Green:Net Speaker: Sunil Paul on the “CleanWeb”

Entrepreneur and investor Sunil Paul made his first cleantech deal about nine years ago in thin film solar company Nanosolar. Back then the term cleantech had barely been coined, there was no clean power stimulus package, and there certainly weren’t the amount of cleantech deals being done like the near record of the most recent quarter. As Paul put it to me three years ago (in the first interview I did for this site) “it was a lonely crowd in the beginning.”
Now Paul, who founded the fund Spring Ventures and is leading neighbor-to-neighbor car sharing service Spride Share, continues to innovate with new ideas and new initiatives. He founded the Gigaton Throw Down, which awards companies for carbon reducing activities, and spearheaded the Cleantech for Obama group that supported Obama during his campaign run.
Paul’s latest philosophy is the notion of “the CleanWeb,” a category of cleantech based on IT and which focuses on constrained resources. At our Green:Net 2011 event in San Francisco on April 21, Paul will give a talk on the CleanWeb, how it works, who’s leading it, and why it’s important.
Here’s an essay Paul wrote on the CleanWeb, which we’re republishing for your reading pleasure (originally published on his blog):
What Is the “CleanWeb”?
by Sunil Paul
“CleanWeb” is a category of clean technology that leverages the capability of the Internet, social media, and mobile technologies to address resource constraints. It’s the next stage of development for cleantech. We’re big fans of the CleanWeb at Spring Ventures.
The whole idea of “cleantech” is applying innovation to the problems of energy, water, and waste. Those problems are caused by a confluence of diminishing resources and increasing populations and affluence. Our challenge is delivering affluence in a world with limited clean water, limited clean air, and limited physical space. For the last decade, the solutions we developed were cleaner electricity sources, cleaner fuels, and better ways to use electricity and fuels through efficiency and storage. To date, most of those innovations in cleantech have drafted off the innovations in semiconductors, biotech, nanotech, and materials.
New companies are now starting to show how to use the power of Internet applications as cleantech applications. There are some recent ones that show the power of what is possible. Opower shows the impact of social and gaming dynamics on energy use. Hara is a kind of for th corporate eco-footprint. Spride* is reducing the need for cars by encouraging sharing.
Plus, as the hardware of cleantech gets deployed, it’s opening up opportunities to create an “application” layer of software, services, and new business models on top. Distributed power like solar and the smart grid are especially well suited for these new ideas because the existing “application” layer — utilities, banks, EPCs, etc — don’t quite know what to do with this new category.
It is early in the development of the CleanWeb. A few companies are out there to show the outlines of what is possible and the big impacts and the big companies are yet to come. Here are some categories to think about:
Transportation: Transportation is a great example of resource inefficiency. In the U.S. we buy almost two cars per adult and then leave them idle for about 90 percent of the time. Efficient high-mileage cars make economic sense over their lifetimes — now about 16 years in the U.S. — but consumers typically only own them for 3 years and aren’t willing to pay the up front cost.
Innovations like Better Place take the battery pack of an electric car and make it a service. What if you make the whole car, the whole idea of transportation, a service? That is what companies like Spride* are doing. There will be continued innovations along these lines. We think the next “car” for millions of people will be their cell phone.
Finance: The traditional architecture of electricity and fuels is centralized creation of power and then distribution through wires or pipes.  Think centralized power plants and big refineries. The emerging model, though, is distributed and while financing utility scale wind or solar farms is second nature for the financing ecosystem, it’s stymied in distributed electricity and fuels.
A whole new ecosystem of finance is needed for distributed power starting with roof-top solar. The new ecosystem will look like financing for other distributed assets but account for the peculiarities of power generation and storage. We are out looking for companies that can fill that new ecosystem.
Re-use and Recycling: The granddaddy of the CleanWeb, eBay, helped make re-use profitable. A proliferation of new sites allow sharing, sale, or trading of “previously owned” products. ThredUp is one that allows parents to trade kids clothes. Lots of others are doing interesting things to either find new life for old products or to improve recycling through better coordination and communication.
Here is one that always bugged me: why is it so hard to find a second life for components of your house? Right now the stuff just goes to the landfill and much of it turns into methane after decades of being buried. Will someone figure out a solution please?
Tele-presence: Much business travel is a waste of time and money if a high resolution videoconference were available instead. High definition videoconferencing is getting better and more affordable from the six figure systems Cisco (s CSCO) and others have been selling lately. Internet vidoeconferencing is closing in on the proprietary HD systems. How long before it makes more sense to telecommute across oceans and continents 80 percent of the time? We’d love to find a company making that a reality.
Food: It accounts for about a third of a US resident’s carbon footprint and a significant part of worldwide emissions. Poverty and famine are problems of distribution. And massive quantities of food are wasted each year for lack of coordination, lack of market, or lack of information. Radical application of information technology could build a better food distribution, consumption, promotion, and disposal system. One small example is Local Dirt.
Buildings: Buildings are the largest users of energy around the world. While the traditional focus has been on reducing the energy used by buildings, what about reducing the need for buildings themselves? A significant part of buildings are either unused or underused, so what if you could better match up demand with supply? That is exactly what companies like Airbnb provide.  Airbnb has been so successful that hoteliers in New York City have recruited city hall to fight back their success by passing a law prohibiting nightly rental in apartment buildings.
Logistics and shipping: Information technology has already been applied rigorously to logistics and shipping but I bet there is more to be done. Take the Carbon War Room’s* new rating system for ships, For the first time the efficiency of ships is visible for anyone with an Internet connection. For a bunch of reasons that sound a lot like the building sector; ship owners aren’t incentivized to upgrade the efficiency of their ships.  By making the information available, ports, shippers, receivers, investors, and the whole shipping ecosystem can start taking action to save money or create new products.
The spread of the share economy (or the Mesh or Collaborative Consumption depending on which flavor of Kool Aid you prefer) will reduce the need to produce as many goods. Consider Thredup, the company that allows parents to swap clothing for kids. Makes great sense. Kids outgrow clothes quickly.  Why not reuse them? Shared access to resources only makes sense when transaction costs are low. The web is like a solvent for transaction costs.
Paper: Yes, the paperless office has always been the future and some say it always will be. But wait. How much paper do you use compared to a decade ago? I bet it’s less. Electronic “paper” is better in so many ways. We published the Gigaton Throwdown* study almost entirely online and formatted it for a screen because we knew most people would read it that way. Forests that were destined to be pulped are going to be saved because of new technologies.
What else? There are all sorts of ways to think about these problems and opportunities.  I can’t wait to talk to entrepreneurs who’ve figured out  new ways to crack the nut.
* Open disclosure: I and/or Spring Ventures are funders of these companies or organizations.

?Images courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Jim Bahn, Cisco.