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Clean energy today: All bluster or the real deal?

With clean tech in the news every day, many people argue that the hype is setting unrealistic expectations. Regardless, clean tech still has legs.

Green is the new black--from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley.

But the lovefest with clean technology still has plenty of detractors who say that it's all just posturing, wishful thinking, or, worse, misguided.

Let's pull together a few threads from Friday morning's river of green tech news and see whether it adds up to anything.

For those of you in a hurry, here's my bottom line: No, America will not "get off oil" anytime soon as President Bush urged us this week, but yes, green tech matters a lot for the economy and the environment.

First, a quick sampling of clean tech news from this week:

At the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC) on Wednesday, Bush said America needs to kick its oil habit and touted his administration's commitments to renewable energy.

The speech was applauded by conference promoters but skewered by some environmentalists, including Joseph Romm and his colleagues, who wrote at the Web siteGri that the Bush administration's actions don't match his words.

Several businesspeople from the renewable energy industry who lobbied (again) this week for an extension to an existing tax credit would likely agree that the administration has not done enough to encourage clean tech development.

Then on Friday, The New York Times published a book review of Gusher of Lies, a book by Robert Bryce who argues that people are deluding themselves if they think that the United States can become energy independent:

Energy independence is hogwash. From nearly any standpoint--economic, military, political, or environmental--energy independence makes no sense. Worse yet, the inane obsession with the idea of energy independence is preventing the U.S. from having an honest and effective discussion about the energy challenges it now faces...

Once you move past the hype and the overblown rhetoric, there's little or no justification for the push to make America energy-independent. And that's the purpose of this book: to debunk the concept of energy independence and show that none of the alternative or renewable energy sources now being hyped--corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, wind power, solar power, coal-to-liquids, and so on--will free America from imported fuels. America's appetite is simply too large and the global market is too sophisticated and too integrated for the U.S. to simply secede.

We saw glimpses of this sort of thinking earlier this week at WIREC.

The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, on Tuesday told international delegates at WIREC that it's time to face reality on all this clean tech noise.

"But even though 'clean tech' is growing very fast, let's be honest: the scale at which the industry is conducting projects today is not going to have much impact on the energy market of the future," he said. "For that, we need sustained investment, on a massive scale. A step change of that nature will require sound energy and environmental policies from governments worldwide.

Hayward said that policies should subsidize development of low-carbon technologies--though only during a time of "transition"--and that governments should regulate carbon emissions now.

The naysayers have a point. Eliminating fossil fuels from the energy picture is not going to happen just because of the sharp uptick in corporate green marketing.

Renewable sources, such as wind and solar, accounted for 2.4 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. in 2006, not counting hydro power. Dirty coal is about half of all power generation.

In transportation, ethanol production is rising, spurred by government mandates, but it's mainly used as a gasoline additive, not a replacement. There are about 1,400 E85 filling stations in the U.S., a tiny fraction out of a total 170,000.

So renewable power and fuels are barely used in the U.S. today.

Oh, and by the way, there's now a backlash against biofuels because of ecological concerns such as total greenhouse gas emissions, water, and land use. Will the environmental trade-offs of manufacturing solar cells make more headlines this year? I'd say so.

And then there's this niggling worry that all this investment in clean tech will pop like the Internet bubble someday.

Well, here are a few comments to put those concerns in perspective from people far more versed in these matters than me.

Joseph Stanislaw, the founder of energy advisory firm the JAStanislaw Group and a co-founder of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, spoke at WIREC on Tuesday to tell the business attendees that renewable energy has reached the "big leagues," even compared with the giant fossil fuel industry.

How come? It's not just growing economic impact. It's because of changing values, he argued.

Climate change and energy security are two causes that bind a lot of people together, from economists to stay-at-home moms, Stanislaw said. Those priorities are creating a demand for "sustainable technologies" among consumers and businesses.

Then there is the supply side. Oil has topped $100 a barrel, natural gas prices are volatile, and there's growing resistance to build more coal-fired power plants. This creates an economic incentive for alternative energies, a hedge against high fossil fuel prices.

"This is different from the 1970s," he said. "The transformation that started then has only started to be realized in the last five to ten years."

I think Stanislaw makes a good point: a significant portion of society is changing to favor clean energies and sustainability, in general. The policies and investments to speed technology development are catching up. Maybe not as fast as the Web took off, but we're talking about energy--a capital-intensive industry--and a complex environmental and economic picture.

So green tech may be the cause du jour among many politicians and venture capitalists. But it sure looks like a movement with legs beneath it.

For the last word, I'll quote famed venture capital investor Vinod Khosla who followed Hayward at WIREC with his own talk.

His message was simple: technology disruption always happens faster than you think. Just look at cell phones, semiconductors, or projects to map the human genome.

"We are repeating the same mistakes in energy," Khosla said. "It's hard for people to imagine what energy will look like in 10 or 15 years."