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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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