures that will collectively save an estimated $54 million at 22 companies (and one university), including eBay, Dell and Sony Pictures Entertainment. That translates into 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases avoided a year with an annual energy savings of 160 million kilowatt hours.

A couple of caveats are in order. Energy efficiency programs were already under way at many of the companies. And whether the projected $54 million in savings will actually be realized won’t be known until the energy efficiency efforts are completed—actual results may vary.

Still, anything close to $54 million is quite a return on investment, given that the companies altogether spent only $260,000 on intern salaries during the 10-week program.

But the long-term payoff is likely to be the emergence of a new corporate class- – the green financial engineer—and future CEOs—who reflexively view environmental performance as a bottom-line concern.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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esolar_8
photo: eSolar

In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about how the rise of green technology is changing the way Silicon Valley venture capitalists do business:

Silicon Valley venture capitalists have always been about inventing the future — taking a wild idea, nurturing it with cash and creativity and giving birth to new products, companies and industries we once couldn’t imagine and now can’t conceive of living without: the Web, Google, the iPhone, Twitter.

But as green technology becomes the latest tech wave to break from the nation’s entrepreneurial epicenter, it’s now all about companies reinventing the past. Solar power companies, electric car start-ups and algae biofuel ventures aim to remake century-old trillion-dollar industries on a global scale.

Venture capitalists poured $4 billion into green-tech start-ups in 2008 — nearly 40% of all tech investments in the U.S., according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Green-tech investment plunged in the first half of 2009 to $513 million as the recession dragged on, but there are signs of a rebound: Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures announced this month that it had raised $1.1 billion — the biggest first-time fund in a decade — that would be largely devoted to investing in green-tech start-ups, many in Southern California.

But green-tech companies face unique challenges, including global markets, tough technological hurdles and a future shaped by government incentives and regulatory policy. Those challenges are changing the game on Sand Hill Road.

“If you’re starting a Web 2.0 company, your basic needs are personnel and servers — there is no physical product, no manufacturing capacity, no inventory, no steel in the ground,” VantagePoint’s Salzman said, referring to software-based companies that provide services over the Internet.

Green-tech start-ups, he said, often need big money and investors steeped in big science and big government.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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ausra-kimberlina

photo: Ausra

In Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about green tech guru Vinod Khosla’s new $1.1 billion venture funds — the biggest first-time fund since the halcyon days of the dot-com era a decade ago and and a strong signal that investors see a bright future in clean and green technologies. CalPERS, the United States’ biggest pension fund, is the major backer of the new Khosla Ventures’ funds:

In a sign that green technology investing is bouncing back, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Khosla Ventures said Tuesday that it had raised $1.1 billion to spur development of renewable energy and other clean technologies.

It is the biggest first-time fund in a decade and comes as venture capital investment in green technology is just beginning to recover from a precipitous fall prompted by the global economic collapse last fall.

In the first half of the year, investments in green tech plunged to $513 million from $2 billion in the first six months of 2008, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., and a leading green tech guru, has managed to raise an $800-million fund to invest in early and mid-stage clean energy and information technology companies as well as a $275-million fund to finance what he called high-risk “science experiments” that may exist only in a university laboratory.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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ibm-smarter-planet

While the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday issued nearly $8 billion in loans to Ford (F), Nissan and Tesla Motors to manufacture electric cars and batteries, IBM unveiled an initiative to develop a next-generation battery technology that would allow those vehicles to travel 400 miles or more on a charge.

Big Blue will investigate the potential of lithium air technology to replace current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. Lithium air potentially could pack 10 times the energy density of lithium ion storage devices by drawing oxygen into the batteries to use as a reactant. As a result lithium air batteries would weigh less than lithium ion batteries, C. Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, told Green Wombat.

So besides powering cars, lithium air batteries could store electricity generated from solar power plants and wind farms, turning them into 24/7 energy sources.

But don’t expect to see the super-charged batteries anytime soon.”This is a five-to-10-year project,” says Narayan. “The first phase is to go after the big science problems. Then we’re ready to engage with automotive companies and battery manufacturers.”

The technological hurdles are high and even IBM (IBM), with its expertise in nanotechnology, green chemistry and supercomputing, won’t try to go it alone. It’s seeking partners at research universities and government laboratories to crack the tech challenges, which include developing a membrane that will strip water out of the air before it enters the battery and the development of nano materials to prevent layers of lithium oxide from interfering with chemical reactions.

IBM intends to limit its role in the battery business to R&D. “We have no desire to make batteries,” says Rich Lechner, IBM’s vice president for energy and the environment. “We will license the IP.”

In another sign that climate change and the imminent imposition of carbon caps are creating opportunities for Big Business and rearranging the competitive landscape, IBM also announced “Green Sigma,” an alliance of erstwhile competitors that will offer solutions to companies seeking to shrink their carbon footprint.

Green Sigma includes business software giant SAP (SAP), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON). Dave Lebowe, an IBM executive with the Green Sigma program, acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interests among these frenemies but said such problems were outweighed by the upside of bringing together a broad range of expertise to help customers cut their CO2 emissions and save money.

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Pew clean energy report

graphic: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Clean energy jobs grew 9.1% over the past decade and now number 770,000 as the green tech economy makes inroads in every U.S. state and outstrips conventional job creation, according to a new study released Wednesday by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Non-green energy jobs, in contrast, grew by 3.7% between 1998 and 2007. The traditional fossil fuel industry employed 1.27 million workers in 2007.

Pew worked with California research firm Collaborative Economics to conduct an actual count of 68,200 businesses engaged in its definition of the clean energy economy — activity that “generates jobs, businesses and investments while expanding clean energy production, increasing energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution, and conserving water and other natural resources.”

Clean energy economy jobs were divided into five sectors: clean energy, energy efficiency, environmentally friendly production, conservation and pollution mitigation, and training and support.

“Americans are struggling to get a sense of the nation’s economic future,” Lori Grange, interim deputy director of the Pew Center on the States, said on a conference call Wednesday morning.  “The nation’s clean energy economy is poised for explosive growth.”

“It just isn’t California,” she added. “Every state has a piece of the clean energy economy.”

Nevertheless, California remains a clean-energy unto itself and boasted 125,390 jobs generated by 10,209 green businesses in 2007. The Golden State, not surprisingly, attracted $6.6 billion in venture capital funding between 2006 and 2008, six times the amount captured by the runner-up, Massachusetts. Startups focused on clean energy and energy efficiency scored 80% of venture capital investments. California also led in clean energy patents, with 1,401 granted between 1998 and 2007 compared to New York’s 909.

California, however, is getting a run for its money from Oregon, Colorado and other states. Oregon had one of the fastest rates of clean energy job creation and those jobs accounted for the highest percentage of overall employment compared to other states — between .82% and 1.02%.

And Texas, for instance, is the world’s sixth-largest producer of wind energy, Pew researchers said.

The report’s patent numbers offer one indication of where the clean energy economy is headed. Between 1999 and 2008, batteries accounted for 46.6% of the patents while fuel cells took 25.6%. Solar had 8.7% of all clean energy patents and wind had 5%.  However, the growth rate in battery patents fell 33% between 1999 and 2008 while fuel cell patents jumped 96% and hybrid system patents grew 147%. Solar patents fell 15% as wind patents grew 155%.

The average annual salaries for clean energy jobs ranged from $21,000 to $111,000, according to the Pew report.

State policies requiring renewable energy production and energy efficiency measures have played a significant role in driving green energy job growth, the Pew authors said. A map showing regions with the biggest green job growth correlate with a map of states with the strongest renewable energy policies.

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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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clintonbill1Another reason Green Wombat will be spending Earth Day in Southern California this year: Former President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote speech at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference on April 22.

Clinton will be joining a gathering of business and environmental leaders, including Ford (F) executive chairman Bill Ford, PG&E (PCG) chief executive Peter Darbee, SunPower (SPWRA) CEO Tom Werner and executives from Fortune 500 companies like IBM (IBM),  Wal-Mart (WMT) and General Electric (GE). On the green side of the aisle, execs from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace will be attending the confab in Laguna Niguel.  Former California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, now chairman of the Apollo Alliance, and green jobs guru Van Jones will also be present.

We now end the shameless self-promotion and return to our regular Green Wombat programming.

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freescale-pwr-conversion_lr1

photo: Freescale

Freescale Semiconductor on Monday is unveiling a new power conversion technology that the chipmaker says will dramatically enhance the efficiency of solar cells and other devices by allowing them to operate at low voltages.

That means a single solar cell attached to a mobile phone or other handheld device could charge the gadget. The bigger potential is to maximize the electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. which typically contain a dozen or more solar cells each. When a cloud or a tree shades part of a solar panel, power output from all the solar cells drops because they are linked together. By integrating Freescale’s power convertersamsung-blue-earth1 into each solar cell, those that aren’t shaded can still produce electricity, according to Arman Naghavi, general manager of Freesale’s Analog, Mixed-Signal & Power Division.

That’s because each solar cell can operate at much lower voltages when Freescale’s (FSL) converter is used. While most electronics need a jolt of 700 millivolts to begin working, Freescale’s technology allows them to operate on as little as 320 millivolts. (See video below.)

Sounds geeky but the consequences could be far-ranging, reducing electricity consumption and opening the door to a new generation of solar-powered devices.  One big hurdle to using solar cells to power everything from laptops to street lights is that it takes too many of them to produce enough power to be practicable. After all, who’s going to carry around a solar panel to charge their MacBook.

Freescale’s technology could change that equation. “For instance, you wouldn’t have to put a battery in a garage door opener – just add a solar strip on the remote control,” Kevin Parmenter, a Freescale applications engineering manager, told Green Wombat. (Samsung last week announced it would start selling a mobile phone (photo above) equipped with a solar panel but it’s unclear just how much talk or texting time it would allow.)

Other uses are more sci-fi: self-powered nanosensors that tap the technology to harvest ambient heat or friction in the environment.

The converter will hit the market in the second half of 2009. Potential customers include solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP) as well as biomedical companies and defense contractors. Freescale, headquartered in Austin, Texas, was spun out of Motorola (MOT) in 2004.

“It really helps the entire green movement,” says Naghavi. “We are seeing a tremendous interest from lots of areas historically we have never touched or played in.”





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