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Clean Tech and the Art of Long-Term Thinking

Ron Pernick's picture

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, when I lived and worked in Japan, I spent time studying and practicing Zen meditation at a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Nara. One thing I learned in my meditation practice, and in my work with such large Japanese corporations as Sharp and Osaka Gas & Electric, was the art of long-term thinking. Some people call this "thinking like a mountain," and I believe it should be a key tenet for companies, governments, investors, and others striving for clean-tech success. The general idea is that significant monumental shifts rarely happen in days or weeks, but take years or decades to materialize. In this world view, it takes the perspective of a mountain - something that has been around for millennia - to put human activity and aspirations, and natural systems, into perspective. In our just-released book, The Clean Tech Revolution, coauthor Clint Wilder and I discuss why clean-tech markets are finally - after years of pioneering efforts - hitting their stride, building momentum, and, most importantly, going mainstream. We show how clean tech is penetrating both Wall Street and Main Street. We argue that clean technology will have decades-long staying power and that it offers the greatest opportunity for wealth creation in a generation. The global energy industry provides a great example of the need for long-term thinking. It took coal nearly 100 years to bypass traditional energy sources (such as the burning of wood) as the world's primary energy source. It then took oil nearly 100 years to surpass coal usage. Natural gas has been more than 100 years in development and now represents about 20% of global primary energy use. Similarly, it will take new renewables, such as wind, solar, and biofuels, 10, 20, or 30 years to catch up with coal, oil, and natural gas. That's the reality of energy markets and one of the reasons why long-term thinking is so critical in the realm of clean tech. But herein lies the opportunity. The clean tech revolution is actually already 30 to 50 years in the making; the first conversion of sunlight to electricity in a solar PV cell, for example, took place at Bell Labs in 1954 and the first large-scale wind farms now date back nearly 30 years. Unlike the Internet, which went through a rapid boom-and-bust cycle - a classic bubble - the transition to new energy, transportation, advanced materials, and water technologies will look more like a long boom. To be sure, there will be occasional irrational exuberance and some highly-touted and promising companies will fail. But with the right combination of policy, capital, and technology, the exploding global market for clean tech will not abate anytime soon. Clean Edge recently conducted research on what it would take, from a venture, project, and capital investment perspective, to wean the U.S. off of Middle East Oil. Our analysis found that it would require spending at least $15 billion/year on clean-energy and efficiency technologies over a ten-year period. Such an investment could result in replacing 25 billion gallons per year of gasoline by 2018 - the equivalent of today's imports of Middle East oil. Globally, over the next 25 years, the world will need to produce 10 to 30 terawatts of new energy. Some people have pointed out that, to meet these demands, it will be like adding the equivalent of 100 new ExxonMobil-sized companies to the economy. Indeed, future Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Mellons will likely come from such clean-tech industries as wind power, solar photovoltaics, biofuels and biopolymers, rather than the extractive, resource-depleting, polluting industries of old. Leading Japanese companies have understood and embraced the concept of long-term thinking better than most of their global corporate counterparts. As hard as it might be for most quarterly-driven companies to fathom, Toyota and other Japanese firms have 10-, 50- and even 100-year strategic business plans. That's why a Toyota can plan decades ahead to be the world's hybrid leader and Sharp can focus for decades on solar domination - and both can achieve such lofty goals. And others are following suit. In The Clean Tech Revolution we profile such multinationals as 3M, ADM, Applied Materials, DuPont, FPL Energy, GE, Iberdrola, and Wal-Mart that are taking leadership positions in this technological renaissance. We look at startups such as GridPoint, Imperium Renewables, Sun Edison and Suzlon, that are embracing new models and creating vibrant businesses. A look at the business news headlines over the past couple of months provides a further glimpse into this transition. Goldman Sachs announced the sale of its Horizon Wind Energy development group to Portugal-based EDP for more than U.S. $2 billion. Tyson Foods and Conoco Philips say they are pairing up to take animal fats and turn them into biodiesel. SolarWorld and Vestas, two global leaders in solar and wind respectively, announced plans to develop multi- million dollar production facilities in the U.S. Governments and NGOs are playing a central role as well. With cities, states, and nations around the globe planning to generate at least 20% to 30% of their total energy from clean-energy sources within the next decade or two, and with billions of people still in need of potable water and reliable electricity in the developing world, clean tech will be a dominant force well into the 21st century. This is why clean tech represents the biggest win-win opportunity of an era and why long-term thinking will be a critical tool for those participating in this massive industrial transformation. We believe that nothing less than the future health of our collective economies and environment depends upon it. ------------------ Ron Pernick is cofounder and principal of Clean Edge, Inc. and coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution.