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Friday, March 30, 2007

Hydro-Power Untapped Renewable Energy Resource

Natural running water & wave power are renewable energy resources that have been utilized by human kind since the formation of societies. However, now there is a company that has devised a way to utilize this energy in a new way. This company is called Verdant Power, they have devised a system that looks like a wind turbine (wind power) but is placed under water to capture the movement of the naturally moving water. This system is currently being tested in NY's east river which is in New York City. In addition engineering reports state that this power is not a danger to marine life because of it's slow rotation. This could bring cities and towns that have a close proximity to natural running water or coast lines one step closer to be being totally clean, green and independent of outside influences.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why Pittsburgh's air quality Sucks

This picture was taken as I drove through Shadyside, a primarily residential neighborhood in the City of Pittsburgh's east end. I was driving two cars behind a dump truck (partially visible through the soot) on S. Aiken Ave as I witnessed it spewing black soot into the air, the same soot that causes particulate air pollution, one of the culprits behind asthma and various lung diseases. It is also to blame for Pittsburgh ranking among the worst cities for particle air pollution year after year.

Ironically, this photo was taken as I drove right passed UPMC Shadyside hospital, not to mention, I was blocks away from a school where young children were probably outside enjoying the nice weather during their lunch hour.

Mayor Luke - I know you are running unopposed in this spring's democratic primary but that doesn't mean you can tout Pittsburgh as a "green" city while we rank #1 on the list for cities with the worst pollution and we have trucks spewing soot into our residential neighborhoods. It's one thing to have these trucks emitting dirty soot on our bridges and highways, it is another that they do this where our children play and where the elderly are already suffering from lung disease. Please do more to clean up Pittsburgh than the "Redd Up" campaign started by your predecessor. Regulations need to be put in place - either these trucks burn cleaner fuels or they receive fines for polluting our neighborhoods.

Awe-stin Texas

The mayor of Austin, Texas has a ridiculously awesome plan to leverage the city's electric utility to charge the electric cars of its residents while they are plugged in at night and then, while sitting in the parking lot during the day, draw power from those same vehicles during peak hours. What?!

To top it off, the city utility would draw more power from wind farms in order to supply the electricity to charge the vehicles at night. Man, if this could work, I think I might just move to Austin.

Here is a breakdown of the proposed process:

1. Austin's peak wind production is at night, but the peak usage period is during the day. To solve this problem of mismatched supply and demand the city would make a push for its residents to purchase electric vehicles (check out plug-in partners) which would utilize the wind power while plugged in over night.

2. While the cars at parked in a parking lot and its owners are at work, the vehicles would supply excess power from their lithium ion batteries back to the grid using a proven process known as vehicle-to-grid power, or V2G. Kickass.

An audacious plan? Sure, but these are the types of initiatives, these big crazy ideas, that will push cities to become clean, healthy, and self sustainable environments. In terms of economic development, these ideas will also propel these cities ahead of the status quo, the cities who simply go along with the government and EPA minimums for alternative energy usage. So, while plug-in hybrids have yet to arrive, these "demand side" initiatives are only going to help convince the automakers that there is indeed a market for these vehicles. Bring back the EV1 !!!

View the complete story on this at The Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Special Report on Green Business

This special report, from Business Week, covers a lot of ground on green tech and green business.

Stories include ethanol, electric cars, green investing, and even green weddings, to name a few. One particular highlight for me was the story Green Growth for Entrepreneurs. The story mentions Investor's Circle, a group of angel investors who select their investments based on a target's social responsibility. If you are a green entrepreneur like myself the firm does have an application on their site for their Spring Venture fair, where, if accepted, you get a chance to rub elbows and pitch your green business idea to targeted investors. Unfortunately, the deadline has passed so I'll have to wait until next spring's fair, which is good because I'm not even close to being ready.

The mantra of the Investor's Circle reads:

"The Investors' Circle mission is to galvanize the flow of capital to entrepreneurial companies that enhance bioregional, cultural and economic health and diversity."

Monday, March 19, 2007

2007 Solar Decathlon

Probably one of the coolest uses of brain power from some of our top universities, the Solar Decathlon pits teams of college students against one another in a contest to see who has designed and built the most efficient 100% solar powered house. The team from CMU is led by green building guru and professor of architecture Stephen Lee, who recently received an award for his green leadership. The team, made up of students from several schools across campus, will be presenting its design to the community this Wedsnesday, March 21st.

From the DOE's website:

What is the Solar Decathlon?

Twenty teams have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to compete in the 2007 Solar Decathlon. The teams, from colleges and universities around the globe, participate in an unparalleled solar competition to design, build, and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered home. In fall 2007, the teams transport their solar houses to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where they form a solar village. The teams compete in 10 contests to determine an overall winner. Using only energy from the sun, the teams generate enough electricity to run a modern household. With an eye on energy efficiency, the students carefully choose the systems, products, and appliances used in their houses.

Carpooling - who carpools and how do we get more people to share rides with strangers?

How do we get more people to share rides to and from work? Some people do it, and a lot of companies offer incentives and monthly drawings to reward those employees who share rides. Two of my former employers offered monthly drawings, one being Merck & Co. who happened to offer incentives to carpoolers and even offered zero percent financing for hybrid automobile purchases (neat!).

Is that enough? I don't think so. People do not carpool for a number of reasons. People become attached to their vehicles. Some like the "thrill" of the commute, or maybe its the 1 hour of talk radio, while most of those people probably just desire the flexibility driving the car to work gives them - whether that is the ability to work late, go to the gym after work, or pick up the kids or meet friends following the daily grind. Those same employees at Merck's suburban Philadelphia offices who lived in Center City, the same who had carpool incentives AND access to a train to and from work, chose to drive themselves to work, which is nuts if you've ever commuted around Philly, especially on the Schuylkill expressway deathtrap. Whatever the reason, we can't rely on good faith and "doing the right thing" to get people to share rides more than they do today and that does not help places like Pittsburgh where the air quality is pretty poor.

I'm not an economist but these types of decisions and incentive studies are what keeps our econobloggers busy day in and day out. I'll have to forward this on to one of them to see if I can get an answer on potential solutions to the lack of carpooling in the US. Me personally, I shared a ride with a co-worker for about 18 months. Each way was close to 20 miles and while my co-worker did most of the driving I did pay my share in gas. Besides saving on gas and the mileage on my leased vehicle (my incentive at the time!), we were able to have a lot of good conversations and became good friends, but I doubt most others would be lucky enough to share the same love of music and entrepreneurship that my friend and I shared.

So what can we do? Most regions have an organization in place that offers some sort of system for car pool scheduleing, such as Pitsburgh's fine commuteinfo.org. The problem with solutions such as commuteinfo.org is A. The lack of clarity - where the heck do I go on this page and how do I use it? and B. Lack of incentives.

NuRide.com is a solution I read about two years ago and is a potential solution I asked some of our local organizations to look into. That was back in the Summer of 2005 and I came across several emails to both individuals at NuRide and also here at the groups in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is not on NuRide's list of operating regions so I am assuming my efforts back in 2005 were wasted. Well, I'm not giving up. I'm seeing more and more vehicles backed up on the highways leading into Pittsburgh to the North, East, and West, with the Northern parkway (route 279) being much worse than it was back when I shared a ride in 2001-2002.

The NuRide program relies on funding from regions that receive money from the federal government's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program. Through the use of these funds, which , according to my contact at NuRide only come about when "the local governments are willing to spend some of the money on ride sharing programs," NuRide is able to serve a region and recruit its partners, which are the bread and butter of this incentive program.

If your region is using CMAQ funds to operate a ride sharing program, is that ride sharing program effective? If not, and I believe a lot of those dollars are funding bureaucracies that do little to ease the congestion and pollution problems or our cities, start reaching out to the leaders of your community action groups, start bringing up programs like NuRide to your local leaders, and let's all try a little harder to extend the offer of ride sharing with a fellow co-worker even if it does not get you a free latte at Starbucks.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Plea for more Solar Energy

Conrad Burke wrote a nice piece on the need for more government incentives for solar power. Check it out over at one of my favorite venture capital sites, venturebeat.com

read more | digg story

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dot Watt or Watt Com - the next boom and possibly the next bubble...

With so much venture capital flowing into alternative energies and green tech I can't help but think that down the road there is going to be a green bubble. However - the more I think about it, it is also hard to imagine our alternative energy/fuel capacity being greater than demand, especially when you factor in the growth of China, India, and other other emerging economies.

Will there be a consolidation in the photovoltaics industry? You bet. As PV efficiency continues to climb, firms that sell the current standard must either reinvest or acquire a new PV technology or they risk going out of business. If I go with a higher efficiency PV manufacturer, like SunPower's latest PV cell, I need less panels compared to the lower efficiency PVs, and hence, less space on my rooftop. If you are a green investor, make sure you are careful about which solar companies you choose for your investment.

As far as alternative fuels are concerned, almost every day I read about a new biofuels plant being built, but again, its difficult to fathom us ever having too much fuel, especially fuel that is better for not only the engine but our environment.

Which sector is actually underserved in terms of VC? I would say the electricity generation segment. There is money being poured into clean coal and coal gassification technologies but I'm pretty sure its significantly less than the capital being invested into solar and biofuels. We're seeing some signs of huge potential coming out of the solar thermal developments, but those large scale plants are still years away. I'm going to try to dig up some data that breaks down VC by green category but its getting late so in the meantime this NYT article on the dot-watt boom is worth reading.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Professor: Power needs will require new models

Maintaining an adequate supply of electricity across the nation's power grid in coming decades will require new models for the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of electricity, said professor Marija Ilic during day one of a two day conference on the Electricity industry at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

read more | digg story

Monday, March 12, 2007

Green is Good blog is Cover Story for this week's issue of Information Week magazine

Well, not really, but Info week's story titled "What Every Tech Pro Should Know about Green Computing" is an excellent look inside the power consumption of corporate data centers and explains why IT managers and executives need to get on board with the green movement.

Besides using more power efficient processors and energy saving methods such as virtualization, which allows each server to be used as if it were multiple servers, companies are implementing more energy efficient operational measures for their data centers. Highmark, a health insurer here in Western PA, is one of the companies mentioned that is using energy saving techniques to cool its servers, which is a process in of itself that requires as much power as it takes to run the actual server.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Gas Prices are higher - GOOD!

Thank you OPEC. Thank you for not rigging the system so we see a crash in oil prices, which would (attempt to) weaken the arguement for alternative fuels. Hugo "The Devil" Chavez, the Che Guevara wanna-be, thinks he can single handedly thwart the United States' efforts towards energy independence. News flash for a-hole dictators or those who think our latest drive towards energy independence is a flash in the pan - the energy revolution is being televised. Unlike the 1970's, today millions are reading magazines, blogs, and watching the news to witness the astounding amount of money and political capital that is being spent on alternative energy and fuels. The VCs invested millions into biofuel and solar companies years ago, and now that the politicians are finally on board there is no stopping us. The alternative energy train has left the station and there is nothing that OPEC or Hugo Chavez can do to derail it.

By the way, in case you do not already know this, avoid buying gas from Citgo. If you are on empty on the New Jersey or PA turnpike, and Citgo is the only gas station within miles, just walk to the next exit or call the state police to pick you up. They will understand why you passed up a Citgo gas station Enough of my political rant and I apologize for changing the tone on this blog. All aboard for the next stop on the green energy railway!

U.S. Department of Energy offering up to $168 million in Solar Energy grants

This is great news for young solar PV manufacturers such as NanoSolar and SunPower, but why does the US DOE have to give grants to giants such as GE, Dow Chemical, and BP??? This make no sense to me, zero sense to me. We need grants going to the startup companies developing the next wave of solar technologies, not the old multi-billion dollar conglomerates that have the cash to do the research themselves. Can someone please explain this???? Politics, ugh!

Green Products (or lack of) at the Home & Garden Show

I was initially disappointed by the absence of a Solar Power company at the Home & Garden show that ran this past week at the LEED certified David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, however, there were some green products and service providers such as a Geo-Thermal heating company that was marketing its product to homebuilders, and there was a nice setup by the Duquesne Light Company, one of the utilities in this area, who's booth focused on energy efficiency with a demonstration of the benefits of switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents.

The product they used to show the difference in the amount of watts used by the two different sets of bulbs is one I've been meaning to purchase for some time, the Kill-a-Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. This neat little product allows you to monitor how much electricity your cell phone and laptop adapters use even when they are not plugged into their respective devices(known as Phantom Loads).

I was annoyed at the AC and Heating salesman who laughed when I told him Solar Power was the next big thing in PA. He said "you'll never see a payback on solar." I said "what if the state offered rebates of 50% on solar installations?" After our little debate and my wife rolling her eyes at me, he finally admitted that he hadn't done any real research on solar power. Schultz 1 - ignorant know-it-all sales guy 0. I told him of the Governor's solar rebate plan and he did hear about it, which means his company is going to miss out on a huge business opportunity if they ignore solar water heating, which would be a nice complement to their current business.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Maria Energia live at the Power-Gen and Renewable Energy & Fuels conference

Fellow green blogger Maria Energia was out in Las Vegas this past week at the POWER-GEN Renewable Energy & Fuels conference. Maria's coverage starts here in part 1 of 3.

Making a difference at work - the wheels are in motion

Earlier this past week I wrote an email to my manager explaining the rationale for installing solar panels at our distribution centers. I reread it several times, unsure if he would think I was a "nut" as my wife cautioned me, and to be honest I was worried that some people at my company wouldn't look beyond the politics of alternative energy.

Well, I hit the send button. Soon after I went into my manager's office to see what he thought. He noticed the 30% federal tax credit and asked me to talk to the finance person in charge of our distribution centers. I had to write another email, so again, I wasn't sure what to expect but this individual said he would "love to talk more about this with me" and we set up a meeting to discuss the next steps. Now, I am not sure how far this will go but people are serious about working with me on this feasibility phase. Next week we'll start digging into two years of electricity bills to figure out the cost and the actual kilowatt hours. I've started looking at solar power manufacturers too. I am trying to find the most cost effective manufactuer, which means I want something that gives me the most bang for our dollar. SunPower is one I am leaning towards, their PV panels are close to 20% efficiency which is much higher than most commericial panels.

One last thing. One my way out of the office the other day I mentioned this to one of our VPs. He said "wow, thats interesting.....Going Green is the thing to do these days."

Monday, March 5, 2007

How you and I can make a difference at work

I couldn't sleep last night because my brain was busy trying to think of ways I can have an impact on my company's energy usage. We recycle paper, as does most large corporations nowadays, and we also encourage carpooling. I wanted to propose an energy initiatives that would have the biggest impact while being somewhat easy to implement, and most important, have measurable benefits. From these criteria I believe that a solar power installation would be the way to go. We have a large distribution center that runs 24/7, ditto for our data center. Both are energy hogs and while I haven't done any investigation in our annual electricity costs an increase is almost certain due to both our growth as well as an increase in electricity prices. Okay, great, now how do I sell this to VITO (Very Important Top Officer) ?

1. First things first, figure out the financial ramifications, especially if yours is a public corporation. The goal should be to figure out the Net Present Value (NPV) of the purchase of a commercial photo voltaic (PV) installation. The keys here are to figure out the total system cost after any state and/or federal tax credits or rebates, followed by the total cost savings due to the difference in energy used and the electricity you were able to sell back to the utility company.

There is a Federal Business Energy tax credit that covers up to 30% of solar installation. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 anncounced that businesses may be eligible for credits such as:

  • 30 percent tax credit for the installation of qualifying solar equipment on buildings;
  • Business tax credits for companies that build highly energy efficient homes;
  • Credits for companies that manufacture energy-efficient appliances such as dishwashers, clothes washers and refrigerators.
So, there is a tax credit of 30% for a commercial solar installation. Sweet. The next step would be figuring out how big of a system you will need. You'll have to do some digging for electricity bills in order to get an idea of the monthly kilowatt hour usage. After you figure how much power your system would need to produce you can then get an idea of the total cost.

Using some excel skills you can do some modeling to figure out the optimal number of solar panels to maximize the NPV. There are several other inputs you need to consider, such as the average number of hours of daily sunlight in your area and also the rate at which you can sell power back to your utility company. All of this information is out on the www.

2. The second component of your pitch is to make sure to trumpet the marketability and goodwill associated with this initiative. "Going Green" could really change how your company is perceived in the marketplace. Entire marketing campaigns revolving around your green campaign can drive incremental sales through increased customer and brand loyalty.

There is much more to this but as I learn more about the benefits and incentives around solar power its hard for me to understand why more companies have not looked into implemented a renewable energy strategy. Part of it comes down to a lack of knowledge regarding renewable energies, while another component is the lack of understanding that investing some of that spare cash into solar or wind power can both help the environment while increasing shareholder value over the long run.

Traditionally, companies with strong positive free cash flow do one of the following:

Let the cash accumulate in the bank or in short term investments sit in the bank or in short term investments, use the cash to make a diversifying acquisition, which usually turns out bad, or they pay out some of the cash in dividends or return some of the cash back to the shareholders through stock repurchases.

I propose that more companies start to look into using some of that cash to improve their sustainability through investments in renewable energies, which, unlike most of the acquisitions we have seen over the past two decades, do not destroy shareholder value. I'll post my cash flow analysis as soon as I do some more research on implementing a commercial solar installation at my company. Anyone else have any ideas for green energy initiatives at work?

Friday, March 2, 2007

Governor Rendell's speech at Pittsburgh Tech Council Luncheon

"I truly believe, that over the decade from 2010 to 2020, the production of alternative energies will have an impact the equivalent of what information technology has had on our economy."

-Governor Ed Rendell at Pittsburgh Technology Council luncheon on Friday March 2nd, 2007

After attending Governor Rendell's speech today at the Sheraton at Station Square, I came away believing that the Governor is both very knowledgeable and passionate about making the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania a leading alternative energy state. Governor Rendell covered a lot of ground in the 1 hour he spoke to us, and gave us an overview of the plan while answering some tough questions from the crowd. This was my first time at an event with a government official of Rendell's stature and I was pumped after getting the opportunity to ask Governor Rendell a question regarding his solar rebates one on one.

Some other highlights for me personally - I was able to meet several "green" entrepreneurs, including an individual working on coal gasification technology, several state and local politicians, and also representatives of Western PA businesses who have a stake in the Governor's energy initiatives.

Here are some highlights from Rendell's speech:

1. The Governor is a big believer in cellulosic ethanol. One test plant is currently under development in Clearfield County while several others are in the planning stages.

2. The State has billions of tons of Waste coal which will be put to use in coal gasification and biodiesel plants across the state. There are not any of plants in the US currently utilizing the Ficher-Tropsch process, which is a process that breaks down coal or biomass into liquefied form to be used as synthetic fuels.

3. The Governor is working to get more gas stations to include E85 at the pump. The Sheetz gas station chain has been introducing several E85 pumps at their stores throughout Western PA. Governor Rendell also mentioned that E10 should be mandatory at all gas pumps throughout the state, as it is in parts of the Philadelphia area.

Well, there is a lot more but I want to close with a remark on the Energy initiatives solar incentives. The Governor's plan includes $200 million in solar installation rebates to homeowners and businesses. The plan will give a rebate of up to 50% of the cost of the installation. My question to the Governor was this:

"Assuming a typical house in PA requires a 2.5kw solar system, the cost would be $30,000. After the 50% rebate and $2,000 federal tax credit, the cost drops to $12,000 to $13,000. How is the average homeowner in PA going to afford that payment, even after the rebates and federal credit? Have you worked out an agreements with financial institutions to offer low interest rate financing for the $12k to $13k out of pocket expense for a solar system?"
Governor Rendell's reponse, after realizing I was talking about the financing of the purchase and not the program's rebates:
"I haven't thought of that but that is a great question, it's something I will have to think about."
So, I think the plan looks great on paper but how many of us can really afford to plunk down over $10k for a solar system? Without special financing programs this would be close to another car payment for some of us. I think the Governor was sincere when he said he would think about it and I hope to see an announcement of a solar financing plan for homeowners down the road. Please post any comments if there is anything specific you would like to know about the plan or Governor Rendell's speech today, there is a ton more to talk about. I could go on for several more paragraphs (I have some amusing video clips from the event too!)

Ripple effect from TXU buyout sure to impact Coal Industry

Despite the media frenzy caused by the TXU buyout last week, Coal powered electricity plants are not going away. Coal is too cheap - 3 times cheaper than Solar Power. With increasing demand for power plants and coal being an abundant natural resource, a homegrown resource no less, we will see coal continue to play a huge role in our electricity supply. That is, unless a couple things happen.

First, the nuclear waste issue has not been solved. If it is ever solved, and the public can be confident in the government's ability (ha!) to store and manage the waste safely, we could see a resurgence in Nuclear Power.

Secondly, Solar Thermal, in my opinion, has the greatest upside. Two large scale (400 to 500 MW) solar thermal plants are currently under construction in Southern California and additional plants are under consideration for Nevada. If these solar plants, which can produce as much electricity as a conventional gas or coal plant, ever achieve economies of scale great enough to encourage more investment in the construction of more plants, it is possible that the majority of our electricity could someday come from solar thermal technology.

The TXU buyout will still have a huge impact industry wide- companies will now be under greater pressure by consumers and environment groups to increase their capital spending on clean burning technologies. Utility firms better wake up - if they refuse to invest to reduce their toxic emissions and greenhouse gases they are sure to see an uprising from their customers.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

5 questions for Vinod Khosla

Sun Microsystems cofounder, Carnegie Mellon Alum, and cellulosic ethanol evangelist Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures recently spoke to Fortune Magazine about the future of ethanol and alternative fuels.

You got on the ethanol bandwagon early. What's on tap for 2007?

This will be the year of cellulosic ethanol - fuel made from grasses, wood chips, and other underutilized biomass. New fuels like butanol will also come along. I wouldn't be surprised to see biogasoline either. We'll see biofuels move from their role as an additive to gasoline to a primary fuel for automobiles.

What still stands in ethanol's way?

You'll see critics, often funded by the petroleum interests, increase their attacks on biofuels through surreptitious PR campaigns, while publicly supporting these renewable fuels. We might even see oil prices manipulated down to thwart this transition, which is essential for our planet.
What 10 top leaders and thinkers see on their horizon

What other areas of alternative energy should we be watching?

Coal. We will continue to see a push for "clean coal," as it's a way for a few of the traditional power-generation firms to delay action. Clean coal will be in a horse race with wind and solar. I'd personally handicap solar thermal, not photovoltaic solar or clean coal to win.

How will Congress and the presidential candidates affect the equation?

The biggest leverage will come from the similar positions of the presidential candidates for 2008. Most of the rumored candidates already support an aggressive biofuels policy, as do the Democratic majorities in Congress and the Bush administration.

Where are you investing, outside of green tech?

We're excited about mobile applications and see breakthroughs in semiconductors and batteries.

A great analysis of Kholsa's stance on alternative energy and ethanol can be found at The Oil Drum blog.