Clean energy is a marathon, not a sprint

Investor interest in green technologies has been long overdue. Now can we just keep it up for a few decades?

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
Somewhere along the road to $75 barrels of oil, investor interest in clean energy technologies accelerated. What's green is good these days.

In general, that's great news. But with every breathless article about the wonders of ethanol, hydrogen, solar and wind energy, I get a bit concerned.

Clean energy should not just be the trendy technology investment idea du jour. Changing the energy infrastructure of the global economy takes decades. That means sustained commitment from businesses in all industries, as well as government policies that aggressively promote alternatives to fossil fuels.

After all, getting beyond oil means a (hopefully gradual) conversion of the world economy's fuel infrastructure--not just a bunch of start-ups commercializing cool research ideas.

There's no question that entrepreneurs are finding green (as in money) in green (as in clean tech--a term that refers to a broad swath of technologies focused on using natural resources more efficiently). According to Cleantech Venture Network, investments in clean tech have climbed rapidly in the last two years, from less than $300 million in the second quarter of 2004 to more than $840 million in the second quarter of this year.

It's wonderful to see the best and brightest focus their attention on clean energy. But the froth of interest has caused more than one person to utter the dreaded "bubble" word about this hot investment area.

Clean energy is not immune to dot-com-like bombs. Investment in clean tech skyrocketed in 1999, only to crash in late 2000, according to Cleantech Venture.

The long view
High fossil-fuel prices are making alternative energy sources more financially viable today compared to only a few years ago. Solar-electricity companies, for example, compare their cost per watt with the currently predominant method of generating power from fossil fuels.

But even if oil and natural gas prices drop back to 1990s levels, alternative energies should remain on the front burner. There are political, economic and environmental reasons to pursue a green energy future.

The perennial volatility of the oil-rich Middle East brings risk to dependent countries' economies. As a result, most countries would rather have home-grown energy industries--whether biodiesel, wind or solar--rather than depend on foreign sources of fuel.

Beyond the political and economic catalysts, global warming demands a change in our energy infrastructure. Concerns over climate change attributed to global warming have become so mainstream that the issue has become an investment thesis of its own for insurers and money managers alike.

Coupled with investments in technology development is the need for supportive government policies. Financial trading systems for greenhouse gases are taking baby steps in Europe and Chicago, and many people believe that the United States will see a federally mandated carbon cap-and-trade exchange in a few years.

Another good piece of news is that energy consumers--individuals and businesses--are seeing the value in being green, motivated by cost or environmental reasons. That helps create markets for the wide range of "eco-innovations" needed, from hybrid cars to solar panels.

Will the entrepreneurial zeal and feel-good glow last? Let's hope so. Driving up to any filling station to dispense cleanly produced hydrogen is a compelling vision and, I hope, a reality for our kids. Huge scientific leaps and massive conversions to our fuel infrastructure don't happen overnight.