I've always tended to doubt people who claim their lives were changed by on a particular day by something that they saw or heard.
That is, until it happened to me.
Back in early 2004, I interviewed Jim Plummer, the dean of Stanford University's School of Engineering, for a story on IBM. At the end of the interview, I asked him where Stanford wanted to head in the future: in what disciplines would he concentrate most of its intellectual heft and huge endowment.
Material science, nanotechnology and energy, he said.
It all computed but that last one.
"We have a huge energy issue in this century, and it will not be solved by policy. The only real solution is technology," Plummer replied. "The alternative is to shut down our economy in 25 years."
He then hung up.
I was mystified, but intrigued. Remember, this was 2004. Solar was still a small market and most venture capitalists had not formed groups yet to invest in green technologies. Electric cars were golf carts. I told my then editor – who, politically, is more left than Dennis Kucinich – that I wanted to write a special report on energy.
"Who gives a $#!+?" he replied.
I wrote the story. It resonated with readers, who poured forth with comments. But my boss had a point. A story about hard-drive price cuts, which was posted the same day actually got more traffic.
Nonetheless, I was hooked. Energy played a tremendous role in our lives, and yet we largely took it for granted. If you snapped your fingers and got rid of the internet tomorrow, I reasoned, life would revert back to the way it was in... 1986. You'd buy CDs instead of downloads. Travel agents would have offices. Even if you got rid of computers entirely, life would revert back to 1946, a somewhat imaginable, livable time.
If you got rid of the modern energy infrastructure (oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas)then life would be like Little House on the Prairie. Meet my wife: She's vice president of butter churning, while I handle all of the animal-skinning duties. She saw Illinois once, but the 100-mile journey severely weakened her. Meet our five of 11 children that made it past age eight.
Skyscrapers? Railroads? When you get a wood-burning passenger jet off the ground, let me know.
Green technology was going to be big, I concluded, because it had to be. The U.S. and Europe had become dependent on oil and gas from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other not-so-democracy friendly nations. Scientific studies pointed toward rising temperatures. Even if someone didn't believe global warming, it's not like they liked pollution.
And then there was the younger generation. One of the early VCs in the space, Erik Straser, noted that at some universities it was easy to get into computer science classes. The fuel cell classes, by contrast, were packed. Talent was already migrating.
Not everything would work. That first story prominently featured Konarka, the futuristic solar specialist that's still coming out of lab mode, and Pelamis, the listing wave power manufacturer. But early stories also included features on EnerNoc, Comverge and the then highly unsexy market of demand response.
Nearly six years later, I'm busier than ever.