Brave New Worlds: The Expanding Reach of Clean Tech

At first glance, there might not appear to be much in common among window pane and drywall purveyor Serious Materials, PC network management software developer Verdiem, and electricity transmission networks operator ITC Holdings. Yet in today’s world, and increasingly in the vision of the Obama administration, these disparate companies and their diverse sectors are becoming significant players in the clean-tech industry.

Clean tech has always had the potential for a very broad scope across multiple industries. When Clean Edge co-founder/managing director Ron Pernick and I published the first edition of our book The Clean Tech Revolution in 2007, we defined clean tech as products or services that:

  • Harness renewable materials and energy sources,
  • Reduce the use of non-renewable resources and/or
  • Cut or eliminate emissions and wastes
  • While also delivering performance equal to, if not better than, conventional offerings.

That definition encompasses a wide range of technologies, going far beyond the “big three” — the sectors sized and forecast annually by Clean Edge — of solar energy, wind power and biofuels. Yet it seems that in recent weeks, one of the key themes of 2009 has been a new focus on what I’d call the nitty-gritty elements of the clean-tech revolution.

They may be less sexy or visible than the cerulean shine of photovoltaic panels or the kinetic grandeur of wind turbines. But things like green building materials, information technology that delivers energy data and/or powers down devices and breakthroughs in electricity storage and transmission are generating more and more buzz among entrepreneurs, investors and those all-important policy wonks.

Part of this is due to the chilling effect of the credit crisis on previously hot clean-tech sectors. With some notable exceptions, it has been a very difficult time to launch and finance big, expensive projects like biofuel refineries, large wind farms and concentrating solar generating plants. So innovators in generally less capital-intensive areas like smart grid monitoring, energy efficiency and software for so-called green computing have been grabbing center stage in clean tech.

One must, of course, be wary of the trend toward slapping a green or clean-tech label on practically everything. Greenwashing is a reality, and a particular threat under a federal administration that’s in the process of investing billions of dollars in clean-tech development and job creation. “Green-collar jobs” is another designation that can be tricky to define and quantify; Clean Edge has created some research methodologies to do so in our recent Carbon-Free Prosperity 2025 and Clean Energy Trends 2009 reports.

Few companies have embraced the current spotlight more than Serious Materials, the Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of super-insulating windows and a gypsum-free drywall product called EcoRock. The company’s vice chairman Paul Holland, general partner of VC investor Foundation Capital, shared a White House podium with President Obama and MIT president Susan Hockfield in late March to talk green jobs and economic stimulus. That was thanks in part to Serious Materials’ acquisition of two shut-down window factories in western Pennsylvania and Chicago, and the rehiring of hundreds of workers (at their previous salaries) laid off in the previous plant owners’ bankruptcies.

The Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago had been the site of a highly-publicized sit-in by employees in December, an action defended by their fellow Chicagoan who’d just been elected President of the United States. Serious Materials, with about $60 million in VC funding from Foundation Capital and others, has been able to shop for bankrupted factories “at three cents on the dollar,” says CEO Kevin Surace. The company is at the nexus of two key pieces of economic stimulus: clean-tech manufacturing and building weatherization and efficiency upgrades.

At Verdiem in Seattle, CEO Jeremy Jaech doesn’t think of his company as a clean-tech provider first. “We are in the enterprise software business,” he says. But that software allows IT managers at organizations like Washington Mutual (now JPMorgan Chase) and City University of New York to manage the energy consumption of thousands of networked PCs and monitors, cutting kilowatt-hours by some 30 percent. Verdiem is part of the burgeoning green IT sector that also features all the big guns – IBM, Cisco, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Dell, Yahoo and the like – cranking out products and services to save computing energy from the data center to the desktop.

Then there’s energy infrastructure. ITC Holdings in Novi, Michigan, the nation’s largest independent electric transmission company, is not a clean-tech player per se; its transmission lines carry all kinds of power, a great deal of it generated by coal. But ITC made clean-tech headlines this year (and was profiled in Clean Energy Trends 2009) because of an audacious plan, the Green Power Express, to build 3,000 miles of new lines to deliver 12,000 megawatts of Midwestern wind power to Chicago and other population centers.

The plan is controversial on many levels. But if nothing else, ITC has highlighted the scope of the challenge to deliver clean electrons from remote locations — whether North Dakota wind turbines, Arizona solar plants or Idaho geothermal generators — to the cities that need the power.

There’s nothing sexy about transmission lines. But like energy-saving windows and power management software, they’re increasingly recognized as key pieces of the clean-tech puzzle. Clean tech is not just about a diversity of energy sources, but an ever-sprawling diversity of industries and niches as well. Even under the dark cloud of recession, that means new opportunities for jobs, investment and growth — particularly with a federal administration in place that both understands and wants to further spark that diversity.

Clint Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at wilder@cleanedge.com.

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