These are interesting times we live in. There were no fewer than two books advocating a green energy economy on a recent New York Times bestseller list, Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded and Van Jones's The Green Collar Economy.
I talked to Van Jones on my radio show recently, and he exuded an Obama-like intensity. "It feels like the end of an era," he said. "The American people have been sold a bill of goods, sending jobs overseas as we remain mired in oil dependency. It's fundamentally destabilizing to have our energy policy dictated by a volatile oil market. So I think the smartest place to be right now is in reforming the energy sector."
Jones's book points out that there's a two- to six-month waiting list for solar panel installation in California. "Why? There's not enough people trained to do the work. We are experiencing a labor shortage in the middle of a recession." He sees an emerging green-collar economy built around a different version of Joe Sixpack with a hardhat and a lunch bucket, this one "ready to install solar panels in every home in his neighborhood. The most important piece of technology in the green economy will be a caulk gun."
A survey by the Shelton Group determined that the environmental term that resonates most strongly with the electorate is not "green" (61.5 percent like it) or "sustainable" (74 percent) but "energy efficiency" (a whopping 88.2 percent feel positively about it).
And that brings us to the actual technology. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have run pieces in the last couple of weeks pointing out that renewable energy is starved for venture capital. Wind projects are on hold. Biofuel processes are stalled in the research phase. Battery developers can't ramp up manufacturing capacity. The sun is not shining on utility-scale solar.
But I think this is a temporary holdup, a delay in sounding the starting gun. Take a look at financier George Soros on YouTube advocating for a green energy revolution with host Bill Moyers. "Dealing with global warming will require a lot of investment," he said. "We need a new motor [for the economy]...building a new electricity grid, saving on energy, rewiring the houses, and adjusting lifestyles [because] energy will cost more until we introduce these new things. It will be painful, but at least we will survive and not cook."
Really good things are happening, despite the financial setbacks. In July, MIT researcher Daniel Nocera announced a solar energy storage breakthrough. The big issue with utility-grade solar is that it's intermittent, dependent on sunshine. MIT's breakthrough is inspired by photosynthesis: instead of directly generating electricity, these solar panels split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be stored and then combined in a fuel cell to produce electricity. The system uses relatively simple catalysts and works at room temperature. It's easy to set up, too.
"The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated," says James Barber, a professor of biochemistry at Imperial College in London. "It opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production, thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."
Meanwhile, Google and General Electric are defying trends and working together on renewable energy projects, and especially on the vital need for transmission lines that could move renewable energy around the country (from production centers to population centers) without major losses. "GE and Google will be advocating in Washington for the new and smarter grid," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
It's easy to be pessimistic about our future. We could freeze in the dark, or we could get smart and reorient the economy with a whole new set of green priorities.
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