“Top 10 Clean Tech Trends To Watch in 2012”
Drawn from dialogue with companies in renewable energy, energy efficiency, alternative fuels, energy storage, finance, waste management and water, here are the top 10 clean tech trends to watch in 2012. “2012 is shaping up to be a critical year in the transition to a cleaner, more energy-efficient world.” The list is developed by The Antenna Group, the largest and most experienced clean technology public relations firm in the U.S., providing strategic communications for more than 40 clients in clean technology, renewable energy and sustainability.
- Energy efficiency goes retro – New construction has taken a massive hit over the last few years, resulting in fewer new green builds, but that hasn’t slowed retrofit demand for energy efficient devices. According to a report by McGraw-Hill Construction in 2011, 78 percent of building owners plan to retrofit existing properties with energy efficient improvements. Driven by the increased awareness in Property Assessed Clean Energy or PACE states (in which property owners can finance solar systems or energy efficiency retrofits through city loans that are paid back through property taxes over terms of 15 or 20 years), Obama’s Better Buildings Challenge and new financing models that make it simple for cities and property owners to do upgrades, expect to see energy efficiency finally claim its moment in the spotlight.
- Cellulosic biomass comes online; drives U.S. manufacturing jobs – Imagine being able to turn a wide variety of biomass inputs including wood, agricultural waste and non-food crops into fuels, plastics, nutraceuticals (food products that reportedly provide health and medical benefits) and pharmaceuticals. That’s the promise of bio-based materials, which are expected to replace first-generation biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel, as well as a wide variety of synthetic chemicals. As strategics such as BASF Corp., DuPont and Dow Chemical Co. enter the cellulosic biomass game, watch for the number of U.S.-based biorefineries to dramatically increase.
- Recycling finds its true potential – Many of us still remember the awareness campaigns that drove what are now highly successful changes in consumer behaviors with regard to recycling. As went paper, glass and plastics, so go consumer electronics and tires. A number of states already have legislation around recycling what consumers have deemed “waste” and are supporting efforts to renew those materials and give them second — and perhaps even third — lives. Watch for the big box, telecom, tire and asphalt sectors to pick up the sustainability baton for Recycling 2.0.
- The EV market picks up speed, while Tesla, Fisker get some competition – While we’ve heard a lot about electric vehicles such as the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the gas-electric hybrid Chevy Volt, in fact there are precious few of these cars on the roads. But that’s expected to change in 2012 when a much wider selection of cars that require little or no gasoline will hit the market. Almost every major automaker — and some minor ones — plans to have at least one plug-in model on the market by the end of 2012. These include three models from the world’s leading seller of hybrids, Toyota — a plug-in hybrid version of the popular Prius, the all-electric Scion iQ EV and the 2012 RAV4 EV, an all-electric compact SUV. Also hitting the market in 2012 is the all-electric Ford Focus Electric, which will compete with the Nissan Leaf. Other EV models planned for 2012 include the four-passenger Mitsubishi i-MiEVc, and — for the luxury loving — the Rolls Royce 102EX, the Tesla Model S luxury sedan and the Fisker Karma luxury sports plug-in hybrid. Accompanying the EV rollout will be a dramatic expansion of the national car-charging infrastructure, with Pike Research, a clean tech market research firm, predicting more than 1.5 locations by 2017.
- Smart meters reach critical mass – For decades, utilities have been forced to rely on customer reports to discover a power outage. This decidedly low-tech approach to reliability is now changing with the national deployment of smart meters that record the consumption of electric energy in intervals of an hour or less, communicate data back to the utility and allow consumers to better manage their electricity usage. And, the national deployment of smart meters is forging ahead: according to federal sources, the current penetration rate is 13 to 18 percent, with a penetration rate of more than 50 percent predicted by 2016.
- Offshore wind takes root in the Northeast – While small wind continues to grow, the greatest potential for the significant generation of energy from wind lies with offshore wind. Much of the eastern seaboard is ideal for offshore wind as a result of the fact that the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelf make it easier to locate wind turbines far offshore where the winds are the strongest. A 25-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., which is expected to be the nation’s first, is now moving ahead, and the Garden State can look forward to the construction of larger offshore wind farms with the implementation of the nation’s first OREC, or Offshore Renewable Energy Certificate, a wind incentive similar to New Jersey’s innovative Solar Renewable Energy Certificate, or SREC, which propelled the state to second place nationally after California in solar capacity and inspired similar incentives in many other states.
- Dropping balance-of-system costs nudge solar closer to grid parity – As a result of a dramatic decline in module prices (prices dropped approximately 40 percent in 2011 — a decline that is expected to continue through 2012), attention has shifted to solar balance-of-system (BOS) costs, a term that refers to costs other than those of the modules. While BOS costs include physical components such as inverters and racking, the largest share of BOS costs is for non-physical costs such as labor and permitting. These costs are also expected to decline in 2012 as a result of industry consolidation resulting from the expiration of the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program. The solar boom stimulated by the grant attracted many small installers (the “two Chucks and a truck” phenomenon) who will be replaced in a maturing market by larger players who will bring improved operating efficiencies to the industry, nudging solar closer to grid parity.
- Distributed solar continues to thrive – While debate continues on the role of utility-scale photovoltaic systems in the nation’s energy mix, the small- to mid-sized commercial solar segment has witnessed explosive growth, particularly on flat-roofed commercial buildings that are ideally suited to the deployment of solar. New Jersey, for instance, where strong solar incentives and high energy prices have contributed to a robust local solar industry, has now outpaced California as the nation’s top commercial solar market, thanks to a high concentration of such buildings. In addition to reducing electricity costs and providing a hedge against future rate increases, distributed — or “behind-the-meter” — solar also has the advantage of generating power at the site where it is used, thus increasing energy security and diminishing demand for utility infrastructure. The U.S. growth pattern in commercial solar is mimicking what has occurred in Europe, most notably in Germany, the world’s solar leader, where the German Solar Energy Industry Association estimated in 2009 that 80 percent of capacity was roof-based.
- Grant-to-tax credit shift means more third-party ownership of solar systems – The introduction of the federal Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program as a substitute for a federal Investment Tax Credit in 2009 created a change in the form of ownership for most commercial solar systems. Prior to the implementation of the treasury grant, which covers 30 percent of the cost of solar, most commercial systems were owned, operated and maintained by third-party investors with the tax appetites to monetize the tax credit. These investors typically sold the power back to the host entities at reduced rates under a long-term contract called a Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA. In addition to requiring no capital outlay, the benefits for the host entities included a fixed rate, a smaller carbon footprint and a visible renewable asset. After the implementation of the Treasury Grant Program, the form of ownership shifted, with the majority of commercial building owners taking advantage of the immediate payback offered by the grant to install and operate the systems themselves. With the grant reverting to a tax credit in 2012, however, we can expect a shift back to third-party ownership.
- Gas-to-liquids technologies go mainstream – Gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies, which transform natural gas into liquid transportation fuels, went mainstream with the recent completion of Shell’s $19 billion Pearl GTL plant in Qatar, an Arab emirate. The world’s largest GTL plant will process about three billion barrels of diesel, jet fuel and synthetic oil over the course of its lifetime from the world’s largest gas field. The project, which will reach full production in 2012, will add almost 8 percent to Shell’s worldwide production, making it the company’s primary growth engine for 2012. The completion of the Pearl facility is a harbinger of things to come: GTL technology is expected to play an increasingly significant role in meeting energy demand in the United States, which has some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. South Africa-based Sasol, which also has a GTL plant in Qatar, has announced plans to build a $10 billion GTL plant Louisiana. If it moves ahead, it would be the United States’ first GTL facility. Once viewed as not economically feasible, GTL technologies are gaining traction in the face of declining oil reserves, high oil prices and increased concern about energy security.
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