10 Predictions for Cleantech and Sustainability in 2012

Was 2011 good or bad for sustainability and green technology?

First, the bad news. Three solar manufacturers trying to push the technological edge -- Solyndra, SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar -- all went down in messy, public spectacles. Governments around the world, terrified about deficits, began to pull back on programs designed to promote renewable energy and sustainability. Electric cars like the FIsker Karma, Mitsubishi I and the sedan from Coda Automotive were delayed. The UN Talks in Durban, South Africa ended where they always do: with agreements to meet again.

Meanwhile, natural gas seemed to gain a reputation as the miracle fuel of the future. It's cheap! it's efficient! It's in your backyard!

But then there is the bright side. Environmental organizations won a battle to delay the Keystone XL pipeline: the fight isn't over, but this first round demonstrated that the environment remains a rallying cry for a large bloc of committed voters. Poll after poll shows that the public general supports renewable power and wants to reduce fossil fuels.

And guess what? Skeptics of hydraulic fracking have become more vociferous. If you had to put numbers on it, you could say renewables one, 52 to 48.

2012 will be another tight year. Here are ten trends and companies to watch:

1. Renewables Will Start to Win Over the Jobs Argument. The 2012 Presidential election will be only about one thing: jobs. In the energy and sustainability context, the debate boils down to whether you think more jobs can be created through by pipelines and offshore drilling or through erecting solar farms and retrofitting buildings. In the end, it's more of an emotional argument than a logical one: people tend to choose their side first and then build their argument around it.

But here is where renewables win: they don't take years. The U.S. will install 1.7 gigawatts worth of solar by the time 2011 ends, nearly double the 887 megawatts last year. Total new nuclear in the U.S. the past two years: zero megawatts. New York University and Yale professors have recently found that you're more likely to get solar if your neighbor does. SolarCity will hire veterans to install 160,000 rooftop installations for its SolarStrong project: you can't beat that photo op.

Many fossil projects, meanwhile, are bogged down in land use hearings.

Despite what you hear on talk radio, Americans vote pragmatically. If renewables get results quicker, they become the better solution.

2. Mom Becomes the Most Important Name in Green. This trend may only seem like simmer in 2012 but it will build. Judging from the dinner party conversations I've had over the last year, moms are paying attention to household chemicals and food ingredients and are they angry! The level of understanding about the dangers of BPA and other industrial chemicals in the modern suburban household is astounding. Women are going to insist on better products and men will go along.

So who wins? Biofuel and biochem companies -- LS9, Gevo, Genomatica, Solazyme, etc.--will see an uptick in business and partnerships with the Dows and DuPonts of the world. But more immediately, expect to see companies like Revolution Foods (healthy school lunches), NuturMe (baby food) and Nest Collective (healthy snacks) to zoom. They can sell to customers directly.

3. Car Sharing Becomes the Future in Transportation. Lee Iacocca made a name for himself at Ford in the 60s with the Mustang. He saw a big wave of consumers coming to market that didn't want to drive stodgy cars and capitalized on it.

Car sharing plays off a similar demographic shift. Younger consumers don't have a love affair with the auto and want to live in cities. Young adults raised in suburbia moving to cities actually like trains. Car sharing gives them freedom without the hassles.

Just as important, it lets them taste test somewhat expensive options like EVs. The inevitability and implications of the trend may only emerge -- and the business models are far from established -- but 2012 in retrospect may look like 1978 or 1979 did in computing.

4. Commodity Prices Become An Ally. Thieves are swiping copper from train yards. Wheat and other cereal crops are undergoing wrenching price gyrations. In Iowa, farmland is bringing in premium prices at auction. Although natural gas sits an unnaturally low prices oil dances around $100 a barrel. Prolonged uncertainly will continue to unnerve people, and force them to think in a sustained fashion about sustainability.

5. Efficiency Pays For Itself. Efficiency: the Al Gore of green technology segments. It is good for you. It is logical. And it is near impossible to get excited about. Despite years of studies and commentaries from experts like Art Rosenfeld and Amory Lovins about the power of negawatts, businesses and homeowners still get more excited about fuel cells, solar panels and electric cars than cutting their utility bills.