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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

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Washington will help clean tech boom

Wind turbines near Palm Springs, Calif.

Clean energy initiatives are still attracting investors, but oil is no longer in the driver's seat as prices remain low. Sam Eaton reports why policymakers are important for the clean tech industry now.

Wind turbines are powered by strong, prevailing winds near Palm Springs, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)

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Steve Chiotakis: Hundreds of clean energy investors are meeting today in the California desert. They're hoping for a presidential boost. In his inaugural speech, President Obama touched on the use of alternative energy. And that could mean the difference between success and failure. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, here's Sam Eaton.

Sam Eaton: Six months ago, the record price of oil was the key driver for clean energy investments. So much so that companies specializing in everything from renewable fuels to energy efficiency technology, raised a record $8.5 billion from venture capital firms last year.

Brian Fan with the trade organization Cleantech Group says today, the money's still coming in. It's just that oil's no longer in the driver's seat.

Brian Fan: In 2009, the main action in these markets are going to be driven by the policymakers.

In the meantime, the industry is already experiencing a shake-out, as low oil prices make big-ticket purchases like solar and wind power less attractive. But for companies that fit into Washington's plans, business is booming.

Scott Lang: We can't hire great people fast enough.

Investors have poured millions into Scott Lang's California start-up. And for a reason. Silver Spring Networks makes smart-grid technologies. House Democrats want to spend $11 billion on those as part of the economic stimulus package.

Cleantech Group's Brian Fan says other winners include car battery makers and just about anything to do with energy efficiency, especially as Congress promises to spend billions of dollars retrofitting government buildings and low income homes.

Fan: That is a big driver of investment. Because people now start saying what are the building efficiency technologies and who are companies that can be producing those that I should invest in?

But there's one glaring challenge:

Dan Esty: Politics hasn't gone away.

That's Yale environmental policy expert Dan Esty. He says if political wrangling delays President Obama's clean energy initiatives, cleantech will ultimately survive. What's lost is precious time.

Esty: Good policy can ensure that we move this process faster, and it can position clean energy as part of the engine that pulls the economy back on the rails and gets it moving again.

Esty says the economy's collapse was in part a result of overconsumption. So why not rebuild it with technologies that help us use energy and naturally resources more efficiently?

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By John Pilmer

    From Orem, UT, 01/21/2009

    Last year $8B of VC money went into cleantech. Mr. Obama's $25B tax credits and $54B in proposed cleantech/green spend has the power to move the needle. Time will tell.

    Gas may be back aroun $3/gal by early next year. We need to promote the CNG bridge to the future that the Pickens Plan speaks to. more: www.pilmerpr.com/blog

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