A plug for plugging in

About eight years ago, one of my best friends scoffed at my newly purchased electric lawnmower and even louder at the reason I bought it. I had decided against a new gas-powered mower because I had read how much junk their two-stroke engines release into the atmosphere. My friend said that my electric lawnmower was no more environmentally friendly than his two-stroke mower because they both burned fuel, just in different places. His lawnmower did it in his own yard, while mine did it at coal-fired power plants here on the New Hampshire Seacoast, the source of my mower’s electricity.

Full disclosure: My buddy is not exactly objective when it comes to green issues. He’s about as environmental as a barrel of dioxin. He sells building materials and one of his favorite jokes is “I love spotted owls. They’re all we ate on the baby seal hunt.” You get the idea. So maybe he was dissing my lawnmower to get even with me for the year I gave his daughter a copy of “The Lorax” for Christmas, but he had a point. It’s a point society has to address as products like plug-in hybrid cars hit the market making claims at green cred. For example, General Motors is staking a lot on its soon-to-be released Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. If, however, buyers don’t see economic and environmental upside in the Volt and its ilk, these products are going nowhere. It’s a given that plug-in hybrids burn less gasoline than their internal combustion-only cousins, but they don’t necessarily consume less energy.So they can’t be much better for the environment, right?

There is an answer to that knock against plug-ins, but government has to supply a critical missing piece before the answer stands up to scrutiny. The answer is based on the difference between point and non-point sources of pollutants. Power plants are “point” sources of air pollutants. Cars, lawnmowers etc. are “non-point” sources. It’s a distinction lost on most people, including my owl-munching friend. (I’m pretty sure he was just kidding about the owls, but I couldn’t swear to it.) This distinction gives plug-in hybrids the potential to change our transportation energy consumption habits for the better.

Point-source pollution is easier to manage than non-point source pollution because it’s easier to equip one power plant with effective pollution control technology than to equip 100,000 cars. Today’s emission control technology can remove up to 80 percent of the toxins, greenhouse gases and particles from smokestack exhaust. That could make plug-in hybrids an environmental improvement over conventional cars and their tailpipe emissions. “Could” is the key word, however. Most American power plants aren’t equipped with advanced environmental controls, especially carbon dioxide capture technology. Coal-fired power plant owners have consistently resisted retrofitting their plants with the highest levels of pollution control technology because they say it would drive up the cost of power. In some cases, the government has backed them up. The Department of Energy reported in 2008 that existing carbon dioxide capture technology isn’t cost effective on large power plants. Not surprisingly, there have been no government mandates for cleaner coal-fired power.

Can plug-in hybrids or my electric lawnmower make sense while coal generates 49 percent of America’s electricity? Yes, there are two reasons why plug-in hybrids are still a good idea. The first is that emissions control technology will get cheaper and more efficient if the federal government mandates it, which is the only way to create a market for it. The second is that plug-ins change how we think about our cars, and for the better. With wind, solar and biomass power gaining momentum, the grid will get greener. As it does, plugging in will make more and more sense than filling up. It will probably take a long time before conservation and renewable energy take a significant bite out of coal’s generating capacity, but it’s going to happen.

In the meantime, I think I’ll just let my grass grow longer and avoid the mower question altogether.

Kindle 2.0 a new wave in reading, but an old story in recycling

Books, magazines and newspapers on one hand, Amazon’s Kindle 2.0 reading tablet on the other. A classic matchup of the old and the new, of a better way of doing something that’s been done for centuries. A tale of trees saved, of landfills spared the bulk of unwanted paper and the detritus of broken and obsolete Kindles, because Amazon has set up a recycling program to recover batteries and other potentially harmful components after Kindle loses its final spark.

However, it’s open to debate how effective recycling programs like Amazon’s are. High tech products account for about two percent of the American solid waste stream, according to the EPA, but that percentage is growing rapidly. If the waste stream is growing as manufacturers like Amazon, Dell, Apple, HP and IBM are enacting recycling programs to gain green cred, then something isn’t working. But before throwing cold water on the Kindle, let’s dwell for a minute on its potential appeal to consumers and its considerable environmental upsides.

Should Kindle 2.0 take off with the predicted gusto, it could be the turning point in paperless reading. Kindle, and less-heralded cousin produced by Sony, have what previous generations of electronic reading tablets have lacked; enough convenience, portability and content in one compact package to wean readers away from hard copy books and periodicals. Kindle is thin, light, and can run for four days on a single charge. Its screen uses a technology called “E-Ink” that employs physical ink arranged and re-arranged electronically as the reader flips along. E-Ink is easier on the eyes than conventional screens and doesn’t fade in bright light, so Kindle works everywhere books do. Except that Kindle is a whole library, because its wireless access capabilities provide almost ubiquitous access to a quarter million publications, with more on the way every day. Writing in Slate and Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg makes an excellent case that Kindle can revolutionize the reading and publishing worlds as the dominant reading media of the future. Kindle 2.0, in other words, could be the iPod of reading.

If Kindle becomes the dominant mass reading media, it will have vast environmental benefits. Removing paper from the reading equation saves billions in natural resources and environmental impact. Hard copy publications consume trees and cotton fiber for paper, soybeans for ink, fuel for shipping to retailers, and more fuel for taking back overstock. Pulping and recycling unwanted hard copies means using lots of electricity and, often, chlorine bleach. Books, magazines and newspapers that aren’t recycled take up landfill space. If the landfills are uncapped, they’re probably leaching old petroleum-based inks into water tables, and even soy inks in enough volume can probably damage ground water.

Those benefits are on the front end. The back end is another story. Manufacturers’ recycling programs are not stemming the tide of discarded electronics, and that’s not exclusive to Kindle and Amazon. It applies to Apple iPods, Dell laptops, HP printers, Sony Playstations, and just about anything else that beeps when you turn it on. Most of the current programs place too much onus on the consumer to contact the manufacturer, package the unwanted item, and ship it someplace for recycling. It’s still easier for the average consumer to just bury the dead laptop in his/her trash can and let the garbage crew deal with it.

Yet those same consumers will fill a bucket with used plastic bottles and metal cans and set it out right next to their trash can for curbside recycling. The key is convenience. The industry needs a new recycling model that includes incentives, penalties and convenience. Many municipalities charge homeowners by the bag to haul away trash, but allow unlimited free recycling. In a twist of that model, why not tack on a mandatory refundable recycling fee onto the price of every high-tech product sold? The fee goes into interest-bearing accounts to offset the program’s costs. At the end of an electronic product’s life, the owner brings it to a local site, like a retailer, where it’s accepted for recycling and they get their fee refunded. Such programs might not make any money, but they can be structured not to cost anyone, and they will serve the higher purpose of keeping high tech materials out of landfills and incinerators.

Tech products like Kindle can reduce the overall environmental impact of industries like publishing. But until they can be recycled as easily as an aluminum can, they will not be a solution, just a smaller problem.

An unlikely love story: Alaska and renewable energy

Agree with it or not, Sarah Palin’s hymn to the oil industry, “drill baby drill” was one of the 2009 election’s catchiest mantras. Surprising to find, then, that Palin is a fan of renewable energy, according to a recent New York Times report. Furthermore, Alaska, the second-largest oil producing state after Texas, is fertile ground for renewable energy. Fuel prices there are high. Strong winds support a growing wind power industry. Palin wants 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from hydro power by 2025.

This doesn’t actually jibe with Alaska’s image as the oil and gas industry’s treasured love child, but there’s more to this story than irony. It speaks to why renewable energy’s time might actually have arrived. For real, this time, and not like the giant renewable energy head fake of the 1970s.

That was the era when the Gulf oil states started flicking the spigot on and off according to how many tricked out 747s the Saudi royal family needed, or how mad they were at Washington over U.S. Middle East policy. Gas efficient cars went mainstream. The first roof-mounted solar arrays appeared. Utilities invested in fuel cell development. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. Schools and other public buildings were designed using passive solar heating and cooling techniques. Then the price of sweet crude dropped into the cellar, Ronald Reagan ripped out the White House solar panels, and the renewable energy industry turned back into a hippie pipe dream.

So renewable energy is hot again, but why won’t it suffer the same fate it did when bell bottoms were in style? After all, we live in a market economy. No matter how good an idea renewable energy is, the market still favors fossil fuels. When the price of oil falls, the power that renewable energy sources produce is too expensive to compete.

The difference between now and the ‘70s is that the oil’s cost dynamics are changing permanently. China, India, and a host of developing economies are competing with the U.S. in international oil markets. Barring a complete collapse of those countries’ industrialization programs, that competition will keep oil prices at steadily higher levels. Also, the era of cheaply extracted oil is waning. An increasingly large percentage of oil reserves are hard to get out of the ground, and the prices will reflect the greater effort and new technology to bring it to market.

Rural Alaska is a laboratory for this dynamic. Market forces, acting through the price of shipping and the per-gallon price of the fuel, conspire to make fuel-generated electricity outrageously expensive in rural Alaska – five to ten times higher than in the lower 48. If the price of oil were lower, the market might be able to absorb the high delivery costs. But the price isn’t low enough, and here’s betting that it never will be. That means the local market conditions in rural Alaska will permanently favor renewables. “Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering,” the Times reported, “wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.”

How long before the base price of oil rises enough to make wind and solar the economic choice in rural Wyoming, the Dakotas, Texas, California, etc.? A long time off, maybe. But the fact that it is already happening in Alaska is not an isolated fluke. It’s the first sign that the economic case for renewable energy is growing strong enough to endure the next temporary decline in oil prices.

Green economy will bring new measures of success to replace growth

Venture capitalist Paul Maeder backed some of the biggest winners of the tech boom – Chipcom, Avid Technologies, Sybase, SQA. Now Maeder, a co-founder of Highland Capital Partners, is turning his attention to companies developing the technology to support an environmentally sustainable economy. Maeder shared his views on progress toward a sustainable economy with the Brodeur Clean Technology Practice.



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.