Weathering the Storm With Clean Tech

According to an annual report from research firm Clean Edge, the “big three” in clean energy — solar photovoltaics, wind and biofuels — expanded globally by 50 percent in 2008, while wind sector revenues exceeded $50 billion for the first time. While the current economic situation might stunt clean technology’s growth in the near term, long-term growth in this area is expected to boom, and that would mean stimulation for the economy and more jobs in the tech industry.

“Our mid- to long-term assessment is that this is one of the few sectors of the economy that is likely to weather the storm quite a bit better than most other sectors,” said Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge Inc. and co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution.

Pernick said a number of drivers will give clean tech an edge in the coming years. Benefits include less cost volatility than with traditional energy sources, greater ease in obtaining permits to build clean energy infrastructure — think of gaining buy-in for a wind farm vs. a coal plant — energy security and a continuing decline in the costs associated with renewables. In fact, many governments already are including clean energy as part of their economic plans, including the U.S., Germany, Japan and Greece, he said.

“We don’t only need reliable electrons; we need efficient and clean electrons,” Pernick said. “That’s the big shift. And so, that’s driving a lot of the changes right now, and the regulation is now shifting in favor of clean energy in many places.”

One example is the creation of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) by certain U.S. states and the European Union. These requirements give ultimatums for states to use a certain percentage of renewable energy sources by a certain date.

“Oregon has a 25 percent RPS requirement by 2025,” said Pernick. “California’s is something more aggressive: 33 percent by 2020.”

Further, the recently passed U.S. economic stimulus package includes $80 billion for clean tech-related projects.

“That’s everything from clean energy to advanced transportation to mass transit, like high-speed rail, to water infrastructure,” said Pernick. “The other thing that the president is looking to [do is] double U.S. renewables within the next three years.”

All of these factors contribute to Clean Edge’s estimation that the clean tech industry will grow from about $35 billion today to more than $105 billion by 2018. However, the growth won’t be seen in the immediate future: Clean Edge found that investments are slowing down, and some areas are laying off employees and closing down operations.

“I think 2009 is the year to get through,” Pernick said.

Despite the fact that the overall sector may plateau this year, many areas are still creating jobs, Pernick added.

“[For example], National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL) is hiring quite aggressively right now,” he said. “There are smart grid companies that are hiring, companies like Silver Spring Networks, BPL [Better Power Lines] — global energy efficiency businesses are booming right now.”

In addition, new manufacturing companies involved in wind farm and solar deployment, as well as those specializing in the maintenance of wind farms, also are growing.

On the high-tech side, knowledge of solar, optics and tech innovation will benefit professionals interested in breaking into this sector, Pernick said.

“If you work on a line or you know how to grow silicon or you understand crystals and optics and you’re engineer, these are some of the types of jobs that are available — all the way from manufacturing line to engineering, technology innovation support,” he said. “The other area is smart grid and information technologies and computers. What we’re really talking about with the smart grid is embedding intelligence and the two-wave flow of electrons into our very dated grid infrastructure. The electricity grid is the largest network on the planet, [so] there are a lot of folks innovating in high tech, in info tech, who are now applying their skill sets to energy conservation and the smart grid.”

– Mpolakowski, meaganp@certmag.com

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Meagan Polakowski

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