Today in Cleantech

As a student of “Peak Oil” — the idea that global oil production will soon hit a ceiling and then start an irreversible decline — I’m always looking for technologies that can help humankind adapt to it. So is a new industrial consortium that just launched a study aimed at quantifying the potential for a host of technologies aimed at replacing or augmenting the world’s key transportation and industrial fuel. Energy research group Kevin J. Lindemer LLC and the strategic consulting arm of engine maker Ricardo are leading the study, which also has some heavies in its participants list — OPEC, BHP, Statoil, Maersk, Lubrizol, Infineum and Fluor Corp. among them — with a direct interest in hedging their bets when it comes to price and availability of oil. Ricardo’s participation makes a lot of sense, given that about half the world’s oil demand comes from the transportation sector. More efficient internal combustion engines could play an important role in cutting oil use where it’s already embedded, while electric vehicles could make an impact farther down the line. Biofuels, particularly those that feed into existing refining and distribution channels, could also make a dent, though they’re not growing fast enough at present to rely on. Bio-based alternatives to petroleum could help curb demand across a wide array of chemical and plastics applications. And then there’s the huge potential for energy efficiency, achieved a little at a time, to help curb industrial thirst for oil.

Waste-to-Fuel Startup Enerkem Raises $60M From Valero, Investors

Waste to fuel startup Enerkem already had trash king Waste Management on its side — now Enerkem has scored backing from oil refiner giant Valero. Enerkem announced it has raised $60 million from Valero, along with existing investors like Waste Management and Braemar Energy Ventures.

Today in Cleantech

President Barack Obama is giving a speech on energy this morning, a broad bill of particulars aimed at an overarching goal — cutting U.S. oil dependence. With unrest in the Middle East leading to rising oil and gasoline prices, and nuclear crisis in Japan putting the future of nuclear power in question, Obama’s speech had a lot of ground to cover — and some of the President’s goals will be harder than others. Cutting oil imports by one-third by 2025, for example, is a plan that will outlast his presidency, and will require the adoption of clean energy incentives likely to face opposition by Republicans and some industry groups — even if Obama sought to sweeten that part of the deal by saying he would expedite offshore oil drilling and exploration permits as well. There were other concrete pledges, including a goal of adopting an “alternative-fuel vehicle only” federal buying policy by 2015. Of course, the list of alternative fuel vehicles includes natural gas-fueled trucks and cars, as well as hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles.

said he Some of Obama’s plans will be harder than others

Today in Cleantech

The death toll and devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan this morning is a somber reminder of how unexpected events can wreak havoc with our best-laid plans. It’s far too early to say how Japan’s disaster will affect the global economic and energy picture, although the closure of four Japanese nuclear power plants could force the country to import more liquefied natural gas, increasing the cost of that key energy resource. Japan’s disaster certainly adds yet another destabilizing event to what’s already been a week of unrest for energy markets. With violence between rebels and government forces in Libya keeping that country’s oil from reaching markets, petroleum prices are spiking — and it’s unclear whether or not swing oil producer Saudi Arabia will be able to cover the shortfall. That’s led to some Democratic politicians to call for President Barack Obama to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In the meantime, Republican lawmakers have pointed to the Middle East’s turmoil as a reason to push through laws to increase domestic oil and gas drilling in places including the Gulf of Mexico. Obama is set to hold a press conference shortly detailing his administration’s plans to deal with high energy prices and the disaster in Japan — stay tuned.

KiOR Lands Hunt Refining as Biocrude Buyer

Khosla-backed startup KiOR has a new customer for the biocrude it hopes to start producing in 2012 — Hunt Refining Co. It’s an important step for a startup seeking $1 billion in federal loan guarantees. Hunt has agreed to buy an unspecified amount of product.

Today in Cleantech

“Twilight in the Desert” isn’t just for conspiracy theorists anymore. This week’s big Wikileaks revelation concerns Saudi Arabia, where diplomats and oil engineers have apparently been warning for years that the world’s top oil producer is far closer to “peak oil” — the moment when oil extraction reaches its peak before beginning an irreversible decline — than it tells the world at large. One 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable relayed warnings from top Aramco official Sadad al-Husseini that the national oil company’s reserves were overstated by as much as 40 percent, and that it would reach its peak oil production capacity of 64 billion barrels in about 17 years, or by 2020. That’s much less than the century or so of capacity Aramco officially claims. All in all, the Wikileaks cables seem to back up the argument made by oil analyst Matt Simmons in his 2006 book “Twilight in the Desert,” which warned that Saudi Arabia’s oil fields were under far greater strain and decline than officials were admitting. Why does this matter for green technology? Well, it makes a transition to renewable fuels, energy and infrastructure more critical than ever — and it also speeds up the clock for how quickly the world must make the switch.

Today in Cleantech

Let’s put some facts and figures behind last night’s SOTU clean energy pitches. As you’ve all read by now, President Barack Obama called for America to get 80 percent of its energy from clean energy resources by 2035. What does that mean? Well, first of all, Obama included natural gas and “clean coal” in his list of clean energy, a rhetorical addition that actually makes 80 percent a more realistic target, even if clean coal technology is probably 25 years down the road. Still, given that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal will shrink from producing half of the country’s electricity today to a mere… 44 percent by 2035, we’d better find a way to make it cleaner. Second, Obama didn’t say how his administration or Congress might put us on that path during his remaining term. Will a national renewable energy mandate start us on the way, or will we have to rely on the 29 states and counting that have individual renewable portfolio standards? Third, Obama did say he would push Congress to strip the oil and gas industries of their federal subsidies and tax breaks, which according to some estimates have added up to $76 billion over the past decade, or 70 percent of all federal energy subsidies combined. Finally, Obama didn’t bring climate change into the argument — perhaps a good thing, since his hand-picked climate policy adviser is stepping down and carbon cap-and-trade legislation is all but dead for the next two years.

Social Media Works, Just Not for BP

This week while pondering how BP’s oil spill stacks up against Exxon’s in terms of Google search results, it occurred to me how badly BP is losing the social media war. No bones about it, BP’s online image is in tatters. How bad is it? Let’s have a look…

Where Are Oil Prices Heading in 2010?

Updated: Alternative-energy companies not only compete with each other, they also compete in a sense with oil firms. While it’s easy to overstate the inverse relationship that oil prices have with the demand for and investment in green companies, it’s also helpful to keep an eye on them.

So where are oil prices heading now? Higher in the long-term, with some short-term factors likely to keep them volatile for months at a time. How volatile? As James Williams, an economist at WTRG Economics, told MarketWatch, the unreal volatility of the past two years could continue: “2010 could be another with prices as low as $40 or as high as $110 or even higher.”
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