As the clean technology industry moves to burnish its image as viable and worthy of investment, a new push for “clean web” – innovations that fuse clean tech with information technology – may provide a needed boost to the industry overall.
Sunil Paul, a founding partner with Spring Ventures and a “high priest of clean web,” defined clean web as the marriage of the clean tech community of investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers and others with information technology. Paul spoke on a panel at the recent Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.
During the last decade, said Paul, the $1 trillion that has been invested in clean technology has benefited solar and wind technology, but at the same time, information technology has taken off in an unprecedented way. In those 10 years, said Paul, smart phones and access to the Internet have both become fairly standard, and social media technology has become a key platform for establishing trust and relationships. The clean web is built on these foundations, and can accelerate acceptance of clean technology by reducing the so-called “soft costs” of capital-intensive industries like solar, promoting the notion of buying a resource cloud service rather than products, and providing greater efficiency with mass quantities of data.
“The resource cloud is one of the biggest head-turners in clean web,” said Paul.
The idea behind the resource cloud in clean web is that services such as Airbnb, in which travelers use the Internet and social media to find accommodations in a spare bedroom, apartment or house compete directly with hotels.
“It turns out staying in someone’s home is about one-third the carbon footprint of staying in a hotel,” said Paul. “Instead of new capacity, new cars, new hotels, new restaurants, or any kind of product that we think about, [clean web is about] how can it be turned into a service, especially a service that takes advantage of existing spare capacity.”
“The greenest hotel is one you’d never build.”
He also noted that Airbnb is three years old and its bookings are already on par with the largest hotel in the U.S, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
Big data, another leg of the clean web stool, refers to building connective tissue between utilities and the massive amount of individual energy use data they have, and companies that provide products and services into homes.
Cameron Brooks, a senior director of policy strategy at Tendril, an energy platform company that works with the utility industry to manage demand for data, said there were numerous barriers that have kept software application developers from accessing energy data and coming up with solutions. Currently, Brooks said his work is focused on the basic issue of getting consumers access to their own energy information in a useful form. He compared the information available on most utilities’ websites about consumers’ usage to “eight-track tapes that aren’t helpful.”
As a way to overcome the barrier to getting data to developers, clean web groups have sponsored clean web “hackathons” in which fresh-out-of-college developers are given 36 hours and unlimited amounts of beer, pizza and Red Bull to produce code that tackles an efficiency problem. The measures of success, said Paul, are whether the end product is “useful and cool,” and whether it works.
Hackathons have taken place in New York, San Francisco and London and have produced winning applications such as an app that allows consumers to compare appliances online and give various products from different stores simple star ratings. Another winner was a solar calculator that helped property owners determine the calculus of solar panels on their properties.
“We wanted to illustrate that one of the principle advantages of clean web is speed,” said Paul. “It takes 36 hours to get something working. That is possible in clean web – not 36 months or, God forbid, 36 years in some cases.”
The hackathons raise awareness of clean web on social media, pointed out Greg Neichin, an executive vice president with CleanTech Group, and help develop technologies that influence consumers at the point of purchase, which is a critical point in influencing energy efficiency.
Indeed, Saul Griffith, an inventor who gave a separate keynote speech at the conference, noted that influencing big ticket items that people buy in their lives, such as cars, appliances, and furniture is the best way to impact energy use in ways that decrease carbon output by two, three or four times. He said that minor behavioral changes will only lead to a two or three percent reduction in energy consumption.
For instance, Griffith in 2008 measured everything in his life in order to get a sense of his output, and discovered that he could change some of the wood in his house to bamboo and make a 5% difference in the amount of energy he used. But another change he made, buying a home less than a mile from his office, changed his output dramatically.
Other changes he calculated would significantly reduce his energy consumption include: reading newspapers on a kindle rather than having them delivered, substituting flying for video conferencing whenever possible and buying high quality everyday products, such as watches and pens, rather than cheaper ones that need to be replaced often.