As an assigning editor for Business 2.0’s green tech coverage and writer of the popular Green Wombat blog, Todd Woody is living the Bay Area green boom. He is no stranger to booms having experienced the party days at the Industry Standard before moving on to the San Jose Mercury News. Todd sat down with me for coffee a few weeks ago to talk about the current green business market. I was glad to have the opportunity – we’ve seen countless reporters move on to the sustainable business and clean technology beat but few bring a history in all the things making up this new industry: environment, technology, business, public policy and venture capital.
Swain: What was your first exposure to clean tech and sustainability issues?
Woody: While I covered environmental issues in the 1990s as a reporter, it was during the California energy crisis of 2000-2001 that I began to notice growing interest in solar energy and other green/clean tech issues. At the time I was a senior editor at The Industry Standard magazine and was assigning stories on alternative energy as California suffered brownouts and PG&E went bankrupt. By the time I became the business editor of the San Jose Mercury News in 2005, it was clear that a new boom was brewing as VC funding for green tech ventures began to take off.
You were covering environmental issues long before the current convergence of the tech, VC and energy industries; how have things changed?
I would say the biggest change has been the growing alliance between environmental groups and big business to tackle global warming and other issues. There’s a growing consensus that the market can be a mechanism to address such challenges. While Environmental Defense had taken a market-oriented approach to solving environmental problems back in the ‘90s, EDF – as it was known back then – the Natural Resources Defense Council and other big green groups were more inclined then to sue business and government for environmental law violations and lax enforcement. Now you have the extraordinary situation where Environmental Defense has hired an investment firm (Perella Weinberg Partners) to advise it on the takeover of Texas utility TXU. That’s because the private equity firms behind the acquisition of TXU gave ED a prominent place at the table in negotiating the deal. Roll over Rachel Carson.
There’s so much hype – do you have trouble finding the products, people and companies that have the potential to make a real difference?
In any boom there will be those companies that over-promise or are just selling pure hype. But unlike the dot-com boom, most green tech companies are dealing in hard technology and are often run by engineers and scientists who tend to be less prone to exaggeration and self-promotion. Of course, even companies that have promising technology still can fail or the technology may not live up to its potential. Nevertheless, you have to do your due diligence – particularly with companies that are offering services like carbon offsets – to verify their claims or substantiate their methodology.
Your Green Wombat blog gives you a chance to do a lot of high frequency original reporting – where do you go for information to make sure you stay ahead of things?
I subscribe to scores of RSS feeds from governmental agencies, companies and environmental groups. I attend conferences and I meet with people in the field. The great thing about being based in San Francisco is that the Bay Area is ground zero for green tech. Some of the major players are within walking distance of my office.
What should the clean tech community know about Business 2.0?
We consider this to be a huge and important story and we’re aggressively pursing it. In fact, I’m spending just about all my time on green tech issues, both as an assigning editor and as a writer/blogger.
Suggestions on how to work with you and what you look for in a story?
Always email me pitches as I don’t have time to take notes on a pitch made by phone. For both the blog and the magazine I’m looking for original stories, ideas or angles (the worse thing you can do is preface a pitch by saying “You may have seen the story on Company X in the Wall Street Journal…..”) If you’re pitching for the blog you have a lot more leeway. I’ll consider any relevant idea and am happy to meet with green tech people/companies. The key is timeliness. If there’s going to be a news announcement on, say, Wednesday, I want to know about it in advance and get all the relevant embargoed documents so I can have a post up when the news hits. If it’s already over the Internet, my interest falls rapidly. The print magazine is whole different story. You need to know what we’re about and what kind of stories we do. The original and unique rule holds but the bar is much, much higher to get into the magazine for obvious reasons. But whether you’re pitching for Business 2.0 or Green Wombat it’s essential you read the publication and target your pitches accordingly.
In many situations when a company or person is questioned in the press, it blows over when the media and their audiences move on to the next news of the day, week or month. There are times, though, when the questions hit too close to home, as it did a few weeks ago when BusinessWeek’s Another Inconvenient Truth attacked the fundamental business model and realized benefits of carbon offsets. The article chose to focus on TerraPass, one of the leading carbon offsets companies, by making a case that some of the projects being funded by the offsets were no better off than they were before, suggesting that they would have been done with or without the help of TerraPass.
BusinessWeek wasn’t the first to question offsets so rather than write about the article when it ran, I decided to wait a few weeks to see how TerraPass handled the PR challenge. By confronting the article head on, it was undoubtedly going to increase awareness of the issues raised with offsets. Proof in point, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post if they had sat on it. But TerraPass had no choice and they believe in their product. Since BusinessWeek’s article ran, TerraPass has used their popular blog and newsletter to start a transparent debate, guiding the discussion with several actions aimed at building trust in their business:
- New financial, regulatory and timing tests of Tontitown, one of the projects questioned in the article
- TreeHugger, an information resource for the green industry, interviewed Tontitown to show that the project results exceed what would have been necessary without TerraPass’ participation
- A refined review process and review panel was introduced
- Articles are running on their blog that aren’t about this “problem,” showing that business is still moving ahead as usual
Like any good company in 2007, TerraPass is using a community on the Web to defend and refine their business. It’s like a 24/7 focus group. They’ve set a good example by standing up to the challenge. The carbon offset market, wherever it ends up, will be better for it.
This comparison is far out there but I saw a documentary last night that made me realize how far we’ve come in the past 100 years. Companies can accomplish in a few weeks what it took Buffalo Bill’s Annie Oakley six years of train rides around the country to do after she was misrepresented in the press. She had a reputation to uphold and didn’t stop until she took each of the 56 newspapers that she disagreed with to task. Social media has changed the course of things. No more train rides.
Less than one week after AMD, Applied Materials, Google, Cisco, Intel, Autodesk, Sun, HP, Yahoo, EMC and IBM joined forces with TechNet, the technology industry’s lobbying arm, to push for the U.S. to double federal funding for green energy, a similar call has been issued by more than 50 U.S. investors.
BusinessWeek’s Moira Herbst reported this morning that funds with $4 trillion under management want Washington to put mandatory limits on carbon emissions. Heavyweights like Merrill Lynch and CalPERS are quoted in the article pushing the message that U.S. companies need clear, consistent regulation and federal standards to help them address climate issues. Highlights:
While it doesn’t advocate a specific bill or policy proposal, it calls for the U.S. to “achieve sizable, sensible long-term reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”—that is, the 60% to 90% reductions below 1990 levels by 2050 that leading scientists recommend. The statement lays out three general policy proposals: 1) a realignment of energy policies to spur the growth of clean technologies, 2) directions from the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) specifying what companies should disclose to investors on climate change in their financial reporting, and 3) a mandatory market-based solution, such as what has come to be known as “cap-and-trade.”
A note of skepticism is in order. Investors and companies may be acting now because a business-friendly President is in the White House—and they could face tougher mandates if they wait until after the 2008 Presidential election. “It’s a timing issue,” says Peter Frumhoff, director of science policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. “The Bush Administration is more favorable to some businesses, and what would happen beyond 2008 is unclear. Everyone realizes there will be federal policy in the next three to four years, so now is the time to help shape it.”
…still, investors are sending Washington a clear message: They expect the country’s elected politicians to step up and provide clear guidance on such an important issue.
“Global warming presents enormous risks and opportunities for U.S. businesses and investors,” says Buenrostro of CalPERS. “To tap American ingenuity and drive business to a leadership position in the low-carbon future, we need regulations to enable the markets to deploy capital and spur innovation.”
Enough said. The big companies are in. The big investors are engaged. Regardless of how things turn out, these next few years are going to be quite a ride.
Not many of us actually get to attend TED, a conference where the biggest minds in technology and entertainment have gathered for more than 20 years. From what I’ve read, this year’s event took on a different tone. BusinessWeek’s Jessi Hempel sums it up:
And if anyone can do anything about this global warming crisis, surely they’re here, where the entrepreneurial nature of investors like Doerr and Vinod Khosla meets the celebrity power of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker or singer Paul Simon. Pepper in heavyweight academics like Nobel prize winner Murray Gell-Mann and a few politicians like the 42nd President of the U.S., Bill Clinton, and you have a promising team for social change.
Tim Dyson, the CEO of Next Fifteen (Text 100’s parent company), was able to attend and as he implies on his blog, when these minds come together and are determined to drive change, you have something real… “The next big thing isn’t some amazing new algorithm or financial model, it’s the thing you’ve been standing on for most of your life – the planet.”
Andrew Sorkin covers the other side of the event in his New York Times’ DealBook blog, Tears Cast a Shadow at Sunny Tech Gathering. Apparently John Doerr commented, “I’m scared. I don’t think we’re going to make it,” which Sorkin said doesn’t sound like much of an elevator pitch. Maybe it’s the pitch everyone needs. It shows that this isn’t going to be easy. All the bright minds in the world can do all the thinking they want, but without the call to action to implement their ideas, where will we end up? America responds well to cash so Doerr’s statement, “going green is the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century,” may be just the call to action we need.
I knew something might be different this year when the TED book club was shipping Worldchanging: A Users Guide for the 21st Century to its members.
Check out this overview of the event on YouTube.
My colleagues at Text 100 Public Relations had a fun night at yesterday’s annual PRWeek Awards. I have to give them some props for what they brought home:
- PR Innovation of the Year for Text 100’s work with Second Life
- Young PR Professional of the Year – Text 100’s Aaron Uhrmacher
- Honorable Mention: Midsize PR Agency of the Year
- Honorable Mention: Brand Campaign of the Year for creating a new dimension of entertainment with Sprint Nextel
- Honorable Mention: Business-to-Business Campaign of the Year, “Xerox Hones Listening Skills to Engender Trust”
- Finalist: Best Use of Research/Measurement with Sprint Nextel
- Finalist: Cause-Related Campaign of the Year and Community Relations Campaign of the Year for Text 100’s work with Xerox on, “Let’s Say Thanks to Our Troops”
- Finalist: Global Campaign of the Year, “Xerox ‘Listens’ its Way to Printing Leadership”
- Check out minute four of this Beet.TV video interview with Text 100’s CEO, Aedhmar Hynes.
Our clean tech group has a few things running at PRWeek as well:
The more I talk with other firms in the green or sustainable business space – whether they are providing services like marketing or PR, or are established companies bidding for big renewable energy projects – the more I start to wonder if everyone is so excited to get in the game that the industry is creating its own glass ceiling. If companies across the board are bidding themselves into flat or unprofitable territory to get their foot in the door, is it not a step back for the whole industry? It will be like running uphill with a parachute. That’s not what anyone wants. Pre-season is over. Let’s put the parachutes away.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the increased competition and corresponding improvements in products, services and pricing. What I’m talking about is more psychological and involves letting the current market excitement and hype get in the way of sound business decisions.
This is one of those topics that people want to hide under the covers b/c who wants to admit that they just won the deal of the year but aren’t going to turn a profit on it. Seems like a good investigative story for one of our clean tech reporters.
- global markets for biofuels (global manufacturing and wholesale pricing of ethanol and biodiesel) reached $20.5 billion in 2006 and are projected to grow to $80.9 billion by 2016;
- wind power (new installation capital costs) is projected to expand from $17.9 billion in 2006 to $60.8 billion in 2016;
- solar photovoltaics (including modules, system components, and installation) will grow from a $15.6 billion industry in 2006 to $69.3 billion by 2016; and
- the fuel cell and distributed hydrogen market will grow from a $1.4 billion industry (primarily for research contracts and demonstration and test units) to $15.6 billion over the next decade
David Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle covered the report today, Sales soar at green-tech companies.
And of course don’t miss Business of Green: A Special Section in today’s New York Times. Highlights:
- Audio Slide Show: Big Is Beautiful
- Consumers: Attention Shoppers: Carbon Offsets in Aisle 6
- Companies: Calculate your carbon footprint
- Restaurants: It Takes More Than Veggies to Make a Kitchen Green
- Homegrown Industry: Vermont Wants You to Fill Its Open Spaces
- New Concepts: ‘Corporate Hippies’ Seek Their Bliss in a New Environmental Economy and For Internet Barons, Uncharted Investment Territory
- Friend of Nature? Let’s See Those Shoes
- A Coal Executive With a Cleanup Mission
- As the Climate Heats Up, Lawyers Sharpen Their Wits
- Call of the Truck Stop: Gentlemen, Stop Your Engines
- Across the Atlantic, Slowing Breezes
Here are a few interesting stories from the week:
- David Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle has the above the fold cover story this morning on the green and clean tech industry, “Green Valley; New Tech: Environmentally minded ingenuity drives the latest business wave to plant its roots in the Bay Area.” Also check out the cover of the real estate section, “Green Into Gold.”
- Jennifer Kho of Red Herring has the March 5th cover story, “Old King Coal,” which looks at the rising interest in “clean” coal startups. Lots of other news during the week in Red Herring’s Energy Section as well. Particularly, there was buzz in the industry about, “Coal Loses in TXU Acquisition.”
- Todd Woody of Business 2.0 gave us daily coverage in his green wombat blog of PG&E’s plan to put two 40-megawatt wave farms up on Northern California’s coasts in the next few years as well as the potential for the utility company to look to British Columbia for wind power. Also check out, “Feds Invest $385 Million in Cellulosic Ethanol Plant.”
- MIT Technology Review has several new articles, “Tax Credits for Plug-In Hybrids,” “Zero Tolerance for Carbon-Dioxide Emissions,” and “Nucleur Energy for the Developing World.”
- Joel Makower looks at “California’s Bold Step Toward Sustainable Mobility.” Mike Millikan of WorldChanging also looks at Sustainable Mobility.
- John Cloud takes us through the ins and outs of the choice between buying local or organic food with the cover story in this week’s TIME magazine, “Forget Organic. Buy Local.” This happens to focus on food but many of the themes and debates ring true in the world of sustainable business….who to buy from, where to get it, are your suppliers in China and next door following sustainable practices, etc.
Time for my morning run with my brother-in-law who is here to visit our 3-week old little man. The surf looks like fun. Maybe this afternoon.
Dean Takahashi of The Mercury News covered the current state of Silicon Valley clean tech affairs with yesterday’s article, “Will green tech become the valley’s new bubble?” The sub-head says a lot: “Reality of the problems makes boom, bust unlikely.”
A few highlights:
Does this green-tech boom mean the valley’s freeways will clog with smoke-laden traffic jams, just as we saw in the heyday of the Internet boom? (Although this time we may be driving hybrids or Teslas with electric motors.) Perhaps, especially if you think of all the jobs $3 billion in venture funding for clean tech in the United States — so far — can create, with much of that coming here.
….John Denniston, a partner with Doerr at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, says green tech has enormous scope because it is driven by stopping climate change, achieving energy independence and restoring American competitiveness. The valley is attacking the problem on multiple fronts, from better batteries to cheaper ethanol. These are real problems that need real solutions, in contrast to such over-hyped problems during the tech bubble as the need to buy pet food online.
In the next 25 years, electricity demand in the United States is expected to increase 50 percent. We used 139 billion gallons of gasoline last year, and that is expected to increase to 153 billion gallons by 2012.
In his State of the Union speech, President Bush said he wants 20 percent of all gasoline consumption to come from alternative sources in 10 years. Assuming gas prices of $2 a gallon, the value of the alternative fuel market will be more than $60 billion by 2012.
California is the tail wagging the dog with the passage of AB 32, which seeks to reduce emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020. Even corporate organizations argue that capping emissions is good for business because it will inspire innovation.
Takahashi also references a 116 page report, The Energy Imperative: Technology and the Role of Emerging Companies, published in November 2006 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It’s not surprising that the President’s Council on technology consists of names like Dell, EMC, Verisign, Autodesk, AMD and Microsoft. It looks like they still need some more companies that are leading the way in environmental/renewables innovation to join the ranks. Can’t affect change if you’re not part of the team setting the national agenda.