Cleantech: Bright Spot In U.S.-China Cooperation

Despite heated rhetoric from protectionist corners that China and the United States must compete over the massive dollars associated with the clean energy industry, some signs are actually emerging that we’re entering a phase of mutual benefit and collaboration.

It’s a natural fit: the U.S. is an innovation engine short of capital and customers, and China is a commercialization hotspot with lots of money and a major environmental problem. Thanks to interesting new deal structures that allow for commercialization to happen while addressing U.S. intellectual property concerns, cooperation finally appears to be a reality.

In April, Zhongding Group announced a $200 million investment to scale the production of U.S. company EcoMotor’s ultra-efficient motor technology. A new manufacturing facility will be built in China to commercialize a technology that would have otherwise taken years to come to market (if ever) in the United States. Similar deals have started to add up. Wanxiang Holdings acquired faltering U.S. battery company A123 Systems (now renamed B456 – can you say rebrand fail?) for $250 million and also invested $420 million in GreatPoint Energy, a company that turns coal into natural gas. Coal-to-butanol company IGP Energy similarly formed a joint venture with Chinese coal giant Yankuang Group for five facilities. Shanghai steel giant Baosteel also invested in waste-to-fuel company LanzaTech, funding a demonstration plant that is expected to result soon in a fully commercial facility.

All of these deals, and many others, have meant rapid acceleration of technology that may not have otherwise happened. But the benefit isn’t just flowing to U.S. cleantech companies starved for cash. China also desperately needs the technologies to address mounting environmental concerns – air pollution, severe water shortages, food safety and the list goes on and on.

According to Cleantech investor Greg Manuel, there is a 5-plus year “innovation delta” between the clean technologies being developed in the United States and those in development in China (with China lagging behind). Similarly, Manuel says, there will be a $4.5 billion shortfall in capital for U.S.-developed clean technology start-ups in the next three years. “This emerging pattern of cooperation is still in its early stages. But there is a tremendous vector of opportunity when you look at the innovation delta, capital gap and severe environmental and energy challenges facing large Chinese enterprises with large pools of cash,” said Manuel, formerly a special advisor for energy affairs to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior vice president for corporate development and strategy at Amyris.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

Human Health: the Cure for Climate Insanity?

While reading Bryan Walsh’s thoughtful review of a new book The Conundrum by David Owen, I noticed that the review was posted under TIME.com’s “health” section. The book is about energy efficiency.  What does energy efficiency have to do with health? The seeming disconnect between the two, plus a number of other things I’ve seen in the past week, prompted me to revisit an idea that I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Is is possible that humanity’s selfish concern for its own health will be the ultimate road block to inevitable ecological destruction?

I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that the answer will likely come from China (or India).

My old friend Bill Bishop, a long-time Beijing resident, posted a recent photo of his air filter after a couple of months removing coal dust and other harmful particulates. Scary. He is not alone, with a recent rush on indoor air filters reported by the Chinese media.  But as those reports point out, most people cannot afford the costly systems.

A lot of China-watchers tend to discount the impact of environmental pollution on the country’s development, preferring instead to debate the possibility of a hard landing due to loose bank lending, housing bubbles or other economic causes.

Clearly, health concerns can help drive change. The oil company-backed Prop 23 campaign in California – which sought to overturn the state’s progressive climate policy – was in part successful because of the support of the American Lung Association, and its ad campaign.

In China, where three decades of double-digit economi growth has resulted in a water crisis, unprecedented air pollution, the toll on human health is just starting to be quantified. But it doesn’t take data for people to know that something in China is wrong, and there is growing social unrest because of pollution.

Social unrest is the boogey-man for China’s rulers. It will be interesting to watch as the dynamic between continued growth and continued deterioration of public health plays out.

Here’s hoping health wins.

Clean Energy and the Last Brand Standing

Solyndra is getting a lot of headlines, but the company’s high-profile implosion is the symptom of a renewable energy industry rationalization that has been long anticipated. It shouldn’t be a surprise or generate excessive hand wringing.

Whether it’s solar, bioenergy, power storage or any other cleantech vertical, there will be a lot of dead bodies littered across the market in the next 12 to 18 months. That is just a fact, and a natural outcome of an industry (finally) maturing.

Most importantly, it is a signal that we are moving from a period of technology innovation to one of market innovation, and therefore true mass adoption. And with mass adoption, the focus of corporate communications is necessarily shifting toward building brand credibility, loyalty, engagement and awareness.

The companies that have the strongest brand coming out of the industry consolidation cage match will be best positioned to be the last brands standing. Many executives I speak with expect only a handful of brands to survive the shake-out of each sector. The stakes are high, as brand equity has many implications: lower cost of capital, lower cost of customer acquisition, the potential to charge a premium, etc.

Brand ≠ Hype

But make no mistake, many of the companies that are perceived as having the strongest renewable energy brands today in fact do not.

Often funded by Silicon Valley investors used to the hype cycle and quick returns of media, ecommerce and high-tech companies, many of the cleantech brands now considered the darlings of their respective sectors will soon enough be dead and gone, or acquired for pennies on the dollar by existing conglomerates.

A strong brand is not just about hyping awareness, it is about delivering on your promises — to achieve business milestones, to hold up your end of a strategic channel partnership, to nurture employees, to provide a return for investors and to provide a benefit to society (economic, environmental or otherwise).

Many of today’s renewable energy brands have over-promised, and just as many if not more have under-delivered. Caveat emptor.

The Impact of China and “The Strategics”

While it is still too early to make iron-clad declarations of winners and losers, already some of the brands that will survive are starting to rise to the surface. Some of them are new, and some of them are familiar.

In the electric vehicle industry, for example, Tesla appears to have survived its start-up origins to evolve into an automotive brand with staying power, while the likes of Chevrolet and Nissan seem to have shifted laterally early enough to have carved out a future niche as well.

Similarly, multinationals in other sectors — chemicals, fuels, generation, transmission, infrastructure — are starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the looming brand wars, and may end up being the de facto renewable energy brands of the future. With market conditions buffet the renewable energy sector, many of these strategics smell good deals and are becoming more acquisitive.

At any rate, it seems fair to say that some of the ultimate brand winners will be ones we may not even know of yet, while others will belong to existing Fortune 500 companies, who buy early leaders, then apply their significant marketing muscle to enhance them further or subsume them entirely.

The other question hanging out there: where will the leading brands reside?

Given the emergence of China and Brazil as important players and the fact that the developing world is ripe for renewable energy deployment, it remains to be seen if the winning brands will be the usual suspects from Europe, the United States or Japan, or whether the companies will be based in the developing world.

Some brands from China seem poised for leadership. But will they have the foresight to invest strategically in brand enhancement on a global scale, something corporate culture there has not traditionally valued?

We will see. In the meantime, let the brand wars begin.

(This post also appeared on GreenBiz.com)

Cleantech Policy Needs Clarity, Consistency and Cojones

EarthTechling recently interviewed me and asked for my perspective on trends in cleantech, including marketing, communications and PR. Some themes that emerged:

  • Five suggestions for cleantech companies to set themselves apart in a crowded market
  • Backing “boring” businesses usually works
  • Technology innovation we have plenty off; we need marketing, financing and business innovation (plus the 3Cs from energy policymakers – clarity, consistency and cojones

See the full interview

Clean Energy: Too Many Interests, Not Enough Group

There is a lot of interest in clean energy. Here’s just a partial list of the US groups out there: American Business for Clean Energy,  Business Council for Sustainable EnergyEnvironmental EntrepreneursInvestor Network on Climate RiskBiomass Power AssociationRenewable Fuels AssociationClean Economy NetworkUS Climate Action PartnershipClean Energy WorksUS Clean Heat and Power AssociationSolar AllianceWe Can LeadAmerican Wind Energy AssociationAmerican Coalition for EthanolAdvanced Biofuels CoalitionWind CoalitionBusiness for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy,  Growth Energy,National Hydropower AssociationGeothermal Energy AssociationSolar Energy Industry AssociationSolar Electric Power AssociationCeresAmerican Council on Renewable EnergyAmerican Biogas Council,Carbon War RoomAlgal Biomass AssociationFuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy AssociationElectrification CoalitionAmerican Council for Energy Efficient EconomyGridwise AllianceDemand Response and Smart Grid CoalitionAmerican Energy Innovation CouncilBlueGreen Alliance, Water Innovations Alliance.

Remember, that is a partial list. And that doesn’t even include state and regional groups, of which there are dozens more.

Get the picture? A jumble of letters: “C” for council (five) and coalition (five); “A” for association (11) and alliance (four) and “S” for solar (three); plus at least four groups directly and indirectly touching “B” (for biofuels) and more than half a dozen groups broadly positioned around “E” for energy. What does that spell? Trouble with a “T”. At a time when the clean energy industry needs one powerful voice to drive policy and get federal and state lawmakers to actually do something visionary, what we are getting is a 100-part disharmony of sometimes clashing, sometimes overlapping agendas. With the recent shift in political winds in DC and many state houses signaling a tougher road ahead for a clean energy agenda, the need for that unified voice is even greater.

In fairness, an examination of the missions for the various groups often shows material differences in their focus, but how important are those differences in the broader picture? That is a question that we need to be asking ourselves.

The environmental NGOs – EDF, NRDC, WRI, etc – failed to influence national policy in a significant way during the first half of Obama’s current (and possibly only) term. But the truth is that, when it comes to getting more aggressive adoption of clean energy policies, the same can be said for the business interest groups listed above. A rationalization and consolidation of these groups is a reasonable expectation, and even if that fails to materialize, there is a strong need for an all-encompassing umbrella “organization of organizations” that rises above the petty jealousies and turf wars that often make the trade association, non-profit world ineffectual and scattered. Just as a consolidation of the cleantech industry itself is overdue, so too is one for the organizations that represent it.

Ironically, my involvement in the Clean Economy Network (CEN) was motivated by a desire for an industry defined by “distributed energy” to become more centralized in its approach to policy. Whether its CEN or some other group that occupies a higher, more unified plane, one thing is certain: faced with a torrent of cash-infused lobbying from big oil and coal companies, a drip campaign from dozens of groups representing a fractured clean energy industry won’t have the desired impact – rapid and decisive action from policymakers.

I plan on being in Washington, D.C. on January 24-25, 2011 to attend the first CEN business leaders summit, with the hope that at least part of the proceedings will be a serious dialogue on organizational strategy for the clean energy industry. It would be great if the representatives of all the groups owning patches of the industry can be there too to create a more cohesive quilt.

High Noon for US Clean Energy Leadership: March 21, 2011

A wise man once said that contemporary politics is fueled by two things: raising money, and a fear of angry mobs. OK, I actually said that. Nevertheless, it makes sense that the ultimate nightmare for DC lawmakers would be an angry mob with money. At the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-West this week in San Francisco, a gathering of top financiers, project developers, executives, etc, it was clear that there are a lot of angry and frustrated American businesspeople with money who are sick and tired of Washington’s refusal to treat renewable energy and cleantech as THE pillar of our future economic growth (not to mention a solution to our increasingly resource-constrained world). Not surprisingly during REFF, Beijing’s aggressive moves to become the cleantech power were repeatedly contrasted against DC’s cowardice and failure to act. Yet, so far the efforts to change the situation in DC by the broader clean energy business community have added up to only a sliver of the lobbying dollars spent by Big Oil and Coal, plus the occasional pilgrimage to DC by a few handfuls of business leaders to implore action (and increasingly that requested action is just short-term fixes, not long-term solutions). So with Solar Power International just around the corner; with WindPower coming up in May 2011; I have a question for Rhone Resch and for Denise Bode. Why are you gathering your mobs with money in Los Angeles?

Perhaps what’s not needed is the current drip campaign, nor “constructive engagement” with the representatives in DC, but blunt force trauma. Congress, and especially the Senate, needs to be convinced that the clean economy interest group is just as powerful as the fossil fuel lobby, with the money to back up its talk. Congress also needs to viscerally feel that the clean economy is a money-making, tax-generating, vote-swaying reality. So I have two specific calls to action for the renewable energy industry.

  1. For the next 3 years, EVERY major trade show for every sector of clean energy – solar, wind, geothermal, power storage, smart grid (thanks Gridwise Alliance Forum for being in DC already), should take place in Washington, D.C. Seeing is believing. If Solar Power’s 50,000 delegates, Windpower’s 25,000 delegates and other similar numbers descended on DC every year and disrupted Congressional limos, lawmakers might pay more attention.
  2. That 1,000,000 business people – employers and employees (present and future) – from the clean energy industry descend on the Capitol Building on March 21, 2011, and show the power and confidence of the new “industrial evolution”. Not NGOs, not lobbyists, but the real deal – CEOs, CFOs, installers, retrofitters, you name it. If we need a sea change in US energy policy, let’s put a sea of angry people with money at the doorstep of those failing to act.

Jeff Immelt of GE: you called Congress “stupid” because of it’s failed energy and climate policy. Will you sign on?

Jim Rogers of Duke Energy: you’ve argued that the most energy efficient economy will be the leader of the 21st century. Will you sign on?

Bill Gates: you want billions of dollars more investment in clean energy R&D. Sign up.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times: you clearly have a bee in your bonnet on this topic. Will you show up?

Being an optimist, I have already created an event page on Facebook, called the Million Business Voices for a Clean Energy Economy and another on LinkedIn. If there are at least 10,000 people signed up before October 10, this thing might have a chance. So spread the word.

‘Best of’ lists: room to be better

Companies are always happy to be included in “best of” media lists for energy and cleantech. And many of them, in my opinion, are deservedly included. But I’m just one opinion. The media supposedly represents a more informed opinion. So I was curious how these lists are compiled.  Is the selection process scientific? Do the lists reflect common wisdom or is it totally random? Is there a herd mentality? Or maybe it’s based on relationships? I decided to see if there is any rhyme or reason to the various selection methodologies and the results. After all, there are hundreds of innovative cleantech companies out there doing thousands of amazing things. Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Greentech Media, Businessweek/Bloomberg and other media groups have all come forth with lists. I should say up front that I am friends with many of the people who compiled these lists, and I’m even a sometimes contributor to Greentech Media. You might think that as the head of the cleantech practice at a large communications firm that I would want to shy away from razzing them. But then you wouldn’t know me very well. So first things first: here’s a list of selection criteria for several of the lists, starting with the funniest and ending with the driest.

  • Greentech Media: Methodology:  We spread the names of 500 VC-funded firms on the Greentech Media dance floor and cut the head off of a chicken. Wherever the chicken landed – that was a winner. We stopped when we ran out of chickens.
  • Bloomberg / Businessweek: Our criteria: These picks are starting to gain traction with real, innovative products and services for sale, they are not yet publicly listed, they are not yet household names, and all have bona fide venture capital backing and other high-profile investors.
  • Fast Company: Apparently there isn’t a methodology (at least not one that I could find). But some of the language in the issue gives a vague hint at what’s important: “surprising and extraordinary efforts” and “each company… illustrates the power and potential of innovative ideas and creative execution”.
  • Wall Street Journal: A team from research firm Dow Jones VentureSource (owned by Dow Jones & Company, publisher of the Journal) calculated the rankings, applying a set of financial criteria to some 350 U.S.-based venture-backed businesses in clean technology valued at less than $1 billion. Companies that make everything from fuel cell technologies to carbon-management software were analyzed according to four financial criteria: the track records of success for both a company’s founders and management; track records for the investors on its board; the amount of capital raised in the last three years; and the percentage change in a company’s valuation in the 12 months ended Nov. 30. Dow Jones reporters and editors who cover the venture capital industry also provided their perspective and expertise beyond the numbers.

A few conclusions:

  • There is a wide divergence in opinion. When you cross-reference the four lists, only Silver Spring Networks appears on all lists. Only two companies appear on three of the lists: eMeter (a client of my company Weber Shandwick) and Solyndra. A corollary is that definitions of cleantech vary (and are not clearly defined by the media in question). For example companies like Recycle Bank (which were named) are great companies, but are they strictly tech products or services?
  • There appears to be a common assumption that success in raising money from VCs and the “caliber” of those VCs equates to successful business. Tell that to the nine out of 10 VC-backed companies that fail.
  • There is an element of the subjective to all lists (aka “expertise beyond the numbers”), which means that personal relationships with the “deciders” matter.
  • “Innovation” appears to be a common factor in selection as well, but none of the media define what the term means, further contributing to the subjectivity of it all.
  • The Wall Street Journal has the most rigorous process. What’s interesting though is that many of the people I know in cleantech (investors, entrepreneurs, etc) scratch their head at some of companies chosen by WSJ.

Final thought: in a world where consumers of media are also increasingly content producers, why aren’t media tapping into the collective wisdom of the cleantech/energy crowd to help identify the true leaders, as well as vote on them? Recognition by peers is much more valuable to a business than recognition by media.

Will the next Ray Anderson please stand up?

I had the pleasure of hearing Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, at the recent Clean-tech Investor Summit. It’s always nice to get re-invigorated by a person who not only inspires through his efforts to create a better world, but who is also a great communicator. Ray is certainly both. After the event, friend Joel Makower and I were wondering out loud if there were any CEOs out there besides Ray who brought with them the same level of inspired thinking and concrete action in the realm of sustainability and cleantech. They are no doubt out there. I have some of my own thoughts, but I want your suggestions. I’m not looking for consultants (I’ve got nothing against them, being one myself). So to be clear: I’m looking for men and women who are on the frontlines of running big business who 1. are pushing the envelope when it comes to innovating through sustainability and 2. who are charismatic conveyors of how they are doing it. I think Bill Gates (albeit no longer a CEO), took himself out the running with his insulation is stupid rant this past week.

Feel free to comment here or make a suggestion on Twitter to @mrcleantech

Thanks.