Clean fuels and transportation hot topics at CleanTech OC annual conference

CleanTech OCAlong with federal and state incentives and low-interest loan programs, companies in clean transportation lately have been finding more available investment funds in the cleantech sector. Cleantech covers a broad spectrum of environmentally friendly, advanced technologies including zero emission vehicles, waste-to-energy, renewable energy, smart grids, and energy efficiency. Last week, I attended the CleanTech OC 2014 Annual Conference & Expo in Irvine, Calif. Clean transportation played a visible role including being the focus of the first speaker panel that day.

The “Cleantech Drivers –What Hot in OC” panel started with Tim Brown, co-founder and COO of First Element Fuel, which has been awarded contracts to deploy hydrogen fueling stations in California. Several more stations will be set up in the next year, usually at standing retail fuel stations. Right now, there are seven hydrogen stations in California; three of them are in Orange County.

Tom Koutroulis, district manager for Waste Management, talked about the refuse disposal company’s Continuous Organics Recycling (CORe) “wasted food, wasted energy” program. The company uses anaerobic digesters to manage waste and produce fuels. Waste Management works with agencies such as Los Angeles and Orange County sanitation districts to recycle and convert food waste into energy, such as renewable natural gas, and is setting up operations around the country. CORe ties into the refuse company’s campaign to reduce use of fossil fuels, which also includes switching over its fleet to natural gas vehicles.

Harrison Clay, president of Clean Energy Renewable Fuels, described the natural gas fueling infrastructure company’s renewable natural gas division as providing “expanding opportunities for low carbon fleet fueling.” Parent company Clean Energy Fuels now has about 700 fleet clients running about 35,000 vehicles on traditional and renewable natural gas. There are about 2,000 trucks in the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports using natural gas, with several trying out biomethane through Clean Energy’s Redeem brand renewable natural gas.

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) in California is a big driver in fleets becoming more interested in renewable natural gas. There have been about $10 million in LCFS credits sold for biomethane on the state’s cap-and-trade market, Clay said. Fleets using traditional natural gas are seeing significant reductions in metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) compared to gasoline and diesel; using renewable natural gas reduces GHG four times more than traditional natural gas as a vehicle fuel, he said. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard Program and California’s LCFS are growth drivers for renewable natural gas with about 20 million gallons being delivered this year – a number which should double in 2015 based on supply sources that have already signed up. One problem is that the LCFS carbon credit market can fluctuate dramatically and is an uncertain market, Clay said.

Dean Saito of South Coast Air Quality Management District said that there are a lot of cap-and-trade funds coming out of Sacramento lately. Cap and trade started in 2006 with passage of AB 32 in California under then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. LCFS was also created under AB 32. It’s taken a few years for the cap-and-trade exchange market to get underway; and implementation of LCFS rules for transportation and oil production are still undergoing review and public feedback by the California Air Resources Board. Saito encouraged people to track California clean vehicle funding programs – Clean Fuels Program; Goods (freight) Movement Program; Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program; Lower-Emission School Bus Program; and Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program.

Brad Timon, CFO of Quantum Technologies, presented one of the “OC Success Stories.” The Lake Forest, Calif.-based company has been publicly traded since 2002 and now has 160 employees. Lately, the company has been focusing primarily on tank vessels for high-pressure gases, which is getting a lot of play in the natural gas vehicle (NGV) sector from customers running heavy-duty trucks. In 2007, Quantum Technologies became the co-founder with Fisker Automotive of its powertrain system for the Karma plug-in hybrid. That client has gone through a well-known shakedown, which hurt Quantum Technologies’ business model. Switching over to its tank system for NGVs is driving business today. The company also provides a diesel hybrid electric system for the US military, Ford F150 extended range plug-in hybrids, and a hydrogen fueling system

One of the keynote speakers at the day-long conference was Greg Trimarche, outgoing chairperson of CleanTech OC. He said that the cleantech industry is going through a market trend similar to what was experienced by high tech in the early 2000s. What had been very hot on the stock market and with private investors went through a shakedown during 2001-to-2002. Cleantech saw a flood of investments from 2008 to 2010, until huge losses taken by companies including Solyndra became a “political football,” he said. Cleantech isn’t a hot-ticket item now for venture capitalists, but it’s seeing a more stable foundation for capital investments as analysts see which companies have survived the startup phase and look good for long-term investments.

Two days prior to the CleanTech OC conference, on October 6, another significant cleantech industry event took place. The 2014 Global Cleantech 100 companies were announced at a gala in Washington, D.C. Global Cleantech 100 is an annual list of the top 100 private companies in clean technology determined by Cleantech Group. Five US-based companies took awards in the Transportation segment – ChargePoint and its network of electric vehicle charging solutions; Proterra, a maker of battery-powered buses and other clean commercial transit solutions; RelayRides, a developer of a peer-to-peer car sharing platform; Streetline – smart parking solutions through wireless sensors located in parking spots and managed through a wireless mesh network; and Uber, the mobile-based car booking and payment system that’s arch enemy No. 1 to the taxi industry. Outside the US, France-based BlaBlaCar,  a provider of a car-pooling online marketplace, and Germany-based Ubitricity, a developer and provider of a mobile metering technology and billing platform for EV smart charging infrastructure, also made the transportation list.