The 10 Biggest Cleantech Disappointments of 2008

There was a lot to cheer about in the cleantech sector in 2008: record investment levels, a U.S. president-elect that supports clean power, and the extension of tax credits for renewables. But there were a lot of missed opportunities this year, too, as markets crashed, fundings were delayed and technologies hit hurdles. Below, the biggest cleantech disappointments of 2008 (next up, The 10 Biggest Cleantech Wins in 2008):

1) Tesla Hits A Wall: The embodiment of the future of electric vehicles discovered how expensive it is to make them. In 2008 the startup started to run low on cash — reportedly at one point as little as $9 million — and was forced to do layoffs and delay the production of its second-generation vehicle, the Model S. Now the company is relying on a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, which could be risky.

2) EEStor Delays Some More: We were waiting for mid-2008, then late 2008 to see more details — a prototype perhaps — or even initial production of secretive energy storage EEStor’s technology. But alas, the startup and its partner say the big unveiling won’t come till 2009. We’ll see.

3) T. Boone Derailed: Oil baron turned wind power advocate T. Boone Pickens used his $58 million PR campaign this year to create a lot of hope and support for clean power. Then the economy tanked. Pickens told us that the debt markets in particular took the wind out of his sails.

4) Wave Power Plan Gets Washed Away: Canadian company Finavera Renewables saw its plans to install a 2MW wave power project in California waters wash out to sea when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) denied its application. Finavera had been planning to work with California utility PG&E on what would have been the first commercial wave energy contract in the U.S. The CPUC said the wave power plan was neither viable or economical.

5) The Clean Coal Lobby Gets Dirty: A report from the think tank the Center for American Progress finds coal companies have only spent $3.5 billion over the past several years investing in R&D for carbon capture and sequestration, the most promising technology for reducing emissions from coal power — just 1/17th of the coal industry’s profits in 2007 alone, according to the group. Meanwhile the industry’s been increasingly claiming coal is cleaning up its act — and upping lobbying efforts in support of regulations to protect it. According to Open Secret, the amount of money spent by the coal mining lobby jumped to $12.67 million in 2008, while the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is made up of coal and power companies, spent $8.49 million.

6) Corn Ethanol Industry Still Asking for Aid: Corn-based ethanol companies had a rough year: Corn prices spiked, the industry faced political and public backlash, and margins on ethanol narrowed, forcing companies like VeraSun to file for bankrupcy. Most recently, the corn ethanol lobby asked for $1 billion in short-term credit from the government and as much as $50 billion in loan guarantees. The lobby claims it’s not a bailout, but the industry isn’t sustainable — enough already.

7) GM Still Featuring Bob Lutz: The U.S. automaker with one of the most promising electric cars in the pipeline is still employing an exec that publicly disputes the carbon theory of global warming. GM has managed to convince the government it needs a bailout, which requires it to prove it can be financially viable and meet current emissions laws — perhaps it should take the inspection opportunity to do some housecleaning in the C-level suite?

8) UK Wind Plans Blowing Away: The UK looks to be facing an uphill climb when it comes to meeting its wind power targets. The government has a plan to supply a third of its electricity from wind by 2020, but both Royal Dutch Shell and BP have pulled their offshore wind projects investments in the region as reports suggest the goal is far too aggressive. Meanwhile the British Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group, has cut the CO2 reduction calculations for the UK wind plan in half after talks with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, which enforces rules on claims in advertisements.

9) It’s Gonna Be A Lot Harder Than We Thought: Beyond problems with wind power, scientists and politicians have realized that meeting existing carbon reduction goals won’t be enough. The research, from the University of Colorado at Boulder and McGill University in Montreal, says plainly: “Stabilization is a more daunting challenge than many realize and requires a radical ‘decarbonization’ of energy systems.” The conclusion: More regulations boosting research and development for clean technology is needed.

10) The Current Administration: The need for more cleantech R&D brings us to the last point — the current U.S. government has consistently ignored the urgency of climate change and failed to invest appropriately to deliver cleantech innovations. The incoming administration’s commitment to a modestly aggressive plan — $150 billion over 10 years in clean power — is making that strikingly clear.

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