In the same way the Northwest has imagined and innovated its way to success with endeavors now synonymous with the region – be it coffee, software, outdoor gear, aerospace or microchips – our region can help write the operating instructions for what might be the most important opportunity for the next two generations – cleantech. The time is now, not to walk but to fly. The land grab has started as different regions – inside the US and out – move to stake their claim as the leaders of the cleantech revolution. The companies and people of the Northwest are uniquely positioned to be among the leaders. The intellectual capital is here. The political will is here. The consumer culture and public sentiment needed to support a cleantech economy are also here. Tech heavyweights like the San Francisco Bay Area are already way ahead, investing heavily in starting clean technology companies and churning out patents from their universities. Yet here in the Northwest, local venture-capital money is still trickling into cleantech – Chrysalix and Yaletown in BC are the notable exceptions. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm has been relatively muted. Where is the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos, the Paul Allen, the Howard Schultz of cleantech? Cleantech is ripe for great, local visionaries. It is also ripe for another key component of success: a clearly identifiable brand. What does the Northwest stand for? Where does it have a competitive advantage in cleantech that is sustainable over the long haul? What can we get excited about as a community and rally around? The jury is still out, but here is an attempt to crystallize the focus of our region and my candidates for where the Northwest has a real chance to stake a claim, not as “the” world leader, but as “a” legitimate leader with the proof to back it up: The Frontrunners
- Biofuels – Imperium Renewables gets the attention, but there is much more happening. Boeing working on aviation biofuel. Weyerhaeuser exploring cellulosic ethanol. A host of start-ups looking at algae, mold and enzymes. TheNorthwest Biofuels Association, Pacific Regional Biomass Energy Partnership. A solid base of expertise has formed in the Northwest, including at universities and national labs. And we also excel in the ability to design and build large bio-refineries.
- The Other Hydro – Wave and tidal could be the “next wind” and we are blessed with the right coastline and ripping tides. Just ask Oregon Iron Works, as they churn out prototypes of several different wave energy prototypes. When I recently saw the eight-story AquaBuOY (almost all of which is underwater) designed by my client Finavera Renewables, it finally struck me that this is no joke.
- Software – Whether PC power management, carbon emissions tracking, vehicle to grid, or remote electricity consumption monitoring, its already happening in the Northwest and the potential for growth here is great given that software is in our DNA. Microsoft even appears to be prepping for a big push in greening its products.
- Cleantech as a Service – The service sector has always been a strength in the Northwest, whether its building, engineering or environmental consulting. Is there an Accenture of cleantech out there waiting to happen? Not yet, but its possible.
- Consumer Cleantech – We have some of the best consumer brands in the world, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot create more in cleantech, whether it’s a consumer-facing biofuels brand (SeQuential or Propel), a family-friendly home energy saving software or a venture capital firm like Maveron that takes its consumer knowledge and puts it to work in the cleantech space. But top talent is being drawn to the Bay, so we need to incubate locally and aggressively.
- Smart Grid – The Northwest appeared to have an edge here several years ago, with relatively progressive utilities and Itron dominating the metering market, but does it anymore? Not so sure. Other regions have caught up and probably passed us.
- Renewable Energy Gateway to China – Senator Maria Cantwell certainly would like to see that happen, and efforts are underway to organize a bilateral forum in Seattle of top business leaders to advise the US-China inter-government Strategic Economic Dialogue. The Northwest also exports a lot of engineering knowledge, environmental consulting, green building and design toChina.
- Power Storage – Between fuel cells in British Columbia and a national lab in Idaho that knows power storage, there is some critical mass here, but can we recover from the disappointment of Ballard?