Last spring I was having a conversation with eminent Canadian conservationist Norm Rubin when I had a sort of ‘road to Damascus’ moment in my faith of a greener future. We had been discussing how to make green energy alternatives really work, and I had been more than doubtful. Norm saw fit to hit me square in the eyes with one of those wisdom arrows a man of his stature keeps handy in his intellectual quiver. The proverbial scales (or were they carbon deposits) fell from my eyes. For Norm the answer was simple. What the world needed – nay what it yearned for – was a bonafide “Energy iPod”
Was Norm a sinner? I cannot say for sure. But my eyes were seeing things in a whole new light. After all what is the iPod exactly? A nifty little gizmo to get all your Bee Gees, Styx, and Night Ranger into one nice little location. Well… yeah…but in essence it’s one of history’s endless examples of technological innovation marrying the zeitgeist and giving society a big ‘keeping up with the Joneses” kick in the pants.
When iPod hit store shelves in late 2001 it had become much more than just a convenient little way to listen to music (or tone out annoying people on the subway). The iPod, with over 300 million sold since, became the global citizen’s personal testament (and submission) to the leviathan that had redefined our collective human existence – the digital revolution of the Internet.
That fact that the iPod revolved around music – the basic language of human culture – made it all the more fitting. Here was the individual’s commitment / pledge / assurance to all that was grandly relevant, new, and real. It was more than just ‘cool’ – it was essential.
Everyone from the urban hipster to the middle aged company man to the senior citizen all could effortlessly yet resolutely display they were citizens of the age – a perfect storm of fashion, innovation, and vitality. The idea of a ‘digital revolution’ had long been established prior to 2001 – from an abstract and elite perspective – but the iPod was what made it real, visible, and common, just as the Model T had done for the industrial age and the personal computer did for the electronic age. They are in vogue, they are affordable, and they are the paths to a whole new way of living.
Now to depart from this sociological blather and back to brass tacks. Norm was speaking towards the indispensable advantage that green energy had – the fact that green ideals were rapidly becoming a part of our global collective consciousness. Just as the digital revolution arrived in spirit long before the iPod made it real, a green revolution – in how we think – is already here in the abstract sense but what we need is something to make it real. Whether you are left wing or right wing, whether you are a tree hugging global warming activist or an SUV driving suburbanite sick of climbing gas prices, the world is coming to the conclusion ‘a better way’ is needed and now. And, as Norm knows all too well about the aspects of the iPod, we will BUY it! And in droves.
Fossil fuel resources are way under the gun. China’s economy is growing at rates of 11% over the last decade with projections of 7% in the coming decades. With rapidly rising standards of living for Chinese households, the Economist magazine made a startling calculation in 2005.
If China could develop a middle class in the coming decades with a level affluence comparable to the West – two cars in every driveway – that would mean more cars on the roads of Chinese highways in 30 years than the total number of cars on worldwide roadways since the dawn of the automobile.
Ahem….where in the HELL is all that gas gonna come from (oh yeah and I didn’t even mention burgeoning giants India and Brazil either).
It will be this “Energy iPod” that Norm sees as our saviour. And this true breakthrough will emanate from that dastardly place many an environmentalist has seen fit to curse – the free market. The corporate world is often the bane of many an environmentalist but it’s those revolutionary market driven memes – locomotives, Model Ts, Hoovers, microwave ovens, Commodore 64s, iPods – that are the tipping points between the ways of yore and the path to the future.
And despite the perception of a ‘fossil fuel’ loving private sector, the business world has a major appetite for green innovation:
In the first quarter of 2011 global renewable energy investments were $31.1 billion USD
In the first quarter of 2011 venture capital investments (the all important ‘risk taking money’ that drives innovation) for green technology grew to $2.57 billion USD worldwide – the 2nd highest level ever
Worldwide trade in climate friendly technologies grew a massive 10% between 2002-2008
Its estimated that green energy technology will be the third-largest industrial sector in the world in 2020.
Now the importance of the marketplace will in no way take away from the environmentalist’s first avenue of effort – politics. Politics, but more specifically public funds, are absolutely essential in helping to bring the Energy iPod to fruition. Historically public investments were vital in backing the technology that risk taking venture capitalists got turned onto. The first computer – EINAC – was created by the US government to calculate logistic plans during World War II. And the internet (despite whatever Al Gore tells you) grew out of communication initiatives that helped the US Air Force keep remote nuclear missile bases in constant contact during the Cold War
In fact prominent American energy analysts David Victor and Kassia Yanosek point out it will be a publicly funded push that will make ‘Energy iPods’ come to life. Public money helps the private sector overcome two major obstacles in the way of green technology:
1) Overcoming the technological gap by backing up funding to a wide range of innovations that offer major breakthroughs
2) Overcoming the crucial commercialization gap, which helps the private sector guarantee these innovations become marketable and competitive.
Checking out recent stats on global public funding for green tech stimulus there is a lot to smile about:
Worldwide public funds spent on green stimulus in 2009 – over $450 billion USD
Amount of public funds China invests in green energy in 2009 – $218 billion USD
Amount of public funds USA invests in green energy in 2009 – $94.1 billion USD
The percentage of South Korea’s public stimulus spent on green initiatives – 78.7%
Source: HSBC. Taking Stock of the Green Stimulus. November 2009.
That is a heck of a lot of green pouring into…well…a heck of a lot of green. However Victor and Yanosek note that one of the biggest problems with government funding for green tech is the nature of the beast: it can become too politicized. Quite often politicians seek projects that are the least risky, the cheapest and the ones with the quickest turn around (as in shovel ready) – such as wind turbines – rather than the more innovative yet more risky and drawn out projects – such as geo thermal. The results are green energy projects that are great for election campaign props but end up being nothing more than white elephants – such as the billions poured into wind turbines that produce electricity at rates far too expensive to make them competitive or attractive. And furthermore when times get tough, and politics gets nasty (hello Tea Party), these sorts of public funds are the first to get the axe. Thus all the ‘green breakthroughs’ – and all the green jobs associated with them – get flushed down one of those old, water guzzling toilets.
Victor and Yanosek propose an intriguing approach. In reviewing the US experience, the government could approach green tech the same way they did the threat from the Soviets during the Cold War. Establishing special boards & commissions for the Department of Energy with leeway and insulation (as in secrecy) from budgetary hawks just like the Pentagon had. This will allow them much greater freedom of room to engage with the private sector across a wide range of innovations and ideas without worrying too much about the political piranhas devouring the funding from under their feet. After all American ingenuity built spy satellites, moon landers and stealth bombers. Think of what a ‘skunkworks’ for green energy could do for solar power or bio-fuels. I mean, all things considered, the approaching Global Resource Crunch makes the Warsaw Pact look like the Harold Ballard-era Maple Leafs.
Now speaking of blundering Canadian based organizations, numbers show our nation is not exactly top of the pops when it comes to plugging into an Energy iPod:
The amount of public stimulus Canada spent on green tech in 2009 – $2.8 billion USD or 8.8% of all public stimulus
Compare this to similarly sized Australia – $9.9 billion or 22.6% of all public stimulus in 2009
During the climate friendly tech boom in world trade during 2002-2008 Canada’s exports in this area actually declined by 2%
If Canada’s spending matched U.S. investment in renewable energy on a per person basis, an additional estimated 66,000 jobs would have been created.
A Regus survey found that only 9% of Canadian companies monitor their carbon footprint (the lowest percentage globally)
Well it certainly looks as if the much vaunted ‘Energy iPod’ Norm Rubin envisioned won’t be emanating from Canada anytime soon. Our next guest on #FAQMP, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, might just be the perfect person to ask on how we change this.
Now for me, my big question is just what this ‘Energy iPod’ will be: an electric car with V8 power, a biofuel that burns nothing but water, a little pink rooster shaped solar cell to power your entire house, or, my personal fave, maybe a Mr. Fusion like the one on Doc Brown’s DeLorean in Back to the Future. Whatever it is if the public and private sector can’t bridge the gap and find us our Energy iPod, someday soon we won’t even have the juice to crank up Big Yellow Taxi on our plain old iPods.
 HSBC: Taking stock of the Green Stimulus. November 2009.