In Green Tech Hothouse, Media Need Cool Heads

The world’s green technology labs are bubbling with brave new ideas that aim to help invent our way out of climate change disaster. Spraying sulfur particles in the sky. Creating artificial trees. High-voltage batteries engineered by viruses. Tidal and geothermal plants. Generators in the jet stream to harness the wind.

Reminders For Reporters

In navigating the hot world of clean tech, here are some rules of thumb from five commentators tracking these issues:

  • The engineering challenges are often underestimated.
  • Assess the amount of time that has been put into the project.
  • The best ideas are often boring.
  • Make sure there is a solid business plan along with a great idea.
  • Only a few ideas will succeed, but funding many ideas is often necessary to foster innovation.

Yet 2008 has already seen some high-profile setbacks, raising some serious questions about emerging technologies – and how reporters can best assess their potential.

With a record $5.2 billion of North American venture capital going into carbon-reducing and environmentally friendly technologies in 2007, according to the industry-affiliated Cleantech Group, the possibilities for breakthroughs, and also for boondoggles, are increasing.

And in this heated atmosphere of invention, it’s become a dizzying task for reporters to sort through the complex projects being touted.

Wired staff writer Alexis Madrigal said a deep science background is becoming necessary, as the beat becomes hyper-specialized.

“It’s hard to pick individual winners based on your own expertise,” he said in a phone interview with the Yale Forum. “There are so many ways [for industry] to fail when you are trying to change the basic infrastructure of the world.”

This year has seen its share of failure. Take just three examples, involving biofuels, carbon sequestration, and ocean “geoengineering.”

In the case of biofuels, it’s a story of unintended consequences. Using acres of soybeans, corn, and sugarcane to replace petroleum-based fuels – a “solution” touted by numerous news outlets – has led to trouble: deforestation in places like Brazil; high food prices that hurt the world’s poor; and claims of actual carbon savings made dubious because of the energy-intensive production of some biofuels.

Michael Grunwald’s Time magazine April cover story, “The Clean Energy Scam,” puts it bluntly: “[B]iofuels aren’t part of the solution at all. They’re part of the problem.”

A lesson worth remembering here: even respected environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council have championed biofuels.
NRDC had qualified its endorsement, saying a biofuels rush should not lead to cutting down native forests. But it nevertheless posted a 2007 position piece, still on its website, stating, “Biofuels could bring staggering economic and environmental benefits.”

The More Sexy It Sounds

Planktos, a California company that wanted to seed the ocean with iron dust to stimulate the growth of carbon dioxide-absorbing phytoplankton, could not come up with the funding it needed. It battled with scientists over efficacy and with environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace over the unknown impacts on marine life.

(Mother Jones writer Melanie Haiken quipped in a recent column, “Whales vs. polar bears, anyone?”)

In February, Planktos, whose promise had once been cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scuttled its effort. A company statement lamented a “disinformation campaign” by advocacy groups – critical press releases and the like – allegedly undercutting its ability to attract dollars.

However, Wired‘s Madrigal said that typically “the correlation between funding and positive media coverage is pretty weak” for new ventures.

Michael Kanellos, green tech blogger for CNET.com, said he looked at Planktos’s seemingly far-fetched plans and thought, “Get out!” The best ideas still need a business plan, and that means having a supportable idea in the marketplace, he said.

Kanellos’ guiding principle? “The more interesting and sexy it sounds, the more unlikely it is. The best ideas are often boring,” he said in a Yale Forum interview. The amount of time that entrepreneurs have invested in the project – decades? years? months? – is often a key indicator of its viability, and reporters should nail that down, he said.

Right now, Kanellos is seeing some very promising solar cell and LED projects, as well as “smart grid” technologies to make electricity distribution more efficient.

Focusing on more incremental, targeted innovations is important, other reporters say.

Jennifer Kho, founding editor of Greentech Media, a website that follows the industry, said she often sticks to covering technologies that address existing business needs, such as the silicon shortage for solar cells. And when she encounters a venture that sounds shaky, she said in a Yale Forum interview, she’ll call scientists or government researchers “to try to get a reality check.”

Five in A Thousand

Earlier this year, perhaps the world’s leading experimental carbon sequestration project, FutureGen, seemed to burn up in a cloud of smoke before it even got started, as the Department of Energy yanked its funding. The technology proved to be more expensive than expected, its price tag growing to $1.8 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times had declared FutureGen a top ten business story of the year in 2007, saying it “is expected to make Illinois the center of the world for clean coal technology while creating hundreds of job.” The Christian Science Monitor stated that a “solution to America’s energy challenge … is a step closer to reality.”

Illinois politicians howled when the funding was cut on January 30 of this year. The Boston Globe ran an editorial some two weeks later echoing the views of many Democratic lawmakers: “Bush retreats on cleaner coal.”

The administration said FutureGen’s plans had become less promising than other technologies. But the DOE started getting cold feet as far back as December 2007, with little critical coverage on a national scale.

It all underscores a gap in public attention, both by government and the media, some observers say.

Roger Pielke, Jr., a University of Colorado environmental studies professor, said in a Yale Forum interview that the media should work harder to highlight the pressing need for energy innovation and public investment.

Pielke argues in this month’s Nature that the IPCC underestimates the world’s technology challenges and assumes innovation will happen spontaneously.

In the interview, he said the U.S. needs to fund a well-targeted “portfolio” of energy projects, along the lines of its military or medical research programs: “If you fund a thousand projects and five of them turn out to be potentially viable, you’ve done something pretty good.”

Following the thousands of projects in the new energy economy will be a crucial but challenging job for the media.

Business Week investigative reporter Ben Elgin covers some clean tech ventures but focuses on existing companies as they look to reduce their carbon footprint through new technologies – and potentially greenwash their image.

His guiding principles are the same throughout.

“Reporters are, I hope, starting to ask for more documentation about environmental claims,” Elgin said in a phone interview. “There is still a tremendous amount of fluff out there … There’s a tremendous gap between what companies are saying and reality.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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