Posts tagged corporations

MOVIE REVIEW: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Yesterday was a media-rich day for me. Besides reading Power by the People, I also got a chance to check out the 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which outlines the rise and fall of the GM EV1. It’s filmed in traditional documentary format, with cameos by Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Mel Gibson, and other celebrity EV1 owners. It’s actually kind of amusing to see these people introduced as “blah blah, EV driver”, without the fanfare associated with their day jobs.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The film starts out outlining the history of California’s Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate, enacted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1993. The mandate stated that in order to sell cars in California, car makers must create at least 10% of their vehicles to be zero-emissions. This led to the further development by GM of the prototype “Impact” car that had won the solar Grand Prix race in 1989. After developing a car that could be marketed, and introducing it at the L.A. Auto Show, GM released some cars for lease in California and Arizona, dubbing it the “EV1”. It was relatively inexpensive, quiet, and very fast. Soon, Ford, Honda, and other car companies were scrambling to make their own electric vehicles so they could compete in the California market. But they weren’t happy about having to devote R&D money to that quest.

The mandate stated that the only way car companies could get around having to produce zero-emissions cars was to prove that there existed no demand for them. So car companies set about doing just that. You’ll see some of the old commercials for electric vehicles, which come off looking more like public service announcements about some scary new disease than a car ad. GM claimed that while they had a waiting list of 4,000 people who wanted an EV1, that list only translated to about 50 car leases. Ask Chelsea Sexton, the EV1 sales representative who is interviewed throughout the film what she thinks of that, and you’ll meet a lot of skepticism. Many other arguments that the car companies used to “kill the electric car” are also presented, some actually funny in their logic.

Regardless of what the car companies thought about investing in electric vehicles, the death blow to the Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate came from within… when in 2003, CARB actually repealed the very Mandate it had drafted, due to pressure from the car companies and a powerful new lobby, backed by the Bush administration: Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Shortly after the mandate died its grizzly death (see the movie for details about the decline and the players behind it), GM bought the Hummer car line, and within a month, quietly closed its EV1 facility and laid off the staff there. Then something strange happened. GM began a systematic recall of its EV1 vehicles, threatening legal action against those who did not allow GM to personally come and pick up the cars. By 2004, there were no cars left in private hands.

If you’re still reading, this is a movie that you should see, so I won’t go into the details about the recall campaign and the protests that followed this unprecedented action. Suffice it to say that the car companies promised one thing and did entirely something else, stifling real technological advances in the process. And governmental regulators? Well, I’ve never loved ’em, but it’s very disheartening to see how the oil industry, the car companies, and legislators colluded to feed a gas-hungry economy more high-fuel toys. Like tax credits: $4,000 for an electric vehicle, or $100,000 for a vehicle over 6,000 pounds (ie. the Hummer). 100k for owning a Hummer? On what planet does that make sense? Certainly not this one.

So, yes, watch this movie. It’s as much about how the long fingers of corporations and the government have entwined our lives as it even is about the technology behind the EV1. But that is a valuable lesson to learn, especially if you’re someone planning to make a change in the world. Just watch what happens to the Oshanskys when they introduce a new battery technology to the car companies. It isn’t pretty. But in the end, the message is positive. Progress can be stifled, but it cannot be stopped. Good technologies WILL find their way the marketplace if there is a demand for them. It is up to us, the consumers, to demand products that embrace alternative energy technologies, rather than letting the powers-that-be spoon feed us their idea of the future.

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NanoSolar produces solar cheaper then coal

NanoSolar flexible cell

Read More about NanoSolar’s breakthrough here

PopSci’s Best of What’s New 2007

Comparison of Solar Technologies

NanoSolar has long been a favorite of mine for their commitment to producing inexpensive solar cells with more durable materials than traditional solar cells.  They have funding from some of the biggest names in the business world, which probably explains why they haven’t had to go public yet.  When they do, I’m going to be standing in line (probably a long one!) to get stock.  Their PowerSheet technology, printed in a process similar to running a newspaper press, recently snagged Best of 2007 honors in Popular Science’s annual contest (see a nice Flash demonstration of the technology at the link above).

The most exciting news is that the NanoSolar process has been officially declared cheaper then coal.  That means there’s no excuse not to own some of these panels once they come off the production line in 2008.  The first commercially produced line of panels were auctioned off, sent to the Smithsonian, used in power plant settings, and other socialy important applications.  But NanoSolar for the masses appears to be just around the corner.  Keep an eye on this!

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Who’s Hiding in Your Kitchen?

“Scryve is a collaborative web resource and browser tool combination that provides a resource for environmentally and socially aware Internet browsing. Look up company ratings using the search box below, or Download our browser tool to see the rating of any company whose website you are on in the top right corner of your browser. If you like the rating, keep browsing, if you don’t like it, click on it and we’ll show you why the company is rated that way and give you alternative companies to use.”

I figured I’d just let them speak for themselves, this time. The browser interface is very nice, though the recommendations seem to be based on a keyword algorithm that sometimes return humorous results. As is it obviously designed to be a user-driven site, right now, in its youngest stages, there are a lot of basic ratings and company information. Probably with a little more time and user traffic to get the recommendations streamlined, this site will become a valuable resource. For now, it functions best as a lesson in who owns what in the world. You might be surprised just how few people that could really be.

Going green and/or running from the grid are drastic changes to make in one’s standard lifestyle. But not because they require you to sell your soul or start making pemmican professionally from a National Forest treetop. It also has a lot to do with looking at the greater picture of things, which is a skill that translates across to successes in all walks of life. When I realized how easy it is to make a few simple changes and effectively shut out the power (both literally and figuratively!) of the people that I didn’t want telling me how to live each day, well, I was hooked. Success coaches stress the importance of success as a mindset. We would all do well to start out giving ourselves small goals that we actually achieve rather than big ones left half done. Try picking one alternative company to your mega mart today. Then, once you’ve adjusted your routine, pick another. Then you build with a solid foundation for future change.

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Solar Power Paint

Solar power paint

“The paint will be based on dye-sensitised solar cells. Instead of absorbing sunlight using silicon like conventional solar panels, they use dye molecules attached to particles of the titanium dioxide pigment used in paints.

That gives an energy boost to electrons, which hop from the dye into a layer of electrolyte. This then transfers the extra energy into a collecting circuit, before the electrons cycle back to the dye.

While less efficient than conventional cells, dye-based cells do not require expensive silicon, and can be applied as a liquid paste.”

Solar paint?

This is not the first time I’ve heard this announced, but it promises to be such a big idea that I applaud anyone who’s making progress toward a solution.  Nanosolar, mentioned in the article, indeed does have a method of printing their cells directly onto metal surfaces, which also promises to revolutionize the manufacturing industry.  It’s only a matter of time.  Which, unfortunately, we have less of these days.  But with big investors like Google behind such solar startups, at least we know that someone’s on it.

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Big commercial players in Solar Power

from: CREST.orgsun’s corona

Applied Power Corporation of Lacey, Washington: Applied Power was acquired by the Idaho Power Company, a company with $1.1 billion in annual revenue that was the first U.S. utility to offer solar electric service to its customers. Applied Power itself recently acquired Alternative Energy Engineering of California, Ascension Technology of Massachusetts and Colorado, and Solar Electric Specialties of Colorado. Applied Power assembles and sells PV systems for applications such as remote sites in national parks, mountaintop telecommunication systems, solar homes and village water pumping systems in developing countries, etc.

AstroPower, Inc. of Newark, Delaware: Originally a government contractor that has become a publicly-traded commercial manufacturer, AstroPower manufactures PV modules, single crystal cells and silicon thin film. Total annual sales equaled $20 million. In June, 1999, AstroPower agreed to develop products for GPU, Inc., a major New Jersey-based utility company; in return, GPU made a major purchase of AstroPower stock.

BP Solarex of Frederick, Maryland: In 1999, British Petroleum merged with Amoco, which with Enron Corporation was a joint owner of Solarex, a photovoltaic firm with 600 employees in Maryland, Virginia and Australia, and annual revenue of $58 million. Enron subsequently sold its share to BP Amoco, making BP Amoco sole owner of America’s largest photovoltaic firm. It remains unclear how BP Amoco will merge the operations of Solarex with BP’s solar arm, BP Solar, a firm with 900 employees in India, Australia, Spain and California, and annual revenue of $95 million. BP Solar projects annual revenues of $150 million, representing 20 per cent of the global market, and the firm seeks $1 billion in annual revenue by 2007.

Solarex has manufactured both polycrystalline silicon and potentially cheaper-but so far less efficient-thin film modules. Recently, the firm purchased a Swedish and a South African PV module manufacturer, to assemble American-made PV cells into modules ready for installation in growing European and African markets. Meanwhile, BP Solar has built markets in 160 nations, and particularly in developing nations, for its mono-crystalline and thin film technology. A vertically integrated firm, BP Solar manufactures cells, assembles PV systems, and installs and services grid-connected and stand-alone systems.

Golden Genesis Company of Scottsdale, Arizona: Kyocera Corporation, the world’s largest PV cell producer, acquired Golden Genesis (formerly Photocomm, Inc.) in July of 1999. The resulting merger produces a vertically-integrating PV firm with combined annual sales of $185 million, to be named Kyocera Solar. The merged company will assemble, distribute and install products made from Kyocera cells, including PV power systems for lighting, telecommunications, cathodic protection and data acquisition for oil and gas pipelines, water pumping, etc.

Powerlight of Berkeley, California: PowerLight is a full-service company offering unique solar electric products and complete energy solutions, from initial consultation to installation, project development, maintenance and financing. According to the company, Power Light’s patented photovoltaic (PV) products provide solar energy at the lowest possible cost in the industry, and are uniquely designed to install seamlessly onto existing building infrastructures, without penetrations.

Siemens Solar Industries of Camarillo, California: Siemens Solar is affiliated with Siemens AG of Germany and Siemens Corporation of the U.S.; the Siemens Solar Group as a whole enjoys annual revenue of $78 million (1997), employs 475 people worldwide, and has American facilities in California and Vancouver, Washington. Siemens produces both crystalline and thin film PV cells, which are sold wholesale to PV system integrators.

Spire Corporation of Bedford, Massachusetts: In addition to its biomedical processing and optoelectronic divisions, Spire is the world’s largest producer of PV manufacturing equipment. Spire also supports its production lines with process technology, spare parts, training and equipment warranty. Annual revenue is $14 million.

Trace Engineering Corporation of Arlington, Washington: Trace designs and manufactures battery chargers and inverters, which convert the direct current generated by photovoltaic systems into the alternating current used by most appliances and the national electric grid. Trace also manufactures accessories such as cables, charge controllers and remote controls. Trace employs 125 people, and recently acquired the rights to bankrupt Kenetech Windpower’s power conversion technology, which it will manufacture as Trace Technology Corporation.

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Google Goes Solar

From the official Google Blog:

“Soon we plan to begin installation of 1.6 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels at our Mountain View campus. This project will be the largest solar installation on any corporate campus in the U.S., and we think it’s one of the largest on any corporate site in the world. The panels will cover the roofs of the four main buildings of the Googleplex, and also those of two additional buildings across the street. There will also be a portion of this installation on new solar panel support structures in a few parking lots. The amount of electricity that will be generated is equivalent to powering about 1,000 average California homes. We’ll use that electricity to power several of our Mountain View office facilities, offsetting approximately 30% of our peak electricity consumption at those buildings.

To tackle this ambitious project, we’re partnering with EI Solutions. The installation of clean and renewable power represents a first step in reducing our environmental impact as a company. We believe that improving our environmental practices is not only our responsibility as a corporate citizen, but good business planning — a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Council suggests that demand continues to outstrip power supply by a considerable margin. And of course by saving electricity (not to mention producing clean renewable energy), we also save money. In fact, we believe this project demonstrates that a large investment in renewable energy can be profitable.

Finally!  I won’t clutter the web with another shameless Google plug, but come on, this is great!

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Commitment – eat less fast food

Back to the experiment. In order to keep the planet happy, I want to eliminate fast food from my diet. For several years, this goal was a reality (I was a happy vegetarian!), but lifestyle changes allowed the ugly monster to creep back into my life. If you’ve ever read the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlossinger, you know this is a very bad thing for all sorts of reasons. If you haven’t, please, check it out, you’ll never feel the same about that Whopper Jr. again. While I continue to tinker with the solar panel and other such projects, I’m making a commitment, the first solid reduction in my carbon diet. My first step toward energy independence will be to eliminate frequent trips to the Del Tacos and Wendy’s of the earth, and replace them with healthier alternatives that don’t entail enslaving some poor worker for $5 hourly. Or eating genetically modified chickens, etc.

Fast Food

Instead, I went to the 99 cents only store and picked up bread, peanut butter, jelly, lettuce, and some tuna. Yes, I know, this food isn’t exactly a locally-grown organic cornucopia, but hey, a gal’s gotta start somewhere! For the money I’d spend on two Wendy’s caesar side salads (which rank up there with my favorite fast food eats), I get a week of good lunches, and the satisfaction of knowing that I’m not supporting some fast food uber-corporation’s march to colonize the planet. And it’s a lot less plastic and other persistent trash going into the can.

Eventually, I’ll switch out the processed commercial foods I’m buying now for either local produce or things grown at home. One change – will it make a difference? I’ll let you know how it goes!

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