US investors warm to clean technology in a big way
Dec 1, 2007, 12:24 GMT
Washington - Think about Texas, the home of Big Oil. Now think again.
These days, President George W Bush's home state also claims the world's largest wind farm, a symbol of booming US interest in renewable energy that has Americans playing catch-up with Europe.
High oil prices and growing public concern about global warming have helped fuel a surge of private investment in clean technology. And Americans see clean tech's potential for jobs, though the companies creating them are often based in Europe or Asia.
'The growth is really here in our area,' said Jeffrey Leonard, chief executive of Global Environment Fund, a Washington-area investment firm. 'The same thing that happened in Europe and Japan with wind and solar is happening in the US.'
'Off of a low base - because we'd fallen behind - the US is growing very rapidly,' he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Venture capitalists pumped 1.14 billion dollars into North American clean-tech projects in the third quarter of 2007, double the previous quarter's amount, according to Cleantech Network, a US firm that tracks the industry. By contrast, Europe garnered 472 million dollars.
Former US vice president Al Gore, fresh from sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is joining a top California venture capital firms that channels investments to fight global warming.
Venture capital tells only part of the story for Europe, where governments have promoted clean energy for years with regulation, subsidies and the Kyoto Protocol's binding cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.
In the US Senate, the 1997 UN treaty was overwhelmingly opposed by Republicans and Democrats. Former oil industry executive Bush later rejected it as bad for the US economy when he took office in 2001, infuriating Europeans.
Now, a growing number of inventors, investors and local officials see fighting climate change in the US as good for the economy, a market waiting to be tapped.
Measured by venture capital, the small-company funding that is often seen as a gauge of innovation, the US easily outpaces Europe. But established players are also pumping dollars into the United States, smelling the opportunities in clean power.
Building on the success of wind energy in Europe, four wind turbine makers opened new US manufacturing and assembly plants in 2006, including some in the northeastern US 'rust belt' where smokestack industries once ruled.
Spain's Gamesa set up shop in an abandoned US Steel plant in Pennsylvania, bringing 300 skilled jobs to an area hit by industrial decline. Texas-based manufacturer Trinity revamped an old freight-car plant south of Chicago to build wind-turbine towers.
Just 70 kilometres northwest of Bush's White House, British Petroleum is expanding the largest solar-cell plant in North America, investing 97 million dollars and creating some 70 new jobs in Frederick, Maryland.
And Power-One Inc, a California maker of power equipment, has seen its stock price rise by some 25 per cent since mid-year after new products aimed at the solar power industry got investors excited.
Clearly, renewable energy has huge possibilities in the US. A study found that just North Dakota, a northern state of 640,000 people twice the size of Portugal, has vastly more wind generating potential than Germany, the world leader in wind power.
Yet sun and wind power still cost about two to three times as much as conventional sources like nuclear or fossil fuels. Also, Bush has focussed attention and federal research dollars on corn-based ethanol and biofuels so Americans can keep their car and truck engines running while depending less on foreign oil.
It has largely been up to US states to forge ahead with incentives and ambitious goals to promote clean power, a complicated task mixing the interests of politicians, utility companies and a public already faced with rising electricity and petrol prices.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush's fellow Republican, wants the economic powerhouse state to have 1 million solar roofs by 2018 to help 'turn back the clock on pollution.'
Across the country in Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley says his state has 'some of the most aggressive incentives for solar' in the US. The state, which surrounds the capital Washington, passed a law this year to get 2 per cent of its electricity from the sun by 2022.
Small steps, perhaps, compared to the European Union, whose leaders decided in March that 20 per cent of the bloc's energy should come from renewable sources, such as wind power, by 2020.
But despite the boom-and-bust history of clean technology in the United States since the 1970s, insiders believe the new upswing can only get better as US businesses go greener.
One result is the world-beating Horse Hollow wind farm near Abilene in the central Texas brushland, where power company FPL Energy runs 421 turbines by Germany's Siemens and US-based General Electric, churning out electricity for some 220,000 homes.
'It's such a huge market,' said Craig Cuddeback, Cleantech Network's chief operating officer. 'It's going to hit, and it's going to hit even bigger.'© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur