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"...Over 1.4 billion people around the world lack access to electricity...”
The two-day event, a sure sign of GE's leadership and ability to think long term, brought together 6 GE Energy executives and 12 outside innovation or energy experts from around the world; somehow I had the privilege to be part of that second category. The goal was to brainstorm new products and services for GE Energy to consider developing to serve the market in 5 to 10 years.
Many of us were surprised to see how this group gravitated towards one solution that asked how GE Energy -- a global company with 90,000 employees and $38 billion in 2010 revenues -- could open new markets and address important needs by providing distributed electricity and related products to the world's 1.4 billion people who lack such access.
Let's hope that GE Energy finds success in this endeavor and provides a repeatable example of doing well by doing good. I'd like to go on and on about what else happened in those two power-packed days (pun intended), but a short video is being produced about the event and will likely be in the public domain next month. Stay tuned.
"An expert is a [man] who has made [100%] of the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field.”
But at the same time, we do not want nor like mistakes. In fact, we are usually punished or chided for them.
So, the quandary: If Mr. Bohr is correct, then how do create environments -- at school or at work -- where we are allowed to fail, maybe even encourage to do so, in order to generate quicker and better feedback to learn what works and what doesn't. Maybe it's this kind of process that can help us achieve our goals, whatever that might be, (insert motivational "Rocky" theme music) and perhaps to do so with a little less anxiety and more self-confidence (insert...uh...Enya music).
"...So right now it’s at 0.5% of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are 0.5% of the solution. But [increasing by 2x] every 2 years means it’s only 8 more doublings before it meets 100% of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years..."
While it's unlikely that 100% of the world will be powered by solar energy in 16 years, it's good to know that there is justification -- a calculation from respected futurist Ray Kurzweil -- for that kind of math behind it. Said differently, it's refreshing to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
When I teach my classes at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment or at the UNC Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, sometimes I'm not sure whether to be the pessimist or the optimist regarding our ability to find solutions to environmental problems. (However, I'm the constant optimist regarding our ability to create profitable businesses that solve some of these problems.)
And when I'm working at Cherokee Investment Partners to launch our large-scale solar PV investment business, I try to stay focused on the idea of ultimately catalyzing the development of hundreds of megawatts and thousands of acres of solar PV projects instead of focusing on the notion that most state Renewable Portfolio Standards aim to only raise that 0.5% to, say, 3%.
Anyway, thanks for the pep talk, Ray.
"...[a South Carolina woman was tricked into buying a fake wooden iPad, complete with a painApple logo and touchscreen icons, for $180 in McDonald's parking lot]...”
One could -- if eagerly searching for the first blog topic after a long hiatus from blogging -- imagine that this is an excellent reminder that what we see/read in green building and green business is not always the whole story.
Consider a few statistics:
Anyway, you get the idea. Beware of buying expensive electronics in the parking lot of a fast food chain.
"...I like technologies that have a 90% chance of failure…because a 10% chance of making 100 times your money is better than an 80% chance of doubling your money...”
-- Vinod Kholsa, founder of Khosla Ventures
Of course, not everyone can make statements like this and get away with it. It helps when you’re a person who has turned “a computer science project into Sun Microsystems, a multibillion-dollar phenomenon.” Though not everyone’s DNA is the same (thank goodness) and this approach to investing (dollars or time) is not for everyone, it’s an important perspective to keep in mind.
In this article, Khosla goes on to say, as other well seasoned investor colleagues have told me, that there is a huge degree of “randomness and unpredictability” in picking winners, whether they are strategies, teams, investors, or whatever the case might be. He calls them Black Swan technologies, based on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theories in his 2007 book, The Black Swan (not on the racy movie in your local theaters!).
Part of what this means is to remember that there is no silver bullet or single deal that is going to get us to our goals, whether they be solving our climate change dilemma, earning investors their return or establishing competitive advantage. Princeton University’s Robert Socolow made this clear with his concept of Stabilization Wedges a few years ago, even though part of the salience of his argument was that we already have the technology needed to address climate change.
Perhaps what we need is a shotgun, not rifle. (Sorry, being raised in Kentucky, references like these are hard to pass up.) If you know that you can’t know what you need to know in order to achieve success, you better try often. (Might want to re-read that again!) A quote from Michael Jordan on Khosla Ventures’ home page says it well, "Our willingness to fail gives us the ability and opportunity to succeed where others may fear to tread…I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
You could also interpret Khosla’s statements to mean that we can’t just focus on or expect incremental improvements alone to get us to that future state we hope for (contrasting Socolow’s focus). For example, while energy efficiency and weatherization offer easy, cost-effective ways to save money, reduce air pollution and limit carbon emissions, some innovative game-changing technologies surely wouldn’t hurt our efforts as we thread the needle in order to reach our very ambitious goals of, say, reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 or managing our water resources to accommodate the 100 million people that will be added to the US population by 2050.
OK, enough rambling for today…For more information on the kinds of (exciting, intriguing, confusing) investments that fit this description (a.k.a., swing for the bleachers and do it often because every ball isn’t going to be a homerun), take a gander at a great visual of the Khosla Ventures portfolio here.
Another kind of answer might focus on the following: Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, distills research studies from NASA that go something like this, if memory serves me correctly. If global mean temperatures rise more than 2 or 3 degrees centigrade, which is the business as usual trajectory, then we could lose 25% of all plant and animal species by 2050. (How's that for a parting present for our grandkids?) Backing into the way that buildings need to be built to help mitigate these risks -- for example, buildings producing 50-60% less carbon now than average buildings per the Architecture 2030 goals -- we might get a little depressed if we were to calculate the number of buildings that are built or undergo major renovations this year to meet that goal.
So, similar to my last blog, you be the judge: Pessimist or optimist. I am not sure which to pick most days.
"...today only a tiny fraction of U.S. electricity is supplied via solar -- well under 0.1% in 2009..."
No doubt that the data point highlighted above is salient, but what might the variety of reactions be? How are those perspectives transferable to similar sustainability issues.
First, it highlights the contrast of what we see vs. what is actually happening. Think about the true cost-benefit ratio vs. the likely positive consumer/client reaction to solar PV panels on a roof vs. superior spray foam insulation in the walls where no one can see it. One gets more PR. The other is often a better choice.
Second, it illustrates the common distinction between flow and stock. Consider the growing percentage of new building construction that is built to LEED standards (if you're lucky to find a new project still under construction in this market). And then think about the percentage of the the total building stock that is LEED certified or meets some other higher level of environmental responsibility above business as usual. (Hint: The former is inspiring. The latter is depressing.) The same goes for solar. Recently installations have shown impressive year-over-year growth, but when comparing a 50-Megawatt solar project which makes a great headline to the average coal-fired power plant of, say, 750-Megawatts, it might change our perspective. Flow vs. stock...
Third, this statistic raises the much bigger question. Are we, or rather should we be, optimists or pessimists about the scale of today's environmental challenges vs. our progress towards sufficiently responding with solutions? Consider a quote from author, entrepreneur and thought leader Paul Hawken: "If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the current data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement (new or growing social and environmental leaders and organizations) and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart."
On one hand, we could react as optimists and we could think about trends like this one: The National Geographic Greendex survey of 17,000 people in 17 different countries indicates that the world's greenest consumers can be found in India and China, the two countries whose economies may ultimately determine whether we succeed or fail in solving problems like climate change.
On the other hand, we could respond as pessimists and focus on commentary like the excerpt below from humorist and author P.J O'Rourke's new book, Don’t Vote. It Just Encourages The Bastards:
There’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it. Maybe climate change is a threat, and maybe climate change has been tarted up by climatologists trolling for research grant cash. It doesn’t matter. There are 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want a Buick. Actually, if you go more than a mile of two outside China’s big cities, the wants are more basic. People want a hot plate and a piece of methane-emitting cow to cook on it. They want a carbon-belching moped, and some CO2-disgorging heat in their houses in the winter. And air-conditioning wouldn’t be considered an imposition, if you’ve ever been to China in the summer.
Now, I want you to dress yourself in sturdy clothing and arm yourself however you like – a stiff shot of gin would be my recommendation – and I want you to go tell 1.3 billion Chinese they can never have a Buick.
Then, assuming the Sierra Club helicopter has rescued you in time, I want you to go tell a billion people in India the same thing."
The End. "
Plenty to think about. Plenty to sleep on (or lose sleep about?). I welcome your comments...
"...More than 36 billionaires have promised at least 50% of their fortunes to charity, or $600 billion in total pledges, via The Giving Pledge, started by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates..."
The enthusiasm part is obvious: Many are excited about this "new" source of capital available for doing good (i.e., supporting non-profits who have seen their contributions drop along with the economy in the last two years). Behind the distaste piece lies the fact that much of these funds were already allocated to charities -- public pledge or not -- as well as the fear that the motivation behind the pledge was more about publicity than warm fuzzies or love of fellow mankind. Buffet is honest in addressing both of these these reactionshere.
Whatever your take on the matter, it's worth glancing here at some of the pledge letters written by these billionaires. It's a bit like reading People magazine or following Hollywood stars on Twitter -- there is that glimpse into the personal lives of the untouchable rich and famous. (Not that I know anything about that passion, of course. Pop culture references are, unfortunately, often lost on me!) That's not the reason to read it though. The fact is that these letters contain important lessons and perspectives on wealth, the feelings of guilt or ownership around having it, and how certain billionaires view their responsibility regarding what to do with it.
This pledge also makes me think about giving more broadly. (Btw, for a good read on the topic, Bill Clinton's book appropriately titled Giving is healthy exploration of the topic and is full of examples of people and organizations that do it well.) What role do us non-billionaires play? Well, apparently, of the $300 billion given to charities in the U.S. each year, 80% comes from individuals. Along these lines, a new non-profit, Global Fast, is trying to empower more people to believe in the power of their small gifts. Relying on the power of social networks, it helps people to channel money normally spent on food into charities by suggesting that people fast at some regular interval. Maybe no food once a month for a day. Maybe you skip that $4 coffee once a week. In doing so, no extra money is required from the budget and in the process, the person fasting learns to identify with the plight of the world's millions who do not get enough to eat. (Today happens to be my day to fast, so it's hard to not think about it! But, yes, I'm well aware that it's a luxury to do this when I know the kitchen is full of food for tomorrow.)
But what if we translate what Global Fast is doing into similar initiatives in the environmental realm? What if we fasted from water or lighting or electricity or gasoline or energy on regular intervals? No more than a gallon of water per day once a week. No lights once a month. No electricity for one night per week. No gasoline once per quarter. And what if we channeled those savings into charities which support rural electrification with solar panels for the world's billions without adequate electricity? Or towards non-profits that drill wells to provide clean water around the world? And in the process, we would also be reminded of how spoiled we all are (you know what I mean) and how we have a responsibility to create a more equal playing field.
"...Around 1.5 billion people, or more than a 20% of the world’s population, have no access to electricity, and 1 billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply..."
While someone reading articles like this one will see the "sexy" words like solar used here and there, the big reminder from the author is that the lack of energy or the use of higher priced, unhealthy energy leads to real social issues. Nights without light can mean fewer hours to study or produce goods to sell. Using kerosene lights often translates into large doses of toxic air. The lack of refrigeration can lead to unsafe food quality and high rates of food loss. You get the idea.
So, how to fix the problem? Throwing some money at it would help, but you'd need a very strong arm to throw $35 billion per year at the issue until 2030 to ensure that everyone had better access to electricity (per the United Nations). But this is a scenario likely based on traditional centralized electricity generation with long, inefficient and capital-intensive transmission systems. (Somebody, please correct me if this is bad assumption.)
Instead, lots of social entrepreneurs, NGOs and for-profit businesses (or some that may be considered all three simultaneously) are aiming at bottom up, leapfrog, decentralized solutions. With families sometimes spending 30% of their income on kerosene, solutions that involve small solar PV panels plus LED lights -- both of which have seen their price fall by half in the last ten years -- are gaining traction. Other creative solutions involve micro-anaerobic digestors using cow manure in rural areas to produce power, affordable solar lanterns, solar sewing machines, tapping into global carbon markets as unique financing methods, rentable stations for cooking with liquified natural gas (LFG) instead of wood collected from denuded forests, microfinance provided in tandem with alternative training programs, and many more ventures. Some of the groups pushing these ideas forward include D.Light, Solar Aid, MicroEnergy Credits, Lemelson Foundation, Selco Solar, Emergence BioEnergy, Husk Power Systems, Grameen Shakti, and Solar Sister.
Hopefully, with efforts like these, we can begin to reframe the question as "How soon can we (not just "can we") provide power to meet the basic needs of all the world's peoples, without simultaneously magnifying carbon emissions past the point of control?"