Top 10 Cleantech Subsidies and Policies (and the Biggest Losers) – Ranked By Impact

We all know energy is global, and as much policy driven as technology driven.

We have a quote, in energy, there are no disruptive technologies, just disruptive policies and economic shocks that make some technologies look disruptive after the fact.  In reality, there is disruptive technology in energy, it just takes a long long time.  And a lot of policy help.

We’ve ranked what we consider the seminal programs, policies and subsidies globally in cleantech that did the helping.  The industry makers.  We gave points for anchoring industries and market leading companies, points for catalyzing impact, points for “return on investment”, points for current market share, and causing fundamental shifts in scale, points for anchoring key technology development, points for industries that succeeded, points for industries with the brightest futures.  It ends heavy on solar, heavy on wind, heavy on ethanol.  No surprise, as that’s where the money’s come in.

1.  German PV Feed-in Tariff – More than anything else, allowed the scaling of the solar industry, built a home market and a home manufacturing base, and basically created the technology leader, First Solar.

2. Japanese Solar Rebate Program – The first big thing in solar, created the solar industry in the mid 90s, and anchored both the Japanese market, as well as the first generation of solar manufacturers.

3. California RPS – The anchor and pioneer renewable portfolio standard in the US, major driver of the first large scale, utility grade  wind and solar markets.

4. US Investment Tax Credit for Solar – Combined with the state renewable portfolio standards, created true grid scale solar.

5. Brazilian ethanol program – Do we really need to say why? Decades of concerted long term support created an industry, kept tens of billions in dollars domestic.  One half of the global biofuels industry.  And the cost leader.

6. US Corn ethanol combination of MTBE shift, blender’s, and import tariffs – Anchored the second largest global biofuels market, catalyzed the multi-billion explosion in venture capital into biofuels, and tens of billions into ethanol plants.  Obliterated the need for farm subsidies.  A cheap subsidy on a per unit basis compared to its impact holding down retail prices at the pump, and diverted billions of dollars from OPEC into the American heartland.

7. 11th 5 Year Plan  – Leads to Chinese leadership in global wind power production and solar manufacturing.  All we can say is, wow!  If we viewed these policies as having created more global technology leaders, or if success in solar was not so dominated by exports to markets created by other policies, and if wind was more pioneering and less fast follower, this rank could be an easy #1, so watch this space.

8. US Production Tax Credit – Anchored the US wind sector, the first major wind power market, and still #2.

9. California Solar Rebate Program & New Jersey SREC program – Taken together with the RPS’, two bulwarks of the only real solar markets created in the US yet.

10. EU Emission Trading Scheme and Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanisms – Anchored finance for the Chinese wind sector, and $10s of Billions in investment in clean energy.  If the succeeding COPs had extended it, this would be an easy #1 or 2, as it is, barely makes the cut.


Honorable mention

Combination of US gas deregulations 20 years ago and US mineral rights ownership policy – as the only country where the citizens own the mineral rights under their land, there’s a reason fracking/directional drilling technology driving shale gas started here.  And a reason after 100 years the oil & gas industry still comes to the US for technology.  Shale gas in the US pays more in taxes than the US solar industry has in revenues.  But as old policies and with more indirect than direct causal effects, these fall to honorable mention.

Texas Power Deregulation – A huge anchor to wind power growth in the US.  There’s a reason Texas has so much wind power.  But without having catalyzed change in power across the nation, only makes honorable mention.

US DOE Solar Programs – A myriad of programs over decades, some that worked, some that didn’t.  Taken in aggregate, solar PV exists because of US government R&D support.

US CAFE standards – Still the major driver of automotive energy use globally, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

US Clean Air Act – Still the major driver of the environmental sector in industry, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

California product energy efficiency standards – Catalyzed massive shifts in product globally, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

Global lighting standards /regulations – Hard for us to highlight one, but as a group, just barely missed the cut, in part because lighting is a smaller portion of the energy bill than transport fuel or generation.


Biggest Flops

US Hydrogen Highway and myriad associated fuel cell R&D programs.  c. $1 Bil/year  in government R&D subsidies for lots of years,  and 10 years later maybe $500 mm / year worth of global product sales, and no profitable companies.

Italian, Greek, and Spanish Feed in Tariffs – Expensive me too copycats, made a lot of German, US, Japanese and Chinese and bankers rich, did not make a lasting impact on anything.

California AB-32 Cap and Trade – Late, slow, small underwhelming, instead of a lighthouse, an outlier.

REGGI – See AB 32

US DOE Loan Guarantee Program – Billion dollar boondoggle.  If it was about focusing investment to creating market leading companies, it didn’t.  If it was about creating jobs, the price per job is, well, it’s horrendous.

US Nuclear Energy Policy/Program – Decades, massive chunks of the DOE budget and no real technology advances so far in my lifetime?  Come on people.  Underperforming since the Berlin Wall fell at the least!


It’s A Nano World

For the uninitiated, “nanotechnology” refers to the science of the very small, engineering particles and their corresponding materials at the nanometer scale.  For a sense of perspective, at one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer is about 1/60,000 of the width of a human hair, so we’re talking engineering not just at the microscopic scale, but the electron-microscopic scale.

Why bother?  Because researchers from across a number of disciplines have discovered that engineering particles at such minute scale can change the fundamental performance characteristics of the material.  You want a material that captures a certain wavelength of light, or transmits a certain frequency of energy?  You just might be able to obtain it by tweaking currently available materials at the nanoscale, to change the “morphology” (think texture) of the particles so that they behave in the desired way.

The nano-world is sometimes mind-bending.  For instance, with enough wrinkles, folds or pockets, a particle with the volume of a grain of sand can have a surface area much greater than that of a basketball.  When you’re able to play topological tricks like this, amazing performance improvements in even the most basic stuff can be achieved.

As this capability has been increasingly revealed in the past decade or so, more and more acadmic research and an increasing number of companies are investigating how nano-engineering can improve the performance of all sorts of things.  This is especially true for the cleantech arena. 

Product innovation ranges across the map:  nanomaterials optimized for increased performance of membranes for fuel cells and cathodes for batteries, enhanced thermal insulation for building materials, higher capacity of contaminant capture from water, and on and on and on.

At few weeks ago, as the investment banking firm Livingston Securities convened their 7th Annual Nanotechnology Conference in New York City, Crystal Research Associates released a new report, entitled “Nanotechnology and the Built Environment:  The Transition to Green Infrastructure”.  This document profiles some of the seemingly-mature industrial sectors that are being transformed by nanotechnology, including some of the biggest corporations in the world such as GE (NYSE: GE), BASF (Deutsche:  BAS), Siemens (NYSE:  SIE) and Honeywell (NYSE:  HON) working on some of the smallest scales imaginable.

The report covers many of the sectors you’d expect to be revolutionized by materials enhancements, such as photovoltaics and lighting, but also touches on a couple of real surprises.  For instance, consider NanoSteel – a company that is commercializing metallic coating technology developed at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the performance of structural metals under challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperature or corrosion.

In addition to NanoSteel, other presenters at Livingston’s nanotech conference that particularly piqued my personal interest included Siluria (developing an approach to convert methane into ethylene, thereby reducing the requirement for petroleum to make plastics) and QM Power (offering a new basic design of motors and generators promising higher-efficiencies).

It’s always interesting to go to events such as this to get exposed to companies working under the radar screen that are aiming to achieve fascinating innovations, sometimes in the most mundane or obscure areas.  Even if not all these companies will ultimately be successful, either in serving customer needs or in generating good returns to investors, it’s heartening to note the degree and scope of creative disruption that continues to seethe in our world of incredible challenges, turbulence and pessimism/cynicism. 

Many players thinking big about the future are moving small, as small as possible.