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How greenwashing works

In the days before the internet killed advertising, media outlets used to employ real scientists and engineers to research and report their science and technology stories.  Today, with advertising revenues collapsing, few outlets can afford to pay people who are qualified and experienced to the point where they can separate leading-edge technologies from unicorn poop – one reason why we increasingly find ourselves relying on Betteridge’s Law to evaluate media headlines.

From the viewpoint of a university applied research team seeking new funding, this is a particular problem.  They have some promising early findings.  But at this stage, any sober analysis of their research would suggest they are wasting everyone’s time and that research funding would be better spent elsewhere.

The obvious next step is a bit of PR to see if they can pique the attention of potential funders, while garnering some support from the wider public.  The trouble is that publishing their actual results is likely to be as popular as a Trump speech at an International Women’s Day rally.  They’ve already spent too much time and money on a proof of concept that has yielded just a tiny fraction of the payback that would be needed to make it commercially viable.

What to do?

Simple; apply a nice coat of greenwash.  Put out a press release claiming that this new technology is going to save the world by cutting carbon emissions, or by generating enough free energy to power a city like London or New York.

Given the high preponderance of techno-utopian readers who simultaneously believe that we have already invented our way off fossil fuels, and must still urgently do so; media outlets that lap up the greenwash are more or less guaranteed a steady stream of advertising revenue.  So we are treated to lurid headlines about solar roadways, luminescent algae that can power our streetlamps, carbon fibres that will generate power from your underpants, and special graphene membranes that can produce grid scale electricity from sea water.  Of course, once our attention has flitted away somewhere else, nobody gets around to noticing that these world-saving technologies never seem to progress past the university testing bench.

The latest crop of such headlines comes from a research group at Berkeley:

“Chemists create tinted windows that also generate electricity.”

Or, as Robert F. Service at Science gushes:

“New smart windows darken in the sun—and generate electricity at the same time.”

That kind of ticks all the boxes.  These are self-tinting windows, so we can cut back on the air conditioning.  They generate electricity at the same time.  And to cap it all, they are “smart” – meaning that only crusty old luddites could possibly dislike them:

“Solar power has undergone a revolution in recent years, thanks to an upstart family of crystalline materials called perovskites. Now, perovskites are transforming windows, keeping them clear on cold days, but turning them dark in the hot summer sun. Two research groups report that they’ve created perovskite-tinted windows that not only transition based on the temperature, but also harvest power like solar cells. The new technology could one day help cool buildings by shading out sunlight and generating power to boot.”

The thing is that judging new energy technology is not a beauty contest.  Rather, it is a pretty straightforward cost/benefit analysis.  What does it cost (in money, energy and resources) to manufacture and install; and what do we get back (in money and energy) in return?  Crucially, is there some other tried and tested technology like, I don’t know… say, a bog standard rooftop solar pv system, that is cheaper to deploy while providing a better return on investment?

It is here that these university projects invariably come unstuck.  As Service concedes:

“Still, the windows have their drawbacks. The biggest is that the efficiency of the solar cells drops after only a few times switching back and forth, probably because the methylamine fails to fully return the perovskite to its starting crystalline arrangement.”

Er, you mean that they only work a couple of times then I have to buy new ones?  Not like a standard rooftop solar array that works for a decade or so then?  But it gets worse:

“The newest solar windows still have their downsides. For starters, they don’t switch from transparent to opaque unless heated to more than 100°C. Plus, their efficiency is only about 7%, well below conventional solar cells.”

Just to be clear, we do not have an electricity generation crisis.  What we do have is an energy storage shortage in the face of a growing climate crisis and a fossil fuel cost/depletion crisis. And the one thing we are not seeing in the science/technology media is any serious development of storage technology.

To be clear, I do not blame a university research team for doing what they have to in order to secure their research funding.  After all, theirs is just a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of dollars that the US government has squandered on B.T. Barnham’s pipe dreams about Hyperloops, electric trucks and colonies on Mars.  And unlike Musk, at least some of the many university research departments around the world are going to produce technologies that are beneficial to the human population as a whole.

My real problem is with a science and technology media that has failed to demonstrate any understanding of the predicament that we are in; still less any ability to evaluate the technologies put forward as potential solutions.  The result is that green virtue signalling and exaggerated optimism have triumphed over the cold, hard reality looming on the near horizon.

As you made it to the end…

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