ARPA-E’s fate foretells cleantech’s future

Folks across the entire political spectrum concur the new election may blow a chilling wind across the cleantech industry (if you omit nukes). Budget-cutting is job #1 for this upcoming Congress, and the change of guard within key budget appropriation committees does not bode well for future government cleantech investments.

While all eyes are on cap-and-trade legislation and how the House will act to block EPA climate rules, perhaps the better barometer of cleantech’s future is the continuation of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) funding.

ARPA-E was created in 2008 with strong bipartisan support to reverse the nation’s falling position in global clean technology markets. What DARPA did for national defense, ARPA-E was to do for energy technologies, bridging the “gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation.”

But ARPA-E didn’t really get off the ground until the Obama administration, when Stimulus Bill funding filled its budget coffers. Since then, the agency has funded 37 cutting-edge projects from an initial pool of 3,600 applications. By most accounts, the program has been a strong success, as the New York Times points out:

Last week marked the anniversary of the first round of grants for the Department of Energy program, which is charged with finding game-changing energy research and awarding jolts of funding. Business leaders and other energy experts say ARPA-E not only has found such “breakthrough” projects, but has unleashed interest throughout the innovation chain – DOE, universities, corporations, startups and the financial world.

Beaupre client, SAGE Electrochromics, is one such example. In March it received $72 million in loan guarantees from the program to develop dynamic window glazing technologies that make buildings highly energy efficient. It has since broken ground on a new 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Minnesota that is bringing 160 new green jobs and 200 construction jobs.

But SAGE’s immediate impact is the exception within ARPA-E .  Most projects probably won’t start yielding big results for at least five years. As the mid-term election showed, Americans are impatient. Congress already punted on funding ARPA-E for the current fiscal year, saying current Stimulus funds should be sufficient for now. Who knows what the lame duck Congress will do.

With a Teaparty-inflamed House itching to slash and burn budget expenditures anywhere they can find them, ARPA-E will be the bellwether by which America regains its advantage or falls farther behind the world in clean technology innovation,  along with all the good jobs and good karma that comes with it. DARPA gave us the Internet. A short-sighted vote to chloroform ARPA-E could be an equally monumental loss.

A different green wave coming from Ireland

And now a message from the “Signs of Hope for Renewable Energy” Department concerning that hotbed of renewable energy development – Ireland?

That’s right. A cloudy little island with no vast prairies or sun-drenched deserts recently announced that it generates 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly wind and solar. To expand its renewable energy production, Ireland is now going hammer-and-tongs at the promising but under-unexplored area of wave power. Last week, Sustainable Energy Agency Ireland (SEAI), the country’s renewable energy agency, announced a major wave power development deal with the Australian company Carnegie Wave Energy to develop Ireland’s Belmullet wave energy area. SEAI estimates there is enough energy in the waves that wash against Ireland’s west coast to meet 75 percent of the country’s energy needs. Harnessing it is another matter, of course, with a lot of unanswered questions and untested technologies to evaluate. Nevertheless, the country is plowing ahead to help reach a goal of 40 percent renewable power by 2020.

Seeing as the United States has two thousand-mile coastlines, Ireland’s move into wave power should be of more than passing interest. There are pockets of interest in wave power in the U.S., most notably in Oregon, where the first U.S. wave power facility started construction in February of this year. The news coverage of the project, however, struck a skeptical note about the project’s potential, pointing out that a wave facility in Portugal went under for financial reasons, that a pilot wave power facility sank off the Oregon coast in 2008, and that the wave plant’s electricity will be five to six times more expensive than conventionally generated electricity.

Okay, so those projects bought the farm and the economics haven’t caught up to the technology. So what? Whatever happened to Yankee ingenuity? I’m old enough to remember watching the first Moon landing on television. It came after a lot of embarrassing and occasionally deadly mistakes, including the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad explosion that killed three astronauts. Two years later, Neil Armstrong made history by jumping out of the Lunar Module. Is figuring out wave energy that much harder – if at all?

Not according to Ireland, and in my humble opinion the Irish have built up some cred in this area. Solar energy is a significant portion of Ireland’s renewable energy capacity. Solar means sun. How often do you think of Ireland and sun in the same breath? The place makes Seattle look like Santa Fe, it’s so cloudy. If the Irish can turn the same trick with waves that they did with the sun, they’ll reach their goal of 40 percent renewable energy by 2020 in a walk. Where will the resource-rich U.S., currently with 7 percent of its power generated renewably, be in the renewables race by then?

A greener alternative to ethanol? I’ll drink to that!

Following up on my co-generation/symbiosis post from earlier this summer, I came across a great example of this principle in action the other day. This story explains how scientists at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland have developed a way to turn two byproducts of whiskey production into a more-than-viable alternative to corn ethanol. Treading on stereotypes for a moment, I have to say this sort of discovery would seem destined to have been made by a Scottish or Irish scientist.

The article explains that the biofuel made from the byproducts, butanol, packs 30 percent more energy per unit than does ethanol, can be easily blended into gasoline at refineries, requires no modification to engines that use the blended fuel and does not pick up water, making it far easier to handle and use than the hydrophilic ethanol. This is all terrific, and from a symbiosis standpoint, the really good news is that it’s derived from a waste product created by a useful, needed, everyday manufacturing activity.

Truth be told, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this sort of useful byproduct in distilling. CNET’s Martin LaMonica covered a story last year wherein Sierra Nevada Brewing entered into a partnership to turn its beer making leftovers into a feedstock for a home ethanol start-up. Out on the road, distilling byproducts are already helping save money while improving safety. Read all the way to the bottom of this Wall Street Journal article from 2009 and you’ll see that leftovers from the rum-making process are an effective supplement to road salt.

So while drinking and driving don’t mix, distilling and driving may be a rather different story.

How many earths do you require?

Eco science can boggle the mind, and it’s easy to drown in the data. Unless we can see, smell or feel an environmental threat, we tend to ignore it. So if you want to make a memorable point, dumb it down. Way down.

That’s what and the Global Footprint Network (GFN) have done with respect to natural resource consumption. Here, for example, is an environmental data point anyone can grasp:

If every human consumed natural resources like an American, we’d need five planet earths to support us.

Pretty simple way to represent complex information, isn’t it? The Global Footprint Network chart documents the fact that we, as a country and planet, consume more natural resources than the earth replenishes and generate waste faster than the planet can absorb it. The chart considers energy production, settlement, timber & paper harvest, food & fiber and seafood. It’s backed up by more data than any of us care to examine here.

The bottom line is we have a natural resources deficit. Having considered that, GFN, in another example of dumbing-down genius, declares that…

August 21 is Earth Overshoot Day.

That’s the day when we humans have used up the planet’s annual supply of resources. If you pretend we get a fresh start every Jan. 1, then August 21 is the day we go into deficit spending of our natural capital. If we were prevented from borrowing against the planet’s future, we’d run out of resources on that day. As consumption soars, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year. Last year, it was Sept. 25.

Now that we know the day, do we know the solution to over-consumption? Well, that’s hard to dumb down. In addition to conventional sustainability measures, blogger Matthew McDermott recommends “radically reassessing how much stuff we believe is required for our happiness. Rejiggering what we believe to be needs and not just wants.”

He’s not alone. In fact, a minimalist trend is already under way, says the BBC, starting with young American urbanites digitizing their books and music and shedding large swaths of possessions, including homes.

That’s sounds smart.

And so does this personal ecological footprint calculator. Try it, and tell us how many planet earths you need to support your lifestyle. (I’d need 4.6. Ouch!)

‘Salt’ plant and Duke study make solar outlook brighter

In Northern New England, where I live, the sun exists only in rumor and faint memory for weeks at a time. So when sustainable energy advocates talk solar, I think of my late-February pallor and mentally check out of the discussion. Long nights, short days of limited sun. Wind for my region maybe, but solar?

Well, yes, actually. Two news items that filtered through the excellent Inhabitat blog recently give hope to anyone who thinks the sun could help wean us off fossil fuels. The first comes from Sicily, where the energy company Enel recently fired up “Archimede” the world’s first utility-scale molten salt power plant. Archimede uses mirror concentrators to super-heat a molten salt solution circulating through a pipe array. The heat pipes power boilers that create steam to drive electrical turbines. The key to this system is that it can store energy for nights and cloudy days, much like the solar thermal systems I blogged about a while back. The combination of sodium nitrates and potassium salts in the system can accumulate heat for extended periods. That ability to ride out nights and cloudy days makes thermal solar more practical for sun-deprived areas like mine. Photovoltaic solar, the more widely known solar technology,  generates electricity directly from the sun’s rays instead of through turbines. It’s  most often associated with places like the American Southwest, which have weeks on end of uninterrupted sunshine.

But photovoltaic’s geographical limitations were never a technology problem, they were an economic problem. Solar panels work as well on a sunny New England day as they do on a sunny day anywhere else. They just didn’t work often enough to make them economically feasible because solar panels are expensive. Maybe not for much longer, though. Researchers at Duke University just released a study that says solar energy is now cheaper than nuclear energy, partly because the cost of panels is dropping. When it drops enough, it will be economically feasible to mount solar panels on rooftops to power air conditioners during hot summer days, or heat during clear, sunny winter days to reduce oil and coal consumption.

Now if I could just do something about that late February pallor …

Talking ’bout Co-g-g-generation

Before I read this story in the New York Times, it didn’t occur to me that milk and data centers would have much in common. In a nutshell, IT behemoth Hewlett Packard has calculated the biogas generated by manure from a 10,000 cow dairy operation could be harnessed to generate enough electricity to power a one megawatt data center.

“Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship,” said Chandrakant D. Patel, the director of H.P.’s sustainable information technology laboratory, which wrote the report.

And that’s the key word – symbiotic. The natural world is typically portrayed as a zero-sum competition for survival, red in tooth and claw. But in truth it’s equally true that the natural world is a story of highly efficient symbiotic, win-win arrangements – just like the dairy farm co-generation scheme.

From bacteria in our intestines to birds hanging out with crocodiles, natural systems are an ongoing lesson in symbiotic efficiency with nary a niche going unexploited. Human systems need to get more symbiotic. We’ve blogged before on increased efficiency perhaps being a more pressing near term need than alternate energy. Co-generation is a concept that seems a symbiotic natural.

The first Wiktionary definition of co-generation is “the production of heat and/or power from the waste energy of an industrial process.” The city of Aalborg, Denmark provides an example. An agreement with Aalborg Portland, the largest producer of ready-mixed concrete in Scandinavia, delivers surplus heat from the factory’s cement production process to the city’s district heating system (itself a great way to boost building heating efficiency, but that’s another post), providing heat for some 30,000 homes.

On this side of the Atlantic, our client Wheelabrator launched the first large-scale, commercially successful waste-to-energy project in the United States in 1975 providing an effective way to drive a new efficiency into the existing waste disposal process. Today Wheelabrator has five such plants generating almost 230 megawatts of electricity annually.

And co-generation can scale down to the business or even the individual home with technology that seems a closer fit to the second Wiktionary definition for cogeneration: “The simultaneous or serial production of heat and electricity from the same source”.

The world is facing hard choices about energy sources and usage. The efficiencies of co-generation present an opportunity to get more out of things we’re already doing – like walking, for instance.

Fables of Abundance

The other week, I blogged that renewable energy alone will not be able to compensate for an anticipated precipitous decline in world oil supply. We said we need to invest in energy efficiency to bridge the gap. This week, I look at the challenges of becoming a more efficient world, starting with you and me.

In the mind of the average consumer the image of efficiency and its close cousin conservation is one of deprivation and austerity. Certainly not the stuff that made America great! America was built on fables of abundance.

But doesn’t efficiency have its own attractive tale to tell? Take the iPad, for instance. Turns out it’s really energy efficient. Among the many ballyhooed features of the iPad, right up there with the sexy interface, is its amazing battery life. Wait – praise for efficiency? Sure, because that’s efficiency delivering something people really want; truly mobile computing. After all, who wants a mobile device that needs to be tethered to an outlet? The iPad isn’t just slick fun – it’s slick , fun, freedom!

The trick is to find similar gut-level needs that, “marketed” effectively, can motivate us to adopt ways of living that reduce our spiraling energy demand and offset some of the anticipated energy gap mentioned in my last post. So, what gut-level need can energy efficiency deliver?

How about control for starters? People like the ideas of self-sufficiency and self-determination. Especially in uncertain times, feeling like you have a firm grip on your ship’s tiller is empowering. Technologies and initiatives that increase energy efficiency could be positioned as delivering personal control – a bulwark against the uncertainties of see-sawing gasoline prices, rising utility bills, increased commuting costs and carbon taxes.

Or, what about status? People like to stand out, get noticed, feel like they’re ahead of the pack in some way. When gasoline breached $4 a gallon in the US back in 2008, a new breed of braggart emerged on the American car scene – the hypermiler. In the world of hypermiling, status wasn’t about horsepower and 0-60 times. It was all about miles-per-gallon. Want to be king of the hypermile hill? Drive smarter. Right now, utilities are tapping into that same competitive quest for eco status by sending monthly statements that show how your energy use stacks up to similar homes in your neighborhood. (It’s anonymous.) Many were surprised that the odd-cool look of the Prius sold so well even before the spike in gas prices. They assumed it would be best to camouflage a hybrid under the wrappings of a more traditional looking car body – like Honda did with its hybrid Civic. But early adopters often want to stand out. Why spend the extra money on planet and climate saving efficiency if nobody notices? The same principle can be applied well beyond the automotive segment.

And there are many more human needs and wants that efficiency can be paired with (how about efficiency gadgets for that never ending human need for novelty?), but the point is we need to harness self-interest, not pretend it doesn’t exist. We start by choosing and creating the right words, imagery and ideas that motivate action and behavior. Efficiency and conservation have been too often aligned with abstractly noble or utilitarian sentiments; saving the planet or perhaps saving some money (eventually). Getting an efficiency mindset to really take hold demands a belief that it can deliver something personally valuable.

By building more compelling imagery – starting with us as marketers and reaching all the way up to the Marketer in Chief – efficiency has as much, possibly more, intrinsic appeal as alternative energy. After all, lots of the alternative energy stuff is “five to 10 years away” and seemingly always will be (where is my hydrogen economy?). Insulation, smart glass, telecommuting, car sharing, geothermal heat pumps, new urbanism and smart planning? That’s efficiency, and that’s here, now ready to deliver more control in uncertain times, status among peers, novelty and more. So, if you’re starting out in a quest for green market dominance with a venture that’s efficiency or conservation-focused, look to spin a new fable of abundance based on the self-interest needs or wants that your product or service can deliver.

Are we there yet? Time for energy efficiency to get its sexy on

How soon before we hit peak oil production? According to the U.S. military, it might be two years from now, or even less. If true, we’re well on our way to the real Energy Crisis. And the key to riding it out just might be efficiency technologies like that itchy pink insulation in your attic.

Peak oil is the point when the world’s oil production reaches its highest rate and begins its inevitable decline, creating an oil deficit relative to demand.

That will happen globally in 2012 with “severe” shortfalls on world markets by 2015, according to a report issued by the United States Joint Forces Command. The UK’s Guardian newspaper covered it. Peak oil in the U.S. has already passed. It was 1970 for the lower 48 states.

So we just fill the gap with all kinds of renewable energy projects, right? Wrong.

It will take decades to spool up replacement technologies and attendant infrastructure. See, oil is a very energy dense and convenient source of power. Battery technology is a long way from matching oil’s energy density, and it has its own “peak” problems (lithium doesn’t exactly grown on trees). It will also need a materials-intensive charging infrastructure program to even begin propelling the millions of passenger cars currently on the road. Bio-fuels? Also not as energy-dense as petroleum, meaning you’d have to produce a hell of a lot more of it to replace a lesser volume of petroleum. Also, bio-fuels have a raft of production scaling issues that are, again, many years away from being addressed (let’s talk dry materials storage and handling!). Oh, and ethanol tends to pick up water easily and is fairly corrosive, so the existing gasoline pipeline transportation infrastructure isn’t well-suited to handling it.

Without a couple decades to work through these problems, we’d be better off focusing not on producing replacement fuels, but increasing efficiency – making the most of what’s at hand.

For instance, let’s tighten up our buildings. Buildings account for almost 50 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. (and a proportionate share of carbon emissions), according to the EIA. As we gin up those turbines, let’s be retrofitting the building sector – utilizing everything from smart glass like SAGE to advanced insulation materials and onsite combined heat units. And build this stuff into new construction.

Dare I suggest telecommuting? We’ve spent decades building a robust, intercontinental Internet. Surely it can handle remote workers, ecommerce and funny cat clips on YouTube.

Efficiency measures like these are in our collective DNA. A market-based economy is supposed to excel at efficiency and we’re generally good at it when we make the effort. Unfortunately, the easy availability of cheap energy has limited its appeal to date. Why insulate if heating oil is cheaper than Pepsi?

Back in December of 2009, President Obama unveiled a program of incentives to drive efficiency behaviors – and jobs – which subsequently became known as “cash for caulkers.” This passage from the linked article is telling:   “I know the idea may not be very glamorous, although I get really excited about it,” Obama chuckled as he described the discussion at a roundtable on job creation he took part in just before his remarks. “Insulation is sexy stuff.”

I agree, but for most folks, we’ll need to sex it up a bit, as the Brits say. There’s an image problem with energy efficiency. Ever since President Carter put on a sweater and went on national television in February of 1977 to say that we’d have to turn down the thermostat to build a better future, the concept of efficiency has been firmly wedded to that of sacrifice, rather than something sexier, like, say progress. Efficiency is a topic ripe for an extreme makeover.

So how, exactly, do we make energy efficiency sexy? More about that in my next post.

What if we could cool the planet?

Manmade carbon dioxide emissions are knitting a wooly blanket around the planet at a time when we really need to throw off the covers. Yet even if we could stop driving, manufacturing things and producing dirty power, it may be too late: climate scientists agree that without major intervention, existing CO2 will keep warming the planet for the rest of the century.

A potential solution is geoengineering, says Jeff Goodell, who appeared at RiverRun Bookstore Wednesday for his new book “How to Cool the Planet.” The Rolling Stone/New York Times Magazine contributor’s previous book is “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future” (2006).

We have the technology, he says. We can brighten clouds or blow tiny sulfur mirrors into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight from the earth’s surface. Deflecting 1 to 2 percent of sunlight would offset the warming effect of doubling today’s carbon emissions. We can also sequester CO2 by tossing iron in the ocean, thereby feeding plankton that will consume CO2 in photosynthesis and sink to the ocean floor. Oh, and there are tree-like machines that suck carbon from the air.

So how does this sound? Like a quick fix? Like Star Wars (the missile shield)? Like a threat to our spiritual integrity?

“Reaganesque,” said one young man in the audience, almost certainly born after the 40th president left office.

Goodell understands the anxiety. He’s conservation-minded himself and, in fact, headed to the Arctic Circle this weekend to better understand the warming threat. Geoengineering was “science fiction writ large” until he talked to enough smart people to conclude that we don’t have the luxury of being properly appalled. We’re staring down calamity.

Some of his conclusions:

Geoengineering is dangerous politically. A quick fix is precisely what some people like. As the ink on the book dried, he got a delighted call from the nation’s biggest fossil-fuel lobbyist. “We love your book!” Gulp.

Worse, geoengineering could enable rich individuals or states to act unilaterally to manipulate the climate. It’s like nuclear weapons: “How do you keep the crazy person’s finger off the trigger?”

Geoengineering will happen sooner or later. We’re in a position where we’ll have to consider this at some point, he says. We should start talking about it now.

Worse than technological hubris is human apathy. “The real risk is being fat dumb and stupid a lot longer and riding into this superheated world without any heed,” he says.

Ultimately, Goodell concludes that we are, like it or not, a species that manipulates our environment. Do you own an air conditioner? Do you like heat in the winter? He works another metaphor beautifully: I’ve discovered that the people who understand this best are gardeners. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I am married to one. My wife, Michele, is happiest when she has dirt under her fingernails, and one of her highest aspirations in life is to grow all our own food. It’s because of her that our kids have such a heightened sensitivity to the freshness of green beans that they can take one bite and tell you, with a good chance of being correct, whether the bean is store-bought or homegrown.

My wife’s garden is, by any standard, a product of human artifice. There is nothing “wild” about it, nothing undisturbed, nothing left alone. She has planted every plant and mixed the soil to her liking with imported alpaca manure. The garden is entirely organic – she’s no more likely to use Miracle-Gro than she is to dye her hair pink – but it is also entirely human. It is an artifact, but it is a living artifact. You do not walk through her vegetable garden and admire the basil and the asparagus an feel that nature has been banished.

Compelling thought indeed, but still, it’s just Goodell’s backyard.

I want to learn more. And as a professional communicator, I’m eager to see how geoengineering alights on our national radar screen. I cringe at the possibility (certainty?) that politicians and pundits will get hold of this and club one another silly with it, as with health care. And despite my status as a card-carrying independent, the possibility (certainty?) of the profit motive getting further entangled with the fate of the planet concerns me.

Can we start a conversation on geoengineering? Should we start one? If so, how?

Nominating an unlikely new Earth Day saint

It’s Earth Day, and you can practically hear tributes to Rachel Carson and Senator Gaylord Nelson and other patron saints of the environmental movement ringing from hybrid to shining hybrid. As well they should. Without Nelson there would be no Earth Day, and without Carson and her ilk the Earth would be in rougher shape than it already is. I would, however, like to commemorate a different figure on this Earth Day: Col. Edwin Drake, the man who pioneered commercial oil drilling.

That’s right, oil drilling. On Earth Day. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Drake is credited with inventing economically viable oil extraction in 1858, when Seneca Oil hired the semi-retired railroad worker to explore oil deposits on its land near Titusville, Penn. Most homes and businesses of Drake’s era were lit by lamps burning whale oil, which grew scarce and expensive as the whale population plummeted from overhunting. Seneca Oil founder Samuel Martin Kier had invented a method for refining crude oil into kerosene to replace whale oil in lamps several years before the company sent Drake to Titusville. The problem was there was no reliable supply of oil to refine, which meant kerosene couldn’t replace whale oil on a large scale. Before Drake, people skimmed oil off creeks from the water that seeped into salt mines. Those sources were too erratic to provide the masses with kerosene for lamps.

It was Drake’s idea to dig for oil instead of skimming it. The good people of Titusville thought Drake was off his rocker. They called his operation “Drake’s Folly” and crowded around the drilling site to jeer. When his first mine shaft collapsed, it looked like they might be right. But Drake thought of sinking a pipe into the ground and drilling inside it to prevent the bore hole from collapsing. Just days after Drake’s bore hole started belching up oil, there were imitators up and down the creek using his methods to get oil out of the ground. The oil era, for good or ill, was launched.

I bring up Drake on Earth Day because of the parallels between his story and what’s going on in renewable energy right now. Listen to some of the skepticism that persists around renewable energy: Wind and solar are too sporadic to replace fossil fuels. Renewables cost too much and don’t deliver a big enough return on investment. They have lower energy content than fossil fuels. Now rewind 152 years to Edwin Drake’s era. Do any of today’s criticisms sound familiar?

Regardless of what you think about his legacy, Edwin Drake was not an environmental criminal. He was a resourceful man who solved his era’s energy problem by ignoring conventional wisdom and trying new things. He had a vision, and he persevered until he found a way to get it done. Yes, he left us a mixed legacy. Nevertheless, our generation needs its own version of Edwin Drake, to do for renewable energy what Drake did for oil. It happened once, and it can happen again.

On a side note: Check out the last page of this week’s Newsweek magazine for a scorecard of how well we’ve done at cleaning up the environment since the first Earth Day. There are reasons to be glad, and reasons why we still have a lot of work to do. Happy Earth Day!