Tuesday, November 30, 2004

California Dreamin' ....

California seems to be riding the wave to renewable power. Several recent articles show the variety of ways that green business is blooming in California. The first article is particularly significant because the California Public Employees' Retirement System is now providing venture capital for green startups.

'Green' startups draw investors

Venture capitalists see green in the next generation rechargeable battery from PowerGenix Systems.

They are betting the young San Diego company's nontoxic, nickel-zinc battery will pay off big - both for their portfolios and for the environment.

In the past six months, VCs, including one funded by the giant California Public Employees' Retirement System, have put down $13.75 million on PowerGenix. ...

"There are new industries growing, and we ought to be on the leading edge of investment in these," said state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a CalPERS and CalSTRS trustee and the driving force behind the funds' "green wave" investment program. "It's a place where we can win."

Experts say the upstart industry could grow quickly and capture 10 to 20 percent of the venture capital dollars over the next decade.

While Governor Schwarzenegger is pushing hydrogen powered cars, biodiesel is making its appearance as well.

Whether visiting the new pump in Monterey or scavenging used frying oil from restaurants, the homegrown solution appeals to drivers even though vehicle manufacturers and state agencies are reluctant to approve its use.

"It seems like everyone has heard something about burning vegetable oil, but they don't know much more about it," said Logan Talbott, a customer at the new Monterey station. Alliance Mart switched its kerosene tank over to biodiesel in June. Drivers in pickups, new Volkswagens and old Mercedes sporting vegetable-oil bumper stickers are pulling in from as far as Santa Cruz and Big Sur. Sales are increasing every month, said owner John Baulman, and the Fremont Street station typically has two or three biodiesel customers a day. ...

Biodiesel can be made from vegetable oil, animal fat or recycled restaurant grease. It runs in diesel engines with little or no modifications and can be used interchangeably with diesel. But long-term effects on engines are not known, and most auto manufacturers will not warranty vehicles running on biodiesel.

It's promoted as an easy, clean-burning diesel alternative. Biodiesel reduces particulate matter (the black soot that gives diesel its bad name), carbon monoxide and ozone-forming emissions by about 50 percent, according to a 2002 study by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those are overall figures. Many of the most toxic components of diesel, including sulfur, are virtually absent in biodiesel.

And the city of Fresno is launching a pilot program to promote electric cars.

The idea for promoting neighborhood electric vehicles came out of a City Council meeting a little more than a year ago when Lew Solomon, who owns Central Valley Golf & Utility Vehicles, suggested that people could use the vehicles for short neighborhood trips to cut down on air pollution. "I told the city, 'I'm not trying to sell vehicles, but the situation is the housewives of America could use these things to go to the grocery store,'" Solomon said.

He said his business gets calls every week from older people who don't drive cars anymore but want an electric vehicle to drive to the store or the library or to run other errands.

Rudd and his staff explored the issue and brought their findings to the City Council this month.

Neighborhood electric vehicles can typically reach speeds of about 25 mph and can travel up to 30 miles per battery charge. The vehicles cost between $6,000 and $9,000.

To operate on city streets, the vehicles must have seat belts, turn signals and headlights.

The biggest hurdle Rudd and his staff found is that the vehicles cannot be used on most major streets because of speed limits. That means people can drive them around their neighborhood but can't drive them to the nearest grocery store. ...

Builder Gary McDonald will promote electric cars at the 2,837-home Copper River Ranch development, which will include outlets for the vehicles in the garages. He did the same — and offered discounts on neighborhood electric vehicles — at Country Club at the Fort, a 123-home development, also in north Fresno.

He said they were successful at that development. But he hopes the cars will be more successful at Copper River, because it's a larger development that will have commercial and shopping areas within the development.

Anything that gets people out of large cars, particularly sport utility vehicles, is going to help clean the air, said Dr. David Pepper of the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, an advocacy group.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Once again, in the absence of national leadership, the states are taking the lead.

Coloradans Vote to Embrace Alternative Sources of Energy

Colorado utilities will have to sell a lot more electricity from wind power in years to come under a statewide ballot initiative approved by voters on Nov. 2, and if they want some pointers they might talk to Adam T. Kremers, a 19-year-old sophomore at Colorado State University here. He has been there and done that.

Mr. Kremers sold wind power to the occupants of individual dormitory rooms this fall, under an agreement between the university and the local utility that environmentalists describe as one of the first such programs in the nation.

Mr. Kremers, an environmental engineering major and the associate director of environmental affairs in the student government, gave out stickers and pinwheels shaped like turbines and threw a "wind power party" to celebrate clean energy, complete with a cake connived from the dining hall.

He ultimately got 187 students - nearly 4 percent of the university's residence-hall population of 5,000 - to sign up, paying an additional $17 to $52 a year to buy green power to run their computers and lava lamps.

"It's a start," Mr. Kremers said. "Now it's my duty to keep it going."

Colorado voters said much the same thing when they approved, over the vehement objections of most energy companies, a proposal mandating that 10 percent of the state's electricity must come from wind and solar power by 2015.

The law, Amendment 37, makes Colorado the 18th state with an environmentally friendly energy standard, but the first one to have bypassed the Legislature and put the rule into place through referendum. An energy bill similar to the one the voters approved was defeated by Colorado's Legislature three times in the last three years.

"Because it's a conservative Western state with a strong fossil-fuel industry, as well as the first one passed by a popular referendum, Colorado represents something of a breakthrough," said Alan Nogee, the energy program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass.

More surprisingly, most states have given up looking for guidance on global warming from Washington, and are instituting their own efforts to crack down on the industries that produce greenhouse gases.

Nearly every U.S. state now has programmes to reduce global warming pollution, and many have moved to the next step by working together in regional blocs. The most prominent projects include a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions from utilities, developed by nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, and an alliance to boost energy efficiency and the use of renewables in the power grids of 19 western states.

State initiatives tend to frame climate change as an economic opportunity to produce alternative fuels, become renewable energy exporters, attract high-tech business, and to reduce other kinds of pollution as well, according to a Pew analysis that will be released in early December.

”The issue of global warming can be polarising when it's put out there all by itself,” Greenwald said. ”There has been a lot of public support for these (state) initiatives, partly because they are integrated with other things people care about.”

Some states are seeking technological innovations to solve the problem. For example, the Ohio Coal Development Office funds projects that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion, while the South Carolina Hydrogen Coalition is promoting economic development by building expertise in hydrogen technology.

Others are taking even stronger steps: for example, 16 states have mandated that electric utilities -- which account for nearly one-third of greenhouse gases -- generate a certain amount of power from renewable sources.

Last week, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington -- all west coast states facing the prospect of rising sea levels -- announced 36 recommendations to fight global warming, including tightening emissions and energy efficiency targets, investing in fleets of hybrid gas-electric vehicles, and boosting retail energy sales from renewables at least one percent a year through 2015.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Forget the tiger. Put some mushrooms in your tank

Yet a new potential souce of fuel for cars:

Where there's muck, there's gas. Scientists have created genetically modified yeasts and fungi that can turn agricultural waste into fuel for cars and trucks. In future we may take to the roads in vehicles powered by left over plant remains.

The technology - created with European Union money - uses corn stubble and other farm waste as basic ingredients for making ethanol. This can then be used as a substitute for petrol.

This project has been hailed by researchers and politicians because it could help Europe make major cuts in its massive oil import bill. Apart from North Sea oil, which is now drying up, nearly all the Continent's oil and petrol is imported.

More than 75 million tonnes of stubble are left each year from Europe's harvests. Fermenting it all would create 250,000 million litres of ethanol, equal to the world's entire current production.

In addition, such fuel does not increase global warming. The carbon dioxide released by burning ethanol is absorbed by the corn, spruce and willow plants which are grown the following year, so the gas is effectively recycled. ...

Ethanol is only a partial substitute for petrol, which can be diluted by 10 per cent by it.

The mixture will burn happily in a normal car engine. 'It may not seem much but a 20 per cent cut in oil imports would be a significant help for Europe,' said Reczey.

Once again, Europe is taking the lead in finding renewable energy sources, and it is because the governments of Europe have made the political decision to push renewables and to supply the necessary funding. This political equation is sorely lacking in the U.S.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Greed goeth before a fall

Unfortunately, this is all too often the response even when someone realizes the magnitude of the problems we face.


Los Angeles County has been forced to import water from the very beginning and, as population growth continues unabated, it is getting more and more difficult to find supplies.

A small water district in northern Los Angeles County has been a lone voice warning that water supplies in the Santa Clarita area could disappear with rapid housing development.

The agency is in danger of disappearing because it's challenge to rapid growth has rubbed people the wrong way.

The county's Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees hundreds of municipal boards, including Newhall, is proposing that the water district be dissolved because its service area overlaps those of neighboring water agencies.

The commission's officials believe the change would make water service more efficient and less confusing to customers. But Newhall board members contend the move is nothing more than a transparent attempt to muzzle them.

"They are overstating the water supply, and they want to shut us up," said board member Lynne Plambeck.

Water is a hot-button issue in the semi-rural Santa Clarita Valley 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of houses, including the 20,885-home Newhall Ranch, are to be built in the next decade.

Plambeck believes the valley's water plan encourages over-pumping of the Santa Clarita River aquifer and offers an unrealistic picture of future allocations from the California Aqueduct.

The commission is scheduled to consider the proposal to dissolve the Newhall County Water District on Nov. 30.

Friday, November 19, 2004

"The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, And the oil age will not end because the world will run out of oil."

Scott Noesen, director of sustainable development at Dow Chemical, quoted Lovins in his opening address at the conference, which was sponsored in Chicago by the American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS). According to Noesen, major chemical companies are anticipating fundamental changes in what they make and sell as economic, environmental, and political pressures force industry to rely less on petroleum products. Significant research efforts are under way to replace established raw materials with products like plant oils--such as soybean oil--animal oils, and agricultural waste, he said.

The first wave of renewable or biotech products is already replacing petroleum-based raw materials in large commodity markets such as plastics, fibers, and fuels. These products come in direct contact with consumers and are thus marketed foremost as "green." In fuels, there is also regulatory momentum behind products such as biodiesel.

The second wave--specialty products--consists of materials sold primarily to industry. The main drivers behind their acceptance as replacements for petrochemicals will be price and performance.

That acceptance has been a lot slower than some were anticipating 20 years ago. "Oil prices peaked over $40 per barrel in the 1970s, and people predicted that renewable resources were bound to be more competitive and the wave of the future," said consultant Robert T. Betz, who chaired the AOCS meeting. Betz, a former U.S. head of the oleochemical producer Cognis, said the drop in oil prices in the 1990s slowed development considerably, but the price of a barrel of oil is now at an all-time high, and supply is a concern. "Each decade gets more severe," he said. "We know there is a limit to fossil resources, but we don't know what it is. Our political situation and the balance of payments are such that one wonders, if not now, when? When will it all come together?"

Plastics can come from plants, fuels can come from plants, synthetic fibers can come from plants, more and more green alternatives are being developed as the price of oil skyrockets.

Of course, the yet to be answered question is, can we grow our lifestyle and still feed everyone? The limit to growth is still the fundamental part of the equation that needs to be filled in.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

New Oil Projects Cannot Meet World Needs This Decade

The London based Oil Depletion Analysis Centre studied all of the major new oil projects scheduled to come on stream over the next six years--68 projects with a projected 12.5 million barrels a day of production--and concluded that; "This new production would almost certainly not be sufficient to offset diminishing supplies from existing sources and still meet growing global demand."

The study assumed a decline in production from older fields of about 1 million barrels a day per year, leaving only half of the new production left to meet demand growth. If demand were to increase by two percent annually, available supplies could fall short of the total needed in 2010 by more than two million barrels a day.

However, the study's assumptions may be optimistic. According to numbers supplied by
the Energy Information Administration,
twelve of the thirty countries they list are in decline. Furthermore, almost all of the increase that has occurred so far in 2004 (their numbers go through August) has come from OPEC (which has brought
online what is left of their surplus capacity) and Russia.

Between December, 2003 and August 2004, OPEC's production has increased by 1.26 million barrels a day and Russia's production has increased by 815 thousand barrels a day.

But worldwide production has only increased by 861 thousand barrels a day. That means that, outside of OPEC and Russia, there has been a net loss of over 1.2 million barrels a day of production. This is a stunning number. OPEC has no more reserves to bring online so they cannot repeat this year's performance and Russia cannot keep up this level of growth forever. The world may already be experiencing a depletion rate greater than the average rate assumed by the study for the next six years, and as more countries roll over into decline, this number will only grow larger.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

BP Solar on track for first profits

BP Solar, the third largest solar company in the world, is about to achieve a major milestone in the history if solar power--it is about to turn a profit. After restructuring in 2003, BP has taken advantage of decreasing production costs and a sharp increase in global demand, largely driven by Germany. BP plans to more than double its production capacity over the next 18 months.

A report by analysts CLSA Asia-Pacific confirmed that solar experienced industry-wide profits for the first time in 2004 and that market growth was some 40 percent.

The sudden growth of demand in Europe has also drawn in Sharp, the world's largest solar company, which opened a 200 megawatt capacity facility in Wales in mid 2004. But with demand soaring for solar in Europe, and supplies low, there is room for all players to operate profitably in the market.

Solar power is proving that it is viable, but the growth continues to be driven by government support, support that centers in Europe, Japan, and a few states in the U.S. A major federal program in the U.S. is still needed to get the percentage of electricity generated by solar out of single digits.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Australia in grip of water crisis

Changing weather patterns are already playing havoc with major parts of the world. In Australia, the worst drought in living memory is coming close to a critical level in major Australian cities. Professor Peter Cullen, leader of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, has said that, "Some of our major (cities) are really in a race at the moment to see who's going to run out of water first."

Australians will have to change they way they live and find new ways to collect and resuse water.

Green gardens and dishwashers could soon become luxuries beyond the reach of most households.

The recycling of water, desalinisation plants and the harnessing of storm water - which often, and rather frustratingly for many Australians, simply flows into the sea - are options.

Left unsaid, is that water shortages will also put limits on the amount of population growth the land will support. After a dramatic drop in rainfall in the mid 1970s and another in the mid 1990s, drought may become the norm in Australia's future.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

States take the lead in renewable energy

The U.S. sorely lacks any national energy policy to help us move away from oil and gas toward sustainable energy sources. Some states, however, are beginning to offer serious support to individuals who install wind or solar power systems.

Vermont offers up to $12,500 to residents who install a solar- or wind-power system and up to $7,500 for a solar hot-water system.

More than a dozen state governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to promote power production from wind, sun and other renewable sources. Some states are even requiring residents to help pay for it.

In last week's election, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure that requires the state's biggest electric companies to buy a share of their power from renewable sources. California is giving grants to dairy farmers to turn cow manure into methane gas, which is then burned to make electricity.

The states' efforts so far still only affect a small portion of the country's energy production. Renewable energy now supplies about 2% of the nation's electricity, not counting hydropower. Present state efforts could double that figure to 4%-5% by 2020 to more than 20,000 megawatts.

At least renewable energy has become a bipartisan issue. “It makes common sense to me that we do everything to reduce reliance on energy that's imported,” says Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who recently signed a bill calling for the state to get 20% of its power from renewable energy. “To sit here and stay as we are is not an option.”

Other efforts include:

Last year, the Austin City Council approved a plan directing the local electric company to get 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

In October, New Haven, Conn. spent thousands of dollars to buy wind energy as well as landfill energy, which is made by burning the gas emitted by rotting garbage.

In September, New York State adopted a goal of obtaining at least 25% of its power from renewable sources by 2013. The goal was first proposed by Republican Gov. George Pataki.

These efforts may be too little and too late to avoid serious problems when oil and gas hit peak production, but it is heartening to see a growing number of efforts to switch to renewables.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Kurt Vonnegut is a marvelous writer. He has hit the emotional import of the issue dead on. But, as with all great writers, he achieves this by taking poetic license with the facts. We’re not about to run out of oil; we’re about to hit Hubert’s Peak--the top of the bell shaped oil production curve.

The U.S. hit Hubert’s peak in 1970 at around 10 million barrels a day. Now we produce barely over half that.

The Energy Information Agency, which keeps track of these things, puts out a monthly report of the oil production in 30 countries plus a catch-all “other.” Of those, 12 are now in decline, inlcuding such major producers as Norway, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and Venezuela, and of course, the first to exploit it's oil reserves, the U.S. Altogether these 12 countries are 8 million barrels a day below their peak production. Last year alone they lost over a million barrels a day of production.

With every new country that rolls over into decline, it makes it that much harder for the remaining countries to replace the loss plus keep up with increasing demand (lately led by the Chinese who want their own auto indutry just like ours.)

The Saudis sent a chill through the market recently when, after promising to increase their production, all they could come up with some very poor grade, heavy oil. The Suadis were supposed to be able to carry the load for several more decades. But like all OPEC countries, the Saudis lie about how much oil they have left.

The future is not one where the lights suddenly go off, it is one where the economy keeps banging its head on an ever lowering ceiling.

Oh...and then there are the millions who will die as food and water supplies are depleted. But that’s another story.