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Archive for the ‘enviro startups’ Category

In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about GreenRoad, a Silicon Valley startup that uses technology to change drivers’ behavior to cut fuel use — and greenhouse gas emissions — as well as accidents:

I recently took the Chevrolet Volt for a spin near San Francisco’s ballpark, checking another item off my electric-car life list. (Getting to drive pre-production EVs is one fringe benefit of covering green tech.)

Then the other week, I took a drive in another car that promised to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. The car itself was unremarkable — a Lexus RX hybrid that anyone with a spare $42,000 can buy. What was potentially revolutionary was the little black box sitting on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel.

The box had three lights and when the car’s driver makes a fuel-wasting or dangerous move, such as slamming on the brakes, making fast, sharp turns or weaving through traffic — the LEDs go from green to yellow to red.

See, the problem, dear reader, isn’t just your carbon-spewing car, it’s you.

“There are habits that people fall into that they get away with all the time and by making slight changes in those habits you crash a lot less often and you burn less fuel,” says Dan Steere, chief executive of GreenRoad, a Silicon Valley startup that installs that little black box and other technology in commercial vehicle fleets. GreenRoad is backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund and Al Gore’s Generation investment firm.

The road to a sustainable future, in other words, will be paved not just with shiny new gadgets that help cut fossil-fuel consumption, but also by new technology designed to change people’s planet-unfriendly behavior.

“Most of the focus around safety and fuel consumption has been about making a vehicle less lethal when it crashes or inventing entirely new systems like the Volt to try and make the vehicles better,” says Steere. “Ninety percent of crashes are caused by a bad decision the driver made, and the EPA has said that 33 percent of fuel consumption is due to driver behavior.”

GreenRoad attempts to change drivers’ fuel-wasting ways by giving them constant feedback — the little black box — and by sending them weekly emails that analyze their driving and offer tips for improvements.

The payoff for GreenRoad’s corporate customers, according to Steere, is fewer accidents and a lower bill at the pump, all without having to make capital investments in new vehicles.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat has been in transition so I’m a bit behind on posting. In case you missed it, in the Sunday New York Times on May 9, I wrote a profile of David Gelbaum, one of the nation’s biggest — and until now — most reclusive green technology investors and environmental philanthropists:

AMID the $6 million homes perched on a beachfront cliff in this conservative Southern California enclave, the seven-year-old Honda Civic hybrid with the Obama bumper sticker is the giveaway.

It’s not the usual drive of choice for wealthy former hedge fund managers like David Gelbaum. Then again, there’s not much that is business as usual about Mr. Gelbaum, an intensely private person who happens to be one of the nation’s largest — and largely unknown — green technology investors and environmental philanthropists.

Mr. Gelbaum has invested $500 million in clean-tech companies since 2002 through his Quercus Trust, amassing a portfolio of some 40 businesses involved in nearly every aspect of the emerging green economy, be it renewable energy, the smart electric grid, sustainable agriculture, electric cars or biological remediation of oil spills. He has poured almost as much into environmental causes.

“I think his impact on green technology is huge,” says Bill Gross, the serial technology entrepreneur and founder of eSolar, a solar power start-up in which Mr. Gelbaum has invested. “He is supporting bolder and riskier bets, and he’s doing it from a different filter than a traditional venture capitalist, and I think that makes a wider opportunity for success.”

In this economic downturn, many venture capitalists have grown cautious about putting money into what Vinod Khosla, the prominent Silicon Valley green tech investor, calls “science experiments.” But Quercus Trust is still taking chances on blue-sky start-ups pursuing technological breakthroughs.

Working outside the clubby venture capital network, Mr. Gelbaum has, until recently, maintained an obsessively low profile. In Silicon Valley, he remains something of an unknown. Associates say his near-invisibility is owed to a genuine modesty and concerns over the security of his family because of his wealth. Recipients of his philanthropy, for instance, signed confidentiality agreements that forbade mention of his name.

Mr. Gelbaum says he decided to break his long silence upon becoming chief executive in February of Entech Solar, one of his portfolio companies that is publicly traded. “This is what’s best for the company,” he says, pointing out that Entech benefits if he maintains a more public profile.

It is too early to predict whether Mr. Gelbaum’s big green bets will pay off. But he’s been capitalizing on two trends: the rapid decline in the price of photovoltaic power, and a focus on cutting capital costs as solar power competition with China intensifies.

His environmental philanthropy also gives him an influence beyond laboratories and boardrooms. He has given $200 million to the Sierra Club and $250 million to the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust he co-founded that has acquired and preserved 1,200 square miles of land in California, including more than a half million acres of the Mojave Desert.

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: Todd Woody

In an interview I did with green tech entrepreneur Bill Gross for Yale Environment 360, Gross talks about the future of solar energy, his relationship with Google, and how to avoid battles over building large solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest:

Bill Gross is not your typical solar energy entrepreneur. In a business dominated by Silicon Valley technologists and veterans of the fossil fuel industry, Gross is a Southern Californian who made his name in software. His Idealab startup incubator led to the creation of companies such as eToys, CitySearch, and GoTo.com. The latter pioneered search advertising — think Google — and was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.

That payday has allowed Gross to pursue his green dreams. (As a teenager, he started a company to sell plans for a parabolic solar dish he had designed.) Over the past decade, Gross has launched a slew of green tech startups, including solar power plant builder eSolar, electric car company Aptera, and Energy Innovations, which is developing advanced photovoltaic technology.

But it has been eSolar, backed by Google and other investors, that has been Idealab’s brightest light. In January, the company signed one of the world’s largest green-energy deals when it agreed to provide the technology to build solar farms in China that would generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity — at peak output the equivalent of two large nuclear power plants. And last week, eSolar licensed its technology to German industrial giant Ferrostaal to build solar power plants in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Those deals followed eSolar partnerships in India and the U.S.

ESolar’s power plants deploy thousands of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a slender tower. The heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Last year, eSolar built its first project, a five-megawatt demonstration power plant, called Sierra, in the desert near Los Angeles.

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” Gross likes to quip, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

You can read the interview here.

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photo: Ausra

The week kicked off with French nuclear energy giant Areva’s acquisition of Silicon Valley solar company Ausra. As I wrote Monday in the Los Angeles Times:

French nuclear energy giant Areva has jumped into the U.S. renewable energy market with the acquisition of Ausra, a Silicon Valley solar power plant startup backed by high-profile venture capitalists.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but in an interview on Monday, Areva executive Anil Srivastava said that the price the company paid for Ausra was in line with the $418 million that rival Siemens spent last year to acquire Solel, an Israel solar power plant builder.

That would be a decent payday for Ausra’s investors, which include marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures.

“The current shareholders are very well-reputed venture capitalists and I can assure you they negotiated very well,” said Srivastava, the chief executive of Areva’s renewable energy division.

You read the rest of the story here.

And the week is ending with Thursday’s announcement of another Silicon Valley-European deal. This time, as I write in The New York Times, California’s SunPower is acquiring a European solar developer:

SunPower, a leading Silicon Valley solar company, said on Thursday that it has agreed to acquire SunRay Renewable Energy, a European photovoltaic power plant builder, in a $277 million deal.

The acquisition follows Monday’s purchase of Ausra, another Silicon Valley solar technology company, by Areva, the French nuclear energy giant in a deal that an Areva executive valued at around $400 million.

SunPower has previously supplied solar panels to SunRay, which has a pipeline of projects in Europe and Israel that totals 1,200 megawatts. SunRay, which is headquartered in Malta, is owned by its management and Denham Capital.

You can read the rest of that story here.

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The ability to fast-charge electric cars is seen as key to the adoption of battery-powered vehicles. But as I wrote in The New York Times on Thursday, utilities are worried such devices will overload the grid:

Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, announced a deal this week with a California company, AeroVironment, a maker of electric vehicle charging stations, to introduce fast-charging stations that can charge its battery-powered City car to 80 percent capacity in as little as 15 minutes.

A conventional charger can take eight or more hours to charge an electric car, depending on the battery.

“The development and deployment of very-fast-charge stations will help speed the electrification of automobiles in the United States and globally,” Richard Canny, Think’s chief executive, said in a statement.

But utilities — concerned that fast-chargers could overload the electricity grid — are more cautious.

Think and AeroVironment did not reveal the voltage of their fast-charger but such devices — known in the industry as “Level 3” chargers — generally average around 440 volts. Most household appliances run on 110 volts.

“It is premature to evaluate the feasibility or safety of Level 3 fast-charging equipment,” wrote Christopher Warner, a lawyer for the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, in a brief filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in October. “Such charging may require large investments in infrastructure and load management constraints in order to prevent ‘mini-peaks’ and localized impacts on grid reliability.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about a ground-breaking solar thermal deal struck by eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., to build two gigawatts of power plants in China over the next decade:

ESolar Inc. of Pasadena signed an agreement Friday to build a series of solar thermal power plants in China with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts, in one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind.

Coming four months after an Arizona company, First Solar, secured a contract to build an equally large photovoltaic power plant in China, the ESolar deal signals China’s emergence as a major market for renewable energy.

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” said Bill Gross, ESolar’s chairman and the founder of Idealab.

Under the agreement, ESolar will provide China Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. the technology and expertise to build solar “power tower” plants over the next decade. Those solar farms would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity; at peak output that would be equivalent to a large nuclear power plant. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The initial project, which includes a 92-megawatt solar power plant to be built this year, will be located in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in the Mongolian desert in northern China. The region has become a hot spot for renewable energy, with the 2,000-megawatt First Solar project planned 60 miles to the north.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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