‘Addicted to Energy’ : A venture capitalist’s plans for efficiency

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Venture capitalist Elton B. Sherwin Jr. takes a businessman’s view of how to both repair the economy and improve the environment.

If there were a manual for increasing energy efficiency, Sherwin’s book, “Addicted to Energy: A Venture Capitalist’s Perspective on How to Save Our Economy and Our Climate,” might be it. It is a step-by-step directory for how to get to higher -- and more environmentally sound -- ground. The book is filled with tips and lists, such as running large air conditioners only at night, upgrading every pool pump in America, adding calorie counts to cash register receipts in restaurants, and connecting new appliances to the Internet.

Sherwin, Senior Managing Director at Ridgewood Capital , which invests in clean technology, recently spoke to the Times about his views on the environment:

What made you write the book?
I didn’t start out as an environmentalist, but I was so troubled by [research] I was seeing out of Stanford and Berkeley. I was troubled for my children and my grandchildren. Most of what is being written [about climate change] currently is still arguing if there is actually a problem. I wanted to focus on: What can we actually do? There is very little out there from a business perspective.

How would prepaid energy cards work?
The problem we have: Businesses, building owners, and families will make an investment if it takes less than six months to pay for itself. Longer than six months and people won’t do it. [But] what if when you bought an HDTV, a set top box, a Chevy Suburban, you also bought a prepaid energy card when you purchase the item. So with the Suburban, for instance, when you pump gas, it would be “free.” Because you already paid upfront.

If you confront the “true cost” or the environmental footprint right when you buy something, I postulate that people will make different decisions. People will buy more efficiently.

You write: “Today’s A/C systems are like TVs with no volume control.” Explain. You’ve also suggested requiring appliances to turn themselves off.
So, requiring appliances to turn themselves off -- you can have a toaster oven or a heating pad left on -- and it will happily stay on for years. With a toaster oven or, say, a curling iron, does it really need to be on for 12 hours? If you look at this from a fire marshal’s point of view, it’s a safety issue.


As for air conditioning, in many older buildings, the A/C only has on and off, with no volume control. So, when the A/C is on, it’s automatically set to cool the building for the hottest day of the year. In many older homes, the furnaces are designed to keep the house warm on the coldest day of the year. These are just very inefficient practices.

At a Rotary Club meeting, someone once said to you: “I live in a 7,000-square-foot house, fly my own plane, and my family loves to eat beef.” Explain quick ways to determine carbon footprints?
I was at a breakfast, and I said: If you have to determine someone’s carbon footprint, the number one thing you’d want to know about them is their income. You tend to buy more stuff. If you didn’t want to ask someone their income outright, you could ask how big someone’s house is, how much they fly, and how often they eat hamburgers. People are shocked to find out how big their carbon footprint is because of our evermore, never-satiated appetite for beef.

What are your top three short-term solutions for California’s economy and environment?
If I was giving a presentation in Sacramento to those that implement policy, I would suggest:
1. Grading Buildings. Send window stickers to the top buildings (A and B’s), and let these buildings post these to let people be encouraged by those doing a good job. These could be for government buildings, commercial buildings, homes. You want to highlight people who are doing really well.
2. Tracking Air Pollutants. At least half of our climate change problem has to do with pollutants other than CO2. It has to do with methane and other pollutants.
3. Encourage Use of Hybrid and Natural Gas Vehicles. Gas is cleaner, cheaper and it’s ours.

For the everyday American, in the book I have the “ Top Energy Wasters’ in the American home checklist. Almost every home can cut energy consumption by a third by going through the checklist. -- Lori Kozlowski