Hey, Climate Activists, When Technology Is More Powerful Than Law, Go With Technology

Dec 03, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Human beings are whizzes at devising new tools. It's what we do best. But, alas, we're not so hot at collaborating politically for the long-term common good. Case in point: the persistent inability of the federal government to grapple with the threat of climate change. This has stumped environmentalists desperately calling on the power of government to curb global warming through legislation.

Maybe environmentalists should call on a higher power.

Technology is often more powerful than law. Sometimes a new technology kicks the door open, walks in, and takes over, politics be damned.

"Nobody ever voted for printing. Nobody ever voted for electricity. Nobody ever voted for radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, television," declares John Brockman, quoted in Stewart Brand's 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline. "Nobody ever voted for the personal computer," continues Brockman, "or the Internet, email, the Web, Google, cloning, the sequencing of the human genome."

Is this true of green technology? Will it kick the door open, walk in, and take over? Will it, in effect, deploy itself? This is a momentous question, rooted in a promising reality.

In the last decade or so, entrepreneurs have flooded the marketplace with clean tech innovations. Scott Sklar, former Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, has attempted to assess the potential benefit of these technologies as a whole. Doing so, he's compiled 23 studies that "show how commercially-available energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies can meet the world's and the United States' energy growth without fossil fuels and nuclear energy."

Now, I can't argue that all the technologies Sklar has identified are busily deploying themselves, but I do see many straws in the wind blowing that direction.

•Despite the severe recession, in 2009 the U.S. small wind market (turbines with rated capacities of 100 kilowatts or less) grew by 15 percent, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

•According to a new report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, nearly 1 gigawatt of added capacity will be installed in 2010, a 114 percent increase over last year.

•The costs of advanced batteries are expected to come down by nearly 70 percent in the next few years, which will make electric and hybrid cars and trucks far more affordable.

Perhaps the strongest wind blowing the most straws comes out of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). DoD is making a huge investment in alternative power source -- fuel cells, lightweight engine generators, and portable battery rechargers -- according to a recent story in The New York Times.

Marines in Afghanistan, for example, are now relying on portable solar panels, solar tent shields, and other renewable energy equipment to reduce their dependence on oil which is extremely costly. While the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some bases in Afghanistan costs $400.

DoD's commitment to renewable energy technologies derives from their superior performance. In addition to being more efficient than conventional equipment, they are also smaller, lighter, quieter, and more reliable sources of energy for the equipment -- computers, sensors, and communications devices -- that soldiers carry in the field.

This superiority augurs well for the commercial deployment of green technologies. (Much of the technology currently being used by DoD is commercially available.) Isn't it an article of capitalist faith that superior technologies will ultimately win out?

The upshot? Environmentalists, thwarted legislatively, are scoring big gains technologically. These gains will more than offset political setbacks if green innovations are actually widely deployed. The economic growth and job creation that follow will, in turn, expand the political base for environmental protection.

Here I find still more straws blowing in the wind: the multitude of green groups actively campaigning to deploy green technologies. Some examples:

Interfaith Power and Light, a campaign by religious groups is helping 10,000 congregations in 30 states adopt renewable energy, energy efficiency, and conservation. The campaign sponsors ShopIPL, an online store where faith communities can get discounted prices on energy efficient products.

Vote Solar, a non-profit organization with 50,000 members, works to build the economies of scale necessary to bring solar into the mainstream. The industry's price history is that every time demand doubles, costs have come down 20%. Vote Solar aims to reduce regulatory roadblocks that impede solar adoption.

SJF Ventures is a venture capital firm that invests in clean-tech and sustainable businesses. The firm's deliberate policy is to partner with green entrepreneurs who aim to win market share from existing companies that are inefficient and carbon-intensive.

There are literally hundreds of such projects around the country. Though incredibly diverse, they all aim at getting green technologies across the finish line. By going for new technology and expanding its force through social action, environmentalists have perhaps forged the most powerful tool of all.