When and where did green technology begin? Itdepends on your frame of reference.
Some point to the invention ofsilicon PV cells at Bell Labs in 1954. Others note that car makersproduced hybrids and electric cars in the early part of the 20th century. But you can go even further back: Egyptian architecture tookadvantage of passive cooling, a technique now making a comeback inmodern design. Roman emperors had snow hauled to the palace in Rome, a first-century precursor of thermal mass cooling and storage, a concept now touted byCalmac and Ice Energy.
For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this week, we’d like to salute 40 pioneers who helped crack thorny scientific problems,devise new business models, or come up with policies that paved the wayfor the world to adopt renewable energy and/or use our planetaryresources more wisely. They are listed by category and approximately inchronological order.
1. Archimedes. In the third century B.C., he proposedsetting ships on fire by transferring solar heat with bronze shields.The archaeological evidence is scant that the Athenians actually adopted this method, but modern-day tests show it could have worked.Hydrokinetic power owes him a debt, too. He did his best thinking in the bathtub.
2. Edmond Becquerel. Back in the middle of the 19th century, France ruled greentech. In 1839, Becquerel discovered the photovoltaiccell while experimenting with an electrolyte cell. In that instant, thesolar module industry was born.
3. August Mouchet and Robert Stirling. In the earlydecades of the 1800s, Stirling invented the engine that bears his name.In 1860, Mouchet, a mathematician, proposed a solar-powered steamengine, which becomes a forerunner of parabolic solar thermal systems.The two chief schools for solar thermal technology emerge here. (Hat tip to Clarence Kemp for devising the first solar thermal water heater in 1891 in Baltimore.)
4. Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson. Thetrio created the first silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in 1954. It was only 4 percent efficient, but Bell raised the figure to 11 percent soon after. Today, the maximum efficiency for silicon PV is around 29 percent with a realistic limit at 25 percent. SunPower will soon be at 23 percent.
5. Arnold Goldman. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the first solar thermal plants began to go online in California; one of thebiggest producers was Goldman’s company Luz. However, when Californiadecided to let the property tax exemptions for solar thermal plantsexpire, Luz went under. But Goldman kept in contact with his engineersand researchers. And when conditions improved, Goldman helped found Luz II, otherwise known as BrightSource Energy. Solar thermal from awide variety of vendors will account for gigawatts of power in NorthAfrica and North America in a few years. Part hard-nosed businessman,part social philosopher, Goldman embodies the "do good, but profitably"attitude that characterizes the reborn green industry.
6. Harold McMaster. If you are outside of the solar industry, you’reprobably scratching your head. If you are in solar, you might bescratching your head, too. McMaster has long been a master of quietunderstatement. An expert in tempered glass, McMaster founded First Solar in 1986. The company struggled for years until it gravitatedtoward cadmium telluride, a material that other solar manufacturerseschewed. VCs didn’t invest in First Solar: members of the Walton family supported it.
First Solar came out with its first cad-telpanels in 2002, zoomed toward its IPO in 2005, and became the largestsolar panel maker in the world a few years later.
7. Zhengrong Shi. After picking up a PhD at the University of South Wales in Australia, Shi founded Suntech Power Holdings in September 2001. Based in Wuxi,Suntech was once just a blip on the radar, but the company grew fast. It went public in 2005 and now jostles with First Solar for the top spotin the solar market. Marking China’s entry into solar, Suntech alsowants to take on SunPower in high efficiency panels.
TRANSPORTATION AND OIL
9. Rudolf Diesel. Diesel came up with an engine design that remains farmore efficient than the gas-burners that populate American roads.Electric cars are coming and hybrids are gaining in popularity, but they might only constitute 25 percent of cars on the road by 2020.Volkswagen, Audi and others continue to put research funds into diesel and diesel-like technology for gascars. Trains and big trucks will continue to rely on diesel, aswell.
Diesel also proved that the fuel used to power his namesake enginesneedn’t be dirty — he ran his first engines with peanut oil.
10. Henry Ford. While he’s known primarily for master-minding massproduction and promoting the combustion engine, Ford experimented withelectric cars in the 1920s. During World War II, he looked intoemploying soy materials in cars.
"I see the time coming when a farmer will not only raise rawmaterials for industry, but will do the initial processing on his farm.He will stand on both his feet — one foot on soil for his livelihood;the other in industry for the cash he needs," Ford said.
These ideas didn’t pan out, but Ford historically has become morewilling than many other major auto makers to experiment withalternatives. The company will start to come out with a series of all-electrics and plug-ins later this year and also plans to expand its use of itsenergy-efficient EcoBoost engines.
11. M. King Hubbert. The patron saint of researchanalysts. They scoffed in 1949 when geophysicist Hubbert said oilproduction would peak. Then it did, right on time, in Texas’ Permian Basin in the 1970s. TheSaudi oil embargo followed. Hubbert’s body of work includes several ofthe most important scientific papers addressing energy to be publishedin the last century. It also marked the point when the possibility ofdeclining supplies had to be considered.
12. Abdullah Tariki. The charismatic co-founder of OPECremains one of the most important anti-heroes in green. Without hishandiwork, the Saudi oil embargo could not have occurred. And withoutthat, countries like Denmark and Japan would not have decided to setefficiency standards and encourage wind, biomass and solarmanufacturing. In a way, OPEC was to green what the Black Death was tothe Renaissance: a scary incident that forced contemporaries to rethinktheir priorities. Interestingly, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the OPECcharter member United Arab Emirates, created the Masdar Foundation to build a renewable industry in the Middle East.
13. Dave Hermance. Hermance didn’t invent the hybrid –Ferdinand Porsche crafted the first one in 1902. As a Toyota employee,he didn’t invent the Prius, either. However, he paved the way for thecar’s ultimate popularity in the U.S. The then-surprising sales of thePrius reawakened the dream of electronic cars. Tesla Motors, the GM Volt, and theNissan Leaf all followed in its wake. Hermance was also a frank andforthcoming industry spokesman who was more than willing to explain whyplug-ins and all-electrics a few years ago didn’t make sense yet. Hedied in a plane crash in 2006.
14. Aquatic Species Program. Kicked off by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, ASP was the first program to delve into the question of whether algae, that very oily, highly prolific, and not particularlytasty organism, could be converted into fuel. Some of the problems algae startups experience today — controlling growth, increasing yield, eliminating water — ASP encountered aswell, but the program helped establish algae as the most promisingfeedstock for biofuels.
15. Thomas Edison. Edison invented the modern electricindustry. General Electric, light bulbs, power plants, even the concept of a grid all came from him.Interestingly, one of Edison’s favorite ideas, direct current, fell outof favor early on. The rise of solar panels and batteries and the needfor greater efficiency, however, is prompting Panasonic, Sharp andothers to look at ways to incorporate DC into homes, data centers and office buildings.
16. Nikola Tesla. The anti-Edison. Besides differing onAC/DC, Tesla also championed electrode-less lights, a concept now making a comeback, as well as wireless charging.
17. M. Stanley Whittingham. A chemistry professor at the StateUniversity of New York Binghamton, Whittingham led a team at Exxon thatresulted in the first lithium ion battery. Whittingham’s titaniumsulfide battery was not a hit — Sony actually had the firstcommercially successful lithium ion battery when it came out with itslithium cobalt model in the early 1990s. Still, it opened the door tobatteries that greatly advanced storage for portable devices, and sooncars and the grid.
18. Ken Lay. The personification of the law of unintendedconsequences. Enron under Lay (and later under chief executive stoogeJeff Skilling) engaged in nefarious trading schemes that broughtCalifornia’s grid to its knees in early 2001. The high prices andblackouts prompted the Golden State to move toward renewable energy.
Subsequently, 2001 became a pivotal year for green startups. Suntech Power Holdings, A123Systems, EnerNoc, CPower, Konarka, Greenfuel Technologies, Akeena Solarand Bloom Energy were all founded that year and SunPower came back fromthe brink of death after an injection of cash from T.J. Rodgers. In thesame year, General Electric approached the collapsed Enron about buyingits wind division. GE bought it, got into wind, and now leads themarket.
19. Geoffrey Ballard. A visionary and in part a tragicfigure, too. Ballard founded Ballard Fuel Cells amid great fanfare inthe 1990s. Profits have eluded the company, just as profits have eludedthe many companies that have been spawned by Ballard alumni, but the dream of fuel cells remains alive. Bloom Energy, Panasonic, and Ceres Power may ultimately transform it into afull-fledged industry. You can put Stan Ovshinsky, the ovonics promoter, in the same category as many other inventors who could sketch a great future but not quite reap therewards of bringing the vision to fruition.
20. David Brewster and Tim Healy. Analysts continue todebate whether the term "smart grid" was coined by Andres Carvallo or academics like Massoud Amin. Actually, the concept ofthe smart grid existed before the term itself was coined. Back in 2001,Brewster and Healy formed EnerNoc to provide demand response services to utilities to curb peak power,and demand response is really the ultimate goal of the smart grid.EnerNoc didn’t invent the category — competitor Comverge is actuallyolder — but it is the largest company in the space, with over 3gigawatts of power under its control, and has perhaps done the most topopularize the smart grid concept. (Like many other early energystartups, EnerNoc had a lot of difficulty getting VCs to listen to themat first.)
We’d also like to give a hat tip here to Echelon. Power line networking was invented with the idea of linking up TVs andPCs, but Italian utility Enel exploited it for one of the earliest andstill largest smart grids in the world — 30 million meters and growing. Apple is looking at power line models for its home energy system. No coincidence there: Mike Markkula — an earlyinvestor, employee number three, and the former chairman of Apple –founded Echelon.
21. Shuji Nakamura. Nakamura accomplished something in the early ’90s many considered impossible atthe time: a white light LED. The invention transformed Nichia from a small Japanese manufacturer to a global industrialist. Nakamuraalso later became a folk hero among salarymen in Japan after suingNichia for a fair share of the financial rewards.
Nakamura now teaches at the University of California Santa Barbaraand is involved in two start-ups called Kaai and Soraa.
22. Dave Ditzel. A former Sun Microsystems chip designer,Ditzel founded Transmeta in the ’90s with the idea of producinglow-powered, Intel-compatible processors. Ditzel’s theory was that theincreasing power budgets of modern chips would sap batteries innotebooks and cause servers to melt.
Transmeta crashed miserably. Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and others, however,picked up the low-power mantra from Transmeta. Along the way,electricity prices climbed and the industry shifted to emphasizingutility budgets instead of meltdowns. Energy efficiency is now the toppriority in the IT field. Final irony: Ditzel now works for his oldnemesis Intel.
23. Fujio Masuoka. While working at Toshiba in the ’80s,Masuoka came up with the first chips that could retain data even aftertheir host computer got turned off. Even today, chip makers considerflash something of a miracle. (The secret: the memory bits on flashchips are encased in silicon dioxide, or glass. Once electrons getshoved in, they stay there for years). Flash effectively has made cellphones, MP3 players and other devices functional by reducing weight andbattery life. Flash will next colonize the data center through companies like Sandforce and drastically reduce the power required for electronic commerce.
24. Mendel Rosenblum. The father of virtualization. Like Ditzel, Rosenblum wasn’t initially primarily concerned with powersavings. He wanted to figure out a way to get more work out of eachserver. A founder of VMware, he still teaches at Stanford, theuniversity near Foothill Junior College. Virtualization is now astandard for green data centers. Runner-up: Marc Beniof, who pioneered the virtualization-dependentsoftware-as-a-service concept.
25. Lord Kelvin. In the 1830s, Lord Kelvin began to record groundtemperatures. He discovered that a few feet below the surface, theyremain relatively constant throughout the year. Then, in the 1940s,Robert Webber tinkered with the concept and came up with the firstgeothermal heat pumps.
Throughout most of the U.S., the temperature of the ground about five feet below the surface remains roughly constant throughout the year: 45 degrees to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the northern parts of the country and 50 degrees to 70 degrees in the south. Pipes that bring that airinside during the summer provide cooling (as well as heating in thewinter). More ground cooling could help solve the heinous air conditioning dilemma.
26. Charles Brush and Peder Hansen. Who? Brush built what is consideredthe first automatic wind turbine for generating electricity. Theturbine, built in 1888 in Ohio, had a 50-foot diameter and 144 blades.The industry standard is now three.
Hansen, meanwhile, founded Vestjysk-Stalteknik A/S, or Vestas forshort, in 1945. The company entered the wind industry in the ’70s and provided it key support. The company alsoplayed an instrumental role in turning Denmark into a leader inalternative energy.
27. Stephen Salter. Back in the ’70s, Stephen Salter atthe University of Edinburgh theorized that waves, particularly therippers off the coast of Scotland, could be harnessed to generate power. Out of that idea came the Duck, a wooden paddle-like device forharvesting wave power. Margaret Thatcher tried to kill the wave programin the ’80s, but the University characterized wave research as animportant technology for national defense. Falklands-minded Thatcher let the program — and Salter’s test tank — survive.
The University of Edinburgh remains a center for wave and tidalresearch, and Scotland still hopes to generate power, and exports, from the sea. Theoriginal tank has been rebuilt a few times, but you can still see someof Saltyre’s original equipment in this here video.
28. Enrico Fermi. In the ’40s, Fermi conducted the first fissionexperiments, and in the process discovered a third form of primary energy. The other two are solar (wind, fossil fuels, wave, and biomass are all indirect forms of solar energy) andgravity (geothermal, tidal, hydro). Fission generates nuclear waste, but nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide. Experts ranging fromUC Berkeley’s Dan Kammen to MIT’s Ernie Moniz assert that nuclear remains a necessary component of thefuture grid.
Fusion, which could eliminate the waste problem, continues to hold promise, but it’s still experimental.
SCIENTISTS AND POLICY MAKERS
29. The Presidential Trifecta. Theodore Rooseveltestablished national parks and made conservation an official governmentpolicy. Richard Nixon passed the Clean Air Act, the Endangered SpeciesAct and other environmentally friendly legislation. Carter pushed to get the U.S. off foreign oil, helped establish the scientific backbone forthe U.S. alternatives industry and ensured that cardigan sweaters would never, ever be a fashion statement again. All threewould also have trouble getting elected by their own parties.
30. Roger Revelle and Hans Suess. Revelle, at Scripps, and Suess, at the USGS, wrote a paper in 1957 that demonstrated that the chemistry of the ocean puts a limit on how much carbon dioxide the seas canabsorb. It opened the debate on global warming and mitigation.
31. Art Rosenfeld. Huge! Back in the 1970s, Rosenfeld, a physicist atLawrence Berkeley lab (and Fermi’s last grad student), determined thatthe power consumption in California and the nation would outstrip ourability to produce it. He kicked off a massive effort to get the stateto pass efficiency regulations. Appliance makers fought vigorously, butCalifornia instituted Title 24 anyway.
"They all claimed it was the (expletive) end of civilization as weknew it," he told me in 2006. "Autos were getting 14 miles a gallon. Energyefficiency wasn’t part of the American ethic whatsoever."
The result? Per capita power consumption has remained relatively flat in California but nearly doubled in the rest of the country. Theresults can only partly be attributed to the "Rosenfeld Effect." Still,the impact has been huge. Modern refrigerators consume half or less than that of fridges back in the ’70s, hold more food and cost less whenadjusted for inflation. His work has likely offset hundreds of billionsin energy savings.
Until recently, Rosenfeld served on the California Energy Commissionand recently published a paper on the efficiency gains possible through white roofs.
32. Steven Chu. Back in 2004, peoplewould ask Steve Chu why he left a cushy job as in-house Nobel winner atwealthy Stanford to run Lawrence Berkeley Lab and grapple with all the budget issues that come withrunning a state-run organization. To do something about the energysituation, he’d reply. Getting BP to contribute $500 million to UCBerkeley and the University of Illinois for the biosciences institutebecame one of his first accomplishments. As the Secretary of Energy,he’s been handing out checks ever since.
33. William McDonough. This prominent architect, alongwith chemist Michael Braungart, encouraged manufacturers to redesignproducts for efficiency and recyclability. But more importantly,recycling and renewability have gone from being acts of puritanicalpunishment to style statements. Face it: if bamboo fixtures didn’t look cool, consumers wouldn’t snap them up atTarget.
34. Alan Salzman. One of the earliest venture capitalists in green. Salzman’s VantagePoint Venture Partnershas plunked money into Adura Technologies (lights), Tendril Networks(home networks), Ze-Gen, Bridgelux, Solazyme Better Place and TeslaMotors.
To date, VCs have had a checkered history in green and VantagePointhas participated in none of the few exits in green that have occurred. I can’t even find a decent acquisition in there. Nonetheless, thebillions washed down on green companies will one day likely sprout andthe variety and selection in VantagePoint’s portfolio bodes well. If you haveto put a VC on the list, Salzman deserves the nod.
35. Al Gore. If he could have been as natural andself-assured on the campaign trail as he has been on the lecturecircuit, he may never have had to resort to the "I used to be the nextPresident of the United States" joke.
37. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s fantastic. The star of Kindergarten Cop has been one of the most pivotal figures in helping turn thedebate around green tech from being an environmental issue to aneconomic one. You can’t go to a plant opening in California without running into him talkingabout chobs, chobs, chobs and chobs.
FOOD AND WATER
38. Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan. The UCLAscientists demonstrated seawater purification through reverse osmosis in 1949. The duo also invented reverse osmosis desalination at UCLA in the 1940s. Although reverse osmosis plants have to date primarily beenbuilt in Israel and the Middle East, expect to see more of them inAustralia, South Africa, the Southwest and other dry and arid areas. One of the big complaints about reverse osmosis — the high energy demandsof the process — are being ameliorated by companies like Energy Recovery.
Statkraft in Norway has begun to experiment with techniques for usingosmosis membranes for generating power at the seashore.
39. Simcha Blass. At a farmer’s request, Blassinvestigated why a tree grew in dry soil. The cause: a broken pipe. Theexperience prodded him to invent drip irrigation. The industry of waterconservation, slowly but surely, had begun.
40. Norman Borlaug. The most controversial choice on the list. The plantscientist pioneered the techniques for breeding drought-resistant wheatand other crops. Mexico, India and other countries managed to becomeself-sufficient through the findings of his research, which has alsobeen credited with helping to avert mass starvation and riots.
Critics argue that the so-called green revolution in agriculture ledto excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizer and overpopulation. Manyare trying to solve the fertilizer problem with biopesticides.Overpopulation? Borlaug argued that it was more likely caused by socialforces rather than food supplies. VCs have recently begun to turn their attention to agriculture.
Shyam Mehta and Eric Wesoff contributed to this article.