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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Fuel cells, sweaters may be the future of electricity

Jimmy Carter, are you listening? Smarter use of electricity will help the U.S. economize on energy and reduce its carbon footprint, but...

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

Jimmy Carter, are you listening?

Smarter use of electricity will help the U.S. economize on energy and reduce its carbon footprint, but that won't be enough, according to one panelist at a local gathering of experts this past week.

Reaching energy nirvana also means constructing more efficient buildings — and changing some behaviors to reduce consumption, said Doug Moore, an executive with mechanical-engineering contractor McKinstry. He means "wearing your sweater at home" in winter and "adding shorts to your business attire" in summer. Others on the panel, organized by technology group AeA, said the U.S. electricity infrastructure is beginning to resemble that of a Third World country.

Aging power plants and transmission lines have led to rolling blackouts in high-demand states like Texas and California. Most electricity in the nation comes from dirty coal plants. And although the use of renewable sources is on the rise, hydroelectric and wind power depend on weather and don't always produce maximum electricity at times of highest usage.

Add environmental pressures and the increasing global appetite for energy to the list of problems, and the outlook can seem dark — and chilly.

The answer, panelists said, is a "smart grid," decentralized and empowered by information technology to allocate power where and when it's needed.

"Smart grid is bringing the Internet to the operation of the power grid," said panelist Robert Pratt, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Smart meters would help energy utilities charge customers in ways that encourage them to use power during off-peak hours. And the a smarter grid would let domestic users sell electricity from solar or wind power back to the utilities.

Meanwhile, millions of electric vehicles with rechargeable fuel cells would serve as storage sites, absorbing electricity during the night and sharing it with the grid, if needed, at breakfast and dinner time. Smart energy will be controllable, reliable and "fundamentally digital," said William Holmes, of law firm Stoel Rives.

But don't forget that sweater.

— Ángel González

Beijing air service still has some kinks

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The first nonstop service from Seattle to Beijing is being promoted ahead of its June debut, but attempts to book a ticket suggest it's not quite ready for takeoff. China's Hainan Airlines kicked off the route this past week with a discount fare. A news release said the special would cost up to $648 including tax, but a reservations agent for the airline quoted a fare totaling $670.

Perhaps more disconcerting for Western travelers: The agent said the ticket could not be purchased with a credit card. Her instructions were to send a cashier's check or money order.

When pressed, she said a credit card could be used, for a 5 percent surcharge — if a credit application was filled out first and the reservation was paid for within 24 hours. But the promised credit application, supposed to be e-mailed, never arrived.

— Kristi Heim

Yahoo deal may be slowing Microsoft leasing in Bellevue

Microsoft still may end up leasing most of the 26-story City Center Plaza office building now under construction in downtown Bellevue. But two Eastside brokers — who emphasize they are on the outside looking in — say it may not be the sure thing it appeared to be a few weeks ago.

Maybe it's Yahoo's fault.

Microsoft's purported interest in leasing almost all the building's 570,000 square feet is the rumor of the year in local commercial real-estate circles. The principals have steadfastly declined to comment.

Tom Bohman, who runs Cushman & Wakefield's Bellevue office, says that earlier this year most brokers figured the big lease was a done deal. Now, he says, they're not so sure.

Gary Guenther, a GVA Kidder Mathews senior vice president, echoed that uncertainty in a talk to the Bellevue Downtown Association this past week. He said he'd heard that six weeks ago Microsoft and Beacon Capital Partners, the building's owner, were negotiating a letter of intent. As of last week it was off the table, Guenther said — but he wouldn't be surprised if it resurfaced.

Microsoft may have hit the pause button because of its pursuit of Yahoo, Bohman suggests. When companies merge there's often duplication to deal with, he says, so it wouldn't be surprising if Microsoft held off on making another big commitment for office space until that situation sorts itself out.

"But I've learned that just when I say Microsoft won't, they will," Bohman adds.

Microsoft already has signed up for 1.3 million square feet in two other unfinished downtown Bellevue buildings.

— Eric Pryne

Behar cuts the last cord to Starbucks

Howard Behar served his last day on the Starbucks board of directors March 19, severing the last tie to a leadership team once known as H20, for the first initials of Howard Schultz, Howard Behar and now-retired Chief Executive Orin Smith.

Behar had been president of Starbucks International and Starbucks North America for years, and was on the board for 12. Breaking that bond, he said a day after retiring, was "a surrealistic experience. But I'm 63, and I want to do something new and get outside my comfort zone."

Besides promoting his new book, "It's Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks," and serving on the boards of The Gap, Jewish Family Service of Seattle and a California retailer called Anna's Linens, Behar is setting out to change the world in big ways.

He wants to help solve problems with health care and Social Security.

"Everyone should have an understanding of how our communities work, and what each of our roles are and how we can contribute, rather than pointing fingers at each other," he said.

To that end, Behar and his wife, Lynn, have provided three years of funding for the University of Washington's first-ever joint course for MBA students and social-work graduate students. The class, which began in 2006, explores work-life balance and conflict and addresses social welfare and efficiency concerns in the workplace.

Behar also serves as a director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank that works on public policies for low and moderate-income people. He hopes that group will join with others to create a statewide plan through which citizens will reach a consensus on goals regarding education, transportation and other issues.

"We're going to take a stab at putting together a biennial report for the state" outlining what people say they want and how Washington is doing against those goals, Behar said.

— Melissa Allison

Comments? Send them to Deputy Business Editor Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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