Cleantech Policy Needs Clarity, Consistency and Cojones

EarthTechling recently interviewed me and asked for my perspective on trends in cleantech, including marketing, communications and PR. Some themes that emerged:

  • Five suggestions for cleantech companies to set themselves apart in a crowded market
  • Backing “boring” businesses usually works
  • Technology innovation we have plenty off; we need marketing, financing and business innovation (plus the 3Cs from energy policymakers – clarity, consistency and cojones

See the full interview

EV to be Most Hyped News of 2011: Survey

Media covering renewable energy and cleantech overwhelmingly expect the biggest news hype of 2011 to come from electric transportation, while they identified energy efficiency as the most deserving of coverage, according to my annual survey. With more than 70 respondents from newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and blogs, the survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of media expect demand for cleantech coverage to be greater this year.

The survey strongly confirmed one trend – the migration of content online; and appeared to shoot down another – lack of adequate budget. Nearly all of the respondents – 96% – said their work will primarily appear online, while almost 70% said that they would have enough resources to do a good job of reporting on cleantech this year. At the same time, there is a willingness to use content (video, animation, graphics, etc) produced by non-media sources (73% said they frequently or sometimes used content developed by companies).

In addition, the survey revealed some social media habits with regard to obtaining information, with Twitter (82%) by far and away the top choice of social tools for tracking news.  The RSS feed is also clearly not dead, with 57% naming it as the second tool of choice.

EV received 56% of the votes to be the most hyped sector in 2011, more than double the nearest competitor – smart grid, which received 20% of the votes. The only other technology that registered double-digit percentages was carbon capture and sequestration (16%).  On the flip side, media identified energy efficiency as the area that deserved the most media attention, with 42% choosing EE. This is ironic since I’ve often heard reporters say that they want to cover energy efficiency, but editors find it too boring (this is backed up by page views). The other technologies deserving attention mentioned by  more than 10% of respondents were: carbon management (20%); solar (13%); smart grid (13%) and water (11%). One of the most important sectors from an impact perspective, agriculture and foresty, got no votes.

As in previous years, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed (68%) said B2B coverage would take priority this year, with the remainder paying more attention to consumer technologies. Overall, the overall trend is also of continued interest in the sector – 62% expected increased demand for cleantech news among audiences

Interest in policy coverage also remains high, with nearly 80% expressing significant or moderate interest in tracking government developments.

Clean Energy: Too Many Interests, Not Enough Group

There is a lot of interest in clean energy. Here’s just a partial list of the US groups out there: American Business for Clean Energy,  Business Council for Sustainable EnergyEnvironmental EntrepreneursInvestor Network on Climate RiskBiomass Power AssociationRenewable Fuels AssociationClean Economy NetworkUS Climate Action PartnershipClean Energy WorksUS Clean Heat and Power AssociationSolar AllianceWe Can LeadAmerican Wind Energy AssociationAmerican Coalition for EthanolAdvanced Biofuels CoalitionWind CoalitionBusiness for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy,  Growth Energy,National Hydropower AssociationGeothermal Energy AssociationSolar Energy Industry AssociationSolar Electric Power AssociationCeresAmerican Council on Renewable EnergyAmerican Biogas Council,Carbon War RoomAlgal Biomass AssociationFuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy AssociationElectrification CoalitionAmerican Council for Energy Efficient EconomyGridwise AllianceDemand Response and Smart Grid CoalitionAmerican Energy Innovation CouncilBlueGreen Alliance, Water Innovations Alliance.

Remember, that is a partial list. And that doesn’t even include state and regional groups, of which there are dozens more.

Get the picture? A jumble of letters: “C” for council (five) and coalition (five); “A” for association (11) and alliance (four) and “S” for solar (three); plus at least four groups directly and indirectly touching “B” (for biofuels) and more than half a dozen groups broadly positioned around “E” for energy. What does that spell? Trouble with a “T”. At a time when the clean energy industry needs one powerful voice to drive policy and get federal and state lawmakers to actually do something visionary, what we are getting is a 100-part disharmony of sometimes clashing, sometimes overlapping agendas. With the recent shift in political winds in DC and many state houses signaling a tougher road ahead for a clean energy agenda, the need for that unified voice is even greater.

In fairness, an examination of the missions for the various groups often shows material differences in their focus, but how important are those differences in the broader picture? That is a question that we need to be asking ourselves.

The environmental NGOs – EDF, NRDC, WRI, etc – failed to influence national policy in a significant way during the first half of Obama’s current (and possibly only) term. But the truth is that, when it comes to getting more aggressive adoption of clean energy policies, the same can be said for the business interest groups listed above. A rationalization and consolidation of these groups is a reasonable expectation, and even if that fails to materialize, there is a strong need for an all-encompassing umbrella “organization of organizations” that rises above the petty jealousies and turf wars that often make the trade association, non-profit world ineffectual and scattered. Just as a consolidation of the cleantech industry itself is overdue, so too is one for the organizations that represent it.

Ironically, my involvement in the Clean Economy Network (CEN) was motivated by a desire for an industry defined by “distributed energy” to become more centralized in its approach to policy. Whether its CEN or some other group that occupies a higher, more unified plane, one thing is certain: faced with a torrent of cash-infused lobbying from big oil and coal companies, a drip campaign from dozens of groups representing a fractured clean energy industry won’t have the desired impact – rapid and decisive action from policymakers.

I plan on being in Washington, D.C. on January 24-25, 2011 to attend the first CEN business leaders summit, with the hope that at least part of the proceedings will be a serious dialogue on organizational strategy for the clean energy industry. It would be great if the representatives of all the groups owning patches of the industry can be there too to create a more cohesive quilt.

GHG: regulation vs. legislation?

I asked my friend Graham Noyes, attorney at renewable energy law firm Stoel Rives focused on bioenergy projects, federal energy incentives and carbon monetization, for his thoughts on the Kerry Lieberman bill.

Q: What was your main takeaway from the bill?
A: Some context first. There’s a massive potential hammer out there on GHG emitters in terms of the risk of regulation under the Clean Air Act (CAA) by the EPA, which has already issued an endangerment finding that found GHGs to be a danger to public health and welfare, thereby making the EPA obligated to regulate GHG’s under the CAA. So the wheels are turning forward at the EPA to regulate GHG. That’s what the EPA will do if nothing else happens. So it’s really surprising that Kerry Lieberman imposes what I think to be much stricter limitations on the EPA than the status quo.

In that sense the bill is very favorable to those industries that have the most to lose from GHG regulation, because it essentially weakens the regulatory landscape for GHG intensive industry when compared to what the EPA is likely to do. That’s why we have the strong industry support lined up for the bill. What’s odd is that we have universal Republication opposition (from a party known for its pro-business stance), and near universal Democratic support (from a party known to support more environmental protections). That is a fundamental disconnect.

The 800 lb gorilla in the room is the EPA’s ability to utilize the CAA if the Kerry-Lieberman bill stalls. That’s a really interesting regulatory and political landscape for this thing to play out.

Q: Can you be more specific on how Kerry Lieberman is easier on emitters?
A: We don’t know what the EPA will do precisely in order to get its targets in the endangerment finding. Emissions levels, cost implications for regulated industries – we don’t know. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the EPA ratchets down harder and harder on these emissions to get the problem under control, specifically the PPM concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. By contrast, Kerry Lieberman has a slow front-end phase-in (with only some industries included in the first years), price collars and very substantial offset programs to lower the economic impact, none of which the EPA would necessarily do. Most people expect the EPA would be more onerous than Kerry Lieberman.

Q: Is legislation or regulation better at the end of the day?
A: The Clean Air Act was not designed for GHGs, but for what we usually think of as pollutants – emissions that are directly unhealthy. CO2 is not something people worry about breathing, it’s the indirect risk of global warming caused by the escalating CO2 levels that triggered the finding. CO2 is also more ubiquitous than other pollutants hence the tailoring rule actually reduces scope of CAA enforcement.

The EPA would regulate by mandate, not by consensus. If we can’t get legislation passed and the EPA begins enforcement, there will be a lot of criticism about over-reaching and strangling industry. EPA would take a lot of heat for this.

Q: Some argue that EPA will take much longer to regulate than legislation.
A: I don’t necessarily think so. This legislation requires extensive rule-making that will take a long time to happen, consider the RFS2 delay. And the EPA won’t build in phase-in limits like Kerry Lieberman. If EPA moves ahead on its present course, I think it would have a faster impact on emissions than the bill. Ultimately, I think this landscape will spur a deal with a surprising alliance.

Q: What are the top three ramifications on business from this bill?
A: The bill would establish a long-term value to CO2e reductions. This will benefit all renewable energy projects andsupport US offset projects in methane capture, agriculture and forestry that make good GHG sense.

Frontseat to Cleantech Future: COPENMIND

Cleantech events abound these days, but the organizers of COPENMIND are taking a novel approach – creating a giant shopping mall for the most cutting edge cleantech ideas coming out of academia. Besides having a clever name, COPENMIND will hopefully drive more rapid technology transfer from leading research institutes to the market. In September, the event in Copenhagen will bring together 200 top-notch universities from around the world to provide potential business partners with an inside look at what’s next in cleantech, according to event founder Steffen Moldow. Joining the scientists will be thousands of corporations, as well as investors and leading public figures. It’s no secret that universities are poor marketers, so providing a venue that allows them to get their IP in front of the people who might fund commercialization is key to a more rapid development of the cleantech sector. Pre-event match-making will kick off on May 1 through COPENMIND’s website.

Besides technology transfer, the event will also focus on sponsored research and recruitment. “The event will help solve the issues that are discussed at Davos,” Moldow told me, referring to the World Economic Forum. Cleantech areas of focus include: climate change & air pollution, energy, water, waste & recycling and agriculture & land.

The event will also provide a nice prelude to COP15, the highest body of the UN Climate Change Convention, which is set to take place in Copenhagen in 2009 and will set global climate change direction from 2012.

Wireless Comes Clean

Cleantech is fun because it touches so much, although technically in the case of wireless there is no touching going on (alas). Wireless is particularly effective when applied to more efficient use of energy, water and other resources. I first took notice of the growing wireless/cleantech ecosystem when I learned that Vulcan Capital (my neighbor in Seattle) had invested in a company called Ember. Other companies in the space, many of which use wireless for various sensing applications that monitor and automate demand of  energy and water use for utilities, buildings and facilities, have attracted investment including SynapSenseEka SystemsAccuwater and Powercast to name but a few. Of course major players such as Honeywell and Siemens (through spin-off EnOcean) are also heavily involved. A newcomer called On-Ramp Wireless is claiming orders of magnitude greater capacity and range when compared to other systems based on the Zigbee standard (a full list of companies involved with Zigbee can be seen here). Wayne Manges, a leading wireless advocate with the Oak Ridge National Lab, put the whole “green wireless” opportunity into perspective in an interview with Green Mountain Engineering. Mr. Manges noted: “The ‘holy grail,’ of course, is low-cost ubiquitous sensors. With improvements in process visibility users get better energy efficiency, materials use, quality control, inventory tracking and reduced waste.” He predicted that wireless sensing will spark “a tidal wave of change” to industry and culture. Pacific Northwest National Labs is also doing work in this area, focused more on managing HVAC systems wirelessly, something my client Optimum Energy is working on as well. The Department of Energy (DOE) has largely been responsible for creating the industry for wireless in energy management, in part through itsguaranteed loan program. One of the keys, according to Manges and others, to really blowing out the wireless cleantech segment is promulgating standards that take away the hesitation of end-users, many of whom are wary of investing without protocols that can talk to each other. ISA 100 intends to do that, and expects its first standard to come out in December 2008. Suffice it to say that cleantech is more than just the sexy, shiny (and high risk) renewable energy gadgetry. It is also the more mundane, but equally if not more impactful, world of wireless controls and automation and their importance in delivering on the promise of the smart grid. Even so, there is also cutting edge work being done to achieve Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless transmission of energy, including experimentation with magnetic resonance by Marin Soljacic at MIT, which might eventually have even bigger ramifications. This will continue to be a fun space to watch.