Cleantech is no new PC Industry

I wrote this last night, before the Solyndra Chapter 11 bomb dropped, which just reinforces the point: any industry that is reliant on “government push” rather than customer pull can hardly be considered the next PC industry.

In the last two days I read two posts equating clean energy products and industry to the early PC industry:

I have to disagree.  I’m not saying money can’t be made.  But while computers/software will march on and regularly produce billion-dollar companies like Facebook, Groupon, DropBox, etc. (computing is hardly “solved”), clean energy will be a tough, hard road.  A few missing buoying factors:
  1. Consumer demand.  What made PCs great was insatiable demand from consumers and companies for new capabilities at less cost.  Face it: electricity is too cheap for most people to care about it.  A recent New York Times story on green jobs noted the difficulty of getting consumers to care enough about home energy efficiency to spend federal stimulus money.  Corporate customers can make the investment, of course– that’s where LEDs and similar technologies will catch on first.  But when we liken things to the exciting PC revolution and Steve Jobs, we’re not talking about corporations doing 20-year ROIs.
  2. Enabling platform.  Electrons from a wind turbine or solar panel have no magical properties.  The Apple ][ opened an entirely new world for me and millions of others.  I don’t see my kids having a life-transforming moment when I buy LED lightbulbs.
  3. Technology and cost curve.  Every new technology that comes along tries to claim “Moore’s Law” type properties.  With fragmented energy technologies, that is clearly false.  No, having microprocessors in your smart meter doesn’t mean you will ride Moore’s Law.  The truth is very few technologies will have a curve like CMOS– and provide such an incredible platform for so many different components and applications.  I don’t see that in energy.
I also don’t buy into the fantasy that social networks, apps and gameification will be our salvation in energy.  That is a way VCs say they are out of money/scared of real energy projects.  There will be money made in clean tech, but it will be by damn hard, persistent manufacturing work— like the Chinese entrepreneurs who are winning in solar.  There’s no shortcut, and no rocket to jump onto like the 1980s PC industry.

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