HolidayBuyer's Guide

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.

One of the most promising alternatives with the necessary scale to augment oil is the Fischer-Tropsch process. Fischer-Tropsch produces synthetic fuel from coal, which is abundant in America. The process was pioneered by Germany during World War II and later used by South Africa during the boycott on apartheid to keep its vehicles on the road.

This kind of massive industrial endeavor simply can't be undertaken by a venture-backed start-up. But start-ups can play a significant role in helping reduce the energy intensity of the American economy by facilitating efficiency and eliminating waste.

The real issue is whether shareholders of publicly held enterprises will stomach the risk--and appreciate the reward--that comes with pioneering new clean technologies.

• The fourth truth may sound trite, but it is right: collaboration, rather than competition, is going to win the day here. The large incumbent organizations in the old energy economy--whether they are in oil, electric utilities or the automotive industry--aren't innovating fast or well enough. Their R&D budgets are shrinking, and the best and brightest engineers are no longer flocking to them.

Venture capital-backed start-ups, on the other hand, are constantly and rapidly innovating, and they are beginning to flood the market with clean-technology options.

In the transportation efficiency arena alone, for example, there are fledgling companies that have developed almost anything and everything that will eek out additional fuel savings.

How will all these options be developed, evaluated and implemented in a cost-effective way in time to make a difference?

Perhaps the best approach is a new hybrid model that blends the creative strengths of venture capital-based start-ups with the muscle and might of traditional large enterprises. Large corporations like Intel, Microsoft and Cisco Systems have already shown the way by accessing innovation externally, outside of their own central research organizations and mergers-and-acquisitions operations.

The key question in the long run is whether these large consolidating companies will embrace or resist change, once they make new energy economy acquisitions. To achieve optimal value, they must understand and nurture the clean-tech start-up culture rather than just buying revenues and earnings, and amalgamating human capital and intellectual property.

• The fifth--and last--truth is all about managing risk and responsibility in the postpetroleum era. The only way that clean technology can fulfill its promise and potential is if venture start-ups and large established companies handle the upside and downside together. Venture capitalists routinely deal with risk, so that's not a problem. The real issue is whether shareholders of publicly held enterprises will stomach the risk--and appreciate the reward--that comes with pioneering new clean technologies.

If large corporations partner with venture capitalists and allow them to vet innumerable clean technologies before assimilating the "derisked" winners, and if venture capitalists then permit big enterprises to incubate the new businesses and operate them crisply, we would have an ideal combination--one that would propel this clean-energy revolution forward and give us a better chance of reversing decades of environmental damage.

This is not an either-or proposition. A true meeting of the minds is essential here, if we are to save the planet, serve communities and reward stakeholders.

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