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Green Tech

January 6, 2009 8:53 AM PST

Hewlett-Packard has decided to offer people in the United States money in exchange for their old tech equipment, the company announced Tuesday.

The PC maker has had a recycling program for years that lets consumers determine the value of their old tech equipment, then receive a credit for that value toward a new HP or Compaq brand product.

This new recycling program does not require people to buy anything to realize a monetary gain from giving HP their old tech equipment, though they are responsible for postage when mailing in the item. The shipping costs associated with a "Premium Service," in which FedEx picks up the old electronics, are taken out of HP's check to the consumer.

Some green-spring news during this gray winter: an old Dell Inspiron will garner a check of about $60 through HP's expanded recycling program.

(Credit: Candace Lombardi)

HP calls its new program the HP Consumer Buyback and Planet Partners Recycling Program. The program offers money in exchange for any brand of PC, monitor, printer, digital camera, or smartphone that HP determines still has some sort of value. It's part of HP's effort to recycle 2 billion pounds of electronic junk by 2010. As of now, the company has recycled more than 1 billion pounds of e-waste.

It's like Antiques Roadshow for techies, only you don't have to go to the fair to find out what your attic junk is worth.

HP has a quote Web site for the buyback program that lets consumers input the specs of their old tech equipment and receive a free instant quote.

In testing out the system, I discovered that HP offers examples from a drop-down menu, but will also accept items that have been modified, and it offers a place to put in the modified configuration and evaluate it. For example, I found that an old Dell Inspiron notebook with a 20GB hard drive, 256 MB of RAM, a Pentium III M 1.0GHz processor, and loaded with Windows XP Professional is worth about $60.

If your tech junk is determined by the online tool to have no value, you're out of luck for financial gain, but if it's an HP or Compaq brand product, you can still opt to mail it to HP for recycling.

I took it one step further and tested out the value of the same old Dell laptop against HP's U.S. trade-in recycling program, which is another option for consumers. On trade-in, the same old Dell Inspiron gets me an $86 credit.

Given this economy, I'd say it's worth your time to look up the value of your electronic junk on HP's site and make that trip to the post office.

January 6, 2009 7:21 AM PST
January 6, 2009 7:18 AM PST

Green-tech venture capital funding soared last year, aided by megadeals in thin-film solar companies, according to preliminary figures released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group.

During 2008, green-tech venture investments jumped to $8.4 billion, a 38 percent increase, according to the report.

Solar investments helped drive the growth, capturing 40 percent of green-tech investments. Thin-film solar deals did particularly well, capturing the three largest investments in green technology last year.

NanoSolar raised $300 million last year, followed by Solyndra with venture investments of $219 million and SoloPower with $200 million.

Cleantech Group's senior research director, Brian Fan, said in a statement:

2008 saw solar take a 40 percent share of clean-technology venture investment dollars, led by mega investment rounds in thin-film solar, concentrated solar thermal, and solar-service provider companies.

Investors also continued to migrate from first-generation ethanol and biodiesel technologies to next-generation biofuels technologies, led by algae and synthetic biology companies. Other sectors with healthy investor interest included smart-grid companies, small-scale wind turbines, plastics recycling, green buildings, and agriculture technologies.

Following solar-energy firms in attracting VC dollars were companies specializing in biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, synthetic biology, and algae. The sector captured 11 percent of green-tech venture investments last year, while transportation companies, such as makers of electric vehicles, advanced batteries, and fuel cells, accounted for 9.5 percent.

United States-based companies raised the most green-tech venture funding, landing $5.8 billion among 241 disclosed investments. This group also posted the largest gain last year, marking a 58 percent funding increase over the previous period.

European and Israeli companies followed, raising $1.8 billion amid 146 disclosed rounds, marking a 47 percent increase.

Chinese companies raised a total of $430 million in green-tech investments in 18 rounds, marking a 22 percent increase over the previous year. And Indian companies landed $277 million in 14 disclosed deals, a 20 percent increase.

And while green-tech venture investments were up for the year, preliminary fourth-quarter results marked a downturn from last year and the previous quarter, according to the report.

The fourth quarter accounted for $1.7 billion worldwide, down 4 percent from last year during the same period and a 35 percent decline sequentially.

January 5, 2009 2:43 PM PST

Toshiba, a company best known for making laptops and consumer electronics, on Monday said that it will enter the solar-photovoltaics business.

But don't expect to see Toshiba-branded solar panels on a home rooftop any time soon. The company's industrial and energy arm plans to build utility-scale solar power plants.

Toshiba's photovoltaics business will be part of the conglomerate's Transmission Distribution & Industrial Systems business, which makes equipment for natural-gas power plants.

The division also makes rechargeable batteries for industrial use and has a systems integration operation for installing power generation equipment.

The push into solar energy is part of Toshiba's corporate goal to lower its carbon emissions and environmental impact.

It expects it can grow the solar-photovoltaics business to $2.2 billion a year by fiscal year 2015.

Toshiba's competitors, including Sanyo and Sharp, already have large solar-photovoltaic businesses.

January 5, 2009 10:56 AM PST

Green fatigue is now pervasive.

Numerous environment-theme blogs and news sites over the past week have pointed to a statement put out by Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., calling for the demise of all "green" labeling.

Since 1975, the university has been taking nominations for words that need to be banned. The top vote getters for 2008 were "green" and "going green." Also on the black list were the terms carbon footprint and carbon offset.

(Credit: TerraChoice)

One word-banning nominator, Ed Hardiman from Bristow, Va., summed up his lack of patience nicely: "If I see one more corporation declare itself 'green,' I'm going to start burning tires in my backyard."

Web site TreeHugger declares that the term green is "barely hanging on," while Willie Brent at his Mr. Cleantech blog speculates that many media companies will need to rethink their naming.

As a person who helped name the CNET Green Tech blog, I suppose I have something to answer for here.

And clearly, there are some real abuses. TreeHugger points to how the concrete industry--source of one of the most polluting industrial processes--has tried to paint itself green and sustainable.

Aggressive green marketing--also known as greenwashing--isn't very helpful to consumers who actually care about making environmentally conscious buying decisions.

But the answer isn't to ban the word green. Consumers simply need to be as savvy as they can and seek out as much information they can. Businesses should also get used to disclosing more--those with less to hide come out looking better.

Greenpeace puts out an electronics guide every year in which it drills down into a number of factors--use of toxics, recycling, carbon emissions, and corporate disclosures.

The same should hold true in other product categories--the more detail, the better. And this is where standards and certifications like Energy Star can really help.

For this to work, journalists and Web writers need to be as specific as possible in the terms they use, and try to give an environmental profile of different technologies.

After all, things aren't often black-and-white. There are many shades to being green.

January 5, 2009 7:56 AM PST

In a sign that waste may be a favored energy source this year, a small company on Monday said it has successfully plugged a vegetable oil generator into the electricity grid at a Boston-area restaurant.

The Vegawatt system, developed by Owl Power Systems, burns used-up vegetable oil from restaurant fryers to make electricity.

The Vegwatt generator burns vegetable oil from restaurant fryers to make electricity on-site.

(Credit: Owl Power Systems)

The company, which has been self-funded until now, expects to close a series A venture funding round later this week, according to Owl Power Systems CEO James Peret.

A 6-kilowatt machine has been online for about a month at Finz Seafood & Grill in Dedham, Mass. It's about half the size of the normal vegetable oil dumpster, at 6 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 2 feet deep.

The Vegawatt doesn't produce nearly as much electricity as the restaurant consumes, but that's by design. Built with a relatively small diesel engine, it's sized to consume all the vegetable oil that a typical restaurant produces.

"Our philosophy is to make the maximum use of the oil available. We could go to a bigger system, but once you start talking about trucking oil to fuel this generator, the economics go out the window," Peret said on Monday. "Why burn more dinosaurs to move oil when you can install one machine outside your back door, and burn it there?"

The test at the seafood restaurant found that the Vegawatt burned all the fryer oil it produced and cut the electricity cost by about $800 a month, or about 15 percent of its total electricity bill. The machine can also be used to make hot water.

Customers lease the product through a third-party leasing company for $435 a month, which includes two years of maintenance. That means that the unit generates thousands of dollars a year for restaurants, said Peret.

Rather than dump oil into a waste bin, restaurant workers put it into the Vegawatt machine. Normally, a restaurant needs to pay to have the oil hauled.

Since it's burning oil, the generator creates carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollutants. But because of the smaller engine, and because it's burning vegetable oil rather that petroleum-based oil, it pollutes less than traditional diesel generators do.

Noise has not been a big concern, Peret said. "I've seen people take cell phone calls next to this machine when it was running at full power," he said.

After securing financing, the company plans to set up a manufacturing facility in Massachusetts and have about 150 units installed by next year.

January 2, 2009 9:42 AM PST

A solar-paneled Prius done by Solar Electric Vehicles.

(Credit: SEV)

Toyota is developing a solar-powered Prius, the Nikkei newspaper has reported yet again.

It was interesting when we heard about this in July.

But it seems to us that someone over at Toyota has now been fake-leaking/hinting news about a solar-powered Prius in one form or another for at least the last year.

This wonder-car-in-the-making has gone from being a Toyota Prius that uses solar roof panels from Kyocera to power its air conditioning unit, to "a vehicle that will be powered solely by solar energy" to quote one recent Associated Press article.

You may find it interesting that this rumor always comes floating by on the heels of bad news from Toyota.

In July, it accompanied news of a series of Toyota plant closings/reorganizations in the U.S.

This latest rumor seems to be timed to follow Toyota's December news that it, too, has succumbed to the world auto industry slump, reporting its first annual operating loss in 70 years, and a series of consolidations and changes in its organizational structure.

Of course, there is already an available solar option for some Toyota owners in the U.S.

Solar Electrical Vehicles (SEV) has been offering an after-market Prius solar overhaul since June 2007. It includes a customized solar panel for a Prius roof that can improve the car's efficiency by about 29 percent. SEV also offers kits for the Toyota Highlander, Rav4 EV, and Ford Escape Hybrid.

For those who just like reading about the idea of a solar car, Canadian engineer Marcelo da Luz and his team have been blogging about their attempt to set the world long-distance record for a solar-powered car with the Power of One (Xof1) vehicle.

January 2, 2009 6:14 AM PST

The inedible nuts of the jatropha plant consist of 30 percent to 40 percent oil that can be converted into biofuel.

(Credit: Air New Zealand)

Air New Zealand, along with Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and Honeywell, retooled one of the four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines on a Boeing 747-400 to run on an unusually fruity blend of half Jet A1 fuel and half jatropha oil, according to Air New Zealand.

Jatropha is a succulent plant commonly grown in the semi-arid areas of India that produces seeds containing an oil that can be harvested and processed into a biofuel.

Jatropha has been used in making biodiesel for cars and trucks, but this is one of the first known attempts to use it as a biofuel in a commercial-size airplane.

Air New Zealand is not, however, the first commercial airline to try flying on a mixture containing biofuels. Several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, have been testing out the sustainable idea of bio jet fuel mixed with jet fuel.

The jatropha bio jet fuel was supplied by Terasol Energy, which certified that the fuel supply met sustainability criteria.

The fuel stock in no way affected the environment or displaced other crops, David Morgan, chief pilot at Air New Zealand, explained in a video press release (below).

The two-hour test flight took off and landed from an Auckland, New Zealand, airport on Tuesday.

The test run was part of a program to research better sustainable air travel.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) lists jatropha as a promising next-generation bio-jet fuel for the airline industry because the hardy plant can be grown in poor quality soil needing little water.

December 30, 2008 11:17 AM PST

This was originally posted at ZDNet's Between the Lines.

Dell has declared itself carbon-neutral, but good luck defining and auditing what that means exactly.

Dell's Hortolandia, Brazil, facility

Assembling PCs at Dell's Hortolandia, Brazil, facility.

(Credit: Dell)

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story on Dell and its carbon-neutral efforts. In a nutshell:

• There is no standard definition of carbon neutral;
• Purchasing carbon credits is vital;
• But the markets for carbon credits isn't regulated and is also in flux;
• And finally there's debate over whether a vendor should count emissions from suppliers in its footprint.

Those points are notable for companies well beyond Dell. While Dell is certainly early with its carbon-neutral claim, other companies will soon follow. For now, green tech looks recession-proof. Get ready for the carbon neutral audits.

A few key excerpts from the Journal story:

The amount of emissions Dell has committed to neutralize is known in the environmental industry as the company's "carbon footprint." But there is no universally accepted standard for what a footprint should include, and so every company calculates its differently. Dell counts the emissions produced by its boilers and company-owned cars, its buildings' electricity use, and its employees' business air travel.

In fact, that's only a small fraction of all the emissions associated with Dell. The footprint doesn't include the oil used by Dell's suppliers to make its computer parts, the diesel and jet fuel used to ship those computers around the world, or the coal-fired electricity used to run them.

And.

Dell's drive offers an early road map of the thorny questions companies will face as they attempt the massive emission reductions scientists say are needed to curb global warming. In a global economy with so many interconnected players, figuring out who should be responsible for cutting which emissions -- and how to ensure those cuts happen -- is dizzyingly complicated.

Toss in nascent markets for buying carbon credits and you see a lot of confusion ahead. To make matters worse, companies don't have to file carbon neutrality reports that are under generally accepted principles. In other words, you won't find the details of carbon neutrality in an annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In reality, none of this is surprising. Companies like Dell are ahead of the curve and in many respects make this carbon neutrality stuff up as they go along. As more companies start issuing carbon neutrality press releases, however, there will be a need to seriously vet these claims.

December 29, 2008 11:18 AM PST

How bright is the future for green technologies in the coming year? On the whole, the picture appears positive but still susceptible to swings in energy prices and political sentiment.

With an incoming administration that intends to spearhead a comprehensive energy policy and reduce carbon emissions, many expect to have a favorable policy environment for clean-tech businesses.

Consumers and business, too, continue to gravitate to all things green even in the face of greenwashing.

Driven by these forces, many clean technologies are already starting to crack into the energy industry, which is dominated by huge corporations.

For example, solar technologies, including solar thermal power plants and thin-film solar cells, are starting to be commercialized. Electric cars, too, have come to market with many more in the works that target mainstream consumers.

But at the same time, the wave of green-tech companies and initiatives formed over the past four years face some serious head winds.

The drop in oil prices makes many ventures, particularly those in biofuels, less competitive on price alone.

A steady climb in energy prices over the past few years prompted consumers to shift to fuel-efficient vehicles and businesses to invest in energy efficiency. That behavior could change after the precipitous drop in oil prices caused by the recession in the second half of 2008.

Meanwhile, some investors in clean-tech start-ups--the front line of energy technology movement--are starting to voice concern over how these companies are being financed.

The financial crisis is hurting green businesses, both small ones that need venture capital and more mature ones that need project financing. Without sufficient capital, many start-ups will have trouble bringing their technologies to market.

For more details and a list of some of the biggest stories in green tech this year, click here for my year in review.

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