Clean technology boom: bigger than the Internet? Yes.

Journalist Marc Gunther, one of the media’s most prominent followers of clean technology trends, lays out the five reasons why he thinks the adoption of clean technology will be a bigger upheaval than even that wrought by the Internet. He predicts that between the size of the industries involved to generational changes that feed the public’s appetite for environmentally friendly products, clean technology will touch every thread of our lives. Gunther spoke at the Brodeur Clean Technology Forum at the Harvard Club in Boston in October 2008.


Big green claims invite scrutiny

The morning paper provides an object lesson in green PR: be careful what you claim.

The Wall Street Journal deconstructs and essentially debunks Dell’s claim of carbon neutrality, saying Dell failed to include in its carbon footprint things like “the oil used by Dell’s suppliers to make its computer parts, the diesel and jet fuel used to ship those computers around the world, or the coal-fired electricity used to run them.”

In fairness, the carbon footprint is an elusive and arbitrary concept. If I ride my bike to work, I’m saving gas and sparing the atmosphere of exhaust. Then again, my bike parts come all the way from Japan. Then again, an American car has a ton of manufactured parts compared to just 25 pounds of bike. Then again, riding makes me hungry, increasing demand for food that has left a carbon footprint as it’s cultivated, processed, packaged and shipped. Ad infinitum.

The Journal further complicates the carbon neutrality question by delving into Dell’s purchased environmental “credits.” Nonetheless, the paper is even-handed, quoting Bill Burtis, spokesman for Clean Air-Cool Planet, saying Dell is “going farther than most corporations” in trying to minimize its environmental impact. The story does not directly challenge the truth of any specific claim in Dell’s August 2008 press release, of which there are many laudable ones. Still, this was not the story Dell wanted to see.

How green is your Prius?

The Toyota Prius presents another example of a green-positioned product that could be a lot greener. The Journal spotlights a pair of mechanics transforming Toyota Priuses into plug-in electric vehicles, doubling the fuel efficiency of the world’s most popular hybrid. The souped-up (down?) machines still use gasoline, just half as much as the off-the-rack Prius, which gets 50 mpg.

If  you prefer biodiesel to electricity, check out this Motor Trend story on a Beverly Hills doctor purportedly using fat from liposuction surgery to power his SUV and his girlfriend’s Lincoln Navigator. This Wired story casts some doubt on the doctor’s assertion. Another green claim, albeit a dubious one to begin with, comes under scrutiny and bites the dust.

Greenest of them all

Wired brings all this abstraction and ambiguity down to earth in its list of Top 10 Green-Tech Breakthroughs of 2008. Number one? A humble cement plant. Really. And unlike the other cases, the environmental benefit seems concrete unassailable.

While traditional cement making requires a lot of heat (and thus, fossil fuel), “Calera’s technology, like that of many green chemistry companies, works more like Jell-O setting,” says Wired. “By employing catalysis instead of heat, it reduces the energy cost per ton of cement. And in this process, CO2 is an input, not an output. So, instead of producing a ton of carbon dioxide per ton of cement made — as is the case with old-school Portland cement — half a ton of carbon dioxide can be sequestered.” More here.

Bottom line? To be effective, green claims must be sincere, true, defensible, quantifiable and ready for close examination. Dell, it appears, may have pushed the sincerity envelope by declaring it had achieved carbon neutrality. Although the company is neutral by the marketing department’s yardstick, it’s not by the Journal’s. And who’s yardstick ultimately matters most?

Nothing says green like … Wally World?

Who’s greenest? Warm and fuzzy Apple? Crunchy Whole Foods Market? Or supposedly sinister Wal-Mart, the company that’s big-boxing America with help from the Chinese?

That’s right, Wal-Mart, according to a new report issued by the Ceres investor coalition of Boston.

The report uses a “Climate Change Governance Framework” to evaluate how 48 US companies and 15 non-US companies are addressing climate change through board of director oversight, management execution, public disclosure, greenhouse gas emissions accounting, and strategic planning and performance. Some of the largest global companies in 11 consumer and technology sectors were evaluated using a 100-point scoring system based on this framework.

Wal-Mart scored a 69 to Apple’s 28 and Whole Foods’ 27. The median score was 38.

Starbucks, another brand with nefarious intentions in the eyes of large pockets of consumers, came in at 52. Leading the ranking were buttoned-up Big Blue (79), Tesco (78) and Dell (77).

Hey, it’s just one ranking on one narrow set of criteria, but for me it’s a poignant reminder of the power of brand, trusted or not, to at least occasionally trump reality.

The contrasting tale of Tesla & Tango

Tesla Motors, the high-profile electric roadster maker, has fallen on tough times. Their founder, Elon Musk (who previously co-founded PayPal), is publicly battling former Tesla CEO Martin Eberhard, while his company’s financial fortunes plummet. The company’s been through two other CEOs as well.

Tesla’s burned through nearly $150 million of venture capital and has seen a planned $100 million financing round come apart while its cash balance dries up. They’ve asked the Fed for $400 million in direct loans out of the proposed $25 billion bail-out fund.

I hope Tesla makes it; they deserve a sustained shot, especially compared to the Big Three. Let’s not forget that Tesla figured out a way to design and bring to market a new concept green vehicle for $140 million. This is one tenth of what Detroit invests annually in its infamous Job Bank program. And unlike a lot of startups trying to get their product out the door, Tesla has received 1,200+ orders and builds about 10 cars per week.

The message with Tesla is consistent: electric, sex appeal, speed.

The Tango, by comparison, has taken a different road. This tiny, but incredibly nuanced plug-in vehicle is on a different mission: the re-invention of urban driving.

  • Only 36-inches wide, it maneuvers like a motorcycle.
  • It holds two and has headroom for a 7-foot NBA player.
  • Four Tangos can fit in a normal parking space .
  • With 2,000 lbs. under the floor (mostly batteries), the Tango has a very low center of gravity. It weighs the same as a midsize sedan and has a static rollover threshold equivalent to a 5-star NHTSA rating. It has a racecar-style roll cage design and 4-point harness design.
  • It’s the only currently-practical true zero-emission vehicle.
  • And yes, it’s fast, going from zero to 150 mph in one gear. Zero to 60 mph speed is four seconds, faster than a Dodge Viper, Porsche Carrera GT or Ferrari F50. And it’s faster than a Tesla, as shown in a recent track battle royale.

I chatted the other day with Rick Woodbury, the founder and CEO of Spokane, Washington based Commuter Cars, which makes the fastest urban car in the world. He said the Tango (designed using SolidWorks, a current client) was conceived from the ground up to forge a congestion-free urban future.

The Tango’s ability to maneuver through traffic is unparalleled. Maybe that’s why George Clooney is hooked. Or maybe it’s because it can park in thousands of heretofore-unusable parking spaces.

The Tango can change lanes to gain incredible advantage in traffic, “better than any car in history,” Woodbury said. And unlike a motorcycle, it’s safe, dry, climate-controlled and can securely carry a reasonable amount of cargo.

The Tango was designed for lane-splitting highway systems which permit driving between lanes of stopped or slow-moving traffic. California, Europe and Asia support this. Woodbury said the advantages are staggering, “In extremely heavy traffic, a Tango or motorcycle can travel in 20 seconds the distance a car travels in 20 minutes.” Imagine the possibilities.

Woodbury loves to talk about the economic justification of the Tango. He said the average U.S. urban commute is 20 miles. So if an executive earning $200,000 a year saves 20 minutes each way to work and back by lane-splitting, filtering and parking, this amounts to a savings of $1,600 per month. And you’re not burning fossil fuels: “There’s an unfathomable quantity of fuel wasted on gas every second.” He believes faster trips and a dramatically reduced auto footprint can ultimately reshape urban highway systems.

What’s Woodbury think of the proposed Big Three assistance package? “Bailouts are kind of crazy,” he said in his down-to-earth style.

In a time of handouts and bailouts, Woodbury’s not interested in being saved or getting acquired. “I just want to build a profitable company. I don’t want to owe anybody anything.”

Grid computing makes the world a better place

In 1999, the Seti@Home project was launched to take advantage of the world’s idle PCs in the search for extraterrestrial life. It was one of the earliest examples of volunteer grid computing: tapping the collective processing power of many widely scattered computers that are not normally centrally controlled.

Today, the World Community Grid is applying that same model for research projects that benefit humanity. Its mission is to create the world’s largest public computing grid for discovering new clean energy technologies  and other worthy scientific breakthroughs. WCG is making the technology available to public and not-for-profit organizations that might otherwise not do the research due to the high cost of a high-performance computing infrastructure.

It costs you nothing and couldn’t be easier to participate — a simple, one-click download is all that’s required to make your PC part of the grid. When you’re away from your PC, it will crunch data for a specific WCG project and send the results back to a central server. Each computation that your computer performs provides scientists with critical information that accelerates the pace of research. Check it out and get involved here.

Kamen segues into LED lighting

Inventor Dean Kamen has taken his three-acre island off the grid by retrofitting the buildings and grounds with LED lighting – some in dazzling colors – to cut power consumption in half. What power he does still need comes from wind and solar. The catch? It wasn’t cheap. Check out the details and the slide show.

Photo credit: John Brandon Miller, The New York Times

Clean technology experts bullish for change @ Harvard Club event

There was lots of passion on display at Tuesday’s Clean Technology event at the Harvard Club (disclosure: sponsored by Beaupre and Brodeur Partners).

Marc Gunther, Fortune magazine’s senior writer and sustainability expert opened the session with a talk called “The clean technology revolution: bigger than the Internet?” He said five pivotal forces will make this a reality: science; scale; stimulus, security and generational change. Here are some Gunther sound bites:

  • “Cleantech hasn’t had its Netscape moment yet.”
  • “The science is so compelling it’s hard to turn back.”
  • “This has become personal to them (CEOs). They are, on some level, thinking about their legacies – what kind of world they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren.”
  • “This is the growth sector for America.”

Gunther moderated a panel of frightful cleantech brainpower: Scott Clavenna, CEO of Greentech Media; Nick d’Arbeloff, Executive Director of the N.E. Clean Energy Council; William Huss, adjunct lecturer at Babson and former COO at XENERGY; Paul Maeder, General Partner, Highland Capital Partners.

Highlights from the panelists:

  • The pace of change isn’t fast enough, but New England is off to “a fantastic start.”
  • If Obama is elected, it will be positive for clean technology, “We’ll look back in six months and be amazed.”
  • The revolution will occur via 100,000 “small garages” vs. a Manhattan Project-like effort.
  • We’ll need unprecedented private sector creativity and public sector political power working together like they’ve never done before.
  • Investment and growth for cleantech is markedly different vs. the software industry.
  • The VC industry is ripe for upheaval; a shakeout is looming.

Cleantech VC guru Paul Maeder said “We’re going to have to look at new models of cooperation or we’ll all go the way of the duckbill platypus.”

Nick d’Arbeloff said “Government and policy played no role in the information technology boom, but energy is fundamentally different. The only way to solve our energy problems is to unleash the free market on them, but we also need a government policy foundation.”

Clean technology media pioneer Scott Clavenna said “We lost eight critical years. We need leadership from the top, at the White House. We need our (new) President to say, “This is what we’re going to do” and then stick with it. It’s time for a bold step.”

Former XENERGY COO and current Babson Adjunct Lecturer Bill Huss said companies developing energy efficiency technologies “can’t find people fast enough to hire into the industry.”

Fortune’s Gunther cited several examples illustrating how business is capable of playing a critical role in affecting societal change. “Despite the well-known flaws and problems with corporate America, we can see big and certainly small companies being significant drivers of change.”

Gunther should know. He’s interviewed the likes of Jeff Immelt and Michael Dell and wrote the September 29 cover piece about Hank Paulson. He’s a captivating storyteller, weaving fascinating tales about the impact of business on society. Check out his blog at

Utility-scale solar power in the spotlight

When I walked the aisles at Solar Power 08 it was salmon-packed-home-bound-up-the-river-time; you literally moved down aisles in slow motion. Like the telecommunications scene two decades ago, consolidation is coming fast to the solar industry. I’ve never seen so many manufacturers of photovoltaic (PV) modules; they’re not all going to make it. But it’s not just PV manufacturers here in San Diego, there’s a fully developed ecosystem including utilities, distributors, contractors, installers, architects, consultants and financiers.

The most amazing factoid I’ve heard so far is fresh data published by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), which co-sponsors the show with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

SEPA disclosed that utilities are quickly becoming the largest customer for the solar industry. Leading the way is Southern California Edison which has the most solar electric capacity integrated into its power portfolio. Overall capacity exceeds 409 megawatts. Pacific Gas & Electric has the most solar electric capacity on the customer side of the meter with 144+ megawatts. And there are dozens and dozens of other utilities upping the ante.

It’s not a cliche to say we’re only seeing the literal tip of the iceberg. 2008 has seen an unprecedented number of announcements of large solar power projects that include concentrating solar thermal and photovoltaic plants. The scale of activity is massive, over 5,500 projects ranging from 10 to 800 megawatt installations.

Lots and lots of jobs are also being created; over 4.2 million nationally at last count.

As Governor Schwarzenegger said “Solar is everywhere, it’s the future; it can’t be stopped.”

Everybody in San Diego is pretty pumped up this week; encouraging news for a struggling economic time.

Let the sunshine in.

Nation’s first greenhouse gas cap-and-trade auction launches

In case you missed it (most people did), yesterday saw the launch of the nation’s first mandatory cap-and-trade auction for carbon emission credits … with little fanfare.

Ten northeastern states, including our little Granite, will let polluters bid on a limited amount CO2 allowances – 188 million tons of carbon emissions annually, to be exact. The State Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI (pronounced ‘Reggie’), will cap emissions for 233 power plants, with a goal of reducing the cap an additional 10% by 2018.

But already the system has its critics. After a tepid first day of trading, the Wall Street Journal took a skeptical view of the program’s long-term viability. The New York Times pointed out how emissions cap will have little impact at first because it’s based on overestimates of CO2 output. And others cry that it’s no more than a tax in green clothing that will raise electric rates (which it probably will, at first, but lower over the long term).

But the critics are shortsighted. What’s more more important is that a real, free market-based cap-and-trade system for global warming reduction is now in place. There’s a platform and regulatory mandate for cutting greenhouse gasses that didn’t exist before. It’s a build-it-and-they-will-come opportunity. It’s a good first step.

Call me a green romantic. I know RGGI won’t save the world right away, but at least we’re finally giving power companies financial incentives to modernize plants, reduce emissions and explore alternative energy approaches. The program freezes greenhouse gases from power plants at current levels, and promises significant reductions long term.