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With Fossil Fuels in the Spotlight, Clean Tech Hums Along

In the Canadian province of Alberta, the Athabasca Oil Sands and the Keystone Pipeline are not the only important energy stories. In Alberta's capital of Edmonton, Montreal-based Enerkem is building a full-scale commercial plant that will use a thermo-chemical process to convert up to 100,000 metric tons of municipal solid waste into syngas, which is then converted into methanol and ethanol.

Enerkem’s project partners, the city of Edmonton and an NGO called Alberta Innovates, contributed $20 million to the project, which will be one of the world’s largest waste-to-energy facilities when it begins operations next year. In the heart of fossil-fuel country, the target output of the plant is 10 million gallons of biofuel per year from one of the most sustainable feedstocks on the planet: garbage.

Oil sands, shale gas, pipelines, and gasoline prices are clearly dominating the headlines as we enter the second quarter of 2012. But with the energy spotlight mostly elsewhere, clean tech is showing signs of market momentum — and signs of emergence from the dark shadow cast, mostly unfairly, by the Solyndra bankruptcy last fall. Come to think of it, maybe having the spotlight elsewhere isn’t such a bad thing.

Take clean-tech IPOs. New clean-tech public offerings are starting to happen after being moribund for many months due to the European debt crisis and many other factors. And they’re happening across a range of clean-tech sectors. Solar inverter maker Enphase Energy debuted on NASDAQ late last month, while concentrating solar power pioneer BrightSource Energy, biogas firm Luca Technologies and the aforementioned waste-to-energy specialist Enerkem are expected to launch soon. (Enerkem’s strategic investors include Waste Management and oil refiner Valero.)

These companies clearly have so-called “steel in the ground” — established projects that prove their technology works and can scale. That may not have been so critical four or five years ago, when clean tech was more of the “New New Thing” (and the global financial crisis hadn’t yet hit), but it’s certainly the case today. For the sake of investors and the industry’s overall future, I think it’s a good thing. As UBS’s global head of renewable energy and clean tech Jim Schaefer recently told Reuters, “Investors say, ‘I don’t want to hear about a unicorn — I want to see a unicorn.’”

On the jobs front, measuring clean-tech job creation remains a messy and inexact science. But one very dramatic factoid emerged recently from the data analysts at LinkedIn, who use the LinkedIn Analytics tool to scope out data trends within the LinkedIn online network that has a staggering membership of more than 150 million people. LinkedIn worked with the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and calculated which industries grew (or contracted) the most from 2007 to 2011 based on job positions listed in LinkedIn profiles. The renewables and environment industry grew an eye-popping 49.2 percent, outpacing all sectors by a wide margin. The Internet industry was second at 24.6 percent, followed by two digital/tech sectors, online publishing (24.3 percent) and e-learning (15.9 percent).

On the other side of the ledger, the fastest-shrinking industries over the past five years were those that have dominated the negative business press: newspapers (-28.4 percent), retail (-15.5 percent), building materials (-14.2 percent), and automotive (-12.8 percent). LinkedIn is admittedly not the definitive source for economic growth data, but there’s no denying the significance of its sample size. Renewable growth in this indicator, even if not dead-on accurate, is a strong statement in favor of its growth potential as a 21st-century industry over 20th-century holdovers.

In late March the parliament of Denmark passed the world’s first nationwide plan that calls for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 — with an intermediate target of 35 percent by 2020. That’s the kind of “stretch goal” that can inspire significant action; even if you don’t get all the way there, coming close is still a great achievement.

The United States is not Denmark, of course, and the U.S. clean-tech industry still faces huge political and policy challenges in this election (a.k.a. inaction) year. In just one significant example, political experts say the federal production tax credit for wind power, expiring at year’s end, almost certainly won’t be extended until the post-election lame duck session of Congress – a serious setback for the industry in 2013 and likely the first half of 2014. And low-cost natural gas clearly has a huge impact on the landscape for utility-scale solar and wind, although at Clean Edge we prefer to view all three sources as part of a cleaner, post-coal and post-nuclear energy future, rather than the either/or dichotomy espoused by many.

So while the politicians spend the next seven months debating whether U.S. presidents can control the price of oil (they can’t), I prefer to be encouraged by companies like Enerkem (profiled in our recent Clean Energy Trends 2012 report) that produces biofuels from waste in the heart of oil-sands country. Or at its developing plant in another not-so-obvious location for clean tech: Pontotoc, Mississippi (in case you haven’t heard of it, that’s 18 miles west of Elvis Presley’s hometown of Tupelo). Or we can focus on the conservative state of Arizona, which more than tripled its installed megawatts of solar PV power last year and made the solar industry a major bright spot in an economy devastated by the real estate and construction crash. So let the media glare go elsewhere — we’ve got work to do.

Image: MANDY GODBEHEAR via Shutterstock

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