While Washington dawdles over emissions trading, Bay Area passes nation's first carbon tax

In a first for the nation, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District yesterday voted in a carbon tax applying to nine counties in Northern California. Large businesses will now pay 4.4 cents for every ton of carbon emitted, generating about $1 million a year to be plowed back into environmental studies. We first mentioned the local carbon tax in February, when local government began considering the measure. It appears the board had a taste for trail-blazing, passing the rule by a 15-1 vote. As in other areas where California has stepped out to lead the way — including vehicle emissions and solar subsidies — the move will likely be closely watched by other states and municipalities. The scale of the tax is modest at best, with the largest emitters, large local refineries, paying no more than $200,000 a year, a tiny portion of their earnings. That doesn’t mean the move isn’t meaningful, though. Given the quickly changing political climate around emissions, other areas could decide to move ahead with their own taxes, especially if they think they can get away with adding another tax without scaring off businesses. Contrast the tax to national-level bills like Lieberman-Warner, which proposes to institute a carbon trading scheme in which permits are bought and sold on an open market. While that particular bill, along with similar efforts, holds the potential to sharply curtail emissions in the future, political progress is likely to be slow, especially in the Bush Administration. Publicly elected officials are rarely fast to pass any bill that could be accused of harming the economy, and that accusation is present in spades for carbon trading, which conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation has said has “extraordinary perils for the American economy.” Could a grassroots movement toward emissions taxing overcome trading? It’s unlikely, but possible. Arguments abound for both sides, but carbon trading has a significant head start in the rest of the world, and in the United States fledgling companies like APX are building the framework for trading. Emissions taxing would need strong support from government at a higher level, which so far, it hasn’t gotten. Finally, there’s the chance that local industry groups could sue the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports. If they’re successful, carbon taxing in the Bay Area could turn out to be nothing more than a blip on history’s radar.

Smart grid investments come hot and heavy — SmartSynch gets another $20M for talkative electrical meters

Two days ago it was Optimal Technologies with $25 million toward software for electrical grids; today, it’s SmartSynch with $20 million for wirelessly communicating meters. I haven’t gone back and done an official count, but with well over half a dozen large fundings in the past few months, the efficiency-focused smart grid space looks to have emerged as the hot cleantech venture space du jour. “Smart grid” is a catch-all term for a number of technologies that aim at measuring and controlling the process of sending electricity from generation plants to homes and businesses. The former area is SmartSynch’s specialty. The company’s meters are capable of hooking up to networks via any of several wireless standards like WiFi, CDMA or ZigBee to divulge the data they collect. Fundings may be flooding in right now, but SmartSynch is no newbie. Founded in 2000, the company has taken $80 million to date. It has also deployed about 125,000 meters, and grew 125 percent last year. Meters have turned out to be a particularly bright area to innovate in, because they’re advantageous to several constituencies. The advantage comes in giving more information to both customers and utilities. Instead of seeing electricity usage as one big block on a bill received once a month, customers can see usage on an almost moment-to-moment basis. Following the old adage “knowledge is power”, that information gives both parties the ability to plan out usage based on when electricity is most available, saving utilities power and both sides money. SmartSynch’s chief technology officer, Henry Jones, says his firm’s communication technology, which is installed in meters made by Elster, General Electric and Itron, has brought in about $15 billion in additional revenues for utilities so far. That’s good news for the company, because it’s the utilities that buy and install the meters. Their customers include some rather large ones, including Socal Edison, Florida Power & Light, and Canada’s Hydro One. Other firms, including Silver Spring Networks, have fairly similar technology and strategies. However, Jones claims that’s not a problem: Each firm has its own approach to communicating data, he says, and each approach is useful for different applications, leaving a wide market chunk for each competitor. But that’s not much use to any new startups who might want to muscle in on the action. After all, several of these firms have years of lead time. So what are the next big opportunities? Jones thinks the next step is getting meters to report not just back to the utility, but also directly into the home or business they’re installed in; he says SmartSynch is preparing to release several meters that do just that.

Ecore raises $29M from Element Partners for rubber recycling business

Ecore International, a recycler of scrap tire rubber based in Lancaster, Penn., has gotten a $29 million investment round from Element Partners to help grow an already large business. Ecore has already been around for 18 years and has several distinct business divisions focusing on sales of recycled materials for specific products like flooring and synthetic grass. The company, previously called Dodge-Regupol, employs about 240 people.

Biofuel battle: WSJ hits Khosla, Khosla hits back

Here’s the danger in becoming a well-known venture capitalist: You may well become the locus for heated debates over cleantech and environmentalism, even when you’re not expecting it. That’s what happened to Vinod Khosla yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal lashed out with a short hit piece on his policies titled “Khosla’s Conspiracy”.The motivator was a lengthy interview in last week’s San Francisco Chronicle, in which Khosla, asked whether biofuels are driving up food prices, agreed that they are but said the much greater problem is the price of oil used for transportation. He also suggested that a PR campaign has been organized to smear biofuels. That’s where the WSJ took offense:

Clean Wave Ventures starts $100M cleantech fund, focuses on Midwest

They may not receive as much attention as flashy Silicon Valley types, but Midwestern VCs would like you to know that, yes, they too are serious about investing in cleantech. The latest to join the fray are Rick Kieser and Scott Prince, whose Cincinnati, Ohio-based Clean Wave Ventures is in the midst of raising $100 million for its first cleantech fund.

Principle Power takes $2.3M for clean energy development

Principle Power, a San Francisco company with offices in Seattle, has raised a $2.3 million seed funding made up of convertible debt to build and operate clean energy assets. The company issued a release on the news a week ago, which was recently discovered by VentureWire. The company says the round was oversubscribed by more than 50 percent, with eight Keiretsu Forum investors joining. The funds will go toward efforts in offshore wind, solar and hydro.

VantagePoint Venture Partners adds former CIA director, analyst to cleantech team

Two new members have joined VantagePoint Venture Partners. Coming onto the cleantech investment team are R. James Woolsey, a new venture partner, and David Edwards, who will be a partner. Woolsey served as the Director of the CIA in the Clinton Administration from 1993 to 1995, following a decade of government service in other roles. Subsequently, he held positions in private industry, and began advising VantagePoint in 2006. He has also served as a foreign policy advisor for John McCain during his current presidential bid. Edwards is a former equity research analyst at Morgan Stanley, where he focused on cleantech. He also previously worked as a partner for Charles River Ventures. Along with the two new partners, VantagePoint also announced that it had promoted Marc van den Berg to the position of managing director.

CamSemi raises $8M for energy-efficient semiconductors

Cambridge, UK-based CamSemi, a manufacturer of fabless semiconductors that help reduce the energy consumption of electronics, has added another $8 million to its growing cash pile. This extension to its third round of funding, led by BankInvest Group’s New Energy Solutions fund, takes the company’s total to $34 million.

Could a big geothermal energy play be next for Google.org?

Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, has taken a number of stakes in solar and wind startups over the past year, most recently joining a $115 million investment in solar thermal firm BrightSource Energy. It now seems to be focusing its attention on the bustling geothermal energy sector, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently expressing a strong interest in Ormat, a geothermal startup headquartered in Reno, Nevada.

Creative Citizen launches savings-conscious environmental how-to site

Creative Citizen is a new community site launching today that hopes to attract the same market that’s interested in environmentalist sites like Zerofootprint, while also reaching out to a broader demographic of people who wouldn’t ever use a carbon calculator in the course of daily life. Like the how-to sites that have been launching left and right recently, Creative Citizen plays host to content showing users how to accomplish certain tasks or projects. But unlike those sites, it’s focused on a single niche: “Solutions” that are beneficial to the environment, and sometimes to the user’s wallet. In all, the site focuses on five metrics for savings: Water, money, emissions, electricity, and waste (i.e. trash). As users agree to follow very solutions, the savings accrue on their profile to show their total savings. The solutions on Creative Citizen can be nearly anything, from carrying reusable grocery bags (saving 24 pounds of waste) to tuning your car’s engine (saving 3,234 pounds of CO2 and $380 dollars yearly). At the moment, there are quite a few already listed on the site, but they’re not all well thought-out or constructed; it’s hoping to grow a community that will add to the collection, and vote up the best ideas. The voting process is important for most how-to sites, because it weeds out submissions that might send new visitors packing. For example, one of the solutions I came across is saving water by simply peeing outside. But for most of us, potty training didn’t include trips onto the lawn, and the idea won’t be attractive. Eventually, an alternative like putting a brick in the toilet basin will probably rise to the top (although the lawn irrigators currently hold the upper hand). What seems far more interesting than quirky ideas like those, though, are the solutions that can save users significant amounts of money. Most people are well aware that using compact fluorescents wastes less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. On Creative Citizen, changing your light bulbs gets quantified: $111 in savings for each bulb over its lifetime, and 141 kilowatt-hours of electricity. That’s a lot more concrete than simply shaving some CO2 emissions, and may attract users who wouldn’t otherwise be interested. In fact, the money issue is where Creative Citizen really differs from carbon calculators and environmental movements, says founder Argam DerHartunian. Calculators often ask for actions like buying a more efficient car or washing machine, and movements want donations, but cash-strapped consumers aren’t likely to shell out, he says. “What’s needed is a business solution — something that’s sensible and understandable to people.” Of course, there’s nothing that guarantees the numbers you see on Creative Citizen are correct, or even complete (the CFL numbers, for instance, don’t show how much using the bulbs lowers CO2 emissions). For that, the site is hoping that its community will help fill it out. Users can edit entries, leave comments, and, as mentioned above, vote solutions up or down. Over time, the top solutions should also become fairly accurate. One feature that I thought the site could use was more views for solutions. At the moment, they can be listed by date, popularity or tags. But if Creative Citizen hopes to truly attract different constituencies, it’ll need views determined by characteristics like how much of a specific thing can be saved, so users can zero in on their personal concerns. Rural browsers challenged by oil prices might just be interested in saving money, for example, while drought-stricken southern Californians might want to see how to save water. DerHartunian and his co-founder, Scott Badenoch, say they have plans to add that ability in, as well as to widgetize the site so that it can be shared across social networks and other web pages. However, the immediate focus is just to get into the real world and build up a strong base of solutions. That’s probably the right approach, because what will distinguish Creative Citizen is its content. Ultimately, it wants to tap into the same audience as how-to sites like 5min, Howcast and Instructables, all of which gather community content and instructional materials. The more material there is, the more traffic the site will be able to build organically. However, if Creative Citizen wants to follow in the footsteps of those other sites, it will also need to add in video. Creative Citizen has so far survived off seed money raised from angel investors. Oddly enough, the founders say they’re not particularly interested in venture capital; instead, they’re looking for strategic partnerships from other companies who can also provide some funding. The company is based in Los Angeles. [Full disclosure: Argam DerHartunian has contributed to VentureBeat in the past.]

EoPlex Technologies piles on another $4M for advanced cell phone antennas

Redwood City, Calif.-based EoPlex Technologies, an advanced materials firm that builds small devices to generate and manage energy for various manufacturing components, has tacked on another $4 million to its third funding round — bringing the total to $12 million. ATA Ventures once again led the extra financing and was backed by fellow VCs Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Labrador Ventures and Draper Richards.

Iberdrola commits $8B investment to U.S. cleantech sector

Spanish utility and renewable heavyweight Iberdrola has revealed that it will invest a hefty $8 billion in the American cleantech sector over the next 3 years. Though it plans on focusing most of its investment activities in the U.S.’s burgeoning wind sector, it also hopes to gain a foothold in the country’s other clean energy markets.

World's first standard hybrid yacht launches — but may be more style than substance

On a fast cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge, Austrian boat manufacturer Frauscher just launched the world’s first luxury motor yacht with a hybrid engine, developed together with Austrian engine manufacturer Steyr Motors. Hybrid cars have already established themselves as the modern fuel-efficient alternative to petrol cars. But on a warm day, many people will leave their car behind for a much less efficient vessel on the water: Most boats today are powered by dirty diesel engines. Pure electric boats have been around since the late 19th century, but will rarely go faster than 5 or 6 knots (about 10 km/h). Frauscher and Steyr combined the two to offer high speed with a claim to environmental friendliness. I went for a test ride to see how it works. The Frauscher hybrid has a traditional diesel engine connected to an electric engine. The combustion engine can be started with the electric motor, so there’s no need for a conventional starter motor. With the electric start, the boat will also save every seventh liter of fuel that a normal combustion engine burns during cold starts, according to Steyr. The boat can drive “zero emission” on the electric engine in speeds up to 5 knots, with several lead-acid batteries supplying the energy. But with a turn of the key, the boat switches to diesel drive mode. At low speeds (the boat reaches 38 knots maximum), the electric engine works in the same way as a starter engine and boosts the diesel engine to create faster acceleration while lowering fuel consumption, although it wasn’t clear how much diesel is saved by the “boost”. The batteries are recharged whenever the diesel engine is being used. It takes about an hour for the batteries to recharge completely.Frauscher is a family-owned company with a turnover of $15 million in 2007. Prices start at $150,000 for the 5.6 meter tall St. Tropez-style hybrid yacht, like the one displayed at St. Francis Yacht Club on Friday. The hybrid costs about $20,000 more than a traditional engine.

BioPower Systems draws inspiration from the sea to build ocean power technologies

In the high-stakes world of clean energy technologies — where even the slightest engineering tweak can mean the difference between market leader and also-ran — developing a system solely around biological designs might seem like an unusual strategy. Yet Sydney, Australia-based BioPower Systems, in seeking to prove the old dictum that you can’t improve on nature, has done just that: building two ocean power conversion systems modeled around a shark’s fin and a sea plant’s fronds.

Novel Polymer gets $9.7M for environmentally friendly plastics

Polymer plastics like nylon, Bakelite and PVC are some of the most common materials used in modern society, but making them is not an environmentally friendly procedure. Novel Polymer Solutions is a company that promises to make new polymers that are strong, low cost, and have few harmful chemicals in them. Novel Polymer’s materials include glues, paints and hard plastic materials. The company sells to the automotive, building, medical, paint and other industries. The $9.7 million funding was provided as GBP £5 million to the United Kingdom-based company, according to VentureWire. Environmental Technologies Fund and Advantage Growth Fund were the backers.

San Francisco solar project may pave the way for more municipal power plants

There has been plenty of noise lately about residential solar financing strategies, like SolarCity’s lease program and Sun Run’s power purchase agreements, in which a consumer agrees to buy power from solar panels on their roof without paying the hefty up-front cost for them. San Francisco may be entering into a similar deal next month for a 5-megawatt installation within the city limits, which would be the country’s third-largest completed project. The idea of small municipal power plants, built on unused land within cities and thus lowering transmission costs for the power, is quickly gaining popularity in the solar industry. Electricity utilities are also in favor of the idea, because it could save them from the need to build more costly power plants. However, cities and solar panel manufacturers face a challenge in getting projects going, because installations are expensive. San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission has nimbly avoided that problem by leaving the financing to Recurrent Energy, a solar services firm that essentially acts as a go-between, contracting out the installation of panels and arranging for funding from outside sources like Morgan Stanley. SFPUC, which provides power to city-owned buildings, will only need to sign a contract to buy energy at a fixed, incrementally increasing rate for the next 25 years. The plan should work well. Cities shy away from projects that require a lot of capital up-front, but the SFPUC is only agreeing to buy electricity it will need anyway. The city’s board of supervisors still needs to approve the project next month, but without any need for immediate funds, opposition should be minimal. For Recurrent, the plan also looks like a winner. Because the costs for electricity are determined beforehand, the company can project a repayment schedule for the panels. The actual financing, as noted above, comes from outside sources, with Recurrent just taking a cut of profits. And local solar installers will also benefit from the work, which is expected to be completed in July 2009. For San Francisco, there are also fringe benefits. The city will benefit from the positive publicity of having a major solar project within its borders. Other cities in the state will likely begin looking more seriously at projects for their own electricity needs. Recurrent’s CEO, Arno Harris, says it won’t be a problem if more customers come knocking; the outsourced setup of his company is “really built to scale,” he told me today. “We’re at an interesting turning point in the history of solar. We’ve seen a lot of districts kicking the tires — there’s going to be a ton of interest from other cities,” he said. The majority of the panels will be installed on the empty roof of the covered Sunset Reservoir in the western portion of the city (seen at right), with a about 250 kilowatts going into a separate installation at Pier 96. The final board vote is scheduled for June 23rd, with construction beginning afterward if approved.

FloDesign gets $200K from MIT competition for better wind turbines

Wind power turbines have looked pretty much the same for decades, and the basic design concept has stuck for centuries. That’s something FloDesign wants to change, with a turbine design that takes its cues from jet engine design. Like some other recent, different designs, FloDesign says its upgraded turbine outperforms the commonly accepted type, generating two to three times more power and causing less noise and avian death. Exciting as that sounds, some problems may remain, not least the greater amount of materials a jet-inspired turbine would seem likely to need. However, FloDesign has also made claims in that area, telling Massachusetts High Tech last month that it can “produce 50 percent more power than a three-blade turbine, at half the size and 30 percent less cost.” (Also see that article for pictures of the beast.) The business plan contest FloDesign won, the MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship competition, is fairly prestigious, so we won’t make any bets against the company. It raked in a $200,000 prize pot. The Boston, Mass. company also previously took $500,000 in funding from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

GreenFuel not giving up, with another $13.9M for algae farms

It seems like a good idea, at first: Pipe carbon dioxide emissions from power plants or industrial processes through water containing algae, and the algae will absorb the CO2 for its own growth, in turn being harvested to make biodiesel. But like most good ideas, the implementation has proven more than a little tricky. GreenFuel Technologies is a startup we’ve covered followed as it moved from high-flying newcomer, to apparent failure, back to spotlight darling. The “apparent failure” part began with problems in scaling. GreenFuel’s plan appears to work fine on a small scale, but when it tried to do a commercial-size project last year, the algae over-performed to the point of killing itself off, doubling costs and leading to layoffs of 50 people. Instead of letting the company crumble, one of its investors, Polaris Venture Partners, sent in general partner Bob Metcalfe for emergency resuscitation. The move appears to have worked — a $5.5 bridge loan kept the company afloat until two months ago, when we were able to report a $92 million project financing for the company to build a bioreactor in Europe. Now $13.9 million more has been provided in an extension to its second round of financing, for further development. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean blue skies ahead. In fact, a full $6.3 million of that amount will go toward retiring debt — likely the same bridge the company took to survive. The $7.6 million remaining isn’t much, especially considering that part is going toward construction of a project the company has not yet announced. The big question is what will happen in Europe. The company is likely moving at a frantic pace to re-prove the technology and get a third round of funding, not to mention staving off competitors with the same idea (but more opportunities left to screw up). The round was provided entirely be existing investors, with Access Private Equity leading, alongside Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Polaris. The company is based in Cambridge, Mass.

Genomatica has plans to turn the chemical industry green

The chemicals business has gone through massive shifts in the past, and it’s high time for another one, according to Christopher Gann, the CEO of Genomatica, who recently left a cushy position at industry giant Dow Chemical for the startup. Chemical manufacturing is perched atop the much larger fossil fuel market, thus suffering from the same high prices the rest of the world does — but, says Gann, it can be weaned off hydrocarbons. Shifting away from oil and gas is one of the most common stories in cleantech, with numerous companies claiming that they can make transportation fuels from renewable sources like corn, sugar and grasses. By contrast, chemical manufacturing has received relatively little attention, despite the fact that most chemical manufacturing is also based on crude oil and natural gas, going through stepped processes to reach the desired end product. Part of the reason is that there are tens of thousands of products to deal with, though some, like polyethylene, account for billions in sales yearly. However, Genomatica claims to have the scientific chops to simplify the problem, and produce the needed compounds on demand, and has raised $20.4 million in a second round, according to VentureWire. The company was started by a team of biotech researchers from the University of California at San Diego, who started out working with E. Coli genes. Several years ago, they realized that their expertise could be more profitably applied to organisms for other industrial uses. Similar to startups like Amyris, LS9 and Synthetic Genomics, they decided to begin custom-making organisms to produce specific substances. However, their combination of lab experience and modeling ability provided other opportunities, and the group decided to move in on the chemical industry. To create specific chemicals, the team identifies pathways in organisms with computational modeling techniques, then tests their theories out in the lab. The combination of modeling ability and lab technology in a single company is rare, says Gann, and provides a significant advantage. Genomatica is currently testing out organisms for several chemicals, with plans to move on to pilot plants to prove the processes. However, after the pilot tests, the company again diverges from biofuels startups. It has no plans to make its own full-scale plants, instead adding what Gann calls “bolt-on” facilities to existing, multi-billion dollar plants owned by larger companies. The feedstocks Genomatica can use vary widely. Syngas byproducts from biofuel manufacture can be used, as well as carbon dioxide, the culprit behind global warming. And the company can make use of “a very broad array of plant matter,” says Gann, exceeding the reach of biofuel makers, who need plants that are highly cost-effective. Cleanup after the processes should also be simpler, only requiring cleanup of the fermentation matter and dead cells. Genomatica isn’t entirely alone in its plans. Novomer wants to revolutionize plastics manufacturing, although it will rely on chemistry, rather than biological processes. Another startup, Segetis, appears to plan on using biological feedstocks, but again, will use chemical processes; the company was backed last year by Khosla Ventures. Of those companies, Genomatica has raised the most funding to date, about $24 million including its first funding. The backers in this round were led by Mohr Davidow Ventures, with participation from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Alloy Ventures. The company is based in San Diego, Calif.

Greentech Media raises $2.75M to expand cleantech coverage

Greentech Media, one of the major players in the burgeoning market for cleantech news and analysis (next to VentureBeat, of course), has raised $2.75 million in second round funding, led by EGORA Holding and The Massachusetts Green Energy Fund. King Hill Capital signed on as a new investor, with existing backers Lightspeed Venture Partners and Northport Private Equity also taking part.

Gevo raises another $17M for synthetic biofuels

Gevo, the Pasadena, Calif., based developer of synthetic biofuels just wrapped up a $17 million third round of funding. New investors Burrill & Co. and Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund joined cleantech regulars Khosla Ventures and Virgin Green Fund; the biofuel start-up has already raised over $30 million since the beginning of last year.

VentureBeat's SF Green tonight — here's the agenda

Below is the agenda of SF Green, the cleantech event that we’ve joined its founder Steve Newcomb to put on tonight at San Francisco’s 111 Minna Gallery. This schedule isn’t set in stone, but should give a rough idea of how the evening will go, from the doors opening to the end of the night. But first, a final list of all the companies and presenters: Headlining we have Ray Lane, managing partner at Kleiner Perkins. Tesla Motors will be there with a pair of Roadsters, represented by VP of marketing Darryl Siry. Also showing off their green vehicles will be Smart, with its newest Fortwo car, and Vectrix, with its highway-speed electric scooter. Demoing on the floor are two other companies: Akeena Solar, a solar installer that’s also bringing an Andalay solar panel; and Ponoko, an on-demand manufacturer that will have some assorted goods on hand. Here’s the agenda: 5:00 p.m.: Doors open to the first arrivals, networking begins 6:00 : The official program begins, with quick intros of the demoing companies 6:10 : Darryl Siry comes on stage to talk about Tesla 6:35 : Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins comes on to talk about Fisker, Think USA and other investments 7:00 : Official program ends; demos and vehicles open, open networking 9:00 : SF Green ends, but the bar stays open, so stay on if you want

HelioVolt claims CIGS thin film efficiency record

HelioVolt CEO BJ Stanbery is set to announce that his company has set a new speed record for CIGS conversion efficiency, ratcheting up the pressure in the competitive, high-stakes thin-film solar cell sector. The Austin, Texas, start-up, which raked in a cool $101 million in second round funding last October, claims its proprietary FASST reactive transfer printing process can produce cells with a 12.2% conversion efficiency in a mere 6 minutes.

Utility execs anticipate few acquisitions, but more reliance on cleantech

Earlier this week I wrote about a PricewaterhouseCooper report on cleantech investment last year, which pointed to a rising trend in the startup world. A new report released today by the same company gives a good look over the opposite side of the cleantech fence — the board rooms of electricity utilities worldwide. The report, based on questionnaires sent out to industry executives, shows that utilities are well aware of oncoming changes. While renewable energy ranked only sixth in their concerns in 2004, it hit the top spot in 2007, and still holds it today. Emissions and efficiency are also top concerns. Energy efficiency is expected to have the greatest overall impact over the next decade, while nuclear energy tops the list of technologies expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite widespread reservations, United States, China, and Exxon all move forward on carbon sequestration

In the cleantech world, carbon sequestration, or the practice of capturing CO2 emissions and trapping them underground or inside materials, is something of a black sheep. Environmentalists call it a “boondoggle”, some engineers think it’s “absolutely crazy”, and even some politicians have called it a risky bet. Yet a string of recent announcements show that the technique has enough support to compete with other green technologies for attention, and money. The most recent is a United States Department of Energy funding, which will put $126.6 million toward two separate sequestration projects, one in California and one in Ohio. The DoE now funds six projects in total. However, a much larger chunk of money, up to $1.3 billion, may go toward a partial revival of the canceled FutureGen project, according to an almost simultaneous announcement by the DoE. Also unveiled yesterday were Exxon Mobil’s plans for a new plant in LaBarge, Wyoming, which will aim to freeze CO2 and other gases out of the methane that the company is mining for in the state, turning them into a liquid that it can then sell. The surge of interest in carbon capture, which also includes studies in Washington and the much older Weyburn Project, is inspired in large part by the growing worry, held by utilities, mining companies and oil firms like Exxon alike, that a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system might soon be enacted in the United States. The DoE, with its responsibility for energy supplies in the States, has a natural interest in seeing fossil fuel plants continue to operate, and so will continue putting money toward carbon sequestration. What’s more surprising is seeing that China, which has heedlessly poured money into coal, the cheapest and dirtiest energy source, is also getting into the potentially expensive sequestration game. A state-sponsored company called GreenGen is working toward a 400 megawatt generation plant with carbon capture technologies, with construction planned to start in 2013. That’s significantly more ambitious than most other projects, both those in the United States and international efforts like Statoil’s Sliepner in Norway, which captures about 2,800 tons of CO2 each day. However, another Norwegian company called Sargas is claiming 95 gas capture at $20 per ton, and looking for funding for its own 400MW plant, to be built even sooner than GreenGen’s. While most of the efforts involve large companies working with somewhat older technology that’s known to be expensive — Exxon has been using various form of carbon sequestration for 25 years — there is still some capacity for startups to take part. Researchers in France, for example, just announced the development of a nanomaterial capable of holding CO2, which will allow companies to skip the step of pumping it underground. And of course, there’s Calera, a Khosla Ventures funded company that claims it can use captured CO2 to make cement. But ultimately, for most known methods, the projected costs for carbon sequestration rapidly become unsustainable. The reason isn’t just a dollars-and-cents issue, it’s also an energy investment issue. Compressing and containing CO2 requires large amounts of energy. That means that if you’re sequestering CO2 emissions from coal, you may need to burn an additional 25 percent just to provide energy for the sequestration process — which in turn creates more CO2. Among many other potential problems, possible leakage of CO2 is sequestered underground also hasn’t yet been ruled out.

Green drink craze? Steaz teas raises $11M for organic and fair trade tea

The environmental movement, increasingly fed by the specter of global warming, is causing a lot of side effects. Trademarks including words like “eco”, “earth”, “environment” and “organic”, for instance, have exploded in popularity. One specific trend that’s seeing venture investment is environmentally-friendly drinks. Just three days ago we reported that Adina For Life raised $6.6 million for juice, coffee and tea. Now another firm called The Healthy Beverage Company, which operates under the trade name Steaz, has managed to round up $11 million for fairly traded, organic (and kosher!) teas. Sold in cans and bottles, Steaz drinks are sold by retailers like grocery stores and gas stations. However, the ultimate game plan probably involves an acquisition by the likes of Coke or Pepsi, who are deeply interested in “green” branding (or washing, depending on your take). The funding was provided by Inventages Venture Capital and Whitefish Group. HBC is based in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

Osage Bio Energy secures $300M for barley-based ethanol

Aiming to be one of the first companies out the door with second generation biofuel production capacity, Glen Allen, Virginia, Osage Bio Energy has just received a healthy $300 million commitment from First Reserve Corporation to build four facilities that will produce barley-based ethanol and a specialty protein feed. The company is the first to pursue the commercial-scale development of barley to ethanol bio-refineries.