Book Review

The Clean Tech Revolution: Discover the Top Trends, Technologies, and Companies to Watch, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Business) Written by Pernick, Ron & Clint Wilder (2008).

Reviewed by: Paul Gruber, November 2008

In a world increasingly filled with books on the clean technology industry, I chose a book devoted to summarizing the key clean tech industry segments, their trends and key players, and potential technological breakthroughs in each segment. Authors Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder do a nice job in summarizing the importance of each clean tech sector in progressing toward a cleaner future for water, energy, and communication and a more prosperous world overall. The book provides the reader with a solid grasp of each clean technology; the biggest challenge in reading the book is determining to which technology I should devote myself.

The book is logically organized. Chapters one through eight give a present day (2008) perspective on the eight major clean tech sectors – solar, wind, biofuels and biomaterials, green buildings, personal transportation, smart grid, mobile technologies, and water filtration. The last two chapters outline how to expand and market clean tech. Overall, the book is an excellent resource for those who would like a solid understanding of clean tech and the potential of each sector. It is also incredibly useful for those seeking out the names of expert players – companies, NGOs, agencies, and people – working on each technology.

The current financial crisis and falling gas prices make the book feel slightly dated, even though the book was published just this year, but the underlying logic and message of the book are sound. That message, which Pernick and Wilder repeat in almost every chapter, is that the clean tech revolution, overall, with benefit humanity worldwide. It will require significant, long-term policy (the authors foreshadow the implementation of such policy with the 44th President of the U.S.) and there will be winners and losers and mistakes made; but, overall, a cleaner future for energy and water will abound. It will require significant collaboration between entrepreneurs, private organizations, government, and NGOs. There is tremendous growth and investment in the sector already, and it represents the greatest potential for spurring economic growth, through ‘Green collar’ jobs, since the Industrial Revolution. Unlike that revolution, however, the authors recognize that clean tech’s priorities should not undermine the environment; in other words, careful life cycle assessments of clean technologies should be conducted to ensure we are not degrading the environment as we are trying to improve it.

Authors Pernick and Wilder define clean tech as “any product, service or process that delivers value using limited or zero nonrenewable resources and/or creates significantly less waste than conventional offerings” (2). Although this definition of clean tech is environmentally focused, the incentives for carrying it out are economic. Primarily, it is an economic imperative which drives us to produce more efficient means of technological production, followed by an environmental imperative; according to Pernick and Wilder, this is how cities, companies, organizations, agencies, and marketing departments should view and promote the clean tech industry.

Pernick and Wilder identify six drivers of clean tech growth, “costs, capital, competition, China, consumers, and climate”(6). Costs of conventional fuel have increased, capital is being spent to pursue new means of energy production, competition among governments and companies is pushing technological breakthroughs and making the industry run faster, China’s growth is increasing demand, consumers are demanding cleaner, more efficient, higher quality products (15), and there is near consensus on the negative effects we as humans have had on the climate. The six C’s are a simple, alliterated list of factors, not necessarily a useful framework for understanding, profiting from, or integrating oneself in the clean tech industry.

The book, however, is filled with facts on energy consumption and policy, some of which is commonly known and some of which is unknown and thus astounding. The authors express well why we should pursue clean tech: “high energy prices, depleted natural resources, volatile sources of foreign oil, record deficits, and unprecedented environmental and security challenges” (2). The authors provide statistics from the U.S. and from abroad, especially from China, India, Brazil, and Europe. There are key lessons and information to be drawn from each clean technology. For example:

· The price of solar is decreasing dramatically. Concentrated solar and “printing” solar cells (photovoltaic ink) are the up-and-coming technologies. Developing country applications of solar energy dominate rural areas; in Kenya, 2% of rural residents use off-the-grid solar energy, the same percentage as rural residents who use electricity from the grid (51).

· Wind is the most cost-competitive renewable energy today in the U.S. and the one which has seen the largest growth, mainly due to a production tax credit of 1.9 cents per kilowatt. Uptime is a very high, 98.6% (67), compared to almost 99.9% from utilities using standard energy sources (oil, gas, and coal). Big firms are buying wind power; PepsiCo and WholeFoods pay for renewable energy certificates equating to 100% of their electrical needs (71).

· Like Benjamin Franklin’s mention of the sun as a true “source of power,” Henry Ford and Rudolf Diesel spoke of the enormous potential of bio-based fuels (167). While the authors seem to place more credibility on biofuels than I would, they acknowledge that biofuels should be produced from waste products, not food. They also indicate that bioplastics are likely to be produced more cheaply than petroleum-based plastics. Policy incentives for biofuel production serve as excellent models for what can be accomplished (or avoided) in other areas of clean tech.

· Green buildings are known to save operational costs, but they also offer “occupants’ better health and well-being, 88%…and improved worker productivity, 78%” (percentages are from corporate executives’ attitudes on their green buildings) (125).

· Regarding personal transportation, gasoline engines are 33% efficient, whereas electric engines are 94% efficient (151).

· Implementation of a smart grid in the U.S. would cost around $160 billion to build (179), whereas the cost of grid failures each year is $50 to $100 billion (176). Utilities’ decoupling of profits from generation is tricky, but essential to establishing a more efficient, more responsive grid.

· Mobile tech is essentially clean energy on the go and will likely be invented first for military use then expand to the everyday consumer industries.

· Water filtration companies are plentiful, with the best technologies involving reverse osmosis, ultraviolet and ceramic filtration, nanotechnology, and other means. Technological advances will be able to remove contaminants, such as metals, bacteria, and even viruses.

They are also key lessons for the clean tech industry overall. For example:

· Renewable energies like wind and solar essentially pay for fuel up front, creating long-term contract mechanisms for paying for renewable infrastructure – e.g., loans or leases – and for charging for energy – e.g., flat rates.

· Also, clean tech prices may experience periodic increases as supplies run low and/or as demands sore. This happened with silicon in 2007 and could happen with steel (for turbine blades), lithium (for batteries) or other raw materials in the future.

· Many of the technological breakthroughs that the authors mention involve nanotechnology, which is expected to greatly increase the physical strength and efficiency of already existing renewable energies.

In most cases, it is easy to identify where the authors get their information – statistics on energy consumption, demand, etc. – but in other instances, the authors simply state a general assumption without much back up. For example, in the biofuels chapter, the authors write that “a number of studies show that there is more than enough land for biofuel crops to substantially displace petroleum,” (95) but they do not state who published these studies or how many there are. In these cases, the reader must take the authors’ word for it, or take it with a grain of salt.

The book is sometimes repetitious, but most of this repetition is purposeful. For example, the battery storage company A123 Systems is mentioned no less than ten times throughout the course of the book, reiterating the companies’ prominence and the importance of this technology. In some chapters, however, statistics are unnecessarily mentioned repeatedly.

There are items which I wish Pernick and Wilder had addressed and which I feel could have improved the book further. There is a fear that major investments in clean tech parallel those made during the Internet boom. As with strong Internet growth, there may be a bubble burst with clean tech. Although the authors maintain that there will be losers during this period of clean tech growth, I wish they had entered a bit more into a macroeconomic analysis of the potential risks of clean tech’s growth. Likewise, I wish the authors had addressed the potential of “biomimicry,” a technique which uses nature as a model for designing clean technologies. This technique was mentioned on one page but deserves more attention. The authors address every other issue or question I had. Overall, this book is an excellent guide to clean tech, and I recommend it to anyone pursuing a career in this field.

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One Response to Book Review

  1. I.Kasey says:

    Solar panels that track the sun currently involve the use of motors and electronic control systems to move them and convert the power to energy.

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