PLANNING FOR THE BOOM- Bursting the notion of another Cleantech Bubble

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After a long series of disappointing climate policy setbacks in 2022, the rosy predictions we forwarded in 2021 seemed to be retreating beyond an attainable horizon. But leaning into the last lap of the year, Cleantech’s path forward is looking far sunnier than we feared. 

Of course, investors in Cleantech could be forgiven for being a little gun-shy. The now infamous Cleantech Bubble of the mid-2000s put the whole sector — and its evangelists — on a kind of permanent tilt. Now, there’s a knee jerk reaction to every pivot and tremor.

That shell shock is understandable. PwC’s reporting had the losses for that period at upwards of $12 billion, more than half of the total funding directed at Cleantech in those years.

Fast forward to 2022 — chasing several years of encouraging surgelike behavior — the sector found itself being dragged underwater by a series of geopolitical and legal nightmares. The failure of the Build Back Better Act and SCOTUS’ hamstringing of the EPA made the North American landscape feel inhospitable. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shoved fossil fuel security right to the top of the priority list, especially for Europe and Asia. Cleantech looked likely to be starved of oxygen for some while to come. 

The question percolating up to the surface then? Was that lack of oxygen going to cause another Cleantech Bubble to pop off?

The short answer was … no.

Definitively no — even if the sector hadn’t just been gifted the greatest victory of its not-so-long existence.

BURSTING THE BUBBLE-FEAR BIAS

The circumstances of Cleantech’s 2022 slowing effect are very different from what fed into the earlier gut-check bubble bust. 

For one, the climate (socially, politically and environmentally) has improved significantly in the past decade. The negative effects of climate change are unignorable and, notwithstanding SCOTUS’ recent EPA throat punch, even the most resistant governments are being driven to act. What’s more, the private sector has come around to the benefits of being proactive, even if (or especially when) policymakers can’t reliably muster the initiative.

What pushback there is (be it the result of head-in-the-clouds, head-in-the-sand, or hand-in-the-cookie-jar thinking) is truly the last gasp of a fading paradigm. That’s not to say that resistance isn’t an obstacle — or that the damage done in the interim won’t be problematic. But the lingering intransigence is itself an opportunity for Cleantech that wasn’t previously available.

Climate skepticism (or ambivalence, at least) was more entrenched a decade ago. When investors looked at the sector between 2006 and 2011, climate tech was bleeding edge but could still be thought of as nonessential.

Now the needle is pointing the other way. Cleantech is no less bleeding edge today. But now it has an impressive track record. The benefits aren’t conjectural. They’re proven.  And the alarm bells are ringing. Society is on alert. Policymakers up and down the ladder — from the local to the international — are heeding the call. That they may be stymied in their efforts or dismayed by the task at hand only makes the sector’s influence more central to the mission.

There’s no bubble to come, because there’s no more room for that bubble to exist.

We’re no longer pondering the ifs and whys. We’re just asking how? How much? How fast?

DON’T MISTAKE IT FOR AN OPEN BAR — BUT GET READY TO FEAST

The Inflation Reduction Act will be a huge boon to the climate tech industry. The impact of the  actual investment alone will do a lot for the sector, but perhaps the most profound effect will be one of validation.

Venture capital will often anticipate policy but, even when it doesn’t, it can always be counted on to chase it. And this kind of investment from the world’s most influential economic and military powers canonizes Cleantech as it never has before. That impact will have global ramifications and encourage similar bullishness for Cleantech investments in Canada and beyond.

Big things are in store for Cleantech — many of which will be of particular benefit to Canadian companies.

The injection of $370 billion — $270 billion on power solutions alone — is a massive boost for a sector that was looking piqued just a few months ago.

But Cleantech organizations should also be realistic about where that funding will ultimately land. Most of it will not find its way to the most innovative projects. Instead, it will go to building the reliable backbone that should have been established decades ago —  expanding proven solutions to a grander and more impactful scale. Solar and wind farms will flourish. Residential and commercial greening initiatives will get massive subsidies. And networks of EV supercharging stations will spread across North America like a Silicon Age rewiring of the New Deal’s road works. 

Of course, this leaves those of us in Cleantech with the job of solving the problems of a new technological and environmental era, just as that era’s footprints are being contoured. Sustainable battery tech and industrial-level storage are two areas in need of the most immediate attention, but these are just the thin end of the wedge.

Innovation will need to be comprehensive across all aspects of Cleantech initiatives. Investors will be looking for solutions to obstacles both known and barely anticipated. Venture capital may be slow to flow at first, waiting to see where the big money will lead. But as soon as they have a sense of that roadmap, an unprecedented boom is sure to follow.

The climate for Cleantech is about to get very hot.

RIGHT-FOOTING TO RIDE THE BOOM

Having a great product or service is crucial to answering the call of a booming sector. Having the right leadership team in place when that call comes may be even more important.

Even as the geopolitical, global health, workplace and environmental outlooks have been at their most volatile and unpredictable, one fact has continued to impress itself — the competition for executive talent has never been fiercer. There are more organizations — in more growth sectors — chasing a dwindling field of leaders.

The people needed to steer companies through these uncertain times — and to benefit from the emergent opportunities — are more scarce than many of the raw materials needed to fuel those enterprises. It’s no longer a matter of filling C-suite roles as the needs demand. It’s about future-proofing ourselves against not being able to do so — a failure that could be crippling.

If Cleantech initiatives don’t step up to the challenge of building their leadership for what’s coming down the pipe — proactively going after who they will need — they could easily find themselves unable to take advantage of a booming sector or to steer clear of the inevitable pitfalls.

It’s been a stormy couple of years. Over that time, the direction of the sector hasn’t always seemed certain. Now an undeniable commitment has been secured behind Cleantech’s mission. The manner of how that plays out will depend a great deal on the choices we make.

Even as Cleantech organizations head into what could well be their golden age, it’s worth mulling over the notion that being unable to capitalize on a boom is practically indistinguishable from having a bubble burst beneath you.

A new world built around Cleantech is just within reach. Let’s not fail to grasp it simply by being unprepared.


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