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ECO BUSINESS

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

Reading Newsweek at the end of last year, it was interesting to see some of the applications of environmental and sustainable technologies in development at the moment in the US.

Among the 10 eco-friendly companies the magazine chose to feature, there was the manufacturer of wafer-thin flexible solar cells and the recovery engine deriving power from surplus palm oil. The celebration of the hydrogen fuel cell - a significant improvement on the petrol engine in terms of emissions, efficiency and innovation - was prioritised as one of the more mainstream applications.

The featured fuel cell company, Hydrogenics, is grant aided because of its military applications. Researchers from the Canadian firm point out that as fuel-cell vehicles are virtually noiseless, they are perfect for stealth operations - and with water vapour as the sole by-product, this could be a boon for military operations in desert conditions, with less need to carry potable water stocks.

Meanwhile, the British military in Iraq is using tanks fitted with catalytic converters to minimise CO 2 emissions.

The focus on American 'environmental' technology should give lie to some of the more simplistic journalistic parodies of gas-guzzling Republican corporations.

Some of these companies really are trying to get to grips with meaningful - as opposed to moralistic - improvements in technological advance.

General Motors, as a way of breathing new life into its ailing production models, has already invested £1 billion in fuel-cell technology, with an additional £1 billion to come.

In the UK, the state financially props up small-scale eco-projects, while over there the eco-projects have more of a commercial dynamic. In this way, innovation in these areas has resulted in a number of unabashed pro-capitalist applications of environmentally friendly inventiveness.

I would still argue that real innovation is ham-strung by an over concentration on emissions (possibly at the expense of even more beneficial technical advances that might be created if the imagination was given free rein) but in America, for the time being at least, companies retain the corporate bottle to do what they say they are doing without falling back on the ethical framework of justifying their actions on the basis of 'saving the planet'.

Admittedly, British Petroleum (or 'Beyond Petroleum' as some would have it) is investing around £5 billion in solar, wind, hydrogen and high-efficiency, gas-fired technologies over the next 10 years. However, it will still be putting most of its annual £11 billion investment budget into oil and gas projects, which offer much higher returns. Fair enough. Unfortunately, such conflicting messages are riven with corporate guilt over here - to such an extent that BP has been spending inordinate amounts of money on an advertising campaign seemingly to convince itself that it is not a horrid non-renewables corporation.

Conversely, the US team perfecting super-thin layers of a semiconducting copper alloy for their photovoltaic panels - instead of silicon - insist that they are not environmentalists.

'Environmentalists are insane, ' say company directors, Dave Pearce and Dennis Hollars.

And in the tradition of corporate start-ups in America, they intend to make solar panels profitable without government subsidies.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, Jonathon Porritt, in his book Capitalism: As if the World Matters, feels confident enough to suggest prioritising nature is good for business, while David Cameron is discovering the truly conservative nature of environmentalism.

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