Clean Technology's Unstoppable Energy

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One of the truly positive stories of the Great Recession is the continued growth of clean technology in general, and clean energy in particular. This isn’t the prevailing narrative. According to the mainstream media, the excitement over cleantech has eased, the victim of global economic travails, the dearth of investment capital, and the cooling of political momentum to curb global warming. It’s a bubble that, if not burst, has at least depressurized a bit.

That’s not the world as I see it. Interest over cleantech remains high — perhaps not by the media, which seems to have deemed it yesterday’s story, but by the large corporations, national and sub-national governments, and the thousands of start-ups that seem to be surviving, even thriving. Not to mention all of their customers.

True, it’s not all a bed of solar-soaked roses. The economy is making things tougher, the lack of a price on carbon emissions has tempered growth, investors are being tight-fisted, and the vagaries of energy prices has made the shift to a low-carbon economy seem somewhat less urgent, however short-sighted that may be. But cleantech is alive and well.

I was reminded of that this past week with the annual release of Clean Edge’s Clean Energy Trends report, which found an 11.4 percent increase in the growth of solar photovoltaics, wind, and biofuels deployment globally during the past year. (I am a co-founder of Clean Edge but did not play a role in the report.) That growth was remarkable, considering the obstacles, and greater than anticipated at this point last year.

"In the past year, we’ve seen clean-energy technologies continue to gain a foothold in the broader energy market," says Ron Pernick, Clean Edge’s managing director. For example, he points out that wind power in the U.S. roughly matched natural gas as the leading source of new electricity generation for the third consecutive year. Moreover, "Investments in clean-energy generating capacity continued to outpace total global investments in conventional fossil fuels for the second year in a row."

That’s a positive indicator, if ever there was one: Investments in new clean energy generation around the world are greater than investments in conventional fossil fuel energy, and have been for two years running.

Much of this is happening outside the U.S., which is one reason Americans may be sheltered from the clean-energy success story. China, for one, has created a cleantech boom. China, by some estimates, could end up spending $440 billion to $660 billion toward its clean-energy build-out over the next decade. As Pernick notes: "Just five years ago, China was a virtual non-player in the cleantech space."

Last year alone, China, the global leader in new wind energy installations for the first time, accounted for more than a third of all new wind installations, representing 13,000 megawatts of capacity. China also leads the world in solar hot water heater manufacturing and installations, and manufactures more solar cells than any other country. Still, says Pernick, "We believe it’s too early to declare China the de facto winner for a host of reasons. These include the fact that the breadth and complexity of cleantech mean that no one country will dominate in all sectors; that China might find it increasingly difficult to build cleantech off the backs of polluted water, air, and products; and that the constrained flow of information in China might impact entrepreneurship and technology innovation."

The Clean Edge report puts a positive spin on climate developments, or the lack thereof. The failure to develop binding agreements in Copenhagen and the significantly diminished prospects for U.S. federal cap-and-trade legislation would seem to hamper clean energy’s growth. "But in many ways the climate debate had become divisive and distracting and, we believe, the use of a different frame or lens for cleantech is a positive development for the industry," says Pernick. "Many industry proponents believe the conversation needs to shift away from climate and toward issues like energy and national security, job creation, environmental protection, and economic competitiveness. The industry will still need a price on carbon to signal markets, but that can now come by viewing carbon for what it is: a source of pollution."

That remains to be seen, of course, but it certainly jibes with the perspective of those of us who have long been talking about the multiple benefits of clean energy beyond curbing global warming.

All of this provides a solid footing for the continued growth of clean energy, not to mention the smart electric grid, the acceleration of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle introductions, smart home appliances, and other technologies that will tie these things together. And looking forward, the indicators are promising. In’s 2010 State of Green Business report, we noted that U.S. patents for clean-energy technologies in 2009 were at an all-time high, with 200 more patents filed than in 2008, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, compiled by the intellectual-property law firm Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti. The rise continued a trend we’ve been seeing for several years. In 2009, solar patents returned to levels last seen in 2003 and were barely edged out by wind patents in the clean-energy patent standings.

Patents are a leading indicator, suggesting that a new surge of energy-related innovations is on the way. "We’re seeing a lot in the pipeline regardless of the [federal government’s economic] stimulus, and that’s just going to add to it," Victor A. Cardona, intellectual property law attorney at Heslin Rothenberg, told me in January. "There are a lot of people working in cleantech and renewable energy that weren’t a year ago."

That may be the most significant clean-energy trend of all.

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