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The good news about the green technology movement is that everybody – consumers, companies, investors, policy makers – seems to understand that the fossil-fuel era is on the downward slope. We will continue to use fossil fuels, but environmental damage, resource depletion and the need for greater political stability globally pretty much makes alternatives mandatory.
The bad news is that we really haven't had to do much to get rid of fossil fuels yet. Sure, people will buy bamboo cutting boards and flock to their Toyota dealers to test drive Priuses, but most people in developed countries have not had to make major sacrifices yet.
A very left-of-center friend of mine recently bragged about how she was remodeling her kitchen with only green materials. She researched it. I suggested that the greenest thing she could do was not remodel at all and thereby avoid putting tons of very useful countertops into a landfill. She stared at me as if I had suggested sending her daughter to a summer camp in Myanmar.
It is different in the developing world, where you might have to get your drinking water from a truck. Nonetheless, the residents of North America and Europe are slowly waking up to the idea that cleaning up our act won't be easy, and that we will face some sober decisions.
Here are some of the chief dilemmas:
1. Clean Coal
In many circles, just mentioning "clean coal" is sure to start an argument. Investing in technologies that reduce emissions from coal will just prolong the coal era, some argue. Perhaps true, but coal is a pervasive fuel. Coal accounted for 49 percent of the power in the United States in 2006. Getting rid of it will be simple: People with odd-numbered addresses will become survivalists or join desert communes.
And good luck weaning the developing world off of it. Approximately 998 billion tons of recoverable coal sits underground, according to a 2006 estimate from the International Energy Agency. Russia has 173 billion tons, China has 126 billion tons and India has 102 billion tons. That's 41 percent of the recoverable reserves. China might face environmental degradation, but it won't completely turn back the clock on economic prosperity. The Olympics made that clear. So you'd better get used to it.
2. Nuclear Power
Nuclear power often gets the same reaction as the term "clean coal," but it accounts for 20.2 percent of the power in the United States. (Think of it for a second: Americans were largely opposed to oil drilling when gas was in the $3 range. When it hit $4, they panicked. Imagine what would happen if we lost 20 percent of our power supply.)
Public support is growing for nuclear power, particularly in communities where plants already exist. Advocates say modern plants will be safer and less expensive. Granted,storage transportation and disposal of fissionable materials are still huge concerns. So is plant safety. Nonetheless, applications for 31 new plants will likely be filed in the U.S. over the next few years (see this CNET story and Will U.S. Build New Nuke Reactors?).
3. Genetic Engineering
The debate over genetic engineering really isn't a debate - it's more like a screaming match between two people speaking different languages. Critics decry Frankenfoods. Supporters say that genetic engineering is one of the most effective ways to increase crop yields and reduce certain types of pesticides. Critics support slow food. Supporters say that's great for the few million people that slow food could support; the rest of you that can't afford them can starve. And they are safe, supporters say.
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"One of my favorite stats is that more people are killed by falling coke machines every year than genetically modified foods," Tom Todaro, CEO of Targeted Growth, told me last year. "Eighty percent of the corn and soy sold worldwide has biotech inside of it. You ate a transgene at breakfast this morning if you had cereal; I guarantee it."
Both sides make really good points, but the impending growth of the world population, the increased use of biofuels, and the growth in demand for food in China pretty much make some form of genetic enhancement inevitable. (Disclosure: Like clean coal and nuclear, I support genetic engineering with caution.)
4. Subsidies to Multimillionaires
Personally, this is the most distasteful part of the green revolution. In Silicon Valley, I can't tell you how many times I've had to listen to some libertarian blowhard yammer on about the evils of government regulation. Many of these same people, however, now invest in and/or work for clean energy companies that rely on government subsidies or research grants. Higher taxes and carbon payments will cover some of this.
But it's oddly true that alternative energy won't get off the ground without government support. And government support is largely going to well-organized companies, which happen to be run by successful people. Mascoma, which has received millions in VC funding, for instance, has also received funds from the states of New York, Michigan and Tennessee, although Tennessee has scaled back. Tesla Motors received tax breaks to make luxury cars for millionaires in California.
I am not against these grants. I'd just like to see a little more gratitude.
5. Success for Haliburton and Other Energy Giants
This came out of a conversation with Todd Kimmel of Advanced Technology Ventures. The theory goes like this: In order to hit their requirements for renewable energy, utilities will have to invest more in geothermal technologies (see Google Funds Hot Rock Technology and Altarock Breaks New Ground With Geothermal Power). Geothermal involves digging deep holes into the Earth and seeking out geological formations with positive profiles.
And who better than the companies that have been drilling oil wells for years? A number of start-ups will also do well, but you can bet that the big guys aren't going to be left out. Besides, they already own bulldozers and the other equipment you need to do this.
The same thing could happen in biofuels. The short, convoluted history of Imperium Renewables shows that biofuel companies will have a tough time trying to scale up (see Another Setback for Imperium). Thus, to succeed, many will have to partner with established companies. In other words: Hello. Chevron.
The rise of biofuels could hurt Big Oil, Kimmel theorized. Instead of partnering with oil companies, small biofuel makers could team up with distributors or others, bypassing Big Oil directly. Still, that could be a tough needle to thread. Look at the difficulty gas station outlets associated with the big oil companies have had trying to put in ethanol pumps.