Companies Need to Step Up Sustainability Efforts

According to a recent report, while there are pockets of sustainability leadership in the U.S. business community, much more needs to be done. The Ceres and Sustainalytics study found that most companies are merely taking small, incremental steps to address sustainability issues that could impact not only their bottom line, but also the economy and planet.

Ceres Sustainability Report 2014Given the acceleration of environmental and social challenges globally – floods, droughts, and workplace tragedies – most U.S. corporations are not keeping pace with the level of change,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the sustainability advocacy group, Ceres. “Those that step up to the challenge will be best positioned to thrive in the rapidly changing, resource-constrained 21st century economy.”

The report assesses the sustainability performance of 613 of the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S. and covers nearly 80 percent of the total market capitalization of all public companies in the country. It tracks corporate performance against 20 key metrics essential for any sustainable corporation to follow, including governance, disclosure, greenhouse gas emissions reductions and labor standards. It identifies sustainability trends across eight key sectors, highlighting industry best practices and which companies are leading among their peers. It also provides aggregate data and online scorecards for companies on each performance area. Key findings include:

  • While many companies are taking action to reduce GHG emissions, few have set time-bound targets. More than two-thirds of the companies evaluated (438) have activities in place aimed at reducing GHG emissions, but only 35 percent (212) have established time-bound targets for reducing GHG emissions. In terms of renewable energy, 37 percent of companies have implemented a program, while only six percent have quantitative targets to increase renewable energy sourcing.
  • More companies are setting clear sustainability standards for suppliers. Fifty-eight percent of companies (353) have supplier codes of conduct that address human rights in supply chains, compared to 43 percent in 2012. However, only a third (205 companies) have some activities in place to engage suppliers on sustainability performance issues, up from 27 percent in 2012.
  • A growing number of companies are incorporating sustainability performance into executive compensation packages. Twenty-four percent of companies (147) link executive compensation to sustainability performance – up from 15 percent in 2012.

The metrics used in this report were first spelled out in the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability, which has been used by dozens of leading companies since 2010 to incorporate sustainability into their business planning and corporate accountability infrastructure.

“The findings of this report should inspire companies to examine their own progress and identify where they stand on the path to sustainability,” said Michael Jantzi, CEO and Founder of Sustainalytics. “This is about more than how companies stack up against their peers – it’s about how innovation is driving performance from the corporate boardroom throughout the entire supply chain.”

Liverpool Researchers Study Agave for Biofuels

A PhD student at the University of Liverpool is studying a plant that may be a viable feedstock to produce advanced biofuels. Agave sisalana is a proposed biofuel plant that can be grown in semi-arid conditions unsuited to food crops. The plant is already grown for fibre in countries like Brazil, Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar. Sisal fibre has traditionally been used for marine ropes, bailer twine, and rugs, but today it is also finding new uses such as reinforced plastic composites for car door panels.

According to Bupphada, agave has a number of favorable characteristics for use as a fuel, as it contains large amounts of sugar and cellulose, and grows well in seasonally dry areas. As second generation biofuels technologies for converting cellulose to liquid transportation fuels are maturing fast, agave may prove to be a good feedstock.

agave sisal-plantsSupervised by plant biologist, Dr James Hartwell, Bupphada is investigating the genomic basis for agave’s ability to grow productively in dry regions.

“Unlike most plants, agave opens the pores in its leaves and captures carbon dioxide during the cool, humid night,” said Hartwell. “It uses an adaptation of photosynthesis called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which means that it loses a lot less water during photosynthesis in comparison to major food crops like wheat or rice”.

In collaboration with Liverpool’s world-leading Centre for Genomic Research, Bupphada has sequenced RNA from agave leaves in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the genes used for CAM photosynthesis. Long-term, the hope is that knowledge of which genes are important in agave will help accelerate its improvement as a biomass feedstock crop.

Bupphada came to Liverpool as a result of a partnership that the ARDA has with the University. After completing his PhD, he plants to return to Thailand to work at the Agricultural Ministry, applying his new findings on research projects there.

“Biofuels are a credible way of reducing our reliance on oil, but the areas in which they are grown requires careful planning,” said Bupphada. “Understanding how plants like agave grow in marginal areas means we can maintain food supply, while also creating alternative sources of income for communities.”

DOE Finds Hydropower Has Great Potential

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has released a renewable energy resource assessment that finds that hydropower has great potential to produce renewable electricity. The report estimates over 65 gigawatts (GW) of potential new hydropower development across more than three million U.S. rivers and streams. This is nearly the amount currently produced by the industry.

DOE 2014 Hydropower Report“The United States has tremendous untapped clean energy resources and responsible development will help pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable and diverse energy portfolio,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “As the Energy Department works with industry, universities and state and local governments to advance innovative hydropower technologies, the resource assessment released today provides unparalleled insight into new hydropower opportunities throughout the country.”

Hydropower makes up seven percent of total U.S. electricity generation and continues to be the United States’ largest source of renewable electricity, avoiding over 200 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year, finds the report. Hydropower also provides reliable baseload power day and night – providing greater flexibility and diversity to the electric grid and allowing utilities to integrate other renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

The New Stream-reach Development Assessment released capitalizes on recent advancements in geospatial datasets and represents the most detailed evaluation of U.S. hydropower potential at undeveloped streams and rivers to date. The greatest hydropower potential was found in western U.S. states, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wyoming led the rest of the country in new stream-reach hydropower potential.

The hydropower resource assessment also analyzed technical, socioeconomic and environmental characteristics that will help energy developers, policymakers and local communities identify the most promising locations for sustainable hydropower facilities. The assessment includes stream- and river-specific information on local wildlife habitats, protected lands, water use and quality and fishing access areas. The report builds on a 2012 DOE report and ultimately finds there are many untapped hydropower opportunities.

Trends & Growth in Global Geothermal Market

A new report reveals the international power market is booming with a sustained growth rate of 4 percent to 5 percent. The “2014 Annual U.S. & Global Geothermal Power Production Report,” finds, released by the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) finds that nearly 700 projects are currently under development in 76 countries. Among the key factors for growth, finds the report, are threats posed by climate change and the need for renewable energy sources that can satisfy grid needs.

The report also found that international geothermal market growth was up, while stateside growth held steady; 85 MW of the total global 530 MW of new geothermal capacity in 2013 was in the U.S. However, U.S. growth was flat because of policy barriers, gridlock at the federal level, low natural gas prices and inadequate transmission infrastructure.

Global Geothermal Growth 2014 - GEA“While there was a modest downturn in capacity additions, the Industry Update also underscores the tremendous untapped potential for geothermal energy,” said GEA Executive Director Karl Gawell. According to the report, the geothermal industry was working on 977MW of new capacity (Planned Capacity Additions or PCA’s) at sites that hold over 3,092MW of power potential in eight western states.

U.S. additions in Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico kept the industry on the map domestically in 2013, and future growth looks promising. “The geothermal resource base is still largely untapped,” noted Ben Matek, GEA’s Industry Analyst. “With new initiatives in Nevada, California and Oregon moving to recognize the values of geothermal power, we are optimistic that state policies could spark another period of growth in geothermal power over the next decade.”

In 2013, 25 pieces of legislation in 13 U.S. states were enacted specifically to address geothermal power and heating systems, creating a foundation for the environment needed to foster geothermal growth in these states. Past evidence shows successful policy initiatives have translated into growth; in Nevada, for example, which leads the way as one of the most business-friendly environments, the number of developing projects (45) more than doubles that of California (25).

On a global scale, the report found that there could be a time in the near future when the U.S. is no longer the world geothermal energy producer.

Simplifying Pyrolysis for Bio-Oil Production

pyrolysisoilU.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers are getting closer to developing a system that will help farmers make their own energy on the farm or produce biofuels for commercial purposes. This article from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) says scientists have found a way to simplify the pyrolysis processes for bio-oil.

These findings by ARS scientists Charles Mullen and Akwasi Boateng promote the USDA priority of finding new bioenergy sources.

Fast pyrolysis is the process of rapidly heating biomass from wood, plants and other carbon-based materials at high temperatures without oxygen. Using pyrolysis to break down tough feedstocks produces three things: biochar, a gas, and bio-oils that are refined to make “green” gasoline.

The bio-oils are high in oxygen, making them acidic and unstable, but the oxygen can be removed by adding catalysts during pyrolysis. Although this adds to production costs and complicates the process, the resulting bio-oil is more suitable for use in existing energy infrastructure systems as a “drop-in” transportation fuel that can be used as a substitute for conventional fuels.

The article goes on to point out that bio-oils made from oak and switchgrass by the new process had considerably higher energy content than those produced by conventional fast pyrolysis. Oak bio-oil’s energy content was about one-third higher and contained about two-thirds of the energy contained in gasoline. Switchgrass did even better with an energy content that was 42 percent higher, slightly less than three-fourths of the energy content of gasoline.

Characterizing Photosynthesis to Help Biodiesel

algaefull1Researchers in California have found a faster way to figure out more of the secrets of photosynthesis, and that could lead to new strains of algae better for biodiesel. Officials with the Carnegie Institution for Science say they have developed a new technique that will accelerate genetic characterization of photosynthesis:

A type of single-cell green algae called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a leading subject for photosynthesis research. Despite its importance in the research world, few tools are available for characterizing the functions of its genes.

A team including Carnegie’s Martin Jonikas developed a highly sophisticated tool that will transform the work of plant geneticists by making large-scale genetic characterization of Chlamydomonas mutants possible for the first time. Their work is published by The Plant Cell.

Their tool is a major step forward in the goal of identifying the genes that are necessary for photosynthesis, as well as other cellular functions such as the production of oily fats that are crucial for biofuel development. The use of similar tools for non-photosynthetic, single-celled organisms has revolutionized the understanding of cellular processes in bacteria and yeast, as well as animals.

U.S. Clean Energy Struggling from Policy Uncertainty

According to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. clean energy sector continues to be buffeted by policy uncertainty with 2013 investment down 9 percent from 2012 to $36.7 billion. The annual report, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? 2013,” found that steep declines in the installation of wind overshadowed a record annual deployment of 4.4 gigawatts of solar.

THE PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS“Lower technology prices have made the small-distributed solar market very competitive, and the United States has been a leader in developing innovative financing models that are spurring steadily increasing deployment,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s clean energy program. “We also remain a world leader in venture capital, biofuels, and energy-smart technologies, like smart meters and LED lighting. Wind, however, has been subject to the vagaries of U.S. energy policy. As Congress debates tax extenders, it should aim to level the playing field, accelerate clean energy deployment, and provide long-term certainty to investors.”

The report found in the U.S. marketplace, solar technology prices have declined 60 percent since 2011, and new financing models have spurred more than $17 billion in investment, a 7 percent increase from 2012. The U.S. continued to garner world-leading financing in the biofuels and energy efficient/low-carbon technology subsectors. It also remained the dominant recipient of public market and venture capital/private equity investment, attracting $6.8 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively.

Although wind investment was relatively stable at $14 billion, U.S. wind installations in 2013 were down more than 90 percent—from more than 13 GW in 2012 to less than 1 GW last year found the report. When the production tax credit was renewed in early 2013, slight changes in the law precipitated deferrals in deployment of new wind capacity into 2014, when a strong rebound in capacity additions was forecast. By comparison, China deployed 12.1 GW of solar and 14.1 GW of wind capacity.

The regional and global market remains dominated by China, attracting $54.2 billion, with the U.S. in second place. Japan was third with $28.6 billion. Globally, clean energy investment fell 11 percent, to $254 billion, and renewable power generating capacity additions declined by 1 percent in 2013. Overall, installed clean energy capacity reached 735 GW.

Stanford Scientists Convert Carbon Monoxide to Ethanol

Stanford University scientists have discovered a new way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. The researchers believe the discovery could provide an “green” alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops. The results were published in the April issue of Nature.

“We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure – a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study.

Stanford's Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry, co-authored a study on producing liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide.

Stanford’s Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry, co-authored a study on producing liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide.

According to Kanan, most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. But growing crops for biofuel requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water. He cites a study that found it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields around 3 gallons of ethanol.

The new technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, they team says could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production today.

“Our study demonstrates the feasibility of making ethanol by electrocatalysis,” Kanan said. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical.”

Two years ago, Kanan and Li created a novel electrode made of a material they called oxide-derived copper. They used the term “oxide-derived” because the metallic electrode was produced from copper oxide.

“Conventional copper electrodes consist of individual nanoparticles that just sit on top of each other,” Kanan explained. “Oxide-derived copper, on the other hand, is made of copper nanocrystals that are all linked together in a continuous network with well-defined grain boundaries. The process of transforming copper oxide into metallic copper creates the network of nanocrystals.” Continue reading

ACORE Releases Renewable Energy in America Outlook

The American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) has released The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014, jointly authored by U.S. renewable energy trade associations from the power, thermal, and fuel sectors. The Outlook assesses the renewable energy marketplace and forecasts the future of each renewable energy technology sector, from the perspectives of each of the associations, and provides a list of policy recommendations by the respective associations that would encourage continued industry growth.

OutlookCover1“ACORE applauds the unity of the renewable industry community and this united front as reflected in The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014,” said ACORE President and CEO, Michael Brower. “The report demonstrates the many public and private sector opportunities that exist at the national, regional and local levels for continued industry advancement and investment; however, they are not one-size-fit-all solutions for every renewable technology.”

Bower noted that the articles in the report detail specific market drivers for the biofuel, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, waste and energy sectors.

Jeffrey Holzschuh, Chairman of Institutional Securities at Morgan Stanley said that greater American consumer interest in renewable energy, along with more private sector investment, have caused the financial markets to respond. “Spurred by growing individual as well as business demand, private sector investment in the U.S. clean energy sector surpassed $100 billion in 2012-2013, stimulating significant economic development while supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

The trade associations who participated in the Outlook are: Advanced Biofuels Association; American Wind Energy Association; Biomass Power Association; Biomass Thermal Energy Council; Energy Recovery Council; Geothermal Energy Association; Growth Energy; National Hydropower Association; Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition; and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014 shows the potential of America’s renewable energy economy to extend beyond one fuel choice or pipeline, to provide the country with an unparalleled opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S. economy while protecting our environment.

Hemp-to-Biofuels Research Gets Green Light

vote-hempA crop that has had an undeserved stigma attached to it could now become a source for biodiesel and ethanol. The recently passed and signed Farm Bill contains a provision that would allow hemp to be grown for research purposes, including making it into the green fuels.

“Hemp is a great crop for biodiesel, and we’ve already started experimenting with [cellulosic ethanol made from hemp],” explained Ben Droz with Vote Hemp, a group trying revitalize industrial hemp production in the U.S., at last week’s National Agriculture Day in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that hemp goes back a long ways in this country’s history, including being grown by the Founding Fathers and the founder of our modern automobile industry. “Henry Ford was actually doing research on hemp fuels and hemp biocomposites. And now today we are looking back to see if we can grow hemp once again.”

Ben said the Farm Bill defined industrial hemp, not to be confused with marijuana despite its similar appearance, as having 3/10 of a percent or less of THC – the active ingredient in the drug. Even if you smoked a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole, Ben said you still wouldn’t get high. But it’s only legal to do the research at universities and state ag departments in the 10 states where hemp is already legal to grow. He’s hoping that positive results in those locations will allow the effort to go nationwide.

“Those results will then encourage lawmakers to change the law so farmers can grow this profitable crop. There’s literally thousands of uses for hemp.”

Listen to all of Cindy’s conversation with Ben here: Interview with Ben Droz, Vote Hemp

2014 Ag Day Photo Album

Synthetic Chromosome Could Help Biodiesel, Ethanol

boekeThe scientific world today is all a-buzz about the world’s first yeast synthetic chromosome, and the discovery could help the biodiesel and ethanol industries. This article from the Christian Science Monitor says researchers have put together man-made DNA into the synthetic version of a chromosome, a development expected to have implications for the green fuels.

“For me, one of most exciting aspects is the fact that we’ve so extensively edited the sequence of natural chromosome and then synthesized the entire thing from scratch,” said study leader Jef Boeke, a synthetic biologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, who was previously at Johns Hopkins University.

Using a technique known as “scrambling,” the scientists can shuffle the yeast genes like a deck of cards. The researchers could make millions and millions of different decks of genetic cards, which could give yeast totally new properties.

For example, researchers could make synthetic strains of yeast to produce rare medicines such as the malarial drug artemisinin, or vaccines like the hepatitis B vaccine. Synthetic yeast could also churn out more efficient biofuels, such as alcohol, butanol or biodiesel, which could enable humanity to transition off of a petroleum economy, Boeke said.

For now, the costs are prohibitive for the biofuels industry, or any industry for that matter, to use. But the scientists are hopeful they’ll be able to get the costs down as the technology improves.

Research Looks Into Water-Free Biodiesel Brewing

waste-vegetable-oil-for-biodieselEfforts to make biodiesel production even more sustainable might get a boost from research into a water-free method of making the green fuel. This story from Biofuels Journal says researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal are looking at a way to eliminate the water normally used water to remove impurities to meet stringent quality standards.

Instead of water, researchers used catalysts to pre-treat and target impurities such as calcium ‘soaps’ in the biodiesel.

The impurities were then removed by absorption into resins or passing through ceramic membranes.

The researchers were able to produce good quality biodiesel from both virgin vegetable oil and, importantly, waste oils used for frying.

The new process could provide significant economic and environmental benefits compared to other more energy intensive water-based production methods.

The researchers believe that finding more water-free or less-water-consuming methods of making biofuels becomes more and more important as more of the world turns to the alternative fuels.

Biodiesel Bites Back… with a Gator CHOMP!

gator-fuel-webWe’ve told you before about how researchers found a way to turn alligator fat into biodiesel. But this article in Biodiesel Magazine says new findings show a method using a supercritical methanol to make the scaly-sourced biodiesel even more efficiently.

Researchers reported on a novel method this week at the 247th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, to produce biodiesel from crude animal fats, including waste fat from alligators, using supercritical methanol in a flow reactor. “Conversion of animal fat to biodiesel has been around for some time, but the traditional biodiesel process generates significant quantities of solid waste,” said Thomas Junk with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Our new method creates hardly any such residues.” In an earlier study, Junk used alligator fat and a batch reactor, but for his new research, a flow reactor and supercritical methanol were used. “We set up a flow reactor, and the reaction converting alligator fat to biodiesel happened within a few minutes,” said Junk. “That’s important for commercial manufacturing, where you want to produce as much fuel as quickly as possible.”

The biggest advantage to using the supercritical method is that it doesn’t require a catalyst, which creates residue. In addition, the fat doesn’t have to be extracted and can be used in its raw form. That means while gator fat could be a viable feedstock, the researchers also see a bigger application for even more plentiful animals fats, such as chicken and beef, that might otherwise be dumped into a landfill.

Better Sites for Algae Helps Biofuels Production

ABOA new process for identifying and evaluating algae production facilities could help with biofuels production. The article, “Siting Algae Cultivation Facilities for Biofuel Production in the United States: Trade-Offs between Growth Rate, Site Constructability, Water Availability, and Infrastructure,” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, talks about the new method developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sapphire Energy and was welcomed by the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), the trade association for the algae industry.

“Effectively siting algae cultivation facilities for commercial biofuel production is critical to the success of every commercial algae project,” said Margaret McCormick, chair of the Algae Biomass Organization and CEO of algae company Matrix Genetics. “The biology is so complex, existing ‘off-the-shelf’ measurement tools fall short. Because this analysis considers numerous variables along with real-world algae cultivation data, it offers project developers a much more complete and rigorous evaluation of sites.”

Site selection for large construction projects is a complex task, but a particularly challenging one in the case of algae cultivation in open ponds, where facilities could be thousands of acres in size. The factors that drive success include: a warm and sunny climate, available water, economically available land with soils good for construction, and proximity to transportation and utility infrastructure. In addition, special consideration must be given to local issues that are difficult for national-scale models to address, such as regulatory constraints, tax incentives, receptivity of local populations and ecological constraints.

The study found that there is good potential for cultivating green algae along the Gulf of Mexico, especially on the Florida peninsula. It also says that the type of algae to be grown is a big factor when choosing a site.

Veterans Move Into Solar Industry Jobs

According to a new report released jointly from Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, veterans are employed within the solar industry at higher than average rates. The report finds that for a group facing high unemployment, the solar industry is one of the best industries for jobs.

The report, Veterans in Solar: Securing America’s Energy Future, highlights the contributions of veterans to the solar industry, using data derived from The Solar Foundation’s annual National Solar Jobs Census 2013. The findings show that America’s Veterans in Solarsolar industry has grown by 500 percent since 2008, providing more than 13,000 veterans with job opportunities as of November 2013. Veterans represent nearly 10 percent of all solar workers at a time when more than 15 percent of veterans aged 18-24 are currently unemployed. The report also discovered that the growth in the industry is continuing with nearly 62 percent of solar companies that employ veterans plan to add more solar workers within the next 12 months.

Congressman Scott Peters (CA-52), said of the news, “Our servicemen and women have made great sacrifices for our country and it is our responsibility to ensure that when they return home there are high-skill and well-paying jobs available. The solar industry offers our veterans a unique opportunity to use the knowledge they learned serving our country in a rapidly growing sector that is vital to both our national security and economic future.”

According to Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, this is the first time that the significant contributions of veterans to the solar industry have been documented. The two groups intend to amplify these findings in an effort to help more veterans enter into careers in the solar industry.

“This report highlights the ways solar strengthens the US economy and our national security,” added Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance and a former Intelligence Officer, Special Forces, US Navy. “Veterans are over represented in the solar industry because we know first-hand that clean, affordable domestic power makes America and the world safer.”

In addition to examining employment numbers, the report also suggests next steps to expand opportunities for veterans, including the creation of a tool for employers to translate veterans’ skills into language reflecting solar companies’ hiring needs.