23 November 2012 – And then there was Verge – The New TED?

Where to start on the great stories we have for you this week? There is the first of a new short series from design critic and columnist Elizabeth Farrelly on what’s missing from the green agenda. Seduction, she says.

We’ve got reports on a huge conference from Sustainable Business Australia, and news that the Green Building Council turns 10 this month.

And a great MashUP from Leon Gettler on energy prices.

The mountains of great insights still rolling out of our week in San Francisco and the amazing GreenBuild conference last week might just have to wait.

Well, partly.

Joel Makower

And then there was Verge
First, there was not-Greenbuild.

We got waylaid on the way to Greenbuild by Verge, a parallel conference  happening earlier in the week at the same huge Moscone Center. It was a much smaller clutch of audience and speakers, but the kind of svelte, high octane audience and speakers that late afternoon of the final day, still had people on tenterhooks of excitement.

Verge, as its chief organiser, Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, puts it, is the convergence of technology, energy, buildings and transport.

That’s smart enough. But the kind of people who spoke at the event were bringing to life the sort of “collisions” between people, ideas, place and business that the technology mavericks previously only dreamed of.

Milling around between sessions last Tuesday were Bill Weihl and Dan Reicher for instance.

Weihl is manager of energy efficiency and sustainability at Facebook and Reicher is executive director at the Steyer Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University, where he’s working on how to break down the financial barriers for renewable energy. For these two it was a reunion. They both worked together at Google.

Reicher had just delivered a session on some great ideas about how to jump-start renewable energy investment in a big way.

He looked at three key inputs. First, the energy itself – sun, water, waves…whatever – is free.

Dan Reicher, Standford, Bill Weihl, Facebook

The second key input, technology is getting cheaper and cheaper.

“The good news is that technological innovation has dramatically cut the costs of solar panels and so on,” he said.

“Solar, wind, geothermal, have come down and down. They’ve still got some distance to go to compete with traditional sources, but as we make progress there the problem is the cost of finance for renewable energy is still very high. And a big problem is reliance on federal tax credits.”

Which is unreliable, he said.

In this scenario the cost of finance looms as an ever bigger proportion of the three inputs.

Reicher looks to property for the answer. Specifically real estate investment trusts or REITS, which “trade like stocks” so millions of people can invest in them and be part of the finance solution.

[These are a “mum and dad” investment assets that be structured to invest in almost anything. The point is that to raise money, they do not rely on big institutional committees, sub-committees or asset managers to make the decision. They are a lithe thin structure that passes along all tax liabilities and profits to the end investor.]

And right now that world of finance is colliding with the world of tweeters and technological connections that can give such vehicles access to the mass finance made possible by the collective power of retail investors.

These vehicles could be “a big deal in advancing investment in renewable energy, dramatically lowering the cost”, Reicher said.

“We could dramatically cut the costs of renewable energy by as much as one third by access to these structures. We could be at parity without subsidies in a very short amount of time.”

Reicher has written a paper on this subject.

And where was he going next?

“I’m on my way to Washington today talk [about all this] to the Senate Estimates Committee,” he said.

There was onstage live interaction with an online audience of more than 4000

Consume collaboratively and have a party
Another tasty mental morsel was the wonderful new consumer trend of collaborative consumption.

Will Dennis, a co-founder of Liquid, a “rental marketplace” that lets individual bike owners rent their bike to locals, travellers, and cyclists, said the idea was to “make money from stuff you already own”.

“People are making money from cars, apartments and bicycles.

“It’s an opportunity, a new economy emerging.”

And it’s not based on ownership but on access to ownership. He says what’s happened is that people “now enjoy the experience rather than the thing itself”.

Effectively it adds a new curve to the traditional demand and supply curves; a time curve, he said. You get to have the thing for a certain amount of time, and pay a proportionate part.
But something else happens in the process.

Something very human and that money can’t buy, in a shop anyway.

It’s human trust. Of strangers. And wonderful experiences that the conventional world can’t even begin to mimic.

“We’re seeing online trust like never before,” Dennis said.

“Social networks, communications, not just with family and friends. But with strangers…a digital population 24/7.”

Our GreenBuild blogger and correspondent, Imogen Schoots, who has been travelling the world using the Couch Surfing network, can testify to the enormous generosity of hosts who put up their couches, sometimes beds and spare rooms – free use of bicycle thrown in –  to complete strangers. All you have to do is put log your profile on the site, say where you are going, and wait to be “invited” she says. On one such visit, a host put up his entire apartment while he was out of town. And she didn’t meet him, even for a handover of the keys.

Dennis says the experience you have this way far outstrips what’s possible from conventional consumer purchases.

The trend is “away from glamourising purchases to glamourising experiences. It’s less about telling your friends what you have and about what you do”.

Clay Nesler, Johnson Controls

Local government is the secret weapon
There were crossovers in content and speakers with GreenBuild.

The subject of Environmental Upgrade Agreements was raised by Johnson Control’s Clay Nesler, VP global energy and sustainability who mentioned that while a similar scheme in the US had failed because of the housing market meltdown, in Australia, they were well under way.

The Sydney and Melbourne city councils had heard about the US scheme known as Property Assessed Clean Energy programs, flown to San Francisco to find out how they worked, and gone back home and implemented the schemes.

“No-one told them there was a problem,” he said. Now PACE schemes are back in business and San Francisco recently announced its first $1 million scheme, under a reworked program.

In Nesler’s view PACE and EUAs can “change the game”.

In comes Rick Fedrizzi
At 4pm on Day 2 of Verge, well and truly into the “graveyard shift” and the place is packed, pulsing with energy and razor keen impatience to get to the next session.

One of the more seasoned conference goers mutters about the contrast with GreenBuild – which they say seems so large, so lumbering by contrast with powerpoints and so on.

That turns out to be wrongly judged. GreenBuild is also exciting and challenging and highly stimulating.

At 4.30 Makower invites the US Green Building Councilpresident Rick Fedrizzi up on stage to address the audience.

It’s a brilliant coup. Fedrizzi is powerful in his passion and hits exactly the right note, like a seasoned professional.

He praises the enegy and intelligence of the audience and the sharp entrepreneurial and technological nous. For the past 20 years, he says, the people on his side of the tent at the USGBC have working on the massive job of dragging a heavy and slow moving industry into a new future, from the ground up.

Green thinking in the property world has transformed it, he said.

A few years ago the talk might have been about how much Italian marble was in your building and today the LEED rating tool was commonplace.

“At the same time along comes Verge in this area where there is no gravity…so the two forces, of the bottom pushing up and the top-down pull is the new paradigm. People need new opportunities to think outside the box.

“And Verge has this important place. I think you will … be another kind of TED event, or you will create a brand new space that just allows for this movement that you will entertain what is possible with no boundaries.”

Fedrizzi gets it.