Green IT Q1: Cleantech Breaking Out — and Bracing for Hard Times

1 Summary

Is the greentech industry headed for a breakout year, or is it retrenching for hard times to come? The first three months of 2011 provided evidence that could support both assertions. The erratic nature of the first quarter’s data is reflected in a big rise in venture capital investment — and a big drop-off in global energy financing.

Solar power remained the largest green technology sector in terms of venture capital investment, with $641 million spread across 26 deals. Of that dollar amount, more than half went to a handful of very late-stage companies, including BrightSource, Miasole, SoloPower and Alta Devices.

Meanwhile, the biggest news in wind power continued to come from China. Chinese wind turbine leader Sinovel raised $1.4 billion in a March public offering on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the largest greentech IPO of the quarter.

Electric vehicles are finally coming to the mainstream, and the first quarter saw the first two mainstream plug-in vehicles — GM’s Chevy Volt hybrid and Nissan’s allelectric Leaf — hit the showroom floors in significant numbers. Other developments in the green vehicle industry included General Motors demonstrating its latest research partnership with demand response provider Comverge, and Ford announcing it would use AT&T’s wireless network to connect its upcoming Ford Focus Electric cars.

Finally, the smart grid sector’s relative dearth of VC investment was more than made up for by the massive round of acquisitions in the space by companies that included General Electric, Schneider Electric, IBM, Johnson Controls, Alstom and EnerNOC. The buying frenzy underscores a continuing trend toward integration and centralization of the various systems that make up the smart grid: smart meters; distribution automation equipment; utility control systems; demand response and load control platforms; and networks that help integrate a host of devices like rooftop solar panels, building generators and energy storage units.