Forum: Apply history to latest boom As the "going green'' movement gains economic momentum, it's important to keep those hard lessons from the Internet boom in mind. Tom Salonek
Last update: September 16, 2007 – 4:06 PM
The signs are unmistakable. There's a "green revolution" happening, as Americans wake up to the frightening possibilities posed by global warming.
Don't believe me?
Stroll down the aisles at a Home Depot store and you'll find 60,000 "Eco Options," described as "Earth friendly" products for the home improvement market. About 35 million Americans regularly buy products that claim to be Earth-friendly, according to the New York Times -- from organic beeswax to Toyota Priuses.
But, as with anything "hot," it's important not to get burned. As the owner of a growing technology company during the 1990s, I learned some valuable lessons about surviving a boom without going bust.
And today's green revolution is attracting government attention and involvement far greater than was possible during the "Wild West" days of the Internet.
By 2022, Congress seeks to have the country producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel for motor vehicles per year. For Minnesota's farmers, whose corn production ranks in the top five in the nation, this is good news. But our farmers should be aware that the government is looking at, and providing incentives for, other sources than corn-based ethanol. Biomass (such as solid or wood waste) firms will receive a tax credit of $1 per gallon, which is more than the 50 cents per gallon corn distillers receive.
But there are plenty of similarities with the Internet revolution. Consider:
•There's huge venture capital interest in anything green. Firms behind the tech boom, such as Kleiner Perkins, are lining up to fund green projects and companies. Last month, one of my business neighbors in Eagan, Cool Clean Technologies, received almost $9 million in investment capital for its nontraditional chemical cleaning.
•At the university level, enrollment is up in energy-related courses. The Economist magazine has reported that enrollment in energy-related courses has tripled during the past five years. When times were booming in the tech industry, there was growth in computer-related degrees.
Learning from the past
There were many mistakes made during the tech boom. In the stock markets, for example, few saw the bust coming. For the green boom to last, we need sustainable business models; clear government regulation, incentives and taxation; and the sense to remember that, in many cases, the simplest approach is better.
During the tech boom, companies such as Pets.com would sell a product at retail for less than they paid wholesale. As the joke goes on this type of model, you can't make it up on volume. In the current green boom, there are also businesses and products where the math doesn't work.
Consider the story of Spire Corp., which makes solar cells to capture energy from rooftop panels. The equipment needed to power a single 100-watt bulb costs more than $700. While it takes a scientist to develop solar cells, it doesn't take a scientist to figure out that the payback is unrealistic.
For Minnesota corn growers such as my father, if E85 ethanol is to win long-term on a global stage, technology needs to play a role to compete with countries such as Brazil, the world's largest sugar and ethanol exporter.
Using a combination of sugarcane for ethanol and taxes on gasoline, the price of ethanol in Brazil is half the cost of gasoline there. Brazil can produce sugar-based ethanol more cheaply than the United States can produce ethanol from corn.
Remember "bricks-and-mortar" companies supposedly going the way of the dinosaur during the tech boom? While new markets and businesses emerged, new Internet companies such as Amazon.com and existing physical companies such as Barnes & Noble are still around today. In the green boom, because of capital intensity, the favor goes to the larger organizations. Consider giant Archer Daniels Midland Corp., the biggest U.S. ethanol maker. Ethanol is sticky, and therefore can't be piped through long lines the way oil can. Companies such as ADM have the logistics -- from trucks and rail cars to storage facilities -- to move ethanol.
Simplicity also counts. In the green movement, with all the talk of alternative energy sources, carbon trading and mega windmills, there's a very simple solution that could make a huge impact: the light bulb.
According to the International Energy Agency, 19 percent of electricity generation goes for lighting. Using compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) instead of traditional lamps would cut the world's electricity bill by nearly 10 percent.
A knock against CFL bulbs is that they contain mercury. Yet, although CFLs do contain mercury, the mercury produced by a coal-burning plant to provide electricity to a standard bulb is more than the mercury in a CFL bulb.