Monday, March 10, 2008

Earth: The Sequel - Book Review for Monday's Green Books

The new book, co-authored by Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, brings a fresh and well researched perspective on “the race to reinvent energy and stop global warming.” With it's focus on technology, innovation and all encompassing speculation, It's only fitting that the first interview to promote Earth: The Sequel was published in Wired magazine. On the other hand Red Herring might have been a likely candidate as well.

Earth: The Sequel is not only a primer on the various new technologies being developed to produce clean energy, reduce pollution and increase efficient energy use, but also a celebration of the spirit of entrepreneurship around these developments; a spirit embraced and promoted by EDF for several decades since its founding in 1967. Neither a textbook nor a scientific investigation, Earth: The Sequel is more than anything a journalistic journey that follows the unfolding saga of various energy start-ups and technologies through the shifting sands of venture capital, big $$$, crazy R&D dreams and policy nightmares.

Take for example Amyris Biotechnologies, a hot little California start-up with $70 million in recent round B funding in the bank, and a new CEO promising to “grow it into a $10 billion company in five years.” Building on a platform developed as post-grads in UC Berkeley, the leading scientist-founders of Amyris are developing a large scale yeast-based fermentation process that turns sugar into gasoline and diesel substitutes that contain more energy than ethanol. The promise? With the current controversy over the production of ethanol from food sources, Amyris' sugar cane based process will not only help keep food prices down, but will also bring about net carbon emission reduction, which is seven times that of corn ethanol. The process is not without potential controversy though as it is based on DNA manipulation, in which yeasts are programmed to ferment the fuels.

Thinking dot coms? The comparison is valid up to a point. As far as location, when it comes to bio-tech and solar it seems that California in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, are definitely the places to be. But while a dot com can arguably get to scale and market with an investment in the tens of millions, an energy start-up requires at least ten times that amount. Building a power plant based on totally new tech is often times the challenge.

That is where more traditional and conservative entities such as banks and utilities come into the picture. According to the authors, in order to enable the market to take the right course, that will enable investments, lending and collaboration on that scale for new energy technologies, policy must be put in place. They know exactly what that policy should be – carbon cap-and-trade, a system whereby emission levels are limited and regulated, and companies that achieve emission levels that are lower than the limit can sell their credits to companies which do not meet their quota. Such a system should put a tangible market price on carbon emissions and encourage innovation and investment in new processes and technologies. They cite the Clean Air Act of 1990 as a similar system that helped to decrease sulfur dioxide (the cause of acid rain) significantly:

Within five years, U.S utilities cut emissions 30 percent more than the law required, even while increasing electric generation from coal by 6.8 percent, and the U.S economy grew by a healthy 5.4 percent. Dire predictions that the program would eventually cost more than $6 billion a year proved wildly off base.”

I have to say I learned a lot reading this book. Never before did I find such a concise and simple guide to the vast maze of terms and technologies of clean energy. If you read this book you'll get a better understanding of the basic science, challenges, and achievements behind wave energy, geothermal energy, biofuel, clean coal, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technologies. You will also get to meet a wide and wild array of characters, the most memorable of these being Bernie Karl of
Chena Hot Springs Resort in Alaska.

Bernie Karl was crowned both as the mastermind of the dumbest business idea of the year (Forbes, 2004) for trying to build an ice palace that remains frozen year round (he succeeded on the third attempt), and is the person who single handedly reorganized and revitalized the geothermal industry. In Chena, 56 miles northeast of Fairbanks,
Alaska’s first geothermal plant is producing electricity from lower temperature water than any other plant in the world. Karl also plans a light show based on the Aurora Borealis but that's another story.

Another story waiting to be told is a global version of Earth: The Sequel, that will describe not only US based companies and policy points, but will also bring a wider perspective to international technological developments and companies, which are sometimes way ahead of their American counterparts.

Title: Earth: The Sequel

Authors: Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Publication Date: March 12, 2008

Pages: 256

Official Website:



Eco-Libris: Plant a tree for every book you read!