• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 9, 2005

Air Date: December 9, 2005



U.S. Under Pressure at Climate Talks / Steve Curwood

View the page for this story

Montreal hosts two global meetings on climate change. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood was there and found that much of the focus was on United States involvement. (12:00)

Greenland’s Ice Melt

View the page for this story

Carbon dioxide emissions are causing temperatures to rise and that’s making Greenland glaciers melt at rates faster than previously expected. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State University, about how melting ice sheets may affect sea levels and global coastlines. (06:15)

Running On Straw

View the page for this story

Ethanol is a fuel traditionally made from corn and it’s been getting attention as an alternative to fossil fuels. But the leftovers of corn and other crops may prove an even better fuel resource. At the Montreal Climate Change Conference host Steve Curwood takes a ride in a car fueled by wheat straw and talks with Jeff Passmore, executive vice president of Iogen Corporation of Canada, about the benefits of using cellulose ethanol to power vehicles. (06:30)

Fuel Alternatives

View the page for this story

More and more companies are investing in green energy sources, such as solar, wind power and biodiesel, and business is booming. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dan Reicher, president of New Energy Capital, an independent fund that invests in renewable energy projects. (04:30)

Green Entrepreneurs / Claire Schoen

View the page for this story

Green entrepreneurs are entering competitions run by business schools across the country, hoping to launch their eco-friendly ventures. Reporter Claire Schoen follows one hopeful in the Haas School at the University of California, Berkeley, as he competes to win the $25,000 prize with his bio-diesel invention. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Sounds from the underground, in Montréal.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Richard Alley, Jeff Passmore, Dan Reicher
REPORTERS: Claire Schoen


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. With the Kyoto Protocol to limit global warming gases now international law, the nations that signed on gather in Montreal to figure out the next step.

CAMERON: There’s a couple of years left before we get into that first commitment phase, but you’re absolutely right in saying that if we don’t meet the first modest commitments how are we going to meet the more demanding ones that come second?

CURWOOD: Some are calling on the U.S. to deepen its commitment, but the Bush administration says it’s already fully engaged.

Mandates in Montreal this week on Living on Earth - and a car that runs on wheat straw and cornhusks.

PASSMORE: For every ton of straw you bring in you get about 330 liters of ethanol.

CURWOOD: Stick around.

Back to top



ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

U.S. Under Pressure at Climate Talks

The plenary session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. (Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal, Canada.

This French-speaking city of three million along the St. Lawrence was quick to volunteer to host the first official meeting of the parties of the Kyoto Protocol, which became international law last February. After all, almost twenty years ago Montreal hosted the talks that resulted in the banning of chemicals that destroy the Earth’s ozone layer.

Even though the United States pulled out of the mandatory Kyoto rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. is still part of the original treaty to fight global warming. Many, including the Canadian government, thought bringing the talks to America’s backyard might help bring the U.S. back into the process.

The plenary session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. (Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

So, some ten thousand people converged on Montreal as November came to a close, and along with the diplomats came the engos, bingos and ringos. That’s how folks here refer to environmental, business, and research non-governmental organizations.

As environmental ministers arrived, one of the engos challenged them to grab a hammer and ring the bell of a “carbon-busting” machine, and got the German environmental minister to play along.


CURWOOD: Actually, two meetings are going on here at the same time, and in the same space: one, the first gathering of Kyoto signatories, with the U.S. sitting in as an observer. The other, the eleventh conference of the parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, with voluntary greenhouse gas limits, and with the U.S. officially at the table. It sounds complicated, but I found one woman who put it in perspective.

CLAUSSEN: I guess you could say Kyoto is the child and the framework convention is the mother, and they both have a role here.

CURWOOD: Eileen Claussen, now head of the Pew Climate Change Center, led the climate negotiations for the Clinton White House. She says the Bush White House has gone from opposing Kyoto to objecting to any formalized discussions on climate change.

CLAUSSEN: The United States essentially declared the child persona non grata in the U.S., but more disturbing, they seem to be wanting to go after the mother also. In other words, the mother is okay as long as she doesn’t do anything. But if the mother starts to consider how she might get involved in emission reductions, the United States has said they are opposed to any discussions about the future under the framework convention.

LOE host Steve Curwood asks a question at a press briefing by an environmental coalition on climate change.. (Philip McMaster / Freelance Professionals)

CURWOOD: Just about all nations, including China, India and the United States, have signed on to the framework, but countries like Japan would like to see it enforced before agreeing to make further cuts themselves under the tougher regime of Kyoto. Paul Martin, prime minister of Canada, urged all nations to get fully involved.

MARTIN: To the reticent nations, including the United States, I’d say this: There is such a thing as a global conscientious, and now is the time to listen to it. Now is the time to join with others in our global community. Now is the time for resolve, for commitment and leadership, and above all, now is the time for action.

Paul Martin, Prime Minister of Canada. (Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

CURWOOD: The American delegation was not only under pressure from a number of nations, but hundreds of U.S. citizens and U.S. elected officials also came to Montreal to urge progress. The catastrophic hurricane season seemed to be one motivator.

RINGO: We experienced the most category five events in the Gulf of Mexico, and today we are experiencing category five denial.

CURWOOD: Jerome Ringo, chairman of the National Wildlife Federation, was elected to head a delegation of environmental activists that met with the U.S. negotiating team. The Bush delegation’s arguments that climate change treaties could hurt the U.S. economy didn’t make much sense to Mr. Ringo, who says he’s already witnessed the price of inaction.

RINGO: The cost is new Orleans, the cost is Biloxi, Mississippi, the cost is Lake Charles, Louisiana, 400,000 jobs impacted, people displaced all over this country. Families are separated, cities are bottom up right now. Mayor Nagin is on a campaign to try to bring people back to New Orleans, and many of the evacuees are saying come back to what?


CURWOOD: Members of Canada’s Inuit Nations also came to the talks. They presented research showing rapid warming of the arctic that is melting permafrost, ice, and putting people as well as large animals of the north, such as polar bears, at risk. And then one of their leaders, Sheila Watt-Clouthier, posed a question:

WATT-CLOUTHIER: How would you respond if an international assessment that was prepared by over 300 scientists from 15 countries and that wove into it the indigenous knowledge throughout the entire process concluded that your way of life, that your age-old culture and economy, was doomed and that you might become just a footnote in the history of globalization? What would you do?

CURWOOD: Frustrated by the U.S., she said, the Inuit have filed the equivalent of a lawsuit with the Organization of American States. The Inuit charge that U.S. inaction on climate matters amounts to abuse of their human rights.

CURWOOD: It’s easy understand the impatience of people whose lives have been directly affected by global warming. The Kyoto extension of the framework convention took almost a decade to go from proposal to international law, with at least four of those years mired in the minutiae of comma placement and definitions. This year in Montreal most of the outstanding issues were settled, including the contentious enforcement mechanisms. But with the first phase of limits under Kyoto scheduled to expire in 2012, there’s been a lot of pressure to get moving on the next phase.


CURWOOD: In the past, the U.S. and other governments were dragging along the business community at these talks. Now, many businesses are trying to bring along the governments, saying, among other things, delay is hurting their ability to, well, make money. Mandatory limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases also created a market to trade carbon, and James Cameron, the CEO of Climate Change Capital, an investment firm in London, says he is looking for stability.

CAMERON: We need to see a long term price signal for carbon. We need to see a post-2012 negotiating framework. We know it’s not going to be solved this week or even the next. We need to see a negotiating framework that makes it likely that the investments we make in the developing world are going to have lasting value.

CURWOOD: What happens if you don’t get what you want, what you say you need out of this meeting?

CAMERON: The carbon market is easily spooked at the moment because it is a relatively small relatively illiquid marketplace. It’s heavily dependent on policy signals, and so if they are disappointed by lack of progress on a long term signal, or the institutions are not fixed then they will discount carbon price in the future, and that will be bad news for investment in this area.

CURWOOD: With the United Kingdom holding the presidency of the European Union, the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett, led the EU at Montreal. Privately, other members of the EU accused her of letting the U.S. off the hook for promises it made earlier this year at the G-8 summit. They say to keep those promises a timetable needs to be set. I asked her about it at a briefing.

CURWOOD: Madame Secretary, how soon do discussions about what will happen in the next commitment period, how soon must those really end in order to keep business on track here and confident that there will be a viable and robust carbon market?

BECKETT: I would like to see something coming out of this meeting to which there is general consensual agreement. I am not one of those who has come here thinking that there are dates and figures and precise structures to which everyone must be signed up. What we have to try to do is to create as much common ground as possible to take as many countries as possible with us. And to me that argues for being open, flexible and cooperative, not coming here and saying here’s my blueprint, here’s my template, just sign on the dotted line.

[MEGAPHONE VOICE: Roll up everybody]

CURWOOD: That European Union's soft approach prompted some Environmental activists to poke fun at the EU, calling it the fossil of the day. The daily ceremony in the convention hall involves a radio-controlled toy truck buzzing around flying the national flags of the perceived offenders.

[MEGAPHONE VOICE: Now in first place for being reluctant to put an end date to the negotiating process being started on post 2012 on targets for the developed countries. In first place, the European Union and its member states...]


CURWOOD: But others say one reason the EU isn’t putting that much pressure on the U.S. is because many of its members themselves have fallen behind in their Kyoto targets. Tony Juniper is head of Friends of the Earth in the UK.

JUNIPER: In the UK we're having real difficulties meeting not only the Kyoto accord but also what we set out as a domestic policy back in the late 1990s, and this need to come access to the European media about the possibilities of Europe seeking someone to blame other than themselves.

LOE host Steve Curwood (left), speaks with Britain’s Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper. (Philip McMaster / Freelance Professionals)

CURWOOD: But in the nuanced language of climate negotiations, the U.S. says it has nothing to be ashamed of. And at the end of the day, the American position remains unchanged.

PRESS OFFICER: Good Afternoon. Welcome to briefing of U.S. delegation.

CURWOOD: As the head of the U.S. delegation to Montreal, Paula Dobriansky refused to accept any criticisms.

DOBRIANSKY: We have always been part of discussions and dialogue on climate change actions in the near-term, in the medium-term and the long-term.

CURWOOD: Quickly, Undersecretary of State Secretary Dobriansky lists the measures of US involvement for combating climate change, including a major effort to engage with China, India and Australia with a regional initiative, as well as the U.S. hydrogen, “clean coal”, and energy efficiency and renewables programs. The U.S. focus, she says, is on new partnerships and new technologies, not global agreements.

DOBRIANSKY: It is our belief that progress cannot be made through these formalized discussions. We believe that the best approach and the best way forward is one that takes into account diversified approaches and differing opinions. One size does not fit all.

CURWOOD: Given the U.S. position, a number of diplomats, environmental activists and business leaders say they will now play a waiting game. Sooner or later, they say, the U.S. will have to impose some kind of mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, if only so American firms can compete in the world market. Investment banker James Cameron says he doesn’t mind investing his time until the U.S. comes around.

CAMERON: I remain resolutely optimistic about the country and its citizens dealing in this issue. And I am quite convinced that 15 minutes after this administration has left the White House there will be a change in climate policy in the U.S., and I fully expect the United States of America to be a full participant in the international agreement related to climate change even if they never ratify Kyoto because the framework convention will carry on, the U.S. has ratified that. It was always our intention when we negotiated that treaty to have a have a series of protocols, and maybe the next one after Kyoto is the Washington protocol.

Related links:
- United Nations Climate Change Conference
- United Nations Climate Change Conference, Canadian site
- International Institute for Sustainable Development
- Local Governments’ for Sustainability Summit

Back to top


CURWOOD: Coming up: Frozen solid for thousands of years, the sheet of ice covering Greenland is melting away. Scientists say it’s the latest evidence that the planet is warming and the consequences could be dramatic. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Secret Chiefs 3 “Welcome to the Theatron Animatronique” from ‘Book of Horizons’ (Mimicry - 2004)]

Greenland’s Ice Melt

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal.

CURWOOD: Much of the buzz in the hallways at this meeting is about recent scientific studies on the effects of global warming, especially in the Arctic regions. The permafrost of the far North is thawing. In just a few decades, 30 percent of polar sea ice has turned liquid and the two mile thick ice cap that’s covered Greenland for thousands of years is melting away at its edges.

All this melting may be slowing down the Gulf Stream that sends warm water and mild weather from the tropics up the East Coast of North America and then east to Europe. And if the Gulf Stream slows down much further, the Northeastern United States and western Europe could get much colder - a paradoxical response to a warming world.

But there’s a far more profound threat on the horizon: If all of Greenland’s ice sheet should melt, sea levels around the world would rise about 23 feet, and entire portions of populated areas from South Florida to Bangladesh would disappear under water.

Recent observations by a team led by Richard Alley at Penn State University show that Greenland’s ice caps are, in fact, already melting faster than expected. His findings are published in the October issue of the journal Science. So let me ask you, Richard, just how fast is all this ice melting?

ALLEY: Greenland looks like it is shrinking a little bit, and contributed global to sea level it’s somewhere vaguely in the neighborhood of a quarter of a millimeter a year. So that’s about an inch per century. So right now it’s not huge for sea level.

Right there on the coast, you know, that’s a lot of melt going on, and if you go and look at the little glaciers that sit in the mountains along the coast next to the big ice sheet, they are all pulling back very rapidly and you can see the changes happening. So far, though, for the global ocean it’s not a really big thing yet.

CURWOOD: So, what is the concern here? If it’s really, what, an inch or something over a century, that’s certainly not a very big number to be worried about. Why are so many folks concerned about Greenland ice at this point?

ALLEY: The warming that’s happened so far is very small compared to the warming we expect if we go ahead and burn all the fossil fuels. So, so far the warming is something like a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s taken most of a century to happen. And that’s smaller than the difference between last winter and this winter and next winter, just from the bouncing noise of climate. You really sort of have to be paying attention to see that the climate is changing.

Our expectation, if we go ahead over the next centuries and get really serious about digging up all the coal in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and China and burning that, then you start looking at changes of ten degrees, 15 degrees, possibly even more depending on some things we don’t quite know. And then the change starts getting big enough that you look at that big ice cube on Greenland and you get nervous.

CURWOOD: So, just how fast would that big ice cube on Greenland, as you have put it, how fast would it melt under the present trend of using fossil fuels?

ALLEY: If we go ahead and we burn it all, it’s possible it could melt in many centuries, but less than a millennium. This is not a prediction; we’re not sure. There’s some things that we need to work out yet.

CURWOOD: At this point, the official international scientific assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I guess the last full assessment was issued in 2001, talks about someplace on the scale of a half a meter or so of sea level rise over the next hundred years. From your research about Greenland, how would you adjust that prediction, if at all?

ALLEY: I have the good fortune to be helping work on one of the chapters in the next assessment. The previous assessment, the 2001 assessment, suggested that the sea level rise coming in this century, over the next 100 years, would come almost entirely from melting of mountain glaciers; and it would come from expansion of the ocean water itself as it gets warmer, and that a little bit of melting from Greenland would be balanced by more snowfall in Antarctica, because Antarctica’s so cold that it wouldn’t be melting but warmer air will carry more moisture up onto the ice sheet.

So the previous assessment said we’ve got 100 years before the ice sheets start to contribute. And there’s still a little more uncertainty than we want, but it sort of looks like the ice sheets are already contributing. And so it looks like the ice sheets may be 100 years ahead of schedule at this point. If that proves to be true as we come over the next months and years, it’s certainly a matter of great concern to me.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the human impact here. If all this is going on, if this is a result of humans adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, how quickly can we reverse that?

ALLEY: Clearly, we humans can do almost anything we want to if we really, seriously want to. But most of the people that are going to listen to this are going to get in a car during the day and go somewhere, and they’re not going to walk home. And some of them are going to get on a plane and fly somewhere, and they’re not going to walk home. And so, changing that likely would take some time. There are credible estimates, smart people thinking about this very deeply and carefully, that think that a few decades of serious research would be enough to tell us how to fix this problem without screwing up the economy and without making anybody walk home from their plane trip.

CURWOOD: Do we have a few decades to figure this out?

ALLEY: I think that we have decades to fix this. But I’m really worried if we wait centuries that we will end up with a really different world; a world that doesn’t have a Greenland ice sheet, a world that doesn’t have New Orleans or the southern part of Florida or a whole bunch of other things. And so if we actually get the wherewithal to use alternate fuels to recapture CO2 from the air or from power plants, it’s quite reasonable that we can get there with a fix by being smart.

CURWOOD: Richard Alley is a professor of geosciences at Penn State University. When do you head back to the ice, sir?

ALLEY: I hope to be in a freezer next summer working on some of the ice coming home from Antarctica, but when I’ll actually get there, we’ll see.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much.

ALLEY: It’s a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

Related link:
Dr. Richard Alley, Penn State

Back to top


Running On Straw

(Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

CURWOOD: Here at the climate change talks in Montreal there is no shortage of businesses showcasing their latest green innovations in hopes of attracting greenbacks. Their booths line an expo center just across the street from the main conference hall. Big players like GE are here along with entrepreneurs in new technologies…like this man standing alongside a Chevy Impala that looks like it’s just been down on the farm.

PASSMORE: Hi, I’m Jeff Passmore.

CURWOOD: Hi, Jeff. I’m Steve Curwood with Living on Earth.

PASSMORE: Nice to meet you.

CURWOOD: So, I’m looking at this car here with a bale of straw sticking out the back.

(Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

PASSMORE: That’s right! (Laughs)

CURWOOD: Like where the gas tank would be.

PASSMORE: Well, that bale of straw is just to represent what we use to fuel this vehicle. This is a flexible fuel vehicle, and those vehicles can run on anything from 100 percent gasoline, to only 15 percent gasoline, 85 percent ethanol, or any blend in between. The car doesn’t care. It just makes the adjustments automatically.

CURWOOD: But you can run on straw?

PASSMORE: Well, that’s what our ethanol is from, yes. Conventional ethanol comes from grain, and typically, in the U.S., 99 percent of it is coming from corn. But we’ve developed a process at Iogen for making ethanol from agriculture residues. So, in the case of corn, we wouldn’t use the grain, we’d use the cobs and stalks and leaves. Or, in the case of wheat and barley, we would, again, not use the grain, we’d use the straw. So, the ag residues. And in the U.S., there’s, well, I think it’s like 250 – 300 million tons of corn stovers, is what it’s called, the cobs and stalks and leaves. So it could establish a very substantial industry there.

CURWOOD: You have this chart that shows the clean fuels cycle. Now, at one point you have the logo of your company, the Iogen Corporation, and on the other side you have the sun.


CURWOOD: Walk me through this. We go from the sun to…

PASSMORE: Growing crops. You go from the sun to growing crops, and we turn those crops into, basically, power and fuel. That’s because we take the cellulose in stuff like this straw and turn that into fermentable sugars to make alcohol, which is what ethanol is, and we take something else called lignin, l-i-g-n-i-n. Lignin is the glue or the tar of Mother Nature that causes trees and crops and grasses to stand up straight and stay together. That has 80 percent of the BTU value of regular thermal coal. So it is separated out, the cellulose goes to make fuel and the lignin is used to make power.

CURWOOD: So let’s check out your fuel over here. We have a straw bale here.


PASSMORE: We have a straw bale, that’s right, and that’s wheat straw. And, basically, that was just lying in the field, on a farmer’s field. And typically what happens to this straw is either it is plowed under, or farmers just light a match to their fields to burn it to get rid of it, or they sometimes bale it and use it for animal bedding, you know, for cattle and things like that. So what we want to do is turn it into a slightly higher-value product. And for every ton of straw that you bring in you get about 330 liters of ethanol. So two of those big square bales would give you about 330 liters of fuel.

Jeff Passmore of Iogen stands in front of a flexible fuel vehicle powered by cellulosic ethanol. (Living on Earth/World Media Foundation)

CURWOOD: What’s the secret? What do you guys do to turn this into fuel? It doesn’t seem like people have done this before.

PASSMORE: We take enzymes which attack the cellulose in fiber, like straw, and turn that cellulose into glucose, which is basically sugar. Once you’ve got sugar there’s no magic to making beer and vodka, which is, of course, ultimately what we do. I mean, we make an ethanol that’s 99 percent pure and basically that’s used as a transportation fuel.

Now, where do we get our enzyme? This is kind of an interesting story. We use a microorganism – it’s Latin name is Trichoderma reesei– but it was originally discovered by the U.S. Army in Guam in the Second World War. And what it was was the original jungle rot and the U.S. Army couldn’t figure out how come its canvas tents and uniforms were degrading so quickly. And, lo and behold, they found out that there was this little bug, microorganism that lived in the dirt in Guam that said, wow, you know, look at all that fiber, all those canvas tents and uniforms, you know. So, it secreted an enzyme which turned the cellulose in their canvas tents into glucose, which was a sugar that the microorganism needs to live off of.

Well, the same thing is happening here. We’re taking enzymes and using it to attack fiber and, as I said, turn that cellulose into glucose. People refer to this as “advanced biofuels” because it’s new technology. But it’s still ethanol. It’s the same molecule. Ethanol is ethanol.

But conventional ethanol will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 or 40 percent; cellulose ethanol, or advanced biofuels, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 100 percent. Because of the existence of this lignin that I was talking to you about, you don’t have to import power from the grid in order to run your ethanol plant, which you do have to do with conventional ethanol.

CURWOOD: Well, alright, we’ve got straw in the fuel tank, let’s go for a ride.

PASSMORE: Okay. (Laughs)


CURWOOD: So, you say we could reduce 40 percent of the gasoline use in America if we used cellulosic ethanol?

PASSMORE: That’s right. Based on existing agricultural residues, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done a study together with the U.S. Department of Energy that suggests there’s enough ag and forest residues to replace between 30 and 40 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption. So, I mean, we’re talking 50-60 billion gallons of gasoline replacement. That’s a big number.

CURWOOD: So clean up and recycle what we’ve got already?

PASSMORE: That’s right. There are three benefits to cellulose ethanol for the U.S. economy. One is, of course, this is a new economic opportunity for agriculture. Suddenly, they’ve got a product that they didn’t have any value before that they can sell to us. First of all, there’s the selling of the straw or stover. Then there’s the job of baling it and trucking it to the plant.

The second benefit is the energy security benefits. Suddenly, you’re going to be importing a lot less fossil fuel because you’ve got a domestic renewable energy resource.

And the third benefit are the environmental benefits. I mean, you’re looking at a low CO2 transportation fuel that, frankly, if it was developed in the U.S. the Americans could then export to the rest of the world, and make money.

CURWOOD: Alright, we’re here. Let’s hop out for a moment. And you know what? Before he shuts the engine down, let’s check out what that tailpipe smells like.

PASSMORE: (Laughs) Sure.


PASSMORE: It’s a little windy, I don’t know if we can get a whiff of it or not. You smell anything?

CURWOOD: Well, it’s a very mild smell, but there’s a little alcohol tinge to it, like an alcohol stove or something.

PASSMORE: There might well be, yes, indeed. Indeed. Yep.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for the ride and the story about cellulosic ethanol. Jeff Passmore is the executive vice-president of Iogen. Thank you, sir.

PASSMORE: Thank you very much. It was a real pleasure.

Related link:

Back to top


Fuel Alternatives

CURWOOD: For years, green energy systems such as ethanol, along with wind, bio-diesel and solar, have been considered risky business propositions. But, increasingly, the renewable energy market is attracting more and more investors. For an overview, we turn to Dan Reicher. He was Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewables at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration and now heads New Energy Capital, an independent fund that invests in clean energy assets.

CURWOOD: Dan, walk us through these various enterprises that you’re involved with, and explain why they’re important, please?

REICHER: We currently have seven projects under construction, from Maine to California, that will produce clean electricity from sources like wood chips, and also co-generation using natural gas, as well as clean energy, including biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

CURWOOD: Ethanol?

REICHER: Well, ethanol today is an industry that produces a fuel from corn. And we’re building two projects, one in Indiana and one in Michigan, that will produce together almost 100 million gallons a year by essentially processing the starch in a kernel of corn and turning that into alcohol, and that alcohol can then be blended into gasoline to be used as a fuel. So it’s a way of both reducing our dependence on oil and also cutting emissions.

CURWOOD: Aside from ethanol, what are the other renewable energy sources that are now seeing some pretty substantial commercial development?

REICHER: Well, there’s quite a number that are seeing great, great market opportunities. One, of course, is wind energy, and that’s frankly because the cost of electricity from wind has come down very dramatically over the last 20 years. There’s also increasing amounts of electricity produced from geothermal power that’s using heat deep within the earth. Solar energy is growing very rapidly…either solar energy used to produce electricity or solar energy used to produce heat.

And then in the biofuels area, in addition to ethanol, we’re also seeing a very rapid increase in the number of biodiesel plants. This is a fuel that, essentially, can replace standard petroleum diesel in trucks, in cars, and even in home heating, with a vegetable-based source of diesel, typically from soybeans or from used vegetable oils.

CURWOOD: For a long time, there’s not been a lot of interest in the finance community in renewable energy. I think a major reason for that has been, well, one wouldn’t really make money. How has that equation changed, if it ever was true?

REICHER: It definitely was true, and I think the good news is we’re probably in the best situation we’ve ever been in terms of the economic attractiveness of renewable energy today. Think about the factors at play. For example, the high cost of fossil fuels, oil and natural gas and coal. Rapidly increasing concerns about climate change. And increasingly dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

And crucially, and I think this is really the big change from ten or 20 or 30 years ago, we’re seeing dramatic reductions in the cost of clean energy technologies. Wind was 40 cents a kilowatt hour in 1980; it’s about a tenth of that today. Solar electricity is down 80 percent. Ethanol and biodiesel are significantly cheaper.

So, in light of all these factors, what we’re seeing is that the mainstream business community is really convinced, I’d say, for the first time that it can make money in alternative energy. So you have big manufacturers like GE that have gotten in to the business. Major oil companies like BP and Shell. Leading investment banks; to think a few years ago that Goldman Sachs would be in the renewable energy business would have been a crazy thought, but they’ve made a big jump into this industry. Big insurance companies like John Hancock. Major pension funds, the top venture capital firms, and, frankly, hundreds of little clean energy companies all over the U.S., indeed, all over the world. So things have really changed, Steve, and it think it’s very heartening.

CURWOOD: Dan Reicher is president of New Energy Capital a former Assistant Secretary of Energy. Thank you sir.

REICHER: Thank you.

Related link:
New Energy Capital

Back to top

CURWOOD: Just ahead: business blueprints that some up-and-coming entrepreneurs hope will pay the kind of green dividends they can take to the bank. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Postal Service “Such Great Heights” from ‘Give Up’ (Sub Pop – 2003)]

ANNOUNCER: Support for N-P-R comes from N-P-R stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at m-o-t-t dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy; This is N-P-R, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Peace Orchestra “Double Drums” from `Peace Orchestra’ (G-Stone Records – 1999)]

Green Entrepreneurs

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood at the climate change talks in Montreal.

CURWOOD: In the effort to come up with ways to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, transportation fuels are especially hot these days. They hit the bottom line twice by enhancing national security as well as protecting the global climate.

Ethanol has the volume right now, but coming on fast is biodiesel, made from sustainable resources – mainly plant oils. Biodiesel can be poured right into the tank of any diesel truck, bus or car, and mixed in any proportion with diesel made from fossil fuel. And it can even go right into your home heating oil tank. In Berkeley, California, one young man is trying to jump-start just such a venture.
Claire Schoen has his story.

CARSTENS: We're Homeland Fuels. We're pro-Business, pro-American, and pro-environment.

SCHOEN: Chris Carstens is neither a starry-eyed environmentalist, nor a hard-edged businessman, but an interesting mix of the two.

CARSTENS: I'm a Berkeley alumni. Mechanical engineer. And started a business with a friend doing a new technology for biodiesel production. .

SCHOEN: Chris sees biodiesel as a viable alternative to gas-powered vehicles, which are a major source of greenhouse emissions. But there's another angle to the green energy movement that is attracting such burgeoning businessmen.

MAN FROM BOEGESKOV: Well, I'm going to coin a new phrase here for you. “Green Robber Baron.” If this does what we expect it to do, I become wealthy and I can clean up the world at the same time.

HENRY: Doing good's good. But making money's also nice.


SCHOEN: The Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley has a Business Plan Competition which is becoming a magnet for green entrepreneurs looking for recognition for their ideas. This year, four green energy groups made it into the semi-finals round of the Haas B-Plan Competition: Helios, Boegeskov, Diamond Energy and Homeland Fuels, headed up by Chris Carstens.

WOMAN: Christopher, congratulations on making the semi-final rounds.


WOMAN: So, go out there and mingle.

CARSTENS: This evening is the "mentor mixer," so to speak. And we're going to find out what it's about.

SCHOEN: Business students, engineers and entrepreneurs are milling about here where terms like "business opportunity" and "VC" are bandied about, that's venture capitalist, not Viet Cong, by the way. Also, "the elevator pitch" in which you pare down your concept to 30 seconds, short enough to pitch to a VC in an elevator ride, should you find yourself in this fortunate circumstance. Tonight, each semi-finalist team is offered a mentor who will help them craft their business plan for the finals round.

CARSTENS: It's a unique opportunity, really. You have all these seasoned executives helping people like us for free.

SCHOEN: Tonight, Chris will meet Richard Caro, who runs a small company called “Tangible Future.” Richard specializes in helping budding entrepreneurs start successful businesses, a perfect match for Chris.

CARO: I don't really know yet anything about what they're doing. So I'm probably on a rapid learning curve.

CARSTENS: Should I give you the elevator pitch here?

CARO: Sure.

CARSTENS: Alright, so basically we're working on a new production method for biodiesel. Specifically focused toward small-scale production, for community-based, school bus fleets, municipal bus fleets.

CARO: So, it sounds like you're trying to combine ecological friendliness with making a profit, is that right?

SCHOEN: But can a company who's out to "do good" actually come out on top? Last year's first-place winner was, indeed, a green energy team, called Proton Power. They developed a solid acid fuel cell technology that provides power, heat and electricity to long-haul freight trucks so they don't have to keep their engines idling when they stop to sleep. This saves the average trucker 26 hundred dollars a year in fuel and significantly reduces pollution and noise. Jerry Engel runs the Haas B-Plan Competition.

ENGEL: What this team did was they found a market that was ready to accept this technology today. Deploy it today. Have an impact today.

SCHOEN: Winning first place is the ring that all the teams are reaching for.

ENGEL: Twenty-five thousand dollars for first place, so this is not insignificant. But if you make it to semifinals, one of the other major opportunities is that you get to pitch your opportunity to a panel of experienced venture capitalists. This exposure sometimes leads to outcomes that are unforeseen.

BOEGESKOV MAN 1: Clean technology is up and coming. Venture money’s been pouring into it in recent years.

BOEGESKOV MAN 2: Last year, 500 million dollars was invested in clean energy companies, an all-time high.


SCHOEN: The following week, Richard meets with Chris to see what he's been cooking up in his lab.


CARO: Wow, so you really do have a garage for your lab. That's perfect for a little start up. Let's have a look at your prototype.

CARSTENS: Well, this is our high-pressure reactor, that we bought online at a great discount. And the thermal mass on the thing is great. It's kinda scary actually, when you drop it into a thing of water. It moans and whines and whiiiirrrrrr.

CARO: So, what is it here that's your unique thing?

CARSTENS: The idea is that it will be a refrigerator-sized machine or maybe a double-wide refrigerator. And, vegetable oil, alcohol. That's what they need to start with. Then the machine calibrates the two. And then spits out glycerin and biodiesel.

SCHOEN: Chris' design does have some unique technical innovations which will allow him to develop and patent a small appliance that can produce a moderate amount of bio-diesel, perhaps 250,000 gallons a year, in a clean efficient manner with low labor costs. However, while Richard is helping him figure out how to pitch the technology, he discovers that there is another, very compelling angle to Chris' plan.

CARO: But, if I had to put my finger on what's different about your approach than everybody else's, who might be playing in this space?

CARSTENS: We're trying to cater to smaller and community-based production.

SCHOEN: Chris thinks that communities could use his machine to make their own biodiesel, on-site, for a particular fleet of cars or trucks. For example, a school district could make biodiesel for their own buses. Or a farming co-op could use their agricultural waste to run their tractors. Making biodiesel on-site would save the huge cost of transportation -- and the middle-men.


CARSTENS: Hey Bill, it's Chris. Pretty good. We were just coming over, is that okay? Alright, we'll probably be there in 15 minutes.

SCHOEN: Chris and Richard decide to focus on the marketing angle in their pitch to the VC judges.

CARSTENS: We're going to Bill's house.

SCHOEN: So Chris is taking Richard to visit Bill Michael, a local "home brewer" who is making biodiesel for his personal use.

CARSTENS: Bill is very professional, very clean. And he's got a very nice setup.


MICHAEL: This is a 20 gallon unit. And we're about meeting the family need. So these containers here contain oil from a restaurant. They've cooked their French fries and put it out in the dumpster.

SCHOEN: The problem is, Bill's home brewing process is extremely labor-intensive and inefficient.

MICHAEL: I mean, my greatest dream is that cities will really get into this. For example, the city I live in there's probably 100, 200 restaurants in the city. And they're producing all this muck that's just getting, I dunno, turned into dog chow or something. But they could take and turn it into fuel for city vehicles and save some money.


CARSTENS: It's a matter of converting that kind of enthusiasm into a real business.

SCHOEN: While Chris doesn't see home brewing as the solution to the greenhouse crisis, he does see this cadre of environmental idealists as the foundation of a customer base for Homeland Fuels.

CARSTENS: It's like, you've got maybe 50 biodiesel plants in the United States that are making 98 percent of the fuel. And then you've got thousands and thousands of home brewers. And the home brewers are sitting around saying, ‘why can't I buy this at the pump?’ And there has to be a bridge between huge centralized plant in Nebraska and a home brewer in Berkeley. And that's what we're enabling.

CARO: And so, we have to figure out a way that we’re gonna have a profitable business, as well.

CARSTENS: Save the Earth and make a profit? Sure.

SCHOEN: One potential market for Chris' appliance could be biodiesel stations, where people like Bill could buy his fuel. Today, there a few scattered stations around the country that are doing it as a political passion. But they have to buy from the big manufacturers who truck in the fuel. Their price is steep and their profit margins are minuscule. What if they could make their own fuel on-site? Chris went to visit Sarah Hope at BioFuel Oasis, one small station up the road in Berkeley, to see if they might be a customer.

CARSTENS: Alright, let's go over there. See what she has to say.


CUSTOMER/ATTENDANT: Getting yourself pumped? Yup. which side should I take it from? It's pretty sweet. You can pull right in. And we just pump it right directly into our tank. So here goes. It's going to make kind of a loud noise.


CUSTOMER/ATTENDANT: Our dream is to have a map right there that has bio-diesel spots along the 5, along the 101, big corridors where you can get biodiesel. Unfortunately, there's not much to put on the map right now. (Laughs)

HOPE: You got 18 gallons and the total is $64.06. We take cash and checks. Thank you very much.

CARSTENS: We kinda want to sit down and talk to you about the potential advantages of having a biodiesel plant here, as opposed to having it trucked in.

HOPE: You know, at $3.50 a gallon we're doing right now, it's like very little profit. Yeah, it's a community service project right now.

CARSTENS: And that's where local production comes in. We've come up with a product to make biodiesel on a continuous basis. And it can use a variety of feed stocks. So you could put waste vegetable oil into it. You could put animal fats into it.

HOPE: So, what's the cost per gallon for production?

CARSTENS: It's probably going to be about 35 cents above the cost of the feed stock.

HOPE: Then you put in your other operating expenses and your profit margin.

CARSTENS: Is this something that sounds of interest to you?

HOPE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, if you come along with something that can give us a better profit margin that makes a difference in us being able to be here next year.

CARSTENS: Terrific. Well, thank you very much.

CARSTENS: It's good! I think she was encouraged by it. As soon as I said, "increase your profit margin," that kinda caught her attention a little bit (Laughs).

SCHOEN: Chris and another team member, Henry Oh, meet Richard at his San Francisco office to work out their presentation for the final round of the competition.

CARO: Now, this slide worried me a bit because I started to drift off in this slide. It just was so reminiscent to me of you know when I was an undergraduate, people telling me why I should live in a commune (laughs). But the thing that really helped me picture this was the Stanford example you've mentioned, where you take all that waste from the dining hall and convert it into fuel for these shuttles. And so you're just closing that loop in an incredibly cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.

OH: The idea is that you have a community that can create it's own energy supply from resources that have previously gone to waste. So in the Brazilian example, they pay twice as much to transport the diesel fuel to the community as it costs for the diesel fuel itself.

CARO: And I believe you have some interesting news on Brazil, don't you?

CARSTENS: The Brazilian government, they have said that they had funds available for a prototype.

OH: We have interest, I mean this is a market waiting for a product.

CARO: A business plan competition implies venture capitalists financing it. And so to do that, you need to be helping them understand how if they invest x million dollars they will make 10 x million dollars. And so if the message is, "We have a business which will be successful because it enables the manufacture of diesel that will cost less than diesel is today by a lot. And, by the way, will solve a lot of the nations' energy dependence problems and as we migrate out into other places will help solve world poverty.’ You know that's like, ‘Oh, okay (chuckle). I sort of get how that would work.’

SCHOEN: The big day arrives for the presentation. The hallways are filled with competitors, laptops on laps, working out final details. The bathroom door swings open, revealing a cluster of young men trying to get their ties knotted straight. Chris, Henry and the rest of the Homeland Fuels team meet up with Richard.

CARSTENS: Afternoon, guys.

CARO: You've put on the tie and everything. (chuckle) It's pretty exciting actually. I've got my checkbook ready (chuckle).

SCHOEN: The team looks over the list of judges.

CARO: They used to invest in one of my companies.

TEAM MEMBER: Did they do well?

CARO: Not great, actually, that one (chuckle)..

SCHOEN: The group also sized up the other green energy teams.

TEAM MEMBER 1: Boegeskov Energy which we think is fuel cells.

TEAM MEMBER 2: Helios which is probably wind or sun. Advanced Diamond Energy, that's an interesting one.

WOMAN: The energy panel is over here so if you want to get started.


CARSTENS: Alright, good afternoon. My name is Christopher Carstens. And I'm the founder and CEO of Homeland Fuels. What we've designed is a scaleable, biodiesel appliance.

SCHOEN: Richard's coaching and Chris' hard work have paid off as Chris gives a smooth and coherent presentation.

CARSTENS: And finally we are looking for an investment of two million dollars. So I'd be happy to take any questions.

JUDGES: Chris, could you explain a little bit about the technology hurdles that you’re going to have to overcome? The vision is clearly great. So, how long? Fascinating. Very enthusiastic about it, in spite of my question.


CARSTENS: Shall I just give you a card? Which would be fine if I could. I'm realizing I don't know where my wallet is (laugh).

JUDGE: Email me something. Okay?

CARSTENS: Why don't you give me a card. I know we're in a rush. Nice to meet you. Thanks a lot.

TEAM MEMBER: Did you walk out with a check?

CARSTENS: Just the business cards.

CARO: Make sure you follow up with them. Because they like to invest in early stage high risk-type things just like this.

CARSTENS: Ok. Alright. I will.

CARO: Well, it's been amazing. They've worked really hard. They've gone from a really unclear concept that had this obvious nugget of interest in it. And they've crafted a compelling story. So, whether he wins or not is almost secondary at that point in that he's got a very exciting opportunity to go create something possibly world changing which is what you really look for.

SCHOEN: Homeland Fuels thought they had a winning presentation. But so did the other green energy groups.

DIAMOND ENERGY MAN: I think the judges were very interested.

HELIOS MAN: We had a lot of smiling faces.

SCHOEN: And what did the judges think?

JUDGE: Very smart people. Very energetic. I mean, that's what's made the start-up world go round from day one. These potentially hold the ability to reconcile business objectives with green objectives which I think is exactly the right way to go. And my kind of firm is their target.

CARSTENS: We're ready to ship off.

CARO: Congratulations. Nice to see all you other guys.

ALL: Alright. Let's go guys.

SCHOEN: An exciting race. But Homeland Fuels did not win. Helios, a team working on solar panels, was one of seven teams to win this round and head into the competition finals. And out of the original 66 teams, Helios ended up winning both third place and a special technology award.

ENGEL: Today is really the moment when green energy is becoming a viable, competitive business opportunity. And the Business Plan Competition has been an excellent forum for green energy companies to make their business case. It's being made and it's being made well

SCHOEN: Chris is not giving up. The competition has given him a strong business plan which he is using to look for funding to turn his prototype into a saleable appliance. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, you may be seeing Homeland Fuels biodiesel at your local filling station someday. For Living on Earth, this is Claire Schoen in Berkeley, California.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Sigur Ros “Saeglopur” from ‘Takk…’ (Geffen Records – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth-


CURWOOD: The dried, caked sediment from hurricane Katrina still coats much of New Orleans. Tests show the sediment contains arsenic and other chemical hazards. But even as folks begin to return to the city, environmental officials have no plans to clean it up. Residents say it's time they did.

OLSON: It's our belief that EPA has a legal responsibility and moral responsibility to clean up toxic chemicals in this community.

CURWOOD: The debate over cleaning up Katrina's toxic residue, on the next Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the city under the city.

[“Montreal’s Underground City” recorded by Chris Ballman at the December 2005 Montreal Climate Change Summit]

CURWOOD: These are the sounds you might hear strolling through Montreal’s labyrinth of underground corridors that connect the city’s subway stations. They're lined with boutiques, cafes, fast food joints and even art museums, creating a subterranean mall that extends for miles.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our program from Montreal was produced by Chris Ballman. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Brianna Asbury, Kevin Friedl and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. From Montreal, I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The Saunders Hotel Group of Boston’s, Lenox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth