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San Francisco Chronicle

Many of nation’s green leaders from Bay Area

David R. Baker, Peter Fimrite, Jane Kay, Jim Doyle, Kelly Zito, Deborah Gage

A Bay Area jeansmaker clothed miners in the dusty Sierra Nevada gold fields, creating what would become a fashion staple around the globe.

Nearly a century later, two Stanford graduates birthed the high-tech age in a Palo Alto garage.

Today, Bay Area entrepreneurs, scientists and policymakers hope to join the vanguard of another revolution – one that aims to reinvent the way people use water, power their cars, build their houses and live their lives.

President Obama has promised sweeping changes to the nation’s energy grid, auto emission standards and oil import policies in an effort to reverse the damage of climate change, retool the U.S. economy and wean the nation from foreign fossil fuels.

These problems are inherently global and will require the assistance of governments and experts around the planet. Even then, they might not be solved for decades – if ever. But the Bay Area and California likely will figure prominently in the president’s move to harness wind power, cap carbon dioxide emissions and understand the economic and ecological impacts of climate change on our society.

These 10 people are among the brightest lights in their respective fields – from solar energy to venture capital to water policy to “smart” growth.

They might not become household names, but their research, policy papers and startups could shape the way many households run in the years to come.

Sherry Boschert, clean cars

San Francisco writer Sherry Boschert is an evangelist for the electric car and its cousin, the plug-in hybrid.

Boschert started driving the first wave of electric cars in 2002, only to see automakers recall and destroy most of the vehicles. Then came the plug-in hybrid, which by some estimates gets more than 100 miles per gallon. Boschert wrote a book on plug-ins and serves as vice president of the advocacy group Plug In America.

No big car companies sell plug-in hybrids yet. Fans of the cars have had to buy regular hybrids and pay garages to convert them. But several automakers are developing plug-ins, such as the Chevy Volt.

Now Boschert sees an opportunity to speed up that process. Obama endorsed plug-ins on the campaign trail, and Boschert wants him to make mass-producing the cars a condition of any future auto-industry bailout.

“We need incentives to get cars on the road,” said Boschert, who drives a 7-year-old electric Toyota Rav4. “We need Obama to sit down with Detroit and say, ‘You will stop making gas- guzzling cars, and you will start making plug-ins.’ ”

– David R. Baker

John Woolard, solar power

John Woolard wants to see solar power plants bloom across the desert.

His Oakland company, BrightSource Energy, plans to build solar-thermal plants throughout the Southwest, collectively generating enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes.

They won’t use the solar panels that people stick on their houses. Instead, each plant will consist of large fields of mirrors concentrating sunlight on a central tower. The heat generated by all that focused light will boil water inside the tower and use the steam to turn turbines and produce electricity.

BrightSource plans to break ground late this year for its first plant, on a dry lakebed in San Bernardino County. But to get there, the company will need financing.

During his candidacy, Obama pledged to create incentives for renewable power development. So far, Woolard is pleased with the energy team Obama has put in place.

“They’ve brought in people who know what’s happening and understand the challenges,” Woolard said. “I’ve been in energy for a couple of decades at this point, and I look out, and I’ve never seen a landscape that’s so encouraging.”

– David R. Baker

Mary Nichols, carbon emissions

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, has led efforts to cut carbon emissions in the state and will be working closely with the Obama administration on greenhouse gas policies and investments in clean fuel technology.

Nichols said national limits on carbon emissions are necessary. Obama has signaled support for such a notion, moving to reverse a Bush administration decision to block implementation of the strict fuel-emissions rules passed by California and 13 other states. Nichols will be a major force behind implementation of those standards and an influential figure in the national debate over carbon emissions.

She said the United States, with its history as one of the world’s great polluters, has an obligation to lead the battle against global warming.

“I think there is widespread agreement among scientists and among the leadership of the world that the overarching concern of our time is climate change,” Nichols said. “Every pound of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere is adding to a huge buildup. There is a tipping point where the atmosphere just can’t absorb what is coming out. We can prevent catastrophic changes from occurring if we take action now, but we’ve got days, not years, to get moving.”

– Peter Fimrite

Daniel Kammen, energy efficiency

UC Berkeley Professor Daniel Kammen advised Obama on climate and energy issues during the campaign and leads a science team crafting California’s bold plan to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent.

“We have to move away from an economy based on fossil fuels and make sustainable energy the engine of economic growth. This is the moment,” said Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He succeeded Holdren as the Energy and Resources Group’s distinguished professor.

Kammen’s lab created the carbon calculator used by the state to help cities and households reduce emissions, and works on models for a renewable power transmission system.

The lab conducted the analysis for the city of Berkeley’s pioneer financing program that lets property owners avoid up-front costs of installing solar panels, water heaters or other efficiency measures by extending payment over 20 years. Clean Energy Municipal Financing has been picked up by other cities, and has been included in the House version of Obama’s stimulus package.

– Jane Kay

Julie Lundquist, wind power

Atmospheric scientist Julie Lundquist is fascinated by the complexity and power of wind – an abundant and clean electrical energy source.

Lundquist, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is investigating how wind speed changes with height and how that affects turbulence. Wind turbines thrive on strong, steady winds and minimal turbulence.

Some of Lundquist’s research is sponsored by Siemens, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of wind turbines. For that $2.3 million project, her team uses the lab’s supercomputers to enhance high-resolution forecasting models. Their aim: to increase the world’s use of wind energy and reduce the cost of wind power.

One obstacle to increased reliance on wind energy is the need for accurate forecasts. Wind predictions are used by manufacturers to design robust turbines, by wind park operators to estimate their production levels and by power grid operators to balance supply and demand.

“Wind is ripe. It’s a technology that’s here and now,” Lundquist said. “With only moderate investment, we can make quick, high-impact progress to ensure a dependable, renewable energy resource for generations to come.”

– Jim Doyle

Jeremy Madsen, smart growth

Jeremy Madsen is a powerful force behind the movement to build affordable, walkable, higher-density communities close to jobs and connected by rail and bus transit.

The executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance said the goal is to reduce driving and concentrate job growth so that outlying farmland, wildlife habitat and watershed lands can be protected as open space.

“It’s not too much of a surprise that developments far out on our urban edges are the places where foreclosure rates are highest,” Madsen said. “It’s the people on the economic edge who’ve been forced out there.”

Madsen said Obama is the first president who understands that investing in diverse neighborhoods of energy- efficient homes and apartments instead of country estates reduces exhaust emissions and boosts economic output and innovation.

“He is committed to creating livable communities,” Madsen said, “and by doing so he will be creating millions of environmentally friendly jobs.”

– Peter Fimrite

Peter Gleick, water policy

Peter Gleick, MacArthur “genius” fellow and co-founder of Oakland’s Pacific Institute, is arguably the world’s leading expert on water. In addition to knowing hydrology, Gleick studies water’s connections to human health, economics, energy, agriculture, national security and climate change.

With Obama in office, Gleick could have a direct line to the administration – namely physicist John Holdren, Gleick’s graduate school adviser and Obama’s pick for White House science adviser.

Gleick advocates what he calls “the soft path” for water. Rather than exclusively building giant dams and canals to capture every last drop of water, Gleick argues, the United States must radically change its mind-set toward this most precious resource and use it more wisely.

“The basic philosophy of water management in the 20th century was, let’s find more supply,” Gleick said. “That brought us great benefits, but also great problems – it came at the expense of our environment. Twenty-first century water policy is going to have to look at much more than that – improving efficiency is the cheapest, fastest, most sound option we have.”

– Kelly Zito

Ben Santer, climate research

For nearly a quarter of a century, Ben Santer has studied the nature and causes of climate change. He has tried to “untangle the human effects on climate from the background of the many natural influences on climate,” such as the sun’s radiation, atmospheric volcanic dust and El Niños and La Niñas.

Obama, in his inaugural address, promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and scientists like Santer are looking for support to fill the gaps of knowledge on global warming, including on precipitation and sea-level rise.

Santer, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, is an author of an important government report scheduled for release this year, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.”

Santer has contributed to all four assessments by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 1996, his chapter came to the cautious but then-controversial conclusion that the “balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

– Jane Kay

Chris Somerville, biofuels

As a plant biochemist, Chris Somerville has pioneered the search for clean liquid-fuel sources harnessed from the solar energy stored in nonfood plants.

Somerville is director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, an ambitious project financed by a $500 million grant from BP, the British oil company. It is the world’s largest alliance between industry and academia.

Somerville has made the study of biofuels for transportation, along with the social, economic and environmental impact of such fuels, the institute’s top priority.

His research teams are using global satellite imagery, geologic surveys and market databases to identify abandoned farmlands and nonagricultural soils that could support energy crops; trying to identify the plant species most suitable for biofuels; and using biotechnology laboratories to explore nature’s methods of releasing plant sugars and to create synthetic catalysts.

“We’re not in commercial development; we’re trying to understand it first,” said Somerville. “I feel optimistic. We’re trying to push the frontier forward.”

– Jim Doyle

Nancy Floyd, venture capital

Nancy Floyd is the founder of Nth Power in San Francisco, one of the first venture capital firms to invest in clean technology.

Speaking from the National Mall in Washington, where she was watching Obama’s inauguration, Floyd said she expects any technology that makes energy use more efficient to be in immediate demand – including technologies to upgrade the power grid, make buildings greener and distribute and meter renewable energy.

Clean technology won’t be spared from the recession, though. Large-scale renewable energy projects will be hurt and so will technology that depends on corporate capital, she said, because corporate budgets are tight.

Still, she said, the transition to clean technology is one the United States must make. Last summer, she told delegates at the Democratic Convention that more than 90 percent of new green jobs were going outside the country because of a lack of U.S. leadership.

“We’re not going to get back the old jobs. (Clean technology) is a way to create new jobs,” she said.


This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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