VANCOUVER—The terms ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘game-changing’ are frequently used to describe a new technology, or to market an innovation that supposedly will change our world forever.
The truth is, we seldom really know how a technological breakthrough will unfold and how, over time, it will become part of our daily lives. The personal computer, digital imaging, genetic engineering, and the Internet are but a few examples of technological advancements that have and will continue to change the way we live.
The same applies to clean technology innovations that also are becoming part of our daily realities. Predicting how they will emerge as new products or services is chancy at best. But we can look at a few unfolding trends and from this, make a few guesses as to how they’ll become part of our future.
First though, let’s understand what we mean by clean technology. It’s been described by Clean Edge, a clean technology research firm, as “a diverse range of products, services, and processes that harness renewable materials and energy sources, dramatically reduces the use of natural resources, and cuts or eliminates emissions and wastes.”
Clean Edge will release its “2014 Clean Energy Trends” report at GLOBE 2014. One of the energy-related trends of note is the growing importance of energy from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biomass, hydropower and biofuels, in the electricity supplied to our homes and factories by energy utilities.
Although renewable energy is still a relatively small part of the total energy mix in the global economy, it’s growing in importance and transforming the utilities sector in the process.
Faced with escalating operating expenses, falling or flat energy demand and growing consumer interest in clean and more efficient solutions, utility companies are being forced to reassess their strategies and explore new business models.
How will this change our lives?
We may see the current model of mega-sized utilities piping energy from faraway places to our homes and factories give way to community-scale utilities and the deployment of micro-grid technologies placing the control (and pricing) of our energy into our own hands.
That may not sound like much, but stop to think how this might transform the appearance of our cities and towns. Combined with advances in digital information technology and ‘smart’ devices, the transfer of energy management control from the utility to the end user will change our energy choices, our consumer spending patterns, and our personal mobility.
Along with energy, emerging trends in clean mobility will profoundly transform our daily lives. The electric vehicle (EV) is becoming an affordable consumer reality. While it will take a generation or more for EV battery technology to mature to the point of displacing gasoline or natural gas motive power, that day will come. Again, how will it affect the world around us?
Think of a home wired for mobility, or parking lots that are nothing more than charging stations. Think of not owning a car, but simply driving a fully-charged vehicle supplied by a car-share provider whenever you need wheels. Your grandchildren may ask, “What’s a gas station?”
Another clean technology trend unfolding in ways we still can’t fully grasp relates to the buildings where we live and work. Not only will we be able to monitor and manage the energy used to heat, cool and power our offices and homes, the very design and fabrication of buildings is likely to transform our cities and towns in ways we can only dream about.
More than being energy efficient, buildings may soon become energy positive—that is, generating more energy than they use, allowing building owners and operators to sell it back to the local grid, or to power all those electric vehicles parked outside. Free charges could become an employment perk.
Lighter, stronger, more durable, and designed to totally recycle everything, buildings large and small will transform the environment of the workplace and home. They will significantly reduce or eliminate waste; and will demand a whole new suite of job skills, thereby accelerating the transformation of the economy. It may sound like a dream, but it’s happening around us right now.
The iconic Empire State Building in New York City has undergone a radical retrofit that has reduced its energy use and operating costs. Today, it’s the tallest LEED-certified building in the United States.
Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute, was involved with that deep retrofit. In his book A Farewell to Fossil Fuels, he notes 6,514 windows in the building were turned into “super-windows,” which pass light but block heat. In just three years, energy savings above 40 percent will repay the owners’ total energy-saving investment.
Amory Lovins will deliver a keynote at GLOBE 2014 on “Re-inventing Fire.”
There are many more dimensions that could be explored, but the simple point emerging from these few examples is this: Our future won’t change overnight by a revolutionary or game-changing clean technology innovation.
Our future will be transformed daily by small measures as new technologies are incorporated into the products we use, the services we depend upon, what we put on or into our bodies, by how we move about, and by how we interact with each other.
As the T-Shirt slogan says, ‘The Future is Not What It Used to Be’. But clean technology will make that future exciting and better.
Come to GLOBE 2014, and you will see how that future will affect you.
John D. Wiebe is CEO of the GLOBE Foundation.
About GLOBE 2014
Close to 10,000 participants from more than 50 countries will converge for GLOBE 2014 in Vancouver from March 26-28, North America’s largest conference focused on the business of the environment. Join more than 150 inspiring speakers and take part in 45 thought-provoking sessions across eight core themes and special tracks, plus many more workshops and special networking events. Download the full conference program on the GLOBE web site.