A green technology wish list for 2011
The green tech industry will fondly remember 2010. After enduring collapsing prices and lackluster demand in 2009, solar companies saw panel shipments grow by an astounding 93 percent to 125 percent this year. Waiting lists for the new electric cars from Nissan and General Motors (GM) exceeded production quotas. Meanwhile, voters in California rejected a plan to suspend its carbon regulations while Washington extended tax credits and subsidies for solar, wind and biofuels for another year.
So what happens next?
Things We'd Like to See Happen in green technology:
The U.S. establishes long-term energy policies. Investors, utilities, manufacturers, landlords and consumers all need long-term guidance. A national policy, ideally, would include carbon regulations, but tax credits and renewable power standards would be a tremendous help.
Time-of-use pricing begins to spread. Demand for power soars in the afternoon, but the price for most consumers stays the same. Time-of-use pricing would create a market-based incentive to conserve. Utilities could finally justify their smart meter investments too.
Coal peaks. Rising demand, particularly from China, could mean the end of cheap coal. Sustained hikes could change the renewable debate from "how much?" to "how quickly?"
Greentech Stops being a dirty word. In 2010, Mississippi gave $169 million in loans and grants to three green startups to build plants in the state. Indiana is recruiting electric car companies. Even in red states, green will become a job machine.
The Holy Grail in storage appears. Investors are prowling for a breakthrough technology—solid state batteries, ammonia fuel cells—that will make energy as cheap and easy to store as gravel. It's the Google opportunity.
Investors gravitate toward water, food, and recycling. The "little three" of green technology. (Transportation, power and efficiency make up the "big three.") Notable startups: Ostara, Lehigh Technologies, Bioplastech, iGPS, NanoH20.
Things we think will happen in 2011:
Solar expands. Solar companies will ship 18 gigawatts of panels in 2011 (compared to 170 megawatts in 2000) while growing number of companies will saunter under the magic $1 per watt mark in manufacturing.
Electric cars are a hit. Electric cars might cost more, and the $7,500 Federal tax credit won't last forever, but it only takes one test drive to become a fan. Today's better batteries will prevent the Chevy Volt from becoming the new EV1.
Chinese becomes familiar. Ever hear of Yingli Green Energy? Trina Solar? BYD? Chinese companies are known for low-cost manufacturing, but in 2011 many will try to establish brand names, like Japanese and South Korean counterparts decades earlier. China could boost U.S. employment too. Silicon Valley's Innovalight sells magic ink Chinese solar companies while Suntech, China's big solar maker, has a module manufacturing facility in Arizona.
AT&T (T), Google (GOOG) and Comcast (CMCSA) become utilities. Communications carriers and computer companies will start to offer energy management services to homes and businesses. Pay $15 to save $25 on your power bill? We've heard worse offers.
Merger mania grips green. Acquisitions, particularly in solar, lighting and efficiency, will continue. BrightSource Energy, Miasole and a few others may even attempt IPOs, but the IPO class of 2009 was a mixed bag.
The Department of Defense becomes a market maker. The U.S. Navy wants to cut fuel consumption in non-combat vehicles by half in five years. In ten years, half of the bases will generate as much energy as they consume. Other branches have similar goals that all stem from a desire to reduce fuel convoys and dependence on shaky alliances. Critics might complain about bloated budgets and inefficiencies, but DoD buying is why the semiconductors took flight.
Carbon capture stalls. By 2030, the world will need 850 carbon capture plants. Guess how many there are now? Nine. The cost and complexity seem destined to weigh down the concept. The high costs and long construction times could cut the Nuclear Renaissance short too.
Utilities become hip. When you think of utility executive, you probably think of someone with a comb-over. But utilities reap massive profits, and have the ability to shape the destinies of large cities and influence the profits at conglomerates. A growing cadre of the best and brightest will flock there.
Things We Hope Won't Happen:
Oil drops to $60 a barrel. A drop in price, even a temporary one, could whack the beleaguered biofuels industry.
Clashes over wind and solar farms. Offshore wind and solar thermal power plants got approved in the U.S., but only after delays and negotiations that reduced their size.
LED bulbs flop. Prices could drop to $20 or less in 2011 from $90 in 2008. But lighting distributors and electricians are still getting their head around the concept and consumers blanch at spending more than a few bucks on bulbs. Lackluster performance could hurt them too.