Obama, clean tech and change

What an extraordinary night for America! Here’s a brief dispatch from the streets of Washington, D.C., before getting to today’s column: The U Street neighborhood was known as “Black Broadway” in the 1920s–Duke Ellington grew up nearby, jazz clubs thrived, theaters were built and a black-middle class grew there for years. It remained the cultural hub of black D.C. until 1968, when it was all but burned down after the assassination of Martin Luther King. After a period of blight, U Street was reborn as a vibrant neighborhoo in the 1990s, as restaurants, clubs and condos sprung up. Last night, it was the site of a spontaneous street party, with blacks and whites, mostly young people, hugging one another, celebrating the election of Barack Obama. Can anyone doubt, after this election, that dramatic change can happen in America, and in a hurry, too?

Which brings me to today’s Sustainability column, a look at the prospects for clean technology. I’ve recently spoken with several venture capitalists who are optimistic — despite the credit crunch, despite the recession, despite declining oil prices — about the business of producing clean energy and creating a more sustainability economy. Here’s how the column begins:

Some people are saying that the clean energy revolution is over, before it has even begun. “Alternative energy suddenly faces headwinds,” declared The New York Times. “Winds shift for renewable energy as oil price sinks, money gets tight,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Will the Economic Crash Take Down Our Hopes for Clean Energy?” asks Alternet.

There’s no doubt that recent developments cast a cloud over the renewable energy business. The capital markets have turned risk-averse, making financing for alternative energy hard to come by. Declining oil prices make it harder for cleaner transportation fuels to compete with gasoline. In a slumping economy, the government will be reluctant to pass climate change legislation that will raise gas and electricity rates.

Never mind – there are compelling reasons, even now, to believe that the U.S. is on the verge of a dramatic shift, away from a economy dependent on cheap fossil fuels and towards cleaner, greener, more efficient ways of doing business.

Recently, I spoke with three leading venture capitalists who focus on clean tech: William E. “Wilber” James of Rockport Capital, Alan Salzman of VantagePoint Venture Partners, and Paul Maeder of Highland Capital Partners. Needless to say, they are biased – they are invested, personally and professionally, in renewable energy and other clean technologies.

But they all see powerful forces driving the U.S. economy towards a more sustainable way of doing business in the long run.

Obama’s election will bring new energy to the environmental movement. McCain would have been a welcome change, too, but the environmentalists and business people I’ve talked to today seem jazzed by the election of Obama.   (I’ve spoken to quite a few people, because I’m at Business for Social Responsibility’s annual conference in New York) . They understand that government policy matters enormously to the environmental movement.

As Frances Beinecke of NRDC wrote in a email this morning:

Barack Obama’s election is a huge win for everyone exhausted from playing defense. Count us among them. It rekindles our hope that environmental protection may be restored to its rightful place as a treasured American value.

On the most important issues of the day — from global warming controls to clean energy solutions to wilderness preservation — President-elect Obama campaigned on behalf of far-sighted policies that NRDC has championed for years.

You can read the rest of my clean tech column here.


  1. Darren Toth says

    I think what is important in business today is to figure out ways to make the most profitable businesses centered around clean manufacturing and technological development. The world will always have greedy people, yet some of the most profitable businesses in this country don’t produce anything. Management,finance, real estate, service industries–our nation is making less and less, and the people profiting the most are those who simply manage our funds. Why do we live in a country that assumes the person who makes the most money doesn’t necessarily have to DO any of the work, but rather, oversee things? I understand that these financial managers and accountants and brokers are talented, intelligent people, and not just anyone could do what they do.
    However, it just doesn’t seem right to reward such a hugely disparate slice of the profits to the managers and bosses while leaving those that actually produce results with so much less.
    I think a free market IS vital, and I don’t suggest any kind of modified communism here-however, what we should be trying to modify is that “carrot on the stick” that the greed driven are chasing. We need to make it so that those who produce, those that develop newer, competitive and clean technologies are the ones making bank and getting all the tax breaks.
    Many folks are scared, and their predictions of tough times ahead are completely valid. But there comes a time with all of us when we have to cut the fat and tighten our belts if we want to someday have the rewards of life. America needs to do that, and it isn’t going to come without growing pains. We need to stop holding on to the 20th century way of doing things, and make this a 21st century economy. For example, my father is against the use of industrial Hemp for paper, cloth, etc., but has no explanation as to why it is bad. Unlike Marijuana, Industrial hemp has no THC-someone could smoke a pound of it, and aside from being quite sick, would have no physical reaction. Hemp uses less land and turns over harvests in a fraction of the time of a timber harvest.
    My point isn’t just that we should use industrial hemp, but that we need to let go of the fears that switching the way we do things is somehow dooming us to destruction. I think Obama’s heart and mind is in the right place, I just hope America realizes the difficulties we are facing, and don’t just blame the guy in the oval office because it isn’t taking off from the gate.

  2. says

    I believe he (Obama) needs to display “wisdom” and focus on the big 3. One may have to go down and the rise of a green player to replace the fallen may need to be his biggest move! If I was an advisor to President Obama, I would encourage him to not bailout anyone-else (excluding the middle class) and focus on transitioning from the traditional economic giants to investing in the new green giants! One of my own favorite quotes is:

    “I happen to deeply agree with the wisdom of Tom Friedman (that we cannot consume of way out of this mess and “Have you ever been to a revolution where nobody gets hurt?”). The fact is that the current economic conditions will cause a lot of companies to close their doors (websites too), and they will die off altogether due to lack of understanding the competitive (innovative) landscape. Just look at Detroit and the Big 3 for example! Those that will fight to stay alive will need to figure out — What’s Next?

    I believe that the New Green Economy will include the Rise of Green Real Estate Markets paired with the continued success of Cleantech, Clean Energy Markets, and large scale shifts toward Clean Transportation, and the Greening of the IT Industries (plus a fourth quarter of record investment!!), which will lead to a boom in “American Made” Green Collar Jobs and the creation of new wealth. The trick is: “who will get it right??” Execution makes all the difference for most of these opportunities and green investors need to pay more attention to the items that management claim they can achieve.” – Yeves Perez, Founder of EcoInvestmentClub.com – Nov 2008

    See more on talk on Fast Company:


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