Judging by the reaction to recent IPO A123 Systems (AONE) [Sep 24: A123 Systems - Hype or Hope?] there certainly can be a case made that 'cleantech' has a chance to be one of the bubbles the Federal Reserve creates next. I am not so sure in terms of job creation (solar is now dominated by China, wind we are way behind and there only be so many battery companies in the world) but certainly in stock hype.
- Our economy sure could use the Next Big Thing. Something on the scale of railroads, automobiles or the Internet -- the kind of breakthrough that emerges every so often and builds industries, generates jobs and mints fortunes.
- Silicon Valley investors are pointing to something called cleantech -- alternative energy, more efficient power distribution and new ways to store electricity, all with minimal impact to the environment -- as a candidate for the next boom.
- And while no two booms are exactly alike, some hallmarks are already showing up. Despite last fall's financial meltdown, public and private investments are pouring in, fueling startups and reinvigorating established companies. The political and social climates are favorable. If it takes off, cleantech could seep into every part of the economy and our lives.
- A year into the Great Recession, innovation isn't slowing. This time, it's better batteries, more efficient solar cells, smarter appliances and electric cars, not to mention all the infrastructure needed to support the new ways energy will be generated and the new ways we'll be using it.
Key point on why it's more likely a stock bubble than a job bubble - we just don't like making things that aren't heavy (cars, defense, perhaps a stray wind mill)
- Yet for all the benefits that might be spawned by cleantech breakthroughs, no one knows how many jobs might be created -- or how many old jobs might be cannibalized. It also remains to be seen whether Americans will clamor for any of its products.
- Clean energy projects could simply replace old jobs and functions, like meter-readers. And there's no guarantee new jobs won't shift to countries with cheaper labor. (all you need to do is make them government jobs and then they'll be protected for a few more centuries - boo yah)
- The laser, for instance, was a big innovation, but it wasn't clear at first what it could be used for. That's why there wasn't an economic boom in the 1960s from the advent of lasers, even though they ended up driving everything from medical devices to CD players for four decades.
But not to worry, we are promised 5M jobs are on the way - sort of like the 3-4M jobs that would be created or saved as long as we gave up $800 billion of our grand children's money via stimulus.
- The Obama administration is pledging to invest $150 billion over the next decade on energy technology and says that could create 5 million jobs.
How does it compare to the interbubble? Not yet even close at least in the VC world
- And cleantech is on track to be the dominant force in venture capital investments over the next few years, supplanting biotechnology and software. Venture capitalists have poured $8.7 billion into energy-related startups in the U.S. since 2006.
- That pales in comparison with the dot-com boom, when venture cash sometimes topped $10 billion in a single quarter.
Which can mean only one answer - our only answer to all our problems. To the printing presses Ben!
- A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass., maker of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, had one of the most lucrative public stock offerings this year, raising $437.5 million. Its stock price jumped more than 50 percent on the first day of trading in September, with investors willing to overlook that the company has yet to make money.
Now this next part is actually viable and is something that could be exported the (developed) world over if we innovate and take the lead. But will privacy concerns kill this in America ? (I don't want big brother to know if my fridge is at 48 degrees or 43 degrees!)
- One target is smart grids. As utilities install digital meters in homes and Americans buy appliances that can communicate with the electric system, individual power consumption can be monitored more closely. People could be cued to dial down appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners when electricity is in highest demand. Such fine-tuning in millions of homes can reduce the need for new power plants.
- It's not just startups getting in the game. General Electric Co. plans to string transmission lines to deliver solar or wind power. Hewlett-Packard Co. is adapting techniques for printer cartridge chips so digital sensors can send data to smart grids.
- The government's push for these developments parallels the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, when the government granted blocks of land to companies laying track, says Jack Brown, an associate professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Science, Technology and Society.
- One difference, Brown points out, is that clean energy is such a vast field that government could make the wrong choice in backing one type of technology over another.