24 October 2012

Our Climate War: FRONTLINE's "Climate of Doubt"

We're in the midst of an uncivil "Climate War" that pits Climate of Fear vs. Climate of Doubt.

Last night I watched a program called "Climate of Doubt," FRONTLINE's hour-long take on the influences and influencers who have reshaped the climate change debate over the past five years.

It was decidedly one-sided, unfortunately, and painted the skeptics and questioners with the same brush as the tobacco lobby and other malcontents.

Some of the tactics they used may have been learned from smoke and mirror campaigns, but it doesn't make their questioning any less valid. (More on that later.)

I'm often asked whether I am a climate skeptic. After all, my blog is The Green Skeptic. My answer is always the same: No, I am not a climate skeptic. (I consider myself a moderate, (Teddy) Roosevelt Republican, those statements combined effectively put me out of the running for any political office.)

I believe the climate is changing, I've seen it with my own two eyes in places as far afield as Alaska, Indonesia, and even the northeast where I live.

But I also believe that skepticism is a hallmark of human nature and it should be applied in liberal (pardon the usage) doses to every human endeavor, whether business, environmental or intellectual.

Skepticism is also a healthy part of the scientific method as hypotheses are formulated, tested, and modified.

On the subject of the climate, my views are simple and I've said all this before here and in my appearances on FOX Business's Varney & Company:

1.) The climate is changing, but the true impacts are unknown, perhaps even unknowable;
2.) Some of that change is caused by man, but not all;
3.) We should focus on the cheapest ways to mitigate climate change while simultaneously insuring against the most likely potential changes that could have big impacts on our health and safety (changes in disease vectors, sea level rise near our coastal cities, impacts on food production); and
4.) There is huge potential investment opportunity in affordable solutions that may actually encourage prosperity not prevent it.

Now, back to my earlier comment about questioning.

The folks who are questioning the consensus of opinion or the validity of the science are neither necessarily wrong nor right. They may be looking at the data in ways that back up their arguments as much as anyone else who wants to prove a point. They may also be trying to deliberately confuse people about the issue, as the FRONTLINE program suggests, to create just such a climate of doubt.

Of course, as journalist John Hockenberry asked one of his interviewees last night, "What if you're wrong?"

The question could be asked about either side. Frankly, we won't know who is wrong or right until it's too late.

What really troubles me about the FRONTLINE program last night is that we've lost all foundation for rational, reasonable debate in this country. We have become a nation of blamers and attackers. Anything we don't agree with is shouted down rather than reasonably argued against. It happens on both sides of the issue and good people are getting hurt in the process.

There is a difference between passion and zeal, and we've lost sight of that difference.

We need to get back to rational, reasonable dialogue and a healthy skepticism and away from attack ads, smear campaigns, and trying to prove who is right.

We need to meet in the middle and develop cost-effective solutions to mitigate the impacts of even the most modest scenarios and, perhaps we'll end up promoting prosperity while insuring we're around to enjoy it.

We need to take a chill pill and create a climate of collaboration and put an end to this climate war.

23 October 2012

Review: Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker

Something there is that loves a Midwestern pragmatist. And if a pragmatist is one who advocates practicality, then Maggie Koerth-Baker is a Midwestern pragmatist.

In her book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us , which I am woefully behind reviewing, Koerth-Baker, the science editor at the blog, Boing-Boing, serves up equal doses of pragmatism and practicality in a Midwestern voice that is as mellifluous as wind cascading over the plains -- or the blades of a wind turbine.

Although she opens her book with the sentence, "'Climate Change is a lie,'" Koerth-Baker is neither climate denier nor climate hawk, although I suspect she is closer to the latter.

But that opening salvo is part of telling the story of the Climate and Energy Project, an environmental activist group in her home state of Kansas, and its founder realization that "you don't have to care about climate change to care about energy."

And, Koerth-Baker argues, we better do something about energy.

"We're currently on a course to use 28 percent more energy a year in 2030 than we do now," Koerth-Baker writes. "If that comes to pass, we'll need more of everything: more coal, more nuclear, more oil, more gas, more wind, more solar, and a whole lot more money to pay for it all."

This is a practical, solution-oriented book. Koerth-Baker is a whizz at making complex concepts such as our national grid, Feed-in-Tariffs, and underwater hydroelectric generation simple -- and she's a good story teller too.

She also recognizes that, "no single energy solution is as good a solution as it sounds." Energy efficiency is great, but it can't solve all our problems. It's too easy to end up with too much or too little wind and solar, and other forms of generation have side effects and negative impacts, such as pollution.

The solution rests in changing the way we think about energy.

As Dr. William Moomaw of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy tells Koerth-Baker, "What we have to do is help people see that they don't really care about the energy and emissions. What they want is the services--light, base comforts, mobility, electronics."

Making the green option the default may also help, creating buildings and systems that make it easy to reduce energy consumption.

"Instead of worrying about how to change people," Koerth-Baker asserts, "you change the world around them." Such as the way the Navy has approached it in their Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, and other examples she cites.

In the end, Koerth-Baker, ever the pragmatist, is cautiously optimistic.

"This can work," she concludes her book. "This future can happen. Yet it won't simply happen on its own. Standing between us and the future of energy is an awfully big wall. Whether we can scale it will depend on how well we can plan and whether we have the willpower to follow those plans through."

Sound, practical thinking.

17 October 2012

A123 Runs Out of Juice

Out of juice.
Not so long ago, I was long A123 Systems. But over the course of 3 years, I went from long to wrong.

I was enthusiastic about the company's products, its lineup of investors (GE, Qualcomm, Sequoia Capital), and its partnerships with leading electric vehicle manufacturers, such as Fisker.

And, back on October 2, 2009, when $AONE stock hit its all-time high of $25.77, I along with others felt pretty good about it.

That is, until the stock started its long, slow dive towards .06 a share. (I sold the last of my holdings in July at a pretty significant loss.)

Yesterday, A123 joined an illustrious list of US government-backed companies seeking bankruptcy protection, a list that includes Abound Solar, Ener1, Beacon Power, Open Range Communications, and Solyndra.

Not very good company, I'm afraid.

What happened?

It all comes down to price. The cost of producing A123's batteries didn't come down fast enough so that, it "cost them more to make them than the could sell them," according to an industry analyst quoted by Bloomberg this morning. "The more they sold the more they lost."

Coupled with the still too-high costs of electric vehicles and consumer "range anxiety" and you have a volatile mix of factors that led to the company's failure.

But that's not all. The company had been plagued by contract and warranty issues over the last couple of years, competition from Asian giants like Panasonic, LG, and others, along with increasing potential safety concerns.
AONE Flatlined.

In August, a Fisker Karma caught on fire in Woodside, CA. The fire was apparently unrelated to the car's A123 battery pack, but it nevertheless fueled concerns about Lithium-ion battery safety. A earlier recall of Karmas for a battery coolant leakage issue didn't help matters.

Even a Chinese lifeline couldn't save the beleaguered company, as "unanticipated and significant challenges to its completion" scotched a deal with Chinese automaker Wanxiang.

Now Johnson Controls (another company whose stock I once held) has agreed to purchase A123's automotive business assets for $125 million and the rest of the company may be sold at auction on November 19th.

Consolidation happens. Companies fail. A123's bankruptcy is just another example of a bet gone bad.

For every cleantech failure, however, it gets tougher and tougher to recharge investor and consumer confidence.

03 October 2012

C3 Summit: Alternative Energy vs. Fossil Fuel Supplies

There is little doubt that we are going to run out of fossil fuels one day. Yet, our demands for energy will not decrease. Despite the promise of renewable energy, collectively renewables provide only about 7 percent of the world’s energy needs. So where do we go from here?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel at the C-3 Summit in New York. The Summit is "an exclusive event dedicated to building new relationships, fostering existing partnerships and exchanging best practices between the U.S. and the Arab world by building a cohesive global community through collaboration and international commerce."

The panel was moderated by Dan Nelson, a former ExxonMobil executive who now runs a consultancy called International Strategic Insights.

It was a great panel, with particularly smart insights coming from the other panelists, including Ambassador Jarl Frijs-Madsen, Royal Danish Consulate General, Mark Fulton of Deutsche Bank, David Pursell of Tudor Pickering Holt & Co, and Peter Gish of UPC Renewables.

My own modest contribution focused on the price and perception issues related to renewable energy and what I learned from spending time with Tom Hicks of the US Navy earlier in the week.

Here is the video of the panel: