A New Definition of ‘Clean’

Comparative subsidy amounts for different fuel types (U.S. 2012)
From: GOOD magazine & DeepLocal via sunrunhome.com

Just a few years ago, investing in ‘clean’ energy meant investing in energy alternatives to traditional fossil-based fuels in an attempt to move overall consumption away from fuels we know to be harmful to the environment and climate. This usually meant investment in energy sources that are renewable: wind, biofuels, solar, etc. But a wholescale transition from fossil fuels (and nuclear energy) hasn’t proven as easy – and more importantly, not as lucrative – as hoped or expected.

In North America, energy investors are increasingly turning away from renewables and towards what are called ‘clean’ alternatives. ‘Clean’ in this context is generally understood to mean less dirty extraction or firing technology for oil and gas resources. That the end products – fossil-based fuels – will still be the result from cleaner means of exploitation has led only a handful of capital companies to shy away from this type of investment strategy. Ditto for cleaner methods of extracting the energy from coal. “Coal-direct chemical looping,” for example, releases heat from coal without burning it, thus avoiding greenhouse gas release – but still relies on getting the coal in the first place. And getting coal, by and large, is still one of the dirtiest jobs on the planet, polluting air, soil and water in the process.

It’s probably no coincidence that the countries and companies driving this new ‘cleantech’ investment are the ones with some the world’s largest coal and oil reserves: USA, China, Russia, India, Germany. Looking at a key global assessment of cleantech investments (‘Coming Clean – The Global Cleantech Innovation Index 2012, a report jointly published by the Cleantech Group and WWF), so-called ‘clean’ investment in traditional fuel technologies isn’t listed. Comparing this kind of investment with investment in renewables and clean infrastructure is not straightforward.

One example of this transition is cited in a recent Associated Press article. In 2007, Liquid Robotics, a California-based ocean data company, began developing a seagoing drone that required no fuel. The original purpose of the technology was to transmit live songs of humpback whales over the Internet, and the company also has other clean robotic technologies developed for tracking fish and other marine life as well as providing hurricane and tsunami data. Alan Salzman, CEO of VantagePoint, a high-profile venture capital company that specializes in cleantech investment, learned about the technology. He helped form a partnership between Liquid Robotics and another company that was interested in the drones, Schlumberger, an oil and gas drilling services company.

In a new joint venture, Liquid Robotics drones will help ensure that areas being searched for oil are whale-free. It’s certainly every company’s right to try and develop its earning capacities in any (legal) way they see fit. Thus, drones that started with a focus on gathering environmental data for meteorological conservation purposes will also help locate deposits of oil and gas, as well as detect leaks from drilling operations. Both Salzman and the Vice President of Technology at Schlumberger, Ashok Belani, now sit on the Liquid Robotics Board of Directors.

The AP article offers a succinct quote: “We are not philosophical purists,” Salzman says. “We’re investors.”


Associated Press article by Jonathan Fahey – ‘Drilling is new focus for clean energy investors’

The Week article by Carmel Lobello – The World’s Top 7 Coal Countries

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