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CRU, “Climategate” and reporting in the Japanese media December 3, 2009

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Economy & Business, Energy, Environment, Japan, Media.

Or the absence thereof.

It’s come to a point where the situation is beyond absurd. The story has been reported in all the respectable (and not so respectable) English media outlets I keep up with (NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Times (UK), Guardian, Telegraph, the Indy, special mention of that esteemed outlet the Washington Times whose reporting hardly contained its glee), to a point where it is silly to accuse “the media” of greenwashing.

On the other hand, there seems to be a coordinated effort to keep this out of the Japanese mainstream press. Do a Google News search for say, “climate change” + “data” (気候変動 データ)  or “(global) warming” + “data” (温暖化 データ) or “CRU” (University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, for those of you who have been living under a rock (or in Japan) for the last week or so), and you get (if you are lucky) a grand total of three relevant Japanese language hits. A Bloomberg article, a Slashdot.jp piece and a Wired Vision piece buried in Nikkei’s PC Online publication’s security section. The Bloomberg and Slashdot pieces are dated Dec 2nd. The Wired Vision/PC Online piece is dated Nov 30 (but I suspect the editors thought it was a piece on hacking and it slipped through the net).

None of the major papers, Nikkei, Yomiuri, Asahi, Sankei, Mainichi… None appear to have a related story on this piece of pretty important news in any form searchable on the internet. NONE. Same goes for the TV media. Nothing on NHK, or any of the commercial terrestrial channels.

If I were a betting man, I would have money on this being a Ministry of the Environment Press Club managed greenwash of the most outrageous proportions.

So much for the new administration being a change from the old regime. Either the Minister and Vice-Minister (hello Minister Sakihito Ozawa, Vice-Minister Issei Tajima) are totally clueless, or are, like so many of their predecessors from the now exiled LDP, in cahoots with the bureaucrats in keeping a lid on important news (until at least  Copenhagen COP15, or maybe even longer).

So yet again, we have the media and other forces (the govt and/or bureaucracy and most likely business interests – who seem to have developed a taste for various green subsidies which are quickly turning into the new pork barrel money drip) seemingly taking a united stance against informing the general public about an actual topic worthy of discussion. Not like some actress caught doing drugs. Or the world’s best golf player’s dubious tastes in women.

It is highly unlikely that this story will be kept under wraps for too long. The story is too big for someone not to break rank and do a “scoop”, a week or two (or more?) after the rest of the world. And then the floodgates will open.

But it has to be asked, what are the media getting in return? So much talk of how commercial media (and their ecosystem partners) are in so much financial pain. Maybe something to ease that pain is in the works? I have a strong suspicion that might just be what the doctor ordered.

Toyota to sell solar panel equipped Prius July 7, 2008

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Japan.

The Nikkei is reporting that Toyota is planning to sell a version of its hybrid Prius with solar panels integrated into the roof of the car, starting 2009.

The PV panels will be procured from Kyocera, from whom Toyota have procured panels in the past for various other PV projects (such as setting up PV panels at the factories, and also with their residential housebuilder subsidiary).

The aim is to use the PV panel to supply some of the power required to drive the car’s air conditioning system. PV+AC is obviously a good fit, with AC demand tracking solar irradiance pretty well in general.

But make no mistake, the solar panels derive nowhere near enough power to actually power the drivetrain, nor can it really be used to trickle charge the batteries in any meaningful way (because of the limited battery capacity).

Some basic maths.

Available roof area: approx 1400 x 1200 (mm) = 1.68sq. m

Kyocera PV panel output approx 135Wp/sq. m

Max output per panel (assuming full roof area utilization)= 230Wp

Loss due to non-optimal placement (horizontal vs 30deg incl.) = 11.6%

Loss due to thermal heating of panel = max 20% (June-August) for residential roof installed panel – for car roof application, losses will be greater due to greater restrictions in thermal management

Other losses (due to dirty panels, electrical losses) = 5%

Peak power output per car = approx 150W

Which means one could generate up to 0.75kWh or so a day, given sunny conditions. Another problem is the battery capacity of the Prius Ni-MH battery itself, which is just 1.3kWh (201.6V,6.5Ah), combined with the battery management software in the Prius which appears not to allow deep discharging, which means that even if you put the car in a sunny place without driving it, the amount of electrical charge the car can generate and store peaks out as soon as the battery hits maximum charge.

The net result is that over the course of a year, one would do well to save just one or two tanks worth of petrol.

Probably good business for Toyota, for whom it might cost $500 to add and be able to charge at least a couple of grand to pander to vain green types.

The added weight up at the top of the car won’t do anything for vehicle dynamics, dragging up the centre of gravity, but I’m guessing enthusiastic drivers aren’t buying the Prius for its handling.

Related, when I was in the UK a couple of weeks ago, I caught Top Gear (the popular BBC car show) on TV, and they had a couple of hilarious segments.

The premise was that BBC management were berating Top Gear for not doing more eco-friendly stuff. (On a show for petrolheads who like their non-PC cars???)

So the Top Gear team did a segment to find look for the most fuel efficient….. supercar…… doing laps of a race track. They took some fast cars (Ferrari 430, Lamborghini Murcielago (probably), Mercedes SLR McLaren, and an Audi R8), and made them do fast laps around their race  track, with just a gallon of petrol in the tank for each of them. Turns out, the Ferrari ran out of petrol first, and the last man standing was the Audi R8. Irrelevant, irreverent, and bloody hilarious.

The other eco-friendly segment had the Prius up against a BMW M3, and had the Prius lap the circuit as quickly as it could, whilst the M3 tagged along behind. The M3 came out with about 10% better than the Prius on fuel efficiency in that particular test. Of course, it doesn’t reflect ordinary driving conditions, and pitting a 1.5litre Prius against the 400bhp 4litre may not be fair, with the BMW able to shadow the Prius at its limits without breaking into a sweat, but I think the point was made.

Given that the majority of my own driving is on the motorway to and from the golf course, I think my next car will be the one that returns the best fuel consumption at highway cruising speeds. I wonder when BMW will release their 330d/530d diesels in Japan? Mercedes has a E-class diesel which appears increasingly popular with well-to-do golfers here in Japan. Actually, I wouldn’t mind saving a bit of money and go with a domestic diesel model if they actually made one (and no, the diesel Nissan X-trail SUV-thingy doesn’t count).

OK, I should probably give up golf whilst living here in Japan if I were really trying to be maximally eco-friendly, but we all need our indulgences, don’t we? It is less wasteful of energy than a motorboat.

Sharp and KEPCO to build out PV farm June 23, 2008

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Japan.
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Sharp and KEPCO (Kansai Electric Power Company) have announced that they will be building out a 28MW PV farm starting 2009. The plant will use Sharp’s thin film PV modules, and will occupy the roof area of Sharp’s Sakai 10G LCD/thin film PV plant as well as an adjacent landfill site owned by Osaka prefecture.

The plant is expected to be operational in 2011.

JP press release (no English PR at time of press)

The completed facility will generate just under 30GWh/yr.

We only need another seven hundred thousand or so of these facilities to take care of our energy needs for the next generation. Assuming moderate economic growth, it looks like we’ll need about 20TW of additional carbon free energy production capacity by 2050, and whilst I’m sure other sources of power will also be tapped, solar will probably play some role.

I’m guessing building out 20,000 nuclear power stations is out of the question. 20,000 over 42years is more than one new plant commissioned EVERY SINGLE DAY between now and 2050….

Global Warming Summit December 6, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Environment, Travel.

No, I’m not in Bali.

Unlike approximately 10,000 participants (from 190 countires) of said UN summit on global warming.

Anyone see the irony of transporting all those people by plane to a resort island to discuss global warming? I won’t deny that there are cases where face-to-face meetings are invaluable if not absolutely necessary, but 10,000 people???

How long will the PV venture funding boom continue? September 14, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Energy, Japan, Overseas.
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Lots of and lots of money being ploughed into photovoltaics at the moment, especially hot is non-Si thin film solar. Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasole, Solyndra, DayStar, the list goes on. Each one has raised tens of millions of $ of VC financing. Most of these non-Si PV companies are doing CIGS (Cu-In-Ga-Se) thin films or variations thereof, but it seems things are not going to plan in the world of thin film solar ventures. Lots of reported management changes, including this latest one, but the money keeps pouring in.

It appears the companies are finding the transition from the lab to factory a bit more difficult than they had imagined.

To be fair, First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR)seems to be doing great, recently closing a $1B+ deal with EdF. (Current market cap $7.2B) They have a different technology, based on a CdTe thin film process.

Meanwhile, Si-based PVs keep on being cranked out, and the supply side issues for Si are being addressed with PV grade Si production ramping up.

Of course, some people are further along the path to mass production CIGS-type PV cell production. Whilst Japan is recognized as a significant player in Si PV production, the competition to the thin film PV ventures from Japanese interests have not really been convered in much detail (the cleantech community seems aware of these Japanese players, but the investment community seems to prefer to pretend this competition does not exist). You see statements like this from the above CNET article –

“CIGS aren’t in mass manufacturing yet anywhere and cracking that problem is proving tricky. There are several companies trying to bring products out and each has a slightly different manufacturing technique.”

Honda Soltec, a 100% subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, has been selling CIGS modules since June 2007. Soltec’s manufacturing facility is currently just 27.5MW/yr, but it is expected that Honda will ramp up as large scale manufacturing techniques are validated.

Showa Shell also announced that they are building a second factory to produce CIS based modules adding a further 60MW/yr to the current 20MW/yr from their first factory which began operations last year.

Both companies have years/decades of R&D behind them, and they have immense resources in manufacturing at their disposal. I know what kind of company I would bet on to succeed in the lab to mass production transition, all else being equal. (My investment thesis focuses on this qualifier. There are plenty of areas for improvement in the current state of the art in thin film manufacturing)

Interesting to note, both companies have their PV factories in Kyushu. Kyushu, which was already dubbed Silicon Island due to its strength in the semiconductor sector (major players with production facilities include Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, Rohm, Toyoda Gosei, TI Japan,Canon, Kyocera, Renesas, NEC, AKM, Matushita, Yamaha, Pioneer) is rapidly becoming photovoltaic island as well, with Honda Soltec and Showa Shell being joined by players such as Fuji Electric and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (both a-Si manufacturers), and SUMCO recently announcing that they are building a new PV silicon wafer plant in Imari with a n equivalent capacity of 300MW/yr.

More on the plug-in Prius July 27, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Energy, Japan.
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Looks like Toyota showed off their new Prius based plug-in hybrid.

First thought.

Looks expensive.  (it isn’t going to go on sale any time soon)

The new car weighs a full 100kg more than the standard Prius, pretty much all of this is rechargeable batteries. (the plug-in recharger electronics aren’t going to be that heavy)

That pretty much triples the battery capacity (actually, add a bit more due to the switch from Ni-MH to Li-ion).

Full EV range is quoted as 13km, based on the unintelligible Japanese 10.15 mode standard.

For people who are prone to doing short trips, significant savings in fuel costs would appear possible.

Next stop, selling a solar panel roofed carport (or a module on the roof of the house proper) to further cut down on energy expenses. (Honda seems to be making more visible moves in this area, to be fair…)

Toyota to launch plug-in hybrid Prius July 19, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Energy, Japan.
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The Asahi Shimbun reports that Toyota is set to file papers to allow it to test a new plug-in hybrid version of its Prius on the open road.

A fully electric plug-in vehicle of reasonable proportions for a single car household at a reasonable price and energy efficiency is still a way off, thus this plug-in hybrid approach is attractive, assuming that the electricity generation and delivery process results in a net decrease in CO2 emissions (which is a fair assumption given the current state of the electricity generation industry, and especially if the recharging is done preferentially at low power usage times where a proportionately higher percentage of the power generation is non-fossil fuel derived).

The technical highlight is the fact that Toyota are apparently switching to Li-ion technology.

A single full charge is only good for 15-20km range in full EV mode, but with advances in telematics and other innovations (including perhaps in social infrastructure), a significant portion of the daily use may be runnable in EV mode, at least in certain locales where typical trip distances are small (and even if the car has to revert to normal ICE assisted hybrid mode, the 15-20km worth comes off the top line CO2 footprint)

I think that the key is the improved telematics and other software which will allow maximum exploitation of the electrical storage capacity. Encouraging and educating users to use networked trip planners which are integrated to the in-car navigation and telematics systems would potentially allow an operating profile which maximises stored electrical energy usage. It shouldn’t be too hard for Toyota to build that functionality on top of (or in place of) their G-Book navigation system and integrate with the rest of the car electronics.

Of course, getting away from the whole “owning a car is a status symbol” mindset would be nice, especially in Tokyo. (I fully understand that if one lives in the suburbs or the countryside, one car per person is pretty much mandatory)

Today’s energy conservation tip June 18, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, technology.
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A group led by researchers at AIST (the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) have found that adding hair conditioner to the water used in water circulating air conditioning systems (as commonly found in office buildings and the like), can dramatically reduce energy consumption used to circulate water in the system. OK, the boffins at AIST didn’t really put hair conditioner in the water, rather just a surfactant mix. But as this Asahi article points out, surfactants are a main functional ingredient of hair conditioner.
The test was performed using Sapporo City Hall, a 19 floor building (+2 underground floors) which has an air conditioning system with a 37kW rated output pump which circulates 32 tonnes of water through the air conditioning unit.

The energy savings found appear impressive. The AIST team calculated that by adding just 0.5wt% (ok, that is still about 150kg…) of generic surfactant into the water, the pump could be driven at 30% reduced speed, which translates into a power reduction of around 65%. For the Sapporo City Hall, this translates to a potential annual reduction of the electricity bill by JPY630,000, and a reduction in CO2 of 32 tonnes/yr.

This kind of fairly low tech solution is all the more attractive because it is potentially so easy to replicate on a massive scale.  I wonder how many buildings have air conditioning units which might be able to accomodate modifications to take advantage of this research?

Here in Japan, energy consumption peaks during hot summer days, when air conditioners are on full blast in all those office buildings. If this research can be applied on a wide scale, a significant reduction in electricity consumption due to air conditioning units can be achieved. This has the additional benefit of specifically reducing peak load electricity consumption, most of which is generated by fossil fuel burning power stations. All electricity is not created equal, peak load electricity has a higher carbon footprint than base load power a significant proportion of which is drawn from nuclear capacity.

There is also an economical argument for reducing peak load consumption for building owners and tenants too, as commercial electricity unit costs are determined using a formula which incorporates peak load consumption.

(There are potential issues about discharging surfactant loaded water during maintenance of course, but I suspect that the problems are addressable….)

First Cellulosic Bioethanol Plant Opens in Osaka January 17, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Japan.

Bio Ethanol Japan (BEJ) has opened the world’s first cellulosic bioethanol plant in Osaka. It is also the first commercial bioethanol plant in Japan. The plant takes wood based waste materials (construction industry waste, waste from industrial wood product maufacturing, agricultural plant waste, tree cuttings, etc – and potentially in the future energy crops which do not require prime arable real estate which are required for high sugar/starch crops) and extracts the polysaccharide content which is (eventually) fermented into ethanol. The rest of the biomass (mainly lignin) is used to generate energy (heat and electricity co-generation to maximise energy efficiency).

I’ve written before saying how I am not convinced that corn/beet/soya/sugarcane based bioethanol production using is the way forward, as the feedstock (and the land used to cultivate same) consumption for bioethanol production competes with alternative uses, like, feeding people (directly and indirectly) – this even if we take into account the fact that some portion of corn (for example) can be used as feedstock (because the bioethanol is created from the starch content, the distillers dry grain feedstock co-product is of high protein content, and whilst this can augment livestock feed, the energy (starch->carbohydrate) content has to come from alternative sources compared to whole grain based feed as the starch is stripped out). That is even before we get to the impending water crisis which I feel is inevitable in many of the current grain production areas.

Moreover, the (mainly) corn based bioethanol movement in the US seems to be dependent on the huge farming subsidies paid out to corn farmers. [This from a country who is constantly harassing other nations to open up their markets to US agricultural imports]

Cellulosic bioethanol is the way forward (if the internal combustion engine is to be retained at all). Fossil fuel consumption is cut drastically by up to 86% compared to fossil fuel petroleum, compared to a cut of 20-30% with corn based bioethanol. [Wang 2005 – Dr Michael Wang at the Center for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory is a recognised expert in the field of energy and emissions relating to net energy (so called well to wheel) calculations relating to transport fuels]

TheBEJ plant was constructed with a budget of JPY4B, or just a shade under $50M, and has a production output of 1400kl/yr, or slightly under 10,000 barrels per annum.

Japanese domestic petroleum consumption is 60Gl/yr(400 million barrels), so it really is a drop in the ocean, but a step in the right direction. Currently Japanese legislation allows a maximum of 3% ethanol (so-called E3), which would require 1.8Gl, or 12 million barrels of ethanol, to convert all petroleum to E3. The plant expects to increase production to 4000kl/yr (27,000barrels) within a couple of years….

Currently the price of the bioethanol is double the cost of petroleum, so the plant will not make money on bioethanol sales alone. The plan appears to be try to break even by integrating the plant with industial waste collection, which is also revenue generating.

The current plant uses sulphuric acid hydrolysis to break down the polysaccharides into simple sugars. This method requires a neutralisation step before the fermentation porcess, and consumes both sulphuric acid and neutralising agent. The hope is that an efficient enzymatic hydolysis process can be found, which will reduce costs (and mean less handling of nasty chemicals).

BEJ is owned by construction giant Taisei Corporation, Marubeni, Sapporo Beer, and a couple of large recycling related firms. Marubeni and Tsukishima Kikai provided the bioethanol procesing plant technology, and Sapporo the fermentation technology.

$50M for a plant would theoretically be in VC funding territory (PlasticLogic raised $100M for a plastic semiconductor factory recently), but 10,000 barrels/yr is just $0.5M at current petroleum prices – clearly not a viable proposition. It remains to be seen how much build-out work is needed to bring production up to a significant level, but currently, as the company admits, the economics are far from viable.

With engineering and technical resources being illiquid here in Japan, I can’t see venture businesses being big players in the energy scene here, but as far as the enabling technologies are concerned, there are still opportunities for David to beat Goliath. If only talented technologists were willing to take a chance and fly the nest.


Posted by fukumimi in Energy, VC.
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A must read from Bob Metcalfe guest blogging on VCMike

via Paul Kedrosky’s blog (another one which should be on your reading list)

Lots and lots of good points.