This is the common refrain whenever a critic of the Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program explains why federal government loans to private industry is a bad thing. Some have even used it to explain why they believe there should be no tax credits, treasury grants or portfolio standards for renewable energy.
But these same critics, which include media outlets and politicians, have zero problem picking winning facts (cited in their arguments) and losing facts (uncited) to support their case. Take the Solyndra myopia, which has existed ever since the company folded.
Solyndra was a technology company with a unique proprietary technology in an emerging and soon-to-be maturing market. There was a significant amount of risk involved in making the loan to Solyndra, just as there was in providing Tesla with a loan (which recently paid off its loan with interest). But critics have serially ignored the fact that failed investments like Solyndra make up less than two percent of the total loans allocated for the program. Reporters and critics also frequently cite the total amounts announced by the DOE, but ignore that less than 50 percent of the program loans have actually been paid out in total to companies.
Like Dan Primack who wrote the aforelinked Fortune piece, I am not saying that I believe the program was the best approach. The point is that individual loan recipients have been sensationalized and used as poster children for positions which are not well supported by facts. What are the facts?
Solyndra was a bad investment by VCs, the government and the customers who bought product from the company. But it is a tiny, tiny fraction of the program. It's like picking the worst performing stock in a portfolio and saying equities stink. Anyone who makes Solyndra the poster child for solar industry health (which has been done) is again not doing their homework or has an agenda.
Companies fail all of the time. And the failures of Solyndra, Fisker and Beacon Power do not mean that the renewable energy, EVs and advances in energy storage are doomed. The cleantech revolution is in its infancy and is about where the auto industry was at around 1910. How many auto companies have gone under since then? I stopped counting at 100...that start with the letter A.
The jury is still out on the loan guarantee program, the solar industry, and the broader cleantech market in general. But history always delivers an unkind verdict to those that ignore facts and sensationalize to support myopic positions.
The venture capital vacuum in Cleantech continues with word that Mohr Davidow is joining the ranks of other firms and narrowing its focus to existing investments and to companies at the intersection of cleantech and IT. And while this shouldn't come as a shock, it reinforces the notion that the next generation of renewable energy technologies will likely need support from government R&D grants and strategic investors in order to reach maturity.
But the continued retreat of venture capitalists from the more capital-intensive areas of Cleantech, couldn't cast a shadow on what has been a very positive week for the industry in California. The VERGE Conference produced by GreenBiz brought some of the world's largest companies to San Francisco to discuss the intersection of clean IT, transportation, cities and other areas. The event precedes Greenbuild, which will bring in even more global brands to see the latest and greatest in renewables, energy efficiency and sustainable building.
The timing of these two very different, but related events was perfect given the wave of positive policy news that has descended upon the Cleantech industry during the past week. Some quick examples:
-President Obama's re-election signals that there will be continued EPA and DoD support in the form of environmental regulatory enforcement and technology adoption, among other things.
The election has ended and we wake up in a brave "new" world where the Democrats control the White House and hold a slightly larger majority (but not a filibuster-ending, super majority) in the Senate. Meanwhile, the GOP will hold a slightly smaller, but meaningful majority in the house.
Sound familiar? What's old is new again.
And in all of the post-election analysis there is only one area of agreement--neither party can claim a clear advantage in terms of getting its agenda passed. So while the only certainty is that Obamacare is here to stay, there is a lot of uncertainty around what President Obama will be able to accomplish in a second term.
But, since saying that nothing will change is boring, here are a small set of predictions related to what last night's election means for cleantech and energy in the US.
Prediction #1--There will not be a single meaningful piece of national energy legislation before 2015, at least.
Depressing? Yes. True? Most likely. The GOP coalition includes the support of coal, oil and other traditional energy sources. The Democratic coalition includes solar, wind, biofuels and environmentalists, but also includes Senators and House members who represent coal country. The Democrats may not even have a majority in the Senate to pass any environmentally meaningful legislation that could be construed as being as anti-coal. So unless there is a dramatic shift in the midterm elections at the end of 2014, the status quo will prevail.
That means it will again be left up to states like California to take the lead. Proposition 39 which passed last night will bring as much as $1 billion in new tax revenue to the state and the San Jose Mercury News describes its impact like this, "Of the $1 billion raised per year under Proposition 39, half will fund energy-efficiency and clean-energy projects at public buildings and schools for the first five years, creating 40,000 new jobs, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. The other half will go to the general fund."
That means up to $500 million per year over five years in new spending on renewables and energy efficiency for public buildings and schools. That will make a lot of cleantech companies extremely happy and result perhaps the most energy-efficient state infrastructure of any state in the country. Combine that with enforcement of AB 32 and the carbon auction, and you have a major regional force driving action on climate change.
I also think that energy will take a backseat to immigration given the Democrats owe the Presidency and Senate to historic support and turnout from the Latino community and the GOP needs to start addressing that constituency or face a similar election fate down the line. Nothing forces cooperation like mutual self interest.
Prediction #2--Agencies will double down on clean energy spending.
The most promising aspect of last night's federal results for cleantech was the fact that the White House can continue its environmentally progressive actions within government agencies like EPA, DoD and transportation. The Obama adminstration will continue to use agencies as a proxy for driving consumption of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the absence legislation.
This means more renewable energy on bases, more energy efficiency in federal buildings, etc.
Prediction #3--The EPA v Natural Gas is going to be an epic battle.
If there was one area of energy that both sides agree on, it's that natural gas is a major part of the country's path to energy independence and its future. However, with Obama in the White House, you can expect the EPA to take a harder line on environmental policy as it relates to natural gas extraction and fracking. Expect threats to come from the GOP House to defund EPA in order to combat what it sees as too much regulation. It should be an interesting battle PR and regulatory battle.
Prediction #4--The Supreme Court will eventually move to the left on the environment.
There are three justices age 76 or older on the Supreme Court. Two of those three are conservative justices appointed by GOP presidents. Many expect that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy will step down before Obama's second term ends. Antonin Scalia may feel pressure to ride it out until Obama's term ends, but that will also make him almost 81 years old.
Even though many call Kennedy a centrist and swing vote on most issues, President Obama would certainly appoint a replacement who would be much more liberal than Kennedy. If the President appoints two justices, it will shift the power of the Supreme Court to the left. If he appoints three justices, then it could be left leaning for an entire generation.
Why does this matter? Because with more regulation, EPA rules and state-led environmental initiatives will come legal challenges. If the SCOTUS is environmentally friendly. then it could usher in a new era of environmentalism not seen since the early 70s.
Prediction #5--A more centrist GOP minority will emerge on climate issues
Between record heat, droughts in the midwest and Superstorm Sandy, some conservatives are beginning to come around on climate science. Like the tobacco and cancer debate during the middle of last century, most thought that climate skeptics would eventually loose their credibility and footing, with the only question being when.
With Chris Christie, Michael Bloomberg and other GOP moderates now publicly discussing the impacts of climate change on American safety, security and the economy, you may see enough collaboration for a coalition of non-coal state Democrats and centrist Republicans to begin working on climate issues regionally or even nationally.
And while the gulf states may be too oil-centric on climate in the short term, it is worth watching GOP governors and senators in coastal states like Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida to see if they start to shift their attitudes on climate. And if the Democrats are smart, they will continue pushing conservation as a religious issue, climate as a national security issue, and green jobs as an economic issue during the next four years.
Posted by Jason Morris on November 7, 2012 at 11:42 AM
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Today, we released the results of a 2012 summer survey of cleantech, energy and sustainability reporters and analysts. In conducting the survey, we learned a lot of interesting things about the reporters and analysts with whom we work on a daily basis here at Schwartz MSL, with many of the findings applicable for PR teams across other markets like consumer, technology and healthcare.
As we said last week, the survey results debunked some PR assumptions and reinforced others, but most importantly I think they will help us all better understand the interests and attitudes of the media and analyst community. This can only help us become better communicators.
For the purposes of this post and the video below, I wanted to focus on one major takeaway that I think all technology PR and marketing professionals can use in their day-to-day jobs: the extent to which reporters and analysts are embracing social and digital media channels in their everyday jobs.
We meet with a lot of B2B technology companies across energy, cleantech, cloud, open source, healthcare and other markets who still aren't using Twitter, LinkedIn and other social channels to their full potential. It's surprising how many still think Twitter is the domain of consumer marketing.
We think conceding Twitter to your competitors is a major mistake in technology communications. Better yet, we think you should be owning it in a way that makes the competition jealous. Here are three reasons we believe using Twitter in PR is a must for almost all B2B technology companies.
Reason #1--Market influencers are on Twitter
Many companies don't view Twitter as critical because they don't believe customers get their information on technology products from Twitter. That may be true in many markets, but the primary people who influence your customers are on Twitter and they are likely on there a lot. Twitter is another channel through which you can build media and analyst relationships, manage your reputation, generate impressions and monitor breaking news. Many VCs, private equity firms and financial reporters are also on Twitter, making it a potential way to generate visibility with investors. Finally, it can be a great recruiting tool especially within the developer and engineering community, since it is easier to communicate corporate culture through social media than through press releases and traditional media.
Reason #2--Reporters and analysts are getting story and research ideas from Twitter
Our survey showed that more than a quarter of media and analysts are getting story and research ideas through Twitter. It is also a means for them to monitor breaking news and monitor stories coming from competing outlets (another source of ideas for them). If your company is not on Twitter, you are essentially missing out on a prevalent channel through which to generate visibility for your company. Many reporters also look for sources now on Twitter, so if you are missing out on that conversation, you are leaving opportunities on the table.
Reason #3--Reporters are more comfortable than ever being contacted through social media
The Schwartz MSL survey showed that Twitter is now tied with work phone as the second most popular communication channel (after email) for working with media. A close third? LinkedIn. More than one third of respondents said that they are open to being pitched through social media.
With the 2013 marketing budget season upon us, now is the time for technology companies to embrace social media as part of their communications plan. It will take a little investment in time and money, but social and digital are not fads within the technology media and analyst community, so the payoffs could be significant.
The survey and analysis of the results is available here. We’re happy to answer any questions you have in person, over the phone, via email or better yet, over social media.
Posted by Jason Morris on September 6, 2012 at 3:47 PM
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On September 6, Schwartz MSL will be releasing results of a 2012 summer survey of cleantech, energy and sustainability reporters and analysts. In conducting the survey, we think we learned a lot of interesting things about the reporters and analysts with whom we work on a daily basis here at Schwartz MSL, with many of the findings applicable for PR teams across other markets like consumer, technology and healthcare.
The goal of the survey was to help determine what the professionals covering the cleantech, energy and sustainability industries value from a media and analyst-relations perspective. We wanted to gain insight into how events of the past five years had impacted the way reporters saw the market and what that meant for cleantech communicators everywhere—both in-house and within Energy & Cleantech PR Practices at agencies like Schwartz MSL.
The survey results debunked some PR assumptions and reinforced others, but most importantly I think they will help us all better understand the interests and attitudes of the media and analyst community. This can only help us become better communicators.
So what were the results? You'll have to wait for the full download next week. But interested parties can get a sneak peek at the types of questions we asked and what we expect to learn by clicking here. For those who don’t want to forget to download the results, shoot us an email and we’ll be sure to send you a copy.
Survey says!?! Tune in next week.
Posted by Jason Morris on August 28, 2012 at 2:07 PM
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I know that today people will be inundated with posts and stories that look to make stretch connections to the monumental and historic healthcare decision made today by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). So my apologies in advance, as I am about to join that chorus!
I believe that today's decision is a positive thing for the cleantech industry for a few reasons. And so, here we go:
Obama's second term chances just increased: The SCOTUS decision is a major boost for President Obama and the Democrats heading into the November elections. Everyone should feel free to argue whether or not a second term would be a good thing for the country and the economy. However, no one can argue that with Democrats holding the White House and at least one chamber of Congress, clean technology companies have a much better chance of receiving regulatory, legislative and agency-spending support for renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean energy R&D. The healthcare decision is also his second populist win in a week after his decision on immigration was well received by most voters. Couple that with the fact that most people who benefit from the bill will be middle-class, low-income and young voters, and Obama just solidified his position with his base and with many independents heading into November.
Energy just moved up the agenda list: The GOP will bluster about overturning the healthcare law, but without a supermajority in the Senate and the White House, they have zero chance of doing so. Given even the most optimistic GOP election projections have the Democrats with more than 40 votes in the Senate, there is almost no chance of a repeal. That means, this takes healthcare entirely off of the priority list for Obama in a second term and allows him to focus on one of the major unaccomplished platforms from his original candidacy: energy. When you couple with that the recent immigration decision that placated at least some critics of the lack of immigration reform, energy and the environment could become the cornerstone of a second Obama term.
The DOE loan guarantee program failures now become a fringe issue: The more the news cycle focuses on things other than the flame out of DOE loan guarantee recipients, the better off Cleantech is from a public and policy support standpoint. For example, the coverage of Solyndra and others has created the perception that the entire solar industry is a failure, despite the fact that solar adoption in the US has never been higher and downstream companies are doing REALLY well. The media has a myopic focus on solar module companies as synonymous with solar PV as a whole. Module margins are not a good indication of the health of the industry any more than disk drive margins are an indication of the health of the PC industry. Shipments yes, margins no.
So while the SCOTUS decision will dominate the debate cycles during this election season, clean technology companies will see a boost in their chances to have a favorable policy environment for the next four years. Now granted, a lot of things can happen between now and November, but there is no downside to the Supreme Court decision for clean technology companies in the near term.
Prior to helping start the Cleantech Practice at Schwartz MSL, my technology PR career kicked off in the late 90s with a focus business-to-business software and infrastructure companies like MapInfo, webMethods and IONA. My days were spent talking about the evolution of web services and standards like XML, UDDI, .Net, Java and others, and how they impacted the development of ecommerce, business process automation and supply-chain integration.
If ever there was a journalist that I felt followed a similar path as me to eventually "covering" renewable energy, energy efficiency and green IT companies--albeit on the editorial side--it was Martin LaMonica. Martin is a veteran journalist of more than 20 years, having spent a good chunk of time covering enterprise technology for IDG (InfoWorld, etc) and then CNET, before managing the Green blog at CNET. Recently, he joined MIT Technology Reviewas an outside contributor to cover clean technologies for the publication which is famous for writing about cutting-edge innovation before it becomes mainstream.
Martin was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his new gig to answer three questions related to his role at the publication.
Schwartz MSL:What is your new assignment with MIT Technology Review? What types of topics will you be covering?
LaMonica: The new gig at MIT Tech Review is a blog on energy. The focus is clean technologies (rather than the traditional oil & gas and power industry) so it covers a lot of ground in terms of topics and companies--both startups and established energy and materials companies. With my background in covering the IT industry, I'm always looking for crossover between the high-tech industry and energy/environment.
Schwartz MSL: What do you think makes a good MIT Technology Review story? What sources do you like to speak with beyond inventors or corporate executives?
LaMonica: Tech Review does a great job of identifying interesting companies before they get a lot of attention and identifying important trends. Broadly speaking, that's what I'm looking for. Investors and academics who have evaluated a company's technology are important sources.
Schwartz MSL: Are you focused more on news or features? What’s the best way for marketers and PR professionals to submit post and article ideas?
LaMonica: The blog mainly covers news, but I plan to do more feature/trend stories for the site as well. I plan to freelance for other media outlets as well. Email's a good way to get in touch. I'm usually pretty active on Twitter and always check story comments.
What do BP, Rolls-Royce, Barclays, Burberry Group, Unilever, Carnival Cruiselines and Royal Dutch Shell all have in common? They are part of the FTSE 100 Index marking them as the 100 companies with the highest market capitalization on the London Stock Exchange.
But the nature of CO2 reporting to financial markets squarely puts emissions in the public domain where c-level executives, board members, investors and the general public all have front-row seats to identifying the largest emitters.
You can bet that financial teams will be calling the CSR and environmental compliance departments within their organizations to get a crash coarse on the difference between a carbon credit and a carbon offset. The implications of this are broad and it is only a matter of time that other governments follow suit.
If you were expecting this post to be a comprehensive review of the new Microsoft Surface, launched this afternoon in a mysterious event in an undisclosed location hosted by he-who-shall-not-be-named (continuing with the mystery theme, not a comment on you, Mr. Balmer), then I am sorry to disappoint you. The Twittersphere has made it clear that Surface pricing details and availability had not yet been disclosed as this post went to "press."
Instead, I decided to look at this news through cleantech goggles and discuss what the impact will be from an energy perspective. So in the battle of Microsoft Surface versus Apple iPad versus Android Tablets, who wins? I have no clue.
I do, however, have an idea who loses: the consumer. Don't get me wrong, the world will continue to get top-flight devices built on platforms by companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung that will keep them checking email, watching video and shooting pigs with birds long into the night.
Where the consumer loses is when battery technology can't keep pace with the accelerating power and feature race taking place in today's tablets and smart phone industries. The battery issue will continue to hold companies back from putting all of the power and features consumers want in devices, and even impact the physical form factors they take.
There are several new battery chemistries that hold promise, but most of today's devices don't employ them. Until they get beyond lithium ion, I think we're in for some bad reviews about the charge/discharge capabilities of next generation devices.
Energy storage is a major issue that rears its ugly head in transportation (electric vehicles), renewables (grid-level storage) and now, consumer electronics. It's high time that the media, government and private industry more intensely focus their attention on one of the biggest technology bottlenecks facing society.
If a smart grid program launches but no one hears about it, does it save a kilowatt hour?
As mentioned yesterday, Black & Veatch recently issued its annual electric utility report which surveys the nation's utilities on the top issues facing them in the areas of operational efficiency, profitability and regulatory compliance.
In that post, I discussed how regulatory certainty is a major issue that is causing problems for utilities in their adoption of renewable energy, smart grid and other clean initiatives. It cripples the ability of utilities to make long-term investment decisions to improve reliability, upgrade an aging infrastructure and tackle environmental concerns like carbon emissions, since their unsure what their compliance burden and return on investment will be long term.
Today, I wanted to drill down on a different, more specific finding from the survey: namely, the lack of marketing support that utilities have given to energy efficiency and smart grid programs. Nearly half of all utilities stated in the report that they have done nothing to market the smart grid and energy efficiency pilots they have undertaken. Think about that. They have purchased the technology, rolled it out and done nothing, zero, zilch to let customers know they have done so.
So, essentially these utilities have put measures in place to help their customer bases become more energy efficient and save money, and in many instances, receive better customer service as a result. But the utilities haven't done anything beyond maybe a cursory letter with a monthly bill to tell them about it?
Now many utility critics would chalk this up to an industry with the reputation of having to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything by regulator and legislators. I don't think that's true.
I attribute it to the "truck roll" mentality of the utility industry and their slow adoption of anything that involves direct customer contact. The industry spent decades developing and implementing technology that enabled minimal customer contact, including automated meter reading (AMR), automatic shut offs, etc.
Now, with smart grid programs, we expect utilities to become consumer marketing gurus that engage with their customers individually and provide slick web-based portals and mobile apps with detailed usage information and money saving tips? It is unrealistic. In fact, only about 80 percent of those surveyed even have customer portals which sounds like a lot, but puts them well behind most other service sectors.
It's time that regulators require some form of legitimate marketing of smart grid and energy efficiency programs, that also allows the utilities to recoup the costs through a minor rate increase. By getting the word out about these programs, you will have rate payers eventually conserving more energy and saving money anyway which would offset the longer-term impact of the rate increase.
Some home-energy management players offer marketing programs to their utility partners as part of smart grid programs and pilots. They have already done the work of hiring consumer marketing professionals and invested in behavioral science research to help get customers educated about and engaged in new programs.
It is important that utilities invest in these services or launch campaigns of their own to educate their customers about the benefits of smart grid and energy efficiency. If utilities market these programs and the US government does a good job with its Green Button initiative, the smart grid industry will continue its rapid growth and everyone will benefit.
Black & Veatch issued its annual electric utility report which surveys the nation's utilities on the top issues facing them in the areas of operational efficiency, profitability and regulatory compliance. The findings of this years report were fascinating on a number of levels, but one major thing stood out to me: the top four issues are definitively linked by a single problem.
According to the survey, reliability, aging infrastructure, environment and long-term investment are the top four issues, in order, on the minds of electric utilities. After reading the survey, I can't help but think that we need to ignore the order in terms of emphasis and focus on the third and fourth issues.
Reliability and aging infrastructure are both significant issues, but symptoms of the lack of long-term investment. Unfortunately, long-term investment is being hampered by the third issue, the environment, due to uncertainty around environmental regulations.
So what's the conclusion? Utilities need long-term regulation that isn't subject to the whims of campaigning politicians and short-term economic cycles in order to drive the type of long-term capital investment that is needed to upgrade its aging infrastructure and fix reliability issues. Period.
There is only one thing that regulated industries hate worse than regulation and that's regulatory uncertainty. Asking utilities to make long-term business decisions and capital investments (for some, the primary mechanism for securing rate increases) when they are unsure what regulatory burden they need to factor into their long-term projections is not fair.
While utilities wonder, for example, whether or not we'll have a price on carbon within the next five years, they are being asked to make long-term decisions on new generation (natural gas, solar, wind, etc), energy efficiency (i.e. smart grid) and other programs that will reduce exposure to carbon. Uncertainty with regards to tax incentives around renewable energy and electric vehicles is also hampering the ability of utilities to plan out new generation capacity that is supposed to provide electricity to its customer base for the next 30 years.
On the consumer side, there is a major lack of awareness and education on the different programs that utilities have put in place. This isn't helped by the fact that nearly half of all utilities have made no attempt to market their smart grid programs according to the survey. That lack of marketing is likely driven by the fact that a lot of the incentives for smart grid rollout and adoption are short term incentives.
The utility industry members need and want regulatory certainty in order to better run their businesses. Consumers want utilities to offer programs that help them become more efficient. Renewable energy, smart grid and energy efficiency companies want customers incentivised to adopt cleaner technologies.
So isn't the only thing left to do to encourage the federal government and state regulatory bodies to give everyone what they want?
It is no secret that venture capitalists and investment banks are of a like mind when it comes to the narrowness of IPO windows. It isn't uncommon for the investment community to all rally around a suspected window and pull the trigger on public offerings.
What has likely been tough for the aforementioned companies and other 2010 or 2011 filers like Silver Spring, is that an elongated period between S-1 filing and first trade likely means they have been operating at a significant disadvantage as it relates to public relations. Most companies work to establish a steady drumbeat of communications heading into the quiet period so that they can continue with communications around normal business activities post filing. Some, however, don't understand the need to build out their communications infrastructure and plan first, and may handycap their sales and business development teams for long periods of time.
It will be interesting to watch Enphase, Enerkem and BrightSource as they start trading, and see if it opens the door for any others to file and follow. Although they all fall in the broad cleantech bucket, the companies could really not be any more different in terms of technology and business model.
Enerkem is a pre-revenue company that is working off of the "storied IPO' approach that is now popular with players in the biofuels and biomass industry. The idea is that you prove your technology at pilot scale and rather than try and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in private financing, you leverage a few strategic investors and an IPO to finance the capex-heavy buildout of operations.
Enphase is a commercially succcessful microinverter company targeting the residential and small commercial solar market. The company makes a high-value product that helps boost power from solar systems that might otherwise suffer from shading, cell or module degradation, etc. With PV module prices at record lows, adoption of solar in California, Massachusetts and other markets is expected to reach record levels in 2012 which should help companies like Enphase do well.
BrightSource is a solar thermal company that is looking to build massive power plants in the desert. Although they too are a solar company, solar thermal is a much different market than Enphase's carrying with it pretty intense project finance and capital investment requirements.
Different as they may be, the trading of three innovative clean technology companies is a good thing for the industry. It may help others raise public financing, and also help some later stage private companies that are looking to close that last round of financing finally find some willing investors.
Let's hope that any who follow these companies already have a good communications strategy and PR plan in place to support their businesses throughout the entire process.
It's not hard to get me excited about clean technology companies since I believe so strongly in their impact on the economy, the environment and the overall good of humankind. And at Schwartz MSL, we're fortunate to handle public relations for a number of true "platform" type of players that are not only selling products, but also providing the necessary "building blocks" to enable an entire ecosystem of third-party products and services, like Tendril (smart grid), Picarro (GHG measurement and isotopic analysis for food safety, emissions management, etc), Enviance (environmental compliance and emissions tracking), Leyden Energy (energy storage) and too many others to mention.
Virdia's successful ramp up can come none too soon, as the market needs a scalable, cost-competitive and high quality supply of cellulosic sugars for the fermentation processes that companies use to produce biochemicals, fuels and nutritional additives. And it isn't just for the environmental good of society that we need cellulosics succeed--it is also important to the billions of private and public equity invested in companies like Amyris, Coskata, LS9 and others to deliver materials for sustainable product development.
Many of these companies launched on the assumption that cheap, scalable sources of cellulosic sugars would be a given. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened and this is where some companies launched the proverbial cart before the horse. The market has had to rely on corn and other crop-based sugars that suffer from price volatility related to the success or failure of short growing seasons, fuel prices, food prices, water prices and agricultural land prices.
Product manufacturers value cost certainty and long-term contracts, which are almost impossible when dealing with seasonal sources of sugars. The wood for cellulosics comes from sustainably harvested and replenished wood sources grown over multiple seasons, reducing exposure to weather and resourced-driven price fluctuations, to deliver a more consistent cost structure.
Cellulosics will happen and so will the categories of products they enable, and so the major question is (as Virdia's CEO Philippe Lavielle says), "who will win the sugar wars?"
With 21st century politics at their most polarizing since the battles of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Alien & Sedition Acts anyone?), there is a lot of talk of hypotheticals based on various election scenarios for the House, Senate and White House. Speculation is that the expert predicted best case scenario for the GOP (maintain control of the House, even split in the Senate and capturing the White House) would be the worst case scenario for the cleantech industry.
There may be some truth to the notion that GOP-led houses and a Republican president would eliminate any chance of meaningful energy legislation at the Federal level that sets a renewable portfolio standard, caps carbon, pursues agressive regulation at the agency level or provides funding support for different cleantech industries. But unless the Democrats have a clear majority in the House and a super majority in the Senate, any such meaningful legislation is a pipe dream anyway. Let us not forget that energy is not a clear party-line vote with Democrats from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states with heavy coal and oil interests unlikely to support anything that rocks a local economy.
So what then are the likely outcomes of different federal scenarios? I don't believe there is a huge variation in impact based on the different election scenarios unless a super-majority situation unfolds which most experts agree, is very unlikely. There are a number of checks and balances that would prevent a GOP super majority situation from killing cleantech innovation and adoption. Some of these include:
The ability of California and other progressive states to continue most of their current and future initiatives;
The ability of state regulators to continue to enforce smart grid adoption and a modernizing of the grid;
Billions in investment by strategic investors like Total, ABB, GE, Siemens and others in clean energy and efficiency products and services helping to support continued adoption, education and growth;
International leadership on climate change forcing US exporters to become more sustainable abroad.
Simply put, the clean technology industry is in much better shape than it was four years ago, when a crashing economy, rampant federal deregulation and support for legacy energy sources threatened any momentum lent to the sector by venture capitalists. Today, the sector could probably weather a worst-case election scenario. But will it have to? Most experts agree it is incredibly unlikely.
In fact, in one of his most recent posts, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com and the New York Timessays that President Obama is now a 60-40 favorite to retain the White House based on recent polling and economic trends (projected GDP growth of 2.5% this year, and unemployment below 9%). This is not Silver's opinion, but a prediction model based on historical data from past election cycles. That trend, combined with rampant gerrymandering of Congressional Districts by GOP-led state assemblies, means that we're likely to wake up on a Wednesday in November with exactly the same government dynamics we have today. And don't forget that the GOP would not only need a majority in the Senate, but a super majority that could overcome the parliamentary tricks of filibusters and stopping bills and appointees from coming to a vote.
So what does the status quo look like post November for cleantech? We'll explore that in a post later this week.
News today that Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a Berkshire Hathaway company, has bought its first solar power plant. This is the first time (to my knowledge) a Buffett portfolio company has bought into a renewable energy project. And if the granddaddy of buying undervalued assets was intent on making a BIG splash in his first forray into renewables, he certainly succeeded.
The Topaz Solar Farm is the second largest solar plant in the world among those that are operational or being constructed according to the CNN Money article. This means that Buffett has not only entered the renewables investment game, but has immediately thrust the topic of "solar as an undervalued asset class" to the top of the debate docket within the financial community.
This news will remind market watchers that the solar industry is continuing to grow, even with policy uncertainty looming and the high-profile flameouts of a few outlier companies with poor business fundamentals. Bottom line: improvements in technology, project finance and project development could make solar projects one of the best emerging asset classes over the next 5-10 years. Just ask Warren.
With the 2010 midterm elections resulting in a GOP majority in the House, a lot of pundits predicted that federal government support of renewable energy would dry up. But now it looks as though support for renewables will come from what is widely regarded as the most conservative of all government institutions: the US military.
According to a new report from Pike Research, military deployments of renewable energy will increase more than 10x over the next two decades. According to a release outlining the report, “military agencies’ spending on renewable energy technologies will continue to rise rapidly over the next two decades, growing from $1.8 billion per year in 2010 to $26.8 billion by 2030. The majority of this spending will be for Mobility applications including portable soldier power as well as land, air, and sea vehicles. Energy for Facilities operations will represent a significant portion of the market, as well.”
This is a public relations and public affairs win for solar, wind and biofuels, as the industries try to continue to win the support of some democrats and social conservatives whose fates are not directly tied to coal, natural gas or oil production in their states or districts. Given the remoteness of many military installations, distributed generation makes a lot of sense.
This should come as no surprise, given recent buzz around military test driving renewable energy systems on bases and the most recent Quadrennial Report which identify climate change as a direct threat to national security.
On the heels of Total's acquisition of SunPower, this is another piece of great news and validation for the industry.
I remember in fifth grade having to write an essay on "what the Statue of Liberty means to me" and being impressed by the number of different points of view expressed by my classmates for what seemed to me to be a one-angle topic (freedom). Well today, we will see what Earth Day means to people around the world and I think the number of different interpretations would be mind boggling.
We get to see a small sample of this disparity between how people view Earth Day and the different issues they view as important on Enviance's blog page. The company is today hosting an Earth Day blogathon featuring 24 different posts in 24 hours from thought leaders across different business disciplines. IDC, Ovum, The451, TriplePundit and a number of others will offer up posts discussing some of the issues they see as core to environmental stakeholders (i.e. all of us) on this 41st Earth Day.
Yours truly contributed a post about how Earth Day has finally transcended the (and I say this affectionately) "Tree Hugger" audience it has traditionally been associated with. Instead, it brings together a growing coalition of surprising stakeholders, activists and proponents, all of whom see sustainability as core to the environment, our economy, our security and our future. Who are those stakeholders? How has Earth Day finally moved to mainstream relevance? By learning a simple PR lesson. Click on over to find out more...
“They’ve moved the cliff out one year,” was the paraphrased response given by one executive of a Schwartz solar client when asked about the US Treasury grant program that got extended late last year. The program, allowing solar and wind project owners to get an uncapped 30 percent of a project’s value in the form of an up-front grant, is one of the beneficial federal programs that has helped preserve investment in renewable energy.
Another Schwartz client once said that the biggest lynchpin to stimulating massive amounts of solar and wind development was some sort of long-term, cohesive policy that gave project developers, financiers and owners certainty through a project’s entire lifecycle. The issue? If a wind farm takes years to design, permit and install, then a 12 month policy doesn’t do much for reassuring the bankers on project cost and IRR.
So while an RPS target almost a decade off isn’t the “killer app” in renewable energy policy, it does send a message to market stakeholders that a state, country or region could be a healthy market for years to come. That brings us to a bill expected to pass the California Assembly this week that will set an aggressive 33 percent renewable portfolio standard, requiring utilities to get one-third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
California taking the lead on policy is nothing new—the California RAM FiT program is just one example of policy that had cleantech companies excited. But it is critically important that it continue to lead the country toward a more sustainable future, as federal policy becomes neutered by a Republican-controlled House intent on curtailing the efforts of EPA and California to regulate greenhouse gases and giving polluters a free license to emit whatever they would like with no controls.
As a PR professional and as someone who works for a firm that also offers GR services, there is no silver lining in this news. In an political era of absolutes and no middle ground, Evergreen has given clean technology naysayers ammo to argue that government support of renewables is a bad idea.
As someone who lives in the Bay Area, but grew up 20 miles west of Devens in a small town called Westminster, I am sad for Central Massachusetts, which could certainly use the 800 paid jobs and seeds of a new industry that Evergreen had planted.
As a realist, it has reinforced what has long been a belief of mine: That when a company has a choice between shareholders and Joe and Jane Taxpayer, they will choose shareholders every time as is their obligation as a public company. Does this mean that the government shouldn't invest in helping develop private industry in its region to stimulate jobs? No. But it may give the government pause about exactly the type and size of investment they should make.
Would it be great it just one company stood up and said, "margins be damned, we're going to stick by the commitment we made to the state of X and the millions of taxpayers who have supported us?" Sure. But they would be hammered by investor lawsuits immediately thereafter and likely have to reverse course.
So what is the only potential savior in this situation? That another company that can compete on cost while manufacturing in Massachusetts acquires the plant and starts production soon, similar to what Tesla has done with the NUMMI plant in Fremont. We have to hope that those skilled, 800 workers get their jobs back with a company committed to the region.
From a more macro point of view, it begs the question if more regions should take a page from Ontario and set a requirement that a certain percentage of product included in a system must be manufactured locally to qualify for a tax credit. Otherwise, there is little incentive for companies--especially public companies--to maintain a facility that increases its cost. Either that, or governments need to take a harder look at making more small, early-stage investments in companies that aren't yet beholden to Wall Street.
While many predicted the midterm elections would play Ebenezer Scrooge to Cleantech's Christmas, it turns out that state and federal government agencies have swooped in to spread some Green cheer. With two major announcements today from the CPUC and Bureau of Land Management (with assists from the DOE and DOI), the number of renewable energy projects in California, Texas and the Southwest will likely get a huge boost.
The CPUC today approved California's proposed reverse action market feed-in tariff (RAM FIT) which promises to drive the development of 1GW of renewable energy in California alone.
In a separate announcement, the DOE and DOI today announced the conclusion of the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Study which has identified the federally owned land most suitable for utility-scale solar development in six southwestern states. The study will allow solar to receive accelerated approval for projects on publicly owned lands identified as ideal sites for solar development.
It's understandable that some people have treated the midterm election results as an all or nothing proposition for stakeholders in clean technology. After coming so close on a couple of occassions to a national energy policy, it is disappointing that the policitcal winds have shifted from any meaningful high-level compromise on climate change initiatives and renewable energy at the federal level.
But just as it was a mistake to assume that cleantech-friendly majorities in the House and Senate, plus President Obama would lead to an automatic overhaul of policy, it would be folly to assume that a divided Congress will kill any federal support for the market.
Case in point? There were three major examples from federal agencies this past week that show there are other ways for the President Obama-led federal government to stimulate the Green economy and battle climate change. They are:
The United States Patent & Trademark Office announced an extension of the Fast Track program for Green patents. Skyline Solar, one of Schwartz's clients, has been a direct beneficiary of this policy as the company looks to guarantee the integrity of its intellectual property to company and market stakeholders. This is an important program for companies looking for new rounds of investment or just starting out in a hyper-competitive cleantech market.
The second announcement came from the EPA regarding further guidance on its "Tailoring Rule" for reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) at state and local levels. This guidance stems from the historic EPA ruling that climate change is a threat to human health and therefore can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. This rule, albeit with some challenges to overcome, provides a one-two punch along with California AB 32, in helping the federal government and states exert their authority over carbon and other GHG emissions.
All of these examples point to a power struggle in the years ahead between Federal agencies and the branch of Government that controls budgetary purse strings (i.e. the House). It will be interesting to see how things develop, but rest assured the new Congressional make up is not a all or nothing proposition and "Drill, Baby Drill," will not be not be the new energy policy in Washington.
I'll be the first to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the venue and location of this year's Solar Power International. The LA Convention Center, although very spread out, was a good venue to hold an industry event that is almost bursting at the seams with interest and enthusiasm.
So what was the buzz at this year's Solar Power event from a public relations' (PR) perspective? Here are some quick snapshots of what buzz I thought dominated the show:
1) Policy: This is a no brainer as ever since Solar Power 2008 in San Diego, policy has been a major focus of every event I've attended.
Top of mind? The US Treasury Grants for renewable energy projects. The grants are scheduled to expire and many think that failure to extend the grants would be a huge blow to an industry that has regained its legs after the financial crisis of 2008/2009. This is likely the top priority of the renewable energy lobby right now and should be through the end of the year.
The final hot topic was the Reverse-Auction Mechanism Feed-in Tariff (RAM FiT) under consideration by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The program, which would fund up to 1 GW of solar projects over the next five years, would be a huge boost to the wholesale solar energy market, equaling the California installed solar figure for all of 2009 (220 MW) just through the RAM FiT program.
If the Treasury Grants are extended, Proposition 23 is defeated and the CPUC program is implemented, we could see a golden age of solar adoption over the next five years.
2) Inverters: When Schwartz helped launch a DC Power Optimization technology at Intersolar Munich in 2009, the inverter market was fairly stagnant from an innovation standpoint. Enphase and microinverters were still relatively new, eIQ Energy and Sustainable Energy Technologies hadn't launched their offerings yet and major vendors like Satcon and Xantrex were taking their lumps for poor performance.
Today? Innovation is happening at all levels of the inverter market, from residential to utility. It seems every month there is a new microinverter or DC power optimization technology being launched, aimed at making systems cheaper and "smarter," and providing new ways to maximize solar investments. Combined with some new architectures and products at the utility-scale level from vendors like Advanced Energy (which acquired PVPowered) and Satcon, and you have new life in what was considered to be a "dumb box" market several years ago. Now many experts are saying a shake out and M&A wave will come, that will result in some of the larger vendors acquiring some of the more cutting-edge technologies. It also will be interesting to monitor inverters as the renewable energy interface with smart grid deployments.
3) Tracking, CPV and CIGS: Several technologies have gained wider spread-acceptance and adoption over the last year, resulting in Engineering, Procurement & Design (EPC) firms taking a harder look at where they fit in future project plans. More than one company mentioned that CPV technologies are on the cusp of seeing widespread deployment as developers look for ways to improve returns on solar implementations and reach a levelized cost of electricity (LCOE).
Tracking is another area that, albeit not new, is starting to generate some buzz among large EPCs. Whereas the technology has, in the past, had some bankability problems the entrance of European project financiers into the North American market is beginning to increase investor appetite for risk in terms of incorporating less proven tracking technologies into systems. Most of the market is focused on single axis tracking currently, but dual-axis tracking could soon be popping up in more project designs.
No cell technology market has been more maligned than CIGS over the past few years with the well-publicized missteps of some of Silicon Valley's most well-funded CIGS companies. But with a renewed emphasis on capital efficiency, performance and new BIPV form factors, CIGS is seeing a bit of a rebirth. The technology has always been the lab darling of the thin-film crowd with great theoretical efficiencies and solid small-scale performance. Many are predicting that it will finally live up to its promise.
4) SunPower Advantage Almost Gone? Over the past few years SunPower has been seen as the market leader in module performance, commanding a premium over other technologies. But now many are saying that the low-cost module makers from outside the US are shifting their attention to performance which could erode SunPower's performance advantage and eat into the company's premium status. On the installation side, several technologies are emerging which could rival SunPower's T5 Roof Tile. Zep Solar, Lumeta Solar and others are generating a lot of buzz
So that is one Cleantech PR flack's take on the topics that seemed to dominate the event. We talked to our 12 clients attending the show in some capacity, and all of them agreed there is a good deal to be optimistic about in 2011. On to Dallas...
The commissioning of the Thanet farm, located in the North Sea, is great PR for the UK which has languished behind Germany and Spain in terms of clean technology innovation, development and adoption.
But the big question for the US is, why not us? What does the US have to do to stimulate more offshore wind farm development? What can we learn from Europe (tons)? There are a few things the government and the wind industry can do to open a very large and lucrative market:
1) Fast-track legal challenges--As the Cape Wind farm illustrated, the US is very prone to legal challenges, not-in-my-back-yard protests (NIMBY) and other ways of slowing project development. The hope is that the US Department of Interior sent a message with its landmark decision to greenlight Cape Wind, but it still won't stop coastal property owners, fisherman and fossil fuel power suppliers from protesting development.
2) Longer-term tax credits--One of the big things blocking the development of offshore projects is the lack of a longer-term tax credit which is important for securing project financing. Instead of renewing things like the ITC and PTC, or treasury grants for two years, it would give the industry a big boost to have a five or a ten year tax credit. Other measures like the passing of a renewable electricity standard or a tax on carbon would also make offshore wind farms more attractive to utilities.
3) Continued technology innovation--The reason you only hear about offshore wind development on the Atlantic seaboard, is that the technology has not existed to install offshore wind farms off the Pacific coast of the US. There are a number of factors that make the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington less suitable for wind farm developement, including the grade of the seafloor. However, floating wind turbines currently in development in...you guessed it, Europe, could be one answer to the lack of offshore viability in the Pacific.
The US has made a lot of progress in onshore wind--from the rapid rise of Texas as the country's largest wind energy producer--to the nurturing of small wind for rural farms and residential applications. But the market still has a long way to go to fulfill its promise.
If you read the title of this post and assumed it was another commentary on the gulf oil spill, I wouldn’t blame you. Many have pointed to the BP oil spill as an inevitable turning point in the debate around energy policy and the eventual harbinger of a national renewable energy standard, a greenhouse gas cap and/or tax, and a number of other measures aimed to push us away from fossil fuels. But anyone expecting an overnight change in the foundation of our country’s energy production probably underestimates what an overnight transformation would do to the economy of states that rely on oil, natural gas and coal production for employment.
But there is a compelling narrative starting to develop in the gulf region which could be exactly what cleantech and green advocates need to make a stronger case for a national renewable energy and energy efficiency policy. It is not a new argument, but a tangible example of how one of the country’s most politically conservative regions is becoming a poster child for the green economy and what it could mean to US economic recovery.
This past week the State of Mississippi announced that Soladigm (transparency alert: Soladigm is a Schwartz client), a manufacturer of electrochromatic windows that improve energy efficiency in buildings, would open its initial production facility in Olive Branch. The plant will bring badly needed jobs to a region that isn’t yet widely known for its green manufacturing prowess, but could be challenging the conventional wisdom that green collar jobs are the sole domain of states like California, Massachusetts, Colorado and Texas.
Soladigm joins Enerkem, a waste-to-energy and chemicals company based in Canada, and Twin Creeks Technologies, a solar manufacturer based in San Jose, as recent cleantech concerns that have selected Mississippi as a site for pilot or full-scale manufacturing. This doesn’t mean that the citizens and state government of Mississippi will become national torch bearers for renewable and energy efficiency policy, but it does become an interesting anecdote for dispelling the notion that the industry is not creating jobs outside a few states. It also will help other parts of the country realize that they have a vested interest in the growth of that industry, even if it comes at the long-term expense of other industries. Bottom line: clean technology can be the mother of all economic stimuli if states are smart and keep cleantech manufacturing in the US.
This is a positive step for the movement toward a better US energy future and the recovery of the gulf coast in general. Economic diversification will help the region better withstand future disasters of the natural, environmental and economic varieties. Relying on fishing, tourism and oil production leaves this region horribly exposed to coastal disasters, and a new and growing sector could provide more stability from which to fund a general recovery.
Mississippi should be congratulated for taking its first few steps toward providing its populace with a more solid and diversified economic future. Supporters of clean energy and energy efficiency should point not to California and Massachusetts, but Mississippi as a shining example of Green Collar jobs.
The full, 821-page Climate Bill, aka the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, is available here.
Kerry's synopsis, focusing on green collar jobs, national security and the broader economy is here.
We'll have some thoughts on the bill as a whole, including the public relations, public affairs and funding implications for Cleantech Companies soon.
My apologies to the Senior Senator from Massachusetts as the title and focus are better than I expected in terms of targeting economic and national security audiences. That said, I think that legislative communications teams could do a better job of branding bills in advance of their release with more context for the media.
The Hill has a Climate Bill summary document this morning that was circulated among staffers which gives a bit more detail on exact provisions in the final bill. While it is light on details and specifics, it does outline some key initiatives that will no doubt have the Cleantech media, public relations and public affairs waorlds buzzing all day.
-The legislation will establish a clean technology R&D fund. At a time when appropriations-based funding is becoming tougher for projects, this could provide a new cleantech funding avenue for emerging growth companies and their venture capital backers.
-Sets GHG reduction goals: The goals are not as aggressive as California or Europe, but would still represent the first federal line in the sand. Here are the targets:
95.25% of 2005 emission levels by 2013
83% by 2020
58% by 2030
17% by 2050
-Regulates the emissions of not only Carbon Dioxide, but Methane, Sulfur Hexafluoride, Nitrous Oxide, Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons and Nitrogen Trifluoride. Carbon Dioxide may get the headlines but there are other worse emissions (on an impact basis, maybe not volume).
-The bill does not set a carbon tax, but directs EPA to set emission limits for certain activities. Allows for emission offsets, including things like renewable energy credits, offset projects (the most common of which is plant a tree), etc. My guess would be that penalties would ensue for companies who can't satisfy the equation of "emissions - offsets < limit set by EPA," but the panalties are not spelled out in the summary document. In any event offset providers, like EcoSecurities, may stand to benefit from this legislation.
With the highly anticipated Senate Climate Bill due to be released tomorrow, it makes me wonder about the impact of "Bill Branding" on how it will be received by the media, predisposed bill opposition and the voting public. My problem is with the word "Climate" which I think will turn off those inclined to oppose any climate legislation and those for whom climate change and the environment are not passionate issues.
I strongly support meaningful climate legislation and think it is critical on a number of fronts (environmental, economic, geopolitical, national security), but the majority of Americans may not consider it a high priority and others are staunch opponents of anything that could be construed as energy regulation or renewable energy subsidies. And make no mistake, these two audiences are critical. The key to impactful climate legislation is coalition building and---in order to get atypical supporters on board---you need to message to them correctly.
What might have worked better? There are two good alternatives I can think of without much thought at all:
-The Domestic Energy & Green Jobs Bill -- the economy and unemployment are still top of mind with most Americans and frankly, it is very easy for everyday citizens and Climate Bill opponents to ask, "Why isn't the economy the top focus?" when you mention Climate Legislation. Schwartz clients are living proof that policy support for the emerging and burgeoning Cleantech Sector leads to job growth. Heck, Schwartz is living proof of it given our Cleantech PR & Government Relations Practice grew dramtically during the "Great Recession."
-The National Energy Security Bill -- this label would directly target conservative audiences who tend to favor any and all national security measures, while opposing anything that may curb energy exploration and/or expand energy regulation. By equating climate change and non-domestic energy resources with national security threats and clearly articulating how it impacts our ability to keep our citizens safe, you can begin to recruit people to the climate cause with a different motivation.
I am not suggesting that a new name alone would have new supporters lining up behind the climate bill, but in an age of short attention spans driven by media sound bites and 140-character Tweets, there is a lot to be gained from more thoughtful name selection. So while the clock ticks down to the unveiling (reportedly 1:30 EDT tomorrow) the National Energy Security & Green Jobs Bill, we no doubt will see a lot of depositioning of climate legislation as a "nice to have" by some and energy regulation by others.
Don't be fooled. Anything supporting domestic, renewable sources of energy and encouraging resource efficiency has major economic, geopolitical and national security implications. Now if only it said that in the name of the bill.
Approval of the Cape Wind project is a major government relations and public relations boost for the wind industry, as project developers, financiers and clean-energy supporters look to develop the gigawatts of power available along the eastern seaboard. As the most hotly contested offshore wind project in history, Cape Wind could be a bellwether for future projects up and down the east coast.
With the WindPower 2010 conference less than a month away, Cape Wind approval is sure to dominate discussion at the event. While Europe has had significant offshore wind power generation for nearly two decades, the US has lagged behind due to coastal community opposition and the lack of longer-term tax incentives which can help fund projects through the years of development it takes to get them up and running.
No matter how you slice it, the DOI decision is a major PR and GR win for the cleantech industry.
One quick hit this Monday morning involving a Schwartz PR client and the cleantech start-up world. Forbes created a slide show featuring the 12 hottest cleantech start ups according to SharesPost.
At SharesPost.com, you can find bulletin boards of private company shares, including offers to buy and sell in companies like Suniva, Bloom Energy, Amyris Biotechnologies, Altra Biofuels, Altarock Energy, eSolar, GreatPoint Energy, GridPoint and Bright Source Energy. These are some great early stage companies backed by a "whose who" of cleantech VCs, including NEA Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia and others, in markets like smart grid, solar, biofuels and fuel cells.
As investors wonder about private company liquidity even amid some potential cleantech IPOs, secondary market options like SharesPost are stepping in. It is an exciting time to be at the intersection of clean technology and private equity.
The cleantech VC world will come together next week at AlwaysOn GoingGreen East in Boston, where the organization showcases the GoingGreen 50. Drop us a line if you're planning to attend, as Schwartz handles the public relations for that event.
There have been a few big announcements this week that have been good visibility for the Cleantech and Green industry from a public relations and government relations standpoint, including a long-time stealth player drawing back the covers and a major DOE loan guarantee for a big solar thermal player. The news comes as the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco and Renewable Energy World in Austin attempt to monopolize attention.
-BrightSource Energy received a major loan guarantee from the Department of Energy to develop plants in California. This is a big government relations win for the solar market overall, as the government continues to back solar.
Everyone we talk to is bullish about cleantech in general in 2010, with a potential second boom cycle beginning in 2011. The question is how much new technology ground will be broken and how instrumental will Uncle Sam be in driving adoption/investment.
Between Apple iPad and the State of the Union, yesterday was a really interesting day in the world of technology, green and PR. Some quick thoughts on what transpired:
State of the Union, Green Policy & the SEC: I was pleasantly surprised at once again, how aggressively the President tied energy and cleantech to the economy and positioned cleantech as critical to the US' position as a world leader in technology, manufacturing and jobs. Its clear that President Obama sees energy policy as core to solving the economic woes of the country and that an energy bill is back on the table. More and more people are understanding that energy is intertwined with the economy, national security, human health and the environment, and so it is good to see it be a central theme of the SOTU.
And speaking of the media, some are calling the iPad a savior for the print media universe, as it becomes a platform to keep people reading their daily newspapers, magazines and books. I'll keep my eye out to see if come April, I see people on BART using the iPad as a Kindle replacement and a mechanism for reading the newspaper.
It's been awhile since we posted on Renewablog and with good reason. After a very busy 2009 in which we saw the federal government's attitude toward renewables and cleantech change overnight, the blog team went on a short hiatus to focus on 2010 client planning.
It also served as good time to reflect on what worked in 2009 from a green public relations, government relations and search-engine marketing perspective, and what else needs to be done in 2010 by cleantech stakeholders. I think most would agree that 2009 ended much stronger than some would have anticipated entering the year.
Even with an underwhleming Copenhagen and the lack of a climate bill, 2010 holds a lot of promise. European and Asian companies continue to look at the US as TNBT in green adoption, even without a climate bill. The EPA's naming of carbon as a public danger and the willingness of the agency to enforce reporting rules has many saying it is only a matter of "when" and not "if" carbon emisssion reductions (CERs) become mandatory. Obama continued to accept and promote new ideas, like "Cash for Caulkers."
But even with some positive signs, there are some things that keep cleantech marketers and public affairs pros up at night, the biggest of which is the midterm elections. It is now unlikely that a climate bill will get passed in 2010. The big question will then be what will Congress look like when it takes up the bill in 2011? If the Democrats have significantly smaller majorities in the House and Senate, will a bill be so watered down that it will have little meaning?
The silver lining is that there are a lot of ways to skin the climate cat, including further EPA regulation or very aggressive, big economy states, like California and New York passing laws that become de facto national standards for cap and trade. The hope is that the federal government takes the renewable-powered torch and runs with it in 2011, but it is comorting to know that if it doesn't, there are ways to move climate measures forward.
So this is the backdrop as we approach the first two renewable energy shows of the seaon: Retech 2010 in Washington DC and Renewable Energy World in Austin. Both are interesting events that tackle very broad themes and market segments, including solar, wind, biofuels, waste to energy, waste heat to energy, geothermal and a number of others. Retech is a bit more policy focused, whereas REW will help shine light on Austin's rapidly growing cleantech credentials.
We'll do our best to take the temperature of both events and report back what we learn.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for a number of cleantech companies in solar and smart grid, as the project finance, venture capital and IPO markets continue their winter thaw. News of new deals has capped off what has been a pretty good PR month for the cleantech industry.
SunRun, a residential PPA provider, also received $90 million more in backing from Bancorp to help finance residential solar installations. SunRun has been very successful in markets like California, Massachusetts and Arizona.
Finally, First Solar announced the completion and sale of a utility-scale plant in California. The new plant will power 17,000 homes and as VentureBeat reports, is likely a harbringer of more utility-scale plants in the near future.
These are all good signs for the solar industry as more experts predict growth in number of US projects and shrinking solar supplies in 2010. All told, outside of the weak international agreement from Copenhagen, it has been a pretty good December for Cleantech.
President Obama "filled in the cracks" on the long-rumored Cash for Caulkers program yesterday as part of a new jobs plan. The latest details have consumers eligible for a $12,000 tax credit if they take steps to weatherize their homes. The goal would be to put contractors back to work and also stimulate the buying of home products aimed at energy efficiency, which would be good news for Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart and others sellers of home improvement materials.
Speaking of energy efficiency, the New York Times reports on a new study that says that focusing on efficiency could reduce energy consumption by 30 percent by 2030, thereby reducing the need for the US to build new power plants. The article reminded me of the fact that renewable energy continues to get the lion's share of media attention, even as people look for cost-effective, pragmatic and near-term ways to cut energy usage in a down economic environment.
That is not to say that renewables get too much attention as they are a critically important part of energy independence and the US economy. But rather that companies with legitimate energy efficiency products need to do a better job marketing the size of the problem they solve and the potential ROI for customers--and the economy at large.
We've had Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Could today be Green Monday? Based on the positive news we have seen today for the Cleantech industry, maybe it should be.
While the world had its eyes firmly planted on Copenhagen and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the US government said, "Bring your gaze back to this side of the Atlantic" with a couple of significant announcements.
First, the EPA has declared that carbon dioxide is a public danger giving it the right to further regulate and curb emissions without the consent of Congress. This is a huge step forward in the Obama administration's move to cut US carbon emissions. Essentially, the White House just told the US Senate that it better tune out the energy lobby and focus on the issue at hand. It will be interesting to see if this lights a fire under the Senate to get legislation passed before the EPA enforces something more draconian than private industry would like.
Second, the Obama administration has announced that Green patent review will be fast tracked to 12 months from the current 40 in the hopes of getting new technologies funded and viable in a shorter period of time. This is bound to fuel even more R&D and investment in clean technologies.
All of this comes as the world focuses its attention on Cop15 and the world's largest and fastest-growing carbon emitters, like the US, China and India. How important is the Cop15 event to Cleantech companies?
So important that Earth2Tech's Katie Fehrenbacher and other US-based cleantech reporters and bloggers are on the ground covering and Tweeting from the conference. It should be an interesting 12 days as we learn more about the seriousness with which the world's largest economies will fight climate change.
The final piece of good news was from the solar market which apparently has seen demand start to grow for the first time this year. Many are expecting the US to be 2010's big solar market as PPAs continue to gain traction and renewable portfolio standards, feed-in-tariffs and other policy measures start to have a bigger impact on demand. The EPA declaration could also drive adoption as industrial and utility audiences expand their renewable energy portfolios and accumulate credits ahead of any federal carbon policy.
No matter which way you slice it, today has been a very good day for Cleantech stakeholders.
This afternoon at GreenBeat 2009, John Doerr will give a keynote focused on the main theme of the event: The Smart Grid. With the recent $3.4 billion in stimulus funds allocated to projects, the smart grid market has a PR problem, becoming a lightening rod for debate about its cleantech and stimulus credentials.
I am of the personal opinion that any technology that reduces our energy use is cleantech. I also think that anything that helps consumers save money and makes energy more efficient has huge economic value. After all, utility bills likely rank third after mortgage/rent and car payments as the most expensive budgetary item for households. Reducing utility bills by even 20 percent creates more consumer spending power which is a key cog in an economic recovery.
But back to Doerr...beyond just his affiliation with one of Silicon Valley's premier VC firms, he is a bright and interesting guy. He has some creative and pragmatic ideas on how to address the energy, environmental and economic crises, including one written about today by the New York Times (via Yahoo! Finance).
Doerr apparently has pitched a weatherization stimulus that would incent homeowners to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes through improvements in insulation, windows, etc. Doerr calls the program, "Cash for Caulkers" and word is that the White House is seriously considering it.
I am looking forward to today's keynote to hear Doerr's opinion on Smart Grid and see if he has any other ideas that should be promoted as policy. Doerr's speech should be the first in a number of compelling presentations at the GreenBeat 2009 event.
The next few days will be fun as the Silicon Valley VC and private company investment community comes together at two Cleantech events. Full disclosure: We're doing PR for one of the events and have six clients speaking at the other.
Then, tomorrow afternoon, VentureBeat kicks off its GreenBeat 2009 event, The Conference on the Smart Grid. The event has an elite roster of speakers including John Doerr, Al Gore, Don Wood and Vinod Khosla. It also brings together innovative Smart Grid companies large and small, from Siemens, IBM and Cisco, to Tendril and EcoFactor. Schwartz is a Silver Sponsor of the event and we hope to see you there!
Monday morning saw two pieces of good news for the Green Economy as it relates to job creation.
A study published by three universities shows that President Obama's focus on Green Collar jobs will help create 1.9 million jobs and boost annual household income by $1000. If the $1000 figure focuses on an increase in gross household income, the study likely fails to measure the increase in discretionary household income that could result in more efficient home energy practices driven in part by Smart Grid adoption by consumers. Consumer spending is a huge economic stimulus in its own right and reducing one of the largest monthly budgetary items for households, while boosting gross income, would be a huge boon for other sectors.
A separate study by iSupply shows that the solar panel supply glut is working itself out, which could lead to recovering solar prices and kickstart a new wave of solar cell and module manufacturing. With many Asian and European solar manufacturers looking to boost manufacturing capacity inside the US to take advantage of government incentives and grants, and a number of US companies ramping up their manufacturing capactity, the result could be a wave of new manufacturing jobs in places like Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Silicon Valley.
These trends, combined with a thawing in financing and a broader economic recovery, point to 2010 and 2011 being boom years for Cleantech job creation.
The DOE issued a release today about the $3.4 billion in grants issued as part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA, aka the Stimulus Package). The release is here and there are links for downloading details on who will receive the funds as well as a map of where the funds will be invested.
It is a happy day for Smart Grid technology and service providers.
With much of the US utility market and solar industry gathered in Anaheim for the SPI conference, this will no doubt give the cleantech industry as a whole a major boost. Venture Capitalists made cleantech the top funding market for Q3, but were having trouble raising new funds. With government dollars flowing, policy driving cleantech adoption and a slowly improving economy, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing the health of VC and private equity fund raises improve as LPs jump back on the cleantech bandwagon.
The news will also inject even more life into the GreenBeat 2009 event in November, where leaders in smart grid policy, technology and adoption will get together to discuss the market environment for 2010. Al Gore and others will be keynoting the event and Schwartz is a Silver Sponsor.
For updates at Solar Power, follow @jasonmorris and I'll try to report back on major happenings at the show.
As the Solar PR world shifts its gaze to Anaheim for next week's Solar Power International event, the news pipeline has already begun heating up. National Semiconductor today announced that it has acquired a solar monitoring software provider, which will put the company in direct competition with Fat Spaniel among others. SolarEdge, a Schwartz client, is a company that already combines power harvesting and monitoring in a single product, which likely pushed National Semiconductor to make an acquisition in the space.
Also this week, Schwartz client Skyline Solar announced the start of commercial manufacturing in a Cosma International metalforming facility in Troy, Michigan. This is another example of solar looking to fill the US manufacturing void left by struggling automakers, about which we will likely hear a lot more in the months to come.
Expect a lot of news around US manufacturing, public policy (i.e. grants and feed-in tariffs) and global firms entering the US market next week, as many peg North America as the solar focus for 2010. We'll have several Schwartz team members and close to ten clients at the event and will report back what we hear during the show.
It's interesting to see large commercial and industrial companies infighting over how to approach lobbying around greenhouse gas (GHG) requirements. According to the FT, companies are actually leaving the US Chamber of Commerce over disagreements on how to approach lobbying around climate change legislation.
The thinking is that by lobbying to stall or water down a bill in Congress, businesses have exposed themselves to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule on GHG emissions which would be even more restrictive. It will be interesting to see if this leads to a wholesale change in lobbying tactics which could grease the skids for a climate bill in the coming weeks.
Cleantech investors, companies, media and green PR folk watched today's A123 Nasdaq debut with intense interest as the battery maker became the first cleantech concern to IPO in some time. Up 36 percent in early trading, A123 has not disappointed. With cleantech patents at an all time high, cleantech investing on the rebound and stimulus money starting to flow, there could be more green IPOs in the coming months.
A123 benefits from being at the intersection of two important trends: energy storage and the electrification of cars. Batteries have long been cited as a technology that needs to improve for renewable energy to reach its full potential. Car electrification dominated discussion among some of the panels at AlwaysOn GoingGreen last week as Tesla, Bright Automotive, Coda, Fisker and their investors littered panels at the event.
Expect A123's IPO to be a further boon to battery start ups in the coming weeks and months, as VCs look to find the next big technology in that sector.
Yesterday we had the pleasure of having Camille Ricketts, the lead Green writer for VentureBeat, into our San Francisco office. For the twenty PR clients we work with in solar, smart grid, biofuels, water desalination, carbon management and Green IT, Camille is a top contact--especially for those looking to reach a green investment audience. Camille considers herself to still be a bit new to the Green space, although at more than six months she is a grizzled veteran in the high-turnover world of media.
She ran through a good background of VentureBeat and her specific focus, all of which was useful. But perhaps the most helpful information for a Green PR person is tips and tricks for working with a journalist more effectively. So onto Camille's preferences:
-Follow Up: She is very conscientious about email pitches and will follow up on nearly everything if given the time. Therefore, she prefers second contact to come in the form of an email and requests a bit of patience because she will try to respond.
-Social Media: Camille doesn't mind direct messages on Twitter as long as you have something that can be of use to her. She'll read them and Tweet you back if she is interested.
-Sources: While Camille likes speaking with venture capitalists, she doesn't want a VC source that is simply going to cheerlead for a company. She wants details on why a deal came together and why the VC chose your company over a competitor.
-Embargoes & Exclusives: Both Camille and VentureBeat as an outlet, appreciate the use of embargoes and exclusives by PR people. They will honor embargoes as long as a PR firm is good to its word and VentureBeat does not get scooped after agreeing to one. VentureBeat writers pride themselves on integrity and will not agree to something they won't honor. Like almost all media outlets, they like an exclusive because it allows them to do a longer piece without fear of being scooped. The good news is that I think they're likely to get more exclusives moving forward thanks to a strong syndication relationship with the New York Times web site.
-Future Focus: Camille expects to be writing a lot about Smart Grid and Green IT in the coming weeks as VentureBeat ramps up for its GreenBeat 2009 event in November. With Al Gore, John Doerr and other high profile presenters, it should be a great event.
Overall, Camille shared some great information about working with a top outlet covering how finance and policy are impacting the cleantech market.
The last few weeks may have been the best PR stretch of 2009 for solar, wind and other cleantech and green markets, especially from a finance standpoint. It should provide a considerable uplift to spirits at AlwaysOn GoingGreen next week as the cleantech venture capital, private equity and investment banking community gathers to discuss industry issues in water, smart grid, energy management, solar, wind, energy storage and renewable fuels. Some of the positive news from the past few weeks:
-Treasury grants started flowing from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), promising to fund a new way of renewable energy projects in wind and solar.
-Cleantech patents hit an all time high in Q2, showing that companies and entrepreneurs continue to innovate and that many new Green technologies are likely coming to market in 2010 and beyond.
That last bullet flew under the radar in many circles (a partner in a late stage VC firm I talked to said he had not heard anything about IBM's interest in water) and water as a whole gets less attention than energy on a national level. I am a firm believer that water is the next big sector that will attract massive investment and media attention, as the US comes to better understand that water is a national issue.
Couple all of these developments with Hara and other companies being successful in their fundraising activities, and you have what looks to be a significant financial thaw across various green industries. It could also be with Obama's speech on healthcare reform tonight that some form of bill gets passed and that the Energy & Water bill moves back to the top of the legislative priority list, which could result in the creation of the Green Bank and more funding avenues for cleantech companies.
With GoingGreen, PVSec, Solar Power International, Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations Conference, Power-Gen, Clean Tech Futures and a number of other events upcoming, we'll be able to monitor the impact of all of this news on the collective psyche of the cleantech market. It should be a fun final third to 2009.
**Schwartz Plug Alert**
We issued a release today highlighting the growth of our Cleantech & Green PR and Public Affairs Practice during 2009. We've become the Agency of Record for ten great organizations thus far in 2009, thereby doubling our footprint in the market. It's an exciting time to be in PR.
Important news yesterday that the Treasury Department has granted more than $500 million in grants to some major cleantech projects, most of them related to wind power. These grants are in cash versus the traditional 30 percent tax credit that companies had been receiving. Expect solar, wind and biofuels projects to receive additional funding in the coming months.
With new cash flowing in from the government, green VCs and foreign investors, the market is looking at a major rebound in Q4 and 2010. All of the positive news around financing should help offset falling solar panel prices, declining wind patents and biofuel production snafus, leading to a better green PR environment in the coming months.
It also seems incredibly Warren Buffet like to be raising a fund at a time when others have turtled and to be investing capital when other VCs are a bit concerned about the corporate viability of their investments. Maybe now is the best time to be investing, when cleantech company risk seems low due to more reasonable valuations and with an increase in government loans and support. If the recent boom in cleantech and green patents is any indication, there will be a lot of companies looking for money in the coming 12-24 months.
It means that the demise of cleantech has been dramtically exaggerated and that we're likely to see an investment recovery in 2010, continuing the trend that started in Q2. It also means that cleantech and green marketers should use the Khosla fund as a proof point that things are only going to get noisier and that competitor marketing coffers are likely to increase over the next 12 months.
Schwartz represents a large patent and intellectual property firm, Finnegan, with an established Green industry practice, and we're guessing business has been pretty good for them and firms like them.
What does this mean? Well, we know that Cleantech and Green Venture Capitalists love patents since investing in companies without some legally enforced technical barrier to entry is seen as somewhat foolish. New technology development and a spike in patents could lead to an even bigger rebound in early-stage investing. And while the spike could have been driven in part by emerging-growth companies like Bloom Energy, it also points to the fact that large company R&D is likely increasing in cleantech, for example, automakers in fuel cells, GE and others in wind and smart grid, etc. It also could lead to future acquisitions of smaller companies with strong patent positions, by some of the larger companies in the market.
Many of these patent holders will also likely look for Department of Energy (DOE) grants and R&D grants from other government entities, in order to commercialize some of these technologies. This points to even more competition in the green public affairs world.
Overall, this is yet another sign that the cleantech financing environment and green PR noise will further rebound in 2010.
Schwartz Communications is proud to announce that the firm is now a member of the Coalition for the Green Bank, an industry organization in support of the creation of a cleantech financing fund at the federal level. The Green Bank is a measure in the Waxman-Markey energy bill which is currently slotted behind healthcare insurance reform in Congress.
The measure will be an important part of financing future cleantech companies and market adoption. With the Green Bank, a financial recovery and a rebound in cleantech venture capital investment, 2010 promises to be a bright year. There are a number of leading companies, including Applied Materials, Blue Source and GE Energy Financial Services putting their cleantech public affairs and public relations support behind the organization.
We're excited to be part of the Green Bank support team.
Few regions of the country have been hit harder by water scarcity issues than California. From Santa Cruz, Monterey, Long Beach, Carlsbad and Huntington Beach-seawater desalination has been turned to in a big way to combat the problem. It also has had to fight an uphill PR and Public Affairs battle thanks to outdated perceptions around the process, especially regarding energy costs. In working with Energy Recovery, Inc., a company that manufactures an energy-saving pump for seawater reverse-osmosis (SWRO) desalination, we've seen firsthand how much misinformation persists with government, media and general public audiences.
On Wednesday, the Marin County water board approved (unanimously) the creation of a $105 million dollar desal plant. Unfortunately, town halls in San Rafael (where the plant will be) echoed the inaccurate perceptions around what this will mean for people's drinking water as well as NIMBY-related aesthetics objections—all which aren't helping to pull California out of its water emergencies. Water recycling and conservation are great and more of each is needed, but those measures alone won't help save a water system built to serve 18 million people in a 36 million resident state.
Venture capitalists realize that water is the next looming crisis nationally and something that goes beyond the bounds of local communities. By building plants along the California coast—and other coastal regions such as Florida and Texas—more of the existing water can go to agriculture, lessening the need to draw water from river deltas and reducing the impact on fish and wildlife along rivers and their tributaries. That is why companies in reverse osmosis membranes, carbon nanotubes and other technologies are beginning to see a significant amount of private investment.
At least the proposed Marin County desal plant is raising the issue, and presenting an opportunity for stakeholders in the industry to teach people how new technologies are improving the process by reducing energy consumption and impact to wildlife. Perhaps then more people will appreciate how and where desalination fits in as one piece to solving the water crisis—which includes recycling, conservation, and most importantly, education.
What struck me about this piece was not just the fact that I think LaMonica's premise is right, but that PR firms like Schwartz have also found themselves entering cleantech company engagements at an earlier point than in security, application development, virtualization, medical devices, etc. The question is why? It is complicated question with several answers--some generic and some only applicable to the firms involved.
Generally speaking, the cleantech market is a dogfight. The days of nine-figure VC rounds for cleantech companies are likely over and so companies need to be visible, talking about the technology or service they have developed, why it is unique and the corresponding market opportunity. If you consider there will likely be 3-5 companies that get to $100 million in revenue in each market niche, that means dozens will be left in the cold. Selling off IP or worse, going out of business. The race to be one of the handful of success stories starts day one since every day a company holds back, competitors are generating awareness and mind share with government audiences, venture capitalists, investment banks, partners, customers, etc.
For Schwartz, our technology business has always followed the venture capital and private equity markets. If VCs start pouring dollars into a market, they typically advise their portfolio companies that the first external marketing spend should be PR. We have also represented a number of firms themselves, including PR for Charles River Ventures, Matrix Partners, Pod Holdings and Fairhaven Capital. Given the fact that many cleantech companies are taking VC money earlier, it leads them to hire firms earlier. This also attracts larger companies to a market, like GE in wind or Sanyo in solar, and results in our working with some innovative divisions of bigger concerns.
We've seen this early trend explode recently. We've launched three cleantech companies out of stealth in the past three months from a PR standpoint--two in solar and one in renewable fuels. One of our clients asked us to come in before they had a public-facing web site. They wanted us involved in grassroots messaging, category branding, web site development, etc. We helped them manage the entire process and worked with them for multiple months before one ounce of external communications was executed. It was one of the most successful launches we've ever had by a number of different PR and business metrics. This is the new PR paradigm for agencies in cleantech and the point at which many clients should begin engaging with their firm.
The message: Be able to support them early on or get out.
Another Schwartz-specific dynamic is the fact that we offer public affairs, which can help early-stage cleantech and green companies raise capital from government grants, loan guarantees and appropriations requests. This can be in the form of direct R&D type grants, loan guarantees for building or retrofitting a plant, or revenue from a government funded project.
That said, even though it is starting earlier, PR and Public Affairs need to be grounded in pragmatism in what is an increasingly cynical environment. "If I had a nickle for every company that said 'energy independence' I'd be rich," said a Forbes reporter during a recent interview with a client. The fact of the matter is that 2005 through mid-2008 saw a number of solar, biofuel and wind start ups make some outlandish claims based on assumptions that $100 million rounds would forever grow on trees and that they had the silver bullet to thin-film manufacturing or algae biofuel extraction.
We've heard a lot about "shovel ready" projects for government funding. Well, companies need to have "PR ready" claims that are defensible not necessarily in the moment, but definitely over time.
The message: Hyberbole is the enemy of credibility.
So as I look at the marketing and business lifecycle of a Cleantech start-up, technology development and patent protection are obviously the first steps but that is also a good inflection point for targeted public affairs looking at grants. After that initial funding is received, companies are then looking to reach a broader government audience, gain support from pilot partners and customers, and immediately go into their next fund raise. This creates the need for a web site and a targeted public relations campaign. Once there is product or service to sell, the full-blown public affairs and PR campaign begins, supporting lead generation, brand awareness and appropriations drives for customer projects.
What does it all mean? It means that the world gets noisier in PR and public affairs for companies in solar, wind, biofuels, batteries, geothermal, batteries and smart grid, than it does in security, open source and the data center. It means that plenty of really early stage companies make announcements at PVSEC, National Biofuels, Intersolar, Wind Power, PowerGen, AlwaysOn GoingGreen and Solar Power International, and demand attention.
So while PR has always been the emerging growth company's best marketing weapon, for cleantech companies, it becomes a bigger part of the puzzle at an earlier stage than ever.
There was an interesting piece from Martin LaMonica at CNET this morning focused on what it will take from an investment standpoint to drive the coming greentech or cleantech revolution. He talks about the different options (government, investment banks, VCs) and where each could fit in the puzzle.
LaMonica points out that several years ago, VCs were the source of investment for capital-heavy technologies like solar and biofuels. As a result, they got into nine-figure VC rounds that were supposed to get many manufacturers to $1 per watt solar cells or $50 per barrel oil equivalents. Instead, many companies fell short of their promise and VCs have been faced with either pumping in more cash or helping portfolio companies find new sources of money (hello DOE!). Unfortunately, all of the fancy PR in the world cannot rewrite history to show that companies actually made those projections about 2013 instead of 2010.
He also mentions that many companies just don't fit the old VC approach of finding a great technology, a solid patent position and a large market opportunity, and then invest. It will take the government and banks to get many companies to commercialization.
One expert, Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress, thinks that the creation of the Green Bank, a proposal in the House version of the Energy Bill, would be a key cog in government driving cleantech innovation. I agree completely.
What does it all mean? Financing has significantly dampened cleantech progress both from a macroeconomic standpoint, as well as from an individual company financing point of view. However, more and more companies and VCs are figuring out the cleantech financing puzzle which could be another critical factor in 2010 being a year of hyper-growth in cleantech.
There is also a next wave of cleantech start ups who are not just innovating from a technology standpoint, but also from a manufacturing/commercialization standpoint that will eliminate healthy percentages of the capex requirements to reach full-scale manufacturing. Keep an eye out for such companies in solar, biofuels and wind.
Get prepared for more citizien "rage" at town halls. No, not town halls where the discussion is focused on health insurance reform. But instead town halls focused on the energy bill---legislation that could help alleviate US dependence on foreign sources of energy, ease geopolitical tensions by reducing our interest in politically unstable regions like the middle east, battle the effects of climate change, create thousands of Green Collar Jobs and reduce the cost of energy for every American.
The American Petroleum Institute issued a memo (Daily Kos has it) asking "Energy Citizens" (i.e. employees, retired people, anti-environment protestors and the bored) to demonstrate against climate legislation. It seems API has data that suggests jobs will be lost and energy costs will skyrocket if this legislation is passed. Only offshore drilling apparently creates jobs in this country. What does Greenpeace think?
"It's the most powerful among us, masquerading as grass-roots outrage to stifle debate on global warming," Michael Crocker, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said in a statement printed in the Washington Post. I'd agree with that assessment. Drill baby, drill.
Is the energy bill perfect? No legislation can be. But when you are talking about a long-overdue bill to address a ticking timebomb like climate change (or healthcare, or social security, etc), perfect is the enemy of good.
What's maybe most interesting is that there are a number of members of API that also dabble in renewables like BP and Shell, both of whom manufacture solar products and both of whom are also members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. Talk about PR conflicted.
Now skeptics may say that Shell and BP only belong to the group to try and moderate policy positions that come out of the group, but it could also be that they have read the tea leaves and know that only the election of Dick Cheney as our next president would stop the movement to renewable energy and stronger climate change policy in the US.
Not to be outdone, the coal industry and other conservative lobbies will join in the rally. Will SEIA, SEPA, AWEA and others turn out people to counter those rallies? If so, the biggest beneficiaries may be people who drag coolers of springs water to the events to sell for $4 apiece as protestors bake in the August sun.
It has been well covered that VCs have poured billions into cleantech and green the last few years with markets like solar, wind, biofuels, smart grid and batteries receiving a good chunk of those investments. In fact, thin-film solar alone received several hundred millions of dollars in 2008, creating the potential for several big winners or losers among cleantech investments. Very respected firms like Draper Fisher Jurvetson, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Khosla, Kleiner Perkins and Good Energies led the way, and many VC firms followed.
And while cleantech and green PR firms, the media and venture capitalists all did a great job publicizing the investments, there was an undertone of concern with regards to how the companies would deliver a return to their shareholders (VCs, entpreneurs and employees) and how well served the limited partner (LP) community would be by such investments.
With the credit crunch and struggles of the broader economy, many predicted a cleantech M&A shakeout that would last into 2010 before the market started a recovery. While there has been some M&A, the stimulus package, government adoption, follow-on rounds from existing investors and other measures have helped many cleantech companies weather the storm. So while private companies are not selling themsleves for dimes on the dollar (good news for investors), the market is still not strong enough to support a rash of cleantech IPOs. Or IPOs in Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.
So what is the best exit for some private cleantech company shareholders? Enter SharesPost and the hassle-free secondary market exit. The company brings together buyers (private equity firms, VC firms, high net-worth investors and the companies themselves) and sellers (angel investors, VC firms, entrepreneurs and employees) of shares in private companies to provide a third exit for private company sharesholders. SharesPost already has had one Tesla Motors transaction go to contract and escrow, and just released a third-party report on SolarCity which may help facilitate more trades. Multiple buy and sell posts exist for both companies.
Private company data has been a major missing component in facilitating secondary market trades in the past and SharesPost is looking to solve that. This will be a good thing for the market, as it will help keep executive talent working at emerging growth companies, versus seeing everyone head to larger cleantech companies like First Solar, GE and Applied Materials.
Expect to see more Cleantech companies on SharesPost in the near future as some of the market darlings realize they are in it for the long haul and founders, employees and early-stage investors decide they need liquidity.
Interesting post today from Camille Ricketts at VentureBeat discussing how solar demand in Europe and Asia is on the rise amid falling prices, whereas the US has yet to heat up. The post tosses out some cost per watt statistics from abroad (which may annoy those that would like to see $/kwh or levelized cost of electricity--LCOE--used as the metric), presenting China as the cost leader.
Like I've been hearing from the Intersolar conferences, Ricketts says that popular opinion has the US catching up during the second half of 2009 once cleantech stimulus funds kick in. Regardless, US companies should expect to hear more solar PR noise from global companies through the end of this year and into 2010.
I'll report back and let you know if the discussion is the same at AlwaysOn GoingGreen, Solar Power International and PVSEC.
This week saw the Intersolar conference come to San Francisco, hosted by a bigger event: SemiCon. And while Intersolar was relegated to Moscone West, with the larger SemiCon in the North and South halls, popular opinion was that the situation could be flipped in the near future.
Want proof? How about Applied Materials exhibiting at Intersolar and not at SemiCon. Unthinkable five years ago. At least their site's meta tags still have semiconductors listed first...
With public policy getting more and more aggressive in its support of solar and a federal government that promises to be very solar friendly through at least the midterm elections next year, you are bound to see this trend not only continue, but maybe even accelerate. I wrote during Solar Power International last year about how it seemed we were living in a bubble (versus experiencing a bubble). The tax credits were being renewed and uncapped, with the promise of an Obama energy policy that would carry the market through 2009.
Intersolar was a bit more pragmatic, as I expect PVSEC and SPI to be this year. But, I think everyone agrees that the question is "when?" and not "if ?" the US solar market resumes its skyward trajectory again.
Some other quick observations:
-Clients, industry observers and media came back from Intersolar Munich with one conclusion: the US will be the dominant market in solar during the second half of 2009 and 2010. This is in large part to a government that is spending money on credits, rebates, etc. while some European governments turtle on spending. That feeling was reiterated by a number of US and international players at Intersolar US. Bottom line: If you are a major solar player in Germany, Europe, China or Spain, now is the time to look at the US market and/or start US subsidiaries.
-A couple of exhibitors said that the Intersolar crowd is much more sophisticated than Solar Power International. Many more engineers, project managers and large integrators. This leads to longer, more informed discussions about large-scale projects and how engineering firms should be building out specifications for projects. SPI is more of a mish-mash of audiences, including smaller time local installers looking for new products and distirbutors.
-I loved the event. One thing though: Does the floor layout need to be so confusing? The 9000 booths were on the lowest level and the 7000s are up top. The numbers are not very well ordered or laid out and make almost no sense. Plus, are there really 10,000 booths? I am originally from Massachusetts and Boston is the capital of unmarked roads and one way streets, so for me to feel that disoriented is a bit rare.
-Are you attending PVSEC or Solar Power International? Tweet @jasonmorris and maybe we can meet while your there.
A recent report from CleanTech Brief highlighted an increase in cleantech venture funding and investing to $1.2 billion. This was a quarter-over-quarter increase of 12 percent and illustrates that the green portion of the Stimulus package and other cleantech regulatory measures are helping to renew interest in cleantech start ups.
Companies in batteries, biofuels, smart grid and others were the main beneficiaries, including a $17.3 million investment in Control4. Solar investment is way down from past years, but it also saw an unprecedented run with nine-figure rounds. If the Intersolar 2009 conference is any indication, solar is surviving the recession fairly well with Uncle Sam poised to become the world's largest solar consumer.
Speaking of government green spending, more good news for the cleantech industry came from the G8 Summit, where leaders of some of the world's largest economies recognized the potential of the cleantech industry to help boost the global economy. The summit discussed cleantech policy measures, investment and adoption.
As we look at 2010, it is clear that world governments will spend unprecedented dollars on cleantech, energy efficiency, etc. It is also likely that other technologies will start to come to the forefront that have to date, gone under publicized, such as water desalination technologies and advances in tidal energy. All of this is pointing toward a much better second half of 2009 for cleantech companies.
Word today that Tesla ($465 million), Ford ($440 million) and Nissan ($1.4 billion) are beneficiaries of government loans to turn out next-generation, fuel-efficient cars. The loans were awarded as part of the government's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program.
The next 12 months will be extremely interesting in terms of seeing how the Green auto supply chain shapes up with regards to batteries, charging infrastructure and other types of technologies. The battery manufacturers themselves have also been the beneficiary of some recent government funding, which means more and more companies will bring technologies to market which will in turn make the PR world a bit more noisy. There is already a feeding frenzy among state governments to attract green car and battery manufacturers to abandoned automotive plants.
According to a post on VentureBeat this week, cleantech stimulus funds targeted at wind, solar, smart grid, biofuels, carbon management and other key categories, will starting trickling into company coffers come September. New Energy Finance Group predicts that while some cleantech funding will flow in 2009 resulting in a thawing of bank loans and cleantech venture capital, the bulk of the money will be invested in 2010 and 2011.
As a result, September through December will likely be a critical time for cleantech companies in search of government investment or project financing, In addition to the stimulus money, the fourth quarter will begin the FY 2011 appropriations process in earnest. Cleantech companies will likely need to focus on public affairs and government relations during that time to take advantage of what could be the last budgeting cycle with a cleantech-friendly White House and Congress in control.
A new study covered by Kate Galbraith at the NY Times says that Green Collar Jobs grew twice as quickly as jobs in the rest of the economy from 1998-2007. Given that this study doesn't cover the hyper investment in solar, wind, smart grid, green IT, biofuels, geothermal, batteries, green autos, etc. during 2008, and the hiring that resulted, my guess is that the next study will show even faster growth over the past 10 years. Factor in green stimulus measures during 2009 and you likely have something approaching a Green New Deal.
It would be interesting to see what they specifically classify as a green job. Take Schwartz PR. We have more than a dozen cleantech clients and more than 40 people working with those companies. We couldn't say that in 1998, so technically they have been created by the movement to green products, services and technologies. My guess is that this study dramtically underestimates the number of people who have part or all of their employment driven by the growth in the cleantech market, especially people working in green pr, public affairs, marketing, legal services, media and investing.
How is that possible? Khosla says that Cleantech is not about solar, wind or biofuels, but about re-engineering the way society lives, from lighting to concrete. When asked about the size of the problem, Khosla says that he sees only opportunities. Furthermore, he talks about how clean technologies have to achieve unsubsidized market viability within 5-7 years or they will struggle to be an investment and commercial success. Overall, just a very interesting interview with someone with an amazing track record of finding breakthrough technologies and companies.
Do I agree with every thing Khosla says? Nope. However, I do agree that Cleantech is bigger than the Web. This is an important point since many have called it a fad.
Cleantech, green, sustainability or whatever you want to call it, deals with a number of fundamental issues that impact all aspects of human life. Examples include drinking water (desalination) and irrigation in drought-ridden regions of the world, transportation (biofuels, batteries, green auto), remote and distributed energy generation (solar, wind, batteries), manufacturing, consumer products, energy efficiency (smart grid, energy management), etc.
This is an interesting time of year in the solar PR world because while other markets are looking to cool down post Memorial Day in terms of events and major, non-earnings announcements, the solar world is just heating up. From late May through October, we will have five major solar events in the US and Europe, starting with Intersolar 2009 in Munich last week, that will drive a frenzy of company launches, press releases, project announcements and industry dialogue.
It's often said that an average PR program is great at reach and lowsy at frequency, but it has long been our mantra that a drum beat of success is better than single big bang. It can be tough to convince executives and board members that even if Solar Power International is the biggest event for the company in terms of focus and region, it is a bad idea to use every 2H 09 PR bullet in one conference blast.
Solar marketers and PR teams should leverage the existance of these events to make the case for a steady drum roll of momentum, each tailored to the audience of the different events. If you don't have five announcement-worthy items for these events, then a good way to look at it is to think about the difference between the PR markets culturally.
European PR is a packaged content oriented discipline whereas the US is a very news and expert commentary driven PR market. What I am getting at is that these events need to be treated as a series in the grand solar PR campaign and not as isolated events, and a creative, strategic PR program and team will develop the tools to leverage each event.
Will you be attending Intersolar US, PVSec or Solar Power? If so, drop us a line because we would love to meet you there.
But perhaps the most consistently well trafficked portion of the show floor was the small wind pavilion, which boasted a number of companies with interesting solutions to providing distributed wind power. Southwest Windpower, a company with a lot of installation traction in the market, was very well received at the show. Mariah Power was another beneficiary of a lot of interest.
One company that didn't make it into the small wind pavilion, but qualifies as a provider in that category is Helix Wind. The company was several rows and columns away from Southwest Windpower and Mariah Power, but seemed to draw nearly as much interest for its unique design.
Small wind is not a new category--some of these companies have been producing product off of a manufacturing line for several years, but it is clear that many commercial and residential customers like the idea of small wind and the asthetics of some of the solutions. From a PR perspective, a lot of small wind companies have yet to make a big PR splash, but as the technology improves, home equity and financing come back, and more states begin offering tax credits, the market will likely take off.
Much like Solar Power International last fall, Wind Power 2009 had the feel of a boom economic environment on Day 1, with the exhibit hall pretty well trafficked and most people upbeat about industry progress. That's not to say I didn't hear the phrase "credit crunch" during the day, implying that the financial lending thaw hasn't taken full effect.
But what amazed me wasn't that the industry seemed upbeat or that people braved swine flu to come to the heartland of the meat packing industry. What amazed me was how much the wind industry has become a national industry in the US. I don't mean that as much from an adoption standpoint, as I do from an innovation standpoint.
My more than a decade in PR has been centered on the coasts, where everyone assumes innovation is a monopoly. Schwartz has done PR for MIT start ups featuring some of the world's brightest minds, and in Silicon Valley/The Bay Area, the global epicenter of clean tech, technology and medical innovation and PR. Everyone knows that the upper midwest, Colorado, Texas, Southern California and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina have their own pockets of innovation (and I am leaving out dozens of others). Yet, I don't think people give enough credit to the rest of the country for building and nurturing innovation and solid companies.
In solar and biofuels, most of the attention is on coastal business areas (Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.) that have done a good job recruiting cleantech talent and nurturing the industries from a public policy perspective. I think most assumed the same was true with Wind. They couldn't be more wrong.
Wind Power 2009 is littered with component, inverter, blade, machine tooling, cabling, services, modeling and turbine innovators, from all around the country. The commitment to wind power in the country's interior was evident from the number of politicians, companies and visitors from landlocked America. Heck, Siemens even announced a new manufacturing plant in Kansas. I talked to some of the companies at the event from Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and others, and it is clear that they are helping lead the next wave of wind innovation.
Final note: Kudos to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) for a really well-run event. I was in a mammoth line for registration and it moved quickly, with conference staff making sure people were paying attention and offering help when it was needed. A line half as long at a solar event in 2007 took almost three times as long to move. They also released their quarterly report and a call for a National Renewable Electricity Standard.
April may be taxing for many, but for the Cleantech industry it seems as though things hit rock bottom in Q1. Based on the news of the last two weeks, April funding showers may bring Q2 flowers.
Venture capital, state tax credits and stimulus money have started flowing into a number of cleantech and energy markets, giving the market a lot to PR about. During this week alone, we have seen two lighting-related technology companies announce a round of funding. Nuventix and Luxim each scored rounds for different approaches to the sustainable lighting issue, with the former cooling LEDs and the latter offering a plasma-based ligthing technology.
Meanwhile, energy storage technologies, such as batteries and fuel cells, are getting big tax breaks in Michigan to the tune of $300 million. Technologies that help replace lost auto manufacturing jobs will likely get some public affairs love from states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana for the rest of 2009 and beyond. The DOE is also joining the party by kicking in $41.9 million in stimulus funds for fuel cell technologies.
Can the cleantech industry sustain the momentum into May? With Wind Power 2009 on the horizon, I expect we'll see some signficiant news from major renewable manufacturers related to that space. We then move into Intersolar Munich before we get to June. Everything considered, it looks as though cleantech could be rebounding from the funding doldrums that slowed things in Q1.
It is really a no brainer since the technologies in development, from solar and wind, to biofuels and deslination, solve a large number of global economic, geopolitical and environmental problems. Beyond just energy generation and creating potable drinking water, there will be billions in investments in smart grid, energy monitoring and management, and batteries.
We're big believers that the current economic environment has simply delayed the inevitable and that cleantech will be a New Deal-type growth engine for the US in the decades to come. We'll be reporting back from Wind Power in Chicago later this month where it will be interesting to see what the mood is of some of the companies involved in the event. If you're planning to attend, drop us a line.
With Wind Power 2009 coming up in Chicago in early May, there will likely be a lot of discussion about major wind farm projects and the public affairs and public relations challenges with getting them planned, developed and built.
Earth2Tech has an interesting post on the fact that the stimulus package and cleantech funding from the federal government may be starting to thaw the VC funding freeze. Three companies announced funding this week, which was newsworthy in itself. But also interesting is the fact that none of the companies were in solar and instead were in markets that took the brunt of VC indifference during Q1.
The third company that received funding was Ember, the company behind the ZigBee wireless networking and control standard for smart meters. All three of the aforementioned markets, wind, smart grid and biofuels, stand to benefit from the stimulus package, including renewable energy and smart grid loan guarantees, tax credits, state energy projects and direct investment from the DOE.
We've talked before about how the Federal Government would serve as a bridge investor for the cleantech industry and eventually attract VC dollars back into the market. When companies can get capital from other sources that don't dilute company equity, it takes some of the risk out of the investment for private equity groups and VCs, while making the return potentially much more lucrative.
It used to be that PR was the engine that drove visibility with investment audiences. Now cleantech companies, including solar, wind, smart grid, energy management, biofuels and others, should be thinking about integrating public affairs and PR together to secure government funding and VC dollars.
Will the stimulus ultimately bring back the cleantech VC market? Time will tell, but having the government as a customer and/or financial backer could be the thing that gets cleantech and green companies through the economic downturn.
A lot has been made about Solar M&A the past few weeks as solar companies get snapped up or acquire each other's business pipeline. ActSolar was just acquired by National Semiconductor, while Optisolar, Recurrent Energy and a number of others have been involved in acquisitions of business pipeline and assets recently. At issue for most is the ability to get funding and for others it is the ability of their customers to get loans or bonds to finance a solar installation.
How long will this last? The answer lies in Washington where Public Affairs teams for solar companies are working to tap stimulus money and where the financial market bailout will likely begin to free up the ability of solar consumers (business, consumers, government) to get loans and finance projects. For solar manufacturers, it depends on the ability of solar companies to get grants and loan guarantees, a la Solyndra, BrightSourceand others, to finish projects and expand operations.
In the residential market, home values (many people use home equity for downpayments on power purchase agreements or to pay for systems) play a big role, as do tax breaks and the long-term adoption of feed-in tariffs. Gainesville was recently the first municipality in the US to adopt a solar feed-in tariff and the interest was unprecedented. Feed-in tariffs were one of the major drivers of residential and commercial solar adoption in Germany, making it the number one solar market in the world.
My guess? The combination of all of the aforementioned government policy measures, combined with the return of credit markets and a slightly improving economy will help stabilize many solar companies for the rest of the year, allowing them to survive the current turmoil. I strongly believe that the combination of solar-friendly public policy, legislation, government incentives and the recovery of energy prices and the broader economy will return the market to a boom phase in 2010.
I think everyone would agree with me that regardless of whether you support the stimulus package or are against it, any sort of resolution is welcome so we can stop hearing about the different machinations of the bill.
In any event, lots of stimulus-related talk today:
The NY Times says Tech will get a big boost, including high-speed connectivity ($7 billion), digitizing of health records ($20 billion for EMRs) and smart grid support ($20 billion). This definitely creates a large public affairs opportunity for relevant companies.
On Smart Grid: President Obama has really driven Smart Grid into the public consciousness and it is showing in the media and blogosphere. Expect it to be a hot topic at DistribuTECH next week when the "who's who" in grid and energy technology meet in San Diego to discuss new developments in the industry. More than $50 billion will be sunk into Smart Grid under the proposed stimulus package currently in the House. So while escalating media coverage makes for a ripening public relations opportunity, the government investment has to make government relations another priority.
Transparency & Green: Back when outing cases of green washing was all of the rage, it became apparent to cleantech marketing and PR organizations that transparency was going to be key (it should be anyway) if people were going to believe the substance or objectivity of a company's claims around going green. FoodServiceWarehouse.com (Full disclosure: a client) is taking the right approach by turning its Green Commercial Kitchen Certification Program over to an independent panel. This is at a time when there are plenty of companies out there that are introducing green certifications for the sole purpose of generating consulting dollars. FoodServiceWarehouse.com's program doesn't require any purchases from the company and is free. Bravo to a company doing it right.
To say that the stimulus package currently under review contains significant support for renewable energy, green and cleantech would be a gross understatement. Depending on whose data you use, it is roughly five-to-seven times the total of all VC investment in cleantech in 2008. Or, a little more than twice the total revenue of the solar industry. Wow.
Biofuels will get $800 million. Batteries will get a big chunk. Bottom line: Even if this bill is halved before being signed by President, it will create the largest government investment in renewable energy, likely exceeding all past investments combined.
Government subsidies have been critical to the growth of solar and wind in Europe. The US has lagged behind. This is a major step forward in making the US the world's top producer of renewable energy.
Companies need to take advantage of this opportunity because it will not exist again in our lifetime. It is analagous to being a contractor or steel producer during the New Deal Era. Opportunities exist for both commercially mature and pre-commercial technologies.
Many companies avoid engaging in Government Relations because they don't understand it or they rely on industry associations to execute it on their behalf. If you have a technology that you believe can solve the energy, environmental and geopolitical challenges facing the country, now or in the future, then you should learn about how it works. You will learn a lot about policy making, appropriations, government project management and how to sell to government entities. It also will add to your executive's expert credibility when your public relations team is executing a thought-leadership campaign.
Uncle Sam's House is about to become much more energy efficient and whether you directly engage with him or not, there are many companies that will play a role in helping.
I'll be posting on the historic nature of the stimulus package and the government relations opportunitiy for green companies, projects and technologies, as the federal government becomes the world's largest investor in cleantech. But first, I want to make sure I capture the green elements (if any) of Obama's presidential inauguration speech.
Obama began his speech slightly before 9:07 a.m. PST and in less than two minutes, made reference to the fact that, "the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." He called this usage one of the "indicators of crisis."
9:14 PST: "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories..."
9:18 PST: "With old friends and former foes we'll...roll back the spector of a warming planet."
9:21 PST: Obama says that countries of relative plenty can no longer consume the world's resources without regards to its effect.
In an 18 minute inaugural address, President Obama addressed energy in four separate passages. Likely more than any previous president. Every passage focused on sustainability or renewability in some reference.
Now all eyes in solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, tidal, water and energy management (and public and government relations) turn toward the stimulus package currently proposed in the House. More than $50 billion in tax credits, projects and investments in renewable energy are currently included and we'll do a run down of specifics this week.
As we enter 2009, we wanted to take a look at cleantech markets we think will get the lionshare of the media attention during the year. We're calling it the Clean (Baker's) Dozen. We made our selections based on a variety of factors including 2008 venture funding, 2008 media attention, ties to existing large industries (auto, construction) and viability for commercialization.
Here is the list:
-Monitoring & Management
-Storage & Batteries
-Green Building Materials
There are others that should be on this list and that have significant public relations and government relations potential, including Water conservation, purification and potability, but they just haven't taken off yet. We'll do a post on each of these during Q1 and highlight some approaches we think are worth watching. Through our government relations team, we'll also keep an eye on Federal and State funding and policy to see if the G-men agree with our choices.
First off, apologies for the holiday blogging break which grew into a European-style summer vacation. We say every year that the holidays will slow things down a bit, but as usual there was lots going on despite the economy and more companies shuttering their doors for the holidays than in the past. That said, being busy is a good thing and working in the markets we serve is pretty fun.
In any event, we are starting to see some serious momentum surrounding a trend we predicted at the start of Q4: The government serving as a funding bridge between the last Green VC boom and the next one.
It's not just VentureBeat and the VCs talking about it either. There is a definite buzz in cleantech start-up circles about the value of government relations, the impact of the next stimulus bill and how to approach federal, state and local audiences. When you consider that all VCs contributed $8 billion in funding in 2008 and the government is talking $20 billion just in tax breaks, it is easy to get excited.
There will be some big winners (the ones that get indirect funding through projects) and losers (those that drag their feet or don't take the time to understand it) in GR circles in 2009.
For weeks now we've been hearing doom and gloom about the health of cleantech investing amid the financial services meltdown and how cheap oil and VC turtling would cripple renewable energy. Well yesterday, SunRun, a residential power-purchase agreement (PPA) provider and in full disclosure, a Schwartz client, received $105 million in backing from a banking institution (of all places).
And it is not just SunRun. EnerG2 (ultracapacitor), ReGen (waste heat to power convertors) and Qteros (biofuels) raised close to $40 million combined in the past week. It's clear that as President-Elect Obama talks more and more about cleantech being a priority, investors continue to bet on renewable energy and green as a good investment for their dollars. For those companies not getting venture or bank backing, the government is a good option B.
In a NY Times Op Ed on Sunday, former Vice President Al Gore outlined a five-step plan for the US to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. Some interesting points in the piece:
1) He calls for the government to support Detroit (and start-ups like Tesla) in building plug-in hybrids that can feed off of the renewable energy grid he describes.
2) He discounts the validity or at least the current state of "clean coal" technology. Is he right? Who knows? If they are going to try and make clean coal a reality, they need strict regulation around mine safety and ecologically friendly means of mining it.
3) He alludes to a cap-and-trade system for carbon and discusses greater US involvement in being an international leader in carbon regulation. It will be interesting to see if Obama and the Congress tackle carbon legislation in 2009.
It seems in addition to the ambitious plan for government involvement, Gore thinks that Web 2.0 could have a role in green policy movement.
Gore's opinion piece will stimulate a lot of debate and continue the pressure on the incoming Obama administration and Congress to push renewable energy regulation and investment to recharge the economy. It will also drive lots of discussion from green blogs this week.
I held off on posting immediately following the election results to avoid letting any excitement or disappointment seep into any analysis of how it impacts green and cleantech public relations and government relations. However, I think it is safe to say that the results mean big things for cleantech companies and the green movement as a whole.
Green bloggers everywhere started immediately discussing what an Obama presidency means to the green industry with some examples here, here and here. Martin LaMonica's post on CNET (the first link) is particularly comprehensive.
So here is my bottom line thought and I have written this in the past: The government is going to become a huge financer of renewable energy projects both in terms of greening government buildings and providing incentives and appropriations for individual companies. If you are an emerging growth cleantech company looking for funding, GR may be a good supplement to a venture round. Both direct GR contact and local PR campaigns are great ways to target government grants and funding.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
On Election Eve 2008 I have come to this realization: There has never been a political platform element during my professional career that promises to have a bigger impact on an industry we serve.
In 48 hours, we could be sitting at our desks with a federal government-elect that promises to pump $15 billion into renewable energy every year for the next ten years, including wind, solar and biofuels. Or, we could be left trying to decipher how the president-elect would fit renewables into his overall energy plan that includes dramatic new investment in demoestic fossil-fuel production and very little specificity on renewables. In the latter scenario, it is likely that green companies and PR budgets would be at the mercy of venture capitalists that hold all of the leverage in new rounds of fundraising. The VCs will be sitting on sizeable funds that remain flush with cash and have the luxury of buying into shrinking valuations. This results in more equity for less money invested.
When you consider that $6.6 billion in VC investment has been poured into renewables thus far in 2008 and Obama is proposing federal investment more than double that number, the potential size of the cleantech windfall becomes staggering. This is before factoring in aggressive municipal and state programs that would drive a new wave of green energy adoption.
We recognize that many green companies are in the final stages of budgeting for 2009 and that cleantech marketers are looking for ways to justify an aggressive, yet strategic PR program that can deliver an ROI in a tough economic times. Savvy finance and marketingteams are also exploring how to take advantage of government grants, appropriations and projects via a government relations campaign. How aggressive can/should you get? Tomorrow will tell.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
I do think that the overall VC dollars will drop, but that will be in part because valuations will temporarily come down as part of the economic environment. I think that green start ups will still get funding and will be giving up the same equity for less money. And while venture funds will struggle to raise capital from limited partners, most of that fund raising wouldn't have an impact for some time from an investment standpoint anyway. Most VCs will still be closing out healthy funds for the next 6-12 months and that means it is a great time to be a VC.
What does this mean for green marketers and PR professionals? Maybe not much long term. As I have mentioned in the past, I am a big believer that the federal government will be a much bigger player in renewables in the future including agency grants and appropriations. Legislation and regulatory compliance will also help drive spending on green technologies. Call it Green Regs and Ham (pork sounds so dirty, especially since cleantech has a halo right now in government eyes).
Savvy management teams will offset any loss in VC capital with a government relations push that can result in some sort of grant with no loss of equity or IP. If you are a green marketer or PR professional looking to protect your cleantech PR budget amid growing competition, suggesting a GR program may be a means to more means.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
I was watching a CNN political roundtable the other night (Larry King or AC 360) and one of the guests was Joe Klein, a TIME Magazine journalist that just had an interview with Obama (which was published today). He said something that wasn’t explored by the host or other panelists, but I felt was monumental for both its specificity and its implications. Here is the quote from the piece:
"The engine of economic growth for the past 20 years is not going to be there for the next 20. That was consumer spending. Basically, we turbocharged this economy based on cheap credit." But the days of easy credit are over, Obama said, "because there is too much deleveraging taking place, too much debt." A new economic turbocharger is going to have to be found, and "there is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy ... That's going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office."
Lots of arrows have been flung at both candidates for the lack of specifics around their economic plans and priorities should they be elected. This comment from Obama was about as specific as it gets.
So what does it mean for cleantech companies and the green PR firms that work with them? It means that the ITC and PTC extensions were just the tip of the iceberg (not making a climate change pun) and that an Obama administration would make renewable energy investment and development his number one goal over his first four years as president.
This means more legislation and agency investment in renewable energy projects and a much bigger market for cleantech companies. This could be the funding stopgap that companies need should the VC market begin drying up and means that integrated GR/PR campaigns could become much more critical in the next five months.
Bottom line: This is a very, very good thing for the market.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
I am not suggesting that there is a bubble in cleantech. I’ve written many times in the past about how we’ve only scratched the surface of the market potential, especially with a new federal regulatory and legislative climate taking shape for the next four years (more on that later).
I get the sense that the broader world at large is beginning to realize that cleantech can fuel the next stage of job growth in this country, as it puts white collar and blue collar people back to work in Green Collar Jobs. Whether you workin in board rooms, finance, human resources, manufacturing and engineering, or as a roofer, welder, contractor, etc., chances are your job is going to get Greener soon.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
There likely will be a mixed mood when Solar Power International kicks off tomorrow. On the one hand, rejoice at the extesion of the ITC (invetsment tax credits) and PTC (production tax credits). On the other, fear about the impact that a recession and dropping oil prices will have on the economy. VentureBeat does a great job summing it up here.
I am an optimistic person to begin with, but I honestly think there is a wild card here: The Presidential election. Obama sees renewable energy as not just an economic or oil-price issue, but as an economic and geopolitical one. Ten years ago an oil price dip may have been enough to stem the momentum, but with policy makers now accepting global warming as a real issue and seeing the impact of fossil-fuel dependence on geopolitical issues (Russia, Iraq/Iran, Venezuela, etc) there will still likely be some investment in Green. There are also plenty of projections related to the creation of jobs from the cleantech and green market, including solar, biofuel, electric car and wind manufacturing, solar and wind installation, and office jobs. Call it a Green New Deal.
McCain also has made the link between oil dependency and geopolitical issues. He just tends to favor domestic oil and gas exploration and harvesting as a major piece of the equation. Regardless, I think that there will be a commitment to renewable energy over the next four years that may help somewhat offset the impact of a recession.
So how does it impact cleantech and green PR professionals? If you have an early-stage product that isn't shipping then the tendency will likely be to hunker down, cut spend and try to ride it out. I am not saying that this is necessarily the right approach, but many will likely embrace it. If you are a company with shipping product or a solid pipeline, then turtling from a marketing perspective is dangerous since the last thing you want coming out of a recession is to be an unknown brand in an exploding market opportunity.
I'll be reporting from Solar Power International this week and will do my best to capture the mood of the companies involved.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
With Solar Power International (formerly known as Solar Power 2008) under one week away, it will be interesting to see what topics take center stage at the event. Here are some quick predictions:
-Thin Film: No market has been a bigger investment darling than thin film manufacturing in 2008 and so it is pretty clear that there will be significant attention on emerging players in the market.
-Solar Concentrators: The big star of WIREC back in March will again be widely talked about at the event, as companies explore concentrators on thin film, new types of concentrators and other uses of the technology.
-Solar Inverters: One of the current bottlenecks of system efficiency, next generation inverters will allow you to improve the performance of each individual cell or string, eliminating mismatch losses.
-The ITC Extension: The single biggest boost for the US market in 2008 was the recent inclusion of the ITC extension in the bailout bill. The news will result in a much better market for Solar in 2009 with the promise of even more federal help likely after a new administration takes office in January.
Happy day for the Cleantech and Green Market as Congress did what everyone was hoping and extended the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit. Earth2Tech gives a good rundown of the joy in Greenville and what is included in the bill. It ends an emotional and long battle to get renewed Federal support for renewable energy.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
A lot of folks have been upset with the House of Representatives sudden embrace of fiscal responsibility and as a result, the lack of approval for a Senate bill last week that would have extended the production tax credit and investment tax credit. Now some are grumbling that the inclusion of the ITCs and PTCs in the rescue or bailout bill is also not ideal.
So people fall into two camps: those that want a fiscally sound, stand-on-its-merits bill and those that think ANY bill that extends the ITCs and PTCs is a good thing. It is an interesting debate, although one that is probably moot with the likely passage of the bailout bill today.
I can honestly say that this is the most anticipated piece of public policy in the more than 10 years I have been in PR and certainly the most antipcated by green and cleantech PR agencies in the recent development of the market.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
What financial crisis? Cleantech investing hit another record in Q3 as money poured into the market at a clip of $2.6 billion (thanks, Cleantech Group). Amazingly, I still am not among those that thinks there is a Green Bubble since this trend has largely been unsupported by the Federal Government.
Yes the ITCs and PTCs have been good for the industry, but with a new administration and bigger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, I think we have only scratched the surface of advancement and adoption. When you also throw in a weakening economy, a weak dollar and technology bottlenecks yet to be solved, like energy storage, it is plain to see that greener days are ahead.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
The bill is expected to pass through the Senate quickly and has a number of other popular additions (including the alternative minimum tax) that they hope will get more House support. I can't imagine Bush not signing the bill if it makes it to his desk unchanged.
This is a critical week for the solar, wind and other industries, as well as for cleantech and green PR agencies, law firms, VCs and every other market that services them.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
Some random thoughts heading into the most critical five weeks in the history of wind, biofuels and solar, and by extension, the green PPR sector.
-The Senate picked the wrong week to pass an ITC extentsion, as the federal government spends its time focusing on the financial crisis. Hopefully the financial bailout package will be finalized by Sunday and the House will not try to ramrod its own version of the ITC bill through. It will go a long way in determining what kind of mood companies are in at Solar Power International 2008.
-Last night in the Presidential debate you heard Obama waiver on how much of his energy plan he can push through with a huge financial bailout figuring into the budget for 2009 and beyond. This only heightens the importance of renewing the ITCs before the end of the year.
-I know that many see the energy bill as just that...energy policy. However, consider the economic impact that the ITC extension will have on growth of the renewable energy industry, helping create green collar jobs across the country. This includes engineering, IT and office jobs at the cleantech companies themselves, as well as jobs in solar and wind installation and plant construction, and factory workers at new US-based plants for the production of biofuels. Contractors, construction workers, electricians and other skilled workers will be put back to work after watching the new homes market dry up. Bottom line: The ITC extension is as much of a jobs bill as it is an energy bill.
So there are environmental, economic and geopolitical reasons to get something done before the end of the year. Let's hope it happens.
Some random thoughts on which I may expand later after digesting the week at GoingGreen:
-There is a debate between two camps in solar and other incentive-boosted renewables. One camp says there needs to be a focus on markets with resources (abundant sunlight) and less emphasis on public policy. The other camp thinks that policy is the major issue short and long term. I think they are both right in that eventually the technology will be so efficient and cost-effective that it will end the ROI debate, but incentives will still help the market and can't be ignored (hello, Germany).
-Most experts agree that the country cannot afford to ignore nuclear in the short term. That said, many believe that new nuclear wouldn't have an impact for a decade or more (kind of like new oil fields) and so the emphasis should not be on nuclear as the primary solution. Most support keeping it at 20% of our energy source. Elise Zoli of Goodwin Proctor had some of the best points on the subject on the GoingGreen fossil-fuels panel. One point on nuclear by Vinod Khosla that was interesting: The innovation cycle for nuclear is 15 years whereas solar thermal and other technologies will have gone through 15 innovation cycles in that same time period.
-Green and cleantech are the fastest-growing venture asset classes, attracting between 10-14 percent of all venture dollars. It is now the "third leg on the VC stool" with technology and life sciences. -Ira Ehrenpreis, General Partner, Technology Partners
-The most depressing panel of the event was the clean-coal panel. Not depressing in the sense that they made bad points or failed to make a case, but it just seem like the participants anticipated objections and weren't passionate about the subject. One interesting point was made by Oorla Protonics about using natural gas to turn materials into oil. The CEO said that natural gas is the champagne of fossil fuels with oil being the wine and coal the beer. Using champagne to turn materials into low-grade wine or beer is ludicrous.
-Not surprisingly Khosla was the hit of Tuesday and Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) the draw on Wednesday. Khosla talked about how it is "main tech" not "cleantech" that matters and that the market should embrace solutions that can capture 80 percent of the market. He said that using one sheet of toilet paper as suggested by Sheryl Crow is not a solution and that the Prius is a nice status symbol but so are Gucci bags. This is probably the area where I disagree with Khosla most. I know he is looking at it more through an investment lens, but from a practical standpoint EVERY little bit helps. So if what I can afford to do today is buy a Prius and use less goods that leave a footprint, then I should do it. It is analagous to weight loss. If someone focuses on the sixty pounds they need to lose, instead of making small changes to their habits (less sugar, don't eat at night) that result in gradual weight loss, then they will never succeed. I am not saying that we should settle, but there has to be bridges to that 80 percent market solution.
-The most daunting thing from a green and cleantech PR perspective was this: There is SO much noise in the market and we still haven't really seen anything yet. Imagine for a moment that the current financial crisis dies down in Q4, the federal climate becomes green friendly and boosts incentives, the states and municipalities continue their charge. What will that do? Increase funding in cleantech to astronomical levels, likely open the public markets to green IPOs and pour millions upon millions into the marketing and government relations coffers of cleantech and green companies. Most are operating on marketing budgets under $1 million annually today, investing primarily in manufacturing, R&D and go-to-market. Any money they are spending now (and it is not much) is on public relations, search-engine marketing and some local government relations. The second half of 2009? We may see double the number of public companies and marketing budgets in the millions. Advertising will get better and more frequent, and the PR and lobbying noise will get louder. There may be a HUGE government cookie that begins to open in six months.
GoingGreen was a fantastic event held at a great venue. It was yet another cleantech event that was oversubscribed showing the health of the industry. It has made me even more excited for Solar Power International in San Diego. Feel free to get in touch with me if you will be there the week of October 13. firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesterday, Vinod Khosla captivated the GoingGreen audience (the "pin drop" effect) and today it is Elon Musk. He opened his discussion with a quick overview of his new space venture before delving into some Tesla news.
He announced that the new Tesla Model S will be manufactured in San Jose with 20,000 units per year rolling out of a $250 million plant starting in late 2010 with chances to expand (drawing a round of applause). He said the new Sedan will be, like the Roadster, pure electric and seat five adults with more cargo space than any other sedan on the market. It can also fit two rear-facing car seats in the hatch and will have a 300+ mile range option.
He also envisions a fast charging option that will give it 85% charge in 45 minutes and battery pack swap out capabilities that take less time than filling a tank of gas. He expects to unveil the model early next year.
One other interesting aspect of his talk was his endorsing of solar as the power source of choice for electronic transportation. He is a believer in solar on homes, as well as utility-scale solar thermal. The more that Solar PR can draft the Tesla, the better it is for the solar market.
PG&E spoke at yesterday's GoingGreen event and talked a bit about their work in renewables. The speaker didn't take any questions from the audience at the end of the presentation and really just read a laundry list of investments they have made in plants.
Now everyone knows that they are mandated to get a certain percentage of energy from renewables, so the traction they have made is not surprising. The big question is would they be doing it if not mandated? At least their efforts are real, regardless of motivation. As Vinod Khosla said later in the say, he suspects more than half of all green claims are green washing.
The most interesting part of the presentation was when the spokesman cited a statistic that solar costs drop 19 percent for each doubling in manufacturing capacity.
Posting from the AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference and kicking off with the 8am solar panel. As you can imagine, the first question was related to how the ITCs and other policy-driven subsidies around the world dictate the focus of solar companies.
David Holland, managing director of Australia-based Solar Systems, Ltd. sounded the call for government to support emerging technologies and reinforced how critical subsidies are to the market early on. He did raise the point that the industry and those technologies then have a responsibility to deliver on their promise.
The most interesting point came from John Woolard, CEO of Bright Source who basically said that "eventually the market will shift its focus to markets with a high level of resources," with subsidies taking on less importance. This is actually an interesting way of looking at things and the type of long-term view I think companies should take.
A lot of people are predicting that a change in administrations in Washington, along with a larger anticipated Democratic majority will give the solar industry and other cleantech companies the boost they need in 2009. But given the overall policy uncertainty, companies need to proceed as if they are not banking on the ITCs or take proactive steps to drive government action on subsidies. This includes green public awareness and PR campaigns, and industry collaboration to combat cleantech FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).
News this morning that thin-film solar has seen one of its players get another nine-figure round of funding. First was news of Nanosolar and ASA Solar, and now Solopower is rumored (Earth2Tech via VentureBeat) to have raised a $200 million round.
So much for the expiring ITCs impacting financial interest in solar technologies. It is amazing how much investment has gone into the market but even more shocking how much of it has gone into pre-production companies.
It will be interesting to see if thin film dominates Solar Power International the way it did PVSEC. Back in March, it seemed as though solar concentrator companies were getting the most attention.
Next week at GoingGreen we'll also see if the thin-film investment topic dominates the solar conversation. In any event, the break in the noise green and cleantech marketers and pr professionals thought they would get from the ITCs potentially expiring is likely gone. As long as there is cash flowing into these companies they will continue to make noise.
Like many industries, the cleantech PR world is watching anxiously as to what is going to happen with the ITCs. Expiring green rebates and credits, will undoubtedly have some impact on venture funding, the IPO market and company valuations, all of which could shrink PR budgets.
I think what we'll find though is that a lot of companies will view the political climate as turning favorable over the next 12 months and will continue to invest so they can come stronger out of any green recession. We'll know more next week after the AlwaysOn GoingGreen event at Cavallo Point where we are the representing PR agency and a sponsor. Many of the industry's most influential cleantech VCs and investors will present on trends they see in the market. We'll also get a look at some exciting companies and the CEOs of those companies.
It should be fun and educational. We'll be reporting back all of next week from the event.
Scott Kirsner recaps an interesting post about the M&A climate at the end of 2008 in traditional technology and how the softening economy hasn't necessarily killed M&A activity. In it, a Boston-based VC talks about how 2008 saw some relatively major acquisitions in lieu of companies testing a frigid IPO market.
Unlike traditional technology sectors, Cleantech is one area that seemed immune to the cooling of the IPO market during 2008 (specifically, solar companies). There were a number of companies rumored to be filing for an IPO, some who went public and still others getting hundreds-of-millions of dollars in valuation. Now cleantech seems to be cooling too (or at least the success rate is dwindling) and there have been several acquisitions (Schneider Electric acquiring Xantrex is one). So is green like tech after all and the IPO desert is upon us?
Not really. Most say that the cooling of the IPO market for cleantech has more to do with the expiring ITCs, an aversion to investment risk and lack of action at the federal level. I spoke to a VC at the recent PVSEC conference and he said that "every major solar integrator on the west coast was on the chopping block" due to the uncertainty of tax credits. Hyperbole? Maybe.
More likely, opportunists are trying to drive down valuations and acquisition prices by playing on the ITC fears. Our government relations team which follows the regulatory market believes that the cooling of cleantech IPOs is more of a delay in the inevitable than a long-term trend. The fact of the matter is that the federal political climate will warm significantly in February when a new administration is entrenched. Both McCain and Obama promise to be friendlier to cleantech companies than the current administration boosted by, in all estimates by political pundits, larger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Cleantech companies just need to resist the M&A urge and hold out for a couple of quarters.
Expect more action at the federal level in 2009, bolstered by more legislation and regulation to drive forced adoption of renewables at the state and local levels. This will reenergize the IPO market for cleantech companies and push even more VC investment. Solar will continue to be the major public-market focus during the first half of 2009, before wind, biofuels and others catch up.
The public market darkhorse? Energy storage which many VCs and entrepreneurs say is the bottleneck in green efficiency and adoption.
And if the climate doesn't warm at the federal level in 2009? Expect that many regions of the country will fill the void with state and local legislation and tax incentives. This includes New England, the mid-Atlantic, Southwest and California. These measures will still give the market enough fuel to support a number of successful companies and prevent any M&A firesale.
Quick Note: We'll be hosting a webinar on the intersection of public relations and government relations for green and cleantech companies on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. You can register here.
If there is one thing that struck me most at PVSEC is how much companies need branding help when targeting international events and markets. There are plenty of examples of serious branding errors by US companies, including Chevy "Nova" ("no go" in Spanish) or the Gerber baby food example in some African markets (don't ask). Those companies had millions to spend on brand and marketing research but made mistakes.
So what happens when you attend an international event with companies that maybe, if lucky, have a seven-figure green marketing, pr and branding budget? Plenty of things lost in translation. Below are some of my favorites at the event, some just slightly comical when you make a play on words and others shockingly wrong. Here we go:
I think they meant "up and coming?" The slogan you can't see under their name also said, "The next level company." I think it is just a tag line lost in translation. Next:
Solar with a slightly unpleasant smell? As long as it produces clean energy. Next:
Translation: Death to the sun. Next:
What is that word running vertically on the left? That would be the word, "lust." I love solar just as much as the next guy, but I mean......okay. Last but not least:
Um. Ah. Not sure anyone else will try to trademark that so the registered symbol might be a bit unnecessary. Enough said.
Next up in the green pr and marketing event calendar? AlwaysOn GoingGreen at Cavallo Point in San Francisco. It should be much more tame than PVSEC and less of a green field opportunity for branding companies.
One of the more notable things we noticed at PVSEC last week is that investment is obviously flowing into solar and is now beyond just funding R&D and manufacturing capacity. Companies are investing a great deal more money in green and cleantech marketing, PR and government relations.
The difference between the booths at this year's show and the booths at Solar Power 2007 are very striking. It used to be that 70-80 percent of the booths looked like this one (no disrespect to the owner as budgetary constraints and stratregic value of an event obviously dictate size and scope):
Today, the silicon valley influence of cash, marketing and PR are obvious, as well as the entrance of some companies that make their name in consumer electronics. The result a much more sophisticated event and booths that rival some of the best at a global technology event. Some of the ones that stood out:
It had an interesting closed off area and food bar that made you want to go in. Not closed in terms of "don't cross this line" but in terms of making you want to see what was behind the curtain. Given the only alternative to eating free food and drink at the booths was to wait in long lines for pretty rancid cafe solo and bocadillos, I thought it was pretty smart.
This booth had ample chairs and meeting space, both on the floor and in closed off spaces. You need to spend to get this much room, but given most attendees just want to sit at some point, it is a good way to get an extra 5-10 minutes of a prospect's attention.
A booth that captured attention for its size and prominant display of panels. Nothing explains what you do better than visuals. And finally.....
This booth was very open and inviting, displaying the company name and logo several times. Nothing is worse than a big booth where you have to search for the company name or that has a clear boundary that screams "pizza counter."
So what does this all mean? Again, it is clear that some solar companies have become very successful either through organic growth, venture capital or thanks to their critical mass in other areas. It means that the marketing landscape is more competitive than ever and that the noise will only increase. If you can't afford the large booth areas, the best way to get attention at cleantech and green events is through free giveaways (including food and drink) or through aggressive PR to get in the show issues of industry trade publications.
I have a feeling Solar Power International in October will reinforce this point.
One of the things that has struck me the most about the PVSEC conference is where a lot of the exhibiting companies fall in the supply chain. There are a lot of silicon suppliers and robotics/equipment manufacturers. Most of the rest are actual cell and string producers themselves.
Along those lines, the sessions and panels were extremely technical focusing on new developments in cell technology. There was a lot of discussion about a-Si, CIGS and other types of solar technology that promise to reduce cost, improve efficiency and deliver on the promise of building-integrated PV (BIPV). By far, the most common technology on the show floor was thin film solar.
It will be interesting to juxtapose this conference versus Solar Power International (or Solar Power 2008 for those who missed the name change) and see if the focus shifts more toward the integrator/consumer of solar technology. I still think there is room for a show focused strictly on renewables for consumers. Obviously, this was never meant to be that and nor did I expect it coming in.
More later including signs that the solar market is indeed very healthy and maturing (heavy investments in cleantech PR and marketing), as well as some unfortunate name and slogan choices for some of the companies at the event (images will be included).
A few first impressions of the city and the conference:
-Having never been here I was expecting a dry, hot Mediterranean climate not unlike California. What I learned is that it is much more variable with my first night feeling like Miami in July. It is still an amazing place and the New Englander in me was a bit nostalgic once I felt the humidity.
-This is an amazing place of "old meets new." There are plenty of buildings and landmarks older than the US itself, but also some amazing modern architecture, including the Arts and Sciences buildings across from where I am staying.
-I was a bit concerned because everything that I had heard about Valencia was that it was not a tourist destination and therefore, people were not as friendly to foreigners as other cities and the percentage of English speakers was quite small. That did not bode well for my high school Spanish 101 capabilities. It has turned out to be the exact opposite. The city is amazingly accomodating to visitors, there are many English-speaking natives and the people are very friendly. Good thing for me because I would be walking the thin line of playing the "Ugly American Flack." Valencia needs better PR as Spain's third-largest city....think of Chicago's international reputation versus NY and LA.
-The PVSEC conference is a melting pot of companies, much more so than a high-tech conference. There are companies from seemingly every country and the cultural differences are somewhat on display in their booths, with different types of designs, marketing slogans and promotional items. Countries I saw represented include the obvious, like the US, Germany, Spain, Japan and China. Also represented were Thailand, Canada, France, Italy, Belgium and Nigeria. That's at least four continents I saw represented without specifically looking for companies from South America and Australia, and I would be shocked if there were not at least one from each. Think a VC would fund my solar start up in Antartica? One word: monopoly.
-I spoke to a lot of people about the solar climate in the US and most are disappointed with the amount of support being given to solar by the federal government. They see no reason why the US should not be leading in renewables. How do you say, "preaching to the choir" in Spanish? They are not confident that making the ITCs retroactive (if not extended) would have much impact. I still think that companies that continue to invest during this bump in the road will come out on the other side much stronger than the competition.
-From a cleantech PR standpoint, it did not seem as though there was a lot of news from the show, nor was there much media walking around the convention hall. A majority of the people manning booths were salespeople and engineers, with a small smattering of marketing people mixed in.
-A quick Google News search confirms my last point. There are only 19 original articles that pop up when you search for "PVSEC" with an increase to 53 when you expand out the full spelling of the conference name. I am not sure if this is because of a lack of announcements or the scant physical media coverage at the event. It may be worth moving the event to another city next year that is closer to the European media centers, especially if travel costs remain high. The good news for the cleantech marketer and PR professional is that it is not nearly as noisy as other events, so there is a fairly decent chance of getting some attention at PVSEC.
-One of the most interesting early conversations I had was with a director of the EPIA. The European Photovoltaic Industry Association is pretty well organized and is very much taking a coopetition approach to the market. They anounced some staggering figures this week that say that solar could employ 10 million people by 2030 and power 4 billion people. That is a lot of green collar jobs.
That's all for now. Off to attend sessions and meet with more folks.
Great post from Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech today about how the selection of Biden would impact the future of cleantech. This is especially important at the time when many are concerned about the expiration of the ITCs and the impact it will have on adoption.
Regarding the ITCs, I have spoken to many people in the cleantech industry in the past months and will speak with many more at PVSEC, AlwaysOn GoingGreen and Solar Power International. Everyone with whom I have spoken expects the change in political climate come January to compensate for any lag in incentive coverage at the beginning of 2009.
What does this mean from a marketing budget standpoint? It varies by company, but many are pushing ahead with cleantech PR, government relations and advertising spend in Q4, looking to be well positioned when the new administration and Congress push a renewable-friendly agenda in 2009. Others are sure that even if action by the federal government is delayed, enough large (population) states will increase incentives (California, Texas, New England, New York and New Jersey) to make the investment worth it.
I know many think that green has reach a bubble stage and this is the natural cycle of the bubble bursting, but I don't think we have even scratched the surface of green adoption and investing.
Some other thoughts since my last post:
-WSJ post on a recent survey saying that Americans want their energy clean and cheap. Well, duh? My guess is that most would accept clean and comparably expensive for the short term, in order to reach clean and cheap. They just have to see a clear path to getting there and it will be tough since regional solutions make the most sense.
-Interesting post from Michael Kanellos of Greentech Media on "Five Inconvenient Truths" for the cleantech revolution. The most interesting was #5, which predicts that Haliburton, Chevron and others will eventually benefit. Do people think that the cleantech revolution will result in the collapse of these companies? I think history shows that whenever there are disruptive technologies in a market, the established forces try to slow adoption but then ultimately work to become part of the revolution through R&D or acquisition. Think of the Internet (Microsoft), open source (IBM) or software-as-a-service (Oracle) as examples. The bigger issue won't be the adoption and driving of geothermal by large energy interests but the manner in which they go about exerting their influence. Provided the PR around their entrance into cleantech is done correctly (honest, transparent and sincere), they can counteract some (but never all) of the skepticism.
-CNET does a great round up of clean car technology. It will be interesting to see how it plays out long term. Will it be plug-in electrics and hybrids, which will require a non-coal based electricity grid to have the most impact or hydrogen fuel cells which require a complete overhaul of the fueling infrastructure? Out of all of the markets, including solar, wind, hydro and others, this is the one that will have the biggest impact on everyday life.
-Ping me if you'll be in Valencia, San Diego or at Cavallo Point in the coming weeks. The next two months should be fast and furious in the cleantech world.
After a long hiatus in which I took a couple of trips and battled a sinus infection, it's great to be back in the saddle on Renewablog. Not to mention I returned with exciting news.
Schwartz has partnered with AlwaysOn to sponsor and represent the GoingGreen event. GoingGreen has become the premiere cleantech industry event focused on green financing, venture capital and emerging growth companies in solar, wind, green IT, sustainability, biofuels, etc.
GoingGreen kicks off what will be an action-packed Fall for the renewables market, as PVSEC Europe, GoingGreen, greenXchange Xpo and Solar Power International (the artist formerly known as Solar Power 2008), all take place between Labor and Columbus Day week. If the other conferences have a line-up like GoingGreen (Raj Atluru and Steve Jurvetson, Vinod Khosla, Ajit Nazre, Ray Lane, etc.), we are in for one great stretch of conferences. One topic that is sure to be top of mind? The expiring renewable tax credits and the impact that a change in Washington will have on industries like solar, biofuels, wind and hydro.
If you attend the events, let us know what you think. I've been waiting for this stretch all year long.
This is another example of the considerable movement at the municiple and state levels to drive green adoption. While this is a great thing for green vendors, it makes the job of cleantech PR practitioners and marketers much more difficult, as they are tempted to take a patchwork local-market approach to selling their wares.
While local PR programs are effective (we've been executing them for medical clients for nearly two decades), green is a different market that requires as much nationwide education as it does adoption. This is especially true as the federal climate becomes more politicized in an election year and much of the legislation introduced in 2008 is more about drawing battle lines than about getting things signed into law. That will change in early 2009, which makes national PR programs integrated with government relations even more critical. For this reason and this reason alone, it is important that green marketing and PR organizations not get too myopic.
With all of that said, bravo to San Francisco for taking the initiative to get a program in place. It will lead to an influx of companies setting up shop in the city and create a number of green collar jobs in the area.
It will be interesting if this also helps draw conferences to the city that have to date been the domain of Southern California, including Solar Power 2008 and GreenXchange Expo. Good days for solar are ahead.
The majority of the state's water comes from the Sierra snowpack and that pack is thinner this year than in normal years. Some farmers can make up the difference with deep water pumps, but those pumps run on diesel and use 5 gallons per hour, meaning one hour of pumping costs about $26-$30 per hour depending on the cost of fuel.
Conservationists and environmentalists point to global warming as the driver of snowpack reduction, whereas global warming naysayers call the drought cyclical. Regardless of who is right and given the cost of fuel right now, it leads to interesting questions about markets you don't hear much about.
The first market is desalination. This is a technology that has never made sense because of the fuel needed--wood, coal, natural gas--to power a desalination plant. Today, solar and wind, and (longer term) maybe even tidal resources could power such plants and give coastal states (hello drought-stricken Georgia) an almost inexhaustable source of fresh water. Not to mention it would help us deal with rising sea levels (sorry, bad joke).
The other area where renewables could help is deep water pumps. A lot of areas around the country have deep water reservoirs that are expensive to tap and require fuel to harvest. Using wind and solar power would dramatically cut costs for farmers and reduce the strain on reservoirs, rivers and other irrigation options.
If you are marketers in the aforementioned areas, this is a prime time to educate the market and government regulators about the viability of such technologies to generate sales leads and stimulate new investment. It will be interesting to see if either of these areas get any interest at the IDG GreenXchange event or Solar Power 2008. By then, California will be five months into an official drought and no doubt there will be plenty of discussion about the role renewables can play in water shortages.
After a busy May split up by a Yellowstone trip (and two Grizzly sightings) I am back in the saddle on Renewablog pledging to do 8.3 percent more green posts in Q3 than I did in Q2. Why? Because green gets a premium everywhere these days.
A new survey commissioned by BioCycle (and executed by Schwartz client Marketools) shows that consumers are willing to spend $8.30 more on a $100 product if it is made from recycled goods or helps the environment. This brings the total of such goods to $150 when you also factor in California sales tax.
All kidding aside, this is a great sign that even during a softening economy people are still willing to open their wallets for greener goods and services. In fact, the survey also shows that seven out of ten respondents are willing to pay that premium, so it is not just a small subset of people throwing off the average.
Great to see KPCB raising another round for green investment. It shows that despite a softening economy, people believe that green is still a good investment. It is probably a good bet since the political climate at the federal level will likely change dramtically in t-minus nine months. Maybe Kleiner's celebrity fund raiser, Al Gore, will play a role in changing that political climate?
Why is this important? Because it feeds the marketing and lobbying coffers of green companies, allowing them to better compete with traditional industries trying to slow green adoption.
When posting on a blog it is sometimes easy to overthink your topic and gloss over some of the really simple topics that are incredibly critical. This dawned on me when reading a post by John Gartner at MarketingShift.
This is a critically important point for a couple of reasons:
1) We have reach the second stage in green hype. The first stage was the embracing of Green by hype watchers as the next big thing in business and lifestyle. The second is an age of backlash and skepticism driven by fear that it willbe adopted, along with generalpushback by media and others who will say that adoption is not nearly matching the Stage-One hype. A lot of the media out there right now is focused on the inefficiency of solar, the negative impact of biofuels and freak windfarm fires. This makes it a prime period of time for green washers to get destroyed by media and the general public. Hence, why John's "genuine" statement is important.
2) People sometimes overlook that communications and marketing can come across as condescening. Look at the presidential campaign. You have the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barrack Obama trying to spin every little piece of information or data their way, to the point that it sometimes gets insulting to the viewer. An Editorial in the NY Times this week accused them of thinking the American people are a bunch of "rubes."
This is how I feel sometimes about green marketing--that is so superficial and transparent, it does more harm than good. So the simple message is: Be genuine and don't condescend. If you have to fool someone or oversell your greenness, it won't appear green to your audience, it will be transparent.
We're often asked by clients if the biggest trade show of the year in their respective space is a good location to announce news. We usually answer their question with a question: "What is the goal of the announcement?"
We explain that if the goal is stand-alone media coverage, they might be better off using the event to pre-brief media and announce a couple of weeks later when the market has exhausted its news. If the goal is to drive business development activities, announcing what they are doing at the show to give sales and bizdev a press release to shop to customers and prospects might be the way to go.
The green/clean tech world is relatively immature when it comes to events. There are several that are vying to become the RSA, NRF, Mobile World Congress or JavaOne of their respective markets---such as Solar Power and GreenXChange Expo--but for the most part there is not yet that one event that makes green marketers exhaust their news arsenal.
But unlike security, open source, application development, retail technology and wireless, green does have a landmark "event" that brings every marketer out of the woodwork with a news announcement: Earth Day. I performed a highly scientific research project (40-second searching of Google News by source) and found about 500 commercial press releases from the past 24 hours that mention Earth Day.
My favorite? Purex announced that Jaime Pressly has become its spokesperson for the company's green campaign. I can just see Joy, Randy, Earl and Crabman doing what they can to stop global warming on My Name is Earl.
But the point is that Earth Day may have officially become the noisiest day in the Green world. The question for marketers then becomes: "Should you announce signidicant news on Earth Day?"
I think the answer would be a resounding "No." Earth Day is much too noisy, especially when you also factor in this year's Presidential campaign, earnings season and just about every other news event that could drown out a momentum announcement, new corporate green initiative or donations to a green charity.
My advice? Avoid Earth Day like the plague and don't contribute to the noise being created by marketers in every sector from detergents to light bulbs. Better yet, follow the advice of my eight-year old daughter who said, "Let's shut everything off today that uses electricity, including the Wii, Webkinz, the TV and the toaster."
Generation Green speaks. Shut off your computer, take the day off and celebrate Earth Day away from the noise.
According to a recent survey from IDC, we have seen an inflection point with regards to the adoption of Green IT. According to the firm, more than half of all IT buyers now consider "greenness" as part of the buying criteria. The number one driver in green purchasing decisions is economic revolving around operational costs. As energy prices continue to go higher, there is little chance that this trend will stop anytime soon.
What does this mean? It means even more hardware marketers will tout the greenness of their products through PR and advertising. It means that companies that reduce storage and other infrastructure requirements (SaaS) will continue to point to the indirect costs those products save customers. Bottom line? Green IT is here to stay.
The public will for change exists. The research supports it. The economics are getting there. So what's the problem? Some of the same problems that have stifled green adoption for the past several decades. In the specific cases below? Politics and Detroit.
Word from both Chris Morrison of VentureBeat and Craig Rubens of Earth2Tech that the City Supervisor in San Francisco has stalled a plan that would have provided $6 million in consumer solar rebates to residents that implement solar electric systems. His concern? That only the wealthy will be able to take advantage.
I know housing prices in the city have come down a bit, but aren't most property owners in San Francisco considered wealthy anyway? Aren't there also programs and special financing in place for solar installations for affordable housing projects? I know that solar on affordable housing is one of the areas where Schwartz client Borrego Solar specializes, so I suspect the answer is "yes." I think it is time that politicians get creative and invest more in green rebates and tax credits, rather than focusing solely on which is the best approach, taking credit and further delaying something that is sorely needed.
I really think the best analogy for some of the inane debates taking place in the cleantech and renewable energy world are analagous to firemen watching a house burn down while they argue over whether it is most effective to use foam, water or sand, and which qualifies as a truly efficient fire-fighting tool. I hate to disagree with the great Billy Joel, but we did start the fire and we are continuing to feed it.
Last week saw the release of a report predicting that solar would see a serious speedbump in 2010, as the current shortage of polysilicon eases and solar cells flood the market. The report predicts difficulty for both thin-film players and the chrystalline silicon makers that depend on polysilicon as a key ingredient in their products. For green marketers in solar, this could mean that the window of opportunity is much smaller than previously thought.
This report looks at the supply side of the equation and sees doom for manufacture profits and gloom for their investors. I wonder, however, how much the report thoroughly investigated the demand side of the equation. There are a number of things that should increase solar demand in the coming years and may partially or substantially offset any increase in supply:
Improved storage capacity--one of the biggest technology bottlenecks to the adoption of all renewals has been battery and storage efficiency. That said, millions are being invested in battery companies right now, including A123, Lion Cells and Seeo, which will help in terms of power storage in applications like electric cars, solar and wind. If the storage gets better, then the demand and ROI will go up significantly.
Speaking of electric cars--one of the biggest contradictions in my mind is the use of an electric car charged on coal-generated electricity. What's the answer? Charging it with renewables. The use of solar combined with good battery technology and electric cars just makes too much sense. It also doesn't require substantial infrastructure overhauls like changing the types and locations of fueling stations. A solar implementation on a house, office building or even carports, would be a huge advantage.
Government support--next January will definitely see a change in the political climate for solar and other renewables. All three major presidential candidates have stated that they believe in renewable sources of energy and will commit more investment in areas like solar. This includes direct investment in R&D and other areas, but also better federal tax incentives and rebates. These rebates will allow solar companies to protect some of their margins as the supply of solar increases.
There is no doubt that solar is riding high right now because of the perfect storm of high demand, low supply and large sums of investment. It also makes sense that the market wil mature eventually and it will be a bit more commoditized. But to predict it is going to get there in two years is a bit silly IMHO, since we have just begun to scratch the surface of building integrated photovoltaics and other solar applications beyond the panels you see today.
-Word is that geothermal is getting investor attention and beginning to take off. This is very interesting because the government is also boosting its investment in geothermal in the FY 2009 budget. Others getting a boost? Solar PV, Wind and Biomass. The news is not quite as good for tidal energy.
Finally, a cool round-up of money-saving, green gadgets on CNET.
So I am going to have to report back on how WIREC day two went in a future post as our meetings today took us to locations off site, but still some interesting tidbits I didn't get to yesterday:
-One business development executive at a solar concentrator company said that he got in "very early" on sponsoring and exhibiting at WIREC, giving him a large booth size and prime location alongside the big boys (BP, Chevron, etc). If you are a green marketer with a gambler's mentality, there is definite risk and reward to taking this approach. He saw enormous reward as they were front and center to anyone entering the expo. A solid relationship with ACORE also helps.
-On which shows should you gamble if any? The best shows are obviously ones in which there are other local key audiences that can be leveraged in case the event is a bust. If you can schedule some local meetings/drop-bys off site, you can still end up with qualified prospects from the travel associated with an event. DC is a great location since there are a lot of companies with headquarters in the area, as well as a media and government-rich audience with whom you can network. The San Francisco Bay Area, Boston and New York are also good locations. Anything beyond those markets can be tough depending on your vertical focus.
-From a speaking perspective, it can be tough to justify the time and expense to present at an unproven event. Nothing is worse than having your executive speaking to a room of six unqualified attendees who don't ask questions. Therefore, while taking a chance on exhibiting costs can be prohibitive, so is the credit capital cost of sending your executive to an unknown conference.
-I met with an investment company (hybrid of an investment fund and a venture firm) that actually sees the renewable energy world very similarly to the way that green marketers and marketing/PR firms see the industry. Solar and wind are the most mature, with biofuels, hydro power and others a bit further off. That is not to say that companies in those markets cannot benefit from government relations, public affairs and PR, but those campaigns would be built around early mindshare, driving investment and and educating the market. Solar and wind tend to be the companies in a position to commpete on a product basis.
-WIREC was not very well attended from a media standpoint, but there was a young analyst firm exhibiting, Emerging Energy Research. It is interesting to see some of the boutique firms beginning to pop up offering advisory services to vendors of renewables and consulting services to commercial and government organizations. Who will be the Green Gartner?
-The most interesting item to come out of the WIREC show? How much government money there is that can be invested in renewable companies, but how few companies understand how to tap it. Government relations seems to be the great untapped market opportunity for a lot of renewable companies. It is money that requires no diluting of equity, no forfeiting of intellectual property rights and no decision as to whom you sell the product. If I were a VC concerned about becoming over invested in one of my portfolio clients, this would seem a like a great option since my equity stake and value would only be positively impacted by bringing on the government as an investor. With $152 million going into solar and $53 million (approximately) going into wind, GR seems like a great place to get a significant ROI.
Here endeth my WIREC visit. Off to Dulles to complain about the lack of midday direct options to the West Coast.
-While photovoltaic (PV) solar was the rage at Solar Power 2007, solar concentrators seem to be the most prevelant technology at WIREC. Sopogy, SkyFuel and Abengoa were a few of the concentrator companies exhibiting, albeit with slightly different strategies and target markets. Global Solar Energy was one of the major PV manufacturers present (*disclosure: GSE is a Schwartz client).
-Wind and solar are again the most dominant technologies on display in terms of commercially available products. Also well represented are biofuels, biomass and firms looking to service those companies (legal firms, government relations, etc.).
-Big kudos to ACORE for sponsoring a free lunch and again to the WIREC folks for having enough seating.
It'll be interesting to see if the traffic picks up a bit more tomorrow and to see what companies are saying regarding the ROI of exhibiting. There are obviously a lot of these events popping up around the country and abroad, and finite green marketing budgets need to know which events are worth the growing costs.
It's been a very busy week as I prep for a trip to WIREC in Washington D.C. The Washington International Renewable Energy Conference is a gathering of renewable and cleantech companies of all types. It just so happens that WIREC is taking place just as the wind lobby gets together in Washington for a major push.
Everyone has seen solar and wind really take off over the past two years. What's next? Well, if you follow the money it could be biofuels. Mascoma got $50 million in funding. It will be interesting to see if 2008 is the year new fuels really start coming to market ... maybe 2009 will be the year we see the changes in infrastructure to support those fuels. In any event, the market is about to get noisy for you biofuels marketers.
But let's be honest ... the markets of all renewables will explode in the next year as we have the perfect storm of increasing demand, huge rounds of financing and an anticipated change in the political climate for renewables.
I'll be sure to report some of the interestings things I see and learn at WIREC. For those attending the event, safe travels.
This past week was interesting, highlighted by a study, a survey and a political plea.
First, an interesting survey was released this week that said that green features are finally delivering in terms of home sales by adding a $9,000 premium to the sale price. This gives consumers yet another way to recoup the up-front costs of installing a solar, wind or other renewable system. This is undoubtedly great news for green marketers. This type of data can help overcome some of the concerns about ROI, especially in a market where home values are dropping. Now we just need the home appraisers and banks to catch on.
Second, a controversial study released from UC Berkeley that basically lables solar a waste of money from a residential perspective. It says that the cost of installing a solar system makes is too expensive when compared to its benefits. There are some things, however, that the study seems to have overlooked. Not all states allow consumers to sell energy back to the grid (net metering) or go negative on their energy bill. If that happened, it would certainly help in terms of offsetting the cost of the system. It also ignored the survey that showed the impact of green on the price of a home. For green marketers, this is not the type of study you want to see when it seems the market is taking off. The research did take a very narrow view, but we will likely see more of this and not less in 2008 and beyond.
Finally, a plea from the governors of coal-producing states that clean coal not be forgotten as part of the renewable-energy agenda. This is critical to states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other large, coal-producing states. It will be interesting to see where this goes. Many have called "clean coal" a farce, based on technology that hasn't even been developed yet. There are also serious concerns about the way in which coal is harvested, including strip mining and other environmentally unfriendly means. Is clean coal real or a dream? We'll see in the years to come, but we should see a lot more noise about it given the number of state economies that depend on it.
-Also on E2T, PG&E said that their latest geothermal contract will allow them to meet the 20 percent threshhold set by the state for electricity from renewables. This is important because one of the stock objections from utilities has been that cleantech hasn't advanced to the point where it is economically possible to generate large percentages from renewable sources. Green marketers now have an example to give when that objection is made by legislators and other key audiences.
-And finally, as I posted about earlier last week, the House is finally pushing a bill that would extend the renewable tax credits and rebates that are so critical to consumer and business adoption. This would help sustain the market has seen over the past several years.
This is huge news as the credits help offset the cost of implementing solar, wind and other renewable technologies. The more quickly economic incentives increase, the quicker we will be out of early adopter phase in the market. This will help cleantechs grow more quickly and result in better education of the marketplace. It also will help encourage continued investment in renewables by VCs and Wall Street, which will help preserve the marketing budgets of cleantech companies.
As mentioned in previous posts, federal incentives make the most sense because they encourage nationwide adoption. The states and municipalities can still add on top, but the move to cleantech should be a national effort. There are some holes in the legislation as pointed out by Rubens, but overall it is a great step in supporting continued market growth.
These regions are right to do what they can to advance the use of renewable technologies, but long term something needs to be done nationally. People who do their part to reduce their carbon emissions and reduce the strain on the power grid should get some sort of universal credit or break. You could have one neighbor receive thousands in incentives and tax breaks, while the other gets little incentive to install a renewable energy system. This is wrong.
It is analogous to two households with an adjusted gross income of $60,000 getting dramatically different tax rebates as part of the economic stimulus plan just passed. Cities and states should continue to do what they can to advance the use of renewables while the federal government sits in gridlock. But long term, Washington needs to do something aggressive that improves upon and superscedes local incentives.
It is unlikely that the political environment will change until January of 2009. In the meantime, marketers will have to continue to target areas where tax breaks and incentives make adoption more likely. National campaigns certainly don't hurt in terms of education and awareness, or in priming the pump if the federal climate does change, but direct lead generation is more likely to happen in localities. Some may even invest most of their marketing dollars in Europe where Germany, Spain, the UK and others continue to adopt renewable plans at a furious pace.
So why did we wait? Well, clients always ask us when they should announce a new product or service offering. Our response is usually, "If PR is the only driver of the announcement date, we should wait until you have a compelling story around the product or service, including customers that support the fact that what you are bringing to market is truly differentiated."
The news is not that we are entering the Green PR world. It is that we have a differentiated services offering, including aggressive media and government relations, that is already helping our cleantech clients achieve their business goals. The news is that we are taking what is our single biggest core competency--helping emerging growth companies facing heavily entrenched, better-funded competition level the playing field through PR--and applying it to a market that needs it more than perhaps any other technology market in history.
Renewable energy companies face significant challenges, many of which I have blogged about the past. They face one of the largest and most entrenched industries in the world in the form of traditional energy (oil, gas, coal, etc), as well as the marketing and lobbying arms of numerous industries that don't like being regulated (auto, utility, manufacturing).
They also face very steep, well-funded competition within their own markets now that VCs around the world are sinking eight and nine-figure rounds into companies in solar, wind, fuel cells and biofuels. They also face large corporations in other markets who have begun developing and acquiring their way into renewable energy.
Bottom line: This is the ultimate David versus Goliath story and a story in which we are relishing the opportunity to play a part. We now have officially been cast in a role and are packing a pretty big slingshot.
Great story today in the NY Times by John Markoff and Matt Richtel about how California is leading the solar charge, with massive amounts of investment, subsidies and jobs being created as a result. There was also news today of Applied Materials making a large acquisition of an Italian solar company for $334 million dollars.
These two stories are both great news for emerging-growth solar companies. They both support the position that solar technology is not an energy-crisis fad, but a long-term viable market. The Applied Materials deal will continue to send the message to investors that there are lucrative equity events waiting for them in renewable energy. It also may signal to Applied competitors that they need to be more active in investigating the market. As I've mentioned before, the market needs some big fish to bring their marketing budgets, lobbying arms and workforces to market to educate key audiences renewables and move the industry forward.
This is a trend that is not going away anytime soon.
The practice of Greenwashing has made lots of news lately, as some companies overstate their commitment to green practices and the FTC threatens to investigate. I'd like to think it's a case of marketers not being fed accurate information versus marketing and PR intentionally trying to mislead the public, but until some internal memos make their way public, we'll likely never know.
I've been seeing a lot of General Motors ads recently pushing that company's commitment to green technologies, from greater fuel economy to hybrids, from biofuels to electric. Most will say that history should dictate a great deal of skepticism with regards to how committed GM actually is to greening their product line, pointing to the short-lived infatuation with compact cars among U.S. automakers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
That said, the economic, ecological, geopolitical and social benefits of going green have never been better publicized, and I think the growth of Toyota and Honda have slapped U.S. automakers with a dose of harsh reality.
I am cautiously optimistic that what GM's CEO says in this CNET interview is true and that American auto manufacturers are committed to creating products that deliver the aforementioned benefits. Let's hope this is not a case of the largest U.S. auto company greenwashing the public in hopes that the market will again eventually favor the gas-guzzling behemoths that dominated the market over the past decade. Unfortunately, some suspect this is the case and will likely not believe Detroit can be green until they drive the proof.
Greenwashing is a foolish practice if done intentionally. It is analogous to a company claiming to have great data security only to find out later that the company was lax and suffered a breach. The PR damage of being accused and/or found of greenwashing is much worse than the likely benefits of making false claims about practices. It betrays the number one rule of marketing and PR: tell the truth.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of companies out there likely partaking in greenwashing, meaning we will likely see more of it in 2008 than ever before.
I saw a great profile on CBS News regarding some engineers who took a traditional hybrid car and equipped it with additional battery power and a plug-in power source. It turns out that when you drive the car fully charged, it doesn't have to have to use the gasoline engine for the first 40 miles--highway or city! This means that the majority of Americans (81 percent according to the report) likely wouldn't have to use gas at all, provided there was a way to charge the car at work or at a transit station. This includes me, as I commute a grand total of seven miles everyday to BART and back.
This raises a few different points (some marketing-related and some not):
- Sooner or later, the laggards in the auto industry will not be able to discount the advances being made in clean-car technology. They will be committing marketing and sales suicide if they don't start embracing the move toward ecologically friendly options. As I stated in a previous post, the green halo is only going to get brighter with all of the environmental education happening at primary and secondary school levels.
- Will the adoption of electric cars and vehicles that do little harm to the environment damage the move to mass transit systems? If people aren't doing damage to the environment and their fuel costs are next to nothing, what will make them (other than a long commute) want to carpool or take public transportation? Marketers of mass transit will eventually have to start doing more to differentiate their service if the economic and environmental reasons aren't compelling. Food and beverage service, satellite TV and radio at your seat? I'd be sold.
Battery technology has to improve dramatically (not an epiphany, well publicized).
The electricity charging the car has to come from renewable sources. This could include a solar array at a home, business or parking structure, or the embracing of renewable sources by utilities, such as that produced by solar or wind farms. Charging a car with juice from coal-based energy is not a very clean option.
The horsepower generated in an electric car has to increase or those V-6 and eight-cylinder-loving Americans won't give the electric option a single sniff. Many have joked about the American dependency on heavy, high-powered automobiles. The only thing that has become more obese than our populace are the cars we drive.
Two guys in a garage became a euphemism for the technology entrepreneurs of the dot-com bubble. It seems that those two guys have gone back to inventing what the garage was meant to house--new, greener breeds of cars.
While I don't excuse the federal government for failing to advance renewable energy research, adoption and strategies, it may not be a bad thing that states have taken the lead. After all, we are talking about the country with the fourth largest land area in the world. A country so vast that it doesn't make sense to say "we are going to be first in X, because it is the best option for the entire country."
Truth is, the only thing that the U.S. should eventually become first in is consumption of renewable energy. It should serve as a melting pot of renewable energy, as it has served as a melting pot of cultures for hundreds of years.
Reports have begun trickling in regarding the level of green investment during 2007 and they are impressive. VCs continue to see green as a major investment vehicle for their funds, especially in light of the high-flying performance of thin-film provider First Solar. Green tech companies took home $3.4 billion in 2007 and some estimates have placed that figure in excess of $4 billion. In any event, green is getting greener.
What does it mean for marketers? Well, there is good news and bad news.
First the bad news: If you think things are noisy now, you ain't seen nothing yet. More investment means more marketing dollars spent on advertising, PR and other awareness campaigns by your competitors. It means that the market is going to become even more competitive. It means that start-up companies may have enough cash to do in two years what took you three or four. Not to mention some of the massive rounds from 2006 and 2007 went to companies building out R&D and manufacturing, so some of those companies haven't even started marketing yet.
The good news? It means that other companies will be helping to advance renewable energy technologies in the mainstream consciousness with legislators, consumers and corporations. It means more money in the coffers of the renewable energy market to educate key audiences and battle the fear, uncertainty and doubt put forth by lobbyists, critics and some traditional energy companies. Anyone who has spent any time in marketing knows that trying to create a market or raise its visibility is tough to do without a budget that is in the millions of dollars. It can be done, but it helps to have others pulling the cart with you.
The increased investment and competition may also allow marketers to make the case for more budget in 2008 and 2009. Nothing riles a management team or board of directors more than a less mature competitor getting more attention from media, buyers and investors.
A colleague and I got to attend a great event on Thursday. It was the unveiling of a new solar PV system at the Head-Royce School in Oakland. The event involved a full school assembly (all students K-12, teachers and administrators) to debut the new system and featured presentations from the head of the school, a prominent Cal Berkeley professor in the school's Energy and Resource Group, and the president of Borrego Solar, the designer and installer of the system (DISCLAIMER: Borrego is a Schwartz client).
The array on the gymnasium roof, where the ceremony was held, was amazing. Dr. Dan Kamman, the Berkeley professor and a Head-Royce parent, was very passionate and informative. The most amazing thing, however, was the level of involvement of students in the project. The school had formed a "green council" involving kids of all ages that helped consult and plan the project, as well as other initiatives at the school.
A fifth-grade girl and an eighth-grade boy, both members of the Green Council, delivered speeches covering the various green initiatives taking place at the school (e.g., composting, an edible garden, recycling), as well as a history lesson on solar connectors and solar PV systems. The hundreds of students were attentive and clearly understood the significance of the ceremony and took a tremendous amount of pride from their efforts.
Everyday, we hear about new and exciting programs around the country, aimed at making students more aware of environmental challenges and issues, and encouraging them to get involved. I got the sense sitting there listening to the students and hearing about the various initiatives at Head-Royce, that a new "Green" generation was taking shape. It is clear that while there may be occasional, short-term setbacks in the move toward renewable energy, long-term success will be ensured by the education and activism of the next generation walking the halls of primary and secondary schools around the country.
What does this mean for technology companies and marketers? It means that the green halo is not going to go away anytime soon. It means that a new generation of consumers will look at the environmental impact of the choices they make and will make minimizing that impact a key purchasing decision.
I've been asked by several folks which green blogs I read on a regular basis. I can honestly say that my home page when I open up Firefox is Earth2Tech. It's part of a GigaOM network and tends to focus on the technology behind the renewable energy movement. It also provides some great round ups of what is happening in renewable energy markets and on other blogs within the Green universe.
Without further ado, here are some of the other Green blogs on my blogroll:
gristmill--provides great discussions around different topics of the day and closely scrutinizes what is happening at a public policy level in the world of green.
Green Wombat--Todd Woody does a good job blending environmental and technology news on a regular basis as part of the B2 network.
Treehugger--The name speaks for itself, rounding up the best in environmental news.
VentureBeat--True it is not a green blog, but is a great place to see where the funding is going.
- I wish that all sales professionals would recognize PR as trying to help support brand awareness, lead generation and company valuation, and not view them as competition for budget or unnecessary annoyances for their customers
- I wish that public companies would realize that non-material press releases are not an effective way to manage the stock price (especially in an increasingly new-media driven world), but are in fact an exorbitant cost that takes budget and resources away from higher-impact PR activities
- I wish that print advertising would stabilize, because let's face it--there are just some places you can't take a computer to read news and other content
-I wish that publications could expand their staffs so that journalists would have the time to do more in-depth reporting, versus having to constantly spit out news briefs and blog posts
- I wish that clear-cut winners would emerge in the vertical blogosphere so that audiences would not be so fragmented
- I wish that the renewable energy market would continue to grow bringing more technologies to market and radically changing the energy economy
This weekend, my wife and I were getting ready to watch a movie when I saw The American President on TNT or TBS (is there a difference?). This is the one where Michael Douglas plays a widower, single father and a first-term president. He meets and begins dating a lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) from a environmental group. The climax of the movie is a press conference where Douglas says that he is going to send aggressive gun control and climate legislation to Congress--two separate pieces of legislation that he was using as bargaining chips--while ignoring any negotiating he has already done with House and Senate members on the bills. The global warming bill he supports is a 20% reduction of green house gases by a certain date.
Now, I've seen the movie a dozen times (sadly) and it remains one of those guilty pleasure, Saturday afternoon movies that I will likely watch again (it has Michael J Fox, Richard Dreyfus and Martin Sheen as well...great cast). However, something struck me this time when watching it.
I knew that the environmental legislation pushed by Bening's character was a central plot component, but what struck me was that this was a topic for a movie released in 1995. That is 12 years ago now, going on 13. This amazed me because I would never have guessed that climate change has been a mainstream topic for that long. Maybe it is because I thought the debate was still centered on the ozone layer then or because gas was under $2 per gallon. In any case, I was shocked. Yet, it still seems as though we are only now scratching the surface of coming legislation, technology, etc.
What it also made me realize is that David Roberts of Gristmill is right: the world will be a much different place in 2020 when we are nearing the first date in many carbon emission-related bills currently under discussion.
Consider that in 1995Bill Clinton was a first-term president. Solar was a niche industry with little VC or private equity investment and certainly no $200 million rounds. The Dow hit 5,000 for the first time. Yahoo! was founded. Biofuels, fuel cells and ethanol weren't part of the everyday lexicon. CFL stood for Canadian Football League, not a type of light bulb. There was no Internet bubble or tech recession.
Amazing, no? Given the amount of investment in and marketing noise around renewable energy today, I am willing to bet that things will advance a bit more quickly over the next 13 years, with or without Michael Douglas leading the charge.
Other key parts of the legislation include the extension and an increase in solar tax credits for consumers and businesses (opposed by the White House), repeal of oil industry tax breaks (opposed by the White House) and a requirement for 15 percent of all energy to come from renewable sources (opposed by utilities). The Senate will take up the legislation this week. There has already been talk that the bill may get broken up in order to get certain elements passed.
I've mentioned before that the next 12 months are likely critical for the renewable energy industry. Billions in investment have flowed into solar, wind, biofuels and other technologies with the expectation that government mandates will continue to generate and even accelerate demand for renewable sources.
Do I think there is a scenario by which the entire industry stalls as a result of an unfriendly political climate? Not unless oil falls to $20 a barrel, gas to $.99 a gallon and a report comes out saying that trees are causing climate change and not carbon emissions. In other words, no shot. More likely is that individual states will lead the charge on legislation and it will just take a bit longer for renewable energy technology companies to see the rapid growth in terms of revenue and investment that many expect to see over the next decade.
Just as everything is cooling down for the holidays, the renewable energy debates in Washington are heating up.
Lost in all of the Holiday Shopping, Nintendo Wii, Presidential Race, family-visiting hoopla that is that the past few weeks have brought news that clarifies a couple of long-standing green debates.
Debate #1 -- Are humans having a significant impact on climate change? Up until mid-November some would say yes and others would try to point to the cyclical nature of the Earth in terms of warming and cooling. Well, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reporteffectively ends the debate.
The PR impact for green companies: This is a huge PR win for anyone marketing a green initiative, as it will continue to move public opinion toward the conclusion that further green research, investment and adoption is needed. That's not to say that I believe that the findings of the report will cause an immediate spring to action and this post from Earth2Tech proves I am not alone. In any event, surveys and statistics are invaluable in PR and renewable energy and green companies have new report data to help hammer home their point in communications.
Debate #2 -- What is the driving reason behind companies adopting green practices? Marketing spin? Idealism? ROI? As long as they are real, does it matter? Up until recently, many would have said green initiatives were marketing ploys as environmental considerations become a primary purchasing decision for more and more consumers. Today? More and more organizations are coming out and discussing the ROI of going green, with solar being being one of the major beneficiaries. HP recently announced a 1- megawatt array in San Diego that will save the company $750,000 over 15 years. The company also announced that it would match rebates from their solar provider for employees that want to purchase panels for home use.
PR Impact: The long-time knock and FUD on green technologies, such as solar, is that the payoff takes much too long. Well, that payoff time is shortening thanks to advances in technology. Plus, if government incentives increase to levels close to those found in some European countries, the ROI will become the dominant reason for many many businesses making changes. HP and Google are still exceptions, but if there are economic incentives on top of ecological and marketing benefits, they will soon become the rule.
The good: Google is bringing oodles of money to markets that desperately need the attention, the funding and the lobbying might that a brand name company can bring. As I have mentioned in the past, First Solar is shaping up to be one of the first green market heavyweights solely focused on a green agenda, but Google's vast resources can only help.
The bad: Google is bringing oodles of money to the market which means increased competition and a boost to any of their "portfolio" companies or ventures that get the Google label.
Conclusion: I think this is a great thing for the market at large. While competition will surely get stiffer, the industry is at the point where they need a few heavy hitters leading the charge in the media and with governmental bodies.
The good: Again, it will help give cash to markets that need to funding to develop new technologies, improve existing ones and market at a level on par with traditional approaches.
The bad: I blogged earlier about the potential of a green bubble. It is not a good sign when National Venture Capital Association is commenting on that possibility as well. This is also bad news for all of those long-standing companies in the green market that have grown organically and don't want to take VC investment. For those folks, the competition is getting louder.
Conclusion: This is a good thing for the market as a whole, but will be bad news for companies that have grown to market leadership positions through conservative marketing and organic growth and wanted to continue down that path.
The good: Any improvement in fuel economy is a good one, although people will say that 35 MPG by 2020 is not aggressive enough.
The bad: The removal of the utilities measure will slow the pace at which they will develop and adopt renewable sources. This type of legislation will likely land in the laps of the states in coming years. California has already passed a similar requirement, which PG&E says it supports in theory but is unattainable and unpractical. Let that debate rage into 2008.
Conclusion: The utilities measure is disturbing for solar, wind and other companies that are setting up energy farms and plants with plans to sell the energy to major utilities. Government legislation or industry mandates usually means a boon for some private industry, such as PCI compliance and SOX compliance in financial IT/information security, so any such measure would likely have accelerated R&D and investment in these technologies. The news is good for ethanol-based fuels supporters and other renewable options for automobiles.
My final conclusion? The marketing hype around Cyber-Monday will eventually overtake Green Monday as the most popular online shopping day of the year.
Many clients turn to us when they are about to engage with their first analyst firm and ask for recommendations. The questions we in turn ask: "What are you looking for from your firm? Market sizing data for the next round of funding? Lead generation? Feedback on messaging and market strategy?"
Most of the discussion heads down that path about which firm is the perfect fit based on focus, cost, support and what the competition is doing. Is it Gartner? IDC? Burton?
Unfortunately, this where the client vetting process often stops. Companies often assume that all analysts at a firm are the same and that they, the client, will get the same level of service, expertise and support from every analyst at that firm. This is a bad, bad assumption.
Most of the time when we meet with a prospective client, they request a follow-up meeting with the entire proposed team. Why? Because most savvy marketing people realize that a firm's reputation is important, but that in a services business it is all of the people doing work on the team that matter. That is why repeatability is the single most important element in a successful services business. The comfort of knowing that whenever you go to that restaurant or hotel, fly that airline or work with that law firm, that you can expect a close facsimile of good service that you have experienced in the past.
This extends to analyst firms. The best analyst firms have a repeatable service model and have built a solid reputation by servicing a large percentage of their clients well. That said, I am sure that every company has worked with an analyst in the past who didn't meet the standard of the firm's reputation. This is not an indictment of big firms or brand-name firms, but of poor analysts at any size firm. So what do you do?
Every company should ask their PR firm to arrange a briefing request with the analyst that covers their space. During that initial conversation, the company should actually interview the analyst about their professional experience, past coverage areas, planned research for the coming year, how they support their clients and what they consider to be a successful analyst firm/client relationship. During the conversation or (preferably) in-person meeting, they should also get a feel for the personality and work style of the analyst. Is this someone who will be open to our view of the market? That's important. Are they willing to challenge our views at the risk of offending a prospective client? Even more important. "Yes man" analysts lose their credibility quick and with it, any return you may have gotten from that relationship.
At the end of the day, you have to be confident that you will get a return on investment from that relationship because you work hard to get that budget. The firm name and reputation are important, but a dead weight analyst is dead weight no matter which firm they work for and it can seriously impact ROI.
Bottom line? Find what you want in an analyst and then focus on the firm. Weigh firm name and influence as one of many factors in the decision.
Solar is an interesting market. On one hand it is the most mature of the renewable energy markets, with commercially available product and in-production technologies. On the other, it is very immature from the standpoint of market dynamics, public relations and its ability to influence regulations. Most interestingly, there still exists an "us against the world mentality" that leads some competitors to cooperate on initiatives to help move the industry forward.
With that coopetition concept in mind, the performance of First Solar as a stock and as a company is great news for the industry. It is bringing attention to the Solar market as one that is booming and ready to be taken seriously from a financial and technological perspective. It also gives the industry a heavyweight whose only focus will be advancing the use of solar technology, versus the large number of companies that have a solar arm with other interests mixed in. Most importantly, as more and more renewable energy companies grow and build war chests from IPOs and growing revenue, the industry's marketing, PR and political lobby will dramatically improve, more effectively battling the FUD pushed by old industries and raising public awareness around emerging legislation.
I know it is tough for companies in the trenches of competing with First Solar in deals or for attention to see a silver lining in another company doing well, but competition is not always a bad thing in emerging growth markets. Oh, and as a disclaimer, I do not represent First Solar and I don't own any of its high-flying stock. If anyone wants to split a share with me, let me know but not until after the holidays...
As I drive around the Bay Area, I see numerous signs that the world is moving more green. From the solar panels on a local Target to the wind farms in the far East Bay, it is apparent that the green movement has picked up a lot of steam. That said, there are plenty of signs that we ain't seen nothing yet.
That said, it is a bit daunting. Every day, we hear about new and amazing advances that if brought to market, threaten to change the economics and ecologic impact of traditional markets. But in many markets most experts say only one or two approaches will ultimately win out. Are we setting ourselves up for Bubble 2.0? Not necessarily.
I think most VCs and investors learned a lesson from Bubble 1.0 (as did PR firms), in that it takes more than demo ware and a well-written business plan to make it in the post-bubble world. Bubble 2.0 will likely look more like a traditional maturation of markets signified by consolidation and reduced margins once some of the innovations go mainstream and see increasing amounts of competition. Other advances may be less viable commercial and go under altogether, but the green momentum will continue.
In the meantime, get ready for an even bigger flood of green marketing noise. Outside of solar and wind, a lot of the investment is going into R&D and manufacturing capacity, so the marketing phase that typically follows widespread venture investment is in its infancy.
It used to puzzle me that periodically the crisis communications part of the job would hit a furious pace around the same time every year. It seemed every few months or so, we would learn of a TV news segment that would question the viability of a technology or cite warnings around the safety of a product. Thankfully, in markets like security, our largest technology practice group, sensationalist, "sky is falling" stories tend to focus on the need for security and not shortcomings of the products.
That aside, I finally put two and two together recently and realized that there is a major driver of crisis communications during these periods. It is commonly known as "Sweeps" and it is the time every year when newscasts jockey for top billing in the Nielsen Ratings System. What does that mean? It means that real news stories about events that are actually happening get replaced by stories about the "Deadly threat of tape dispensers, what you and your family should know and what Scotch is not telling you!"
What is the recipe for a Sweeps month newscast? Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, combined with a dash of sensationalism, a tablespoon of alarmist and a cup of fatalism. Chances are the products covered in Sweeps newscasts pose no new threat or it takes a perfect storm of circumstances for them to pose any danger, but it makes for great TV.
How should companies approach these segments? It depends. Most times you won't be asked for commentary because they are angles that are easy to refute. Journalists are often looking for alarmist sources, not voices of reason. The best thing to do is to have a comment ready for incoming requests from other media outlets and something to offer alarmed customers in the event you get incoming calls. Only in the rarest of circumstances is a company statement or release warranted, which tends to validate story angles as much as refute them.
Of course the most important thing, in any crisis, is to tell the truth. If the story angle is accurate and requires a comment, the most basic recommendation any PR practitioner will provide is to comment in a way that is truthful and gives an accurate impression that the company or industry as a whole is working on the problem.
Sweeps starts November 1. Let the "world is ending" segments begin.
Interesting article recapping Gartner's Top 10 strategic technologies of 2008 by Jon Brodkin of Network World. Maybe the most interesting aspect is Green IT taking the first overall spot in the list.
There has been a lot of talk about Green IT over the past 18 months, especially in terms of data center technologies. The data center has traditionally been a huge consumer of electricity, making it an ideal candidate to get a green face lift. Some companies have taken an early lead in touting the energy-saving attributes of their hardware and appliances (Rackable Systems being one), making it a one-two message punch of cost savings and being more environmentally friendly. This may be the most effective way to communicate the green impact of a technology, but it gives a buyer a business case to make the purchase, since getting more green will not always pass muster with a CFO or CIO signing on a purchase order.
It also means that a tipping point has been reached in the market. Some companies used to be afraid to market products with environmental messages because it crossed the taboo business/politics line. Now, however, marketers at both vendors and end-user organizations have realized that there is tangible marketing and brand value to saying that a company is going more green in their practices.
The next 12 months will be interesting in the PR world as we see more and more companies pushing the green aspects of their products and the resulting installations at customer sites. Would anyone be surprised if "we're more green than them" becomes one of the top differentiating messages among competing companies in 2008? I wouldn't.
This year's Solar Power 2007 conference was booming, with a huge crowd navigating two relatively small conference floor areas. The booths were small and tightly packed, which also meant that novices looking to see the latest innovations in solar power didn't have to walk far to be amazed.
The Solar Power event is very interesting, because you see products targeted at distributors and OEMs, which are clearly not built for general consumer consumption. But you also see the latest in solar panel design with aesthetics clearly in mind for the discerning home or business owner. It is like Embedded Systems Conference meets E3 in the tech world.
Of all of the alternative-energy markets, solar is probably the farthest along in terms of companies with viable, tested commercial products and a ready-made market to consume them. What many of the companies don't realize is that they need to "prime the pump" to build awareness for their technology and combat the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that is hurting the market. A Gristmill guest poster thinks the media is a problem, but the right kind media can help battle the FUD. It may only be a matter of time before we look back at this period and marvel at how many naysayers and steeply funded interests created a doubt in the minds of the general public and legislators, delaying a sorely needed change in energy technology and usage.
Overall, I am sure it turned out to be a great event for many of the vendors with an enormous amount of foot traffic and buzz. In my scientific yet informal poll of eight vendors, 100% responded that the show had been good for lead generation, despite an overall feeling that it would be a vendor-hug fest like RSA is in security. I can't speak for how many people here are "qualified" prospects from a solar product and technology perspective (myself included), but this industry needed a flagship event to generate broad awareness of how far the technology has come.
The only negative on the first day of the event is that they were clearly not ready for a crowd of this size. It reminds me of when I went to one of the first inter-league games in Montreal when the Red Sox were playing the Expos. It was the second largest crowd after opening day, and they didn't have enough concession stands open. Even worse, those concession stands that were open ran out of beer, hot dogs, popcorn and virtually everything else they offered.
At SP 2007, the parking situation was horrible for those that rented cars or were local, with most having to park in a far-flung garage. Worse, they didn't have signs or conference personnel telling folks how to get to the conference center where the event was being held. Finally, they only had a single badge pick-up kiosk open for those that pre-registered for the expo only and only two for those that were full conference. My colleague and I were unfortunate enough to be expo only, leading to an hour and ten minute wait in line.
Next year the event moves to San Diego, where I am sure the conference planners will have learned their lessons. If not, I will have learned mine which is to take cabs to the event and get there early. They claim they will have three-times the space. IDG will also be having the GreenXchange Xpo a couple of weeks earlier in LA, which could cannibalize some of the traffic from Solar, but we'll see.
I did not see a lot of media at the event, but sample publication handouts were rampant and CNET had a front-page section devoted to SP 2007 on News.com. My guess is that we are one year away from this becoming a major media event where PR will be a mainstay for most of the vendors, versus the small number that have devoted any budget to PR and marketing.