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