The U.S. has long been a leader in green technologies.
It has also long been a leader in fumbling that lead. Look at the historical record:
--Charles Brush built what is considered the first automatic wind turbine for generating electricity. The turbine, built in 1888 in Ohio, had a 50-foot diameter and 144 blades. The industry has since trimmed turbines down to three blades. It has also gone overseas. While the U.S. has more installed wind capacity than anyone else, the only top U.S. wind manufacturer remains General Electric: they got into the business by buying the wind division of disgraced, defunct Enron.
One of the most promising U.S. startups is Nordic Windpower, located in Berkeley by way of Sweden.
--Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson created the first silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in 1954. It was only four-percent efficient, but Bell raised the figure to 11 percent soon after. First Solar and SunPower hail from the U.S. -- and we mint a lot of startups -- but the U.S. is a far smaller market than Europe, and Suntech and Yingli have begun to demonstrate that we don't have a monopoly on quality.
--A chemistry professor at the State University of New York Binghamton, M. Stanley Whittingham led a research team at Exxon that resulted in the first lithium ion battery. Whittingham's titanium sulfide battery, however, was not a hit -- Sony's lithium cobalt battery became the standard in the early 1990s. The battery industry is now based in Asia.
--In 1991, the Department of Energy kicked off the $90 million U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium to develop nickel metal hybrid batteries for hybrid cars, a car design championed a century earlier by Ferdinand Porsche. The effort scared Japan so much that Honda and Toyota began to develop hybrids. Before tangible results came in, the DOE shifted funding to hydrogen.
--In 1976, General Electric Ed Hammer invented something that many thought impossible: the compact fluorescent bulb. Although GE liked the idea, CFLs would require entirely new manufacturing facilities, which would cost $25 million. "So they decided to shelve it," Hammer told me in 2007. CFLs only came to market because the design leaked out -- others copied it before GE had a licensing program.
"That's how it became widespread," he said.
So why do we suck so much at green commercialization, while excelling at transforming science projects like search engines, microprocessors and microbes into Google, Intel and Genentech? The reasons are:
1. Conservation = Being a Loser. Scrimping and saving has, for some reason, been enshrined as the national shame. Immigrants flooded here in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries tantalized by pictures of homes with running water and fridges that could hold an entire elk. Back in the '60s, what did kids know about the rest of the world? That someone halfway around the globe wanted to eat your leftovers. If you can't waste, you haven't made it.
And don't just blame it on conservatives: how many green advocates have tossed out perfectly serviceable handsets to get the latest iPhone?
Granted, during some historical eras, conservation has been a virtue. Popular oral histories abound about the Depression or rationing in World War II. (I still have my grandmother's food coupon book -- she needed it even though they owned a grocery store.)
But frugality is only fashionable in times of serious deprivation. Casual conservation just looks inept. Case in point: the '70s. You didn't see Dorothea Lange taking pictures of mom cooking Hamburger Helper or buying knock-off Adidas. Jimmy Carter was a great ideas person, but the sweater just made him look like Mr. Rogers after an argument with King Friday.
2. Abundance. As the fourth largest nation in terms of land mass, the U.S. has enjoyed an abundance of natural resources and people have exploited them for their convenience. In the 1920s, solar hot water heaters blanketed Miami and southern California. The advent of natural gas piping and cheap natural gas, which could heat hot water any hour of the day, led to their demise.
The same happened with autos and public transportation. Cars are more convenient than street cars, gas historically has been cheap in the U.S. and so has farmland. Oil companies didn't kill public transportation in L.A. -- the desire for three-bedroom houses did.
It will take a bit of time to get used to the era of resource scarcity.
3. It's Not New. This is one of the principal dilemmas of the greentech market worldwide. Handheld calculators radically reduced the time needed to solve math problems. Word processing made a 5,000-year-old profession -- the secretary -- obsolete almost overnight. The internet put the world at your fingertips. Antibiotics saved your life.
Solar panels give you electrons that pretty much function like those from the power plant. To date, only electric cars and green homes seem to have an abundant "Wow!" factor for consumers. This will change, but it partly explains the slow ramp.
4. Lobbying. The fossil fuel industry knows how to work Washington and the state capitols. They can discuss jobs and raise fears about the economic cataclysm that will surely ensue if people can't afford to drive Chevy Suburbans on a daily basis. Thesolarindustry has improved on this score, but it's still got a long way to go to catch up. Remember: back in 2008, the investment tax credit was stalled in D.C. -- it was only after Washington showered the financial industry with cash via the TARP program that they agreed to alternative energy credits.
4. Environmentalists as Scolds. The first Earth Day in 1970s drew millions into the streets. Just as important, it drew middle-class protesters in droves. It wasn't dominated by dirty, smelly, strident hippies.
Fast forward to 2010. Smelly is gone, but strident remains. Much of the opposition to Al Gore comes because he's Al Gore. I support his ideas, but let's face it -- he comes across as smug. Bill Clinton or Rachel Carson he's not. Environmental objections have forced BrightSource Energy to shrink its solar thermal plant, an uncompromising stance that really just encourages natural gas consumption.
Food advocates are getting better at public relations. In the past, most of the arguments revolved around making Twinkies the Great Satan. It was condescending but also absurd: even stoners don't really like Twinkies. Swapping out snooty gastronome Alice Waters for genial Jamie Oliver has made a big difference.
Still, like it or not, the posture of some green advocates has made it easier for the opposition.
How do we get around these problems. Alan Salzman at VantagePoint Venture Partners, among others, has suggested framing the issues in new ways. One of our principal forms of energy is coal. It is a rock men risk their lives to dig out of the ground using pneumatic hammers. It then gets cooked and most of the energy produced gets wasted.
"It is a short distance away from gathering firewood," he said. "Do you think we could figure out a better way to boil water that doesn't kill people? There is no solution other than that that anyone can envision?"
Naturally, he's Canadian.