Stories in the Series


Geeks, 'early adopters' turn Calif. into test track for plug-ins

DEL MAR, Calif. -- Malcolm Hebert backs his red Nissan Leaf out of the driveway of his home and heads down a hill toward the Pacific Ocean. Navigating streets in his beach neighborhood, Hebert passes gasoline stations where premium fuel costs $4.49 a gallon.

Hebert calculates his savings driving the Leaf. His wife commutes in a Volvo that uses top-grade gas and gets about 20 miles per gallon.

"Instead of spending $9 a day" on the Volvo, he said, electricity to recharge the Leaf each night "is about $1.20."

Hebert, an electrical engineer at utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co., this spring joined a group of early adopters who have purchased electric vehicles. Living in California, he is also at the center of what is seen as a prime market for launching both the cars and the electric vehicle infrastructure.

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New Southwest factories to make advanced panels, but will they transform sun power?

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- A large solar panel sits atop a 22-foot tower at the University of California, San Diego, tilted toward the sun on a late spring morning. It appears similar to others in this beach city, but some say it will revolutionize the solar business.

The panel at the school makes two to three times as much electricity as a similar-sized conventional solar, said Soitec, the France-based manufacturer. Lenses on the surface focus sunlight onto solar cells while a tracking system shifts the panel every 10 seconds to always face the sun.

"From the moment the sun comes up over the horizon in the morning, our tracker is focused on it and remains focused on it throughout the day," said Mike Armstrong, Soitec's head of U.S. business development.

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Venture capitalist hunts cash for energy's next big thing

SAN DIEGO -- David Titus gets paid to see what's next in the energy world. Head of San Diego Venture Group, an organization that nurtures young businesses in this coastal city, Titus helps connect startup companies with investors. That gives him a peek at what is on the horizon. "I get to live a few years in the future," Titus said. "I get to know a little bit about a whole lot of things."

Titus, 54, started this spring as San Diego Venture Group's first president, winning the job over 150 others. The organization is accelerating its efforts to garner money for young companies. A venture capitalist by background, Titus was viewed as someone able to bring more private investment into the region.

As part of his new role, Titus wants to grow investment in the energy sector. He sees the field as full of possibility.

"There will be new breakthroughs in renewable fuels," Titus said. "And the world will demand that we figure out cleaner ways to burn coal. If not, China will choke us all."

Titus' push to win money for energy innovations is part of a larger effort in the region. The city's mayor, Jerry Sanders, helped spur the launch of a cluster called CleanTECH San Diego. Within the city there are about 200 young energy companies that are creating a new technology or innovation, said Jacques Chirazi, San Diego's clean-tech program manager.

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Southern Calif. energy hub eyed for clues to U.S. green economy

SAN DIEGO -- A small company that developed a $1 billion wind farm works out of a pink-hued building near the Pacific Ocean here. Down the hill, an investment firm decides how to spend $6.5 billion on energy ventures. Two traffic lights away sits a company that is building one of the world's largest wind projects. Renewable power developers, biofuel researchers and clean technology entrepreneurs have flocked to this coastal city, making it a growing hub of energy-sector interests.

Despite the region's higher costs, companies here find multiple draws. There are myriad research institutions with top experts, access to the desert and Mexico for wind and solar farms, and San Diego's inviting weather.

"When it comes to competing for experienced people, an awful lot of folks would rather live in San Diego than Missouri," said Gerry Monkhouse, 68, co-founder and chairman of Cannon Power Group, a private wind developer based here. "We have the ability to attract the top-flight people."

The trend affects more than San Diego, said Bruce Cain, a Washington, D.C-based political scientist with University of California, Berkeley. The region is an important testing ground for the state as it backs renewable power for its next economic engine.

With Washington, D.C., watching, Cain said, San Diego and California must prove to the rest of the country that "there really is a green economy.

"Up and down the state there's a belief that this is an industry which is well suited to California," Cain said, adding that state leaders pushed green energy to help replace the once-booming defense industry. "We've got to find new businesses," he said, "so the question is, why do businesses come? They're going to come if the technical expertise is here."

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Related Stories


Calif. utilities start moving toward feed-in tariffs

The biggest city-run utility in the country will start buying power from people who install solar panels. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) yesterday said it plans to launch a feed-in tariff, or FIT, a market mechanism that usually pays a premium price for green energy. LADWP is the second utility in the state to begin a FIT, following a California law requiring all utilities to start such a program.


Calif. rooftop installations surged last year

SAN FRANCISCO -- Californians powered nearly 20,000 homes, businesses and government agencies with new rooftop solar installations in 2010, according to data from state utility regulators.

The Public Utilities Commission yesterday released its annual assessment of the California Solar Initiative, a $2.2 billion program enacted in 2006 that subsidizes photovoltaic solar energy systems. The 194 MW of new capacity represents the most new distributed solar installed in a single year.


State delays cap-and-trade auctions, citing potential gaming

SACRAMENTO -- California regulators are pushing back their first-in-the-nation greenhouse gas trading system by one year to insulate it from potential market manipulation, the head of the state's air agency said yesterday. What was originally intended to be a routine legislative hearing on the status of California's cap-and-trade system became instead a pivotal moment in the state's climate policy, with a standing-room crowd hanging on Air Resources Board (ARB) Chairwoman Mary Nichols' every word.


Los Angeles leads full-throttle dash for U.S. transit cash

LOS ANGELES -- Tony Lepre looms 6 feet 2 inches and wears a thick goatee and dark clothing. He's hard to miss amid a crowd waiting for the train at a downtown subway station. But what really makes Lepre stand out among most Los Angeles County residents is that he doesn't own a car. Lepre, 48, takes trains several days a week while many here spend hours daily driving congested roads. The Los Angeles native, who cannot afford a vehicle right now, joins those who are watching with anticipation as the region's rail network attempts a high-speed upgrade.


Calif. initiative lets low-income homes bask in solar power

SAN DIEGO -- Hacienda Townhomes apartment complex sits in a struggling section of this city's downtown, steps from an intersection previously known as "Crack Alley." The building's beige, boxy walls house some of the region's poorest residents. Locked gates and thick bars separate tenants from a homeless shelter, liquor store and tattoo parlor. But on the rooftop, 96 solar panels glint in the afternoon sun.


Algae as fuel of the future faces great expectations -- and obstacles

SAN DIEGO -- Tim Zenk is surrounded by green. In a lab near California's coast, shades of emerald, lime and chartreuse fill petri dishes, beakers, 14-foot plastic bags and long swirling pools. When Zenk looks around, he also sees gold. Inside the 70,000-square-foot lab sit thousands of strains of algae, the slimy substance that grows in swamps and dirty swimming pools. Sapphire Energy, the entrepreneurial company where Zenk works as vice president of corporate affairs, wants to turn the green liquid into fuel for cars, trucks, jets and potentially far more. Algae could someday shift the country's energy mix, Zenk said, blunting some of the need for oil and helping to limit climate change.

About This Report

With its renewable power and carbon emissions laws, California has become a forefront of the green economy. E&E looks at how the push for clean energy is changing the state and what it means for the rest of the country.