Cleantech Forum Musings

By Alyson Moses

Last week’s Cleantech Forum in San Francisco was a powerful event. The best and brightest minds in sustainability tackled the convergence of clean technology and IT and also explored critical issues about oil and gas, government, China, transportation, financing and global enterprise. The forum’s overall message: In all industries, from smart grid to smart water to electric vehicles, the intersection of technology and data will allow clean technologies to deploy more rapidly across the globe. And beyond clear environmental benefits, clean tech’s advance is critical to our economic rebound and manufacturing’s rebirth.

Opening the conference, renowned clean-tech investor John Denniston of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers delivered a five-year industry retrospective, exploring global upheavals – from social unrest in the Middle East and Africa and commodity food hyper-inflation to the damage to U.S. energy security triggered by the recession. These conditions, he contended, sparked a rise in people seeking democratic change in their countries to offer their children a better future.

Denniston maintains that manufacturing and exports must lead the U.S. to enhanced economic prosperity because consumer spending can’t be counted on to do that today. But he noted that manufacturing’s contribution to gross domestic services, or GDP, has shrunk to single digits from 30 percent previously. He foresees clean tech supplying a critical source of manufacturing jobs, especially in solar and wind. He noted that China now leads the manufacturing and clean-tech race.

Other forum highlights:

  • Don’t count on Congress alone to save the day with energy legislation that affects clean tech. Change will come at the local level, where energy is organized differently throughout the country. For instance, 80 percent of energy in Ohio is generated by coal, which is unique from California, with a mandated renewables portfolio.
  • Energy conversation and motivation no longer centers on the environment, or global warming, but rather focuses on jobs.
  • A panel that explored “Putting the Grid in ‘Smart Grid” focused on investments in the smart grid beyond the meter and the importance of self-healing technology to ensure the grid can handle demand. Mike Edmonds, global smart grid strategies director of S&C Electric Company (client), shared that S&C has seen a 30 percent growth in smart implementation and that energy storage has moved into the limelight, playing a critical role in integrating renewables to the grid. The panel agreed that we need to evolve to a distributed control model from today’s problematic centralized model. It also concurred that centering the smart grid conversation around smart meters has stalled industry progress by failing to address the full smart grid landscape and what’s required to succeed.
  • Autodesk (client) hosted an entrepreneur showcase where growth-stage companies presented their investment opportunity. Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program offers discounted software used by engineers, designers and manufacturers throughout the product-development process to help visualize ideas and evaluate how easy the design will be to manufacture. Tesla is one partner that took advantage of the program and CEO Elon Musk spoke at the event. Key message: In the future, enterprises and early-stage companies must work together to more quickly mobilize sustainability projects as enterprises offer resources and start ups deliver innovation.

At the forum, achieving a clean society was equated to the civil rights movement in that, to achieve equality, people must rally together in a very organized fashion to simply get it done. Attendees left with the message that clean-tech advocates must stop quibbling and take action to capitalize on the huge opportunities for renewables and to regain the nation’s footing alongside China and other global players.