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.

Today in Cleantech

Will solar power’s future cost reductions come from cheaper solar technologies, or from lower costs for everything else involved in putting them to use in the real world? Increasingly, the industry is looking to squeeze more costs out of solar balance of system (BOS) costs. Those include everything from the wires and inverters that connect them to the grid and the racks and screws that attach them to rooftops or ground-mount systems to the manufacturing, transportation, installation and permitting costs involved in getting them set up. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been studying how to reduce BOS costs since June, and has come up with a host of suggestions it says could reduce balance of system costs to $0.60 – $0.90 per watt, or up to 65 percent less that today’s costs. A lot of that has to do with better manufacturing and business practices — making solar manufacturing leaner and meaner, so to speak. Then there are regulatory issues to deal with — solar leasing and installation company SunRun has done a study finding that streamlining solar permitting processes from city to city could shave 50 cents per watt from solar systems’ total cost. The Department of Energy’s SunShot program is also looking to BOS improvements to help drop the total install cost of solar power to $1 per watt without subsidies by the end of the decade.

Today in Cleantech

Does the future of energy-smart cities lie in the cloud? IBM certainly seems to think so. The IT giant has just launched a software platform to integrate and manage city operations such as police, fire and emergency responders, along with modules to add water and sewer management and transportation and traffic planning — and IBM is using a cloud computing platform to run those platforms for certain select test cities, Chris O’Connor, IBM vice president of industry solutions, told me this week. While IBM hasn’t made its cloud-based smarter cities platform broadly available, O’Connor suggested that this wouldn’t be too far in the future. The news follows word of Cisco’s plan to use its cloud services platform to deliver a host of city services to mobile devices in the South Korean city of Busan, along with news that certain smart grid partners, including home energy automation player Control4, will be developing to deliver its services over Cisco’s cloud. In Europe, Microsoft is using cloud technologies to help French power giant Alstom collect and analyze energy data to better manage city sustainability. While all these projects are in their early stages, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a full-blown “green cloud city” platform emerge some time this year — what are your thoughts?

iPad: Slayer of Netbook Sales

The iPad may be partially responsible for the slow demise of netbook sales, according to a Morgan Stanley market analyst. In a report for Morgan Stanley clients, the impact of the iPad is causally linked to the rapid decline of the netbook sales growth curve.