Business & Technology

Eco:nomics: Fail

Conference treats press like crap; treats CEOs like butt buddies; doesn't give me a beer

I've been thinking a bit about how to get another post or two out of the Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference. But you know what? The Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference can blow me. I've never been to a conference where the press was more walled off. And this was a conference by a media company! First off, laptops weren't allowed in the main presentation room -- too "distracting." (Who's distracted by a guy with a laptop in the back of the room?) So there was no way to post real-time updates from the main room. That meant we were stuck down in the press room, watching the conference on TV. To boot, the press wasn't allowed in the lunch roundtables. Or the cocktail reception before dinner. Or the dinner. Or the "cordials" after dinner. Or the breakfast roundtables the following day. Practically speaking, this all but precluded press from having unscripted encounters with conference participants and speakers -- always the best parts of these conferences. We were at least fed dinner, but -- and this was the unkindest cut of all -- no alcohol. You don't deny journalists their booze! You just don't. So basically, press got to watch the thing on TV in a dry basement room. Perhaps if the conference sessions had been scintillating -- or at least as entertaining as last year, when none of these press restrictions were in effect -- it would have been all right. But frankly, the conference was boring, wonky, and flat. Corporate PR was dutifully delivered by folks like Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Duke CEO Jim Rogers, in the face of questioning that could charitably be described as friendly. Gore delivered his usual shtick. Inane cranks like Bjorn Lomborg and Vaclav Klaus delivered their usual shtick. And so on. So I could squeeze another post out if I tried, give the thing a little more publicity, but I never got my beer, so eff it. I already tweeted that b*tch anyway.

Ford inFusion

Ford starts marketing campaign to emphasize fuel economy in new hybrid

During American Idol Tuesday evening, Ford launched the “We Speak Car” marketing campaign to sell the 2010 Fusion and Fusion Hybrid. The ads tout the Fusion Hybrid as “America’s most fuel efficient mid-size sedan,” which …

'We can't do this anymore'

A one-time cheerleader for hyper-consumerism lays down his pom-pom

Thomas Friedman : We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...We can't do this anymore.

Capture the eco flag

The specs and the dish on the 2010 third generation Prius

UPDATE: This story was changed to reflect updated EPA mileage estimates. Photo courtesy of Toyota. Toyota’s newest hybrid is almost here. Last week, the car company invited a group of journalists and bloggers to the …

Eco:nomics: green color blindness

In the face of all evidence, some folks just can't see green as anything but a cost

It's always difficult to write (non-boring) posts on conferences. People come on stage, discuss wonky issues, and leave. There's rarely any "news." If people really wanted to hear my running commentary, they would do what With-It People do and follow my tweets. So, just a broad observation on today's events. One of the earliest sessions of the day was Bjorn Lomborg, delivering his increasingly ridiculous message that we have to prioritize social spending (banal) and that spending to avert climate change just doesn't pass the cost-benefit analysis test (absurd). Underlying Lomborg's nonsense is an assumption so common (in some circles) that it scarcely seems worth stating explicitly, much less defending: that reducing emissions is all about immediate economic costs and nebulous, distant social benefits. The question is always, do the nebulous distant benefits justify the immediate economic costs? This mindset informed virtually all the questions the moderators asked (with the exception of Jeffrey Ball, who's very sharp). With every business or policy proposal, it was, what about the cost? Will people pay the cost? Can we afford the cost during a recession? The one-track-mindedness reached comic proportions a few times. Right after Lomborg, architect William McDonough came out, told a few stories of saving companies millions of dollars, then built his way in a poetic reverie on buildings that could be like trees, fecund and regenerative. WSJ's Kimberly Strassel paused, and then, I kid you not: "But what about the cost?" Jaybus. I mean, A, how about having more than one thought, and B, he just told you he saved these companies millions of dollars. S-A-V-E-D. That like ... un-cost. When WSJ's Alan Murray was interviewing Amory Lovins, he just kept repeating incredulously, "but what about the trade-offs?" "Trade-off" is code for the notion that any environmental improvement comes at economic expense. Lovins, meanwhile, was talking about building super-efficient buildings at under average cost. He was repeating, as he has so many times, that saving energy (and cutting emissions) is cheaper than buying it. I don't know why people who were cheerleaders for an utterly pointless $3 trillion war and hundreds of billions of dollars of Wall Street bailouts suddenly become obsessive-compulsive bean counters when it comes to, oh, improving public health or saving our grandchildren from untold misery, but if you're going to count the beans, count the fracking beans. This is the second year I've been at this conference. CEO after CEO talks about making big investments and getting even bigger returns. I have not seen or met a single businessperson who has done this stuff and says anything but, "I'm glad we did it, it paid off bigger than we thought it would, it energized my employees, it absolutely makes business sense." The only people I've seen say anything negative about greening efforts are people like Michael Morris who have resisted making them. Why, in the face of this torrent of evidence, do some folks fail to see the profitable emission reduction strategies in front of them? Lovins later asked Gore, somewhat plaintively, "how can we change the conversation from sacrifices and costs to opportunities, jobs, and savings?" I wish I knew. It's a peculiar sort of malady, like color blindness or something.

Eco:nomics: Mulally tales

Ford Motor Co. CEO says everything's going to be juuust fine

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally. The kick-off discussion here at Eco:nomics was with Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally. (Which you'd know if you were following my tweeteriffic tweets!) Last year's kick-off session was with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who was 50 percent drunk and 100 percent entertaining -- frank, blunt, and occasionally profane. The contrast this time around could not have been more stark. Mulally, looking like Mr. Rogers in his sleeveless red sweater vest, murmured the corporate line in soothing tones, assuring us all that Ford is great, its new goal is to make great cars that get greater every year, and that the future is great, also filled with greatness. He's got that lilting PR voice that releases your endorphins, but afterwards you can't remember a thing he said, except about how everything is great. For instance, he answered a question about California's fuel efficiency waiver with a torrent of won't-you-be-my-neighbor filler that you had to concentrate on really hard to realize that he, just like the other Big Auto executives, opposes granting it. The answer, basically, was "we don't want to have to make make cars to meet two standards, even though we're already making our cars more fuel efficient every year." Well, why not make them fuel efficient enough to meet the stronger standard? Then you only have to meet one. Nothing Mulally said would begin to explain why Ford's valuation is tanking. Talking about the future, it was clear that although Mulally sees some ethanol and electric cars in the mix, his true love and focus is the internal combustion engine, which he said Ford engineers could improve by 20-30 percent efficiency. He said ICEs will be the dominant vehicle technology for at least the next 10-15 years. Compact disc manufacturers are probably saying the same thing. A couple of notable moments from the audience Q&A: T. Boone Pickens got up and asked him about making cars that run on natural gas -- for "energy independence," you know. Mulally was polite, but basically said, um, no. That's dumb fracking idea and nobody wants those cars. It was pretty hilarious. Another man got up and said that Ford had basically lost his whole generation. Mulally said, "I want to come up to your room later." I know the car companies are desperate, but I didn't know their executive were literally prostituting themselves! Anyway, it was largely a nothingburger with happy talk sauce. Pretty much what you'd expect from an American auto company. Meanwhile, later in the evening I ran into Bill Gross of IdeaLab, who took me out to the parking lot to show me this: That's the Aptera, a safety tested, super streamlined, fully electric two-seater, made entirely of carbon fiber, with a 100-mile range. (Tons more pictures here.) It will soon be available in California for $30,000. It's what car companies make when they're innovating instead of lobbying.

Notable quotable

Sierra Club partners up to make green … luggage?

"We look forward to increasing the presence of eco-friendly travel and accessories in the luggage and travel industries." -- Johanna O'Kelley, director of licensing for the Sierra Club, on the organization's new partnership with Ricardo Beverly Hills


Your intrepid blogger heads to yet another green conference; promises to twitter some tweets

I'm at the airport, getting ready to head out to Santa Barbara for the second annual Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference. (Yes, flying on planes makes me a big fat hypocrite earthf*cker -- I eagerly await my NYT profile.) The WSJ conference is interesting, mainly due to the contrasting influences of the top-notch WSJ news team and the WSJ editorial board, world headquarters for unrepentant far-right fruitcakes. So you get Al Gore and Amory Lovins, but then you also get Bjorn Lomborg and Vaclav Klaus. (Klaus gets the last word, with his session titled "Global Reality Check: From Europe to China to the U.S., how realistic is a big green push amid an imploding economy?" Anybody care to guess his answer in advance?) In between you have an interesting mix of truly innovative and green-minded business leaders and ... business leaders primarily concerned with positioning themselves to profit from whatever happens next. Thus you get sessions like the hilariously titled, "Power Play: What will keep the lights on: nuclear energy or 'clean coal'?" Whee! The really big news here -- and you'll want to notify all your friends and family about this ASAP -- is that I'll be twittering from the conference. OMG! you say. OMFG! you add. Yes, it's true. I'll be delving into the brave new world of 2008, because clearly the main flaws of blogging are its excessive length, depth, and grammatical exactitude! I don't even know enough about Twitter to tell you how to follow my twittering. But if you happen to know how, it's all going on under the name david_h_roberts. Again: david_h_roberts. Feel the Future! [Note from more tech-savvy editor: David's Twitter feed is here. And right below.]

A concentrating solar breakthrough

Sheer number of solar advancements suggests that cheap solar electricity is coming soon

Concentrating solar power is a well-known approach to lowering the cost of solar electricity. You focus sunlight from a large area onto a small one, the same way a magnifying glass can set a piece of newspaper on fire, using one small, high-quality solar cell and a concentrator for a lower total cost than hundreds of slightly cheaper cells. (Or you can use the concentrated heat to drive a heat engine, but not in the example we are about to discuss.) Morgan Solar has a smart variation on this under development. They start with a clever acrylic concentrator that uses pure optical guiding to concentrate solar energy about 50 times, around the same results as a Fresnel lens, but without the need for curves or a non-zero focus. This already moderately concentrated solar is then concentrated further by a much smaller glass concentrator that also needs no air gap. Because neither concentrator requires an air gap, a tiny solar cell is attached directly to the glass. So you have an eight-inch acrylic concentrator, a glass concentrator the size of an American nickel, and a solar cell the size of a baby's thumbnail.

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