marketing monday: dot freako, pickin on pickens, GEe whiz

This is installment #1 of a regular update – short snippets of commentary – I’ll be doing on happenings related to cleantech marketing. It’s intended to be a smell test. So let’s clear those nostrils:

  • There’s talk of a new dot “eco” domain, with Al Gore attached as the celebrity. First, the last thing we need in the world is another web domain to manage (I’m still trying to get over the buzzkill from .biz). Second, the whole .eco thing will turn into a greenwashing tsunami before you can say Chevron. I can see it already – friendsofcoal.eco, monsantolovesmothernature.eco… the first one I would probably register would be a squatter site at puertor.eco. According to reports, the founders behind the domain plan to foil possible greenwashing by policing whether people deserve to have the dot or not (they use the term “filter”, but let’s just call it what it would be – a subjective value judgment, aka censorship, aka a non-starter). How about we spend our time doing something substantive instead? Gore is too polarizing for the dot eco thing to gain significant mainstream traction (one eco-leaning journalist recently told me that he’s sick and tired of hearing Gore give the same speech over and over, and even after all that Gore-speak people still don’t believe him). The idea behind the new dot – give 50% of profit to environmental causes – is a fine one, but the people who already own URLs at .com, .net, .org and whatever other dot could just as easily save their dot eco registration money and give 10 bucks a year to a good cause through KivaINVESTGreen MicrofinancePractical ActionGlobal Green and Global GivingConclusion: Marketing ploy that’s too clever by half, and ultimately a distraction. Besides, isn’t environmentalism dead?
  • I confess I’m intrigued by the Virtual March that T. Boone Pickens’ organization has announced for early April. If 2 million people really do make their voices heard by policymakers in DC (by phone, email and yes, even something called “fax”) then how bad can that be, right? But I question the whole motivation of Pickens himself. Is it merely coincidence that two central components of the Pickens plan for planetary salvation – wind power and natural gas – just happen to be two of his major areas of investment? Further more, natural gas is just as much in the control of the Middle East and Central Asia as oil (more than two-thirds of world proved reserves). Why replace one foreign addiction with another? Conclusion: I enlisted in the “army”, but I’m pretty sure Congress is only paying attention to the bazillion lobbyists now lurking around every corner of DC (including Pickens) looking for stimulus money.
  • GE’s ecomagination has pulled together an interactive campaign to help people visualize the Smart Grid through an “augmented reality” digital hologram. (Reality is enough for me as is thanks, I don’t need it augmented). But give GE credit for experimenting with something new and different. Unfortunately, I only got as far as the five-part instructions that began with a requirement to print a “Solar Panel Marker” (a what?). Instead, I watched an accompanying video that “shows how it works”. Looks cool. Conclusion: Good if you have 45 minutes in a 6th grade science class. Bad if you are a working stiff like me with two kids that want to go outside and play. Also, need to tone the geek speak way down.

If you have ideas for other issues to explore, send me a note on Twitter @mrcleantech

Coal: ‘Clean’ or Otherwise, Get Used to It

I know this POV will upset some folks, but here goes: coal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s cheap, plentiful and easy to access, so we better start figuring out how to use it in a cleaner way. Of course there is no such thing as “clean coal” (as I’ve noted on my blog several times in the past). For that matter, there is no such thing as 100% clean solar or clean batteries (someone is out there right now extracting silicon, cadmium and lithium from the ground). But there is something as “cleaner” coal. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important that people like Al GoreBill McKibben and the folks at Power Shift are out there demanding that the dirtiest coal-fired power generation facilities be dealt with. I agree that we need voices to be demanding an accelerated roadmap to coal alternatives in a loud and unequivocal way (including the tongue-in-cheek voice of the Coen brothers). And apparently, according to this map, Coal Power Death Watch, these voices appear to be gaining traction in the US.

But guess what – there’s an elephant in the room called China. Around 70% of China’s primary energy consumption comes from coal today, and that number, even with the most aggressive forecasts for replacing it with renewables, is going to remain around 35-40% by 2050. And coal replacement has no doubt been prolonged by the current economy, which is keeping alternatives at a higher price point relative to fossil fuels. And don’t blame China. The US is just as much to blame on the coal front, if not more so (according to new analysis, one third of China’s GHGs come from export-oriented industries. Guess who’s to blame for that Wal-Mart shoppers?). Not to mention that China’s government is going gangbusters trying to replace fossil fuels. It’s in its interest to do so – from a public health, economic development, political stability and national security perspective.

But let’s face reality. Beijing is not going to create a domestic economic and political meltdown by shutting the country’s coal plants tomorrow. Nor will it risk that in 2020, or 2030. In fact, the government has already been aggressively shutting down dozens of smaller, dirtier coal-fired plants in recent years, but China’s need for more energy also means it continues to open new plants. So a couple of things are needed: 1. a clear and aggressive mechanism for cooperation between the US and China on reducing the impact of burning coal and an immediate removal of all tech transfer restrictions for dual-use technologies that have the ability to abate coal emissions and 2. a willingness on the part of the replace-coal community, myself included, to work with what we’ve got and make sure that we do everything possible to promote cleaner coal as we transition to more renewable forms or energy.

If you want to get arrested for protesting in front of coal plants that’s all fine and good, but once you’re released from custody, start working to help coal plants in China figure out a way to deal with their emissions in as clean a way as possible. They need all the help they can get and time is precious. Whether its sequestering flue gas in building materials, using underground coal gasification, IGCC or something else, it doesn’t matter to me. It just needs to happen.

By the way, I’m more than happy to be convinced otherwise, so if you want to state a different case, I’m all ears.