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Archive for the ‘enviro capitalism’ Category

northern-hairy-nosed-wombat-alan-horsup-qpws

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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Monday night, Green Wombat swung by SF Green, one of a growing number of green tech networking events sprouting up around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The draw – beyond drinks with a standing-room-only crowd of bright-eyed twenty-and-thirtysomethings in a San Francisco art gallery – was the appearance of leading venture capitalist Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Darryl Siry of Tesla Motors, maker of the Roadster electric supercar.

Despite the fact that Tesla has sued a Kleiner company, Fisker Automotive – which is producing an electric hybrid sports sedan – for alleged intellectual property theft, no sparks flew. (Though at Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Green conference, Lane couldn’t resist taking a jab at allegations that Fisker founder Henrik Fisker appropriated Tesla technology when he did design work for the Silicon Valley startup: “It’s ridiculous,” Lane said. “Henry Fisker wouldn’t know a drive train from a glass of water. He’s a designer.)

Siry, Tesla’s vp of sales, marketing & service, said five of the $100,000 Roadsters have rolled off the assembly line so far with one car tooling around Los Angeles, and others in the Bay Area and London. By year’s end, Tesla, which has been wrestling with drive train problems, should have more than 100 cars on Bay Area roads, home to many the company’s tech titan customers.

Tesla has raised $145 million, Siry noted, and will do another round before an IPO. The Roadster will always be a limited production marquee car but to mass produce its next vehicle, a five-seat sports sedan code-named White Star, Tesla will need that IPO or project financing. Siry also sketched a future where Tesla might supply electric drive trains to automakers in exchange for project financing.

“Tesla is a tech company wrapped in an automotive brand,” he said at the event co-sponsored by VentureBeat.

Lane and Kleiner Perkins have gone beyond investing in electric car companies to running one. Lane is chairman of Think North America, the U.S. arm of Norwegian electric carmaker Think Global. Kleiner and Rockport Capital took a 50 percent stake in the North American operation, which launched last month.

The Think and Fisker investments are emblematic of a new direction for VCs who have jumped into the green tech game. Unlike the first dot-com era or even the current Web 2.0 age, there’s no quick exit on the horizon for investments in green tech companies that may be years away from producing a product and require hundreds of millions, if not billions, in project financing to build car factories or solar energy power plants.

Lane compared investing in green tech to the long-term horizon needed for investing in biotech startups, where the key is to hit milestones that allow investors to calculate valuations.

Still, it’s a big gamble, given rising commodity prices and global economic upheaval.

Kleiner is also an investor in solar power plant startup Ausra. “Steel prices are killing us,” Lane said. Ausra’s power plants consist of hundred of acres of mirrors mounted on steel frames. “With Ausra, we [calculate] we could deliver solar thermal electricity at 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. But with steel prices, who knows?”

A shortage of qualified green tech workers has become an issue, according to Lane. The nascent solar power plant business relies on recruiting engineers and project developers from the carbon-based industry. “Talented people in project development at companies like Bechtel are maxed out for years on building projects,” he said.

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