Environmentalists have been urging consumers for decades to wake up to impending disaster and change their buying, driving and living habits to reduce pollution, cut energy consumption and help reverse global warming.
Traditionally, taking personal action to protect the environment involved inconvenience: recycling trash, riding a bike to work, carpooling.
Researchers working on environmentally friendly innovations have been more than inconvenienced. Innovative start-ups with environmentally friendly products used to beg unsuccessfully for venture capital crumbs and government investment.
Pro-environment has often meant “antibusiness” in some political circles, so politicians pushing environmentally friendly policies have had difficulty getting elected.
Helping the environment has been hard for everyone. But thanks to three quiet “revolutions,” it’s about to get a lot easier.
The gadget revolution
A new generation of green products appeals to the selfish, the lazy, the materialistic and the status-obsessed. New green gadgets don’t require inconvenience on the part of the user. And that’s why they could really make a difference.
A solar-powered wireless keyboard called the Genius SlimStar 820 gets its power from light. The SlimStar 820 comes with a wireless mouse that isn’t solar-powered but still uses very little power. The mouse’s batteries need to be changed less often than once per year, compared to every few months, as is the case with most wireless mice. The Genius SlimStar 820 is easier to own than conventional wireless keyboard/mice combinations.
Rechargeable batteries have been around for ages but have been widely rejected by consumers in favor of disposable batteries in part because of inconvenience. Who needs yet another charger? London-based Moixa Energy Holdings Ltd. recently unveiled a line of batteries with built-in USB connectors. By turning every PC into a battery charger, the company makes rechargeable batteries even more convenient than disposable ones because you don’t have to keep going to the store to buy new ones. They’re cheaper too, paying for themselves over time.
ScottEVest Inc. makes a range of solar-powered jackets, including the Tactical 4.0, a waterproof jacket with lots of pockets and detachable solar panels for charging cell phones and iPods. Instead of having to remember to charge your devices once you’re at home, you can charge them all the time as you’re walking around.
A company called DigitalXtractions makes and sells an outdoor webcam called the SCIRC t1. The camera gets its power from the sun and connects to the Internet using built-in cell phone electronics. It eliminates the chore of getting electricity and Internet connectivity to outdoor cams.
A new, self-contained headphone radio has solar panels on top that charge the batteries. If you prefer earbuds, you can buy an inexpensive (US$17) solar-powered radio with the panel on the radio. No more swapping batteries or charging. These radios have power all the time without action required of the user. These products are just a small sampling of the green convenience gadgets available today. But several organizations, including Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and Japan’s NTT DoCoMo have already demonstrated prototypes of the Holy Grail of green gadgets: The solar-powered cell phone. Google co-founder Sergey Brin already uses a solar-powered cell phone, according to a report in the Times of London, although details on it are not publicly available.
The all-in-one gadget of the future will be a media-playing camera phone that charges itself using whatever light is available. The addition of solar power technology will extend “talk” and “standby” times in the worst case, and eliminate charging altogether in the best case. Solar phones will be popular mainly because they’ll be far more convenient.
Current generation hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda hybrids, are extremely popular in the U.S. in part because they’re cheaper and easier to own than comparable nonhybrid cars (fewer trips to the pump).
Other companies are taking the green-is-convenient approach to the next level. Plug-in electric cars and gas-electric hybrid cars have both been around for years. Both typically charge using a special unit that must be installed in the home, and use a few dollars worth of electricity for each charge.
But a new trend of “plug-in hybrid” cars combines both. Several car companies, including Toyota, DaimlerChrysler and GM, are working on plug-in hybrids, which have additional batteries that can be charged by plugging the car in. These cars can run on batteries alone for as much as 100 miles between charges. Then they operate as conventional hybrid cars, alternating between the gas engine and electric motor.
Ford unveiled last month its most advanced concept car, the Flexible Series Hybrid Edge, a zero-emissions, plug-in hybrid hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that runs for the first 25 miles on electricity only.
A secretive Texas start-up called EEStor claims to have invented a battery technology — actually, a fast-charging ceramic “ultracapacitor” — which provides 10 times the power of conventional batteries at half the cost and without toxic chemicals. The new batteries may show up as early as this year in a new car from Toronto-based Zenn Motor. Because of the EEStor battery technology, the Zenn cars should charge in minutes, rather than hours, and would have many times the range of today’s electric cars. Cars running on EEStor batteries may be as powerful as cars running on gasoline, and cheaper and easier to own than gas/electric hybrids. The new battery technology is reportedly applicable to laptops and other consumer devices, too.
All these cars will be desirable to consumers because they’re easier to own.
The research revolution
Green technology innovators have faced an uphill battle getting funding for start-ups that might develop alternative energy products. But all that is changing, thanks to deep-pocket investors like Google and even the Pentagon.
One start-up, called Nanosolar, in Palo Alto, Calif., has received more than $100 million in funding and was started using seed money from the founders of Google. Nanosolar has invented a solar panel technology that can be cheaply mass produced. The company claims that its solar panels will be able to generate power almost as cheaply as conventional sources of electricity. The massive funding behind this company, which comes from venture capital firms and government grants, is part of a clear trend toward growing investment in green technologies.
Innovation in green technologies is coming from another surprising source — the Pentagon. The agency that brought us the Internet and GPS is now working on radical advancements in solar, wind, hybrid and other green technologies.
When the U.S. military rolled into Baghdad, it was followed by a dangerous, slow and expensive convoy of fuel tankers and trucks full of batteries. All those military gadgets and gas-guzzling Humvees turned out to be a major limitation in large-scale battle. As a result, the Pentagon is working on green technologies, such as hybrid vehicles.
There are military advantages to green technologies as well. Hybrid Humvee replacements can switch to “stealth mode,” which is not only electric, but silent. Solar and wind generators don’t have the “heat signatures” enemies can use to target the heat produced by diesel generators that typically power Army outposts. As with