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When it comes to green solutions, 'small is beautiful'

Green investors are increasingly turning towards smaller start-ups.

On the face of it, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that took place in Las Vegas this month was a turning point for the environmental movement. An unprecedented number of green initiatives were presented.

But green investors are sceptical of the true intentions of big international trade shows and the companies they host and are now increasingly turning towards smaller start-ups.

The show has sparked a debate among environmentalists and green investors concerning the motives of large electronics corporations and whether such organisations and their massive annual trade shows can ever be considered truly "green". Some environmentalists suspect CES 2011 and its exhibitors' credentials are not as green as they might appear. They are cautious that international industry shows do not use small-scale green initiatives as window dressing while ignoring the bigger picture. The show itself has come under severe criticism for flagrantly wasting environmental resources while ostensibly promoting green living.

Nevertheless, CES 2011 did showcase a large number of green initiatives. These included a smart house showcased by NRG Energy Company and an electric version of the Ford Focus. Home energy management was a key theme of the show. Last summer, General Electric (GE) and a group of venture capitalists launched a US$200 million (Dh734.6m) fund for a "smart grid challenge" allocating financing to start-ups providing initiatives aimed at the power grid.

At CES, GE announced another phase of the six-month challenge concentrating on energy around the home. GE also showcased its new home energy-management business, including its Nucleus home-energy device, plus its Brillion line of smart appliances and smart thermostats. All these devices connect within the home to GE's smart meters.

Verizon also showed its first smart home energy pilot, due to launch in the second half of this year. Verizon will be using technology from 4Hom with telecoms equipment maker Motorola, acquired last month. A new company called Green Wave Reality, which was launched in June 2010 by former executives from US-based global networking giant Cisco, also showed a home energy-management product line that includes smart plugs designed to reduce energy consumption. CES teamed up with Earth911, its recycling partner for the show, to promote the Sustainable Planet TechZone.

"The Connected Home Appliances TechZone is a natural extension of the CES show floor, with products designed to network and connect, improving the lives of consumers," says Gary Shapiro, the president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association.

"The home is an essential component to an effective smart grid. Smart appliances and consumer electronics will allow consumers to save money on their electric bill and use energy in a more environmentally friendly manner," adds Joseph McGuire, the president of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

"Already a leader in energy efficiency and the smart grid, the appliance industry is paving the way with smart technologies."

CES was also flashing its own green credentials at the show, announcing it had cut its print production over the past five years by almost half.

The show organisers also said that CES attendees have an average of 12 meetings, which the show organisers say cuts down on airplane travel emissions by consolidating a number of trips into one.

But environmentalists claim that the show resulted in the burning of an estimated 179,000 tonnes of carbon that could have been saved if CES had been a virtual event hosted over the internet. Visitors travelling to the exhibition burnt an estimated 19,500 tonnes in flights alone.

There is now a global view among green investors that big industries do not hold all the answers to the world's environmental problems. Investor sentiment increasingly dictates that "small is beautiful" and that the road to limiting current levels of environmental damage will be taken in small steps. Suspicious of the ability of large corporations to address the issue fully, investors are now looking at the growing number of start-up companies developing small-scale environmental initiatives.

Ekotribe is an example of one such start-up. A distributor of eco-related products for the UAE and the Middle East, its products include green gadgets and appliances, solar lights, eco-friendly shower heads and bio-degradable tableware.

Its two latest products, the Enviroplug and the Waterpebble, offer two routes to saving the planet in small stages.

The Enviroplug is an energy-saving adaptor for mobile phones. Once the phone's battery has a full charge, the Enviroplug blocks any further use of electricity. The Waterpebbble monitors water going down the drain when taking a shower.

Ekotribe is just one year old, but according to the founder and head buyer, Anu Agarwal, the company plans to offer its shares to the public within two to three years.

In the meantime, the company intends to extend its presence within the Middle East.

"We are looking to expand into other GCC countries in the next year and hope to have the largest store for eco-friendly products in this part of the world within three to five years," says Ms Agarwal. Ekotribe, and other small-scale start-ups across the world, will offer green investors an eco-friendly alternative to large organisations with ambivalent eco-policies as they enter the investment market over the coming years.



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