Five dirty truths about clean technology

Venture capitalist Kirk Washington cautions that achieving eco-excellence in the 21st century won't be fast or easy.

The planet is changing. The complacency is changing. The energy business is changing.

And--after more than two centuries of hydrocarbon use and 150 years of extracting oil--history is changing as a growing number of companies and public-sector entities try to transform the fossil-fuel era in real time.

The clock is clearly ticking as we confront these critical issues, but we should keep the hours, minutes and seconds in perspective. The economic and environmental consequences stemming from our poor energy choices have been building since the Industrial Revolution. So it's unrealistic to think that we can scrub the skies overnight.

We can't. And we won't.

Most meaningful technology transformations usually take up to 100 years, which is why it may already be too late to solve our current energy problems, especially given the growing evidence that production in the world's largest oil fields may be peaking. The long lag time to fruition is generally due to a lack of workable innovation and perspective; it's hard to understand the future when you've never been there.

We are probably offering false hope when we suggest that there is another generation of Edisons and Hewletts working in garages around America to fix our unprecedented environmental problems.

Misperceptions certainly have punctuated major industrial and information technology changes--and I believe they've taken hold today, as a clean-energy revolution starts to gain currency in companies and communities all over the world.

Progress in a postpetroleum society
In seeking to constrain carbon use and combat climate change , we need to keep in mind five dirty truths about clean technology if we are going to make real progress in a postpetroleum society.

• The first truth is that clean tech is a puzzle that is not easily solved. There are a number of complex pieces that have to fit together, including cost, efficiency, emissions and, ultimately, sustainability .

There is no magic energy elixir.

Solar photovoltaic systems have low emissions, adequate efficiency and reasonable sustainability, but they are too costly to compete with fossil fuels. Coal-fired generation is low-cost and has acceptable efficiency, but its emissions are severe , and it is not sustainable.

Transportation fuel is most vexing. First, it was hydrogen-- hydrogen from methanol , then hydrogen from gasoline , then hydrogen from electricity .

Next, it was ethanol--ethanol from corn, then ethanol from biomass , then ethanol from switch grass . Ethanol has low emissions and is close to being cost-effective. But it is inefficient and has a negative EROEI (energy return on energy invested), so is not sustainable.

• The second truth--that clean technology may reverse rampant globalization--could make the puzzle even more complicated. Indeed, as the cost of transporting certain forms of energy across vast distances becomes prohibitive, energy use will undoubtedly become more local and make better use of indigenous sources.

The Exxon Mobils, Royal Dutch Shells and BPs of the world remain relevant and must lead.

This is not to say that we'll miss the global standardization imposed by a petroleum-based economy. It is only to point out that we need to be prepared for balkanized energy consumption and all that this means.

• The third truth also keeps it real. We are probably offering false hope when we suggest that there is another generation of Edisons and Hewletts working in garages around America to fix our unprecedented environmental problems. In the end, this clean-technology revolution, unlike that for IT, may not be driven by venture capital-backed start-up companies.

New forms of mass energy supply will be needed over the next century as oil and natural gas reach peak production and begin their slow decline. Wind and solar power will help, but if the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine, there is no electricity. And electricity won't do anything for cars, trucks, ships and aircraft.

We have to face facts: despite whether we like it, the distribution channels for much of our energy supply are still controlled by large incumbents.

This is why the Exxon Mobils, Royal Dutch Shells and BPs of the world remain relevant and must lead. It may be heresy to say this, but in the future, we will probably look to these behemoths for clean mass-produced transportation fuels other than ethanol and biodiesel, which can't replace more than a third of our oil consumption.

 

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