Opinion and news concerning tech, cleantech, and venture capital.

13th June 2013

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WWDC 13

In the face of persistent pundit criticism, a declining share price, and the perception they have “lost their cool”, Apple came out swinging at this week’s WWDC.  Their renewed feistiness, best exemplified by Phil Schiller’s, “Can’t innovate my ass!”, suited them well.  Cook, looking more comfortable in the very big shoes he had to fill, was more at ease and animated in this mentality.  The other executives were similarly energized, marking a departure from listless, “staying the course” performances of the past few years.  Perhaps Apple didn’t know what to do with being on top.  The perennial underdog, the late 2000’s saw them as the company that could do wrong.  Having been knocked from that perch Google and Samsung, they are eager to redefine who they are and what the company has to offer.  

The keynote was bookended by two videos highlighting their new message.  It is not a rebranding but certainly a reemphasizing.  Cook, both here and at the D11 conference, sought to underline that they do not want to be biggest, but the best.  Furthermore, he stated to the point of cliche, “Apple wants to build great products”.  This is the company mission, something he clearly believes, and he is the living embodiment of the corporate ethos.  His unyielding emphasis on this point is perhaps one of the first outwardly visible hallmarks of his tenure.

Cook wants people to understand that Apple’s products are more than a bottom line, it’s an experience they want to craft for you.  If you are not delighted, the are not satisfied.  Everything they make bears the words "Designed by Apple in California”, and this signature has taken on new meaning in their marketing efforts.  Those words are their equivalent to a seal of approval and they want you to know it.

In an attempt to bring the sense of magic and wonder back to the brand, the new Apple ads highlight the joy and wonder their products bring to people.  For some, they enrich lives in ways not previously possible.  To prove this point, there is even a new ten minute spot dedicated to telling the stories of people’s lives that have been improved through technology.  

Cynics will cry foul, but in many ways this is a retrenchment for Apple.  By going back to their roots they are seeking to rejuvenate their dedicated fan base.  The spots, testaments to the power of advertising, are indeed moving, although time will tell if they will move the needle on the company’s flagging public opinion.  

Along with the substantial changes in tone and messaging, their flagship OS, and star attraction, received a thorough makeover.  iOS 7 is perhaps not the most innovative technologically, or even feature wise, but after stunning the world with the original iOS, it got stuck in a bit of a digital rut.  Apple never lost its taste on the industrial/hardware side of the house, so it is quite refreshing to see a return to some trademark digital elegance after get a bit lost in the skeumorphic woods.

Some of the icons are flat to the point of absuridty, or even childishness, but the unified typography and color scheme lends a welcome level of polish.  What is remarkable is that despite completely gutting the OS from a design perspective, there is still a familiarity that will be make iOS understandable and approachable for the millions of soon to be installed users.  

Pundits and fans will certainly debate the merits of the new direction, but the new OS was delivered in typical Apple fashion.  Deliberate, patient moves in the face of rising criticism, and when the time comes, they deliver everything everyone wants, and nothing they don’t.  Just be sure to bet against them, so they can smirk smugly when they prove you wrong.  

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17th April 2013

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Why Residential Solar is Mightier Than Its Industrial and Commercial Counterparts

Something I wrote for my company blog.  Check it out.  

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28th January 2013

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How Google Got Design

Been awhile, but creativity just struck, if briefly, more of repost if anything…

The quip going around the web these days regarding the ongoing Google vs Apple saga, is Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is improving at web services.  That’s pretty accurate.  I really like this comparison of the design languages of Apple’s native suite vs the Google iOS suite.  

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///*** A bit cramped but you get the idea… ***///

You can really see how coherent Google designs are when compared with Apple.  It is quite remarkable that for a company that prides itself on design Apple does how disjointed its software has become.  

The Verge just posted a great video on how Google achieved that consistency.  Enjoy 

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25th October 2012

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That Old Magic

Apple’s media event was the most exciting presentation they have pulled off in some time.  Since Steve Jobs handed over the reigns, the once captivating performances have felt listless.  But where did the spark come from? 

Unlike past announcements that focused only a single product, Apple managed to unveil something no one saw coming.  Of course, I am not talking about the iPad mini.  That device was leaked down to the specs, but we will come back to that later.  The latest generation of iMac, however, was a marvel.  As it was unveiled, audible murmurs rippled through crowd, before culminating in one of the day’s biggest applauses.  

Only 5mm thin at the edges, it looks impossibly thin.  It resembles a work of art more than a computer, but even still, manages to boast impressive CPU and RAM specs.  This new machine also debuts a new storage paradigm Apple is calling Fusion Drive.  Fusion seamlessly combines the best aspects of flash and disk storage in one package.  This reveal was Apple at its finest, and generated palpable excitement.  Despite desktops declining market share, and even relevance, this refresh is truly impressive.  

On the other hand, the event’s main focus, the iPad mini, was less compelling because it was widely anticipated and reported on in advance.  There were some interesting highlights though.  The mini’s form factor is quite appealing.  It fits in one hand, and is incredibly thin and light.  Apple’s Phil Schiller made a persuasive argument on the superiority of it’s screen size, 7.9 in vs 7 in, when compared to competitor’s tablets.  It is actually not that much larger, but like the iPhone 5’s relatively small screen, Apple has some clever software tricks up its sleeve to maximize the space available to it.  This screen also has the same resolution as the first two generations of iPad, allowing old applications to work on the device without any software updates. 

Those features make for a good start, but there is real disappointment under the hood.  Moore’s law, marching ever forward, has allowed Apple’s engineers to cram iPad 2 hardware into a much smaller package.  Impressive engineering to be sure, but it means that the processor, the A5, is nearly two years removed from state of the art, an eternity when it comes to computing power.  I suspect it will run iOS 6 just fine, but, as anyone who has updated iOS on older devices knows, next year’s iOS 7 will likely strain the by then three year old architecture. 

Why release an underpowered device?  Apple’s hand was forced by its competition.  Steve Jobs was adamantly opposed to smaller tablets, insisting the smaller size degraded the experience and usability of tablets.  However, the market has spoken.  The breakout successes of Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 validated a whole new category of devices.  Apple simply could not let a holiday season go by without having its own horse in the race, and the engineering of the mini required some hardware, although certainly not design, compromises to get it to market quickly.  The mini will sell well enough in the coming months, and that is all it needs to do. Next year, when they release a version with faster internal hardware and a true Retina Display, it will be a real winner in the category, but for the time being it is simply a stopgap measure.

Apple has not lost their ability to dazzle audiences and consumers, but it is dependent on producing the unexpected.  As the past year has shown, they increasingly lack control over what their manufacturing partner’s employees say and photograph.  This diminishes a crucial weapon, hype, they have wielded with skill for a number of years.  We will have wait and see whether they can find new methods to rely on it reliably in the future.  

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5th October 2012

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Steve Jobs Tribute

Nice tribute put together from the folks at Apple.  Since Steve stepped away from the helm, the Apple events I used to relish just have not had the same magic.  He truly was a visionary and I miss those vitrouso performances.  Without further adieu…

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24th September 2012

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Beautiful Wind PR

The only question is, where is the solar version?

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17th September 2012

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Fracking, Both Sides of the Coin

When it comes to the issue of massive hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, it is difficult to find unbiased articles.  Depending on what you read, fracking is either the savior of the American economy, or the bane of rural aquifers.  This post will attempt to tease out the nuances of both positions.

 I recently wrote a post on fracking’s early days, but here is a quick review.  The technology has been in development for over thirty years, although only scaled meaningfully in recent years.  Fracking involves drilling 5,000 to 20,000 feet into the earth and then angling the borehole so it travels perpendicular from the original well for another several thousand feet.  After the drill is removed, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the well at high pressure and velocity.  The result fractures the surrounding rock, releasing pockets of otherwise inaccessible natural gas.  The process can be repeated many times on a single well by drilling new perpendicular boreholes in a radial fashion.

Massive deployment of this technique has resulted in an incredible drop in natural gas prices, driving them near all time lows. 

Historical natural gas prices

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In order to understand the considerable economic pressure these low prices exert on other forms of energy, it is necessary to examine the $/MMBTU, or cost per unit of energy.  This allows for a better “apples to apples” comparison. 

Cost over energy

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As you can see, on “per energy” basis, natural gas is incredibly cheap, and this low-cost energy creates tremendous market incentives.  The difference between the cost of gasoline and natural gas is driving a push for more natural gas powered trucking and automobiles.  Already you can see an increase in its use in municipal bus fleets.  Some companies are choosing to run natural gas fuel cells on their campuses to take advantage of the difference in price.  

Most importantly, the cost of natural gas now rivals that of coal, and without the environmental baggage coal is saddled with.  As a result, in the past 10 years, Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures have shown a decrease in our dependence on coal that is mirrored by a rise in natural gas use for electricity production. 

 

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From a national carbon emissions perspective, the implications of this shift are huge. Although carbon taxes would certainly cause a steeper reduction in emissions, it is notable that market forces are playing a strong role in reducing US emissions.  

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The Flipside

Movies like Gasland have stirred popular opposition to fracking on the basis that it pollutes water supplies, causes tap water to become flammable, and produces a range  of health maladies.  These issues rightfully stir indignation in people, but through an intensive lobbying effort, the industry has found a way to side step these accusations.  Proponents often tow a line that sounds like, “Fracking has never been proven to release methane into water supplies”.  I added the emphasis because they are playing semantic games and it is important to realize that.

In science, nothing can ever truly be proven one way or the other, but you can reach conclusions to very high degrees of certainty.  While we can never truly know what is happening so far underground, it probably stands that with the gas locked up far underground under many impermeable rock layers, the odds of some cracks forming up through thousands of feet to the water table (natural gas is usually below the water table) are low.  If you try to argue that the fracking process is causing water supply degradation you will meet the rhetorical stonewall there have been no cases where methane in the water has been proven to release methane into the water table, and that properly drilled wells are safe.

Therefore, as long as the focus is underground, it is difficult to have a conversation about fracking.  However, what we can talk about is what is happening on the surface.  The process of fracking is inherently industrial.  It requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and chemicals to be trucked to the drill sites, necessitating hundreds of truck loads.  All those trucks can overwhelm older infrastructure.  In Western states, where there are wide open spaces, it can mean building hundreds of miles of service roads, crisscrossing and scaring the landscape. 

Frack field viewed from a Phoenix - New Orleans flight

Heavy machinery is required to prepare and clear drill pads.  After the frack shot underground, the water, sand, and chemical solution comes back up as a waste product that needs to be dealt with.  It is still not known what chemical concentrations are in those fluids because they are exempt from Clean Water Act Regulations, and are considered proprietary by their owners.  This process treads heavily on the earth, and there needs to be more consideration of the effects on the landscape, to human health, and wildlife populations. 

In addition to the physical and health impacts, there are philosophical grounds for opposing fracking.  The low price of natural gas is not only torpedoing the viability of coal, but also renewable sources, which are more expensive than more established forms of energy.  If we want to find ourselves in an energy future where we do not have to make tradeoffs between air and water quality, we need to transition to cleaner sources of electricity like wind and solar.  While natural gas is certainly a better option than coal, at the end of the day, it is still a fossil fuel. 

Conclusion

Is fracking one step forward and two back?  Or vice versa?  Certainly, it is more complicated than either side would have you believe. Fracking has done great things for the US carbon emissions, but ultimately needs more regulation and oversight to prevent that gain from coming at the cost of human health and natural beauty.

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13th September 2012

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iPhone 5 Reaction

Yesterday’s iPhone event followed Apple’s well-worn playbook.  Months of rumors and speculation, a colorful façade at Moscone center, and a company “update” that is a thinly veiled reminder to developers of Apple’s superiority preceded what everyone was waiting for, a new mobile design. 

The hardware was truly impressive. Consistently pushing the envelope in size, weight, and thickness, all while surpassing previous technological performance metrics, is an engineering feat (made possible by Moore’s law).  No mere update like the 3GS or 4S, the iPhone 5 is a complete redesign.  The new hardware boasts substantial improvements in photographic, battery, processing, graphical, and wireless capabilities. The screen is now taller, yet not wider, adding valuable real estate, while maintaining the ease of one-handed use.  The previous generation’s 3.5-inch screen feels increasingly cramped in a world of gigantic Android displays, and the extra .5-inch is a welcome addition.  The new hardware is Apple at its finest.  Simply put, iPhone 5 is best-in-class technology wrapped in striking industrial design.  

Even though the hardware is stunning, iOS 6 is as unimpressive now as it was at its unveiling.  Notable exceptions like the long overdue Facebook integration, and new features like the panoramic camera and passbook aside, the offerings were unimpressive.  Scott Forestall continues to foist new skeumorphic interfaces upon the unsuspecting public.  For example, deleting tickets in passbook puts them through a digital paper shredder.  A recent Fast Co Design piece put it best when they christened these tacky gimmicks “visual masturbation”.  

Who cares?  Just delete the tickets with swipe and get rid of the goofy stitched leather while you are at it.  A fifth row of icons?  Oh boy!  Yelp integration into maps?  Zagat and Foursquare offer superior ratings and results.  A shared photo stream where you can “like” friend’s photos?  It is called Facebook.  Sharing Safari tabs between desktop and mobile?  Old news for Google Chrome.  Most “highlights” were disappointing. 

It is deeply ironic that a company like Apple is doubling down on the current iOS direction. They famously advocate new hardware standards whose time has come (ie USB, CDs, Thunderbolt) and notoriously cut those who no longer make the cut (ie floppies, CDs, firewire).  Tim Cook has gone on the record saying that without baggage of older paradigms, it is possible to design new interfaces that are more elegant, a dig at Windows 8’s attempt to have both a classic and tablet interfaces.   Why does iOS 6 cling to so many original iOS paradigms? 

Even though it is only five years old, iOS was the first truly viable smartphone OS that broke the consumer market wide open.  Subsequent iterations of Android, Windows Phone, and even the stillborn webOS have shown new possibilities for mobile interaction.  These attempts have considerably advanced the state-of-the-art in mobile software while iOS has remained at a virtual standstill. 

It is not as if Apple is incapable of reinvention.  A great example is iTunes, which was dramatically refreshed yesterday.  iTunes was the posterchild for bloatware and software creep.  Year after year, new feature after new feature was tacked on.  What originally was a digital jukebox had become a digital content and device manager, store, recommendation engine, and failed social network (anyone remember Ping?).  Finally thoroughly redesigned, it is now wonderfully modern and clean, easier to navigate, and less cluttered.  The iTunes refresh proves Apple can thoughtfully rethink interfaces with their trademark sense of design and purpose.  iOS does not need more felt backgrounds and fake bookshelves, or even a Windows Phone 8 style design shift.  What it needs is an extensive, top to bottom overhaul that will bring the software inline with modern interfaces and match the package it is delivered in.

iPhone 5, amazing.  iOS 6, staid.

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6th September 2012

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The Next iPhone…

Tim Cook will be “thrilled” to introduce it.

Its thinner and lighter form will be beautifully designed.

It will take even more stunning photographs than before.

The tech press will be whipped into an orgy of adoration and drool.

It will have a longer battery life, faster processor, and more memory. 

It will be the most “amazing” product Apple has ever labored to produce.

Apple will print money with them, and send their stock to their “best quarter ever”.

Apple does not need to advertise because of the aforementioned orgy, but they will anyway.  It will be hip. 

You will want one and I will buy one. 

It will be “insanely great”.

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28th August 2012

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Competition, Patents, and Consumer Choice

The tech consumer’s options have never been better.  All four major players (Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon) have exciting software and hardware projects in the pipeline.  On the PC front, OS X just received another coat of polish and refinement, Windows 8 will be a radical departure from its predecessors, and Chrome OS is iterating itself into a respectable alternative.  In mobile, Microsoft and Apple are on the verge of releasing the latest versions of their flagship phones and operating systems.  Finally, Google recently unveiled its most competent Android tablet, the Nexus 7, Amazon is aggressively pushing its unique content supported platform, and rumors of an iPad mini are reaching a fever pitch.

The variety of approaches to user experience is a wonderful development, but even with this cornucopia of choice, some still perceive the ongoing patent battles as an impediment to innovation. Far from it, Apple’s landmark defeat of Samsung will encourage even more alternatives.

It does not necessarily follow that Apple’s legalized monopoly on a specific feature set means their approach is superior.  My favorite example of patents spurring innovation is the iPhone’s ”slide to unlock” feature.  It is an elegant way to keep the phone from inadvertently activating, but if you need more security, Apple requires you punch in a four digit passcode following the slide.  This creates a jarring shift in the user interaction paradigm.  Since the “slide to unlock” is proprietary, Google implemented its own unique version for Android.  Their approach is both elegant and capable of securing the device via a single paradigm.  

A minor example to be sure, but the thoughtfulness of small, common interactions can make devices a joy to use or a burden to navigate.  Now that the big tech players are on notice, we are sure to see even more innovative approaches to the ways we interact with information on a daily basis.  

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31st July 2012

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Fascinating Graphic of the Day

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31st July 2012

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Foursquare Review

Bit of a first for Techno Alto today, I am going to review the recently redesigned Foursquare app.  

Foursquare is at an interesting junction in its company history.  Like Twitter’s shift from Facebook-style follower collecting to a personal broadcast platform, Foursquare is transforming from a gamified social experience to a passive recommendation engine that utilizes their massive data set.  In other words, it will take your past check in locations, along with others, and recommend places you might like.  

I used it extensively on a recent trip to Boulder, CO and Jackson, WY, both places I am unfamiliar with, and was quite satisfied with the results.  I consistently found good coffee shops with the explore functionality, and even got a free cup of coffee with their deals feature.  

I will not pass judgement on the viability of the deals and loyalty business model, but from my experience, it seems compelling.  The offerings are bit thin, and could benefit from a bit of evangelism or marketing to increase the feature’s utility and depth.  Also, the tips feature made good menu suggestions at local restaurants.  

By far though, my favorite “feature” was the clean design, free of clutter.  It has become the standard by which I judge all other iOS apps.  By comparison, it makes Instagram feel cluttered and its icons appear cryptic.  

VS

                     

The new app makes an excellent use of space, with an intuitive layout that effectively whisks you from check in to exploration to settings, all with a minimum of pagination and buried buttons.  Foursquare is an interesting company, and their new application is a beautiful representation of the big data’s power.  I recommend you give it a whirl.  

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22nd July 2012

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Cleantech Thought Leader

As frequent readers… all twelve of you… know, I am big fan of Fred Wilson.  The early Twitter and Foursquare investor helped pioneer the “VC as blogger" movement with his daily posts at AVC.  His posts have become the standard for thought leadership in the consumer web app space because he frequently provides relevant insights and entrepreneurial advice, free of charge.

I have been looking for the equivalent in the cleantech space for some time now, and Rob Day has been steadily climbing the leaderboard.  His twitter feed always has something interesting and his blog on Greentech Media is thought provoking.  

This podcast done for Greentech Media seals the deal.  His commentary on the wisdom of using VC dollars to pursue expensive, proprietary methods for manufacturing commodities or projects better suited for private equity projects is incisive.  He also sheds light on what he sees on the horizon (spoiler alert: project financing that takes the pain out of consumer/residential solar/EE deployment).  Worth a listen.  

Take Five: Cleantech Investing - A Conversation with Rob Day by Greentech: Take Five

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17th July 2012

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Yahoo!’s New CEO

I love this quote from Netscape founder and longtime VC, Marc Andreessen, on Yahoo!’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer:

“…It’s hard to overestimate how screwed Apple was in 1997. Tech companies can in fact be turned around. The problem is, there aren’t a lot of Steve Jobs characters running around.” Source

Yahoo!’s had five CEO’s in the past five years. Mayer certainly has the intelligence to turn it around. I wish her luck in bringing back an Internet Icon.

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2nd July 2012

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Renewable Policy’s Role Model is… Fracking?

Last week I attended a great Young Professionals in Energy (YPE) panel on the government’s role in cleantech.  Given the Bay Area’s politics and the panel’s composition — representatives from the Breakthrough Institute (BI), CalCEF, and NREL were present — it should come as no surprise that they were generally supportive of government investment in the cleantech space.  However, the most surprising example of a successful government investment policy in the energy space was provided by the BI’s Alex Trembath.  

In the early 70’s, natural gas production began declining for the first time, a trend that continued well into the 80’s. 

Historical US NG production 1940-2011

Preliminary research had indicated the potential of shale gas deposits, but methods for locating and extracting it were still in their infancy.  The government funded basic research that developed methods for verifying gas deposits, helped pilot the initial fracking projects, and, once proven, shared costs with industry to scale the technology.  Ultimately, early and sustained government support, not market forces, made fracking, and the subsequent natural gas boom, possible.  

Some thirty odd years later, these initial investments are paying huge dividends.  Fracking has turned the United States from a net importer to a net exporter of natural gas.  New gas power plants are rapidly displacing coal fired generation, with gas turbines experiencing a 10% increase in production, while coal has experienced a similar decline, over the past decade.  The result of this rapid shift in generation has been a sharp drop in national carbon emissions.

% Megawatts Generated by Source

The graph also illustrates the low level of renewable deployment.  Like natural gas, if the government consistently invests R&D dollars in renewables, it can meaningfully move the needle in this sector as well.  It will take decades, but it is possible and the benefit is clear.  

Will the markets bring us this these kinds of innovations?  Unlikely.  The energy industry percent of revenue spent on R&D is astonishingly low, a mere .3%.  

Industry Revenues Spent on R&D

At this level, renewable deployment will take decades longer than is required to stem the tide of global warming.  Fracking’s development and scaling has given us a roadmap for government involvement in energy R&D policy, and we would do well to replicate it with renewables.

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