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Solar Thermal With Molten Salt Energy Storage: SolarReserve Heads to Nevada

Jeff St. John: December 22, 2009, 2:44 PM

Storing solar power in the form of molten salt. SolarReserve says it can do it, and it's landed a project with NV Energy to prove it.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based startup announced Tuesday that it has signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with the Nevada utility to buy power from a 100-megawatt solar-thermal plant to be built near the town of Tonopah, Nev.

SolarReserve, which last year raised $140 million in a Series B round let by Citi's Sustainable Development Investments and Good Energies, said it intends to start construction next year, though the Nevada Public Utilities Commission still needs to sign off on the deal.

Central to SolarReserve's plans is the molten salt energy storage system it has licensed from United Technologies. Like many solar-thermal systems, SolarReserve uses a field of mirrors, or heliostats, to focus the sun's heat on a tower to heat a liquid to power a turbine.

In SolarReserve's case, that liquid is a molten salt that is then pumped into a closed-loop system to generate steam to power a turbine. It's the same technology tested out by the Department of Energy in the landmark Barstow, Calif. solar thermal pilot project known as Solar Two back in the 1990s.

SolarReserve also hopes to build a 150-megawatt solar thermal and molten salt storage project east of Palm Springs, Calif., and has a longer-range goal of building up to 5 gigawatts of plants in the coming years.


Post-Copenhagen Carbon Trading Blues

Jeff St. John: December 21, 2009, 2:24 PM

It looks like the last-minute, non-binding carbon emissions agreement coming out of Copenhagen isn't living up to carbon traders' expectations.

That's the reaction from Europe, which saw the price of carbon-emission permits fall nearly 10 percent on Monday,  reports the Wall Street Journal.

To blame is the weak agreement coming out of the two-week United Nations summit on global warming, analysts and traders say. While top emitters China and the United States did ink a deal with emerging economies such as Brazil and India, it lacked any legally binding limits on how much greenhouse gas they can pump into the atmosphere.

What's worse, the conference failed to reach an agreement on continuing the clean development mechanism, the process created by the Kyoto Protocol to allow developing nations to plant trees, cut pollution and take other steps to offset carbon emissions from wealthier emitters. The existing agreement runs through 2012, the Financial Times reports.

The weaker-than-hoped for results of the Copenhagen meeting could put to the test the proposition that corporate and consumer interests, rather than government regulations, will drive the adoption of carbon management technologies and support services.

After all, utilities dependent on coal-fired power and corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola alike have been seeking clearer guidelines on how much reducing carbon will cost them.

In the meantime, national mandates will have to fill the gap. In the United States, Congress is waiting until spring to restart the debate over a national carbon emission reduction scheme (see No Climate Bill This Year, Senators Say).

Will We See More or Fewer Car Companies?

Michael Kanellos: December 21, 2009, 2:23 PM

WAYNE, Mich. -- Is consolidation or expansion the future of the car industry?

It's an interesting debate. One one hand, Saab is flirting between life and death at the moment.

On other other hand, in the last five years a proliferation of brands – Tesla, Fisker, Aptera, Coda – have emerged and some Chinese manufacturers are trying to go global with their low-cost cars. Moreover, customers seem excited: Think has 2,300 people on a waiting list for its electric town car. New brands are a definite possibility.

Bill Ford Jr., Chairrman of Ford (still confirming any family relationship), was asked that question at a briefing last week. He recalled a project he worked on 25 years ago at the company in which strategists tried to paint a picture of the auto industry.

"We concluded that there would be six auto manufacturers: two in North America, two in Europe and Two in Asia," he said. "That wasn't exactly right. There are more companies today than there were then."

Then again, producing cars is a big company, industrial sort of activity. Ben Rosen, one of the most successful VCs in the early days of tech, tried to break into the car business with Rosen Motors in the 80s. Didn't work out.

One big stumbling block looming for start-ups is crash and safety testing, predicted Gunnar Herrmann, director of the Global C Platform.

"When this happens in 2012 and 2013, we could see a clearing rain," Herrmann said.

So stay tuned.

Ford CEO: Things Are Looking Up

Ucilia Wang: December 18, 2009, 5:06 PM

WAYNE, Mich. -- Ford's CEO Alan Mulally spoke to reporters from the company's Wayne, Mich., factory Friday and offered an upbeat outlook on the economy: "We are banging around the bottom right now. All the data says the economy is beginning to improve."

A better economy is what any business in the auto industry would hope for, after enduring a depressing 2009 that saw layoffs, bankruptcies, idling factories and a host of unsuccessful attempts to execute business plans.

Just this morning, General Motors said it would shut down iSaab after repeated attempts to find a buyer before the end of the year failed.

Ford seems to fare better than some of its major rivals. The company didn't need financial aid from the federal government, unlike GM and Chrysler. Ford posted a net income of $997 million for the third quarter of this year when many Wall Street analysts had expected to see losses.

Ford, GM and Chrysler have received federal grants to develop and build electric cars and components, and each has done its fair share of marketing its efforts to produce fuel-efficient vehicles.

But Mulally reiterated on Friday what he had said previously: Ford's main focus in the near term will not be about these electric drives, even though the carmaker does plan to launch plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles in the coming years.

"Our fundamental platform will be based in the internal combustion engines," he said.

The company plans to use a four-cylinder version of its EcoBoost engine in 2010. Ford said EcoBoost could improve gas mileage by 20 percent while reducing each car's tailpipe emission by 15 percent. And it's more powerful than regular four-cylinder engine.

EcoBoost is set to power around 90 percent of Ford's new cars by 2011. 

Editor-in-Chief Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

Smart Meter Backlash, Part 2: Smart Grid RF Alert

Eric Wesoff: December 18, 2009, 3:20 PM

Smart grid equipment CEOs have claimed:

  • A $2.2 billion meter deployment would have a questionable ROI if most of the savings came from reduced truck rolls
  • Smart meters currently being deployed are not smart enough
  • Consumers don't want Big Brother controlling their thermostat, AC and appliances

We wrote about it in Smart Grid Backlash.

Jeff St. John blogged about it here.  According to St. John's reporting: Those complaints have focused attention on PG&E's $2.2 billion, 10 million smart meter deployment, with the California Public Utilities Commission demanding that PG&E find a third party to investigate the accuracy of the meters.

We've covered this topic repeatedly over the last few months.  The energy folks at the New York Times got around to covering it this week

The editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle actually got a visit from representatives of PG&E and smart meter manufacturers as they try to deal with this public relations mess. From the article in the Chron:

  • Representatives of PG&E and the manufacturer of the meters visited our editorial board this week to explain that they have followed up on 1,100 customer complaints - and in each case, the source of the problem was not with the meter but in customer confusion or a spike in electrical usage.
  • They came with charts and detailed technical explanations of how the meters are made and tested to a degree that ensures they are far more precise than the analog models they replaced. They noted that they have received just 1,100 complaints out of the 4 million SmartMeters they have installed. But all the PG&E assurances in the world are not going to persuade us - let alone the customers whose bills jumped by hundreds of dollars - that everything is hunky dory...The California Public Utilities Commission recently asked its energy division to hire a third-party technical expert to independently test the Smart Meters and related software.

On to the next problem.  Dana Hull, on the San Jose Mercury News' Greentech beat, brought this to my attention.  This one might require you to don your tin foil hat.

Sonoma County, California's EMF Safety Group has started a petition for a public review of smart meters and has collected over 400 signatures.  This group is worried about the RF frequencies added to the environment by these meters. 

An email from Sandi Maurer of the EMF Safety Group claims:

There are no safety standards for chronic long term RF exposures that these meters emit. The FCC safety standards are for short term only, 6 min and 30 min exposures.

PG&E claims to have done a thorough RF evaluation to ensure customer safety. They commissioned an independent evaluation of possible health impacts. We have asked PGE for a copy of this report and were told they never published it. That means it was not peer reviewed. They also were granted a CEQA exemption. 

The petition goes on to state:

Sebastopol and Sonoma County are slated by PG&E to have a new wireless grid installed in May 2010.  Lampposts, buildings, and telephone poles will host the wireless repeater infrastructure to serve the new wireless PG&E Smart Meters, which will be installed in every home and business. These devices will add yet another layer of radio frequencies (RF) to our homes and environment and will emit RF signals throughout the day and night.  In light of the lack of FCC safety standards for chronic long term exposure to RF and in light of the of the call for the precautionary principle for wireless technology from global scientists, environmental agencies, advocacy groups and doctors, we, the undersigned request you:

      1. Thoroughly investigate the PG&E Smart Meter proposal and potential health risks of these devices by holding public hearings.

      2. Require PG&E to submit a characterization study of the smart meter system planned for Sonoma County and Sebastopol.

      3. Obtain the Smart Meter health and safety study PG&E commissioned and make available to the public.

      4. Explore alternative metering- possibly through the phone lines and refuse broadband over power line option.

      5. Allow “opt out” for people who are electrically sensitive.

      6. Place a 6-9 month moratorium on all new wireless installations to allow time for a thorough scientific review.

More from the petition:

The FCC safety standards for wireless devices are based on short term heating and do not address the non thermal health effects which are documented in the Bioinitiative Report, which has been recognized by the European Parliament.  RF is under investigation as a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program.

In the interest of protecting public health and in light of the call for the precautionary principle from scientists and environmental agencies, the EMF Safety Network has started a petition asking the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sebastopol City Council to investigate the PG&E Smart Meter proposal and hold public hearings. We ask they require PG&E to submit a characterization study, the health and safety study, to allow customers to “opt out” as well as place a 6-9 month moratorium on all new wireless installations to allow time for a thorough review.

Already there is a class action lawsuit filed against PGE in Bakersfield over the new meters and many people are complaining about price spikes in their utility bills.

There are a number of additional reasons to oppose smart meter technology aside from the public health issues mentioned above and it’s use by utilities to overcharge customers (discussed at the TURN website). These include Big Brother-like questions regarding local utilities monitoring one’s use of home appliances and making adjustments in this use without the consent of their consumers, and national security issues that arise becasue wireless networks are easier to hack into and compromise than their conventional wired counterparts.

* * *

Link to lots of scary headlines about big brother, increased electric bills, and RF dangers here.  If this idea spreads (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto can't be too far behind) and communities start enacting six to nine month moratoriums and opt-outs on wireless smart grid programs, PG&E, Landis & Gyr, and Silver Spring Networks might not have a happy 2010.


1. PG&E and the other hardware and software parties could have handled the smart meter roll-out in a better way in regards to community outreach and public relations.  Now it's just damage control.

2. RF pollution is a fact of life in today's world. It's reasonable to investigate new sources and their impact on humans - but these folks should also be prepared to turn off their radios, cell phones, blue tooth devices, wireless computers, and every other RF source in their environment as well.

I've contacted PG&E and Silver Spring Networks and will post their comments if they choose to respond.

Carbon Debt: What Is the Industrial World’s Responsibility to Developing Countries?

Lee Barken: December 18, 2009, 1:28 PM

As we begin the final day of the Conference of Parties (Cop15) climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, the grueling hours and stressful conditions are surely taking their toll on official delegates. It is, however, extremely impressive to see how tactful and diplomatic the country representatives are, even when speaking with observers and civil society participants.

After one particularly late night at the Bella Center, home of Cop15, I waited at the Metro station at 1:30 a.m. in the snow and freezing temperatures and happened to engage in conversation with a negotiator from Bolivia.

The position of Bolivia and others in the region is that the atmosphere is polluted with emissions lingering from the dawn of the industrial era. In other words, developed countries spewed all these gasses into the air and now the developing world is suffering the consequences. This is sometimes called the "equity" or "fairness" argument. What is our responsibility to pay for the "sins of the past"?

I suggested to my new Bolivian friend that the Carbon Debt argument reminded me a little bit of the cigarette lawsuits. Sure, we all know now about the dangers of cigarettes and the link between smoking and cancer. However, the demands for reparations only made sense when it could be demonstrated that cigarette companies intentionally and knowingly caused this harm.

Did he really believe that we've been polluting for the last 200 years knowing that undeveloped countries would later suffer? He conceded that while we may not have known 200 years ago, we should have known in the last 20 years about the effects of carbon emissions.

Still, the 500 gigatons or so of carbon that he claims is floating around in the atmosphere certainly didn't all appear in the last two decades. In addition, since CO2 molecules don't have country of origin labels attached, it will be very difficult to assign responsibility.

Coming to Copenhagen has been a remarkable experience. Although metro station exchanges at 1:30 a.m. may not change the world, my hat's off to the organizers for creating this two-week conference where conversations can take place between participants from over 190 countries. Interactions with other delegates have been extremely positive and provide hope that constructive dialogue can lead to meaningful progress.

Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and the U.S. Green Building Council - San Diego chapter. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of carbon accounting, green building, IT audit compliance, enterprise security and wireless LAN technology. He is currently in Copenhagen attending the COP-15 conference. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or

‘Warmers’ and Climate Change Denialists

Eric Wesoff: December 17, 2009, 11:16 PM

Joining the derogatory terms "Truthers"  and "Birthers" is now the term "Warmers" which refers to those who accept the science of anthropogenic global warming in spite of the recent data-massage climategate scandal. I saw this term in an article found on a nuclear power-oriented blog, Nuclear Street. Which worries me. 

Does accepting nuclear power as a necessary part of our energy mix mean that you're automatically a climate change denialist? Here's a long video from progressive, Stewart Brand on the necessity of nuclear power.

Here are some quotes from both sides of the climate change "debate."


John Doerr, Partner at KPCB: "Put a price on carbon, put a price on carbon, put a price on carbon. It will be a signal to have private investors move their capital to low carbon energy."

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: "I understand there are mistakes made in the environmental community but I see [the impact of global warming] first hand, with the fires we have in California and the lack of water in the state."

Al Gore: "Our world faces a true planetary emergency. I know the phrase sounds shrill, and I know it's a challenge to the moral imagination."

Climate Change Denialists

Sarah Palin: "I'm not one though who would attribute it [climate change] to being manmade."

Senator James Inhofe: "The claim that global warming is caused by manmade emissions is simply untrue and not based on sound science … With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."

3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley aka Christopher Monckton: A hereditary peer and former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, believes that global warming and Copenhagen are part of a global conspiracy by former communists. "They are about to impose a communist world government."

Geologist Ian Plimer: He likens the concept of human-induced climate change to a “Fundamentalist religion adopted by urban atheists looking to fill a yawning spiritual gap plaguing the West."

Our future will be decided by one of these camps?