Cleantech Cleans Up Message, Stops Selling Green

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past the point of early adoption. He says consumers are now well aware of the new technologies available to them, but they’re looking for companies to answer the question at the forefront of their minds —what’s in it for consumers? When companies answer, the response is not necessarily green.

LED lighting company Cree (NASDAQ: CREE) raised its profile in the lighting world when it launched its consumer LED light bulb last year. But Mike Watson, the Durham, NC, company’s vice president of product strategy, says consumers still need to be educated about LEDs because generations of consumers have embraced a failed lighting technology. Incandescent lights release 90 percent of their energy as heat and just 5 percent as light, Watson says. The company has been trying to engage consumers with tools such as online calculators, which show how much electricity and money an LED bulb can save.

Yet Cree has not embraced the cleantech mantle. Instead, the company markets its bulb as new and better technology that replaces tired, old incandescent bulbs, and saves money in the long run. An LED bulb uses less electricity by definition; Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda told an audience attending a September talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The environmental sustainability of the technology just happens to be an additional benefit.

Cleantech’s successes are “Trojan horses,” Fishback says. Consumers aren’t embracing clean technology out of some cleantech strategy. Instead, they see technology that’s cool and trendy—like Nest. Energy savings and positive environmental impacts are untrumpeted hidden benefits of the technology, he says. Accordingly, if Cree and PlotWatt discuss the environmental benefits of their technologies, it’s always secondary to the economic ones.

Fishback’s thinking is shaped by, of all things, the many restaurant industry conferences he attends. That’s where an entrepreneur trying to sell energy-saving technology learns what restaurant operators want and need. At a recent Burger King conference, restaurant owners told Fishback that they budget between $3,000 and $4,000 a month for power. Electricity prices in other countries drive the bills much higher. One owner from Jamaica told Fishback his monthly bill can reach $20,000. Those restaurant owners don’t talk to Fishback about his software out of environmental concern.

“It works great because it saves them money,” Fishback says.

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Frank Vinluan is an Xconomy editor based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at Follow @frankvinluan

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