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Clean Tech and the Big Turnaround

My wife and I brought in the New Year, let's just say, in a pretty laid-back manner. We put the kids to bed, watched an episode of Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime, and (don't tell anyone) were both asleep before midnight. That calm belied the flurry of activity to come.

After a slow, rocky, and often disappointing year for clean tech in 2012, this year is starting off with considerably more oomph. In just the first two weeks of 2013 we’ve seen SolarCity’s market cap break the $1 billion barrier (up from its opening day IPO offering price that valued the company at around $500 million in mid-December); Avis Budget Group announced its planned acquisition of car-share leader Zipcar for half a billion dollars; Warren Buffet-backed MidAmerican Energy Holdings put down $2 billion to acquire two utility-scale solar plant projects from SunPower; and, as part of the Fiscal Cliff deal, we saw the extension of the production tax credit for wind and other renewables through the end of 2013. 

Now that’s quite a turnaround from the doom and gloom that penetrated the industry at the height of the presidential election madness. We’ll give our full view of the past year and the trends to come in our annual Clean Energy Trends report to be released in March, but for now, I’d like to highlight a number of key developments that I believe will play an important role in the coming year.

1)   Corporate Activity will Heat Up

The latest preliminary numbers from the Cleantech Group show that global venture capital investments last year were down more than 30 percent from 2011. Clean-tech venture capital isn’t dead, but it is certainly retrenching. But at the same time that VCs are stepping back to develop clean-tech investment models that work, big corporations are playing a more active role. ABB, Dow, GE, Johnson Controls, Siemens, and a host of other major corporate entities aren’t backing away, but stepping up. Two folks that I’m watching are former GreenOrder principal Andrew Shapiro and his new Broadscale Group, and Jigar Shah of SunEdison and Carbon War Room fame. Both of these gentlemen have spent more than a decade in the clean-tech space, and are now working to connect ready-to-scale innovations with major utility and corporate partners and investors.

2)   Cities and States will Continue to Lead the Way

At Clean Edge, we’ve long understood the role of metro regions and states in driving clean-tech innovation and development, and we offer two leadership indexes to track their progress. As we discussed in our recent smart cities webinar, local governments act as the drivers of innovation. Earlier this month, for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would join Connecticut as states with a Green Bank; New York’s will be a $1 billion proposition. Cuomo even announced the appointment of a green-energy Czar, Richard Kauffman, most recently a senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

3)   Extreme Weather will Make “Adaptation” and “Resilience” Household Words

Just when you thought climate as a driver was dead, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Eastern Seaboard, and statistics confirmed the hottest year on record in the U.S. But it’s less the strange weather, and more the devastation left in its path, that’s the big deal here. Cities, metro regions, states, and nations are going to have to set up plans and programs to deal with these major climate disruptions. Adaptation and resilience, once the domain of public policy and infrastructure wonks, will become increasingly mainstream and drive a whole new industry (with standards, best practices, and business contracts) centered on preparedness for major natural disasters and climate disruptions. Think microgrids – distributed power systems that can work both hand-in-hand with the larger grid and in isolation ­– and highly efficient water and food supplies centered close to urban areas. 

4)   Project Deployment Will Reach New Heights

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. The next big push for clean tech will be less about tech breakthroughs (of which there will still be many), and more about new and innovative finance and business models. One look no further than the aforementioned SolarCity, or the recent work from companies like Mosaic. This venture-backed crowdfunding pioneer (which has also received around $2 million in government grants) is working to democratize the solar and renewables investment landscape.  Mosaic’s online service, which currently enables individuals to invest in solar projects, is offering competitive yields of around 5 percent annually. The company just launched its first non-beta offering, raising a total of $313,000 in less than 24 hours from more than 400 investors putting in between $25 and $30,000 each. Based on such crowdfunding models, advancements in commercial PACE, green banks, large corporate investors like Google, and potential breakthroughs in clean-energy master limited partnerships and REITs, we believe that project funding should begin to accelerate considerably in 2013 and beyond.

I’ve been involved in three major technology waves during my professional career. The first was global telecommunications in the 80s; then the Internet in the 90s; and for more than the past decade, clean tech. And in my experience, major industrial shifts are never easy — that’s why they are called revolutions. There may not be literal blood in the streets, but they require a concerted battle and they take time, perseverance, and vision.

At Clean Edge, we take a very cautious, pragmatic view of these massive industrial shifts and corresponding timelines. And I realize that everything I’ve just written will require that President Obama and Congress find an equitable solution to the debt-ceiling impasse (oh yes, just what America needs, another inside-the-beltway battle). But, no matter what happens in D.C., I think it’s pretty clear that clean tech isn’t going away anytime soon. MidAmerican and Avis-Budget, among many other corporates, see both the challenges and opportunities ahead, and they are betting on clean tech. So are major governments at the local, state, and national level, along with forward-looking foundations, NGOs, and other key stakeholders.  And I know that I am too.

Lead image: Fireworks via Shutterstock

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Volume 18, Issue 4


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