Cool…cooler and really hot

Silicon Valley where green is hot

In the US in the 60s, the brightest science graduates wanted to work for the space program. Today they’re rushing to work for President Obama’s climate change program.

In Silicon Valley the coolest thing right now is alternative energy and “cleantech”.   It’s so cool, it’s hot. No longer are computer games soaking up nerd time. Today the biggest buzz is saving the planet — just like Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

According to a must-read article in The Atlantic magazine titled “The Elusive Green Economy”, cleantech is booming in Silicon Valley.

“Last year, cleantech was the third-largest recipient of venture funding, after IT and biotechnology, with investments of $5.8 billion. But that statistic doesn’t begin to convey its psychic significance. It’s all anyone wants to talk about,” the article says.

“Exhilaration over clean energy has so thoroughly swept Silicon Valley that it has transformed the local culture. Conspicuous consumption has given way to conspicuous conservation. The favored status symbol is no longer the giant yacht or the sprawling mansion but the home designed to be so ruthlessly energy-efficient that it generates its own power and produces a surplus that can be selflessly fed back into the grid.”

Now that’s exciting. What the article points to, among many powerful insights including ripping apart the myth that clean energy is too hard or too expensive, is that there is nothing more capable of major transformation than a cool idea. Just ask the kids.

Sure there’s money to be made from Silicon Valley becoming an “anti-Detroit” with cleantech. But as the management gurus tell us, reason is often not enough too drive real change —  what really works is an emotional reaction.

A look through the current issue of The Fifth Estate shows plenty of people working hard on creating memes for transformation.

Take the amazing work coming out of the offices of landscape architects McGregor+Coxall.

Adrian McGregor who recently teamed up his office with long term associate Philip Coxall, went straight for the fun meme in his collaborative launch of an installation in a Sydney laneway. Titled the “Seven Metre Bar”, the installation experiments with the idea of inaction and ignoring climate change while we party.

In the firm’s new website, biocitystudio.com, McGregor goes for the competitive meme, by collating and publishing data on cities’ ecological performance so that civic leaders can be pressured to compete with other cities on the scores for sustainability instead of financial strength or ephemeral “lifestyle” indices.

By the way, McGregor is looking for 12 PhD students to help him in this work. Any takers?

Energy Savings

Mark Lister is another believer in the power of a good idea. His bugbear is energy efficiency and he wants to give it a “PR and image makeover”.

Saving energy is a cheap and quick way to cut emissions but it suffers from a  “massive image problem”, says Lister.

Lister, a corporate communicator and agitator in the energy space, has taken a secondment from his “day job” with Szencorp to kick-start a new organisation, the Australian Alliance to Save Energy, or A2SE.

It is an offshoot of the Alliance to Save Energy in the US, which controls an $US11 million annual  budget, and has nearly 70 staff servicing its 1 million members.

Lister knows he’s up against some serious competition for funding in Australia, but the logic is there: energy efficiency is the fastest and cheapest way to cut emissions. We know that because the Government’s own Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics said in its 2007 report that energy savings could slash 55 per cent of greenhouse emissions by mid-century.

What bugs Lister is that no one gets excited about it and all the attention goes on clean energy or the carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Energy efficiency is “more than half of the emissions but it certainly doesn’t get half of the debate”, Lister says.

We “get” saving water. “It’s 80 per cent of our bodies. We drink it, we know it’s vital to our survival,” he says.

But energy? Not so much. Lister suspects there is a deep psychological attachment to consuming energy and one of the things he wants to find funding for is research into energy use behaviour.

We can take a stab at what’s going on. Energy makes us feel powerful: we can have daylight at the flick of a switch; we can boot up the world on our laptops, and we can flatten the pedal in the car and nearly fly.

So when the NSW said power costs would rise by nearly $300 for each household to pay for new infrastructure, there was barely a murmur. But imagine if that was a separately levied tax to create energy savings — enough to dispense with the need for new infrastructure. We won’t go there.

Change can be fast

Another energy saving/transforming person is Ian Porter, who coincidentally was Lister’s boss in the Victorian Government when they both worked on the climate change agenda.  Porter was recently appointed as chief executive officer of the Alternative Technology Association and he is optimistic that it’s not too late to do something about “fast-approaching climate catastrophe”, as he puts it.

In Porter’s view anything is possible when government policy and industry line up. And change can be really fast.

“Runaway climate is terrifying, but we are not there yet and I believe we can still make a difference,” he says.

He points to how the US turned from peacetime to wartime in 1941. “It was done in a number of months.”

Porter doesn’t want to use the word “war” in terms of climate change (The Fifth Estate is not so circumspect) but he’s feeling positive about the potential and he already sees a big shift under way, especially in China, Europe and the US.

“My reading is that there is a huge amount of money going into solar overseas,” he says. In Australia, “we’re not there yet, we’re not in the same place”.

To get really excited about the potential for transformation — again —  check out the The Atlantic Monthly article mentioned above for details of the machinations of the stop-start solar and alternative energy plays in the US, a pattern that Australia has clearly done its best to loyally mimic.

It rips apart the myth that renewable energy is too hard or too expensive. All that’s needed are the right policy settings that don’t change every time there is a change of government and smash apart the gains made by the previous administration.

One of Ronald Reagan’s first actions on becoming president, the article says, was to tear out the solar panels that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had installed on the White House roof.

For Reagan it was anathema that the government support alternative energy.

“In the US, wind and solar didn’t die when the tax credits dried up,” the article says.
“They moved overseas. Denmark offered robust government support, and came to dominate the wind industry. Germany and Spain found success with solar energy by requiring utilities to pay hefty ‘feed-in tariffs’ — above-market rates — to anyone who sent electricity to the grid. Japan also built a vibrant solar market.”
Sound familiar? Except the US now enjoys the works of our former resident solar energy guru David Mills, now that the tide is finally turning in the US.

The best news is that in Silicon Valley they “get it”.

A rudderless ship
The meme we most certainly lack is environmental leadership. The Australian Financial Review this month published its yearly power issue in its glossy magazine and early in its analysis of overt and covert power made a point of noting that in the critical area of the environment there is no clear leader, or even select group of leaders.

We know that this industry, if it can be called that, is incredibly diverse because it touches every area of the economy and life.

Maybe that’s the problem and the conventional political leaders and environmental leaders should be one and the same.

Mr Rudd?
Any thoughts on this? Let us know.