UC Merced

Wellness Wednesday: Reducing Food Waste

I have mentioned waste and recycling in a previous post, but recently came across another article in the Fresno Bee talking specifically about food waste. UC Merced and several other colleges have received praise by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency for their efforts to reduce food waste and increase awareness on the topic.
Source: Schaumburg's Sustainable Future

Food waste is expensive, crowds landfills, and adds to greenhouse gas emissions.  UC Merced composts cafeteria waste and has switched to recyclable food containers as part of its goal to achieve zero net energy consumption by 2020.

Ways you can help reduce food waste:

  • When eating out, order an appetizer or two, choose from the children’s menu, or share an entrée with a friend. Portion sizes at restaurants are absolutely out of control! This tip not only will help with food waste, but likely the size of your waist. I usually gravitate towards the appetizers on a menu because they just sound better! If you still have leftovers, take them home and enjoy for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner or get creative and incorporate with other ingredients for a whole new meal.
  • Take inventory of your fridge and pantry before grocery shopping. How many times do you come home from the store and struggle to find room in the pantry or refrigerator shelves? Take a cue from those who live in big cities: shop more frequently and only for what you will use for a few days or up to one week. Sure it is a bit more effort but you are more likely to use all of your ingredients before they expire or rot. I like to challenge myself to become more creative in the kitchen by utilizing everything I have to the very last drop, so to speak. Soups and stews are a great way to utilize leftovers and produce that are on their last leg. Overly ripe fruit that has not yet spoiled can be cut up in small bits and then frozen for use in smoothies or frozen yogurt.
  • Similar to the tip above, never grocery shop while hungry! It’s amazing what ends up in your cart when your stomach is growling. It’s likely that these impulse purchases will lead to extra waste/waist.
  • If portion control is an issue for you, eat off of smaller plates/bowls. You are less likely to stuff yourself silly and/or throw the extra bits of food on your plate in the trash.

10 cool advancements in clean energy

The Space Race showed nations can accomplish great things when everyone is committed to a common goal. Increasingly, people are suggesting that same we-can-do-anything attitude be applied to clean energy. In many ways, it's occurring.

Here are 10 things that grabbed my attention in recent days:

1/Solar windows: Much is being written about solar shingles and even solar clothing, but researchers are also studying if windows - think skyscrapers - could double as energy generators. Challenges abound, as this post in environment 360 points out because they have to be clear, but a Maryland company claims to have a way to spray on a see-through solar coating. Researchers and students at UC Merced also are working on something similar here;

2/The smart minds up the road from us at UC Merced designed an innovative low-cost, non-tracking solar thermal collector system that is able to operate with a solar thermal efficiency of 50% at extreme temperatures. Previously, only more complex tracking solar thermal collector systems could achieve this temperature. The system has practical applications in solar heating, cooling, desalination, oil extraction, electricity generation, and food processing, says Ron Durbin, executive director of University of California Advanced Solar Technologies Institute. Here's an ABC 30 story on it;

3/ Speaking of universities and solar cells, the equally smart minds at USC are developing nanocells that could fit on plastic. Think of the possibilities! More here;

4/ Isn't nature great! The humpback whale is influencing windmill blade design. Click here.

5/ Iceland wants to lay an undersea cable to export geothermal to Europe;

6/ A New York company uses on-site wind turbines to meet 60 percent of the power needs of a mammoth manufacturing plant. Gigaom has it - and more here;

7/ Sidewalks that use kinetic energy from footsteps to generate power for nearby appliances. Crazy, but read about it here. Similarly, these trains in Philly can store kinetic energy from braking for further use.

8/  Superman may not be able to change in these booths, but folks will be able to power up their electric vehicle and monitor pollution. Oh, and they can also make a call;

9/ Making good clean power out of bad bad land. Our blog;

10/  The U.S. and U.K. joining forces to develop floating wind power. More here.

These are just a few things that I noted in recent days, but certainly isn't complete. These solar powered bins that text when they're full are pretty cool too. Maybe it's true when people say clean energy is the next industrial revolution.

Video by UC Merced
Photo of people walking by Graham Kingsley


UC Merced sets the sustainable bar way, way up

The newest campus in the University of California system is quietly becoming a sustainable model and developing a reputation as a center for world-class research.

The University of California, Merced just had its seventh building certified gold by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.

Its long-range plan, which embraces economic, social and environmental sustainability in campus facilities, was named to the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment Top 10 Green Projects program.

And physics professor Sayantani Ghosh, along with Richard Inman, Georgiy Shcherbatyuk, Dmitri Medvedko and Ajay Gopinathan recently won recogntion of their research in renewable energy in the clean energy press.

Renewable research leader

Zachary Shahan of cleantechnica.com explains the research breakthrough as an effort "to redesign luminescent solar concentrators in order to make them more efficient at sending sunlight to solar cells."

Efficiency is the key to commercial viability in the renewable energy game. Keeping up with lower priced fossil fuels is the ultimate goal. Ghosh explains in Shahan's article that his team tweaked the traditional flat design for concentrators and made them hollow cylinders. Should the technology prove itself in cost and efficiency boosting, many, many more will hear about UC Merced.

The concentrator project is just one of a number of top-notch research programs that involve renewable energy at the San Joaquin Valley institution. Open just since Sept. 5, 2005, UC Merced is the 10th campus in the University of California system and calls itself "the first American research university of the 21st century."

"We’re attempting to set new standards for energy efficiency and environmental stewardship,” says Thomas Lollini, campus architect and an associate vice chancellor, in a statement, referring to the buildings on campus. However, the campus has embraced sustainability on multiple fronts.

Green building movement

The U.S. Green Building Council reports that LEED certified projects are pushing 1.9 billion square feet nationally. The designation was set up in 2000 to provide independent, third-party verification of cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.

In the United States, buildings account for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, 30 percent of waste output (136 million tons annually) and 12 percent of potable water consumption.

Any dent in that is a big deal.

Effort already a decade old

Richard Cummings, principal planner at UC Merced, says the green building movement on his campus began in 2002, when founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey established the goal of the campus meeting LEED silver for all buildings. What ended up happening is that all buildings but one ended up LEED gold, he says.

"As a result, our new 2009 master plan requires that all new buildings meet LEED Gold at a minimum and that the campus be zero net energy, zero waste and zero net emissions by 2020," Cummings says, adding that the campus also uses an internal, more-rigorous-than-LEED, benchmarking approach to energy efficient buildings.

The buildings certified LEED gold on the campus include the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library, Classroom Office Building, Science and Engineering 1, Sierra Terraces Dormitory, Joseph Gallo Recreation Center and the Central Plant. The Valley Terraces Dormitory is certified LEED silver.

Going for gold

Buildings expected to achieve gold certification include the Dining Expansion, the Early Childhood Education Center, Housing 3 and Social Science and Management Building. Building pursuing certification are Housing 4, Student Activity and Athletic Center, Science and Engineering Building 2 and the Student Services Building.

"UC Merced's commitment to LEED Gold combined with its aggressive energy saving design standards enables the campus to reduce energy costs by approximately $1 million per year when compared to typical university buildings in California," Cummings says.

"In addition, UC Merced's state of the art buildings are supplemented by a campus solar array that routinely produces half of campus electricity when the sun is shining and 1/6th of annual electricity needs."

Newest green building

Construction of the Logistical Support/Safety Facility, the seventh building certified gold, featured a number of sustainability-related achievements. About 77 percent of construction waste did not go to landfills but was ground up for reuse by farmers and nurseries.

Water use in the facility was reduced by 48 percent via the installation of waterless or low-flow urinals, lavatories and sinks. And 24 percent of the materials used in construction were made from recycled content.

All of those factors contributed to the high LEED ranking, officials say.

“This is a profound example of taking the long view of the built environment, setting out an early plan, identifying benchmarks, designing and building a campus, seeing if you are meeting your benchmarks, and continuous improvement until hopefully you reach the goals of zero energy and zero waste for 10,000 students in 2020,” wrote one juror who contributed to the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment ruling that put the campus on its Top 10 list.

“It’s an astonishing ambition, and they are on track.”

California On Way To Becoming Solar State?

One of my former newspaper colleagues referred in this post to "The great Central Valley solar rush," but it turns out that might be too regional. California could well become the great Solar State.

The number of proposed solar projects exceeds what is required to meet California's ambitious 33 percent renewables by 2020 mandate, according to this Reuters story. It's unlikely that all the proposals will be approved, but it is encouraging to the solar energy movement. I wonder if California will exceed the 33 percent mandate and, if so, by how much?

Solar makes sense in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California deserts where the sun shines brightly and land is abundant. There are challenges, however: Some farmers in the Valley fear conflicts with prime ag land, while habitat and other environmental concerns plague some desert projects.

The solar vs farmland issue will be discussed Feb. 6 by planning commissioners in Kings County, where an advisory agency is recommending that solar projects not be placed on land protected under The Williamson Act or on property that is designated "medium priority" or higher. Here is a study document that commissioners will review.

Still, solar is making inroads. Fresno property owners are discovering the power in rooftop solar, and the Valley's farmers are fast adding renewable sources to their operations. Agriculture and water pumping consume about 3.15% of the total power used in PG&E and SCE territories, according to the California Energy Commission, so participation from the farming community is welcome.

I lack the mental bandwidth to understand all the physics involved, but technological advances in solar energy are coming at a breath-taking rate. Costs are decreasing, and it won't be long until solar power reaches parity. Read here about what our friends at UC Merced's fast-emerging solar-energy research center are doing.

With costs falling and Gov. Brown's support, solar could expand in earnest in California, and we'll have more proposals such as this large one for thousands of solar panels in the west side of Fresno County.

Photo of Kerman solar substation courtesy of California Energy Commission

Jail Facilities Lock Up Solar Power

My friend half jokingly refers to the inland portion of Central California as "Valley of the Cons" because prisons employ so many people here. The state Department of Corrections is listed as major employers in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Coalinga, Corcoran and Chowchilla are home to some pretty large correctional facilities. Then there are the smaller county jails. Both kinds of lockups face the same dilemma: shrinking budgets. Maybe Solar Valley can meet Valley of the Cons. Sixty miles to my north is Merced County, where officials thought up a way to slash power bills, contribute to the state's ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and make a few bucks. They signed a deal with Siemens to put solar panels at a county jail. More on that here.

The idea of using solar energy at prisons isn't new. In 2001, GreenBiz.com wrote about this project in Alameda County, and state officials are planning solar panels at prisons in Delano and Tehachapi, both in Kern County (also Blythe and Lancaster, according to this story ).

The solar array in Merced County will cover 4.5 acres, offset 75 percent of the power usage at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility and Iris Garrett Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex, will lead to an estimated $14 million in energy savings over 25 years and could create $9 million of positive cash flow over the same 25 years. It also will eliminate about 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions when combined with lighting upgrades implemented by Siemens.

The county will receive solar incentives totalling $1.5 million over five years, and is eligible for PG&E's capital improvement rebate.

Powering jails with solar energy is only one way that local governments can slash utility costs. Increasingly, cities and counties are using solar energy to save money at their biggest energy hogs: water treatment plants.

SunPower Corp. has finished deals at water operations in Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento counties, according to this article in pv Magazine, but they are hardly isolated cases. Similar connections are in place in Parlier, Tulare and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. Learn more here.

The San Joaquin Valley, where I sit, is blessed with lots of sun. But that sun also creates triple-digit temperatures in the summer, which leads to high power bills and high energy use. Utilizing the rich solar resource to attack the high power bills makes sense here. That's why officials at UC Merced, which has a top-notch solar research program, unofficially dubbed this region "Solar Valley."

That certainly sounds better than "Valley of the Cons."

Photo: Aerial view of Tulare wastewater treatment plant

Solar Energy Scientists Descend On UC Merced

Blake Ringeisen stood out at a conference where much of the discussion centered around chemistry and physics. The tall, lanky and bearded graduate student researcher at University of California, Davis, provided the real-world perspective of concentrated solar energy when he showed that a simple solar fruit dryer can change the fortunes of farmers in east Africa.

In a region without electricity and refrigeration, Ringeisen's master's thesis, drawings of which were displayed at a solar research symposium at UC Merced, means that farmers who barely scratch out a living in Tanzania can preserve more of their harvest.

Without the dryer, up to 80 percent of their crop goes bad before it can be sold. With it, more tomatoes are dried faster and sold at higher prices, even during the off season, which means more money for farmers in underdeveloped nations.

Ringeisen tested two prototypes. He kept the designs simple - few moving parts, wood frame and polished aluminum surface - so that one or two people could build and move them using materials found in that region. One dryer had a concave design; the other was W-shaped. Both were built for $40 or less.

Both were effective, but the concave design was a little cheaper to build and dried tomatoes faster. The research showed once again that solar power can be a game changer in many places of the world, especially where electricity is unavailable or unreliable.

Solar power can help solve world problems, as noted in this Merced Sun-Star recap of the UC Merced symposium, and its use is likely to become more widespread as solar cells become cheaper and more efficient. There are some pretty impressive minds attempting to accomplish that, including some at Merced, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research.

Students and researchers from UC campuses in Merced, Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego, and other universities, are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells. Costs are dropping "spectacularly," said Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Meanwhile, the industry is expanding at a robust rate. Photovoltaic shipments are doubling every two years, and costs are falling.

Today, researchers are developing solar cells that are at least 40 percent efficient. Kurtz said 50 percent is possible as economies of scale, new approaches and advancements take hold. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," she said.

Many researchers are focusing on making thinner cells that concentrate light in smaller spaces and have the potential to change the market. Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission is boosting research through its Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program, which helps finance projects related to research in clean energy and energy efficiency. The agency estimates 2,128 Californians were working in early 2011 in jobs directly related to active PIER-funded research, and more than 3,000 other jobs are indirectly related.

PIER funds have aided efforts at UC Merced, where a grant for $75,000 led to the creation of a business in San Jose that has 180 employees and $100 million in investment. Another research grant from PIER for solar thermal technology was the catalyst for two start-up companies.

"We are looking for breakthrough technology," said Prab Sethi, senior project manager at the California Energy Commission.

Breakthrough technology or industrial revolution? Technology is advancing so fast, it's hard to decide.

(Photo of UC Merced solar symposium by Veronica Adrover of university communication)

Solar joins the right-price energy club

Solar parity is here.

Honest. That's what a new study from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario says.

"Given the state of the art in the technology and favourable financing terms it is clear that PV has already obtained grid parity in specific locations," say K. Brawker, M.J.M. Pathak and J.M. Pearce in the report, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity."

That and technological innovation, which is driving up solar system efficiencies, could open new markets and spur significant development of projects focused on harvesting the sun's energy. In California's San Joaquin Valley, we're already seeing the results with about 40 projects in the works in Fresno County and at least as many in nearby counties.

Ferocious cost reductions

Sami Grover, from treehugger.com, put it this way: "With the solar industry delivering ferocious cost reductions, falling as much as 11 percent in just six months, it's little wonder that some predict that solar will be cheaper than coal in the very near future."

A cleantechnica.com editor says the findings by Queen's University don't even take into account health, energy security and environmental costs of fossil fuels "and it STILL finds that solar has reached grid parity in many places."

The recent Durban Climate Summit clarified the dangers of allowing pollution to continue without restraint. The cost and potential damage of unparalleled production of greenhouse gases is impossible to determine. But one thing's for certain, it will be huge.

The rapid innovation of solar technology offers a way to cut into reliance on fossil fuels. Whether it will make a difference is anybody's guess.

Solar interest high

A solar research symposium at the University of California, Merced, Dec. 9, 2011, draws students and researchers from UC Merced's program, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research, and University of California campuses of Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego as well as other universities. All report that their programs are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells.

At the symposium, Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells my co-worker Sandy Nax that costs are dropping "spectacularly."

Nax also reports in a recent post that the industry is expanding at a robust rate with photovoltaic shipments doubling every two years.

Gaining efficiency

While many photovoltaic cells on the market range between 12 and 20 percent efficient, moves are being made to increase that number significantly. However, those technologies also cost more. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," Kurtz says.

Some in our sun-drenched valley are concerned about seeing solar panels everywhere, especially on prime farmland. Nax tells me that efficiencies reduce solar's footprint and likely will improve its image, especially amongst concerned farmers.

That and estimated $1 per watt equipment costs will go a long way toward influencing standards that include photovoltaic panels as part of nearly every newly constructed building or major retrofit and remodel. Toss in escalating electricity rates, and solar may become as common as flat-screen television sets in American households.

But rather than offering entertainment, this electronic device will create a new era of distributed energy.

Nothing's easy

There will be challenges. For instance, what happens when the sun falls below the horizon? Cheap solar provides options that weren't otherwise available. Perhaps production of hydrogen will become more widespread that either can be used in fuel cells or in other applications.

Political leaders also will have to knuckle under and institute more laws like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the requirement that utilities get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Otherwise, the incentive by the private sector to start figuring out cleaner alternatives might not great enough to foster widespread change.

It can be done. Even at Durban, which drew representatives from 190 countries, leaders in the final hours of the Climate Summit put together what some media sources call a road map to a legally binding climate treaty by 2020.

We'll see.

Solar's Emerging Power In Central California

Solar power continues to expand in the central San Joaquin Valley, where projects in Fresno and Tulare counties are coming online. Today, PG&E symbolically flips the switch on three power stations near Five Points that will deliver enough solar energy to run 15,000 houses. Here is more from The Fresno Bee.

And here is a report on an interesting project a county away, where Dinuba officials will affix more than 4,700 solar panels to a landfill, and then use the 1 megawatt of power to operate the city's wastewater treatment plant. Typically, those types of facilities are among a city's biggest energy hogs.

Dinuba isn't the first city to use solar energy to decrease power bills at its water treatment plant, and likely won't be the last, as we reported in this blog that outlined similar projects in the Valley - and other possible uses for solar.

Solar is making its way onto rooftops, into agriculture operations and even onto roads. How much it expands remains to be seen, but the potential is sunny, considering California's 33 percent renewables mandate, the falling cost of residential systems and improving technology.

Just yesterday, folks at at UC Merced (oh, how we love UC Merced and its top-notch research programs!) announced a new kind of solar system that doesn't have to track the sun. Read more here in the Merced Sun-Star.

Maybe, Gov. Jerry Brown was right when he predicted a solar revolution in California.

The Coming Solar Energy Revolution in California and the San Joaquin Valley

It's not often that tiny Fowler hosts the governor, but that's what happened today when Jerry Brown used the Fresno County community of 5,500 people and a high school jazz band as the backdrop for signing three renewable-energy bills into law.

The legislation allows Fowler Unified School District to save $14 million in energy costs over 25 years; authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission to collect funds for renewable-energy rebates (typically, about $83 million each year); and requires the state Department of Fish and Game to accelerate its permitting process for clean-energy projects.

The Fowler school district will affix solar panels on Marshall Elementary, which will enable the district to save almost $500,000 the first year. But it won't be the only school in the state to get solar energy. The bill, SB 585, authored by Sen. Christine Kehoe D-San Diego, authorizes $200 million for the statewide California Solar Initiative, according to Brown's office.

Brown's office noted the bills were signed on the same day the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued its third dirty air alert of the week.

"California’s children deserve clean air and a bright future,” said Brown. “They deserve good jobs and a strong economy. The bills I signed today are part of a solar-energy revolution that is sweeping our state. These bills will help create jobs, lower electric bills and clean up the air we breathe.” Learn more here and in this Fresno Bee story.

The projects will help meet the state's objective of 20,000 megawatts from renewable sources by 2020. The California Solar Initiative, funded through utility companies, gives rebates for solar installations on commercial, industrial, nonprofit and government and other non-residential buildings, including schools.

The Department of Fish and Game bill, introduced by Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, could help speed up applications in the Valley and high desert region of Kern County, where, according to Fish and Game officials, thousands of acres of proposed clean-energy projects are proposed.

The Valley, with high power bills, lots of land and sun, along with a midstate location and access to transmission lines and bright minds at UC Merced, Fresno State University and Cal Poly, could be a leader in solar and other types of clean energy.

Brown's choice of words, describing a solar-energy "revolution" in California, was notable. His highly public event was on the same day that President Obama announced the winners of a $37 million "jobs and innovation" challenge that include a proposed collaboration between high-tech capital and technology in San Diego with the natural resources of Imperial County to create a "mega-region" of renewable energy.

The opportunity in California is staggering.

Valley Farmers Turning To The Sun To Power Their Operations

We've written time and again about how the San Joaquin Valley is ideal for solar and other types of renewable-energy programs. That's due in part because the land is flat - and there is lots of it - and because leaders of the region's largest economy are discovering the power of alternative energy.

Farming is a $20 billion enterprise here. Valley growers produce nuts, fruits and vegetables that are sold worldwide. Agriculture requires much energy, and farmers are increasingly turning to renewable sources to provide that power.

Here are some examples, including a blog that details how California growers lead the nation in the production of renewable energy. Today's Los Angeles Times showcases a new 6-acre array of solar panels that will provide 70% of the power to a pistachio orchard. Here's a press release on the announcement.

We expect solar and other types of alternative to expand in the resource-rich and geographically-blessed San Joaquin Valley as pressure mounts to meet a 33% statewide renewable-energy standard that awaits Gov. Brown's signature.

The Valley, with thousands of acres of available land, ample sun, a mid-state location close to major population centers and University of Merced's cutting-edge research, could be positioned to be a leader in renewable energy.

image: news.morningstar.com

Here comes fat algae; research unveils potential commercial fuel production

Every couple of weeks appears to bring an algae fuel technological breakthrough, study or news of a pilot venture to bring the process from the laboratory to your corner fuel station.

Granted, fueling up with algae products is likely many years away. But it's being taken seriously. Right here in the San Joaquin Valley, experts at the University of California, Merced have been awarded a grant to analyze emerging algae biofuels technologies.

And the U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced that it will be accepting applications for $12 million in grants over the next three to four years for about five "laboratory or small pilot-scale projects that support the development of advanced biofuels." Technologies like cellusic ethanol or fuel-tank-ready butanol may be first to the gate, but algae research has a strong shot.

For instance, John Sheehan, who coordinates research on biofuels at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, just produced a 34-page study about a algae-to-fuel breakthrough discovered by scientists researching cancer treatments. The study was developed on behalf of VG Energy, a subsidiary of San Marino, Calif.-based. Viral Genetics Inc.

Those researchers found that molecules which disrupt the burning of fats, or lipids, in tumor cells "also encourage microscopic plant cells like algae to accumulate and even secrete fats," Sheehan wrote.

And those fats can be used for fuel. The more the better. Separating them out is the challenge. But Sheehan stated prominently that "VG Energy’s technology show the promise to compete with crude oil in today’s market."

Sheehan said getting algae cells to secrete lipids (by a factor of three) makes it easier to separate the oils from the water and the green glop from which it originates. And he said it "opens up the possibility that oil can be separated and recovered from the algae in a non-destructive way."

Recycling that material back into the system at a rate of 75 percent enables producers to possibly extract biodiesel and jet fuel for $94 a barrel, comparable with today's crude prices, Sheehan said. Crude, according to oil-price.net, pushed past $106 per barrel the end of March and up to $123 on the one-year forecast.

John Platt, a reporter for Mother Nature Network, wrote in a story of Sheehan's study that "biofuel researchers have been seeking a technique to accomplish this switch, known as the 'lipid trigger,' since the 1990s." If VG can master the concept, algae may be developed into a competitive product.

Algae already grows quickly and consumes CO2, which makes it possible coal-burning power plants may be interested in developing a side business in pond scum.

And if, like me, this entire algae-fuel concept intrigues you, there is even the opportunity for home brew. Algae-oil.com offers the ebook, "How to Make Biodiesel." Reminds me of my beer-making days when I was in my late 20s and early 30s and still working at the Anchorage Times.

This would be different, but not much (just don't drink multiple bottles). It would be possible to bottle that brew. The site says algae is easy to grow, needing a nice mix of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

The authors did kind of lose me when they talked about the ease of setting up a home bioreactor, described as "a controlled environment where you can grow algae in a faster phase." The bioreactor keeps out contamination and other unwanted substances.

I applaud their moxie, however. Perhaps this is the era of the alternative, one in which the shade-tree mechanic or obscure researcher toiling away for a relative pittance figures out a way -- or combination of ways -- that gets this country back to energy self-sufficiency.

New Green Hall of Fame Inducts First Members

Six businesses and entities were the first inductees of the International Green Industry Hall of Fame at a recent conference at University of California, Merced.

They are: American Council on Renewable Energy; Duke Smart Home Program; Grundfos; Josh Dorfman, The Lazy Environmentalist; Drip Tech; and the city of Fresno's recycling program, according to the Merced Sun-Star, which covered the event.

About 250 people, including students in green programs, attended the conference last Friday. It was appropriate that UC Merced hosted the inaugural session.

The campus, which is the newest in the University of California system, is rapidly becoming a leader in the green movement. Seven of its buildings are either Silver or Gold LEED certified, and the campus conducts cutting-edge research into solar and biofuels. It is in the middle of the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley, which is attracting strong interest from developers of renewable energy, particularly solar.

In fact, UC Merced says its goal is to become "the hub of Solar Valley." The Valley has lots of sun, acres of flat land that can be used for solar facilities, is close to transmission lines, has windmills off its southern and northern tips, is sandwiched between major population centers , is ringed by universities that can use the Valley as a giant Petri dish and a population with high power bills that can benefit from energy efficiency and development programs.

Image: idealist.org

UC Merced Shows Its True Colors (Green) By Hosting Event

It is no secret that we love UC Merced.

The newest campus in the University of California system is rapidly gaining cred for its heavy green tint. It already is a leader in cutting-edge solar and biofuel research, has six LEED Gold and one LEED Silver buildings and is not shy about its desire to become the greenest campus in the United States.

So, I guess it is natural for the university to host tomorrow's inaugural International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF) Induction Ceremony and Conference. The highlight of the daylong event is the announcement of the first six inductees into the new Hall of Fame, which is designed to recognize individuals and organizations for outstanding achievements in the green industry and to provide an educational forum.

The Hall of Fame is the brainchild of Sam Geil, president of Geil Enterprises Inc., a diversified employee-owned Fresno-based business that has several green initiatives.

Geil's involvement in the green industry began during his tenure at Grundfos Pumps and continued at Geil Enterprises Inc. with the acquisition of A-MAZ Cleaning Products. In 2007, he was invited by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to participate in the Pacific Economic Summit in Vancouver, British Columbia representing sustainable industries in California.

The Hall of Fame event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and includes speakers and tours of the campus. Speakers include Rod Diridon, Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a policy research center at San Jose State University. He will talk about high-speed rail.

Campus architect Thomas E. Lollini will talk about the design of UC Merced, and attorney Donald Simon, co-founder of Build It Green and the U.S. Green Building Council's Northern California chapter, will speak at a dinner reception about America's competitive edge in the new energy economy.

The San Joaquin Valley - with its rich agriculture base, a history of can-do entrepreneurial spirit, vast land and sun resources, access to the transmission grid, mid-state location and high energy bills - can be a leader in the emerging green economy.

And UC Merced, along with the new Hall of Fame, could play key roles in that transformation.

Clean Energy: The Pathway To A New Economy

Tim Sheehan's story in yesterday's Fresno Bee touches on a familiar theme here in the San Joaquin Valley: Diversifying the employment base.

The Valley is the nation's salad bowl. Its farmers produce $20 billion worth of food and fiber annually, most of which ends up on dinner tables worldwide or, in the case of cotton, is woven into shirts and other products sold in department stores.

But farm labor, which projections show could increase in demand, is not necessarily high paying. And the other projected growth industries in the Valley - retail and food service - also don't require much education and training - and pay low wages.

Thus, the need for creating new industries. The most obvious: renewable energy.

The resource-rich Valley is well positioned to be a leader in alternative energy. UC Merced recognizes that, and is conducting cutting-edge solar-energy research. Officials there see the Valley's sun resources as an attribute.

Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison recently announced or turned the switch on major solar projects. Farmers are increasingly embracing sun, methane and biofuels. The wind turbine-rich Tehachapi and Altamont passes are off our southern and northern tips respectively.

And there is something else: an increasing recognition that Valley officials are onto something. In October, the Valley was designated an Innovation Hub (iHub), which is designed to foster partnerships, economic development and job creation around specific research clusters.

UC Merced, California State University, Fresno, (which has innovative water and agriculture programs) and the Central Valley Business Incubator are key stakeholders in the iHub, which will focus on the interrelated issues of agriculture technology, water and energy.

"The iHub brings us together and gets us talking, " said Mike Dozier, interim director of the
Office of Community & Economic Development at Fresno State.

In addition, high schools and colleges are starting to expand green programs, studies are starting to reinforce the potential of green jobs here and elsewhere, and legislation is starting to include the Valley in proposed green programs.

Our non-profit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, has a Web site that provides lesson plans and other resources to high school teachers, and job links to students and job seekers, and a component in a proposed bill would provide millions to facilitate green energy projects in the Valley.

With low incomes, a robust population growth rate, high power bills and asthma rates and a jobless rate that exceeds Appalachia, the Valley needs clean energy more than most places. Some people contend the Valley could generate enough power to be self-sustaining - or even a power producer.

Look at a map: The San Joaquin Valley is dead center in the state, is ringed by research universities such as UC Merced, Fresno State, Cal Poly and UC Davis, and is sandwiched between major population centers of Southern California, The Bay area and Sacramento that consume gobs of electricity.

Of course, budget issues are a factor. Deficits abound, but Dozier says those shouldn't curtail efforts. "We need to do what we can within the limitations of what we have," he said. "We need to grow intelligently."

Renewable energy could be to the San Joaquin Valley what high tech is to Silicon Valley and Hollywood is to Los Angeles.

Algae biofuel develops momentum; could we see $30 bbl fuel?

Algae keeps nosing around clean energy news.

It doesn't have the sunny cache of solar or the exotic qualities of wind, tidal and geothermal power. But the rapidity of algae fuel's reported advances are hard to ignore. At least for this former reporter.

In my backyard at the University of California, Merced, researchers received a grant to "perform a comprehensive life cycle analysis study of algae biofuels." The money, a modest $142,747, is part of about $3.5 million issued by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research program.

Algae takes a back seat in the grant to other projects that include improving grid reliability, energy efficiency and automobile fuel economy. But, hey, it's algae. Pond scum. This is the stuff that may be grown in wastewater settling ponds, harvested and turned into diesel fuel. Or food additives, you never know.

But the important thing is algae wasn't left out. It's not cold fusion. This stuff shows true promise as an alternative energy source.

CEC Commissioner Jeffrey Byron put it this way in a statement from the agency: "California's strength comes from the ability to invest in energy research across the board."

No kidding. And this pond scum just may keep oil prices from breaking the bank. Cambridge, Mass.-based Joule Unlimited announced that it has created a "cynobacterium" that secrete a product identical to ethanol or diesel fuel, according to Joule biologist Dan Robertson, quoted in dailytech.com.

This breakthrough, the company says, could enable the production of 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually. The company says it can do it for $30 a barrel.

That has yet to be proved commercially, of course. But developments are coming hot and heavy across the globe. Biodigest.com rattled off a handful of promising developments in Australia, topping off the list with serious production efforts by Aurora Algae and Algae.Tec.

And Oilgae.com/blog/, an aggregator of stories, lists multiple posts daily. One that caught my eye highlighted a peer review of the draft report “Biofuels and the Environment: First Triennial Report to Congress,” scheduled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report will give Congress a taste of what's coming.

Expect pond scum to do more than lurk in a puddle on the floor with lobbyists during discussion.

I do like to include practical applications in these rants. Nothing epitomizes that more than the biofuel-powered Bentley Continental Supersports convertible, reportedly capable of more than 200 mph. The vehicle debuted this week at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland. Ami Cholia of inhabitat.com writes: "an on-board fuel supply system monitors the content of the fuel tank to make sure that power and torque remain constant regardless of the ratio of petrol to biofuel."

Pretty cool. So it can handle anything you throw at it and still go fast. We put fuel oil in a bug once and it ran. Barely. We had to clean the plugs, but it got us out of a jam.

The Bentley, I assume, would be better.

Biofuels still must prove themselves. Ethanol, even as an additive, has gotten mixed reviews. For instance, the lawnmower mechanic in Old Town Clovis told me if I kept using that "cheap garbage gas" I'd continue to have problems with my mower's carburetor. Her gripe? Ethanol. It gets gummy and nasty if allowed to sit too long. (Hint: use stabilizer.)

UC Merced plans to analyze emerging algae biofuels technology and provide feedback on the rather interesting concept of extracting fuel that doesn't require much land, water or tending. And pond scum grows rapidly in any kind of water. The leftover material, after oil extraction, could be used for fertilizer.

"We will consider the efficient use of residual algae biomass as an energy rich waste stream and new harvesting techniques that could improve the sustainability of the overall process," wrote J. Elliott Campbell and Gerardo Diaz of UC Merced and Joseph M. Norbeck of University of California, Riverside.

As I read over their proposal, I determined that the process of extracting and refining sounds far above my paygrade. But as I was scanning through one of the many algae related websites, I found this do-it-yourself book: "Making Algae Biodiesel at Home" (Making-Biodiesel-Books.com, $99.99). It says it can, among other things, show the home brewer how to build an 80-gallon algae photobioreactor "for less than $215."

Somehow it doesn't sound as promising as my once prolific beer-brewing efforts in Anchorage before I was married. But who knows? The practice may catch on.

All you need is a biofuel Bentley.

UC Merced Study: Higher Greenhouse Gases Could Alter Oceans

UC Merced, the newest University of California campus, is rapidly gaining cred for its research in, among other things, energy and the environment. As evidence, note a just-released study that concludes increased greenhouse gases could make oceans more acidic, and could profoundly affect marine life.

The study concludes that rising greenhouse gases, caused in part by the burning of fossil fuels and human activities, could alter nitrogen cycles in the ocean. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for organisms, so the impact could be substantial. The result could be an altered food chain - and unknown consequences.

"There is growing concern about this issue because human activities are modifying ocean pH so rapidly," said UC Merced biologist and researcher Michael Beman. "While we do not know what the full effects of changing the nitrogen cycle will be, we performed experiments all over the world and believe that these changes will be global in extent."

The report stems from the latest research at UC Merced, which has recorded more than 50 breakthroughs and discoveries, including 16 inventions related to solar energy and 12 related to health research.

Mendota Could Get Another Solar Project

A new power purchase agreement between Pacific Gas & Electric and North Star Solar could lead to a second solar project in Mendota, a West Fresno County community struggling with high joblessness.

North Star says in this press release that the plant, which could be in operation by mid-2013, would generate 60 megawatts of power, enough to power 30,000 to 60,000 houses. The project, which is still subject to regulatory and financing approvals, would be the second solar project in the Mendota area behind a 5-megawatt, 50-acre plant run by Meridian Energy.

Mendota's unemployment rate is nearly 40%, and some experts think renewable energy, especially solar, could be a way to create jobs in the sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley. A professor at University of California, Merced, reported that renewable-energy and high-speed rail projects proposed for the Valley could produce 100,000 jobs if constructed.

The majority of those would be energy related. Dr. Shawn Cantor studied approved and proposed biomass, hydrogen, solar and wind projects, concluding that up to 79,512 construction jobs are possible over the next decade. That does not include payrolls created from smaller-scale projects on houses and buildings.

Photo of Meridian project in Mendota.

Edison Solar Project Generates 125 Jobs in Porterville

On the heels of a UC Merced report that says clean energy could produce 100,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley comes this announcement from Southern California Edison: A solar power plant being built near Porterville will create about 125 construction jobs.

The solar array of 29,400 panels is being built on 32 acres of city land next to the Porterville airport. It will generate enough electricity to power 4,000 houses. in the area.

The installation joins SCE power plants online in Fontana and Chino, both in the Inland Valley portion of Southern California, and six others under construction in the same region. Over the next five years, the utility plans to install 250 million watts of solar power at 100 sites. Its solar program could create 1,200 jobs, the utility says.

The San Joaquin Valley is considered ripe for renewable-energy projects and research. Ample sunshine; abundant land - much of it out-of-production farmland; proximity to transmission lines; fewer concerns over endangered species; and a strong labor force are some of assets.

In addition, high power bills and low incomes make the Valley a natural for energy-efficiency programs.
(map from Valley-Can.org)

Study: San Joaquin Valley Has Potential for 100,000 Local Clean Energy Jobs

Renewable-energy projects slated for the San Joaquin Valley could bring more than 100,000 jobs to the area, according to a new study by UC Merced Professor Dr. Shawn Kantor.

The study, "The Economic Opportunity from Clean Energy Jobs in California's San Joaquin Valley," calculates job creation from two of the Valley's most significant industries including planned and pending-approval renewable energy projects and the high-speed rail system. Jointly, these two industries are expected to create as many as 103,510 new production and construction jobs in the San Joaquin Valley. Production jobs are defined in the study as long-term, while construction jobs are limited-term.

"Taken together, clean energy and high speed rail have the potential to fundamentally change the trajectory of economic development and job creation in the San Joaquin Valley," said Kantor, professor and County Bank Endowed Chair in Economics at University of California Merced, author of the study. "The San Joaquin Valley is keeping pace with other regions by creating just as many jobs to support a clean energy economy in California."

The report, issued by the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy, explains that the San Joaquin Valley is well positioned to attract jobs in the clean energy sector – three jobs for every one job created by the high-speed rail system. The transition to cleaner energy sources is expected to bring economic growth to the region, supporting cleantech as well as traditional business.

Valley renewable energy projects analyzed in the study include Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) in Kern County, Bioenergy in Fresno, Madera Power in Madera, DTE Energy Services in San Joaquin County, Eurus San Drag in Kings County, and SPS Alpaugh in Tulare County, among others.

"This report illustrates that a healthy and prosperous future for the Valley, and all of California, depends upon a clean, green and efficient economy," said Susan Frank, coordinator for the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy. "As these Valley-based jobs are created, that will translate into a boost in the bottom line for the many small, mainstream businesses providing products and services for the clean tech sector."

According to the author, the major economic waves that have swept across California in recent decades, such as biotechnology and computer technology, have largely bypassed the San Joaquin Valley. Meanwhile, the emerging clean technology sector is creating jobs at an equal pace with other regions of the state.

For example, statewide employment in clean energy grew from 117,000 to 159,000 from 1995 to 2008 (36%), while San Joaquin Valley employment increased by 48% over the same period (Next 10: Many Shades of Green, 2009). Further, the San Joaquin Valley is expected to produce 10% of California's renewable energy within the next ten years once all pending biomass, solar, hydrogen and wind energy projects come online, with the majority of job creation coming from solar.

"The best part about it is that the renewable energy industry is bringing jobs to our community. These jobs are coming to California because of clean energy policies that make us a leader in the nation," said Tom Cotter, Central California sales manager for Real Goods Solar and member of the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy. "In fact, Fresno is well positioned to be a leader in this effort. We have skilled workers, university resources and an unlimited supply of entrepreneurial spirit."

Cotter is co-founder of Green Fresno and is the organizer of Fresno Solar Tour, part of the National Solar Tour, the largest annual grassroots solar event in history.

Based on projections from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, an estimated 24,000 construction jobs will be created in the San Joaquin Valley to build the rail network in the region. The high-speed rail network and strong renewable electricity standards (33% by 2020) are included in the plan to meet the goals of the state's landmark clean energy law (AB 32).

The report is available online at http://www.ca-greenbusinessalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/SJV_Econ_Study_10-13-10.pdf.

The California Business Alliance for a Green Economy is a network of more than 930 small, mainstream businesses and business associations around the state who believe that a healthy and prosperous future for California depends on a clean, green and efficient economy. The California Business Alliance for a Green Economy supports the implementation of California's clean energy policies, including AB 32, through the adoption of standards and programs by the California Air Resources Board and other public agencies.

Visit us at www.ca-greenbusinessalliance.com.

Contact: BreAnda Northcutt, (916) 446-1955

New York Times notes UC Merced study

A research project at UC Merced received mention in a New York Times story about tracking clouds to predict solar-power potential.
The article notes UC Merced's stimulus-funded plan to use sensors to study cloud cover, water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What's particularly impressive is that the San Joaquin Valley campus gets mentioned alongside the prestigious Sandia National Laboratories.
Check it out here.