Recent Posts:

Coal: ‘Clean’ or Otherwise, Get Used to It

William Brent: March 13, 2009, 11:01 AM
I know this POV will upset some folks, but here goes: Coal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s cheap, plentiful and easy to access, so we better start figuring out how to use it in a cleaner way. Of course there is no such thing as “clean coal??? (as I’ve noted on my blog several times in the past). For that matter, there is no such thing as 100 percent clean solar or clean batteries (someone is out there right now extracting silicon, cadmium and lithium from the ground). But there is something as “cleaner??? coal. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important that people like Al Gore, Bill McKibben and the folks at Power Shift are out there demanding that the dirtiest coal-fired power generation facilities be dealt with. I agree that we need voices to be demanding an accelerated roadmap to coal alternatives in a loud and unequivocal way (including the tongue-in-cheek voice of the Coen brothers). And apparently, according to this map, Coal Power Death Watch, these voices appear to be gaining traction in the U.S. But guess what – there’s an elephant in the room called China. Around 70 percent of China’s primary energy consumption comes from coal today, and that number, even with the most aggressive forecasts for replacing it with renewables, is going to remain around 35 percent to 40 percent by 2050. And coal replacement has no doubt been prolonged by the current economy, which is keeping alternatives at a higher price point relative to fossil fuels. And don’t blame China. The US is just as much to blame on the coal front, if not more so (according to new analysis, one third of China’s GHGs come from export-oriented industries. Guess who’s to blame for that Walmart shoppers?). Not to mention that China’s government is going gangbusters trying to replace fossil fuels. It’s in its interest to do so -- from a public health, economic development, political stability and national security perspective. But let’s face reality. Beijing is not going to create a domestic economic and political meltdown by shutting the country’s coal plants tomorrow. Nor will it risk that in 2020, or 2030. In fact, the government has already been aggressively shutting down dozens of smaller, dirtier coal-fired plants in recent years, but China’s need for more energy also means it continues to open new plants. So a couple of things are needed: 1) A clear and aggressive mechanism for cooperation between the U.S. and China on reducing the impact of burning coal and an immediate removal of all tech transfer restrictions for dual-use technologies that have the ability to abate coal emissions; and, 2) A willingness on the part of the replace-coal community, myself included, to work with what we’ve got and make sure that we do everything possible to promote cleaner coal as we transition to more renewable forms or energy. If you want to get arrested for protesting in front of coal plants that’s all fine and good, but once you’re released from custody, start working to help coal plants in China figure out a way to deal with their emissions in as clean a way as possible. They need all the help they can get and time is precious. Whether its sequestering flue gas in building materials, using underground coal gasification, IGCC or something else, it doesn’t matter to me. It just needs to happen. By the way, I’m more than happy to be convinced otherwise, so if you want to state a different case, I’m all ears. A former foreign correspondent, William Brent is a public relations exec at Weber Shandwick. He started the firm‚ cleantech practice. More can be found at

A Smart Grid Opportunity for the Little Guy

Michael Kanellos: March 13, 2009, 8:25 AM
Smart Grid is shaping up, to some degree, as a multibillion dollar industry dominated by fifteen customers. Right now, the utilities mostly hold the keys. Relatively young Silver Spring Networks has contracts that could reach into the billion dollar range, but a huge bulk of that cash will come from one entity -- Pacific Gas & Electric. The danger is that the industry could evolve into something like the film industry or the NFL. Those that get chosen for a part or in the draft reap millions. Everyone else gets a job at a sports bar. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Trinity Ventures partner Marco DeMiroz. The key here is the customer support desk. For smart meters to curb energy consumption and really save money, the smart meters are going to have to communicate and control appliances in your home. (Smart meters do save utilities money by eliminating the need to send someone to your home and look at the meter, but the dream is home automation.) Utilities simply aren't going to want to answer your questions why your TV looks funny after a temporary brown-out, or hear complaints about how the air conditioner was off too long. "The real utility model stops at the meter," he said in our meeting yesterday. "We have to come up with a model where the utility stops there." So far, some companies are already taking advantage of this. Comverge already provides demand-response services that sit between the home and the utility. Tendril, Greenbox and others have come up with software and hardware (Tendril both; Greenbox software) that curb power consumption. Sustainable Spaces and Standard Renewables do energy assessments. All the components are there for residential ESCOs. (Side note: if you haven't checked out the Greenbox demo, please do. It's pretty interesting: You can see the energy savings when you shut off the air conditioner remotely. There's also a pagan god like power in it because you know the residents are now staring at the ceiling and hoping your whims change.) Consumers could engage these companies themselves. Alternatively, Home Depot could round up these services and offer it as their own services. You could even see the utility hawk them. It makes a lot of sense. But perhaps the best part is that it helps reduce the problem of smart grid evolving into a corporate version of Top Chef.

EPA to Give Out $297M for Water and Wastewater Projects

Ucilia Wang: March 13, 2009, 8:01 AM

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is starting to give out money from the $787 billion federal stimulus plan: Four states will receive a combined $297 million for clean water and wastewater treatment projects.

The EPA said Thursday the money will go to existing programs called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Tribal Clean Water & Drinking Water Set-Aside programs.

Alaska is set to get $43 million, Idaho $39 million, Oregon $73 million and Washington $111 million. American Indian tribes in Alaska will get $27 million. Another $4.4 million will go to tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

The states are to use the money to provide loans for upgrading public drinking water and wastewater systems as well as other water quality projects, the EPA said.

Water utilities are notorious for being slow adopters of new technologies. So it remains to be seen how water technology developers might benefit from the government money. There is no shortage of companies working on novel ways to treat, purify, re-use and conserve water, however (see Greentech Media’s three-part series on water).

The EPA said it’s working with each of the states to come up with a list of projects that will benefit from the new funds. The public will have a chance to comment on those proposed projects before a final list is created. The EPA said the states are likely to receive the money starting in April.