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photo: CoolPlanetBiofuels

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about Google Ventures funding a Southern California startup that is developing mobile biofuel refineries that will travel to the fuel source to process agricultural waste and other biomass:

Google Ventures has led a $20 million financing round in CoolPlanetBiofuels, a Southern California start-up that is developing mobile refineries to turn wood chips, agriculture waste and other biomass into biofuels.

CoolPlanetBiofuels, an 18-month-old company, has also attracted the attention of ConocoPhillips, GE Capital and NRG Energy, which participated in the financing round along with North Bridge Venture Partners.

CoolPlanetBiofuels declined to disclose the total capital that it had raised, but it noted that Google Ventures was a major participant in the series B round announced Thursday.

“We take biomass such as corncobs, yard clippings wood chips and fractionate that biomass into discrete gas streams,” said Mike Cheiky, CoolPlanetBiofuels’ chief executive and a longtime technology executive. “Those individual gas streams aren’t really useful by themselves, so we run them through catalytic conversion columns that convert them to useful fuels.”

One limitation of using biomass as a feedstock for biofuels has been the expense of trucking low-value waste long distances to a refinery. So CoolPlanetBiofuels plans to take the refineries to the fuel source by packaging its machines in tractor-trailers.

“Biomass cannot be transported very far because in raw form it has a very low energy content,” Mr. Cheiky said.

He said a typical refinery would consist of a cluster of tractor-trailers that can process 10 million gallons of fuel a year.

“There’s a very large market opportunity here with a lot of headroom for innovation,” said Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing director. “These are early days and this space won’t end up with a single winner but any progress Mike and CoolPlanet can make will have a profoundly positive impact on consumers, the industry and the world.”

So far CoolPlanetBiofuels has built a small pilot plant that is producing biofuel for evaluation by oil companies, Mr. Cheiky said. He declined to identify the companies, citing a confidentiality agreement. The company expects to have its first one-million gallon mobile refinery operating within a year.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about WeatherBill, a San Francisco startup that announced a $42 million round of financing from Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures:

Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures have led a $42 million financing round in WeatherBill, a San Francisco start-up that insures farmers against extreme weather that can cripple crop production.

Founded by Google alumni, the four-year-old company runs computer simulations to predict the likelihood of extreme weather in any given location at any given time and charges farmers accordingly.

“We provide protection to farmers of unexpected weather primarily caused by extremes of rainfall or temperature, something we’re seeing more of because of climate change,” said David Friedberg, WeatherBill’s chief executive, citing the recent floods in Australia and drought in China.

“By getting a guarantee on what one might make on an acre of farming, farmers can feel more comfortable about making investments in their operations,” Mr. Friedberg, who was a founding member of Google’s corporate development team, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

He said WeatherBill has now raised just under $60 million from investors that also include NEA, Index Ventures, Allen & Company, First Round Capital, Atomico and Code Advisors.

The investment marks a growing interest by Silicon Valley venture capital firms in the nascent sustainable agricultural market, also called Ag 2.0, which is loosely defined as environmentally beneficial farming,

“Recently we’ve been very, very interested in the impact of technology on agriculture,” said Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor and founder of Khosla Ventures. “I realize that agriculture is an unusual area for venture capital but I would submit that agricultural technology has the same potential in agriculture as biotechnology had in pharmaceuticals or chip technology had in telecommunications.”

Bill Maris, managing director of Google’s investment arm, however, made clear that his firm was not about to trade in the company Prius for a pickup truck, taking pains to describe WeatherBill as a cloud computing startup not an agriculture or insurance play.

“This is a technology company working on something that is going to have a real-world impact on a foundational global industry, which is agriculture,” Mr. Maris said. “Helping famers protect their financial futures and protect the global food supply is something I think we all can be passionate about.”

Mr. Friedberg said WeatherBill’s computer scientists and climatologists crunch weather data and feed it into computer models run on hundreds of servers and are updated several times a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a Google-backed startup that unveiled a new power conversion technology it claims will dramatically cut the energy consumption of motors, electronic gadgets and other devices:

A Southern California start-up backed by Google and prominent venture capital firms announced on Wednesday a technology it claimed could slash the electricity consumption of a wide range of devices like industrial motors, hybrid cars, computers and cellphones.

The result could be electric cars that drive farther without recharging, the disappearance of bricklike device chargers and solar panels that generate more electricity, according to the founders of Transphorm.

The company, based in Goleta, Calif., has developed a power conversion module that it says cuts energy waste by 90 percent. Currently, about 10 percent of the energy generated in the United States is lost as electricity because it is converted from alternating current to direct current and back, according to Umesh Mishra, Transphorm’s chief executive.

“That converts to hundreds of terawatts of energy loss,” said Mr. Mishra, a professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during Transphorm’s unveiling at the Mountain View, Calif., offices of Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment arm. “We will save hundreds of terawatt hours when Transphorm’s technology is fully implemented, the equivalent of taking the West Coast off the grid.”

The four-year-old start-up has raised $38 million in funding from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital to develop a new type of power conversion module based on gallium nitride, a compound used in LEDs. Google has yet to test Transphorm’s power module as the product hasn’t been available.

“The opportunity is to take 300 coal plants off grid effectively, said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Mr. Mishra said Transphorm had signed up customers like Yaskawa Electric Corporation, a Japanese maker of motors and industrial robots, and would introduce its first products in March.

Current conversion modules are based on silicon, a material that Mr. Mishra said was “running out of steam” in its ability to more efficiently convert power at high voltages.

He compared silicon-based power conversion modules to a dimmer switch that stayed warm even as it lowered the lights. A gallium nitride power conversion module is akin to a standard light switch that completely cuts the flow of electricity when turned off.

“Gallium nitride allows you to do that conversion without wasting energy,” said Mr. Mishra. “It can hold maximize voltage when off and minimizes loss.”

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 29, 2010.

Environmentalists have long used Google Earth to keep tabs on mountaintop mining and to monitor deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Now with the release Monday of the latest version of Google’s virtual world maps, they’ll be able to literally see the trees in the forest  — in 3D.

Among other new features, Google Earth 6 has initially mapped more than 80 million trees in seven cities, from olive groves in Athens to the flowering dogwoods of Tokyo. Viewers can also fly through a section of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

“Google wants to create a more accurate and real model of the world and we want to make sure we’re adding in more information to make the planet more alive and more complete,” Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth, said in an interview. “Trees provide context wherever you go and this allows you to tell the story of forestlands.”

Birch said Google is working with environmental groups, indigenous peoples and government in Africa, Mexico and South America to use the 3D Trees feature in reforestation and conservation projects.

“We’re modeling the saplings they’re planting as well as areas of mature trees, so people can fly around and get idea of what the forest looks like,” he said.

In Mexico, Google is collaborating with CONABIO, the country’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, to map coastal mangrove forests. Brazil’s Surui people are using Google Earth 6 to map trees significant to the tribe. And in Kenya, the Greenbelt Movement will model five forest restoration projects with the Google software.

Google Earth 6 will initially include 50 tree species and map parks and urban areas of Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo and the University of California campus in Davis, Calif.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Talk about student activism: Lucy Southworth, a Stanford University doctoral student, has given $100,000 to the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global warming law.

If the name doesn’t ring a bill, try Googling. In Silicon Valley, Southworth is better known as the wife of Google co-founder Larry Page.

Her contribution follows the $500,000 earlier donated to the No campaign by Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. (Disclosure: Wendy Schmidt serves on Grist’s board of directors.)

The No forces took in $200,580 in campaign contributions on Monday, following a $5 million haul in the previous week, according to California Secretary of State records. Applied Materials, the world’s biggest manufacturer of the machines that make computer chips, gave $25,000 on Monday; Chicago-based wind developer Invenergy donated $10,000; and William S. Fisher, San Francisco investor and an heir to the Gap clothing empire, donated $25,000, as did Sakurako D. Fisher.

All this check writing is to protect California’s climate change law, known as AB 32. The law requires the state to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. Prop 23 would suspend AB 32 until the unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, a rare occurrence in recent decades.

The Yes campaign, which is largely funded by two Texas oil companies, continues to lag far behind in the fundraising department of late. It logged one $5,000 contribution on Monday, from a Mississippi barge company that hauls petroleum and petrochemicals.

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photo: eSolar

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

As the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall election campaign approaches, the battle is intensifying over Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would effectively repeal the state’s landmark climate change law.

And thus the title of a gathering Tuesday at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters: “Electric Bills & Oil Spills: Will California Continue to be a Clean Energy Leader?”

The not-so-subtle subtext: Not if Prop 23 passes.

“We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign,” Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar (yes, that’s his title), said as he kicked off the event in a company café packed with Bay Area green A-listers.

Not surprisingly, the panel focused less on the environmental consequences of Prop 23 than on the potential for the ballot initiative to derail California’s green tech revolution.

“Proposition 23 will kill markets and the single largest source of job growth in California in the last two years,” declared Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor, referring to the clean energy economy. “Not only that, it’ll kill investment in the long term for creating the next 10 Googles.”

Chipped in Weihl: “For California, we can either lead in this and invest in it and participate in this huge growth sector or cede that to China, India, and other places. It would be crazy for us to sit back and let others take that opportunity.”

Underwritten by Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero and other out-of-state fossil fuel corporations, Prop 23 would suspend California’s global warming law — popularly known as AB 32, as in Assembly Bill 32 — until the unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. (In other words, never.) AB 32 requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which most likely would be accomplished through a cap-and-trade market.

Khosla and Weihl were joined on a panel by Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, the agency charged with implementing AB 32; and Tom Bottorff, an executive with the utility PG&E.

“If you listen to the arguments of the proponents of Prop 23, their vision of California is a World War II or 1950s vision,” said Nichols, who before her appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a longtime activist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They want to go back to a time when rubber factories and building of aircraft and automobiles were the main businesses of California.”

As the fight over Prop 23 heats up, expect to see a lot more of such talk from a place where the future is the main export.

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Image: Google

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

Google is officially in the green energy business. The search giant announced on Tuesday that its Google Energy subsidiary signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy. Google will begin buying 114 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind farm on July 30.

Google, of course, cannot directly use the clean green energy generated by the wind farm; that power goes into the local grid. So Google Energy will sell the power on the regional spot market, where utilities and electricity retailers go to buy power when demand spikes and they have a shortfall. Google will use the revenue from spot market sales to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) which will offset its greenhouse gas emissions.

Many companies buy RECs in an attempt to be carbon neutral, obtaining them from third-party brokers. But by purchasing RECs directly tied to the renewable energy it is also buying, Google is getting a bigger bang for its buck.

“By contracting to purchase so much energy for so long, we’re giving the developer of the wind farm financial certainty to build additional clean energy projects,” Urs Hoelzle, Google’s senior vice president for operations, wrote on a blog post Tuesday.

“The inability of renewable energy developers to obtain financing has been a significant inhibitor to the expansion of renewable energy,” he added. “We’ve been excited about this deal because taking 114 megawatts of wind power off the market for so long means producers have the incentive and means to build more renewable energy capacity for other customers.”

In a statement on its site, Google also noted that its motivations for signing long-term renewable energy contracts are not entirely altruistic.

“Through the long term purchase of renewable energy at a predetermined price, we’re partially protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices,” the company stated. “This is a case where buying green makes business sense.”

It remains to be seen how big a green power purchaser Google will become. (The company has also invested directly in a wind project built by NextEra Energy, the biggest American wind power producer.)

But Dan Reicher, Google.org director of climate change and energy programs, told me earlier this year that finding clean ways of powering Google’s massive data centers led in part to the establishment of Google Energy.

“This interest in procuring green electrons is part of what’s driven Google Energy,” he said.

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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: Todd Woody

In my latest Green State column in Grist, I take a look at why, despite the hype, Bloom Energy’s fuel cell breakthrough could change the energy game:

Green tech had its Google moment this week in Silicon Valley when one of the most secretive and well-funded startups around, Bloom Energy, literally lifted the curtain on what it claims is a breakthrough in fuel cell technology: affordable electricity! Fewer greenhouse gas emissions! And that’s all before they throw in the bamboo steamer.

After eight years in stealth mode—until this week, Bloom’s website featured the company’s name and little else—the startup pulled out the stops in a carefully stage-managed media blitz that recalled the high-flying dot-com days of a decade ago. First came a report on “60 Minutes” that got the blogs abuzz along with stories in Fortune and The New York Times.

It all culminated in a star-studded press conference at eBay’s headquarters in San Jose on Wednesday, where California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, K.R. Sridhar, and gave him a bear hug before several hundred suits, environmental movement honchos and a bank of television cameras.

Before Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member, delivered the benediction, testimonials were offered by Google co-founder Larry Page and top executives from Wal-Mart, eBay, Federal Express, Coca-Cola, and other Fortune 500 companies that had quietly purchased 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Servers over the past year.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), meanwhile, beamed in a bipartisan endorsement via video.

“This technology is going to fundamentally change the world,” the California Democrat declared.

But is it?

That’s the $400 million question (what some of Silicon Valley’s most storied venture capitalists have poured into Bloom so far).

With the hype—the apparently brilliant but unassuming Sridhar was compared to Steve Jobs at one point Wednesday—comes the backlash. Almost immediately analysts and competitors began asking hard questions about Bloom’s claims.

And there are some big unknowns. Will the fuel cell stacks last as long as the company anticipates or will frequent replacement undermine the economics of going off the grid, for both Bloom and their customers?

What’s the total cost of ownership for customers? Bloom says the energy servers have a lifespan of 10 years and a payback period of three to five years. That’s based on the current price of natural gas—which is one fuel used by the devices—and state and federal subsidies that halve the cost of the machines that sell for between $700,000 and $800,000. Will Bloom be able to scale up manufacturing and continue to innovate to bring the price of the energy server down? Can they be competitive without subsidies?

All legitimate questions. But it’s important not to lose sight of what looks to be some fundamental breakthroughs, not only in energy technology but in the way some major corporate players are embracing distributed generation-placing electricity production where it is consumed.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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siting1

Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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