Tech Industry

Week in review: Valentines for green tech

Cupid was sweet this week on the environment, with Congress earmarking billions for energy and even Google crashing the smart-grid party. Also: Microsoft planning retail stores.

Cupid was sweet this week on the environment, with Congress earmarking billions for energy in the economic stimulus plan, a contract awarded for a big solar power plant in Southern California, and even Google crashing the smart-grid party.

The $789 billion economic stimulus package, which the House approved Friday afternoon, includes tens of billions of dollars for energy through direct government investments and tax incentives. A vote in the Senate is expected Friday evening.

Overall, there is $50 billion for energy programs, much of it focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and $20 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy and efficiency, according to a fact sheet released by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office (click for PDF) and an Associated Press analysis.

Among the provisions are $5 billion to weatherize homes of up to 1 million low-income people; $11 billion toward smart-grid technologies to run the power grid more efficiently; $13.9 billion in loans to subsidize renewable-energy projects and transmission; $6.3 billion in state energy-efficient and clean-energy grants; and $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient.

That's good news for the green-tech industry, which as of this week also includes--to some extent anyway--search giant Google. The company on Tuesday muscled into the burgeoning smart-grid software business, showing off a prototype Web application that displays home energy consumption broken down by appliance. The software uses so-called smart meters, which can communicate home energy consumption back to utilities every few minutes.

The driving idea behind the Google PowerMeter iGoogle gadget--and nearly all smart-grid companies--is that giving consumers access to more detailed home energy data will lead to lower usage. There are dozens of smart-grid trial programs now going on, offered through utilities.

With its smart-grid push, Google is seeking to appeal directly to consumers, rather than working through utility-sponsored programs. Typically, smart-grid companies sell to utilities, giving them smart meters and software to help them operate the power grid more efficiently. As part of those programs, consumers can often get real-time information on energy use.

Speaking of utilities, Southern California Edison on Wednesday announced a giant solar energy contract with BrightSource Energy, which could eventually result in powering 845,000 homes with the sun's energy.

cellulosic ethanol
A new study sees cellulosic ethanol as a viable alternative for reducing oil dependence while protecting food crops. Sandia / Randy Wong

Through a series of seven projects, SCE intends to purchase up to 1,300 megawatts of electricity from Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy's solar towers that use heat to produce electricity.

Although the companies didn't provide a price tag for the deal, it's one of the biggest solar energy contracts to date in the U.S. and a validation of solar tower technology. The project still needs to be approved by regulators and financed.

Also in green tech news this week, cellulosic ethanol got a boost from a study released by Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors. The U.S. can replace one third of its annual gasoline use with ethanol by 2030, the study found. And of the 90 billion gallons of ethanol that need to be produced in 2030 to meet that goal, 75 billion gallons could come from cellulosic ethanol, according to the study.

Using cellulosic ethanol--or ethanol produced from forestry or agricultural waste--is considered a way to prevent the displacement of crops that feed humans.

Another study released this week blows away the claims of a different green-energy source. A multi-site study in the U.K. found that a marginal wind resource, particularly in cities, means that rooftop small wind turbines are unlikely to meet manufacturers' claims.

Tech economy gets some love
In addition to the earmarks for energy, other tech sectors stand to benefit from the economic stimulus package (the approval of which, as an aside, was being urged by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer). Most notably, the bill includes $7 billion in grants for extending broadband services to underserved communities, according to the fact sheet from Pelosi's office.

While the broadband grants remain in the bill, however, the tax credits for broadband deployment proposed in the Senate version of the bill were removed Wednesday. Critics of the tax credits have said they would disproportionately benefit large companies like Verizon that are taxed heavily and ready to deploy faster broadband networks.

The bill, at least in its latest iteration, also provides $19 billion to promote the use of health information technology systems and includes more than $15 billion for basic scientific research, including $3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $1.6 billion for the Energy Department's Office of Science.

Intel is doing its own part for the economy, announcing this week a $7 billion investment in U.S.-based manufacturing facilities, the company's largest investment ever in a single process technology. CEO Paul Otellini told a crowd of Washington elites that the current economic recession gives the nation an opportunity to make once-in-a-lifetime changes and investments for the future.

"For nations like the United States, absolutely nothing about the future is inevitable or guaranteed--not jobs, not leadership, not our standard of living," he said. "How we deal with these changes can lead us to new heights--or they will define the beginning of a downward spiral."

It will take both public and private investments, Otellini said, for the United States to remain the world's leading innovator as well as retain its manufacturing economy.

Despite the tough times and what, as a result, has been a mostly disappearing IPO market, a trickle of public offerings were expected to make their way to Wall Street this week. The high-tech industry, however, appears largely on the sidelines, with the closest tie being online dining reservations company OpenTable, which recently filed paperwork to go public.

In another reflection on the market, companies are relying on contractors in increasing numbers, according to recent listings from technology jobs site But optimists point out that could be a harbinger of an improving tech employment picture.

Microsoft courting customers
After years of brushing off the notion, Microsoft surprised many on Thursday by announcing it will follow Apple by opening up its own line of retail stores. Poll

Microsoft's retail foray
Should Microsoft go into retail?

Yes. It worked for Apple, it will work for them.
Yes. They need a place to show their wide range of products.
No. It's a terrible time to be going into retail.
Who cares? I still won't buy anything from them.

View results

Without detailing the plans, the company said it has hired David Porter, a 25-year Wal-Mart veteran, to lead the effort. Sources say that Porter's mission will be to develop the company's retail plans and that the effort is likely to start small with just a few locations.

Can Microsoft retail succeed where others have failed? On the surface, the decision to open a Microsoft chain of retail outlets sounds like a reasonable idea, says CNET News' Charles Cooper. With consumer spending plummeting, the competition for shoppers' attention is keener than ever. Why not hang out a shingle and give your wares top billing?

But this route has been fraught for technology companies who lost fortunes paying for under-used real estate compounded by bloated employee payrolls, Cooper contends.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, which has just received its 10,000th patent, has been making headlines this week with Windows 7 news. First, about timing: the company is moving forward with plans to launch the new operating system this year, although it still refuses to publicly commit to that goal.

PC industry sources in Asia and the U.S. tell CNET News that they have heard things are on track to launch by this year's holiday shopping season, which has been Microsoft's internal target for some time.

Microsoft is also putting the finishing touches on a program to offer Vista buyers a free or low-cost update to Windows 7. That program could kick off as early as July, sources said.

All the positive buzz for Windows 7, it turns out, is creating an interesting challenge for Microsoft: it appears to be making it tougher to get businesses to move to Windows Vista. And it's not like there has been a mad rush on that front to begin with.

Gartner did a survey in October that found about 30 percent of large businesses were likely to skip Vista and a significant number of other companies still hadn't decided what to do. Plaudits for Windows 7, combined with a weakening economy, could mean that as many as half of businesses decide to skip Vista entirely, according to Gartner analyst Michael Silver.

Meanwhile, the deadline has passed for enthusiasts to download the Windows7 beta, although you might be able to get in on a torrent site.

Also, Microsoft quietly reorganized its Zune team, splitting up the hardware and software teams, CNET News has learned.

The software and services portion of the Zune team--the bulk of its staff--will be added to the portfolio of Enrique Rodriguez, the vice president who currently runs Microsoft's Mediaroom and Media Center TV businesses. The hardware team, meanwhile, will now report to Tom Gibbons, who also leads the hardware design efforts within Microsoft's Windows Mobile unit.

And in honor of Valentine's Day, we can't help but highlight the software giant's touting this week of its romantic side. In a posting on the Channel 10 developer site, Laura Foy put together a list of Redmond products that show that "Microsoft is a super romantic love machine of a company."

Also of note
Amazon unveiled its long-awaited, second-generation e-book reader, the thinner $359 Kindle 2...A commercial U.S. communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite above Siberia Tuesday creating a cloud of wreckage...Apple has started rolling out a major redesign of its retail stores to focus on software and switchers...To stand out from the compact-camera crowd, manufacturers are trying bolder ideas like GPS, high-speed video, and high-end sensors...Facebook's '25 Things' meme may have actually pulled in extra traffic to the site...Put down that Hallmark card and see which gadgets have broken Crave contributors' hearts.