The Plot to Save the Planet
Suits to the rescue? Is it possible that our planetary saviors have arrived wearing pinstripes? Indeed, argues Brian Dumaine in The Plot to Save the Planet, it will be business leaders who deliver us from global warming.
Despite the book's regrettable title, Dumaine succeeds in painting a cautiously optimistic picture of how savvy entrepreneurs, corporate titans, and deep-pocketed financiers are turning environmentalism on its ear by finally starting to pay attention to the very real threat of global warming-and, of course, to the moneymaking opportunities that arise as we search for solutions.
Dumaine is a business writer for the Fortune magazine family, but he's sufficiently studied in environmental issues to deftly separate the wheat (thin-film solar, plug-in hybrids, green building) from the chaff (corn-based ethanol, hydrogen, greenwashing) when evaluating potential global warming solutions. As he guides his readers across the burgeoning green-tech landscape, Dumaine presents a series of case studies, some of which may be familiar to those who have followed the growth of the industry in recent years: Toyota's exploding advantage over Detroit automakers as a result of the Prius; the nanoengineering of thin-film solar panels that promise to generate electricity more cheaply than burning coal; Duke Energy's Save-a-Watt program, wherein the utility is making money by pushing energy efficiency. Other chapters cover smart electric grids that use batteries to store residential solar power, the steady ascent of wind energy, and the race to bring cellulosic ethanol to market.
The Plot to Save the Planet can feel a bit disjointed at times, as though it were a collection of articles hurriedly sewn together in an attempt to stay in front of a rapidly developing field. For example, there's a great quote by Richard Branson about his work on biofuels: "I'm not doing it purely as charity, I'm saying that if we can come up with the right fuels, we'll sell those fuels." Too bad it shows up again in a later chapter.
Dumaine is at his best in the chapters that are driven by a single narrative. Among his finer accounts, "The Carbon-Muncher" tells the fascinating story of a former MIT researcher, Isaac Berzin, who just may have figured out how to reengineer algae to turn carbon dioxide into a biofuel to fill our gas tanks. It's one of the more encouraging examples of progress in alternative energy, featuring a visionary entrepreneur -- not an already massive and powerful company like, say, General Electric -- who could quite literally change the world. After tweaking some algae genes to astonishing results, Berzin quit academia and set up a lab in his neighbor's basement, nearly went broke (twice), then found a daring investor and a smart executive to help sell his innovation. Today his company, GreenFuel, is involved in a pilot project with the Arizona Public Service Company: Berzin's algae are now gobbling up carbon and churning out biodiesel.
The thoughtful argument in the book's last chapter against cap-and-trade --too many loopholes, too complicated, too vulnerable to corporate greed -- and in favor of a carbon tax makes it clear that Dumaine is no shill for Big Business. Even so, he doesn't fully clarify the challenges of creating policy solutions to global warming. Quibbles aside, The Plot to Save the Planet may well be the best survey of private investment and innovation in creating a cleaner, more efficient twenty-first century economy.