November 23, 2009 1:34 PM
Green and How I Got Here
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 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."
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 I wanted to write a special report on energy.
"Who gives a %^*@?," he replied.
I wrote the story. It resonated with readers. But my boss had a point: a story about hard drive price cuts posted the same day actually got more traffic.
Nonetheless, I was hooked. Energy played a tremendous role in our lives, but 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), 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. 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 for oil and gas on 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.
Five years later, I'm busier than ever. Am I environmentalist? Pretty much. I camped as a kid and believe that green belts need to be preserved. But the impetus behind green won't be altruistic. It will be economic and political. The boom essentially reflects how people want to make money and live.
And believe me, there's huge room for improvement for how we consume energy regardless of your political beliefs. The U.S. annually consumes 100 quads, or 100 quadrillion BTUs, of energy a year, according to Arun Majumdar, a professor at UC Berkeley and now the head of an advanced research group called ARPA-E in the Department of Energy. 55 to 60 quads get dissipated as waste heat: the heat coming off your car engine, filling factories or emanating from the brick next to your laptop all represent energy purchased by not consumed for a productive purpose. New technologies like quantum dots can help recover it.
Think of it: 55 percent. If employees threw out their computers every other day, the boss would throw a tizzy.