With stock market values at near-record highs, how is the clean tech sector doing? What technologies are most promising for making money and getting a job? What areas offer the biggest prospect for game-changing breakthroughs? Three experts with skin in the clean tech game visited Climate One to talk about what’s real and what’s hype in today’s green energy landscape.
Of concern to many in the clean energy industry is what the next four years will bring. How will the new administration, which loudly touts fossil fuels over renewable energy, affect the progress that’s been made up to now?
“You know, there’s a moving train and they’re either gonna get on board or get caught in the tracks,” says Danny Kennedy, who manages the California Clean Energy Fund. “Because it's no longer just about what the federal government does or what California does; what many other states do, and more importantly what the rest of the world does, is going to drive this market.”
Trying to get in the way, Kennedy continues, will only harm Americans by causing them to miss out on the clean tech boom and its benefits. “Or they can get on the bandwagon, as their major peers have in the world,” he says. China and India have both committed to major clean tech initiatives. “So, you know, it's for Trump and friends to decide whether they want to be riding the tide – or fighting it.”
One very compelling reason to ride that tide? Jobs. The most recent U.S. energy employment report offers “some very hopeful news” about the state of the industry, says Holmes Hummel, founder of Clean Energy Works.
“Solar jobs up by a quarter, wind jobs up by a third, together accounting for about half a million jobs,” Hummel reports. “But even twice as large as that is the jobs that were documented in the energy efficiency industries.” On top of that, add another quarter of a million jobs in the electric and hybrid vehicle industry.
Contrast that with the fossil fuel industry, adds Kennedy, which has shrunk by 150,000 jobs within the same period.
Even if Trump pulls out of the Paris climate agreement, as he’s threatened to do, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will follow suit, says Hummel. “The Trump administration’s declared intention to withdraw will not discourage the rest of the world from taking action that they know helps everyone improve their prospects of a livable planet.”
And it’s not only renewable energy that’s looking up. Exciting new innovations – those in the “gee-whiz” category – are poised to give the clean tech industry a boost. Electric bikes and scooters are just two of the game-changers on the horizon, says Kennedy, especially when paired with lithium-ion batteries, which have the potential to “transform two-wheel mobility into something that can move a lot of people…people that use their bikes a lot, and use them for also different functions, moving goods around and so forth.
“It’s going to change the way we plan cities. It’s going to change the walkable, livable scale and nature of our communities.”
What gets venture capitalists excited, when it comes to the green revolution?
“[It’s] about magic…the emotional connection between a product or service and the end consumer,” says Andrew Chung, founder of 1955 Capital. “That is absolutely critical when we think about sustainability or clean technologies.
“It's not just about whether it's green, or if it's something that different governments might get excited about. It’s something that establishes an emotional connection between investor and investee, between consumer and producer of that product.”
One agricultural innovation that his company is backing has that elusive magic, Chung says. That’s because it addresses “one of the holy grail problems in sustainable agriculture” – reducing the use of pesticides while boosting crop yield.
Crop Enhancement has developed an invisible polymer chemistry coating which, when sprayed on crops, protects them from insects. “When insects land on top of it, they can't detect what's underneath,” Chung says. “They get bored and they fly away. They don't chew the leaves, they don’t pierce the fruit, they don't damage the plant in a way that would reduce your yield.
“It’s something that for farmers, massive emotional connection and excitement…And for the end consumer, this is a very important aspect for food safety, because you don't have poison being introduced… it’s something that’s very safe.”
For Hummel, whose company helps people afford energy-friendly upgrades to their homes, the magic ingredient is financial inclusiveness. “I don’t think of the clean energy revolution as a spectator sport,” Hummel says. “And I don’t think it's possible to get to a hundred percent clean energy without a hundred percent of the people. So I became more committed to inclusive financing.
“I think it's the biggest breakthrough of our time,” Hummel continues. “To imagine being able to open all cost effective clean energy resources to all people everywhere, regardless of their income, their credit score or their renter status.”
Hummel’s company has made great strides with poor communities throughout the country, including hard-hit areas in North Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky. “We’ve seen investments profiles surge once inclusive financing is introduced,” Hummel says proudly. “It's my commitment to be able to open up more of those markets to more products and solutions in a technology neutral way.
“So that no matter what gee-whiz comes along, it’s open to everybody.”