Tom Ranken: Don't Bet Against Cleantech

Source:  This first appeared in the Seattle Times Clean Energy Supplement, September 2012.

Cleantech has become more controversial during the election season, but it should really be evaluated from the perspectives of both the business cynic and the visionary to get a more realistic view.  Is it for real?  Is there really potential for cleantech jobs in our state?

Much of the answer depends upon your definition of cleantech.  In the past, most observers have narrowed the definition to energy generated from the sun, the wind, the tides, and thermal layers under the ground.  In the view of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance, cleantech is that and much more.

Cleantech is not new and it is found throughout the state.  Any place where people turn on lights is fertile ground for cleantech.

It is the more efficient utilization of energy and resources.  It is doing more with less.  Fundamentally, an environmentalist’s concept of sustainability is no different than the businessperson’s concept of reducing the cost of doing business.

More often than not, cleantech focuses on energy.  It focuses on efforts to reduce the use of costly and dirty sources and either replace them or reduce their use.  To meet the demands of the marketplace, this necessarily requires these innovations to be efficient.  They need to reduce the costs of energy—dollars, security, and to the environment.

In our state, there are already significant cleantech business endeavors.  Many of them are enormously successful.  Others might well become so as technology develops.

  1. Building Sciences:  We have a lot of great, growing companies that are doing something really simple in concept:  Reducing the need for energy.  This can be as simple as insulating homes.  But it is also developing complex building design techniques, more efficient utilization of heat, managing energy needs through new software systems, and creating new materials for building construction.  There has been a lot of growth in this field because the value proposition is simple and compelling:  These companies help us save a lot of money.
  2. Biofuels:  We have great research institutions in this state and outstanding collaborations between them and the marketplace.  Nowhere has this been more true that in the aviation biofuels project.  This is an endeavor to create biofuels from sources that make economic sense—and provide energy security.  The potential of this field has been rewarded by recent research grants to our two public research universities totaling $80 million.
  3. Smart Grid:  The western portion of this state has some of the world’s greatest software.  The eastern part of the state has some of the globe’s finest energy device companies.  Integrating energy systems through better software and devices has great potential to significantly reduce and manage energy costs.  Energy savings has already been outstanding in many companies—and these concepts are just beginning to develop.

One truthful thing that can be said about predictions is that they are never completely correct.  There are many other technologies that might well dwarf these fields in our state.  We have strong companies and organizations working on solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, battery technologies, telematics, forecasting, and a host of other concepts.  I wouldn’t bet against any of them.

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