Mind the Gap

Just this year, government agencies around the globe, from the United States to Germany to New Zealand, have generated studies warning that world oil production is within a few years of peaking. Projections for peak world oil demand, however, don’t match up with the projected peak in production.

That mismatch is a problem which only gets worse once past the peak. Current world oil production models see a bumpy plateau that lasts a few years and then a decline rate of about five percent a year sets in as a lack of new discoveries fails to make up the difference. The gap between supply and demand quickly becomes a chasm.
Renewables – wind, solar, biofuels – are seen as a way to erase that gap, but practical realities intrude. Take wind and solar. They really aren’t drop-in replacements for most oil uses; most notably in transportation where some 70 percent of oil gets used. Electric cars are still in their Model T era (fancy dashboard electronics aside) and lack the nationwide infrastructure for refueling, maintenance and repair that took decades to build out for gasoline and diesel vehicles. Biofuels also have a number of shortcomings as petroleum replacements, starting with their lower energy density per unit and moving on to their small scale of production that will limit their ability to make any significant contribution to closing the gap.

So, how best to narrow the gap? Well, at the outset, peak oil largely presents a liquid fuels and transportation problem. A real focus on driving efficiencies into the transportation sector would be a good place to start. We’ve lived large for decades because energy has been cheap. That needs to change and the good news is that it can. Trains, for instance, are far more efficient for long haul freight, even if it’s a diesel locomotive doing the pulling. Shorter distance delivery can be done by electrified trucks. On the gasoline passenger car front, 40 miles per gallon is becoming the new 30 mpg here in the United States. And, of course, getting more people on better trains that go more places would be a big help.

The real gap, ultimately, might better be seen as the one between our current scale of living and the one that our current mastery of physics can support. Fortunately, work continues apace on that front, too.

Branding innovation at Greenbuild 2010

I kept an eye out for branding innovation at Greenbuild 2010 as I maneuvered my way along (what felt like) miles of floor featuring over 1,000 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees.

Branding highlights:

  • Social responsibility alignment – besides the typical association with energy saving and planet-survival, some Greenbuild companies extended their brands beyond the oh-so-obvious. Accoya, for example, had a “Sign our wall” fundraising effort with every signature translating into $10 for Haiti rebuilding. Other companies displayed Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbons. Shaw asked people to respond to Twitter queries so it could donate $1 to the Make It Right Foundation, helping rebuild the Hurricane Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Good for them, good for the world.
  • Transparency – Interface Floor won my prize for branding transparency. A massive graphic displayed above their booth featured a black and white illustration of a brain beside a barrel of oil. Their messaging platform: “Be smarter than oil.” Gradually leaving its oil industry connections behind, the company’s mantra is zero environmental impact by 2020. Clear messaging permeated the booth on laminated cards: “16 years and counting to becoming a sustainable company…” Other companies shy away, evade or obfuscate; this brand appears to be living its stated mission.
  • Personal reinvention – David Gottfried wore shoes as he autographed free copies of his book “Greening my life.” The founder of USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) and LEED standard creator personalized his brand, sharing insight into his personal transformation from hard-charging empty life exec to green-inducing happiness. Kudos for having the guts to share lessons learned with others.
  • Promotions – not surprisingly, the top tease prize at Greenbuild 2010 was the iPad. Several companies featured iPad promotions including Dupont and NCI Group. My favorite giveaway? The cool hybrid Sanyo Eneloop bike.
  • Living its mission – While 80% of Greenbuild 2010 exhibitors are indistinguishable (packing too many products, imagery and pleas into every corner of space), Dyson stood out with its “less is more” approach. Only two products were featured: hand dryers and bladeless fans. The booth was white, spacious and all messaging was tightly displayed on five panels. Copy was simple and memorable, contrasting the way it used to be with the way it is now (thanks to Dyson).
  • Let’s have fun – Next time a company or client says “our stuff is in the weeds; we can’t do much creatively” remember Bluebeam. This company essentially has a better Adobe: a PDF based real time project collaboration file management tool. Yawn. But Bluebeam made the mundane come alive with its “Mighty Bluebeam” cartoon character, case studies galore, comic books, exhibit booth worker matching t-shirts and fun messaging like “It’s PDFin’ time!”
  • Interactive messaging – Most companies struggle with messaging. Not only trying to explain what they do, but also finding clever ways for people to “get it” and relate. Kudos to SYNLawn and SAGE for doing both. The former divided its narrow booth into three sections, allowing visitors to putt on a golf course, feel astro turf in a stadium and stand on a front lawn at home. Dynamic window maker SAGE (disclosure: client) made its “Power to change” tagline come alive several ways, including windows showing multiple exterior views and an interactive exhibit where visitors pressed a button and the glass transformed. Whenever messaging can be experienced like this, it’s a very powerful thing.
  • Green nation building – standing out from a sea of corporate sameness were… countries. Scandinavia, Canada and France all sent delegations to Greenbuild 2010, positioning themselves – via products, technologies and companies – as green-inspired economies.


Fossil fuels = slavery?

If you have any doubt about the power of messaging, consider how we talk about renewable energy.

If you want someone to oppose renewable energy, talk about dollars. If you want someone to embrace renewable energy, try comparing fossil fuel use to slavery. Point out how our stubborn consumption parallels history’s reluctance to relinquish the most horrifically cost-effective of all labor.

Dollars: The New York Times just published a withering story on how the relatively high cost of renewable energy is delaying and scuttling wind and solar projects. By cost, we mean the price you pay a utility for power generated by that means. In this light, renewables are a luxury we can’t afford. (Of course, rates never account for the long-term cost of climate change, including health care impacts, nor God forbid, ecocide. Nor do they account for the cost, in dollars and lives, of foreign wars to keep our oil coming.)

Now consider slavery: That’s right. Purely economic arguments sustained slavery, as they do unfettered fossil fuel consumption, long after it should have ended, University of Michigan Professor Andy Hoffman points out. Hundreds of businesses had vested interests in the continuation of slavery. Apologists for slavery warned that abolition would end our “way of life” and crush the economy. They argued for self-regulation and quotas under the premise that capping the quantity of enslaved human beings would somehow mitigate the disgrace.

You see parallel arguments today in the crusading defense of ratepayers against even the slightest increases, the fetishizing of big vehicles (that thing got a Hemi?), and merely token investments in renewables.

Writes Hoffman:

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel towards 18th-century defenders of slavery? If we are to address the problem adequately, the answer to that question must be yes—our common atmosphere will no longer be seen as a free dumping ground for greenhouse gases and other pollutants. (via TreeHugger.com)

True? Melodramatic? Hyperbolic?

ARPA-E’s fate foretells cleantech’s future

Folks across the entire political spectrum concur the new election may blow a chilling wind across the cleantech industry (if you omit nukes). Budget-cutting is job #1 for this upcoming Congress, and the change of guard within key budget appropriation committees does not bode well for future government cleantech investments.

While all eyes are on cap-and-trade legislation and how the House will act to block EPA climate rules, perhaps the better barometer of cleantech’s future is the continuation of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) funding.

ARPA-E was created in 2008 with strong bipartisan support to reverse the nation’s falling position in global clean technology markets. What DARPA did for national defense, ARPA-E was to do for energy technologies, bridging the “gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation.”

But ARPA-E didn’t really get off the ground until the Obama administration, when Stimulus Bill funding filled its budget coffers. Since then, the agency has funded 37 cutting-edge projects from an initial pool of 3,600 applications. By most accounts, the program has been a strong success, as the New York Times points out:

Last week marked the anniversary of the first round of grants for the Department of Energy program, which is charged with finding game-changing energy research and awarding jolts of funding. Business leaders and other energy experts say ARPA-E not only has found such “breakthrough” projects, but has unleashed interest throughout the innovation chain – DOE, universities, corporations, startups and the financial world.

Beaupre client, SAGE Electrochromics, is one such example. In March it received $72 million in loan guarantees from the program to develop dynamic window glazing technologies that make buildings highly energy efficient. It has since broken ground on a new 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Minnesota that is bringing 160 new green jobs and 200 construction jobs.

But SAGE’s immediate impact is the exception within ARPA-E .  Most projects probably won’t start yielding big results for at least five years. As the mid-term election showed, Americans are impatient. Congress already punted on funding ARPA-E for the current fiscal year, saying current Stimulus funds should be sufficient for now. Who knows what the lame duck Congress will do.

With a Teaparty-inflamed House itching to slash and burn budget expenditures anywhere they can find them, ARPA-E will be the bellwether by which America regains its advantage or falls farther behind the world in clean technology innovation,  along with all the good jobs and good karma that comes with it. DARPA gave us the Internet. A short-sighted vote to chloroform ARPA-E could be an equally monumental loss.