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

China’s Consumption Push: the Beginning of a Global Tilt

I got into the resource economy because it hit me about 20 years ago that China’s one billion people had just entered a period driven by a desire to accumulate. People wanted to buy stuff, and were finally able to. It was clear then that unless China was able to forge a new development path different from other industrialized countries (i.e. not on the back of conspicuous consumption), that it would soon evolve from being the world’s factory (hyperactive producer of everything) to being the world’s black hole (rabid consumer of everything). What gave me a sense of urgency then, which was amplified now with the publication of a new study from the Boston Consulting Group titled “The Dynamics of China’s Next Consumption Engine“, was the vision of a China that literally consumed itself, and the rest of the world with it.

The executive summary of the BCG report sounds inspiring:

Within the next three years China is projected to overtake Japan and become the world’s second-largest consumer market. The affluent class is central to this rapid rise and will drive nearly half of this growth. As the incomes of today’s middle-class consumers increase, many will join the affluent class, which will grow to be an even more powerful force of 280 million people, or 20 percent of China’s population, by 2020. The spending of the affluent will grow fivefold to $3.1 trillion. This will be equivalent to approximately 35 percent of China’s total consumption and more than 5 percent of global consumption. It will also be nearly as much as Japan’s total consumption, 28 percent greater than that of Germany, and three times more than South Korea’s total consumption.

And that’s just with one-fifth of China achieving affluence. With China’s economic growth slowing because of weaker exports, the country’s new leadership has already said clearly that the solution will be priming domestic consumption. For a country that is already suffering from toxic waterways, coal-choked air and a looming public health crisis, monetary affluence clearly spells adject poverty when it comes to the future of China, and therefore the world’s future. I must confess, I am only consumed with two things: the thought that we have hit a global tilting point, and the following question: how do we get out of this mess?

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)