“Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me…”
“Despite European perceptions that Americans are behind in environmental matters, investment is now four times higher than in Europe. Unsurprisingly Silicon Valley is the early clean-tech leader…”
From The Economist print edition, May 24th 2007
Which city or state will emerge as the Silicon Valley of clean technology?
Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, aspires to create “the renewable-energy centre of the world” in his state. That may not go down well with Austin’s mayor, Will Wynn, who wants to host the global “clean-energy capital”. Iowa’s governor has also staked a claim. And of course Arnold Schwarzenegger lurks in rich, green, can-do California. Like the planet, the race to become America’s “clean-tech capital” is heating up.
The stakes are high. Venture-capital investment in clean-tech in North America more than doubled in the past two years to $2.9 billion, according to the Cleantech Network, an industry research body (see chart). That makes it the third-largest recipient of venture money after biotech and computing. Despite European perceptions that Americans are behind in environmental matters, investment is now four times higher than in Europe.
Unsurprisingly Silicon Valley is the early clean-tech leader, with $638m invested last year. Many engineering and entrepreneurial types were at loose ends after the dotcom bust, and were also hit by California’s rolling blackouts. So when Mr Schwarzenegger introduced incentives, especially for solar power, he got a rapid response. Vinod Khosla, one of the grand old men of the Valley, now busies himself with clean-tech. And a “green wave” initiative requires California’s two huge public-pension funds to commit $1.5 billion to environmentally friendly investments.
Boston is probably the next-biggest clean-tech cluster. Over $250m was invested in Massachusetts last year. There is plenty of brainpower with MIT and Harvard nearby. Electricity is costly, especially since no new coal plants have been built in New England in recent years. And although Massachusetts is not generally associated with manufacturing, Evergreen Solar, a local solar-panel firm, has just announced a new $150m plant.
Another contender is Austin—the “capital city of the most polluting state in the most polluting country in the world”, as the mayor likes to say. Some $210m of venture capital was invested in clean-tech across Texas last year. Like Silicon Valley and Boston, Austin is already a technology hub for the computer industry, and is home to Dell and Freescale. Biofuels are big, too: they bring together Texans’ knowledge of agriculture and oil. Willie Nelson, a local country crooner, has even started BioWillie, a biofuel firm. Austin also has a clean-energy incubator at the University of Texas, one of several allied with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
A few other places—experts mention New Jersey, Arizona and (strangest of all) Toledo, Ohio—are also trying to attract clean-tech start-ups. But more striking are the “green” cities that are doing very little. In Seattle there is little clean-tech buzz beyond a massive biodiesel company, Imperium Renewables, founded in 2004. Denver, despite having the NREL in its suburbs, has also seen little start-up activity. Marty Murphy of the NREL thinks Colorado’s new governor will try to change this.
And for all of America’s work in clean-tech, most of its products are sold overseas. Europe and Japan have been pushing solar power and other alternative technologies much longer, and demand is steadier. First Solar, a solar-panel company in Arizona that went public last year, counts a handful of German firms as its main customers. It works the other way, too. Wind power is growing fast around the world and America, especially Texas, is leading the movement. Most turbines, however, are still made in Europe.