Bill Lemon: The Year Ahead for Cleantech Investing in the Pacific Northwest

Source:  Bill Lemon (Northwest Energy Angels) Xconomy, Jan 04, 2012.

Even though our local economy is far from strong, I am pleased to report that at the Northwest Energy Angels, we continue to see and invest in interesting deals across the spectrum of clean technologies.

In the past year, we’ve seen and closed deals in virtually every segment of the cleantech industry, including more efficient lighting, purer water technologies, and more productive renewable energy. Contrary to the popular press, our shrewd entrepreneurs are doing it with little reliance on special subsidies or government funding.

For 2012, there are several trends that I expect to see emerge and develop in these segments (borrowing the category definitions from the Cleantech Open):

Air, Water, and WasteFor the last few decades we have been wrestling with the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuel reliance and are now clearly on a path to consider water and its shortages in a similar vein. In many respects, the clean water segment is where the energy industry was a couple of decades ago. We will continue to see companies looking to develop ways to use water more efficiently, measure water and its cleanliness more precisely and cost-effectively, and recoup water that was previously thought unusable.

Domestically, vigilance in air quality makes opportunities for dramatic improvement difficult. Obviously, carbon dioxide emissions are a huge exception to this, but uncertainty over government mandates and/or incentives will make CO2 control a market that startups will have a hard time making a dent in.

The area of waste will continue to offer a wide variety of disparate, but valuable opportunities as cost of disposal and potential value of the refuse continues to be recognized.

Energy EfficiencyThe Pacific Northwest has been blessed and cursed in this segment. The ethic of the region is very pro-conservation but our energy costs are among the lowest of any region, which gives priority to other faster-paying investments in this economy. As we look at efficiency technologies, the key questions are, first, will it sell in California (and elsewhere) and second, is there any way for a local company to deploy, test and further develop its technology for commercial roll out?

Given recent predictions for climbing energy costs, the second question is most often the decider for investor involvement. As I’ll explain below, I see a very positive trend here and am bullish on this sector for our local companies for the first time in a long while.

Green BuildingAs in the case of efficiency, our region enjoys quick consideration for new green building products here and enthusiasm for early winners. Status quo materials and practices are, unlike our energy, on par cost-wise with the nation, giving local solution providers an excellent chance to gain early market traction.

Renewable EnergyThis segment of the cleantech world is seeing the biggest changes. The sunsetting of many U.S. government incentives is causing entrepreneurs to rethink their prospects. Opportunities will continue for those companies that have a “mine the miners” strategy to help established renewable energy equipment manufacturers to improve their product offerings—especially when products are aimed at the world market, which is expected to see much less retrenchment in 2012.

One area of exception to the slowdown is renewable transportation fuels, aviation fuels in particular. Our region has a leg up with Boeing and military interest in the subject as well as the nation’s largest operating biodiesel producer, Imperium Renewables. While it won’t be built overnight, I do see more and more opportunities for companies that can contribute to the success of this industry.

Smart Power, Green Grid, and Energy StorageThe Smart Power, Green Grid, and Energy Storage category encourages links between information technologies and electricity delivery that give customers greater control over when and how their energy is delivered and used.

In many regards, startups in this space have a chicken-and-egg problem: Utilities and regulators want to see products before using these new technologies at scale, while startup companies (and their investors) want to see buyers ready to write checks before gearing up for production.

Our region is rich in the technologies needed to implement the smart grid and its cousins—we have a tradition of progressive utilities that have implemented its precursors. But I remain skeptical of a fast market uptake in 2012.

Our Secret WeaponMilitary installations. The local cleantech community has been sought out by representatives of the Navy (Naval Base Everett) and the Army/Air Force (Joint Base Lewis-McChord) to help them achieve some truly remarkable sustainability goals for waste, water, and energy.

Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t to say that the procurement floodgates have opened. They haven’t. The military is on a downward budget trend and they know it. But what they do have is a long view and a willingness to invest in projects that will pay off over a longer term than most homeowners or businesses would.

These military installations capture a complete subset of our local economy: industrial operations, commercial/office buildings, residences, and more. In some cases there are also financial partners who will step in alongside military sustainability initiatives, to provide funding where others wouldn’t.

Perhaps most importantly for our entrepreneurs, these bases are looking for good, early commercial products to test, demonstrate and embrace to achieve their goals.

The Road Ahead
While I don’t think that cleantech is in for any 1990′s-style boom, I do think we will continue to see a wide variety of clever entrepreneurs with great market insights and technological breakthroughs in 2012. And the Northwest Energy Angels will continue to be ready, willing, and able to fund them.