A special report on green tech

Where is the proverbial Google of green tech? We've spent weeks looking at that and other issues in this rapidly growing industry.

Starting on Wednesday, CNET News is running a three-day special report on the green-tech industry in which we examine its progress to date and its prospects.

We focus particularly on the electricity grid and the growing role of IT in energy and environmental sustainability.

The central question at play is scale: will new technologies speed a huge industrial shift to a cleaner energy industry? Or will green tech remain a niche in the next decade?

The package is a culmination of many weeks of hard work by a handful of editors here. For me, personally, it's a bit of a milestone.

Over the weekend, I was cleaning a corner of my home office and came across two alternative energy publications from 2001 and 2002, which were primarily aimed the small cadre of solar energy installers in the Northeast. At that time, the terms green tech or clean tech were just starting to enter the vernacular.

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I had originally dug out those publications--catalogs more than magazines--because alternative energy was a field I wanted to get into. Back then, though, I found the options for a journalist were limited.

Since then, of course, there's been an explosion in green media. The rush of venture capital that's gone to clean tech has spawned many sites including CNET Green Tech. (Barrons, for example, ran a compilation of such sites this week). And there are hundreds of sites focused on environmentally conscious consumers.

But again, the question is: will the results match the buzz?

Green tech represents about one-tenth of the venture capital put into start-ups--up from one-hundredth in 2001. Yet the number of companies in the sector to go public since then is still in the single digits.

In other words, investors are still looking for that "Google of green tech," the home run that will deliver stellar financial results and make a real environmental impact.

For sure, the green movement is a lot more than start-ups. Large businesses--from General Electric to Apple --are ramping up efforts to build environmental sustainability into their products. Sure, some of it's greenwashing, but there is something to it.

In discussions at last week's Greener Gadgets conference , executives from consumer electronics and IT companies said their sustainability efforts have a few drivers, some surprising.

First, manufacturers like Intel or Sony need to meet environmental standards to reduce hazardous materials, take back old electronics, and, in the future, reduce carbon emissions.

Electronics and IT companies also design products with the "green consumer" in mind, such as a cell phone made with recycled plastic. At this point, though, that's a very small audience, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

And Dell's senior manager for environmental affairs, Michael Murphy, told me that niche markets don't really motivate Dell. "Green business" practices, like using less material in packaging or reducing power consumption in its operations, is simply an efficient way to run a business, he said.

"It's more fundamental than (appealing to green consumers)," he said. "There are six and a half billion people on the planet, and we're going to 9 billion. There's a competition for finite resources, and the system can only sustain so much. So we better make better use of what we have."

If that doesn't put all this green talk in perspective, I'm not sure what will.

New technologies alone won't solve the world's problems--and inevitably, they will bring trade-offs and compromises. But bringing high-tech style innovation to energy and environment is a good start.

 

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