Emily Gertz is a regular contributor to WorldChanging.com, and an internet content and strategy consultant for nonprofits. She has written on environmental policy for BushGreenwatch, and on the intersections of environment, culture, art, and activism for The Bear Deluxe and other independent alternative publications.

Wednesday, 9 Feb 2005

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.

This morning, taking in a stunning view across Columbus Circle to Central Park through a wall of floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, I thought, “Hmm. This isn’t your mother’s environmental conference.”

No, it’s “Verdopolis: The Future Green City,” a three-day gathering of designers, architects, engineers, entrepreneurs, policy and business people, academics, and environmentalists — in other words, a very diverse array of professionals — to explore “urban environmental sustainability.” It’s being held in the Steelcase Building, right in the heart of NYC, America’s mega-city.

I was gazing out at the park while speaker Dennis Campbell tried to get his “how to make a hydrogen fuel cell” video going on the conference PowerBook. “The Macintoshes are really great for artists, but bad for engineers,” he said as he gave up, and the audience laughed. (The climate may change, but Mac/Windows jokes are forever.) Up an open staircase in the atrium above us, there was an urn of excellent strong coffee, trays piled with tasty City Bakery croissants and muffins made with organic flour, sugar, and eggs, organic OJ being served in biodegradable plastic cups made from corn, and more of that park view. If the future green city includes such creature comforts, I’m for it.

Campbell was one of three members of the morning panel on “Energy: The Next Generation,” and despite the cross-platform embedded-video glitch, he was a pretty upbeat guy. In fact, everyone on the panel was upbeat: Jim VanderPas of United Technologies Corporation, which is developing power turbines and fuel cells; Carrie Norton of Energy Innovations, a company working on cost-effective solar power systems; Campbell, president and CEO of Ballard Power Systems, focused on practical hydrogen fuel cells for automobiles. Even moderator Ashok Gupta, air and energy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist who has every reason to feel pretty down in the current political and ecological realities, was in a good mood.

This good mood is what seems to be different about Verdopolis. It’s a gathering where we dispense with arguing the moral imperative of fewer cars and more trees, and instead get on with figuring out how to design the bright green future for our growing cities. It’s beyond anger, done with denial, and waist-deep into acceptance. And at this panel, we were accepting that human-caused climate instability has arrived, and making it better is both the right thing to do and a huge business opportunity.

Norton described her company’s efforts to innovate solar for short-term thinking. Right now, solar energy pays for itself in about 10 to 12 years, she said, but most companies want to see payback on their investment in three to four. “We’re working now toward sub-five years” on returns, said Norton, because businesses just won’t accept anything longer.

Campbell’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered vision of future automobiles was persuasive. Zero emissions, 50 to 60 percent energy-efficient (compared to about 15 percent for current combustion engines), fewer moving parts and thus more reliable, low noise and vibration, just “more fun to drive.” By the time he got to “packaging flexibility,” describing how fuel cells will drive the “reinvention of how you design and build a car” by doing away with those heavy piston engines, even I was excited, and I haven’t owned a car since 1988.

“The fuel cell will be the auto engine of the 21st century,” he said. Driving factors include air pollution, especially in China, where the ongoing rise of a massive personal-car market may lead to an overwhelming public-health crisis, the costs of global climate change, saving a long-term oil supply for vital uses (one word: plastics), and “energy independence.” Neocons recently made headlines for their “unusual alliance” with environmentalists on hybrid cars as a vital part of national security policy, but clearly companies like Ballard have been biding their time until public discourse caught up with their pragmatic, long-term strategy.

And that’s OK. Some places need fewer cars, no doubt about it — as moderator Gupta noted, development needs to be “multi-modal,” including better high-density community design, better mass transit, and hybrids as a bridge technology to clean fuels. But Antarctica is melting. A few committed souls like me might be willing to get by with bikes, feet, and borrowed cars to keep it covered in ice (it helps to like living in cities with lots of buses and trains, like Portland, Ore., and New York City), but there’s no end in sight to humanity’s love affair with the personal automobile.

The obvious questions arose quickly in the Q&A with the audience: How will we bring government policy and development subsidies around to supporting alternative energy? And how will we produce that hydrogen without more emissions and energy use than we save with fuel cells? No one had a good answer about policy (Gupta deferring to his guests here) — they keep lobbying and advocating, and hope the voting public will do the same. “The consumer is the crux,” said VanderPas; if there’s demand and a willingness to change, the technologies will come that much faster.

The possible answers to making hydrogen won’t be comforting to a lot of us — Campbell described a combination of nuclear and alternative energies as the wave of the future, and no one on the panel seemed to disagree.

But he voiced that optimism again: “Put a lot of bright people on a problem like this, and I think we’ll be surprised at the innovations that result.” Everyone agreed. The session ended, and I went to get more coffee.