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The fatal flaw for green-tech companies

There's a chance green products will save the world, so why are they so boring compared to a cell phone with a built-in TV?

Clear your mind. Now, create a mental picture around the words "energy executive."

Then do the same around "Internet employee."

In the first example, a paunchy and nondescript image probably came to mind: something like Dick Cheney before he became famous, an author of management books, or that guy with the "Group 4" boarding pass who hovers around the gate a half hour before the plane is ready to start boarding.

The second example was probably hipness personified: the kind of people who pay $125 to a stylist to make them look more confused and disheveled than a finalist on Project Runway.

That quick test underscores a serious, but often unmentioned, problem with the green-tech market. And that problem is this: it's often not going to be as cool or lucrative as one might predict.

Why? Look at what they sell. Solar and wind companies sell equipment that generate electricity--not exactly the sexy products that make good cocktail conversation. And the electricity they produce functions in the same way as electricity that comes from coal-burning power plants. The same goes for new types of water filters or green cleaning products, which also perform tasks that are old news. Biomass home heating systems? They're a dung fire in disguise.

The majority of green companies, in short, sell commodities you need, but don't desire. Your neighbors will come over to see your solar panels, but they may only clamber up on the roof once to see them. And unless your kids lodge a Frisbee atop the roof, you probably won't go up there either.

By contrast, the technology industry--or at least the fast-growing segments that produce loyal customers and mint millionaire employees--has a knack for exploiting the fetishistic tendencies of its customers. Apple CEO Steve Jobs starts waving around a cell phone that can be operated with the swipe of a finger, and legions of otherwise normal people camp out to get it. Gamers hole up in empty conference rooms to play shoot-'em-up games for 48 hours straight with overclocked PCs cooled with closed chambers of circulated mineral oil.

Four years ago, media executives and large segments of the public scoffed at the notion that people wanted to watch home videos. YouTube now influences the presidential race.

The more you drill down, the more you see that the acceptance and churn of these products are divorced from any absolute need. If instant messaging were eliminated tomorrow, civilization would be forced to revert You wouldn't exactly be spitting pigments around the outline of your hand on a cave wall or sending messages by courier. People upgrade to new electronics for many reasons, including aesthetics and "cool" factor. PCs, game consoles, and cell phones typically go to the grinder way before they stop functioning.

Forget planned obsolescence: this is junior high school with a credit card. (This, in part, explains some of the wacky personalities you see in the industry.)

Even biotech plays off this. Note how they switched from earnest speeches from Bob Dole to sell erectile dysfunction drugs to pitching them as the latest party drug.

Green technology does generate fervor among some individuals, but far fewer. And to be honest, many aren't the kind of people you'd like to hang out with anyway. Exhibit A: wearing hemp clothing or sustainable wearables as a status symbol. Good luck trying to instill feelings of inadequacy in someone else while wearing them.

But the picture isn't all bad. Hybrid cars are close to silent and have inspired an army of home-grown tinkerers, similar to PC modders. All-electric sports cars and luxury hybrids like the Fisker Karma seem to have already excited status seekers in the U.S. and Europe. Modular, green homes tend to be far more interesting than the average house.

There's also an undeniable chic right now around a lot of green conferences. If you are single and can be overtly sensitive on command, you will probably be able to successfully hit on a lot of people.

Still, for most consumers, the rewards will be abstract. I am doing my part to reduce greenhouse gases (which will work as long as someone in China doesn't offset it by buying a Hummer). So I can expect to enjoy lower power bills.

But who talks about a 20 percent decline in their utility bills? The guy with the Group 4 boarding pass. And not many people are rushing to sit next to him on a six-hour flight.