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

By the third day of any conference, one’s eyes begin to glaze over. But Lisa Gansky provided an intellectual jolt on the final morning of the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week when she appeared on stage to talk about “the Mesh.”

That’s what Gansky, a veteran Internet entrepreneur, calls the confluence of social networks, GPS-enabled mobile technology (smartphones, iPads, and the like) and the tagging of physical objects with chips that pinpoint their location.

“The Mesh is a fundamental shift in our relationship to the things in our lives,” said Gansky, who has written a book by the same name. “We’re moving to an economy where access to goods and services trumps ownership of them.  The opportunity of the Mesh is to really design and support better things easily shared.”

“The recession has caused us to ask what the real value of things versus the cost,” she added. “This is a time where we’re more connected to more people than ever before.”

And so in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a panoply of peer-to-peer services, beginning with music sharing in the Napster era to peer-to-peer money lending to car sharing.

The advent of smartphones and social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Yelp has accelerated the trend. But whether the Mesh is a plaything of the urban techno-hipsters or represents the advent of new economic model, as Gansky posits, remains to be seen.

But what struck me is the truly radical economic notion enmeshed in the Mesh: The more we share our stuff, the less we need to buy all that new stuff that inevitably leads to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, and the pursuit of unsustainable consumption.

“If we look at ourselves as a global community, we have a lot of stuff,” Gansky said. “What we actually use of the stuff we have is a really small percentage.”

Gansky noted that people in the United States and Europe typically use their cars only 8 percent of the day. “For most people, the second most expensive thing we own is just sitting for most of the time,” she said.

So why not make cars share-ready when they roll off the assembly line?

“Not only in terms of their ability of to tap into a network but so when I buy a car and I automatically and easily have the option to make it available to somebody else to use and pay me or not,” Gansky said.

She noted that it took six years for Zipcar, which lets people rent vehicles by the hour in urban areas, to build a fleet of 1,000 cars. But it only took six months for WhipCar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service, to put 1,000 cars in service after its launch last year in the U.K. That’s because WhipCar lets people share their personal cars, much like the U.S. services Getaround, RelayRide and Spride Share.

Now think about embedding that ability to share in all sorts of objects.

Gansky acknowledged that getting people to change long-entrenched habits and cultural attitudes about ownership won’t be easy.

“We have experiences in our lives where sharing was irresistible but how do we do that on a regular basis and in a scalable way,” she said. “Generally, people change their habits when one thing happens — their pants are on fire.”

But you only have to turn on the news to know its getting hot in here.

 

photo: CoolPlanetBiofuels

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about Google Ventures funding a Southern California startup that is developing mobile biofuel refineries that will travel to the fuel source to process agricultural waste and other biomass:

Google Ventures has led a $20 million financing round in CoolPlanetBiofuels, a Southern California start-up that is developing mobile refineries to turn wood chips, agriculture waste and other biomass into biofuels.

CoolPlanetBiofuels, an 18-month-old company, has also attracted the attention of ConocoPhillips, GE Capital and NRG Energy, which participated in the financing round along with North Bridge Venture Partners.

CoolPlanetBiofuels declined to disclose the total capital that it had raised, but it noted that Google Ventures was a major participant in the series B round announced Thursday.

“We take biomass such as corncobs, yard clippings wood chips and fractionate that biomass into discrete gas streams,” said Mike Cheiky, CoolPlanetBiofuels’ chief executive and a longtime technology executive. “Those individual gas streams aren’t really useful by themselves, so we run them through catalytic conversion columns that convert them to useful fuels.”

One limitation of using biomass as a feedstock for biofuels has been the expense of trucking low-value waste long distances to a refinery. So CoolPlanetBiofuels plans to take the refineries to the fuel source by packaging its machines in tractor-trailers.

“Biomass cannot be transported very far because in raw form it has a very low energy content,” Mr. Cheiky said.

He said a typical refinery would consist of a cluster of tractor-trailers that can process 10 million gallons of fuel a year.

“There’s a very large market opportunity here with a lot of headroom for innovation,” said Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing director. “These are early days and this space won’t end up with a single winner but any progress Mike and CoolPlanet can make will have a profoundly positive impact on consumers, the industry and the world.”

So far CoolPlanetBiofuels has built a small pilot plant that is producing biofuel for evaluation by oil companies, Mr. Cheiky said. He declined to identify the companies, citing a confidentiality agreement. The company expects to have its first one-million gallon mobile refinery operating within a year.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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.

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about the strategy of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, the leader of the campaign against Proposition 23 last year, to fight efforts to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions:

Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?

For years, Mr. Steyer, a billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager, assiduously maintained a low profile while becoming a major donor to Democratic candidates. That changed in 2010 when he led the successful fight to defeat Proposition 23, a California ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies and a company controlled by Charles G. and David H. Koch, the secretive billionaire brothers and bankrollers of conservative causes.

Proposition 23 would have effectively derailed the state’s landmark global warming law, which would have been a big setback for California’s blooming green technology industry. Mr. Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, is the main financial backer of Greener Capital, a venture firm that invests in renewable energy start-ups.

Now Mr. Steyer appears to be itching to take on the Koch brothers and their supporters as Republican lawmakers seek to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “As an investor who one might say is insanely obsessed with energy and its generation and use around the world, it seems crazy to me we would roll back science-based clean air standards because there are skillful political operatives and wealthy political donors who really want to get rid of E.P.A. regulations,” he said in a speech Monday evening at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco. “That seems nuts to me.”

While Mr. Steyer did not mention the Koch brothers directly in his speech, he assailed their support for Proposition 23 during the campaign.

Mr. Steyer, who said he had spent time consulting with the Obama administration after last November’s election, laid out a political strategy to focus on swing states and promote environmental regulation as a boon for job creation, drawing on lessons from the battle over Proposition 23.

“It’s all about public health and clean air,” he said. “It’s all about creating new jobs and really what we’re fighting is self-interested dirty energy companies.”

He noted that opponents of a Democrats’ failed efforts to pass climate change legislation last year had gone state by state to talk about potential job losses from capping greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our strategy going forward as a group is that we have to have answers on the state and local level,” Mr. Steyer said. “The idea that we would change the way energy is generated and used in the United States without engaging the American people locally in a real way seems to me to be wrong.”

Mr. Steyer said he had consulted with Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and adviser to former President Bill Clinton, to gain a better understanding of how the civil rights movement organized its campaigns.

“I asked, ‘How did you guys do it? How did you change the way Americans think about civil rights, something that nobody was anxious to engage on as far as I can tell but where there was a gross need for change, just as there is here,’ ” Mr. Steyer said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: REC Solar

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

The United States solar businesses boomed, as usual, in 2010, growing 67 percent to $6 billion, according to an annual report released Thursday by an industry trade group.

That’s been the story for the past several years, but what’s notable is that solar is no longer just a California thing. The industry is expanding to the East. Back in 2004-2005, California accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the U.S. market. In 2010, that share fell to 30 percent, with 258.9 megawatts of the 878.3 megawatts of photovoltaic power installed that year, according to the report prepared by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

New Jersey is now the nation’s second solar state, with 16 percent of new photovoltaic installations in 2010. And while it is no surprise that sun-soaked states like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are also in the top 10, the list also includes states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Texas, the country’s No. 1 wind power state, made the top 10 with 22.6 megawatts of photovoltaics installed in 2010. The rest of the country collectively put 135.2 megawatts of solar on its roofs.

Back in 2007, only four states installed more than 10 megawatts of solar. Last year, 16 states did. The U.S. now is generating a total of 2.6 gigawatts from photovoltaic panels.

But the domestic market was a relative laggard as the solar boom continued overseas.

“U.S. demand growth was, however, outpaced by a global market boom driven primarily by the German and Italian markets,” the report noted. “Over 17 GW were installed globally in 2010, more than 13 percent growth over 2009. As a result, despite U.S. demand expansion, the U.S. market share of global installations fell from 6.5 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2010.”

That could change in the years ahead, though, as subsidies subside in Europe and solar companies look to the U.S. as the big growth market.

The report predicts the U.S. solar market will double in 2011, but warns that expiring federal subsidies make growth in 2012 and beyond uncertain.

At least one Chinese solar company is betting the solar boom will continue. On Thursday, JA Solar announced it will begin construction this year of a new factory that will have a capacity to manufacture 3,000 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic cells a year, thanks in part to a government loan.

photo: Todd Woody

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

The California Legislature is moving to put into law a regulation requiring the state’s utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But how did California’s three big investor-owned utilities do in meeting a previous mandate to secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from carbon-free sources by the end of 2010?

Close, but not quite. Overall, the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind farms, solar power plants, geothermal, and biomass facilities, according to a new report from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison fell just short with 19.4 percent of its power coming from renewable sources. PG&E didn’t do as well but 17.7 percent of its electricity is green. The smallest utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is the brownest of the bunch, with renewables accounting for only 11.9 percent of its power portfolio.

State regulators estimate that the three utilities will collectively hit the 20 percent target — one of the most aggressive in the United States — by the end of 2012. Of course, they have an even bigger mandate to meet eight years after that.

The good news is that the trajectory looks positive, if the growth in renewable energy generation in recent years is any guide. For instance, the percentage of green electricity in PG&E’s portfolio jumped from 14.4 in 2009 to 17.7 in 2010 while Southern California Edison increased its percentage of renewable energy by two points in 2010.

Hitting the so-called RPS — renewable portfolio standard — admittedly is a tricky business. A review of more than 200 renewable energy projects the utilities have signed shows that many have come online, some have cratered, and others are in limbo as environmentalist and developers face off over the impact of big solar power plants on desert flora and fauna.

There have also been big changes in renewable energy technology in recent years. The price of photovoltaic modules has plummeted over the past two years and utilities have been recently signing deals to buy electricity from photovoltaic farms at a pell-mell pace.

Still, expect stricter scrutiny of these deals as the 2020 deadline approaches, pressure mounts to make good on the 2010 mandate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointees to the public utilities commission weigh in.

Of the hundreds of renewable energy contacts the utilities have submitted for approval, only two have been rejected — a wave energy deal and a wind project.

Meanwhile, regulators list a project to transmit 200 megawatts of electricity to PG&E from an orbiting space-based solar farm as “on schedule.”

Beam me down, Scotty.

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about PlugShare, a new iPhone app that lets people share their household outlets and electric car charging stations with EV drivers:

First there was music sharing and then car sharing. Now get ready for plug sharing.

Xatori, a Silicon Valley software start-up, aims to create a network of electric car enthusiasts who make their household power outlets and home chargers available for drivers who need to top off their battery or who find themselves out of range of the few public-charging stations currently available.

On Monday, Xatori released PlugShare, a free iPhone app that lets drivers and outlet owners locate and offer electricity.

“We want to break down that barrier in people’s minds about where it’s acceptable to charge,” said Armen Petrosian, Xatori’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We think the infrastructure to charge is everywhere.”

Drivers can punch in their destination to see the availability of shared outlets as well as public charging stations along their route.

People who want to share their electricity indicate what type of outlet or charger they have, how to gain access and their preferred method of contact. Given that most outlets are located in locked garages or otherwise behind closed doors, Xatori expects plug sharers will ask drivers to schedule a time to charge by calling or sending a text message.

“I think a big positive of using the app is that you get to connect with other E.V. owners,” said Mr. Petrosian.

In other words, think of PlugShare as a combination of FaceBook and Foursquare, the location-based service, for electric car owners and their supporters.

“People who don’t own an electric car can be part of the electric vehicle revolution,” said Forrest North, Xatori’s chief executive and the founder of Mission Motors, a San Francisco start-up developing an electric motorcycle.

But how much is it going to cost to take part in this revolution if the revolutionaries are giving away their power?

Not much, according to Xatori’s founders, who believe that most people will share their standard 110-volt household outlets. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, they say it’ll cost on average about 15 cents an hour to charge an electric car. (Under a variable rate structure, that cost could go up if a household is a particularly heavy electricity user.)

“This is more like a backup network, like A.A.A.,” said Mr. Petrosian, who says he has a battery-powered Nissan Leaf on order. “Most of the time you’ll drive on energy from your own house. If you miscalculate, you can rely on the community.”

You can read the rest of the story here.