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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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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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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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photo: eSolar

NRG Energy, one of the United States’ most coal-dependent utilities, on Monday signed a deal with California startup eSolar to develop solar power plants.

The agreement calls for NRG  to invest $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar for the right to use the startup’s technology to develop and operate three solar power projects in California and the Southwest that would generate 500 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.  NRG ranks as one of the nation’s dirtiest utilities,  spewing 70 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from its coal-fired power plants, according to a 2007 Fortune Magazine story.  But the Princeton, N.J.-based Fortune 500 company has sought to clean up its ways under CEO David Crane, pursuing carbon-capture technology and moving to build nuclear power plants.

Last year eSolar, founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, won a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of green electricity annually. Last  April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like rivals Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with utility PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

In October, eSolar’s then-CEO told Green Wombat that the company was more interested in being a solar technology provider than a power plant construction company.

The eSolar deal gives NRG (NRG), which operates coal-fired power plants in Texas and the Northeast, a foothold in the California renewable energy market. The first solar farm will go online in 2011 and NRG will have the right to develop 11 of eSolar’s 46-megawatt modular power plants. eSolar currently is building a five-megawatt demonstration power plant in Lancaster, Calif., that is expected to be completed this year.

“By coupling NRG’s construction capabilities and regional operating expertise with eSolar’s innovative … technology, we can advance NRG’s renewable energy portfolio while helping to accelerate development of these important projects on a commercial scale,” said NRG executive Michael Liebelson in a statement.

During a press conference Monday, Liebelson said NRG would be able to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit for renewable energy projects and intends to apply for federal loan guarantees for such power plants that were included in the recently enacted stimulus package.

The deal, coming less than two weeks after BrightSource Energy signed a 1,300-megawatt power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, shows that despite the financial crisis the market for renewable energy is showing renewed signs of life.

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google-powermeter

Google has become the utility of the digital age, something we click on as much as we flick on a light switch or turn on the water tap. Now the search giant is literally getting into the utility business with the development of smart grid software that gives consumers real-time information on their electricity consumption.

Called the PowerMeter, the prototype online dashboard is designed to download data from smart meters and display current electricity use and show how much power your refrigerator, big-screen television and other appliances are using at any point in time.

“We believe that by building a ‘smarter’ electricity grid, we can use the synergies of information and technology to give consumers better tools to track and reduce their energy use and, by doing so, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote engineering executive Bill Coughran and Dan Reicher, Google.org’s director of climate change and energy initiatives, in a filing Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. “Down the road, consumers should have access to additional information such as the source and mix of their power.”

The Google (GOOG) executives urged California regulators to adopt policies to give consumers direct access to their real-time electricity usage in an open-source format. “The goal is to foster a thriving ecosystem of partners where third-parties develop and provide products to help consumers decrease and manage their energy demand and save money,” Coughran and Reicher wrote. “For example, a third-party could offer a service that analyzes a household’s electricity usage data, identifies inefficient appliances or practices in the home, and offers tips on how to reduce energy or provides special discounts on efficient appliances or electronic equipment.”

Utilities across the country are rolling out so-called smart meters that allow the real-time monitoring of electricity use, letting them charge variable rates depending on demand. The idea promoted by Google and other smart grid proponents is that once people become aware of how much electricity their various appliances and gadgets consume – and how much it costs them – they’ll start, say, running the dishwasher at night when electricity demand and rates are lower. That will help utilities cut their costs and over the long run avoid building new carbon-spewing power plants to meet peak demand.

Google’s move comes as the Obama administration pushes to upgrade the nation’s aging analog electricity grid, including $11 billion in the stimulus package for smart grid-related initiatives.

Google says PowerMeter, now being tested among Google employees, will be a free, open source application. “Google tool is only one of many ways to provide consumers with this information,” the company stated in its utilities commission filing. “Our primary goal is for consumers to get this information, whether through our tool or another source.”

It remains to be seen how the Google initiative affects the fortunes of startups like Tendril, Greenbox and others developing software and services for utilities to let their customers monitor their electricity consumption.

Google says it’s currently working with utilities and device makers. Green Wombat is waiting to hear back from Google on which ones, but a good bet would be General Electric (GE), which struck a partnership last year with the search giant to develop smart grid technology. Also likely on the list is PG&E (PCG), which has been collaborating with Google on plug-in hybrid electric car and vehicle-to-grid research.

Then there’s IBM (IBM), which has become the leading player integrating smart grid technology for utilities and managing the data produced by a digital power grid. (Big Blue last week announced it is building the world’s first nationwide smart grid for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.)

So will Google PowerMeter save consumers money while saving the planet? That’s the early word from Google employees – not exactly the most neutral of sources – who’ve been testing the smart grid app, according to testimonials Google posted online.

“By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time,” wrote “Russ, hardware engineer.” “By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I’ve saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!”

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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