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photo: San Luis Obispo County

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a United States Department of Energy official affiming that loan guarantees for nuclear power projects would continue in the wake of the Japanese reactor disaster. He also said loans for a “significant” number of large renewable energy projects would be issued in the coming months:

With many riveted on Japan’s reactor crisis, the head of the  Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program has affirmed that it will continue to finance nuclear projects in the United States.

“Assuming there is a desire in the Capitol to move forward, nuclear remains an important part of the energy mix,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan programs office, said on Wednesday in a presentation at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.

“I point out here that the technology at use in the project we financed is quite different from the ones that have been affected by Japan,” he added. “Nonetheless, we obviously take this quite seriously.”

Mr. Silver’s remarks followed Congressional testimony in Washington by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Chu said that the Obama administration continued to support nuclear energy, noting the president had requested that $36 billion be appropriated for the nuclear loan guarantee program.

During his presentation, Mr. Silver, however, focused on renewable energy.

“In 2010, the loan program was the largest financier of renewable energy program in the world with the exception of China,” said Mr. Silver, a former venture capitalist. “We invested more money into clean energy than the 10 largest project finance groups in the world, public or private sector combined, except China.”

As financing for multibillion-dollar renewable energy projects dried up in the recession and bankers became leery of taking risks on new technologies, solar and wind developers have come to depend on the loan guarantee program.

“The sun shines and the wind blows in red and blue states,” Mr. Silver said. “We are agnostic on the topic of geography and we are agnostic on the topic of technology other than is it innovative and potentially transformative at scale.”

The loan guarantee program has come under fire from all sides, with some green energy advocates complaining that the Energy Department has been slow to hand out cash for projects. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned whether the department has spent its money wisely and have moved to cut funding for the $71 billion program.

An audit released last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general found that poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate some loan decisions.

Mr. Silver did not address the audit on Wednesday but noted that although the loan guarantee program began under the Bush administration in 2005, it was not funded until 2008 and had only 35 employees when he became executive director in early 2009.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

The people want to topple the petro-energy regime.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday all but called for a Tunisian-style revolution to overturn the United States’ old energy order.

“It is breathtaking to see: people by the hundreds of thousands who want change … who want to throw off the old order and subvert the status quo. It is fascinating to me how rapidly the debate in the Middle East shifted from — could the people rise up to could the rulers hang on?” Scharzenegger said at the United States Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in National Harbor, Md., according to his prepared remarks. “And then when the demonstrations reached a critical mass, the old structures gave way. They could not stand up to the momentum of the future.”

“All of which brings me to you here today,” the governator continued. “What you in this room also are saying by the work that you do is: We want to subvert the status quo. We want change. Innovation. We want to overturn the old energy order.”

Schwarzenegger, of course, made climate change and green energy cornerstones of his administration. But in his speech Tuesday before policymakers and politicians gathered at the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) he offered a full-throated call to move beyond the tired climate change debate and get on with the job of building a renewable energy economy.

Echoing the themes of last year’s successful campaign to crush Proposition 23, a ballot measure that would have derailed California’s landmark global warming law, Schwarzenegger linked green technology to the creation of jobs, a healthier environment, and international competitiveness.

“We have about 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year from petroleum-related air pollution, and we have 6.5 million annual hospital visits by people with respiratory illnesses caused by the same thing,” Schwarzenegger said. “These deaths are far greater in number than the combined deaths from car accidents, drunk drivers, gang wars, suicides or Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“The suffering and expense of these petro-deaths needs to be recognized,” he added. “Think what it means when in the Central Valley of California one in six children use an inhaler. People need to think about that.”

Schwarzenegger also repeated warnings that other countries threaten to leave the U.S. in the coal dust.

“China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas,” he added. “We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas.”

As is his wont, the former governor recalled his bodybuilding days to compare the negative perception of the sport in its early days to views of alternative energy today.

“We needed to change bodybuilding’s whole perception, so it wouldn’t simply be equated with men in skimpy bathing suits,” said Schwarzenegger.  “We began using different names — pumping up, working out, fitness training, weight resistance training. We started talking about health benefits and how it improves your performance in sports and how it keeps you younger.

“And now weight training has become an integral part of millions of people’s lives,” he continued. “Today totally normal people talk about their abs and their pecs. Today, in the same way, we are stuck on global climate change.  Let’s face it … if we haven’t convinced the skeptics by now, we aren’t going to. So, unless the North Pole breaks off this spring and floats up onto the north shore of Long Island, let’s move past the old arguments.”

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

Another Silicon Valley startup is planting a tree in Portlandia’s solar forest, thanks to a United States Department of Energy loan guarantee.

SoloPower, a San Jose, Calif., company that makes thin-film photovoltaic models, on Thursday snagged a $197 million federal loan guarantee to build a factory in Wilson, Ore., about 25 miles southwest of Portland.

The startup is the second Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup to make the move north over the past year. Last July, San Jose’s Solexant announced it would build a factory in Gresham east of Portland to make photovoltaic modules based on its nanocrystal technology.

Germany’s SolarWorld started blazing the Oregon solar trail in 2008 when it built the United States’ largest photovoltaic factory in Hillsboro, retooling an old semiconductor plant to make solar modules.

SoloPower will also revamp an existing industrial facility to install assembly lines. When completed, they’ll  that will have the capacity to produce 400 megawatts of photovoltaic modules a year.

“The project in Wilsonville will hire hundreds of highly skilled, highly paid Oregonians to manufacture the latest in renewable energy technology”, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), said in a statement. “Oregon is already an epicenter for renewable energy projects.”

SoloPower is the latest Silicon Valley thin-film solar company to export manufacturing to Oregon. But the deal is most notable for the Obama administration’s gamble on a cutting-edge solar technology, one that faces challenges from Chinese competitors that have driven down the once-high cost of conventional solar modules.

While standard crystalline solar cells are made from silicon wafers, thin-film solar cells are essentially printed on flexible metal or other materials. Although such technology is less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than crystalline silicon cells made by companies like SolarWorld, thin-film solar’s great promise is that solar cells can be made cheaper, which will lower the cost of photovoltaic power.

But the rapid expansion of low-cost manufacturers and the resulting steep plunge in photovoltaic module prices has forced Silicon Valley thin-film manufacturers to innovate faster and revamp their strategies. In November, for instance, Solyndra, which scored a $535 million federal loan guarantee to build a thin-film solar factory in Fremont, Calif., announced it would shut down an older plant and delay expansion of a new facility in an effort to lower its costs to compete against of Chinese manufacturers.

Still, the Department of Energy in December granted a $400 million to Colorado’s Abound Solar to expand production in its home state and in Indiana of an older thin-film technology called cadmium telluride.

“Investments like these are going to help America become a world leader again in clean energy manufacturing,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

Now let’s see how many of those solar panels end up on Oregon roofs

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on December 2, 2010.

Google unveiled a powerful new mapping tool at the Cancun climate talks on Thursday that allows scientists to monitor changes in the Earth’s environment as climate change accelerates.

The search giant’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, calls the new Google Earth Engine “a planetary-scale platform for environmental data and analysis.” It combines Google Earth’s maps with 25 years’ worth of Landsat satellite images and other data.

Just as important as that data goldmine is Google’s move to put its immense computing resources at scientists’ disposal. Google.org is donating 20 million computational hours over the next two years to developing countries so they can monitor their forests as the United Nation’s prepares to implement an initiative called REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.

“Deforestation releases a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for 12-18 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions,” Rebecca Moore, the engineering manager for Google Earth Engine, wrote in a blog post. “For the least developed nations, Google Earth Engine will provide critical access to terabytes of data, a growing set of analytical tools and our high-performance processing capabilities.  We believe Google Earth Engine will bring transparency and more certainty to global efforts to stop deforestation.”

For instance, scientists processed 8,000 Landsat satellite images on Google Earth Engine to create a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that shows the loss of forest cover over the past decade.

Scientists also used more than 53,000 satellite images taken between 1984 and 2010 to develop an extremely detailed forest cover and water map of Mexico. The Google Earth Engine tapped 1,000 servers to perform the 15,000 hours of computation needed to create the map in less than a day.

“As we fully develop the platform, we hope more scientists will use new Earth Engine API to integrate their applications online — for deforestation, disease mitigation, disaster response, water resource mapping and other beneficial uses,” Moore wrote. “We look forward to seeing what’s possible when scientists, governments, NGO’s, universities, and others gain access to data and computing resources to collaborate online to help protect the earth’s environment.”

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on December 2, 2010.

Fabio has gone electric?

The long-maned Italian model appears in a new commercial promoting electric cars that spoofs Apple’s Mac v. PC ads of years past.

“Hello, I’m an electric,” says a hip young actor in the spot made by Plug In America, a Southern California non-profit.

“And I’m socially responsible gasoline,” says his smarmy counterpart, who is surrounded by a film crew.

“A documentary?” asks Electric.

“Time to spend some money to look like I care too. Of course, I actually profit from destroying the planet but with my billions I’m pumping up my green image. Line!”

“The eagles,” hisses an assistant.

“The balding eagles will always have a home in our oil fields,” Gas says.

The direct yells cut. “Bring in the face, please.”

Enter Fabio (who hitched a ride to the shoot in a Tesla Roadster electric sports car).

The 30-second spot is one of three that appear online and are being broadcast on the EnergyNow! Television program.

With the Chevrolet Volt electric hybrid now rolling off the assembly line and the Nissan Leaf electric car hitting the streets this month, there’s been no shortage of media coverage of electric vehicles or advertising from automakers themselves.

So why the pointed, if funny, barbs – another spot has Gas consorting with a grungy oil worker and a lawyer — at gasoline-powered cars just as Detroit finally moves to go electric?

“Every large auto company manufacturing an electric car is still predominately in business to sell gas burners,” Zan Dubin Scott, a spokeswoman for Plug In America, said in an e-mail. “We wondered just how strongly they’d extol the benefits of electric drive. Plug In America wanted to send an unequivocal message about the economic, environmental and national security benefits of electric over gas.”

Plug In America grew out of a group of electric car enthusiasts who fought to save General Motors’ EV1, the electric Toyota RAV4 and other battery-powered vehicles that briefly came on the market in the late 1990s. (Their effort was chronicled in the 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” ).

The electric car commercials, each made for about $870, were produced by the Hollywood-electric car industrial complex. Alexandra Paul, a Plug In America board member best known for her role on “Baywatch,” served as producer. Marvin Campbell, the actor who plays Gas, owns two electric RAV4s. Director Eric Swenson drives a Tesla, according to Dubin Scott.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on December 1, 2010.

Dec 1 (Reuters) – The California Energy Commission reinstated approval for a controversial $2 billion solar power plant to be built by NTR’s (NTRb.CO) Tessera Solar that opponents had said was wrongly licensed.

Last month, the commission withdrew its decision granting approval for the 663.5-megawatt Calico plant after the California Unions for Reliable Energy said that the CEC had not properly filed written findings about the plant’s impact on local wildlife.

On Wednesday, energy commissioners set a 30-day notice for opponents to challenge approval of the project that is planned for the Southern California desert.

Tessera Solar is racing to begin construction by the end of the year to be eligible for a federal cash grant program that covers 30 percent of the cost of renewable energy projects.

The Sierra Club and California Unions for Reliable Energy told commissioners that they are considering filing a legal challenge to Calico over its impact on the imperiled desert tortoise and other wildlife.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on December 1, 2010.

So what will the environmentally conscious consumer be buying this holiday season?

Not much, according to a new survey by BBMG, a New York brand innovation firm that focuses on sustainability.

Environmentally conscious consumers in the United States “are spending less but giving more this holiday season, focusing on local, homemade, organic, and donations to good causes as top gift choices that prize unique, memorable experiences over more stuff,” BBMG said in a statement.

In other words, they were not lining up at their local big box store at 3 a.m. on Black Friday to snag $29.99 DVD players.

BBMG defines what it calls “conscious consumers” as “youthful, wired, highly educated, majority female” who will pay more for environmentally beneficial products and who are “three times more likely to try new things” and “three times more likely to reward/punish a brand based on corporate practices.” BBMG claims that conscious consumers account for 30 percent of the U.S. population.

The firm surveyed members of The Collective, its private online community of some 2,000 conscious consumers it and its clients use as a sounding board. About 70 people participated in the shopping survey, according to a Gina Masullo, a BBMG spokeswoman.

“BBMG has conducted many conversations with Collective members about this and related topics over the last year,” Masullo said in an e-mail.

While such consumers may prove elusive for Target or Neiman Marcus, retailers selling environmentally beneficial products will benefit, according to BBMG. For instance, the conscious consumer’s inclination to recycle could be a boon to online retailers like Amazon and eBay that sell vintage or previously used products.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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