Dear EarthTalk: Is alternative energy still the next big thing for American venture capitalists? — Jeffrey Moss, Fairfield, CT
A decade ago, in the wake of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and rising gas/oil prices, many of the same venture capitalists (VCs) who had made fortunes betting on software, hardware, Internet and biotech start-ups began shifting significant chunks of their investment dollars over to alternative renewable energy and related investments, putting the so-called “cleantech” sector in the spotlight as the “new new thing.” Given growing global concern about greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, it made sense that our highest stakes investors would be attracted to placing big bets on little companies jockeying to be the next major players in the fast growing alternative energy sector.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the next round of initial public offerings (IPOs): the cleantech bubble burst. According to a July 2016 report from the MIT Energy Initiative, some three dozen U.S. venture capital firms poured some $25 billion in cleantech start-ups between 2006 and 2011 — and lost over half their money: “The results are stark — cleantech offered a dismal risk/return profile, dragged down by companies developing new materials, chemistries or processes that never achieved manufacturing scale.”
The MIT researchers studied the performance of hundreds of cleantech investments and compared the results against medical and software technology investments over the same six-year period. Their conclusion? “The VC model is broken for the cleantech sector, which suffers especially from a dearth of large corporations willing to invest in innovation.”
So where did cleantech go wrong? Unlucky timing may have had something to do with it, given the overall market collapse at the end of 2008. But the MIT researchers point out that cleantech start-ups have a longer timeframe of growth than, say, software ventures — and VCs don’t want to wait around for 15-20 years to cash in on their bets. Also, the cleantech sector suffers from underdeveloped supply chains and an “immature acquisition space” compared to more conventional tech startups.
The result is that most of the 150 renewable energy start-ups launched in Silicon Valley since 2006 are long gone. The flame-out of high-flying solar tube manufacturer Solyndra — after securing $500 million in federal loan guarantees — undermined investor confidence in cleantech, while cheap natural gas and a glut of Chinese solar panel exports undercut the competitiveness of American start-ups in the sector.
But cleantech’s fortunes may be turning around, given an influx of interest in leveraging technology and efficiency to help the U.S. meet its emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Climate Accord. Just prior to the landmark December 2015 Paris meeting, Bill Gates announced he was launching a new venture fund, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition — with a little help from 27 mega-rich friends like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg. The nascent billion dollar fund is focused on “fighting climate change by investing in clean energy innovation” and represents a new type of venture financing that aims to not only make money but to help solve social and environmental problems, as well. Gates and company are optimistic that other funders will follow in their footsteps to re-energize American cleantech innovation, create millions of new domestic green jobs, and help finally move us beyond fossil fuels.
Contacts: MIT Energy Initiative, energy.mit.edu; Breakthrough Energy Coalition, www.b-t.energy.com. Photo above: Cleantech start-ups have floundered recently after an initial wave of investment a decade ago. But renewed interest in the space thanks to the Paris climate accord has re-energized innovation and attracted the attention of some well-known, deep-pocketed venture capital investors. Credit: Jeff Kubina, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What’s new in eco-friendly light bulbs? Is it true that incandescent bulbs are back in a much more efficient form? — Barbara Birke, via e-mail
The consumer landscape for light bulbs in the U.S. changed drastically in 2007 when Congress passed the Energy Independence & Security Act mandating, among other things, that household light bulbs in the 40-100 watt range needed to up their energy efficiency standards by at least 25 percent. This change effectively took the tried-and-true yet inefficient incandescent bulbs that lit up the entire 20th century out of the marketplace — and compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, long the first choice for those looking to save on electricity usage, rushed in to take their place. CFLs on average use about 75 percent less energy to generate the same amount of light as conventional incandescents — consumers switching their whole houses over to CFLs could save hundreds of dollars a year on their electricity bills.
While CFLs were a giant step forward in energy savings and reduced the carbon footprint of lighting up our world, they contain trace amounts of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, that is sent airborne when they break. While CFLs still dominate domestic light bulb sales, their time on top may be short-lived given the development of even more efficient bulbs based on mercury-free light emitting diodes (LEDs). An LED uses around 90 percent less electricity than an equivalent incandescent bulb and almost 60 percent less than a CFL to generate an equivalent amount of light. While LEDs do contain trace amounts of lead and arsenic, they are a lot less likely to break than CFLs and last a lot longer.
The surge in popularity of LED bulbs has led to lots of innovation in the lighting field. For example, Lighting Science is using LED lights developed for NASA to help astronauts sleep better in its new line of bulbs for the rest of us to use in our homes. Meanwhile, Sengled integrates consumer electronics (bluetooth speakers, home security cams, wi-fi repeaters, etc.) with energy-saving LED lighting in order to reduce clutter while expanding smart home capabilities. Their Element bulbs can be controlled via an app to dim or turn off at certain predetermined times, and can adjust the intensity and warmth of the lighting tone depending on the time of day or other user preferences. LEDs have busted out of the bulb, too, for some interesting new lighting applications: An LED wallpaper emits a “glow” in variable color casts; and LED “virtual sky panels” can replace office ceiling panels and give workers the sense of being outside in the sun.
But just when we were all starting to get used to these changes, incandescents are on the comeback. GE’s new energy efficient incandescents are 28 percent more efficient than their predecessors and thus just squeak past the Energy Independence & Security Act cut-off. Likewise, Newcandescent bulbs use krylon gas to extend their lifespan five to 10 times longer than traditional incandescents. And researchers from MIT and Purdue have collaborated on a new type of incandescent bulb that captures the waste heat from the conventional internal filament and recycles it into more light, upping the efficiency into the range of CFLs and LEDs. Given all the energy-efficient choices, If you haven’t switched out the old incandescents around the house, now might be the time.
Contacts: Lighting Science, www.lsgc.com; Sengled, www.sengled.com; GE Lighting, www.gelighting.com; Newcandescent Light Bulbs, www.newcandescent.com; “A Nanophotonic Comeback for Incandescent Bulbs,” http://news.mit.edu/2016/nanophotonic-incandescent-light-bulbs-0111.
Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the “Myth of the Climate Change 97 percent” mentioned by Senator Inhofe during recent confirmation hearings Trump’s cabinet post nominations? — Rosemary R., Clifton, NJ
The so-called “Myth of the Climate Change 97 percent” refers to the argument made by climate skeptics who dispute the notion that 97 percent of climate scientists have achieved consensus that global warming is occurring and is caused by human activities. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, a notorious climate skeptic, referred to this “myth” in recent confirmation hearings for Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s choice for administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhofe, who is funded by the notorious Koch brothers and other big fossil fuel interests, has stated that only God can affect the climate, and is one of the most outspoken voices in Congress for turning our backs on the Obama administration’s climate progress.
No one knows for sure, but the 97 percent number likely first cropped up in 2013 from a study by Australian researcher John Cook, who surveyed 11,000+ climate science reports published between 1991 and 2011 in search of attribution of blame regarding the cause of global warming. According to Cook, two-thirds of the reports his team at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute surveyed made no mention of whether global warming was happening, per se. But 97.1 percent of the remaining 4,000 reports that did acknowledge the occurrence of climate change “endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” Furthermore, Cook followed up by asking a sample of 1,200 report authors to determine whether their research confirmed that global warming is human-caused, with 97.2 of those respondents concurring.
But critics attacked Cook’s findings almost as soon as they were published. Richard Tol, a Dutch economist at England’s University of Sussex, first publicly articulated doubts about the 97 percent number in 2014 when he peeled off a team of researchers writing up a draft report for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — he claimed his colleagues were too alarmist. Tol stated that while he believes climate change to be real and likely human-caused, he also felt that Cook’s research methodology was flawed and that the 97 percent findings were “essentially pulled from thin air [and] not based on any credible research whatsoever.” Tol then orchestrated a “re-analysis” of Cook’s data set and concluded that really only 91 percent of climate scientists think global warming is human-caused.
Tol, who subsequently joined the advisory board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that greens consider “the U.K.’s most prominent source of climate change denial,” isn’t the only climate skeptic to pile on against the 97 percent claim. In a 2014 Wall Street Journal commentary piece, Heartland Institute president Joseph Bast and former NASA climatologist Roy Spencer claim that the “so-called consensus comes from a handful of surveys and abstract-counting exercises that have been contradicted by more reliable research.”
But despite this quibbling, it’s clear that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity is behind our current climate woes. Whether or not 91 percent constitutes “consensus” is a matter of semantics, and vocal minorities on the topic (like Senator Inhofe) will always speak up to defend their point of view. What scares the American people is when such a vocal minority has the ear of the White House.
Dear EarthTalk: Do you have any recommendations for vegan health and beauty products? — Janice T., Brooklyn, NY
The problem with many common personal care items is the toxic load they bear. According to researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one in eight of the 50,000+ ingredients used in many of our favorite lotions, lipsticks and lathers are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins and hormone disruptors. Since the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has no regulatory authority over cosmetics, consumers take their chances when they use personal care products.
One way to play it safe is to look for vegan health and beauty products, which are typically made from organic, all-natural ingredients, use earth-friendly packaging and don’t contribute to the harm of any animals. While vegan cosmetics tend to be a little pricier than their conventional counterparts, you get what you pay for with regard to your health and your conscience.
A perennial favorite of the eco-minded is Lush, a handmade green-friendly cosmetic company. Lush is famous for its all-natural, organic, vegetarian product line (80 percent of products are vegan-approved) including face and hair masks, cleansers, exfoliates, makeup and bath bombs. A few customer favorites from Lush include Ocean Salt exfoliating scrub and Cup O’ Coffee and Rosy Cheeks face masks.
Another vegan-friendly personal care products company is Mineral Fusion. Like Lush, Mineral Fusion has a full line and is also dedicated to using natural ingredients that make you feel healthy and beautiful. Mineral Fusion’s tinted moisturizer is elegant, yet perfect, for daily use with simple, soft coverage.
Yet another great choice is Andalou, which uses all non-animal based ingredients in its shampoos, lotions, hair treatments, lip balms, masks and exfoliates — 90 percent of its products are completely vegan. And unlike many of its competitors, Andalou discloses its full ingredients lists. A few favorites include Andalou’s Sponge exfoliator, Vitamin C BB beauty balm and Instant Pure Pore facial mask.
Another great health and beauty product many vegans swear by is organic coconut oil. This all-natural “cruelty-free” product is inexpensive and widely available and can be used for a wide range of health and beauty applications. You can eat it, use it as lotion on your skin and face, put some in you hair to help nourish dead ends, use as a teeth whitener and even as an organic makeup remover.
For more ideas, Vegan.com’s Makeup Guide is an exhaustive list of dozens of cruelty- and chemical-free face, hair, skin, nail and bath products. If you’re wondering whether or not a beloved product already taking up valuable real estate on your bathroom shelf contains ingredients that are unhealthy or bad for the environment, look it up on EWG’s Skin Deep, a searchable database of toxic ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. Currently EWG rates more than 64,000 personal care products in Skin Deep.
Of course, there’s more to good health than what you put on the outside of your body. Eating fresh and organic ingredients, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly all promote good health and hydration to the skin. Living a balanced lifestyle will keep you energized and feeling fresh everyday.