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Monday, October 27, 2008

Colorful EE/RE entertainment

Santa Monica Pier Ferris WheelSearching through my IEEE Spectrum for articles germane to the solar energy case I’m writing, I found an article on the new Ferris wheel installed on the Santa Monica Pier last May. Living now in N. California, I hadn’t heard about it at the time.

The new wheel is energy efficient because it uses 160,000 LEDs instead of 5,400 incandescent bulbs, cutting energy consumption by 75%. Like its 1996 predecessor, it also uses renewable energy — powered by the same solar cells as the 1996 Ferris wheel. The old Ferris wheel was taken apart and sold for $132,400 on eBay to an Oklahoma developer.

Flickr photo by Marla Davis-Marinelli licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Clean California travel

One of my first jobs was as a political reporter, including writing voter guides for our readers showing both sides of controversial issues. On next week’s California ballot, there are two propositions directly related to clean energy and a third indirectly related. Here I’ll write about the latter, and cover the former later.

Proposition 1A is the $10 billion rail bond measure. Like all California bond measures (or NSF funding budgets), it has been carefully crafted to buy off supporters in as many counties as possible, rather that fund the absolutely highest priority projects. If you compare Proposition 1A with the (now obsolete) Proposition 1, the main difference seems that the original plan emphasized LA-SF but the new plan attempts to fudge the issue.

Of the $10b, 90% is to start the California high speed rail initiative and 10% for misc. other local and intercity rail efforts. Some of the support comes from clean technology fans. With an ideal top speed of 200 mph, the high speed rail would be electrified — potentially from renewable energy — and thus presumably supplant passenger airplanes (which cannot yet run on electricity) and electric cars (which can make short but not long trips on stored grid power).

Only the “pro” side has enough money to run ads. If you listen closely, they are paid for by the Northern California construction industry, and the California heavy construction worker’s local, which would both benefit financially from the billions spent on a new rail system. Some of this is a point of pride: Europe and Japan have high speed trains but the US does not (Acela hardly counts). There is also a large constituency of those who like mass transit as a “green” solution, train buffs, and probably from a few places (like Fresno) that don’t get good air service. San José is happy because we beat out Oakland as the gateway city to the Bay Area. (Note to non-Californians: San Francisco is a great water and air hub but a terrible rail hub, especially since they removed the trains from the Bay Bridge).

Far less organized, the “con” side has two basic arguments. One is that this $9b (not counting the billion for unrelated projects) is just a down payment — only 20%of the amount needed to build the promised system. What are people voting for if they haven’t been told the final price, and if the initial investment isn’t enough to create a useful system on its own? The second is that the claimed prices and costs don’t seem to match — the $55 fare is much lower than other global rail fares.

I would count as a train buff. When I was trying to break into news photography, my most striking photos were of the Washington Metro and other transit subjects. have ridden the Shinkansen, EuroStar, TGV and German ICE trains. I try to prefer the train whenever it’s cost and time-competitive to a car or plane. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the subway or light rail system whenever I visit a strange city, and use it (or commuter rail) to visit Boston, Chicago, DC or even downtown SF. If it is finished before I die, I would certainly be a regular user of the California bullet train. Today I regularly travel between Northern and Southern California, and before that I made many trips between the SD and LA regions.

However (as one friend used to say) my “spidey sense” is tingling. The $9b for high speed rail is 20% of the $45b the legislative analyst says the system will cost (such projects tend to run over). There is no guarantee that this first installment will finish anything useful (or revenue generating) without floating another $10 or $20 billion in bonds. If the state had put all $45b on the ballot at once, perhaps it would have been too threatening given that the state’s existing outstanding bonds are about $53b.

There’s also the curious wording on outside money. Half of the actual construction costs must come from “private” or “other public funds” but the bonds may be used to pay all the cost of studies, right of way and rolling stock. (Seems bass-ackwards to me — as with airlines or buses, it would make sense to have the government own the right of way but make private entities buy and operate the rolling stock). As a free market economist, I’m still a little puzzled by the failure to find a private operator (as once promised), which suggests that the system’s operating deficits need to be paid (or at least guaranteed) by taxpayers.

So will this be (as proponents say) permanent infrastructure that will be used for decades? Or (as opponents say) an expensive boondoggle? I think we’ll have to spend the money and build the system to find out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cleantech Venture Challenge

Cross posted to Engineering Entrepreneurship

The University of Colorado at Boulder is preparing to host its 4th annual Cleantech Venture Challenge, an international business plan competition for new ventures that somehow address a “sustainability” need. The business plan competition is sponsored by the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.

The competition uses a three-stage process. An intent to compete must be filed by Nov. 21, followed by a complete business plan on January 30, 2009. The eight semifinalists will come to Denver March 17-19 for the final rounds and the ultimate selection. The National Renewable Energy Lab (in nearby Golden, CO) will also invite the top renewable energy project to present at NREL.

The top prize is $25,000. The finals will also coincide with a sustainable business summit to be held at the Denver convention center, part of the state’s efforts to position itself in the cleantech business.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tesla's bump in the road

The Merc reports that Tesla has killed (or at least postponed) its sedan, laid off the engineering workers designing the car, and is delaying its planned San Jose plant.

The announcement was made on the blog of founder (and now CEO) Elon Musk, who’s giving up his SpaceX hobby to come back to Tesla. He blames the financial crisis, which the Merc interprets as meaning a “credit crunch” but I see as meaning “rich people with plummeting stock portfolios can’t afford a $100,000 toy.”

No mention was made in either story of the Dodge EV, although Scientific American notes that Tesla’s woes come as the big three are getting a $25 billion subsidy to develop alternative fuel vehicles.

I don’t see how the Dodge news could do anything but hurt Tesla’s business. The overpowered, overpriced, grid-powered 2-seat toy market isn’t all that big to begin with, and splitting it in half is even worse. About the only way to brush it off is to assume Chrysler will be incompetent, and given they’ve produced some good hot-rods in the past 50+ years, that seems like a bad bet.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spook turned VC

R. James Woolsey, former Rhodes scholar and Yale Law graduate, is best known as CIA director under President Bill Clinton. He also served in a series of defense-related government positions during the Bush, Reagan and Carter administration.

Today, Woolsey is a venture partner and “senior advisor” for the CleanTech investment group at Vantage Point Venture Partners, near SFO in San Mateo County.

Sunday, the Merc published an interview with Woolsey, focusing on his perceptions of the need for CleanTech investing, both from the standpoint of carbon emissions and also oil imports. He mentions how he introduced Tesla to the VPVP senior partner which led to their investment and Woolsey’s halftime role at VPVP.

Woolsey has recently left his Maryland farm for a year to hang around in the Bay Area, both for VPVP and as a Hoover Fellow. On the off chance that John McCain wins on Nov. 4, Woolsey could be called back to Washington, but right now it seems like the Woolseys can feel confident that they will finish their one-year lease here in the Bay Area.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Holy solar panels, Batman!

Flipping radio channels over the weekend, the local Catholic radio station reported that last week the Vatican has began installation of solar panels on the roof of a large hall at the Vatican City.

The panels will generate about 280,000 kWh/year of power, around 15% of the energy needs for the 6,300-seat hall. The project was timed to a needed roof replacement, and also because the hall was one of the most modern buildings in the city-state.

The Vatican got the $1.5 million worth of panels donated by SolarWorld of Germany, who gave them as a gift to the German-born pontiff.

After this project, an employee cafeteria will also be getting solar panels. The Vatican is hoping to be the first European nation to comply with EU goals of having 20% of all energy consumption covered by renewable energy. Give that the landlocked nation is only 0.44 sq km, it seems pretty clear that the power will be coming from solar rather than hydro or even wind turbines.

Note to European readers and readers under 40: the headline refers to a common exclamation made by Burt Ward in the 1960s television drama Batman.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Out into the sun

The lead business story in the Merc this morning is about yet another solar panel manufacturer based here in the Bay Area — in this case, one that’s coming out of the shadows (so to speak) and revealing its business strategy:
Solyndra, the noisiest stealth start-up in Silicon Valley, emerges today as a solar heavyweight.

The company, based in Fremont in a series of large buildings visible from Interstate 880, says it has orders for $1.2 billion worth of its solar panels over the next five years. It has raised more than $600 million and already has 500 employees. And it plans to construct a second, larger plant in Fremont next year.
The company brags of celebrity investor (and Virgin megapromoter) Richard Branson.

The photovoltaic market has a range of approaches — in terms of core technology, packaging and target markets. This reflects both the unknowns about technical approaches to grid parity, and also an increasingly crowded, VC-funded startup market. Solyndra is going for lie-flat systems on commercial rooftops, a large market.

Although chip making is now gone, Silicon Valley still has the materials scientists, universities and VCs that put it on the map. The Solyndra founder/CEO is an 11 year veteran of Applied Materials. Of course, we also have a lot of rich (i.e. relatively price-insensitive) “green” consumers and businesses that will buy panels even before they reach parity with on-grid electricity prices.

Thus, despite the high cost of living, the Bay Area (including Silicon Valley) also has a number of photovoltaic startups, including SunPower (already IPO'd), Nanosolar, MiaSole and (stealth mode) Solar Junction. Most of these are in San Jose (which is bigger and cheaper than the Peninsula), including the new UL lab for testing PV systems.

I would be shocked if there's fabrication in the Bay Area in 2015 — this stuff will eventually end up in Arizona or Utah or New Mexico. But still, the new industry is getting off the ground here, which shows that Silicon Valley has a few more acts left before it becomes a mere financial center.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pleasant surprise on hybrid costs

My undergraduates have been assigned a couple of auto industry cases in the capstone strategy class, so the past week I’ve been reading the textbook case on GM vs. Toyota.

Reading the case reminded me of the warning (as the case puts it):
The big drawback [of a hybrid] is that … the battery has to be replaced about every 100,000 miles at a cost of around $2,000.
This was written about four years ago, and when looking into it, the real world experience has been much better. Honda has a 0.2% replacement rate (although many of those cars are no where near 100,000 miles), while battery costs are declining.

This has obvious positive implications for the (even more battery dependent) true electric vehicles as well as plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). Of course, we are talking about different battery technologies as the Chevy Volt (among others) will lead the shift from the NiMH of the Prius to Lithium Ion now used in laptops and soon in automobiles.

If EV batteries have an improving cost-effectiveness curve comparable to laptops of the past 15 years, this solves one of the two main economic problems facing electric vehicles. The other is where we get another 3,000 GWh of electricity (presumably all distributed off peak).

Here is an opportunity where a blind faith in technological progress will apparently rewarded with solutions to a major cleantech business problem. I’ve been skeptical of such technological determinism for aspects of cleantech business, but it appears that for electric vehicles — like computers but unlike nuclear airplanes — market demand looks like it will solve key technology hurdles.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

GM's battery gambler

I'm an IEEE member, but have not been the most religious reader of the various pieces of glossy paper they send me every month, both the technical journals and the general interest magazines.

However, catching up over the weekend with the August IEEE Spectrum (the main magazine), I saw a couple of articles that provided an interesting insight on cleantech topics.

One was a long feature article on Denise Gray, a Detroit native and EE graduate of the GM-affiliated Kettering University. Gray has worked her way up through GM in a variety of electronics, embedded software and controller positions. The one that sounded most fun to me was managing the test suites (and testing) of the fuel-injection software for the small-block V8 of the 1997 Corvette.

From this, she was promoted in 1995 to a director-level position, the manager of software for all engine groups. She later became director of software engineering, director of controller integration, and overseeing all software for all automatic transmissions.

In October 2006, she was became the company’s first director for advance battery work, a high priority, highly visible job within the company.

Job one is to work with suppliers to design (and then select) the lithium-ion battery for the Chevy Volt, the long promised (but recently demonstrated) electric car due in November 2010. This car could be the most important vehicle for GM’s future in decades — particularly since the company’s survival has never been previously been more in doubt.

Gray worked with a wide range of potential suppliers to explain the company’s needs. The competition is down to two, Continental of Germany (using cells from US firm A123Systems), and CompactPower, using cells from parent LG Chem of Korea. It goes without saying that the performance (and durability) of the Volt will depend on Gray’s ultimate decision and its supplier’s ability to deliver on promises.

In addition to the human, technical and business interest story, there’s also the career lessons. Gray managed a 28-year fast-track career in which work came third after family and church, during a period when women engineers were uncommon. If my daughter eventually becomes a MechE or EE, these are the sort of role models I’d like her to have.