Plug-n-Play Cleantech

“Plug and play” is a term often used in the infotech world to describe a technology that a consumer can purchase and easily use out of the box — like that new mouse you bought at Best Buy, the one with little setup and software installation. When it applies to cleantech, entrepreneurs are starting to use the phrase to describe technology that can work easily to help cleanup the existing infrastructure, often in the energy and transportation worlds.

A good example of this is biodiesel. Biodiesel can be pumped into a standard diesel engine; the owner doesn’t even have to invest in upgrades to the vehicle, much less buy a new car. While diesel engines are a small market in the U.S., domestic car makers are starting to offer new models, and in many parts of the world diesel makes up a large part of the car market.

The benefit of plug-in-play cleantech is that the technology can be plugged into an existing system, so it can be adopted now, and is often low in cost. It’s basically baby-steps or interim technology that can be put in place to make a dirty system cleaner. Plug-in-play technology can be adopted for a variety of industries from power generators, to utilities to auto makers, to consumers themselves.

Investor Vinod Khosla often describes corn-based ethanol as the first step to a biofuel revolution. Corn-based ethanol can be used in internal combustion engines with an upgrade that costs just a few hundred dollars and creates a “flex-fuel vehicle.” Next-generation cellulosic biofuels that have properties closer to gasoline and can be shipped in the existing petroleum infrastructure will be even closer to a biofuel that is truly plug-n-play.

Interim plug-n-play technology can work for industries other than just vehicle engines. Former Imperium Renewables CEO Martin Tobias recently told us that he’s been looking at a biomass replacement for coal, which can be used in existing retired coal plants. Because coal plants already have transmission lines in place, and are undergoing increasing pressure from environmentalists to start burning cleaner, the idea would be to just replace the coal feedstock with something greener.

Startups in the solar industry are also starting to use the term plug-in-play to emphasize the ease of installation of their solar panels, which can be simply plugged into the power grid. Melink Corp. makes a ground-mounted solar PV system that has an embedded inverter, which just plugs into an outside socket. Akeena Solar also makes a “LEGO-like” integrated racking and mounting solar system, which it claims cuts down on installation steps and costs.

For energy monitoring companies, plug-in-play means being able to sell a software and hardware package at a big-box retailer that a consumer can simply take home and install. The package would include wireless sensors, software and other technology that can plug into a broadband connection to monitor and manage home energy use. While many startups are working on making this technology simple and easy to use, most systems still require an electrician to install them — and are prohibitively expensive for the average consumer.

While few are arguing against implementing plug-n-play technology to fight global warming, innovators are also calling for the need to work on disruptive technology that will remake the fundamentals of many of the offending industries, like power generation and transportation. That’s the thesis of “hydrogen highway” advocates, that fuel cell cars and technology are simply the best way to cut down on carbon emissions.

The problem with concepts like the hydrogen highway is that much more is investment needed to build them as they would require new cars, new fueling stations and new distribution systems. And the investment has to be made early to get the technology ready, when it could end up that the technology isn’t the one that consumers favor or is just not technically feasible for a low enough cost. In other words, an early, massive investment could be a wasted one.

At the end of the day, to fight global warming we need both the interim changes and the big picture disruptions. Yeah, you knew we were gonna say that. But like in other tech industries, personal computing, the Internet and mobile phones, both evolution and revolution progress the technology. Which one do you think will be a bigger factor for cleantech?


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