Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Gold at the end of the Rainbow

What makes Greentech such an obvious opportunity for me is (a)knowing that the solutions for today's energy, water and waste management problems are within reach, and (b) a lack of worldwide effort to reach for those solutions. In other words, we could (as citizens of the world) decide that regular (incandescent) bulbs should be phased out and use fluorescent bulbs instead. The numbers make an overwhelming point, using a fluorescent 60 watt bulb would save you:

10 light bulb changes
$40.50 in electricity costs
$1.50 in bulb replacement costs
$42.00 in total
Reduce greenhouse gas produced by power plants by: 691 pounds of carbon dioxide


So why are we not doing this obvious things?. Why are governments not taking steps to regulate towards these solutions?

The answer lies within the business opportunity of greentech. People follow the laws of Newton Physics "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it". Its easier to keep buying the same bulbs, its also easier NOT to make the calculation and decide on the cheaper bulb vs the more expensive one ($0.50 for the regular bulb vs $3.50 for the fluorescent). Another factor is the slow reaction of governments, it takes too much time for them to "enforce" the elimination of incandescent bulbs, perhaps there are many powerful interests involved or its not a law that would generate enough popularity. Either way, my "bet" is that in the near future ALL light bulbs will be fluorescent or some other new technology, because a trend with strong "external forces" is causing the "uniform motion" to change.

We already discussed some of these "external forces" that are bringing greentech about in The Greentech Wave (1-People are changing their attitude, 2-Companies are channeling resources to greentech, 3-Major economic players are influencing the market). All of these are responses to economic or sociopolitical trends that are causing the scales to tip towards greentech. In the case of the light bulb: the cost of electricity has jumped - in the US - by 33% since the year 2000, and is expected to raise even more as fuel costs climb and the electric infrastructure gets older. When those variables become a stronger "external force" then whoever is better positioned to provide these new technology bulbs to the market will benefit immensely. AND THAT IS THE GREENTECH OPPORTUNITY!

In the case of the light bulb, General Electric has already taken the steps to ensure they are also THE manufacturer of fluorescent bulbs. But there are many other areas of greentech where the market leadership is up for grabs. We will talk about these areas of opportunity in the near future. For now, as always I bid you farewell with a cordial "Shalom!".

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

No Perfect Solution

“The more I learn, the less I know”, I believe that’s how the saying goes. Well in the Greentech world this saying holds very true. As new technologies are presented to me and as I discover more and more facts about alternative energy, about water purification, about waste recycling, the more I am convinced we have not reached a perfect solution yet.

Let me start from the beginning, and let’s take the automotive industry as an example.

A “perfect” solution according to my book would be one that (A) would not contaminate the environment, (B) would make economic sense (make a profit) and (C) could be implemented without disrupting the existing industry so much as to destroy it (i.e. putting thousands and thousands of auto workers out of jobs)

So, let’s analyze the existing alternatives:

- Diesel fuels generate toxic gases (at lower levels than Gasoline!) and therefore are far from being a “perfect” solution

- Hybrid cars: they are great because they can increase the mileage of a regular car. But, they consume gas, they cost more than regular cars and we are uncertain about how to dispose the batteries these cars carry which may damage the environment even more than the gas they save.

- Plug-In Hybrids: These cars have the capacity to run longer distances on battery and therefore save even more gas. Like the plain Hybrid car these cars also have the battery contamination factor and the additional problem of the source of electricity they require. Is that source a “clean” source of electricity?

  • If the electricity comes from coal or any other fossil fuel, then we are just redistributing the contamination (perhaps the contamination level will be lower, but certainly not a perfect solution)
  • If the electricity comes from Nuclear power then we have the problem of nuclear waste. Nuclear fuel is only utilized on 10% of its energy content in modern day nuclear plants. This leaves behind a large mass of radioactive material that takes hundreds of years to become non-threatening to human beings.
  • We are still very far from achieving a substantial amount of power from wind (Denmark is the leader with less than 20% of their electricity from wind, I believe in the US the number is closer to 2%)
  • Solar Photo Voltaic cells are also a very small portion of today’s power generation percentage and that responds to the high cost of manufacturing of these cells. Each cell uses silicon which is very costly (and also non-renewable!) or some other substitute which has not been 100% proven yet. The other problem with Solar PV is the “conversion” factor, these cells are only converting up to 30% of the solar energy they receive (very inefficient!)
  • Solar Thermo Electric requires large spaces for the reflectors and is also very poor converting the solar power in to energy (I believe its even less efficient than PV)

- Another option for car fuel is the Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The car is loaded with hydrogen and a “fuel cell” converts hydrogen into electricity with water as byproduct. The electricity generated powers the car and the water can be disposed (or used!). Two issues with this solution are: the high cost of building fuel cells and the energy needs to generate Hydrogen. In my opinion Hydrogen is more a means of storage than a “fuel”. To obtain hydrogen you inject an electric current into water and break the H2O particle into its components. The amount of energy needed to obtain Hydrogen is less than the amount the hydrogen can release through a fuel cell. Hydrogen can also be obtained using chemical reactions, but the cost and the energy consumption for this process is equally high.

- Bio fuels where all the rage a couple of years ago, until the calculation was made for the impact of using edible corn, sugar cane and other potential food sources to fuel our energy appetite. New sources of Bio-Fuels are on the horizon (like fuel generated from algae) but none have been tested successfully yet.

So, what is the answer? Where is the “golden rainbow” at the end of this energy and natural resources crisis?

I don’t have the answer for that. I do know that it helps to look at the past to attempt to predict the future. I look into other similar situations the world has faced and try to extrapolate from those.

What could be a good parallel to this situation? (please send me suggestions if you have a good parallel situation)

Perhaps the development of modern medicine is a good parallel? In older times people looked for their religions to provide answers to their illnesses. Little by little people started to develop the science of medicine, as positive results increased more people turned to “doctors” to find cures. This created a snowball effect because it also allowed “doctors” to gain more experience and also experiment more and more to find their answers. The modern health system is not “perfect” either, but the medical results, compared to those of religious rituals, is certainly more effective!

The parallelism: as we adopt more alternative technologies we also give those technologies a chance to develop into something closer to the "perfect" solution.

Another good example could be the industry of personal computers; In the 80’s personal computers were awkward and hard to use. Little by little this industry has grown and has learned very basic lessons on the way. Nowadays we are only starting to see applications where the personal computer is “transparent”. In other word, the application is so “user friendly” and so well fitted to its purpose that the user never has to think about what goes on in the background (unlike managing Windows XP or Vista!!!!)

Perhaps we, as habitants of Planet Earth, will struggle to find a “perfect” solution to our energy, water and waste reduction needs. But we have started a path towards what will be called in the future “modern” energy, water and waste systems. The path to “perfect” solutions is rarely a straight line.

I apologize for my three week absence, from now on please expect our usual weekly entry into this blog. Best regards and SHALOM!