Green energy is still a lightning-fast growth area in venture capital—VC investment in green energy technologies in 2008 exceeded $7.7 billion in more than 350 deals, more than double last year’s dollar totals, according to GreenTechMedia.com. But the recession, and the accompanying plunge in the price of oil, are motivating a different type of thinking in clean tech. As a result, says the New York Times, "big, expensive projects like building factories to manufacture solar panels or biofuels are falling out of favor."
Why emulate the old, capital-intensive ways of creating energy, anyway? It's time to move from the mainframe model of big power plants to the equivalent of networked PCs and wireless mobile devices.
Clean Tech 2.0 is going to be smaller, more distributed, and more personalized than the previous solutions. It's going to take the biggest possible advantage of "negawatts," or extra capacity freed up by maximum efficiency. Information technology will allow us to optimize our use of energy and resources so nothing goes to waste. Financing will be shaped to government incentives. So, who are the winners in the negawatt revolution, and who are the losers?
- Efficiency and renewables consultants that work with the public sector, like Chevron Energy Solutions.
- small-scale solar installers like Sungevity or Recurrent Energy that take advantage of local financing, power purchase agreements, and tax rebate.
- IBM's Smarter Planet, for green IT applications.
- Smart meter companies that distribute their products through utilities.
- Icynene Inc., manufacturer of spray foam insulation, Owens Corning's line of building materials, efficient windows, and other "passive house" construction materials that radically cut energy use.
- Lower-cost renewables solutions like Ausra's flat-mirror solar thermal.
- Large, expensive energy projects; T.Boone Pickens' giant wind farm is on hold, for example.
- Unproven, if promising, technologies like deep-ocean tidal power and bathtub nukes.
- Overly complicated solutions such as Better Place, the electric-cars-and-chargers company.
- Moon shots for global warming, including iron fertilization of the ocean, carbon sequestration, and giant space mirrors (yes, really).
In the best possible scenario, we're living through a transition from scattershot privately funded efforts to bold, long-term, strategic public commitments with the heft required to get the job done.
Images of 1966 solar mirror construction courtesy of NASA/GRC.