Project Frog’s Ann Hand: Disrupting construction

Ann Hand, the CEO of smart-building startup Project Frog, did not begin her career in a green job. As an executive in training with Mobil, she ran gas stations in inner city Philadelphia. “I can tell you about the adjacencies of Kool Menthol and Orange Crush,” she says. She went on to spend about 19 years in the oil industry with ExxonMobil, Amoco and BP, where she lead global marketing around “Beyond Petroleum.”

Now Ann is in charge of Project Frog, a green-business startup which, despite the cutesy name, is serious about shaking up the construction industry. Project Frog aims not only to create better buildings–buildings that are attractive, energy-efficient and pleasant places to work–but also to change the way buildings are made. Its structures are “component buildings,” put together from pre-fab kits of parts, shipped by truck and assembled onsite. It’s as if you could buy a building from IKEA.

“We’re trying to change the game,” Ann says. “We give people a better-looking building in half the time at the same cost or less.” Better, faster, greener and cheaper is how the company puts it. Which is a whole lot better than just greener. [click to continue…]

GE’s Mark Vachon: “Gas is massive”

Mark Vachon

How’s GE’s ecomagination  going?

I put that question today to Mark Vachon, who is vice president for ecomagination at GE. He replied by talking about natural gas.

“The large macro trend of gas is massive,” he said. “Our oil and gas business will be a huge beneficiary.”

An abundance of shale gas in the U.S., and methane gas reserves in Australia present a wealth of opportunities for GE, which plays all along the supply chain for natural gas.

“We’re a massive player in gas exploration,” Mark said. “We have a water business that can deal with issues in the fracking process.” And, of course, GE sells lots of gas-burning turbines, including a new combined cycle power plant, currently available in Europe, that enables gas to be burned more efficiently and in concert with renewable energy. (See my June blogpost, GE’s big bet on natural gas)

But can you put “ecomagination and shale gas in the same sentence? Yes,” Mark said. GE will focus on making shale gas cleaner, “with technologies like zero-leak valves” and water filtration products like a mobile evaporator that is basically a truck (see below) “designed to enable on-site frac water recycling, reducing the volume of wastewater and fresh water that needs to be hauled to and from the project site.” [click to continue…]

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.

GE: Good citizen, but where’s the payoff?

“Responsible business,” says Bob Corcoran, “is good business.”

And what’s responsible business? “Make money, make it ethically and make a difference.”

Bob Corcoran

Bob is vice president for corporate citizenship at GE, a 30-year company veteran, and a good guy. We met in 2o04 when we traveled together in Ghana while I was reporting a story on GE’s values for FORTUNE. (See Money and Morals at GE.)  Recently we spoke about GE’s 2009 citizenship report, and about what GE has learned in the past five years from its corporate citizenship efforts, including its high-profile campaign around Ecomagination, which focuses the company, and its marketing, on products and services that help solve the world’s big environment problems.

Inside GE, Ecomagination is deemed a success, so much so that it has spawned a sister initiative (if you can spawn a sister) called Healthymagination, focused on profitably creating better health for more people. GE says that it expects Ecomagination product revenues to grow at twice the rate of GE’s overall revenue between now and 2015.

The logic behind both initiatives is simple, Bob noted. Big global problems demand big solutions from big companies. GE prides itself on “tackling the world’s most complex and pressing problems,” as chief executive Jeff Immelt writes in the report.

The trouble is, the payoff for GE’s shareholders have been disappointing. I didn’t realize just how disappointing until I put together this chart comparing GE’s stock-price performance to the S&P500 and to a couple of its conglomerate competitors, Siemens and United Technologies. [click to continue…]

GE and Washington: Too cozy?

Since 2004, when I wrote a story for FORTUNE called Money and Morals at GE , I have been an admirer of General Electric and its CEO, Jeff Immelt. My admiration deepened when GE unveiled EcoMagination, its effort to solve important environmental problems. Immelt and GE also led the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big business and big NGOs committed to getting the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Jeffrey Immelt
Jeffrey Immelt

But–and you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?–I’ve got a couple of questions about GE and Immelt that have been nagging at me. First, has GE become overly focused on Washington? Second, when will Immelt deliver for GE shareholders?

The first question was prompted by an aside in John Harwood’s column in The Times a week ago, about the Obama administration’s all-out effort to get Ben Bernanke confirmed as Fed chief. He wrote:

The investor Warren Buffett and Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chairman of General Electric, helped contact senators, a senior official said.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; Immelt has the right to ask senators to support Bernanke. But it reminded me that this registered Republican and his company have closely aligned their interests with the administration. Immelt serves on the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Newly-released figures show that among big companies or unions, GE was second only to Exxon Mobil in lobbying expenses during 2009, spending $21.4 million. (Other sources put the figure higher.) This isn’t a surprise–GE is a huge company (2009 revenues were $156 billion) and it has a myriad of Washington interests, including taxes, trade, energy policy and financial regulation.

But there’s more. GE’s Washington operation is a case study in Washington’s revolving door. Nancy Dorn, who runs the office, [click to continue…]

GE’s Immelt: I thought wind was a “hula hoop”

ge-logoGE’s chief executive, Jeff Immelt, opened the Net Impact 2009 conference this morning at Cornell University and, as usual, he was thoughtful and provocative. He was bullish on GE, of course, but, after this tough year for the U.S. economy, he sounded more pessimistic than usual  about where the country and its economy are going.

The American consumer, the financial services industry and the construction industry were the major drivers of America’s long boom, going back to the 1980s. None is likely to drive  economic growth in the future, Immelt said.

Instead, he noted, growth will be most robust in the developing world–places like China, India and Brazil that have bounced back more quicly than the U.S. from the global downturn–and it’s by no means clear that U.S. industry is positioned to capitalize on that growth.

Immelt said:

There’s more growth outside the United States than there is inside the United States. We have to recognize that our destiny is connected to the emerging world. We have to repurpose ourselves as an exporter.

The trouble is, the U.S. isn’t educating as many engineers as it should be, he said. Nor are the U.S. government and U.S. companies investing as much as China, say, in energy researchjeffrey_immelt_preview and development. Public policy. also remains a big question mark when it comes to energy because, so far at least, Congress has been unable to pass regulation of global warming pollutants. Other countries are moving faster.

“There’s going to be 10 million jobs created in clean energy,” Immelt said. The question is, will those jobs be in the U.S., in China, or elsewhere?

In the audience for Immelt were more than 2,000 members of Net Impact, a great organization whose purpose is “to inspire, educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.” (Disclosure: I’m a new member of the Net Impact board.) Immelt has made GE’s “ecomagination” campaign a hallmark of his tenure as CEO and he said his focus at the company has been to marry capitalism and sustainability. [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…]

GE, biomimicry, wind and nanopants

Earlier this week, I visited GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, near Albany. Cool place, the home base for about 1,900 scientists, and one of four GE research centers around the world. The others are in Bangalore, Munich and Shanghai.

I wrote a column for FORTUNE’s website about GE’s venture investments (GE brings good things to startups), about which I’ll blog a little more next week. But for today, a look at how GE’s research into how nanotechnology, which is the study of matter on a molecular and atomic scale, could help drive the wind turbine industry. This technology is inspired, in part, by lotus plants leaves that are able to repel water–an example of biomimicry, which studies nature’s best ideas and using them to solve human problems. GE’s goal, as the video below shows, is to come up with nano-coatings on wind blades or aircraft engines that repel water. This technology is inspired, in part, by lotus plants leaves that are able to repel water–an example of biomimicry, which studies nature’s best ideas and using them to solve human problems.

Materials that do a great job of repelling water are called superhydrophobic. An example would be nanopants–spill a soda on them, and the liquid would roll right off. Check out this video to see how it works–the water droplets below really, really don’t like the nanocoating. My only critique: GE should have set this video to music.

You can read a blogpost from GE engineer Joseph Vinciquerra about superhydrophobic technology, “Creating anti-icing surfaces,” on GE’s global research blog.

GE’s smart (and subsidized) appliances

New smart appliances from GE will do great things. They will save energy, reduce greenhouse gases, curb  demand for power on the utility grid, generate “green jobs” in America and—oh, I almost forgot—clean your clothes, wash your dishes and keep your ice cream from melting.

GE's smart best-in-class hybrid water heater
GE’s smart best-in-class hybrid water heater

They will also be financed, in part, with your tax dollars, if, as seems likely, the company has its way. Incentives for manufacturers like GE that make super-efficient appliances are already part of the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate. As GE explained it, the government would provide “awards” to best-in-class appliances of $75 per dishwasher, $200 per refrigerator and $300 per water heater, paid directly to the manufacturers. As I read the bill (and I could be wrong, since it’s not easy reading), the government would also pay retailers who sell best-in-class appliances.

Did you know that the government was going to subsidize appliance manufacturers? Me neither.

Last week, GE executives came to Washington to talk with government officials and reporters about their smart appliances. When combined with a smart electricity meter, a smart grid and distributed renewable energy, GE’s water heaters, washers, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators and stoves would help enable the company to provide zero net energy homes by 2015. That’s very cool. (Here are details from GE.)

While appliances are not the most exciting or profitable of GE’s businesses—the company tried, without success, to sell off its appliance business a couple of years ago—GE does have a history of innovation in the business. GE gave us the first self-cleaning oven, the first fully automatic clothes washer and the first refrigerator that dispensed ice and water through the door (which saves energy along with wear and tear on the biceps muscle).

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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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