Recent Posts:

Drill, Baby, Drill

Eric Wesoff: February 19, 2009, 11:19 AM
Midday events at Stanford University attract a crowd of students, professors, George Schultz in a red jacket and a bunch of retirees.  I mean, who else can attend a speech by the CEO of ExxonMobil in the middle of the day? Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil recited a speech on Tuesday afternoon in an event sponsored by the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). GCEP's purpose is to conduct pre-commercial research that will lead to technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  ExxonMobil is GCEP's largest sponsor and plans to invest up to $100 million in the program over 10 years. In 1968, there would be have been howls of protest in the face of an oil company underwriting an environmental program. These days, Stanford students just hope for employment after their studies. Mr. Tillerson, a civil engineer by training, joined Exxon in 1975.  He became CEO and Chairman of Exxon in 2006.  According to Wikipedia, The Rockefeller family sponsored a non-binding resolution to separate the CEO and chairman positions that Tillerson holds in order to maintain a system of checks and balances. The Rockefeller family also wanted Exxon Mobil to invest more in alternative energy. The resolution did not obtain the necessary majority, and Tillerson held on to both job titles.  According to Forbes' CEO compensation data, he made about $6.86 million in compensation in 2007. Here are some quotes from Mr. Tillerson:
  • "The world economy will recover and when the world economy recovers -- so will energy demand."
  • "'Hydrocarbon energy is available and abundant and will account for the majority of the world's energy demand at least until 2030"
  • "No single energy source will meet all needs or reduce emissions, there is no one perfect solution on the shelf or on the drawing board."
  • "Solar needs to drop an order of magnitude to about $0.30/W from $3.00/W."
  • "With much further R&D, algae could play a role in transportation fuel supplies and reducing GHGs."
  • "We believe that a carbon tax would be a more effective policy than a cap-and-trade system."
  • "It is rare that a business person like myself would support a new tax but it is my judgment that a carbon tax would be the best solution."
  • "We need a 30-year energy policy, 10 years won't do it."
On peak oil:
  • "We endorse the assessment of the USGS -- the current conventional oil resource base is three trillion barrels and there are another one to two trillion barrels in heavy oil and one trillion barrels of shale oil.  We have consumed one trillion barrels since we started using oil.  There is a large endowment out there.  USGS updates have always gone up -- it is a technology phenomenon.  With technology advancements like 3D seismic imaging to a whole host of other technologies.  We have gone from 600 feet to 10,000 feet ocean drilling.  It's ongoing technical advances that open up and identify that resource endowment -- imaging in sub salt basins in West Africa and below basalt imaging.  The technology keeps moving and the resource base keeps growing,  We are confident that we can access much more. We have sufficient hydrocarbon resources to meet the world's needs for the next century."
On climate change:
  • "Climate science is one of the most complex sciences out there today.  We don't believe in scientific consensus.  That's an oxymoronic statement.  We support scientific investigation.  We have to submit to the continuation of scientific study.  Its too important to fail.  C02 concentration is going up and temperature is going up but what is the relationship?   We have an issue about how people use the models.  First and foremost we need to support good unencumbered scientific investigation.  As far as policy -- it is a risk management issue -- probabilities of outcome.  We need to actively manage that risk.  Our position hasn't changed.  The science has been so contaminated by the political process."
Why not drill in the U.S.?
  • "The U.S. has a rich resource endowment that has not been fully explored or tapped.  It is withheld from our beneficial use -- our government water and our government lands.  We've been set in the mindset of the 1960s  It is purely and simply an environmental issue.  If you live by the precautionatry principle -- get out your tent and your matches and your horse.  We have to help the public understand."
We can't drill our way to energy independence. The  Energy Information Administration (EIA) has reported that offshore drilling will have little effect on oil and gas production or on prices before 2030. Meanwhile, Big Oil swims in record profits and the U.S. is the top global warming polluter in the world. We need a new vision for our future.  We should focus on reducing our need for oil -- which is where real national energy security lies.

Nuclear Energy’s Moment of Truth

Eric Wesoff: February 18, 2009, 8:37 PM
Greentech Media, as the name suggests, focuses on renewable energy and a green sustainable future. There is contention in the green culture at large and in the Greentech Media offices as to whether nuclear can be categorized as truly "green."  (See the comment thread in this blog piece to witness the contention amongst our readers.)  Nuclear plants do not produce greenhouse gases, but they definitely present a radioactive material and security risk.  And uranium is certainly not a renewable resource. But the bottom line is -- nuclear power is part of the energy mix in the U.S. and around the world and the nuclear waste produced is not going anywhere. Four-hundred-and-thirty-eight nuclear plants are operating today, more are being built, and the issue has to be dealt with. Ariel Levite, the former Principal Deputy Director General for Policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, spoke today at a talk sponsored by Stanford's CISAC, the Center for International Security and Cooperation. His talk addressed nuclear power and avoided nuclear weaponry and non-proliferation (another facet of CISAC's studies). Once at the forefront of the nuclear industry but now haunted by the legacy of Three Mile Island, the United States has fallen behind in nuclear science, engineering, and industry.  Hamstrung by tight financing , a dismal record on meeting budget and schedule, a NIMBY mindset, and a timid political class -- the U.S. has been ambivalent about nuclear power's comeback. Despite having 104 nuclear reactors in operation. But the rest of the world is hardly ambivalent about nuclear.  And the U.S. is no longer the role model. Europe, specifically France, now sets the pace for nuclear power with 80 percent of its power produced from nukes in a closed fuel-cycle process. China, Russia, Korea, India and Japan have all entered what Mr. Levite referred to as "a nuclear power reactor race,"  and more than 50 countries are considering launching nuclear power programs. "There is real hype but real action might soon follow," Levite said.  The installed base of nuclear power "might increase by a factor of three to five by 2050."  According to Levite, China has 11 plants under construction, and Russia has eight. He noted the recent Swedish decision to re-embark on an ambitious nuclear program after two decades of phasing out nukes, as well as nuclear power activity in Poland and the Baltic countries. Some bullet points from his talk: Factors driving this new nuclear zeal...
  • Growing global energy demand
  • Energy security concerns -- in the aftermath of the most recent crisis, Europeans feel that they cannot rely on rationed gas from Russia
  • Potentially substituting nuclear domestically to allow oil and gas exports
  • Is there any way to meet carbon emission requirements without nuclear power?
Enhancing nuclear's appeal...
  • Western nuclear power and, to a lesser extent, Russian nuclear power has been proven reliable
  • Better and bigger reactor designs
  • There are only seven major utilities operating nuclear power in the U.S. -- in this case consolidation is good
  • Government incentives for low carbon emissions
  • Potential for standardization
  • Industrial bottlenecks are serious. This is an industry that has built only four reactors a year for the last few years
  • There is a shortage of nuclear engineers
  • Reliable construction cost calculations are less than reliable
  • Utilities lack efficient and affordable mechanisms for funding new nuclear construction
  • Carbon emission subsidies are not clearly defined
  • A sophisticated waste disposal challenge lingers on
  • A NIMBY attitude affects selection of new sites
  • Prospects for trouble abroad are significant
  • If one nuclear reactor goes wrong, if one entity uses nukes irresponsibly -- the entire industry will suffer
If the U.S. is to re-enter this market, time is of the essence because it takes three to four years to license and seven to 10 years to build a reactor.  And all of the reactors in the U.S. are over twenty-five-years old and exceeding their expected lifetime. Regarding the U.S. response to the nuclear waste issue, Levite said: "The U.S. has the least intelligent solution -- spending billions on interim storage."  The question of storing nuclear waste is still in front of the U.S. "The U.S. has to deal with the issue of  nuclear waste regardless of whether they build any more reactors," he said, adding, "Yucca Mountain ain't going to work" because of politics and sheer capacity. I am a knee-jerk environmentalist and have a visceral response to the word "nuclear." But the more I learn and read, the more experts I speak with, the more my mind is changed -- nuclear is a necessary part of the energy mix, albeit with enormous risk. These risks need to be confronted head-on by sound technology, policy, diplomacy and science. But as for floating Russian nuclear plants. Not a good idea.

Energy Secretary Chu Wants Standards for Smart Grid

Jeff St. John: February 18, 2009, 2:41 PM
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has weighed in on the issue of standards for the smart grid, saying Wednesday that he's going to push to make sure they're in place to keep smart grid technologies being deployed today from growing obsolete. The DOE head and Nobel Prize-winning physicist's comments in a Wednesday conference call with reporters (via Earth2Tech) come amidst a growing debate over standards for smart grid deployments. With a wide variety of communications and networking technologies out there for the millions of "smart meters" being deployed by U.S. utilities, companies are staking out competitive positions on just how "standards-based" their technologies are (see Smart Grid: a Matter of Standards). There could be $4.4 billion at stake. That's the amount the stimulus bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Tuesday contained for grants for smart grid related projects (another $100 million was set aside for worker training, bringing the total to $4.5 billion). But language in a draft version of the bill linked the ability of utilities to receive a portion of those grants to using Internet protocol (IP) in their projects — and that drew the ire of traditional smart meter makers Itron, Landis+Gyr, Sensus and Aclara, which made their displeasure known in a letter to U.S. Senators. Those companies have used proprietary technologies in their smart meter communications networking, though some are also moving to incorporate IP as well. Eric Dresselhuys, a vice president at Silver Spring Networks, said the final stimulus bill contained language that linked the $4.4 billion in grants to using open standards that could include IP or other standards — but only "if available and appropriate." That will give needed discretion to utilities looking to DOE for guidance as it sets up a program to administer the grants, which is is supposed to do within 60 days, he said. "The real challenge will be, how does DOE set up a clear, transparent process to quickly move this money into the field," he said. Using IP for smart meter networking has been the rallying cry of Silver Spring, which has called for open standards language to be included in any federal support for smart grid deployment (see Draft Stimulus Plan Has Billions for Smart Grid). But when it comes to certain smart grid tasks — such as automating distribution networks — other standards widely used by utilities, such as DNP3 (Distributed Network Protocol), may make more sense than IP, Dresselhuys said. And the issue of open standards extends beyond networking protocols, he noted.

"The gist of what we think the government wants to get to is that the systems have to be open everywhere," he said. "You can have open networking with proprietary applications systems, and that wouldn’t be good."

Determining just what makes for standards in smart grid will likely fall to the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which received $10 million in the stimulus bill to develop a smart grid interoperabilty framework. The institute was given the task of developing "protocols and model standards for information management to achieve interoperability of smart grid devices and systems," in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. That could help clear up confusion about the definition of open standards in an industry that's still relatively young. For example, while Silver Spring champions IP as an open standard for smart meter networking, competitors like Trilliant have countered by saying that the radio mesh systems that Silver Spring and other smart meter makers use are based on proprietary physical data transmission technologies — unlike Trilliant's radios based on the 802.15.4 protocol. Yet other smart grid companies complain that the industry's technology is still too young for clear standards to have emerged. “There are bits and pieces emerging, but there isn’t one definitive approach or standard,??? said Srini Krishnamurthy, vice president of corporate development for Eka Systems, which has developed a smart meter networking technology that the company says is "IP-compliant" but which other observers label as proprietary.

Response to the DTV Switchover and to TV Manufacturers

The Voice of Nature: February 18, 2009, 10:29 AM
For those of you haven’t heard, 681 of the 1,800 TV channels will stop broadcasting in analog next Tuesday, despite the legislative delay for June 12, 2008. An article in the San Jose Mercury News called the delayed DTV switchover “a victory for the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, who maintain that the previous administration mismanaged efforts to ensure that all consumers -- particularly poor, rural and minority Americans.??? I don’t see it as a political victory, but an attempt to postpone something that will darken the TVs of millions of people in the U.S. and cause a lot of electronic waste down the road. The FCC and Congress approved the DTV switchover in 1996 and 1997 respectively, and the DTV date was set in 2006. TV manufacturers have known the switchover was coming for 10 years, so can someone explain why they took so long to make compatible televisions? Why they kept selling TVs that would become unusable without a converter box in just a few years? On March 1, 2007, TV manufacturers had to stop shipping to the U.S. TVs that weren’t digital-ready, but retailers could still sell the incompatible TVs they had in stock. So, a lot of people just bought a TV last year that will now need a converter box or replacement. Now, millions of consumers will have to buy new TVs or purchase converter boxes; that shouldn’t have been necessary, but will now put a heavy burden on the poor and the environment as analog TVs flood the electronic waste pipeline. Not to mention the eventual waste of the converter boxes. SVTC’s interest in this has not only been the impact on low-income and communities of color, but the amount of e-waste that will be created. The memories of those in India dismantling e-waste still haunts me (some of these memories capture in the Citizens at Risk video, which you can preview at YouTube). The delay doesn’t impact how we handle the e-waste, but I can only hope that people will use the extra time to think about their options a little more. lauren Ornelas Campaign Director Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is a research, advocacy and grassroots organization that fights for environmental justice in the high-tech industry. On The Voice of Nature, Executive Director Sheila Davis, Campaign Director lauren Ornelas and intern Serena share their experiences, insights, and visuals from around the world or right here at home. Contact the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition at:

San Francisco Gets Coulomb Car-Charging Stations

Jeff St. John: February 18, 2009, 9:13 AM

Coulomb Technologies on Wednesday unveiled its first three electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle charging stations in San Francisco, beating rival electric car charging startup Better Place to the punch in a second Bay Area city.

Coulomb’s three charging stations will be used in a two-year pilot project to charge San Francisco city vehicles and vehicles of car share organizations ZipCar and City CarShare, Mayor Gavin Newsom said at a press event in front of City Hall.

Coulomb raised $3.75 million last month to support its plan to install up to 40 charging devices around major California highways in the first quarter of 2009 (see Coulomb Bags $3.75M for Electric-Car Charging). It installed its first three charging stations in San Jose last month.

The Campbell, Calif.-based startup is looking to sell its charging stations to cities and other government agencies, as well as gas stations and businesses with large parking lots like shopping centers. It’s also hoping to get electric and plug-in hybrid owners to subscribe via its ChargePoint Network, and hopes to have hundreds of charging stations installed at gas stations throughout California by the end of this year (see Coulomb to Install 40 Stations, Seeks $5M to $8M).

Coulomb also announced a new “fleet management portal??? and network that can monitor and display the charge status of fleet vehicles and send messages with that information to drivers, Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal said Wednesday.

Coulomb has a different model than that of rival Better Place, which wants to let vehicle owners swap depleted batteries for charged ones at its stations. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup has announced big plans to install networks around the world, including a $1 billion plan for the San Francisco Bay Area (see Better Place to Charge Up California, Better Place and Ontario Launch Project and Better Place Goes to Hawaii).

Better Place is working with Macquarie Capital to raise private equity for its projects (see Green Light post). Whether charging or swapping batteries emerges as a winner is unclear. While battery swapping could avoid long charge times for batteries, critics contend car makers will balk at the prospect of setting standards for doing so.

And of course, both Coulomb and Better Place will be waiting for plug-in vehicles to come onto the market. Toyota, General Motors and other major automakers plan to start selling plug-in hybrid vehicles next year, and all-electric cars are also being promised by established automakers and startups alike (see Toyota to Build All-Electric Car by 2012).

But Toyota's plug-in Prius hybrid will be available only in small numbers at first, and General Motors is asking the federal government for billions of dollars to stave off bankruptcy (see GM, Chrysler Could Require $21.6B More in Gov't Loans to Survive).

Armageddon Is Coming

Eric Wesoff: February 17, 2009, 8:00 PM
There’s an apocryphal story about the origin of the dimensions of the standard-sized photovoltaic solar panel.  The tale goes that the maximum size of a UPS delivery truck’s shelf dictated the dimensions of the original PV panel’s form factor. (If any of our readers can confirm or refute that -- leave a comment below.) Anyway, the industry standard size is about 62 inches by 32 inches by 2 inches, give or take, for a panel that puts out between 150 and 200 watts. And that’s been the only game in town. Until now. Applied Materials large-format panel -- the 5.7m2 Gen 8.5 panel -- is fabricated by amorphous silicon suppliers like Signet and Moser Baer. These panels are relatively low efficiency (6 percent to 8 percent) and intended mostly for free-standing large-scale solar farms. (The glass size for these panels is inherited from the glass dimensions used in LCD PVD processing.) So we have PV panels with sizes dictated by truck shelves and flat screen displays. How about PV panels with shapes and sizes designed for actual rooftops? Which brings on Armageddon... Energy. A memorable if macabre name for a newly formed solar firm. Armageddon Energy is amongst the more than 200 solar startups created in the last few years that Greentech Media has listed and categorized. Armageddon's CEO Mark Goldman explained that there are 100 million homes in the U.S. but only about 60,000 have solar installed.  Why such a small percentage? There are a number of reasons -- cost of course, but also difficulty of installation and the intricacies of the permitting process. Goldman believes that someone will figure out how to deploy residential solar cheaply and attractively enough -- and with materials better suited for the application, to make it massively successful at displacing new power plants, and he sees Armageddon as that someone. "We take a ton of cost out of the installation by removing a lot of the overhead and labor," said Goldman about Armageddon's consumer-tailored solar panel.  The firm's modular and standard product streamlines the permitting process and the reasonably powered and reasonably priced 1-kilowatt system turns installing residential rooftop solar into a process like buying a home appliance instead of "a high-involvement sale." Goldman claims that Armageddon's uniquely shaped hexagonal module is easier to handle and better accommodates the contours and features of a rooftop. Three of the hexagonals are racked on a triangular support to form a "clover" and three of those clovers provide about a kilowatt of power. Armageddon claims:
  • That its affordable systems enables mainstream consumers to buy into solar
  • That plug-and-play modules allow installers to scale up rapidly
  • That its standardized smaller, lighter system streamlines the sales process
  • Its system makes it profitable for installers to do small systems
Armageddon isn't divulging all the details on its system, but it has a unique electrical set-up that dispenses with terror-inducing DC electronics and a housing that eliminates the heavy float glass and metal frame used in most solar panels. The firm has patents filed and is moving forward with engineering and development. Armageddon is in the midst of raising seed funding for the company (which must be a humbling experience -- lots of competitors and a flinchy investor climate). A name change might be in order, though.

GM, Chrysler Could Require $21.6B More in Gov’t Loans to Survive

Ucilia Wang: February 17, 2009, 3:29 PM

Can you spare another $21.6 billion?

General Motors and Chrysler collectively requested that amount in federal aid Tuesday as they filed their progress reports to Congress. Congress has provided $17.4 billion in loans to both companies since last December, along with a list of requirements to ensure that money would be well spent on rescuing the two firms. Lawmakers gave the companies until March 31 to show they can turn around their operations and make money, or else they would lose the loans.

Both companies said Tuesday that the car market isn’t getting better, and they are likely to need more loans to survive.

GM, which has received $13.4 billion in loans so far, said it could require as much as $16.6 billion more in loans by 2011, reported Bloomberg. GM is asking for at least $9.1 billion in the near future (see GM’s progress report summary).

GM said it also added another five facilities to the list of factory closures it had proposed in December, bringing the total of factories to be closed between 2008 and 2012 to 14. The company had 47 manufacturing plants back in 2008.

Chrysler, which has received $4 billion from the loan program so far, wants another $5 billion. The company plans to layoff 3,000 people by the end of this year (see Chrysler’s progress report summary).

Both companies promise to develop and sell more fuel-efficient cars, including electric vehicles, as part of their restructuring plans. GM expects to launch its Chevy Volt, a much touted plug-in hybrid electric car next year. Chrysler also outlined a launch schedule for electric cars last September.