This is the first of an occasional series of guest posts by industry leaders and those who have shaped cleantech into what it is today.
In the newspaper business, the last few weeks of summer through the Labor Day weekend used to be known as the Silly Season. People were on vacation, not much was happening with the government, and papers were padded with stories of UFOs, two-headed chickens, and the like. It was also a time for taking stock, stepping back and looking at the big picture, as opposed to day-to-day reporting. Indeed, some of the best analyses of complex situations were produced merely because there was no news.
How times have changed. The advent of 24/7 cable news, the instantaneous nature of the internet, and the ubiquity and impact of social media have combined to make the idea of a slow news season an anachronism, while the alternative realities championed by the current administration make everything seem, well, silly. All the more important, it would seem, to keep the big picture in perspective. And, since Michael Grossman has graciously offered to let me use his podium, this is an excellent time to look at the evolution of clean technology over the past ten or twelve years.
There have been three iterations of the clean tech “movement” since 2005 or 2006. Clean Tech 1.0 was all about big energy. Wind farms were erected wherever there was a sustained breeze. Biofuels were hot, and cellulosic ethanol was the holy grail – until we “discovered” algae. Biomass plants, large-scale solar installations, geothermal projects – all developed without much thought to cost, or to how to integrate all that clean energy into the grid.
And then came the recession. Investment capital dried up, projects got cancelled or put on hold, and clean tech morphed into version2.0: energy efficiency. Energy retrofits, it was claimed, would pay for themselves, and in some cases this was true, where the cost of power was high and the renovations were relatively simple. Software engineers began developing programs to manage power more efficiently. Federal stimulus funds encouraged homeowners to find ways to reduce energy use. Entrepreneurs came up with all sorts of ideas, such as ways to make long-haul trucks more fuel efficient. Investors were happy because a software program required little physical plant and took less time and hassle to develop than a wind farm.
The federal government took on some clean tech efforts of its own during the recession, chiefly grid modernization pilot projects and charging stations for electric vehicles. Some states began updating building codes requiring more energy efficiency, and adding renewable fuel standards to make gasoline more “renewable.” But the stimulus money was a one-time thing, and some of the projects the federal government supported didn’t fare so well. Clean Tech 2.0, the application of software to energy efficiency, didn’t end so much as it became part of the IT industry.
As the country emerged from the recession and investment capital became more available, we saw the gradual evolution of Clean Tech 3.0: the application of clean tech principles to solve specific problems. Various forms of energy storage, for example, have been introduced to help integrate renewable energy into the existing grid system. Solar panels painted on existing surfaces, electric aircraft, flying cars, and new types of furnace filters that capture more pollutants and require less energy for air throughput are all on the market or close to commercialization. Meanwhile, we continue to see clean technologies assumed by other industries, such as manufacturing, construction, and maritime.
One last comment: it should be evident that the transitions from 1.0 to 2.0 and 2.0 to 3.0 were not sudden or discrete. Rather, each iteration is an arbitrary section on a continuum in which the main activity is identified. Many other clean technologies have been and continue to be developed that don’t fit neatly into these categories. This is a rough process, and it is quite likely that the seeds of Clean Tech 4.0 have already been planted. To identify them, however, we’ll have to wait for another Silly Season.
Now about those two-headed chickens…
Steve Gerritson, now retired, founded the clean technology program at the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, where he served for twelve years as Vice President. He was one of the founding members of the Clean Technology Alliance and remains on its Board as Chairman Emeritus. Mr. Gerritson is an Air Force veteran, a former minor league baseball player, and a firm believer in the beneficial properties of good bourbon.