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GreenBiz Weekly Roundup: Google’s Foray into Solar Tech, World Bank Freezes Palm Oil Funding and More

Our weekly roundup of news items to supplement our daily coverage.

Google Searches for Cheaper Solar Power

Google wants to sharply cut the costs of building solar thermal plants, and the search engine giant is developing new mirror technology to do it. Bill Weihl, Google's green energy czar (yes, that's his title), talked about the plan this week at Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco.

"We've been looking at very unusual materials for the mirrors both for the reflective surface as well as the substrate that the mirror is mounted on," Weihl said, according to Reuters.

Google engineers, who have mostly focused on solar thermal technology, want to reduce the cost for making heliostats, the reflective devices that track the sun, "by at least a factor of two, 'ideally a factor of three or four,' " Reuters said in its account of Weihl's talk.

The company also is exploring development of turbines that run on solar power instead of natural gas.

Google's projects grew out its 2-year-old clean energy initiative -- a move to invest in and create technology that can ultimately produce utility-scale renewable electricity that's cheaper than power generated by coal.

World Bank's Investment Arm Suspends Lending to Palm Oil Companies

The World Bank's International Finance Corporation won't be making any new investments in palm oil firms pending a review of its lending practices to the industry. Existing investments are also under scrutiny as a result of environmental concerns raised by NGOs following the release of an internal audit that showed funding of one of the world's largest plantation developers violated IFC procedures.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick detailed the steps the organization is taking in a recent letter to the coalition of NGOs that had written to protest the loans and guarantees provided to Wilmar International.

"I have directed IFC management to take all necessary steps to ensure that the problems identified in the CAO audit are not repeated," Zoellick wrote in the letter that published this week.  "Furthermore, until we have a new strategy in place, IFC will not approve any new investments in palm oil. I have also asked IFC to review the environmental and social performance of all portfolio investments in palm oil. We are committed to ensuring that positive development outcomes-including environmental and social sustainability-remain at the core of IFC's development business."

Wilmar International received $33.3 million in investment guarantees and $17.5 million from 2003 to 2008 from the IFC, which has invested $132 million in palm oil projects in Asia, Central America, Ukraine and West Africa, according to BusinessGreen.

The palm oil industry -- and firms support it or use the product -- have been under fire because of the deforestation and habitat loss that results when tropical forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

Environmental groups have called for guarantees that sustainability practices are followed in palm oil production, and absent that for firms to stop using the substance in their products.

Cadbury's New Zealand operation recently agreed to remove palm oil from Dairy Milk chocolates sold in the country and revert to an earlier recipe for the sweets in response to complaints from consumers. Buyers were suspicious of the source of the palm oil despite assurances from Cadbury that it used "certified sustainable palm oil." Consumers also complained about the taste.

UK Rolls Out Dual Fuel Bus Powered by Diesel-Biomethane 

A transit bus fueled by diesel-biomethane that could roughly halve emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants made its debut this week.

The University of East Anglia's Low Carbon Innovation Centre brought together the consortium for the project that converted a conventional diesel bus from the Anglian Bus fleet into the dual fuel vehicle. The bus was among the vehicles on display at LCV 2009,  a major low carbon vehicle tech expo in the United Kingdom.

First Solar and China Plan 2GW Photovoltaic Farm in Mongolian Desert

First Solar signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government this week to build a 2-gigawatt solar power facility in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia.

The plant is to be built in four phases beginning with a 30-megawatt demonstration project that is to start construction next June. Subsequent phases are to be 100 megawatts, 870MW and finally 1,000M, the last to be completed by 2019.

Image CC licensed by Tambako the Jaguar (on the sea).



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