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The Morning Feedstock

Daniel Englander: May 21, 2008, 12:01 AM
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom engaged in some high profile saber rattling yesterday at a joint EU-Russia energy conference. Gazprom director Stanislav Tsygankov told the conference current EU proposals to force European utilities to unbundle power generation from transmission and distribution networks would create "instability and unpredictability" in the power sector. The gas giant has considerable sway over EU energy policy, as countries like Belgium, Germany, and the UK, among others, rely on Gazprom for as much as 45 percent of their total gas imports. In 2006, Gazprom shut off gas supplies to the Ukraine because of a pipeline dispute, sending prices on the Continent surging upwards. Now Gazprom is worried the proposed regulations will make it harder for it to protect its fixed assets in Europe, with the added potential of impacting its pipeline expansion plan. Tsygankov told the conference if the regulations passed the EC committee, European companies attempting to expand into Russia will face retaliation. This has a more than a few Eurocrats worried about the lights going off - Gazprom isn't known for its blustering and hot air. But Ormat is. The geothermal company is reportedly an acquisition target for Google, whose co-founder Sergei Brin hinted at the possibility this week at a conference in Israel. Executives from the two companies have met a series of times, including a visit by Brin to Ormat's 11 MW pilot plant in Nevada. Ormat has received close to $1.6 million from the Department of Energy for ongoing research into enhanced geothermal systems, a new form of heat recovery that involves high temperature rock crushing away from traditional hot points. Brin also hinted his internet company may begin acquiring energy companies in 2009. Maybe Google should consider acquiring Congress - at least then their stupidity would come with bean bag chairs and free yogurt. The House of Representatives yesterday passed a measure allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC over record gas prices. I'll give you a second on that one.... Okay.  The House granted DOJ the ability to sue OPEC countries for colluding to restrict supplies and drive up prices. The bill, which passed the house 324-84, follows on the heels of a similar bill passed in the Senate last year by a 70-23 vote margin. Rep. Steve Kagen (D-WA), who both sponsored the bill and never graduated from high school, said "this bill guarantees that oil prices will reflect supply and demand economic rules, instead of wildly speculative and perhaps illegal activities." What many in Congress fail to realize, and what the Saudi oil minister made clear this week, is that OPEC doesn't view the American people as its customers, and that in some ways, the price of gas is moved by different factors than the price of petroleum. I wonder if Congress has considered the possibility that OPEC just isn't able to produce more oil. If that's the case, we're going to need a lot more than lawsuits to get out of this mess.

Green drywall maker eyes windows, insulation

Michael Kanellos: May 20, 2008, 10:40 AM

Serious Materials, the green drywall guys, want to expand.

“We find insulation very interesting,??? said Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, which has developed a technique for making drywall that consumes almost no fossil fuel, during a session at the Environmental Ventures conference sponsored by Dow Jones taking place in San Mateo.

The Silicon Valley company has raised $60 million from Foundation Capital among others as part of an effort to become the green building material king. Buildings consume roughly 40 percent of the power generated in the U.S. and that’s just the energy used to run the buildings. Construction and building materials gobble up another 12 percent. The company’s mission statement goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emission by a billion tons annually through efficient manufacturing and the introduction of green materials.

Serious has delivered beta samples of EcoRock, the company’s green drywall, to customers and hopes to release it commercially by the fall, said Surace. Traditionally drywall essentially consists of gypsum that gets cooked at high temperatures. Serious has devised a chemical mix that congeals at low temperatures, sort of like Jello. The company plans to run its factories on solar panels.

Serious will also later this year come out with its Thermaproof windows. The windows consist of panes of coated glass that sandwich in krypton gas.

The windows can cut home energy use by 15 to 40 percent, Surace said, and insulate far better than even EnergyStar rated windows. The windows, in fact, insulate as well as walls.

“The main difference between our windows and walls is that you can see through them,??? he said.

Sal DiMasi’s Green Jobs Bill Mandates Cake, Eating Too

Daniel Englander: May 20, 2008, 9:25 AM
Yesterday Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi, flanked by Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, held a press conference introducing the Speaker's $100 million green jobs bill. DiMasi, speaking at the press conference, said the bill "combines our commitment to jobs creation and economic development with our duty to protect the environment and increase energy efficiency." All good things, right? Certainly the Massachusetts greentech sector, which is "poised to be the 10th largest cluster in the state" (pdf) with 14,400 jobs created so far, needs ongoing support for both economic and environmental reasons. The support itself, which calls for the creation of a Clean Energy Technology Center with a five-year, $65 million fund, $5 million in research grants, a $500,000 per year clean energy fellowship program, and $2.5 million for workforce development, is a sign Massachusetts is ready to get behind greentech in a big way. But did anyone bother to check where this money's coming from? Buried deep in the last page of the proposed legislation is a paragraph stating (pdf) the "state comptroller shall, for state fiscal years 2009 through 2013 inclusive, annually transfer moneys from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund established in said section 4E of chapter 40J in an amount not less than $5,000,000 annually for deposit" in the new program. For anyone not familiar with the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund, it's a branch of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative that "provides financial assistance to individuals and business for solar panels and wind turbines at their homes and facilities." As far renewable energy subsidies go in Massachusetts, the Trust Fund is it. Taking $5 million out the Fund represents a 21 percent annual revenue reduction. The Fund has subsidized 479 projects in the past ten years, adding up to 87,301 kW of installed renewable capacity, with another 149,082 kW of capacity in the development pipeline. While not a large number, it's also nothing to sneeze at. These are projects that likely would not have been built otherwise. So this leads us to an interesting series of questions. Why would DiMasi cannibalize funds from a renewable energy installation subsidy fund to promote green jobs and early stage research? If the amount of funding available to install renewable capacity decreases, won't the number of projects being installed also decrease? And, if that's the case, won't the number of people needed to install these projects also decline? As for all the early-stage research and entrepreneurship receiving grants from this program, what happens when this research matures and the entrepreneurs behind the research start shopping around for ramp up and commercial production? If the Trust Fund is too small to help subsidize these commercial projects, where will all the startups go? I hear California's nice this time of year.

Our Long, Tortured, Corn-Based History

Daniel Englander: May 20, 2008, 6:20 AM
In 40,000 years, after the last of the Himalayas have disappeared under the Indian Ocean, and future generations with webbed feet and gills rule the world from their outposts on rusted-out oil platforms, the memory of corn will have long been forgotten. Perhaps it will survive as a chapter in some elementary school history book - "The Cult of Corn," or possibly "Corn: God of the Ancients" - though it's doubtful anyone will understand our close, personal relationship with the cereal grain. I certainly don't. What's interesting about our addiction to corn are the steps government bodies have taken to maintain corn prices at artificially low levels. And there are several examples. The Corn Laws, enacted in Britain in the 1840s, sought to keep grain prices at extremely low levels to protect British farmers from cheaper imports. The tariffs resulted in both the collapse of British agriculture and the founding of The Economist. Tariffs on the import of refined sugar were aimed at protecting a burgeoning sector of the U.S. corn production industry - high fructose corn syrup, a form of sugar made from corn. This tariff, while crippling agriculture production in developing countries, has succeeded primarily in making Americans fat. With the average American now consuming roughly 42 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup annually, and with per capita production up 4,000 percent since 1973, the average American now consumes an additional 75,281 calories per year. But in the future this shouldn't be a problem, because the Renewable Fuels Mandate has succeeded primarily in raising food prices and cutting down on the amount of corn moving in to direct and indirect food consumption. The new corn tariff, which is what the RFM is, has raised prices for animal feed and, therefore, animal products sold in super markets, resulting in a short to medium term 10 percent increase in food prices. The long term effects of this may be even more drastic. Other advances are possible. There's an open debate now about what else the government can do to keep corn prices artificially low while attempting to solve some ongoing macroeconomic problems. One solution is to "Make mortgages out of corn. Turn what is plentiful into what is scarce." The credit crunch roiling international markets can easily be solved by transforming corn into mortgages, which "can be 'offset' by employing other corn products as corbon-offset and corn price deflators." In other words, with the right mix of wrong-headed government subsidies and continued reliance on an agricultural commodity that has no business outside of Oaxaca, we can make the banks start trusting each other again. Basing the overnight Fed rate on corn production would spur an increase in lending, while decreasing the amount of production devoted to making Americans fat. Ultimately, we believe, along with Long or Short Capital, the optimal strategy is to go "long corn, long real estate and long any problem which can be solved by corn, which as far as we can determine is EVERY problem." Because anything else but a corn-based economy would be untrue to the primary goal - making farmers rich.