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New Optimism For a Cleantech Future

If you’ve not been paying much attention to cleantech in the last little while, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Because post-Solyndra, cleantech has been quietly gaining momentum.

We had the chance to take a close look at the fundamentals of cleantech over the last two months in co-authoring a new (and free!) 38-page research report in conjunction with Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group As You Sow and the Responsible Endowments Coalition of Brooklyn, New York.

Titled Cleantech Redefined: Why the next wave of cleantech infrastructure, technology and services will thrive in the twenty first century, the paper analyzes the most recent investment research available across a number of industries and major impact areas. It identifies key drivers and market size projections for various cleantech categories. It looks at examples of products and technologies currently on the market. Finally, it highlights a handful of large, mid and small cap firms and funds as possible points of entry for investors within each industry.

The paper does a good job of introducing cleantech and its significance (e.g. even only being a relatively new investment theme, cleantech is still—even today after a downturn—attracting nearly a quarter of global venture capital available.) It re-emphasizes cleantech’s multi-trillion dollar individual addressable markets of power, water, agriculture, transportation and others. And it restates the significance of cleantech’s drivers, and that they’re not going away any time soon.

But to me, one of the most interesting sections of the report compares the cleantech wave to other technology booms of the last 50 years, like the dot com boom, the networking craze, biotech, the PC and the microprocessor. We found a number of parallels and a number of reasons for optimism when you compare the cycles. After 20 years in technology, personally, the more I looked at the data, the more it felt like I’d seen this movie before.

For instance, the downturn in venture capital: Venture capital often spikes early in emerging categories, later to be replaced with more traditional levels of investment and other sources of capital as industries develop. It happened in the Internet era, and this transition has begun in cleantech as shown below; venture capital is playing less of a leading role in driving cutting edge technology, as it’s being being augmented by corporate investors and other sources of funds. More detail in our report.

Venture capital spikes in Internet and cleantech

Actual and estimated venture capital spending in Internet and cleantech. Source: Matthew Nordan

There’s another relevant curve, below, that looks a lot like the one above. We hypothesized in an analysis this summer that cleantech had bottomed out on the Gartner hype cycle. We make the more detailed case in our report that cleantech, as in every one of the previous waves I just mentioned, had experienced the same initial enthusiasm, the same frothiness, the same “irrational exuberance” as Alan Greenspan put it, that these other technologies did as expectations initially exceeded reality.

As the Gartner model below illustrates, in every one of these previous waves, there was a correction, and a gradual equalization of expectations and execution. Our analysis, detailed in our report, is that cleantech is now starting to climb out of what Gartner calls the “trough of disillusionment” and up the “slope of enlightenment” (how very Zen!)

Gartner hype cycle

Hype cycle of expectations over time related to cleantech. Source: Gartner

And cleantech IS climbing out. If you look at broad-based cleantech funds as a proxy for the cleantech theme, there’s been solid growth the last few months. Yes, cleantech returns have been generally poor for investors the last few years. But there HAVE been bright spots in certain sub-sectors such as clean energy generation, solar services and transportation. The lift from high cleantech fliers like SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY) and Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSA) is pulling up the rest of the category, as shown in the performance of the PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio fund, a mix of public stocks from across the cleantech definition.

Powershares PZD fund performance

PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio fund (PZD) performance, 2007 to 2013. Source: Google Finance

Another reason our report finds optimism for the cleantech space is in looking at cleantech’s various industries through the lens of the technology adoption lifecycle model, a curve popularized by the marketing strategy firm Regis McKenna in Palo Alto, California, where I served as a senior consultant in the mid 90s. I wrote in 2011 about the significance of this model to cleantech, and our new report echoes and expands on this analysis. If the vast majority of clean technologies, services and infrastructure plays have yet to cross the chasm, it means risk and expense getting there, but it also means massively larger market adoption on the other side.

In the widely accepted technology adoption lifecycle model, a market gap exists between early adopters of new technologies and the majority of consumers. This gap is especially treacherous for companies that develop disruptive technologies, as they force a significant change to the markets they target. Only companies nimble enough to transition from the early adopter market (consumers motivated by purchasing the latest technologies for competitive benefit) to the early majority of the vastly larger mainstream market (which prefers to buy established technology) are successful.

Chasm model

The technology adoption lifecycle and chasm model, Regis McKenna. Source: Joe M. Bohlen, George M. Beal and Everett M. Rogers

Different clean technologies have faced their mainstream adoption chasms at different times. For example, wind and solar energy power generation have already bridged the gap. They are now widely understood and increasingly deployed by renewable energy decision makers at power companies, and by individual businesses and homeowners. Algae fuel, for example, is on the far left side of the chart—exciting but yet to scale.

The adoption chasm of new technologies can differ substantially in magnitude. Many cleantech products have been quietly moving the needle on efficiency and waste reduction without fundamentally altering their markets. Lighting is a good example. The transition from incandescent to fluorescents to light emitting diodes (LED) happened without dramatic market disruption. Consumers had a small technology curve to overcome, but the lighting market still requires the purchase of light bulbs. We expect a significant segment of the cleantech transition will happen in this way, with cost and efficiency driving marginal, but resource-significant product changes.

So, in all, our new report finds that cleantech is here, today, now. It observes that efficiency, one of the central tenets of cleantech, is now a theme of almost everything now made, and of how it’s designed and manufactured. Cleantech is becoming ubiquitous—from cheaper, more efficient lighting to advanced metering software. Cleantech in all of its forms is poised for even more rapid expansion, especially now that the largest companies in the world have discovered the opportunity and imperative of cost savings… and now that individual technologies are beginning to cross the chasm to mainstream adoption.

As our report concludes, we’re just at the beginning of this phenomenon called cleantech. The best and most exciting investment opportunities are yet to come.

This article was originally published here and is republished here by permission.

What’s Beyond Zero Emissions Vehicles?

by Paul Hirsch

The automotive industry has invested billions in alternative fuel technology since that first Prius rolled off its assembly line. And these days a growing portion of that investment has been focused on zero emission technologies, such as battery electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel cells.

Yet as a professional tasked with commercializing the next generation of alternative fuel vehicles, I can’t help but feel like zero just isn’t good enough. Pushing emissions off board and upstream to a dirty power plant may solve the automaker’s problems, but it doesn’t solve the Earth’s.

Which is why I was truly excited when, last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Honda introduced their “total energy management system.” The system consists of an EV, like the electric Fit they debuted at the show, as well as a Honda-developed solar charging station. An experimental solar hydrogen station is already being used to power the company’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle. Honda is not only thinking about how many EVs they can put on the streets, but how to guarantee their customers a clean energy commute day after day.

This is not the first attempt by an automaker to offer its customers a clean energy solution. Tesla Motors has promoted a Solar City charging station for its electric Roadster, demonstrating Elon Musk’s strategic interest in providing the clean electrons to power his clean car (Musk is CEO of Tesla and led the initial funding of Solar City). The Tesla-Solar City project and Honda’s recent announcement highlight a new opportunity for the auto industry – end-to-end sustainable personal mobility.

Where the industry goes from here is anyone’s guess, but the possibilities are promising. Toyota already operates a housing development subsidiary in Japan that offers homes equipped with solar panels and rainwater recycling systems. Imagine the experience if this business were integrated with Toyota’s automotive operations: when you buy into an “ecommunity” of carbon-neutral dwellings, selecting the battery range of your plug-in vehicle could become as routine as picking out your home’s paint color or bathroom tile. Or better yet, you could select to participate in a community car share program to accommodate a less frequent need for your own car.

This vertical integration of energy generation stations with the vehicles that demand their energy would go a long way toward aligning auto industry objectives with the needs of the planet. If automakers were also fueling their vehicles, they would have a strong incentive to make cars as efficient as possible. And that vertical integration would bring us much closer to a future of sustainable personal mobility.

Paul Hirsch is a Senior Product Planner at Toyota.

Solar Powers more Vehicles as Gasoline use Drops

By John Addison. Solar is powering more vehicles. American’s have reduced their use of petroleum 5 percent this year. So far, petroleum reduction is the result of fewer miles traveled solo as people cut travel to deal with high gas prices and a slowing economy. At the margin, however, solar power is replacing oil.

There are now 40,000 electric vehicles in use in the United States. They are primarily the 25 mile per hour light electric vehicles. Fleets are starting to use heavy electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids, that formerly required copious gallons of diesel and gasoline. In 2010, consumers will start buying freeway speed electric vehicles.

The U.S. Marine Corp at Camp Pendleton, during my last visit, showed me an 8-station solar car port that they use to charge their 320 light-electric vehicles. Petroleum fuel is a multi-billion dollar part of the U.S. Defense budget. Once the solar panels are installed, however, the sunlight is free. Solar is increasingly also used by the Marines and Army for stationary power in the U.S. and Iraq, reducing the need for petroleum in the form of diesel and JP8 jet fuel for running gen sets to air condition tents and buildings.

Every 44 minutes, sufficient energy from the sun strikes the Earth to provide the entire world’s energy requirements for one year, including the energy needed to move vehicles. Solar power grows 40 percent per year, as we become increasingly efficient at turning sunlight into electricity and heat.

Most importantly, with continued innovation and larger scale manufacturing, the price of solar keeps dropping. There is enthusiasm for advancements in photovoltaics (PV) and for large-scale concentrating solar power (CSP). As I researched and wrote this article at the Solar Power 2008 Conference, last week, the evidence of growth was everywhere. 17,000 from 92 countries attended the conference in San Diego, California. 425 companies exhibited, with 450 more turned away due to lack of convention floor space.

8 GW of solar power are now installed. Deutsche Bank forecasts that the photovoltaic market will growfrom $13 billion in 2006 to $30 billion in 2010. Polysilicon supply is expected to triple by 2010. New technology continues to delivers more electricity output with less silicon. These technologies include thin film, high efficiency PV, organic, concentrating PV and balance of system improvements.

For those interested in transportation, one notable area of growth is solar covered parking structures – a cool solution for a planet that is getting hotter.

When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the Solar Power International conference, he highlighted Applied Materials’ 2 MW solar power that also shades their parking lot. The vast solar shading is designed to efficiently capture energy using SunPower 19% efficient panels implemented horizontally with a system that rotates the panels to track the sunlight.

Envision Solar specializes in solar parking structures. Designed by architects, Envision uses biomimicry to have parking structures that suggest groves of trees. NREL in Colorado uses an Envision solar carport with a charging station for two vehicles including its plug-in hybrid and EV. Other organizations have installed Envison solar parking structures with the support poles pre-engineered with wiring for future charging or integration of nighttime energy-efficient lighting. These organizations include the University of California San Diego and major solar panel maker Kyocera.

New Jersey Transit is preparing for a future where parked cars can be charged with sunlight while people use public transportation. Premier Power Renewable Energy recently completed the first of two 201kW solar canopies, on the rooftops of two large six-story parking garages at the new Trenton AMTRAK Transit center. Each project includes more than 600 solar panels. The solar systems will eliminate approximately 141 tons of CO2 emissions annually.

The New Jersey parking structures are also equipped with 110v charging stations for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and Electric Vehicles (EVs). Participating in the October 14 ribbon cutting was the Mid-Atlantic Grid Interactive Cars (MAGIC) consortium, which includes the University of Delaware, Pepco Holdings, Inc., PJM Interconnect, Comverge, AC Propulsion and the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, created to further develop, test and demonstrate Vehicle-to-Grid technology.

At Google, part of their 1.6 MW solar PV installation is a solar carport structure that includes charging stations for Google’s plug-in hybrid converted Toyota Priuses and Ford Excapes.

The conference included many lively debates about whether the financial crisis would stop solar’s growth in 2009. Large projects usually require millions for project financing. Allowing customers to pay by the kilowatt with power purchase agreements requires long-term financing. Illiquidity will surely slow growth.

In most U.S. states, however, electric utilities are required by law to expand the percentage of power that is delivered with renewables. In California, for example, the renewable portfolio must be 20 percent by 2010. Pacific Gas and Electric is installing 800 MW of utility scale solar PV to meet part of that. Arizona Public Service has contracted with Abengoa to install 280 MW of concentrating solar thermal that includes molten salt towers to store six hours energy for delivery during peak hours.

Utilities have deep pockets and these volume projects are lowering costs. With illiquidity in other sectors, utilizes will increasingly drive centralized solar. In areas with positive regulatory environments and with robust grids, utilities will also encourage decentralized solar PV as part of their mix.

United States power utilities spend $70 billion annually for new power plants and transmission, plus added billions for coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel. For $26 to $33 billion per year investment, ten percent of United States electricity can be from solar by 2025, details the Utility Solar Assessment Study, produced by clean-tech research firm Clean Edge.

By 2050 solar power could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions. In their Scientific American article, Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis detail the scenario. A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity by 2050. This quantity includes enough to supply all the electricity consumed by 344 million plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The price tag for the transition would be $400 billion, but this could be spread over a number of years. Should this seem too expensive, consider the alternatives. This is a fraction of what the U.S. has spent for the war in Iraq.

In the final keynote of the Solar Power International conference, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) explained that both Republicans and Democrats ultimately supported an 8-year extension of solar and other renewable investment tax credits in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. This bill also included $7,500 tax credits for the purchase of new plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Senator Cantwell also strongly supports United States investment in a smart and robust grid, and in bringing high-voltage lines from major sources of renewable energy to major markets.

The transition to clean energy is increasingly recognized as an excellent investment. Due to rapid cost reduction, solar is a growing part of the solution that includes electric vehicles, energy efficiency, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and other renewable sources. Compared to business as usual with oil and coal, renewable energy is downright cheap. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030, $5.4 trillion must be invested to increase global oil production.

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John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and writes about cleantech and renewable energy. He has a modest stock holdings in Abengoa and Q-Cells.