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Beyond the Daily Roller Coaster, the Clean-tech Wave Rolls On

Being in the clean tech industry these days is a little like how it must feel to be one of the Republican presidential candidates. One day things look great, you're the talk of the buzz-o-sphere, riding a surge of momentum as The Next Big Thing. But wake up the next day to a piece of breaking bad news, and suddenly it's nothing but doom and gloom, everyone's trashing me, and how long can I actually stay in this race?

It’s a little bit early for year-end reflections, but this is my last column of 2011, so a natural question comes to mind: was this a good or bad year for clean tech? My first response tends toward the negative — but I think it’s the wrong way to look at it. As my colleague Ron Pernick and I have written and said many times, it’s critical to take a long-term view. Ron is particularly fond of the Japanese aphorism, “Think like a mountain.” Energy transitions unfold over decades, not years, and certainly not single days like Sept. 1, when my first day back from summer vacation began with the San Francisco Chronicle’s banner headline about the Solyndra bankruptcy on my doorstep.

That kicked off a tempestuous autumn that buffeted the U.S. clean-tech industry like nothing in recent memory (there’s nothing like an upcoming election season to exacerbate a political pile-on). The Solyndra firestorm’s collateral damage at the time included one of the year’s best clean-tech initiatives, SolarCity’s $1 billion, five-year SolarStrong project to install PV panels on more than 100,000 military housing units nationwide. SolarCity and its financial partner Bank of America Merrill Lynch had applied for a Department of Energy loan guarantee, but in the wake of the Solyndra turmoil, they were not able to finalize the loan before the DOE program ended Sept. 30. It appeared that up to 300 MW of new solar, and a great initiative that would raise clean-tech’s profile in the American mainstream, was dead.

But exactly two months later on Nov. 30, the companies announced that the project would move ahead without the DOE loan guarantee. The industry’s emotional roller coaster was back on the upswing. 

Turnarounds like SolarStrong give me hope that bad news can be reversed. And there’s certainly no lack of bad news in clean tech at the moment. Here are just a few recent items:

  • Google has pulled the plug on its noteworthy “RE<C” research initiative to help make renewable energy cheaper than coal, with visionary leader Bill Wiehl following the recently departed Dan Reicher out the Google door.
  • Expectations are low for the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, and Canada’s Conservative government is reportedly considering withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.
  • America’s political battles over the federal budget continue unabated, putting all sorts of critical clean-tech support at risk, including the wind power industry’s essential production tax credit; its unextended end-of-2012 expiration date is already affecting investment and potential deployment.
  • Flywheel energy storage provider Beacon Power joined Solyndra as a DOE loan guarantee recipient (albeit for just $43 million compared to Solyndra’s $538 million) to declare bankruptcy. 
  • And a Chevy Volt’s battery pack caught fire after a crash test.

Yet some of these bad-news items could still turn around like SolarStrong. Although Google is pulling back from its own energy R&D efforts, it will continue to fund others’ clean-tech projects (which it has done to the tune of $850 million so far). Perhaps results from Durban will surprise me. The Chevy Volt, with a charismatic champion in General Motors executive Bob Lutz, a converted former electric-vehicle naysayer, will overcome this setback. And did I mention that the U.S. solar market is expected to double this year, for the second year in a row, to a projected 1,900 MW?

I see clean tech as a global wave that might slow down from time to time, but it won’t be stopped. Sometimes you need to look beyond the day’s headlines and dig around in unlikely places like the U.S. military, which is pouring billions into clean tech, mostly under the mainstream media radar. SolarStrong is now poised to join the Pentagon’s arsenal of clean-energy deployments on bases around the country — and on missions around the world.

Ron Pernick and I titled our first book The Clean Tech Revolution for a reason. We really do see this industry fundamentally transforming the way the world generates its power, fuels its vehicles, designs and constructs its buildings, manufactures its products, delivers and filters its water – and countless other processes essential to modern life as we know it. But we should never forget that revolutions take time, especially those that often require shifts in long-held thinking. 

One legendary revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi, didn’t have to deal with sound bites on 24-hour cable news or the Twittersphere. But he knew something about looking past short-term setbacks towards a different future unfolding over the long term. In the current roller-coaster world of clean tech, it helps to remember his words: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — then you win.”

Wilder is Clean Edge's senior editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. His new book, Clean Tech Nation, co-authored with Ron Pernick, will be released next year by HarperCollins. E-mail him at wilder@cleanedge.com and follow him on Twitter at @Clint_Wilder.

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