Green Energy Tech at Year's End

Whether seen in a global or a U.S. perspective, and whether it is defined narrowly or broadly, "cleantech" or "greentech" did not do well in the last year compared with most recent previous years. Wind and solar growth rates decelerated, while sales of electric vehicles and hybrids fell well short of hopes and expectations. Improvements in both vehicular and grid-scale storage technologies were likewise incremental at best, while some of the luster came off the smart gird vision, as measurable efficiencies and economies from smart meter deployments proved slow to materialize.

When the 2012 figures for all renewable energy investments are finalized and released, they are expected to show for virtually the first time in this century a decline in wind and solar spending rather than increase--a decline that could be as big as 10 percent, insiders say. General factors include political disillusionment (mainly connected with excessively high subsidies in Europe and public investment failures like Solyndra in the United States), a U.S. and European crackdown on solar dumping by Chinese manufacturers, sharp competition from dirt-cheap natural gas in the United States, and Chinese difficulties in building out regional power grids to accommodate larger shares of wind and solar energy. In the United States, wind farm developers are racing to get blades spinning by year end, so as to secure eligibility for production tax credits that expire at midnight on Dec. 31.

To look at the picture in a somewhat brighter perspective, total world solar and wind capacity continued to increase last year and is now six or seven times higher than it was eight years ago. At somewhere between 225 and 350 GW, taking intermittency into account, global renewables capacity is roughly equivalent to U.S. nuclear capacity, which accounts for about a fifth of U.S. electricity generation. Promising signs in the United States, with probable global ramifications, include Tesla's prosperity, Google's renewed commitment to green-tech R&D, low-power servers relying on ARM chips, and improved energy analytic techniques.

Major elements in the picture are Janus-faced, making it hard to assess whether they ultimately will be more positive or negative for non-fossil, low-emission energy technologies. Thus, for example, on the "ten best" and "ten worst" lists compiled by GigaOm's Katie Fehrenbacher, cheap solar shows up on both because it's good for consumers but bad for producers; Tesla's successes are counter-balanced by disappointing sales for the Leaf and Volt, and almost vitiated by A123's failure; there were some cases of notable venture capitalists losing their shirts in clean tech but at the same time China's investors got into the game in a bigger way; and so on.

To look at the really big picture in a sober but positive light, 2012 was the year in which both experts and publics came to think of renewable energy as nearing commercial maturity. The near-term effect will be a slowing of growth, as the major innovators, builders and operators struggle for a secure footing. The long-term effect will be renewed vigorous growth, from a stronger foundation.

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