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Back to School: Four Opportunities to Create Wealth at the Intersection of Climate Change and Clean Tech

Ron Pernick's picture

By now, students have headed back to school and workers have come back from their summer getaways. Which makes this a perfect time to look at emerging and established opportunities for both future grads and current workers at the intersection of climate change, clean tech, and wealth creation.

In all my years tracking clean energy, transportation, water, and materials, I’ve never seen a greater opportunity for people wanting to work within the sector and to find solutions to some of the biggest issues facing our planet. Major global corporations across many industries, as well as emerging clean-tech leaders like Tesla, Cree, and SolarCity, are doubling down on their clean-tech investments and initiatives. New investment vehicles including yieldcos, REITS, green bonds, and crowdfunding are opening up billions of dollars in new sources of project capital. And while not necessarily indicative of long-term trends, earlier this month nonprofit Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) announced that clean energy and clean transportation job opening announcements in the U.S. more than doubled from the first to second quarter of this year.

So where are the greatest areas of opportunity moving forward? Below are four areas that I believe offer some of the best opportunities at this point in the maturation of clean tech.

The 80% Renewables Grid

As highlighted in our 2014 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index, 11 states now get 10 percent or more of their electricity from renewables. This is up from just one state five years ago. Two states, Iowa and South Dakota, receive 26 percent or more of their electrons from renewables, primarily from wind power. In addition to states and regions, large corporations are pushing for greater amounts of renewables to power their operations. Dozens of brand-name companies, including Intel, Whole Foods, and Staples, are now 100 percent-powered by clean energy via third-party RECs and/or onsite renewables. In the next few decades, we expect to find a growing number of states and regional governments approaching 80 percent renewables grid penetration (including hydro and geothermal), in the U.S. and across the globe. 

Companies to Watch: SolarCity, NRG, NextEra Energy, Abengoa, Berkshire Hathaway Energy

Net-Zero Buildings

It’s still a relatively new sector, but in the past few years we’ve seen the emergence of buildings that produce all the energy they use within a year, deploy gray water for their toilets, and increasingly have an overall net-zero impact on the environment. It’s early days, but examples include the six-story Bullitt Center in Seattle, considered “the greenest commercial building in the world” and Salt Lake City’s Public Safety Building, which houses the city’s police and fire departments in a 174,000 square foot facility that uses solar PV, solar hot water, and LED lighting to achieve a perfect Energy Star rating of 100.

Organizations to Watch: Johnson Controls, Arup, International Living Future Institute, New Buildings Institute, Sekisui House 

Advanced Energy Storage

EV, grid, and DG storage are where solar power was five to ten years ago. They are just about to reach a significant inflection point, with the holy grail of low-cost energy storage not far away. From Tesla’s battery Gigafactory (just won by Nevada in the biggest regional competition for a clean-tech facility in years), which promises to significantly reduce costs – to breakthroughs in energy storage management systems – energy storage for transportation, buildings, and grid operations is about to transform the energy industry as we know it.

Companies to Watch: Tesla, Panasonic, NEC, AES Energy Storage, Enersys

Green Project Finance

Clean-energy project finance is taking off, and becoming a force to be reckoned with. The birth of clean-energy yieldcos, green bonds, REITs, and other securitized assets is changing the game of green project finance. Google, Warren Buffett, and others have spent billions of dollars investing in the sector, and projects have grown from KW to MW and now GW in size.

Companies to Watch: NRG Yield, Abengoa Yield, TerraForm Power, Hannon Armstrong, Clean Power Finance 

Time will tell which of these sectors and areas of innovation experience the most growth – and where the greatest opportunities exist. And there are a host of other breakthroughs in the broader clean-tech realm, from water filtration and carbon reuse to closed-loop manufacturing and climate data analytics, that could offer similar opportunities. But without a doubt, the four opportunities outlined here seem worthy of further exploration for any student or career changer looking to find his or her place in the burgeoning clean-tech ecosystem – and wishing to help solve some of the greatest issues facing our planet and its inhabitants.


Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).  

Information contained in this article is not intended to be investment advice or used as a guide to investing.