Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘green tech’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday gave the green light to the first two big solar power plants to be built on federal land in the California desert, promising more approvals of solar projects in the coming weeks.

The granting of leases to Tessera Solar’s massive 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project and to a smaller 45-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built by Chevron come four years after the solar land rush began in the Mojave Desert.

With nearly 200 applications filed on hundreds of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, the federal government soon became overwhelmed trying to weed out viable projects from speculators. Environmentalists, meanwhile, grew alarmed at the potential impact of such huge industrial projects on a plethora of imperiled wildlife, as well as on water supplies and desert vistas.

The Obama administration beefed up BLM staff devoted to solar projects and began collaborating with California agencies to streamline the approval process.

“Today’s projects are proof that we can cut red tape without cutting corners,” Salazar said Tuesday during a press conference.

The looming expiration of federal tax incentives for large renewable energy projects also lit a fire under state and federal regulators to license power plants so that developers could begin construction by the end of the year.

For instance, since Aug. 25, the California Energy Commission has licensed six solar thermal power plants that would cover some 39 square miles of desert land and generate 2,829 megawatts. That’s nearly six times as much solar capacity as was installed in the United States last year.

“I am excited to join Secretary Salazar today in announcing the first solar projects to ever get permits on federal land, both of which will be located in the Golden State,”  California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “Today’s announcement only further cements California’s national leadership in renewable energy development.”

Some environmental groups initially raised concerns about the Imperial Valley project, which will place 19,000, 38-foot by 40-foot Stirling solar dishes on 6,400 acres of desert land near the Mexican border east of San Diego. Of particular concern was the project’s impact on the flat-tailed horn lizard and the Peninsular bighorn sheep. A Native American tribe, meanwhile, objected to the power plant’s presence on their ancestral lands.

But Johanna Wald, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the developer’s willingness to shrink the project to mitigate degradation of wildlife habitat and to minimize its water consumption won over her group and other environmentalists.

“The company sat down with NRDC and our conservation partners and agreed to a number of important measures that were above and beyond the requirements that were imposed by the state and federal regulators,” Wald said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Native Americans have continued to object to the Imperial Valley solar farm.

Wald singled out the much smaller Chevron project as one where developers’ selection of a site near transmission lines and away from protected wildlife paid off in the unanimous support from major environmental groups.

“Chevron,” she said, “is a project we all would agree was smart from the start.”

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about a report showing venture capital investment in green technology companies nose-dived in the third quarter of 2010, with California taking a big hit:

Has the green tech recovery stalled?

Global venture capital investment in green technology companies fell 30 percent, to $1.53 billion, in the third quarter of 2010, according to a preliminary report issued Friday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm.

The amount invested in North America, Europe, China, India and Israel in the third quarter is also 11 percent below the year-ago quarter, when investment tanked amid the recession.

The numbers are striking, given that investment in green-tech startups soared in the first half of this year, surpassing records set in 2008 at the height of the clean technology boom.

“Much like we see globally, I think businesses and investors are grappling a little bit with a recovery that hasn’t yet taken off, and I think people are trying to figure out how quickly will the growth occur,” Sheeraz Haji, president of the Cleantech Group, said during a conference call Friday. “I think we’re seeing a little bit of the same in clean tech.”

California, an epicenter of green technology innovation, suffered a precipitous decline, with investment falling 61 percent.

Mr. Haji questioned whether uncertainty over the fate of California’s global warming law, known as A.B. 32, played a role in the falloff in investment. A measure on the November ballot, Proposition 23, would suspend A.B. 32 until the state unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters.

“We can’t help but wonder that uncertainty around Prop 23 has impacted that,” he said, cautioning that it is difficult to draw hard conclusions based on one quarter’s data. “

The global warming law requires California to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Mr. Haji noted that venture investment soared after the law’s enactment in 2006 as investors poured money into solar startups and companies developing energy efficiency services and electric cars.

Even so, investors put $452 million into California companies in the third quarter, versus $126 million for second-place Texas.

While the rest of North America experienced a rise in investment in the third quarter, California’s poor performance led to a 42 percent decline for the region as a whole.

Not so with Asia. For instance, investment in China jumped to $153 million in the third quarter from $30 million in the second quarter of 2010.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: GE

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

General Electric on Wednesday gave a jump-start to Better Place, the Silicon Valley startup developing an electric car infrastructure in several countries.

Better Place plans to deploy a network of urban charging posts and swapping stations where drivers can exchange depleted company-owned batteries for fresh ones when they need to make trips that exceed their car’s range. GE has agreed to help finance up to 10,000 of those batteries in Better Place’s first two markets: Denmark and Israel. That’s no small matter, given that Better Place faces huge capital outlays for battery purchases.

The global conglomerate will also make its WattStation, a sleek electric car charging post that it unveiled in July in San Francisco, compatible with Better Place’s network.

In addition, GE and Better Place will collaborate on an effort to persuade companies to electrify their vehicle fleets and plug into the electric car charging networks that Better Place plans to build in the San Francisco Bay Area; Ontario, Canada; Australia; and Europe.

It’s not the first time GE has dabbled in the nascent electric car industry. In 2008, the company invested $4 million in Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker.

In yet another deal involving a multinational conglomerate and a California startup, Sharp late Tuesday said it had acquired Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar developer, for $305 million in cash.

While most people may associate Sharp with televisions and other consumer electronics, the Japanese company is also one of the world’s biggest solar panel makers. Recurrent builds small-scale photovoltaic power plants. It has signed contracts for projects that would generate 330 megawatts, and has another nearly another 1,700 megawatts’ worth of deals in development.

During a conference call on Wednesday, Recurrent’s chief executive, Arno Harris, said Recurrent would retain its name and become a division of Sharp and that he and his team would remain in place.

While the buyout is another sign of the consolidating solar industry, it also indicates that big solar panel makers like Sharp feel pressure from the fast rise of low-cost Chinese manufacturers to diversify their business.

Acquiring Recurrent gives Sharp another source of revenue but it won’t necessarily provide a market for Sharp’s own solar panels. In a telling provision of the acquisition, Harris said Recurrent won’t be compelled to buy Sharp solar panels and can keep its current suppliers. Those include Yingli Green Energy, a Chinese company that captured a third of the California market last year thanks in large part to a big deal with Recurrent.

Read Full Post »

Photo: WorldWater & Solar Technologies

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Carbon neutral jumbo jets may be a long way off but some airports are making strides in cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.

Denver International, for instance, announced Tuesday that it will install a 4.4-megawatt solar array, more than doubling the 2 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels the airport built in 2008. Earlier this year, Denver signed a deal for a third array, which will generate an additional 1.6 megawatts of electricity.

Yingli Green Energy is providing the 19,000 panels for the 4.4-megawatt project. A Yingli spokesperson told me that altogether, the photovoltaic arrays will supply on average about 6 percent of the airport’s electricity demand. But on days when the sunshine is intense, the solar farm would generate enough electricity to meet nearly a third of Denver International’s electricity needs.

When completed in 2011, the 4.4-megawatt installation will be Colorado’s largest commercial solar project. But what’s really notable is the photovoltaic module maker supplying the solar panels, Yingli.

The Chinese company only entered the United States in 2009 and by that year’s end had captured nearly a third of the California solar market, the bright star of the U.S. solar system. Low-cost Chinese solar companies now supply almost half the California market, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a consulting and research firm.

The Denver deal is another sign that Yingli and other Chinese solar panel makers are shaking up the U.S. market as they move beyond their California base.

In other news, another relatively little-known Chinese firm, Solarfun, said Monday it struck a deal to supply 9.5 megawatts’ worth of solar modules to Martifer Solar, the U.S. subsidiary of a Portuguese renewable energy company, which will install them at projects in California and Colorado.

“Solarfun is focused on the U.S. market as one of our primary growth drivers going forward and we expect Martifer to be a key partner as we continue to build market presence and share,” Bruce Ludemann, the vice president and general manager of Solarfun’s North American operations, said in a statement.

Such success may cause consternation in the executive suites of rivals from Bonn to Silicon Valley, where low-cost Chinese manufacturing is forcing competitors to become even more efficient and maintain their technological edge.

But in the end, the China’s ability to secure such large deals shows that the solar market truly is taking off.

Read Full Post »

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Talk about sporting greens: On Wednesday, all of the United States’ professional sports leagues said they would distribute a guide on how to switch to renewable energy and urge their teams to solarize their stadiums.

The guide was prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and marks a new alliance between environmentalists and the nation’s baseball, football, hockey, and soccer teams.

“It’s not a league mandate, it’s not a requirement for stadiums and arenas to install solar panels, but it indicates an important cultural shift recognized by professional sports that all arenas and stadiums in the country should at least consider and evaluate the opportunity that solar power might provide,” Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the NRDC, said during a conference call Wednesday.

“Frankly, sports matter. Sports matter a lot,” he added. “Sports is one of the most iconic and influential sectors of our society and frankly we need to have a cultural shift as well as a technical and economic shift if we’re going to advance and move to sustainability.”

In other words, if Jill Six-Pack sees that the Yankees have gone solar she might consider doing the same.

“We really have the ability to shift the dial,” said Darryl Benge, the assistant general manager of Qwest Field in Seattle, home to the Seahawks and Sounders. “We basically bring together small cities on game day.”

Representatives from the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and other stadiums said that economics as well as the environment were pushing them to go green.

Benge noted that Qwest Field’s electricity rates had jumped 18 percent this year, which played a part in the stadium’s decision to solicit bids to install a 600-kilowatt solar array.

In Los Angeles, the Staples Center flipped the switch on a 345.6-kilowatt photovoltaic system that has so far saved $100,000 in electricity costs, according to Lee Zeidman, executive vice president for operations for the facility.

The Staples Center has gone beyond solar to install waterless urinals that save seven million gallons of water annually, and switched to non-toxic cleaning products.

Other teams have tackled the waste issue. Scott Jenkins, the vice president of ballpark operations for the Seattle Mariners, said the team has saved $1 million over three years by recycling 80 percent of the waste generated at games.

Gary Betteman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, said 30,000 shopping bags were replaced with reusable totes during the Stanley Cup, and he noted that several NHL venues have installed solar panels.

Stadium managers acknowledged that sports’ biggest carbon footprint comes from fans driving to and from games. The challenge, they said, will be to get more fans to take public transportation as well as to build arenas in urban areas with accessible mass transit.

For his part, Hershkowitz said he was astounded that it has taken the environmental movement 40 years to forge a strong alliance with professional sports.

“If you want to change the world you don’t emphasize how different you are from everybody else,” he said. “You focus on your similarities.”

Read Full Post »

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Want to help solve the global water crisis? Step away from your laptop and let it join millions of other computers being used by scientists who will tap idle processing power to develop water filtering technology, clean up polluted waterways, and find treatments for water-related diseases.

Those were among the projects announced Tuesday by IBM, which sponsors a global network of linked personal computers called the Worldwide Community Grid.

The idea of aggregating thousands of individual computers to create a virtual supercomputer is nothing new — searchers of extraterrestrial life and scientists seeking medical cures have been doing that for years. But this is apparently the first time the approach has been used to tackle one of the planet’s bigger environmental problems.

In China, Tsinghua University researchers, with the help of Australian and Swiss scientists, will use 1.5 million computers on the Worldwide Community Grid to develop nanotechnology to create drinkable water from polluted sources, as well as from saltwater.

To do that, the scientists need to run millions of computer simulations as part of their “Computing for Clean Water” project.

“They believe they can collapse tens or even hundreds of years of trial and error into mere months,” Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesperson, told me.

Big Blue is providing computer hardware, software, and technical help to the Worldwide Community Grid. But Fishkind says the company doesn’t anticipate the effort will have a commercial payoff for its own water filtering membrane efforts.

“We will be watching Tsinghua University’s progress closely, but the two projects are not directly related,” he said in an email message. “While IBM’s research focuses on a broad application of filtering technology/technique, including industrial applications, Tsignhua’s focus is drinking water.”

Brazilian scientists, meanwhile, will plug into the grid to screen 13 million chemical compounds in their search for a cure for schistosomiasis, a water-borne tropical disease that kills between 11,000 and 200,000 people annually.

In the United States, the Worldwide Community Grid will be used to run complex simulations that assess how actions by farmers, power plant operators, real estate developers, and others affect the health of Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary.

“Responsible and effective stewardship of complex watersheds is a huge undertaking that must balance the needs of each unique environment with the needs of the communities that depend on them for survival,” said Philippe Cousteau, co-founder of Azure Worldwide, a firm that is participating in the project.

To join the Worldwide Community Grid, you just need to download a piece of software from the group’s site.

Oh, and stay off Facebook and Twitter for a bit.

Read Full Post »

photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »