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CollectiveSun: Invest in solar. Help a nonprofit. Earn a great return.

CollectiveSun LogoBy Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP 

Homeowners and businesses everywhere are going solar.  In California alone, nearly 200,000 systems have been deployed.  Yet, only 1,039 systems, or 0.5%, were installed on the roof of a nonprofit organization.  Did you ever wonder why so few churches, synagogues, schools and community service organizations have been able to “go green”?  The answer may surprise you. 

It turns out that due to a subtle nuance in the tax code, nonprofits are at a financial disadvantage and unable to access a series of tax benefits that are available to residential homeowners and commercial businesses.  While philanthropy is a welcome and encouraged practice for all other types of giving, making donations for a solar system and losing valuable tax benefits is a poor financial decision for the nonprofit and an inefficient use of benefactor funds.   

Another problem faced by nonprofits is that traditional financial institutions are unwilling to underwrite projects for nonprofits.  If the nonprofit relies on charitable giving as a revenue stream, it may be considered unreliable to secure the new solar obligation.  In addition, financial institutions are often uncomfortable securing projects with other assets such as real estate because of the reputational risk involved with a foreclosure and sale.  (Think about the newspaper headline if a financial institution repossessed a church steeple or other treasured community asset and tried to sell it to the highest bidder?) 

The good news is that now you can do something about this problem. 

CollectiveSun is a community funding platform for nonprofits that want to lower their energy bills with clean solar power.  Rather than relying on large financial institutions, CollectiveSun leverages the strength of the community for investments (not donations) that are repaid using the savings from the solar system. 

“Impact Investing”  

“Doing well by doing good” is an old adage suggesting that individuals should be able to feel good about how they choose to invest their hard earned money.  In addition to earning a return on investment, CollectiveSun provides a way for your favorite nonprofit to enjoy significant utility cost savings.   

As an example, TERI, Inc. is an Oceanside-based nonprofit that operates residential facilities for adults with autism and other intellectual disabilities.  For each dollar invested, TERI will save nearly two.  This means that a $1,000 investment will also produce nearly $2,000 of savings for TERI over the course of the solar system lifetime while simultaneously providing a modest rate of return for the investor.   

Feel Good Supporting Nonprofits 

As with any investment, these projects are not without risk and should only be considered after reading the prospectus.  In addition, CollectiveSun projects are currently only available to California residents.  However, the idea of supporting a great nonprofit by investing instead of donating is certainly appealing.  Impact investing allows you to align your investments with your ethics.  When’s the last time your stock portfolio created a simultaneous financial benefit for a nonprofit cause?  CollectiveSun makes investing easy, with a minimum as low as $25.  Sunshine never felt so good!  

Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the Chief Community Officer at CollectiveSun, LLP.  (  You can reach him at



The Real Population Problem

Tom Murphy UCSDTom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.

The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.

Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?

So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth. Continue reading →


Let’s Blow this Joint

Tom Murphy UCSDTom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

I have a confession to make. When we moved into our current house three years ago, we had to sell our clothes dryer due to gas/electric incompatibility (happens every time we move!). So we lived without a dryer for three years, hanging clothes out to dry, and generally being frugal about washing vs. re-wearing clothes. Well, after several weather-induced trips to the laundromat this winter, we (or can I lay this all at my wife’s feet?) finally broke down and bought a used washer/dryer set on Craigslist. We’ll still let the sun dry our clothes 95% of the time, but have other options now.

Even though this little vignette does relate to the common Do the Math theme of low-energy lifestyles, the actual point of bringing it up is that the washer/dryer came from a house that had just been on display as a model for energy efficiency—including the washer and dryer. At the house, we met Jason Beckman, of Classic Residential, Inc., who had carried out many of the efficiency upgrades to the house. I thought it would be instructive to have him perform an energy audit at our home—especially a blower door test to expose ventilation issues.

As a bonus, after the nominal audit activities were over, I was able to spend some quality time with the blower door, doing extensive tests in virtually every room in the house. What I found was certainly instructive for me, and hopefully will be useful to a broad audience as well.

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When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?

I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)

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Algae Biomass Organization: Report from the Executive Director

By Guest Author Mary Rosenthal Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization

It’s been just two weeks since the conclusion of the 6th Annual Algae Biomass Summit. And what an event it was! More than 800 experts from around the world.  More than 200 combined poster and oral presentations.  Networking events. Pre-conference tours. It was great. 

That said, I must admit that one of my favorite parts of the event was the last day, during which we presented the first ever Young Algae Researcher Awards to six of the brightest up-and-coming minds in our industry.  Together in the same room was the present – and future – of our industry.  It couldn’t be more exciting!

This year’s summit featured (more…)


Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency: A Case Study for Storage

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

A short while back, I described my standalone (off-grid) urban photovoltaic (PV) energy system. At the time, I promised a follow-up piece evaluating the realized efficiency of the system. What was I thinking? The resulting analysis is a lot of work! But it was good for me, and hopefully it will be useful to some of you lot as well. I’ll go ahead and give you the final answer: 62%. So you could peel away now and risk using this number out of context, or you could come with me into the rabbit hole…

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CleanTECH San Diego takes position on California Proposition 39

By Guest Author Jason Anderson, Vice President of CleanTECH San Diego

On November 6, voters will consider Proposition 39, the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, which will close a tax loophole that gives an unfair advantage to out-of-state corporations that employ few Californians.  After a vote of our Advocacy Committee and our Executive Committee, CleanTECH San Diego has joined a coalition of businesses, education, labor and taxpayers to support Prop. 39.
How was this loophole created?  At the end of the 2009 state budget negotiations, in a last-minute, middle-of-the-night deal, a tax loophole was crafted that allows out-of-state companies to manipulate the tax system and get a tax advantage from keeping jobs out of California.  Eliminating this loophole – by instead basing corporate tax liability on sales in the state or the ‘single sales factor’ – will make California-based businesses more competitive, restore balance and fairness to the tax system, create new jobs and recover $1 billion a year in lost revenues. Closing the loophole will bring California’s tax policy in line with the policies of many other states, including New York, Indiana, Colorado, Illinois, Texas and Michigan.
The new state revenue will provide increased funding to vital state programs–such as education, health and social services, public safety and transportation.  In addition, for the first five years, Prop. 39 dedicates a portion of the new revenues to energy efficiency programs, which will create jobs and reduce the state’s long-term energy costs.
California is known worldwide for its innovation, its creativity and its world-class economy.  But this unfair tax policy puts California-based businesses at a disadvantage.  To learn more about Prop. 39 or to submit your endorsement, please visit

Algae Biomass Organization: Report from the Executive Director

By Guest Author Mary Rosenthal Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization

The algae industry’s successes have rarely been more apparent than this summer. On the heels of the Navy’s biofuel testing at RIMPAC in Hawaii in July, the most exciting news in August comes, surprisingly, from Congress, where the first-ever algae fuel tax credit was advanced in a bi-partisan vote of the Senate Finance Committee.
But that is not all. The vote came as ABO was completing preparations for an aggressive algae education campaign, the Summer of Algae II, in states across the nation, and as we acknowledged that the growing recognition of algae by audiences outside the lab required we give ABO a new name.
What’s in a name?
The word “Algae” is becoming a topic of discussion in the public sphere like never before. Successful tests like the U.S. Navy’s “Green Fleet” are bringing the topic of algae into everyday conversation. The same is true in policy venues, and we’re thrilled that the industry is moving out of exclusively academic and lab settings into the commercial and consumer markets.
So, earlier this month, we officially changed the name of the organization to the Algae Biomass Organization to better reflect the term that most people use and associate with our industry. We are still led by a dynamic and committed board of directors; we still have the largest cross-section of industry partners within our membership; and we continue to advocate tirelessly for policy and regulatory issues that benefit our industry.
An algae-based fuels tax credit
The growing awareness that prompted this name change also resulted in some great news on the policy front.
On August 2nd the Senate Finance Committee approved the Family Business Tax Cut Certainty Act of 2012. The bill, which received bipartisan support in the Committee, would extend the tax credit for the production of cellulosic biofuel through the end of 2013.
The bill would also extend the cellulosic biofuel tax credit to algae-based fuel for the first time.
This is one of ABO’s legislative priorities, and we were very pleased to see our language included in this legislation. The bipartisan support for the inclusion of algae-based biofuel is a significant milestone that will put the algae industry in an excellent position going into the legislative debates ahead.
The Summer of Algae II
ABO is building on this success with an aggressive education campaign that kicked off last week. ABO members across the nation are opening their doors to local and national officials to offer a first-hand look at the local jobs we are providing, the fuels and products we can make, and vast potential of the industry if given the right policy support.  We are calling this campaign the Summer of Algae II, in deference to the milestones of 2009 that Biofuels Digest dubbed the first Summer of Algae.
As summer winds down, keep in mind that these new policy victories, industry milestones, and educational events are building up to the largest, most important Algae Biomass Summit yet, to be held in Denver, September 24-27.  You can expect celebrations of the past year, planning for the next, and plenty of new business networking for an industry with a very bright future.
I can’t wait to see you there!

Mary Rosenthal

Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization


GUEST AUTHOR Tom Murphy: Solar Data Treasure Trove

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

 I have not kept it secret that I’m a fan of solar power. Leaving storage hangups aside for now, the fact that the scale of available power is comfortably gigantic, that perfectly efficient technology exists, that it’s hard-over on the reality axis (vs. fantasy: it’s producing electricity on my roof right now), and that it works well almost everywhere—what’s not to like? Did you trip over that last part? Many do. In this post, we’ll look at just how much solar yield one may expect as a function of location within the U.S.

The ancient Mayans laboriously accumulated a substantial set of observational data on solar illumination across America well ahead of the present need. Okay, it wasn’t actually the ancient Mayans. It was the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who embarked on a 30-year campaign beginning in 1961, covering 239 locations across the U.S. and associated territories. Imagine this. How many people were even cognizant of solar power in 1961? Yet the forward-thinking scientists at NREL appreciated the value of a solid baseline dataset way back then. This level of foresight seems akin to the Mayans constructing a calendar going all the way to 2012. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a gift from the past.I have often consulted and enjoyed the product of this work over the years—called the NREL Redbook, or more formally, the Solar Radiation Data Manual for Flat Plate and Concentrating Collectors. But with a snazzy blog post as motivation, I have taken it up a notch and produced a variety of graphical representations of the dataset to explore what it can tell us. Let’s begin the guided tour.

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Shared Solar One Step Closer to Reality

By Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP

The California Assembly’s Utility & Commerce Committee just advanced a bill called the Community-Based Renewable Energy Self-Generation Program, or SB843, with a 10-to-2 vote on Monday. This 2,000-megawatt program would create a new $7 billion market for renewable energy. The bill’s passage was a critical win for the Golden State, signaling momentum and strong interest in expanding ‘shared solar,’ also known as ‘solar hosting,’ ‘solar gardens’ or ‘offsite solar.’

How Does Shared Solar Work?

The concept of shared solar is remarkably similar to what one might experience in a community vegetable garden. In this system, which is called (more…)


GUEST AUTHOR Tom Murphy: Time to Be Honest With Ourselves About Our Looming Energy Risks

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Tom Murphy’s insights about energy have been featured five times on this blog in the past year.  Each posting has elicited great response.  Recently he recorded an interview with Chris Martenson of Peak Prosperity.  Murphy believes it is “time to be honest with ourselves about our looming energy risks.  There are simply not enough BTUs to meet rising global demand.”

Click here for the Podcast.  Or here for the Transcript.


GUEST AUTHOR Tom Murphy: My Great Hope for the Future

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

So far on Do the Math, I’ve put out a lot of negative energy—whatever that means. Topics have often focused on what we can’t do, or at least on the failings or difficulties of various ambitious plans. We can’t expect indefinite growth—whether in energy, population, or even growth of the economic variety. It is not obvious how we maintain our current standard of living once fossil fuels begin their inexorable decline this century. And as I’ve argued before, achieving a steady-state future implies approximate equity among the peoples of the Earth, so that maintaining today’s global energy consumption translates to living at one-fifth the power currently enjoyed in the U.S.

In this post, I offer a rosy vision for what I think we could accomplish in the near term to maximize our chances of coming out shiny and happy on the tail end of the fossil fuel saga. I’m no visionary, and this exercise represents a stretch for a physicist. But at least I can sketch a low-risk, physically viable route to the future. I can—in part—vouch for its physical viability based on my own dramatic reductions in energy footprint. I cannot vouch for the realism of the overall scheme. It’s a dream and a hope—a fool’s hope, really—and very, very far from a prediction or a blueprint. I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. Now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.

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Solar Hosting: No roof? No worries.

By Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP 

In January 2012, research group Environment California released a report highlighting the phenomenal growth of solar energy in the state of California.  California, which is leading the nation in deployments, has installed just over 1,000 megawatts (mW) of solar power through 2011.  While California is the standard-bearer for solar energy in the U.S., countries such as Germany have installed 17 times that amount, with 4,000 mW deployed in the month of December 2011 alone.

The good news is that, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), California has just begun to tap its potential for renewable energy.  It estimates that existing buildings have the capacity to support up to 80,000 mW of rooftop solar systems.  With ample rooftop space and surging energy demands, the potential to grow solar in California and beyond is significant.  The question remains, how do we get there from here?

No roof?  No worries.

Financial innovations such as commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) and expanded residential leasing options can help make solar more affordable for people who own their roof.  For everybody else, a new kind of (more…)


GUEST AUTHOR: The Alternative Energy Matrix

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Breathe, Neo. I’ve been running a marathon lately to cover all the major players that may provide viable alternatives to fossil fuels this century. Even though I have not exhausted all possibilities, or covered each topic exhaustively, I am exhausted. So in this post, I will provide a recap of all the schemes discussed thus far, in matrix form. Then Do the Math will shift its focus to more of the “what next” part of the message.

The primary “mission” of late has been to sort possible future energy resources into boxes labeled “abundant,” “potent” (able to support something like a quarter of our present demand if fully developed), and “niche,” which is a polite way to say puny. In the process, I have clarified in my mind that a significant contributor to my concerns about future energy scarcity is not the simple quantitative scorecard. After all, if it were that easy, we’d be rocking along with a collective consensus about our path forward. Some comments have asked: “If we forget about trying to meet our total demand with one source, could we meet our demand if we add them all up?” Absolutely. In fact, the abundant sources technically need no other complement. So on the abundance score alone, we’re done at solar, for instance. But it’s not that simple, unfortunately. While the quantitative abundance of a resource is key, many other practical concerns enter the fray when trying to anticipate long-term prospects and challenges—usually making up the bulk of the words in prior posts.

For example, it does not much matter that Titan has enormous pools of methane unprotected by any army (that we know of!). The gigantic scale of this resource makes our Earthly fossil fuel allocation a mere speck. But so what? Practical considerations mean we will never grab this energy store. Likewise, some of our terrestrial sources of energy are super-abundant, but just a pain in the butt to access or put to practical use.

In this post, we will summarize the ins and outs of the various prospects. Interpretation will come later. For now, let’s just wrap it all up together.

Continue reading →


GUEST AUTHOR: The Motion of the Ocean

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

With the exception of tidal energy, our focus thus far has been on land-based energy sources. Meanwhile, the ocean absorbs a prodigious fraction of the Sun’s incident energy, creating thermal gradients, currents, and waves whipped up by winds. Let’s put some scales on the energetics of these sources and see if we may turn to them for help. We’ve got our three boxes ready: abundant, potent, and niche (puny). Time to do some sorting!

Thermal Gradients

Wherever there is a thermal gradient, our eyes light up because we can create a heat flow across the gradient and capture some fraction of the energy flow to do useful work. This is called a heat engine, the efficiency of which is capped by the theoretical maximum (Th − Tc)/Th, where “h” and “c” subscripts refer to absolute temperatures of the hot and cold reservoirs, respectively. In the ocean, we are rather limited in how much gradient is available. The surface does not tend to exceed 30°C (303 K), while the depths cannot get much cooler than 0°C (273 K; pressure and salinity allow it to go a few degrees negative). The maximum thermodynamic efficiency therefore tops out at 10%, and in practice we might get half of this in a real application. The general scheme of producing energy from thermal gradients in the ocean is called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).



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GUEST AUTHOR: Can Tides Turn the Tide?

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Now is the time on Do the Math when we scan the energy landscape for viable alternatives to fossil fuels. In this post, we’ll look at tidal power, which is virtually inexhaustible on relevant timescales, is less intermittent than solar/wind (although still variable), and uses old-hat technology to make electricity. For this exercise, we mainly care about the scale at which the alternatives can contribute, leaving practical and economic considerations sitting in the cold for a bit (spoiler alert: most are hard and expensive). Last week, we looked at solar and wind, finding that solar can satisfy our current demand without batting an eyelash, and that wind can be a serious contributor, although apparently incapable of carrying the load on its own. Thus we put solar in the “abundant” box and wind in the “useful” box. There’s an empty box labeled “waste of time.” Any guesses where I’m going to put tidal power? Don’t get upset yet.

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GUEST AUTHOR: California Is Making History by Leveling Its Demand Curve

SIERRA MARTINEZ is an energy attorney and analyst in the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Clean Energy Efficiency Continues To Displace Expensive Dirty Power Plants

Some skeptics of energy efficiency claim that energy efficiency never really avoids the need for new power plants.  They claim that energy efficiency might reduce our energy consumption in theory, but not in practice.  Well, the good news is that there’s new evidence from the California Public Utilities Commission showing that energy efficiency is actually displacing the need to build power plants.  So much power is being saved, in fact, that California is embarking on a historic path: Instead of increasing the total amount of electricity we use, which has been the general trend since Edison’s time, energy efficiency will reduce the total demand for electricity.  (This efficiency will also provide a significant boost to economic growth, I might add.)  In the graphic below, you can see that energy efficiency is actually bending the demand curve downward. 
              Electricity Demand in California ISO From 2008 to 2020[1]

California is in the process of determining how many power plants it should allow private utilities to build over the next decade.  The Public Utilities Commission analyzes how much energy California is expected to consume over the next decade, and (more…)


GUEST AUTHOR: The Energy Trap

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.  His blog, Do the Math, takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whetherwe transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

When I first encountered the concept of peak oil, I was most distressed about the economic implications. In part, this was prompted by David Goodstein’s book Out of Gas, which highlighted the potential for global panic in reaction to peak oil—making the gas lines associated with the temporary oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 look like warm-up acts. Because I knew Professor Goodstein personally, and held him in high regard as a solid physicist, I took his message seriously. Extrapolating his vision of a global reaction to peak oil, I imagined that the prospect of a decades-long decline in available energy—while we strained to institute a replacement infrastructure—would destroy confidence in short-term economic growth, thus destroying investment and crashing markets. The market relies on investor confidence—which, in some sense, makes it a con job, since “con” is short for confidence. If that confidence is shattered on a global scale, what happens next?

I still consider economic panic to be a distinctly possible eventuality, but psychology can be hard to predict. Market optimists would see the tremendous investment potential of a new energy infrastructure as an antidote against such an outbreak. Given this uncertainty, let’s shy away from economic prognostication and look at a purely physical dimension to the problem—namely, the Energy Trap.

Energy Return on Energy Invested

Our goal will be to quantitatively assess the Energy Trap, and see if there is any substance to the idea. We will rely on a concept that has acquired a central role in evaluating our energy future. This is energy return on energy invested, or EROEI.

In order to utilize energy, we must exert some energy to secure the source and prepare it for use. In order to burn wood in our fireplace, we (or someone) must chop down a tree, cut it into logs, and split the large logs. To drive our gasoline-powered car, we must expend energy finding the oil, drilling and possibly pumping the oil, then refining and distributing the gasoline. To collect solar energy, we must invest energy to fabricate the solar panels and associated electronics. The result is expressed as a ratio of energy-out:energy-in. Anything less than the break-even ratio of 1:1 means that the source provides no net energy (a drain, in fact), and is not worth pursuing for energy purposes—unless the form/convenience of that specific energy is otherwise unavailable.

In its early days, oil frequently yielded an EROEI in excess of 100:1, meaning that 1% or less of the energy contained in a barrel of oil had to be expended to deliver that barrel of oil. Not a bad bargain. Oil production today more typically has an EROEI around 20:1, while tar sands and oil shale tend to be about 5:1 and 3:1, respectively. By contrast, it is debatable whether corn ethanol exceeds break-even: it may optimistically be as high as 1.4:1. Switching from conventional oil to corn ethanol would be like switching from a diet of bacon, eggs, and butter to a desperate survival diet of shoe leather and tree bark. Other approaches to biofuels, like sugar cane ethanol, can have EROEI as high as 8:1.

To round out the introduction, coal typically has an EROEI around 50–85:1, and natural gas tends to come in around 20–40:1, though falling below the lower end of this range as the easy fields are depleted. Meanwhile, solar photovoltaics are estimated to require 3–4 years’ worth of energy output to fabricate, including the frames and associated electronics systems. Assuming a 30–40 year lifetime, this translates into an EROEI around 10:1. Wind is estimated to have EROEI around 20:1, and new nuclear installations are expected to come in at approximately 15:1. These are all positive net-energy approaches, which is the good news.

The Inevitable Fossil Fuel Decline

Let’s explore what happens as we try to compensate for an energy decline with an alternative resource having modest EROEI. On the upslope of our fossil fuel bonanza, we saw a characteristic annual growth rate of around 3% per year. The asymmetric Seneca Effect notwithstanding, a logistic evolution of the resource would result in a symmetric rate of contraction on the downslope: 3% per year. I borrow a graphic from the post on the meaning of “sustainable” to illustrate the rationale for expecting an era of decline for a one-time finite resource.


On the long view, the fossil fuel age is a blip, with a down side mirroring the (more fun) up side.

We could use any number for the decline rate in our analysis, but I’ll actually soften the effect to a 2% annual decline to illustrate that we run into problems even at a modest rate of decline. By itself, a 2% decline year after year—while sounding mild—would send our growth-based economy into (more…)


The shocking capabilities of clean tech vehicles

By Guest Author Alan Parker

As the world’s oil supplies dry up and the price of gasoline and diesel continue to skyrocket, the need for practical, clean, alternative fuel sources for motor vehicles becomes increasingly imperative.  Fortunately, green energy devotees have been performing some amazing feats of ingenuity, drawing attention to the efficiency and practicality of numerous forms of sustainable energy.  Specially designed vehicles have been proven capable of things from setting speed records to traversing entire continents without using petroleum-based fuels.  These feats demonstrate that alternative energy can be effectively employed in order to rid the world of its dependence on petroleum for transportation while preserving the environment by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Breaking Speed Records
As the popularity of cars like the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius increases, the idea of using electricity to run vehicles is rapidly becoming accepted in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, most so-called electric cars are only hybrid vehicles, which means that they still require internal fuel combustion for some of their power.  A group of students at Brigham Young University set out to create a car that was not only fully electric, but also dispelled the stereotypes of electric cars being slow and underpowered.  They called their car Electric Blue, and it had a top speed of 175 miles per hour when it was tested at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This was fast enough to set a world land speed record for a car of its class.  Hopefully, this project’s success will aid in the production of electric cars that are faster and more powerful, and therefore more appealing to the public.

Crossing a Continent by Wind
In order to show the effectiveness of wind as an energy source, a German team crosses the Australian continent in a car powered by the wind.  Each night, they would set up a portable wind turbine to recharge the car’s battery, which gave it sufficient energy for the next day.  If the wind was strong enough, a kite attached to the car would propel it down the road and save batter power.  The trip 3,000 mile trip was completed in only 18 days, giving engineers hope that wind could become a practical source of energy for transportation in the future.

Crossing a Continent by Biofuel
Powered only by biofuel, the first ever land based trans-Antarctic expedition was recently finished at the end of 2010.  Funded by clean energy advocate Winston Wong, the so-called Bio-inspired Ice Vehicle (BIV) is the first bio-fueled vehicle to complete such a task. Not only was it designed to demonstrate the power of alternative energy, but it was engineered to withstand the extreme conditions that Antarctica is famous for while transporting a research team safely across a continent.

People Power
While this may immediately bring to mind something out of the Flintstones, the HumanCar, as it is simply known, harnesses the power of quick rowing motions by the driver and passengers to charge its battery.  The HumanCar is capable of reaching speeds over 60 miles per hour. While it’s currently only made for short-distance commuter travel, newer versions are being designed to allow long-distance journeys, as well.  Besides its clean power source, the HumanCar has other (more…)


Solar Gardens: Sprouting soon in a community near you

By Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP

In March 2007, Community Housing Works, a non-profit developer/owner of low income housing projects, unveiled a 56-unit multi-tenant unit (MTU) apartment complex called Solara in Poway, California, in San Diego County.  Solara was designed from the ground up to incorporate green and sustainability features, including a net-zero energy footprint goal.  To generate 100% of its own electricity, the project included a series of 836 solar photo voltaic (PV) panels with a total nameplate capacity of 142 kilowatts (kW) installed on rooftops and carports throughout the complex.  At the time of Solara’s construction, most projects only attempted to incorporate solar PV to serve the energy load from common areas, such as laundry facilities or community rooms.  These installations were limited because of outdated regulatory policies that required each individual unit to have its own physically isolated solar system. 

Photo courtesy Solar Power, Inc.

Solara sought to bring solar power to all of its tenants and was forced in install separate arrays of panels for each and every unit.  This meant taking a dozen panels at a time, wiring them to individual solar inverters (to convert energy from DC to AC), and running separate cabling from each cluster of solar panels directly into each tenant’s separate electricity meter.  Clearly, this was not the most efficient way to deliver power in an MTU property.

A Better Way?

In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) created a program called “Virtual Net Metering”, or “VNM” specifically for Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) projects like Solara.  (CPUC decision 08-10-036.)  

Using VNM, a property could install solar panels and feed all of the energy into a single meter with a single inverter, and virtually divide the credit for energy production across a series of meter numbers (more…)


Fostering the next generation of biofuels innovators

By Guest Author  Mary Rosenthal Executive Director, Algal Biomass Organization

In our country’s spirited debate over energy, innovation and the economy, perhaps no phrase has been uttered more often than “green jobs.” While the precise meaning of “green job” continues to be a topic of debate, I would submit that jobs in the algae industry are indeed at least a little shade of green. Or maybe blue-green.

In today’s biofuels industry, most of the growth has centered on jobs for those workers who have already been trained in the fields of construction; engineering; chemistry and biology; sales and marketing; legal and administrative, and others. The industry now supports tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs across the country and up and down the value chain – from Ph.D-level microbiologists to plant personnel to legal counsel to metal fabricators and truckers; from the labs of San Diego to the ethanol plants of Iowa to the offices of Silicon Valley.

That is something we rightly celebrate as an industry. It also something policymakers in Washington D.C. would be wise to recognize as they continue to seek ways to create jobs and spur economic growth.

The next generation of green jobs

Much less has been said, however, about the tremendous need to develop the next generation of biofuels innovators. Regardless of technology, feedstock or business plan, this is something that is a concern of the industry as a whole. Because a new generation of experts will be required to help today’s companies continue to (more…)


From Culture to Cleantech: A travel diary from South Korea

By Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP

   Blink twice in Seoul, South Korea, and you might think you’re in any big city in the United States.  Cars whiz by, tall buildings sprawl out in familiar, dense, urban patterns, and of course, there’s the occasional Starbucks dotting the landscape.  My visit to this country came at the invitation of the SWEET Renewable Energy and Cleantech Conference.  Given that this was to be my first trip to Korea, I accepted the speaking invitation with the eagerness and anticipation of a young wizard on his first train ride to Hogwarts.  Frankly, I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to be on board.  What I discovered was striking.  Korea is a country with vast differences and abundant similarities to western culture.  “How is that possible?” you might be wondering.  Let me explain.
   After spending a week in Korea, one might make the observation that westerners are in familiar territory.  This is a place where the people are friendly, the cars drive on the same side of the road, and one can survive on English alone.  In short, it feels safe and navigable.  (OK, so all the measurements are in metric units, but you get the point.)  However, once you start engaging strangers in conversation and (more…)


CA Proposition 23 and the National Clean Energy Dialogue

By Guest Author Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP

Tom Steyer has a vision for a national dialogue about energy production and consumption.  At the 2011 gathering of the Cleantech Investor Summit in Palm Springs, California, Steyer shared his perspective on the defeat of Proposition 23, along with how that outcome can inform the national conversation on clean energy issues.

Steyer is an unlikely spokesperson in the clean energy movement.  As the founder and co-managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, he has built a career around institutional investing for schools, foundations and high-net-wealth individuals.

“I have been a professional investor for the last 30 years, not having to do with clean energy,” said Steyer.  “When Prop 23 was proposed, I assumed that I would do absolutely nothing.  When everyone else took the exact same (more…)


Return of the T-RECs: Back from Extinction, Part Two


Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the unanimous decision of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to allow Tradable Renewable Energy Credits (T-RECs) in California.  If you’re not familiar with a T-REC, it is, quite simply, an environmental commodity representing the environmental attributes associated with one MegaWatt hour of renewable energy generation.

According to the CPUC, under the new rules, T-RECs “can be purchased by a utility and traded separately from the underlying energy produced by a renewable generating facility.  These energy credits can then be applied, by the utility, toward their renewable energy compliance goals.”

Within days of last year’s March 11 decision, a flurry of (more…)


California Proposition 23 and Implications for Cleantech

By GUEST AUTHOR Courtland Weisleder, President and founder of Greener Dawn, Inc.,

Proposition 23, which would Suspend AB 32, the Global Warming Act of 2006, is on the November 2, 2010 ballot in California.  Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) is known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  The act, passed by the California State Legislature and signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is California’s landmark clean air legislation which requires that greenhouse gas emission levels in the state be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.  As part of this process, utilities in the state are required to obtain a third of their power from renewable sources.  If Proposition 23 is passed, AB 32 would be suspended until the state’s unemployment rate drops to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.  To put that number in perspective, California’s unemployment rate, which currently hovers around 12%, has been at 5.5% or below for four consecutive quarters just three times since 1980.

Arguments for Prop 23

The arguments for Prop 23 are summarized here in a column quoted from (more…)