Clean Energy in California

Day Three: Oh, the Places We’ll Go!
by -- March 10th, 2011


Google, Better Place, PG&E and Bloom Energy

My daughters are avid readers of Dr. Suess  books and one of their favorites is “Oh, the places you’ll go!”  I was reminded of
this book as we embarked on Day Three of our Clean Energy adventure through Northern California.  All of the companies
we visited are thought leaders.  Some are game-changing, some are inventing new rules to the game and one was
completely out of this world (Google World that is).  Some will succeed and some maybe won’t. But they all had one thing in common  – they are all “off to Great Places.”

Google.org – “Don’t Be Evil”

As soon as we got off the bus at Google headquarters in Mountain View, we knew we were in for a one of a kind experience.  Primary-colored bicycles offered employees a carbonless transportation option, employees were out enjoying the sunny day walking their dogs around the grounds and (gasp) there were cafes everywhere offering employees organic food, coffee and drinks … for free!  Sign me up – when can I start?

Seriously though, I’m all for a company that cares about its employees, but does that necessarily mean that they also care about the environment?   In Google’s case, the answer is a resounding YES.  Google has dedicated a portion of their profits to Google.org, a foundation launched in 2004 with a mission to help with the issues of climate change, global public health, and global poverty.   The four main online products offered by Google.org take corporate responsibility to another level:

  • Power Meter offers consumers the ability to continuously
    monitor their energy consumption using Smart Meters and data from participating
    utilities.
  • Earth Engine tracks deforestation across the
    world in an easy to use adaptation of Google Earth.
  • Flu Trends uses search inquiries on words like “cold”
    and “flu” and predicts where the disease may be escalating.
  • Crisis Response helps first responders
    understand the impact of disasters so they can quickly get the necessary help and aid deployed.

As you would expect, Google also invests in its sustainable future through LEED certified buildings, solar panels, energy efficient data centers and an innovative employee commuter program (25% of their 10,000 employees take the G-Bus to work and another 25% walk or bike).   They are striving to live up to their motto “Don’t Be Evil” and appear to be
succeeding.  Oh, and did I mention that they provide their employees with free food?

Better Place – “A holistic provider of mobility services”

I am in awe of the electric vehicle – or EV as the industry calls it.  So, I have a soft spot for any company that is trying to further the EV market.  Our next stop provided a glimpse into Palo Alto-based Better Place’s mission to do just that – provide the network and infrastructure needed to make EVs viable on a large scale. Founded in 2007 with the goal to “end the world’s dependence on oil,” Better Place now has 440 employees in California, Israel, Denmark and Australia.  Their strategy is to help make EVs more affordable and appealing to consumers. To do this, they plan to own the car’s battery (one of the most expensive parts to an EV) and provide charging and swapping stations to consumers at a monthly fee – think of it as combination of a propane swap station and a cell phone plan.

Better Place has already been successful with this business strategy in Israel and Denmark, but they admit that these markets are small and contained.  They have now set their sights on the large and geographically disperse US market and in 2012 will initiate a pilot program with Bay Area Taxis.  I plan to watch this pilot with interest.  Hopefully by the time I am ready to purchase my new EV, Better Place will be in position to support me.

PG&E – “People, Planet, Profit

With half the day already behind us, we arrive at our third destination – electric utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric.
Immediately upon entering the building, I felt like I was in a museum – there were buttons to press, lights to turn on and off and educational displays everywhere to help me understand how to become more efficient in my energy use and reduce my demand.  Wait a minute, I’m visiting an electric utility, right?

Turns out that PG&E has been a leader in encouraging energy efficiency for their residential and commercial consumers since the California Public Utilities Commission adopted decoupling in the 1980’s.  Because their revenue and earnings are separate (or decoupled) from their customer’s energy use, they are incented to offer integrated demand side management programs to their customers including Smart Meters, time variable pricing, demand response and customer education on topics such as “lighting fundamentals.”  By their count, since 1976 their energy efficiency programs have saved their customers $24 billion in energy costs, avoided 155 million tons of CO2 emissions and helped California avoid building 24 power plants.  Not bad for a company that profits on the sale of electricity.

In addition to their focus on energy efficiency programs, PG&E touts itself as a leader in renewables investment.  Its power mix at the end of 2009 consisted of 34.6% natural gas, 20.5% nuclear, 13% large hydroelectric, 14.4% renewable (wind, geothermal, biomass, and small hydro), and only 1.3% coal.  PG&E continues to make investments into wind and solar and believes they are on track to achieve California’s initial 20% RPS goal.

Next up for PG&E is the Global Warming Solutions Act (California AB 32).  Signed into law in 2006, AB 32 requires the California Air Resources Board to develop regulations and market mechanisms to reduce California’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. On January 1, 2012, the rules and mechanisms adopted by the board become legally enforceable. Utilities and large industrial plans will be the first in the nation to participate in the statewide cap-and-trade program in 2012. Definitely something  to keep an eye on.

Bloom Energy – “Be the Solution”

At this point, my head was swimming with all the new information and ideas I had learned at the esteemed companies we had visited.  I wasn’t sure if I had room for anything more, but our terrific trip planners had one more surprise in store for us – so I pressed on.  We headed back to our hotel (via a trolley) and were treated to a terrific presentation of a game changing idea – the Bloom Box.

Bloom Energy was established in 2001 with a mission to “make clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world.” To do this, they invented a Bloom Box – a series of fuel cells that can provide 100 kW of power (enough to power a typical 30,000 office building or 100 residential homes).  Although it uses natural gas or biofuels as its fuel source, it is considered  a “cleaner” energy solution because it boasts a higher efficiency rate and better reliability than traditional electric generation facilities.

To date, the Bloom Box has only been sold to large corporate customers like Google, eBay and Wal-Mart, however its founders believe it can be scaled down to eventually provide a distributed generation energy solution to even the residential
market.  Personally, I like the name – it makes me feel like I could easily place it in my garden and solve all my energy
needs.

Well, there you have it. What do you think?  Me?  I’m inspired and reassured by the ingenuity of these companies and all the others out there who are working on renewable and reliable power solutions for our future generations.

Tomorrow we’ll visit nuclear and solar solutions – Oh, the places we’ll go!

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