5 Reasons Why Green Tech Has Such a Tough Time in America

WIRED This article from Wired.com states the 5 reasons that green technology is yet be very successful in the US despite our track record of innovation and ingenuity in this field. The author, Michael Kanellos, notes America's history of green tech inventions and then launches into the reasons that are prohibiting America from leading in the field. Interestingly enough, the issues do not have to do with green tech, or failures in technology or science; the reasons have to do with people. He concludes the article by posing a solution of "framing the issues in new ways," something that various experts support.

Posted July 18, 2010

By Michael Kanellos, Wired

The United States has long been a leader in green technologies. It
has also long been a leader in fumbling that lead. Look at the
historical record:

  • Charles
    Brush
    built what is considered the first automatic wind turbine
    for generating electricity. The turbine, built in 1888 in Ohio, had a
    50-foot diameter and 144 blades. The industry has since trimmed turbines
    down to three blades. It has also gone overseas. While the United
    States has more
    installed wind capacity than anyone else,
    the only top U.S. wind
    manufacturer remains General Electric: They got into the business by
    buying the wind division of disgraced, defunct Enron. One of the most
    promising U.S. startups is Nordic Windpower, located in Berkeley,
    California, by way of Sweden.
  • Calvin
    Fuller, Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson
    created the first silicon photovoltaic
    cell
    at Bell Labs
    in 1954. It was only 4-percent efficient, but Bell raised the figure
    to 11 percent soon after. First Solar and SunPower hail from the United
    States — and we mint a lot of startups — but the United States is a far
    smaller market than Europe, and Suntech and Yingli have begun to
    demonstrate that we don’t have a monopoly on quality.
  • A chemistry professor at the State University of New York
    Binghamton, M.
    Stanley Whittingham
    , led a research team at Exxon that resulted in
    the first lithium-ion battery. Whittingham’s titanium sulfide battery,
    however, was not a hit — Sony’s lithium-cobalt battery became the
    standard in the early 1990s. The battery
    industry
    is now based in Asia.
  • In 1991, the Department of Energy kicked off the $90 million U.S.
    Advanced Battery Consortium to develop nickel-metal hybrid batteries for
    hybrid cars, a car design championed a century earlier by Ferdinand
    Porsche. The effort scared Japan so much that Honda and Toyota began to
    develop hybrids. Before tangible results came in, the DOE shifted
    funding to hydrogen.
  • In 1976, General Electric Ed
    Hammer
    invented something that many thought impossible: the
    compact fluorescent bulb. Although GE liked the idea, CFLs would
    require entirely new manufacturing facilities, which would cost $25
    million. “So they decided to shelve it,” Hammer told me in 2007. CFLs
    only came to market because the design leaked out — others copied it
    before GE had a licensing program. “That’s how it became widespread,”
    he said.

So why do we suck so much at green commercialization, while excelling
at transforming science projects like search engines, microprocessors
and microbes into Google, Intel and Genentech? The reasons are:

1. Conservation = Being a Loser

Scrimping and saving has, for some reason, been
enshrined as the national shame. Immigrants flooded here in the late
19th and 20th centuries tantalized by pictures of homes with running
water and fridges that could hold an entire elk. Back in the ’60s, what
did kids know about the rest of the world? That someone halfway around
the globe wanted to eat your leftovers. If you can’t waste, you haven’t
made it.

And don’t just blame it on conservatives: How many green advocates
have tossed out perfectly serviceable handsets to get the latest iPhone?

Granted, during some historical eras, conservation has been a virtue.
Popular oral histories abound about the Depression or rationing in
World War II. (I still have my grandmother’s food coupon book — she
needed it even though they owned a grocery store.)

But frugality is only fashionable in times of serious deprivation.
Casual conservation just looks inept. Case in point: the ’70s. You
didn’t see Dorothea Lange taking pictures of mom cooking Hamburger
Helper or buying knockoff Adidas. Jimmy Carter was a great ideas person,
but the sweater
just made him look like Mr. Rogers after an argument with King Friday.

2. Abundance

As the fourth largest nation in terms of land mass, the
United States has enjoyed an abundance of natural resources and people
have exploited them for their convenience. In the 1920s, solar
hot-water heaters
blanketed Miami and southern California. The
advent of natural gas piping and cheap natural gas, which could heat hot
water any hour of the day, led to their demise.

The same happened with autos and public transportation. Cars are more
convenient than street cars, gas historically has been cheap in the
United States and so has farmland. Oil companies didn’t kill public
transportation in Los Angeles — the desire for three-bedroom houses did.

It will take a bit of time to get used to the era of resource
scarcity.

3. It’s Not
New

This is one
of the principal dilemmas of the green tech market
worldwide.
Handheld calculators radically reduced the time needed to solve math
problems. Word processing made a 5,000-year-old profession — the
secretary — obsolete almost overnight. The internet put the world at
your fingertips. Antibiotics saved your life.

Solar
panels give you electrons that pretty much function like those from
the power plant
. To date, only electric cars and green homes seem
to have an abundant “Wow!” factor for consumers. This will change, but
it partly explains the slow ramp.

4. Lobbying

The fossil fuel industry knows
how to work Washington and the state capitols
. They can discuss
jobs and raise fears about the economic cataclysm that will surely ensue
if people can’t afford to drive Chevy Suburbans on a daily basis. The
solar industry has improved on this score, but it’s still got a long way
to go to catch up. Remember: Back in 2008, the investment tax credit
was stalled in D.C. — it was only after Washington showered the
financial industry with cash via the TARP program that they agreed to
alternative-energy credits.

5. Environmentalists as Scolds

The first Earth Day in 1970s drew millions into the
streets. Just as important, it
drew middle-class protesters in droves. It wasn’t dominated by dirty,
smelly, strident hippies.

Fast forward to 2010. Smelly is gone, but strident remains. Much of
the opposition to Al Gore comes because he’s Al Gore. I support his
ideas, but let’s face it — he comes across as smug. Bill Clinton or
Rachel Carson he’s not. Environmental objections have forced
BrightSource Energy to shrink its solar thermal plant, an uncompromising
stance that really just encourages natural gas consumption.

Food advocates are getting better at public relations. In the past,
most of the arguments revolved around making Twinkies the Great Satan.
It was condescending but also absurd: Even stoners don’t really like
Twinkies. Swapping out snooty gastronome Alice Waters for genial Jamie
Oliver has made a big difference.

Still, like it or not, the posture of some green advocates has made
it easier for the opposition.

How do we get around these problems? Alan Salzman at VantagePoint
Venture Partners, among others, has suggested framing the issues in new
ways. One of our principal forms of energy is coal. It is a rock men
risk their lives to dig out of the ground using pneumatic hammers. It
then gets cooked and most of the energy produced gets wasted.

“It is a short distance away from gathering firewood,” he said. “Do
you think we could figure out a better way to boil water that doesn’t
kill people? There is no solution other than that that anyone can
envision?”

Naturally, he’s Canadian.

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