Green from green

Cleantech offers investment opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs

That’s why they call it cleantech: SMUD’s anti-idling project provides electricity to truckers so they can turn off their engines at truck stops, saving fuel and cutting down on air pollution.

That’s why they call it cleantech: SMUD’s anti-idling project provides electricity to truckers so they can turn off their engines at truck stops, saving fuel and cutting down on air pollution.

Photo courtesy of SMUD

Forget about the Internet. With President Barack Obama pledging to invest $150 billion in green and sustainable energy over the next 10 years, “cleantech” is poised to be the next big thing in industry and commerce.

Cleantech is a broad term used to describe products and services that aim to maximize energy efficiency and productivity while minimizing or eliminating pollution, waste or other negative environmental impacts. This includes everything from solar and wind energy to water purification, renewable sources of fuel, cleaner forms of transportation, and new power grids that enable more efficient use of energy.

The term is a current buzzword among entrepreneurial types, who were well-represented at “Cleantech in the New ‘Environmental’ Environment,” held at the UC Davis School of Law earlier this month.

“It takes an entrepreneur to see the latent or inherent commercial application in a noncommercial product,” explained Dr. Erik Stenehjem, director of the Industrial Partnerships Office at Lawrence Livermore Lab, describing the collaboration between scientists in the lab and the innovators who bring new products to the market.

Peter Van Deventer, president and CEO of SynapSense, a wireless networking company out of Folsom, also expressed the importance of investing in clean technology. He stated that China is outinvesting the United States in cleantech, and that we need to step it up in order to compete globally. Stenehjem agreed and added, “If we don’t develop [new technologies] we lose in a hot, flat and overpopulated world.”

As pointed out by keynote speaker John Doerr, a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital firm, a director of companies such as Google and, as well as a recent appointee of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, the United States is already be losing its comparative advantage in clean technology.

“In the Internet economy we dominated,” Doerr said, before noting that less than a handful of American companies appear on the top 10 lists of companies leading in the fields of wind, solar and other alternative energy sources. “If this is the next great economy, we must change our strategy.”

Doerr urged the audience to recognize cleantech as not only the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century, but also the largest moral issue. He has worked extensively with former Vice President Al Gore and believes there is no single “silver bullet” solution to problems such as global warming.

“I want to take every city, town, nation, and business and reindustrialize it, because right now they are not sustainable,” he said. “Clean energy is the cheapest way to do it.”

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was signed into law by President Obama on February 17, the Department of Energy awarded 2,648 grants in the last year, totaling more than $18 billion. That includes 286 grants, or a little more than $1 billion, that were given out to projects in California.

About 45 percent of this statewide total was given in seven different grants to Sacramento alone, with another $2 million given to Citrus Heights, Folsom, Roseville and West Sacramento.

While the Obama administration hopes these grants will stimulate the economy and create new jobs, it has already stimulated the development of cleantech. Stenehjem noted at the UC Davis symposium that although this sort of technology has not been a big feature of research and development departments in labs in the past, it’s now starting to change.

“The money has increased the commercial interest in cleantech,” Stenehjem said, giving examples of technologies that have been adapted by enterprisers for environmental purposes, such as carbon nanotubes that are now used to create purified water, or flywheels used for cheap and clean energy storage. “The stimulus has driven people to look at existing technology such as these in new, green ways,” he concluded.

“Its like we are back in 1992 during the development of the Internet,” said Eric Dresselhuys, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Silver Spring Networks and panelist at the symposium, “and we are just about to get the Web browser.”