2011 In The Rear-View Mirror: Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear

It’s that time again:  sifting through the detritus of a calendar year to sum up what’s happened over the past 12 months. 

Everybody’s doing it — for news, sports, movies, books, notable deaths…and now even for cleantech:  here’s the scoop from MIT’s Technology Review, and here’s a post on GigaOM.

So, my turn [drum roll, please], here’s my top 10 take-aways from 2011:

  1. Solyndra.  The utter failure of Solyndra, and the messy loan guarantee debacle, has been a huge black-eye to the cleantech sector.  It’s a political football that will be kicked around extensively during the 2012 election cycle, further widening the schism of support levels by the two major U.S. political parties for cleantech.  In other words, cleantech is becoming an ever-more polarizing issue — with Solyndra serving as the most visible tar-baby.
  2. Shale gas and fracking.   A chorus of ardent proponents of natural gas development, most vocally Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) — the largest player in the shale gas game — is repeatedly chanting the mantra that shale gas is so plentiful that it can very cheaply serve as the major U.S. energy source for the next several decades.  And, recovery of this resource will create a bazillion jobs for hard-working Americans in rural areas.  In this view, who needs renewables?  Interestingly, this view also poses increasing threats to coal interests as well.  On the flip side, of course, the concerns about the use of fracking techniques, and the implications on water supplies and quality, are constant fodder for headlines.  Clearly, shale and fracking will continue to be hot topics for 2012.
  3. Keystone XL.  The proposed pipeline to increase capacity for transporting oil from the Athabasca sands of Alberta to the U.S. is the current lightning rod for the American environmental community.  Never mind that denying the pipeline’s construction will do very little to inhibit the development of the oil sands resources — Canadian producers will assuredly build a planned pipeline across British Columbia to ship the stuff to Asia.  Never mind that blocking the pipeline will do nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption — which is, after all, the source of the greenhouse gas emissions that opponents are so concerned about.  This has become an issue of principle for NRDC and other environmental advocates:  “we must start taking concrete steps to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.”  Nice idea in theory, but this action won’t actually do anything to accomplish the goal, and will only further paint the environmental community in a damaging manner as being anti-business and anti-economics.  In my view, we have to work on reducing demand, not on curtailing supply; if we reduce demand, less development of fossil fuels will follow; the other way around doesn’t work.  The Obama Administration has punted approval for the pipeline past the 2012 election, but Keystone XL — like Solyndra — will be a major framing element in the political debates.
  4. Fukushima.  The terrible earthquake/tsunami in Japan in March killed over 20,000 people — and sent the Fukushima powerplant into meltdown mode in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.  As costly and devastating as Fukushima was to the local region, it pales compared to the damages caused by the natural disasters themselves.  Even so, the revival of the perceived possibility that radioactive clouds could spew from nuclear powerplants put a severe brake on the “nuclear renaissance” that many observers had been predicting.
  5. Chevy Volt.  Released after much anticipation in 2011, sales of the plug-in electric hybrid Volt have been well below expectations.  Furthermore, as I recently discussed here, a few well-publicized incidents of fires stemming from damaged batteries have been a huge PR blow to gaining widespread consumer acceptance of electric vehicles.  Clearly, Chevy and others in the EV space have their work cut out for them in the months and years ahead.
  6. Challenges for coal.  As I recently wrote about on this page, the EPA has been working on promulgating a whole host of tightened regulations about emissions from coal powerplants.  These continue to move back and forth through the agencies and the courts, and coal interests continue to wage their battles.  But, between this set of pressures and low natural gas prices (see #2 above), these are tough days for old King Coal.  Not that they couldn’t have seen these challenges coming for decades, mind you, and not that some of their advocacy organizations don’t continue to tell their pro-coal messages with some of the most heavy-handed and dubiously factual propaganda outside of the recently-deceased “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il
  7. Light bulbs.  One of the most absurd and petty dramas of 2011 unfolded over the planned U.S. phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, as provided for in one of the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) led a backlash against this ban, arguing that it was an example of too much government intrusion into consumer choice — and succeeded in having the ban lifted at least for a little while, tucked into one of the meager compromises achieved as part of the ongoing budgetary fights.  This was accomplished against the objections not of consumers, but the objections of light bulb manufacturers themselves, who had already committed themselves to transitioning to manufacturing capacity for the next-generation of light bulbs:  CFLs, LEDs and halogens.  Now, the proactive companies who invested in the future will be subject to being undercut by a possible influx of cheap imported incandescent bulbs.  Way to go, Congress!  No wonder your approval ratings are near 10%.  Is it possible for you guys to focus on the big important stuff rather than on small bad ideas? 
  8. PV market dynamics.  Solyndra (#1 above) failed in large part because the phovoltaics market has become much more intensely competitive over the past year.  Module prices have fallen dramatically — no doubt, in large part because the market is now saturated by supply from Chinese manufacturers, who are sometimes accused of “dumping” (i.e., subsidizing exports of) PV modules into the U.S. marketplace.  This is stressing the financials of many PV manufacturers, including some Chinese firms and other established players.  For instance, BP (NYSE: BP) announced a few weeks ago its exit from the solar business after 40 years.  However, the stresses are falling mainly on companies that employ PV technology that cannot be cost-competitive in a lower pricing regime, whereas some of the new PV entrants — not just Chinese players, but some U.S. venture-backed players like Stion (who just raised $130 million of new investment) — are aiming to be profitable at low price levels.  And, after all, the low prices are what is needed for solar energy to achieve grid-parity, which is what everyone is seeking for PV to be ubiquitous without subsidies. 
  9. Subsidies.  Ah, subsidies.  In an era of increasing fiscal tightness (see #10 below), pro-cleantech policies are under greater scrutiny.  In particular, renewable portfolio standards are being threatened by state legislators of a particular philosophy who are opposed to subsidies in all forms.  The philosophy is understandable, but the lack of understanding or hypocracy is less easy to defend:  the status quo is almost always subsidized too, especially during its early days of development and deployment — and often remains subsidized well after maturity and commercial profitability.  Fortunately, there’s an increasing body of high-quality work that assesses the energy subsidy landscape in a generally objective manner, such as this analysis released by DBL Investors in September.
  10. Europe.  Although not a cleantech issue per se, the vulnerability of the European economy, the European Union, and the Euro in the wake of the various debt crises unfolding across the Continent is a major negative factor for the cleantech sector.  Europe is the biggest cleantech market, and many of the leading cleantech investors and corporate acquirers are European, so a recession (or worse, depression)  in Europe will be a very big and very bad deal for cleantech companies.

In all, 2011 was not a great year for the cleantech sector, and I don’t see 2012 being much better.  But, that’s not to say that good things can’t happen, or won’t happen.  Indeed, there will always be rays of sunshine among the clouds…or, to use another metaphor, you’ll always be able to find a pony in there somewhere.

Happy New Year everyone!