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Archive for the ‘green startups’ Category

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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image: Mafic Studios

Could this be another sign that Jerry Brown’s return to the California governorship is imminent? As I write Thursday in The New York Times, the state’s public utilities commission has greenlighted a contract for the world’s first orbiting solar power plant:

California regulators on Thursday went where no regulators have gone before — approving a utility contract for the nation’s first space-based solar power plant.

The 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm would convert solar energy collected in space into radio frequency waves, which would be beamed to a ground station near Fresno, Calif. The radio waves would then be transformed back into electricity and fed into the power grid.

“At the conceptual level, the advantages of space-based systems are significant,” said Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, during a hearing on Thursday. “This technology would offer around-the-clock access to clean renewable energy, and while there’s no doubt this project has many hurdles to overcome, both regulatory and technological, it’s hard to argue with the audacity of the project.”

“It’s hard to argue with the audacity of the project.”
— Michael Peevey, California Public Utilities Commission
A Southern California startup called Solaren will loft components for the solar power plant into orbit and sell the electricity it generates to Pacific Gas & Electric, the major utility in northern California, under a 15-year contract. The project is supposed to be turned on in 2016.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about the latest trend to come out of Southern California — sustainable surfing:

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.

A few blocks from the beach, the pungent smell of polyester resin wafts from the surfboard factories that crowd an alley known as the surf ghetto in this Southern California town. Inside warrens of rooms painted ocean blue, young men wearing face masks shape slabs of snow-white polyurethane foam into surfboards, the cast-off chemical dust covering floors and filling trash barrels.

Despite its nature-boy image, the American surfing industry often relies on toxic manufacturing processes and generates tons of waste to make surfboards and other products. While surfers have long fought polluters that befoul beaches and oceans, the surfing industry — which has annual revenue of $7.2 billion, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturing Association, a trade group — is also focusing on cleaning up its own backyard.

“The dirtiest thing about surfing is under our feet — a conventional surfboard is 100 percent toxic,” said Frank Scura, a surfer and executive director of the Action Sports Environmental Coalition, an organization that promotes green retailing.

In San Clemente, a start-up company called Green Foam Blanks is out to change a half-century of surfboard-making tradition. Its founders, Joey Santley and Steve Cox, have created what is thought to be the world’s first recycled polyurethane blank — the foam core of a surfboard.

They collect polyurethane cuttings from surfboard factories and, using a proprietary process, mix the trimmings with virgin foam to create a blank that is 60 to 65 percent recycled waste. The goal is to reduce production of new foam, which is typically made with a carcinogenic compound called toluene diisocyanate, or TDI.

“Every day in Southern California, about 800 boards are being shaped and as much as 40 percent of each blank, which contains toxic materials, ends up being put into landfills,” said Mr. Santley, who is 44 and a veteran of the surfing industry.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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A Silicon Valley  startup called EcoFactor aims to cut consumers’ electricity bills and help utilities manage peak demand by controlling homes’ heating and air conditioning systems over the Internet. As I write on Tuesday in The New York Times:

As utilities install more smart meters in homes, more companies are offering services that tap the devices’ ability to give consumers information about their electricity use.

But EcoFactor, a startup in the Silicon Valley suburb of Redwood City, aims to take things even further by gathering data about the weather, as well as consumers’ individual climate-control habits, to adjust a home’s air-conditioning and heating systems.

Call it a smart thermostat.

Besides learning when homeowners tend to turn on their heat or air-conditioning, EcoFactor also monitors weather down to the zip code level. Every 60 seconds, its algorithms take that data and calculate how much electricity use can be reduced while keeping the occupants comfortable.

“After three days of energy data collection, we’re able to create a thermodynamic model for a home and use that for running energy efficiency programs,” said Scott Hublou, a co-founder of EcoFactor and its senior vice president for products. “We understand how much outside weather impacts temperatures inside and how a home’s systems have to overcome that outside temperature.”
On Tuesday, EcoFactor announced a three-year agreement to run a program for the Texas utility Oncor to reduce peak electricity demand by three megawatts. That’s a relatively small amount, and the program will initially involve only a handful of households.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Rack Welding

photo: Skyline Solar

Silicon Valley startup Skyline Solar has joined other green energy companies beating a path to Detroit to take advantage of the down-and-out auto industry’s manufacturing might. As I write in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday:

Skyline Solar, a Silicon Valley start-up, has become the latest green energy company to tap the struggling auto industry’s manufacturing muscle.

The company announced today that components for its solar power plants were being made in a Troy, Mich., car factory operated by Cosma International, a division of auto manufacturing giant Magna International.

The same machines that stamp out doors, hoods and other car body parts are now making long metal arrays that hold Skyline’s photovoltaic panels.

“It’s literally just carving out a piece of an existing facility and putting through a product that for all intents and purposes could be a new make and model of the next family sedan,” said Bob MacDonald, Skyline’s chief executive.  “Every time there’s a new model year for a Ford Mustang, they have a tool and die set they put into this press. So you just have a different tool and die in there that forms a new shape for Skyline.”

The bottom line, said MacDonald, is that Skyline has slashed its capital costs by taking advantage of Cosma’s existing manufacturing capability. He said Skyline of Mountain View, Calif., has contracts in place for small-scale solar farms. He said he could not divulge the details of those contracts but noted that Skyline has begun to receive shipments of arrays from Michigan.

It’s also a good deal for Cosma, whose parent company has agreed to acquire Opel from General Motors.

“Renewable energy trends and forecast data suggest significant growth potential for this market — we expect to participate in this growth potential,” Tracy Fuerst, a Magna spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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