Business and Global Warming

The main theme of this column is business opportunities brought on by global warming/climate change and our efforts to prevent increasingly destructive global warming by greatly reducing CO2 emissions. Climate trends, demographic trends, environmental trends, and some technology trends can be extrapolated into the near future to provide a framework for business opportunities.

I assume that until 2020 the world's countries will not abate their CO2 emissions very much so that we can expect ten more years of global warming similar to or worse than the previous decade when the world probably had its hottest years in mankind's history. I feel that this assumption of very little CO2 abatement in the short term is to be expected given the great political difficulty the U.S. Congress has at present in passing even a mild climate bill such as ACESA, the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

To support this assumption, let us look at the U.S. CO2 emission numbers. The U.S. DEP projects that renewable energy technologies will be only 13% of total electric energy by 2030. Even if ACESA passes the Senate intact, our CO2 emissions will be about 6.4-billion metric tons in 2030 compared to 6.0-billion metric tons in 2008 according to the March '09 DOE projections. Europe's projected increase is quite small but the rest of the world continues to increase its CO2 emissions rapidly so that the total world emissions are projected to go from 29-billions tons of CO2 in 2006 to 41-billion tons in 2030 (this includes energy-related CO2 and cement manufacture but not deforestation).

This means that the actual CO2 levels in the atmosphere will continue to increase faster and faster! Therefore the danger grows that positive feedback mechanisms will take over and produce extremely high CO2 levels that will be very hard to reduce.

Expect panic to set in about the year 2020 as glaciers melt ever faster, oceans continue to rise, southwestern US and southern Europe get hotter and dryer, tropical diseases spread into rich, developed countries, and scientists, politicians, and leaders everywhere raise their voices in dismay! Imagine the opportunities in air conditioning and highly efficient irrigation techniques and technologies!

By this time oil prices will be extremely high even as the auto industry scrambles hard to limit gasoline use. High prices directly result from the difficulty oil companies will have of increasing their oil production in the face of greatly increased demand from the developing world, especially China and India. High oil prices tend to greatly dampen economic growth throughout the world, therefore automatically reducing oil use.

High oil prices also encourage oil companies to explore ever more difficult environments, deeper waters off shore, and harsher arctic territories. This opens business opportunities in drilling equipment and pipe-related metallurgy, among the myriad technologies used for oil exploration and production. New business opportunities opened up by high gasoline costs will expand in areas like carpooling taxis and minibus-based on-demand urban transportation.

Companies involved in renewable energy will thrive including construction and energy distribution industries. These include companies involved in wind and water turbines, wave-energy, tidal energy, hydroelectric, photovoltaic and solar-thermal energy. Electric car manufacturers and their suppliers (batteries, electric motors, and associated electronics) will thrive. New servicing businesses for alternate energy will develop and thrive, as well.

Because I expect plug-in electric cars and hybrids will proliferate, the need for recharging stations throughout our highway system and at workplace parking lots will spawn new recharging businesses. These could be in the form of fully-charged battery rentals or electric outlets and cables for a 30-to 60-minute recharge. Food and entertainment might be natural fits for such recharge stopping places.

The energy storage density of Li-ion batteries increases 8% per year, according to Tesla Motors, an electric-car company in California. Reducing the cost and weight of batteries for electric and plug-in hybrid cars is a key to this industry. This brings up the great need for more engineers including material engineers, industrial and production engineers, electrical engineers, and chemical engineers.

What about solar power? President Obama has said that he wants to make the United States "the world's leading exporter of renewable energy." However, it seems that China also wants to become the dominant manufacturer of solar panels and wants to have plants in the United States. An important cost factor in solar-voltaic power is the photovoltaic cell itself. Its energy efficiency must go up and its cost of production must come down. Engineering may be the key. It certainly is troubling that China and India graduate far more engineers per year than the United States.

Engineering education is certainly not a new business, but business opportunities for on-line education and re-education may well be important in the near future. Right now, immigrants are a vital factor in our engineering supply including college teachers. We must expand our engineering base in alternate-energy technologies if we expect to be a leading business player in this vital field.

Chinese companies have already played a leading role in pushing down the price of solar panels by almost half over the last year. Dr. Shi Zhengrong, the chief executive and founder of China's biggest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, said in an interview that Suntech, to build market share, is selling solar panels on the American market for less than the cost of the materials, assembly, and shipping according to an article in the New York Times recently.

Chinese companies are tough competitors. They have considerable government money, cheap labor, and large numbers of inexpensive young engineers to design and develop products. The Chinese are preparing to build plants to assemble their products in the United States (from parts made in China) to bypass protectionist legislation.

Since March, Chinese governments at the national, provincial, and even local level have been competing with one another to offer solar companies ever more generous subsidies, including free land, and cash for research and development. State-owned banks are flooding the industry with loans at considerably lower interest rates than available in Europe or the United States. For example, Suntech, based in Wuxi, China, is on track this year to pass Q-Cells of Germany, to become the world's second-largest supplier of photovoltaic cells, which would put it behind only First Solar in Tempe, Arizona, according to the New York Times.

"I don't see Europe or the United States becoming major producers of solar products — they'll be consumers," said Thomas M. Zarrella, the chief executive of GT Solar International, a company in Merrimack, N.H., that sells specialized factory equipment to solar panel makers around the world. Is this a foregone conclusion? I don't think so because First Solar, in Tempe, Arizona, already the largest solar-panel manufacturer, is expanding its business into China!

Importantly for American solar companies, Chinese government officials signed an agreement on 8 September 2009 with First Solar for a 2-gigawatt photovoltaic power plant in the Mongolian desert to be completed in 2019. It will be the world's largest photovoltaic power plant project to date, and is part of a 12-gigawatt renewable-energy park planned for Ordos City in Inner Mongolia. The memorandum of understanding between Chinese officials and First Solar would open a potentially vast solar market in China and follows the Chinese government's recent moves to accelerate development of renewable energy.

Financial terms of the agreement have yet to be reached and will depend on China completing a feed-in tariff that pays a premium for electricity generated by renewable energy projects. First Solar said the 2,000-megawatt power plant would cost $5 billion to $6 billion if built in the United States today, but it said the cost to build such a project in China would probably be lower. The company also has agreed to supply two California utilities with 1,100 megawatts of electricity from three big solar farms in Arizona.

Most proposed large-scale solar projects use solar thermal technology, which use mirrors to heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. But as photovoltaic technology becomes more cost-competitive, utilities are turning to companies like First Solar for big solar-voltaic power farms. Such projects generally have fewer environmental impacts and can be brought online faster than solar thermal plants.

China's commitment to solar energy is unlikely to make a difference soon to global warming, however. China's energy consumption is growing faster than any other country's, though the United States consumes more today. Beijing's aim is to generate 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, or less than half the capacity of coal-fired power plants that are built in China each year! So despite the headlines that Chinese solar and wind power get, Chinese coal use continues to spew out CO2 and increase the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Because warmer weather, especially warmer winters will aid the spread of insects northward in the United States, as we already see with bark beetles in the Rockies, entomological research and expertise will be in great demand. Educational institutions specializing in insect life will find the need to expand. Ecological studies, including marine biology and insect repellents and poisons, will be in great demand as well.

Pharmaceutical companies will have to expand, I believe, to handle tropical diseases, especially malaria. The probable expansion of malaria world-wide presents many business opportunities in mosquito control, health clinics, and education.

Business opportunities in scientific agriculture are manifold. Agricultural expertise will be in great demand including genetic engineering for more heat-tolerant food crops and forest trees. It will be needed for algae-derived diesel and aircraft fuel as well.

Biologically derived fuel, especially for airplanes, would be good if it could be produced without using much arable land and energy. A possibility is so-called vertical farming where multistory greenhouses with small footprints are developed to grow crops, or perhaps algae. In any event, international businesses will continue their trend to limit airplane travel resulting in a great need for much better business conference technology such as wide-bandwidth online television.

There are demographic trends that must be noted: world population is moving to 9 billion by 2050; retired, older people are dominating many countries. This latter trend will greatly affect health care and nursing homes. An older population reduces labor productivity and introduces a much greater need for robots. Robot development requires high technology with dedicated scientists and engineers. Japan has been a leader in this field but the United States should expand in this business area. We have excellent university research in robots.

Huge populations make for huge debits on the earth's resources, thus recycling grows in importance. There are good business opportunities in clever packaging to make recycling easier and clever engineering designs to allow complex equipment to be taken apart for easy recycle. New uses for recycled materials need to be found and become possible new business areas.

In the US we have to be more aware that coastal regions will have more flooding and more damage will be done to roads and bridges. The combination of higher oceans and more intense storms will slowly but surely mean a lot of money will be spent on construction and repair of infrastructure and buildings along river and ocean shores throughout the world. Unless the public voluntarily leaves potential flood zones or is forced to by government decree, there will be great opportunities in levee construction. Even the moving van business will expand!

The U.S. is a nation of waste. Fixing that state of affairs will provide jobs, possible new technology, new businesses, and lots of usable energy and materials. Energy conservation is a fruitful field for new business; it is a fruitful area internal to every business, and also for practical products to sell externally. Businesses have been saving energy and money through energy conservation in their processes for years. New technology that is constantly being developed allows continuing energy conservation improvements into the future.

 Phil Eisner writes about environmental issues.  He is a resident of Summit, NJ.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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