Today in Cleantech

I’m guessing that if you polled self-described “green” advocates about their least favorite green technology, biofuels would be at the top of the list. Out of all the forms of renewable energy, biofuels are the most controversial from an environmental perspective, mainly because every drop now available to global markets comes from food crops like corn, sugarcane and soy. It would be nice if cellulosic biofuel — the stuff made from non-food plant materials — could step up and provide at least a fraction of the potential market. But that just hasn’t happened the way the industry and its government backers have hoped. In fact, commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production is so far behind schedule in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has had to slash its targets twice, from an original hope for 100 million gallons by 2010 and 250 million gallons by 2011 to a bare 12.9 million gallons by next year — and even that pathetically small figure will be a challenge for the industry to manage. Looks like we’ve got awhile to perfect cellulosic biofuel’s technology, and the business model, and the feedstock issues, and all the other problems that have limited its development to date.

Lost Remote Ends Life As We Knew It

Lost Remote, the prolific future-of-television group blog which originated the space that NewTeeVee lives in, has effectively shut down, with founder Cory Bergman turning the site into a personal Tumblr. Lost Remote’s archives appear to have all been taken offline, and the new layout has no ad units, where in the past, Lost Remote had been a flagship site of Federated Media.

Bergman, who leads business development at MSNBC.com and is also working on a local news startup, explains,

A decade ago, I started Lost Remote with the slogan, “The TV Revolution is Coming. Are You Ready?” It’s safe to say the revolution has arrived, and that explains why I’ve been neglecting Lost Remote over the last few months.

Bergman said the change was also due to his desire to talk more about his own projects, and to become a more active social media participant by sharing links and his quick comments on them — building “followers” rather than readers.

We can’t say the change wasn’t telegraphed by Lost Remote’s slowed publishing in recent months, but we’re sad to see them go.

Update: Bergman says via email, “This is not the end of Lost Remote, it’s a new beginning that adopts a shorter-form, distributed publishing approach and a more personal, business-oriented look at the tremendous changes facing media today.”

The Battle of the Food-based Biofuels

While we wait for cellulosic ethanol to ramp up to commercial-scale, the corn-based ethanol industry continues to hang on with a little help from Washington — President Barack Obama indicated over the weekend that import tariffs on Brazilian sugarcane ethanol won’t be ending anytime soon. The issue came up after a meeting between Obama and the president of Brazil at the White House.

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Calling it a “source of tension” between the two countries, Obama said at a press conference, “It’s not going to change overnight.” Brazil has reportedly threatened litigation at the World Trade Organization over the 54-cent per gallon tariff.
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Corn Ethanol Takes Another Hit With Pacific Ethanol Plant Suspensions

Our ethanol deathwatch map is getting pretty crowded. Sacramento, Calif.’s Pacific Ethanol (s PEIX) said today it has temporarily suspended operations at two of its 60-million-gallon-per-year plants in Burley, Idaho, and Stockton, Calif., just a few weeks after the company suspended another facility in California, a 40-million gallon plant in Madera.

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The company said it shut down the two bigger plants due to “extended unfavorable market conditions for producing ethanol.” Back in 2007, Pacific Ethanol suspended construction of a 60-million-gallon plant in Calipatria, Calif., also citing market conditions for the move. But the company plans to push on with production — it still has a 40-million-gallon-per-year facility in Boardman, Ore., and holds a stake in a 48-million-gallon-per-year plant in Windsor, Colo.
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Bankruptcy Court Approves $197M VeraSun Financing Plan

After a year peppered with construction slowdowns, bio-refinery idlings, and more than a dozen bankruptcy filings in the corn ethanol industry, we have an early indicator of how it will shape up post-shakeout — with significantly less cozy alliances between grain growers and ethanol producers.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court handling ethanol giant VeraSun Energy’s (s vse) restructuring gave final approval this week for $196.6 million in loans (about $7 million more than the company said it needed to make payroll) that will allow it to continue operations. VeraSun also said the approved debtor-in-possession, or DIP, financing will come from lenders that made loans to the company before it filed for Chapter 11 in October — an arrangement that gives them priority over all other claims.
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Ethanol Inc. Isn’t Going to Take it Anymore!

Growth Energy, a new trade organization for corn ethanol companies, is lashing out against critics of corn ethanol by buying ad space in the New York Times and issuing “policy briefs” (bulky pdf files peppered with Excel graphs).

Want XP on the HP Mini? Who are you and how many units do you want?

HpminixpdowngradeThe HP Mini product page indicates you can order your notebook with Microsoft Windows Vista and included geniune XP disk for a downgrade, but there’s some interesting fine print. According to HP, in order to qualify for the downgrade, you have to be a business, government agency or educational entity that will be ordering 25 or more units with the same image. Here’s the official language:“Windows Vista Business disk also included for future upgrade if desired. To qualify for this downgrade an end user must be a business (including governmental or educational institutions) and is expected to order annually at least 25 customer systems with the same custom image.”If I read this right, this qualification applies to HP doing the downgrade for you because it’s a footnote to this OS specification:“Genuine Windows Vista Business downgrade to Genuine Windows XP Professional installed”I could be reading this wrong, but if not, it doesn’t look like you need to be buying 25 units in order to get an XP disk. I suspect that HP doesn’t want to get into the imaging business for consumers, but for high volume business partners, they likely would. Laptoping reads it differently and thinks you need to be a qualifying entity or business for XP. I personally think it’s confusing either way and HP should consider clarifying the options. I don’t see why an individual couldn’t or shouldn’t have the option to have an XP disk with their HP Mini.

Corn Futures Up, Ethanol Stocks Down

What bad luck for U.S. ethanol makers. The very day when oil hits a record high, even when adjusted for inflation, corn also hits a record high. High oil should make ethanol more desirable, but the high corn prices are more than offsetting any benefits from the oil rally.

As a result, some corn ethanol stock are at or near their own records – well, record lows. Verasun Energy (VSE) posted its lowest close ever of $7.75 Tuesday, 66 percent down from its offering price of $23 a share. U.S. BioEnergy (USBE) fell to $6.19, also a low point, and 43 percent down from its IPO price of $14.

But there’s a morsel of good news for ethanol makers. Corn prices fell back 2 percent Wednesday amid expectations that animal-feed consumption will taper off in the U.S. and demand for corn abroad will also slow.

Nearly all of the ethanol stocks bounced back Wednesday by two or three percent. That’s really not much considering that some, like Verasun and U.S. BioEnergy, were suffered double-digit declines when corn hit its record high. There may be some investors looking to get in on what they believe are bargains. But it’s still not clear what when these companies’ operations will recover, and why.

Google Says Free 411 Seeds Video Search

Now this is thought-provoking. Google’s Marissa Mayer said explicitly Wednesday at the Searchnomics conference that Google’s voice-activated mobile search tool, 1-800-GOOG-411, is set to influence the company’s video search efforts by sharpening its speech-to-text knowledge, according to the Red Herring blog.

We had heard that GOOG-411 — which by the way is so much better than the other free 411 offerings I’ve tried, with no irrelevant ads, way better comprehension, and the option to connect you immediately — was perhaps just a front for harvesting voice data. And clearly a key application for speech recognition technology is video search. But it’s quite interesting to hear Mayer spell it out.

“What we have running is reasonably high quality in GOOG-411,” Ms. Mayer said. “The more accurate our voice-to-text becomes… Once you have accuracy you can build a transcript and time markers, and make video search more powerful… As you broaden (voice) recognition, pitches, genders, accents, ultimately that means you can apply it to the video corpus and text transcripts… A breakthrough is likely in the next one to two years. Visual search is promising but is probably further out than that.”

This is What I’ve Been Afraid of

While the iPhone will undoubtedly change my life in untold ways (note sarcasm), I already have a smart phone and the NEED for the iPhone isn’t nearly as clear as the DESIRE. However the bit of the iPhone that would provide the most utility to me is the iPod functionality. Let’s get on with a 6th Gen release of that iPod already!

I’d love to have my hands on landscape iPods displays, touch screen capability, Cover Flow mobile edition, and so on. But it appears that Apple doesn’t want to cannibalize the iPhone sales by releasing a new iPod before the iPhone can make its way into consumers’ grubby hands. It’s understandable from a business perspective, yet annoying from mine, when all I want is a snazzier iPod…