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GM’s Bob Lutz Will Say Goodbye

Ucilia Wang: February 9, 2009, 2:01 PM

General Motors' Bob Lutz, a strong advocate for the company's Chevy Volt, plans to retire by the end of the year.

Lutz is leaving during a year when GM will have to fight hard for its survival. The automaker has said that it still plans to launch the Volt, a plug-in hybrid-electric car, in 2010 despite its financial woes.

Lutz, who has been the vice chairman for global product development, will become a senior advisor starting on April 1, the company said Monday. Thomas G. Stephens, GM’s current executive vice president for powertrain and quality, will take over Lutz’s job.

Lutz has been a big supporter of the Volt, which GM is banking on to set itself apart from other automakers who plan to introduce their own plug-in hybrid electric vehicles around the same time. He also is known for controversial statements, such as the one expressing his disbelief in global warming. Earth2Tech has a good post listing some revealing and funny quotes by Lutz.

The outspoken man has done his part in pushing GM to recognize the importance of developing alternative, fuel-efficient cars. The rest is up to the company to make good use of the federal loans to return to good financial health.

Lignol’s Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Bites the Dust; Valero Seeks to Gobble Up VeraSun

Jeff St. John: February 9, 2009, 12:28 PM
You can cross Lignol Energy Corp. off the list of companies racing to open the first U.S. commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. The Canadian company said Monday it is pulling out of a joint venture with Suncor Energy (TSX, NYSE: SU) to build an $80 million wood-to-ethanol plant in Grand Junction, Colo. Lignol and Suncor — which steams oil out of tar sands in Alberta and sells fuel at its Sunoco-branded stations — blamed "the instability of energy prices, the uncertainty in the capital markets and the general market malaise" for canceling the deal announced in October. In the meantime, the companies are looking at "various alternatives" for the $30 million U.S. Department of Energy grant they got for the project in February 2008, Ross MacLachlan, president and CEO of Lignol, said in a prepared statement (see More Cellulosic Ethanol Will Soon Be For Sale. But Who's Buying?) It's been tough times recently for companies seeking to make commercial quantities of "next-generation" ethanol made from non-food sources like wood chips, switch grass or municipal waste. Irvine, Calif.-based BlueFire Ethanol recently postponed by six months its plans to start building a $130 million ethanol plant in Mecca, Calif. this year (see BlueFire Ethanol to Build $130M Plant in Mecca), saying it only had about $20 million of the plant's projected $100 million cost in hand. Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium (NSDQ: VRNM), which announced last month that it was ready to build a 36 million gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Florida for between $250 million and $300 million, faced delisting from the Nasdaq exchange in December, and reported a loss of $133.24 million in the third quarter of 2008, a big drop from a loss of $19.88 million in the same quarter of 2007 (see Verenium Plans Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in Florida). And Warrenville, Ill.-based Coskata Inc. has said it might have to postpone from 2010 to 2011 its plans for a $100 million cellulosic ethanol plant. Still in the works is its exploration of building a $400 million, 100 million gallon-per-year plant in partnership with U.S. Sugar Corp. (see Coskata Lining Up Sugary Deal). The slow going for cellulosic ethanol companies could stymie the federal government's goal of getting 100 million gallons of the stuff by 2010, according to research firm ThinkEquity, which estimates that only 28.5 million gallons will be available by then (see Consumers to Pick Up Tab for Off-Target Cellulosic Ethanol Industry). At least these companies are still going concerns, though. Big corn-based ethanol maker VeraSun Energy, which declared bankruptcy in October, on Friday said that oil refiner Valero Energy Corp. had put in a $280 bid to buy its five facilities in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, plus a site under development in Indiana. Makers of ethanol from corn have suffered from high corn prices and flat prices for the ethanol they produce, leading to plant closures and scaled-back expansion plans. Pacific Ethanol had to temporarily shut down a 40 million gallon-per-year plant in Madera, Calif. last month. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in December that the overall ethanol industry will likely fall short by 6 million gallons of the federal goal of 36 million gallons of production by 2022 (see U.S. Won't Meet Its Own Biofuel Mandate). That's despite the fact that corn-based ethanol makers got three-fourths of all federal renewable energy tax credits in 2007, according to the Environmental Working Group , which wants to see support for corn-based ethanol done away with (see Corn Ethanol's Subsidy Glut). But as long as that mandate remains in place, it's likely that assets like VeraSun's plants may remain attractive targets for buyers like Valero — as long as the price is right.

Hunting for the Elusive Alt-Fuel Station

Matthew Weinberg: February 9, 2009, 9:30 AM
Are you one of those good citizens who owns an alternative fuel vehicle? Having trouble finding a place to fill up? Help’s now available on your Google Maps-enabled phone or PDA. The U.S. Department of Energy has launched the Alternative Fueling Station Locator, a tool that helps you find the five closest alternative fuel filling stations. This tool should help early clean car adopters, especially those who travel away from familiar territory. Maybe it’ll even get some people to buy cleaner cars. The numbers behind the information service tell the story of how far we have to go, though. The database contains 5,866 alternative fuel stations across the U.S. This compares to 167,000 gasoline stations. That’s about one alt fuel station for every 28 gas stations. At first blush this doesn’t seem so bad. But if you remove the fossil fuel sources included in the list -- compressed natural gas, liquid natural gas and propane -- you’re left with 2,141 stations. That works out to about one alt fuel station for every 78 gas stations. Now let’s say you’ve been reading about the downside of corn ethanol (for example the high levels of greenhouse gas and particulate emissions from the corn ethanol lifecycle) and you’d like to exclude E85 from the list, at least until there are better sources of ethanol. Now you’re down to 1,211 stations: 687 biodiesel, 466 electric and 58 hydrogen. That’s about one alt fuel station for every 138 gas stations. To be sure, driving on natural gas is better than burning gasoline, but what I’d really like is to see that 1 to 138 ratio rapidly decrease. Eric Smalley is editor of Energy Research News. He has written about technology since 1987 and has freelanced for many publications including Discover, Scientific American, Wired News and The Boston Globe on topics ranging from quantum cryptography to global warming.

Gainesville Moves Closer to Launching Solar Feed-In Tariff

Ucilia Wang: February 9, 2009, 8:18 AM

The Gainesville City Commission has approved a solar feed-in tariff for residential and business customers served by the Gainesville Regional Utilities in Florida, making it the first such program in the country.

The approval followed a previous vote by the commission last December to draft an ordinance for the program. Under the program, which still needs the state’s approval, owners of solar energy systems would sell the electricity to the utilities at $0.32 per kilowatt-hour under a 20-year contract. The rate, which is higher than the price for conventional power, will remain for the first two years of the program.

The rate likely to be adjusted lower for new solar energy system owners after the first of the two years to reflect the expected declining costs of owning and operating solar energy systems.

The program is modeled after the successful one in Germany, which has become one of the largest solar markets in the world. Spain, France, Italy and other European countries also have similar programs. Utilities there also are required to buy all the solar power available for sale at prices higher than conventional power.

The Gainesville program could take effect as early as March 1.

Energy Storage: Velkess and the Holy Grail

Eric Wesoff: February 9, 2009, 5:14 AM
If you attend lots of energy seminars and conferences and speeches -- and yes, I do -- you start to hear a common refrain and it goes something like this: Energy storage is the missing link for renewable energy.  Sometimes the word “holy grail??? will be substituted for “missing link.???  (Note that attached picture is a holy hand grenade, not grail.) Wind turbines are useful only when the wind blows and photovoltaic panels work only when the sun is shining.  Therefore these renewable energy sources are not considered “dispatchable??? and require a measure of dispatchable backup (typically in the form of a non-renewable source such as natural gas). “We can make intermittent sources of renewable energy into dispatchable power.??? These are the fighting words of Bill Gray, the CEO of Velkess, a kinetic energy storage system startup.  He is trying to deliver the holy grail of renewable energy -- cheap, effective energy storage. Up until now the most efficient energy storage technologies have been: All technologies available to The Flinstones. Flywheels from companies like Active Power, Beacon Power and Pentadyne Power are typically built from carbon fiber or high tensile steel.  The flywheel is basically a large mass spinning on a non-contact magnetic bearing,   Because of high costs they are used in frequency regulation or UPS applications, not actual utility-scale MW-size energy storage. Velkess has a new type of flywheel technology, which uses a different set of materials and engineering principles than traditional flywheels.  Mr. Gray was unwilling to disclose the details. But he did claim that the cost of his solution was ten times less than the current $3.00 per Watt cost of storage.  And he did volunteer that the technology has been demonstrated, and uses a flexible rather than a rigid body -- “like a cowboy’s lasso.??? In Gray's words, "Energy storage is a crucial functionality to a clean energy future -- and this space deserves more thought and review.??? NGK's 2MW NaS battery Velkess will be competing not only against other flywheel companies but against other storage technologies like flow batteries, compressed air storage, NaS batteries, and pumped hydro.