How are we doing regarding Cleantech?

With the intention to show a documentary on Energy Efficiency for an upcoming MESYM Documentary Night, we came across this documentary called “The Cleantech Future“, which is available in Youtube:

The documentary is focused on the current and future development of “cleantech”. What is cleantech? Definition from The Cleantech Group website:

Cleantech is new technology and related business models that offer competitive returns for investors and customers while providing solutions to global challenges. It addresses the roots of ecological problems with new science, emphasizing natural approaches such as biomimicry and biology. It is driven by productivity-based purchasing, and therefore enjoys broad market economics, with greater financial upside and sustainability.

In the documentary, Cleantech Group founder Nick Parker describes how cleantech is posed to provide better living conditions to millions of people by cutting down on the negative side effects of our current technologies, like water pollution originated from the clothes’ fabric dying industry, or the we-already-know-all-too-well fossil fuel industry air pollution. He particularly emphasizes that cleantech is the recipient of the biggest share of Venture Capital funding nowadays, which means that start-ups which are developing newer and greener technologies are being funded handsomely by Wall Street (even Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors, is investing in solar power).

The documentary also features Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute For Tomorrow and author of Consumptionomics, who argues that due to resource scarcity, the Western way of life is not feasible, policies should put priority on the community and not on the individual, the “American dream” is a lie that the Earth cannot afford. Chandran opposes Nick Parker in the belief that cleantech will “save the world”. What will save the world is to stop consuming its resources, and not the further development of the economy in ever-greener ways.

Nair Chandran and Nick Parker, featured in "The Greentech Future"

Nair Chandran and Nick Parker, featured in “The Greentech Future”

Nonetheless, be it to save the environment, or for the development of the economy, cleantech will be important in the years to come. This was stressed by Nick Parker: in the future, when there is no alternative but to depend on cleantech, the main economic beneficiaries will be the countries producing the technology. The ones who don’t, well, they will have to rely on other countries to get it, for quite high prices. So it is very wise to be a contender on this race, and to start immediately.

Early and mass adopters: the winners of technological innovation

It is a fact that when a country is an early adopter of a technology, and when it deploys it in grand scale, then the country will have more possibilities to master the technology and, through iterations of  further development, improve it. This is only natural: give the most amount of people the most amount of time to use the technology, play with it, find its shortcomings and invent solutions for them, and make the technology better.

Once a superior technology is available on the market, everyone will have to adopt it, since they cannot afford to have only their competitors adopt it. Adapt or die, upgrade or die, that’s how it works in our economic world. And the country developing the technology will get all the economic benefits, while everyone else will depend on them.

Let’s see a couple of clear examples about this:

Human Genome Project
A report estimates that between 1988 and 2010, federal investment in genomic research generated an economic impact of $796 billion, which is impressive considering that Human Genome Project (HGP) spending between 1990-2003 amounted to $3.8 billion. This figure equates to a return on investment (ROI) of 141:1 (that is, every $1 invested by the U.S. government generated $141 in economic activity).

The current Obama Administration is trying to reproduce the success of the Human Genome Project with their new, hugely ambitious program to completely map the human brain.

China’s superfast trains
The fastest train in the world is Chinese, its speed reaches 500 km/h. The Chinese are not early adopters of the technology themselves, so how did they do it? They got the technology from early adopters (France, Japan, Germany), then reverse-engineered and finally, through mass adoption, they kept on improving it. Nowadays, the Chinese are exporting their trains to several destinations, including Malaysia.

The most important cleantech: gathering solar energy

And so is in the case of energy. Let’s not even mention climate change and the need to stop burning fossil fuels right now, even if we keep burning (and we certainly are right now and in ever greater quantities), fossil fuels will not last much longer (according to some estimations for Malaysia, oil will be over by 2036, natural gas by 2058, and coal not long after). So it’s just a matter of time until we depend on renewable energy anyway for our (even most basic) energy needs. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

So we already know that we will eventually need it. Now, Malaysia, with its 30 million inhabitants, can’t compete against the USA or China in terms of mass adoption. So the stakes should be put on being an early adopter.

However, the development of renewable energy is not a new topic: Germany’s successful Feed-in Tariff, which is used by many other countries as a base to develop their own Feed-in Tariff policies (including Malaysia’s SEDA FiT Scheme), was already implemented in 2000.

So the stakes for Malaysia, it seems, is then to not arrive too late to the party.

How the world is doing compared to Malaysia in adoption of solar energy

Nowadays, Germany’s quota of renewable energy is 23.4% of total output. Denmark’s Waste-to-Energy Plants are so successful that Copenhagen has run out of landfills! Google, in Nevada, USA, has recently opened the biggest solar power plant in the world, which can produce nearly 400 megawatts enough power for 140,000 homes. But it won’t be the biggest one for long, if India’s plans to build a 4,000 megawatts (comparable to four full-size nuclear reactors) solar power plant come to fruition. Meanwhile, China and Japan will be the biggest installers of solar PV for 2014. China, battling its toxic air pollution which resembles nuclear winter, and Japan, post-Fukushima explosion, will install 12 GW and 7.5 GW of  solar PV respectively.

And how is Malaysia doing? Up to 2013, Malaysia has barely accumulated 122 MW of cumulative installed capacity of renewable energy installations, that’s less than 1/3 of the solar power plant just opened by Google mentioned above, and just 0.72% of the expected 8,874 MW of solar PV energy aimed to be generated in Malaysia by 2050.

The path to go is indeed very long and we’re going very slow. We must be faster than this, so as to not be left far behind in the technological race. And for that, we should be as early as possible adopters of renewable energy technologies, and deploy it in as much a massive scale as we can afford it.

The future of the country depends on this.

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