Behind the trend
Several forces have emerged in recent years that have been contributing to this trend. First off, venture capitalists have been shying away from investing in cleantech startups in areas like new types of solar panels, or biofuels. Many of the investors have yet to make their money back, due to the long timelines and large capital requirements needed for the companies to mature. It could also be that “righteous investing” gave them blinders to good investments.
With the lack of investments from VCs, startups are increasingly looking to corporations to help them with funding. And the companies that tend to be interested in investing in next-generation energy technologies, are — not surprisingly — the traditional energy companies. For example, natural gas provider Encana recently backed thermoelectric tech startup Alphabet Energy, Shell has been hunting for startups through its GameChanger program, and Total has made a variety of investments into cleantech companies over the years, including SunPower.
Meanwhile, the emergence of abundant and cheap natural gas has changed the energy game in the U.S. It’s providing traditional industry jobs to many states, and has been embraced by the Obama administration as a clean energy opportunity. There will be massive opportunities when it comes to selling next-generation technologies to natural gas firms and helping natural gas providers avoid environmental problems.
The growth of the renewable electricity sector will be tied to natural gas. Solar and wind generation can’t produce power around the clock, and utilities will have to match clean power with 24/7 energy like natural gas. Natural gas proponents have stepped up efforts to form alliances with renewable energy players, some of whom see the pairing as a practical approach to promote clean power generation.
Cleaning up fossil fuels
Energy executives “are all excited about the unconventional oil and gas in North America, and they know it will only take one or two environmental disasters for the game to be over,” said Wal van Lierop, co-founder and CEO of cleantech venture capital firm Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, when I caught up with him at the Cleantech Forum.
To gain public confidence, comply with regulations and, in some cases, reduce risks and production costs, oil and gas producers are hunting for technologies that clean up wastes, recycle water and boost production. And if any of these technologies can earn a low-carbon designation and help with public relations, then all the better. The Texas Tribune ran an interesting story this week that looked at oil companies attempts to recycle dirty water from oil production.