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Will the Computer Giants Invade Lighting Too?

Michael Kanellos: October 31, 2008, 4:14 AM
This year, we saw Intel, IBM, LG and others jump into the solar market, following a path blazed by Applied Materials two years ago. Cisco, Freescale and several startups like GainSpan are busy porting wireless chips and equipment originally designed for consumer electronics and computers into smart meters and energy efficient appliances. WiMax, the wireless broadband protocol, is coming to connect homes and utilities. What will the computer world colonize next? Probably lighting. Solid state light sources such as LEDs, plasma lights and OLEDs are expected to become popular over the next five to ten years as the price declines and mass manufacturing cranks up. Right now, LEDs are primarily made by the large lighting subsidiaries of conglomerates, like Philips Lighting. The nature of the industry and the technology, however, is opening the door to PC-centric companies. Foundries, which make computer chips for people who don't want to own their own factories, will likely enter lighting. Although LEDs are technically chips, the process and chemistry are different than what you need to make computer chips. Still, TSMC, the world's biggest foundry for silicon chips, is tinkering with strategies to serve as a factory-for-hire for LED designers. Applied Materials, meanwhile, is examining whether it should make equipment to produce OLED lights, which are thin and somewhat flexible. The OLED process is similar to the thin-film solar process, which in turn is similar to the process for making LCD TVs. (Applied also has a boatload of equipment that can be used to make regular LEDs.) And then you have companies like HID Laboratories that will use IT technologies to control and dim high-intensity discharge lights. Panasonic is putting automated light and air conditioner controls in green homes in Japan. Interestingly, the LED companies themselves are moving from making individual chips to entire lighting solutions -- i.e., packaged light sources for specific applications or even lamps. Early next year, LED manufacturer Bridgelux, which has raised $71 million already, will release white light LEDs in a variety of color temperatures. Rather than sell them to the general market, Bridgelux will target these for specific applications, said CEO Mark Swoboda. Philips Lighting, meanwhile, will begin to emphasize lamps in the future. These are the initial burbles of the flood. When you see Intel, Samsung and Cisco talking about the crisis in lighting and their ideas for paving the way to a new world of energy efficient lighting, don't say you weren't warned.

With Digital TV Conversion Coming, Panasonic Paves Way for Recycling

Michael Kanellos: October 30, 2008, 11:09 AM
If you've got an old TV with a Panasonic logo, it's going to be easier to get rid of it soon. The Japanese electronics giant will open up 160 drop-off locations in 10 states over the weekend where consumers can get rid of old TVs, cameras and other electronic doodads made by the company. There's no charge. The recycling center is being run in conjunction with Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company (which goes by the abbreviated acronym MRM), a joint venture launched in 2007 with Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba. Electronic recycling has become mandatory in a few states like Minnesota and California and will soon be mandatory in several others. These programs, though, can be confusing -- who should pay for them? where does the trash go? who gets to resell the waste metals? -- which has limited their effectiveness. Another problem: how to get rid of the stuff. In Europe, something that's thrown out that contains an electric plug is classified as toxic waste; thus, you can't just throw it in the recycling bin. Stations like this help grease the wheels. And in the next several months, there will be a lot of TVs going to the shredder. Roughly 80 million analog TVs will get heaved out in 2008 and 2009, John Shegerian, CEO of Electronic Recyclers (ER), one of the largest e-waste recyclers in the U.S., told me a while back. The glass in an old tube TV consists of about 22 percent lead. Even without the digital TV mandate (which kicks in on February 17, 2009), the e-recycling business is booming. Roughly 65 million pounds of e-waste was recycled in 2005 in California alone after the state passed a recycling law and the figure shot up to 120 million pounds in 2006. More than 200 million pounds was hashed in 2007. Panasonic, like a lot of Japanese companies, has set several ambitious goals for reducing its own carbon footprint and increasing the greenness of its products. Many are reducing the power consumption of plasma and LCD TVs. Panasonic also makes green homes, but not in the U.S.

Greentech Innovations: Why Trash-to-Fuel Might Finally Work

Michael Kanellos: October 30, 2008, 5:35 AM
When it comes to trash-to-fuel, Ze-Gen is the contrarian. Most companies try to extract vegetable scraps, manure and other waste products into methane, or natural gas. When scrubbed of impurities, the gas can be safely shipped through pipelines. "We try to make as little methane as possible," said Bill Davis, CEO of Ze-Gen in an interview. Instead, Ze-Gen has created a process that harvests carbon monoxide and hydrogen from garbage. The highly combustible gases can then: a.) be burned on site as a gas to power local industrial operations; or b.) exploited to crank a turbine to produce electricity. (Davis will also speak at the upcoming Greentech Innovations End to End Electricity conference on November 17 and 18.) The process also finally changes the economics of trash-to-fuel. Now, companies in this market garner revenues from two sources: producing power and taking in trash. Unfortunately, because of the high cost of trash-to-fuel systems and the quality and price of the gases being extracted by most companies, most of them have to heavily rely on trash-hauling revenues. To make it, some trash-to-fuel companies will charge up to $70 a ton for taking in trash. Since traditional landfill operators will take garbage in for $30 a ton, these deals haven't been well received by investors. Ze-Gen is far less reliant on hauling fees, he said. So far the company has demonstrated the technology on a small prototype. The next step lay in building a larger, commercial-scale, prototype.

Greentech Innovations: GridPoint Talks About Its Strategy Shift

Michael Kanellos: October 29, 2008, 12:25 PM
In the smart grid market, GridPoint did one of those sudden right-hand shifts. The company started out with a box that would allow homes to curb energy consumption by controlling different devices, said CEO Peter L. Corsell. While the hardware consisted of off-the-shelf components, the value of the box lay in the software developed by GridPoint. GridPoint, however, discovered that there were only a limited number of upper-middle class homes that would want a device like that. More importantly, though, it found a larger opportunity existed in selling a scaled-up version of the software to utilities for demand response programs. Since then, the company has landed development deals with a number of utilities. The company, for instance, is participating in the $100 million SmartGridCity project with Xcel Energy and working on a smart charging trial for plug-in hybrids with Duke Energy. GridPoint has also raised over $220 million. (Corsell will further detail the company's plans and contracts at Greentech Innovations End to End Electricity taking place November 17 and 18 in New York.) The best way to think of what GridPoint is that it's a network operating system software company, he said. Other companies will make the meters, routers and other devices and GridPoint will publish its APIs and run compatibility tests to ensure that everything works together. EnerNoc, which has been in the market for a number of years, is moving in a similar direction. Like the computer industry, players in smart grid are establishing niches and the whole industry is going horizontal. It's one of the big trends in greentech to watch. These deals and the funding have helped put GridPoint toward the front ranks of the market for software that will regulate power consumption. In the future, utilities will likely operate more like software-as-a-service companies than traditional power producers: A huge part of their job will lay in swapping and transferring power for optimal efficiency rather than cranking it out of turbines. As an attendee at the Emerging Technologies Summit that took place in San Diego told me: "This is the idea that Enron was supposed to be about." It is also a competitive market: Trilliant, eMeter, EnerNoc, Comverge and Silver Spring Networks are in the same market with similar, overlapping products and services. Who will win? Who knows. Some competitors like to chide GridPoint for having to shift its strategy. Many of these companies have also been in the market longer. But it's also a huge opportunity. Virtually every utility is moving to adopt smart grid technologies and most of them are at or near square one.

Iceland Aims at World’s Green Datacenter Hub

Michael Kanellos: October 29, 2008, 12:25 PM
Cold air and geothermal power -- Iceland hopes these two geographic facts of life will allow it to become a global power in datacenters. The island nation is cranking up strategies to attract search engines and hosting providers, said Peter Gross, CEO of EYP Mission Critical Facilities, a company that designs datacenters. (Hewlett-Packard bought it and made EYP a subidiary.) Iceland faces some significant hurdles, especially since it's been so hard hit by the global credit crunch. The broadband connections to Europe will have to be improved. Ireland and Denmark, both of which have growing wind energy footprints, are better connected in terms of fiber. The air in Iceland can also contain quite a bit of sulfur, which has to be filtered out. Still, the circumstances are attractive. Geothermal power has emerged as one of the country's most valuable commodities, Gross said. Data remains easier to export than power. Free cold air is also something all datacenters want. Roughly half of the power consumed by datacenters goes into air conditioners. Some vendors -- such as IBM, Dell and HP -- have introduced systems that cool computers with chilled water. These can cool computers more efficiently, say supporters, but customers overwhelmingly prefer air cooling, Gross said. Cutting the air conditioning bill in a large datacenter could result in millions in savings. (Chilly air is also one of the reason's Microsoft is building an ambient cooled datacenter in western Ireland.) Overall, optimizing a datacenter for power consumption can cut an operating budget by $20 to $25 million a year. The Iceland tidbits came during an aside with Gross at a roundtable with reporters, analysts and HP execs at the HP Labs offices in Palo Alto, Calif. (The labs date back decades and even house the still-untouched offices of the late David Packard and Bill Hewlett. The architecture is great -- think Pancake House of Tomorrowland. The photo is of one of the two mosaics at the entrance.) Other notes during the meeting: Electricity will continue to be a big headache for large companies. Soon, large companies will spend more on power to run their datacenters than computers and other equipment, said Gross. The total cost of power for datacenters is increasing by about 20 percent a year. "Datacenters will use more power than a small town with 20,000 to 30,000 households," he said. "It is becoming the most glaring element of energy consumption in a corporation." A large datacenter can cost $200 million to $300 million. That total just includes the building, power systems and air contioners, not computers. LEED platinum is the standard you want for your datacenter. Going LEED adds about 1 percent to 8 percent to the total cost of construction, but it will pay off over time with lower power bills. Under a new version of the LEED standards coming out soon, it will be easier to get LEED points for installing energy-efficiency equipment. Now, the LEED standards are tilted more toward adopting green building materials. "The vast majority of projects today are LEED," he said. Datacenters a few years ago consumed about 25 watts per square foot. Then in 2004 and 2005 the figure shot up to 52 watts per square foot. Blame it on multi-core chips and virtualization software. These increase computing utility but increase the power density. The average server cabinet at a typical large company will consume 2 to 3 kilowatts. One at a search engine will gobble up 8.5 to 9 kilowatts. Here's something wacky to look out for in the future: Most software applications can be pretty much run in a datacenter anywhere in the world. So in the future, large companies could roll them from center to center around the world and take advantage of low nightime electricity rates. Some HP customers and HP itself is already examining ways of shifting computing loads with the clock.

AMD Ups Its Green Commitment, in Part for Employees

Michael Kanellos: October 28, 2008, 5:07 PM
There are a lot of financially sound reasons to adopt LEED standards for your next building. The resale value of the building will climb faster than normal. Spare space that needs to be rented out will go for a premium. Operations costs and energy bills will likely be far lower than they would if you built a conventional headquarters. (Jeanne Clinton, Clean Energy Advisor, California Public Utilities Commission, says green building has a negative cost because the financial gains will outweigh the initial expense.) It's a great recruiting tool as well, says Larry Vertal, senior strategist at AMD and the person who runs their sustainability programs. "It is one of the soft things that many companies don't understand but it is crucial in the retention and moral of employees," he said. "It is amazing how the highest talented people will grill you about your sustainability practices in job interviews. ... We've seen a lot more interest in it, so it really does matter." As a result, AMD's Lone Star Campus in Austin, completed earlier this year, figures prominently in the company's marketing and its eighth annual Global Climate Protection Plan, issued today. Built to the LEED Gold standard, the building consumes 20 percent less energy than a similar building built to standard codes. It also sports the world's largest water cachement system. All the energy for the facility is provided from renewable sources through Austin's GreenChoice program. The climate protection plan also includes new goals for its sustainability. The company is now shooting to reduce energy consumption by 40 percent in 2010 compared to a 2006 baseline and reduce carbon emissions by 33 percent in the same year by the same baseline. (And let's not forget much larger rival Intel. Yesterday, it got the 2008 Green Power Leadership award and announced it invested in Trony Solar.) Starting with this version of the report, AMD has begun to try to quantify and account for the greenhouse gases and energy consumption from third party suppliers. It will take quite a bit of work: The company's suppliers will have to adopt standards to account for greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, they will be motivated: Despite two plus years of financial turmoil, AMD remains one of the largest chipmakers in the world. If you want to sell it vapor deposition chambers, get ready to report. Greenhouse gas and energy accounting will also likely become mandatory anyway under future regulations. "There is no doubt in my mind that strong regulation and reporting requirements are coming here," Vertal said. Accounting for so-called "Scope 3" emissions from suppliers will also allow AMD to accommodate one of the biggest shifts in the company's history: It is spinning off its manufacturing division. Without a change in reporting, AMD would see greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption plummet, but in a somewhat artificial way. On a side note, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite spiff used to increase employee loyalty. Back in the 90s, another semiconductor company used to offer household cleaning services at a highly subsidized rate. When employees contemplated a new job offer, they'd then wonder to themselves: "But what will happen to my cleaning lady?" It apparently worked, a source told me.

Sounds Like EEStor Has Delayed Again

Michael Kanellos: October 28, 2008, 5:06 PM
Although ultracapacitor manufacturer EEStor is highly secretive and few people outside the company can fully explain what it is up to, there are two things you can almost always count on the company to do. One, to delay its product. Two, to be highly entertaining. This week, Richard Weir climbed out of his hidey hole to respond to a comment on the GM-Volt blog about the company's status. Weir reiterated that the company had said earlier this year that it would come out with products by the end of the year, EEStor did not get the funding it was seeking. Therefore, it seems that the ultracapacitors will be delayed once again. Initially, they were due back in 2007. According to the GM-Volt blog, Weir wrote:
As we have provided certified information on EEStor, Inc. this information certain indicates the excellent progress that we are making.
+As we stated in the beginning of 2008, properly funded EEStor, Inc. would anticipate in being in production status late in 2008.
The funding that we did receive was not sufficient to meet the production status late in 2008 but as identified by our last news release, EEStor, Inc. has made excellent progress with that level of funding.
That sounds like 2009 to me. Vague, yes, but simple math seems to indicate next year at best. In turn, that means those prototypes from Lockheed and the car from Zenn due this year will be delayed as well. For those of you unfamiliar with EEStor, the company is extremely reclusive. It issues few press releases; although, Weir occasionally gives brief interviews. Kleiner, Perkins is an investor, but neither the firm nor the company acknowledge it. Former Dell chairman and high-tech guru Mort Topfer was on the board, jumped off and returned. People I've talked to who have seen EEStor's labs (or have spoken to people who have seen the labs) say they are wonderful and state-of-the-art. However, they also tended to strongly doubt the company's claims that its parts could power an electric car for hundreds of miles and recharge in a jiffy. EEStore does have supporters. And other companies, albeit less secretive and cryptic ones, are working on ultracapacitors to help charge battery-powered cars. So you never know.