Putting A Bug In For Green Energy

As interest in biofuel heats up, so does research into various forms. Alternatives are being studied, including camelina,, which can be grown on marginal farmland, and algae, but there are other opportunities too.

In Michigan, researchers from Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center are studying whether genes from fungi that live near bark beetles can efficiently produce bio-ethanol from stalks, leaves, wood chips, sawdust and dead trees.

Allison Leahy has more in this fascinating report in CleanTechies and Earth & Industry.

The Michigan research is an example of the tremendous progress being made in alternative fuels and clean energy - a movement that some analysts have likened to America's industrial revolution.

Advancements are announced regularly. Just today, I read this: the use of molten salt to store solar power so it can be used when the sun is not shining. An MIT study also is under way.

Who knows where all this will lead. The recent federal debt agreement casts doubt on Washington D.C.'s ability to participate, but some states, such as California, are pushing ahead with green agendas.

Some heavy hitters in the corporate world are pursuing sustainability as core programs. UPS just announced that its alternative fuel fleet motored 200 million miles over the past decade. Walmart, General Electric, Google and others, have recognized that going green produces green for the bottom line.

Let's hope the message spreads.

Biofuel Research Taking Center Stage

I sit in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, a bountiful region that has been referred to as the world's salad bowl - and for good reason.

Farmers here produce $20 billion worth of food and fiber annually that is shipped worldwide. Growers in Central California are efficient, productive, technologically advanced and raise a myriad of crops. Which leads me to wonder: could they become leaders in biofuel development too?

The United States and Brazil dominate biofuel production, led by ethanol. In 2009, the U.S. produced half of the world's supply of ethanol, most of it from corn, according to this report that UC Berkeley helped develop.

More production is likely as research into biofuel continues. Algae - pond scum and easily grown - shows promising potential. UC Merced, 60 miles from my desk in Fresno, is conducting cutting-edge research into algae, and a water-treatment company has inked a deal to distribute algae-extraction systems to its customers.

Algae research already is creating jobs, according to the study that UC Berkeley participated in. Solazyme, a biotech firm near San Francisco, has been hiring algae researchers at the rate of one per week. But other types of fuel are being tested as well. Among them are jatropha, switchgrass , sorghum (which is being tested in Hanford), canola and Miscanthus.

President Obama, trying to wean the nation off oil, is offering $30 million over the next three or four years for biofuel research, and the Berkeley study talks about growth in the industry.

"As start-ups mature and commercialize their technologies, the industry will bring on workers for a full range of production needs. That diverse workforce will range from farmers to....molecular engineers."

Farmers will be needed to grow the fuel sources, whatever they may be. The Southeast and Midwest are promising centers of biofuel, but some of the research is occurring in California, according to this report out of Parlier.

I wonder if the Valley's farmers - who are among the most entrepreneurial in the world - can perhaps help create a new cash crop.

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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, 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. 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.

Algae fuel and solar could use a little entrepreneurial True Grit

Recent developments in solar and biofuels lead me to believe that the sunny San Joaquin Valley could indeed become a leader in the emerging clean energy industry.

My co-worker Sandy Nax has called the Valley a Petri dish for alternative energy development because it has so many of the necessary attributes: available land, scorching sun and/or clear days a majority of the year, wind in the mountains and scads of agricultural resources for biofuel or biogas.

This morning, Sandy leaned over from his computer and said, "Clean energy could be a game changer." He was referring to the economy.

Sandy and I discuss the attributes of the sorry state of economic affairs that have devastated the region's real estate, toppled government tax revenues and put many of our neighbors out of work.

We used to work in the newspaper business, which hasn't fared well these past several years. As part of our jobs writing and editing business stories, we spent years analyzing trends and making sense of them.

This clean energy trend has been fascinating to watch. I still have no idea where it's going and what particular component will be the first to fuel jobs, but indicators have been extremely positive.

Just in the small amount of time I've been affiliated with the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, great strides have been made in industrial solar, offshore wind and biofuel. And that's just on top of the energy efficiency measures being taken by government, business and consumers.

While power from pond scum, or algae, intrigues me beyond all measure, commercializing the extraction of usable fuel at a decent price could be years away. Fellow reporter Jeff St. John reminded me after one post of algae's shortcomings.

Concentrated solar is another realm of massive possibility. The trick with solar is to increase efficiency and lower cost to make it reach or surpass "parity" with fossil fuels. The advancements in concentrated solar now in use were hinted at when I covered a San Jose start-up back in the mid 1980s.

I remember thinking, "That would be cool."

My optimism is bolstered by statements like this from John Denniston, a partner at greentech investor Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, as reported by Andrew Nusca at "Some geographies are at (solar) grid parity: in Italy, in some parts of California."

Denniston made the comment at the 2011 Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. He said the industry is poised for a very big take-off, and he was talking about solar as a whole, not just the concentrated variety, which remains relatively rare.

A column by Christian Wolan on caught my eye when's aggregator service sent it my way. Here's good old stalwart Forbes, albeit the electronic version, writing about pond scum. That's got to be a development in credibility, right?

To close out his review of the state of the technology, Wolan uses a quote from Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that says it's "developing a breakthrough technology that will transform algae, the most promising source of renewable oil, into a true competitor to petroleum."

Wolan wrote that "referring to the algae biofuel programs of ExxonMobile, BP, Chevron and Valero, Eckelberry said, 'This final factor alone is driving the funding of algae projects.'"

I may as well quote myself here. Being raised in Interior Alaska, I'm very familiar with the power of oil companies. I watched when the first overland truck and cat train forged north up ice roads to Prudhoe Bay to develop the oil fields. Then grew to high-school age amongst the massive piles of pipe that either went overland or underground 800 miles to Valdez.

Many of us believed those companies could do anything. Perhaps it's that wildcatter streak that infuses much of the industry, the "Git Er Done" mentality, that turns a dream into job-creating reality.

I missed the pipeline boom of the mid 1970s, but I did get a job in Valdez in 1978 building foundations and basement and driveway slabs in a nicely designed subdivision -- Mineral Creek if I remember correctly. Huge mobile cranes dropped the manufactured homes onto the foundations when we finished. The boxy three-bedroom two-bath homes had been used to house the thousands of workers who built the terminal across the bay from the tiny city.

It would be nice to see a fraction of that kind of ingenuity, grit or tenacity -- from whatever source -- funneled into clean energy. Jobs would follow.

Timing, of course, is everything. I hope sooner than later. Right Sandy?

Photo courtesy

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

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. rattled off a handful of promising developments in Australia, topping off the list with serious production efforts by Aurora Algae and Algae.Tec.

And, 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 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" (, $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.

Political call for clean energy grows louder

President Obama told the nation to get a lot more self-reliant fast, naming clean and alternative energy as a means to get there.

"With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," he said in his State of the Union address.

Obama isn't the only one on the international political A List looking for answers in green innovation. In fact, it proved to be a busy week for world leaders going all out for sustainability and global stewardship.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for sustainable economic growth that can protect the environment and raise living standards.

“We need revolutionary change, revolutionary action," Ban said in his address. "We need a free market revolution for global sustainability.”

Others at Davos joined the conversation.

Finland President Tarja Halonen called for "a modern trinity" that includes combining growth with social justice and environmental sustainability.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonosia said his government is committed to balancing growth and environmental protection. And Mexican President Felipe Calderón said producing more with less energy "will be good for the planet."

Adding a corporate spin was Mike Duke, Wal-Mart president and CEO, who said, "Business should not see a conflict between doing what is right for business and what is right for the world."

Pretty powerful words. So how do we get there?

Start with energy efficiency. Dubbed "the low-hanging fruit" of the green energy movement, the practice of swapping out less efficient lights, AC units, electrical motors and other products has a near immediate savings for the consumer, building owner or municipal government. Retrofits often pay for themselves in a matter of a few years.

A study led by Julian M. Allwood, University of Cambridge in London director of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance with Tsinghua and MIT, found that savings of up to 73 percent in global energy use could be achieved by using best available energy efficiency techniques, according to a story by Helen Knight in

That's huge. But Allwood's team used Passive House and superinsulation techniques like triple-pane and glazed windows and 12-inch cavity filled walls. They eliminated hot-water tanks and reduced the set temperature of washing machines and dishwashers. And his calculations include limiting cars to 660 pounds.

Fat chance on the last measure. But revamped building codes and savings-minded businesses, entrepreneurs and consumers could transform the standard by which buyers measure homes and commercial buildings. Buildings that cost almost nothing to heat and cool could set a new market standard, forcing retrofits on conventional structures.

Obama didn't stop with energy efficiency, however. He wants a mix of measures to break the back of dependence on foreign-sourced energy. "We’re issuing a challenge," he said in his national address. "We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time."

Some of the coolest new research is in turning pond scum into energy. Time magazine recently listed algae biofuel and algae food as two of its top green tech ideas.

The fuel side of algae research has turned into a race as companies work to cut production costs to compete with fossil fuels. Texas company Photon8 Inc. received a $1 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to boost its ability to extract fuel from algae.

Photon8 believes its model could produce biodiesel at $1.25 per gallon.

The company uses a closed photobioreactor systems and is shooting for a production rate of 1.5 gallons per square meter annually. "They expect to produce 22,000 gal per 2.5 acre/yr then to best economic units of 5 acres," according to a report by

Technology in many arenas is coming along. Obama said it will take of mix of all of it to return the country to the driver's seat in the energy realm.

I'm intrigued. More could change in the next several years than just a million electric vehicles on the road.

Is filling up with algae fuel a decade away?

The prospect of tapping pond scum for fuel may not be so far off.

While significant hurdles remain -- algae-produced fats aren't as readily transformed into energy as, say, Texas tea -- many have joined the pursuit of commercialization and a recent study says plants could come on line in the next four to six years producing product competitive with conventional fuels.

Imagine driving down to the corner quick-rip grocer and filling it up with a little homegrown green.

A decade from now that might be possible.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research reports that by 2020, "production of biofuels derived from crude algae oil will reach 61 million gallons per year." Writers of the Pike Research report, industry analyst Mackinnon Lawrence and Pike President Clint Wheelock acknowledged the amount was "barely a drop in the bucket for biofuels" but said the potential production would represent a market value of $1.3 billion.

Cruise the online data provided by Oilgae, a biofuels support organization based in India, and you'll start believing the hype. The industry-supported research group reported that significant investments into the sector have come from Exxon Mobile, Shell, BP and even Bill Gates. Oilgae calls algae "the only biofuel that can completely replace fossil fuels."

The Associated Press reported this week that South San Francisco-based Solazyme recently sold the U.S. Navy 150,000 gallons of algae-produced fuel for testing in ships and jets and that the company received a $21.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a refinery in Riverside, Penn.

Algae definitely has its supporters. Rachel Ehrenberg of reported earlier this year that microalgae "have become a fledgling favorite in the renewable energy sector."

In January, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $44 million in funding for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts. Led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., the organization will seek to develop a method for commercializing algae-derived biofuel and related products. The agency is hedging its bets in the biofuels realm, giving $33.8 million to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to investigate and develop processing options for other types of "advanced biofuels."

Lawrence and Wheelock of Pike Research say the ultimate threat comes from over-hype. The industry, they say, lacks large-scale projects to substantiate claims and needs significant investment to reach widespread
commercialization. "If early-mover companies and pilot projects run into serious setbacks, expect a retrenchment among private capital interests," the researchers say.

In the renewables pantheon, biofuels, mostly developed from corn in this country, often get the sideways glance. They require energy to produce, still must be burned and because of that create greenhouse gasses. On the plus side, they aren't foreign oil.

U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a steady increase in domestic biofuels consumption, following current trends. The agency projects the strongest growth for renewable fuels used to generate electricity and those used in the transportation sector, citing programs like the federal renewable fuels standard. "Although fossil fuels continue to provide most of the energy consumed in the United States over the next 25 years ..., their share of overall energy use falls from 84 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2035," the agency said.

The Renewable Fuels Association in its 2010 outlook said that despite economic challenges, the U.S. ethanol industry has continued to expand. Production in 2009 reached an estimated 10.6 billion gallons, helping "support nearly 400,000 jobs in all sectors of the economy."

The association's outlook said "no fewer than 28 advanced biofuel companies are currently developing the much-needed technologies that will greatly expand ethanol production." Those facilities under development represent more than 170 million gallons of production and much more if they prove commercially successful, the report said.

The association said many employ cellulosic and advanced biofuel technologies and "hold the promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 100 percent compared to gasoline."

Ehrenberg of highlighted the research of a team from University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which examined the energy costs and environmental impacts of producing algae for fuel. The team, she wrote, found that "algae farms must minimize use of fertilizer and freshwater to compete with other biofuel plants."

Ehrenberg said the team suggested a solution would be placing algae operations next to "wastewater treatment plants or facilities that emit carbon dioxide."

Makes sense. I recall the "septic system" at our first place in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1969 was a pit in a tree-studded section of tundra. Great place for growing single-celled pond scum back then.

Now? Who knows?

Biofuels get federal boost

The Obama Administration just lit a fire under the biofuels market with renewal of a program that provides financial assistance to those involved in the industry.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program has been elevated from pilot status and will resume making payments to eligible producers, federal officials said today. Initially authorized in the 2008 Food Conservation and Energy Act, the program is "designed to ensure that a sufficiently large base of new, non-food, non-feed biomass crops is established in anticipation of future demand for renewable energy consumption."

"By producing more biofuels in America, we will create jobs, combat global warming, replace our dependence on foreign oil and build a stronger foundation for the 21st century economy," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack before the National Press Club today in Washington, D.C.

The National 25x25 Steering Committee, which seeks to get 25 percent of U.S. energy from renewable resources like wind, solar and biofuels by 2025, commended Visack's announcement, according to

The effort is designed to promote production of fuel from renewable sources. Vilsack called domestic production of renewable energy, including biofuels, a national imperative. "The Obama Administration is aggressively supporting our nation's farmers, ranchers and producers of biofuels as they work to bring greater energy independence to America," Vilsack said.

The program seeks to assist farmers establish perennial biomass crops by offering to cover up to three quarters of production costs and provide payments for up to "five years for annual or non-woody perennial crops and up to 15 years for woody perennial crops."

In addition, the program also provides matching payments to transport materials sold to biomass conversion facilities. The facilities convert the materials into heat, power, biobased products or advanced biofuels.

Vilsack cited a study released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service that said biofuels would benefit the U.S. economy if biofuel production technology continues to advance and petroleum prices continue to rise as projected.

"By substituting domestic biofuels for imported petroleum, the United States would pay less for imports overall and receive higher prices for exports, providing a gain for the economy from favorable terms of trade. Improved technology and increased investment would enhance the ability of the U.S. economy to expand," the report said.

The program is good news for the likes of Sacramento, Calif.-based Pacific Ethanol Inc., which announced this week that it would reopen its Stockton ethanol plant in the next couple of months. California's new budget provided an incentive program that also may allow Pacific Ethanol's Madera County plant to reopen if market conditions allow, said Neil Koehler, president and CEO.

The USDA move also should provide a boost to cellulosic ethanol, algae and other processes under research and development.

California's green power movement flexes muscles

California's standing as the nation's clean energy leader received more than a boost of federal cash this week.

Programs by Intel Corp. and San Francisco to purchase energy from renewable sources won national recognition by federal regulators while $300 million in federal funding went to improve and green up aging water and wastewater infrastructure and fund energy efficiency improvements. Cities with projects include Fresno, Merced, Atwater and Tehachapi in the San Joaquin Valley.

The cash will "create jobs now when we need them the most,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement.

Recognition also may serve to bolster the fast and furious growth of the state's clean energy movement. Santa Clara-based chip maker Intel and the green-thinking City by the Bay were among 18 big electricity consumers to get kudos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership program. Both were recognized at the Renewable Energy Markets Conference this week in Portland, Ore. Other honorees include a New Haven, Conn. printer, global financial services provider BNY Mellon, Kohl’s Department Stores, Motorola and Whole Foods Market.

“We applaud the leadership shown by San Francisco and Intel by ditching polluting power sources and switching to green power,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, in a statement. “Their responsible energy should be a model for all cities and corporations in the fight to solve climate change.”

San Francisco nabbed an EPA Leadership Award for generating its own green power -- more than 25 million kilowatt-hours from solar and biogas. This augments 1.7 billion kilowatt hours of energy the city generates each year through its Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.

“San Francisco’s commitment to clean energy is producing green jobs and real benefits for our city today,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom called economic advantages of a green economy "very tangible."

Each week appears to bring another announcement of something big in the state -- not to mention elsewhere in the country. In fact, Monday, on the heels of a University of California Merced report that says clean energy could produce 100,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, came the Southern California Edison announcement that 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.

This trend could continue. Imagine an increasing number of homes and businesses with solar panels all contributing to a smart electrical grid, generating more power than regional plants. Coupled with fewer fossil-fuel needs, the air could clear.

Innovation is moving forward. Algae may provide fuels and electricity, solar generation could move to any surface imaginable and scientists may still find a way to tap into celestial energy. Of course, pigs could fly. But I prefer the optimistic approach. Offshore wind, for instance, was once a far-fetched idea that's now taking hold off Nantucket and in Lake Erie, not to mention many other locations.

Even oil companies are switching their stance, evolving into energy companies with investments that back up the subtle name/image change.

Whether that translates to tangible jobs remains to be seen.

Newsom is sold on the concept. "We can feel the effects of clean energy in the air we breath; with each solar panel, day-by-day, we’re fueling San Francisco’s transformation into a green economy powered by increasingly clean, renewable energy,” he said.

EPA's profile of Intel provides a clue to corporate America's role. It is one of only 10 organizations in the country to receive the agency's Leadership Award for green power purchases. Intel purchases more than 1.4 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually, more than 50 percent of its electricity consumption.

Said Marty Sedler, Intel's director of global utilities and infrastructure: “It’s good for our shareholders, customers, employees and the environment.”

A recent report by San Francisco-based Clean Edge Inc. listed California just ahead of Massachusetts in a study listing the top clean energy states. It listed innovation in multiple sectors as a key to developing a green economy. And in another report, the group showed that money invested in clean energy is a good call, creating "two to four jobs for every one job created if the money were spent on fossil fuel industries."

Pushing forward, renewables face gray areas. The future isn't straightforward. A report last year by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory exploring supply and demand for green energy said it's a mixed bag with some oversaturation. "If trends hold, renewable energy deficits are projected for New England, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic areas, with notable surpluses in the Midwest, the Heartland, Texas, and the West," it says.

That just means more need to adopt the concept that green energy is a good thing. Heck, energy independence could be an offshoot. You never know.

Algae research taps electricity, fuel

Algae is more than just pond scum.

It's a potential power source. The green glop that forms in fetid pools and in nutrient soaked ground fed by overflowing septic systems increasingly is being investigated for properties beyond the "ugh" factor.

At Stanford University, a team of scientists has figured a way to extract a tiny portion of electrical current from algae cells. Gwyneth Dickey at the Stanford News Service wrote that the team was "able to draw from each cell just one picoampere, an amount of electricity so tiny that they would need a trillion cells photosynthesizing for one hour just to equal the amount of energy stored in a AA battery."

The power comes from photosynthesis, the process through which a plant converts sunlight to energy.

Dickey quoted WonHyoung Ryu, the lead author of the paper published in the March issue of Nano Letters, as saying he believes the Stanford team is the first to extract electrons from living plant cells. However, Ryu said there is a long way to go to put such power generation to any commercial use. "We're still in the scientific stages," he said.

However, in Nano Letters, he offered a more effusive account: "This result may represent an initial step in generating 'high efficiency' bioelectricity by directly harvesting high energy photosynthetic electrons."

University of California, Merced graduate student Patrick Wiley is also investigating the power potential of algae.

Wiley will work in Santa Cruz cultivating algae in ocean-floating bags and with a University of California, Berkeley group also developing ways to generate power with algae.

Here's what Elliott told us in a past post: "The synergistic opportunity that is most apparent to me for the Valley is between wastewater and algae biofuels. Finding cost-effective ways to produce algae biofuels is a real challenge. The San Joaquin Valley may be a good place to think about economic solutions where existing algae wastewater ponds can be combined with algae biofuels production."

And last month, Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research said algae is among the substances being investigated with "significant investments" for commercial production of cellulosic ethanol.

Research into algae, especially as it relates to biofuels, has been going on for years and is expected to continue. UC Berkeley Professor Kris Niyogi said the amount of energy required to produce fuel from algae is an important question, as it is for any type of alternative energy.

"Inevitably, there are going to be energy inputs that are necessary to produce a fuel from algae, just as there are for other biofuels, such as corn ethanol," he said in an interview with Nova on PBS last year. "For algae, energy will be needed to build the ponds or photobioreactors, to mix the water and provide carbon dioxide and other nutrients, to harvest and concentrate the algal cells from large volumes of water, and to make and transport the biodiesel product.

"I don't think there is a clear answer yet for algae. A lot of engineers are hard at work trying to minimize the energy inputs and maximize the net energy output."

Photo: Courtesy Wilson Lab at Auburn University.

Market for biomass energy to grow 18% in next decade, study says

Energy generated from agriculture waste, manure and other wastes and feedstocks should reach a market value of $53 billion by 2020, a study released today says.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research in its report Biomass Markets and Technologies cited continued "significant investments" in biomass research and development and the pace of commercializing new technologies. Advances made in cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from relatively cheap to produce switch grass rather than corn, and algae are among those advances.

“Biomass will continue to be the leading source of renewable energy,” said Clint Wheelock, Pike Research managing director, in a statement. “While it does not have the celebrity appeal of solar, wind or other emerging technologies, biomass is an affordable and reliable form of power generation. In addition, we expect continued growth in the adoption of biofuels during the next decade, as well as a proliferation of bioproducts such as plastics and chemicals.”

That may be good news for Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol, which has an idled plant in Madera County and whose stock is hovering around the 50 cents-per-share mark. The company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy but reached an agreement with creditors in June and expects to restart its idled plants soon.

Biomass, as defined by Pike for the purposes of its report, also includes corn and grains, plants and forest resources, construction and industry waste, food industry wastes and municipal waste.

Wheelock said applications for biomass range from power generation to heating, transportation fuels, chemicals and plastics. He said development of the biomass industry is driven by government policies and mandates and, "while world governments are likely to back away from some of the aggressive targets set a few years ago, Pike Research anticipates that biomass will continue to be a significant focus for energy policymakers."

Photo: Courtesy Pike Research.

Algae and wastewater mix to make power results

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A University of Merced graduate student hates "waste" in wastewater, and is looking for ways to use it to create algae, a biofuel.

Patrick Wiley's interest in wastewater began in his home state of Maine, and then expanded into his study of renewable fuel sources, according to this story out of UC Merced. Algae grows naturally in wastewater and, through photosynthesis can be used for biofuel.

Wiley's studies led him to the master's program at Humboldt State University and then to UC Merced, where he is teaming up with Professor Elliott Campbell, who shares his interest in biofuels.

This is what Elliott told us: "The synergistic opportunity that is most apparent to me for the Valley is between wastewater and algae biofuels. Finding cost effective ways to produce algae biofuels is a real challenge. The San Joaquin Valley may be a good place to think about economic solutions where existing algae wastewater ponds can be combined with algae biofuels production."

Wiley will work in Santa Cruz cultivating algae in ocean-floating bags and with a UC Berkeley group that is developing ways to generate power with algae.

We are so fortunate to have UC Merced in our Valley, and look forward to hearing more from Wiley and other students at the university. Thanks to them, the San Joaquin Valley, which has low incomes, high power bills and is ideally suited to benefit from and develop clean energy, could someday be the standard-bearer for clean and alternative energy.

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to improving our region's quality of life by increasing its production and use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley.

Algae biofuel gains believers, but could it come to the Valley?

Algae, wood chips and switch grass make up the feedstock for the next generation of biofuels -- a sector poised for rapid growth, according to a recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

The study, "Next-Generation Biofuels: Near-Term Challenges and Implications
for Agriculture
," by William T. Coyle also says next generation biofuel production capacity should reach 88 million gallons in the United States, just a fraction of the 10.8 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol consumed in 2009. Coyle says the sector is expected to surpass 350 million gallons in 2012.

One of the more intriguing is algae. A past SJVCEO post mentioned an algae-biofuel-powered dirigible. The algae-biofuel concept has attracted more than 30 U.S. companies experimenting with different approaches.

Coyle says algae has high potential yield and can be cultivated on marginal land, something the parched central San Joaquin Valley has no shortage of. "Interest in algae as a feedstock is driven by algae’s high potential yield per acre. Some companies grow algae in photo-bioreactors and others in open ponds, with yields potentially greater than 5,000 gallons per acre, by far the greatest potential of any feedstock for conversion to biofuels."

Despite high costs -- from $9 per gallon to $35 per gallon, compared with less than $3 per gallon for cellulosic ethanol -- many believe cost competitiveness can be achieved for algae-based fuels and those made from other materials.

University of California Merced Professor J. Elliot Campbell received nationwide attention for a study completed during his postdoctoral appointment at Stanford, concluding that the United States could meet up to 6 percent of its energy needs with biofuels produced on "marginal" ag land.

"It's been suggested that biofuels production on prime agricultural land could accelerate global climate change," Campbell said in a statement. "We looked at what we call marginal land – for example, farmlands in the Eastern U.S. that were abandoned as the center of agriculture shifted west."

Cellulosic ethanol, produced from material like grass and sticks, also is moving forward to commercial production. The ZeaChem Inc. plant in Boardman, Ore. opened last week.

The Valley has a number of features that make it perfect as a center of alternative energy production -- laser-flat land, sun-drenched days and proximity to power transmission lines.

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to improving our region's quality of life by increasing its production and use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley.