No Wait in this Line

No Wait in this Line

Action. That was the focus of Fortune Brainstorm Green, an annual confab of sustainability leaders from industry and green groups. Previous years were characterized by turns of shrill debate, optimism, and most recently in 2010, pragmatism, but this year it was about action.

Not maverick-style, “go-it-alone” action, but collaborative action. Companies, enviros, and regulatory bodies are finding the partners willing to advance clean energy – now – and charting paths together. Brainstormers recognize the perils of waiting for consensus – witness the lack of federal energy policy, international frameworks, and the threat of US government shut-down today – and the plan for today is “move forward, let the others catch up.”

No hand-wringing.

If there is a tendency amongst global problem solvers to seek consensus first, you won’t find that here.

“We can’t rely upon governments to sort these problems,” said billionaire Richard Branson. “It’s up to corporations to get on and do the job.” Branson added that just one percent of the world’s private equity funds would solve clean energy challenges, and that government must do its job by setting ground rules (a rallying cry for all Brainstormers). He also called for a tax on dirty fuel. Why would a man with his own airline say this? Not only is he an environmentalist, he also needs to hedge his bets with alternative fuels. As he predicts, $200 per barrel oil would cause “the mother of all recessions.”

His thoughts on government rules were echoed by Nancy Floyd, a personal hero of mine who started one of the first cleantech venture funds, Nth Power. “We need to get something on the score board,” she said. “With no predictable, stable policy, I’ll have to seriously consider investment dollars outside of the US.”

Having recently attended Wall Street Journal’s eco:nomics event, I noticed how the two audiences approached China differently. WSJ attendees viewed China as a threat to US clean energy leadership, while Brainstormers viewed China as a collaborator – and a means to drive clean energy prices down allowing US companies to scale faster. That said, a majority of the Brainstorm audience responded to poll saying that China would dominate clean tech in the next 10 years.

Other takes on big issues from Brainstorm:

  • Natural gas – mentioned in nearly every discussion, a critical partner to renewables and clean bridge displacing coal (enjoy an excellent read from TIME’s cover this week)
  • Carbon capture – expensive, requires price on carbon, but technology works. (Watch AEP’s Michael Morris spar with VantagePoints’s Alan Salzman, who called coal the new tobacco. Registration required to view.)
  • Lower battery costs are critical for EV adoption – cited by Ford, Fisker and Nissan during a panel. Each called for different timelines on extending EV incentives (10 years for Ford, 5 for Fisker, 2-3 for Nissan). “Fast charging” left some wondering if the new technology reduces the previously understood need for massive charging infrastructure.
  • Water is a critical and complex issue. It used to flow uphill to money, but equitable and clean distribution is an international priority. Jason Morrison of the Pacific Institute told us that consumers believe water is a more serious issue than climate.
  • Emerging economies are critical priorities for clean energy. Distributed generation, says John Wharton of OPIC, will drive clean energy in places like Jordan. Bill McDonough, author of “Cradle to Cradle,” pointed to the need for scrappy design in developing nations, such as vertically stacked gardens in bags that hang in the neighborhoods of Nairobi.

Surfer Laird Hamilton captured the active spirit of Brainstorm in his closing comments about surfing and fear. He said he feels the most nervous standing on the beach, looking at the 80-foot waves, than he does when he’s in the wave itself. Similarly, Brainstormers are confronting the 80-foot energy waves until the beach watchers join them in the water.