Wednesday, November 15, 2006

SunPower, PowerLight Merge

As a PowerLight employee, I can't talk about it. But here are some good links:

CleanTech Blog

Energy Blog

Renewable Energy Access


Monday, November 13, 2006

An Extraordinary Technology

A brief article in MIT's Technology Review Online discusses a fascinating new method for the conversion of biomass into hydrogen. Something like this, if it can scale out of the lab, could actually make the hydrogen economy work.

The technology involves spraying a fine mist of liquid biomass - such as vegetable oil or sugar water (!) over a metal catalyst at 800*C. The result is a stream of hydrogen, or, if the flow of oxygen is adjusted, syngas that can be converted to a liquid fuel, or feedstock for plastics.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects is that the reaction itself provides the energy to maintain the catalyst at temperature; once the catalyst is heated initially, there is no need for fuel input, other than the feedstock itself.

There are stumbling blocks, of course. It's not clear the process will scale well (although it may not have to in order to be successful in many applications). Also, the rhodium used in the catalyst mixture is a very rare and expensive metal, which may not allow for widespread implementation (much as the use of platinum in PEM fuel cells has hobbled that technology).

Nontheless, it is heartening to hear of new ways to extract energy, particularly for transporation, from potentially low-quality biomass.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Midterms

I've been very happy to see the Democrats win Congress for many reasons. But what does it mean for renewable energy?

Well, it certainly can't hurt. Yet, I suspect that there won't be major national policy changes. On global warming, public opinion certainly seems to be lagging the science (Al Gore notwithstanding) and a real commitment to reduce GHG seems like a long shot without presidential leadership. I suspect that the ever-popular "effort" to "wean America from it's addiction to oil" will mostly take the form of ethanol subsidies to ADM, which will do little but raise the price of your Corn Flakes and allow GM to paint itself green (or yellow, if you like).

Maybe I'm just being a pessimist but at best, I think we will see a modest increase in funding for renewable energy R&D and perhaps extension of the federal tax credits for solar and biodiesel.

I should note here that the latter is not necessarily a good thing. Kumar Plocher, the president of Yokayo biofuels, makes a compelling case on his Fueled For Thought blog that biodiesel tax credits as currently implemented are hurting, not helping, the sale and promotion of biodiesel.

Anyhow, the most exciting national election result, from the standpoint of clean energy, is the refreshing replacement of arch-ecoenemy Richard Pombo (formerly of California District 11) by wind energy consultant Jerry McNerney. Pombo claims that global climate change is a myth, helped to gut the endangered species act, and advocated for drilling in ANWR amongst many other acts openly hostile to our continued healthy future on this planet. Pombo also was the co-chair of the House Energy Action Team (HEAT), a house committee that ostensibly advocates for alternative energy solutions. Thus, even if Mr. McNerney does nothing, it will be an environmental victory. Of course, one can hope that McNerney's expertise and background will give him some influence over his new colleagues.

On the level of California, the defeat of Prop 87 was a bummer. I held out hope that the general popularity of renewable energy (not to mention Clinton and Gore) would win out over the flood of oil money that funded the opposition. However, the oil companies managed to convince voters that it would hit them in their pocketbooks, and most people like to complain about high gas prices as it is.

Nonetheless, this will not impact the California Solar Initiative (CSI) and the rebate program that it funds. California is still on track to be the 3rd biggest PV market in the world, at least. So thankfully, it's defeat will not cripple the progress being made; it will, of course, slow things down.

Finally, of course Schwarzenegger swept Phil Angelides for governor. I am grateful to Schwarzenegger for his leadership in pushing for the CSI, the Millions Solar Roofs program, and the California Climate Change initiative. These are very good things. However, there is little daylight between Angelides and Schwarzenegger on these issues. I am concerned that Schwarzenegger, haven taken a sharp turn to the left in order to preserve his political viability, could just as easily veer right after this election. It seems that he's pretty solid on renewable energy since he seems to view it as good for business and for maintaining California's leadership position in technological innovation (which is true). However, on many other issues I just don't trust the guy. At least not until he starts running his Hummer fleet on biodiesel.

Overall, a great victory for Democrats in this election. I sincerely hope that the excitement and yearning for change that characterized these midterms carries over to a serious re-evaluation of and change in our energy policies, which are after all at the root of most of the serious problems we face as a nation.

Time will tell!