Cali, U.K. bypass Bush with carbon trading scheme

British officials deny the U.K. is side-stepping the Bush Administration by joining forces with California on a carbon trading scheme, but that’s exactly what they are doing. Isn’t it great? The announcement today that the two jurisdictions would work together to tackle climate change “could eventually bring California into the European carbon market,” according to The Independent in the U.K., which goes on to say that “if successful, it could open the way to other U.S. states signing up, circumventing federal opposition from Mr. Bush.”

I think Quebec Premier Jean Charest should get on the phone with Blair right now and strike a similar deal, circumventing the Harper government’s climate change inaction. Hell, Ontario should do the same.

Cleanbits and crumbs

* SolFocus Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., has secured $25 million in private financing to go toward the commercialization and advancement of its solar concentrator technology. SolFocus has a joint venture with Xerox PARC, which is more or less acting as an incubator for the company. Its concentrator technology can significantly increase the efficiency of solar systems and the company has plans of building mulit-megawatt solar farms, which claims can be competitive with conventional fossil fuel systems. Yet another example of the massive dollars flowing into the solar business.

* The government of Northern Ireland is considering a proposal that would make it mandatory to include some form of wind, solar PV, solar thermal or another renewable technology on all new homes, offices and public buildings that are built after 2008. It’s such a quick, simple and effective solution…

* Xantrex Technology saw revenues in its second quarter jump after achieving 72-per-cent growth in its renewable energy business, which sells inverters for solar and wind projects. Adding to the company’s momentum was an announcement that solar upstart SunPower Corp. has decided to purchase and rebrand Xantrex inverters as part of the complete solar systems it sells to U.S. customers. This is a significant coup for Xantrex, further solidifying its leading position in the U.S. solar market for power electronics.

* Ballard Power also had a good quarter, slashing costs, beating analysts’ estimates and touting now that its non-auto fuel cell business will be profitable within the next couple of years. The company is now focusing more of its efforts on back-up power, forklifts, and co-generation fuel cell units for home heating and electricity. If you ask me, Japan and China hold the key for Ballard, at least on the co-gen side and specifically China when it eventually comes to cars. On a side note, former Ballard CEO Dennis Campbell is now devoting his efforts on opportunities in the ethanol industry.

* Finally, the Cleantech Capital Alert reports that California and Massachussets lead the United States in both number, size and diversity of venture capital investments in the cleantech space.

SunOpta emerging as silent leader in cellulose ethanol race

My story in today’s Toronto Star is about a Brampton, Ont.-based company called SunOpta Inc. that is behind the construction of a 5-million-litre a year cellulosic ethanol commercial demonstration plant being built in Spain. The plant, which will use wheat straw as a feedstock, is supposed to be ready by year’s end. And while it’s barely large enough to be categorized as commercial, the fact is that it will beat Ottawa-based Iogen Corp. in the quest to build the world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

SunOpta is an interesting story. It’s a company that will have $600 million in revenues this year, about 90 per cent coming from being North America’s top distributor of organic foods — everything from fruit bars and tomato sauces to soy milk and fruit juices. It’s been doing cellulosic ethanol production since the 1970s in Europe, but has rekindled those efforts and upgraded its equipment and processes for large-scale production to take advantage of the growing demand for ethanol as a gasoline supplement. Its process uses steam explosion to break the cellulose away from the lignan in biomass, including wheat straw, corn stover and wood waste. This makes it easier for enzymes to access the cellulose (and hemicellulose) and convert more of it to glucose and eventually ethanol.

The company is in the process of sending a pilot plant to China, where it hopes it can sell several commercial-scale plants. It’s also looking at striking partnerships so it can become a major cellulosic ethanol producer in North America. One advantage it has over a company such as Iogen, which despite its high profile is still a startup and a one-trick pony, is that SunOpta has its core organics business to bankroll its early entrance into the market for cellulosic ethanol. Today, ethanol represents just 1 per cent of its business.

That said, there’s plenty of competition in this emerging market. Xethanol Corp., as reported by The Energy Blog, has said it will build a 50-million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol plant by mid-2007. That’s what I would call a real commercial plant.

BTW: The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association released a large biofuels report, which is more or less a wish list of what it would like the federal government to pursue with its made-in-Canada environmental policy.  There are some good ideas in the report, including the push for E85 blends and the need to lower/eliminate taxes on ethanol producers. What I found disturbing is how this association panders to the Harper government by sprinkling images of cabinet members, including Stephen Harper himself, throughout the report. Simply too much brown-nosing for my liking.

Tracking renewable projects worldwide

I recently got forwarded a link to a cool little not-for-profit Web site established in Guelph, Ontario, that’s attempting to track and provide information on solar, wind, biomass and other renewable projects around the world. The site, called The Renewable Planet, is attempting to become a Wikipedia for renewable energy initiatives, project co-ordinator Katy McEwen told me in an e-mail.

“We hope that this information will stimulate greater interest in renewable energy,” she said. “We also want to support the exchange of ideas. We encourage others to submit their own project and help build this site to become a leading resource on current and planned renewable energy projects.” The site, which uses Google Maps to map out the location of projects and provides direct links to project Web sites, was launched last month.

This is an excellent tool that I hope everyone will use and explore as we attempt to learn from the ideas, successes and failures of others.