Me and the Cleantech House: Part 1

So, with recent changes in my professional life, my family and I made the decision to relocate to the Bay Area. There were a lot of reasons, but the main one is my general perception that my world (carbon trading) and their world (cleantech and information technology) rarely meet. Indeed, the maestro of this blog, Neal Dikeman, is one of the only folks I’ve met who keeps a foot firmly planted in both camps. And despite the slap yourself in the forehead, Homer Simpson “Doh” sensation that cleantech and carbon should not only converse they should be actually be singing harmonies together, there is utterly no doubt that the two camps ogle each other over the picket fence with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. So, to make a long story short, I’m hoping to advance a few pawns a couple squares.

But enough about macro issues. Let’s talk real life. Like buying a house. Given the circumstances that we found ourselves in (having spun the wheel of capitalism and, somewhat to our surprise, won), we were in the privileged position to actually be able to afford Bay Area real estate. And, to be blunt, a fair bit of Bay Area real estate at that. One thing led to another and we made a rapid fire bid on a house that reminded me of a better version of the battered 1890’s New Jersey quasi Tudor my parents plunked $50,000 down for in 1970 and I grew up in. And, lo and behold, we own it. It’s utterly lovely, but certainly planted in the larger end of the US housing spectrum. To borrow Warren Buffet’s reference to the Berkshire Hathaway corporate jet, it’s Indefensible. But you only live once and with Treasuries paying a nice solid 20 basis points, well – you gotta put it somewhere.

Now, considering myself an environmentalist (market variety) I want to make it as green as possible. I knew it needed a lot of work in that direction – though inspections showed the house was actually in very good shape and I could observe niceties like double glazed windows, I also know what I don’t know. The sheer armada of AC units along the back of the garage gave me pause. And after experiencing PG&E’s first billing cycle while still uninhabited, I can honestly say I was a motivated participant in that greening process– tiered energy pricing to $0.45/kwh truly does grab your attention.

Solar is the default greening step in California – it’s ground zero of the million solar roofs initiative and there are piles of federal and state incentives to plop them up there. Unfortunately, a cursory examination showed it was not a particularly viable option – the roof is mainly angled to the Northwest and is comprised of a bunch of steep, fragmented gables and windows. Moreover, it’s real slate tiles and – to be frank – stunningly gorgeous. The idea of slapping down a couple hundred square feet of First Solar’s finest seemed aesthetically criminal. The next idea – a geothermal heat pump – also went by the wayside pretty quickly, when I came to the conclusion that setting up a drilling rig in the Oakland hills for a couple weeks was not the way to endear our family unit to our exceedingly close neighbors.

Which left us with a final intriguing option on the energy production side – a fuel cell. And yes, my eyes got that addictive glint of the early adopter that is usually reserved for talismans that emanate from Steve Jobs skunk works. So I bought one of the suckers – the ClearEdge 5kw version. And future updates of this blog will talk about that – installing it has been a fascinating process and one that deserves some attention.

But at the outset, I’m going to focus on the first – and doubtless more relevant– part of my energy project . Making the house it the most efficient it can be, given its overall inherent footprint. To start off, I brought in a crew of energy efficiency gurus to give it their best once over. 60 man hours on-site, a 70 page report, two CD-ROMs and a whole lot of data later, I know a heck of a lot more about my living quarters. To say it was illuminating to get a holistic view of the space we’ll inhabit the next decade or so is an understatement.

Which brings me to a broader theme I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the last few months– the interface between technology, expertise and execution. And the tendency we tend to have to think that use – or even simply creation – of the former can blithely substitute for the latter. I fall into the trap myself all the time – I buy stuff with features that I never really use because I cannot seem to be bothered to learn how to operate them.

What I’m in the process of doing on my house feels like a microcosm of that balance between technology and capability. Extrapolate that to the multi-trillion dollar global effort to decarbonize the global economy through accelerated deployment of a raft of both new and old technologies and you can see the potential gaps. Or gapes is probably more accurate. Capability doesn’t scale as logarithmically as technology – but it’s an equal part of the overall equation. So, while I truly appreciate the tidal wave of forthcoming cleantech widgets, I worry that without with right kind of execution platforms – on the front end and throughout productive lifespan – we’ll end up with lots of stranded assets that over promise and under deliver.

My idea for these next couple contributions to Cleantechblog over the coming weeks is to try to explore that interface in my real life situation and try to do some hypothesizing on how cleantech delivery is going to work across key markets. It may or may not work, but hope you enjoy it.

Marc Stuart was one of the founders of EcoSecurities, where he worked for 13 years prior to its integration into JP Morgan in early 2010. His new firm, Allotrope Ventures, seeks out early stage private equity opportunities in technology and execution platforms that are positioned to thrive in the transition to the low carbon economy.

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3 replies
  1. ASG
    ASG says:

    Marc, thanks for your post. Since my wife and I are about to complete construction of our new Mascord designed Energy Efficient home, I understand the balance of capability and technology. Specifically in our case, our financial capability was quickly outpaced by the available energy efficiency technology and we had to make trade off decisions in the short term to get the most energy bang for our bucks.Quick hits:Insulaiton, insulation, insulation – not sexy, but best $ value out there. Heat pump – most efficient option – esp. for Portland, OR – but costly, and since our home >1500sqft, no govt. subsidies available. Speaking of, our 95% efficient NG furnace (required when heat pump is outmached by subzero temps) only qualifies as a primary system, even when paired with a separate AC unit (less efficient than HP). So capability of govt. resources is also a factor.We plan to have solar panels installed on our substantial S facing roof down the road, but after the tankless H2O heater, we were out of $$$.Good luck w/your fuel cell!

  2. Marc Stuart
    Marc Stuart says:

    ASG, you are dead on and it's going to be a major part of my next post. As I hope I made clear, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to employ a slightly different calculus when it comes to these decisions. I'm still seeking out a return, though I am willing/able to deploy more capital upfront than most people are, generally speaking, to achieve that. My hope is that the administration sees the multi-tier benefits around these activities and starts really crafting policies that enable and encourage people to do more of this. It's basically a financing play – and given the way we've extended our balance sheet for way more questionable return activities, should be a no-brainer

  3. Mira
    Mira says:

    I believe that it's only a matter of time before the world transitions into a low carbon economy. I was over in the UK recently and went to 11 different countries and home without flying. Check out http://loco2travel.com to see how I think everytone should vacation from now on!

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