The rise, then fall, then rise again of cleantech

Man cleans solar panels in Costa Rica Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cleaning up: Is green technology - like these solar panels in Costa Rica - on the rise again?

It's often said that green technology, or cleantech, has become a no-go area for investors, but is that really true?

Certainly investors ploughed billions into electric cars, solar panels and futuristic batteries during the last decade, hoping to get rich while weaning us off fossil fuels.

And pretty soon the sector overheated, share prices toppled and investment tailed off.

But while we still live in a world dominated by fossil fuels, environmentalists have a lot more to be cheerful about.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fossil fuels are still dominant - as at this coal-fired power station in the UK

Global investment in clean energy was last year back near its 2011 peak at $310bn (£200bn), up from $60bn in 2004.

And the price of clean technologies has plummeted, explaining why more wind and solar power was generated in 2014 than any year previously.

Partly driving the trend is the spread of clean energy in developing countries, says Angus McCrone, chief editor at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Reflecting that China invested $89.5bn in the sector last year (up 32%), Brazil $7.9bn (up 88%) and India $7.9bn (up 14%).

"We've got to the point where in 2014, developing countries almost caught up with developed countries in terms of overall dollar investment," Mr McCrone says.

"In some places it's happening without any subsidy support too."

Big business and governments have also increased their support for clean technology - through venture investments in innovative start-ups and subsidies like tax breaks respectively.

"Without them the industry would be in a much tougher position," says Frans Nauta, deputy director of entrepreneurship at Climate-KIC, an EU-funded programme that supports cleantech start-ups.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Windmills on Huitengxile grassland in Ulanqab, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. China has invested heavily in renewable energy sources

Start me up?

Perhaps the only piece of the puzzle missing is venture capital (VC) investment, which is significantly down from its peak.

During the last decade, many Silicon Valley VCs dived into cleantech with little understanding of the sector and hoping for quick returns.

Instead they found a slow-moving and highly competitive market, and few were surprised when billion-dollar businesses such as biofuel producer Kior and solar power company Solyndra subsequently went bust.

"In a way it got overhyped and perhaps too many ideas got funded," says Richard Youngman, managing director, Europe & Asia at the Cleantech Group.

"In a world where hype can be a bad thing, a more sober existence was needed."

But Mr Nauta believes the absence of VCs is a serious problem, particularly in Europe.

That's because they are more likely to invest in the most disruptive (and risky) early-stage businesses that are vital to innovation.

"Take solar - I still see incredible opportunities for disruption, whether it's improving the efficiency of the panels, their production, their installation or in terms of financing," he says.

"But while I know many companies making strides in this area, they don't have enough access to funding."

Image copyright Isentropic
Image caption A diagram showing how Isentropic's electricity storage system works

UK start-up Isentropic claims to be developing one of the lowest cost "grid scale" methods of electricity storage in the world.

Chief executive James Macnaghten says the fall in the number of financial VCs prepared to invest in cleantech that is not yet making money is concerning.

"Government funding is very welcome, but it often has strings attached… and the involvement of a corporate investor can reduce the value of the company in the long run as they may want preferential rights," he says.

By contrast, financial VCs invest in a wider range of companies and their interests are better aligned with shareholders, according to Mr Macnaghten.

Some companies, like Pavegen, have found alternatives. The firm, which manufactures flooring tiles that convert the wasted kinetic energy from footsteps into renewable electricity, has struggled to find funding in the past so is raising cash through a crowdfunding platform.

And CorPower Ocean, a Swedish start-up whose technology generates five times more wave power than rival applications, has secured backing from the EU, industry and the Swedish Energy Agency.

Image copyright PAvegen
Image caption Pavegen's green floor tiles convert the wasted kinetic energy from footsteps into renewable electricity

Policy problems

But there are other challenges facing clean energy, not least big uncertainties around the future direction of government policies on the sector.

While the global picture is positive, with governments such as China's making huge commitments, "at the individual country level there are always pressures," says Mr McCrone.

"In the UK the new government is not really friendly to onshore wind, so we could well see investment hit quite hard in the next few years.

"In the US there's a great deal of uncertainty about what's going to happen to the tax credits for companies incentivising wind and solar."

Image copyright CorPower
Image caption CorPower Ocean says their system generates five times more wave power than rival applications

The biggest barrier of all is the continued subsidisation of fossil fuels, says CorPower chief executive Patrik Möller.

He believes that until carbon dioxide is priced at a point comparable to the damage it causes, a wholesale shift towards clean technologies is unlikely.

But Mr Nauta is optimistic, arguing that the falling costs of renewables will ultimately make them preferable to fossil fuels, regardless of whether consumers care about the environment.

"It is not a matter of if these technologies will rule but when: the questions are how fast we'll get there and who is going to benefit from this new economy," he says.

"If you're conservative and you let the lobbyists of the fossil fuel industry dictate your policies, you are going to miss out."