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Congress Approves $2B for Cash for Clunkers, Senate Likely to Go Along

Michael Kanellos: July 31, 2009, 4:45 PM

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to put $2 billion more into the Cash for Clunkers program and there is a good chance it will go on to become law.

The extension of the program has support in the U.S. Senate and the White House likes it too. The Senate will likely look at it next week.

Under the program, consumers can turn in their old cars for $3,500 and $4,500 vouchers toward the purchase of newer, cleaner cars. Ford says that consumers are gravitating more toward fuel sippers rather than trucks, according to Reuters, so that's a good sign. In the first part of the program, consumers turned in 250,000 cars. That first phase of the program cost $1 billion. Critics say it is a somewhat expensive subsidy program, but it's popular.

Much of the momentum for the program came from this article from Jack Hidary and Bracken Hendricks.

And it keeps individuals in car reclamation busy. Let's go tell Rollo.

Quercus Update: Applied Solar Seeks Bankruptcy

Michael Kanellos: July 31, 2009, 1:49 PM

Thanks to Rob Day for pointing this out:

Applied Solar, which makes building integrated solar, filed for Chapter 11. The company had $17.6 million in assets and $29 million in liabilities.

It will sell its assets to the Quercus Trust, the secretive investment firm run by David Gelbaum. Quercus earlier loaned money to Applied.

The news came out of Applied. Quercus does not issue news releases. They don't even confirm or deny rumors.

So with that in mind, here is some unsubstantiated Quercus rumors (set to the lyrics of popular songs):

Who wrote the Book of Love? David Gelbaum.

He's a drifter born to walk alone.

Gelbaum prepares for the Final Countdown.

General Fusion Touts Technology, But Deadline Pushes Out to Future

Michael Kanellos: July 31, 2009, 12:42 PM

Nuclear fusion is the ideal energy – it is carbon free, it is virtually limitless, and it creates no nuclear waste.

Too bad it doesn't exist yet.

Still, that isn't stopping people from trying. Earlier this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories showed off a laser system that can potentially squish atoms together with such high intensity that it could set off a fusion reaction. The lab hopes to demonstrate it in 2010 or 2011.

Although national labs likely have a greater chance of demonstrating this, startups are trying too. Tri-Alpha Energy in Southern California has raised VC funds. Canada's General Fusion has as well. General uses a technique called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) model. In this scenario, an electric current is generated in a conductive cavity containing lithium and a plasma. The electric current produces a magnetic field and the cavity is collapsed, which results in a massive temperature spike.

The lithium breaks down into helium and tritium. Tritium, an unstable form of hydrogen, is separated and then mixed with deuterium, another form of hydrogen. The two fuse and make helium, a reaction that releases energy that can be harvested. So in short, lithium, a fairly inexpensive and plentiful metal, gets converted to helium in a reaction that generates lots of power and leaves only a harmless gas as a byproduct. MTF has an advantage over other fusion techniques in that the plasma only has to stay at thermonuclear temperatures (150 million degrees Celsius) for a microsecond for a reaction to occur, according to the General Fusion's website and an article I wrote on them in 2008.

They also have a really cool picture of a dinosaur on the website.

Today, Technology Review has a little more on the technology. But one thing that is buried in the article is the whiff of a delay. Back in early 2008, investors said that the company would provide data to show that fusion could be reasonably feasible in three to four years, or two to three years from now.

The company, though, has had a little more trouble than anticipated in raising the funds and now expects to get a prototype plant going within five years, assuming the funds could be had.

So fusion technology appears to be another victim of the credit crunch.

SolarTech Aims for 3GW of PV in California by 2017

Eric Wesoff: July 31, 2009, 12:04 AM

Most solar conferences are powerpoint marathons, interrupted by coffee breaks and low-grade lunch food.

SolarTech forums don't settle for that.  Except for maybe the food part.

These are not high-tech meetings with deep dives into Tellurium supplies – they are nitty-gritty forums for installers, utilities, and regulators to figure out how to bust through the roadblocks that prevent residential solar in the U.S. reaching wider and faster deployment (see California's Top Solar Cities).

SolarTech's charter is to effect change in the solar installation process – and the organization wants concrete results.  

One of its stated goals is a 50 percent decrease in interconnection cycle time by 2012.
Another long-term aim of the SolarTech team is to define a plan to get to 3 gigawatts of PV by 2017.

Doug Payne, the driven Executive Director of SolarTech defines the critical aspects of interconnection as "The point from final system inspection to grid connection, and the point when customers start getting the benefits of net metering. Even more compelling - it increases consistency, transparency, and predictability from initial permit submittal requirements, to project inspection, to the final interconnection steps".

Some of the process changes that SolarTech is working on:

  • Online applications and tools (shared, automated, with FAQs)
  • Streamlining the application process (permitting process, fees, consistency, communications and usage info)
  • Simplified meters (real-time delivery)

Peter Rive, the Co-Founder and COO of SolarCity had some good comments:

  • "You don't get your margin until the interconnection and the rebate is provided.  We will do anything to reduce that cycle time.  The working capital requirements when you scale this are enormous.  The industry is motivated and ready to invest time and effort to reduce cycle time."
  • "You have to think of solar as a consumer product – and it's a freaking annoying product – you have to be home six or seven times during the course of the installation. It's more annoying than buying a house." (Both the Rive siblings are prone to cursing in public fora.)

But who owns this process?  How does the solar industry implement these changes?

"The California Public Utilities Commission needs to own the process" according to a CEO I spoke with. He didn't want attribution so as not to anger the CPUC.

San Francisco, U.N. Plan Greentech Incubator, CalCEF Wants to Help

Jeff St. John: July 30, 2009, 5:48 PM

San Francisco wants about $20 million to build an incubator for green technology businesses at the long-neglected Hunters Point Shipyard – and it wants the United Nations Global Compact, a U.N. branch devoted to finding solutions to climate change, as an anchor tenant.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the proposal Thursday, marking the beginning of a fundraising and diplomatic push to have the plan approved. If it is, the Global Compact offices could include a $20 million, 100,000-square-foot incubator for greentech startups, said Dan Adler, president of the California Clean Energy Fund.

Newsom said the project could be complete by 2012, though he didn't say what partners it might be inviting into the deal.

Adler said CalCEF wouldn't mind jumping ahead of that 2012 timeline a little bit with an incubator of its own, to be called CalCEF Catalyst.

The $30 million nonprofit venture capital fund, started with money from the bankruptcy settlement between the state and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., already invests in green startups through its angel fund (see Clean Energy Angel Fund Makes First Investments).

While Adler didn't have specifics on CalCEF's incubator plans – besides the goal of opening well before 2012 – he did say CalCEF would seek to partner with San Francisco as it develops the Global Compact green technology incubator.

Hunters Point – a polluted former U.S. Navy shipyard – is the target of a revitalization scheme that would bring it 10,000 new homes and two million square feet of LEED-certified commercial space.

Why Food Matters for Solazyme

Michael Kanellos: July 30, 2009, 5:22 PM

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Algae oil companies nearly all dream about displacing the billions of fossil fuels the world consumes every year with oil from microorganisms.

But in the meantime, Solazyme is going to also see what it can do for people like Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The South San Francisco, Calif.-based algae oil company has created a food science lab where it experiments with substituting algae oil with olive and other types food oil, said Harrison Dillon, Solazyme's president, during a lunch break at the Western Energy Summit taking place at NASA Ames in Mountain View today. It is also in discussions with large food processors.

Economics and convenience are behind the wheel. Olive oils can sell for $15 a pound at the wholesale level, or more than diesel. The scale is a lot different too. You don't have to worry about filling up pipelines to keep the food court at the airport humming. Thus, Solazyme can start to garner revenue in the near term while it paves the way for fuel sales. In fact, most established algae companies specialize in algae for health or baby foods.

Earlier this year, I ate some brownies made with their oils. They tasted good. (Disclosure: I once accidentally bit into a fridge magnet, so keep that in mind.) Don't expect the word 'algae' to be mentioned much in brand names.

In other algae news, Don Paul, the former CTO of Chevron, has joined LiveFuels as a scientific advisor.

Solar Power: Our Smallest Source of Power

Michael Kanellos: July 30, 2009, 3:00 PM

Although the overall growth in capacity for solar and wind are growing faster than the capacity for nuclear or coal, renewables still amount to only a small percentage of the overall power generated.

And solar is still the smallest source of electricity, according to the monthly report from the Energy Information Administration.

In the first four months of the year, the U.S. consumed 1,314,683 million kilowatt hours.

Solar accounted for 205 million kilowatt hours. That's around 0.02 percent when you round up.

Wind accounted for 17,566 million kilowatt hours.  Or 1.3 percent.

Coal came to 658,750 million kilowatt hours, thereby accounting for about 50 percent still.

Nuclear and natural gas are still near the 20 percent mark.

So what does that mean? Huge opportunities for solar installers.

On the liquid fuel side, the U.S. produced 5.3 million barrels of oil a day and 1.8 million barrels a day of natural gas/plant liquid fuel in the first six months of the year. In all, the U.S. consumed around 18.6 million barrels a day. That's down from 19.9 million in 2008 and over 20 million in 2007.

Check out the link.