Clean Tech's First Decade

Ten years ago, Ron Pernick and I started a company to help companies, public agencies, and investors better understand and tap into the emerging world of clean technology. This week, that company, Clean Edge, published its 10th annual assessment of the clean-tech marketplace, so it seems an appropriate time to step back and take a broader look.

At the time Clean Edge was born, the term “clean tech” was nascent. As Ron explains: “Clean tech was virtually unknown in the mass media, in business circles, and among politicians. At the time, there was one clean-tech institute in India and the United Nations used the term sporadically, but decided, in a move that only a bureaucrat could love, to use the term ‘environmentally sound technologies’ or ESTs, instead.”

In April 2001, Clean Edge published “Clean Tech: Profits and Potential” (download – PDF), one of the earliest efforts to define the space. We divvied the sector into four major buckets: energy, transportation, water, and materials. We made some predictions about market growth. We proffered some thoughts about what it would take for that growth to happen.

Eight months later, in January 2002, we published the first of what would be an annual assessment of the clean energy marketplace, the part of the clean-tech world that was growing most quickly. They include annual forecasts of the decade ahead, providing growth estimates for various energy technologies.

The most recent of these, Clean Energy Trends 2011, has just been released. You can download the free report here.

Looking back 10 years, some of those forecasts, however bullish, proved to be a tad sheepish. Example: We forecast in 2001 “the markets for clean energy technologies growing from less than $7 billion today to $82 billion by 2010.” The most recent Clean Edge report puts the 2010 market value of just three clean-energy technologies — biofuels, solar photovoltaics, and wind power — at $188 billion. Hey, what’s $106 billion among friends?

But the gist of what we wrote in 2001 was on the money: the political, social, and technological context for the forthcoming clean-tech boom, and the potential barriers and wildcards that could slow or accelerate the development of clean tech. The latter included government support, or lack thereof; the vagaries of economic swings; the potential for incumbent companies (and their lobbyists) to resist change — or suddenly jump in; the need for standards that would accelerate market uptake; the infrastructural changes needed to support some of these technologies; the acceptance of clean technologies by customers, both institutional buyers and individual consumers; and activists’ role in “keeping the heat on companies, governments, and others to develop and promote clean technologies.”

All of those remain critical components of a robust clean-energy future.