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Archive for the ‘green startups’ Category

photo: EcoVeggies

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about how Newark is becoming a hotbed of sustainable agriculture, or Ag 2.0:

On the rooftop garden at St. Philip’s Academy, a private school in Newark, students tend plots of everything from broccoli and beets to sweet corn and spaghetti squash.

But since August they’ve also been helping to farm arugula, chervil, fun jen, and komatsuna in a machine installed in a fourth-floor science classroom that grows crops without soil or sunshine.

Made by an Ithaca, N.Y., company called AeroFarms, the aeroponic growing system is owned by EcoVeggies, a startup formed by former three Wall Street technology workers who aim to transform Newark’s abandoned and vacant buildings into so-called vertical farms.

“The produce will sold and used in the areas immediately surrounding Newark to start with and then we expect to be able to service the immediate tri-state area,” Richard Charles, one of EcoVeggies founders, wrote in an e-mail message.

At St. Philip’s Academy, leafy greens are planted in a cloth bed and irrigated with a nutrient-infused mist. Light is provided by LED lamps, which are more energy-efficient than conventional lighting and can be placed closer to the beds. The LED lamps also provide pest control, according to AeroFarms’ chief executive, Ed Harwood, because they can be set to emit certain wavelengths that disrupt insects’ breeding.

AeroFarms is leasing the machine, which stands 7 feet tall by 10 feet long, to EcoVeggies for use in the pilot project at St. Philip’s. It can produce about 20 pounds of produce per harvest, Mr. Charles said.

EcoVeggies and AeroFarms are part of the sustainable agriculture movement, sometimes called Agriculture 2.0, which seeks to combine technology and organic farming to grow crops in urban areas that often lack access to fresh food.

You can read the rest of the story here:

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This post first appeared on Grist.

I usually don’t write about companies’ funding announcements, unless the amount of money raised is particularly eye-popping. But when Recurve announced Wednesday that it had scored $8 million in its latest round of fund-raising, what caught my attention was who decided to invest in the San Francisco energy retrofit startup.

Along with the venture capital firms re-upping their investments — RockPort Capital Partners and Shasta Ventures — was a new investor, Lowe’s.

That the home improvement giant — $47 billion in sales, 1,700 stores — would invest in a relatively small “green energy remodeling” outfit is a sign that it sees potential in energy efficiency, at least enough to dip its corporate toe in the market.

The investment comes as companies like Recurve push Congress to pass legislation that would establish a $6 billion energy retrofit program called Home Star.

“Lowe’s 60-year history in the home improvement industry will be valuable in shaping Recurve’s growth,” said Pratap Mukherjee, Recurve’s chief executive.

Formerly called Sustainable Spaces, Recurve takes a Silicon Valley approach to energy retrofits. While the startup performs energy audits and dispatches crews to upgrade homes’ systems, it has also has developed software to automate the whole retrofit process for other green building companies in an industry dominated by mom-and-pop shops.

The software, delivered over the Internet, lets retrofitters enter data on a home’s energy profile in a laptop or handheld device during an audit, run electricity consumption simulations, calculate estimates and equipment needed for a retrofit, and generate reports for customers on the spot.

Contractors, of course, then can head down to their neighborhood Lowe’s to buy ducts, insulation, and other materials needed for a retrofit job. Which, in the end, may be one return on Lowe’s investment in Recurve.

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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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In my Grist column this week, I take a look at some innovative sustainable urban farming startups:

In my last Green State column, I wrote about  Agriculture 2.0. The conference, held in Silicon Valley recently, brought together venture capitalists and sustainable ag startups in an effort to jump start a market for the regional distribution of fresh food.

This week I take a closer look at some of the companies that tried to catch the ear and checkbooks of the high-profile investors who packed that confab at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto.

One of the more intriguing ideas came from startups thinking outside the agribusiness box by developing urban farms in a box. Literally.

Take AeroFarms. The New York company builds aeroponic farms that fit inside containers — soil and sun not required. The containers, which can be stacked on top of each other in warehouses and old buildings, have the potential to transform blocks of abandoned structures in places like Detroit or Newark into agri-lofts tended by urban farmers.

“This puts buildings back into play with a technology that would do something productive and employ people,” Ed Harwood, AeroFarms’ founder and chief executive, told prospective investors at the conference.

You can read the rest of the column 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: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have a story on Bloom Energy, which has revealed its fuel cell technology with much fanfare after remaining in stealth mode for eight years:

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A Silicon Valley company is claiming a breakthrough in a decades-old quest to develop fuel cells that can supply affordable and relatively clean electricity. Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other large corporations have been testing the devices, which will be formally introduced on Wednesday.

The start-up, Bloom Energy, has raised about $400 million from investors and spent nearly a decade developing a new variety of solid oxide fuel cell, considered the most efficient but most technologically challenging fuel-cell technology.

K. R. Sridhar, Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, said devices made by his company were generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, using natural gas. That is lower than commercial electricity prices in some parts of the country.

“We got into this business to make affordable electricity, not fuel cells,” Mr. Sridhar said Tuesday as workers assembled stacks of fuel cells in tall, round cylinders and installed them in silver metal cubes at Bloom’s headquarters in a Silicon Valley office park.

The company has been working on the technology for eight years while saying little. The secrecy, and the prominence of the venture capitalists backing Bloom, have fueled both hype and skepticism about its efforts. Bloom is scheduled to unveil the technology Wednesday at a news conference attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a member of Bloom’s board.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I followed up the piece with an online story in The Times offering a more detailed look at Bloom:

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about Bloom Energy, the once-secretive Silicon Valley start-up that has apparently made a big breakthrough in developing a fuel cell that can generate electricity at competitive prices while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The company is officially unveiling its Bloom Energy Server at a news conference on Wednesday morning featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member; and John Doerr, Silicon Valley’s leading green-tech investor. But on Monday and Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the start-up’s headquarters in Sunnyvale and to see the Bloom box up close.

In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley practice of announcing a coming product, Bloom spent nearly a decade developing its fuel-cell technology while saying nary a word. Over the past year and a half, it has quietly sold and installed 100-kilowatt Bloom boxes at Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other big companies. The boxes cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece.

“Silicon Valley is learning some hard and important skills, mainly making stuff again,” said Mr. Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a Bloom Energy board member.

Making stuff, particularly solid-oxide fuel cells, is very hard work. Such fuel cells have been something of a holy grail as they can operate at extremely high temperatures to maximize efficiency and can use a variety of fuels, like natural gas and biogas. Since the heat allows the fuel to be directly transformed into electricity through an electrochemical process, the expensive precious metals and rare-earth elements used in other fuel cells to act as catalysts could theoretically be eliminated.

But finding cheap common materials as substitutes and ensuring fuel cells don’t crack and leak under such conditions have stymied scientists for more than 30 years.

So how did Bloom crack the fuel-cell conundrum?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Solyndra

In The New York Times on Friday, I write that Solyndra, a Silicon Valley photovoltaic module maker, has become the first solar startup in years to brave the public markets:

Solyndra, a well-financed solar module maker, filed a registration statement for an initial public offering on Friday to raise $300 million to expand its manufacturing capacity.

It would be the biggest solar-related offering in years and follows the stock-market debut of the electric car battery-maker A123 Systems in September.

Based in Fremont, Calif., Solyndra emerged from stealth mode in October 2008 having secured $600 million in venture financing and $1.2 billion in orders. The company, founded in 2005 by veterans of the chip equipment maker Applied Materials, has since raised nearly $200 million more in venture funds.

The company makes cylindrical thin-film solar modules designed for commercial rooftops. The round modules collect sunlight from all angles, allowing the solar panels to be placed horizontally and packed close together, increasing efficiency and lowering installation costs, according to Solyndra.

Solyndra secured a $535 million loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy in March to help finance the construction of a second factory near its headquarters. In September, the company applied for an additional government loan guarantee to help pay for the second phase of the $1.38 billion factory, according to the registration statement.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In my latest Green State column for Grist, I take a look at AlertMe, a British startup that’s making a play to become a consumer brand for managing home energy use:

I’m sitting in a conference room at a PR agency on the San Francisco waterfront when the chief executive of AlertMe, a British energy management startup, pulls out his iPhone to check on a colleague’s kilowatt consumption back in the U.K.

The executive, who has the Vonnegutian name of Pilgrim Beart, taps the “history” icon on the screen. “I can see that his wife has arrived home,” he says before touching the energy button.

“They’re watching TV right now,” Beart notes, staring at the iPhone screen. “I could turn the TV off if I wanted to wind them up. I won’t do that. But I will turn off the microwave as no one is using it right now.”

He touches the screen and, voila, 5,300 miles away, the microwave blinks off, saving its owners a few pence and reducing the load on the grid by a watt.

All very cool. And a bit creepy.

Beart has a window into his colleague’s home life because the house is outfitted with AlertMe smart plugs that monitor appliances’ electricity use. Other gadgets track the home’s temperature. Key fobs carried by the homeowners keep tabs on their comings and goings so AlertMe’s software can adjust heating and cooling and turn appliances on and off to maximize energy efficiency.

Of course, Beart’s use of the iPhone as Big Brother was purely for demo purposes. In real life, AlertMe customers’ data remains anonymous. However, homeowners can monitor and control their electricity use on their smartphones.

AlertMe is one of a growing number of startups competing to help consumers cut their electricity use by providing real-time data and services to manage energy consumption. The company is backed by Silicon Valley and European venture capital firms, including VantagePoint Venture Partners, Good Energies, and Index Ventures.

What caught my attention is AlertMe’s strategy. Beart is attempting to build a consumer brand and he’s doing it without relying on digital smart meters, which utilities are slowly rolling out to provide real-time data on electricity use.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Aurora Biofuels

In the Los Angeles Times on Friday, I write about the Obama administration’s move to issue $600 million in grants for biofuel refinery pilot projects. California startups grabbed a fair share of the money:

The federal government this morning announced it will hand out $600 million for next-generation biofuels projects, including those being developed by several California companies.

“Advanced biofuels are critical to building a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system in the U.S.,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a statement. “These projects will help establish a domestic industry that will create jobs here at home and open new markets across rural America.”

Second-generation biofuels produce ethanol, diesel and jet fuel from wood waste, nonfood crops, algae and other feedstocks. San Diego in particular has become a hotbed for companies developing biofuel from algae.

Sapphire Energy, based in San Diego, will receive $50 million from the Department of Energy for the construction of a pilot biofuel facility in Columbus, N.M. Algae grown in ponds will be transformed into jet fuel and diesel. The company also scored a $54.5-million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture to build the New Mexico project.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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