The Weekly: Oil Rigs, Electric Cars, and Google’s Curious Investment

A giant oil cap is lowered into the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Are Offshore Oil Rigs a Threatened Species? Is the Deepwater Horizon spill the beginning of the end for offshore oil drilling, or just another Exxon Valdez? Today, as BP attempted to place a 100-ton cap over the broken well gushing under the Gulf of Mexico, it was uncertain if they’d be able to stanch the spreading damage at sea or in Washington, D.C.

The spill has muddied the prospects for a climate bill as one of its pillars — a new round of offshore oil drilling — founders in unstable political soil, as Mackinnon Lawrence reports. Meanwhile, environmental groups are hustling to make the case, as in this Sierra Club video, that offshore oil is dirty and unsafe.  Perhaps it’s not only brown pelicans and terns who will have trouble flying after all this is over, and the black tide might yet turn against its maker.

Efficiency Experts To America: Stop Dreamin’ and Pick Up Yer Caulkin’ Gun. At a symposium of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy — what, you missed it? — experts concluded that weatherstripping beats windfarms as the fastest way to save the US economy, and released some numbers to prove it. First, America is not as efficient as it thinks: the domestic economy is only 13 percent efficient, compared to 20 percent efficiency in Japan and some European countries. We were left pondering if it’s more efficient, percentage-wise, to order a veggie pizza from Papa John’s or gnaw on a frozen one from Trader Joe’s.

Even worse, the ACEEE noted, Americans seem to be ignoring efficiency even as they embrace the idea of electric cars, photovoltaic solar panels and Bloom Boxes as solutions to both the energy crunch and our economic revival. The US economy has tripled in size since 1970, and three-quarters of those gains have come from leaps in energy efficiency. The Council’s conclusion: The American economy will recover by caulking its cracks, not by putting giant windmills at sea, slathering our houses in solar paint, or beaming sunlight from space.


Raining on the Electric-Car Parade:
Observers warned against the auto industry’s growing adoption of electric cars as the platform of the future when not a single customer has yet taken delivery of one. The German magazine Der Spiegel declared  electric cars an “e-llusion” for two reasons: they’re not zero-emissions, as all those electrons have to come from somewhere, and the industry would die in infancy without massive and expensive state subsidies. A few days later, John Mendel, an executive VP at Honda, warned against “a rush to select a winner that could lead us in the wrong direction.” And yesterday, the site Hybrid Cars said Hey! What about hybrid cars? And noted that Toyota is doubling its output of hybrid Priuses and that carmakers from Hyundai to Ford to Mercedes are planning models or entire series around the gas-electric engine.

Build Whose Dreams? In other auto news, Chinese electric carmaker BYD announced that it would stage its conquest of the United States from a new headquarters in Los Angeles. L.A. politicians applauded. BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) has an acronym in English and a logo that, um, reminds us of the symbol of a certain German automaker. What else does BYD plan to appropriate?

Sanyo Makes Giant Battery Bet: Korean conglomerate Sanyo announced it would invest $2 billion into electric-battery research in hopes of capturing 40 percent of the world market. The company’s expenditure is more than the entire U.S. government’s investment in domestic battery research.

Also Lotus says mainstream carmakers could spend just three percent more money and make their cars 38 percent lighter, if only they were more like Lotus.

Why Is Google Investing in North Dakota Wind? On Monday, Google announced it had invested almost $40 million in a NextEra windfarm in the North Dakota plains, without explaining exactly what it planned to do with the 170 MW of electricity. This isn’t one of the companies’ well-publicized seed investments in new technology. Neither will Google use the juice to power its own data centers, as more and more Silicon Valley companies are doing, as described in this illuminating article in Yale Environment 360. Rather, according to Google’s green-biz manager Rick Needham said, they “expect to earn an attractive return as well as free up capital to enable future wind projects.” Investors take note.

American Superconductor Goes to Sea: Massachusetts-based American Superconductor revealed plans to use its formidable talents in high-capacity electrical cables to make an offshore wind turbine 40 percent more powerful than any that now exist. The SeaTitan will pump out 10 megawatts, enough to power 300 to 400 homes, and is due for unveiling by the end of 2010.

Micro Power, Mega Visibility: Sam’s Club installed micro wind turbines atop the light poles in its store in Palmdale, California, producing 3-5 percent of the facility’s power but engendering 97 percent of its good media coverage. Also, 1,370 of the most heavily-viewed billboards on Florida highways will be outfitted with solar panels or small wind turbines.

Gadget Watch: This week, Pirelli works on a tire that talks to the car; Solar Aero toils on a wind turbine with no blades; and MIT researchers explore how a coating on ferns could make boats move faster.

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