advertising
Link to jump to start of content The Seattle Times Company Jobs Autos Homes Rentals NWsource Classifieds seattletimes.com
The Seattle Times Business & Technology
Traffic | Weather | Your account Movies | Restaurants | Today's events

News, analysis and perspectives from the
technology team at The Seattle Times.
Have a news tip? Follow the links below to e-mail us.


December 11, 2007

Royal Dutch Shell will test algae

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 12:21 PM

For oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, the answer to the world's energy troubles may lurk in the depths of a Hawaiian pond.

The Anglo-Dutch energy company said Tuesday it is building a pilot plant in Hawaii to grow marine algae for their vegetable oil -- a prime potential source of biodiesel. Construction of the plant will begin immediately, and the company is mulling launching a simultaneous project to test algae production at a commercial scale, company officials said in a conference call with reporters. The deal is part of a venture with Hawaii-based HR Biopetroleum, with Shell taking the lead.

Some say algae is the answer to biofuels' main obstacle: they need a lot of land to make a meaningful dent in demand for fossil fuels. Algae can double their mass several times a day, says Shell, and could produce up to 15 times more oil per hectare than land-based crops such as rapeseed and soybean. They can also be grown in seawater, f rather than on valuable land that could be used to produce food. Shell's batch will be grown in open-air ponds, from strains indigenous to Hawaii or approved by the state's Department of Agriculture.

Skeptics say the technology is costly, and nobody has yet figured out how to economically grow algae. But Shell and its partners think they can pull that feat off.
"We are quite confident of achieving commercially viable production rates," said Mark Huntley, Chief Science Officer for HR Biopetroleum.

The oil industry has been somewhat ambivalent about biofuels. Oil executives oppose pending legislation that would increase the mandate for ethanol in the U.S., and don't seem eager to jump into the production of currently available biofuels or their feedstock. Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson said earlier this year that a technological leap would be necessary before the biofuels business became attractive to the world's largest publicly traded oil company.

But the algae venture furthers Shell's foray into what the industry calls "second-generation" biofuels. The company is already funding Iogen, a Canadian firm that seeks to build a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant. Other companies -- ConocoPhillips, Chevron and BP -- are funding research.

December 10, 2007

Another shot in food vs. fuel fight

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 5:44 PM

An unlikely alliance of Big Oil firms and environmental activists has pooh-poohed corn-based ethanol, arguing that increased demand for the fuel is to blame for water shortages and rising food prices. The debate has picked up in recent days, as Congress mulls new legislation that would increase the mandate for the alternative fuel.

But Big Ethanol is fighting back. The Renewable Fuels Foundation commissioned a report that argues that ethanol is not to blame for the rising cost of Corn Flakes and other food staples. Most of the increase in food prices is due to higher transportation and marketing costs at a time when oil has become more expensive, the report says.

Moreover, there's no statistical link between more expensive corn and more expensive milk or eggs, says the report -- which is called "definitive" by one interested party, Pacific Ethanol. The report also argues that booming global demand for foodstuffs, coupled with a weakening dollar, adds to the pressure on food prices.

December 6, 2007

Global venture capital investments are up

Posted by Tricia Duryee at 9:21 AM

A study released late Tuesday says global venture capital investments this year are on pace to record the highest annual total since 2001, according to Dow Jones VentureOne and Ernst & Young.

This year, investment is expected to top $40 billion at the close of the fourth quarter while the number of deals should reach about 3,884, or similar to levels in 2003.

Driving this growth are investments in a broader range of sectors and geographic areas. The hot areas are cleantech and medical devices, and the two geographic regions of increasing importance are Beijing and Bangalore.

Also driving some of this growth is an increase in exits for VCs, which allow them to get some of their money back.

Here's a chart depicting the number of venture-backed IPOs:

IPOS07.bmp

The U.S. is the worldwide leader in cleantech investments:

cleantech07.bmp

The report also offered a prediction for 2008. Pending an economic downturn in the U.S. or the world, investing will likely continue to be robust. In addition, large multinational corporations are expected to increase their investments, and new geographies in Asia and growth in health care and cleantech innovations in energy and water will drive further growth.

November 14, 2007

BP-Berkeley Clean Enery Deal Is Officially On

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 2:45 PM

Despite having generated quite a bit of heat among reluctant students and faculty, a BP-funded alternative energy initiative at Berkeley has officially begun to function, the U.K.-based oil company and its research partners said today.

The Energy Biosciences Institute, as the partnership is known, has a $500 million commitment from BP to seek a long-term solution to the fossil fuel crunch. The money represents one of the largest investments ever made by Big Oil in alternative energy, and one of the largest collaboration deals ever signed between the private sector and academia. BP, one of the first major oil firms to recognize the threat of global warming, had its green credentials tarnished in recent years as its Alaska operations suffered damaging leaks and a Texas City refinery exploded, killing many workers.

BP's woes added fire to stiff opposition from many around campus who argued that signing the deal would render Berkeley's research hostage to BP's interests. Some prominent members of the faculty - such as environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela - also opposed the partnership on the grounds that biofuels could have serious social and environmental consequences for the tropical nations that are likely to grow the majority of energy crops.

But the institute got the green light from university authorities, and its research is now underway at the Berkeley campus. Other partners, besides the University of California and BP, include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.

October 31, 2007

The green monster truck

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 2:13 PM

Thinking of embracing alternative fuels, but too attached to your monster truck lifestyle? Boy, Ford's got the car for you - and it's big.

The Detroit automaker's F-250 Super-Chief is on display at the Seattle autoshow, and it sports a "tri-flex" engine that can run on hydrogen (yes, hydrogen), gasoline or an e85 gas-ethanol blend.

The 11,500-pound behemoth, heavier than a Hummer H2, is very luxurious. The model shown had hardwood floors, a wet bar - and, according to Ford representatives, several video monitors not visible from the outside. The Super-Chief seems to suggest that concern about CO2 emissions and runaway consumption are not mutually exclusive - an idea that could send shivers through the spines of many environmentalists.

Although most Ford trucks can run on e85, the Super-Chief is still a concept vehicle, somewhat in the realm of science fiction. For starters: good luck finding a hydrogen pump -- there are only 122 in the U.S. and Canada, none in Washington state. But for those insisting on driven green (or yellow) fuel, there's plenty of corn out there to feed this beast's ravenous appetite.

Based on our calculations, the Super-Chief, which has an e85 milage of about 9 miles a gallon, could easily burn through two and a half football fields' worth of corn a year in the hands of the average American driver. These trucks are a Midwestern farmer's dream come true.

October 22, 2007

Is the canola-biodiesel cure worse than the disease?

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:48 AM

Imperium Renewables, which built the largest biodiesel plant in the U.S. at Grays Harbor, gets a lot of flak from protesters who think the Seattle-based company uses palm oil as feedstock - thereby contributing to massive deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. The company says it uses canola oil instead, mostly imported from Canada, a crop perceived to be much friendlier to the environment.

But a recent study is casting doubt on canola's green credentials, too. A group of international scientists concluded that canola-based biodiesel may generate as many or more emissions as its fossil fuel equivalent, The Oregonian reports.

The reason: Fixed nitrogen, used as fertilizer, generates great quantities of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. While previous research has concluded that less than 1 percent of nitrogen fertilizer becomes nitrous oxide, the study's authors - who include a Nobel Prize winner - say that the percentage is three to five times larger, possibly negating the environmental gains of burning biofuels that originate from feedstock requiring a lot of fertilizer, like canola (also known as rapeseed) and corn.

The report says:

The effect of the high nitrogen content of rapeseed is particularly striking; it offsets the advantages of a high carbon content and energy density for biodiesel production.

The study does not purport to provide a complete life-cycle analysis of the greenhouse-gas effect of biofuels production, and says that other factors - such as useful byproducts that could fuel crop-growing - could be beneficial to the environment. But it highlights the challenges of controlling global warming, a phenomenon that's influenced by many factors other than fuel used in transportation.

The report also underscores the promise of cellulosic ethanol, since grasses and forest products do not require much nitrogen fertilizer.

October 18, 2007

It came from the Midwest

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:59 AM

What unspeakable threat can make left-leaning non-profits such as Oakland-based Food First agree with The Wall Street Journal's unabashedly pro-capitalist editorial section? What hallucinogenic compound is making environmentalists jump in the same boat as Big Oil lobbyists? The menace turns out to be home-grown: corn-based ethanol.

Many liberal environmentalists have long stood against corn-based ethanol because they tag it as inefficient (it takes a high amount of energy to produce ethanol from corn), polluting and responsible for a distortion in food prices. They see the subsidized adoption of ethanol as mainly a boon to agri-business. As Congress meets to discuss an upcoming energy bill, groups such as Food First are ramping up their opposition to a proposal to raise federal mandates on blending ethanol into gasoline to five times the current consumption level.

But the shots also come from the other side of the political spectrum. The new mandate proposal was met on Wednesday with a scathing editorial from The Wall Street Journal, saying that such a move would create a water crisis.

Heavily subsidized and absurdly inefficient, corn-based ethanol has already driven up food prices. But the Senate's plan to increase production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, from less than seven billion today, will place even greater pressure on farm-belt aquifers.

The Journal's piece says that "force-feeding" corn-based ethanol into the U.S. energy mix is not the right answer.

International institutions are also weighing in on the debate. An International Monetary Fund report said that Brazil's sugar-cane ethanol is "the only form of ethanol that is generally cheaper to produce than gasoline," a WSJ story says.

Big Ethanol's push has also created a rift in the business world. Big Oil - which could see its refining margins shrink if ethanol replaces a significant amount of gasoline - would rather see compete against gasoline in a free market.

October 12, 2007

BP: the new kid in SimCity

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 5:45 PM

In the wake of concerns about independence from foreign crude and global warming, Big Oil is diversifying into a new economic sector: computer gaming.

BP announced this week that it partnered with Electronic Arts to bring real-world energy choices into the latest version of SimCity. The game, SimCity Societies, will be launched on Nov. 15. The objective is to raise awareness about low-carbon power choices, the U.K.-based oil giant said in a statement.

BP's venture into the gaming world follows an earlier attempt by Chevron, which created its own pared-down version of SimCity and put it on its website a few weeks ago.

The trend underscores how oil companies are coming up with increasingly creative ways to be perceived as environmentally-friendly.

BP was actually one of the first companies to address the climate change issue, at a time when other oil companies scowled: In the late nineties, the firm abandoned its legacy name of "British Petroleum", adding the motto "Beyond petroleum" to its branding. But the company has come under fire due to a tragic explosion in its Texas City refinery and oil spills in its crude oil operation in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. BP's charismatic CEO Lord Browne, who kickstarted the green campaign, resigned in disgrace earlier this year.

Fossil fuel behemoths don't only invest in publicity stunts, though. In February, BP awarded $500 million over 10 years to the University of California-Berkeley for biofuels research, and Chevron has partnered with Weyerhaeuser to develop cellulosic ethanol, among other initiatives. The level of green investment, however, is paltry compared to the multi-billion capital budgets spent on fossil fuel production.

October 11, 2007

Biofuel musings on the Willamette

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 12:20 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. - BBI Biofuels' Western Region workshop - whose motto is "building an industry" - made me ponder how far this budding sector is from Houston and All Things Oil.

Maybe it's only Portland's small city blocks, functional urban transport and northern European feel. Or maybe it's the way the conference looked compared to those in H-Town: no extravagant shrimp buffets or George H.W. Bush keynote speech, and certainly not as many suits wearing high-priced cowboy boots.

But the bravado - riding high on boom times - was the same.

Here are some salient points from the conference:

* People absolutely don't like oil refineries in their backyards, but they're somewhat more amenable to similar-looking big, noisy chemical facilities that produce alternative fuels. "The green aspect seems to overcome the NIMBY syndrome, but not entirely," said Dan Parker, chief executive of Parker-Messana Consulting Engineers, who helped design Imperium Renewables' Grays Harbor plant.

* Biodiesel is still a niche fuel, but the Northwest is emerging as a national hotspot. The region is far from where biodiesel feedstocks (canola, soybean, palm oil) are grown, but there are many retailers and distributors here handling the fuel, says Thomas Endicott, who heads SeQuential Biofuels, an Oregon biofuel retailer. Over 50 pumps in Washington and 35 in Oregon sell biodiesel at blends higher than 20 percent, "one of the highest concentrations of pumps in the country," he said. Some 40 "jobbers" - as fuel distributors are called - now distribute biodiesel in the region.

Part of the reason is political: City and state governments have been among the hardest pushers for the fuel to succeed. Portland is the only city in the country with a biodiesel mandate in place; government fleets are still the main purchasers of the fuel, he said.

* Energy independence is not so much isolation as supply diversification - and biofuels enable that. "We're starting to see a shift from countries depending on petroleum to those being able to produce their own oil," said Will Thurmond, of Emerging Markets Online, a market research firm. Today, the world's nearly 200 nations depend on 20 nations for their oil supply; by 2010, he predicts, half the planet's countries will be producing some biofuel of their own.

Biodiesel needs Uncle Sam to thrive

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 11:35 AM

PORTLAND, Ore. - Biodiesel production has expanded ten-fold in two years to 250 million gallons a year, but that figure is still a drop in the water compared to the 60 billion gallons of diesel consumed annually in the U.S.

Only a government mandate -- like the one that currently exists for ethanol -- could take it to the next level, said Larry Schafer, a political advisor to the National Biodiesel Board, at a biofuels workshop organized here by BBI Biofuels.

Tax credits for sellers are in place, Schafer said, but there is nothing requiring oil companies -- who control the massive distribution network for transportation fuel -- to add biodiesel to their mix. Congress is currently discussing some biodiesel-related legislation that Schafer hopes will be part of the next Energy Bill.

"If you're a petroleum company and there's no requirement to use a renewable, you probably wouldn't do it," Schafer said. Ethanol, which gained a big market share after a law pushed it as the replacement for a gasoline additive known as MTBE, now represents 4.5 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption.

Biodiesel's relative weakness underscores government's role in transforming the energy marketplace. But too much government attention can also result in confusion.

The current craze over biofuels has translated into 62 bills in Congress addressing the issue, said Larry Russo, who heads the Biomass Program at the Department of Energy.

Because there are so many bills, "chances of one of these becoming legislation this year are slim," he told conference attendants.

October 5, 2007

Caipirinha vs. fuel

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 5:06 PM

In Brazil, the world's top producer of sugar cane and cane-derived alcohol, people "drink the best and drive the rest," says Roberto Giannetti da Fonseca, an official with Sao Paulo State's Federation of Industries. What Brazilians don't put into caipirinhas fuels the world's most advanced ethanol economy -- a lead the U.S. has tried to follow in recent years.

Da Fonseca's trade delegation met with Seattle officials and businesspeople Friday to share Brazil's experience with alternative fuels. Da Fonseca lambasted the heavy tariffs that the U.S. imposes on foreign ethanol (54 cents per gallon) and said that corn -- the staple of the domestic ethanol industry -- "is not a feasible fuel" because it's too energy-inefficient and disrupts food prices. Kicking open the door to cheap, imported sugar-cane-based ethanol would make alternative fuels easier to adopt, he said.

The domestic ethanol industry is currently being squeezed by high corn prices and an oversupply of the fuel. This phenomenon, some experts say, is an indication that despite the costly efforts to create a local alternative energy industry, the future of the field may lie in Latin America, Africa and south Asia.

"I'm not a big believer in US-produced ethanol," says Michael Cohen, an analyst with San Diego-based Pacific American Securities. "Eventually free markets will go where low-cost production will be -- the tropical nations of the world."

Brazil's own experience with ethanol began in the 1970s, when the military dictatorship ruling the country sought to control the outflow of hard currency caused by the skyrocketing oil prices of that decade. Engineers created ethanol-friendly engines, resistant to the fuel's tendency to corrode metal, but the movement petered out as gasoline became cheap once again in the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years, cheaper ethanol, higher gas prices and better engine technology have made the sector bloom once again: 40 to 45 percent of transportation fuel consumption in Brazil consists of ethanol, and 90 percent of new cars sold have flex-fuel engines, which can use either ethanol or gasoline, said da Fonseca.

But Brazil's recent history may indicate that alternative and fossil fuels are destined to coexist, and that drivers will choose between one and the other depending on availability and price. In the last decade Brazil's national oil company Petrobras discovered significant offshore hydrocarbon reserves that have made the South American giant not only self-sufficient in oil, but also able to export the commodity.

October 4, 2007

In CBS' New Drama, Ethanol Makes Prime Time

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 2:35 PM

Trading Southfork's oil tycoons for South Florida sugar cane barons, CBS' new family saga "Cane" could be a "Dallas" for the alternative energy era.

The show, which first aired late last month, portrays the travails of a Cuban-American family empire in the midst of a major decision: whether to concentrate on its lucrative rum brand, or to jump on the ethanol bandwagon. (Sugar-cane ethanol, according to energy experts, is more energy efficient than its Corn Belt cousin.)

The family patriarch Pancho Duque (Hector Elizondo), who built the family's fortune after fleeing the communist revolution in Cuba, handed over the reins to son-in-law Alex Vega, for whom the future is green (not only with dollars.)

"Sugar is the new oil: today you're putting it in your coffee, tomorrow we're going to be driving our cars with it," Alex (played by Jimmy Smits) tells the family.

But his enthusiasm fuels a family feud. His brother-in-law Frank Duque (Nestor Carbonell), unhappy at being passed over in the family succession, retorts: "You think you can become the Saudi Prince of ethanol, man... you're really a piece of work."

The alternative energy touch comes on top of other big dramatic elements: a ruthless rival family (the Samuels), the steamy Miami night life (which frankly, beats that of suburban D-FW) and even the complexity of Cuban exile politics.

In the series' trailer, Vega-Smits says that "Cuban sugar is going to become the world's fuel" -- a wistful reminder of the economic revival many exiles expect in their homeland once the Castro brothers go away. But after decades of decay, the Cuban sugar industry lies in ruins while Brazil reigns as the topmost producer of sugar-cane ethanol. The success of Vega's plans also depends on the U.S. being willing to lower its heavy tariffs on imported ethanol.

October 3, 2007

USDA downplays ethanol's effect on food prices

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:54 AM

Corn-based ethanol is not the main culprit of rising food prices, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture acting Secretary Chuck Conner.

While the rush to make the alternative fuel a staple of U.S. automobile diet has certainly contributed to the increase, most of the blame lies with high oil prices, bad weather, and an ever hungrier China, the official said, according to this Associated Press story.

The White House and agri-business have been pushing vegetable-based fuels as an environmentally friendly and geopolitically secure alternative to pricey, foreign fossil fuels. But corn-based ethanol -- production of which has skyrocketed in recent years -- has raised its own controversy.

Opponents criticize the fuel for being less energy-efficient than other alternatives, such as sugar-cane ethanol and for driving food prices up across the globe. Proponents say that it's greener than most alternatives, and it provides a needed boost to domestic farmers. Ethanol producers' profits, however, are currently being squeezed by a drop in the price of the fuel even as corn prices remain high.

September 28, 2007

Plans to fly a biofuel jetplane - Down Under

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 3:04 PM

Aircraft maker Boeing said Friday it seeks to fly a biofuel-powered jet plane in New Zealand in the second half of 2008.
The effort, in collaboration with Air New Zealand and engine maker Rolls Royce, is part of Boeing's research to determine what biofuels are suitable for the environmentally-challenging, jet fuel-hungry airline industry.
The company is planning a similar demonstration in collaboration with Virgin Atlantic and GE.
Boeing is testing fuels from several makers; these alternatives use feedstocks ranging from algae to soy beans to oil from the babassu palm.

September 21, 2007

Dr. Dan's bid for biodiesel empire

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 3:01 PM

Seattle alternative fuels pioneer Dan Freeman, who has sold biodiesel for six years from his Ballard auto shop under the Dr. Dan nom de guerre, unveiled Friday the second location of what he hopes will be a growing empire.

The pump, located at Espresso Express on 65th Street and 15th Avenue NE, north of the University District, was set up with the help of a federal grant to develop biodiesel stations in the Puget Sound area. Freeman said he'd like to open two more locations of "Dr. Dan's Biodiesel" in the Puget Sound area within six months.

Freeman claims the Seattle area has one of the highest concentrations of biodiesel users in the country. The fuel -- which can be used in diesel engines -- has certainly gotten a push from high oil prices, environmental concerns and the unpopularity of Middle Eastern military operations with some voters.

"Not having to rely on foreign oil is a big thing," said Harry Sanders, a biodiesel user who was present at the inauguration.

September 14, 2007

Chinese business women look for local partners

Posted by Kristi Heim at 11:35 AM

When a business group from China visits a business group in Seattle, the odds are you'll see a lot men in dark suits. But earlier this week, an unusual group from China came through town: women entrepreneurs blazing a trail in a country where the odds are not often in their favor.

The visitors included Li Xiao Yan, the young general manager of Beijing Jingcheng Yanda Technology and Trade, a company specializing in energy conservation and management that she founded in Beijing. Li was looking for U.S. partners to provide energy technology products to China. Li's company is already importing energy management products from California. She said that with recent government incentives for technology that helps reduce electricity consumption, the opportunity is huge.

Led by Madam Feng Cui, president of the Chinese Association of Women Entrepreneurs, the eight women attended a reception in the waterfront Medina home of local businesswoman Laurie McDonald Jonsson. It was a reunion for some of the women, who met in China last year during a trip Jonsson organized for Stellar International Networks.


Wistar Kay/Stellar Networks

Li Xiao Yan (middle, in orange scarf) talks with Laurie McDonald Jonsson (in tan suit).

Their American counterparts were local lawyers, doctors, company executives, academics and others interested in making professional connections and friendships in China.

Another visitor, Li Daxiang, chair of Beijing Leitianxiang International Education and Culture Exchange, said she was anxious to meet Americans interested in exchange programs with China. Li said she hoped the problems with Chinese product quality would not put a damper on trade.


Wistar Kay/Stellar Networks

Zhang Zumei, general manager of a Macau investment company Kong Tai Luen Fat, tours the Jonsson house.

All of the entrepreneurs said they hoped that establishing friendships between American and Chinese women would build good will at a time when relations between their two countries are strained.

A few of the Chinese women were visiting the U.S. for the first time. As successful as they have become in the new capitalist China, they were clearly in awe of their surroundings, even without knowing they were just down the street from the richest man in the world. One local guest quipped: "I hope they don't think all Americans have homes like this."

September 12, 2007

Google ready to fund sustainable transportation

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 4:31 PM

Google.org, the search engine giant's bid to save the world, said Wednesday it started requesting investment proposals "to the tune of $10 million" on sustainable transportation solutions.

The money might sound like small peanuts for such a big challenge - barely enough to buy the original version of the Dukes of Hazzard's gas-guzzling General Lee. But Google thinks it will help prod people to work on interesting ideas to help come up with a transportation solution that's more environmentally friendly than our current fossil-fuel-based model.

"While $10 million is a fraction of the total investment needed to transform our transportation sector, we hope this RFP will help catalyze a broader response," said a note in google.org's blog.

The proposals, of no more than five pages, should help advance the commercialization of plug-in hybrid cars, electric vehicles, or vehicle-to-grid solutions, the company said.

September 6, 2007

Ocean power

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 1:43 PM

Two and a half miles off the Oregon coast lies Finavera Renewables' latest experimental toy: a buoy that turns wave movements into electric power.

The Vancouver, B.C.-based company announced the deployment, near Newport, Or., on Thursday. The device is the biggest of its kind off the North American West Coast, the company said in a statement.

The buoy will gather data that will be used in a next-generation product that could be deployed next year. Finavera hopes it can start selling ocean power in 2010.

The increasing scarcity of fossil fuel alternatives and widespread alarm about global warming have spurred interest in renewable energy sources. This interest is compounded by recently enacted Washington and Oregon mandates that require a significant share of the states' electricity to come from renewable sources in the near future.

Finavera's water toy, known as AquaBuOY (the capitalization is Finavera's) looks like this:


SOURCE: Finavera Renewables

Finavera Renewables' AquaBuOY, an experimental device designed to convert wave motion into electricity, floats off the Oregon coast .

September 5, 2007

Energy's Great Game

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:34 AM

By creating an on-line simulation along the lines of SimCity, Chevron is trying to prove that figuring out how to provide civilization with enough energy is not an easy game.

Energyville, created by Chevron in conjunction with The Economist Intelligence Unit, lets you name your own power-hungry city and pick different options to feed it with energy. You can choose among biomass, hydro-power, natural gas, hydrogen, solar and others; every choice has some economic, environmental and security impact. The impact of your choices can change following events like terrorist attacks and technology breakthroughs.

No matter how green-minded you are, you won't be able to power your cities with solely biomass or solar sources. If you forget to add an offshore petroleum platform, the game will kindly remind you that airplanes and cars need fossil fuels to run.

The game, posted at a website Chevron created to foster energy debate, is "an engaging way of looking at the real-world decisions that have to be made in meeting rising global energy needs," said Chevron vice president Rhonda Zygocki in a statement. "Sponsoring Energyville supports our efforts to encourage a global debate of the critical energy issues. Energyville gives people an opportunity to test their energy literacy and learn for themselves the challenges in powering their own city."

In Energyville, your final score depends on how well you balance your energy needs with the cost, security issues and environmental effects of your choices. In my third attempt at being Seattle's energy czar, my score ranked 2,359th among 20,735 players -- after heavily betting on wind power.

The site offers a tool to engage in some amateur sociology. It computes the average energy preferences of players by location, gender or profession. Wind and solar proved a major preference of the average U.S. player, according to the Chevron site. Players from Qatar - a major hub for gas-to-liquids projects - saw a future dominated by coal. Vatican City players gave petroleum the largest share of the pie. Budding policymakers in Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil power, also bet heavily on wind, solar and biomass solutions.

Big Oil has been increasingly vocal in the alternative energy debate, as skyrocketing costs and environmental and security concerns have made fossil fuels the target of both environmentalists and politicians. Many expect Congress to enact legislature regulating carbon emissions in the near future, and the State Department is hosting an environmental summit in Washington D.C. in late September. Oil companies like Chevron want to make sure they have a seat at the table as new measures are discussed.

August 30, 2007

Investments in clean energy grow worldwide

Posted by Kristi Heim at 11:11 AM

Venture capital investing in clean energy grew by almost 70 percent in 2006, to $18 billion, according to research firm New Energy Finance. And more than $10 billion was invested in companies and projects in the first half of 2007.

The group tracked more than 1,800 investors worldwide and recorded 193 funds that invest in clean energy.

Investment was highest in North America, with most of it going toward biofuels. In Europe private equity investment growth was strong, and in Asia investment was driven by pre-IPO investments in Chinese solar companies


AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Indonesia's biofuels program makes use of palm oil.


Looking at various industries, the investments broke down into $8.4 billion for wind, $4.7 for biofuels and $2.3 billion for solar, which together made up 86 percent of the total venture capital / private equity investment.

The report is available on New Energy Finance's website. It's called "Cleaning Up 2007."

August 29, 2007

Big Oil, meet Big Alternative Fuels

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 4:05 PM

With hopes for large profits, the alternative energy industry is moving towards the same condition Big Oil is denounced for: being Big.

Ethanol producer VeraSun Energy is on an acquisition spree that will turn it into the green -- or yellow -- equivalent of huge petroleum refiner Valero Energy Corp., according to a Dow Jones Newswires story that appeared in today's Wall Street Journal. By buying big plants across the country, VeraSun -- the largest dedicated producer of ethanol -- will benefit from economies of scale.

The South Dakota company bought ASAlliances Biofuels in late July for $725 million, potentially giving it 20 percent of the country's ethanol market by 2008, the story says.

Another sign of VeraSun's mass market ambitions: on Tuesday the company opened 20 ethanol fueling stations at Kroger stores in Ohio and Kentucky, the Associated Press says. The pumps will sell a blend consisting of 85 percent ethanol.

Other alternative fuel players are also betting on large scale. Seattle-based Imperium Renewables, which recently inaugurated the largest biodiesel facility in the U.S., plans to build several similarly-sized facilities in places ranging from Hawaii to Argentina.

August 27, 2007

Enzymes for ethanol, checks for free

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 3:48 PM

If you know how to create enzymes that help convert wood chips into environmentally friendly fuel, the government may have some money for you.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Monday it would make some $33.8 million available to fund the development of enzymes that serve as catalysts in cellulosic biofuels production. Cellulose is what plants are made of -- and breaking it up into ethanol and other fuels could help forests, prairie grasses and agricultural waste become energy producers.

Unlike corn or sugarcane ethanol, cellulosic ethanol production -- developed by companies such as Iogen, which mulls building a plant in Idaho -- is still in the experimental stage. A scientific breakthrough leading to widespread use of cellulose in ethanol or other fuels could not only make the Northwest a key energy player, but could also dampen the negative effects of the ongoing rush for alternative energy.

For example, cellulosic fuels would reduce the need for corn, sugar and palm oil, which also serve as food crops and have seen their prices rise with booming fuel demand.

The DOE program is part of a presidential initiative to replace 20 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption with alternative fuels by 2017. Letters of intent are due September 10, and completed applications on October 30, the agency said.

August 24, 2007

Map green business online

Posted by Kristi Heim at 3:21 PM

What do an urban sustainability forum, Grist magazine and a green cleaning service have in common?

They're all Seattle points on a new online map designed to help people find eco-friendly individuals, businesses, events and organizations around the world.

The two-month-old project sponsored by the Sundance Channel is supposed to supplement the cable network's weekly environmental program The Green.

As a social networking platform, it's not clear how this one can distinguish itself from all the other sites claiming to help like minds find eachother. At the so-called Eco-mmunity, anyone can list themselves or others on the map, leading to a wide mix of destinations that may or may not be eco-friendly.

A random look at points in Seattle and Los Angeles included listings for Trader Joe's, the California Institute of Technology and Whole Foods Market. And the map's only listing in Iowa turned out to be Smith Barney Financial Advisors. Well, I guess dollars are green.

Jathrofa gets the spotlight

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 1:42 PM

High oil prices and concern about global warming revived global interest in alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels, but almost every promising solution has triggered its own set of environmental and price controversies.

Take corn ethanol, for example: critics say that it's not very energy-efficient, and the increasing use of corn to produce fuel has made the food staple more expensive. Or biodiesel derived from palm oil, which is heavily criticized for fostering rapid deforestation in India and Malaysia -- aggravating, instead of helping solve the greenhouse gas problem. A recent story about Imperium Renewables' biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor -- the biggest such facility in the U.S. -- generated substantial response of readers either lauding the virtues of the fuel or decrying its environmental impact.

These debates have made many pin their hopes on jathrofa, a rugged little plant that's is showcased in a Wall Street Journal cover story today. The shrub can grow practically anywhere, is inedible (so it doesn't compete with food) and its seeds contain a palm oil-like liquid that can be turned into biodiesel. Jathrofa-based biodiesel's production cost is also lower than other alternative fuels, the story says.

The crop is still in the very early stages of its career as a fuel feedstock, but some 30 million hectares of jatropha are under development worldwide, reporter Patrick Barta says in a video posted at the WSJ's website.


August 1, 2007

Ethanol craze takes to the skies

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 5:35 PM

This year's Seafair aerial extravaganza will feature Greg Poe --- an acrobatic pilot whose single-engine propeller plane can run on 100% ethanol, instead of gasoline.

The biofuel - extracted mainly from corn in the U.S. - doesn't perform differently than the gasoline traditionally used in small propeller planes, says Poe. With one exception.

"It does burn cleaner," says Poe. "I can smell it in the exhaust when I'm doing my aerobatic routines."

Poe's sponsor: Fagen, an engineering and construction firm that manufactures ethanol plants. Poe's performance is "a good way to help educate the public about the benefits of ethanol," the pilot says.

The ethanol industry is pushing hard to evangelize Americans about the virtues of fuel extracted from the heartland's farms. Major engineering companies and pro-ethanol organizations have already spurred the Indianapolis 500 to run its race cars on the fuel.

The increasing use of corn ethanol, although it represents a boon to U.S. farmers, is not without controversy. Rising energy prices and concerns about reliance on foreign oil have contributed to its rising popularity. But critics claim that it has contributed to an increase in food prices, and that the corn-based fuel is not a very efficient way of getting energy.

July 31, 2007

Abu Dhabi oil money flows into HaloSource

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 5:30 PM

Money from an oil-rich emirate has ended up in a Puget Sound venture that seeks to produce cleaner water.

An Abu Dhabi government-backed clean technology fund is investing $15 million in Bothell-based HaloSource, a company that specializes in anti-microbial water purification. The new relationship will help strengthen HaloSource's presence in Middle Eastern markets.

The deal underscores how some Persian Gulf countries - flush with cash in the wake of an unprecedented energy boom - are spreading investment dollars not only across the region, but all over the world. They also seek to capitalize on the growing global interest in clean technologies and sustainable development.


July 19, 2007

Boeing jets running on algae fuel?

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 3:04 PM

Algae -- humble, static plants used to lurking in the depths of lakes and oceans -- could soar to new heights on the back of the current biofuels craze.

According to this New Zealand newspaper story, local aerospace giant Boeing is working with Air New Zealand and a kiwi biofuels producer to produce the jet-fuel based on algae.

The company, known as Aquaflow Bionomic, harvests its algae from ponds.

Other engine makers have successfully tested blends of biofuelsl with conventional jet fuels. The rush to seek alternative fueling solutions for airplanes is understandable, as airlines' fuel costs and carbon footprints are huge -- and oil executives and analysts predict a crude oil crunch in coming years if demand doesn't stop growing.

July 18, 2007

The Ethanol Curtain

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:16 AM

Biofuels are tres a la mode. On Tuesday, the House passed an appropriations bill that would give alternative fuels research and development $250 million, $50 million more than last year. But the United States' main source of biofuel -- corn-based ethanol -- remains controversial.

Ethanol supporters say that the fuel burns cleaner, can help free the country from dependence on foreign oil, and boosts local farmers' revenues. Critics argue that it's inefficient to produce and that the ethanol craze can have significant social and environmental impacts -- and raise food prices. Two recently published reports illustrate this chasm -- which has grown wider as Congress decides on farm subsidies and energy programs for next year.

In "The Rush to Ethanol", Food & Water Watch and the Network for New Energy Choices say biofuels "are not the silver bullet solution that some say they will be."

High corn prices foster the concentration of ownership and the industrialization of agricultural lands. Most subsidies will end up in the pockets of big agri-business, the report says. Moreover, corn-for-ethanol crops won't reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, and is a drop in the water amid our growing energy needs. The report authors recommend pushing for better energy efficiency, as well as sustainable standards in the production of biofuels.

The report says:

Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace only a small share of gasoline demand.

On the other side of the curtain, sits Ethanol Across America, an industry-government partnership that favors the advancement of the renewable fuel. In a brief published Tuesday, the organization rebuffs the argument that more corn-based ethanol comes at the expense of food production and significantly raises food prices. Corn is used not only in producing corn flakes and many other human-consumption products, but is also widely used as feedstock for beef and pork.

"The raw material in many products is a very small portion of the cost paid by the consumer," the report says. The middle man accounts for most of the cost, and more expensive food prices are due not only to higher corn costs, but blizzards, ice storms, and overall inflation.

The report says:

Ethanol critics routinely overstate how much corn is actually consumed as human food. Less than 12% of the nation's field corn crop is processed directly into human food products in the United States. Corn syrup, sweeteners, starches and cereals are examples. Corn demand for the human food market has been flat over recent years.

In any case, the oil-industry led National Petroleum Council says in a draft report that the world will need any type of energy that's thrown at it, as conventional sources of oil and gas won't be able to fulfill growing demand, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.

The Ethanol Curtain

Posted by Angel Gonzalez at 10:16 AM

Biofuels are tres a la mode. On Tuesday, the House passed an appropriations bill that would give alternative fuels research and development $250 million, $50 million more than last year. But the United States' main source of biofuel -- corn-based ethanol -- remains controversial.

Ethanol supporters say that the fuel burns cleaner, can help free the country from dependence on foreign oil, and boosts local farmers' revenues. Critics argue that it's inefficient to produce and that the ethanol craze can have significant social and environmental impacts -- and raise food prices. Two recently published reports illustrate this chasm -- which has grown wider as Congress decides on farm subsidies and energy programs for next year.

In "The Rush to Ethanol", Food & Water Watch and the Network for New Energy Choices say biofuels "are not the silver bullet solution that some say they will be."

High corn prices foster the concentration of ownership and the industrialization of agricultural lands. Most subsidies will end up in the pockets of big agri-business, the report says. Moreover, corn-for-ethanol crops won't reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, and is a drop in the water amid our growing energy needs. The report authors recommend pushing for better energy efficiency, as well as sustainable standards in the production of biofuels.

The report says:

Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace only a small share of gasoline demand.

On the other side of the curtain, sits Ethanol Across America, an industry-government partnership that favors the advancement of the renewable fuel. In a brief published Tuesday, the organization rebuffs the argument that more corn-based ethanol comes at the expense of food production and significantly raises food prices. Corn is used not only in producing corn flakes and many other human-consumption products, but is also widely used as feedstock for beef and pork.

"The raw material in many products is a very small portion of the cost paid by the consumer," the report says. The middle man accounts for most of the cost, and more expensive food prices are due not only to higher corn costs, but blizzards, ice storms, and overall inflation.

The report says:

Ethanol critics routinely overstate how much corn is actually consumed as human food. Less than 12% of the nation's field corn crop is processed directly into human food products in the United States. Corn syrup, sweeteners, starches and cereals are examples. Corn demand for the human food market has been flat over recent years.

In any case, the oil-industry led National Petroleum Council says in a draft report that the world will need any type of energy that's thrown at it, as conventional sources of oil and gas won't be able to fulfill growing demand, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.

March 19, 2007

West Coast energy partnership: Where are Washington and Oregon?

Posted by Kristi Heim at 10:56 AM

Today's news that British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell is going green and teaming up with California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger begs a question about the 600 miles in between them.

The so-called Hydrogen Highway hasn't merited much of a response from Oregon and Washington. Representatives of the two states apparently were not in the meetings where the partnership was drafted. The plan entails building a series of hydrogen fuel stations along the West Coast from British Columbia to San Diego, serving a population of about 60 million people.

One B.C. company that could reap the benefits is fuel-cell maker Ballard Power Systems.

Once considered little more than a pipe dream, hydrogen power along the left coast seems a bit closer to reality. Both British Columbia and California have now started funding the construction of fuel stations.

But some question whether all the hype is justified by real science. As an alternative fuel, hydrogen is not without problems. Hydrogen goes a long way toward reducing pollution that contributes to greenhouse gas, since the only byproducts of the clean-burning engines are water and heat. The problem is that a lot of energy is used in the making of hydrogen itself, a process that requires a significant amount of electricity, often through the burning of fossil fuels.

December 12, 2006

National lab loses top leader

Posted by Kristi Heim at 2:59 PM

The U.S. has been falling behind in science and technology leadership, and no one knew that better than Len Peters, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

Peters plans to leave that position Jan. 1. He's moving to a corporate job at Battelle, the Ohio company that manages the lab for the federal government, Battelle said today.

Peters has been outspoken about the need for better science education, not just to create more money and jobs, but to solve critical problems in the environment and other areas, he wrote in this article earlier this year.

In his three years as director, Peters pushed for innovation in using hydrogen fuel cells to replace fossil fuels, developing the national power grid and strengthening the Northwest as a technology base.

The size and scope of Battelle is mind boggling. As the world's largest independent research and development organization, it spends $3.7 billion a year on R&D. It has 20,000 employees in more than 120 locations worldwide, including PNNL and four other national laboratories it manages for the Department of Energy.

Its Seattle Research Center employs about 160 people and focuses in large part on global security technology (combining policy with science toward preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction).

The word is Peters will stay in the Tri-Cities area to do community outreach for Battelle. With his ideas and experience, you wonder why he isn't moving to Washington D.C.

July 10, 2006

Grunge band gets clean

Posted by Kristi Heim at 2:23 PM

Rock band Pearl Jam has a Carbon Portfolio Strategy?

While the band has been involved in conservation efforts for years, now it's lending support to Northwest groups that focus on renewable energy. Today it announced $100,000 in funding for nine organizations, including the Cascade Land Conservancy, IslandWood learning center and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

"We hope to create new models for businesses like ours who are looking to invest in the future health of our planet and its delicate ecosphere," guitarist Stone Gossard said. "It is part of Pearl Jam's goal to encourage Northwest businesses and individuals to invest in these and other leading environmental organizations."

The band says it intends to burn pure biodiesel in all of its trucks and tour buses this year in an effort to offset its carbon emissions.

May 31, 2006

Cool cars and new fuels to run them

Posted by Kristi Heim at 6:48 AM

Technologies focused on transportation and alternative energy are getting a lot of attention this week. Today, a two-day conference co-sponsored by Microsoft and the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center for Regional Development gets started with a curious mix of people and topics, including border security, hybrid cars and biodiesel fuel. Speakers include Martin Tobias, former CIA director R. James Woolsey, Slade Gorton, Maria Cantwell and Adam Smith.

Today is also the day Issaquah-based Green Power is set to demonstrate a mobile plant that it says can convert solid and liquid waste to diesel fuel. That demo is happening all the way in Wyoming, so we can't watch.

A car from Western Washington University's Vehicle Research Institute gave a new definition to domestically produced power, running on biomethane gas made from local manure to win honors at the Tour de Sol car show this month. VRI also won a nice little $10,000 check from BP's Cherry Point Refinery for alternative fuel research.

April 25, 2006

High-tech manure beats high oil prices

Posted by Kristi Heim at 10:41 AM

With oil prices rising to record levels, the search for alternative fuels has shifted into high gear. At Western Washington University, an experimental car burning methane gas made from manure is hitting the road next month at Tour de Sol, the sustainable energy car show in New York.

The Viking 32 car, engineered at WWU's Vehicle Research Institute, "is the cleanest car in the world that runs on fuel," says Eric Leonhardt, the institute's director. We profiled his work in this story.

The difference in price could be significant: Leonardt says gasoline costs five times more than the wholesale price of refined biomethane, but that price is only theoretical, since the fuel isn't sold on the market. Biomethane is made from decomposing manure at a Lynden dairy, then purified in a "scrubber" that WWU is building to filter out hydrogen sulfide and excess carbon dioxide from the raw natural gas.

Tricia Duryee
Tricia Duryee
E-mail|Bio


Angel Gonzalez
Angel Gonzalez
E-mail|Bio


Kristi Heim
Kristi Heim
E-mail|Bio


Benjamin J. Romano
Benjamin J. Romano
E-mail|Bio


Mark Watanabe
Mark
Watanabe

E-mail|Bio

Marketplace

December 2007

S M T W T F S
            1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31          

RSS FEEDRSS

advertising

advertising