Luca Technologies Raises $20M

Luca Technologies, a so-called "clean coal" company based in Golden, Colo., has raised $20 million (see posts in VentureBeat and Earth2Tech).

The news comes after GreatPoint Energy, another company working to turn dirty coal into cleaner natural gas, raised $100 million last month.

As the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, coal has a bad reputation. But it's also the cheapest of the fossil fuels and one of the most abundant. So some entrepreneurs are working to make coal cleaner, saying new technologies could at least reduce the environmental impact from an expected increase in the use of coal worldwide.

Some environmentalists bristle at the idea, saying that coal technology could never be considered clean. Mining coal damages the earth, for one thing.

And the political mindset is unclear. Tampa Electric last week canceled plans for a coal-gasification plant, citing uncertainty about potential regulations for capturing and sequestering carbon emissions underground (see In Brief: Tampa Cancels Gasification Plant).

For its part, Luca is working with naturally occurring microorganisms that "eat" hydrocarbons and produce methane at the other end. The company is trying to increase natural-gas production in areas under the ground where this already occurs - converting small, uneconomical oil wells and fossil-fuel deposits into natural-gas fields.

In the meantime, competitor GreatPoint is taking a different approach: using a catalyst and a steam-based reactor to remove sulfur, mercury and 60 percent of the carbon from coal to make natural gas.

Ethanol Could Strain U.S. Water Resources, Study Says

In efforts to kick its addiction to foreign oil, the United States has turned to America's farm belt and biorefineries for the production of corn-based ethanol. The country churned out 4.86 billion gallons in 2006 (see Ethanol's Growing Pains).

But several studies have questioned whether such good intentions might bring unforeseen consequences (see Ethanol Schmethanol, as well as this report from Environmental Defense).

The National Research Council chimed in Wednesday with a study that projected the increased use of corn for ethanol production could harm the country's water quality and supply.

The findings pointed out that growing corn and expanding biofuel crops into regions with little agriculture, especially in dry areas, could put pressure on water resources. As a result, biofuel crops' need for water could compete with the demand for water for drinking and for fish habitats.

Biorefineries also could drain the country's water resources, according to the report. A biorefinery that produces 100 million gallons of ethanol per year requires the same amount of water as is used by a town of 5,000 people, the report says.

The report listed a number of agricultural practices and technologies could be used to help curb the impact, such as fertilizers with water-insoluble coatings and water recycling in biorefineries.

Citi, Allstate Fund North America's Largest Solar Project

Solar-financing company MMA Renewable Ventures said Wednesday it bagged a mix of equity and debt financing for what it claims will be North America's largest solar electric project, a 15-megawatt installation at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Undisclosed equity investments came from financial service company Citi and insurance titan Allstate. John Hancock Financial Services threw in an undisclosed amount of debt financing.

Renewable Ventures basically operates what's called a power-purchase agreement, where it finances, owns and operates solar-power projects for businesses and organizations that want to go solar but don’t have the capital to pay for the upfront costs of buying and installing a system. In exchange, those customers agree to buy power generated by the system for about 20 years.

In this case, revenue from the project will come from Renewable Ventures selling solar energy back to the Air Force base and renewable energy credits to utility Nevada Power. Citi and Allstate will receive tax credits and part of the revenue.

Renewable Ventures said it will continue to finance, own and operate the 70,000-solar-panel project that sits on 140 acres of land located at the western end of the base. The sprawling solar system will produce more than 25 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and supply about 25 percent of the power used on the base.

The financing marks the first solar market investment for both Citi and Allstate.

At least for Citi, the financial play might help curb recent criticism of the company's over eagerness to invest in some of the most polluting energy sources.

Last week, the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network called the company out as one of the top investors in coal-fired plants (see Environmental Group Calls Out Citi, B of A).