Global investors pour money into green energy

Nothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.

New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Other facts from UNEP’s new report:

  • Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
  • China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation’s tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
  • Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment.
  • Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
  • Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
  • Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy.
  • Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.

“The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis,” Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. “The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments.”

So there’s hope. And now facts.

More here.

Blame it on Hollywood?

“So the world ends Wednesday?”

That was a colleague’s snarky rejoinder to my explanation of the oil export crisis and the implications for our energy future. Perhaps my explanation was off. Or perhaps we’re all suffering from a Hollywood-induced relevance deficit. Human response systems are really good at spotting and dealing with near-term problems. If it’s not a clear and present danger, it’s not relevant and therefore not motivating. Hollywood understands this and formulates its films to capitalize on it – particularly the action and disaster ones.

In a typical Hollywood disaster flick, the world crisis is glaringly apparent – and personally relevant – to viewers within the first 10-15 minutes of the opening credits and will be resolved within about 120 minutes. The real world doesn’t work that way, of course. However, our media-mediated lives often create a bleed-over of Hollywood-style expectations. No category five hurricanes raking the East Coast flat on a weekly basis? Well then, no climate change, obviously. Plants and animals shifting their ranges in response to climate changes is a subtle thing, ill-suited for hardy action heroes like Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel.

This lack of near-term urgency makes it tough to change behavior on important issues like climate change and carbon-intensive lifestyles. People tune out long-term problems. Clearly your warning to them has no relevance to their particular life.

That is the challenge for those in green tech seeking to motivate people. Rather than reflexively grabbing for a “Save the Planet” positioning, stop and look closer for angles that make what you’re offering relevant to issues your target audience is grappling with.

Have an all electric car that makes polar bears want to hug people who own one? Great, but I’m pretty sure that’s not relevant to anyone concerned about rising gas prices and the fact that increasingly complex internal combustion engines and their drive trains are making regular maintenance an expensive proposition. Electric cars are also kinda cool and hip. People like to be cool and hip, even if it costs more. Just ask Steve Jobs.

Find what’s relevant, match it with what you have on tap and then sell. Maybe even get Vin Diesel to star in the commercial.

Are green buildings killing birds?

How green can green buildings really be if they kill billions of birds per year? That’s the premise Chicago Tribune’s Sheryl DeVore floated in article last week, citing frightening Audubon Society bird death statistics and linking the avian genocide to more than 33,000 LEED certified buildings whose facades make heavy use of glass.

But Treehugger quickly pointed out the flaw in DeVore’s logic, countering that the birth deaths aren’t a green building problem, but rather a universal building problem.

And, in fact, LEED-certified glass buildings tend to use advanced glass technologies such as fritted glass or tint-changing glass like Brodeur/Beaupre client SAGE Electrochromics that do a far better job at repelling bird collisions.

You can read and follow the debate here.

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.

‘Don’t call it global warming. Call it climate change’

I’ve always thought this admonition a little pedantic, a cheap, phony way to separate those who supposedly truly care about the planet from those who like to speak plainly. I mean, it’s not as if the planet isn’twarming.

But I’m rethinking this. A new study out of the University of Michigan proves the words really matter. For some reason, more Americans buy into the reality of climate change than global warming.

Online survey respondents were asked the following question, of which there were two versions as indicated:

“You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up [changing] over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘global warming’ [‘climate change’]. What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening?”

When referred to as climate change, 74 percent thought the problem was real.

When referred to as global warming, only 68 percent thought it was real.

Global warming’s tight conceptual linkage to temperature might be one reason for the disparity, a study author said, since “an unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more than about climate change.”

Researchers also found a dramatic difference in answers depending on political affiliation. On the Republican side, 60 percent said they think climate change is real, though only 44 percent said they believe in global warming. About 86 percent of Democrats thought climate change was serious no matter what it was called.

The US Environmental Protection Agency uses the more credible term. Google global warming and, though you get 32 million results, the third result is “Climate Change |US EPA.”

One person will die today because of climate change

Climate change could wipe us out someday. That’s the story line, yet it doesn’t seem to be resonating on a broad scale. The truth is climate change is already killing us – if by us you mean humans on this planet.

According to a new report,

  •  350,000 individuals die every year as a result of climate change we’ve already experienced;
  • More than 99 percent of the mortality is occurring in developing countries;
  • 5 million will die over the next 10 years if we don’t change;
  • Nearly 1 million will die every year starting in 2030 if action isn’t taken; and
  • Climate change drains $150 billion from the global economy every year.

The report, by DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, reflects death due to climate-related diseases and weather disasters; loss of habitat due to rising seas and desertification; and economic stress, including loss of natural resources.

How you receive these stats depends heavily on what you believed about climate change prior to reading this post. But even if you’ve bought in to the idea that climate change is occurring and is perilous, big numbers have a way of overshooting emotions.

The truth is we care more about individual suffering than group suffering. It’s human nature. That’s because of the way people regulate their emotions, according to another new study, out of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming,” the authors write. “As a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion.”

So when you read the stats, don’t picture 350,000 people dying. That’s a data point. Picture the suffering of just one person – say, an infant – starving to death because the local farmland has dried into a brick.

Unnatural resources: a reindeer case study

St. Matthew IslandAccording to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, we’re currently consuming 50% more natural resources than the earth can sustain, which means we’ll require the resources of at least two whole earths by 2030 to avoid humanity’s version of bee colony collapse.

Chicken Little hyperbole? Perhaps.

But Aussie cartoonist Stuart McMillen provokes chilling thought on the matter when he asks and illustrates “What happens when you introduce a couple dozen or so reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?”

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.

Sustainability knows no age limits

Sprinting across a Portsmouth street to feed my parking meter before our ever-diligent meter officers presented me with another $10 love note, I had to stop short to let a car pass. At first it looked like any other car, albeit in a screaming shade of fluorescent green, but as it rolled toward me over the Memorial Bridge I saw it was one of those two-seat Smart Pure Coupes.

You’ve probably seen a Smart car. They’re about the size of your average household appliance and they look like they should have big wind-up keys sticking out of their butt ends. You could park one in the bed of a Ford Ranger pickup without touching either side. They’re popular as delivery cars in urban areas, so long as you’re delivering something small. Say a pack of Life Savers. One at a time.

It wasn’t the car itself that made me stop and take notice, though. It was who was driving it. The gent behind the wheel and woman sitting next to him appeared to be well into their seventies, with gray hair and glasses and clothes that, at least from the chest up, didn’t match their vehicle’s Skittle-lime, ultra-hip image. They appeared to be the kind of people who, if you’re schooled on your stereotypes, should be driving a Detroit dreadnought with the left blinker on. They did not look like a couple who should be driving a motorized Tonka truck that gets 33 mpg city and 41 highway, yet there they were tooling toward downtown Portsmouth in what could have been their living room Barcaloungers lashed side-by-side.

For most of my life (I’m 46) “tree hugging” has been mainly (and unfairly) associated with the younger set. If we’re going to build a sustainable society, however, it won’t be by waiting for the current generation of schoolchildren to start running the world. We have to change minds and behaviors now. That’s why the sight of that older couple in the Smart car gave me a pleasant jolt. It also brought back an unlikely “green” conversation I had with a city councilor when I was a reporter covering Marlboro, Massachusetts.

The councilor’s  name was Herman, and from all outward appearances he was about as environmentally conscious as a Norwegian whale hunter. He was a conservative Republican, an Army veteran, and the retired owner of his own welding business. He was long on gruff and short on tact, though he had a deceptively good heart. He was the kind of guy who would make derogatory comments about an ethnic group but be a good neighbor to a family of that group who moved in next door.

Good heart or no, you would not tab Herman as an environmental maverick, which is why the talk we had in 1991 is so clear in my mind to this day. We were killing a few minutes outside city hall so Herman could have a smoke break before the next council session. I liked talking to Herman because he was completely uncensored, and told me a lot of stuff he later wished he hadn’t. That evening though, the conversation was about an article he read on plug-in cars. Not the glorified golf carts that passed as electric cars in the ‘70s, but real road vehicles. The concept fascinated him.

“I’d do that, have one of them little cars for around town and save the Pontiac for long trips,” he said between drags on a filtered Merit. “You’d pay for the electricity, but think of all the gasoline you wouldn’t burn.”

If Herman could be open minded about alternative transport, there’s hope for the world. Herman and the couple in the Smart car are proof that if you can make a good enough case and supply reasonable alternatives, even generations supposedly set in their ways will make the environmental choice.

Of course, when Herman was done educating me about plug-in cars, he snubbed out his cigarette on city hall’s granite staircase then flipped the butt onto the sidewalk. I guess we’ll have to take progress where we can get it, in small doses.