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Clean tech rides high on oil prices, climate change

PricewaterhouseCoopers report touts positive signals for venture-backed clean tech. But even with strong fundamentals, problems in the industry are clear.

With oil prices over $120 per barrel comes a venture capital report entitled "Cleantech Come of Age" from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The upbeat survey finds that venture capitalists put $2.2 billion into clean tech companies last year and that prospects look good.

That's because energy-related issues are hitting consumers at the gas pumps and business executives in the board room.

"There is huge enthusiasm taking place in the cleantech industry and as consumers and corporations increasingly seek new ways to become environmentally responsible, interest and funding directed towards the sector will only continue," Tim Carey, leader of U.S. clean tech at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in a statement.

According to the press release, the study finds that:

• 40 percent of senior executives surveyed feel that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or waste and pollutants over the next five years is a leading or important priority within their company.

• 64 percent of CEOs are concerned about rising energy costs.

• 45 percent of these same CEOs are concerned about the potential threat to their businesses' growth prospects as a result of energy security.

Investment in clean tech continues to rise. This chart shows the correlation with rising oil prices. MoneyTree report from PricewatersCoopers via VentureBeat.

Consumers, too, are voting for alternative energy and environmentally conscious products with their wallets. Installations of solar power grew 125 percent last year, and wind turbine installations grew 45 percent.

PricewaterhouseCoopers anticipates sales growth across the subsectors of clean tech, including renewable energy, biofuels, and recycling and pollution.

Reality check
The report doesn't identify any dark clouds on the horizon but you don't need to look very hard to find some.

Oil prices have risen rapidly over the past two years, helping make more clean tech ventures financially attractive. But fuels and electricity are extremely price sensitive, as biodiesel producers have found, which means that a drop in oil prices could make some business models less viable.

Although venture capital-backed companies can generate a lot of excitement and buzz, the amount of money that goes into start-ups is very small compared with corporate labs.

The ability of companies like Shell, BP, Dow, and General Electric to innovate and make money in clean tech will go a long way to deciding whether these technologies--be they solar panels or biofuels--become cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

The other big spender on energy-related research and development is government.

Experts have long complained that funding programs for clean technologies is inconsistent, too small, or misplaced. In a recent interview, clean tech expert Peter Fusaro, the chairman of Global Change Associates, called the billions spent on the stalled FutureGen coal carbon storage project a "boondoggle."

Already, we are seeing that it will be rare to find a technology that won't have some trade-offs. Witness the growing concern over the relationship that biofuel mandates have with food prices.

In the past few weeks, several Republican senators, including presidential contender Sen. John McCain have called on the U.S. to ease the mandates that are driving the ethanol market.

Finally, the energy sectors is highly regulated and capital-intensive, which poses challenges that small companies and their backers must contend with.

Even with these caveats, the overall sector does have strong fundamentals.

The sharp uptick in innovation related to energy and the environment is fueled by more money pouring into the field, which is backed by consumers who've gone green, businesses adjusting for climate change, and concern over energy security.

In a statement, Mark Heesen, the president of the National Venture Capital Association, called on policymakers to do their part in supporting the budding industry:

It is imperative that (venture capitalists) work hand in hand with the Congress, the administration and the regulators to enact public policies that are conducive to research and capital investment in this sector. The venture capital industry, as evidenced by growing investment levels, is committed to bringing to market state-of-the-art technologies that conserve energy and natural resources, protect the environment, and reduce harmful waste for years to come.