Thursday, September 18, 2008

Green Money

Last year UC Davis hosted the first annual AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference, a confab of entrepreneurs and investors trying to figure out what the new green revolution was all about. There were people with ideas, and people with money, and they were doing a strange mating dance, circling and wondering “Are you what I’m looking for?”

Always On, a high-tech conference organization owned by UC Davis alum Tony Perkins, gathers together leading thinkers, inventors, prognosticators, and start-up professionals in several industries, perhaps most famously in IT at the Stanford Innovation Summit. Information technology is a pretty mature industry now and it is based on a limited number of established technology categories such as information security, social networking, and so on. There are leading venture firms, organizations, and now-accepted categories of technology and business activity.

Last year’s GoingGreen meeting was interesting insofar as the technology categories of the rising green and clean technology industry were very much up in the air: Did it include agriculture? Energy storage? Carbon exchange markets? Vehicles? Energy efficiency? There was a lot of interest in just figuring out who and what was central, peripheral, and maybe outside the emerging green market space.

This year’s GoingGreen conference showed some firming up of categories, although there is still ferment. One of the keynotes was given by Vinod Khosla, one of four founders of Sun Microsystems, a long-time venture capitalist, and now a leading clean tech investor through his eponymous Khosla Ventures. Khosla, who believes that dramatic measures must be taken if we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe, said that it really isn’t about “green tech” but rather about radical new approaches to “main tech”. He believes that the “wars on coal and oil”, the development of sustainable materials, and energy efficiency are the critical categories. It’s about real leaps in technologies that will make a difference, not about improving diesel performance or wind turbines by one or two percent.

I learned that producing a pound of concrete creates a pound of CO2 and that replacing concrete with a sustainable building material would basically take care of our carbon problem. Efficient technologies – using less and using what we do take from the earth more prudently and recycling it for further use – is by far the fastest way out of our environmental problems. Someone said, “the greenest electron is the one you don’t use.”

There were fascinating panels on energy storage devices – how do you store wind power for times when the wind doesn’t blow? – and on desalination advances that could solve California’s north-south water battles if the energy cost of “desal” processing can come down.

Mostly, though, I got the sense from Khosla and others that the new categories are really about doing what we already do in a more mindful and frugal way, whether it’s constructing buildings (half of our energy usage), lighting our streets, powering our vehicles, or growing our food (fertilizer is largely petrochemical).

It was interesting to be part of something that is so clearly revolutionary in some ways, yet so fundamental and traditional in others.

I kept thinking about UC Davis, now celebrating our 100th year, and how well we are positioned to contribute to solving the very real problems, and creating the very real fortunes, that will come out of this economic shift. There is no campus anywhere better able to advance plant biology for this new world. I kept thinking about plant geneticist Professor Pam Ronald’s rice that can withstand flooding, predicted to increase in many areas with global warming. Or Professor Eduardo Blumwald’s tomato variety that will grow in soils damaged by salt. We are leaders in the development of biofuels – we have the plant biology and bioengineering expertise, and a $25 million partnership with Chevron. Our Institute for Transportation Studies is helping China to develop cleaner transportation systems, developing better understanding of vehicle choice by consumers, and has partnered with the auto industry to develop alternative fuels. We have the California Lighting Technology Center on campus, an Energy Efficiency Center that is supported by all of the state’s major utilities, and so much more in the old categories of food, water, materials science, plant genetics, air quality, and environmental management and study. We have the first Agriculture College to rename itself Agriculture and Environment – which it did in the 1970s.

UC Davis is a bit traditional in some ways, but we are poised to deal with tomorrow’s environmental challenges. We actually talk unashamedly about “solving pressing social problems” and truly believe in the land grant university mission of using knowledge to work out society’s problems. At one time the problems were often out in the field and the solutions were taken by university extension agents from the campus to the farmers.

Ironically, in our 100th year, at least some of the problems will be solved by sophisticated plant biology in the field and laboratory, but I think the important carrier of solutions will not be extension agents, but rather the market and hopefully, some of the MBA students we are educating.

No comments: