Fake it till you make it?

Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic of course, but there is a fine line between that and fraud.  Then again, maybe optimism and fraud are simply perspectives on the same thought.  After all, fraud is the point of view that someone has violated some truth formula … but that determination is potentially flawed for countless reasons.

One only has to look at history to see how some of the greatest ideas were so heretical at the time that the proponents were deemed fraudulent.  Plus, we all admire aspirational goals, especially if presented by charismatic individuals like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.  Think about it … did you think Elon was aspirational or fraudulent in his goal to create reusable rockets to conquer space.

Individuals like Musk prove you can attract capital for a multitude of reasons that go far beyond greed or even financial reward.  Many investors will back an idea simply on the grounds of it being a noble one.

But, none of us wants to be duped or even mislead, so the recent indictment of Nikola Founder Trevor Milton is just one more reminder.  Elizabeth Homes with Theranos also comes to mind.

So, we should be concerned with many startups today following the dream of a low carbon future.  We want these ideas to work, but all too many of them are just as bogus as Nikola and Theranos.

How can you smoke out the good from the bad?  There is no sure formula, but my decades of product development experience can offer some proven guidelines:

  1. Nothing happens quickly: Oh sure, you can point out that electronic improvement s do, but in fundamental markets like energy, they just don’t.  I worked for the company that developed the Plug Power fuel cells and that idea was five years away from commercialization 40 years ago.  The idea is still five years away from true commercial viabilitiy.
  2. Nothing replaces existing fleets or installed bases of technology: The idea that we are going to ban internal combustion cars is a noble goal and to some extent believable for new vehicles, but the existing fleet of vehicles will persist long into the future.
  3. Revolutionary ideas like hydrogen and fusion are illusions: Sure, you can imagine a world with hydrogen replacing natural gas in some ways, but you first have to figure out how to make hydrogen cheaply, store it and transport it, and then replace the existing technology that uses some form of internal combustion.  You can’t change diesel engines to run on pure hydrogen.  You can imagine gas turbine redesigns … but see point 2 above.

I am sure to get some criticism for being such a negative person.  I am not.  I am simply a realist.  I know how to design any power system you can mention.  We can incrementally improve what we are doing of course, but the idea these rules simply dominate the world.

Politicians of course can promise the world … and then tax us to pay for the attempt.  Once again, watch Planet of the Humans for proof that the billions spent on solar, and wind have really changed anything.


Surviving the Energy Journey

Written by: Susan Gilbert, CEO and Co-Founder Apogee Interactive, Inc.

Joel keynoted the annual J.D. Power meeting for energy and water utilities in Austin, Texas.  He had been asked by the executive director of that organization to “kick the butts” of the industry, but Joel chose to offer humorous relevant stories and illustrations from his own life that pointed out the same needs and would hopefully stick with them.

The overarching theme was that we all need to sharpen our listening skills and to dig deeper into the underlying reasons why people feel the way they do about issues and challenges.  Joel suggested that we eliminate the words “or” or “vs” when we encounter differences of opinion.  To illustrate this, Joel pointed out that beneficial electrification is trendy, it needs to be expanded to beneficial gasification.  Therefore, while EVs are popular, the future will include both electric and natural gas vehicles, as it does now.  So, it is not gas vs electric … it is gas and electric.  Joel pointed out that the blend of these will shift over the next few decades as the grid becomes less carbon intensive, but that right now, we must have natural gas in the mix.

Some of Joel’s stories shared how we “heard what he wanted to hear” as he and I heard a pitch for a timeshare vacation rental.  We attended the sales pitch but were impressed that the asking price to stay at that vacation spot was only $4,500 for 28 years use.  Given we had $1,000 to stay there, and the maintenance fee was only $150 a year, it seemed interesting.  The salesperson realized some hesitation so she offered it at $3,500 if we wouldn’t tell anyone else (yeah … right).

Joel’s final question was “how often do hurricanes hit a place like this?” and of course she had the answer on her top of mind with “we haven’t had a hurricane hit here in 37 years!”  At the time, Joel took that to mean that the odds were good, but he should have considered the statistically more likely answer: they were due!! So, he learned a lesson when the next year Hurricane Gilbert swept across Cancun Mexico and wiped out much of the property.  Maintenance costs went to $600 and of course who wanted to go back to that property until it was fully restored … so there was another $100 to exchange it.  Joel’s lesson here is that we hear what we want to hear.  By the way, Hurricane Gilbert came ashore as a Cat 5 storm with 200 mph winds.

Joel also pointed out that there are many things today that polarize conversations, and he pointed to the Rand Corporation called Truth Decay illustrates the challenges with how diverse points of view colors what they consider truth.  This requires us to be adept at bridging gaps rather than merely sticking to our talking points.  Perhaps one of the funniest segments of his talk was when he read from some the 1952, Armon Sweat, Jr. testimony in the Texas House of Representatives about his position on whiskey. What follows is his exact answer (from the Political Archives of Texas):

“If when you say whiskey, you mean the devil’s brew, the poisonous scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, and takes bread from the mouths of little children.  If you mean that evil drink that topples Christian men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fiber of my being.”

However, if when you say whiskey you mean that oil of conversation, that philosophic wine consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean the stimulating sip that puts a spring in the step of an elderly man on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man, to forget if for a moment life’s great tragedies, heartbreaks and sorrow; if you mean that nectar of the gods through the sale of which pours untold millions of dollars each year into our treasuries, that provides tender care for our crippled children, and infirmed, and builds the finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of it.

This is my position, and as always, I refuse to compromise on matters of principle.”

Attendees were riveted by some of Joel’s one-liners like:  “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.” Or his quote from the late Jim Rogers, the President of Duke Power who warned his audiences that “If you’re not at the table, you’re likely to be on the menu!”

As Joel said, when you have a road trip with children these days, they don’t ask you the same questions they did decades ago “are we there yet?”  Now the big challenge is whether they are “with you on the journey at all or in their own worlds?”

We are all on this journey and it is going to be challenging, but we must learn to listen and learn from each other along the way.  Once again, Joel suggested several resources for further reading along with watching the free movie on Amazon Prime called Planet of the Humans.

Virtuous Grocery Shopping?

Have you noticed that there are now shoppers who bring their own reusable bags to the store?  Sometimes the bag itself signals the virtue directly as the one pictured.

According to a recent New York Times article: It turns out the wholehearted embrace of cotton totes may actually have created a new problem. An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production, according to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. That equates to daily use for 54 years — for just one bag.  “Cotton is so water intensive,” said Travis Wagner, an environmental science professor at the University of Maine. It’s also associated with forced labor, thanks to revelations about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. And figuring out how to dispose of a tote in an environmentally low-impact way is not nearly as simple as people think.

That’s not counting how many times we use and reuse the bags we get at the grocery to transport things we make at home as well as using them for garbage in the home.  Yet, you hear people advocating their use as if they were saving the planet.

The truth here will become evident as “scope three” accounting becomes prevalent, but you can imagine how hard it is to capture the energy production and environmental damage done in the production of almost anything these days given the supply chain often includes countries who will not be forthcoming with this kind of information.

Just wait till you see the truth about electric vehicles.  Most will take 10-15 years of operation before they contribute beneficially to our carbon concerns.  And, that assumes the energy they use was produced with renewable energy.  Given the batteries will probably need to be replaced around that end of life situation, and that the recycling of the existing batteries is almost impossible … what benefit have we achieved other than to shift the emissions from the street to a smokestack where it can be remediated.

Do you hear anything about this reality from our politicians or others around the world?  You can check all this out … it is all there in broad daylight.  It just doesn’t square with sounding virtuous in today’s media.

Personally, I find this less than virtuous … I find it hypocritical and manipulative.


Slow and Steady?

Listening to politicians and industry zealots would make you believe we are about to see a radical shift in how our planet produces and consumes everything.  We read about plant based substitutes for animal protein and are lead to believe they will change the world in just a few years.  We hear about renewable energy replacing fossil fuels in just a few more years and certainly by the year 2050 we will see the full demise of the companies who drill for oil and natural gas.

When I asked everyone I knew how any of this was a reality if our government’s forecast for energy use to 1950 show virtually no change?  I was met by shrugged shoulders and crickets.  Public Utility Fortnightly’s recent article should shed some light here and offers a sobering perspective.

 We are moving in the right direction, but change is slow and incremental.  We all seem to be marching in unison about a gradual transition to electric vehicles, yet even now the realities of rare earth metals like lithium are showing how anything but a gradual transition is unrealistic.  There is a reason they are called rare earth metals and there is no easy answer here.

Sure, Tesla is working on new battery technology and who would argue with that noble goal.  Elon Musk is probably one of the most likely people to add to his list of doing things no one else seems to even think could be done … see SpaceX.  Truly remarkable … thank you Elon for believing in a future for space travel.

However, as you read the PUF article, please do note the time scales for change here.  Anyone who believes we can change the trajectory of energy use in the world by more than a few percentage points in any timescale as short as 10-20 years is simply a dreamer.  The world’s energy use is a staggeringly large number.

The population continues to grow and the “have nots” in the developing countries are pushing for the American dream.  This is not going to change.  While renewables are important, they simply will not “bend the curve” as we tried to do with behaviors and technology with COVID.

Archimedes thought you could move the world if you had a big enough lever arm.

Slow and steady wins the race.  Throwing money at this problem believing you are going to change history is delusional at best and dishonest at worst.