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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The California Way - banning incandescent light bulbs

A California assemblyman has proposed a bill that would ban incandescent light bulbs.

I expect Governor Schwarzenegger to jump on this proposal which would put California further ahead of the curve on global warming and energy efficiency. These laws are the sort of mandate necessary to change the behavior of consumers and businesses. Without a law banning incandescents it is highly unlikely that the majority of households would ever replace their conventional bulbs with compact fluorescents.

Some other green initiatives that California has spearheaded:

1). California is requiring all public utilities to produce at least 20% of their power from alternative sources by 2017

2). At least two California utilities have partnered with Stirling Energy Systems to build large scale solar thermal plants, capable of generating electricity on the scale of a coal burning plant

3). California started the 1 million solar roof program, offering over $2 billion in incentives for residential and commercial properties

4). Several other key initiates that I can't think of at the moment, check the official website for more on the state of California's energy initiatives.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Sum of All Ears...........of Corn

Economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman criticized the Bush energy policy in a recent NYT column that is posted here at the Economists view blog.

Besides stating the obvious blunders of the Bush administration's ethanol focus, Krugman mentions a key fact -

".....subsidizing ethanol benefits two well-organized groups: corn growers and ethanol producers. As a result, it’s bad policy with bipartisan support."

The bipartisan support thing is a huge problem........those of us following green tech in the blogosphere realize that ethanol is not the road to energy independence. The problem, is that while those of us following these issues "get it", there is usually a considerable lag before the politicians jump on the bandwagon (lots of polling!). Politicians and Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are on the ethanol bandwagon - THIS IS NOT GOOD!

The Democrat party (sorry, couldn't resist - must be the Texas thing) has a huge choice to make, one that will separate themselves from the pork lovin 'Pubs. If they truly care about increasing fuel efficiency then they will make the right decision in putting the best interests of the nation ahead of those of the corn belt states by focusing on technologies such as electric cars rather than settling on E85.

It is not in the nature of the Democratic party to reduce or eliminate tariffs, which would be a pro-trade move, as it would hurt the corn growers while making both home grown and imported sugar ethanol more competitive with gasoline. Since this would be a very unpopular move, especially with the 2008 elections on the horizon, it is not likely to happen. Therefore the politicians, the ones who "get it" (John McCain did until he decided to run for President) need to get behind alternative solutions. Maybe Bush's switchgrass idea isn't so "corny" after all.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

State of Denial

The Bush Energy Plan too focused on corn ethanol.

The latest White House Energy plan, which looks the same as the 2006 plan, focuses on inefficient corn based ethanol as well as "clean" coal burning plants. While he does mention cellulosic ethanol, the reaction of Senator Tom Harkin and other congressmen from the corn belt make it evident that corn based ethanol will be the focal point in getting to that 20% reduction in gasoline consumption. While the corn states stand to benefit handsomely from this energy policy, the shift from foreign oil to ethanol makes little sense if you look at the facts. Not only does corn ethanol have lower fuel efficiency compared to gasoline, but the amount of processing involved, the fertilizer, and the all those lovely subsidies make it more costly than importing oil, at least at current prices. On top of that, corn based ethanol is only slightly better in terms of greenhouse emissions.

An even bigger consequence of shifting the source of our fuel supply from oil to corn is the effects on our domestic food supply. The Wall Street Journal, among others, had a great article (subscription req'd) on the impact this energy policy will have on our economy.

To start, the article mentions that 20% of our corn crop is now devoted to ethanol production, whereas 5 years ago it was only 3%. This has led to a steep increase in the price of corn, up 80% in 2006, and has made a huge ripple effect across the food chain in North America, from the higher prices cattle farmers have to pay to feed their stock, to the 30% increase in the price of corn tortillas, a staple in the diet of most Mexicans.

So, while Senator Harkins, his fellow Iowans, and others in the corn belt are very pleased with this energy policy, I am sure once the facts are known the majority of Americans concerned with this issue will be left scratching their heads. Move over big oil, its time for big corn.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Venture backed startup has "game changing" battery technology - Hype or Hope?

I don't know much about the engineering behind this new technology but a Texas startup, EEstor, and its investors are claiming it will replace lithium ion batteries in everything from electric vehicles to laptop computers. Technology Review has a nice writeup on EEStor and the technology.

Judging by the comments posted to that article there seems to be plenty of debate among the geeks regarding the feasibility of the EEStor's ultracapacitor technology. I tried to decipher but alas, I am an MBA and not a PHD.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Homeowners Cash In On Sun's Energy

The joy of watching your electric meter run in reverse...

I've always thought it would be great if I could sell my unused electricity back to the utility companies. Unfortunately, my salary does not afford me the luxury of spending thousands of dollars on an installation. It would be great if your average citizen could afford these systems but right now solar power systems are affordable to a small percentage of Americans (those that do not need to shave $'s off their monthly electric bills!) . Without getting into the ROI calculations of a solar installation I want to list a few things that have to happen before we see these in the homes of more Americans.

1. More tax incentives - take away tax breaks from Peter (energy companies) to pay Paul (we, the consumer). This site lists a database of incentives by state.

2. Better marketing of installation services. Currently, Home Depot is the only large company that offers to install these things. Although I shop at Lowes I have been in Home Depot stores and had no idea they were offering home solar installations.

3. Continued VC support of solar tech. Several early stage solar companies, Nanosolar and Heliovolt come to mind, are developing alternatives to the expensive photovoltaic (PV) cells. The increase in the number of competing technologies and the number of competing firms will eventually lower the total cost to consumer. Since the traditional PV cell relies on expensive Silicon, its high installation cost makes it less competitive with traditional electricity power.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Fast Company: "CFLs are a classic example of creative destruction"

Jospeh Schumpeter, Creative Destruction, and the Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb. My b-school strategy professor Jeffrey Williams would have been proud had I wrote my term paper on how Wal-Mart is helping the CFL destroy the traditional light bulb industry (I wrote the paper on Google). Professor Williams wrote a great book inspired by Schumpeter, a man who's work and economic theories also inspired the late great Peter Drucker.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Electric Car Part II

Hopefully GM can make up for past sins with a succesful reintroduction of the EV.

With the company floundering near bankruptcy and losing ground to Toyota, GM's future depends on going beyond E85 flexfuel vehicles and taking the lead on electric vehicles, or another leading edge alternative fuel. I guess the Chevy Volt concept car (pictured above) has a 40 mile range when running on purely electric, pretty sad considering the EV1 had a range of 40 to 50 miles per charge and is further proof that the good ol'boys in Detroit just don't "get it." The documentary showed that the lithium ion battery required to charge these cars for long ranges exists and has existed for years. Without a better battery, the Volt would run off of E85 fuel in order to run the car after the battery is drained. This means that unlike the EV1, the Volt would not be a zero emission vehicle.

While it is the best thing for the environment and society, a zero emission vehicle might not be the best product for the marketplace. Having the option to drive the car off of petroleum gasoline or E85 makes this a more attractive vehicle for the consumer who would be worried about the limited range of the electric charge. I'm looking for Toyota and Honda to introduce plug-in versions of their hybrids in the near future that get close to 3 times the range of the GM car, 100 to 120 miles per change. Combined with the gasoline reserve we could see these babies getting several hundred miles per gallon of gasoline/E85.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Is that Wal-Mart leading the convergence of business and environmental responsibility?

Love or hate Wal-Mart (does anyone really "love" Wal-Mart??), you have to admit they are making a serious effort to push environmentally responsible products upon their cost conscious consumers. The NYTimes had a recent article about Wal-Mart's ambitious goal of selling 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs by 2008.

Of course, anytime we see a hundred billion dollar company introduce products that disrupt the corporate establishment you have the potential for another electric car debacle (Thanks GM!). However, Wal-Mart has never been shy about sticking it to their suppliers, their buying power affords them that privilege. The buying power of Wal-Mart allows them to force change upon the masses, as demonstrated by Wal-Mart forcing it's suppliers to waste less packaging materials and adopt more energy efficient practices.

Wal-Mart has an opportunity to initiate positive change at a magnitude second only to that of the federal government. One big difference - Wal-Mart has to answer to its shareholders, whereas politicians that would have to push these mandates through the legislature are funded by the same corporations that have something to lose if new energy laws are passed.

With all of the controversy surrounding Wal-Mart's employment practices, all of the advocacy groups formed to take on Wal-Mart's failure to pay higher wages and the spread of urban sprawl, its probably good news for Wal-Mart shareholders that their CEO, Lee Scott, has done more than pay lip service to the environmental initiaves that are mentioned in this Fortune article and Wal-Mart's and every other Fortune 500 corporation's website.