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Google Testing Car Charging Software, Links to PowerMeter

Jeff St. John: September 30, 2009, 5:20 PM

Someday, electricity meters attached to the sides of houses will need to talk to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles parked in garages. Google is working on it.

The Internet search giant is experimenting with software to control car charging, and sees "potential intersections" for that software and its PowerMeter home energy management platform.

That's according to Dan Reicher, Google's director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, speaking Wednesday on the sidelines of the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-WEST conference in San Francisco.

"The plug-in car will be the largest appliance in the house" in terms of power consumption, Reicher said.

Sophisticated software will be needed to keep those plug-in cars from straining the electricity grid during times of peak power demand - not to mention using them as distributed electricity storage systems to give maxed-out grids a boost, he said.

Those fundamental challenges are driving plenty of work on car charging software, and not just by would-be charging station network startups like Ecotality, Better Place and Coulomb Technologies (see Ecotality to Build, Install Charging Stations in China, Better Place Demonstrates Battery Swapping Stations and Green Light post).

Smart grid startups like GridPoint, major automakers like Ford and a host of partnerships involving various utilities are focused on the problem (see Ford Deploys Electric-Car-to-Grid Charging Communication System and A V2G Test: Pool Electric Cars for Grid Needs).

Google's experimentation into car charging isn't new, Reicher said. It started working on it in its RechargeIT experiment with a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids converted to plug-ins. It also worked with utility Pacific Gas & Electric to try out using car batteries as power sources for the grid, he said (see Are the Benefits of Plug-In Hybrids Overstated?).

But Reicher wasn't ready to talk at more detail about the work Google is doing on car charging, though he did say that it would make sense to link it with its work on PowerMeter. That Web-based energy measurement and presentation portal is Google's attempt to give homeowners a free window into their energy consumption.

Google has partnered with smart meter maker Itron and nine utilities to integrate PowerMeter into sources of electricity data, and may be working with Italian utility Enel in the future (see Enel Considering Google's PowerMeter for Pilot Project).


Until Recently, Few Knew About U.S. Solar Import Tariff

Ucilia Wang: September 30, 2009, 5:02 PM

The United States has a rule in place to impose a 2.5 percent tariff on imported solar panels. Except, few knew about it until recent weeks.

The U.S. customs decided in January this year that the tariff exists, after an American Subsidiary of a Spanish company asked about it, reported the New York Times.

But that decision apparently didn't become widely known even though the customs service posted it on its website. When it became more widely known in recent weeks, bigwigs in the solar industry tried to keep it mum while meeting to figure out what to do, the Times reported.

One legal strategy is to challenge the custom officials' decision to classify solar panels as electrical generators. They issued the decision after determining that solar panels have become more complex electronic equipment (see ruling).

The tariff could cost importers about $70 million if they have to pay a double fine for failing to pay the money since January this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The tariff would have the biggest impact on importers of Chinese solar panels, and those importers would include the American subsidiaries of Chinese solar panel makers such as Suntech Power.

China, along with Taiwan, accounted for about 28 percent of the world's solar panel production capacity in 2008, according to GTM Research. Europe had 30 percent while Japan had 17 percent. The United States took up 7 percent.

Europe remains the largest market for Chinese companies, though the United States is the new frontier to conquer.

Suntech, China's largest solar panel maker, saw its sales in the United States from 3.4 percent of its revenue in 2006 to 7.4 percent in 2008, according to its filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Europe's share was 77.7 percent in 2008.

Gevo Converts Ethanol Plant to Make Biobutanol, Looks for More

Jeff St. John: September 30, 2009, 12:23 PM

Gevo wants to take closed-down ethanol plants and retrofit them to make an alternative biofuel – biobutanol – from agricultural waste.

On Wednesday, it announced that it has started up one such plant, and that more could be coming soon. Actually, it's been talking about this already--there is an estimated 8 billion gallon ethanol capacity in the U.S. that costs $12 billion to build. It now only has about a $4 billion market value, board member Anup Jacob told us earlier this year – but now the formal annoucement comes.

Gevo said it will be able to make about 1 million gallons a year of biobutanol at a retrofitted ethanol plant in St. Joseph, Mo. It plans to have a commercial-scale facility running by 2011.

And to do more retrofits, the Englewood, Colo.-based startup said it has formed Gevo Development to develop a "fleet" of retrofitted plants.

Gevo has been backed by investors including Khosla Ventures and the Virgin Green Fund (see Clean Solar, Small Desal and Pharma Batteries: A Chat With Virgin Green Fund).  This spring, Gevo got about $40 million in a series D round led by French oil company Total SA, according to The Denver Post.

Biofuel makers have had a tough time growing to the production volumes they have been aiming for, of course. Biofuels made from non-food feedstocks have struggled to reach production volumes, and the corn-based ethanol industry's troubles have been well documented (see Biofuels: Are We There Yet?).

But those woes also mean that there are a lot of shuttered ethanol plants out there, which could provide a big market for Gevo – if it can compete against other well-financed potential buyers. Oil refining giant Valero has bought up the shuttered ethanol plants of bankrupt VeraSun Energy Corp., for example  (see Green Light post).

Another startup, Genomatica, has talked about retrofitting corn-based ethanol plants to make biochemicals (see Genomatica: Microbe-Made Chemicals Could Save Empty Ethanol Plants).

Biobutanol does offer some benefits over more common ethanol. It has a higher energy density than ethanol, can be blended into gasoline more easily and can be transported via existing pipelines, according to the Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center.

Gevo said it can also serve as a precursor to biodiesel and jet fuel, as well as chemicals and bioplastics.

The World’s Biggest Home Utility Bill? And Why Retrofitting Is About Software

Michael Kanellos: September 30, 2009, 7:01 AM

Sustainable Spaces bills itself as a company performing home energy retrofits and in the past year and a half it has become one of the more visible California companies in the market.

But its ultimate goal is to become a software company. That's crazy talk, you say. This picture is your proof. That's founder Matt Golden standing in front of one of the many white boards throughout the company's office that seek to create decision trees for the astounding number of variables one might find in a home. Do any of the residents have asthma? If yes, does the house have air conditioning? If yes...

"Every week we release new software," Golden said. "We're standardizing the data gathering."

Ideally, the software will allow a carpenter or customer service representative to add observations and data from a customer's home into a computer and get out a retrofit plan, or a few plans based on the amount of money a customer wants to spend. 90,000 energy retrofits will take place in California in the next two years and the state will spend $3.1 billion for energy efficiency from 2010 to 2012. The software, hopefully, will eliminate human error and/or shortsightedness. Retrofits will likely be a big topic at West Coast Green, which starts this Thursday at Fort Mason.

Although it now conducts retrofits itself, expect to see Sustainable license this. Some of the company's new employees hail from Google.

The white board above tries to guide a carpenter or customer service agent through all of the variables when it comes to home heating. Do they have radial heating? If so, does it work? Is it efficient? Walls in some rooms are festooned with chains of Post-It notes containing hurried handwriting. It sort of looks like something left by a team of academics or a political prisoner stranded in solitary.

And the world's largest home utility bill? One Sustainable customer was experiencing $6,500 monthly bills. Something about a water slide.

If you want to see how retrofits work, check out this fine documentary of an assessment of my waterslide-less home.


Sen. Boxer Wants Tougher Emissions Goal

Ucilia Wang: September 29, 2009, 4:35 PM

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is set to unveil a climate change bill tomorrow, but a draft of the legislation already is circulating publicly and includes an ambitious goal of cutting emissions by 20 percent below the 2005 levels by 2020.

That's higher than the 17 percent goal set by the bill passed by the House of Representatives in June this year.

Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is far from done with the bill. What she is set to unveil tomorrow would still be a draft that lacks some key provisions addressing how the government would distribute permits to companies that must buy them to keep emitting greenhouse gases.

Boxer is set to fill in some of the holes when she release her mark-up of the bill next month, reported Greenwire via New York Times.

Her bill and the one passed by the House share lots of similarities. Both would issue emissions permits to support technologies that capture and then store carbon dioxide emissions.

Business and environmental groups have eagerly awaited the Senate bill, and some have hoped that Congress would pass climate legislation before the United States heads to Copenhagen this December to work on an international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

But the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated recently that it won't likely happen.

Plenty of other issues are occupying the minds of lawmakers and President Obama. Among them is the mammoth healthcare reform that seems to grab more attention from the public. Internationally, the country is still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Iran is becoming an even bigger headache).

The climate change legislation would have a huge impact on the greentech business, of course. Mandates to use more renewable energy or cut emissions would benefit solar, wind and smart grid companies that sell equipment and deploy projects. They also would force players along the supply chain, from farmers to packaging businesses, to conserve power and use more energy efficient materials.

How much a climate change bill would cost the public is yet to be determined.

Pelamis Wave Power Jettisons Its CEO, Rough Waters Ahead?

Michael Kanellos: September 29, 2009, 2:23 PM

Pelamis Wave Power looks like it is taking in a bit of water.

Phil Metcalf has resigned as the CEO of the company by mutual agreement, according to Max Carcas, the business development director. Carcas, however, denied rumors that the company has or is contemplating layoffs. Pelamis has about 70 employees.

Right now, the company is concentrating on getting its next-generation device out the door and into the waters off of Scotland's Orkney Islands. The 170-meter long devices headed for the European Marine Energy Centre will be owned and tested by E.on. Carcas also reported that EDF and some Portuguese industrialists are interested in reviving a wave power experiment that was kicked off, but shut down off the coast of that country in 2008. The Portuguese consortium, however, won't likely go to the dry-docked Pelamis wave machines. Those machines are "sub-optimal," said Carcas. The new device coming out are 30 meters longer than the next generation machines and the joints holding the segment of the Pelamis are not as good. The owners of those devices have been trying to sell them.

"It's a challenging environment," he said.

The news of Metcalf's resignation could be both good and bad news for the wave and tidal power industry. Critics will assert that it shows that wave and tidal power remain impractical and expensive. The potential for ocean power might be tremendous, but the engineering and maintenance costs currently outweigh the benefits. Pelamis, after all, has raised 43 million pounds and still not really in commercial deployment. Finavera Renewables gave the industry a black eye earlier when its test buoy was lost off the Oregon coast.

On the flip side, various wave and tidal execs have complained that Pelamis promoted the concept too much, raising expectations for wave and tidal power before the devices were ready. And interest remains high in wave power. For its part, Pelamis maintains it remains ahead of most competitors and will produce electricity from waves that will be sold commercially.

The company's claim to fame is the eponymous Pelamis Wave Energy Converter, an orange, undulating device that looks like a sea monster and harnesses power from trains of ocean waves. Pelamis tinkered with prototypes for years and last year claimed to become the first company to produce wave power commercially. (See a video of the devices here.)

Three of its devices, each capable of producing 750-kilowatts of power, were installed off of the coast of Portugal in 2008. At times, the individual devices were producing around 200 kilowatts of power, Carcas said earlier this year.

However, Pelamis hit technical problems and had to tow the devices into shore in November 2008. The technical problems were fixed, but by then the financial crisis was raging throughout the world. The owner of the devices, energy services company Babcock & Brown, then decided not to redeploy the devices and looked for ways to sell them.

All that occurred in 2008. Pelamis, however, was keeping a lid on the news because Babcock & Brown had not gone public with it. "We're still in the work-up phase. We only got things going September. But the results are in line with what we were expecting," Carcas said in February 2009. A few weeks later, it came out that the devices had been on land for several months.

Google’s Dan Reicher Throws Cold Water on Cap-and-Trade This Year

Jeff St. John: September 29, 2009, 1:16 PM

Add Google's reluctant voice to the growing chorus of observers who doubt that a U.S. carbon cap-and-trade law can be passed this year.

Dan Reicher, Google's director of climate change and energy initiatives, said Tuesday that the American Clean Energy and Security Act may well "be caught in gridlock" in the U.S. Senate.

The bill passed the House of Representatives in June, and Senate Democrats are expected to unveil a very similar bill in the Senate as early as tomorrow, Reuters reported.

But "The likelihood of progress in the Senate is dimming," Reicher said in a speech at the REFF-WEST conference in San Francisco.

Reicher isn't happy about that. But his comments reflect a growing consensus that backers of the bill – which seeks to cut the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and by about 80 percent by 2050 through a cap-and-trade program – are going to have a hard time bringing it to a vote this year (see Green Light post).

Not only has the cap-and-trade provision brought down the ire of such industry groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, but the Senate also faces a lot of other challenging tasks, such as dealing with proposed health insurance reform (see Energy-Climate Bill Could Boost Electricity Costs 20% by 2030).

The Obama Administration has said it wants a cap-and-trade law to bring to the December meeting in Copenhagen to craft an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol (see White House Planning Climate Strategy for Third Week of September).

The difficulty in getting a national climate bill passed could be a precursor to an even tougher battle over the United States joining in any such new treaty, given that that would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, Reicher noted.