Clean energy is not for the weak-spirited

Recently in the downtown Fresno Radisson Hotel, five of us who make our living in clean energy discussed the state of the industry, the economy and the latest happenings in California's sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley.

"We're on the brink," one of our group said. "About to sail down the other side."

Like a roller coaster? Maybe. While our mood was optimistic -- you have to have a glass-half-full attitude to be in this line of work -- the reality of clean energy is that despite whatever technological advances made and the cost reductions in getting the Earth-friendly energy into the grid, there's always another hurdle, or several.

Modern Times

The latest wrench in the machine (I always think of Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" when I conjure that cliche) happens to be geopolitical. Continued Middle East unrest is messing with gas prices. Rather than flock to alternatives, the American public collectively hunkers down like the only available car on the road is an H2 Hummer.

A new study by the Pew Research Center says that while Americans still look favorably upon alternative energy, the sentimental surge in support for increased production of oil, coal and natural gas has increased over the past year. "Moreover, support for allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, which plummeted during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has recovered to pre-spill levels."

The study found 65 percent favor allowing increased offshore drilling, up from 57 percent a year ago and 44 percent in June 2010, during the Gulf spill.

I mentioned the study's findings at my little meeting in the Radisson, but it failed to phase anybody. This group has built up thick skin from years in the business. Selling clean energy, energy efficiency and clean air isn't for the weak-spirited.

Alternatives for energy security

Recently I did a couple of posts on natural gas. It's a cleaner burning fuel, and what I especially like about it is that the United States has a heck of a lot of it deep underground. I'm personally all for energy independence, and one of the ways to get there is the "all of the above" theory. That means including fossil fuels.

My friend Charles in Texas would beat me over the head with that fact, arguing about the importance of crude oil to super custom choppers, fast cars and jobs -- in about that order.

But I also want to be able to see the Sierra Mountains from my house. Currently, the majestic range is only visible after a drenching rain. There's just too much pollution sequestered in this natural bowl in the center of California.

Some solutions have drawbacks

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, better than diesel (but not clean burning diesel) and it generates comments like this from culled from a story by Adam Lesser in He quotes Carter Bales at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics Conference in Santa Barbara as saying, "Natural gas is half the carbon of coal. When we are burning natural gas, we are cooking ourselves a bit more slowly, but we’re clearly cooking ourselves."

Bales founded NewWorld Capital and is an authority on climate change. He points out the obvious in Lesser's piece, saying low cost energy via natural gas is good but may slow development of renewables.

Yet, the nation shouldn't ignore natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing must be done so that escaped gases don't infiltrate and render aquifers useless.

What sells in Berkeley

The bottom line is cost effectiveness. Vinod Khosla, green investor and venture capitalist, was quoted by Eric Wesoff of as saying, "Priuses sell well in Berkeley" but do not sell well in Mississippi, "and Mississippi is closer to the rest of the world than Berkeley."

In other words, for green to sell it has to make economic sense not just make you feel warm inside. "Nothing defies the law of economic gravity," Khosla says.

Ken Friesen, a Fresno Pacific University professor and shade-tree green mechanic, pointed this lesson out to those who walked by his homemade plug-in Prius at Fresno Earth Day 2012. On a no-nonsense display, he spelled out the cost between buying a new plug-in from the factory -- about $35,000 -- vs. a do-it-yourself version with an aftermarket battery pack and a used car.

The cost for the latter, as I recall -- about $17,000, depending on what you get the used Prius for and what kind battery pack used.

Those are market forces at work. Unfortunately, few are as talented as Friesen.

Market theory

The market theory is the same reason I have a VW Bug as my spare cool car. It's cheap and easy to work on and modify. There are a lot of VW enthusiasts. There is a ready supply of old bugs for a decent price and parts are available and cheap.

Apply that to clean energy. When solar panel prices drop to a certain sweet spot and battery prices become approachable to guys like me, expect a whole lot of new applications. Just like an iPhone, provide a platform and innovators will make stuff to put on it.

Nobody really wants to spend lots of money on electricity, just like nobody would prefer spending nearly $5 a gallon per gas. My mechanic was recently talking about when California instituted a 5 cent gas tax way back when he was a teenager (must have been the early 1970s). His boss at the gas station where he worked on Clovis Avenue and Fifth told employees to prepare for the worst.

After all, the tax represented a 20 percent increase in the price of fuel. Turns out nobody firebombed the station. My mechanic survived with a few insults and lectures, nothing a 17-year-old couldn't handle.

Chevelle economics 101

Given the chance, and maybe an affordable electric or plug-in conversion, many motorheads from in my era might jump at the chance to hop up a 1967 SS Chevelle (I just saw a sweet one like my old muscle car and placed a picture at the top of this story) so that it could blast by gas stations and just use the 396 cubic inch monster in emergencies. (Now that I try to make sense of how to engineer that, I wonder if it could be done. But I digress.)

So maybe we are on the brink. Leave it to the backyard innovator to make sense of it.

Photo: 1966 SS Chevelle found on