California Inc.: Finding the green car that suits you

Welcome to California Inc., the weekly newsletter of the L.A. Times Business section.

I'm Business columnist David Lazarus, and here's a rundown of upcoming stories this week and the highlights of last week.

Looking Ahead

Film tax credits: Under an expanded state program, the California Film Commission will start taking applications today for some of the $48.3 million in tax credits for filmmakers producing movies in the state. It also has $6.9 million in credits earmarked for independent film projects. The window for applications closes July 25.

Consumer spending: The Commerce Department will release June's retail sales figures Tuesday. The key economic indicator, viewed as an important barometer of economic vitality, has shown growth in the last three months. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. So when stores are doing well, the economy is doing well.

Interest rates: Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen will be on Capitol Hill for two days of testimony starting Wednesday as the central bank nears its first interest rate hike since 2006. She will appear before the House Financial Services Committee first, then the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday.

American Apparel: The struggling Los Angeles clothing maker will hold its annual shareholder meeting Thursday in Chicago amid a swirl of discontent. Layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours have sparked employee protests, while American Apparel Inc. continues to battle lawsuits filed by founder Dov Charney, who was fired as chief executive last year.

Emmy nominations: The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will reveal the nominations for this year's Emmys on Thursday — but at a later hour than usual. Whereas past nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. — presumably with the help of a lot of coffee — this year they'll be made public at the more sensible hour of 8:30 a.m. Many in the TV world, no doubt, are grateful for the change.

The Agenda

Today's Business section focuses on advances in environmentally friendly cars. A decade ago, drivers who wanted to go green had little choice beyond Toyota's Prius hybrid. Today the selection of efficient, lower-pollution cars includes a bewildering array of technologies and models — hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery electrics, diesels and hydrogen fuel cells. Conventional gasoline cars, meanwhile, have made great strides in going farther on less fuel. We offer tips on picking the ride that's right for you.

Story Lines

Here are some of the other stories that ran in the Times Business section in recent days that we're continuing to follow:

Big Science: Pioneering physicist Ernest O. Lawrence transformed American science over nearly three decades. The inventor of the cyclotron, Lawrence placed UC Berkeley in the forefront of physics, saved the Manhattan Project from cancellation and threw his stature behind the development of the hydrogen bomb. What you might not know, as business columnist Michael Hiltzik relates in an excerpt from his new book, "Big Science: Ernest Lawrence, the Cyclotron and the Birth of the Military-Industrial Complex," is that Lawrence also invented a color TV tube in his garage.

Healthcare mergers: A gusher of Obamacare money is fueling a merger frenzy in U.S. healthcare. The latest jolt came when Woodland Hills insurer Health Net Inc. agreed to be bought by Medicaid insurer Centene Corp. for $6.8 billion. And more billion-dollar deals are in the works.

Changing agencies: Hollywood's talent agencies have long had a reputation, in the public's imagination at least, as a world of fast cars, rooftop bars and foul-mouthed, phone-throwing power brokers who will stop at nothing to advance their clients' interests. The highflying, go-go culture of the agencies has given way to a more restrained, fiscally disciplined one in recent years.

Sports betting: Yahoo Sports has raised the stakes for fans of its fantasy leagues, launching a daily and weekly betting service that could introduce tens of millions of people to legalized online sports gambling. The announcement of Yahoo Sports Daily Fantasy comes at a time when the Sunnyvale, Calif., company's advertising revenue has been stagnant.

Early releases: Paramount Pictures will bring some of its movies to home video much earlier than usual in an experiment that could foreshadow a broader shift. The studio, through a partnership with AMC Theatres and Cineplex Entertainment, will make two of its upcoming films available on digital home video 17 days after the films end their runs at most theaters. The deal is the first of its kind between a major studio and leading theater companies.

Alarming outages: The outages came one after another last Wednesday morning: United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal. The spate of technological foul-ups ignited widespread speculation about hacking attacks and conspiracy theories, but government and company officials said the causes were more mundane. The shutdowns nonetheless raise concerns about the vulnerability of vital organizations.

Studio tax breaks: Louisiana has long attracted TV shows and movies, such as "American Horror Story," "Jurassic World" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," with lucrative tax breaks that reimbursed filmmakers 30% of their costs. But a recent law imposes a $180-million cap on the amount of film tax credits the state redeems annually and suspends the state's film tax credit buyback program for one year.

What We're Reading

And some recent stories from other publications that caught our eye:

Greece's future: A strongly worded opinion piece in the Guardian makes the case for why Greece must exit the euro. It says warnings that this would lead to global financial catastrophe are "bankers' drivel." The reality, the Guardian says, is that Greece has no business remaining in the Eurozone. "Greece is bankrupt," it says.

Angel investors: The New York Times asks a topical question regarding start-ups: How many angel investors is too many? Last year, nearly 3,000 early venture capitalists participated in a financing round, more than triple the 822 angels in 2010, according to CB Insights. "For entrepreneurs," the Times says, "nabbing numerous angels — and prominent ones to boot — has become a kind of trophy collecting, a chase that comes with some risk for their companies."

Energy storage: Pacific Standard examines how California is pushing utilities to invest in costly projects designed to store massive amounts of electricity. One expert estimates the price could run as high as $5 billion. The idea is that all this could lead to genuine technical breakthroughs for energy grids worldwide. "If that happens," Pacific Standard says, "the world will have California ratepayers to thank for picking up the tab."

Hackers for hire: A worrisome read from Bloomberg Business tells how a pair of tech consultants assisted drug traffickers in hacking the Port of Antwerp. The case allegedly shows how mobsters and hackers team up to manipulate global logistical and transportation networks for huge gain.

Empire of Vice: The Columbia Journalism Review casts its eye at the growing media empire called Vice, which attracts a big online audience for its news and culture shows. The company is now expanding its TV footprint, including a deal with HBO to produce a daily 30-minute newscast. "It's not the worst time to make a play for nightly news," says CJR.

Facial recognition: The Atlantic looks at the thorny issue of regulating facial-recognition technology. Unlike other means of online identification, such as browser cookies or email addresses, faces are different. "We're stuck with our faces," the magazine observes. "Facial recognition and other biometrics bind data about us to us like nothing else."

Today's Cool Consumer Tip

Planning to be away from home for a while, maybe for a remodel or repairs? Most pay-TV companies will allow you to suspend your account and not pay your usual monthly bill. Time Warner Cable, for example, will allow customers to suspend their account for two to six months for $20 a month. Why not just cancel service and then sign up again later? That would work too, but you'd lose any money-saving discounts or special offers you might have.

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Until next time, I'll see you in the Business section.