Maybe my ears are just pointed in a very specific direction, but it seems rare when a day passes and I don't hear someone extolling the possibilities of clean technology. But it's not entirely clear what clean technology encompasses and how this very broad new category of technology is going to benefit our world in the coming decades.
I honestly don't know...but Ron Pernick does. Ron is the head of the leading clean tech research firm, Clean Edge. His experiences at Clean Edge working with experts from industries ranging from carbon composites to water filtration has made him a leading clean technology expert, and uniquely qualified to write a book entitled "The Clean Tech Revolution." (on Amazon)
We're very happy to have Ron Pernick as our EcoGeek of the Week.
EcoGeek: The work that Clean Edge does seems extremely important, even though I don't really have any idea what you do there. Can you tell us about Clean Edge and your work?
Ron Pernick: We do a lot of interesting things at Clean Edge to track and analyze the development of clean technologies. This includes our annual Clean-Tech Investor Summit which we coproduce with IBF; the NASDAQ Clean Edge U.S. index which is a benchmark index tracking U.S.-listed clean energy companies; the publishing of our web site at www.cleanedge.com and our monthly newsletter CLEANWATCH; and a range of research reports including our annual Clean Energy Trends series. We also provide clean-tech related consulting services to investment firms, corporations, start ups, governments, and foundations. Since 2001 our clients have included such organization as Sharp, California Energy Commission, the City of San Francisco, the Solar Catalyst Group, Nth Power, Solaria, Solaicx, Miasole, and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.
EG: How do you draw a box around clean tech? It seems to be a category that can includes facets of every industry. So what is clean tech, and how do you know what not to include?
RP: Weâ€™re pretty explicit in the book. We define clean technologies as those technologies that reduce or eliminate the need for fossil fuels or limited natural resources; significantly reduce emissions and/or pollutants, and are equivalent or superior to conventional offerings. We group clean technologies into four buckets: energy, transportation, water, and materials. This covers everything from solar power, wind power, and biofuels to advanced lithium ion batteries, plug-in hybrids, and the smart grid.
Two technologies that we donâ€™t consider clean are nuclear and â€œclean coal.â€ We spend time in the book explaining why â€“ but with current technology we find the concept of clean coal oxymoronic and we believe that nuclear, with containment, waste, and proliferation issues, doesnâ€™t fit our criteria of reducing waste/pollutants and that itâ€™s just too costly to develop and deploy new nuclear power plants â€“ especially in the United States . As Amory Lovins likes to say reviving the nuclear industry is like trying to defibrillate a corpse.
EG: Your recent book, The Clean Tech Revolution, is somewhat rare
in "environmental" non-fiction in that it was entirely solution oriented
and dealt very little with the crises we face. We try to have that same attitude
at EcoGeek, and I think it makes us happier people. So, needless to say I loved
it, but I'm curious why you needed to write it, and what your personal goals
are for the book.
RP: We had to do it exactly for the reason that you point out. Nobody had written the business case for clean technologies â€“ and so we set out to do that in a general business book with broad appeal that shined a light not only on the issues but on the solutions.
When we started Clean Edge back in 2001 the concept of clean technology wasnâ€™t on the radar screen of the investment, business, or policy communities. If you did a Google search on the term youâ€™d get just a handful of returns. Today, that same search would yield approximately 1 million results. So the bookâ€™s goal is to paint a picture of how clean tech is shaping up globally and how individuals, businesses, and others can participate.
At the very beginning of the book we use a quote from Thomas Edison in which
he says: â€œI found out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.â€
I think that quote helps explain our positive approach to the big issues facing
us. Iâ€™d rather spend time working on solutions than being paralyzed by
impending doom and gloom. We owe it to our collective children (on a personal
note my wife and I just had twins) and to future generations to try to figure
a way out of todayâ€™s challenges of volatile fossil fuel supplies, natural
resource constraints, climate change, and the needs of a growing global population.
EG: Revolution is a big word that is a lot of fun to use, often poorly. How do I know that we're really dealing with a revolution here? What should I be expecting to see revolutionized?
RP: OK, you got us there -- revolution is an overused term. But in the case of clean-tech development I do believe that we are experiencing a major shift that is both evolutionary and revolutionary. We call it a revolution because the timing is finally right for the mass emergence of these technologies.
For example, I wanted to get involved in clean energy when I first graduated from University in 1985 â€“ but the timing wasnâ€™t really right. The technologies werenâ€™t mature, the capital markets werenâ€™t behind it, governments werenâ€™t really demanding it at a large scale. Indeed â€“ clean energy was still â€œalternative.â€ It was the domain of Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating, back-to-the-earth zealots (in full disclosure I ate granola this morning for breakfast and I love wearing my Birkenstocks).
But thatâ€™s all changed today. Itâ€™s becoming the domain of Wall Street and Main Street. When GE is reporting more than $12 billion last year in revenues from its â€œEcomaginationâ€ products and services, Toyota has shipped more than 1 million hybrid vehicles, Goldman Sachs is investing billions in clean energy, Denmark is getting around twenty percent of its electricity from wind power, and governments around the globe are competing for their piece of the clean-tech prize â€“ you know things have changed.
Indeed, part of our definition of revolution is that you can not only change
the world but make money doing it. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™re finally seeing
today â€“ and itâ€™s a critical piece of the puzzle. MBA grads, engineers,
marketers, and others â€“ in Asia, North America, and Europe -- are now
finding that they can support their families and help develop and deploy next-generation,
clean, efficient technologies. They donâ€™t have to wait fifteen years like
I did. Now thereâ€™s something revolutionary about that!
EG: Some of the subjects in your book (solar, wind, automobiles) are pretty straightforward clean tech industries. But others, like mobile technology and water purification, are less obviously connected to the environment. Can you talk a bit about why you include these subjects in your book?
RP: Our focus isnâ€™t really on the environment per se. Itâ€™s on a host of challenges facing the planet from population growth to volatile natural resource supplies. The environment, in particular global warming/climate change, is just one of multiple drivers. In the book we highlight the 6 Cs -- a confluence of forces that are driving clean-tech development.
Under this framework everything from water filtration to mobile technology to advanced transportation makes sense.
For example, how will the world supply clean water as water tables are depleted
and more people move to areas without sufficient water supplies? There are 2
billion people without access to reliable potable water â€“ and this contributes
to massive illness and death. Itâ€™s a huge issue that will require new
forms of energy-efficient or renewable-energy powered desalination, water conservation
technologies, new on-site water filtration, etc.
EG: I think it's pretty likely we're going to be surprised a lot in the next couple decades. It's a bit mean to ask where I should be expecting the unexpected, but I'm curious if you have any thoughts on where those world-changing clean tech surprises may come from?
RP: I believe we will see both incremental advancements in technology as well as disruptive breakthroughs. I think one of the most important things is that we push the boundaries on both incremental and disruptive changes at the same time.
So, for example, how could we make todayâ€™s grid more like the Internet â€“ with built in redundancy, two way flow of information and electrons, the ability for people to be both energy consumers and producers? That shift is already underway â€“ but it will require new breakthroughs in energy storage devices, net metering, grid interconnect, etc.
In the book we highlight breakthrough opportunities in each of the eight technology chapters. Some are more obvious and others are more out there â€“ like the possibility that we might be able to cost effectively capture water from the air in remote locations.
So I believe our book highlights many of the surprises you ask about â€“
but our focus was definitely on the near- to mid-term â€“ in other words
over the next 3-10 years. Beyond that, truly, is anybodyâ€™s guessâ€¦
EG: A lot of people I talk to feel that a great deal of good could be accomplished if only economies were more local. This is discussed a bit in The Clean Tech Revolution, but I'm curious what technologies might enable a shift toward local economies and how that might affect our world.
RP: Biofuels are a great example of how you might apply a regional approach to clean-tech development. In fact, thereâ€™s likely to be a battle in the marketplace between locally harvested and distilled fuels and biofuels produced in places like the Midwest or Brazil.
Thereâ€™s certainly a great opportunity for local biofuels production and it does make a lot of sense in some regions. A number of folks are looking at closed-loop systems in which you take the cow manure from a feedlot and gasify it to provide energy to a distillery. You then produce biofuels with locally harvested crops and you sell the biofuels to regional communities (say in a 100 mile radius) and you feed the distillerâ€™s grain (a coproduct of ethanol manufacturing) to the same cows whose poop is powering your plant. Itâ€™s an elegant scenario and one that should be pursued.
But Iâ€™m a big supporter of both regional and global solutions. So I believe
weâ€™re likely to see both taking shape simultaneously with markets and
policies impacting how things play out. Thereâ€™s the old saying: â€œthink
globally, act locally.â€ Iâ€™m of the belief that we should think globally
and locally, and act in both.
EG: What scares your pants off?
RP: Well, like many people, Iâ€™m scared of major collapses â€“ whether that happens from a technological meltdown like a nuclear accident, environmental destruction like climate change, or regional/global terrorism or war. Generally, though, Iâ€™m an optimist and donâ€™t like to dwell too much on a â€œsky is fallingâ€ mentality. I consider myself a pragmatic optimist -- which means I look for where there are problems and try to uncover solutions. I also always prefer diplomacy and open dialogue over unilateralism and radicalism.
Personally, Iâ€™m scared from the usual stuff â€“ public speaking, car crashes, my own mortality, that sort of thing. But I try to be comfortable in my own skin and keep a smile on my face.
EG: The Clean Tech Revolution is an extremely hopeful book. If Climate
Change gives you lemons...I suppose you should just, well, make 60 billion dollars
a year. What keeps you hopeful in the face of the various apocalyptic crises
RP: Perhaps itâ€™s genetic. Or how I was raisedâ€¦ Two messages that I remember hearing clearly from my parents as a young child is that I could be anything I wanted to be (though I think they harbored hopes Iâ€™d be a doctor) and that it was alright to cry. Maybe these sweet messages somehow gave me my sunny disposition.
RP: Well, I assumed from your URL that you were a non profit â€“ but I see
that I was wrong. So in the event that you do cash out and join the ranks of
billionaires â€“ I recommend looking at your own web site for guidance on
how to spend that wad of cash. I love what you say, that â€œTechnology can
be a force for evil, or for awesome.â€ Hopefully youâ€™ll use your
money to push the boundaries on â€œawesome.â€
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