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Archive for the ‘enviro capitalism’ Category

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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Global investment in green technology rose 12% to $1.2 billion in the second quarter after two quarters of sharp declines, according to a report released Wednesday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

Electric cars attracted the most investment at $236 million while solar fell to a low of $114 million. Biofuels scored $206 million and advanced batteries received $165 million from investors.

“It looks like things have leveled out and have stabilized,” said Brian Fan, senior director of research for the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm.

Still, the second quarter numbers are down 44% from a year ago.

North America grabbed 66% of green tech investment while Europe and Israel captured 21% percent, India 11% and China 1%.

Fan said that while investors were hot on smart grid companies at the end of 2008 their ardor has cooled so far this year.

In a sign that the green tech industry has been consolidating as the recession drags on, mergers and acquisitions jumped 291% in the second quarter to $12.2 billion.

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Stirling Energy Systems Solar One project

image: URS

Green Wombat spent several months looking into allegations that California labor unions are using environmental laws to pressure  solar developers to hire union workers to build large-scale solar power plants. The story was published last Friday in The New York Times:

SACRAMENTO — When a company called Ausra filed plans for a big solar power plant in California, it was deluged with demands from a union group that it study the effect on creatures like the short-nosed kangaroo rat and the ferruginous hawk.

By contrast, when a competitor, BrightSource Energy, filed plans for an even bigger solar plant that would affect the imperiled desert tortoise, the same union group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, raised no complaint. Instead, it urged regulators to approve the project as quickly as possible.

One big difference between the projects? Ausra had rejected demands that it use only union workers to build its solar farm, while BrightSource pledged to hire labor-friendly contractors.

As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings.

If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Alan Horsup, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

In the ultimate in green corporate branding, Swiss mining conglomerate Xstrata is spending millions of dollars to save one of the world’s most imperiled large mammals, Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat. It’s the first time a corporation has agreed to finance the recovery of an endangered species, and in return Xstrata gets its name on everything from wombat websites to educational DVDs to the shirts worn by wildlife workers. Not to mention lots of green goodwill.

My story on Xstrata and the northern hairy-nosed wombat appears in the March 23 issue of Time Magazine. (See “Wombat Love” and the accompanying photo gallery.)

Only about 115 northern hairy-nosed wombats — a nocturnal, bearlike burrowing marsupial — survive in a single colony at Epping Forest National Park in a remote part of Queensland. The Xstrata money is paying for the creation of a second colony some 700 kilometers away as an insurance policy against a calamity at Epping that could wipe out the species.

I’ve been following the efforts of a small band of dedicated wildlife officials, led by conservation officer Alan Horsup, to save the northern hairy-nosed for the past couple of years. I have been privileged on a few occasions to encounter the extremely reclusive critter, which has rarely even been photographed. (Warren Clarke, who took the photos for my Time Magazine story, captured some of the best shots of the northern hairy-nose ever taken.)

Below is a video I shot of a wombat grazing during my most recent visit to Epping in January. It’s not the best quality but is notable for the fact that once we spotted the wombat it did not disappear down a burrow but let us get an extended glimpse of its behavior.

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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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malta-smart-grid

Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

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Illustration: Genomatica

Outside of ExxonMobil (XOM), petrochemical companies would seem to be the least likely to join the sustainability movement sweeping corporations worldwide. After all, how do you green an industry predicated on petroleum as a key ingredient?

The answer, according to San Diego startup Genomatica, is to replace hydrocarbons with carbohydrates. The company is announcing Tuesday that it has bioengineered a microorganism that ingests sugar and water to produce a chemical called 1,4‐butanediol. Commonly known as BDO, the chemical is a raw material found in everything from golf balls to skateboard wheels to spandex. Although Genomatica is planning a pipeline of bioengineered chemicals, BDO alone is a $4 billion business.

“By using carbohydrates versus hydrocarbons, we can produce BDO with less energy and that translates into a smaller carbon footprint,” Genomatica CEO Christopher Gann told Green Wombat.

So far, Genomatica – founded in 2000 and backed by marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firms Mohr Davidow Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson – has only produced batches of BDO in the laboratory. But Gann,  a veteran of Dow Chemical (DOW), and company president Christophe Schilling claim that by the middle of 2009 they will be able to make bioengineered BDO cheaper than the petroleum-based chemical.

“This is a disruptive technology,” Gann says.

If Genomatica lives up to its claims of success in the lab, the technology indeed could potentially turn the petrochemical industry on its head.

First, anything that removes petroleum from a manufacturing process is going to get noticed. (While transportation accounts 70% of the 20.7 million barrels of oil consumed in the United States daily, a significant portion is used for chemicals  – up to 25% in the gulf states home to the nation’s petrochemical industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

Second, Genomatica’s microorganism leaves behind none of the nasty byproducts of petrochemical production, avoiding the health risks and costs of containing, storing and cleaning up toxic waste.

Lastly, Gann and Schilling say Genomatica’s technology frees BDO production from vast and accident-prone petrochemical complexes. “Since the raw materials are sugar and water, we can locate next to where there’s sugar and water or locate next to where the product can be consumed,” says Gann.

The startup was spun out of the University of California at San Diego, where Schilling and his mentor, Professor Bernhard Palsson, developed a technology platform to design virtual microorganisms. Schilling compares the process to the way airliners are designed entirely on computers.

“It allows us to model and simulate how microorganisms would survive and grow,” he says. “We can now go ahead and figure out the best way to engineer the organism to perform a particular task. We use off-the-shelf technologies and some proprietary ones to produce the organisms.”

Genomatica, which has raised $20 million from the Silicon Valley VCs as well as some Icelandic angel investors, will make money by licensing its technology to chemical companies. Gann and Schilling declined to identify other chemicals in their product pipeline but said they were related to the class of petrochemicals known as “cracker-plus-one.”

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photos: Energy Conversion Devices

As Detroit automakers shutter SUV and truck factories, the decades-long de-industrialization of the Midwest continues apace. But amid the idled assembly lines, a new wave of manufacturing has taken root as solar energy companies set up shop in the heartland.

Just in the past week, First Solar (FSLR) announced an expansion of its Ohio plant that makes thin-film solar panels. German company Flabeg will break ground on a factory outside Pittsburgh that will manufacture parabolic solar mirrors for large-scale solar power plants planned for the Southwest. Thin-film solar company Energy Conversion Devices (ENER), meanwhile, operates three factories in Michigan and is currently doubling the production capacity of one of its plants.

In fact, nearly all the United States’ current solar manufacturing capacity is in the Midwest, save for Silicon Valley company Ausra’s factory in Las Vegas. (Thin-film startup Nanosolar is building a factory in San Jose, Calif.)

“Our processes really require high productivity, so what makes it competitive here in the Midwest is that we have a great labor force that is eager to work and well-trained already,” ECD chief executive Mark Morelli told Green Wombat on Monday.

For instance, when appliance maker Electrolux shut down its Greenville, Mich., factory it left 2,700 workers unemployed in the same town where ECD is expanding its thin-film factory (see photos). The company also has recruited top executives from the ever-shrinking auto industry.

“We do a test of the available labor pool and hire the cream of the crop,” Morelli says.

Just as important are a plethora of state tax breaks and grants to retrain industrial workers for the green tech economy.

Although 70 percent of ECD’s flexible solar laminate panels are sold to European customers, Morelli anticipates the U.S. market will take off, with domestic manufacturers garnering a competitive advantage.

That all depends on whether Congress extends a crucial investment tax credit that expires this year and the policies of the next administration in Washington. Even so, demand for solar cells is expected to spike, especially given the recent unveiling of Big Solar projects by California utilities. Southern California Edison (EIX), for instance, is installing 250-megawatts’ worth of solar panels on commercial rooftops while PG&E (PCG) this month announced contracts to buy 800 megawatts of electricity from two photovoltaic power plants, including 500-megawatt thin-film solar farm being built by OptiSolar.

“As utilities begin to embrace distributed power generation, these type of things play into our natural advantage,” says Morelli, referring to his company’s lightweight solar panels that are especially suited for large rooftop arrays.

Of course, a handful of solar factories are not going to revive the Midwest’s industrial fortunes. (First Solar, for instance, operates factories in Germany and Malaysia, and Morelli doesn’t rule out locating manufacturing overseas.) But imagine a national policy that promotes the wide adoption of solar and the expansion of manufacturing in the rustbelt states becomes increasingly attractive. Shipping solar panels and mirror arrays from halfway around the world starts to make much less environmental and financial sense.

ECD’s proximity to the auto industry has already paid off. After installing solar arrays on two of General Motors (GM)’s California facilities, it won a contract in July to build a 12-megawatt rooftop array – the world’s largest by orders of magnitude – at a GM assembly plant in Spain.

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Oilman turned wind wildcatter T. Boone Pickens met with presumptive Republican presidential nominee  John McCain Friday morning to pump his Pickens Plan to wean the United States from imported oil by shifting electricity production to wind farms and using natural gas to fuel cars and trucks. On Sunday, he’ll hook up with Democrat Barack Obama.

The McCain meeting was “good…very relaxed,” Pickens said Friday during a conference call with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to promote next week’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “It was a free flowing discussion. I presented the Pickens Plan to him, and he asked a lot of questions about it. He feels like I’m an energy expert, and he wanted information.”

Pickens began a campaign in July to foster a bipartisan approach to reducing the U.S.’s dependence on imported oil, declaring the “the United States is the Saudi Arabia of wind power.” Pickens is building the nation’s largest wind farm in Texas, and he has an interest in a natural gas transportation company.

Though Nevada Democrat Reid remarked, “Who would have thought that T. Boone Pickens and Sen. Harry Reid would have been in same boat pulling the oars same way,” Pickens made clear he’s no latter-day Al Gore.

“I’d open it all up to drilling – OCS, ANWAR,” he said, referring to the outer continental shelf and the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge – the third rail of environmental politics.

“The one place I differ with Senator McCain is that I said if you’re going to open the OCS, throw in ANWAR too,” Pickens added.

Gore and other greens have questioned the viability and environmental impact of using natural gas for transportation. Pickens, on the other hand, said he isn’t opposed to electric cars. But, he added, “We can’t make a big cut [in oil imports] in ten years without using natural gas as a transportation fuel.  Use it for trucks and let them do what they want with cars.”

For Reid’s part, he said offshore drilling was still on the table, but he’s pushing for Congress to extend the renewable energy investment tax credit that expires at the end of the year. Scores of wind and solar projects – like the massive photovoltaic power plants that California utility PG&E (PCG) unveiled Thursday with SunPower (SPWR) and OptiSolar – are contingent upon Congress renewing the 30% tax credit.

“We have people standing by willing to invest billions of dollars in renewable energy,” Reid said. “The future is not in a commodity that was discovered in the 18th century. The future is sun, wind, geothermal.”

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