Clean Trillion California Dreamin'

Clean energy policies have made California's solar revolution possible -- so much so that solar is reaching grid parity and no longer needs incentives to thrive in that state.
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This year's Climate Leadership Conference was held in San Diego, and for good reason. The Golden State leads the nation in clean energy progress and innovation, thanks to its many forward-looking policies.

My colleagues returned from San Diego brimming with inspiring on-the-ground stories of clean innovations, from transportation biofuels that are two-thirds less carbon intensive than petroleum, to "double zero homes" that use zero net energy from the grid and one-third the water of traditional homes, to pioneering electric utility energy efficiency programs that Sempra Energy CEO Mark Snell says have saved California more than 70 million megawatt-hours of electricity and avoided the need for 20 to 30 new power plants over the past 30 years.

These business initiatives are the precise innovations we need a lot more of to hit the Clean Trillion -- and by Clean Trillion I mean the annual clean energy investments that are needed today to limit global warming to 2oC and avoid the worst effects of climate change by mid-century.

I'd like to share a few of these cutting edge stories. First, solar is absolutely booming in California, accounting for over half of America's new photovoltaic installations in 2013, at a market value of close to $7 billion. Ka-ching.

Solar also employed 43,700 workers in California last year.

Clean energy policies have made California's solar revolution possible -- so much so that solar is reaching grid parity and no longer needs incentives to thrive in that state.

"We couldn't have dreamed of this 10 years ago," said Addison Marks, a sales manager for SunPower, the nation's largest manufacturer of solar cells and panels. Marks said his company is installing panels on 1,000 homes a year, many of them built by homebuilder giant KB Home.

Marks spoke at KB Home's unveiling of the world's first "Double ZeroHouse" in Lancaster, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. The Double ZeroHouse features state-of-the-art energy monitoring systems, home automation technology, smart appliances and solar panels that are designed to produce as much energy as the house consumes. It also has advanced water efficiency and recycling features that lead to water savings of up to 70 percent -- a critically important feature in drought-plagued Southern California.

KB home has built 80,000 Energy Star-certified homes since 2000, saving homeowners about $36 million on their energy bills last year, while preventing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to roughly 39,000 vehicles.

Speaking of vehicles, that takes me to my next innovation story -- Sapphire Energy, a biofuels company that has figured out how to produce the world's first "Green Crude" oil from algae. Green Crude is on average 68 percent less carbon intensive than fossil fuels, and is completely compatible with our existing pipeline infrastructure.

It's been pilot tested for use in commercial aircraft by Continental and Japan Airlines and found to serve just as well, if not better, than fossil fuels.

"The fuels are molecularly the same," says Tim Zenk, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Sapphire. "You're not putting a square peg in a round hole like you are with corn ethanol or biodiesel."

Green crude packs as much punch energy-wise (four percent more, in fact) as jet fuel because algae is extremely efficient at photosynthesis. It doesn't waste energy flowering or extending roots and can produce 5,000 gallons of green crude per acre. Corn in comparison produces only 450-500 gallons of ethanol per acre.

But wait, it gets better. The Green Crude production process uses neither freshwater nor arable land -- unlike other biofuels such as corn-based ethanol or biodiesel, which compete with food crops for land and water.

Sapphire grows algae in brackish water in the desert. It operates a pilot facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a commercial demonstration facility in Columbus, New Mexico that is located on land that went fallow 40 years ago because of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.

Water resources are not an issue for Sapphire, says Zenk. "There are billions and billions of acre feet of brackish water in New Mexico." A GIS analysis of U.S. water resources found the commercial production potential of algae-based fuels to be 25 billion gallons per year -- or one-twelfth of the country's yearly needs for transportation fuels.

Sapphire plans to be commercially viable in 2018 and is partnering with Phillips 66, the nation's largest refinery to certify its green crude. And with California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard providing market pull, Sapphire is well on its way to meeting its goals.

The only thing slowing their growth is a lack of money, says Zenk. "Our limitation on the commercialization is capital. It's no longer science."

Are you listening, investors? That's the sound of a Clean Trillion opportunity knocking.

In fact, clean trillion opportunities are knocking all over southern California. Clean tech companies like Sapphire Energy were estimated to have contributed more than $1.4 billion in economy activity and close to 5,000 jobs to San Diego in 2011, according to CleanTech San Diego.

That figure is limited to biofuels, energy efficiency and clean energy companies. The actual figure should be much bigger, according to CleanTech San Diego Chair Jim Waring, who says, "what we've seen in the last three years is that clean tech is everything. It's not just companies branding themselves as clean tech with a unique product or service."

In other words, clean energy innovations are happening across every sector of the economy. They are are cutting business costs and they are contributing to economic growth.

The rest of the country should take notice.

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