Reigniting the Private Sector: Greentech Poised for Explosive Innovation

The sweet spot is where “Megabytes” meets “Megawatts”

Last week, technology ruled at FORTUNE Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo., where participants were abuzz about the latest gadgets, companies, tools and programs to shape the competitive business landscape. Serving as a “marketplace of ideas,” the conference assembled innovators of the Fortune 500 and the next generation of leaders to shape the future of business.

“We are in exciting times,” said RMI Chairman and co-founder Amory Lovins during a lunchtime roundtable discussion. “The big story is where energy meets IT. Combining communication, honest pricing, and feedback systems allows us to do what we couldn’t do a couple years ago.”

Lovins outlined how the intersection of “energy technology,” or ET, and IT is a hallmark of RMI’s strategic initiative and forthcoming book, Reinventing Fire, which lays out strategies to transition the U.S. from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables by 2050, led by business. “This can be achieved with current technology, but I bet a lot of you are inventing cool stuff right now to accelerate the transition.”

Others agreed that there is a wave of innovation worldwide in the energy space. “The rate is explosive,” said Andy Karsner, executive chairman of Manifest Energy. But, Karsner said, enthusiasm has to be tempered by the political hurdles that the industry must overcome to deploy innovative green technologies.

“Instead of the government picking which technologies win and which lose, let’s allow the market to decide,” echoed Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of Global Business Network. “It’s time to reignite the private sector.”

What does the future hold?
Although political barriers are prevalent in energy supply-side technologies, exciting opportunities exist in demand-side solutions, particularly in energy efficiency—where IT meets resource tech or, as Karsner cleverly put it, “where megabyts meets megawatts.”

“IT can fundamentally transform today’s electric utilities as new ways of delivering low-cost supply efficiently through smart dispatch,” Lovins said. “New virtual utilities add an element of competition to a now regulated industry.”

Lovins continued to outline ways IT can revolutionize the way we drive our cars, and described innovations in the pipeline that can enable car sharing, traffic mitigation, parking and public transportation. “For the majority of U.S. drivers, their car is their second biggest cost behind their house. Yet, on average, this asset sits idle 96 percent of the time. If we can revolutionize how to use vehicles more productively—after building them more efficiently—we can have a profound reduction in oil use.”

Participants also zeroed in on the opportunity to change the relationship consumers have with energy. Ultimately, people need access to information about their options, consumption and potential savings. “We need to empower today’s consumer with awareness and access to alternatives to oil and gas that are cheaper, cleaner and more secure,” Karsner said.