Making Cleantech Happen

For those wanting to take a break from the campaign, here is a report on climate change and clean technology....

When it comes to addressing climate change how do we do more than play at the margins? That was the challenge posed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom at the latest Cleantech conference bringing together venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, clean tech entrepreneurs and others seeking market solutions to climate change. Noting that San Francisco has the largest fleet of plug in hybrids in the country-three, Newsom warned that despite all the promise of new clean technologies, rollout has barely begun A lot of low hanging fruit is out there, Newsom exhorted, but mayors, governors, corporations and people need to do reach out and pick it.

At the latest Cleantech, a conference that has gone from filling a room to an entire hotel in just three years, a host of visionaries and venture capitalists looking to cash in on what John Doerr says is a bigger opportunity than the Internet, exchanged the latest news on thin film solar technologies, biofuels, windmills and electric cars as oil economists predicted gas prices of over $4 per gallon this summer and higher prices ahead. With global oil production at close to full capacity and China and India just beginning their consumption trajectories, oil prices (as well as those of natural gas) seem almost certain to continue to climb. Falling prices of batteries, solar power and other renewables have made clean technologies the obvious solution to a looming energy and climate disaster. But first costs have to drop and acceptance has to increase.

Concentrating solar power through mirrors is one promising way to bring the cost of solar power down. So are thin films-the use of sun absorbing foil and other materials--in place of expensive silicon. To store intermittent wind, water and solar energy, better and cheaper storage, whether mechanical or chemical in the form of lithium ion batteries, will be critical. Finally, new business and pricing models will be important to the rollout of electric cars, home generation of electricity and other consumer methods of creating power.

While the technologies on display were impressive, they are not developing quickly enough to stop, for example, the melting of the summer Arctic ice cap. That's where policy will be critical. The easiest lift is efficiency. California consumes only one half the energy of the country as a whole at no loss to consumers. Speakers agreed on the need to "put a price on carbon" whether through a carbon tax or cap and trade system with several projecting that the United States would have a cap and trade system in place within 24 months. A "feed in" tariff such as that employed in Germany that pays consumers for producing power, predictable instead of on-and-off subsidies and decoupling of production from purchase markets were also mentioned as critical levers.

Blocking progress has been the stodgy nature power utilities-the largest customer for many products--that operate under a web of regulation. Absent in the industry so far has been the adrenaline of cost reduction through mass production-the driver of the consumer electronics, cell phone and Internet revolutions.

While no one has yet figured out a way to marry the speed of the Internet to clean technology, next month Vice President Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection will begin a multi million dollar ad campaign to raise awareness of the danger of climate change and hopefully accelerate action.

Indeed, other countries are arguably outpacing the United States. At the conference, Dr. Sultan Ahmed al Jaber of the UAE accepted an award for the UAE's $15 billion clean tech initiative, Masrad. If the US has one strength it is innovation and high tech companies are rushing to get into the game with Google, in particular, making a huge push to reduce its carbon footprint and offering $10 million to companies making a plug-in hybrid car. Google has installed one of the world's largest collections of solar panels the Googleplex.

I'll be back in California later in the month to meet with clean tech participants and NDN members to learn about your efforts and insights regarding this challenge. Or email me at

A Different Kind of Event for a Transformational Moment

We’ve been talking a lot on the blog and our websites about our upcoming event called “A Moment of Transformation.” This is not a typical Washington DC event, but more like a new breed of conference that is appearing in the private sector. These conferences focus on presenting big ideas from many disciplines in a memorable way. They seek to bring together a remarkable collection of speakers and leave much room for discussion and networking.

The conference that set the standard in this realm is the TED conference, which originally stood for Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, but now is just known as TED. This week TED is being held in Monterrey California, on the Pacific coast, with a simulcast linked to Aspen, Colorado. You can get a good background of that conference here, or just watch video of past events off the TED site.

TED pretty much does not deal with politics or government. However, our Transformative Moment event does. (TED also costs $6,000 and our event is free.) We have pulled together a terrific group of speakers who will talk bout the transformations happening in their fields with an eye towards how they might impact politics and government. In the run-up to the conference in a couple weeks, we will highlight some of them, starting with Amory Lovins.

Amory Lovins has blazed a trail over the last couple decades in understanding how to build a sustainable economy with clean energy in very practical ways. He was one of the coauthors of the seminal book Natural Capitalism, which talked about how to use market mechanisms to reward energy efficient, sustainable behavior. He then coauthored the extremely practical Factor Four, which focused on very specific ways to improve energy efficiency by a factor of four. His latest book is Winning the Oil Endgame, which carries on in this tradition, looking at how to overcome our oil transportation hurtles.

Amory is cofounder and now Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit looking at a broad range of issues having to do with sustainability. RMI was way ahead of the curve on talking about sustainability, starting in 1982. They now have a staff of about 40 people based in Colorado.

Amory has been given many awards, including a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, known as a genius grant. I got to know him through his involvement in Global Business Network, a pioneering think tank on the future. He was one of their 120 remarkable people who helped many private sector companies to understand the big trends shaping the future. Amory is sure to do the same for us at the March 12th event. I hope you come and see.

In the meantime check out a two-minute video below of Amory at TED where he discusses how we can reduce oil dependency.

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute





The challenge - and necessity - of bringing all the world's people online

In our paper, A Laptop in Every Backback, which we released last year, Alec Ross and I wrote:

It is the core premise of this paper that the emergence of a single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, rapidly tying the world's people together is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world's commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world's 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones.

Each year more of the world's people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do. Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world.

We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world's people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.

An article from the Economist this week reviews the remarkable and historic progress made - and the challenges that remain - in bringing more people on to this global communications network. It begins:

THE mobile-phone industry returned from its mammoth annual trade show, 3GSM, held earlier this month in Barcelona, gloating over its successful year. More than 3 billion (almost half the world's population) now have mobiles, and the price of a phone has sunk as low as $25. There are now more mobile-phone subscribers in poor countries than rich ones. That would have been unimaginable a decade ago. 

Mobile phones have improved poor people's lives tremendously, from providing political news and health-care information in remote areas to fuelling commerce. Enthusiasm over bringing technology to the world's poor has been matched in the computing industry, with many companies now selling low-cost laptop computers (so far around $200, but poised to drop much further). But the next digital hurdle-providing internet access-will be much harder to surmount, for both economic and geographical reasons.

The article's findings are based on a new report from the OECD, GLOBAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERNET ACCESS DEVELOPMENTS.

In the coming year I hope that our community can make this conversation about providing all the world's people access to the global communications network a much higher priority for our nation's leaders. These are extraordinary times, full of possibilities for America and the people of the world. In years since the fall of the communism more people have been lifted out of poverty, ignorance, dispair and isolation than perhaps any other time in human history. But as this article lays out there is still much to do, more people to engage, more countries to help in making the difficult transition to a modern state. And however these nations and peoples move closer to adopting the American formula - democracy, free markets, liberty, the rule of law - they will also need to embrace the transformative power which access to this global communications brings for their societies and citizens.

We will be looking at ideas and initiatives like these at our March 12th conference in DC, A Moment of Transformation? - I hope you will join us.


Climate Change and Europe

Traveling in Europe, last week, I got a first hand impression of the urgency with which Europeans view the climate change issue. While climate change is just now breaking through as an important political concern in the US, in Europe it is a mainstream concern, popping up in advertising in the London Tube, on television in France and in speeches across the continent. Europeans are--after years of wringing their hands--optimistic if not ecstatic that with the three leading US presidential candidates, Obama, Clinton and McCain all favoring major action on climate change, the US will again engage on this issue.

At the ULI Europe conference in Paris, former UK chief scientist, David King spoke about the multi-billion dollar investments, the UK is making in flood and drainage control in anticipation of erratic weather and a new billion dollar private-public fund to develop technologies to combat climate change. The author of the forthcoming book, The Hot Topic, King, like others I spoke with, is optimistic that the US is now poised to reassume a leadership role. Some of the points he raises are indeed alarming. The summer size of the Arctic ice cap is now a fraction of what it was a mere 20 years ago. Seeing the thousands of square miles of former summer ice that are now open water on a map brings the magnitude of warming home. While the melting of the northern ice cap is alarming, since the ice is formed from ocean water, it is unlikely to have the devastating impact of the melting of the Greenland Ice Shelf which would send land-trapped water flowing into the ocean, raising sea levels by many meters, but that too is accelerating. Were the shelf to melt, some of the largest cities in the world, among them New York, but also many of the megacities of Asia would become uninhabitable. What King's work shows is that even at current levels of carbon dioxide production, there is a 20% chance of disaster. Major action is needed to reverse far worse odds. Thus the importance of the US again showing leadership on this issue.

Key members of the environmental community such as Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown's special advisor on climate change whom I met with at 10 Downing Street, view US engagement as critical to a globally integrated approach to reducing emissions. The European cap and trade system which got off to a rocky start is, nonetheless now up and running and central to European climate change policy. Trading of carbon permits has created about five thousand financial jobs in London, according to one knowledgeable observer. Environmentalists I spoke with suggested a number of ways that a US system such as the ones proposed for California, the Northeast and, even for the US as a whole in the Warner Lieberman legislation, might learn from the European example. For example, they stressed the importance of auctioning off credits-as opposed to handing them out to polluters--and imposing tight limits. Both Senators Obama and Clinton support the 80% reduction by 2050 and full auctioning of credits recommended by the environmental community.

European environmentalists also support outright mandates and a carbon tax of the type recently endorsed by Vice President Gore.

In coming months, I am excited to be leading NDN's Green project to create a policy framework to combat climate change and working with the NDN community, the emerging clean technology community and other stakeholders to achieve real results. Please email me at with your ideas and suggestions.

The other thing one notices visiting Europe after a hiatus, is the comparative absence of sprawl. With high speed rail now ubiquitous on the continent and gas about twice the price here in the States, the spawl gap between Europe and the US could not be more striking. The Eurostar linking Paris and London now makes the trip in just over two hours. Traveling from Paris to Nice or Bordeaux, once an eight hour tip, is now a two hour blur. Paris has municipal mountain bikes for rent using a credit card at stands across the city. The first half hour is free. In cafes, waiters print out receipts using a handheld printer at your table rather than walking back to a cash register. Half size smart cars from Mercedes that one can easily park and maneuver are the rage.

One is reminded that while the US has been preoccupied with the Iraq war over the last eight years, Europe has been investing and advancing. Nothing stands still and, if the US is to regain its leadership position, it must again discover the future.

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