Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Google’

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

Talk about student activism: Lucy Southworth, a Stanford University doctoral student, has given $100,000 to the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global warming law.

If the name doesn’t ring a bill, try Googling. In Silicon Valley, Southworth is better known as the wife of Google co-founder Larry Page.

Her contribution follows the $500,000 earlier donated to the No campaign by Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. (Disclosure: Wendy Schmidt serves on Grist’s board of directors.)

The No forces took in $200,580 in campaign contributions on Monday, following a $5 million haul in the previous week, according to California Secretary of State records. Applied Materials, the world’s biggest manufacturer of the machines that make computer chips, gave $25,000 on Monday; Chicago-based wind developer Invenergy donated $10,000; and William S. Fisher, San Francisco investor and an heir to the Gap clothing empire, donated $25,000, as did Sakurako D. Fisher.

All this check writing is to protect California’s climate change law, known as AB 32. The law requires the state to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. Prop 23 would suspend AB 32 until the unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, a rare occurrence in recent decades.

The Yes campaign, which is largely funded by two Texas oil companies, continues to lag far behind in the fundraising department of late. It logged one $5,000 contribution on Monday, from a Mississippi barge company that hauls petroleum and petrochemicals.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Image: Google

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

Google is officially in the green energy business. The search giant announced on Tuesday that its Google Energy subsidiary signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy. Google will begin buying 114 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind farm on July 30.

Google, of course, cannot directly use the clean green energy generated by the wind farm; that power goes into the local grid. So Google Energy will sell the power on the regional spot market, where utilities and electricity retailers go to buy power when demand spikes and they have a shortfall. Google will use the revenue from spot market sales to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) which will offset its greenhouse gas emissions.

Many companies buy RECs in an attempt to be carbon neutral, obtaining them from third-party brokers. But by purchasing RECs directly tied to the renewable energy it is also buying, Google is getting a bigger bang for its buck.

“By contracting to purchase so much energy for so long, we’re giving the developer of the wind farm financial certainty to build additional clean energy projects,” Urs Hoelzle, Google’s senior vice president for operations, wrote on a blog post Tuesday.

“The inability of renewable energy developers to obtain financing has been a significant inhibitor to the expansion of renewable energy,” he added. “We’ve been excited about this deal because taking 114 megawatts of wind power off the market for so long means producers have the incentive and means to build more renewable energy capacity for other customers.”

In a statement on its site, Google also noted that its motivations for signing long-term renewable energy contracts are not entirely altruistic.

“Through the long term purchase of renewable energy at a predetermined price, we’re partially protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices,” the company stated. “This is a case where buying green makes business sense.”

It remains to be seen how big a green power purchaser Google will become. (The company has also invested directly in a wind project built by NextEra Energy, the biggest American wind power producer.)

But Dan Reicher, Google.org director of climate change and energy programs, told me earlier this year that finding clean ways of powering Google’s massive data centers led in part to the establishment of Google Energy.

“This interest in procuring green electrons is part of what’s driven Google Energy,” he said.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In my latest Green State column in Grist, I take a look at why, despite the hype, Bloom Energy’s fuel cell breakthrough could change the energy game:

Green tech had its Google moment this week in Silicon Valley when one of the most secretive and well-funded startups around, Bloom Energy, literally lifted the curtain on what it claims is a breakthrough in fuel cell technology: affordable electricity! Fewer greenhouse gas emissions! And that’s all before they throw in the bamboo steamer.

After eight years in stealth mode—until this week, Bloom’s website featured the company’s name and little else—the startup pulled out the stops in a carefully stage-managed media blitz that recalled the high-flying dot-com days of a decade ago. First came a report on “60 Minutes” that got the blogs abuzz along with stories in Fortune and The New York Times.

It all culminated in a star-studded press conference at eBay’s headquarters in San Jose on Wednesday, where California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, K.R. Sridhar, and gave him a bear hug before several hundred suits, environmental movement honchos and a bank of television cameras.

Before Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member, delivered the benediction, testimonials were offered by Google co-founder Larry Page and top executives from Wal-Mart, eBay, Federal Express, Coca-Cola, and other Fortune 500 companies that had quietly purchased 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Servers over the past year.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), meanwhile, beamed in a bipartisan endorsement via video.

“This technology is going to fundamentally change the world,” the California Democrat declared.

But is it?

That’s the $400 million question (what some of Silicon Valley’s most storied venture capitalists have poured into Bloom so far).

With the hype—the apparently brilliant but unassuming Sridhar was compared to Steve Jobs at one point Wednesday—comes the backlash. Almost immediately analysts and competitors began asking hard questions about Bloom’s claims.

And there are some big unknowns. Will the fuel cell stacks last as long as the company anticipates or will frequent replacement undermine the economics of going off the grid, for both Bloom and their customers?

What’s the total cost of ownership for customers? Bloom says the energy servers have a lifespan of 10 years and a payback period of three to five years. That’s based on the current price of natural gas—which is one fuel used by the devices—and state and federal subsidies that halve the cost of the machines that sell for between $700,000 and $800,000. Will Bloom be able to scale up manufacturing and continue to innovate to bring the price of the energy server down? Can they be competitive without subsidies?

All legitimate questions. But it’s important not to lose sight of what looks to be some fundamental breakthroughs, not only in energy technology but in the way some major corporate players are embracing distributed generation-placing electricity production where it is consumed.

You can read the rest of the column here.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have a story on Bloom Energy, which has revealed its fuel cell technology with much fanfare after remaining in stealth mode for eight years:

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A Silicon Valley company is claiming a breakthrough in a decades-old quest to develop fuel cells that can supply affordable and relatively clean electricity. Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other large corporations have been testing the devices, which will be formally introduced on Wednesday.

The start-up, Bloom Energy, has raised about $400 million from investors and spent nearly a decade developing a new variety of solid oxide fuel cell, considered the most efficient but most technologically challenging fuel-cell technology.

K. R. Sridhar, Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, said devices made by his company were generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, using natural gas. That is lower than commercial electricity prices in some parts of the country.

“We got into this business to make affordable electricity, not fuel cells,” Mr. Sridhar said Tuesday as workers assembled stacks of fuel cells in tall, round cylinders and installed them in silver metal cubes at Bloom’s headquarters in a Silicon Valley office park.

The company has been working on the technology for eight years while saying little. The secrecy, and the prominence of the venture capitalists backing Bloom, have fueled both hype and skepticism about its efforts. Bloom is scheduled to unveil the technology Wednesday at a news conference attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a member of Bloom’s board.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I followed up the piece with an online story in The Times offering a more detailed look at Bloom:

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about Bloom Energy, the once-secretive Silicon Valley start-up that has apparently made a big breakthrough in developing a fuel cell that can generate electricity at competitive prices while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The company is officially unveiling its Bloom Energy Server at a news conference on Wednesday morning featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member; and John Doerr, Silicon Valley’s leading green-tech investor. But on Monday and Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the start-up’s headquarters in Sunnyvale and to see the Bloom box up close.

In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley practice of announcing a coming product, Bloom spent nearly a decade developing its fuel-cell technology while saying nary a word. Over the past year and a half, it has quietly sold and installed 100-kilowatt Bloom boxes at Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other big companies. The boxes cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece.

“Silicon Valley is learning some hard and important skills, mainly making stuff again,” said Mr. Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a Bloom Energy board member.

Making stuff, particularly solid-oxide fuel cells, is very hard work. Such fuel cells have been something of a holy grail as they can operate at extremely high temperatures to maximize efficiency and can use a variety of fuels, like natural gas and biogas. Since the heat allows the fuel to be directly transformed into electricity through an electrochemical process, the expensive precious metals and rare-earth elements used in other fuel cells to act as catalysts could theoretically be eliminated.

But finding cheap common materials as substitutes and ensuring fuel cells don’t crack and leak under such conditions have stymied scientists for more than 30 years.

So how did Bloom crack the fuel-cell conundrum?

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

siting1

Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

Read Full Post »

tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »