Recapping the Debate Over Whether Low-Carbon Economies Are Good for Tech

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Courtesy of Antea Group - USA

To be of any use, tech products need power from electrical outlets, stored chemical energy such as batteries and generators, solar collectors, kinetic energy like my emergency hand-crank radio/charger, or other means. As more global and local regions move away from fossil-fuel-based power to low-carbon renewable power, I wonder how my colleagues in the tech industry would weigh in on a debate about whether the low-carbon economy is good or bad for the tech industry.

Fleeing from Carbon

This month (June 2016) alone I learned about several U.S. state and municipal economies leaving carbon-based power generation behind:

  • Massachusetts was rated first among all states for energy efficiency 4 years in a row -- with plans to close the state’s last coal plant in 2017.
  • Kauai County in Hawaii increased renewable energy on the grid from 9% to nearly 40% in only five years, and will accelerate to 100% based on approved and in-progress new solar with storage, hydro, and biomass projects.
  • San Diego, California with its population 1.4 million is so far the most populous U.S. city to set a 100% clean-energy goal. Its bipartisan-supported climate action plan is legally binding.
  • Greensburg, Kansas with its population of 777 is the smallest U.S. city to set a 100% clean-energy goal.

The list of international economies that have reached or soon will reach 100% renewable energy is too long to include here, but I’ll offer these highlights:

  • Denmark’s goal is 100% renewable power and heat by 2035, and 100% renewable energy in all sectors by 2050.
  • Aruba, an island off the Venezuelan coast, committed to reach 100% renewable energy by 2020, leveraging existing wind, solar, and biomass generation as well as researching ocean thermal energy conversion, geothermal power, and energy storage technologies.
  • The German village Großbardorf has already achieved 100% Renewable Energy, and is working toward generating 400% of the village’s power need through renewables through a biogas plant and rooftop and larger-scale solar collectors.

Tech, Carbon, and Renewables

The question is, are these low-carbon economies good or bad for the technology industry? Let the debate begin.

Arguments for “Bad for the Tech Industry” may include:

  • The tech industry grew quite impressively decade over decade when “on” meant burning carbon.
  • Hydrocarbon industries – coal, oil, and gas – buy a lot of electronics.
  • Given the variability of supply from solar, wind, and wave power, one worries that switching electronics “on” may not always result in “on.”

Now for Some Arguments for “Good for the Tech Industry”:

  • Electronic products fuel low-carbon technologies, from controllers to sensors to monitors to Teslas.
  • Proliferating data centers are becoming too costly to run on carbon power considering the inherently limited amount of carbon, plus the rapidly declining costs of renewables.
  • The cleantech sector is growing wildly faster than the fossil-fuel industry.

It’s the Strategy

The debate can rage on, but it comes down to strategy. Electronics industry executives can note the unidirectional move to low-carbon and ignore it (business as usual), flow with it (put solar panels on the company’s roof), or proactively capture business by creatively enabling low-carbon economies faster and better than has the competition.

Their call to action is to tackle the variability of solar, wind, and wave power; invent even-distribution models for renewables; discover ways to drop the cost of renewables even faster than they’re falling; and innovate local generation-to-use systems. Market these solutions in every region that’s racing to reduce carbon, which will soon be everywhere, and embed eco-design principles into all of your company’s products, services, and operations to stand proudly as a microcosm of the low-carbon economy.

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