Algae Biofuel and Solar Could Use a Little Entrepreneurial True Grit

Recent developments in solar and algae biofuel lead me to believe that the sunny San Joaquin Valley could indeed become a leader in the emerging clean energy industry.

My co-worker Sandy Nax has called the Valley a Petri dish for alternative energy development because it has so many of the necessary attributes: available land, scorching sun and/or clear days a majority of the year, wind in the mountains and scads of agricultural resources for biofuel or biogas.

This morning, Sandy leaned over from his computer and said, “Clean energy could be a game changer.” He was referring to the economy.

Sandy and I discuss the attributes of the sorry state of economic affairs that have devastated the region’s real estate, toppled government tax revenues and put many of our neighbors out of work.

We used to work in the newspaper business, which hasn’t fared well these past several years. As part of our jobs writing and editing business stories, we spent years analyzing trends and making sense of them.

This clean energy trend has been fascinating to watch. I still have no idea where it’s going and what particular component will be the first to fuel jobs, but indicators have been extremely positive.

Just in the small amount of time I’ve been affiliated with the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, great strides have been made in industrial solar, offshore wind and biofuel. And that’s just on top of the energy efficiency measures being taken by government, business and consumers.

While power from pond scum, or algae, intrigues me beyond all measure, commercializing the extraction of usable fuel at a decent price could be years away. Fellow reporter Jeff St. John reminded me after one post of algae’s shortcomings.

Concentrated solar is another realm of massive possibility. The trick with solar is to increase efficiency and lower cost to make it reach or surpass “parity” with fossil fuels. The advancements in concentrated solar now in use were hinted at when I covered a San Jose start-up back in the mid 1980s.

I remember thinking, “That would be cool.”

My optimism is bolstered by statements like this from John Denniston, a partner at greentech investor Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, as reported by Andrew Nusca at smartplanet.com: “Some geographies are at (solar) grid parity: in Italy, in some parts of California.”

Denniston made the comment at the 2011 Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. He said the industry is poised for a very big take-off, and he was talking about solar as a whole, not just the concentrated variety, which remains relatively rare.

A column by Christian Wolan on forbes.com caught my eye when oilgae.com’s aggregator service sent it my way. Here’s good old stalwart Forbes, albeit the electronic version, writing about pond scum. That’s got to be a development in credibility, right?

To close out his review of the state of the technology, Wolan uses a quote from Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that says it’s “developing a breakthrough technology that will transform algae, the most promising source of renewable oil, into a true competitor to petroleum.”

Wolan wrote that “referring to the algae biofuel programs of ExxonMobile, BP, Chevron and Valero, Eckelberry said, ‘This final factor alone is driving the funding of algae projects.’”

I may as well quote myself here. Being raised in Interior Alaska, I’m very familiar with the power of oil companies. I watched when the first overland truck and cat train forged north up ice roads to Prudhoe Bay to develop the oil fields. Then grew to high-school age amongst the massive piles of pipe that either went overland or underground 800 miles to Valdez.

Many of us believed those companies could do anything. Perhaps it’s that wildcatter streak that infuses much of the industry, the “Git Er Done” mentality, that turns a dream into job-creating reality.

I missed the pipeline boom of the mid 1970s, but I did get a job in Valdez in 1978 building foundations and basement and driveway slabs in a nicely designed subdivision — Mineral Creek if I remember correctly. Huge mobile cranes dropped the manufactured homes onto the foundations when we finished. The boxy three-bedroom two-bath homes had been used to house the thousands of workers who built the terminal across the bay from the tiny city.