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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.

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photo: GE

In my Green State column on Grist on Thursday, I write about General Electric’s $200 million contest to find ideas and technologies to accelerate deployment of the smart grid:

Got a killer smart grid idea? General Electric has $200 million to spend.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of the industrial conglomerate, flew into San Francisco to announce on Tuesday that GE was hooking up with prominent venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, the East Coast, and Europe to offer a supersized version of the X Prize for innovation. (GE and the participating venture capitalists are each contributing $100 million to the challenge.)

“We really believe this digital energy space is going to move fast and big as an economic proposition,” Immelt said before a hundred or so of Silicon Valley’s green tech elite who gathered for a lavish press event at the neo-classical Bently Reserve building in downtown San Francisco. “It also lays the groundwork for everything that needs to be done in an energy future, from nuclear to renewables.”

“GE can offer 50 to 60 percent of the solutions,” he added. “But the only way we can grow is by partnering with the venture community.”

And you too, Grist reader. GE will essentially crowdsource ideas, business plans, and potential startup acquisitions at a new site called Ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid. (“Ecomagination” is how GE brands its various environmental and green technology ventures and initiatives.)

Between now and September 30 you can submit ideas and vote on the best ones — the one scoring the most reader votes, and GE’s approval, wins $50,000. The company and its venture partners will award five other entries $100,000 each, which could lead to further equity investment.

A day into the smart grid challenge, ideas submitted from around the world range from wind farms on the Great Lakes to a proposal to “harness the energy from the Earth’s rotation.”

Now it’s doubtful that any startup entrepreneur worth her seed funding will risk floating  a potential multimillion-dollar idea for all to see. But GE’s partnership with venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners — not to mention its use of social media to troll for innovative ideas — speaks to the challenges of building a smart grid.

First we need to define what a smart grid is. Comparing it to the Internet is a favored analogy. The current power transmission system is patchwork of early-to-mid 20th century technology that sends electricity from power plants to homes, offices, and factories. It’s essentially a one-way, analog system.

What Immelt calls “digital energy” will transform the power grid into a two-way, interactive system through the use of software, sensors, and other devices that allow utilities and grid operators to control and monitor energy use from the household level up, as well as get real-time data on electricity demand and supply. The various parts of the grid — transformers, substations, power lines — will communicate digitally, alerting operators, for instance, when a component has failed.

The ability to collect and analyze such grid data is crucial for the mass expansion of renewable energy. Most forms of green energy — solar and wind, for instance — are intermittent and increasingly decentralized; there are more than 31,000 rooftop solar installations in California alone.

To maximize renewable energy production and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, utilities and grid operators must be able to balance electricity being fed into the grid from tens of thousands of such sources along with energy from centralized fossil fuel power stations.

And in the coming years, utilities will need to know the location and charging status of tens of thousands of electric cars, each one automobile battery both a consumer and a potential provider of electricity. (If 100,000 cars plug in at 9 p.m. in California just as wind farms hit peak production, a utility will want to use that emission-free electricity to charge up emission-free vehicles rather than rely on, say, natural gas-fired power plants.)

You can read the rest of the column here.

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SAN FRANCISCO – Google and General Electric said Wednesday that they will collaborate on developing geothermal power as well as technology to enable plug-in vehicles to return electricity to the grid.

During Google’s (GOOG) annual Zeitgeist conference at its Silicon Valley headquarters, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and GE (GE) chief Jeff Immelt said the two giants also would team up to push for policy changes in Washington to develop smart electricity grids to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy.

“There’s two fundamental things that have to be done, and which we’re working with Google on,” said Immelt before an audience that included former Vice President Al Gore. “One, there has to be more capacity. The second thing is there has to be a smart grid to allow it to operate more effectively. That’s primarily software. We make the hardware.”

Schmidt quizzed Immelt about the impact of the Wall Street meltdown on green energy. “Will the craziness of last week screw some of this stuff up?” asked Schmidt. “Are we going to get set back for years because of all the shenanigans in the financial industry?”

“People should be concerned but not panicked,” replied Immelt. “The federal government is doing the right thing.”

Gore was not so sanguine, noting that Congress has failed repeatedly to extend crucial investment tax credits for renewable energy. “While Congress is voting on oil drilling and leasing oil shale – which is a move that would be game over for the climate crisis – they’re preparing to filibuster over renewable energy tax credits,” he said.

Google and GE are among scores of Fortune 500 companies that have lobbied Congress to extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, which is particularly important to the wind industry. ”

“I’m a lifelong Republican and I believe in free markets but over time we worship false idols,” says Immelt. “Sometimes we think the free market is whatever the price of oil is today. In the end, clean energy is both a technology and a public policy.”

He noted that because the production tax credit allowed the wind industry to scale up, wind-generated electricity now costs about six-to-seven cents a kilowatt hour, down from 15 cents 15 years ago.

“We bought Enron’s wind business for a few million dollars and now it’s worth $7 to 8 billion,” Immelt said. “I’ve made some bad decisions but that wasn’t one of them.”

Google in August invested nearly $11 million in geothermal companies developing so-called enhanced geothermal systems technology to allow the earth’s heat to be tapped nearly anywhere and turned into electricity. On Wednesday, Google and GE said they will work on technology to transform geothermal into a large-scale source of green electricity.

In a statement, the two companies said they will also “explore enabling technologies including software, controls and services that help utilities enhance grid stability and integrate plug-in vehicles and renewable energy into the grid.”

Image: Google

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