Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue...]

Why the “Petro Metro” wants electric cars

Why on earth would Houston, the city of drill-baby-drill, the fossil-fuel capital of America, the city whose NFL franchise used to be called the Oilers, embrace the electric car? For good reason, it turns out–so says the city’s mayor, the local utility company, Reliant Energy,  its parent company NRG Energy and NRG’s CEO, David Crane.

“Houston’s not a natural market for electric cars,” Crane admitted, when we met the other day. “But electric cars are good for our business in all kinds of ways,” he added. So NRG and Reliant is working with officials Houston, America’s 4th largest city, to persuade Nissan to make Houston one of the leading launch markets for the Nissan Leaf, the all electric vehicle that the Japanese automaker plans to start selling later this year.

Houston's skyline at night

Houston's skyline at night

“We are the Petro Metro, but we are also a car city,” said Houston’s newly-elected mayor, Annise Parker, at an event earlier this month to welcome Nissan to the city. Certainly there’s a sizable market awaiting Nissan in the city. Houston is home to 4.5 million vehicles that travel 86 million miles a day, according to Reuters.

The problem for Houston–and for most other cities that want to welcome electric cars–is that it lacks an infrastructure of charging stations where electric car owners can fill up their cars with, er, electricity. This winter, Nissan took the Leaf on a three-month, 24-city tour designed to spark excitement about the car, a five-passenger car that the company says will travel about 100 miles on a single charge.

But because the Leaf will be produced in limited numbers, at least at first, the tour was also a way for Nissan to solicit partners, mostly cities and utility companies, that will assume the costs of building charging stations that will allow electric car drivers to overcome what is known as “range anxiety”–the feeling that they might run out of electricity without a charging station nearby. [click to continue...]

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.

William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
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Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue...]

Bill Gross’s solar breakthrough

“We are producing the lowest cost solar electrons in the history of the world,” Bill Gross is telling me. “Nobody’s ever done it. Nobody’s close.”

Bill Gross is nothing if not an enthusiast, which makes him a great salesman for whatever it is he happens to be selling. A lifelong entrepreneur, a longtime evangelist for solar energy and the CEO of eSolar, a Google-funded startup that designs and develops concentrating solar power (CSP) projects at utility scale, Gross is one of the most interesting business people I’ve known.  I met Bill in 2002, when I wrote a critical story about him for FORTUNE – investors in Idealab, his Internet incubator, were suing him after the dot-com bubble burst – and although he and his wife, Marcia Goodstein, were more than mildly irritated with me then, we’ve reconciled and I now count myself as an admirer of Bill’s. He’s always got a million things going on, some of them slightly nutty, but all of them interesting.  He’s in the robot business with a company called Evolution Robotics and he’s the founder of Aptera, a very cool electric car company (in which Google has invested) that I wrote about last spring.

Today, Bill and eSolar are staging a grand opening for eSolar’s first plant, called the Sierra SunTower, located in the southern California desert near Lancaster. Below are a couple of photos, taken by Bill, from a helicopter ride over the plant on July 3. He sent them to me via Picasa, the photo sharing site now owned by Google, which he founded back in the 1990s. Like I said, he’s a serial enterpreneur. (Bill also invented the idea of paid search, but that’s another story.)

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It’s time to rethink nukes

If climate change is the greatest threat facing mankind, what are the odds of the big environmental groups rethinking their longstanding opposition to nuclear power?

They appear to be slim. Here’s what Environmental Defense says on its website:

Serious questions of safety, security, waste and proliferation surround the issue of nuclear power. Until these questions are resolved satisfactorily, Environmental Defense cannot support an expansion of nuclear generating capacity.

And this comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council website:

New nuclear power plants are unlikely to provide a significant fraction of future U.S. needs for low-carbon energy. NRDC favors more practical, economical and environmentally sustainable approaches to reducing both U.S. and global carbon emissions, focusing on the widest possible implementation of end-use energy-efficiency improvements, and on policies to accelerate commercialization of clean, flexible, renewable energy technologies.

Supporters of nuclear energy—including those who strongly support climate regulation to curb emissions of global warming pollutans—say that doesn’t make sense.

“They (environmentalists) love to hate the biggest thing that can move the needle with respect to climate change,” says David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy. NRG is a member, with NRDC and EDF, of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big companies and environmental groups that back a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases.

Crane spoke last week during a lively discussion of nukes led by my colleague David Whitford at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment. I wish we’d invited an EDF or NRDC representative onto the panel, but the focus was money, not safety, security or waste. David began the conversation by inviting everyone to “consider the evidence and think anew about something about which many of us had made up our minds.”

Good idea. Many years ago, I covered protests again the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire for a left-wing publication. My sympathies were with the protestors. Now I’m firmly undecided, and determined to learn more. Given the threat of climate change and the safety record of nuclear plants in the U.S. since Three Mile Island—especially compared the alternative of mining and burning coal—it seems like the right time to rethink nukes.

Here’s what the directors of the national energy laboratories said last year in a report called A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy:

Today, nuclear energy provides 16 percent of the world’s electricity and offers unique benefits. It is the only existing technology with capability for major expansion that can simultaneously provide stability for base-load electricity, security through reliable fuel supply, and environmental stewardship by avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Furthermore, it has proven reliability (greater than 90 percent capacity factor), exemplary safety, and operational economy through improved performance.

One of the signatories to the report was Steven Chu, now the energy secretary.

Here are some things I heard during the panel:

As thing stand now, we are unlikely to see the so-called nuclear renaissance that was talked about just a couple of years ago. The global economic slump is the reason why. Lenders are more risk-averse than ever, and few businesses need more capital and pose more risk than new nukes. Demand for electricity is slowing because of the recession. And natural gas prices are down, making it easier to meet new demand for electricity by building natural gas plants.

The U.S. government has set aside about $18 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear plants. That will underwrite perhaps three plants, our experts said. “I’m convinced that there will be three nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in the next 10 says,” said Kevin Book, a partner at ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting firm.

Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. The utility industry wants to build more—there are 24 applications for new nukes pending at the NRC, all of two to be located near to existing sites, where local support for nuclear energy is strong. No new plant has been approved since the 1980s. By contrast, there are 45 plants now under construction outside of the U.S., most in China, India and Korea, according to Book.

Like beauty, “clean” energy is in the eye of the beholder. Notice how the NRDC statement above says the group would prefer clean and renewable energy to nuclear. Well, Alan Hanson, an executive with Areva, the big French nuclear power company, says that the nuclear waste issue is closer to being solved than, say, the solar waste issue.

France, where more than 80% of the electricity comes from nuclear power, uses a safe and sophisticated system to recycle spent nuclear fuel, Hanson says. (You wouldn’t expect him to say anything else, but still…) Nuclear waste can be stored on the sites of plants “for the next 500 years in we want,” he said—plenty to time to ease the transition to a renewable, low-carbon energy economy.

By contrast, he says, burning coal creates not on CO2 but mercury and other pollutants. And many solar photovoltaic panels are made of cadmium, among other things, for which there’s no recycling plant. “I don’t know of any part of the electricity generating world that treats its waste as well as the nuclear industry does,” Hanson said.

The politics of nuclear are complicated. Chu, who’s probably the smartest guy in the Obama cabinet, supports nuclear energy but Carol Browner, who’s an experienced Washington power player (no pun intended) is said to be a strong opponent. Liberal Democrats on Capital Hill—Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid—also oppose nuclear power. Given a choice between nuclear and coal as a source of baseload power, they’re likely to favor coal.

Crane said: “Right now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party knows they need to accommodate the coal wing of the Democratic Party in order to get energy and environmental policy passed.” That leaves nuclear out of the deal-making.

resident Obama hasn’t said much about nuclear. It may well be that technology breakthroughs in solar, geothermal, wind or battery storage will mean that we don’t need nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power. But until those breakthroughs come along, shouldn’t we keep the nuclear option open?

They said it at Brainstorm Green

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green began Monday afternoon (less than 24 hours ago as I write this) and my head has been spinning ever since. We’ve talked about Washington and the politics of climate change, Andy Serwer did a a great interview with Bill Ford, and I had a relaxed conversation with Paul Hawken during dinner that generated lots of nice buzz. This morning, we’ve done panels on nuclear power and cars. I can’t keep up with it all—you can find lots of coverage, including video, at Fortune.com. I’m about to interview execs for a panel that we are calling Green Superpowers—GE, Wal-Mart and IBM. For now, I’m just going to dump some quotes from my laptop into this blog to give you a flavor for what’s going on.

Better Place’s Shai Agassi, the dynamic electric-car entrepreneur who is making headway in Israel, Denmark, Hawaii and San Francisco: “If you’re wiling to give me what you pay for gasoline, I’ll give you a free (electric) car.” Electric cars will be dramatically more efficient that gas-powered ones as battery costs come down, he argues

Bill Ford, chairman of Ford, on the history of the auto industry: “We haven’t had a lot of revolutions but boy are we now. I love it.”

More from Ford, on how times have changed: “When I joined the (Ford) board, I was asked to stop affiliating w/ known or suspected environmentalists.” Ford now works with Paul Hawken and Environmental Defense Fund.

Hawken, on why a small-is-beautiful guy has agreed to advise Wal-Mart and Ford on sustainability: “I’m a slut for change.”

Ford to Ian Clifford CEO of Zenn Motors, an electric-car startup: “You guys are leading the charge, so to speak!” Ford really won over the crowd with his low-key charm.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, yet another electric car fan: “I believe the electric car will be one of the great areas of breakthrough that will change our industry.

More from Darbee: “The smart grid will be the key enabling technology for the electric cars.”

Peter Corsell, CEO of GridPoint, on the smart grid: “Current system was designed in an era when information was scarce, fuel was cheap and pollution was free.”

David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, another utility guy who likes electric cars: “The electric car is our savior, It is the air conditioner of the 21st century.”

Alan Hanson, exec vp of nuclear power company Areva, saying concerns about nuclear waste are way overblown: “I don’t know of any part of the electricity generating world that treats its waste as well as the nuclear industry does.”

More from Crane: “I’m convinced that there will e three nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in the next 10 years.” Whether they will be anomalies (supported by a limited pool of federal loan guarantees) or lead to a nuclear renaissance remains to be seen.

Crane, explaining why there is no political constituency for nuclear energy in Washington, where Waxman, Boxer and Browner are anti-nuke but eager to accommodate the coal industry: “Right now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party knows they need to accommodate the coal wing of the Democratic Party in order to get energy and environmental policy passed.”

More to come when I can come up for air….and I hope to dig into the nuclear issue in a more thoughtful way within a week or so. I’m convinced that environmentalists need to think anew about nuclear, in light of new circumstances and the threat of climate change.

The Bills are coming to Brainstorm

No, not the Buffalo Bills. The exciting news is that Bill Clinton and Bill Ford have agreed to speak at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment, next month.

Former President Clinton will speak on Wednesday, April 22–Earth Day, Wednesday. Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, will be with us on the opening afternoon of the conference, Monday, April 20. We’ll be at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Beach, CA. Here’s the current agenda—always subject to change.

I’m feeling good about this year’s programs after months of planning. We’ve got some smart CEOs who are in the thick of the upcoming debate in Washington about climate change, people like Mike Morris of American Electric Power, David Crane of NRG Energy (who was terrific last year), Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Peter Darbee of PG&E (another returnee, and a very forward-thinking exec). We’ll also welcome Fisk Johnson, the CEO of SCJ Johnson, one of the most progressive CEOs in America when it comes to environmental issues, and the pioneering Jeffrey Hollender, founder and CEO of Seventh Generation (and a board member of Greenpeace). Michael Kowalski, the CEO of Tiffany & C0., will describe the company’s pathbreaking effort to try to make the mining industry more responsible—no easy task. CEOs John Brock of Coca Cola Enterprises and Carl Bass of Autodesk will also speak, along with senior execs from GE, IBM, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, P&G, and Coca-Cola. We’ll have CEOs oif solar, wind and biofuels companies, too.

On our opening night, I’ll lead a conversation with Paul Hawken, one of my favorite writers on business and the environment. He’s always provocative, and his talk is being called, “Green is the New Business as Usual—and that’s a problem.” From the NGO world, we’ll have Fred Krupp and Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Hawkins of NRDC, Van Jones of Green for All and many more.

If past Brainstorm events are any indication, though, Clinton will steal the show. He came to a couple of the original Brainstorm events in Aspen after leaving the White House, and he was mesmerizing. Should be fun.

The climate change plan we need?

Climate change is “perhaps the most comprehensive challenge that mankind has ever faced,” declared David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, as a group of 26 big companies and five big environmental groups came together on Capitol Hill this morning to offer Congress a blueprint to tackle global warming.

It’s hard to argue with his assessment. The question is, is the blueprint being put forward by Big Business (GE, DuPont, Alcoa, Dow, Duke Energy, Xerox, Shell, Conoco Phillips, the three automakers, etc.) and Big Green (EDF, NRDC, the Pew Center, World Resources Institute and Nature Conservancy) up to the challenge?

The 24-page document from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, also known as USCAP, emerged from nearly two years of negotiations. You can read it here. “We don’t view this as a perfect document,” said GE’s Jeff Immelt. “We view this as a catalyst for change.” Congress now gets to tackle the issue. Henry Waxman, who heads the House committee dealing with greenhouse gas regulation, said today he wants to get a bill out of committee by May.

USCAP is proposing a cap-and-trade scheme (as opposed to a carbon tax), which adds multiple layers of complexity to the inevitably complex issue of climate change. Far be it from me to judge whether this blueprint will do the job. But here are a few of my first impressions:

A scientific problem, a political solution: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that to have a 50% chance of preventing the worst effects of global warming (and keep warming below 2 degrees C), developed nations as a whole must cut emissions by 25-40% from 1990 by 2020 levels and 80-95% reductions by 2050. The emissions reductions targets recommended by USCAP, while not precisely comparable, fall short of that. Nevertheless, Fred Krupp of EDF said, “This gives us the certainty we need that the atmosphere will be protected.” I don’t know if he’s right, but it’s fitting that the blueprint was introduced in the Cannon House Office Building—it was clearly the product of  compromise.

The dilemma of rising energy costs: A key goal of the cap-and-trade program put forth by USCAP is to put a price on carbon emission, to provide economic incentives for companies and individuals (i.e., all of us) to cut back on use of polluting fossil fuels and make cleaner fuels more afforable by comparison. That makes perfect sense. But (and this is a big but) companies are understandably worried about the impact that higher energy prices will have on the economy, and politicians are fearful of being blamed for higher gas and electricity rates. So they want to raise energy prices—just not by too much! This is one reason why U.S. Cap calls for a massive giveaway of the permits to pollute, to avoid putting too big an immediate burden on companies or their consumers. One CEO says the hope is to create a “bearable slope” of rising energy prices. Do you thing Washington can get that right?

A victory for clean coal: I defy any layman to read the coal section of the blueprint and explain what it means. I doubt many congressmen will be able to understand it. (Here’s a sample sentence: “Require all new coal and other solid fueled facilities emitting more than 10,000 tons of CO2 per year that are initially permitted after January 1, 2015, to emit no more than 1,100 lbs of CO2 for MWh; and require all new coal and other solid fueled facilities above this size threshold that are initially permitted after January 1, 202, to emit no more than 800 lbs of CO2 per MWH–provided that USCAP’s CCS direct cash payment funding recommendations are adopted and provided further….etc etc) Trying to translate all that into English, Jim Rogers, the CEO of coal-burning Duke Energy, said that USCAP has concluded that clean coal technology is crucial to solving the problem of global warming. Not only does the U.S. have abundant supplies of coal, he noted, but so does China, whose economy is growing fast and energy hungry. So USCAP calls for massive subsidies for clean-coal plants and rapid adoption of rules to permit the capture and storage of CO2 in underground caverns. “We cannot take coal off the table,” Rogers says. “We must find ways to remove CO2 from coal use.” Good luck.

No news on nukes: Exelon, GE, NRG Energy, Siemens and other big companies in USCAP  believe that nuclear energy should be a key part of the low-carbon energy mix of the future. The enviros won’t go there. So there is a barely a word about nuclear power in the blueprint. This will be a big issue for Obama and the Congress to resolve.

Offsets, global and domestic: These are allowed in substantial numbers, to help hold down energy prices. “Offsets are an important part of the blueprint,” said Bob Lane, CEO of John Deere. The idea here is that companies that find it too expensive or technologically difficult to cut their own emissions can pay others to cut theirs. Farmers could be paid to trap methane gas given off by cows and pigs. Poor people in the developing world could be paid to preserve forests. This is controversial, but probably a good idea, provided the offsets are determined to be real, additional, measurable, enforceable and permanent–no easy feat.

The bottom line: USCAP and Congress are trying to do something that’s really, really, really hard—engineer a dramatic transformation of the U.S. company in ways that aren’t needlessly disruptive. The goal, all agree, is to move from an economy that relies on low-cost, high-carbon fossil fuels (oil and coal) to one that runs on high-cost, low-carbon fuels (wind, solar power, geothermal, and, yes, clean coal).

The politicians and CEOs want to move slowly. The science tells us to move fast. Therein lies the problem.

Jeff Immelt of GE and Jonathan Lash of WRI introduce USCAP two years ago.