How Much Has Changed During the Last 30 Years of Clean Energy?

News item: Several months after a crippled nuclear reactor disaster that shocked the world and upended long-term global energy strategies, a group of prominent rock musicians have scheduled a historic benefit concert on August 7, 2011. Performers led by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash, the Doobie Brothers, and John Hall, under the banner Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), plan to raise funds and awareness against nuclear power, and in favor of clean-energy sources like solar and wind.

That very same paragraph, with a different concert date, could have been written 32 years ago -- simply substituting Three Mile Island for Fukushima as the nuclear disaster, and New York City’s Madison Square Garden for Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., as the concert venue. This same group of musicians (Browne, Raitt, Hall, and Graham Nash) formed MUSE and played what was actually a series of five concerts in New York in September 1979, with a subsequent record album (yes, on vinyl) and concert film release. They also helped lead a Sunday afternoon rally on the Battery Park Landfill in Manhattan attended by 200,000 people. And I was one of them.

Yes, I’m dating myself here -- I was fresh out of college that autumn and was very inspired by this call for the world to use cleaner energy sources. The concert that night was pretty damn good, too. It would be more than two decades before I made clean technology the focus of my professional life and joining Clean Edge in 2002, but that’s another story. What strikes me now is the parallelism between 2011 and 1979, and how much the world of clean energy has changed in that time.

It’s tempting to look at this month’s MUSE concert in California as "the more things change, the more they stay the same," but that’s not really the case. Granted, some of the safety concerns about nuclear power have remained the same from Three Mile Island to Fukushima, with Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster by far, in between. Safeguard technologies and plant management have certainly improved over the years. But vulnerability to natural disasters -- whether it is earthquakes, tsunamis, or the Missouri River floods that recently threatened the Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants in Nebraska – continues to be a troubling issue.

And just as in 1979, the very high costs of plant construction and liability coverage still make nuclear a losing financial bet in the eyes of most investors, at least without massive government subsidies, and not a single new nuke facility has opened in the U.S. since then. As someone once said, "It wasn’t Greenpeace that stopped the U.S. nuclear industry, it was Wall Street."

But MUSE isn’t just an anti-nuke group; as its name states, its members are for safe energy. And on the renewable-energy side of the coin, it is a very, very different world from 1979. Back then, most people installing solar panels or windmills probably looked a little like some of the musicians on stage at the Garden -- a bit scruffy. Today, it goes without saying that the solar and wind businesses are mega-global industries ($71.2 billion in 2010 for solar and $60.5 billion for wind, according to Clean Edge) with major players that include GE, Sharp, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Total and dozens of other corporate titans. What’s more, some of the same people who once led street protests and other actions against nuclear and fossil-fuel development are now on the front lines of profit-making companies spurring the clean-tech revolution.

Danny Kennedy, co-founder and president of Sungevity, the Oakland, Calif.-based nationwide solar installer and financier, was a key leader of Greenpeace in California and his native Australia for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. He helped lead campaigns around the world against oil and mining projects, and against a research nuclear reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights. “After a while, I wanted to be for something, rather than just against,” says Kennedy. “There’s always a place for activism; you need both sides. But right now, as we’ve seen in the climate debate, I think we need a lot of positivity.” Kennedy got to be extra-positive in late July, handing out free ice pops from his company’s biodiesel and solar-powered “Rooftop Revolution” to sweltering New Yorkers as Sungevity touted its expansion in the Northeast.

Another Greenpeace veteran, Great Britain’s Jeremy Leggett, runs PV project developer Solarcentury and was founding director of one of the first clean-energy private equity funds, Bank Sarasin's New Energies Invest AG. Solarcentury is one of Europe’s largest solar installers, active in residential, commercial, and utility markets in four countries.

Then there’s MUSE co-founder John Hall himself, leader of the 1970s band Orleans, a mostly forgotten two-hit wonder (“Still the One” and “Dance with Me”). Hall served two terms in Congress from New York state from 2007 to 2011, becoming one of the ultimate insiders in the effort to develop more clean energy in the U.S.

And one other thing that shows the world of difference between 1979 and 2011: the presenting sponsor of this month’s MUSE concert, whose funds will also go toward Fukushima disaster relief, is a venture capital firm. That would be VantagePoint Capital Partners, one of Silicon Valley’s leading clean-tech VC investors, which also organized an Elvis Costello fundraising gig last year in the successful campaign against California’s anti-clean energy Proposition 23.

VCs as rock impresarios, an ex-Congressman on lead guitar, and surely some very high net worth clean-energy CEOs in the audience; we’re not in the 1970s anymore. But any multi-billion dollar energy steeped in innovation can always use a little rebellious spirit, and clean energy’s deep activist roots seem to be paying off well. Rock on!