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9 January 2017

Why clean technology disappoints then defies expectations

300px-google-cardboardAbout 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.

I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.

When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.



I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.

We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?


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14 September 2016

Embedding Sustainability is a Banker

Tax calculator and penFascinating article in this week's Economist, traditionally no friend of sustainability, about investing in low carbon firms. They quote research by BlackRock who found that companies in the top quintile for cutting their carbon intensity outperformed the MSCI World Index by 4% since 2012, while those in the bottom quintile trailed the Index by 5%.

On the downside, the author quotes other research which shows 'green mutual funds' trailed others  between 1991 and 2014. The blame for this is put on volatile fossil fuel markets and Government policies. My own (rather modest) green investments seem to have flat-lined over the last couple of years, deflating my enthusiasm slightly.

The article also mentions that the cost of LEDs has plummeted by 90% since 2010, showing how quickly green technologies are still maturing. It will be very interesting to see how this and similar price drops through economies of scale and innovation across the green tech sector will impact in the medium term.

The conclusion from all this is that while the green sector itself is still immature and thus risky, embedding sustainability into a conventional company will almost certainly reap dividends.


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6 June 2014

Sustainability as Core Business Strategy

go greenThe whole corporate sustainability thing emerged from the idea of 'doing the right thing' or 'social responsibility' - but a recent trend is to harness sustainability as the core business strategy to drive sales.


  • GE: CEO Jeff Immelt has hitched the venerable company's future to the 'ecomagination' programme of sustainable technologies;
  • Camira Fabrics: the company sees its sustainability stories as the unique selling point of its products;
  • BT: sees its products and services cutting carbon through digitisation;
  • Interface: famously, the carpet tile manufacturer talks of little else but sustainability.

This attitude requires a massive mindshift within the business - what was seen as a 'silo' activity not only has to spread out across the business, but into the whole value chain. It's not just about solving your own sustainability issues, but solving those of your customers too.

The one thing you have to watch for is that you still do both - you can't let yourself off dealing with your own negative impacts just because you are creating such positive impacts for others.




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1 July 2013

Is there a Hype Cycle for Clean Tech?


I was at an European Parliament event on low carbon vehicles last Friday at the new Gateshead College campus adjacent to the Nissan factory. It was a great panel of politicians, industry reps and an NGO, all wittily chaired by motoring journalist Quentin Wilson. Somebody raised the 'hype cycle' which is where new technologies get hyped way above reality then come crashing back into disappointment before hitting their natural level (see above).

For example, remember what we were once told about microwave ovens? That they cooked the food from inside out, so it'd always be cooked through and that it wouldn't heat the plate. All nonsense. That's not to say the technology is useless, far from it, microwaves are a very efficient way to cook.

But does clean tech/renewable energy technology ever get unrealistic hype? The media seems to be so down on green technology that it leaps straight from 'go' into the trough of disillusionment. I mean, one moment we're being told that renewables will never produce enough energy, next we're told they will produce too much.

Is this trudge through the marsh of negativity before a clean technology can prove itself  inevitable? Is the lack of positive hype a bad thing? Or one day will we get a glimmer of media hyperbole?


Image by Jeremykemp at en.wikipedia

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7 June 2012

Book Review: Mad Like Tesla by Tyler Hamilton

As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.

Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn't and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account...) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section's funding cut.

That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I've kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla - who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more - was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies' earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.

Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream - space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices - all trying to make the leap over the "valley of death" from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing - controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons - the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged - the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.

Hamilton's central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn't fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by - the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.

I really liked this book - zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors' stories and while he gives his 'madmen' the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it's an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.

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23 January 2012

What Kodak's demise tells us about cleantech

Poor Kodak. You couldn't make it up. A classic brand invents a great new technology (digital photography) but decides it would cannibalise their own products, so they ditch it. Someone else takes up the baton and they get eaten up anyway while desperately trying to claw back a piece of their action.

This isn't a new story - when transistors arrived on the market, the valve manufacturers decided not to embrace the new technology and paid the price - they've all gone. You could argue the same has happened to Zavvi and the struggling HMV - they're suffering at the hands of newer business models. The tragedy for Kodak is they weren't blindsided by someone's innovation, they had the ball and gave it away.

To my mind, Apple is one of the few examples of a major business which had its niche (desktop computers), then rode a wave of innovation and ended up dominating the new markets of mobile computing and digital media. But that took the particularly twisted genius of a certain S Jobs Esq.

So what's the lesson for Green Business in general and clean tech in particular?

Well you can see the same thing happening in the energy market. A while ago Big Oil redefined themselves as Energy Companies, invested in renewables, messed about with them for a while, then ditched them and headed for the familiar grounds of oil and (fracking) gas. They appeared fearful of commercialising technologies which might 'cannibalise' their traditional business, but if they don't do it someone else will. BP's "Beyond Petroleum Generation" of bright young things are almost all working for cleantech start ups now. I'm sure most of them would want to crush their former employer in the energy marketplace.

The only thing that protects the traditional energy sector is the lack of true competition in the market, but, with the UK Government trying to break the near-monopoly of electricity producers and introducing the carbon floor price, those advantages might be starting to slip away. If I were a fossil fuel based company, the Kodak story would make me very worried indeed.

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22 October 2010

The Human Aspect to Clean Tech

As I write this, I've just finished the first full day of the European Green Capitals conference in Stockholm. The session that stood out was from the three industrial sponsors - Siemens, IBM and Nordic energy company Fortum - talking about what business could bring to sustainable urbanism. As expected they all did quite a bit of PR, but the message that came out is that they are all increasingly focussing on the human factors side of the solutions they deliver. Up to 75% of potential carbon abatement relies on other organisations and the general public to change their behaviour. The low carbon technology bit is easy, went the message, but designing it to be used effectively is quite a different matter.

I believe that the techno-fix vs behavioural change argument is often a false one. The best technologies enable green behaviour, eg iTunes which saves up to 80% of the carbon of buying a CD and a lot of hassle. The tricky bit is finding lots more such synergistic solutions where the consumer wants to take the low carbon option.

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6 October 2010

Cost or opportunity?

There's a story in the Independent this week that upgrades to the UK's electricity grid will cost £32bn, part of an estimated £200bn that will be required to hit the country's climate change targets for 2020. The £32bn will add £6 per year to the average electricity bill, yet it is being portrayed as an obstacle or some great painful sacrifice.

Just £6 a head a year to make such a huge leap forwards in tackling climate change? Is that all? Given the risks of doing nothing, I'd say that was a bargain.

And just think, that's a £32-200bn clean tech market to deliver the transformation. Just when we need to build a greener, more robust economy to get us out of the current economic pickle.

What's not to like?

On the wider scale, this shows once again we have got to flip our attitudes from seeing the problems to seeing the opportunity. Optimism is a rare commodity in the environmental movement, but whether we are looking at one country's infrastructure or one company's environmental strategy, we have got to get much better at, as sausage manufacturers would say, "selling the sizzle."

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21 January 2009

Will BRIC Beat the West in the Clean Tech Race?

Two interesting articles in the latest edition of Green Futures. One asks, given that everyone agrees that there is a great opportunity in the current economic climate to have a clean tech revolution and have a green economy emerge from the wreckage of the old one, why is it not happening? The second details the burgeoning clean tech sector in India with references to a similar tale in China*. 

This sets up an interesting scenario. Will the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies leapfrog the West to win in the clean tech revolution? Will their economies emerge more robust and self sufficient than ours? Is it about time we got our collective fingers out?
It's food for thought.

* Despite the "new power station every nanosecond" finger pointing scare stories about the world's most populous country, I personally saw more solar hot water systems in one train journey in China five years ago than I have before or since.

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