Why Sinking Cleantech Investment Data Aren't the End of the World

The low count of IPOs for cleantech is an indicator of a growing backlog and is one reason why new cleantech investment may be slowing. Without a clear line to exit, venture funders will steer their money to sectors where it's easier to cash out.

Thus, Facebook. Good things may yet come of Facebook's super-hyped IPO. Perhaps it will improve the atmospherics around cleantech IPOs?

But on balance I find the din disheartening. The very big IPOs by Twitter et al. smack of hype. To emphasize my point: Facebook's pending IPO is likely to raise around $5 billion, more than was invested by VCs in the entire cleantech sector last year. Indeed, Facebook's valuation is verging on speculation, maybe even magical thinking. The offering is slated to value the total company at $100 billion.

Compared with the foaming enthusiasm for all-things-Facebook, it can feel like cleantech has drifted into a period of backlash, however undeserved. Investment continues apace to be sure, but the narrative around cleantech is growing more polarized. 

Long-time cleantech investor Ira Ehrenpreis put it this way, as quoted in GreentechMedia.com: "While I've never been more bearish on U.S. cleantech, I've never been more bullish about global cleantech."

Blame domestic politics for the widening gap in cleantech prospects here compared with global markets. Leading the negative push—recklessly so—are House Republicans, who seem intent on vilifying federal support of renewable energy, using Solyndra's failure as a political bludgeon against President Obama. Likewise, the GOP presidential aspirants have retreated on cleantech: far-right opposition of climate change is so dogmatic, even discussions of cleantech have become off limits despite the fact that practically all the Republican candidates have championed renewable investment in the past.

Meanwhile, media find it hard to resist the counter-intuitive appeal of the "cleantech is failing" tale, and are amplifying the meme. Picking up on the GOP's talking points, the tally of stories of Solyndra's failure far outpaces coverage of the fact that it's been a record year for solar capacity growth in the U.S. Or that plummeting solar prices are a windfall for buyers of the technology, enabling even energy-poor regions such as India to light up.

Witness Wired magazine's February story "Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust." While its author, Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin, actually offers a reasonably measured take on the impact of cheap natural gas and the Solyndra scandal, you'd have a hard time figuring that out from the headline or the explosive artwork illustrating the story (at right, by Dan Forbes).

Lurid pictures of exploding wind mills, fiery biodiesel canisters, and a shattering PV panel left me thinking that John Doerr must be on the verge of switching back coal heat for his mansion. Meanwhile, elsewhere on Wired.com, the breathless all-technology-is-pretty-much-cool coverage of green developments continues apace

Wired's schizophrenic take on cleantech is not unique, but it deserves special attention because the magazine has been such a vocal, effective champion for innovation as a driver of economic growth. The editors' tabloid take on cleantech is sure to gather clicks: scores of contrary comments and irate tweets suggest the story has generated a lot of attention. 

But in gunning for controversy, Wired goes off target, loosing sight of the bigger, better idea that cleantech is a near-ideal innovation catalyst for U.S. economic growth. That's why we should keep our fingers crossed that venture capitalists will keep steering more money into the sector too.