concentrated solar

Solar impulse completes flight in Ouarzazate, Morocco


Solar Impulse's new badge.
 The second time's the charm for the Solar Impulse.

The airplane, which is solely powered by electricity and backed by solar energy, took off early from Rabat, Morocco on June 21, 2012 and landed in Ouarzazate, Morocco about 17 hours later. It had failed in its first attempt last week.

Officials said the flight was Solar Impulse’s most difficult destination in its cross-continental journey due to high winds and turbulence over the arid desert.

"It was a beautiful flight," says pilot and project co-founder André Borschberg.


The Solar Impulse made a successful 19-hour 8-minute flight from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco earlier in June. The month previous, Borschberg, 59, began the journey from Payerne, Switzerland. He landed in Madrid on May 25.

The plane, a marvel of lightweight engineering, is big as an Airbus A340 with a 207-foot wingspan and features 12,000 solar cells in the wings. The carbon-fiber structure is designed to resist the elements but weigh very little.

In fact, it weighs 3,527 pounds, or about 500 pounds less than the average U.S. car. Speed is an average 43.5 mph and getting aloft requires a takeoff speed of about 22 mph. Average maximum altitude is 27,900 feet. It's outfitted with lithium polymer batteries that account for about a quarter of its weight and enable it to fly in the dark.

Officials say the importance of flying to Morocco’s Ouarzazate region is filled with symbolism. "It is related to the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy and Solar Impulse’s common message: to invest in innovative projects today for job creation and sustainable growth while also protecting the environment."

Solar Impulse landed close to the site of what will be a 160 megawatt solar thermal plant. It's part of a complex planned to reach a capacity of 500 megawatts by 2015. The initial plant is based on concentrating solar power technology using parabolic-trough solar collectors with heat storage.

Morocco’s energy plan is to increase the role of solar, wind and hydro power to 42 percent of the country’s total energy production in less than a decade. "Solar Impulse supports the Kingdom’s strategy, aiming to reconcile the country’s socio-economic development and environmental protection needs," according to a post by the Solar Impulse officials.

The next challenge is to fly around the world. “Striving for the impossible is the DNA of our team,” says Bertrand Piccard, initiator, pilot and chairman of Solar Impulse.

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.”

A Snapshot Of The Valley's Future



I'm going to borrow from the format of my former Fresno Bee colleague Bill McEwen, and note some San Joaquin Valley energy news and links that flashed across my computer screen in recent days.

In deference to Bill's always-interesting platter of newsy and often political nuggets that he labels "Breakfast links," I'll simply call my shorter version a "smattering of stuff."

I'll begin with the north end of the San Joaquin Valley, where electric vehicle manufacturer EVI credits a state grant for its ability to hire 50 employees. (Business Wire).

Environmental groups sue over alleged animal habitat issues associated with a solar project proposed for the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County, just west of us. The authors note similar concerns with solar plants proposed for the Mojave Desert, but not with projects eyed for the Central Valley. (KCET.)

The EPA exempts a natural gas power plant proposed for Avenal from new air pollution rules (New York Times.)

A Hanford dairy adds 4 acres of solar panels to become one of the first milk farms in Kings County to go with sun power. (Hanford Sentinel.)

One county over, in Visalia, a new biofuel plant breaks ground, courtesy of a $20 million federal grant. (sierra2thesea).

The Valley has lots of sun and land suitable for clean-energy projects, and it is close to major population centers. As this list shows, energy can be an economic game changer for us.

Green Car Show, Activities Planned At Fresno Earth Day Event


An impressive lineup of green vehicles - including some powered by solar and biofuel - will be among the displays at the 2011 Fresno Earth Day celebration scheduled for April 30 at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave.

The Fresno Earth Day Coalition is sponsoring the free event, which runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the church near Alluvial and Chestnut avenues. Display vehicles will include a solar Toyota Prius, a Volkswagen Jetta powered by vegetable oil, and a Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

But that's not all. This year's event, which is the second hosted at the church, will have more than 75 vendors and other participants. Among the star attractions: A group of students at Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) will show off their biodiesel processor - a machine that makes biodiesel out of vegetable oil, waste vegetable oil, and animal fats.

There will be demonstrations on solar cooking, making biofuel, composting, earthworms and bee hives, and vegetarian cooking. A bike tour is planned, along with live music and activities for children. Bicyclists are encouraged to attend - there will be bike tours, helmet checks and even valet parking for bikes.

The 2010 Earth Day event attracted around 400 people; organizers hope for more this year. For more information, visit the Earth Day Web site at http://www.fresnoearthday.org/.

The Fresno Earth Day Coalition is holding the event. Members include Fresno Metro Ministry, Green Fresno, San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust and the La Querencia cohousing community.


image by greenzer.com

Heavy hitters add heft to clean energy future

We may not be seeing it in the trenches, but clean energy is generating quite a bit of buzz.

Eric Wesoff of Greentechmedia.com compiled a great post on venture capital activity for March 2011. He called it amazing, saying "In just one month there were more than 40 deals and more than $900 million was invested in every greentech sector from smart grid to solar to biofuels."

At the corporate level, General Electric Co. went big for thin film solar announcing it will spend $600 million on a new factory to make what it promises will be a more efficient product than is now on the market, reported Scott Malone and Matt Daily of Reuters. They said the company projects thin film will generate up to $3 billion by 2015.

And Neal Dikeman, a founding partner of Jane Capital Partners, says (and I'm paraphrasing) "Yeah sure there's a lot of static" but asks in a blog post whether those investors are making money. He proceeds to analyze the deals of BrightSource Energy, manufacturer of concentrated solar; electric automaker Fiskar Automotive; and Solyndra, manufacturer of cylindrical photovoltaic systems.

His conclusion: There's hope.

I believe there is more than that. We've got issues, and they're all seemingly related to fossil fuels. First and foremost, the environment needs a break. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune ties it all to sea turtles and energy. "Whether it's the effect of climate disruption from burning fossil fuels or the increasingly harsh environmental consequences of extracting coal and oil," he says on Huffington Post something's gotta be done.

And there's the issue of national security. The military has brought up the issue repeatedly and is seeking solutions in the development of alternative fuels.

President Obama brought up the subject during a speech at Georgetown University. "Even if we doubled U.S. oil production, we’re still really short," he said.

Obama said the only way to secure the nation's energy supply is by reducing oil dependence. "We’ve got to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy," he said. "And we’ve got to do it quickly."

The news shakes off some of my natural pessimism, at least momentarily. Maybe I'm full of malarkey, but it's starting to sound a little like Christmas for clean energy. Maybe.

News would be good for the San Joaquin Valley where February 2011 jobless rates hovered near 20 percent for Kern, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tulare counties. Add in the dropout rates, which hover near the same percentage point, and it spells difficulties to come.

Poverty, crime, despair. I prefer the optimism.

Proteus develops work force for Valley's solar industry

If it's solar and in the San Joaquin Valley, Hector Uriarte Jr. probably knows about it.

Likely, he's been aware of the project ever since somebody mentioned it over coffee during the planning stages. Knowing about solar is one of his chief directives.

Graduates of Visalia, Calif.-based Proteus Inc.'s solar training program depend on his connection with the fledgling clean energy industry for potential jobs. In the past year, about 175 students from the economically battered Valley have completed the Solar Photovoltaic Design & Installation program, learning everything from hands-on technique to theory.

One thing Uriarte has found is that finding jobs -- at least at this point in the industry's evolution -- is far from simple. About 65 percent of his graduates have found work in the field. He'd like, of course, to make that 100 percent.

But "we're working with an emerging market that hasn't emerged," he said.

Companies have big plans in the Valley, with anecdotal evidence of at least several dozen projects of multiple sizes. So far though, most of the large-scale commercial solar installations remain on paper.

One of the larger is a 400 megawatt array just east of Interstate 5 near Tranquillity in Fresno County that would be built in phases, and could contain up to 2.5 million solar panels sprawled over 3,500 acres, according to a Sandy Nax post. Another, a proposed western Kern County project, is on land that couldn't be farmed from lack of water.

The latter project won the approval of the Bakersfield Californian editorial staff, who wrote, "It's welcome news that Kern County supervisors have given their blessing to a 6,047-acre solar project between Taft and Interstate 5. The 700-megawatt project positions photovoltaic solar panels on 4,868 acres."

That means jobs. But forecast construction remains more than a year on the part of the Tranquility project, proposed by San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy.

In the meantime, a trained work force is under its own form of construction. Uriarte says the graduates of the Proteus program land a job at the low end of the skill spectrum, usually as installers on small crews of four or five people.

Big projects require multiple crews. Crew members have varying degrees of skill and status within the company. Uriarte says the more work, the more experience and the greater the opportunity for advancement within the industry.

Many future solar projects in the commercial spectrum may be for specific needs. For instance, the city of Atwater, Calif. was considering a solar array to defray the massive costs devoured during the summer season by water pumps. Solar at the site could drastically cut electricity bills.

Other cities and counties may consider going the route. The California Energy Commission is developing a potential new program that would provide local governments with planning and permitting assistance for renewable energy. Dubbed RP3, the idea won the support of the group, Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, which has as one of its directors Larry Alder of Google Inc.

Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture, said the program "has the potential to have a measurable impact."

Solar is coming. When remains a big question as does how. Al Weinrub, who has penned "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California," believes that businesses should -- and likely will -- yield their rooftops to solar panels to defray energy costs.

Talking to Proteus Inc.'s solar instructor Rick Gonzales recently, it was hard not to feel optimistic. The former human resources executive exudes positive vibes and believes in what he teaches.

He's passing that onto his students. And if they absorb just 15 percent of that (about the amount of energy a solar module absorbs from the sun), the San Joaquin Valley will definitely be worthy of the University of California, Merced's designation of a "solar valley."

Photo: Proteus Inc. students learn the craft.

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 smartplanet.com: "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 forbes.com caught my eye when oilgae.com'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 alyeska-pipe.com

Hidden costs of fossil fuels amplify case for clean energy

Hidden costs lurk everywhere.

Buy a car on credit and pay double the sticker price. Same with a house. For instance, adjustable mortgages and balloon payments contributed mightily to the real estate meltdown. And taxes take a big bite. Just ask any small businessperson.

Maybe that's why we Americans like our energy costs low, or at least relatively.

But there are hidden costs there, too. Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment released a study in February that pegged the estimated hidden yearly cost of coal-generated electricity at a high of $538 billion, or an additional 18 cents per kilowatt hour. Peswiki.com listed the commercial cost of coal power at 4.8 to 5.5 cents per kWh.

For some perspective, solar costs between 15 to 30 cents per kWh and wind 4 to 6 cents.

"Coal carries a heavy burden," the "Mining Coal, Mounting Costs" report said. The Harvard study factored in health costs (11,000 deaths annually from lung cancer, heart, respiratory and kidney disease) and environmental impacts of fly ash spills (53 from 1974 to 2008) and mountaintop removal (500 removed and 1.4 million acres transformed).

The beauty of coal is that it's cheap, relatively simple to extract with today's technologies and domestic. There also is quite a lot of it. However, as the study points out, digging it up and burning it to create electricity does have drawbacks, at least with current practices. Addressing those would add to the price substantially and any increased regulations generally are opposed by the industry.

Natural gas performs better emissions wise and is easy on the pocketbook at 3.9 to 4.4 cents per kWh. Domestic reserves are expected to skyrocket as well with newly refined fracturing drilling techniques.

Oil on the other hand has its own troubles. As of this writing, oil per barrel prices had surpassed $105 and the one-year forecast had risen to $121, according to oil-price.net. And as the growing conflict in Libya illustrates, crude oil brings with it a high political cost.

Conflict between Libyan strongman Moammar Qadhafi and eastern separatists have caused California gas prices at the pump to climb 50 cents per gallon in the past month, according to californiagasprices.com. The development has politicians concerned it could derail the shaky economic recovery and consumers grumbling. Should commodities traders remain nervous and prices high, the cost of everything from food to services will climb.

For instance, I heard on National Public Radio that several airlines have already raised rates half a dozen times this year due to increasing fuel costs.

But this is a relatively transparent cost, outlined daily by major media outlets. The less visible but no less costly is what Gal Luft, executive director of Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, calls the "terrorist premium." In the report, "Oil and the New Economic Order," Luft says that premium costs the United States $65 billion to $85 billion a year.

Oil internationally receives a litany of subsidies from countries that shield consumers from up to three-quarters the cost of the fuel. As I wrote in a past post, the International Energy Agency in a report released this past summer says its analysis revealed that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 billion in 2008. This also elevates cost.

Green energy, by comparison, gets a pittance in subsidies. London-based research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance says, "governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy." This came by way of tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices known as feed-in tariffs and alternative energy credits. Germany is a leader in this groups with its solar feed-in tariff, but that may be decreased.

And making this debate continually interesting are advances improving the efficiency of solar power. Technologies concentrating the suns rays and various methods of creating power storage are elevating the ability of the renewable to compete.

I love the "battery" concept that uses a silo filled with water and a massive counter weight that pushes out the water to generate power when the sun sets or wind stops. The underground silo is filled with water by energy generated from the solar or wind system.

And more traditional battery technology is making massive strides. I tweeted recently about the lithium-water battery. No kidding. It may work.

So who knows how this will develop? Obviously, my nonprofit is biased. We'd like to see the San Joaquin Valley take off as a leader in all things renewable, generating spin-off businesses and inspiring entrepreneurs to make sense of all this harvestable energy surrounding us. And create some jobs in the process.

More California Farmers Embracing Renewable Energy


As major users of energy, America's farms are natural candidates for renewable-energy efforts. That is especially true here in the San Joaquin Valley, where farming is a $20 billion per- year enterprise, temperatures hit triple digits, power bills are sky high and air pollution ranks among the worst in the nation.

As it turns out, farmers, especially in California, have made substantial gains in the use of alternative-energy sources. With about 25% of all facilities, California led the nation in 2009 with 1,956 farms and ranches producing renewable energy, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Solar dominated, with 1,906 California farmers using photovoltaic and thermal solar panels. The majority of those - more than 64,000 panels - were installed since 2005. Wind energy was used on 134 farms in California, while methane digesters were installed and used on 14 properties.

Solar power also has blossomed on farms nationally over the last four years. Prior to 2000, only 18,881 solar panels were on farms and ranches. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 108,000 panels were installed.

"Farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting renewable-energy practices on their operations, and reaping the important economic and environmental benefits," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Farmers in nearly every state reported savings on their energy bill. The survey also noted that subsidies and other sources helped finance some of the installation cost. In California, about 41% of the average $79,000 cost of installing solar came from outside sources.

All this makes me wonder what the future holds. Technological advances, such as this small-scale biomass project with ultra-low emissions suitable for urban areas, are coming fast, and the price of solar continues to fall. Some people predict parity is just around the corner. Possibly in 2012.

And one has to wonder if increasing oil prices, and the increasing realization from military and Big Business that green is good, will spur more energy-saving and renewable efforts among California farmers and corporations.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have adopted some cool renewable projects - such as this grape grower in Delano - and I'm betting more are on the horizon.

photo by cleantechnia.com

Green energy, jobs could flourish with a little nurturing

The studies are clear.

Clean energy development creates jobs. But so does offshore oil drilling and building mega dairies, and both -- although decidedly smellier in various aspects -- have proven track records.

Now a new report explains how federal, state and local governments on a relatively minimal scale can make clean energy more cost effective and drive its growth. So far, relying solely on the argument that pollution is expensive and clean energy costs less in the long run has failed to drive wholesale change.

The report, "CLEAN Contracts: Making Clean Local Energy Accessible Now," says government should to step up.

"Getting clean energy projects built rapidly on a large scale ... will require clear signals from federal, state, and local energy policy," wrote study authors Richard W. Caperton and Bracken Hendricks with Center for American Progress; John Lauer of Groundswell; and Courtney Hight of the Energy Action Coalition.

The report said the effort must include a "sustained national commitment to overcome the barriers facing the adoption of these advanced technologies in today’s electricity markets."

As if on cue, the U.S. Department of Energy reported this week a couple of massive loan guarantees. Diamond Green Diesel LLC, a proposed joint venture between refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Irving, Texas-based rendering company Darling International Inc., has been offered a $241 million loan guarantee, supporting construction of a 137-million gallon per year renewable diesel facility in Norco, La., about 20 miles west of New Orleans.

And Agua Caliente Solar LLC received a $967 million loan guarantee for construction of a 290-megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility on 2,400 acres in Arizona's Yuma County.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who made the announcements, put it simply: "Solar projects like this are helping the U.S. to compete globally for the clean energy jobs of today and the future."

Green jobs are a bright spot in an otherwise grim economic forecast for California. Next10, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan think tank, said in its just released study "Many Shades of Green" that since 1995, jobs in California's green economy have expanded by 56 percent while the total economy grew by 18 percent over the same period. The report said that between January 2008 and January 2009 green jobs grew by 3 percent "while the total economy inched forward by less than 1 percent."

Next10 said the state's core green economy accounts for 174,000 jobs in California, with a rate of growth similar to that of software jobs since 2005.

“These jobs are growing in every region across the state, outpacing other vital sectors, and generating business across the supply chain,” said F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10, in a statement on his web site. He attributed the vibrancy to California’s history of innovation and "forward-looking energy and energy efficiency policies.”

The private sector is largely in the driver's seat. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 dumped $3.2 billion into the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program for energy efficiency retrofits to states, counties and local governments. But the effort, although well meaning, has been burdened by bureaucracy, slowing its potential job creation.

The CLEAN Contracts report says government can best help by clearing regulatory hurdles. "At every turn renewable energy is held back by the absence of national policies to guarantee equal standing with traditional sources of power," it said. "As a result, the growth of clean energy technology has not kept pace with the potential of these exciting technologies to meet our nation’s pressing energy needs."

The report focuses on establishing feed-in tariffs, which allow electricity produced by renewable energy projects to be sold to utilities at a fixed price for an extended period. CLEAN is an acronym for Clean Local Energy Accessible Now. The report calls for institution of CLEAN contracts, or feed-in tariffs, calling them "far and away the most important market creator for renewable energy in the world."

It cites DOE's National Renewable Energy Lab statistics that show 45 percent of wind energy and 75 percent of solar installed before 2008 as being directly linked to such tariffs.

Yet, feed-in tariffs remain controversial despite their success. Many view them as subsidies, which in this economic environment don't get a lot of love. Other industries also benefit from a greater share of entrenched subsidies, but that argument encounters tough political opposition fast.

A path possibly more palatable is one that Steve Forbes, editor in chief of the magazine that bears his name, regularly talks about: less regulation. Easing the rules and/or fast-tracking clean energy projects may work wonders. Providing incentives -- even meastures that cost nothing -- to companies, businesses and even home owners who install energy efficiency retrofits may also help.

Corporate America appears to be buying into the sustainability movement, but the companies going that route cite the economic benefits of saving energy and even public good will. Wal-Mart is an early adopter, gently strong arming its suppliers to do the same.

PepsiCo has its own strategy, hoping to be fossil-fuel free by 2023.

Will Nichols of Greenbiz.com reported that the company last week updated its progress on its 2-year-old Path to Zero program. He said PepsiCo published an update on its progress, mentioning commitments to unplugging factories from water mains, eliminating waste sent to landfills within 10 years and becoming a fossil fuel free.

The company also plans to make all its product packaging renewable, recyclable or bio-degradable, a process it started last year with Walkers crisps packets, Nichols wrote.

Corporate enthusiasm aside, many companies are locked in legal tangles trying to get solar projects started on federal land in the West, while others work to bring innovations from the laboratory to market. None of the challenges is expected to be simple.

We have our own opinions in the San Joaquin Valley, where my outfit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, is working with local governments, regional jobs training programs and schools and colleges to position the region as a leader in the emerging green economy. We've got a small Workforce Investment Act grant to assist high schools and colleges train the next generation of workers to either find green jobs or become entrepreneurs who capitalize on the opportunities the green sector provides.

Our valley, which the folks at University of California Merced have dubbed Solar Valley, doesn't have a lot of capital, but the region does have the desire, a very willing work force and more sun than most and wind in the foothills. I'll keep you posted on our progress.

Concentrated solar goes commercial

Concentrated photovoltaic technology appears to be emerging as a serious contender in the solar energy field.

French semiconductor manufacturer Soitec reported today that the company's concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV, system in Jordan reached daily peaks of 25 percent efficiency, "two to three times higher than standard photovoltaic installations" over the summer and fall. Soitec acquired 80 percent of Concentrix Solar, a CPV supplier, about a year ago.

In October, Mountain View, Calif.-based SolFocus Inc. announced plans it was teaming with Vision Electro Mechanical Co. to build a 300-megawatt CPV installation in Saudi Arabia's Bahra region.

Concentrated solar squeezes more electricity out of the sun's rays than conventional panels, using advanced optics to concentrate the sun's rays onto solar cells. It's come a long way since I wrote about a San Jose start-up attempting the same thing on an Alaska project back in the late 1980s.

Conventional solar panels without optics come in three varieties: thin film, polycrystalline and monocrystalline, with the latter generally the most efficient and thin film on the tail end. However, the efficiency rating of the best doesn't quite reach 15 percent, according a comparison by sroeco.com.

Efficiencies in the lab report big gains in various technologies but lag in commercial application. And that's what makes the implications of Soitec and SolFocus projects so interesting.

The big divide between renewable energy and that derived from fossil fuels is cost per kilowatt. Until recently, solar, wind and other renewable sources came with a premium that only government rebates, subsidies or feed-in tariffs made palatable to developers. However, efficiencies, technological changes and fossil fuel price increases are bringing parity within reach.

Should solar become competitive on a cost-per-kilowat basis, more people will be interested in adding the technology.

Hansjorg Lerchenmuller, a senior vice president at Soitec, said his company's CPV technology has proven itself with "very high performance even under very high temperatures. ... We are ready for high-volume deployment."

SolFocus CEO Mark Crowley dubbed CPV "the world's most efficient and resource-friendly solar technology," while in the same statement Hassan Chahine, Vision Electro general manager, said he believes the Bahra plant "will serve as a model for the further research and study of clean water and power solutions that diversify the region's energy mix."

No dollar figures were disclosed, but investment will be substantial. Many others will be watching and evaluating, eager to learn if either gamble pays off.

Photo: SolFocus concentrated solar panels.