Small stuff drives clean energy movement; but battles loom

My great-grandfather made and lost three fortunes and used to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff."

However, clean energy appears to thrive on the small stuff, despite or perhaps because of the fledgling sector's rather uncertain future. Incremental advances in solar and LED technology have dropped prices and are improving performance, while breakthroughs in biofuel technologies are encouraging the private sector to capitalize promising companies.

The U.S. Department of Energy has been in on the act, issuing rounds of small grants and encouraging clean energy development with seed money in the first half of 2011. The agency announced $11 million for the oft-overlooked geothermal sector, with $6.6 million going to California projects. The agency also committed a partial guarantee for a $1.4 billion loan to support Project Amp, which supports installation of solar panels on industrial buildings across the country.

The private sector, meanwhile, hasn't been sitting on its hands. Chicago-based S&C Electric Co. provided Southern California Edison with an electric storage device that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly on the scenic Catalina Island, Calif. The island is off-grid and relies on diesel generation for its power.

"S&C continues to innovate new solutions," said Jim Sember, an S&C vice president, in a statement.

On an entirely different front, but no less important, is San Diego-based Genomatica, which won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. Judges said, according to a statement, "By producing the exact same chemicals made today from fossil fuels, but from renewable feedstocks, Genomatica's technology has the potential for broad industry impact."

And the company may do it more cheaply. Major corporations are lining up.

The small stuff is especially important because the winnowing process in the energy sector is not expected to be resolved soon. The oil industry expects to remain dominant for decades and coal will continue to be a big player despite its environmental drawbacks.

Michael T. Klare, author of "Rising Powers Shrinking Planet," says in a recent post on TomDispatch that he believes it will take 30 years for "experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development."

Klare says some will survive, some won't. He likens the coming vetting process to the 30 Years War, between European powers in what is now Germany from 1618 to 1648. The sometime religious conflict was punctuated by fierce battles and loss of life. For instance, Klare says, an eventual shift from petroleum could be intensely risky and potentially fatal for the world's oil corporations.

Meanwhile, other corporations are doing what they can to reduce their exposure to energy costs. SC Johnson, the Racine, Wis.-based maker of Pledge and Glade products, is but one of many looking to enhance efficiency. The company says it reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from operations by nearly a third over the past six years by installing a methane and natural gas co-generation plant for its domestic operations, a palm shell generation system in Indonesia -- reducing diesel use by 80 percent and wind power.

In the United Kingdom, Ricoh has debuted a solar and wind powered billboard along London's M4 motorway that's lit only when the weather's conducive. The company already has a version up in New York's Times Square. And in Fresno, the city has added solar-powered parking meters that accept debit cards.

I'm not certain if we needed that last one. But the innovations keep coming. Whether there will be a battle of technologies similar to "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" remains to be seen.