Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reading between the lines

Reading Thomas Friedman usually makes me mad. He seems like a futurist who's always trying to put the future back into the status quo box. Then patting himself on the back for being so prescient. And I've never quite forgiven him for coming to the conclusion that invading Iraq was a good idea either. Still he is a talented observer of what lies beneath current trends. His article from the Sunday New York Times had a lot to say to me between the lines.

Turns out the real story is this great website. Makes you feel better just browsing it.

Yes, They Could. So They Did.

Published: February 14, 2009

So I am attending the Energy and Resources Institute climate conference in New Delhi, and during the afternoon session two young American women — along with one of their mothers — proposition me.

“Hey, Mr. Friedman,” they say, “would you like to take a little spin around New Delhi in our car?”

Oh, I say, I’ve heard that line before. Ah, they say, but you haven’t seen this car before. It’s a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels — and the two young women, recent Yale grads, had just driven it all over India in a “climate caravan” to highlight the solutions to global warming being developed by Indian companies, communities, campuses and innovators, as well as to inspire others to take action.

>> This opening is perhaps to show that Mr. Friedman is feeling playful rather than pontifical-always a good sign- and willing to have the women with real vision show him a good time<<

They ask me if I want to drive, but I have visions of being stopped by the cops and ending up in a New Delhi jail. Not to worry, they tell me. Indian cops have been stopping them all across India. First, they ask to see driver’s licenses, then they inquire about how the green car’s solar roof manages to provide 10 percent of its mileage — and then they try to buy the car.

>>So did he take the wheel or not? I prefer to imagine him continuing his submissive role. Things usually work out better that way<<

We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see ... The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with ... new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters.

You couldn’t make this up.

>>Yes. So fortunately the ladies have pointed out a rather telling metaphor FOR YOU!<<

But trying to do something about it was just one of many reasons my hosts, Caroline Howe, 23, a mechanical engineer on leave from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Alexis Ringwald, a Fulbright scholar in India and now a solar entrepreneur, joined with Kartikeya Singh, who was starting the Indian Youth Climate Network, or IYCN, to connect young climate leaders in India, a country coming under increasing global pressure to manage its carbon footprint.

>>One despairs that these "hosts", expatriots themselves, have decided that it would be more fruitful to apply their energies in India rather than the US whose carbon footprint shadows the whole world. But put that aside for now. Enthusiasm like theirs is good for the world wherever it flourishes!<<

“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right now,” said Howe. “We wanted to find a way to bring people together around existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no time left to just talk about the problem.”

>>Of course here in the States we prefer to focus our discussion on whether or not the problem actually exists. No sense solving problems that aren't real. I'm beginning to see why you left!<<

Howe and Ringwald thought the best way to do that might be a climate solutions road tour, using modified electric cars from India’s Reva Electric Car Company, whose C.E.O. Ringwald knew. They persuaded him to donate three of his cars and to retrofit them with longer-life batteries that could travel 90 miles on a single six-hour charge — and to lay on a solar roof that would extend them farther.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, they drove the cars on a 2,100-mile trip from Chennai to New Delhi, stopping in 15 cities and dozens of villages, training Indian students to start their own climate action programs and filming 20 videos of India’s top home-grown energy innovations. They also brought along a solar-powered band, plus a luggage truck that ran on plant oil extracted from jatropha and pongamia, plants locally grown on wasteland. A Bollywood dance group joined at different stops and a Czech who learned about their trip on YouTube hopped on with his truck that ran on vegetable-oil waste.

>>We're still sort of looking at 2100 miles as a 3 day road trip and wondering if the minivan has enough cupholders. Better take the corporate jet! Imagine if GMs CEO had taken a Chevy Volt full of plans like this to the first bailout begfest. Things might have gone differently.<<

Deepa Gupta, 21, a co-founder of IYCN, told The Hindustan Times that the trip opened her eyes to just how many indigenous energy solutions were budding in India — “like organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticides, or the kind of recycling in slums, such as Dharavi. We saw things already in place, like the Gadhia solar plant in Valsad, Gujarat, where steam is used for cooking and you can feed almost 50,000 people in one go.” (See:

At Rajpipla, in Gujarat, when they stopped at a local prince’s palace to recharge their cars, they discovered that his business was cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

>>The skeptical me wonders if maybe the prince's palace was the only place with a dependable 24/7 flow of electric current. Here in the US we all live like princes in that regard. But I shouldn't let that overshadow the fact that these other projects are the real heart of change. Not everyone on the planet is obsessed with maintaining their personal transportation.<<

I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

>>Perhaps because at a visceral level they realize that government will always be hopelessly behind the curve and too slow to react to the challenges that we now face. Imprisoned by what is politically possible. No use waiting for them, let's get on with it.<<

“Why did this tour happen?” asked Ringwald. “Why this mad, insane plan to travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha trucks with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions? Well ... the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”

>>Well young ladies, here at home we just aren't convinced we need that kind of crazy thinking! We can just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. After all, it's worked quite well for the past 150 years or so thank you very much! If you must change the world make it the "developing world" if you please. We're happy the way we are ......... for now.<<

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sitting on top of the world

Over the last weekend I needed a pickup truck. A large pile of brush had to be hauled out of my driveway and my daughter had purchased a new bed which was located about 20 miles away. I called my friends at Enterprise and asked them to fix me up. I had no idea what they were going to come up with. When I arrived there was the latest edition of Toyota's Tundra with 4 doors and a V8. The very vehicle that I suspect has driven them to their first operating loss as a corporation; ironically while they climbed over GM as the world's largest automaker for the first time. In large part this is the vehicle that has brought them both places.

For years Toyota has been making slow progress into the large truck market, the one US segment that they had not conquered. For the past several years the full size pickups from Ford and Chevy were not only their most profitable vehicles but also their most popular, outselling Camrys and Corollas year after year. This was not lost on Toyota though their small pickups were no match and could not lure away the lion's share of sales. The Tundra was introduced in the early 90's but with V6 power and no track record was a weak competitor. In the last 5 years Toyota has spent billions on developing what amounts to an F150 clone, even spending millions in NASCAR truck racing to prove it's worth. Their efforts paid off and the sales of their big trucks began to really take a bite out of American truck sales in the last couple of years. Then of course disaster struck for everyone, the only difference being that Toyota had plenty of credible product to fall back on and the Big Three did not. Not that anyone has been buying automotive product of any sort lately.

I'd forgotten how comfortable a ride these big trucks can be. The ride was cushy on those big truck tires, even with 19th century cart springs at the rear and an empty bed. The interior was a vast expanse of silver and black plastic and the amenities of the hour, namely 8 well labeled cup holders (including six labeled for "capped bottles" or cans only!) and a way to jack your MP3 player into the powerful sound system that featured a fairly opaque array of buttons to browse through your personal music selections. It all provided the appropriate "floaty" ride comfort over most surfaces though the long wheel base made it prone to a strange sort of see-saw sensation over the expansion joints of a particular concrete section of I-25. I was delighted to find the lower seat cushion was finally made long enough for American legs, still a weak point of most Japanese product.When I filled it up to return it on Sunday it had used 6.8 gallons in 122 miles. Better than I expected but I hadn't really tested the V8 or ventured beyond 65mph and most of those miles had been on the highway. Daniel was nonplussed as you can see from the photo. He enjoyed climbing in and out of the tall unit though it was a bit of a struggle. You would certainly want to buy the optional step if your children under 10 were riding daily or you if you yourself were under say 5'4" tall. This may be the first Japanese user unfriendly Japanese vehicle.

All in all it left the impression of driving a relic from the past. A very good relic but one whose time had most certainly passed. Even with world class build quality and the latest in modern technology it was a sort of rolling anachronism. Toyota at least has the will and the resources to soldier into the future. For the American companies who built their business model on this sort of vehicle the permafrost has most certainly melted and getting any traction at all is uncertain.