Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Shell, Other Oil Firms Bolster Biofuels Spending

Royal Dutch Shell PLC has roughly doubled its financial support for biofuels start-up Codexis Inc. in the past year, the latest sign that oil companies are slowly and selectively increasing their interest in plants-to-fuels research.
Shell is on pace to spend $60 million in 2009 to fund research at Codexis, nearly twice the amount as the year before, according to regulatory filings. Codexis filed paperwork this week for a $100 initial public offering. The start-up is developing microbes to speed up the chemical reactions that turn inedible plants, such as grasses or stalks, into ethanol and diesel.
Other crude-oil companies also have increased spending on biofuels. Exxon Mobil Corp. said this summer it would spend $600 million over five or six years on a partnership with Synthetic Genomics Inc. to develop a way to turn algae into motor fuels. Chevron Corp. entered into a relationship in October with Mascoma Corp. to investigate plant-based fuel. And BP PLC created a venture with Verenium Corp. this year to build a fuel plant in central Florida next year.

Of course, this spending is tiny in comparison with these oil companies' annual capital budgets, which in some cases top $20 billion a year. But the funds are significant for biofuels research and are expected to accelerate efforts to determine if plants can be economically turned into motor fuels on a large scale.
Big oil companies don't appear to be interested in generating niche fuels. Rather, they are targeting investments at companies such as Codexis that can make a significant dent in a global 80-million-barrel-a-day fuel market. And they are steering clear of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol made from edible crops.
These investments are "proof that the oil industry sees the writing on the wall; they know they need to adapt," says Paul Dickerson, a partner at the law firm Haynes and Boone LLP and a former chief operating officer at the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "We are not going to stop using oil, but these companies are aware that other energy sources are gaining traction, and they need to diversify their business plans just as America needs to diversify its energy supply."
Oil company interest in biofuels may be the industry's best chance right now. The industry was effectively frozen out of capital markets during the economic downturn and some advocates have been discouraged by the level of federal support.
The funding freeze has prevented the industry from fulfilling lofty goals. Two years ago, Congress envisioned that the industry would produce 100 millions gallons of biofuels from nonedible plants in 2010 and 250 million gallons in 2011. But few believe it can generate much more than 15 million gallons next year.
Codexis is developing enzymes to break down plant fibers into sugars. These sugars can then be turned into ethanol and diesel. Shell has a 20% stake in the company and Chevron owns another 5%. Codexis executives declined to be interviewed. The enzymes developed by San Francisco-based Codexis could be used, under an existing agreement, by Iogen Energy Corp., a biofuels company half owned by Shell.
If Codexis goes ahead and issues stock on the Nasdaq Stock Market—it filed once before in 2008 before pulling back when stock markets started falling—it would be the first biofuels company to hold an U.S.-listed IPO since December 2007 when China-based biodiesel maker Gushan Environmental Energy Ltd. debuted on the New York Stock Exchange, according to investment bank Dealogic.
Write to Russell Gold at

Theolia Sells French Wind Power Assets To Boralex

PARIS (Dow Jones)--French wind energy company Theolia SA (TEO.FR) Tuesday said it has sold wind power assets in France with a capacity of 47 megawatts to Canada's Boralex Inc. (BLX.T).
Financial details of the transaction weren't disclosed.
The assets include a seven-megawatt wind farm in operation since December 2006, as well as two wind projects with capacities of 30 megawatts and 10 megawatts respectively.
The commissioning of both wind projects, which will be built by Theolia, is expected by mid-2010, the company said.
Theolia added that it expects to exceed its target to sell 200 megawatts of wind projects and assets in 2009 following this deal.
Earlier Tuesday, Theolia reached a debt deal with its main bondholders, including a project for a capital increase of up to EUR100 million, in a move to reduce its debt and to ensure funding for its projects.
Theolia shares closed down EUR0.21, or 6.5%, at EUR3.03.
Company Web site:
-By Elena Berton, Dow Jones Newswires; +33 1 40 17 17 65;

Iran 'close to deal' for Kazakh uranium

Daniel Nasaw, Washington
The Guardian, Wednesday 30 December 2009
Iran is said to be close to an agreement to buy more than 1,300 tons of uranium ore from Kazakhstan, a move that would allow the country to pursue its nuclear programme without conditions imposed in a UN-brokered uranium-for-fuel swap.
The deal, thought to be worth about $450m (£280m) for Kazakhstan, could yield nuclear fuel to keep Iran's medical and research reactors churning, and, western countries fear, further its nuclear weapons programme. The transfer of purified uranium was reported by the Associated Press, which cited a report produced by an unnamed member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"The price is high because of the secret nature of the deal and due to Iran's commitment to keep secret the elements supplying the material," a two-page summary of an intelligence report said. An official of the country which drew up the report said "elements" refers to rogue officials in the Kazakh government brokering the deal.
Iran is under three sets of UN security council sanctions for refusing to freeze its enrichment programme that could be used to make nuclear weapons. Tehran denies such aspirations. Any attempt to import such a large amount of uranium ore would be in violation of those sanctions, which ban exports to Iran of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology that could contribute to its enrichment activities.
In New York, Burkina Faso's UN ambassador Michel Kafando, a co-chair of the security council's Iran sanctions committee, referred questions about a potential deal between Iran and Kazakhstan to his sanctions adviser, Zongo Saidou. Saidou told AP that, as far as he knew, none of the UN's member nations had alerted the committee about any such allegation.
The material Iran is trying to get needs to be converted to a uranium gas, which is then processed into nuclear fuel or enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Iran's Tehran research reactor, which produces medical isotopes and operates under the IAEA safeguards, will run out of fuel in 18 months, and the ore deal suggests Iran wants a stock of fuel to keep it running.

Munich Re Sees Climate-Related Losses Mounting

FRANKFURT -- Munich Re AG, one of the world's largest reinsurers, Tuesday said economic and insured losses caused by climate change will continue to grow, and called for a near-term deal to ensure a substantial reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions.
"We need as soon as possible an agreement that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions because the climate reacts slowly and what we fail to do now will have a bearing for decades to come," said management board member Torsten Jeworrek.
"In the light of these facts, it is very disappointing that no breakthrough was achieved at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009," Mr. Jeworrek said, pointing to the marked increase--more or less tripling--in major global weather-related natural disasters since 1950.
Reinsurers and primary insurers provide insurance protection against losses caused by large natural and man-made disasters.
Munich Re said it will step up its own initiatives in the matter, including investments of up to €2 billion in renewable energy and a strong commitment to the Sahara solar power project Desertec, which aims to come up with a feasible plan for generating solar power in the Sahara within the next three years.
Munich Re said losses caused by natural disasters cost the global insurance industry around $22 billion in 2009, helped by substantially lower U.S. hurricane activity than a year earlier, when the insurance industry had to pay around $50 billion for damage caused by natural disasters such as winter storms, hurricanes, cyclones, floods and earthquakes.
The figures are similar to estimates by Swiss peer Swiss Reinsurance Co., which estimated at the end of November that the bill the insurance industry had to pay for natural disaster losses in 2009 amounted to around $21 billion.
Munich Re said "severe weather events accounted for 45%, or nearly half, of global insured losses" in 2009. It also said this year's lower bill for natural disasters and the absence of "severe hurricanes and other mega-catastrophes" shouldn't be taken lightly, as there was a large number of moderately severe natural disasters.
"In particular, the trend toward an increase in weather-related catastrophes continues, while there has fundamentally been no change in the risk of geophysical events such as earthquakes," said Peter Hoeppe, who heads Munich Re's Geo Risks Research unit.
Earlier this month, leaders of the U.S., China and other major economies agreed on a new climate accord in Copenhagen, though many have said it wasn't ambitious enough and a future round of negotiations is now required to hash out the details. The accord contained no specific targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A proposed 50% cut that was in earlier drafts was removed.
The pact calls on developed nations to provide $30 billion to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change from 2010 to 2012. By 2020, rich nations aim to jointly mobilize $100 billion a year for poor nations.
Under the deal, countries have pledged to try to keep atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide low enough to keep average global temperatures less than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; many scientists say breaching this threshold could have catastrophic consequences. But the agreement doesn't specify how countries will achieve that goal.
Write to Ulrike Dauer at

Environment preview of 2010

After the debacle at Copenhagen, the world will be hoping that global leaders can make up for lost time this year

By Louise Gray, Environment CorrespondentPublished: 8:00AM GMT 29 Dec 2009

1. Post Copenhagen
Already Gordon Brown is pushing for another meeting of world leaders to sort out the mess as soon as possible. However he is dead set against the UN process that ended in such confusion last time. Instead it is likely that high level meetings, many behind closed doors, will be held throughout the year under the guise of the Major Economies Forum, G8 and other groupings.

The key sticking point is over how to reduce carbon emissions. Developed countries will be announcing how much they are willing to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020 at the end of January. The EU is willing to increase its target from 20 to 30 per cent by 2020 if other rich nations like the US, Japan and Australia also increase ambition. This horse trading will be a key part of strengthening world action against climate change.
Other points in the Copenhagen Accord that will take immediate action include handing out some of the $30 billion (£24bn) promised to poor nations by 2012 to help them reduced emissions and adapt to climate change. Work will also start on a scheme to save the rainforests by paying poor nations not to chop down trees.
Meanwhile the official UN process will shuffle on. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that is in charge of talks, will meet in June in Bonn and again in November in Mexico. It is hoped that progress will be made on the Copenhagen Accord so that it can be made a legal treaty by the end of the year.
2. Climate change
This is still the main issue for the environment in 2010. As well as the Copenhagen Accord, every department in the British Government will be working to address the problem of climate change by reducing emissions and protecting nature. The Committee on Climate Change will issue further instructions on how the UK is expected to meet its current target of cutting emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. This will include further measures to encourage people from cars to public transport, including looking at road tolls and high speed trains.
3. Tory green policy
If David Cameron's party take power they have promised to introduce measures to cut household energy consumption. This would see the Government link up with major retailers like M&S and Tesco to offer households a full "green make-over". Loans to install insulation as well as more expensive measures like solar panels can be paid back over time from the savings made on energy bills. The Tories claim six billion homes will have access to £6,500 worth of energy saving measures.
4. Recycling and bins
The UK is running out of holes in the ground to dump rubbish and local authorities are likely to ramp up the drive to increase recycling rates. Households will be expected to separate their food waste for collection and could even be fined for failing to sort rubbish properly. This has proved unpopular so far. The Tories are trying a new track by offering to pay people who recycle correctly instead.
5. Green farming
Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013 could transform how the land is managed. British farmers will be monitoring progress in Brussels closely and making sure that food production in industrialised nations continues to be supported. The role of the environment in farming is likely to have much greater importance under the new CAP and already farmers are being asked to leave field margins for birds and use less chemicals. In Britain the conservationists and National Farmers Union have agreed to trial a scheme this year known as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. Farmers will leave fallow a certain amount of land for wildlife to make up for the loss of set aside land. If they fail to prove they can protect nature on farms voluntarily then the Government has threatened to made it compulsory.
6. Frankenstein Foods
The Food Standards Agency has launched a mass public consultation on genetically modified (GM) foods. This will report back some time in 2010 and is likely to spark up the continuing debate around the controversial issue. Scientists, including the Royal Society, have made it clear that they think GM is part of the answer to food security in the future. But whether the public will countenance "Frankenstein foods" in their diet or on their farmland is another question. The Government is in favour of further research but afraid of backing GM too much in case of a public backlash. Universities in Britain continue to work on new varieties and new experiments will begin this year, despite public unease. The campaign to get more people growing-their-own, led by civil society groups including the National Trust, will continue into the New Year with more families encouraged to produce their own fruit and vegetables.
7. Energy Policy
The Government has announced 10 sites for possible nuclear power stations and energy companies will be coming forward with their bids. But despite Government backing their could be resistance from local communities as questions remain over the safety and cost of nuclear. Wind farms and bio mass projects will mushroom as the Government struggles to reach its target in producing more energy from green sources. The Severn Barrage is the only tidal project expected to go forward this year although there will be more research and development in this area. Households will be encouraged to set up their own renewable energy projects through a new Feed-In Tariff, although at the moment environmental groups are concerned that the reward for feeding energy into the grid is still too low.
Other big issues coming up this year will include Britain's response to the continued in flooding, the threat of animal disease, the decline of bees and the possible extension of the country's national parks.

Bright future for lighting technology with glowing OLED wallpaper

OLEDs may soon replace lightbulbs in homes and offices with panels of energy-efficient light built into walls

Alok Jha, green technology correspondent, Wednesday 30 December 2009
Wallpaper that can glow with light and bendable flat-panel screens are a step closer thanks to research into organic LEDs (OLEDs), which are widely hailed as the next generation of environmentally friendly lighting technology.
OLEDs use very little power to produce light, even compared with modern energy-saving bulbs. The chemicals they are made from can be painted on to thin, flexible surfaces, allowing them potentially to be used to replace traditional lightbulbs in homes and offices with panels of energy-efficient light built into walls, windows or even furniture. Other uses include flexible display screens, whose very low power consumption would mean they could operate without mains power, for example as roadside traffic warning signs powered by small solar panels.
Lomox Limited, a two-year-old company based in north Wales, awarded more than £450,000 today by the government-backed Carbon Trust to accelerate the development of its OLED technology.
Around a sixth of all the UK's electricity is used for lighting and Lomox claims its OLEDs are 2.5 times more efficient than standard energy-saving lightbulbs. The Carbon Trust said that, if all modern lights were replaced by OLEDs, annual carbon emissions around the world could fall by 2.5m tonnes by 2020 and almost 7.4mT by 2050. Replacing old, incandescent bulbs with OLEDs would generate even greater CO2 savings.
OLEDs have shown much promise in laboratories but must get over two major hurdles to become widespread consumer items: they are expensive to make and they tend to have relatively short lifetimes. "What our technology does, with the seven patents we have, is fix those problems," said Ken Lacey, chief executive of Lomox. He said his company's OLEDs have the potential to last as long as modern fluorescent lights and, for the display sector, as long as LCD panels. Lomox also claims its light matches natural light more closely than other energy-saving bulbs.
The company will focus its efforts on getting the first of its OLEDs to market by 2012, mainly for outdoor lighting. "The early part of the grant is to do the testing and take this out to that marketplace," said Lacey.
Mark Williamson, director of innovations at the Carbon Trust, said: "Lighting is a major producer of carbon emissions. This technology has the potential to produce ultra-efficient lighting for a wide range of applications, tapping into a huge global market. We're now on the look-out for other technologies that can save carbon and be a commercial success."
The grant for Lomox is one of 164 projects supported by the Carbon Trust for small companies working on a range of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies such as fuel cells, combined heat and power, bioenergy, solar power, low-carbon building technologies, marine energy devices and more efficient industrial processes.