7 Stories to read this weekend

When it comes to tech, San Francisco is the company town, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Martin Amis things writing should be about longevity, something no one can accuse Malcolm Gadwell of writing. And an American made car! These are this week’s recommended reading.

Vimeo debuts Focus Forward, a film series about the big ideas in tech

Vimeo has joined forces with General Electric(s GE) and video publisher Cinelan to launch “Focus Forward” — a micro documentary series that aims to showcase big, world-changing technology innovations in a compelling way. All the videos will be three minutes long and posted online.

‘Zero emissions’ wholesale data center coming to Iceland

Colt, the British data center specialist, is building what it and Verne Global call the world’s first “zero emissions” data center slated to come online in four months. Located on a NATO base in Iceland, it will run solely on geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Today in Cloud

A new report by Jonathan Koomey argues that data centers are using a lot less power than we thought. 1.1%-1.5% of global electricity use (1.7%-2.2% in the U.S.) is still an awful lot, but Koomey’s research suggests that global electricity consumption in data centers “only” increased by 56% in the five years to 2010, instead of doubling as predicted. As John Markoff notes in today’sĀ New York Times, the recession’s downward pressure on demand combines with innovations in power management to explain the lower than predicted figure. GigaOM’s Katie Fehrenbacher has more, and links to a recent GigaOM post from Koomey which sparked some useful comments. Elsewhere, Dean Takahashi reports on a new research project involving AMD, HP, Clarkson University and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Project partners intend to explore the feasibility of powering containerised data center pods using wind or solar power. If successful, this work overcomes one serious hurdle to deploying data center pods off-grid. Now someone else just needs related projects to cool the box, and give it sufficient bandwidth.

Cleantech apocalypse? No, but it’s cyclical

The cries declaring a cleantech armageddon are coming keep on getting louder. But I don’t think cleantech is headed for a sharp crash. It’s been going through consolidation for some time now, and the cleantech sector is inherently cyclical and is heading into a down cycle.

Feds offer $105M loan guarantee for “Project Liberty” biofuel plant

Poet’s so-called “Project Liberty” biofuel plant, which will use corn waste instead of edible corn, is getting some support from the U.S. government. On Thursday, the Department of Energy announced it will offer Poet a $105 million loan guarantee to build out Project Liberty in Iowa.

The spark for a green web movement: extreme weather

I’ve been waiting for some kind of social network or web movement that would galvanize people around sustainability and green. Is the intersection between extreme weather and digital media the spark that could help deliver that green web movement?

Today in Cleantech

This week has seen a host of new projects, partnerships and reports come out making clear how big a role natural gas is going to play in green energy‘s future development. How can startups get involved in the process? General Electric’s project with eSolar to install solar thermal systems in a GE gas-fired power plant represents one example, a fairly rare one, of renewable energy serving as a backup to fossil fuels. Usually, the process works in reverse, with reliable gas backing up intermitent wind and solar power ā€” the kind of “firming” resource that GE’s new fast-ramping gas turbine is aimed at making more efficient. Matching gas to renewables is a tricky game, and requires all kinds of smart grid communications, controls and platforms to run smoothly. At the same time, natural gas is increasingly viewed as a viable transportation fuel, if only for fleet vehicles, according to studies out from MIT and the International Energy Agency this week. MIT sees the potential for natural gas-fueled trucks, vans, and other fleet vehicles to reduce U.S. oil consumption by about 1 million barrels per day, or 5 percent of daily demand ā€” at a cost of 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or about 10 percent of U.S. supply. Of course, without numerous and easy-to-use refueling stations, natural gas-fueled cars won’t make it past fleet parking lots into the broader consumer market. Technologies that help fleets maximize efficiency of the natural gas they do choose to use could find their way into those markets eventually ā€” even if they’ll probably never be as popular as the plug-in electric car charging crowd.

Green Energy Preps for Thin-Film

Less than a month after Green Energy Technologies signed a deal for a thin-film solar module production line from Applied Materials, the company says it has already received requests for four times its expected capacity next year, Bloomberg reports. The solar silicon-wafer maker, a subsidiary of Taiwanese Tatung, plans to leverage the technology of LCD-maker (and fellow Tatung affiliate) Chunghwa Picture Tubes to begin manufacturing its amorphous silicon thin-film product in December. Production capacity is scheduled to reach 30 megawatts by February of 2009 and 50 megawatts by the end of 2009.

While the company also announced it had signed an eight-year, $947 million contract with undisclosed partners in Australia and Asia, the company’s shift from traditional silicon PV to thin-film is motivated by the promise of higher gross profit margins. While the price per watt of a traditional crystalline silicon solar module is about $3.80, Green Energy estimates it can make thin-film solar for around $2.80 a watt.

This is still significantly higher than the $1 a watt Holy Grail of grid parity. But with increasingly large players moving to get a slice of the thin-film pie, will there be space for small, venture-funded startups like Nanosolar in the market? Intel just threw its hat into the ring by spinning off SpectraWatt with $50 million in venture funding, as well as investing $37.5 million in German thin-film player Sulfurcell. But the pie is big and expected to get bigger. It’s estimated that thin-film PV could grab 28 percent of the solar market by 2012, representing some $19.7 billion in sales in that time frame.