Boston-Power CEO Sees “Immense” Pressure to Curb Carbon Emissions at Copenhagen Summit

12/7/09Follow @wroush

Quite a few clean energy companies around Boston have a stake in the outcome of the international climate change talks that start this week in Copenhagen, Denmark. If nations set more aggressive goals for greenhouse-gas emissions cuts, after all, they’ll have a greater need for technologies to reduce their carbon emissions.

But only one local cleantech executive, as far as Xconomy can determine, is actually going to Scandinavia to participate in the discussions. It’s Christina Lampe-Onnerud, founder and CEO of Boston-Power, which makes green, longer-lasting batteries for HP laptops and other devices.

As a member of a non-governmental initiative called The Road to Copenhagen, Lampe-Onnerud attended climate change discussions in Brussels, Belgium in two years ago and Oslo, Norway, last year. She’s now heading to her native Sweden to take part in the group’s final conference in Malmö, just across the Oresund Strait from Copenhagen, on December 8 and 9.

Boston-Power is one of 13 corporate sponsors of the Road to Copenhagen meeting, alongside much larger companies such as Cargill, Procter & Gamble, and Whirlpool. Lampe-Onnerud, who trained as a chemist, says her most important job at the Malmö meeting will be to “bring some honesty to the scientific debate” around different options for dealing with climate change. “I have made it one of my personal and professional commitments to be a citizen of the Earth, and this is something I know something about, so I think I should volunteer some time,” she says.

The Road to Copenhagen group—an initiative of the Club de Madrid, a group of former presidents and prime ministers—consists largely of politicians, business leaders, and scientists who are not part of the formal negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. (That meeting starts today in Copenhagen and continues through December 18.) The group plans to develop a communiqué that will be delivered to representatives at the UN meeting. Its last communiqué, issued just before the 2008 UN climate change meeting in Poznań, Poland, called for a halt to further increases in greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2020 and a 50 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050—goals that are far more ambitious than the emissions caps set out by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Developing a more aggressive, legally binding treaty to take the place of the Kyoto accord—which expires in 2012—was the original goal for the Copenhagen conference. But the U.S. Congress’s failure to pass energy legislation this fall committing the United States to emissions reductions means that President Obama is going to Copenhagen largely empty-handed. Many other nations have also been dragging their feet on climate legislation. In recent days, both the U.S. and China, the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases, have set informal reductions targets, but it’s too late for Copenhagen: UN negotiators have already scaled back their goals for the meeting to achieving an interim pact, with more negotiations over a binding agreement to follow in 2010.

Still, Lampe-Onnerud is upbeat (as always—she is perhaps Boston’s most cheerful technology CEO). “I know that there is disappointment in the setup [for Copenhagen], but I am going because I still think the time is now,” she says. “We have to take action, because the climate change threat is more severe than many want to depict. I will go in with a sense of urgency, and with the discipline of a measurable, milestone-driven agenda.”

One item on Lampe-Onnerud’s agenda will be to try to quash schemes for large-scale climate modification to dampen or reverse global warming. “There is some thought going into the meeting about spraying sulfur in outer space to deflect sun rays, or dumping chemicals into the sea [to accelerate algae growth], and I will fight that really hard,” she says. “We should not experiment when we’re living inside the test tube—I will not expose my children to that.”

As a participant in the Road to Copenhagen Technology Working Group, which is chaired by European Commission vice president Margot Wahlström, Lampe-Onnerud says she will also push the group to recommend that governments pass laws to require rapid installation of existing alternative-energy technologies, rather than funding endless research and development. In particular, she wants to see more spending on electric vehicles and solar, wind, and geothermal facilities. “Let’s deploy technologies that exist today,” she says. “If legislators are brave enough to look 30 to 50 years out, I can guarantee that business leaders will lock right in behind that. So politicians should be feeling immense pressure from me and my colleages coming into the meeting.”

While government cleantech investments have an obvious environmental benefit, there might also an upside Boston-Power, whose advanced lithium-ion batteries store energy longer than traditional batteries and can be manufactured with less toxic waste. “There are many wind farms and solar plants that lack energy storage,” Lampe-Onnerud points out. Electric cars are also far closer to being a reality today than they were a decade ago. While Boston-Power’s current products are tailored for small devices like laptops, the company is working on larger batteries that could be installed in electric vehicles, and perhaps someday at energy-generating facilities.

Boston-Power won recognition for its battery innovations last week when it was named a 2010 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. (It was among six Boston companies so honored.) Lampe-Onnerud says that award came as a total surprise—the company didn’t even know it had been nominated. “It’s an amazing endorsement,” she says. “At the beginning of a new technology there are a lot of people not believing you, so everybody who agrees that this could be the start of something big is always fun for us to hear.”

But there’s one organization that may not yet believe in Boston-Power’s promise: the U.S. Department of Energy. In August, the DOE passed over Boston-Power’s application for a $100 million stimulus grant that the company said it needed to build a proposed 600-employee battery manufacturing facility in Auburn, MA.

Lampe-Onnerud said at the time that she was “incredibly disappointed” by the DOE’s decision. But within 60 days of the DOE’s rejection, she says, Boston-Power had secured economic stimulus funding from a different source—the Chinese government, which will help the company to build essentially the same factory planned for Auburn in the Chongqing municipality of western China.

“That was, as you know, our strategy before, but we had put it on hold because I really wanted to help the U.S. economy,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “We felt we had a fabulous proposition to be able to bring some jobs back home. But the company is in pretty awesome shape now to continue its growth.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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