So we’re still sticking with the term “cleantech,” eh? Well, six years after launching the focus on this subject for Gigaom, I still don’t have a better description for the next-generation of energy technologies, which include both clean power, and energy efficiency, as well as the better management of resources like water and food. So, yep, again this year, we’re keeping it around, though I’m sure we can all agreed it’s flawed and now a dirty word for venture capitalists. Anyways, onward!
From the outside, 2013 looked like a horror show for cleantech, with high profile bankruptcies of solar and electric car startups, and a continued drop in venture capital funding. However, it actually turned out to be a pretty good year for cleantech outside of the Silicon Valley VC ecosystem. Solar panels turned out to be a rock star, internet companies like Google and Apple wholeheartedly embraced clean power, and large corporations started to invest more in resource innovation. Connected, smart technologies — from software, to sensors to robotics — also continued to have a major cleantech effect on industries like the power sector, agriculture, and transportation.
These are the 13 things that stood out in my mind from the year:
13). Agriculture became smarter, connected, and more robotic in 2013: Large companies and startups alike focused on selling connectivity products, sensors, software management systems, drones, and big data tools to farmers this year. Startups we kept an eye on included Harvest Automation, OnFarm, mOasis, Blue River, SoilIQ, Libelium, and OlaSmarts. GE’s Industrial Internet has products for agriculture, too. And who could forget one of the biggest acquisitions of the year, with Monsanto buying data company Climate Corp.
12). The under $10 LED bulb from Cree: In the spring of this year LED chip maker Cree launched a consumer LED bulb for under $10. This is one of the lowest priced LED bulbs out there and represents the future of what lighting companies could eventually deliver in bulk. For years many of these bulbs have been over $20, $30, and even $40 per bulb.
11). The big cleantech bankruptcies this year: While the second half of 2013 hit a more positive note, there were a decent amount of high profile bankruptcies from cleantech startups selling solar panels and electric cars this year. Companies that soured this year included electric car startup Fisker Automotive, thin film solar startup Nanosolar, solar giant Suntech Power, electric car charging startup Better Place, thin film solar company SoloPower, electric car startup Coda Automotive, and electric car charging company ECOtality. And that’s just to name a few. There were others who were sold off for basement prices to aggressive acquirers, and others that just quietly faded away.
There were so many failures in these two sectors because the electric car market has taken longer than many expected to mature, and silicon solar panels became super cheap over the past few years. Many of these startups were backed by venture capitalists, and the VCs stopped funding them after a certain point when they failed to get traction.
10). New power grid batteries are making progress: One area of innovation that is still being seen from startups is next-generation batteries made for the power grid. These batteries need to be cheap, and be able to provide different applications that utilities and power grid companies want. Some of the startups showing progress in 2013 included Eos Energy, Ambri, Solar Grid Storage, Stem, and Aquion Energy.
Energy storage in general got more attention this year, and according to researchers there are 420 energy storage projects installed globally. Energy storage includes batteries, but also tech like compressed air storage, pumped hydro storage and other more funky technologies like “gravel on ski lifts.” California also launched a revolutionary energy storage mandate, which calls for utilities to install a large amount of energy storage projects by 2020 to help the state meet its renewable energy goals (here’s why you should care about it).
9). Facebook plans to power a data center entirely with wind: Facebook hit a milestone in 2013 with its declaration that it plans to build a data center in Iowa partly in order to take advantage of the powerful wind corridor there. When the data center is built it will be run entirely off wind turbines. Facebook is working with a local utility there and the move shows how Internet companies can negotiate with utilities to get the clean power they want.
8). Kleiner Perkins restructures away from cleantech: While Kleiner Perkins has been making this move for awhile, the firm’s leader John Doerr admitted that such an aggressive bet on cleantech wasn’t the best idea and has promised to do better. 2013 was also the year that Kleiner’s bet, beleaguered electric car startup Fisker Automotive, officially declared bankruptcy.
The firm is under going restructuring now and talks about investing in “sustainability.” It’s a big deal because Kleiner was the most high profile VC firm that made the most aggressive bet in Silicon Valley and it caused them a lot of trouble. That said, some of Kleiner’s cleantech investments were pretty good, including Nest, Opower (could go public soon), Clean Power Finance, and Silver Spring Networks (went public). Bloom Energy could turn out to do well in the long run.
Cleantech venture capital investments overall cratered in 2013 and in the third quarter of 2013 dropped down to pre-2006 levels. Some firms are still going strong though, with alternative strategies. The energy fund of private equity group Silver Lake managed to raise $650 million for later stage energy and resource management companies in 2013, and The Westly Group closed on a $160 million fund for cleantech this year.
7). Some huge next-gen clean power plants came online: Beyond the revolution happening with solar panels, other types of utility-scale clean power came online this year, too. The solar thermal plant Ivanpah delivered its first power to the grid, while the solar thermal plant Solana in Arizona was completed. Solar thermal farms use mirrors and lenses to turn heat from the sun into electricity (while solar panels convert the light directly into electricity).
In England, the massive offshore wind farm the London Array was finally finished this year. More controversially, startup Skyonic broke ground on one of the largest commercial carbon capture plants in the U.S., being built at a cement factory in San Antonio.
6). Sustainable food tech was hot in 2013: This year Silicon Valley embraced startups that are innovating around sustainable food tech. Startups we watched this year included Hampton Creek Foods, Unreal Candy, Nu-Tek Salt, Sand Hill Foods, Modern Meadow, Beyond Meat, Bright Farms, Zevia, and more.
5). Solar panels in the U.S. are breaking records: While the analysts are still tallying up numbers for the entire year, the third quarter of 2013 saw the largest number of American homes in history install solar panels on their rooftops. The solar panel industry was also back to growth this year. SunPower said recently it plans to build a new solar cell factory, which is a move that reverses the trend of solar manufacturers shuttering factories to deal with an over supply of solar equipment worldwide that began in 2011.
4). Obama takes a stance on regulating carbon emissions: President Obama took one of the most aggressive stances to date in the U.S. on limiting carbon emissions from power plants this year. Obama proposed limits on green house gas emissions for new natural gas plants at 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour and new coal plants will have to hit 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide.
3). The sharing economy went mainstream in 2013: Sharing physical goods, like apartments and cars, officially went mainstream in 2013, with companies like Airbnb and Lyft breaking out. Airbnb hit the 10 million guest stays milestone this year, and Lyft reached the 1 million rides point this year. Most people wouldn’t call these companies cleantech, but the more efficient use of physical goods is good for the planet overall.
2). Apple’s ground-breaking bet on solar: This year Apple finished building the largest privately-owned solar panel farms in the U.S. in North Carolina to power a large data center. The move was disruptive because Apple threw down the gauntlet in a state where the local utility, Duke Energy, was taking its sweet time offering some of the giant data center customers in the area access to clean power. Following Apple’s decision, this year Duke Energy launched a new program to sell clean power to customers that are willing to pay for it. Apple also hired former chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, to help the company grow its energy efficiency and clean power plans next year.
1). Tesla officially disrupts the auto industry: While Tesla has been building its business for a decade, it took the company this year to show how it can make a small profit and use its popular electric car to compete with competitors in the auto biz. A post on this subject was the second most read story on Gigaom in 2013.
Happy New Year!