Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dont conceal, reveal

From Seth Godin's blog:

A different technique is starting to gain traction, though. Working to reveal instead of conceal. My fish monger in Grand Central has started placing signs in front of each fish. They describe exactly where the fish came from, whether it's healthy and how endangered it is. You'll never see fine print saying "previously frozen." They don't have any fine print. The first few times you visit the stand, it's actually off putting. It takes the romance and pleasure out of buying the fish, because you realize that there's a cost to it. The meat guy across the way doesn't have pictures of cows being slaughtered, does he?

But after a while, because the information is out there, because smart fish buyers already know some fish is endangered, the signs give you power. They allow you to make smart choices. They send a message to the customer about the honesty and intent of the seller. They build trust.

This will, by necessity, become more popular as the green economy advances. Hopefully, people won't easily fall prey to the "green" tag without evidence of its extent. I think if you have half a brain (meaning you use half your brain when you buy something), you can skim off most of the bullcrap. But inventive, persistent, well-formed marketing has a way of circumventing our brains instead of appealing to them. Marketing is, unfortunately, value-neutral in so many cases (think cigarettes, fast food, Blackwater). It's hard to figure out how to vote with your money when the candidates are not what they seem (that was meant to be a metaphor).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brilliant - Silicon Recycling

First off, I'll say that this technology is brilliant:

IBM today announced an innovative new semiconductor wafer reclamation process... The new process uses a specialized pattern removal technique to re-purpose scrap semiconductor wafers -- thin discs of silicon material used to imprint patterns that make finished semiconductor chips for computers, mobile phones, video games, and other consumer electronics -- to a form used to manufacture silicon-based solar panels. The new process was recently awarded the “2007 Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award” from The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR).

If you're unsure, this is a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT win for solar technology. As the article states, solar technology is being held back by a shortage of materials - in specific, silicon. Nothing worse than trying to bring greentech to the people and having it be too expensive because of materials. Briefly:
"One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth,” said Charles Bai, chief financial officer of ReneSola, one of China's fastest growing solar energy companies.

IBM and others in the industry use silicon wafers both as the starting material for manufacturing microelectronic products and to monitor and control the myriad of steps in the manufacturing process. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, worldwide 250,000 wafers are started per day across the industry. IBM estimates that up to 3.3% of these started wafers are scrapped. In the course of the year, this amounts to approximately three million discarded wafers. Because the wafers contain intellectual property, most can not be sent to outside vendors to reclaim so are crushed and sent to landfills, or melted down and resold.

Awesome, it's win-win... but I still wonder...Why did IBM put time and effort into this project? There are three reasons I can immediately come up with

1) The did it out of the goodness of their hearts

Though this is, IMHO, fantastic in the way that the chances of it being true fall somewhere between "slim" and "zip." Which, as you heard in Dumb and Dumber, still means there is a chance. If I started an environmental company, you better believe I would put "green" and "profit" as equal in priority. In fact, I wouldn't start a business I believed to be unsustainable. So, yes, IBM could have had an epiphany. More likely, however...

2) They did it to APPEAR to have good, green hearts

Is that wrong? No. It's predictable, to be sure, but the outcome is the same in the end. Or is it?

Though this is, as I mentioned, a big win for solar power regardless of the motivation. But if this is a marketing opportunity more than anything else, it leaves the possibility of it going away quickly when the benefits don't outweigh the costs for IBM alone. Lets say the recycling process gets a little expensive or they have to hire more people to take care of the process or any number of different things that could happen. Suddenly, appearing green is no longer a priority and the process slows to a halt. The press release already went out so the impact was already felt. Is anyone going to track and report on it if they decide to stop? No one... BUT ME!

Which brings me to the last reason this process might have been created...

3)It makes them money

Between 2 and 3, it's hard to say which one is more likely and, in the end, it's all the same thing (green image leads to more sales). In fact, it ends up being both:
IBM’s commitment to environmental conservation blah blah blah blah blah blah

The projected ongoing annual savings for 2007 is nearly $1.5 million and the one-time savings for reclaiming stockpiled wafers is estimated to be more than $1.5 million.

This further proves my (and others') theory on the environment:

things will not change until it becomes profitable for them to do so

Keep in mind I am not saying ANYTHING against IBM. This is a great move on their part and I would not expect an industry giant to do anything but do as it has done in the past. If this is an indication of corporate altruism, then all the better. An environmental win is a win.
The new wafer reclamation process produces monitor wafers from scrap product wafers - generating an overall energy savings of up to 90% because repurposing scrap means that IBM no longer has to procure the usual volume of net new wafers to meet manufacturing needs. When monitors wafers reach end of life they are sold to the solar industry. Depending on how a specific solar cell manufacturer chooses to process a batch of reclaimed wafers - they could save between 30 - 90% of the energy that they would have needed if they'd used a new silicon material source. These estimated energy savings translate into an overall reduction of the carbon footprint -- the measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service -- for both the Semiconductor and Solar industries.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Project Better Place

A great name for a potentially great project. This is a FOR-PROFIT corporation that is dedicated to making EVs (cars powered by electricity) a wide-spread, viable transportation solution. I feel like if I paraphrase more, I'm just going to ruin it so I'll let them speak for themselves.

Today, the world depends on oil as its fundamental transportation energy source. With the rapid rise in oil prices, a number of alternatives to oil have been proposed in recent years with little success. Project Better Place will focus on the integration of existing technologies and systems to provide the infrastructure and scale necessary to make electric cars a viable alternative to fuel-based vehicles. By doing so, Project Better Place will overcome low adoption rates to-date due to the lack of an established and ubiquitous charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

The timing of the launch of Project Better Place is based on two trends—the upward trend in the price of oil, and the downward trend in the price of cutting edge batteries. For the first time, the per mile energy cost for an electric vehicle has fallen below that of an internal combustion engine-powered vehicle. Within a decade, the cost of energy production and storage for the lifetime of an electric vehicle will fall below the fuel costs for a single year of a traditional automobile.

I'll say, first-off, that having solid ground to base your business on is a good start. I'm not a business expert but that part makes sense. Green companies frequently depend upon the altruism of consumers which simply does not exist in the quantities that would make a sound business plan. You can't ask someone to pay twice as much or settle for an inferior product simply based on how environmental it is. You'll get people like me and the other < 1% but everyone else will want the better performer, regardless of how guilty they feel. When you say "gas cars will cost more, EVs will be cheap," you have a draw for the majority of people. The EV might be a bit smaller and less horsepower but it costs you 1/4 of what your car does AND it's green. THAT'S where you start to get converts.

So, how to do it? Here comes the really neat part:
The business model for the electric cars will be similar to that used by mobile phone operators. In the same way that wireless operators deploy a network of cell towers to provide an area of mobile phone coverage, Project Better Place will establish a network of charging spots and battery exchange stations to provide ubiquitous access to electricity to power electric vehicles. The company will partner with car makers and source batteries so that consumers who subscribe to the network can get subsidized vehicles which are cheaper to buy and operate than today’s fuel-based cars. Consumers will still own their cars and will have multiple car models to choose from.

Similar to cellular phone companies, Project Better Place will offer consumers several subscription-based ownership models. Through these subscription models, vehicle owners will be linked into a nationwide network of charge spots and exchange stations. When a consumer parks his or her car, the network synchronizes the car with the smart electric grid to recharge the battery. When a driver travels long-distance, he or she can swap batteries at an exchange station to get a fully charged battery, similar to how we now stop to fill our gas tanks today.

To match multiple customer segments, Project Better Place will offer several car models and subscription pricing packages that will reduce total cost of ownership and subsidize the car as part of this package.

I like the way this sounds! Hopefully they will also be able to address existing cars. I would think that there are a lot more people out there who would rather convert their current car to EV rather than buying a new one. Keep in mind, this also saves manufacturing energy and pollution as well as raw materials. Gotta look at the BIG PICTURE, right?

Reading a new book

I'm pleased to be starting a new book: "Zoom: The Global Race to the Car of the Future." My dad sent it to me (he's a book-a-holic... I don't think he's even touched this one yet) the other day and I started it yesterday. I'll post a review when I'm done with it.

I find it very hard to set aside time for reading when I'm in school. When classes are in session and I try to pick up a book because it looks interesting or might just have what it takes to distract me for a little while, I feel guilty. How could I be reading for pleasure when there are thousands of pages of required reading I could be doing? Same goes with blogging vs. term papers. Go fig. It's probably a good thing that I write and read for pleasure alongside of the mandatory stuff. Maybe I won't see either activity as tedious, I can just trick myself into thinking it's fun. Ya right.