Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue...]

Green China: Friend or foe?

Barely a week goes by without new evidence of the greening of China. This is great news for the planet—but some people say it’s bad for the U.S.

Are they right to worry?

What got me thinking about this was a phone conversation the other day with Bill Gross, the brilliant and tireless entrepreneur who is the chief executive of eSolar and a founder of electric-car startup Aptera.

Bill was calling with great news for eSolar, a Pasadena, Ca-based firm that makes software and equipment for utility-scale solar thermal power plants. This weekend in Beijing, eSolar announced a deal with a Chinese electrical-power manufacturer to build at least 2 gigawatts (2,000 megawatts) of solar thermal power plants over the next 10 years, beginning with a 92-megawatt plant that will break ground this year.

ESolar power plant

ESolar power plant

“China is really moving fast to implement as many green technologies as they can, to become experts at them and to scale them up,” Bill told me. “It’s a statement that China is thinking about clean energy for the long term.”

I’m hearing this more and more. Tulsi Tanti, who runs a big Indian wind power company called Suzlon, told me last month in Copenhagen that China is his biggest market. My blogging colleague Jesse Jenkins (at The Energy Collective) has written about a report from the Breakthrough Institute, where he works, called Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant (available here as a PDF) that argues, among other things, that:

Asia’s rising “clean technology tigers” – China, Japan, and South Korea – have already passed the United States in the production of virtually all clean energy technologies, and over the next five years, the government’s of these nations will out-invest the United States three-to-one in these sectors.

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My favorite green technology

No offense to those working hard to bring wind, solar or geothermal energy to scale, or to people who are jazzed about energy efficiency, but I’m going to end my blogging for 2009 by saying that I am really excited about electric cars. It’s my favorite green technology, and one that’s on the verge of a breakthrough.

Recently, I’ve had a chance to ride (briefly) in the Coda and in the Renault Fluence EV, part of Better Place‘s Denmark rollout. I’ve written at length about BYD, the Chinese electric-car company owned in part by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. And next year I am hoping to check out the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, as well as the Aptera from entrepreneur Bill Gross and the Tesla if the price comes down.

The electric car could bring about the biggest transformation of the auto industry since its invention. If  all goes well, we will be seeing many more of them on the roads in 2010 and especially 2011.

With thanks to Plug In America, a nonprofit group that promotes plug-in vehicles, which put this list together, here are12 myths about electric cars that, just in time for the 12 days of Christmas. Plug In America began as a group of electric vehicle (EV) drivers, so its members are speaking from experience.

I’m now going to do my best to slow down and stay away from my laptop between Christmas and New Year’s Day–so enjoy your holidays, happy new year and I’ll be back in 2010.

Aptera

Aptera

1. MYTH: EVs don’t have enough range. You’ll be stranded when you run out of electricity

FACT: Americans drive an average of 40 miles per day, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Most new BEVs have a range of at least double that and can be charged at any ordinary electrical outlet (120V) or publicly accessible station with a faster charger. The latter, already in use, will proliferate as the plug-in infrastructure is built out. At present, all it takes is planning for EV owners, who can travel up to 120 miles on a single charge, to use their cars on heavy travel days. Alternatively, a PHEV goes at least 300 miles on a combination of electricity and gasoline.

2. Myth: EVs are good for short city trips only

FACT: Consumers have owned and driven EVs for seven years or more and regularly use them for trips of up to 120 miles. [click to continue...]

Bill Gross’s solar breakthrough

“We are producing the lowest cost solar electrons in the history of the world,” Bill Gross is telling me. “Nobody’s ever done it. Nobody’s close.”

Bill Gross is nothing if not an enthusiast, which makes him a great salesman for whatever it is he happens to be selling. A lifelong entrepreneur, a longtime evangelist for solar energy and the CEO of eSolar, a Google-funded startup that designs and develops concentrating solar power (CSP) projects at utility scale, Gross is one of the most interesting business people I’ve known.  I met Bill in 2002, when I wrote a critical story about him for FORTUNE – investors in Idealab, his Internet incubator, were suing him after the dot-com bubble burst – and although he and his wife, Marcia Goodstein, were more than mildly irritated with me then, we’ve reconciled and I now count myself as an admirer of Bill’s. He’s always got a million things going on, some of them slightly nutty, but all of them interesting.  He’s in the robot business with a company called Evolution Robotics and he’s the founder of Aptera, a very cool electric car company (in which Google has invested) that I wrote about last spring.

Today, Bill and eSolar are staging a grand opening for eSolar’s first plant, called the Sierra SunTower, located in the southern California desert near Lancaster. Below are a couple of photos, taken by Bill, from a helicopter ride over the plant on July 3. He sent them to me via Picasa, the photo sharing site now owned by Google, which he founded back in the 1990s. Like I said, he’s a serial enterpreneur. (Bill also invented the idea of paid search, but that’s another story.)

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Google’s favorite car company

Think about the aerodynamics of jet plane, a sailboat and a minivan. When we build things to fly through the air or propel us through the water, we design efficient vehicles. Not so with cars.

Aptera, an auto company startup, aims to change that. In just three years, the Carlsbad, Ca.-based firm  has designed and built a remarkably sleek and snazzy three-wheeled, two-seat electric car.

aptera_2e

“If a plane looked like an SUV, it wouldn’t take off, “ says entrepreneur Bill Gross, who is a founder and board member of Aptera. “Dophins don’t look like SUVS for a reason. Cars need to look like dolphins, not SUVs.”

Here are a couple of videos showing the car, one from ABC News and another from Popular Mechanics.

The Aptera is “the most aerodynamically efficient vehicle ever,” says Gross. By contrast, according to the company, an average car traveling at 55 mph uses half of its energy just to push air out of the way.

If you pay attention to business, you’ve heard of Bill Gross. He’s a lifelong entrepreneur and the CEO of Idealab, the incubator for new businesses in Pasadena, CA. Bill has birthed spectacular successes and  big flops, among them Knowledge Adventures (educational software, now part of Vivendi), Picasa (photo sharing software, acquired by Google), eToys (an online toy store that overextended itself and failed) and CitySearch (local directories.) Idealab’s GoTo.com introduced the idea of paid search to the Internet, and as such is the underpinning of the $20-billion search market now dominated by Google.

So it’s fitting that Gross is currently doing lots of business with Google. Google is an investor in eSolar, a utility-scale solar thermal power company that recently announced big projects in India and in the Southwest. (You can listen to an interview that I did with Bill Gross about the solar projects and about Aptera at Greenbiz Radio at www.greenbiz.com.) Google has invested in Aptera, too, and it turns out that the company’s beginnings go back to a  Google search.

As Bill tells the story, he was doing some casual research on the Stirling Engine a few years ago when he stumbled across a web page created by Steve Fambro, the founder and now chief technology officer of Aptera. Fambro, an electrical engineer, had posted a design for a vehicle that would be safe, comfortable and fuel-efficient; his initial idea was to make kits so people could build the car themselves. Gross was impressed by the idea of a super-efficient car. “Your dream is my dream,” he recalls saying.“Let’s get together and start a company.” They joined forces with Chris Anthony, who is CEO of a company called Epic Boats (they build wake boats) and an expert in composite materials.

Using computer-assisted design, Aptera’s engineers went on to design a car that weighs just 1,700 pounds with a body made from an impact-resistant material that is lighter than steel but three times as strong.  The car will run 100 miles on a single charge and it’s got some nifty features, including butterfly-styled doors that pop open and a solar-assisted climate control system. Its top speed is 90 mph and it goes from zero to 60 in less than 10 seconds.

“The car is very unusual looking,” Gross says.  “It looks like a futuristic Jetson  vehicle.  But we feel that that’s what it takes to actually make an impact on our energy use and transportation.”

Aptera, which is based in Vista, CA., began taking orders for the cars from California residents at the end of 2007. “Very quickly, we got 4,000 pre-orders,” Gross says. Buyers put down a $500 deposit. The entry-level price for the car is expected to be about $25,000.

Last summer, Google.org announced that it had invested a total of $2.75 million Aptera and a company called ActaCell that makes lithium ion batteries for plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Google didn’t say how much money went into each company but it’s not a lot of dough in any event. Aptera has also raised money from Idealab, Esenjay Petroleum, The Quercus Trust and from Donald R. Beal, the retired chairman and CEO of Rockwell, about $30 million in total. But the company obviously needs a lot more to go into production. Last year, Paul Wilbur, a career automotive executive who worked for 26 years at Ford, Chrysler and a sunroof maker called ASC, was brought in as president and CEO.

Only five of the cars have been built, so far.

Gross tells me he expects to raise the cash in a few months. “Most people would not want to invest in a new car company at a time like this,” he says, “but investors are quite warm to this.” We’ll see.

The U.S. government is a potential source of funding for electric car and battery companies, through the Department of Energy’s advanced technology loan fund. But Aptera has run into a brick wall in Washington. Apparently the government has classified the Aptera’s vehicles as motorcycles, and they aren’t eligible for loans.

I’m delighted that Bill Gross (below) will be at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment in April, to talk about both eSolar and Aptera. Here’s a chart comparing Aptera’s aerodynamic drag to other vehicles. It’s hard to see, I know, but the company says Aptera is more aerodynamic than a 10-speed bike and 2.86 times more aerodynamic than a Prius.
aptera-drag-comparison
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