Human Health: the Cure for Climate Insanity?

While reading Bryan Walsh’s thoughtful review of a new book The Conundrum by David Owen, I noticed that the review was posted under TIME.com’s “health” section. The book is about energy efficiency.  What does energy efficiency have to do with health? The seeming disconnect between the two, plus a number of other things I’ve seen in the past week, prompted me to revisit an idea that I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Is is possible that humanity’s selfish concern for its own health will be the ultimate road block to inevitable ecological destruction?

I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that the answer will likely come from China (or India).

My old friend Bill Bishop, a long-time Beijing resident, posted a recent photo of his air filter after a couple of months removing coal dust and other harmful particulates. Scary. He is not alone, with a recent rush on indoor air filters reported by the Chinese media.  But as those reports point out, most people cannot afford the costly systems.

A lot of China-watchers tend to discount the impact of environmental pollution on the country’s development, preferring instead to debate the possibility of a hard landing due to loose bank lending, housing bubbles or other economic causes.

Clearly, health concerns can help drive change. The oil company-backed Prop 23 campaign in California – which sought to overturn the state’s progressive climate policy – was in part successful because of the support of the American Lung Association, and its ad campaign.

In China, where three decades of double-digit economi growth has resulted in a water crisis, unprecedented air pollution, the toll on human health is just starting to be quantified. But it doesn’t take data for people to know that something in China is wrong, and there is growing social unrest because of pollution.

Social unrest is the boogey-man for China’s rulers. It will be interesting to watch as the dynamic between continued growth and continued deterioration of public health plays out.

Here’s hoping health wins.

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.

Roundup: Cleantech Predictions for 2010

Based on the rash of predictions for cleantech in 2010 from investors, consultants and media (see the full list at the end of this post), I’ve pulled together a “trend of trends” list below that attempts to synthesis the broader, over-arching themes. As always, I’m amazed that water isn’t on the top of every list, every year, although there are some positive signs on that front. So here are the 12 things that filtered to the top:

  • Energy efficiency will have a big year, with buildings and information and communications technology (ICT) front and center (nice to see the “wow” factor over technologies like solar being tempered by the realization that there are a lot of cheaper ways to meet immediate goals for reducing emissions)
  • Private investment will revive (with one prediction for a record-breaking year), but fears persist that the pending end of stimulus dollars will cast a long shadow over the market
  • Differentiation – i.e. marketing – will increase in importance as we move from a technology-heavy phase to a commercialization-focused phase (something I’ve called attention to in the past).
  • Consolidation and industry shake-out will accelerate, as will increased involvement of major corporates. Many VC-backed firms need an exit (especially in smart grid, solar and biofuels), so expect a few IPOs, but mostly M&A or failure as scale becomes more important and winners and losers emerge. And as the market grows and the issues being addressed become more complex, big multinationals with vested interests will try to play a larger role
  • Smarter transportation – especially electrified – continues to gain traction, while next generation liquid fuels (cellulosic in particular) takes baby steps
  • It’s more than energy, stupid. Land, water, rare earth metals, etc take more mind share as understanding grows  that the issues we face go beyond energy and carbon
  • Importance of carbon measurement and management will increase, but folks seems pretty skeptical that even if climate legislation/treaties get enacted that they will be aggressive enough (some expect sector specific carbon regulation – i.e. aviation and shipping – instead of economy-wide measure
  • Distributed solutions continue to erode the power of centralized systems (in energy generation, building, transportation, etc)
  • Some technologies expected to garner attention: Waste to energy, waste biomass, power storage, geothermal, aquaculture, ultracapacitors, desalinization, building materials, large-scale solar
  • There is a lot of expectation around advancements and interest in upgrading the electric grid; although there was a warning to expect at least one major failure of a smart grid rollout (not to mention that people have been predicting an intelligent grid for many years)
  • Standards gain a higher profile – whether building codes, water or carbon labeling, unified standards for the smart grid, etc, creating a clear marked playing field grows in importance, including communicating the rules to consumers as needed
  • International competition to be the cleantech leader intensifies (again this is something I’ve written about in the past, so not really news in my opinion)

If you want to read for yourself, the various predictions I’ve pulled from are here: Energy stocks to watch from Seeking Alpha; Overall industry outlook from the Cleantech Group; Clean energy predictions from Deloitte; Two different VC perspectives, one from Lightspeed Venture Partners  and the other from Rob Day at Black Coral;  5 biggest hurdles from Earth2Tech; IT and corporate green from Greenmonk’s Tom Raftery; Green building trends from Earth2Tech;  Top 10 promises from cleantech companies from Cleantech Group; Smart grid from Earth2Tech.

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.

Cleantech Media Survey: 2009 is Policy, Blog Year

Media covering cleantech expect to pay significant attention to policy in 2009 and they also have declared it the year of blogging and video, according to results of my first Annual Cleantech Media Survey released today. With an Obama administration set to take office and the next president’s commitment to end oil dependence and address climate change, 77% of those surveyed said they expect media to place “significant” emphasis on policy-related cleantech coverage, with the remainder saying policy coverage would be “moderate”. In addition, the survey of more than 100 media – leading blogs as well as mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcasters – revealed that roughly three-quarters expect to see growing demand for cleantech sector news (from both readers and editors) this year compared to 2008.

Solar will remain king of the renewables. Two-thirds of those surveyed named solar as the renewable energy source to be most covered in 2009, with wind and next generation biofuels coming in a distant tie for second at 15% each. And of note, media expect energy efficiency – long a tough sell to editors and readers – to be the top non-renewables cleantech story for 2009, with 40% naming it their top choice. Carbon market and related technologies was second at 25%, with EVs and industry consolidation coming in at 17% and 15%, respectively.

As far as delivery of cleantech news, a majority of survey participants – nearly 60% – said blogs would be the key tool to tell the cleantech story in 2009, with video garnering one-fifth of the vote (Twitter, podcasts and slideshows also received mention). Concerning to the overall state of cleantech media, a total of 62% of those surveyed expect new media to continue to grow and traditional media to continue to shrink, or for new media to take market share from traditional media. A quarter had a balanced POV, expecting both new and traditional media to look for mutually beneficial distribution relationships.

Among the respondents, there is little consensus on the major untold story for 2009. Categories that received multiple votes included efficiency (including smart grid, building energy use and demand response), coal, power storage and cleantech as the engine for economic recovery. Others receiving votes included CleanNano, bioplastics, the Mideast as solar mecca, urban windmills and water as the next “peak” story, Several media also expect the main untold story to be a negative one – examples included: realization of how long it will take for renewables to become more than a rounding error in the energy diet; new forms of greenwash as companies scramble for Obama dollars, and how solar PV and hybrid cars will contribute nothing significant to cutting GHG.

Some reporters and organizations have done their own stand-alone predictions for the new year. Kerry Dolan of Forbes, for example, predicts that the grid will be big in 2009, and that solar will continue to soar. American Wind Energy Association also did their predictions for wind in 2009, Jetson Green offered up seven trends to expect in 2009 and Greener Buildings offered up their forecast as well.

If you’ve seen other media forecasts for 2009, please add them to the Comments section of this post.

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.

Notes from a Green Brainstorm

Hundreds of leaders from business, policy and NGOs in the same room for two days, naturally some interesting things will emerge. Below is a quick sketch of trends and comments from the just wrapped Fortune Brainstorm Green that I thought of particular note:

  • The media “needs to get off cars and on to buildings” - Autodesk executive chairman Carol Bartz on the fact that the issue of buildings sucking energy, material and water is still not getting the attention it deserves. The numbers back her up. Conversely, it was noted by others in the green building space like Hycrete and Serious Materials that after a two decade hiatus, venture funding has found its way back to building in the past 2 years.
  • A new version of LEED is set for unveil at Greenbuild in Boston and will be a “quantum leap” - head of USGBC Rick Fedrizzi
  • Seems to be growing unease, and even skepticism, that cap and trade is going to be as easy at many thought. 2011 was heard repeatedly as a possible timeframe for legislation. Will a nascent business consensus fray into a mess? Are the economics fully understood to push forward aggressively? Is the Hill ready? Anecdotally at least, the answer is still clearly in the balance. One interesting alternative presented was Cap and Dividend.
  • Like building, energy efficiency is still struggling to get more than a lot of lip service. Is recession the catalyst for cracking that nut? It was mentioned as a possibility.
  • Hybrids and small cars are the fastest growing segment of US automotive market, according to Beth Lowery of GM. “The price of fuel is driving behavior,” she said.
  • “Living building” that taps into biomimicry is going mainstream. HOK - the giant architecture and design firm is starting to position itself as “bio-inspired”, according to Janine Benyus, the founder of the Biomimicry Guild. Benyus’ group is also looking to launch Asknature.org – a cool idea that allows anyone to query a database with questions about how nature addresses specific issues.
  • Coke’s environmental guru Jeff Seabright said look for something soon about consumer-facing information about “water used” in the company’s products. It may not be on-package information, but something is coming. This would be welcome, since embedded water in consumer products is still very opaque to the consumer (for example, according to Dow Chemicals’ Scott Noesen, it takes 2,000 liters of water to make a McDonald’s hamburger if you do the whole-cost analysis.) There is nutritional information, now carbon labeling information has appeared, and water is the logical next step. Let’s hope it happens.
  • Vinod Khosla was the most provocative in my opinion during a 1:1 with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. Highlights include:
    • Next generation batteries are not on a rapidly declining cost curve and require a quantum jump with a high probability of failure
    • The “Prius is more greenwash than green”
    • Technology for clean energy will only succeed if it passes the Chindia price test. If it’s affordable in China and India then it has a shot.
    • Carbon emissions from all-electric cars are 3x more than that of cars powered by cellulosic ethanol.
  • The highest correlation in the movement of solar stocks is the price of oil (not the price of natural gas as would be expected) - David Edwards, analyst at Morgan Stanley
  • Both Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant and Khosla cited the same statistics placing biofuel as the fourth leading cause for the spike in global grain prices. The top three – rise in oil prices, drought in Australia and change in eating habits in developing countries like China (to more meat). I found one paper on Khosla’s site about Fuel vs. Food, but it didn’t appear to include the above list. Anyone know where it comes from?
  • When Fortune’s Marc Gunther asked a panel of Xerox, GM, SC Johnson and Dupont executives what grade corporate America should get in addressing environmental challenges (10 being the best grade), all of them said “1″, with the exception of GM’s Lowery, who gave a “2″ because of innovation happening around new technologies. If you want to actually score a company, you can thanks to the CEO of Stonyfield Farm Gary Hirshberg, who has created an online corporate scorecard at Climatecounts.org

Capitol Hill Update: Cleantech Finding a Voice

The Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization (CTSI) organized a “DC Policy Tour for Clean Technology” this month, taking 50 cleantech industry players (representing cleaner coal, solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, demand response, water, biomass and fuel cells, plus investors) on a Congressional walk-about. I spoke with Patti Glaza, executive director and CEO, to get her take on the day and the outcomes. After a total of 45 meetings with elected officials from more than 20 states, Ms. Glaza reported that renewable energy tax credit extensions will happen, but only for one year (longer term extensions will most likely come in the next administration) and that climate change legislation will be considered in June, although again it would be surprising to see anything being signed into law prior to the next administration. She also said that both the House and Senate have requested a significant increase in the Dept. of Energy (DOE) budget from what was in the department’s original request, and that more funding should be available than last year. Ms. Glaza added, however, that it was unlikely that the Advance Research Projects Energy (ARPA-E) program that was approved in the America Competes Act last year will get off the ground.  More details from the day can be gleaned from the Q&A below, including tips from Ms. Glaza for how companies, even start-ups, can work with their elected officials to make a bigger difference at the Federal level.

Q: Any humorous moments from the tour?

A: We learned to never let a tour member tell a Republican official that we should pay for the renewable energy tax extensions with funding for the Iraq war.

Q: Who did you visit and get traction with?

A: The primary focus of the meetings was with members of the Appropriations and Ways & Means Committees as Congress is currently finalizing agency budgets and funding programs slated for this fiscal year. We also targeted the Science & Technology, Small Business, Energy Independence & Global Warming, and Energy & Commerce committees and subcommittees, in addition to several executive-level meetings at the DOE. The highlight was Sen. Byron Dorgan (ND) who leads the Democratic Policy Committee and sits on key committees including Appropriations; Commerce, Science & Transportation, and Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. Sen. Dorgan and his staff took a significant amount of time with our group and showed real interest and knowledge of the challenges the sector faces.    There are a lot of champions on the Hill and we need help in reaching out to all of them. Congressmen that took the time to meet with the tour directly included: Tom UdallVito FossellaDale KildeePhil EnglishJay Inslee, and Dorgan. Additional offices showing high-level support included: Cantwell, Clinton, McNerney, Barrow, Capuano, and Candace Miller.

Q: It seems there is a scarcity of coordinated government relations work being done on the part of the cleantech industry. Is that an accurate read on the situation?

A: My initial assessment is that as an industry or sector, clean technology has not had strong representation in Washington DC. Inslee made the comment that he has been waiting for a group like CTSI and is glad we have started our efforts. That being said, there is strong government relations work being done for specific clean technology segments, solar, wind, and biofuels being examples. The role CTSI is trying to fill is to advocate for policies and programs that address the complexity and interrelated issues of energy, water, and the environment. Renewable energy needs smart grid needs cleaner base load generation needs distributed generation support needs water management/reduction, etc.

It was obvious from our meetings that the Hill is extremely receptive to a sector they see as providing new jobs, energy security/independence, and increasing the US global competitiveness. Regardless of the group organizing, a broad technology platform is essential. Industry has to be seen as working together on solving the bigger issues (growing energy demand, climate change, etc.) and not just advocating for specific industry segments in isolation.

Q: How can companies make a difference on the national level?

A: I see three immediate ways that organizations can make a difference:

- Companies need to take the time to educate their local representatives on their companies, technologies, and how they are working to solve the larger issues.

- Executives need to participate in Washington DC based meetings to emphasize the important role policy and regulation play in developing the clean technology sector. Nothing grabs attention like a company telling their representative that they expect to start laying off workers in June/July because the renewable tax credits haven’t been extended.

- Overall, companies need to recognize that policy isn’t just for the big players. Policy and regulations have and will have a significant impact on the rate of development and adoption of clean technologies, and growing technology companies need to be at the table when those policies and regulations are being created. Yes, resources are limited. Yes, policy is complicated and difficult to understand. Thus the role of policy and trade organizations.

Human Poop: Too Much Respect…Too Little Investment

Every day, I pass the Elliott Bay Book Co. on my walk to work. Last year, for a period of time, I noticed in the window of the children’s section that all the books on display were about poop. Some great titles like “Walter the Farting Dog”,“Zombie Butts from Uranus” and “Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable”. I know where poop comes from, but I know only a bit about where poop goes, in part thanks to my friend Dick Manning and his book “A Good House”. As he so matter-of-factly points out: “As much of a third of the water used in our houses does not bathe us, it bathes shit. It is a curious habit, the ritual washing of feces.” It’s also a waste of energy and terrible for the environment.

My parade past poop at Elliott Bay got me curious to find out what was the latest on poop technology. I was especially interested in commercially viable ways to dispose of it without the use of water. Is there an end in sight to washing our crap? What I found was that there are lots of companies and organizations making money from turning other animal poop - elephantcowdog even worm - into energy or other products. But given the fact that we are 6 billion animals, and that water is only going to become more precious, where are the brave souls out there challenging the Western tradition of treating human poop with such dignity? Sadly, the number of self-composting, or dry, toilets on the market is pitiful, with Biolan, Biolet and Envirolet apparently the only ones who make enough money to advertise. Nor was I able to find any evidence of a company on the Internet that has a next generation waterless toilet technology, despite the fact that only one-sixth of the world’s population is served by sewage systems. To my mind, that means a great market opportunity since there is no way we are going to be able to wash the poop of 5 billion more people. Other companies use air to literally blast the shit out of shit – compressed (pressure-assist), vacuum or displaced. But all use some water. Envirolet seems to get close with a combination of vacuum and compost that it calls vacuum flush (VF), but it still requires H2O. A newer company called Propelair, says its “displaced air” toilet uses 84% less water than a normal toilet, and at least made an attempt to make their toilet look cool, although its not actually available on the market yet. None of them seem particularly scaleable. All of this to say there is an opening to invest in new solutions. (NOTE: If there’s a company out there that has a mass market cleantech toilet technology let me know because I want to buy one and I would love to promote your product to media and investors).