Friday, December 31, 2010

16 Predictions for 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Backward

The Tarot | The Tower
It's that time when people make predictions for the coming year.

This is my first try at making a formal list of prognostications, which I plan to revisit a year hence when I make my second list.

Many are about cleantech and renewable energy, or about things that will affect the future of them.

I hope I'm wrong about many of these.

Without further preamble:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Snow Job on Climate Change

Why Global Warming Can Cause Extreme Cold

Frozen harbor in Toronto, Canada
For years thinking people have had to endure the snide remarks and puerile antics from the anti-science pettifoggers, often funded by fossil interests, who aim to thwart action on climate change.

One of their favorite tropes is now a hardy winter perennial: every year, with the arrival of snow and cold we hear from the usual clods something like "Well! So much for global warming!" Recent snow in places that receive it rarely, such as Seattle and England, have encouraged more of this nuttery.

Ha ha.

Apart from the obvious fact that winter is colder than summer and sometimes (gasp!) has snow, such ignorant foppotees are just confusing weather—the day-to-day fluctuations of meteorological phenomena—with climate—the decades, centuries, or milennia-long trends in such things as temperature.

There are, for those interested in the methods of science, good explanations for such phenomena. Climate change models predict and explain extreme cold, as well as extremes of precipitation, such as the soaking of southern California and the droughts in Florida.

Also, it turns out that snow in Siberia has a direct effect on snowy cold winters on the US East Coast and elsewhere. Ad hominem attacks on Al Gore aren't needed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where's It Wednesday—XIV

Somewhere in Seattle.... where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eight is Enough

The Endless Promise of Energy Independence

Jon Stewart in one of his typically acerbic pieces on the promise of oil independence:

Jon Stewart reviews the energy independence promises of the last 8 US presidents

Coming on the heels of President Obama's speech on the BP spill, and with video clips detailing 4 decades of imprecations and high-minded exhortations from 8 presidents, Stewart complains, roughly, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 8 times, I am a freaking idiot."

We fail to demand real action from our leaders, or to hold them accountable for mouthing bromides. With our current president, I fear the audacity hope has become the folly of wishful thinking. As Pogo said, originally in a poster for Earth Day 1970, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Video here.

(h/t earth2tech)

This was originally posted on the Hydrovolts blog 6/22/10

Monday, December 27, 2010

Off-Grid Africa

Distributed Power is Growing All Over

Solar-powered yurt in western China
Yurt in western China with solar panel
Low-cost, small-scale, simple distributed power generation continues to make gains. It was part of the original business model for the Hydrovolts turbine, the genesis of Clarian Power, and the market power of Nokero light "bulbs."

Now general-purpose solar panels are going up in remote locations around the world, especially Africa, where the sprawling grids of centrally-generated power plants don't reach.

Providing even a small amount of electricity makes an enormous difference in the quality of life for people in the developing world. It provides lighting which allows students to read and study at night, improving education, a key precursor of upward economic mobility. It can replace unhealthful sources of illumination, cooking and heating, especially animal manure, charcoal, and wood, many of which are burned inefficiently and with limited attention to adequate ventilation.

The economics make sense. The cost of charging equipment (particularly cell phones) in both time and direct expense is rapidly recovered by the value of local generation capacity.

The biggest impediment to more distributed generation is the initial capital cost. Traditional lenders prefer large central projects because the due diligence is both familiar and easier--there is only one location to examine, and to subsequently monitor, over the course of the financing. Micro-lending could pick up the slack, but there still needs to be a business model that creates revenue to pay back the investment. While selling a goat may work for some, providing a local charging station may work for others. As remote villages gain dribs of electricity, however, more models will arise. Entrepreneurs exist in rural Africa too, and having a enabling platform technology like electricity opens the way to many kinds of businesses. As costs of solar panels continue to decline, and as other forms of distributed generation become available, the effect on rural areas of the developing world will be transformative.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Leadership Lessons from Yoga

Breathe, Stretch Yourself, Focus

I'm just over 3 months into my practice of Bikram Yoga. It's still practice; some days are easier than others. Some days I can do what I have not done before. Other days I feel less strong. But every day I challenge myself to stretch a bit deeper, or to hold a pose a bit longer.

The benefits are physical of course--aerobic conditioning, strength, flexibility. Interestingly, one's mental self receives the same benefits--conditioning, strength, flexibility. And more: focus, stamina, resilience.

Many of the attributes of good yoga practice are also good leadership practice. It has other benefits too.

More on this as I practice more, both in, and outside, the studio.

Join me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Supply & Demand

CEOs Suggest Tax Cuts Aren't Helpful

President Obama signs tax bill
The lame-duck but surprisingly active Congress has packed it in for the year and, along with the President, left town. We should all enjoy the next few weeks and the respite from partisan posturing and wrangling while we can; the 2012 campaign for president will begin shortly.

A few days before signing the multi-partisan tax bill President Obama met for several hours with 20 CEOs from some of America's largest companies. Few details were disclosed regarding what was discussed and what, if anything, was offered by either side. Nonetheless, what was said shed an interesting light on the tax bill.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oceans of Plastic Trash

Plastic Fouls All Our Oceans

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a heaving flotsam of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre. It's bigger than Texas. And it's not the only repository of plastic garbage.
Debris found by dragging a net in the ocean
Millions of pieces of plastic — most smaller than half an inch — float throughout the oceans. They are invisible to satellites, and except on very calm days you won’t even see them from the deck of a sailboat. The only way to know how much junk is out there is to tow a fine net through the water.
22 years of towing nets through swaths of the Atlantic Ocean confirm a large plastic garbage patch in its northern gyre too:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where's It Wednesday—XIII

Somewhere in Seattle.... where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

R&D Investment

Invest or Decline

Hewlett-Packard (HP) cut their investment in research and development for much of the past decade. The result? A decline in the growth of their patent portfolio. A decline in their market share. A decline in their competitiveness. A decline in their reputation.

Graph of HP internal investment decline over 10 years
From a brief examination of the data over the past decade it is clear that the company has cut R&D spending significantly and it is very possible that this has interfered with the ability of HP engineers to develop products in-house that are now being purchased at steep price tags through acquisitions.

Policy makers in the United States would do well to consider carefully if the same outcomes would attend a decline in national spending on research and development, but for the nation as a whole, and not just one company. And we would be acquiring the technology we need not from other companies, but other countries. The price for that will be steep indeed, and not just in dollars, but also in our competitiveness, our standard of living, our national security.

We must keep investing in our future, especially in cleantech and renewable energy.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Engrossing Image Viewer

Hoover Dam 360-degree view of generators
Many get the meaning of the word nonplussed (or, nonplused) wrong, variously thinking it means "surprised" or "unimpressed." While the images from the namesake web site may not perplex, they certainly intrigue.

Note that you can not only scroll left-right but also up-down as well as zoom in and out.

That these are real places realistically captured astonishes; some, especially Hoover Dam remind me of scenes from Myst.

Be sure to check out the archives.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cleantech Investment in Trillions by 2020

Private Investment Pouring into Asia

The Pew Charitable Trusts have issued a new report on global cleantech investment over the next decade. The principal conclusion? Investment from private sources in the G-20 industrialized nations will be $1.8T under the "business as usual" scenario and as much as $2.3T if "enhanced" clean energy policies are consistently adopted.

However, that all depends on one key factor: strong, supportive government clean energy policy.

Says Pew: "The center of gravity of renewable energy investment has really shifted to Asia."

"The extraordinary worldwide growth in clean energy investment over the past five years has been defined by a simple fact: where supportive clean energy policies are adopted, investment follows."

There is a "gigantic economic opportunity for the United States" that Pew estimates to be $342B of private investment, but it requires the US to step up and implement policy, and one of the best would be a Renewable Energy Standard for electricity generation from renewable sources. The result would be an opportunity "up and down the supply chain" to export to China, India and other Asian countries technologies and products that they need for their own renewable energy projects. "Business as usual simply isn't working."

The question for US policymakers and especially the sclerotic Senate is "will they seize the opportunity or simply let it pass them by?"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rare, But Not Unusual

Rare Earth Elements

Rare Earth Elements in oxide form
News stories about rare earth elements (REE) are becoming more frequent as greater attention focuses on the rise of the cleantech and renewable energy industries, the growing economic competition between the US and China, and issues of natural resource scarcity and security.

REE are under increasing control by China, which dominates world production and supply. The Chinese have used their effective monopoly to further their industrialization, but also as part of a broader effort to establish their position in the global economic and political order.

The physical properties, commercial uses, economic factors, and political considerations of REE are not widely known or appreciated by the public, yet their importance is real and growing. An examination of the different aspects of REE will illuminate not just their future significance, but also serve as an example of the broader economic and political trends of the next few decades.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The World's Changing

Speculate on the Next 50 (or 200) Years...

I've posted before about Gapminder, one of the most engaging and useful date presentation tools freely available on the web. This 4 minute presentation details how income levels and life expectancies of the world's countries over the past 200 years. Thought-provoking.

How will the future look? Will countries bunch, or separate into discrete clusters? The separation of China into provinces is suggestive; not all benefits will be spread equally.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Smells Like Money"

Farm Power Northwest Turns Poop Into Power

Kevin Maas, co-founder of Farm Power Northwest at the Rexville, WA installation
Farm Power Co-founder Kevin Maas
at the Rexville installation
Anaerobic digesters take various kinds of biomass, typically animal manure, and extract methane. The methane can either supply a generator to make electricity, or be used directly as fuel for cooking, heating, or other equipment. The residual liquids and solids can, with some caveats, be used as fertilizer or for soil amendment.

The first anaerobic digester was built more than 150 years ago, but has not previously seen widespread use. That could be changing, for several reasons: preventing uncontrolled emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more troublesome than carbon dioxide; mitigating the mountains of manure produced by modern concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs); and generating distributed local power and commercial byproducts that raise revenues and cut costs.

Danger! Liquid Manure Storage!
Up in Western Washington's Skagit Valley, Farm Power Northwest is building anaerobic digesters for local dairy farmers. This week I traveled up to the Mount Vernon area and met with Kevin Maas, who, with his brother Daryl, founded and run the company. The rest of this post is mostly photos of the Rexville installation, the company's first, online since August 2009. There's lots of good links and information, as well as pictures of construction on their web site and Kevin's blog.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where's It Wednesday XII

Somewhere in Seattle.... where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...
Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hydropower Kinds

Many Approaches to Tap an Underused Resource

More than a billion people get their electricity from hydropower. Worldwide, hydropower produces 675,000MW, 24% of all electricity generation. In the Unites States there are about 2,000 hydropower plants which together supply about 10% of all electricity to the grid. Here in Washington State nearly 70% of electricity comes from hydropower. Despite the attention given to wind and solar energy, hydropower remains the dominant source of all renewable energy in the US.

Hydropower has many advantages--it is renewable, has relatively low carbon impact, and is fully dispatchable, i.e it can be turned on and off quickly whenever needed. So why aren't we hearing more about hydropower? Why aren't we building more of it?

Monday, December 13, 2010


Gaseous Emissions Ongoing

COP-16 is finishing inconclusively, as expected. Individual countries may take action on their own, but it's a mixed bag at best, and subject to shifting political fortunes. The annual conference, in Cancun this year, is held under the auspicies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which has urged the member nations to adopt more binding protocols to address the inevitability of climate change.

While success in herding the nearly 200 national cats remains elusive, the UNFCCC has produced a great web site with lots of material as well as a nifty on-line tool that provides graphical displays of greenhouse gas (GHG) data displayed on a map of the world.

Very educational stuff, but some refuse to be educated, alas.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ocean Oases

Marine Life Thrives Around Offshore Platforms

The Department of the Interior's (recently reorganized) Minerals Management Service has studied the effects of using decommissioned oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico as habitat for marine species for almost 30 years. Turns out they provide a remarkably fecund environment:
Whether it’s an operating oil and gas (petroleum) production platform or a retired platform intentionally placed for conservation and fisheries enhancement, a typical 4-pile platform jacket (the underwater support structure of an offshore platform) provides 2-3 acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species.


Petroleum platforms function as entirely new places to live; niches for countless animals. In addition to harboring numerous species of juvenile fish and adult life stages, these platforms serve as hunting grounds for swift open-ocean pelagic fishes, such as mackerel, tuna, and jacks. These fish species use the steel platform reefs as places to grab a quick meal, but also for orientation in an otherwise featureless environment, and as areas to rest where the platform structure weakens or deflects currents, and as places to hide from species that may prey on them. Marine researchers have reported fish densities to be 20 to 50 times higher at oil and gas platforms than in nearby open water, and each platform seasonally serves as critical habitat for 10 to 20 thousand fishes, many of which are of recreational and commercial importance.
As with petroleum platforms, so too with offshore wind or other renewable ocean energy platforms. For years commercial and sports fishers have resisted any advance in offshore renewable energy structures and have provided a litany of fears regarding how fish and crab populations would be decimated. It seems unlikely, however, that submerged species will much care what's on top of the platform, above them, out of the water. And unless they feed on spilled hydrocarbons, the lessened pollution from renewable energy rigs would also be a plus.

Fishing objections to offshore renewable energy platforms, such as those used for wind turbines, must be supported by facts, not fears. The onus should be on those who oppose, since decades of studies seem to provide an existence proof that there is little harm, and arguably some benefit.

Friday, December 10, 2010

NW Energy Angels

Angels in the Infrastructure

Northwest Energy Angels logo
Tonight I had the pleasure of attending the Northwest Energy Angels (NWEA) annual holiday party, held at the Talaris Conference Center in Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood. Many of NWEA's members are veterans of local technology startups, entrepreneurs/business owners, or both. Others include financial, engineering, service and other professionals. The organization has been very active since its founding in 2006, investing over $3M in 18 companies, including such success stories as enerG2, Farm Power, MicroGREEN Polymers, Novinium and Propel Fuels.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rating Ocean Transport for Efficiency

Impact Beyond Talk in Cancun

Why can't all business leaders be like Sir Richard Branson?
A free internet database set up by Richard Branson will today list the energy efficiency of almost every ocean-going vessel, in a scheme designed to reduce shipping emissions by nearly 25%.

Using publicly available data on the engine size and CO2 emissions of nearly 60,000 ships, exporters and importers, as well as holidaymakers on cruises, will be able to choose between clean and dirty ships.

The initiative, called, rates ships from A-G in a similar fashion to ratings given to fridges or washing machines. It will allow supermarkets, oil and mining companies, food importers, retailers and manufacturers to specify that their goods are sent from places like China or Australia only by the least polluting ships.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Where's It Wednesday XI

Somewhere in Seattle.... where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...
Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Building Startup Teams That Work

Chemistry beakers
I was chatting with a colleague about building teams in startups and the challenge, especially in the earliest stages, of making the right hiring choices. What are the key considerations? What's most important? When is a candidate good, but not good enough? Reflecting on lessons I've learned in some of my previous startup companies, I believe that there are three aspects that matter ahead of all others, and one of those three that matter ahead of the other two.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Green Garbage

Making the Waste Stream More Sustainable

Waste Management is the largest trash hauler in the United States and ranks 196th on the Fortune 500, generating almost all of its revenues from transporting garbage from homes and businesses to landfills. They have 273 of them throughout the country with enough capacity to last for at least the next 40 years.

So it's noteworthy that Waste Management is actively looking to cannibalize the "landfill pricing" that drives their own business. How? By taking sustainability seriously. Says CEO David Steiner:
Picking up and disposing of people's waste is not going to be the way this company survives long term. Our opportunities all arise from the sustainability movement.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Climate Change Megadeath

Large Impacts Can Be Mitigated

Rusted ships abandoned on the receded shore of the Aral Sea
The former port city of Muynak, Uzbekistan
What will happen in the absence of an effective response to address climate change? The following estimates are key findings of a report issued Friday by DARA International:
  • Nearly 1,000,000 climate change-driven deaths estimated every single year from 2030
  • Some 5,000,000 climate deaths over the next 10 years
  • Already 350,000 climate deaths each year currently
  • 80% of those deaths are of children in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa
  • 99% of all mortality occurs in developing countries
  • 2,500,000 people are living under threat from climate-driven desertification today
  • By 2030 those under such threat will rise to 10,000,000
  • "All estimated mortality statistics or deaths are representative of much wider harm. Every 100,000 deaths would normally indicate several million cases of illness or disability (DALYs), or people displaced, injured or in need of emergency assistance."
  • More than 50 countries are acutely vulnerable to climate change today
  • Some 170 countries have high vulnerability to climate change in at least one area
  • Climate change causes around $150,000,000,000 in economic losses today
  • More than half of those losses take place in industrialized countries
The report's introduction is blunt:
Previous generations were not aware of the environmental impact of economic development and the resource constraints of our planet. We are. They did not have the technology and the know-how to pursue a different path to prosperity. We do. Our generation must seize this unique moment to build a better, more equitable and more sustainable world. If not, our generation will carry a conscience that will never be clear, from failing to act when we had the chance.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Oil and Water Don't Mix

How Much Water Must We Shale Out?

"We should understand what the impacts on water quality are before we even consider the idea of commercially developing oil shale."—David Abelson, oil shale policy adviser for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates
Oil shale surface mining
Last Monday the US General Accounting Office (GAO) urged the Department of Interior to take a closer look at the impacts of oil shale development, specifically on water:
Climate change, increasing demand for water from growing cities, interstate water compacts, and needs of threatened and endangered species in the West all could limit how much water is available for oil shale development, the GAO said.
Oil shale extraction uses a lot of water at a time and in a place where competition for water is already acute. It will only grow more contentious, and likely sooner than later.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ignoring History

VC Herd on the Move

Blowing bubbles: MySpace, Facebook, Youtube

Here we go again.
Less than a decade after the dot-com bust taught Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors that what goes up does not keep going up forever, a growing number of entrepreneurs and a few venture capitalists are beginning to wonder if investments in tech start-ups are headed toward another big bust.

The chief evidence, according to industry experts and analysts, is the way venture capitalists and established companies are clamoring to give money to young companies, including those with only a shred of an idea. They are piling into me-too start-ups that imitate popular Web companies that already received financing. Companies that involve social shopping, mobile photo sharing and new social networking are finding it easy to attract investors because no one wants to miss the next big thing.


Fred Wilson, a prominent venture capitalist, said he had watched the trend accelerate over the last six to nine months. “I am seeing many more unnatural acts from investors happening,” he said in a recent blog post. He attributes it to competition among investors eager to participate in popular young start-ups. And he notes, “I have never seen phases like this end nicely.”
How could we avoid the next bubble? The answer is actually rather easy. Rather than fretting about missing out on "the next big thing" that others have already started, go start your own next big thing by investing in a new sector, a new concept, a new market. Hint: try cleantech.

Who took the venture out of venture investing?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

10 Reasons Against Government Cleantech Funding...

...And Why None Are Persuasive

Tightening the belt on planet earth
Business and investors, as well as a significant portion of the general public, have taken a mostly skeptical view of government’s spending tax (or worse, borrowed) dollars on new technologies. It matters little which sector, or whether the funds are termed stimulus or investment, or whether funding is deemed short-term or some kind of “commitment” or even whether it is a response to a catastrophic emergency.

Such skepticism sometimes stems from inchoate reasons. Negative reactions can arise reflexively (“we need to control spending!”), from unexamined prejudices (“government spending is bad!”), or because of ideological biases (“all government spending is wasteful!”) Digging beyond slogans and sound bites, objections are of three basic kinds: (1) Cleantech isn’t important and shouldn’t be a priority; (2) Cleantech is important, but government should not be involved; and (3) Cleantech is important, but funding is not how government should be involved.

Further distillation yields 10 specific objections to government funding of cleantech:
  1. Other things are more important
  2. It’s a waste of money
  3. We cannot afford it
  4. It would increase the deficit
  5. Government would fund the wrong things
  6. Government is inefficient and wasteful
  7. Private enterprise should do it
  8. It distorts markets
  9. It’s unsustainable
  10. Other approaches are better
Are any of these objections compelling? A closer examination suggests not:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where's It Wednesday X

Somewhere in Seattle.... where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.