Is this the slope of enlightenment?


Is it just us, or has the term “cleantech” come out of the shadows in recent weeks?

In the wake of the November elections, the left-liberal/progressive end of the media spectrum is clearly emboldened—talking loudly and often not just about the “fiscal cliff” and the Middle East, but about domestic energy policy, “green jobs,” electric vehicles, and cleantech in general as an engine for innovation and economic growth. Yes, they are using the word “cleantech.”

And it’s not just casual mentions as part of a soapbox commentary by the usual suspects at MSNBC. Fresh on the heels of Automobile Magazine naming the Tesla Model S Car of the Year (not Electric Car of the Year), former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm devoted an entire week of her Current TV show “The War Room” to a celebration of her love affair with her Chevy Volt. In a series of segments one might call “EVs for Dummies,” she featured a demo of the charging technology, interviewed battery scientists and energy policy wonks, and stoked the debate about cleantech’s role in the rehabilitation of the U.S. manufacturing base.

That same week, the DOE announced 66 new ARPA-E grants—$130 million for everything from undersea turbines to solar (eight of the grants were for solar research)—and Solyndra began to feel like a distant memory. SolarCity’s long-awaited IPO next week is another signal of confidence in the sector.

We think Katie Fehrenbacher hit the nail on the head, as she often does, with the title of her recent GigaOm piece: “Cleantech is dead, like the Internet was in 2000.” She was paraphrasing a comment made by Greenstart co-founder Mitch Lowe during a panel discussion at Verge about the state of cleantech venture investment. “You’re trying to solve resource constraints and you’re trying to solve energy constraints,” he said. “And when you take the label off, there’s lots of ways to do that.” Next to him was Rodrigo Prudencio, a partner at Nth Power, who predicted that “‘Cleantech’ will resolve away, but we’ll continue to invest in solving cleantech problems.”

Fehrenbacher noted that The Cleantech Group, credited with coining the term, argues that cleantech must, and therefore will, become part of everything—so ubiquitous it need not be mentioned. “Cleantech” will become a redundant term, and fall out of fashion, not because it’s waning as focus of innovation and investment but because it’s growing so fast.

Mohr Davidow partner Josh Green, looking back on 32 years in Silicon Valley, believes the IT revolution was just the opening bout in a wave of transformative innovation across every industrial sector. Since the sheer size of the energy sector dwarfs that of IT, he says, the changes yet to come in energy—and at the intersection of energy and IT (whether you call it cleantech or not)—will be far more significant and rewarding than anything we’ve seen before.

Sounds to us like we may be turning a corner. Or, to stick to the metaphor, like we’ve come to the end of the Trough of Despair and are beginning the walk up the Slope of Enlightenment. It feels good, but we wonder: Is it just us? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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