There’s a great green business in bottled water

The cure for the runaway use of plastic water bottles has been right in front of my face every Tuesday night. It’s the beer tap in my local bar. With a few tweaks and some creative marketing, the tap could be the end of the perpetual stream of plastic bottles clogging landfills and waterways. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I squawked about back in 2009.)

Bottled water sales were supposed to have peaked – or “tapped out” in the words of the Washington Post – in 2009. That was good news for us crunchoid types who think bottled water is an over-used indulgence that consumes too much plastic and landfill space. The good times lasted a year. Despite public awareness campaigns by groups like, bottled water sales rebounded in 2010. The spring (no pun intended) 2011 edition of the bottled water industry’s trade magazine, the Bottled Water Reporter, announced that the industry was on the rebound and poised for growth in the U.S. and worldwide. And remember, the backdrop to this resurgence is that we didn’t make much of a dent in our 167-bottle-per-person-per-year habit when sales slowed in 2009, we just temporarily curbed its growth.

I’m on record in this space a few years back as having no particular quarrel with plastic. I just think we use too much plastic in the U.S., where clean tap water is the rule rather than the exception. Why burn energy to pump crude out of the ground, burn more to refine it into petrochemicals, then more to turn it into single-serve plastic water bottles? There are better ways, and I’m offering one to the bottled water and convenience store industries royalty-free:

Step One – Convenience stores, remove the cooler space currently devoted to bottled water.
Step Two – In its place, install a cold tap system with at least three or four spigots. One of them should always be local tap water.
Step Three – Invite water companies to rent a tap, install a branded handle, and hook it up to their own brand of water.
Step Four – Sell refills of branded water for a quarter a whack and give the local tap water away for free. Customers have to fill reusable water bottles. If they don’t bring them in, they can get one for a deposit – a hefty enough sum to encourage them to hold onto the bottle or bring it back, but not enough to scare them away.

There’s something in this for the stores and the water companies. The stores can devote less space to water sales and don’t have to re-stock single-serve bottles. They can brand their water bottles with their own logos and colors as promotional items. The water companies can bulk-package their product, which is cheaper and more environmentally sound. That should reduce the amount of static they get from the anti-bottle lobby.

I will admit there are a few holes in the plan that I haven’t yet figured out. How much does it cost to maintain a steady supply of clean water bottles, for example? Truth be told, I’d rather we all just drank local tap water and forgot about water that has to be pumped out of the ground (with electricity) packaged (in plastic) and transported (burning diesel fuel). But designer water has caught on, so why not use free market economic principles to accomplish something for the environment?

Nuclear will kill you! Nuclear will save you! A German-Japanese debate

Germany, which has never had a nuclear accident on the magnitude of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. At the same time in Japan, which is still trying to control one of history’s worst nuclear accidents, there is no serious opposition to nuclear power. The New York Times reports that a plan for expanding Japan’s nuclear industry, shelved as the crisis with the Fukushima reactors continues, will very likely be revived in the future because of the local economic benefits a nuclear plant offers.

The contrast between Germany and Japan’s nuclear attitudes invokes two recurring story lines in the larger environmental debate. The first is the inherent contradiction of nuclear power, and the second is growing faith in renewables.

Nuclear energy has always been a problem for us non-doctrinaire environmental types – environmental practicality and environmental disaster rolled into one. Go looking for opinions on what’s more environmentally sound, nuclear or fossil fuels, and you’re going to strike an emotionally charged mother lode. Some point to the respective death rates attributed to fossil versus nuclear. Some highlight the pollutants and greenhouse gasses fossil fuel plants emit. Others say it’s a false choice between two unacceptable solutions that draws attention from renewable energy development.

If you look at it from a day-in, day-out perspective, it’s hard to argue against nuclear. A nuclear plant does not emit pollutants during normal operation the way fossil-fuel-powered facilities do. Uranium enrichment is less environmentally damaging than coal mining, and much safer. Nuke plants operate for years on a complement of fuel rods. Fossil fuel plants need coal and oil shipped in constantly by rail or ship, which expends fuel and emits pollutants.

As Fukushima has demonstrated, though, when you go nuclear you’re entering a high-stakes game. Nuclear waste is arguably the most toxic material that humans produce, and it stays toxic for thousands of years. Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Kashima have huge social and economic costs. Five million people live in regions still contaminated with radionuclides from Chernobyl. The then-Soviet government of Russia had to move 350,000 people a safe distance from the ruined reactor. The town is deserted. The surrounding exclusion zone, where no residences or businesses are allowed, covers almost 300 square miles once occupied by 120,000 people. The reactor itself is still a danger. Nuclear experts are concerned that its concrete enclosure is decaying enough to raise the risk of radioactive dust.

Even when a nuclear accident occurs, it doesn’t take the familiar refrain of “if not nuclear, what?” to appear. I didn’t have an answer myself until this week. Germany provided it: renewables. Germany’s plan to get out of the nuke business does not include falling back on fossil-fuel-generated power. It’s based on the country’s long-term plan to go heavily into renewables.

This is Germany we’re talking about. Eighy-five million people. Europe’s largest economy. Source of some of the world’s finest science and engineering. Not a country or a people prone to irrational decisions made in the heat of passion. About 70 percent of Germans expect electrical rates to rise as nuclear is phased out, and they’re willing to pay the price. If they believe renewables can support a heavily industrialized economy, I’m sold. Germany is setting a goal that the rest of the world should aim for as well. Every major technological development in history looked crazy at one time. (A week’s worth of music on a credit card, anyone? How about guiding a rover around Mars from Earth like it was a radio-controlled car?) With the pace of renewable energy technology development, Germany’s goal looks less crazy than it does savvy.

Corner-store energy, or ‘yes please, in my backyard!’

Pro- and anti-nuclear activists hit each other with everything short of chains and broken bottles during construction of the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant back in the mid-’70s. The Clamshell Alliance opposition group occupied the construction site and waged a nonstop PR campaign against Seabrook right up to 1986, when the beleaguered plant finally went online. The consortium that built the plant countered with its own multimedia PR campaign, including one television spot featuring a woman who owned a backyard hydroelectric plant. The ad sticks in my mind because almost 30 years later, it raises a relevant issue in renewable energy and how to make it work best.

The ad depicted the hydro plant owner, an elderly woman wearing a trench coat with a scarf around her neck, standing in front of her hydro plant, which looked like a tool shed perched over a brook near her home. She was one of those redoubtable New England doyennes you see making long, detailed comments at town meetings and staffing the coffee pots at church suppers. Her message, delivered in clipped, no-nonsense Yankee diction, was that New England needed every energy source it could get, and not just “my little hydro plant” but Seabrook Station too.

I doubt I would have contradicted this formidable grande dame in person, but I wasn’t completely buying what she said. Why does electricity have to be created in huge, centralized power plants? The idea of getting my electricity from a network of neighborhood and backyard power sources tickled my imagination. Given a choice of buying my wattage from a nuclear plant perched upwind from the most heavily populated region in the U.S., or buying the same wattage from the nice old lady down the street, I’ll take “B” any day. Or maybe I could plug into the dairy farm two towns over that uses cow manure to power a small-scale methane plant, or the school bus company that put two wind turbines in their parking lot.

It seems odd to think of energy as a mom-and-pop industry like your local corner store, but with the way renewable technologies are developing, it’s not that far fetched. Think of it for a minute. How often can you read the news and NOT happen upon another idea for generating electricity, ranging from the familiar to the exotic? Energy from the sun, energy from the wind, energy from waves, energy from tides. Energy from garbage, energy from cow poop, energy from holes in the ground. Energy from waste water broken down into hydrogen atoms. Energy from fusing atoms together. Energy from weeds and algae. They all have the potential to make generating power as much a local business as the post office and the hardware store.

Consider concentrated solar photovoltaic (CPV) technology as an example. CPV modules pack more generating capacity into a smaller footprint than conventional solar photovoltaic (PV) modules. That means property that might not have produced economically practical amounts of electricity with PV modules now can. Picture your local storage space company, with all those acres of flat roofs. The owner makes most of his/her money on fees, but what if putting CPV modules on the roof turned into a profitable side business?

There’s an electrical production and distribution model called wholesale distributed generation (WDC) that’s gaining favor among renewable power advocates. WDC replaces large, remote power plants attached to the grid through long-distance transmission lines with smaller facilities hooked directly into local grids. It saves the land and cost of building new transmission lines to connect large facilities to local grids. The smaller facilities that thrive in WDC infrastructures will also require less permitting and face fewer regulatory obstacles. It’s a natural fit for local renewable energy sources, and a long-term sustainable power production model.

Allowing that renewable technologies were too immature 30 years ago to sustain the economy, I’ll concede the point made by the lady in the Seabrook commercial. Back then, facilities like her little hydro plant couldn’t carry the load, and realistically they still can’t today. In a few years though, don’t be surprised if you go to your local farmer’s market to shop for fresh local voltage along with fresh local produce. Technology writer Alex Steffen of predicted this movement four years ago, and his vision seems to be playing out.

“I think the things that would really blow us away if we could jump forward 20 years would not be the giant fields of windmills, but the 1,000 changes in daily life that have taken place in order to save energy,” he said in a Forbes interview. Power sources, he predicted, will move closer to home. “I think we’re going to see a lot more local energy, especially in places that are gifted with lots of sunshine, or wind, or strong rivers.  As houses and small communities produce their own energy, it will flow back and forth on ‘smart infrastructure’ two-way power grids that deliver from as well as to the home.”

Carbon negative, cactus positive, and other hopes for a solar future

I found myself sympathizing with former Gov. Schwarzenegger frustrations when I came across an article about the push to build solar energy facilities in the sun-drenched deserts of southwestern California.

The issue that got Schwarzenegger upset was a delay in permitting solar energy facilities in the Mohave desert region due to the presence of endangered species, the Mohave ground squirrel among them. Who would have guessed that solar power, the fair-haired child of the environmental movement, actually has an environmental price tag? Yes, those acres of sleek, shiny solar panels, which emit no carbon-laden smoke or radioactive steam as they diligently turn sunlight into wattage, can actually harm their host environments. The two poles of the California debate can be summarized thusly from press coverage:

Gov. Terminator: “I’m trying to clean up the environment and wean us off coal and imported oil, and you’re talking to me about freakin’ squirrels?”

Donna Charpied (Mohave desert resident and organic farmer): “Squirrels rock. You’re not screwing up my environment to clean up your mess.”

Caricaturing aside, it’s easy to see the legitimate points on both sides. Renewable energy is a huge part of our future – but not our whole future. Biodiversity and resource consumption have to weigh in the environmental equation as we seek alternatives to fossil fuels. For instance, conventional solar plants use tons of water per hour – between 500 and 1,100 gallons per megawatt hour – for cooling. Water is not a casual topic among people who live in deserts. Diverting huge amounts of it to solar plants can seriously stress local environments.

Part of the solution to disturbing vast tracts of desert landscape is mounting solar panels on already developed urban property. The roofs of warehouses and industrial facilities are the most frequently mentioned locations, and they doubtless have a role in closing the renewables versus carbon fuels gap. But think of it. How big is a coal-fired power plant? Really big, because it takes a lot of “big” to produce a lot of electricity. We aren’t going to replace that kind of output with solar panels on roofs alone. We need utility-scale solar facilities, and like it or not that means making environmental trade-offs to make long-term gains.

Wider use of solar technologies like concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) and dry cooling can shrink a solar facility’s physical footprint and eliminate its water consumption. Technology can’t however, shrink solar facilities down to nothing, or magically pop them onto a site without disrupting local species. Energy production, renewable or otherwise, has a price. It might cost money, or water, or land, or species displacement, but it’s going to cost. Wind, solar, biomass and biofuels are a better long-term energy solution than fossil fuels, but we have to get Zen about the fact that they’re going to consume resources. Differently from fossil fuels, and at a different cost to the environment, but they’re going to consume. Solar and wind farms take up a lot of land, as do the new power lines for carrying energy to market. Wind turbine blades will inevitably kill some birds and bats.

Complex problems seldom have simple solutions, and developing a new energy economy is about as complex as it gets. As a society, if we want the benefits that renewable energy sources offer then we have to expect to pay for them, if not in CO2 emissions then maybe in squirrels and desert vistas. The trick is using all the technology tricks we have in our bag to keep the price as low as possible.

Oh behave! Why environmental sustainability needs a new brand of communications

Hybrid vehicles have gotten more press over the last year than almost anything other than Charlie Sheen’s public implosion. Google the term “hybrid vehicles” with any major media outlet name – The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. – and you will find anywhere from 250,000 to 1.2 million hits for 2010 alone. PR industry journal The Holmes Report says the Chevy Volt’s 2010 “Volt Unplugged” launch tour helped the General Motors plug-in hybrid generate more than 5 billion media impressions last year. New players like the Chinese government and a Russian investor marketing a Soviet-era technology jumped into the market in 2010, creating even more interest.

And what did all of this hype deliver? A ten percent drop in 2010 hybrid sales, according to, attributed partly to the Toyota Prius’ woes, but still surprising considering the launch of new hybrids like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf hybrid.

In a similar vein, the death of the McMansion – oversized homes that waste space, energy and materials – was another media favorite last year; I chimed in myself on this very blog. The reality in the housing market? Not so hot for us small-is-beautiful types. Home buyers have become more environmentally conscious, according to a recent report on the public radio business show MarketPlace, but not at the expense of a three-bedroom house with two baths.

So are the lackluster sales of hybrids and construction of smaller homes a harbringer of long, bleak years for those industries? I’m going to say no, because there were sub-texts in both markets that point toward a promising future, albeit on the other side of a hard reality. The hard reality first: no one is going to get rich quick manufacturing hybrids or selling smaller homes. Shiny, happy press notwithstanding, electric cars and smaller homes strike at fundamental behaviors and habits that won’t change quickly. If the contrast between glowing media attention for hybrids and smaller houses and their mediocre sales is an indicator, then there are few fast bucks to be made in either industry. But there is profit out there for companies who identify their markets carefully and stay in it for the long haul.

Take General Motors. It isn’t booking too many Volt sales yet. However, on the “Unplugged” tour, the company laid the groundwork for success down the line. The tour emphasized Volt’s practicality as a family vehicle and let more than 6,000 potential customers test drive it. Family vehicle = daily routine = habit = something that fits into consumers’ lives without being forced in. Give it a few years, after the Volt graduates from the “science project” phase, and that marketing effort will pay off in higher sales among people who never thought they’d be plugging their car into their house to charge overnight.

In environmentally friendly housing, developers are tapping into a ready-made societal change – Baby Boomers downsizing their homes in retirement – to market cottage communities of small homes built around common areas and within walking distance of stores and other necessities. Just last week, USA Today recently reported that cities in Washington’s Puget Sound region have adopted ordinances to accommodate cottage housing. Washington architect Ross Chapin has already developed 40 “pocket neighborhoods” of homes under 1,300 square feet across the country.

For us in communications, the lesson in this contrast is that media coverage can sell a lot of non-essential products – computer games, electronic gadgets, Miley Cyrus concert tickets, etc. However, media coverage on its own does not move substantial goods like vehicles and housing. So as we try to help our sustainable technology clients succeed as businesses and not just as media creations, what should we do differently?

We need to practice a brand of communications whose end game is changing behavior, not just minds. An economy built on environmentally sustainable technologies starts with behavioral changes, like plugging cars into electrical sockets overnight. Successful communications campaigns in the coming years will be measured not by volume of media coverage, but by how visibly they helped shift behaviors toward a sustainable lifestyle.

Communications and public relations have traditionally been about changing peoples’ intellects – what they think and believe. Changing a person’s behavior means engaging their senses, their personal values and their community ties as well as what goes on in their minds. To promote renewable energy clients, maybe a smart phone app that tells the average consumer how many pollutants they save by walking a quarter mile to the store instead of driving is as good as the coveted Wall Street Journal hit in the long term. Maybe organizing environmental fairs with community groups and letting people see and touch sustainable products is more productive than spending a week sweet talking a CNN producer for a few minutes of air time. How many parents would get religion about scrubbers on coal-fired power plants if you showed them a transparent model of a child full of all the dioxin they’ll absorb by the age of 10?

Okay, maybe I don’t always know the difference between advocacy and scaring the hell out of people, but you see where I’m going with this. As an industry, are we up to providing our clients a new model of communications services? I say yes – and I have a feeling it’s going to be a ton of fun figuring it out.

Climate not changing? Tell it to tsunami victims

There’s nothing a climate change denier likes better than a good cold winter. “Hey, how’s that global warming working for you,” they’ll chortle as the sides of your nose freeze together in the latest Arctic blast.

First of all it’s not global warming, it’s climate change, and the changes are coming faster and faster with each passing year. If you want to know how “well” it’s working, take a look at what the earthquake and tsunami did in Japan the other day. The early death toll was 350, with more expected. More than 500 people are still missing, 1,800 homes have been damaged or destroyed, billions of dollars worth of property lost. The earthquake the caused the tsunami was 8,000 times stronger than the quake that leveled vast areas of Christchurch, New Zealand, just a few weeks ago

It was just seven years ago that an Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 150,000 people. See a pattern here? Extreme environmental events are on the rise. The most damaging tsunami on record before 2004 was the one that killed an estimated 40,000 people in 1782 following an earthquake in the South China Sea. There were a few more significant tsunamis before 2004, but they were spaced decades apart. In 1883 some 36,500 people were killed by tsunamis in the South Java Sea, following the eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano. In northern Chile more than 25,000 people were killed by a tsunami in 1868.

The Davos, Switzerland-based Global Risk Forum specializes in identifying risks of any kind to society. The group’s president, Walter Amman is convinced that climate change will lead to more disasters due to extreme weather. He told German’s Deutsche Welle that he believes that we no longer can or should argue that we merely register events more quickly and accurately than 20 years ago. “If you look at the number of those events over the last 10 years, then it is clear that they have increased in number,” he said.

Some people won’t believe the climate is changing until they see a polar bear raiding their backyard bird feeder. Hopefully, however, the majority will take events like the tsunami to heart and realize that things they do every day – what they buy, drive, burn, throw away – have a bearing on the life of the planet and everyone on it.

‘I’ve been working on the turbine, all the live-long day …’

A study that came out of Germany this week theorized that investments in renewable energy could pump as much as 600 billion euros into the European Union’s economies. The study, by Germany’s Institute for Climate Impact Research, forecasts a construction boom as owners retrofit homes and businesses to cut their energy costs, and as electrical utilities upgrade their existing grids into efficient “smart” grids.

So naturally, that made me think of railroads. Let me explain how the playpen of free association in my mind arrived at that comparison.

The railroads were the first quantum leap from colonial to modern America. Pre-railroad, the U.S. population huddled around harbors and rivers and lakes because they were the best means of transporting goods over long distances. Most of the American interior might as well have been Venus for all the good it was doing us. The massive agricultural plains of the Midwest were so far from major markets that it didn’t make economic sense to cultivate them on a large scale. There was no way to get the product to market. Then along came the railroads, and all of a sudden those empty acres in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas et al were a treasure trove. The railroads sparked one of the greatest economic expansions in history. As historian Chris Butler puts it on his site “The Flow of History,” “By 1900, railroads had virtually revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling whole continents tightly together (both economically and politically), helping create a higher standard of living, the modern consumer society, and a proliferation of new technologies. Although airplanes and automobiles would continue this revolution, it was the railroad that paved the way.”

The U.S. government subsidized railroad growth with land grants and military protection. It could have the same role in developing the renewable energy economy. Today, Congress and the White House are debating how much to support renewable energy economy’s development. President Obama put $16.8 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development into the 2008 recovery act. Deficit-conscious legislators in the House of Representatives want to scale that back.

The question is whether federal renewable energy spending is a drag on the economy (through deficits) or a growth path, as the German study suggests. The study’s author, Carlo Jaeger, doesn’t mince words.

“What we are showing here is that by credibly engaging in the transition to a low-carbon economy through the adoption of an ambitious target and adequate policies, Europe will find itself in a win-win situation of increasing economic growth while reducing greenhouse gases,” he writes.

What do you think? Is clean energy investment the next railroad, or interstate highway system, or Internet? Or is it just another debt to be paid off by the next generation?

Rare earth alternatives are as easy as mock apple pie

Every year, just a short walk from CleanSpeak’s home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Strawbery Banke historic museum puts on seasonal reenactments of life during different periods in American history. The most consistently interesting are the World War II era reenactments, when rationing and shortages ruled everyday life.

Walk into the kitchen of the 1940’s home and the lady of the house might be making a cake with no flour or eggs, or an apple pie with no apples – yes, the old “mock apple pie” recipe from the back of the Ritz cracker box. During those years, in the kitchen and beyond, every time ingenuity met shortage, ingenuity won. Oleo margarine replaced butter because the military needed fat for explosives. Nylon replaced imported Asian silk in parachutes as it previously had in women’s stockings. A chicory concoction – a vile brew by the few firsthand accounts I’ve heard, but better than nothing – substituted for coffee.

So when China makes more noise about curtailing the flow of rare earths vital to the renewable energy industry, I can’t get too bunged up. We’ve been there before. We’ll figure it out.

This sanguine attitude runs counter to much of the prevailing wisdom in sustainability circles. China produces 95 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, and its plans to cut back exports have sent tremors through the sustainability community. Wind turbine and hybrid vehicle manufacturers need rare earths to produce ultra-efficient magnets and batteries. Magnets doped with rare earth metals called neodymium and dysprosium generate electricity more efficiently than conventional magnets, and are also smaller and lighter.

The problem with these wonder metals is that they’re so environmentally harmful to produce that it undercuts the sustainability quotient of every wind turbine with a rare earth magnet. “Rare earths” aren’t rare. They occur in much of the world, but they occur in such small concentrations that it takes extensive production processes to extract them from raw ore. None of these processes are what you might call tidy. The New York Times reported that the main rare earth-producing mine and refining area in China is surrounded by metallic-smelling air, strip-mined hills, acid-laden streams, and a reservoir overflowing with toxic, slightly radioactive sludge.

This is in the name of clean energy?

There has to be a better way, and ironically it might be China that helps find it. China claims it is curtailing rare earth exports because of production’s environmental toll. As a card-carrying cynic, I think it has a lot more to do with China wanting to use the metals itself to help corner the world market on wind turbines.

In either case, China’s decision is spurring research into rare earth alternatives. Hitachi has developed a hybrid engine that uses high-efficiency ferric oxide magnets instead of rare earth magnets. Toyota is also working on a non-rare-earth generator. U.K.-based Chorus Motors has produced a hybrid engine that substitutes innovative mechanics for rare earths. Disk drive manufacturers, another big rare earth consumer, are developing bigger and better flash drives that don’t need magnetic media. The nanomagnetism research group at Northeastern University in Boston is working on magnets that have the same strength as rare earth magnets with none of the toxicity. They’ve already succeeded in reducing the cost and environmental footprint of rare earth magnets, which bodes well for efforts to replace them altogether.

I don’t know if any of these are an equal substitute for rare earths, but it’s obvious we need one. Poisoning the earth and water to save the air just doesn’t add up. A pie made with real apples (and my Irish grandmother’s recipe) is still the gold standard, as rare earth magnets may always be. But if it will help the environment to take the bronze, serve me up some Ritz crackers soaked in cinnamon and lemon juice.

Greenpeace as the tech industry’s green stamp of approval

Greenpeace has done its absolute best to be an epic pain in corporate world’s collective butt since 1971. So when Greenpeace says the corporate world is doing something right, there is an upside for said corporate world. After all, when just about every company in the world wants a good environmental record, who’s a more credible source than your most intractable green enemy?

A few days ago, Greenpeace released its third report on the computer industry’s green quotient. This year’s survey covered almost all of the heavy wood in the tech hardware industry: Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HCL, HP, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Blackberry, Samsung, Sharp, Sony Ericsson, Sony, Toshiba and Wipro. (Not Apple, though. The two of them have been like a pair of wet cats in a gunny sack since 2006, when Greenpeace apparently singled Apple out for criticism of its environmental practices because a fight with Apple would draw the most press attention.) The reports ranks 18 of the world’s top desktop, laptop, television and game console manufacturers on three criteria:

  • removing toxic substances from their products;
  • end-of-life takeback; and
  • energy efficiency.

For the first time since it started the report in 2006, Greenpeace says the industry is making substantive progress in all three areas on a large scale. The report’s subtitle isn’t all that glowing – “Getting Greener But Not There” – but the progress made in just two years looks impressive. When Greenpeace did the first report in 2008, none of the products surveyed could claim to be green. Only a few scored even five out of a possible 10 points. By 2010, the picture was a lot brighter. Most companies were scoring well above five out of 10. The gap between the highest and lowest scores was much lower than in the previous two surveys. The industry significantly reduced its toxic chemical use and exceeded energy efficiency goals. High-tech companies still aren’t doing enough in product end-of-life, according to the report, but it also went on to say that:

This is an incredibly competitive, innovative and solutions-based industry, capable of creating the changes necessary to guarantee a sustainable lifecycle for each product manufactured. From our first Guide to Greener Electronics in 2006 to this third Survey in 2011, Greenpeace has seen the industry’s ability to consistently put greener products on the market. We believe the industry has the ability to overcome these existing challenges.

That’s an extraordinarily upbeat assessment from a group that isn’t famous for its good manners. Greenpeace is one of those groups that gives even their sympathizers the shakes now and again. There’s an unmistakable tone of smug superiority in their campaigns and their public statements, and they often come across as insufferably self-congratulatory. Their rhetoric is often over the top, such as calling Dell a “bloody marketing machine” for failing to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their products on a previously announced schedule. Greenpeace’s more colorful stunts routinely make the news media. In 2009, the group painted “Hazardous Products” on the roof of HP’s Palo Alto headquarters to punish the company for reneging on a promise to build more environmentally friendly products. Greenpeace members have chained themselves to public buildings, disrupted missile tests on restricted government property, and played chicken with whaling boats (though the group says it opposes violent tactics like that of former Greenpeace member Paul Watson). Greenpeace members scaled a water tower near George Bush’s Texas ranch to spotlight his administration’s environmental policies. They run embarrassing advertising campaigns against companies that don’t subscribe to their environmental orthodoxy.

They’ve also done things that, whether or not you agree with them, take incredible personal courage. Greenpeace volunteers have wrapped their bodies around baby harp seals in Arctic temperatures to protect them from Canadian hunters. Others blockaded the hunters’ ships to give still more volunteers time to douse the seals with green dye to ruin their fur. Those tactics helped effectively end the trade in harp seal fur in Europe in the 1980s. Greenpeace has often suffered for their boldness. In 1985, a Greenpeace photographer was killed when French government operatives blew up the group’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” as it sat in a New Zealand harbor preparing to protest a French nuclear test. Japan has imprisoned two Greenpeace activists on trumped-up trespassing charges after the pair turned over information that documented illegal whale meat sales.

What this is all leading up to is that no one can dispute Greenpeace’s authenticity. Love them or hate them or indifferent toward them, you can’t deny that their environmental cred is sterling because they’ve put skin in the game for 40 years. And the high-tech industry needs environmental cred.

The tech industry’s high electricity and toxic chemical consumption and its products’ relatively short lifespan have made it a target for environmental groups agitating for a more environmentally sustainable economy. There’s a lot of greenwashing going on these days as tech companies try to prove they’re not molesting the environment as they’re going about their business. Journalists and the public are getting more suspicious of environmental claims. Greenpeace is immune to greenwashing charges. The tech industry apparently understands that as much as they might privately loathe Greenpeace – hello Steve Jobs and the HP headquarters staff – the group’s imprimatur carries weight with a public that cares more and more about environmental issues. When Greenpeace and industry have a symbiotic relationship – even an uneasy one – you know the world is changing.

From tail fins to hybrids with Russian and American accents

Events in Russia and the U.S. are making this a big week in eco-friendly personal transportation. Starting close to home, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid arrived at showrooms in California, Texas, D.C. and New York on Wednesday. The Volt’s release comes just a week after Nissan delivered its first Leaf hybrid to a customer in the San Francisco Bay area.

Russian Yo

The Volt is the American car industry’s first serious attempt at a mass-market hybrid on par with the Toyota Prius. GM has made several half-hearted attempts to develop electric vehicle in the past, in between corresponding attempts to kill the electric car industry before it became a threat. This included the EP-1, a leased electric vehicle that GM famously recalled, crushed and buried back in the ‘90s, and a fairly lame little science project in the late ‘70s called the Electrovette. It was a Chevy Chevette powered by a bank of low-tech lead acid batteries, and never made it into full production. With the Volt, GM is finally putting serious wood behind the hybrid arrowhead. It was named 2011 Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and is already lining up for a street fight with the Leaf, the 2011 European Car of the Year.

The hyper-hyped Volt’s appearance isn’t much of a surprise, but news out of Russia is. Russian mining magnate Mikhail Prokhorov this week unveiled a hybrid car called the Yo that claims 67 miles to the gallon, compared to 51 for the Prius. Prokhorov is bankrolling the company. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Russian products what comes to mind is vodka, caviar, oil, gas and gangsters. Russia has been such a wild west of organized crime and looting of public resources since the Soviet Union collapsed that it’s easy to forget the country produced some enviable engineering during the Cold War. One of those accomplishments, according to the New York Times, is the Yo’s ultra-efficient electric generator, which is paired with an engine powered by gasoline or natural gas. The engine runs at a constant, fuel-efficient rate and powers the generator, which produces electricity to power the drivetrain. Electrical capacitors absorb the starts and stops that sap conventional gas engines’ efficiency.

A new hybrid for the world’s ninth most populous country. A hybrid car battle in the U.S.

If this week’s hybrid news portends changes for the future, then another piece of auto-related news this week is a symbolic parting with the past. Chuck Jordan,  the General Motors design chief responsible for the iconic finned and chromed Detroit arks of the 1950s and ‘60s, died this week. His designs helped define post-WWII America, right up to the 1990s. Jordan’s designs symbolized American power, optimism and consumption. Maybe Mr. Jordan’s passing on the same day the Volt hits the market marks a change in the symbolism around American vehicles from consumption to a cleaner environment.