Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Don't Miss This: Friedman in today's NYTimes

What would we do without Tom Friedman to keep the ball in play? His latest column is one of his best - and a must-read for any eco-investor. Here's the link.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Samsung Makes $4 Billion Investment To Become Green Leader

Samsung will invest over $4 billion to develop energy efficient products and reduce its carbon emissions 50% by 2013. Under its Eco-Management 2013 plan, it will spend $2.5 billion to improve the energy efficiency of its products, including TVs, refrigerators and air conditioning units. The remaining $1.8 billion will be invested in reducing carbon emissions from the company’s manufacturing plants.

The question is what is Samung's motivation? Samsung’s move may reduce manufacturing costs. Taking a lesson from the retail industry, perhaps Samsung’s motivation should be to enhance its marketing and public relations image. According to a Retail Systems Research and Retail Industry Leaders Association survey, retailers with above average growth emphasize the brand image aspect of green practices more than the cost saving aspect. Besides focusing on the energy efficiency of the stores, survey participants spend considerable time and effort on efficiency in information technology, and optimization of operations and supply chains.

Samsung’s announcement does not state whether the emphasis is on cost savings or brand image. However, the company wants to make the most energy efficient products in its product lines.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pickens' Texas Sized Wind Plans Delayed

Wind energy has suffered a minor setback. Maybe a major setback.

T. Boone Pickens, an advocate of wind energy, has announced that he is delaying a 667 turbine wind farm he was planning to develop in Texas. The question is how long will the delay last.

Four factors worked against the plan.

1. The falling price of natural gas and oil made wind energy less attractive.

2. Pickens’ hedge funds have lost almost $1 billion dollars.

3. The plan was tied to Pickens’ plan to sell water. He owns the rights to more water than anyone else in the US. At the same time that Texas landowners objected to the plan, the Department of Justice batted down the law that would have allowed Pickens to use the power of eminent domain to lay his water lines and electricity lines. The water plan was probably the deal breaker for many landowners.

Despite his considerable financial backing, Pickens’ involvement may have doomed the project from the beginning. Many critics saw the plan more as way for Pickens to cash in on his water rights than to create jobs or benefit the state. When economic conditions are better, Pickens should try again without tying his wind ambitions to his water rights. He might have much better luck.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Google's Smart Grid Software For Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles

In the contest between battery hybrid electric hybrids (BHEV) and plug in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), Google is placing a big bet on PHEVs. Google is developing software to deal with the additional load PHEVs will put on the smart grid. Not only the software aim to minimizes energy demand spikes, it also helps take advantage of solar and wind power. Both solar and wind, as inconsistent and lumpy sources of energy, can increase volatility to the electricity supply and prices.

PHEVs may overload the grid if consumers recharge their cars around the same time. Google believes that the grid must be able to handle this additional demand for PHEVs to become widely adopted. The company has a fleet of Toyota Priuses that have been converted to PHEVs.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Cleantech Investments Up, Especially In Autos

Good news on the cleantech investment front. Cleantech Group reports that investments in green technologies increased worldwide in the second quarter of 2009. Compared to the first quarter of 2009, investments increased by 12%, but were down 44% from the same quarter of 2008.

Investments in solar remain down, while investments in utilities and cars have risen. Automotive related companies drew the biggest percentage of clean-tech investments. Cleantech Group attributes this to the government's stimulus package for the automotive sector.

If correct, this is interesting given that some VCs have expressed the view that startups that receive stimulus funding are not “stand alone” ventures. See my post on the views of VCs toward cleantech here. Could it be that these VCs are wrongheaded? Clearly, some of the heavy hitters in the VC world are investing heavily in cleantech, including Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Yahoo! Moves From Carbon Offsets To Energy Efficiency

In its efforts to be green, Yahoo! has decided to dump carbon offsets and focus on energy efficiency. The company has designed its new data center to be energy efficient rather than carbon neutral.

For companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google, data centers are centerpieces of the business and consume large amounts of energy. The decision to emphasize energy efficiency is an important one. Yahoo! believes that energy efficiency will have a greater impact on the environment than a carbon neutral strategy would.

While that point is debatable, there could be other reasons for the switch. A carbon neutral strategy may be more expensive than an energy efficiency strategy. Yahoo! can maintain great control over its internal operations through an energy efficiency strategy. The company cannot control the green projects that carbon offsets fund, and those green projects are not internal to Yahoo!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Turning Algae Into Ethanol Fuel

The New York Times reports today on an emerging, yet relatively unknown, energy source – algae farms. Dow Chemical and Algenol Biofuels are working together on an algae farm that uses algae to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol as a fuel source or a component in plastics. The biggest challenge has been harvesting the hydrocarbons in commercially viable volumes.

Instead of producing ethanol, it looks like Dow plans to use the primarily to replace natural gas as an ingredient in plastic. For its part, Algenol looks more interested in producing ethanol. Algenol is working with Dow, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Membrane Technology and Research, and the Department of Energy to improve how oxygen and water are separated from the ethanol.

Not just any company can pursue algae as an energy source. Significant resources are needed. The Dow/Algenol project will cost about $50 million. Technological barriers must still be overcome, and that requires scientific expertise.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pew Center Study On Solar And Wind

A new Pew Center study argues that Federal government policies are critical to the success of solar and wind power. The study states that without significant action from the government, renewable energy will account for about 14% of all US electricity in 2030. The keys to increasing the level of renewable energy to 30% by 2030 are:

1. Putting a price on carbon (e.g., cap and trade system).
2. Investing billions per year in transmission systems.
3. Moving towards distributed or building based energy systems rather than purely utility based distribution. This applies to solar, not to wind.
4. Developing electricity storage systems.
5. Making wind and solar cost competitive.

The question is why the Pew Study pegs 30% renewables by 2030 as the "high" renewable scenario. If we can move down the cost curve, develop storage and battery technologies, and encourage private-public cooperation, can't we do better than that? If we don't, what are the consequences?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nissan To Build Electric Cars In The US

Although details are sketchy, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn just announced that the company will build electric cars (not hybrids) in the United States. The company will release further details after it hears from the Department of Energy about its application for loans to build more fuel efficient vehicles.

At the same time, Ghosn took a swipe at the gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, pointing out that hybrids have captured less than 7% market share.

Nissan's plan to build battery only electric vehicles (BEV), and not plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) is interesting. As noted at the recent United States China Green Energy Council seminar on Electric Vehicles, the number of companies planning to build BEVs is two times the number planning to build PHEVs. BEVs tend to be more expensive than PHEVs because of their reliance on batteries. Further, BEVs will put more pressure on worldwide battery production. These are just some of the tradeoffs between BEVs and PHEVs that should be examined more closely.

The question going forward is whether BEVs and PHEVs will be mutually exclusive, or whether they can co-exist.

Monday, June 15, 2009

German American Solar Day At PG&E - June 16, 2009

The German American Chambers of Commerce will be holding its 5th annual German American Solar Day on June 16, 2009 at PG&E in San Francisco. This should be a great event for everyone interested in solar opportunities in Germany and in the United States. For those who attend, I'd love to hear what you think of the event.