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Archive for the ‘green startups’ Category

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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2009 Solar Decathlon

photo: Stefano Paltera/DOE

In my new Green State column on Grist (I’m stealing the above headline from Grist executive editor Russ Walker), I take a look at the state of green tech venture investing gleaned from a recent seminar at the University of California, Berkeley:

Silicon Valley is by nature an optimistic place. After all, inventing the carbon-free future and making boatloads of money along the way is fun. And even though California is slouching toward apocalyptic collapse these days, there’s always another innovation wave to ride.

So it’s always interesting to get a more-or-less unvarnished assessment of the state of green tech, as happened last week when a group of regulators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school. They were there for the Cleantech Institute, one of those pricey, closed-door seminars for executives and government officials. (I was present to “facilitate.”)

The good news: Speakers reported that investors are starting to turn on the taps again when it comes to funding green tech startups.

But don’t expect a return to the halcyon days of 2008 when $4 billion poured into all manner of green technology companies. In the wake of the “Great Recession,” VCs are reassessing their investment strategies as it becomes clear that the success of their portfolios will be influenced to a large degree by government policy and incentives.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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SalinasRabobankTeslaChargingSM

photo: SolarCity

In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about how SolarCity, a Silicon Valley rooftop solar installer, is getting into the electric-car charging station business:

You can’t get more California greenin’ than this.

Peter Rive can charge up his Tesla Roadster electric sports car in his San Francisco garage with carbon-free electricity supplied by a solar array on his roof. Then, if he’s in the mood for a road trip, he can drive to Los Angeles, stopping at a solar-powered charging station along the way to top off the battery.

The free charging stations on the “solar highway”—aka the 101—were recently installed by SolarCity, the Silicon Valley rooftop solar company Rive founded with his brother Lyndon. (The electric-blue Roadster sitting in his garage was made by his cousin Elon Musk‘s startup, Tesla Motors.)

So what’s a solar company doing installing highway charging stations for six-figure sports cars driven by people with seven-figure salaries?

In part, it’s a result of SolarCity’s connection to Tesla and grants the electric carmaker received from the state of California to demo charging stations. It makes for great PR, of course, but the bigger picture here is how the emerging electric vehicle industry will drive (sorry) the adoption of residential and commercial photovoltaic systems.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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SolarCity_FirstSolarArray-_Coast

photo: SolarCity

When Wall Street collapsed last year so did  tax equity funds, the primary vehicle to finance renewable energy development.  But as I write in The New York Times today, investors are beginning to jump back into the game.

U.S. Bancorp has agreed to finance $100 million of solar installations in 2009 for California startup SolarCity. Investors are being lured in part by a federal stimulus package provision that lets them take a 30 percent investment tax credit for renewable energy projects as a cash grant:

The credit crunch has walloped the residential solar industry, making it hard for installers like SolarCity to tap investor funds to finance rooftop arrays for their customers.

But in a sign that the recessionary clouds are parting a bit, SolarCity on Tuesday said that U.S. Bancorp has agreed to finance $100 million worth of solar installations in 2009.

That’s double the money the bank committed to provide SolarCity in June when the original deal – but not the financial details – was announced.

SolarCity, based in the Silicon Valley suburb of Foster City, offers customers the option of leasing their rooftop panels and thus avoiding the five-figure cost of buying a solar system.

The company retains ownership of the solar array and thus qualifies for a 30 percent federal tax credit against its cost. Since most startups have no use for such tax credits, they give them to investors in exchange for financing installations.

Still, most such tax equity partnerships have collapsed along with the Wall Street banks that often funded them. In fact, U.S. Bancorp stepped in after Morgan Stanley pulled the plug on a financing arrangement with SolarCity earlier this year.

“For all of this year, tax equity has been the number one constraint in financing for the entire solar industry,” said Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive. “In the third quarter of last year there were about 20 active banks and insurance companies making tax equity investments. They all fell off a cliff and now there’s three or four.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solarh

Photo: BrightSource Energy

In today’s New York Times, I write about how Harvey Whittemore — one of Nevada’s biggest power brokers and a confident of Senate majority leader Harry Reid — has responded to the housing crash by leasing desert land at his mega-home development to BrightSource Energy for a 960-megawatt solar farm complex.

What to do when building a 159,000-home city in the Nevada desert and the housing market collapses?

Go solar.

The Coyote Springs Land Company this week expanded a deal with BrightSource Energy, a solar power developer based in Oakland, Calif., to carve out 12 square miles of it its 43,000-acre mega-development for solar power plants that would generate up to 960 megawatts of electricity.

Harvey Whittemore, Coyote Springs’s chairman, said his plan always was to include some renewable energy in the massive golfing community under development 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. But, Mr. Whittemore said, he decided to go bigger as the housing market crashed and solar developers like BrightSource began to sign deals with utilities.

“We’ve always said we’ll adjust the land use plan to the market,” said Mr. Whittemore in an interview. “At the end of the day we have approvals for 159,000 units and we looked at what we could do to reduce the number of units while at same time coming up with a functional business plan that takes advantage of private land.”

Private land is in short supply in Nevada, where the federal government owns about 87 percent of the state. That has forced solar developers like BrightSource – which is under the gun to supply 2,610 megawatts to California utilities — to seek leases on desert property managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management, a years-long process involving extensive environmental review.

By dealing with Mr. Whittemore, BrightSource is sidestepping all of that and acquiring an ally who knows how to get things done in the Silver State.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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ausra-kimberlina

photo: Ausra

In my new Green State column on Grist, I sit down with legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to talk about his approach to green tech. Khosla — who raised a record $1.1 billion for green tech investing earlier this month — believes that unless a technology can scale and be adopted in markets like China and India, it will not have a meaningful impact on climate change.

Getting an audience with Silicon Valley’s guru of green investing isn’t always easy.

If Vinod Khosla is not speaking at one of the innumerable, and apparently recession-proof, green business conferences that seem to happen every other week, he’s giving lectures at Google headquarters, writing white papers, or, of course, inking checks to green tech startups with the potential to disrupt multi trillion-dollar global industries like energy, automobiles and building materials.

He’s something of a Valley legend:  Co-founder of Sun Microsystems, then a longtime tech investor with marquee venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and now head of Khosla Ventures, which he started in 2004 to invest in green tech startups.

Khosla and his partners had been investing their own money, but earlier this month the firm announced it had raised $1.1 billion for two funds—one of which is the largest first-time fund in a decade. It was a rather staggering amount, given that clean-tech investing has plummeted from $4 billion in 2008 to $513 million so far this year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, as the “Great Recession” continues to take its toll.  Putting money into the two Khosla funds was the nation’s largest pension fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

It’s not the size of Khosla’s fund but what he intends to do with it that should command your attention. In short, he wants to take the green out of green investing and globalize the bottom line.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Nanosolar

A day after First Solar made waves with its agreement with the Chinese government to build a 2,000-megawatt solar farm in Mongolia, Silicon Valley startup Nanosolar took the wraps off its much-hyped thin-film photovoltaic technology and announced it has booked $4.1 billion in orders from solar developers. As I write in today’s New York Times:

Since its founding in 2002, Nanosolar has raised a lot of money – half a billion dollars to date – and made a lot of noise about upending the solar industry, but the Silicon Valley start-up has been a bit vague on specifics about why it’s the next big green thing.

On Wednesday, Nanosolar pulled back the curtain on its thin-film photovoltaic cell technology — which it claims is more efficient and less expensive than that of industry leader First Solar — and announced that it has secured $4.1 billion in orders for its solar panels.

Martin Roscheisen, Nanosolar’s chief executive, said customers include solar power plant developers like NextLight, AES Solar and Beck Energy of Germany.

The typical Nanosolar farm will be between 2 and 20 megawatts in size, Mr. Roscheisen said in an e-mail message from Germany, where he was attending the opening of Nanosolar’s new factory near Berlin. “This is a sweet spot in terms of ease of permitting and distributed deployment without having to tax the transmission infrastructure.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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