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Archive for the ‘green tech’ Category

photo: Southern California Edison

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

The California Legislature started out the week in the green by passing the nation’s first energy storage bill. But legislators quickly ran into the red Wednesday when they failed to approve legislation to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags, or codify Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order that utilities obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But don’t go crying in your organic beer yet. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission signed off on 650 megawatts of new solar energy contracts and programs.

Whch all goes to show that in the Golden State, environmental politics are not green and brown. And despite the fate of Proposition 23, the oil company-bankrolled ballot initiative to suspend California’s global warming law, the state’s panoply of green laws allows progress to be made on various fronts.

The utilities commission, for instance, approved contracts for two giant photovoltaic solar farms to be built in the Mojave Desert by First Solar. Together they will supply 550 megawatts of electricity to the utility Southern California Edison.

Commissioner Timothy Simon noted at Thursday’s energy commission meeting in San Francisco that the price for that electricity is lower than previous solar contracts, another sign that photovoltaic power is edging ever closer to edging out fossil fuels. The price also speaks to the ability of First Solar, the Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film solar company, to win and begin to execute big projects.

The commission also greenlighted San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposal for 100-megawatt’s worth of small-scale photovoltaic projects.

Most installations will be 1 or 2 megawatts and built in parking lots or other open spaces where they can be plugged into the grid without expensive transmission upgrades. The move comes on top of 1,000 megawatts of distributed solar generation that the utilities commission previously approved for California’s two other big utilities.

Michael R. Peevey, the president of the utilities commission, said despite the failure of the state legislature to institutionalize the 33 percent renewable portfolio standard — currently subject to reversal by the next governor — California was on a solar streak.

“With approval of this project we’ll have added 1,100 megawatts of photovoltaic electricity by the three utilities,” said Peevey, noting that separately the California Solar Initiative will add another 3,000 megawatts and that by year’s end regulators are poised to approve big solar farms that will generate 4,700 megawatts of electricity.

“These are big, big numbers,” Peevey added. “Independent of the legislature, we’re moving to a RPS economy.”

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On Thursday in The New York Times, I write about an independent report that finds that PG&E’s smart meters are not responsible for higher utility bills incurred by some customers:

After Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant California utility, began installing smart meters in the state’s Central Valley, the company was swamped with complaints from residents that their utility bills had increased.

But an independent review of the smart meters released Thursday found that the devices were functioning properly and attributed the high charges to a heat wave last year that coincided with their installation as well as poor customer service by P.G.&.E.

“They are accurately recording usage and throughout our evaluation we found no systemic issues,” Stacey Wood, an executive with the Structure Group, a Houston consulting company, said on Thursday at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We did identify there were weakness in the focus on customer service.”

The utilities commission hired the Structure Group to conduct test P.G.&.E’s smart meters and conduct a technical review.

The digital devices wirelessly transmit data on a home’s electricity and natural gas usage to utilities while allowing residents to monitor their electricity consumption in real time. Smart meters are considered a linchpin for the development of a smart power grid and tens of millions of the gadgets are set to be installed nationwide in coming years.

But the rollout has been anything but smooth in California, where nearly 10 million smart meters will be deployed.

“By the fall of 2009, the C.P.U.C. had received over 600 smart meter consumer complaints about ‘unexpectedly high’ bills and allegations that the new electric smart meters were not accurately recording electric usage, almost all of which were from P.G.&E.’s service area,” according to the Structure Report.

The consulting firm said it then tested more than 750 smart meters in the laboratory and in the field and reviewed utility account records for 1,378 customers, including those that had complained of abnormally high bills.

“Of the 613 smart meter field tests, 611 meters were successfully tested, and 100 percent passed average registration accuracy,” the report stated.

The study attributed some residents’ higher bills to a 2009 heat wave in Kern County as well as increased electricity usage due to new swimming pools or additions to their homes.

Then there was P.G.&E.’s handling of the controversy.

“P.G.&E. processes did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Customer skepticism regarding the new advanced meter technology was not effectively addressed by P.G.&E. on a timely basis.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

The California Legislature has passed the nation’s first energy storage bill, which could result in the state’s utilities being required to bank a portion of the electricity they generate.

Assembly Bill 2514 now heads to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made climate change and green technology his political legacy as his final term winds down.

Energy storage is considered crucial for the mass deployment of wind farms, solar power plants, and other sources of intermittent renewable energy, as well to build out the smart grid.

On the West Coast, for instance, the wind tends to blow hardest at night when demand for electricity is low. If utilities can store that wind-generated power — and energy from solar farms — in batteries, flywheels, and other devices, they can avoid building and firing up those billion-dollar, greenhouse gas-emitting, fossil-fuel power plants that are only used when demand spikes.

AB 2514 won the support of Jerry Brown, the California attorney general who is the Democratic candidate for governor. The Sierra Club and union groups also support the measure. Various business organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce, opposed the bill.

Sponsored by Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, the bill was stripped of its more stringent provisions by the time it emerged from the legislative sausage-making process on Friday.

Originally, AB 2514 required California’s three big investor-owned utilities — PG&E, Southern California, and San Diego Gas & Electric — to have energy storage systems capable of providing at least 2.25 percent of average peak electrical demand by 2015. By 2020 the target would rise to at least 5 percent of average peak demand.

The bill now only requires that the California Public Utilities Commission determine the appropriate targets — if any — for energy storage systems, and then require the Big Three utilities to meet those mandates by 2015 and 2020. Publicly-owned utilities must set energy storage system targets to be met by 2016 and 2021.

Still, AB 2514 is a significant step and could ultimately help jump-start the market for energy storage, which remains in its infancy.

PG&E, for instance, plans to build an experimental facility that would tap electricity generated during peak wind farm production to pump compressed air into an underground reservoir. When demand jumps, the reservoir would release the air to run electricity-generating turbines which are capable of producing 300 megawatts of power.

And last week, PG&E proposed building a “pumped hydro” storage system. As its name implies, the system would pump water from one reservoir to another reservoir at a higher elevation during times of peak renewable energy production. Water in the upper reservoir would then be sent back downhill to power a turbine when electricity demand begins to spike.

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Photo: Todd Woody

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

With the campaign season revving up, even more money is starting to flow into the campaign to defeat Proposition 23.

Prop 23 is the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law. Its opponents had been relying mostly on the largesse of a California coalition of environmental groups and Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and tech elite to finance their No on 23 campaign. But now No forces are tapping out-of-state donors.

On Thursday, they got $250,000 from New York investor Nicolas Berggruen. Berggruen is head of Berggruen Holdings, which has made investments in wind energy projects.

Also last week, Nancy Burnett of Lummi Island, Wash., deposited $100,000 in the anti-Prop 23 coffers. Burnett is a daughter of David Packard, co-founder of Silicon Valley tech giant Hewlett-Packard, and a supporter of Democratic candidates.

And this week, David Bonderman, a Texas investor with TPG Capital, donated $7,500.

Closer to home, Warren Hellman, the wealthy San Francisco investor, banjo player, and blue-grass aficionado, wrote a $75,000 check to the No campaign. The campaign’s supporters are fighting to preserve California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, popularly known as Assembly Bill 32. AB 32 requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and allows the creation of a cap-and-trade market to meet that mandate.

The bulk of the money financing the pro-Prop 23 campaign has come from two Texas-based oil companies, Tesoro and Valero, and other out-of-state fossil fuel interests. The most recent big donation came earlier this month when Valero gave $3 million to the effort.

Both sides expect the campaign spending to peak somewhere north of $100 million by the time Election Day rolls around in November, with huge amounts of cash rolling in when the traditional election season kicks off after Labor Day.

One person watching the Prop 23 battle closely is Lawrence Goldenhersh, chief executive of Enviance, a California firm that sells environmental compliance software and services — including those that track greenhouse gas emissions — to big industrial companies.

“If AB 32 is sustained by the voters of California, you will have the largest plebiscite in the history of the climate change debate cast by voters in the world’s seventh largest economy,” Goldenhersh told me Tuesday. “If AB 32 survives and Jerry Brown gets elected governor I think you’ll have cap-and-trade nationally by 2013.”

Enviance has clients on both sides of the Prop 23 fight — including Valero — and thus is not taking a position on the ballot measure, according to Goldenhersh. Still, he calls the election the “Normandy invasion of climate change.”

“If Prop 23 passes and AB 32 is suspended or killed then I think there will not be a lot of drive and political appetite to take on a piece of grand climate legislation in Congress,” he says. “People will say, ‘if it’s too expensive for California then it’s too expensive for a little state.’ “

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photo: FuelCell Energy

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

It’s been a crappy week — and I mean that in a good way.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the California egg farm that bought a 1.4-megawatt fuel cell powered by biogas produced from chicken poo. (Forget free-range eggs; carbon-free could become all the rage with fashion-forward foodies.)

Now the company that makes the fuel generator, FuelCell Energy, said it has signed a deal to provide two 300-kilowatt fuel cells to a Southern California water district that will install the devices in wastewater treatment plants. These fuel cells will also be powered by biogas derived from wastewater — i.e. what swirls down your toilet.

You get the picture.

An anaerobic digester at the Perris Valley Regional Water Reclamation Facility in Riverside County will remove methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the, er, “biosolids,” which will provide the fuel for the fuel cells.

Heat produced by the fuel cells will be used to help power the digester, creating what engineers call a closed-loop system. That will take pressure off the power grid and help California utilities meet a mandate to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“We installed our first fuel cell power plant about two years ago and have been very pleased with the reliability of the system,” Ron Sullivan, president of the board of the Eastern Municipal Water District, said in a statement. “We operate around the clock and value the energy security that an on-site fuel cell provides, which is about 40 percent of our total electrical demand at that plant.”

Gordie Hanrahan, a spokesperson for FuelCell Energy, said he could not comment on the costs of the Riverside County fuel cells. But he noted that a 600-kilowatt system installed for a farm customer in California last year cost $9.5 million and had a projected annual energy savings of $700,000. When various incentives and other savings are taken into account, the payback time is estimated to be six years.

A big benefit of fuel cells in smoggy Southern California is that besides emitting virtually no carbon dioxide they also produce nearly zero nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter — all of which are strictly regulated by the state and pose a health hazard.

“The ultra-clean power generation by the fuel cell power plant was an important aspect of our purchasing decision,” noted Sullivan.

Priming the pump was a $2.7 million grant that the state of California awarded to the water district for the purchase of the fuel cells.

Now that’s money that won’t go down the drain.

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photo: U.S. Navy

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ plans to green the Navy and Marine Corps and help build a market for new technologies:

Want to stimulate demand for renewable energy? Send in the Marines.

That was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s message on Monday when he outlined plans to slash the Navy and Marine Corps’ dependence on fossil fuels during an appearance on Monday evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

“We use in the Navy and Marine Corps almost 1 percent of the energy that America uses,” Mr. Mabus said. “If we can get energy from different places and from different sources, you can flip the line from ‘Field of Dreams’ — If the Navy comes, they will build it. If we provide the market, then I think you’ll begin to see the infrastructure being built.”

“Within 10 years, the United States Navy will get one half of all its energy needs, both afloat and onshore, from non-fossil fuel sources,” he added. “America and the Navy rely too much on fossil fuels. It makes the military, in this case our Navy and Marine Corps, far too vulnerable to some sort of disruption.”

Reaching those renewable energy goals will be a gargantuan challenge. The Navy operates 290 ships, 3,700 aircraft, 50,000 non-combat vehicles and owns 75,200 buildings on 3.3 million acres of land.

Last year the Navy launched its first electric hybrid ship, the Makin Island, an amphibious assault vessel that some have dubbed the Prius of the seas. On its maiden voyage from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to its home base in San Diego, the Makin Island saved $2 million in fuel costs, Mr. Mabus said.

“In terms of our fleet, we have most of ships we’re going to have in 2020 so we know what we have to do to change that,” he said in a conversation with Greg Dalton, a Commonwealth Club executive. “We can do things like retrofit ships with hybrid drives. Mainly it’s changing the fuels.”

Two days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, a Navy pilot flew an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet powered by a biofuel blend made from the seeds of camelina sativa, an inedible plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

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

As the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall election campaign approaches, the battle is intensifying over Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would effectively repeal the state’s landmark climate change law.

And thus the title of a gathering Tuesday at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters: “Electric Bills & Oil Spills: Will California Continue to be a Clean Energy Leader?”

The not-so-subtle subtext: Not if Prop 23 passes.

“We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign,” Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar (yes, that’s his title), said as he kicked off the event in a company café packed with Bay Area green A-listers.

Not surprisingly, the panel focused less on the environmental consequences of Prop 23 than on the potential for the ballot initiative to derail California’s green tech revolution.

“Proposition 23 will kill markets and the single largest source of job growth in California in the last two years,” declared Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor, referring to the clean energy economy. “Not only that, it’ll kill investment in the long term for creating the next 10 Googles.”

Chipped in Weihl: “For California, we can either lead in this and invest in it and participate in this huge growth sector or cede that to China, India, and other places. It would be crazy for us to sit back and let others take that opportunity.”

Underwritten by Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero and other out-of-state fossil fuel corporations, Prop 23 would suspend California’s global warming law — popularly known as AB 32, as in Assembly Bill 32 — until the unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. (In other words, never.) AB 32 requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which most likely would be accomplished through a cap-and-trade market.

Khosla and Weihl were joined on a panel by Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, the agency charged with implementing AB 32; and Tom Bottorff, an executive with the utility PG&E.

“If you listen to the arguments of the proponents of Prop 23, their vision of California is a World War II or 1950s vision,” said Nichols, who before her appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a longtime activist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They want to go back to a time when rubber factories and building of aircraft and automobiles were the main businesses of California.”

As the fight over Prop 23 heats up, expect to see a lot more of such talk from a place where the future is the main export.

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