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Can Cleantech Save the Economy While Saving the Planet?

March 2, 2009

Friday night I attended a panel co-sponsored by the Stanford Business School and Law School titled, “Can Cleantech Save the Economy While Saving the Planet?”  It was held at the new Academy of Sciences Museum and an unexpected bonus was that for the first hour we were allowed to wonder the museum.  Without the usual crowds, it was wonderful–my favorite was the leafy sea horses that looked like branches of a tree.

The all-star panel was moderated by Professor Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Jr., AB ’73, MBA ’75, JD ’76, Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law and McCarty Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment

The panel consisted of:

  • Dr. Mike Biddle , MBA Polymers, a world leader at developing technology for the recovery of high value engineering plastics from complex durable goods streams such as computers, electronics, appliances, and automobiles.
  • Sally Benson, the new director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University. A hydrogeologist from Stanford’s Energy Resources Engineering Department, Benson studies how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and pumping it into deep underground formations for permanent sequestration.
  • Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Google.org. His expertise includes nuclear power, nuclear weapons cleanup, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Highlights/thoughts from the evening:

  • Green Race:  A crisis is a terrible thing to waste–lets use the current economic crisis to our advantage and take technological leadership on climate change.  We are at risk of losing the green race to China, Germany and Japan. We need tax credits to lure companies to do green manufacturing here in the US.
  • Energy efficiency is where the real push needs to be right now–it is cheaper than solar and the technology is available to easily gain 5-15% improvements. This story reminds me of what Amory Lovins has been preaching for decades, but perhaps with climate change and the economic crisis as backdrops, we will get some traction on this finally.
  • Cleaner Coal: Sally is a proponent of “cleaner” coal and carbon capture, where the carbon emissions from coal use are injected deep into the ground. She claims the science is there to prove that once injected, the emissions will stay in place.  Currently 50% of our energy comes from coal, so in the short-term, we do need to find a way to make it cleaner.  However, as Dan pointed out, from a regulatory standpoint, it does start to sound like nuclear energy proponents claiming we an easily inject nuclear waste underground and forget about it.  How do you prove this claim from a health and safety, environmental and regulatory standpoint?
  • Cleantech & the Economy: A common message that rang true from Mike, the only panel member who had started a cleantech startup, and members of the audience that I chatted with–investment capital is hard to come by right now.  And it is unclear how the Obama stimulus package will help Bay Area cleantech companies. I left not sure how cleantech will gain the momentum necessary to save the planet without a significant infusion of new cash from VCs.
  • Smart Meters:  Google is working on an online tool called PowerMeter that will allow us to monitor home energy use.  Dan and other Google employees are currently testing the software, but ultimately they will partner with utilities and smart energy device makers and roll out the tool to consumers.  Not too sexy, but super practical.googlepowermeter1
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