Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Green Machines

The Maisonneuve Decanter

Environmentally beneficial products have proliferated radically in the past ten years. This market for “green” products has formed in part as a response to Western consumers’ growing awareness of their impact upon the environment—but green products can still be frustratingly hard to find, especially in Canada. Maisonneuve presents a list of environmentally savvy domestic products, investment strategies and transportation devices—some available today, some still prototypes circling the market, waiting to land …

1. THE PAVED ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS

High-profile disasters in the 1970s and 1980s—most notably the lethal gas leak from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, and the Chernobyl nuclear reactor fire—motivated world leaders to focus on environmental issues. In 1992, at the UN “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, over 178 governments adopted Agenda 21, the first global action plan for sustainable development. This wide-ranging plan attempts to satisfy the demands of the present without compromising the environment for future generations.

The UN Environmental Programme is working to make the sustainable living of Agenda 21 something that people actively desire, rather than something they feel guilty about not doing. Good intentions motivated by guilt, however powerful a combination, do not inspire people to make environmentally sound decisions. Explains Dr. Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director, “We need to make sustainable lifestyles fashionable and ‘cool,’ as young people might say.”

2. TO THE NEPTUNE, ALICE

Environmental consultant Jacquelyn Ottman can attest to the fact that sustainable living hasn’t yet become the “in” thing. The reason we don’t hear very much about green products, says Ottman with a hard marketer’s edge, is that “consumers won’t pay a premium for green products. We’re talking about consumers, not voters. Consumers are ultimately out there to maximize value for the dollar.” She cites the success of the Maytag Neptune washing machine as an example of a product that not only saves on water and electricity (40 and 50 percent less respectively), but actually does a better job of washing your clothes. These factors, along with a stylish design and competitive price ($1,499 CDN), make the Neptune a desirable choice.

As a contrast in market success, Ottman cites Whirlpool’s energy-efficient, CFC-free refrigerator. The impressive technical achievements meant little to consumers, who could not perceive the benefit and were unwilling to pay a premium. To most, it was just an ordinary fridge, and an overpriced one at that.

3. RAKING IN THE GREEN

Consumers may not be willing to pay extra for green products quite yet, but investors are discovering that being green can pay off. An increasing number of funds and institutions offer investment portfolios based on the ethics of “conscious” consumers, a practice known as socially responsible investing (SRI). SRI funds run the gamut from those that include the best companies of all sectors—including tobacco and alcohol, provided that they are good employers and environmental citizens—to those that screen out companies associated with weapons production, gambling and animal testing. Doing good has helped these companies do well: according to the leading investment research firm, Morningstar, SRI funds as a sector have recently been outperforming regular mutual funds.

Unfortunately, investment professionals who are willing or able to give advice on ethical investing are few and far between, and many major banks and investment houses provide no information on the subject. One can get around this by studying Web sites that specialize in the field (socialinvest.org, socialfunds.com and calvertgroup.com) or by joining a socially responsible investment club, like the Ethical Investment Group of Montreal. Like many socially responsible investors, the EIG proactively screens its investments. “We do not have explicit negative screens,” said member Brenda Plant in an interview with socialfunds.com, “but our membership has made it clear that we are not interested in investing in even the best-of-sector companies that are in sectors that don’t fit into our vision of a sustainable future.” A volunteer committee of investment professionals assesses investments according to social and environmental impact, growth potential and risk.

4. PASS WITH FLYING COLOURS

One company that investors will certainly be keeping an eye on is DaimlerChrysler, maker of the popular European Smart car, the next wave in alternative car design and environmentally conscious urban driving. A twenty-first-century dream of steel and plastic, the Smart car uses a two-material concept to create a sci-fi appearance: plastic body panels grip onto a partially exposed steel safety cell. (This Tridion safety cell helped the car pass European impact tests.) The side body panels are removable for “quick” colour changes. This lightweight, micro-compact vehicle is extremely fuel-efficient (a small turbocharged 600 cc engine gets twenty-nine kilometres to the litre with diesel) and, for a two-seater, surprisingly spacious: visit the smart.com Web site to see a video of two gentlemen getting their improbably large bodies into a single car. At only 2.5 metres long and 1.5 metres wide, you can actually park three Smarts perpendicular to the sidewalk in one regular parallel parking space. Sales of the Smart in Europe are brisk, and Mercedes-Benz recently announced that it hopes to introduce Smart cars in Canada for the 2004 model year. No word yet on the US.

5. WARP DRIVE, MR. SULU

For cool and practical travel solutions already available in North America, look no further than hybrid-engine cars, which use an electric motor and gas engine, either singly or in combination. The mass-produced Toyota Prius can go up to sixty-eight kilometres per hour in electric-only “stealth” mode (so named because of the low noise level). At faster speeds, the gas engine kicks in seamlessly to assist the motor and recharge the batteries. Another mode, the futuristically named “warp stealth,” engages when the car coasts at speeds higher than sixty-eight kilometres per hour—for example, going down a steep hill. The pistons continue to turn but gas supply is cut off from the engine, increasing the overall fuel efficiency. The Prius’ nickel metal hydride batteries are guaranteed throughout the car’s lifetime and are the latest in environmentally benign technology—a significant improvement over most cars’ lead-acid batteries.

A high price tag ($4,000–$8,000 more than comparable conventional models) has contributed to the Prius selling poorly, as has the Liberal government’s  lack of incentive to buy a hybrid  (American consumers get a $2,000 rebate). At the moment, the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and other hybrids appeal mainly to gadget lovers and environmentalists, but future economies of scale suggest the price of a Prius ($30,000 CDN) may come down, making an investment in fuel economy a worthwhile choice.

6. SEGWAY, TAKE ME AWAY

New developments in transportation abound these days, it seems, and perhaps the most exciting is inventor Dean Kamen’s latest creation. Kamen is responsible for the first portable dialysis machine for diabetics and the Ibot, a wheelchair that actually climbs stairs. He even invented the heart stent that sits in the chest of US Vice President Dick Cheney. So in 2000, when he announced he had a new invention, there was a huge amount of speculation among the technological elite that “It”—as the device was known in the press—would be the basis of the next revolution, comparable to the Internet. What Kamen eventually unveiled was a scooter that balances itself—with only two wheels.

The Segway Human Transporter, as the device is known, employs five solid-state gyroscopes (technology developed for the Ibot) contained in a three-inch cube to measure the tilt and inclination of the Segway. Controller boards verify this information one hundred times a second, giving instructions to the motors to compensate for the motions of the rider. Just as your inner ear tells you when you are leaning too far forward, so the five gyroscopes sense your bodily angle, and the two wheels move backward or forward to stop you from falling over. The Segway has also been fitted with an onboard computer that monitors each of the gyroscopes, initiating a controlled shutdown of the system if any one of them should fail. There is no reason why a responsible user should have an accident.

Although overhyped, the Segway  (price: $4,950 US) does pose a solution for city congestion. “American drivers take approximately 900 million car trips per day,” says the Segway Web site. “The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that half of all those trips are less than five miles (8 km) long and transport only one passenger—trips perfectly suited to Segway HT.” On a single battery charge, the Segway can travel as far as fifteen miles. Recharging takes four to six hours, but costs as little as ten cents.

In America, the Segway has been approved for sidewalk use in thirty-seven states. Trials were conducted this summer in St. Jérôme, Quebec, by the Centre for Electric Vehicle Experimentation in Quebec (CEVEQ) to evaluate the roadworthiness of the Segway.

7. IT’S ELECTRIC!

The Segway is far from the only option for environmental travel, though. Various companies make electric bicycles or kits to convert your bicycle into an electrically driven dynamo. In Montreal, Roger de la Liberté sells his moped-styled Liberty bike, which goes from twenty to thirty kilometres on a single charge. La Liberté says his bicycles have been selling like hotcakes and cites customers who appreciate their low cost (prices start at $1,100 CDN for the basic model), environmental cleanliness and the fact that they allow users to get a good bit of exercise without working up an unsightly sweat. “The idea is that you help the motor to go up hills by pedalling, making the battery charge last longer,” la Liberté explains. Ça Roule, in Montreal’s Old Port, rents out and sells the Procycle Mikado Volta. In Toronto, Spokes and Sports sells the EV Global Motors E-Bike (about $2,500 CDN, replacement batteries $250), rated one of the best bikes for your money.

8. STIRLING POTENTIAL

Not content with redefining the personal-transportation sector, Dean Kamen would now have us believe that he can reinvent the Stirling engine, which for well over a century has tempted scientists with its cheap and efficient production of mechanical energy. Invented in 1816 by the Reverend Robert Stirling, the Stirling uses a self-contained system of temperature difference, rather than highly pressurized boiling steam. What makes the Stirling system so unusual (and so efficient) is the small amount of energy lost between revolutions. The Stirling emits no exhaust, runs in total silence, burns fuel more completely than conventional car engines and runs on anything from solar energy to radioactive material (NASA intends to use Stirling engines to generate on-board electricity for deep space probes). Farmers in Africa could theoretically burn cow-pies to fire up a Stirling engine, and thus power a UV water-filtration system. In an interview with Fortune magazine in July 2002, Kamen stated that the Stirling engine “can help the billion people on this planet who have never used electricity to have a light bulb to study at night, to hook up to the Internet. And it can be used to clean water. The lack of access to potable water is the No. 1 health problem on this planet.”

Many pundits don’t buy this, citing prohibitive manufacturing costs. Interestingly, Kamen and his associates have submitted patents for new manufacturing and casting processes that could make a stronger Stirling engine than the traditionally welded ones. Kamen’s version could go the way of cold fusion—a promising idea that ultimately came to naught—but until then, the world is watching closely.