WRI: Beyond the beltway, some bright spots

“It was a tough year for the environment, and a tough year for environmentalists, especially in the U.S.”

So said Jonathan Lash, the CEO of the World Resources Institute, one of Washington’s most respected environmental groups, as he began his annual look at the state of the environment in the new year.

2010 was indeed a dismal year–marked as it was by record warm temperatures, natural disasters linked to climate change, the BP Deepwater oil spill, the Massey mine disaster and, most importantly, the defeat of  climate-change legislation in Congress.

Given today’s political realities, it was hard for Lash to summon much optimism about 2011,  at least when it comes to U.S. policy. But he was able to identify pockets of progress in the business world and elsewhere–particularly in China–that could, over time, drive the decarbonization of the global economy required to curb climate change.

Policy will be needed–specifically a price on carbon, in some form–but if and when governments finally manage to peenalize companies for their emissions,  they will  set off “an avalanche, a shift that will go much faster than policy requires” as businesses compete in a low-carbon world.

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Golly GE: a smart way to spur innovation

Take the creativity of countless startups, the heft of a big corporation, $200 million in prize money, savvy venture capitalists, the power of digital media and the wisdom of crowds.

Put them together and you have the ingredients of GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, a promising way to speed innovation towards a smart grid, clean energy and eco-friendly homes, buildings and cars.

Promising…because we won’t see results for a while.

Unveiled with fanfare by GE chief Jeff Immelt in Silicon Valley in July, the Ecomagination Challenge has generated more than 3,000 entries and 60,000 comments and votes. This week, GE will announce the top vote-getters and next month it will announce the winners, which are selected by a panel of expert judges.

GE and its four venture capital partners–Emerald Technology Ventures, Foundation Capital, KPCB and Rockport Capital Partners–have said they will invest $200 million into the most promising startups and ideas. Grants could range from $100,000, to further research a new idea, up to significant equity investments in existing startups, which would also get marketing and manufacturing support from GE. GE already has significant investments in clean tech companies like A123 Systems, which makes batteries, and Southwest Windpower, which makes small-scale wind turbines. This is an effort to find more.

How’s it going? Some of the ideas seem, to put in kindly, long shots. An electric generator powered by garlic? (See it on video here.) Rotating houses? A “Wind Turbine Electricity Generation Without the Wind.” What’s next: solar panels that don’t need sunshine?

Amidst the thousands of entries, several caught my attention, and the attention of voters:

Julie and Scott Brusaw

One is Solar Roadways, the  brainchild of a mom-and-pop couple in Idaho. Scott Brusaw is an electrical engineer, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps and a former Boy Scout scoutmaster, and his wife Julie Brusaw is a marriage and family counselor. They want to make roads out of solar panels, protected by a material similar to that used in the “black boxes” in airplanes. LEDs could be added to light up roads at night, and heating elements could be installed to melt snow, all powered by the sun. They’re even talking about putting sensors in the roads to warn drivers if animals are crossing. The Brusaws got a contract from the Federal Highway Administration to build a prototype in 2009, and he was invited to give an entertaining TEDx talk last spring in Sacramento.

Interesting, too, is Welectricity, which is described as “a social network that promotes household energy efficiency through behavioral nudges.” Think Facebook meets your utility bill. Electricity users could set up profiles, and their bills would be graphed and compared to one another. (You could send a boastful tweet when your bill is lower than your neighbors!) The idea comes from Herbert Samuel, an energy consultant from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

I was also struck by an entry called From Net Zero to Waste Zero which uses a combination of solar PV, wind and geothermal energy to design a low-cost house that lives off renewable power. (That’s an image of the house, above.) The idea comes from Sam Qin, a Canadian entrepreneur who coordinated the design of a zero net-energy house for the Canadian government during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Whether any of this is truly new–and, more important, scalable–is very much an open question. If we lived in a perfectly efficient economy, where any entrepreneurs could get a hearing at venture capital firms, and the best ideas would get funded, we wouldn’t need a competition like this. But we don’t, and that’s why new models for innovation–like the automotive X-Prize--are worth trying. If nothing else, GE’s challenge has spurred a lot of online conversation and positive buzz for GE.

COP15: Information is (less) power

Google Power Meter

Lord Kelvin said it more than a century ago: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve.”

Today, it’s become a business cliche: “What you don’t measure you can’t manage.”

In that light, and against the backdrop of the UN climate negotiations unfolding here in Copenhagen, Google, GE, The Climate Group and NRDC came together to call on governments around the world to provide people with real-time information on their home energy use.

Simply getting useful and timely information (as opposed to a monthly bill) about their electricity usage drives people to curb usage and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 15%, the companies said and studies show. When their usage is compared to their neighbors’, they cut back even more.

“This simple but bold call to action makes common sense,” said Steve Fludder, who oversees GE’s EcoMagination efforts.

The technology to deliver real-time information about electricity consumption — essentially, a meter and software — exists today and it’s not expensive.

GE makes so-called smart meters that it sells to electric utilities.  It is also developing a wireless home energy monitor to be sold to consumers that will measure electricity usage, let consumers know which gadgets or appliances are using power, and communicate with so-called smart appliances so that dishwashers or dryers can run during times of the day when electricity is cheaper. All this is part of the smart grid and smart home you’ve probably heard about. [click to continue…]

GE, clean tech and your tax dollars

271_home_img1_ge_ecomagLet me state my bias upfront: I’m am admirer of GE and its chief executive, Jeff Immelt, and the company’s ecomagination initiative. GE and Wal-Mart are, as I have written, the most influential companies in America, and it’s great that they are serious about becoming more sustainable, and working with their customers and suppliers to do so as well.

But I can’t help but be struck by the extent to which GE’s clean-energy businesses depend on federal and state tax and regulatory policy, along with grants and loans from the government. Wind energy, solar energy, nuclear power, cleaner coal, smart-grid initiatives, energy-efficient appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs—all of these either benefit from current policy, get stimulus money or Department of Energy grants, or stand to benefit if the climate-change legislation strongly supported by GE is enacted into law, or all of the above.

This is fairly obvious, admittedly, to anyone paying attention to the energy and climate debate, but it was brought home to me vividly last week, at a GE Ecomagination Forum [click to continue…]

A greener–and more open–GE

General Electric and Wal-Mart are the two most important companies in America, for different reasons: GE’s reputation for management excellence means that its ideas spread widely, while Wal-Mart’s size and clout put it at the center of the consumer economy. Last week Wal-Mart announced its plans for a sustainability index, generating lots of excitement, and today GE releases a citizenship report that demonstrates that the $183-billion company is becoming not just cleaner and greener, but more open.

“We just crushed our energy consumption goals,” Bob Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship, told me when we talked recently about the report. “We have crushed our greenhouse gas emission goals. I feel very good about that.”

He added: “I’m sitting in a building right now” – GE’s corporate HQ in Fairfield, Connecticut – “that has solar panels on the roof.”

As you’d expect from the company that popularized the precision-driven Six Sigma approach to quality, GE’s citizenship report, its fifth, has no shortage of facts, numbers and metrics. But what struck me most about the report were the insights it offers into the changing GE culture.

GE is the No. 1 U.S. wind turbine maker
GE is the No. 1 U.S. wind turbine maker

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Green dawn

Perhaps it was my imagination, but there seemed to be a spring in the step of the Americans at the World Future Energy Summit here in Abu Dhabi.

“Today, I’m pleased to say that we have new president,” said Dan Arvizu, the director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

He noted that his new boss, Steve Chu, the energy secretary, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and he projected a bigger-than-life photo of Barack Obama onto the screen during his presentation to the international audience here.

Arvizu described, with undisguised pleasure, the economic stimulus bill before Congress, which includes $150 billion in investments in renewable and alternative energy, including $11 billion to upgrade the electricity grid.

“We are going to build a new economy based on green and renewable energy,” Arvizu said. “We need transformational change. We must seize the moment.”

Steve Fludder, the new head of ecomagination for GE, also praised the new Obama administration for its “refreshing views” and said that a key goal of the ecomagination effort at GE is to “decouple” economic growth from rising greenhouse gas emissions. GE intends to invest about $1.5 billion a year in renewable energy, energy efficiency, so-called clean coal and water purification research.

This week, GE announced that it will locate an “ecomagination technology center” in Masdar City, the new zero-carbon, zero-waste city being constructed in Abu Dhabi.

“We are seeing a tipping point around the world” when it comes to clean energy, Fludder said. “I can tell you with absolute certainty, as a technology coming, that green is profitable.”

As for the Obama administration, and its plans for an economic stimulus package, new energy policy and carbon regulation, Fludder said: “We see nothing but positive impact.”