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The supply side: finding and assessing new technologies

The pace of technical change in environmental sectors is accelerating. Even recently developed abatement technologies can be rendered obsolete by new pollution prevention technologies. The eco-entrepreneur should be aware of the opportunities arising from these changes.

1. Technology trees: cherry-picking for success

'Technology trees' offer a means to identify market opportunities, based on a sound understanding of the key influences. An international agreement, such as the climate change convention, is taken as the driver. One of the resulting demands is increased energy efficiency and eco-efficiency.

By evaluating what is, or will soon be, in demand, as well as the products or technologies currently on the market, entrepreneurs can assess which technology they should develop.

Technologists, innovators, and researchers can use technology trees to:

  • Identify the relationship between a technology they may be developing and the international agreements that will drive the new technologies: is there a place for their technology on one of the trees?

  • Gauge the importance of their technology to particular sustainable development goals;

  • Identify competing technologies that occupy the same niche, then compare cost and performance;

  • Identify unmet needs for technical innovation.

Entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized businesses can use technology trees to:

  • Identify promising technologies that can leapfrog existing control strategies;

  • Obtain an initial idea of the likely market for a particular technology;

  • Identify technologies that are competing for a particular niche and select the one with the most technical, financial, and marketing advantages.

Investors and financiers can use technology trees to:

  • Situate a proposed technology relative to market drivers and mandated goals;

  • Identify competing technologies and evaluate any competitive advantage;

  • Identify potential markets for a new technology.

Policy planners can use technology trees to:

  • Survey possible technology responses and identify opportunities for accelerating market penetration;

  • Orient government activities - in the fields of industrial strategy, environmental regulation, research, and training - towards technologies that promote sustainable development;

  • Identify technologies that merit government support.

2. Understand the four generations of environmental technology

There are four generations of environmental technology, ranging from remediation to sustainable. Some technologies can be modified in order to reach the next step along the evolutionary path.

The progression reflects the increasing sophistication of science and society in dealing with environmental problems. This model can help entrepreneurs understand the risks and opportunities that exist along the way.

The first generation, remediation technologies, treat environmental problems after they have occurred, and attempt to repair or remediate the damage. They include various soil clean-up methods, treatment of surface or ground water, and a variety of technologies to restore damaged or degraded landscapes. Remediation technologies are typically expensive, and prove the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The next generation is abatement technologies. Over the past 30 years, many abatement or 'end of pipe' technologies have been developed to capture or treat pollutants before they escape into the environment. These employ physical, chemical, or biological mechanisms to reduce emissions. Examples include municipal sewage treatment systems, catalytic converters for cars, heavy metal treatment for the plating industry, and electrostatic precipitators and flue gas desulphurization equipment for coal-fired power plant.

Generally, these technologies do not eliminate the pollutant; they merely capture or treat the waste stream before it enters the environment. Abatement technologies are usually capital and technology-intensive, require large amounts of energy and resources to operate, and produce a waste disposal problem of their own. Most regulatory and investment activity in the environmental field remains focused on abatement technologies.

Huge industries have developed to serve these markets, and billions of dollars have been spent to purchase and install abatement technologies. Vested interests have hampered the transition to the next generation of technologies.

Pollution prevention technologies, the third generation, are attracting the interest of regulators, policymakers, and the private sector. Generally, there are two types of pollution prevention technologies: first, improved processes that avoid the production of pollutants - for example paper-making processes that eliminate chlorine bleaching, cleaning techniques that eliminate toxic solvents, and farming practices that eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers; and second, alternative products whose use prevents or reduces pollution - for example phosphate-free, biodegradable detergents, lead-free gasoline, mercury-free batteries, and water-based paints and adhesives.

Pollution prevention is being driven by environmental regulation, and by the pressures of economics, consumer awareness, and the need to modernize industry. Industrial pollution is often caused by outdated and inefficient processes that are material and energy-intensive and which produce unwanted by-products. Replacing these with more eco-efficient processes generally reduces input costs, reduces waste streams, and in the long run saves money.

The fourth and final category is sustainable technologies. Because of the need to achieve a combination of environmental, economic, and social objectives, the transition to sustainable technologies is becoming imperative.

Sustainable technologies, and the products and services they provide, are useful solutions because they deliver a number of benefits simultaneously. They reduce the need for the environment/economy trade-offs that often characterize remediation and abatement approaches, principally by capturing the economic advantages of energy and resource efficiency.

Examples of sustainable or near-sustainable technologies include:

  • Daylight-sensitive, energy-efficient lighting products, free from toxics and heavy metals;

  • Wood products grown, harvested, and manufactured sustainably;

  • Non-bleached, recycled paper with high post-consumer fibre content;

  • Cosmetics and pharmaceuticals made from plant extracts;

  • Heating and cooling technologies that are efficient, low in emissions, based on renewable energy, and CFC-free;

  • Organically produced food.

Because the concept of sustainable technologies is in its early stages, the tool should be considered to give new directions, not final answers. It should be used to spark new ideas and to stretch the imagination of those developing processes and products.

3. Add sustainable attributes to existing technologies

There are many existing processes, products and services to which the attributes of sustainability could be added. A product can be made more sustainable by making it more resource-efficient. It might be made from recycled material, or designed to be more long-lived and recyclable. It might be possible to reduce the toxicity of the materials used or of the by-products.

4. Convert defence technologies

In the aftermath of the cold war, green applications are being found for a number of military technologies. Entrepreneurs should be aware of the value of defence-related technology: in particular, its high development costs have been borne by the taxpayer. The cost of conversion to civilian applications is often quite small. The combination of high technology and low marginal cost can rapidly drive the technology into new markets.

One technology that has been successfully converted was developed by General Electric to detect diesel smoke from submarines up to 150km away. A group of employees obtained the license from GE, and now use the technology in devices that monitor air pollution. In the early 1990s their company, Environment One, had annual sales of $12 million.

Meanwhile satellite technologies are increasingly being used to track deforestation, soil erosion and land use patterns. Similarly, military propulsion systems are being adapted for electric vehicles and public transit networks.

5. Watch for the impact of technology leaps or breakthroughs

Environmental technologies, like others, often reach a plateau in their development cycle, remaining stuck at a certain performance or cost level that constrains their ability to penetrate the market. Technical performance - for example energy efficiency, energy output or pollutant capture - may be low, rendering the technology uncompetitive. Alternatively, production costs may be too high, despite good performance. A breakthrough, whatever its cause, can suddenly make the technology competitive and profitable. Successful entrepreneurs can position themselves to take advantage of these step-changes.

The most obvious example is the electronics industry, where ongoing research and development have led to dramatic improvements in performance ratios. Entrepreneurs should be aware of intensive technical work being done in areas relevant to their interests.

A good example in the environmental field is the increasing efficiency and falling cost of photovoltaic cells. Once cost-effective only in satellites and solar calculators, PV cells are now competitive in many remote power situations, and may one day be competitive with grid power.

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