NW Needs a Cleaner Vision

In the same way the Northwest has imagined and innovated its way to success with endeavors now synonymous with the region – be it coffeesoftwareoutdoor gearaerospace or microchips – our region can help write the operating instructions for what might be the most important opportunity for the next two generations – cleantech.   The time is now, not to walk but to fly. The land grab has started as different regions – inside the US and out – move to stake their claim as the leaders of the cleantech revolution. The companies and people of the Northwest are uniquely positioned to be among the leaders. The intellectual capital is here. The political will is here. The consumer culture and public sentiment needed to support a cleantech economy are also here.  Tech heavyweights like the San Francisco Bay Area are already way ahead, investing heavily in starting clean technology companies and churning out patents from their universities.   Yet here in the Northwest, local venture-capital money is still trickling into cleantech - Chrysalix and Yaletown in BC are the notable exceptions. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm has been relatively muted. Where is the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos, the Paul Allen, the Howard Schultz of cleantech? Cleantech is ripe for great, local visionaries. It is also ripe for another key component of success: a clearly identifiable brand. What does the Northwest stand for? Where does it have a competitive advantage in cleantech that is sustainable over the long haul? What can we get excited about as a community and rally around? The jury is still out, but here is an attempt to crystallize the focus of our region and my candidates for where the Northwest has a real chance to stake a claim, not as “the” world leader, but as “a” legitimate leader with the proof to back it up: The Frontrunners

The Maybes

  • Consumer Cleantech – We have some of the best consumer brands in the world, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot create more in cleantech, whether it’s a consumer-facing biofuels brand (SeQuential or Propel), a family-friendly home energy saving software or a venture capital firm like Maveron that takes its consumer knowledge and puts it to work in the cleantech space. But top talent is being drawn to the Bay, so we need to incubate locally and aggressively.
  • Smart Grid – The Northwest appeared to have an edge here several years ago, with relatively progressive utilities and Itron dominating the metering market, but does it anymore? Not so sure. Other regions have caught up and probably passed us.
  • Renewable Energy Gateway to China – Senator Maria Cantwell certainly would like to see that happen, and efforts are underway to organize a bilateral forum in Seattle of top business leaders to advise the US-China inter-government Strategic Economic Dialogue. The Northwest also exports a lot of engineering knowledge, environmental consulting, green building and design toChina.
  • Power Storage – Between fuel cells in British Columbia and a national lab in Idaho that knows power storage, there is some critical mass here, but can we recover from the disappointment of Ballard?

Knock Knock. Who’s There? Enviro-Comedy, Sort Of

In honor of Blog Action Day - aka BAD – I’m guessing that a lot the posts will be pretty depressing or somewhat sanctimonious, so I chose to explore the humor and absurdity of our eco-existential angst. What better way to represent that than a personal “Best of” list of environmental comedy – could there be anything more absurd than laughing at our self-destruction by using an overused cliché formulation? So I scrounged together some nuggets over the weekend while juggling two kids and my carbon footprint, and came up with random candidates in the categories of website/blog, novel, film and video/TV (English-language only for now). I was inspired by David Roberts‘ knock knock entry and the responses on Grist from 2005. Happily, Grist seems to finally be attracting some mainstream company in poking fun at our planetary predicament. Witness Comedy Central’s recently launched  Address the Mess (the environmental best of StewartColbertSouth Park, etc), the first annual Environmental Comedy Festival that took place in Seattle this year or Earth to America on TBS. If you buy into the 5 Stages of Climate Grief outlined by Steve Running (one of the authors of the Nobel peace prize winning IPCC report), then comedy probably falls somewhere between depression and acceptance, which is a pretty good breeding ground for producing some twisted stuff. So here they are:

Web/Blog

  • Grist - the Onion of environmental humor, Grist is the king of the hill without a doubt.
  • Cheat Neutral - Infidelity meets carbon. We are after all carbon based creatures.
  • Ideal Bite - “Sassy” is their buzzword, and they deliver. And the ladies who run this green Daily Candy are based in Montana. Need I say more?
  • Crap at the Environment - Just for the title alone, this one gets a nod, although I have no idea what it does or if its funny.

Video/TV

Film

  • Blue Vinyl, a documentary by my friend Judith Helfand, maker of what she calls the Toxic Comedy. Who knew PVC could be so deathly funny?
  • I Heart Huckabees - if a movie is shown in a theater, but no one is there to see it, is it still funny? Good question. I haven’t seen this movie, but I think the answer is yes.
  • Toxic Avenger - arguably the poster child of environmental misfits, Lloyd Kaufman’s creation is so bad its good.

Novels

  • This Other Eden, by Ben Elton, this is a surprisingly insightful (it came out in 1993), and frighteningly funny novel from the British stand-up comedian. Plastic Tolstoy and Jurgen Thor are characters to die for. Stark and Gridlock are other Elton works along similar lines.
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, this is a bit dated (1975), but its still one of the funnier treatments of the environmental movement

Best Performance by a Family Member

Disposable Backpack - my cousin Nick made this at college. I couldn’t resist.

Fuel cells rebound; consolidation coming?

After 2002, investment in cleantech took a nose dive. That can be attributed to the pre-2002 rush to get in on fuel cells, and then the fuel cell industry’s penchant to over promise and under deliver, most notably Ballard Power Systems. No more. With the resurgence of cleantech investment in the past four years, fuel cells have also benefited, in large part because the focus has shifted from larger-scale applications like commercial vehicles to smaller-scale applications. Stationary applications have also made a serious dent in what had traditionally been seen as a mobility-driven business. As my client Horizon Fuel Cell likes to say: “Think big, start small”.  Instead of commercial-grade vehicle applications, they started with a stroke of marketing genius – an on-board PEM and hydrogen tank…  for a toy car, the H-racer. They have since convinced the toy industry that fuel cells are a viable alternative to battery-operated. It’s always inspiring to see young companies go out on a limb to prove a concept and have industry behemoths, like the world’s third largest toy manufacturer Wah Shing and others, fall into line. Because of the H-racer, Horizon has probably shipped more fuel cell units (measured by volume) than any other company in the world and turned a profit. Other sectors beyond toys will follow suit for Horizon (they recently announced a deal with Millennium Cell to go after small apps like emergency gear and construction tools and already have a prototype). That type of collaboration seems sorely needed, given the plethora of other fuel cell companies out there, many of whom have started to carve out other niches of the power storage market, such as Bloom Energy, which plans to use solid-oxide fuel cells to allow homes to generate their own electricity. But at some point a consolidation is going to have to happen, since the number of fuel cell companies, including those traded on public markets, is what Igor of Young Frankenstein fame would call “Abby Normal”. The list of IPOs already includes Millennium, ActaSFC Smart Fuel CellCeresProtonexCeramic Fuel Cells,CMR Fuel CellsIdaTech to name but a few, but find me one that’s actually making some serious money on a sustained basis.