Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell automobile will be available for sale in California by the fall of 2015. (Toyota)

Clean, renewable energy technologies are already powering homes, commercial buildings, and cars, but will soon be taking on heavier assignments, including moving trains, trucks, and even jets, experts said at a shared conference day of FutureBuild 2015 and the Green Marketmaker’s Conference, held in Los Angeles in late January through a partnership between ULI Los Angeles and VerdeXchange.

A team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) is developing energy-dense fuel that could power large vehicles­—planes, trains, and trucks—by converting light to energy. The researchers are working on two types of generator, one involving oxidation of water to produce oxygen gas and the other involving the reduction of water, yielding hydrogen gas. The team is led by Nate Lewis, scientific director/principal investigator at JCAP and professor of chemistry at CalTech University in Pasadena, California, who spoke at the conference.

JCAP researchers are also addressing the need for massive grid storage for renewable energy and a replacement for high-cost materials—platinum, iridium, and lithium—used in vehicle batteries. They are working on a 3D-type printer that could discover inexpensive catalyst elements to replace the high-cost materials.

California’s Cap and Trade Law to Fund Clean-Tech and Mass Transit

Enacted in 2006, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and sets renewable energy portfolio goals for utilities at 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, Lauren Faber, West Coast political director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), noted at the conference.

It also established strategies to achieve these goals, including a cap-and-trade program that has generated about $2 billion in revenue for the state over the past two years. This revenue will be used to fund clean technologies and mass transportation projects, such as the state’s proposed high-speed train, noted Tom Soto, managing director for TCW|Craton Equity Investors, which is investing pension fund money in this program.

Newport Beach, California–based First Element Fuel Inc., a startup that is developing the world’s first retail hydrogen fueling station network, received a $27.6 million grant from the California Energy Commission, as well as a $7 million loan from Toyota Motor Corp. to build 19 hydrogen charge points throughout the state in 2015. Toyota plans to roll out its new hydrogen fuel cell–powered car this fall. Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai already offer hydrogen fuel cell cars on a lease basis, and Honda plans to have one on the market in 2016.

FirstElement hydrogen fueling stations under development and proposed across California. (First Element Fuel)

FirstElement hydrogen fueling stations under development and proposed across California. (First Element Fuel)

Public/Private Collaboration

Collaborations between the public and private sectors are taking various forms. Large companies like South Korea’s LG Corp. are partnering in venture capital arrangements with tech startups, partnering with firms that are emerging from university laboratories, or acquiring such firms.

“At the core [of technology development] is government funding to university research and national laboratories,” observed Nandhu Nandhakumar, senior vice president of advanced technologies for the LG Technology Center of America. His company purchased a startup out of the University of California, Los Angeles, called Nano H2O that develops, manufacturers, and markets reverse osmosis membranes that lower the cost of desalination.

Green Tech’s Growing Economic Force

Green technology is now a big part of the Los Angeles region’s economy, noted Bill Allen, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.  Southern California’s 120 colleges and universities are generating the largest high-tech workforce in the nation, and state and local governments are providing incentives for the development, production, and use of green products.

“The same creativity that enabled us [Southern California] to improve air quality will enable us to address climate change problems,” said Nancy Sutley, chief sustainability and economic development officer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

She noted that an old industrial building in downtown Los Angeles is being repositioned as an incubator facility for startups at Cleantech LA, which brings together the business, government, and academic communities in efforts to expand the region’s green technology sector.

Among the many startups already affiliated with Cleantech LA is Chai Energy Inc., which is developing mobile apps to help consumers monitor, understand, and reduce their energy use, noted Cole Hershkowitz, chief executive officer and cofounder of the company. Los Angeles plans to invest more than $10 billion over the next ten years in research and development of clean technologies that promote sustainability and economic growth, he said.


From left, Pedro Pizarro, president of Southern California Edison; Robyn Beavers, senior vice president at NRG Energy; Robert Garcia, mayor of the City of Long Beach; and Marcie Edwards, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, speaking at the at a Future Build conference’s plenary session on “Government and Utilities as Collaborators for Sustainability.” (Photo by Patricia Kirk/ULI)


Collaboration to Fight Climate Change 

In his inaugural address this January, California Governor Jerry Brown called for new energy goals, including increasing the amount of electricity generated in the state using renewable energy sources from one-third of the total to 50 percent, reducing petroleum use by cars and trucks by up to 50 percent, doubling the energy efficiency of existing buildings, and make heating fuels cleaner.

Local governments are collaborating with water and power providers to create the infrastructure necessary to meet climate change goals. “Cities have an opportunity to lead on this issue,” said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. He noted that Long Beach has passed an ordinance requiring the city to provide sites for electric car charging stations and utility partners to provide the hardware.

SCE is partnering with electric charging equipment providers to increase the availability of this equipment in Long Beach, the utility’s largest customer, and other cities throughout the region, said SCE president Pedro Pizarro. “Utilities are talking together about how to meet the state’s carbon reduction mandate,” he said. He noted  that developing “preferred resources” requires collaboration and running pilot programs to evaluate multiple technologies and storage efficiency.

“Electrification [using renewable energy] is a great opportunity for all of us to produce revenue for our utilities and do the right thing,” said LADWP general manager Marcie Edwards. Lack of funding to replace aging infrastructure is the greatest challenge facing every U.S. city, she said. LADWP plans to invest $8.5 billion in renewable energy infrastructure and $4 billion in water infrastructure, she noted.

LADWP is decommissioning old fossil fuel plants along the coast—replacing those fuels with renewable energy resources that do not require seawater for cooling—and is overhauling the water system, Sutley said.

“Power and infrastructure are merging with the build environment,” observed Robyn Beavers, senior vice president for NRG Energy, which powers 40 million homes across the nation. Pointing out barriers to scale inherent in centralized power plants, she contends that the risk of unforeseen power disruptions, for example, could be overcome by decentralizing power delivery. This could be accomplished with installation of local microgrids and in-house power generation and storage.

She envisions energy and water distribution networks that integrate a variety of renewable energy technologies from various sources, ranging from large solar and wind installations to rooftop solar systems on homes and commercial buildings. Beavers noted that NRG is decommissioning coal-powered plants and may use the land to house various technologies integrated into distributive water and power systems.

Advanced Microgrid Solutions (AMS), among the first companies to enter the distributive energy networking market, installs large battery systems to store electricity in commercial buildings. This relieves pressure on the grid during peak use and provides load balancing while lowering energy costs for building owners, who get paid by power companies to be part of the solution, pointed out Susan Kennedy, AMS chief executive officer.

Reversing Climate Change

Discussing the global impact of California efforts to mitigate climate change, Felipe Fuentes, Los Angeles city councilman said, “We are building resilience into everything we do. This is an opportunity to replumb the built environment. If we only make a 1 percent difference globally, we will be a model for getting people to adopt the things we do.”

Faber at EDF agreed, pointing out that California is blazing the trail for environmental resilience and sustainability. She noted that Brown hopes to use the 2015 United Nations Climate Summit in Paris as a forum for disseminating information about California’s strategies for combatting climate change.