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Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups developing new kinds of internal combustion engines that are more fuel efficient and less polluting:

BERKELEY, CALIF. – In this city where Toyota Priuses clog the roads and battery-powered Tesla Roadsters and Chevrolet Volts can be spotted at the organic farmers market, the engine factory in a gritty industrial neighborhood near San Francisco Bay is a throwback to the automotive past.

Or a harbinger of the future. In the middle of a metal building, stacked with hulking racecar engines from the internal combustion engine’s golden age, sits a small contraption hooked to a forest of red, white and green wires and tubes that hang from the ceiling and snake around the floor.

In a control room at Hasselgren Engineering, a technician flips a switch and the device roars to life as a large computer screen displays the performance of this new type of engine, which its developer, Pinnacle Engines, says will be up to 50 percent more efficient than today’s power plants.

As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the streets, Pinnacle is just one of several start-ups backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists aiming to reinvent the century-old internal combustion engine. The big promise: vast improvements in fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.

“While the buzz is all about electrics, the people who will actually adopt electrics are not a majority of the market,” said Monty Cleeves, who has kept Pinnacle under wraps since he founded the company in 2007. “The impact we will have over the next 15 to 20 years will be much larger than the impact of the electrics.”

Not long ago, the idea that entrepreneurs could attract tens of millions of dollars in venture capital to develop a new kind of engine would have seemed ludicrous. The big automakers have kept engine development to themselves, steadily improving the performance of a profitable technology that has served them well for more than a 100 years.

“Our engines are built into the DNA of our vehicles,” said Brett Hinds, engine design manager for Ford in Dearborn, Mich. “We at Ford are still committed to thinking of engines as part of our fundamentals.”

But the upheaval in the global car industry, new fuel efficiency standards for commercial vehicles, climate change concerns and the rise of China and India as automotive markets have opened the door to start-ups like Pinnacle

“Many automotive houses don’t buy engines from outside, but in the truck market people do,” said Rohini Chakravarthy, a partner at NEA, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif., that has invested in Pinnacle. “In Asia, there’s tremendous demand, and you’re not going up against the same level of incumbents.”

Pinnacle executives, for instance, said they had signed a deal to license their engine technology to a major Asian scooter manufacturer, which they declined to identify, for production in early 2013.

EcoMotors, a Detroit area start-up backed by Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates, has signed a development agreement with Navistar, the heavy truck and engine manufacturer, and a Chinese company it would not name. Achates Power, a San Diego engine start-up, is in talks with automakers, according to its chief executive, David Johnson, who said he also had met with potential customers in China and India.

All three companies are developing variations on an opposed piston engine, a technology used in airplanes and ships in the mid-20th century, but long considered too expensive and unworkable for automobiles.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Friday, I wrote about the organizers of California’s No on Proposition 23 campaign resurrecting their coalition to press for green energy policies in the Golden State and Washington:

George P. Shultz, the Republican former secretary of state, and Thomas F. Steyer, the Democratic hedge fund billionaire, are reviving the coalition that campaigned last year to defeat Proposition 23, the California ballot measure that would have derailed the state’s’ landmark global warming law.

Their new organization, Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, will push for greater investment in green technology and the enforcement of the global warming law, known as A.B. 32, according to Mr. Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco.

“We’re going to be fighting to make sure it is implemented in a way that not just creates businesses here, but the jobs stay here, and we get the kind of growth that will show the country that this way of thinking is intensely practical and real world,” Mr. Steyer said on Friday at a news conference.

“I hate to say we’re getting the band back together, but we’re getting the band back together,” he added.

Mr. Steyer and Mr. Shultz served as co-chairmen of the “No on 23″ campaign, which drew support from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, mainstream businesses, labor unions, environmentalists and minority groups. The No campaign won 61.4 percent of the vote last November to reject Proposition 23, which was largely backed by two Texas oil companies.

Mr. Shultz said the new group also hopes to have an impact in Washington, but he and Mr. Steyer were vague on specific policies they would support.

“The most important thing the federal government can do is to have substantial and sustained support for energy R&D – that’s what’s going to produce the game changers,” Mr. Shultz said.

In a speech last week in San Francisco, Mr. Steyer laid out a national strategy to fight Republican efforts to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But on Friday, he kept his focus on California, saying that the “No on 23″ campaign had about $1 million left in its coffers that would be used to support the new group’s efforts.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about PlugShare, a new iPhone app that lets people share their household outlets and electric car charging stations with EV drivers:

First there was music sharing and then car sharing. Now get ready for plug sharing.

Xatori, a Silicon Valley software start-up, aims to create a network of electric car enthusiasts who make their household power outlets and home chargers available for drivers who need to top off their battery or who find themselves out of range of the few public-charging stations currently available.

On Monday, Xatori released PlugShare, a free iPhone app that lets drivers and outlet owners locate and offer electricity.

“We want to break down that barrier in people’s minds about where it’s acceptable to charge,” said Armen Petrosian, Xatori’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We think the infrastructure to charge is everywhere.”

Drivers can punch in their destination to see the availability of shared outlets as well as public charging stations along their route.

People who want to share their electricity indicate what type of outlet or charger they have, how to gain access and their preferred method of contact. Given that most outlets are located in locked garages or otherwise behind closed doors, Xatori expects plug sharers will ask drivers to schedule a time to charge by calling or sending a text message.

“I think a big positive of using the app is that you get to connect with other E.V. owners,” said Mr. Petrosian.

In other words, think of PlugShare as a combination of FaceBook and Foursquare, the location-based service, for electric car owners and their supporters.

“People who don’t own an electric car can be part of the electric vehicle revolution,” said Forrest North, Xatori’s chief executive and the founder of Mission Motors, a San Francisco start-up developing an electric motorcycle.

But how much is it going to cost to take part in this revolution if the revolutionaries are giving away their power?

Not much, according to Xatori’s founders, who believe that most people will share their standard 110-volt household outlets. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, they say it’ll cost on average about 15 cents an hour to charge an electric car. (Under a variable rate structure, that cost could go up if a household is a particularly heavy electricity user.)

“This is more like a backup network, like A.A.A.,” said Mr. Petrosian, who says he has a battery-powered Nissan Leaf on order. “Most of the time you’ll drive on energy from your own house. If you miscalculate, you can rely on the community.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Portlandia may not be the sunniest of places, but it’s exporting solar energy in the form of photovoltaic panels used to build carbon-free power plants.

On Wednesday, SolarWorld — the German photovoltaic module maker that operates a big factory in Hillsboro, Ore. — announced it would supply panels and help develop an 11.6-megawatt solar farm in the Southern California desert for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

That’s a fairly small solar power plant. But it’s notable in that SolarWorld is jumping into the solar power plant development business. It’s also notable that the LADWP, the nation’s biggest municipally owned utility — immortalized in the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown for making the water grab that enabled modern Los Angeles — is taking steps to wean itself from coal-fired power.

For SolarWorld, the LADWP deal is back to the future. Ben Santarris, SolarWorld’s public affairs manager, told me that in 1981, during the solar dark ages, the world’s first 1-megawatt photovoltaic power plant was installed in Southern California by a firm subsequently acquired by the German company.

Santarris said solar panel supply had hindered SolarWorld’s power plant ambitions. But with the expansion of its Oregon factory, the company is back in the game.

“Just recently, for instance, we finished engineering and supply for a 1 MW system for the city of Bakersfield, and we are working on other similar projects in the distributed generation range of utility-scale projects,” Santarris said in an email. “Expansion of our U.S. capacity to 500 MW, however, has allowed us to resume our former vigor in multi-megawatt projects.”

And while California utilities have cultivated a clean and green image — you won’t find coal-fired power plants in the Golden State — the dirty little secret is that out-of-state coal supplies about 20 percent of our electricity. The LADWP is particularly coal-dependent, getting about 40 percent of its power from the black stuff.

California regulators have prohibited the state’s three big investor-owned utilities from signing any more long-term contracts for coal-fired power, and the LADWP has pledged to replace coal with renewable energy.

As part of that effort, SolarWorld is supplying 46,322 photovoltaic panels for what is called the Adelanto project. The LADWP will own and operate Adelanto, now under construction, when the power plant is completed.

The deal comes after the region’s dominant utility, Southern California Edison, has signed 1,081 megawatts worth of deals for photovoltaic power plants just since January.

Increasingly, it’s a solar world and we just live in it.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

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 30, 2010.

A subsidiary of NRG Energy on Tuesday said it will invest up to $450 million in a 250-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to be built by Silicon Valley’s SunPower on the central California coast.

The New Jersey-based power provider, which operates a fleet of fossil fuel and nuclear plants, has emerged as significant investor in solar projects.

In October, NRG agreed to invest $300 million in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar thermal power plant now under construction in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The company has also struck a partnership with eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif., startup, to build solar power plants in the desert Southwest. And NRG owns a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Blythe, Calif., and has other solar projects under development in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In the deal with SunPower, NRG Solar will take ownership of the California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County and responsibility for financing the project. SunPower said on Tuesday that it is seeking a federal loan guarantee to build the solar farm and has received a draft term sheet from the United States Department of Energy.

SunPower, a solar power plant developer and one of the U.S.’ largest manufacturers of photovoltaic modules, will build and operate the San Luis Obispo project. The company, based in San Jose, Calif., has a 25-year contract to sell the electricity generated by California Valley Solar Ranch to utility PG&E. Construction is set to begin next year and when the project is completed in 2013 it will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes, according to the company.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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