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An ecosystem of ideas at the Clean-Tech Summit

January 24, 2009 | 10:00 am

At the annual Clean-Tech Investor Summit in Indian Wells this week, finance, science and imagination mingled, with the aim of fostering industries that preserve the planet. The gathering was produced by Ron Pernick of Clean Edge consultants and Craig Simak of the International Business Forum, and chaired by venture investor Ira Ehrenpreis of Technology Partners.

Times staff writer Edward Silver filed this report on some of the ideas offered by conference speakers, each an innovator in sustainability:

A long road

During a discussion of the roadmap for electric vehicles, Britta Gross, manager of hydrogen and electric infrastructure for General Motors, spoke of the challenge to succeed with the upcoming Volt car along with the rest of the company’s EV agenda.

Volt Producing a quality electric car, she said, isn’t enough to win hearts and minds. To begin with, you need effective charging systems and smart public policy. Suddenly you’re also up against cheaper gasoline.

I got the sense that Gross feels she’s in a bind, and not just because of GM’s financial straits. If there’s no mechanism but the marketplace at work, the entrenched advantages of the petro-driven status quo -- cost, familiarity, convenience -- will be difficult to overcome.

Jason Wolf of Better Place offered his view of the solution, or at least a piece of it. His Palo Alto company proposes to own the EV battery, taking a big chunk out of the price of the car. That becomes a subscription fee instead. The motorist pays to use the battery, rejuicing it at perhaps one-day-ubiquitous Better Place charging stations. During a trip longer than 100 miles, you swap it out for a fresh one. Said Wolf: "We enable mass adoption." . . . .

Investing in natural selection

Janine Benyus, an eloquent proponent of "biomimicry," was billed as the inspirational speaker of the day, and she delivered. Benyus came to tell the venture investors that plants and creatures that live well on very little are inspiring product design. Think about it, she said -- life on Earth, guided by natural selection, put in 3.8 billion years of R&D before humans even started tinkering.

Bioguild_2 Her presentation brought to light emerging companies that study the quiet, efficient, low-impact processes of nature and adapt them for industry and sustainability. Among them is Aquaporin of Denmark, whose pure-water technology was modeled on the workings of kidneys and blood cells. Another, Canada’s Regen Energy, based its approach on the teamwork observed in bee colonies: With its software and devices, energy-hogging machines within a building can coordinate, and cut, their consumption -- a smart grid on a small scale.

Benyus has more credits than can be counted in a blog, but if you’re interested, visit the websites of her consulting firm, the Biomimicry Guild, and the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute. She and Paul Hawken, the entrepreneur and noted author of "Natural Capitalism," recently launched the Biomimicry Venture Group, presumably to fund these ideas.

Liquidity crisis

Water and fossil fuels have more in common than we’d like to think. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, noted that they permeate the ways we make things and consume things. But growing long-term demand and competition for both threaten us with scarcity and environmental harm.

Calaqueduct_2 America’s massive Ogallala acquifer is one among many sources feeling the pressure. Overpumping, Gleick warned, will raise the cost of tapping groundwater, and some sites around the globe could run dry. We see something like that in the diminishing returns from mature oil fields like Mexico’s Cantarell. Climate change jeopardizes water supplies, too. But few resource planners have worked that into their models for the future.

Gleick also pointed to vital differences between these resources: Oil is much more valuable in dollars and cents. Yet we have substitutes for oil, however imperfect, and if push comes to shove, we could live without it. For water, there are none, and we can’t.

Gleick told his audience that China has banned new operations in water-intensive industries around parched Beijing. If the wet stuff becomes dear, businesses like semiconductors and agriculture will feel it, while conservation technology and desalination could catch the wave.

Top photo: Chevy Volt. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

Bottom photo: The California Aqueduct. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times