Are you a CleanTech “expert”? (Or: Thoughts on being an “expert” in a fairly new industry…)

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I was at a drinks party last night and in conversation was asked what I did so I explained that I worked with Clean Tech businesses. To which I was introduced to the next group as an expert, which got me worried, very worried.

The very definition of what is an “expert” can be is somewhat confusing, Wikipedia for example describes it as part of its definition as:

An expert can be, by virtue of training, education, profession, publication or experience, believed to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person”

Which automatically begs the question, so who is an average person?”

In the world of Clean Tech I am lucky to meet experts practically on a daily basis, not I may add due to the fact that I spend my days in wistful corridors of knowledge rubbing shoulders with high level academia. No this has more to do with the fact that I work in an area of business that is so young that being an expert is almost a necessity. Lets face it the average person (there’s that term again) has very little knowledge or understanding of the level of investment or the speed of advancement being made in solar power, renewable energy or power cells etc, all they see is global warming, recession and crisis, while looking for answers to growing power and fuel bills. What they do know is that a team of experts are working on it and one day the answer will be announced and the average person can worry about something more important like school fees and house prices.

So why does the word expert worry me? I have sat in numerous conference halls, listened to hundreds of pitches by experts stating that this is the future and this technology is the answer, or this is the problem that needs a solution. Only to be superseded some months later by a better thing or bigger problem. I am convinced that over the space of the next few years experts will come and go as they did back in the late 90’s in the .com boom (yes I was also there…still listening to experts….). I can remember the million dollar deals for web businesses that offered massive reward and delivered very little, all due to the fact that there was a 20 something expert, who said the right words and looked the part by not wearing a tie and lets face it he knew more than the average VC about what was right – because he said so. Please don’t get me wrong I have nothing against 23 year old wonder kids – I even know a few, but even they would have an issue with the word expert. What gives them comfort are the words like evangelist, trail-blazer and breaker of rules, creator of clever thinking – Expert means you have all of the answers and in this space, some of us are still trying to ensure we have the right questions.

So as a non expert, I look forward to meeting and helping more interesting and clever people that have good ideas and can see a need for something that is not yet there or needs to be developed. Who knows one day I may meet someone who has the answer for everything, but then he would be a genius and that’s a whole new article.

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25 Comments

  1. I agree that using the definition of “expert” is overused and misleading. In the Army, an “expert” is anyone who just got volunteered. CleanTech is so new that everyone is still admiring the price tag that’s hanging on it. So to be an expert in this industry just requires someone who “seems” to know more or at least throws their weight around via a blog or newsletter. I would be more comfortable saying that we all have levels of knowledge and experience that we can bring to bear on a problem or situation. Our viewpoints differ and therefore our solutions do likewise. A modern day “expert” is really someone who synthesizes a consensus among the many voices out there to come up with a common ground which all can agree on. I think “negotiator” or even “editor” would be more in line. By the way, I do enjoy your newsletter/column –

  2. The word expert does not scare me when I say, “I am an expert in first of kind design”. Because I am very systemic in my approach. I did not start as “First of Kind Engineer” I became one by challenging the prototype Radial Gate or Tainter Gate design that USBR, Denver had put on hundreds and thousand of canals. When that was given to me to follow, I challenged it, guess what, after that they never built a radial gate like before, they changed their design.

    Then I was to work on Cement Plant, can you believe they will grind and crush stone add water to it and then will dry it to make cement, I asked why? Guess what? Now we have dry cement plants all over world saving as much as 55% energy in manufacturing cement. There are many more projects to list here. Yes, I can help in Solar, Wind and energy savings first of kind projects including their application. Every new house in Connecticut can be net energy producer and will not use net energy and so can be in some other parts of country, the ground work has already been laid out, now question is who will implement it? I can help in taking a project from any stage to completion. Could transform a world war II plant to fully automatic plant in less then three years. I say, “Where there is will and money to pay for it, their is a way to achieve it, with common sense and some hard work and learning”

    Let me know, if you need help.

    Raj Kapoor, P.E.

  3. The Wikipedia definition seems as good as any. I NEVER claim expertise in green technology or climate action policy, but am frequently consulted as if I AM an expert. The little I know is a lot more than what those who ask me for help know themselves.

    By doing a lot of research every day, and concentrating on filling in gaps in generally available information, I have developed a fairly solid knowledge of how green concepts interconnect with one another. I am not a solar power expert, but I know more about solar energy than most wind energy experts know. I also know more about wind energy than most solar expert know. And I know more about small hydro than most wind or solar experts know.

    It’s the instinct for asking the right questions, the understanding of connections, the skill to find the answers, and the passion for all three that, I think, defines an expert.

  4. Bravo Robert. I agree. Anyone can get info — it’s being able to use the info in a meaningful way to solve or explain something to others that pays dividends. Knowing what to look for is what defines an expert.

  5. Benjamin, I agree finding talent, asking right questions and then verifying every computer performed calculations (to avoid Garbage in garbage out)and keeping on to insure that all parties perform what they promise, we can make most of any project successful be it wind energy (used since 1800′s), Solar energy (American Indian Chaco’s new it very well)and other reneqable energies (cogeneration) possible and can make this country energy independent.

    Raj

  6. In the beginning of a new bubble – yes, the Green Industry is the new bubble – innovations and ideas are wonderful and unsorted. Some will fall splat, some will eke by and die of attrition, and a very few will succeed. We should not despair the wonderment of it all. If one has unlimited funding then one has the ability to succeed, provided it all makes sense and a customer wants to buy it. That has little to do though with expertise. I think the true measure of an expert is not whether they live in academia or in the practical world. Its when they have to stare down the barrel of the legal world unflinchlingly and hold their own in a court of law. Fortunately we have not yet gotten to that yet, as that is a sign of the sliding down the back side of the bubble, when the bean counters rule our existence.

  7. NIna Rodriguez on

    It’s an exciting time for any of us that have the good fortune to be part of the boots on the ground force in clean technology. Let’s just not let it go to our head. Just look to our neighbors in Europe. They are years ahead of us on this new (to us) market and we can learn alot from them.

    Experts are masters – and right now there is a limited supply of products and technologies ‘to master’…stay lucid, available, teachable, humble, create! Because this is a industry that has an intrinsic value to the sustainability of human life.

    Happy to Year to all!!

  8. I agree the word expert must be used wisely, but if you are an expert you need to follow suit. What comes after it is achievement.

  9. Phil Richardson on

    In my 63 years I have been called as an expert witness in disciplines for which I hold degrees. In all those

    years I have also come to the conclusion that the true experts are the ones that have taken an idea from concept to reality in “the real world”. The rest of us are just informed observers.

  10. Don’t worry about it. Whoever starts studying a new field or phenomenon becomes an expert in it, and the first wave of people get treated as experts before they (or anyone) have a great deal of actual experience. I’ve been watching electronic publication since it emerged, and my latest thing is cyberfunded creativity. If you’re active in an area, just talk about what you’re doing. Most of the time if you act like you know what you’re doing, people will go along; just be careful not to overstretch.

  11. The world moves ever more quickly. Easy to observe this with Green/Clean tech. We only have moments to stand out as genuine experts before the field becomes packed with both pretenders and actual experts with impressive practical resumes. Just something that we need to adapt to. We choose how to adapt. So, please continue to be concerned with taking the ethical and genuine approach. Be honest about what you can and can not do. And have faith that, in the end, the rewards will come.

    On the topic of innovation which this discussion seems to have wandered off to. I suggest that all read Drucker’s, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Here Drucker presents and orderly method of looking at new opportunity. Raj, I think you will get a huge rush out of reading this book.

  12. Steve,

    You bring up a very good point; but, I think you are construing two different definitions. Though you expressed you have some ‘experience’ at an occupation, it was someone else who boldly crowned you ‘expert’. To be blunt, irresponsible people do that. (Personally, I believe people who do that, do it to make themselves appear more important by creating the perspective that ‘they know an expert’.)

    I think you, or the rest of us, would be responsible to correct that statement immediately, and put it in perspective; leaving all those listening with a far more accurate representation of oneself.

    Every new technology and industry progresses through these growth steps. You are accurate in using the dot-com experience as and example. However, remember the personal computer industry that came before it is on the other end of the spectrum of failure v. success. It also had it’s minor failures, dings, and embarrassments along the way, but the net result is obvious.

    All new technologies are subject to such growing pains. It’s how we as a society work. It’s how we grow. Perfect? Not at all.

    I am working on a similar situation regarding alternative energies. Even after 30 years, these industries are still in start-up mode, and in my opinion still suffering through rapid-fire iterations of growth, retreat, and changes in technologies. You can read my article (Why Is Sustainability in the Renewable Energy Industry So Difficult?) and my proposed solution at http://www.greenenergycafe.com/.

    Thanks for the article.

  13. One definition of ‘expert’ – anyone more than 100 miles from home and staying overnight.

    Another (commonly used by companies providing technical services to an unwary client) – any one from the home office who they declare and ‘expert’. Over the years İ have worked on and managed many plant start-ups around the world where office experts were useless but paid for by the client anyway.

    Along the same lines İ get tired of hearing about comments on the environment made by an unnamed scientist – or unnamed environmentalist etc – etc. The title should only come attached to a name!

  14. I am no expert, but I believe that there are those people out there who are light years ahead of the pack. I also believe those same people are on the front lines using sustainable practices within one of the most basic needs of our society–food production.

    The average person has no concept of what it takes to put food on their table. How much petroleum-based fertilizer went into the soil? If you’re Certified Organic, did you use propane to burn your weeds instead of killing them with noxious chemicals? Did you cultivate using a tractor? If so, how many passes did you have to make before harvesting the final crop? Did you use a non-biodegradable mulch, like plastic? How much energy and petroleum-based products are used during harvesting? Does your crop require transport for processing? If so, how many trips? Does the crop require refrigerated/frozen storage? How much energy is used during farmstead operations–meaning dairies, creameries, etc. How does the product get to market? How many miles?

    Let’s not forget another resource to consider…water, precious water. For example, when we installed a simple rainwater collection system that worked off of gravity, we were able to capture and store 500 gallons of rainwater at a time. Thanks to my addiction to Excel, I realized that our electricity bill dropped an average of $20-35 per month during the hottest time of the year with our maximum animal unit load. That meant I used approximately $400 less of power last year and the only thing that significantly changed the harvesting of rainwater off 2/3 of my barn roof.

    My point is sustainability begins at home. We can all hoist lofty visions of a less energy-dependent society, but true sustainability begins at home. Look at your most basic needs…food, water, shelter…and make intelligent and informed choices. Enterprise infrastructure, seminars and collaborative projects are all fine & dandy, but please, start with the foundation in your own lives and homes.

  15. Great converstion about ‘experts’ and Clean Tech industry. I believe that Clean Tech is only a part of the much larger scenario called sustainability. Everyone that has posted a comment ‘gets’ it at some level. What I have to offer is an expansion of Sandra comment that sustainability begins at home. True. I would take it another giant step further and say that sustainability begins in our perspective / attitude about our society and the ‘place’ we live. A very good example of this are the native peoples around the world. They ALL place an inordinate (to us) amount of value on the place they live or their location. They consider the land they live on to be ‘home’. This is consistant with many of the thinkers in history who have thought of our planet as our ‘home’. People like Raj and Ron Wolf and Richard Carter (and many, many more) take that perspective and are planning, designing and implementing it into real life solutions that make a difference. I believe I also can bring a ‘spiritual’ component to sustainability as I have a life time of experience in coming back from the ‘dead’. At one time in my life most people would have said I looked dead. Like the others I have mentioned I have been able to provide real solutions that work in life to solve issues that are different from electrical or physical ones but no less impactful on our ability to sustain ourselves as a society on a planet that does NOT have infinite resources. The integration of all our ‘parts’ is for me what adds up to becoming sustainable. It is an ongoing, never ending process which has its positive result in the action of doing and not in the ending.

  16. In following up on Sandra’s and Barry’s comments, it we are going to get the opportunity to bring our efforts to our own properties and environs as individuals, we need a specific type of legislation to do so. It is known as Feed-In Tariffs; it is what the Germans used to catapult themselves ahead of everyone else on earth with respect to renewable energies.

    (Tax credits only work for the wealthy, large investors, corps and utilities; while putting the average user at a disadvantage and sidelining them to remain comsumers as compared to participants and energy contributors; and that includes farmers in a big way.

    Please see this quick read pdf (4 pages) for more detail:

    http://www.newrules.org/de/ptc-wind-ownership.pdf

  17. I like the new rules analysis and idea for getting more people involved in sustainable energy projects of significant size. I also thank him for getting that info and putting on this blog. Information is power! I will be posting this info on my blog and referencing on my twitter site to try and involve as many people as possible in a discussion.

  18. The author just had a day-long conference on the subject last week, bringing in speakers from across the country and one from Germany.

    It was well attended and even better received.

    It would be great if you spread the word. There is no reason why EVERYONE can’t be involved in this growth. It worked and continues to work in Germany.

    Feed-In Tariffs are far more productive than Cap-n-Trade, or tax credits. The costs are minimal and the returns are huge; returns that everyone benefits from, not just a chosen few.

  19. The ‘newrules.org’ is an excellent idea.

    İ am totally against the carbon trading schemes. Typically the trade is done with 3rd world country where corruption insures it is a farce. A company İ worked for in İndıa loved the trading concept – they considered it as akin to milking the neighbor’s cow.

  20. Following up on Sandra’s comments, I just learned something today at a carbon credit trading conference in NYC that I did not know – I am assuming that there are several experts on this subject that did know this – organic farming / cows actually have a bigger carbon footprint in terms of methane production, than the nasty chemical filled feedlot cows. I guess that would make sense for anyone that has driven past the organic digester facilities in farm country. Also from Sandra’s example of sustainability begins at home, rainharvesting for those that are following the ongoing controversy in Colorado, would know that even the rain that falls on your roof, may not belong to you depending where in the US you live. There a rancher was sued by the State because the recharge from the ranch actually belongs to a downstream right holder. Not that I am an expert in this mind you. I like what many have said here. Good points.

  21. There is a similar issue to ‘expert’ with the word ‘engineer’ In the UK traditionally and Engineer was someone with a professional qualification, or soem demonstrable experience. Now the word is used more freely to denote technicians, etc. I don’t have a problem with this except that we do not have a way of describing someone with more experince than someone else…..unless we call them an ‘expert engineer’

  22. It bespeaks yet another advantage of a healthy diet (the cow ‘emissions’). Now we know they are even more efficient energy generators.

    It makes sense. Cows have fermentation guts, four of them. Whereas we chemically dissolve our foodstuff, they ferment theirs. I can only speculate that by putting all the chemicals and ‘other’ feed materials into feedlot cattle, that it upsets the normal processes they have evolved into.

  23. REgarding OneToRemembers comment, when I’m putting a job out to bid or recruiting, I scrutinize. In the US, I absolutely require proof of a PE (Professional Engineer) rating.

    There’s just too many ‘back of the envelope’ designers out there, selling shortcuts.

  24. Regarding Jeff’s relating that he heard that “organic farming / cows actually have a bigger carbon footprint in terms of methane production, than the nasty chemical filled feedlot cows.” I’d be skeptical of this as there are plenty of reasons why this sort of observation could be self-serving. One element of expertise is checking out what you hear instead of merely repeating. So, Jeff, have you verified this statement? If so, pls pass some references. And if not, I’d still be interesting in hearing what the rational was. Especially if the entire system of both types of animals was considered. After all there is more to it than just what comes out of the cow. There is also a large CO2 (and perhaps methane) component involved in what goes into the cow.

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