South Dakota solar start-up shifts focus from tailgaters to Tanzania

(Midwest Energy News, November 22, 2013 )—Brian Gramm’s goal was to build a portable solar generator so rugged that it could survive in one of America’s harshest environments: a stadium parking lot.

The sports fan and serial entrepreneur came up with a product he says can withstand spilled beer, flying footballs, even a fall from your SUV roof should your inebriated buddies accidentally knock it over.

Gramm co-founded Peppermint Energy, a Sioux Falls startup company that originally planned to market solar power to sports tailgaters who wanted to watch TV or blare stereos without risking a dead car battery.

As he shared the designs with friends and mentors, though, others pointed out that a device as simple and durable as theirs might have another purpose: helping in disaster recovery and other humanitarian missions.

“It became apparent that we had the right idea, but we were not quite solving the right problem,” Gramm said. Continue reading “South Dakota solar start-up shifts focus from tailgaters to Tanzania”

Could wood biomass help clean up coal-fired power plants?

Could wood biomass help clean up coal-fired power plants?(Midwest Energy News, December 5, 2012)—Cheap natural gas and flat electricity demand has left the prospects for wood-chip and wood-pellet fuels barely smoldering in recent years.

But wood biomass could soon have a new role in energy production: cleaning up coal-fired power plant emissions.

A year-old company called Biogenic Reagents recently completed construction of a $30 million, commercial-scale production facility in Marquette, Michigan, where it’s cooking sustainably harvested wood into a product that can pull mercury out of power plant emissions.

The technology could enable coal plants to comply with forthcoming EPA mercury rules at a relatively low cost.

The process involves a technique called pyrolysis, in which wood is heated in an oxygen-deprived container. Without oxygen, wood can’t burn. After a sequence of chemical reactions to remove volatile organic compounds, what’s left is a pure material known as activated carbon.

Activated carbon, sometimes called activated charcoal, is a porous material that’s good at absorbing or bonding with other materials. Its most common use is in water filtration, everywhere from municipal water treatment plants to the water pitcher in your refrigerator.

The use of activated carbon at power plants is a relatively new one. A mercury emissions control program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh funded activated carbon research for about a decade ending in 2008, when it decided federal support was no longer needed.

“What’s compelling about it is it’s an inexpensive retrofit technology,” says Tom Feeley, a senior technical advisor who managed the DOE mercury control program. Continue reading “Could wood biomass help clean up coal-fired power plants?”

‘Social’ package pickups could cut online shopping’s energy use

‘Social’ package pickups could cut online shopping’s energy use(Midwest Energy News, November 26, 2012)—As the holiday shopping season kicks into full gear, some experts predict online businesses will rake in $2 billion in sales today, which retailers have dubbed “Cyber Monday.”

That also means millions of gallons of fuel will be consumed in getting all those packages to customer’s doorsteps. The good news: there’s reasonable consensus that online shopping consumes less energy than physical retail, says Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the Institute on the Environment.

A big reason is because those delivery trucks run much more efficient routes than we do driving to multiple stores in our own cars.

That said, Smith sees plenty of room for improvement, especially in suburban areas, as online shopping grows into what Forrester Research expects will be a $279 billion a year industry by 2015. UPS already has more than 95,000 vehicles that collectively put on 2.5 billion miles per year to keep up with the surge in online shopping.

The biggest opportunity is in the “last mile,” which accounts for up to half of a retail transaction’s carbon footprint. It’s relatively efficient to ship bulk goods by boat, train, or truck to local stores and warehouses. The largest source of emissions is in the final leg of the trip to the customer’s door. Continue reading “‘Social’ package pickups could cut online shopping’s energy use”

Tip of the hat to downtown beautification efforts in Minneapolis

(Finance & Commerce, March 15, 2012)—A full slate of high-profile, ambitious plans are on the horizon for downtown Minneapolis parks and public spaces, from a Sculpture Garden expansion and Nicollet Mall renovation to the proposed Gateway and Water Works parks that would better connect the city to its riverfront.

All of those projects won’t be enough to satisfy David Wilson.

“We will not be successful if we only achieve those big goals,” said Wilson, chairman of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s greening and public realm committee. (His day job is managing partner at one of downtown’s largest employers, Accenture.)

As Wilson and his committee see it, making downtown as green, pleasant and inviting as possible will also require countless smaller efforts from businesses and individuals — from sidewalk planters to urban gardens.

That’s why the improvement district honored the best of these unsung efforts Tuesday at its second annual Greening and Public Realm Awards, which were presented at the Minneapolis Central Library. The awards recognize residents, businesses, associations and community members who enhance downtown by creating and maintaining greenery in public spaces. Continue reading “Tip of the hat to downtown beautification efforts in Minneapolis”

Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning

(Finance & Commerce, November 7, 2011)—You swipe a credit card at a vending machine-sized kiosk. A clothing rack whirls around inside until your shirt or blouse appears. A robotic arm plucks it from the rack by the hanger and passes it to a glass enclosure in front of you. You pop open a door, grab your receipt and your freshly cleaned garments, and away you go.

Is this the future of dry cleaning?

Two local dry-cleaning chains this fall have unveiled the Twin Cities’ first-of-their-kind “dry cleaning ATM” kiosks. White Way Cleaners installed one at a Minneapolis skyway location in September. Last month, Mulberrys Garment Care installed one in the Ridgedale Byerly’s store.

Both companies view the kiosks as a way to extend service into hours and locations that wouldn’t be feasible for staffing with employees. If the machines prove successful, Mulberrys and White Way envision them springing up in skyways, condo and apartment buildings, office towers, gas stations and grocery stores all across town.

“We want to be one of the first to bring dry cleaning into the modern world,” said Dan Miller, Mulberrys’ founder and CEO. He compares the potential impact to what ATMs did for banking or Red Box did for DVD rentals — giving customers a quick, easy, always-open option for dropping off and picking up their dry cleaning. Continue reading “Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning”

Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—On their way to becoming solar-electric panels, more than half of the world’s silicon solar cells produced today reportedly pass through a furnace made by a century-old Lakeville manufacturer.

What’s more, the company only started supplying the solar industry four years ago. Despatch Industries now owns more than 60 percent of the global market for firing furnaces used in solar cell production, according to John Farrell, managing director of Despatch’s solar business group — its largest segment last year.

Despatch has shipped hundreds of solar cell furnaces to China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, where most solar cell manufacturing occurs. Yet its role in the solar industry is mostly unknown in Minnesota.

More than 100 years ago, the company began making heaters for Minneapolis streetcars. Today, Despatch is part of what Lynn Hinkle, policy development director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, calls the state’s “invisible” solar supply chain, a cluster of companies quietly producing parts and equipment for the global solar industry.

A new push is under way to shine more light on these solar suppliers in hopes of further building up the industry in Minnesota. Continue reading “Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun”

How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—Silicon Energy became Minnesota’s second solar-electric panel manufacturer when it started shipping rooftop units from its Iron Range factory in mid-September. It joins Bloomington-based TenKsolar, which began selling its commercial systems in 2010.

The companies are getting a boost from a made-in-Minnesota solar rebate program for Xcel Energy customers. And given the state of the industry, they’ll need all the help they can get.

“New startup companies are going to have a very, very difficult time competing with established companies,” said Junko Movellan, an analyst with Solarbuzz, a market research group in San Francisco. There’s a worldwide oversupply of solar modules now, and she predicts the industry faces a big shakeout in the months ahead.

On top of that, Minnesota isn’t the easiest place to sell solar-electric systems, but not for the reason you might think. Our weather is actually an asset; solar-electric systems perform better in the cold. Rather, it’s the state’s comparatively cheap electricity rates that make it harder for customers to recoup investment costs.

The industry has been called the “solar-coaster” because of all its ups and downs. How do these Minnesota startups plan to hang on? Continue reading “How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?”

Sick of Corporations? Co-Op Evangelists Want You on Their Side

(GOOD, October 13, 2011)—Brian Van Slyke didn’t want to be a boss‚ and he didn’t want to have one either. But as his one-man record label grew to a three-person operation, they needed some type of organizational structure.

“We wanted to be our own bosses, together,” Van Slyke says. In 2006, Fall of the West Records was reincorporated as a worker-owned cooperative, giving each member an ownership stake and convincing Van Slyke to tailor his college education around cooperatives.

Last week, Van Slyke was at the National Cooperative Business Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis to show off the board game he created, Co-opoly, where everybody wins or loses together and learns how a cooperative works.

With rising discontent about the economic status quo (see: Occupy Wall Street) and a United Nations resolution declaring 2012 the “International Year of the Cooperative,” co-op advocates at last week’s conference were optimistic about what they see as a ripe opportunity to grow their movement—if only people knew about it. They need more public education, from board games to marketing.

“There is not the on-the-street knowledge of the cooperative and its success that there ought to be,” says Charles Gould, director-general of the International Cooperative Alliance and one of the conference’s opening speakers. “As a result, we have people who are very frustrated who simply don’t know there is a potential solution for many of them just around the corner.” Continue reading “Sick of Corporations? Co-Op Evangelists Want You on Their Side”

Closing the Loop on Electronic Waste

Make no mistake: Best Buy likes to see customers lining up for that next new, must-have gadget. The consumer electronics retailer is in the business of helping people upgrade their technology, whether it’s a mobile phone or a big-screen television.

For every new product, though, there’s often an old one made obsolete: last year’s iPhone, or a clunky analog TV set, or that computer your media collection outgrew. All of this stuff eventually starts to pile up in closets, landfills or incinerators.

It’s an environmental hazard, and it’s a customer hassle. That’s why Best Buy is seeking to help close the loop on the millions of pounds of electronic waste its stores and customers generate each year.

Best Buy has rapidly become a national leader in e-waste recycling since launching an in-store drop-off program in February 2009. Customers at its U.S. stores can bring in just about any old electronics, regardless of where or when they were purchased, and Best Buy will make sure they get recycled responsibly. Last year, the company collected more than 75 million pounds of unwanted electronics. (Continue reading…)

Closing the Loop on Electronic Waste

Read my story on water scarcity in Twin Cities Business

I spent a few months this spring looking into the potential risks and opportunities for Minnesota companies as development, pollution, population growth and climate conspire to strain our planet’s fresh water supply. The risk may seem distant here in the land of 10,000 lakes, but in an age when global supply chains span the globe, few industries will be unaffected. Some are already feeling the effects. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities is home to a promising cluster of companies and technologies that could play a role in addressing the coming global crisis. Read more in the July issue of Twin Cities Business magazine.